Here’s some jolly. leering death’s heads from an artist known for portraits of beautiful women.
A Skull with Bulging Eyeballs
Superhero movies are built around action; things must blow up, heroes must fly through the air improbably, and the world must be rescued. Horror movies are built around scares; things jump out of the darkness, characters die horribly, and happy endings are optional.View full post
Think gory splatter art is a new development? Think again. Exhibit One: Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612). Holy crap.
Exhibit Two: Judith Beheading Holofernes, this time by Artemisia Gentileschi (1614).
Exhibit Three: Valentin de Boulogne (1624)
Trophime Bigot (1640) gives us the most horrified facial expression, in candlelight, no less.
Let’s toss in a little sex, courtesy of Gustav Klimt (1901):
…and Franz Stuck (1924) tones down the violence in favor of more sex.
At the beginning of The Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster climbs up out of the burnt ruins of the windmill, and is greeted by an old woman whose husband he just murdered. She starts screaming, so naturally he picks her up and tosses her into the pit.
What do you think the odds are that Universal Studios will allow an old lady to be hurled to her death in Van Helsing: The New Generation (2016)?
There is a “truism” in circulation among writing circles that you must make your villains understandable and sympathetic. I hate this idea. I don’t disagree that a three-dimensional antagonist with believable motivations and psychology can be compelling or even fascinating, I just object that this is the only way to portray bad guys.
This sort of thinking is prevalent among Hollywood producers and studio execs. Look at the character of Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a murderous, alien presence who kills anyone who gets in his way – mailmen, ambulance drivers, etc. As the sequels progress, he kills people who “deserve” it. We even get the pointless, inevitable origin story in Hannibal Rising. All calculated to make Hannibal more “likable” or even sympathetic. Boring, boring, boring.
So of course, with this sort of thinking, the eventual result is Van Helsing, where there are “good” werewolves, a Frankenstein Monster that looks and acts like Frankenberry, and only one villain, Dracula. Even then, Dracula is charming and funny and likable.
Superhero movies are built around action; things must blow up, heroes must fly through the air improbably, and the world must be rescued. Horror movies are built around scares; things jump out of the darkness, characters die horribly, and happy endings are optional. Do you remember any scary parts in Van Helsing? I remember a lot of scenes of Hugh Jackman swinging on ropes, so much so that I assumed director Stephen Sommers suffered from some kind of kinky rope fetish.
Monster movies predate comic books, and therefore, superheroes. Superheroes were not invented in a vacuum, but the literary traditions that spawned them are very different than those that spawned Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy. The roots of superheroes lie in classical mythology, the roots of the modern monster lie with the Gothic novel. Recent superhero movies have been successful because they found the universal, timeless qualities that were embodied by classic comic book characters, and stayed true to these proven formulas. Modern monster movies must do the same thing, except in a completely different vein.
You can’t just apply the same formula to a different genre. “Going bigger” is the enemy of a good horror movie. $100 million worth of CGI can’t buy dread, terror, or psychic dislocation. Look at the history of horror films, many of the greatest were low budget productions. Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Repulsion, Last House on the Left, Halloween, The Howling, Les Diaboliques, nearly every Hammer Film and Roger Corman Poe movie, Peeping Tom, Black Sunday, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project – the list goes on and on. The blockbuster mentality is completely wrong for horror movies, and by extension monster movies. Good practical effects always make for better monsters than CGI anyway.
Hollywood in general and Universal Studios in particular don’t understand any of this. They think they can hire writers of the Fast and Furious and Transformer movies and just throw money at the project. That’s why we will see Mummy, The First Monster (2016), Dracula Untold (2014) and Frankenstein (2015) full of CGI, likable monsters, and plenty of rope swinging.
This marvelous, delicious TV show triumphantly demonstrated exactly how to make monsters fun, scary, and engrossing. They did it without scads of expensive CGI, without whiny teenagers, and without portable gatling guns that shoot wooden stakes. What they did use – to great effect – were sumptuous sets, rich period atmosphere, terrific British actors, wicked sex, and dollops of blood and gore.
Does this formula sound familiar? Here’s a hint:
In the 1960s Hammer Studios figured out two things: Universal Studios did not hold copyright on the the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Werewolves, etc. and there was money to be made by updating the stories with plenty of cleavage and technicolor blood. They did it on the cheap, without looking cheap, which is why they succeeded and why many of these films still hold up today.
