Webcomic Wednesday - “His Face All Red” by Emily Carroll
The scariest movie I’ve ever seen was The Blair Witch Project. I know, I know. But travel back before the hype hit, before the backlash erupted, before all the money and motion sickness made in the movie theaters, before its handheld mockumentary aesthetic shaped a decade-plus of horror even as its very real lo-fi filming techniques rendered it something of a curio in the age of HD and Blu-Ray. Before all that I was working as an intern with Lloyd Kaufman’s legendary schlock factory Troma Studios, and as the longest thing going in no-budget indie horror cinema, they’d received VHS copies of the rough cut from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez while doing their usual cosplay trolling of the Cannes Film Festival. It was a way for the up-and-comers to pay homage to people who’d paved the way, even if this horror-verité trailblazer had nothing in common with Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD. All I knew about the movie when a copy of a copy of a copy was pressed into my hand by one of my coworkers upon their return from France (who, as it happens, later went on to direct Knights of Badassdom) was “It’s not really real” and “it’s very, very scary.” Late one night a friend of mine and I popped it into the VCR and hit play. Eighty minutes later we were so terrified that I literally required him to stand outside the bathroom door and maintain verbal contact with me for as long as it took me to pee. It took us an hour to muster the courage to exit the well-lit house into the darkened driveway for me to drive him home. Never before and never since has a work of art so drastically warped my sense of the real into something so nightmarish.
Now, the version we saw on that bootleg, its tape now degraded past the point of watchability, was the same as the one that ran in the theater with only two exceptions. The first and more minor was that some of the sound effects hadn’t been added — we couldn’t hear the spectral voices surrounding the tent on that one night, for example. But that didn’t matter, and if anything it made the film work even better, because all it did was force us to physically lean in toward the screen, straining to hear something evil, dreading that we might.
The bigger difference, the difference I saw actor Heather Donahue reference with a frown on her face on Jay Leno the night before the film’s opening day, was the only segment of the film she and her fellow performers didn’t shoot themselves: a new interview with a townsperson early in the film, providing a description of a witch-possessed child murderer’s two-at-a-time modus operandi. In the version in theaters and on VHS and DVD and wherever else you’d see the movie now, this one little snippet pays off at the very, very end of the film. When you see that person standing in that location in that shot, you know exactly why, and exactly what would happen next.
In the version I first watched, we had no idea. And I promise you, compared to the implicit jump-scare promised by that interview addition, the process of trying and failing to come up with an explanation for that indelible image was far more horrifying.
“His Face All Red” is the breakout webcomic by Emily Carroll, a cartoonist whose raw drawing chops, warm colors, and formal inventiveness pretty much took the internet by storm when she unveiled this thing a few Halloweens ago. It works as well as it does…well, for several reasons. First there’s the delicious tension between the obvious mass appeal of her lush drawing style — this is a person who could draw pinups Captain Mal Reynolds making out with the Tenth Doctor and be the toast of Tumblr to her dying day — and the laser-focused bleakness of the story she chose to tell. Then there’s her use of the architecture of the web to control the pacing of the tale: some pages scroll and scroll, others force you to experience what the hapless fratricidal protagonist is experiencing, one panel at a time. There’s the black background, a simple enough choice to make, but one that winds up being hugely influential on how we process this scary story to tell in the dark. There’s that wonderfully elliptical title.
But most importantly, there’s the final image, one that I find taps into the same primal power as Blair Witch’s. We’re not quite sure what it is we’re seeing, or why we’re seeing it. We know, however, that it’s not something we should be seeing. It’s a thing that should not be. Carroll dances closer to the line of revelation than did Myrick and Sanchez, with the comic delivering a quick glimpse of the face of evil that Blair Witch only hinted at every time Heather ran past a void-like window in those decrepit cabin walls, but that’s all it is — a glimpse, blink and you’ll miss it. But you won’t be blinking. You may wish you had, but you won’t.