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Monsters are not Superheroes, Part 2

Posted in Movies on August 10th, 2014 by admin

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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)?

Why Universal Studios Won’t Make Monster Movies

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.

Why It May Not Matter.

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful.

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:

Dracula7

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.

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Monsters are not Superheroes, Part 1

Posted in Movies on August 2nd, 2014 by admin

Wolfman_1

I’ve ranted from time to time (herehere 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.

Good Monster Movies Defined

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:

  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • Alien (1979)
  • The Thing (1982)
  • The Wolfman (1941)

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 They Are Not Superheroes

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

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The Most Overrated Horror Movies Ever

Posted in Movies on May 4th, 2014 by admin
Ooooh! Scary puppets!

Ooooh! Scary puppets!

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.

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I Told You So, Part Seven

Posted in Movies on March 31st, 2014 by admin

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.

http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/10/18/bob-orci-discusses-van-helsing-reboot

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The 100 Best Horror Films

Posted in Movies on April 22nd, 2012 by admin

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.

The 100 Best Horror Films

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:

  1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  2. Repulsion (1965)
  3. Let the Right One In (2008)
  4. Psycho (1960)
  5. Freaks (1932)
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Get a Clue, Universal Studios

Posted in Movies on November 6th, 2011 by admin

I have repeatedly made the case on this blog that Universal Studios is squandering one of its greatest assets: its legacy of classic monsters. Recent comments by studio head Ron Meyer give us an insight into why this might be.

“One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman.  Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the shittiest movies we put out, but by the same token we made movies we believe in. ”

Really? Wolfman is one of the shittiest movies you ever made? Is there a reason you didn’t mention Van Helsing (2004) or The Mummy, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)? Or were those two movies you really believed in?

Do you know what was shitty? The fact that The Wolfman was released at a time of the year when it had no chance. That some dil-hole executive  thought seven-time Academy Award winner and monster fanboy genius Rick Baker’s werewolf makeup wasn’t good enough. You know, the guy responsible for American Werewolf in London (1981).

Here’s a list of the good horror movies produced by Universal Studios in the 16 years asshead Ron Meyer has been in charge: Drag Me to Hell, Slither, Dawn of the Dead. Here’s a list of some other horror movies Meyer is responsible for: the remakes of Psycho and The Last House on the Left, The Seed of Chucky, Devil, The Thing prequel, Doom, and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. Did I also mention Van Helsing?

Here’s another list of movies – the updates of classic monster movie updates provided by Universal Studios in the last 40 years: Dracula (1979), The Mummy (1999), The Wolfman. Oh, and Van Helsing. Way to exploit your  legacy, Universal.

Throw this track record and these comments in with the decision to kill Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, and you have the portrait of a studio run by people who have no clue whatsoever when it comes to horror or the cultural value of classic Universal horror. Take a look at the long list of non-horror drek that Universal has vomited on movie viewers and you get a feeling you could produce a better track record of success with a dart board and six chimps.

So I guess I shouldn’t be holding my breath for that kickass remake of the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Maybe I should be praying it doesn’t happen.

See Mr. Meyer’s remarks here.

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Best Post 9/11 Horror Films

Posted in Movies on October 24th, 2011 by admin

I confess that I don’t intend this list to have anything to do with 9/11 – it’s just a convenient cutoff point to review the best recent horror films. 10 years, 10 films. After reviewing a list of all the horror films from this period, I don’t really detect any real influence of the events of that tragic day, except perhaps the sustained interest in apocalypse/zombie/contagion movies.

If there was one overriding trend the last ten years, it was remakes. For the most part, it was an unfortunate trend, wasting millions of studio dollars on terrible or pointless movies. There were a few (very few) gems among the dross, but not one surpassed the original that it was based on.

And the intrusion of the new genre of paranormal romance into horror? Shudder…

I’m sure there are one or two obscure movies I missed, but I feel good about every movie included here and have about a half dozen more that were hard to exclude.

Let the Right One In (2008) – My personal favorite on this list and a film I think deserves consideration as one of the greatest horror movies ever. This is a perfect example of why the best horror films are about something other than monsters or death. In this case, the something else is the tragic nature of childhood alienation. It is also a great vampire movie, returning to the time tested depiction of vampirism as a curse and a source of death and horror.

Matyrs (2008) – This is a close second on my list. On the surface, it seems like yet another torture porn movie, but instead it is a mind-bending descent into bleak horror worthy of another French classic Les Diaboliques (1954). As each twist unfolded, I marveled at the artistry of its conception and its willingness to forswear any easy outs for the audience. Deeply satisfying and original.

The Mist (2007) – Speaking of bleak horror, here’s another movie that’s not afraid to go there. This is based on one of my favorite Stephen King works, by his best adaptor, Frank Darabont. Like any good King story, realistic characters drawn from real life confront intruding horror, aided here by a great cast. And the ending! I walked out of the theater, shaking my head, amazed that they went there.

The Descent (2005)The Cave, released the same year, explored (spelunked?) the same territory: a group trapped in a cave with monsters. The difference? Neil Marshall and an all female cast. Marshall wisely refused to resort to exploitation and put real characters into believable danger. The weird ending was wonderfully ambiguous.

The Road (2009) – Based on Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic masterpiece, the film adaptation spares little of it’s apocalyptic power. The horror springs from the nearly hopeless situation – you want to root for the last flickering lights of humanity to triumph, but you know that it’s a false hope. It’s the journey that matters, but it’s not a trip to anyplace nice.

Paranormal Activity (2007) – There may be one or two other movies that might be more deserving, but I had to acknowledge a movie that did a great job of wringing scares out of audiences with mood, tension, and misdirection. The fact that this series has been successful at the box office is heartening, and I hope that studios follow suit with more of the same. The found footage thing, however, is getting close to being played out. Can’t we just stick to spooky scares?

Rec (2007) – Speaking of found footage, here’s the movie that did it best. Just a tour-de-force of filmmaking.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – If Guillermo Del Toro isn’t the master of horror, I don’t know who is. A little girl escapes either into her own dark imagination or a real, nightmarish underworld – which may be better than the grim reality of her real life. Del Toro suspends her between two dark universes, and this fairy tale may have no happy ending. This film proves Del Toro was born to adapt Lovecraft.

The Wolfman (2010) – This film has it critics, but I think they’re all wrong. This is exactly what Universal Studios should be doing with its goldmine of monster properties. It is just reverent enough to the original to soothe hardcore fans but savvy enough of a modern studio horror movie to appeal to a wider crowd. It was dumped into the market in February, when it should have played during Halloween. Why couldn’t Universal release a new monster movie remake every year in the spooky season, helmed by fanboy directors like Guillermo Del Toro or Joe Dante? (sigh)

Cabin Fever (2002) – My last choice is the winner of the “Best Dead Teenager Movie” award, narrowly edging out The Ruins (2008), mainly due to a better horror ending. If you are going to kill a bunch of teenagers, kill them all. I like this movie more than Eli Roth’s more successful Hostel (2006), mainly because of the gleefully crazy tone this movie sometimes adopts. I also really like that most of the characters are horrible and selfish, but the two nice kids also meet awful fates, despite their intact virginities. Good horror is random.

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The Art of Universal Monster Movies

Posted in Art, Movies on October 23rd, 2011 by admin

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The Politics of Horror Movies

Posted in Movies on September 6th, 2011 by admin

Night of the Living Dead Rednecks

Reading, of all things, an article at Cracked.com called: “6 Mind-Blowing Ways Zombies and Vampires Explain America,” I got stirred up enough to finally address an issue I’d long pondered. Namely, The Politics of Horror Movies.

Every so often, one of the major media outlets will notice the popularity of contemporary horror movies and will try and attach some kind of political or social significance to their success. This usually turns out the be the sort of glib association that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The Cracked article is typical; it puts forward the notion that vampire movies are successful when Democrats are in office because conservatives are afraid of sex and foreigners and zombies are popular when Republicans are in power because liberals fear mindlessness and conformity.

This premise is easily disrupted by a few simple points. A) Conservatives fear the mindlessness and conformity of political correctness as much as liberals fear consumerism and neo-fascist conformity. B) Vampire movies are generally conservative, since the sexually liberated undead almost always wind up defeated and sent back to hell and vampirism most closely resembles a sexually transmitted disease. C) Box office success for horror movies tend to be the result of clever advertising, quality product, built-in audiences (Twilight), or fortunate timing. Any “trend” in the genre is driven almost exclusively by the exploitative, imitative nature of the business.

This is not to say that horror movies exist in a vacuum. But most of the failed attempts to politicize horror movies are due to confusion between The Social versus The Political.

Politics is about the distribution of power in a society. By that definition, there are very few political horror movies. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Day of the Dead (1985) maybe, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), absolutely.

What most critics label as political is actually social. The decaying family, the dissolution of civil society, the relationship of the sexes, the weakening of parental authority, and the predatory nature of sex are all social issues – problems with how people relate to each other within a society. Night of the Living Dead (1968)  reflects the violent, racially charged era of the Vietnam Era, when society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) extended that devolution to the nuclear family. The Exorcist (1975) betrays parents’ fear and ambivalence about their own children.  Cloverfield (2008) is a meditation on post-9/11 anxieties. Etc.

Here, horror is a powerful medium, since great horror is built on psychological tension. The vast majority of horror movies, however, are intimate and personal in their scale. They focus on a small group of individuals under assault. This is the classic form of the slasher movie, and even epic, apocalyptic zombie movies revolve around a small group of survivors. Threats to the social fabric isolate and alienate individuals and make them more vulnerable, thus making them perfect horror movie foils.

Horror movies have been continuously successful since at least 1957, often independent of their times, many are timeless classics. This is what bothers me about these “trend” articles, they overlook the enduring popularity of the genre. This is due entirely to the snobbery of America’s cultural elites, most of whom refuse to take horror seriously as art. The longstanding relegation of horror to a cultural ghetto, now that’s political.

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9 Bad Vampire Movies

Posted in Movies on September 6th, 2011 by admin

Here’s a pretty good list of “9 Vampire Movies that Ruined the Genre.” Can’t disagree with most of the choices, except Near Dark (1987), which I think is a minor classic. Lance Henrikson as a vampire cult leader? That’s a slam-dunk.

Here’s my take on Twilight, BTW.

And my favorite Vampire Movie.

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Black Swan

Posted in Movies on January 13th, 2011 by admin

Black Swan (2010) deftly combines some very old gothic conventions – the doppelganger, a heroine pursued by shadowy figures, and the cannibalistic mother – to create an operatic horror movie of the highest quality.

Black Swan stands as a terrific entry into the Horror of Personality sub-genre; movies that revolve around mental degeneration or the awful consequences of untreated mental illness. Director Darren Aronofsky has created a film that compares favorably to the summit of the type: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).

Unlike Repulsion, where the source of the madness of Catherine Deneuve’s character is never explained, in Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s character is a victim of the stress of winning and holding the lead role in Swan Lake and the predations of her failed dancer mother.

While it is not immediately apparent that Portman’s character is losing her connection to reality, it isn’t long before she finds herself being stalked by her doppelganger – popularly known today as The Evil Twin. The doppelganger is a literary character as old as horror itself, arising out of folklore and appearing in the 19th Century in Dostoesky’s The Double and Poe’s William Wilson. The doppelganger was also the monster in The Student of Prague, which was filmed several times in Germany, mostly during the silent era. Generally, the doppelganger appears after the victim has committed some moral lapse, threatening to erase their existence and replace them entirely.

Black Swan also features Barbara Hershey as the cannibalistic mother, a gothic figure found often in Grimm’s Fairy Tales and carried through to the present to a variety of oedipal dramas such as Psycho (1960), The Grifters (1990), or David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). Invariably, the cannibalistic mother does not actually consume their victim, but instead destroys them from within often providing the impetus for their misdeeds.

Indeed, Black Swan is so drenched in it’s Gothic roots, that it would fairly easy to transpose the setting to the 1880s, leaving virtually every detail intact. You would have had to excise the lesbian interlude between Portman and Mila Kunis, of course, but it would have made a splendid Victorian melodrama.

Hopefully, Black Swan will garner a few Academy Awards next month, certainly for the very deserving Natalie Portman at least. A few of the golden statuettes would elevate it into the class of previous classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Silence of the Lambs. That would go a long way towards making up for the Academy’s previous neglect of the Horror genre.

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Scary? Or Creepy?

Posted in Movies on November 1st, 2010 by admin

 

In this blog, I have spotlighted movies that rely on psychological depth and atmospherics for their power, rather than movies that shock or startle. Another way to look at this division is to define it as the difference between terror and horror.

What’s better? There’s nothing wrong with a good scary movie, especially if it’s experienced communally in a dark movie theater. There are plenty of great, classic scary movies: Wait Until Dark (1967), Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Paranormal Activity (2007), etc… To me, a good scary movie is largely a technical achievement, evidence of a skilled director at work. The proof of this is the abundance of crappy movies that still manage an effective scare or two (Event Horizon?)

But to achieve true horror or creepiness in a movie is a more subtle and elusive achievement. In order to really get under the skin of an audience, you have to invest in characters that are more than soon-t0-be-killed targets. The horror of the situation has to arise out of the circumstances or personality of the victims. In Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Mia Farrow’s isolation and vulnerability helps build to an awful climax where the real horror of her situation is compounded by her total helplessness in confronting it. Compare that to the death of the nude swimmer at the beginning of Jaws (1975). Shocking yes, but what do we know or care about her? Nothing. We empathise with her on a primal level, but the scene might have been just as effective with a naked guy, a fully clothed kid, or a dog.

Some truly great horror movies achieve both scary and creepy: Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In each case, there are memorable scares but also creepy images or scenes that linger long after the jolts to nerves have settled.

Then there are movies which move along without hardly any shocks, but still manage to chill your bones. This includes: The Innocents (1961), Carnival of Souls (1962), Lost Highway (1997), and The Others (2001). All these movies share two things: a willingness to move slowly towards a grim ending and main characters that carry a heavy burden of doom or dread with them as the story unfolds. The unhappy endings seem predestined but still can surprise.

And maybe that is another factor in my conviction that horror trumps terror. In most terror movies, the evil or menace is defeated at the end. The shark dies in Jaws, the Xenomorph is blasted into space in Alien, and Jamie Lee Curtis and the kids are saved from Michael Myers in Halloween. (Although in every case, the triumph only lasts until the inevitable sequels.) But in great horror movies, happy endings are rare. Janet Leigh is still dead in Psycho. Hannibal Lecter wanders free in The Silence of the Lambs. Olga Baclanova is transformed into a squawking monstrosity at the end of Freaks.

Great horror movies, for this reason, are subversive. They undermine the status quo. The message that they offer is: the world is not safe and things more terrible than death await the unwary. They reach down into the unconscious mind and untether the straps of the conscious mind that keep the lid on things.

Yes, watching a scary movie is fun. But watching a great horror movie is sublime.

The War Game

Posted in Movies on September 12th, 2010 by admin

I have been a fan of filmmaker Peter Watkins for a long time, since I saw his brutal masterpiece Culloden (1964) on public television. Thirty four years before Saving Private Ryan took audiences into the blood and guts of Omaha Beach, Culloden presented an unsparing re-enactment of the slaughter of Scottish rebels by the British Army in 1746. Watkins’ is a pioneer of the docudrama, most of his films are either re-enactments of historical events or speculations on near future developments. He tends to use real people as his actors, and employs the “You are There” style of dramatization.

The War Game (1965) was made for the BBC in the middle of a fierce debate in Great Britain about nuclear disarmament.  The War Game is the most harrowing film ever made about nuclear war; it makes The Day After (1983) look like a Disney movie. Drawing directly from government documents and public statements by a variety of establishment figures, it presents a straightforward depiction of what would happen if the Soviets had launched a full nuclear attack on Great Britain. Watkins presents children screaming as their eyes melt, people overcome by fumes falling dead out of an ambulance, police shooting hopeless burn victims in the head to put them out of their misery, and traumatized survivors trembling with shattered minds – among other horrors.

The War Game was so powerful that the BBC freaked out when they saw the finished product. They showed it to the British government, who may or may not have ordered them to shelve it. At any rate, the BBC never put the film on the air. It was released to theaters on a limited basis and won the Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature in 1966.

Watkins was clearly pursuing a pacifist agenda with this movie, but who’s going to argue in favor of nuclear war? The threat of imminent immolation that made The War Game vital in 1964 is no longer quite so present, but the risk of nuclear war is still with us all. The film cannot be dismissed as propaganda, since it’s scenes of death and societal collapse were either taken directly from government documents or accounts of the firebombings of Dresden, Hamburg, or Tokyo in WW2.

Both Culloden and The War Game are available together on DVD; I can’t recommend them strongly enough. They may not be horror movies in the traditional sense, but they present the ultimate horror – War – in stark terms, unencumbered with conventional dramatic narratives where good must triumph over evil. Here, the horrors originate with our own freely elected leaders and we are not just the audience, but the accomplices.

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The Old Dark House

Posted in Movies on July 11th, 2010 by admin

Falling between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) is often overlooked in discussions of Whale’s contribution to the Horror movie. This may be due to the fact that the film was nearly lost and unavailable for viewing for decades. It is now available on DVD from Kino and I highly recommend it to any fan of Universal Horror.

The Old Dark House features a familiar, moth-eaten plot: a group of travellers are stranded in…an Old Dark House…during a wild storm. The  house belongs to the odd, degenerating Femm family. Whale pulled together an impressive cast: Karloff, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas. Thesiger plays host, the high-strung Horace Femm, but his religious fanatic sister Rebecca tries to have the visitors tossed back out into the storm. Their 102 year old sin-eaten father lies in bed upstairs, and further up, behind a padlocked door lurks the dreadful elder brother, Saul. Stomping amongst them all is the brutish butler, Morgan, played with appropriate menace by Karloff.

The Old Dark House is more of a comedy than a Horror film, but it’s a comedy laced with moments of horror and suspense. In fact, it’s sort of a Screwball Horror Movie, if there is such a thing.  Screenwriter Benn Levy gave the talented cast a plethora of witty lines to chew on, and they obliged with relish.

But for me, the amazing performance of Brember Wills as the murderous madman Saul completely steals the show from his more famous cast mates. After being released from his imprisonment by a drunken Morgan, Saul slowly descends the stairs, wringing every bit of suspense out his entrance. But once revealed, he seems to be nothing more than a mousy victim of his sibilings’ own madness. However, as soon as the others turn away from him, his face contorts into a mask of insane malice, and he goes on a violent rampage, cackling with mad glee.

The Kino disc also includes an interview with director and film historian Curtis Harrington, who single-handedly saved The Old Dark House from oblivion. Kudos, Curtis.

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The Golden Age of Horror Movies

Posted in Movies on June 17th, 2010 by admin

In the course of writing this blog, it dawned on me that most of the movies I was praising fell in one decade. But it was not the 1930s, during the height of  Universal Studios’ horror cycle, or the 1980s, as the Academy Awards would have us believe. No, in my opinion, the 1960s was the Golden Age of Horror Movies.