When the Hammer horror cycle began with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Universal Studios was still producing horror movies but they were C grade, black and white mediocrities like Monster on Campus and The Mole People. They were no match for the colorful, vibrant Hammer films. Hammer went on to dominate the horror genre until the early 1970s; Universal gave up trying.
In 2007, Hammer Films was brought back from the dead, and has since release several creditable horror movies. The same opportunity exists today for the studio; while Universal Studios are fumbling around with lame $100 million tentpole movies, they could counter-program with less expensive, fresher and scarier monster movies. Who wouldn’t want to see a re-imagining of Frankenstein starring Ian McShane as the evil doctor and Rory McCann (the Hound, Game of Thrones) as the hulking monster? How about Lena Headly as a menacing, sexy Countess Dracula? Patrick Stewart as a grizzled Van Helsing?
Whether it’s Hammer or some other smart, enterprising producers, the opportunity is there to do what Hammer once did: show Hollywood how it’s done, and do it better. I’m hoping more for that than I am putting faith in clueless Universal Studios.
I’ve ranted from time to time (here, here and here) about Universal Studios’ failure to capitalize or even understand its valuable legacy of monster movies. After enjoying recent triumphal depictions of longstanding-cultural genre icons (Captain America: Winter Soldier and Godzilla) I got to thinking about where Universal Studios is going wrong with its obvious strategy of trying to convert Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula, and The Wolfman into an Avengers-style franchise complete with spin-offs, giant team-up movies, and possible theme park rides. Their central mistake: treating monsters like superheroes.
Let’s start by making a list of the five best monster movies of all time – excluding giant monster movies like Godzilla or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In my opinion these are the five:
What do all these films have in common?
First of all, each one features memorable, masterful depictions of the monster(s) in question. In fact, they are all touchstones or masterpieces of makeup design. One of the many failings of Van Helsing is that the monsters were either stupid looking (Frankenstein’s see-through, electric skull cap) or overly familiar (the CGI werewolves) Any attempt to re-boot classic monsters needs to retain or enhance those designs that were key to their enduring popularity.
Rule 1: Monsters must look cool.
Second, four out the five do not speak, and in The Bride of Frankenstein, having the monster speak was new to the character, a change criticized by Boris Karloff himself. In each case, the story is told from the viewpoint of someone other than the monster. Sure, Larry Talbot is the protagonist of The Wolfman, but his alter-ego is as much of a threat to him as it is to the general population. By removing the monster from the viewpoint role and denying them participation in dialog, filmmakers distance them from the audience.
Rule 2: Monsters aren’t human.
Third, all monsters are hostile to humanity, even the sometimes sympathetic Frankenstein Monster. Every monster in every monster movie kills people.
Rule 3: Monsters are never the good guys, even though you may root for them.
Finally, Monster Movies are horror movies. Perhaps a film like The Wolfman doesn’t seem all that frightening today, but I guarantee you, a whole generation went to bed afraid that Lon Chaney Jr. was going crawl through their bedroom windows to tear their throats out. Fast forward – how many of us can remember how jolting the chest-bursting scene in Alien was, or how startling the head that sprouted legs was in The Thing? Good horror movies unsettle you in ways that linger long after the lights in the theater go up. A good monster embodies an unconscious archetype, symbolizing fears and anxieties already lurking in our minds. Nobody ever has a nightmare where Superman is coming to kill them.
Rule 4: Monsters are scary.
How are monsters similar to superheroes? Monsters are powerful. They all possess superhuman strength and can withstand violence that would kill an ordinary mortal. In this capacity, they can act as wish-fulfillment stand-ins, just as superheroes do. This is why audiences may love or identify with monsters, no matter how high the body counts pile up.
The key to understanding monsters is that they are not heroes, they are subversives. Their appeal to the darkness within pushes fans away from the mainstream. You can make the case in many monster movies that society is the villain, not the monster. This positions the protagonist in opposition to the establishment, which makes them appealing for fantasies of revenge or domination. Frankenstein’s Monster is persecuted by a mob: the torch wielding villagers. The scientists in the Creature from the Black Lagoon series are jerks who torment the Creature in the name of science. The main villain in the Alien franchise is the evil corporation that wants to harness the beast for weapons development. Tension in The Thing is driven by paranoia; anyone of us could be one of them. Monsters allow us to align ourselves with powerful figures that defy our bosses, our teachers, and our politicians. And they are unburdened by the moral limits of superheroes – they can kill.
