By Calum Waddell
Last year’s superior possession shocker Hereditary (from director Ari Aster) and the recent release of Jordan Peele’s Us has resulted in a new term, ‘elevated horror’, being introduced into the critical lexicon, much to the chagrin of many fright-fans. Indeed, a recent IndieWire article even asked, ‘Is “elevated horror” a real thing, or is it just a reductive way of forcing a high/low hierarchy onto a genre that has always struggled to be taken seriously?’ Certainly, as with his Oscar winning Get Out, itself indebted to the work of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), Peele raises worthwhile questions about race and class identity in Us and provides no easy answers. Us even concludes by asking if true horror comes from the inside and, in a possible nod to Swimming with Sharks (George Huang, 1994) ponders upon just how far one might go in order to gain a better chance in life – pointing to the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. The strangest thing about Us, however, is that it made me think about a little-known film from horror’s past – The Stick, shot and produced in South Africa, released in 1988 and directed by Darrell Roodt. Unfortunately, Roodt – whose recent credits include the slightly-less-lofty sequel Lake Placid: Legacy (2018) – rarely has his name raised in discussions of any so-called ‘highbrow’ horror.
As this month brings us the 25th anniversary of democratic elections in South Africa, and given my current in-the-works book for Edinburgh University Press (Images of Apartheid: Filmmaking on the Fringe in the Old South Africa) it is interesting to look back at this troubled period and see that, far from an ostracised state in seclusion, the country actually had a thriving film industry that existed in at least some sort of dialogue with the rest of the world. A recent, excellent study by Litheko Modisane, South Africa’s Renegade Reels: The Making and Public Lives of Black-Centered Films (2012, Palgrave-MacMillan) looks at the social drama Mapantsula (Oliver Schmitz, 1988) rather than The Stick, when discussing the twilight cinema of apartheid – possibly because the latter, as a horror film, wears its generic identity over its social-political one. Yet, it is possible to maintain that, just as with Peele’s Us, a pulpy exterior need not be a barrier to a provocative thematic.
The Stick arrived during the final, turbulent years of apartheid but also has a remarkably dystopian commentary about how the state is doomed to failure. Much like Us, The Stick argues that the real enemy to progression comes from within, and that skin colour is a barrier imagined and enforced by societies, rather than individuals. In The Stick, South African army-men are shown traipsing the bush of what is supposed to be Angola (although the country is never mentioned, “Cubans” are occasionally referenced as the enemy), attesting to the controversial war that Pretoria was engaged with. A solemn narration tells us, ‘I remember my father once saying the army will make a man out of you. He was wrong’. Generically, then, The Stick owes its identity to the en-vogue Vietnam War films that were emerging from Hollywood, most famously Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), Hamburger Hill (John Irvin, 1987) and Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987). Meanwhile, its representation of hamlets and witch doctors in rural Angola might be seen to fall into the “dangerous or exotic territory” of Hollywood’s Africa (think: Blood Diamond [Edward Zwick, 2006]), where the continent is laced with fear and barbarism.
Whereas the American Vietnam films always offer an “innocent” young male voice to see the war through (somewhat offensively suggesting that the Indochina conflict was a tragedy for the United States, rather than the dead Orientals), The Stick offers the exact opposite. The South African forces are never shown in a sympathetic light. Their mission never even has a concise purpose. Moreover, Roodt – not unlike Peele – understands all-too-well the language of race in cinema. The sole black member of the platoon is shot down early in The Stick for refusing to kill a witch doctor – eliminating what, at first, seems like a (to quote Matthew Hughey) ‘magic negro’ character; there solely to assist the white men in ascertaining between right and wrong. His symbolic death is thus not only jarring but indicative of how The Stick wants its apartheid-era audience to reconsider the depictions of their own black community as controlled labour or subservient Uncle Toms. Unsurprisingly, the film would be banned by Pretoria.
As The Stick unfolds, the now all-white platoon shows themselves to be ignorant of tribal living and laws, respectful solely of modernity and unable to conquer the very land that apartheid would lay its own odious ideology upon – drawn from an Afrikaner nationalism that, much like the army in the film, was (quite literally, if we go back to the early days of Dutch conquest) ‘lost at sea’. No one gets out of The Stick without severe mental torture and not just because the war in Angola is shown as unwinnable (which it would be) but because race-superiority is doomed to the same end. Roodt’s characters, whether too weak to efficiently question their purpose as servants of a tyrannical state, or too brutal to think outside of hard power, are beyond reasoning with their surroundings or the people who inhabit them. It is, starkly, a timely message about how state ideology lives and dies with those who serve it.
Peele should, of course, be praised for his dynamic achievement with Get Out and Us. Nonetheless, one could also argue that Roodt was, without the same sophistication admittedly, drawing upon a similar tragedy of the self – and the collapse of reason in a state driven by racist dogma – with The Stick. At the same time, unlike Hollywood in Vietnam, he also had the forethought to make an example of the aggressors in a war fought not by ideals of liberation, but by neo-colonial intent. As strange as it sounds, these factors are what makes The Stick evidence of a small cinema of opposition – not just to apartheid itself, but to the accepted genre representations of its period, that came from as unlikely a period as the National Party ruled South Africa.
Calum Waddell gained his PhD at the University of Aberdeen. His published works include The Style of Sleaze: The American Exploitation Film, 1959-1977 and Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master. He is currently working on a new book – Images of Apartheid: Filmmaking on the Fringe in the Old South Africa – publishing with Edinburgh University Press in 2020.