The ground for a horror renaissance was laid in the prior decade. Horror  went through a long drought in the 1950s, as science fiction took its place at the dark end of the cinema production line. Even movies like The Werewolf (1956) or Frankenstein 1970 (1958) had to provide a scientific basis for their monsters. Universal Studios turned away from mist shrouded castles and flapping bats to the creeping cold war paranoia of Jack Arnold.

Then in 1957 Hammer Films released The Curse of Frankenstein,  launching a whole new horror cycle. The timing of the film was perfect, aligning with both the release to TV of Universal’s monster classics and the loosening of limitations on sex and violence in movies worldwide. Hammer quickly followed up with Dracula (1958) and science fiction began to fade before the onslaught of blood, cleavage, and the undead.

The decade of the 1960s opened with two startling classics: Peeping Tom and Psycho. Both were sexually frank shockers helmed by highly regarded directors; Psycho was a smash at the box office, Peeping Tom was buried under a wave of revulsion by critics. The success of Psycho created a wave over the next few years of one word/insane killer movies: Paranoiac, Strait-Jacket, Berserk!,  Homicidal, Maniac, etc…

The rest of the year included such minor gems as: Blood and Roses, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday But most significantly, spurred on by the success of Hammer, in 1960 Roger Corman began his Poe cycle with The Fall of the House of Usher.

1961 ushered in Jack Clayton’s subtle masterpiece, The Innocents and Curtis Harrington’s equally subtle Night Tide. 1962 featured the eerie minor classic, Carnival of Souls and introduced Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to horror with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock returned to horror with The Birds, Robert Wise paid chilling tribute to his days with Val Lewton with The Haunting, and Francis Ford Coppola got his break in movies with Dementia 13.

Japan contributed two classics in 1964: Kwaidan and Onibaba. Roger Corman released the twin apogees of the Poe cycle: Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia.

1965 featured Roman Polanski’s masterpiece of degenerating sanity, Repulsion.  Two minor, overlooked films, The Nanny with Betty Davis and The Collector with Terence Stamp provided nice bookends for Polanski’s masterwork. Milton Subotsky, taking his cue from Dead of Night (1945) established the horror anthology film with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.

In 1968, two sub-genres of horror films were spawned by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (The Religious Horror Movie) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (Zombies).

All throughout this period, Hammer was releasing a flood of movies, some of which (Brides of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, The Gorgon, Plague of the Zombies, The Devil Rides Out) were really terrific. The Italian Horror Film industry churned out a steady stream of titles, of variable quality. Hundreds of lesser films rounded out double bills at drive-ins with titles like Spider Baby, I Eat Your Skin, Blood Feast, or the memorably named Face of the Screaming Werewolf.

This was the period when sex and violence were married to horror films forever. Hammer’s trailblazing moved from cleavage to nudity and their trickles of blood on Dracula’s chin or severed limbs in Frankenstein’s lab were quickly surpassed by others, like Hershell Gordon Lewis, with fountains of blood and heaps of guts. It’s interesting to note, however, how few of the movies I highlighted were explicit, although most at least featured suppressed but tangible sex, violent shocks, or both. Note also how many of these movies were filmed in black and white and did not need to show red blood or naked pink skin to achieve their ends.

You could put together a list of the best Horror Films in other decades, and it would be likely be an impressive list. But the high end of the 1960s horror cycle surpasses any other decade because it includes the greatest number of intelligent and artistic Horror Movies ever attempted. These movies often featured real characters in situations where the supernatural element was suggestive or missing completely. Some of these movies were directed by men who were either at the height of their skills or just beginning their brilliant careers.

As the doors to more explicit violence and sex opened wider in the 1970s, Horror Films began to settle into the modern pattern of gore effects, gratuitous nudity, and not very subtle shocks. What was left behind was a sense that the Horror movie was not a restrictive, cheap form, but a vehicle for the highest levels of expression. There have been exceptions since then, of course, but these were exceptions. In the 1960s, Horror as Art was the rule, and that is why the 1960s ruled as the Golden Age of Horror Movies.

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