It is this essentially morbid aspect of monsters that Universal Studios just doesn’t get…
Next: Why Universal Studios Won’t Make Monster Movies
Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) is most well known as the author of the Gormenghast trilogy, a highly regarded work of dark fantasy. He was actually an artist first and a popular book illustrator in the 1940s.
Peake possessed a strong, gothic flair, in both his writing and illustration. Appropriately, some of the books he brought to life were Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
During World War II, Peake served as a war artist. He was among the allied troops that entered the Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated. The experience affected him profoundly. and may have contributed to the darkness of his later work. The sketch below is from that experience.
I would strongly recommend the Gormenghast trilogy, or at least the first volume, Titus Groan, to anyone who is a fan of Game of Thrones. Like that popular TV show and the books by George R.R. Martin, Titus Groan is filled with royal intrigue, murder, and sinister architecture.
Every now and again, somebody publishes a “100/50/10 Greatest Horror Movies” list, some of them are pretty good. Even the best lists, however, include films that I consider wildly overrated. Don’t confuse this with a “10 Worst Horror Movies” list; some of these films are OK. Just OK. Not great.
Suspira (1977) – I’ve already dealt with this film, but let me repeat: there is no such thing as a great Italian horror movie.
Poltergeist (1982) – This was a loud, splashy roller coaster movie that relied very heavily on special effects to achieve most of its memorable or jolting moments. That was 32 years ago. Many of those effects haven’t aged well; leaving a silly central premise to hold the movie together.
Haute Tension (2003) – It’s a slasher movie, period. The twist ending doesn’t justify the gore and cruelty and severe logic gaps.
Irreversible (2002) – Not content with pointlessly updating the slasher movie, the French also pointlessly updated the rape revenge movie. The combination of arty dialog, pretentious direction, and transgressive content reminded me of a toddler gleefully playing with their own poop.
Wolf Creek (2005) – More pointless sadism played out via the tired slasher movie formula.
I’ve just recently stumbled upon this rare gem: the pioneering horror/fantasy magazine Der Orchideengarten. Published in Austria between 1919 and 1921, it is considered to be the first fantasy magazine. I’m going to post some cover art and will follow up with a longer post going into further detail. But just check out these amazing images:
I don’t know what’s worse: a) The notion of a Van Helsing re-boot starring Tom Cruise b) Van Helsing trying to “understand” the monsters, or c) the air quotes around monster movies.
Obviously, Universal is trying to get on the Avengers/Justice League bandwagon and create a franchise of freestanding movies blending together with all-star team up epics. Too bad the studio behind this is run by an asshead and the producer is the writer of Star Trek Into Darkness and a Transformer movie. I’m sure they already have the toy contract all sewed up.
I ran across this article recently at a favorite website: I09.com: 8 TV Episodes That Qualify As Psychological Warfare
To my mind, there just hasn’t been enough television done that really tries to unsettle viewers. As author Esther Inglis-Arkell puts it:
Some TV episodes entertain us and enliven our evenings. But other seem primarily designed to break a viewer psychologically, and take bloody bites out of our sense of well-being.
I took the opportunity to watch or re-watch as many of these episodes as I could and found some of them were pretty good. Especially “Blink” from Dr. Who.
But I favor stronger stuff, and I decided to compile my own list of what I consider to be 8 Truly Disturbing TV Episodes.
Since childhood, I’ve loved Edward Gorey. As I said in a previous post: “Gorey marked us with a dark worldliness that was more profound than the standard images of werewolves and shambling corpses we found in movies and comics.”
John Kenn Mortensen surely seems to have been deeply influenced by Gorey, as well. He adds a bit more of a modern sensibility to his finely crafted drawings, but somehow he still seems grounded in an earlier era of black veiled sick rooms, gas-lit alleyways, and haunted cottages.
Mortensen, according to his blog, writes and directs TV shows for kids. In his spare time, he makes exquisitely morbid little sketches on Post-It notes. He has published two collections of his work: Post-It Monsters, and More Post-It Monsters. He’s brilliant.
Check out his work at:
Here’s one of the better “Best” lists I’ve seen for horror movies. It should be a good list, the judges were people like Guillermo Del Toro, Alice Cooper, Simon Pegg, and Clive Barker. The thing I love about it is the plenitude of foreign films and even oddball picks, like Come and See (1985) (pictured above) and Saló (1975).
Many of the picks on this list have previously been reviewed or spotlighted on The Morbid Imagination. Check out the category Movies to scroll through them.
BTW, I got an 89 out of 100 on “How Many Have You Seen?“…I guess I have some catching up to do.
My personal top five list: