I don’t know what worse: a) The notion of a Van Helsing re-boot with Tom Cruise b) Van Helsing trying to “understand” the monsters, or c) the air quotes around monster movies.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Upon the passing of Dennis Hopper, I spent a while on Youtube running some of my favorite Dennis Hopper moments. The brilliant monologue with Christopher Walken in True Romance, the campfire scene from Easy Rider and about 10 terrifying moments from Blue Velvet. Amazing.
I had previously spotlighted one of Hopper’s early movies, Night Tide. Check out my review and check out the movie. A fine, understated movie with a fine understated performance from one of America’s best actors.
Recent films such as Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) have brought recognition to Japanese Horror films; both were remade by Hollywood, which is a sideways form of flattery.
Until recently, Japan never had a Horror film industry comparable to the U.S., England, or even Italy, but there is definitely a Japanese Horror legacy. Japanese mythology is filled with the restless dead, demons, and vampires. And in the 1930s, Taro Hirai, popularly known as Edogawa Rampo, produced tales of the grotesque, deviant, and morbid which were wildly popular. Horror found its way into Japanese cinema eventually, although for many years these films did not find distribution outside of the homeland.
Onibaba (1964) was one Japanese movie that broke out into American and European arthouses. Like a contemporary film, Repulsion, Onibaba was intended by its producer to be a financially lucrative shocker, but its power and artistry elevated it into the realm of horror art.
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo, Onibaba tells the story of a mother and daughter who make their living by selling the weapons and armor of samurai who straggle away from nearby battles. The pair obtain the possessions of the samurai by ambushing them in fields of tall grass and casting their bodies into a pit. A male neighbor returns from the war and begins helping the two with their criminal operation. He quickly seduces the daughter, which sets the mother off in a rage of jealousy that spirals into madness and horror.
Onibaba is drenched in sex and raw emotions, fairly strong stuff for its time, even in Japan. It carries enough raw power to make it compelling viewing, but it also has eerie, dreamlike scenes that raise it above the level of pure exploitation. One of the central images of the movie is a demon mask that the mother finds on a dead samurai. She puts it on to frighten her daughter, chasing her through fields of waving tall grass at night, hoping to keep her away from the bed of her lover. But the movie ends with a Twilight Zone-style twist which demonstrates that the reward for jealousy and spite is pain and horror.
I would strongly recommend Onibaba to anyone who is already a fan of movies like Ringu or Audition. It is a modern movie, like those which have found an audience here in the States recently, but it also touches on the rich traditions of horror in Japanese folklore and myth.
Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) attempts to recount events from the summer of 1816 in Geneva, when Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley shared ghost stories on stormy nights and subsequently challenged each other to write their own chilling tales. To say that Gothic misses the mark is being kind, but for director Ken Russell taking liberties with the facts is usually only a starting point.
Gothic gets many details right initially but after the first half hour it degenerates into a typical, over-the-top Ken Russell mish-mosh of visual excess, incoherence, and kinky sex. And after all that, the movie ends with a short, out of place narration that points out that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a result of her summer reading spooky tales with Lord Byron. It’s almost as if the producers watched the rough cut, realized that it made no sense at all and felt obligated to provide the audience with some clue as to why what they just endured mattered.
The greatest crime committed by Gothic is what the movie does to the memory of Mary Shelley. Poor John Polodori gets completely screwed as well, but at least he was a hack writer. Mary Shelly, on the other hand, wrote one of the enduring masterpieces of English literature…when she was only 19.
I just finished reading Miranda Seymour’s excellent biography, Mary Shelley, and was struck by how different the real Mary Shelley was from her popular portrait as the mild mannered wife living in the shadow of her brilliant husband. In truth, Mary was better educated than either her college dropout husband, Cambridge frat boy Byron, or Doctor John Polidori, and she was known for being an intimidating figure in intellectual conversation.
Contrary to popular legend and Mary‘s own later mythmaking, Frankenstein did not arise as the result of a dream Mary experienced following a stormy night of reading ghost stories in Switzerland. There was indeed a challenge between Mary, Shelley, Byron, and John Polidori to each write their own horror tale, but Frankenstein was assembled from a patchwork of Mary’s literary influences, existing story fragments, scientific discussions held throughout that summer, and bits of history and geography picked in their recent travels. This included a visit two years earlier to the vicinity of the Castle Frankenstein, where alchemist Conrad Dippel had supposedly attempt to reanimate the dead.
Gothic, however, gives all the credit for the inspiration of Frankenstein to ranting conversations between a bed-hopping Byron and an opium maddened Shelley, leaving Mary as little more than a weepy spectator.
From its initial publication in 1818, Frankenstein was an important and influential book. Although Frankenstein was published anonymously with a small print run that was mainly distributed amongst English literary circles it quickly gained notice for Mary. Most of its readers knew Mary and were aware that she was supposed to be the author, although some thought that Shelley had either written it himself or had a heavy hand in its development. This unfortunate mis-perception continued throughout Mary’s life and long past it, especially as Shelley’s fame grew posthumously.
Frankenstein is a tremendous literary accomplishment and it is all Mary’s. At the time, Shelley was an obscure figure, known more for his scandalous life than his poetry and Mary was famed from birth as the daughter of two towering figures of English intellectual circles. This was the sort of greatness expected of her by her father’s friends, but sexism and her own later dedication to the memory of her beloved Shelley helped to rob Mary of her proper due.
So, to clarify: Mary Shelley, brilliant; Ken Russell, self-indulgent hack. And poor Polidori was not ugly or gay and in fact was quite handsome.