The Morbid Imagination

Edvard Munch

Posted in Art on August 30th, 2010 by admin

 

“For a long time he had been wanting to paint the effect of a sunset. Red as blood. No, it was blood itself. Nobody else had seen the sunset he had seen. Everyone else saw red clouds. He spoke sadly of how seized he had been by terror when he had seen  this sunset of blood. Sad because the poor medium of paint could never convey the intensity of his vision. I thought, ‘He is trying to do the impossible, and his religion is despair.” Christian Skredsvig, on Munch

Edvard Munch, like Poe and Mary Shelley, survived an early life dominated by poverty and death, narrowly dodging the grim spectre himself on several occasions. Munch carried with him into adulthood a steely intellectual focus and the vision of expressing himself through “soul paintings.” Initially reviled during his lifetime, he eventually found acclaim as the spiritual godfather of the Expresssionists.

“Anxiety” (above) is one of a series of paintings with a similar construction, which includes the very familiar “The Scream.” Here, Munch populates his blood sunset with ghostly figures filing along the water’s edge, all in the grip of some nameless terror.

“Melancholy (Laura)” (below) is a portrait of his sister, deep in the grips of insanity. Munch feared, with some justification, that infirmity and madness ran deep in his family, so much so that he took care all his life to avoid fathering any offspring that might carry his tainted blood. This fear also led to the failure many of his relationships which, in turn, fed his art.

“Dead Mother and Child” (bottom) illustrates another episode from his life, the death of his mother and the horrified reaction of his beloved sister Sophie, who would herself die a few years later.

Munch’s work was not all obsessed with death and madness. Some of his most admired works were simple landscapes or portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons. But the core of his work, the material he poured more of his life force into, were the paintings that were grouped as “The Frieze of Life.” Assembled in different arrangements over the years in different exhibitions, the series of paintings blended themes of sex, love, jealousy, betrayal, bitterness, and death on a scale never previously attempted.

As one of the first proponents of psychological depth in art, Munch channeled his own trauma, fears, and tragedy with an honesty and integrity that keeps his works vital today. It was this quality that translated directly over into Expressionism, which moved art from studied pictorialism to personal, emotive expression.

Despite all the personal tragedy in his life, Munch persevered and remained true to his art. This is what I find most appealing about him, how he maintained his integrity as an artist throughout his life, expressing complex, deep and sometimes dark emotions without surrendering to his personal demons. Unlike Poe or Van Gogh before him, Munch lived to a ripe and productive old age, continuing to pursue “soul painting” to the end.

Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dennis Hopper, R.I.P.

Posted in Movies on June 9th, 2010 by admin

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.

Tags: ,

Onibaba

Posted in Movies on May 25th, 2010 by admin

onibaba1

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.

Tags: ,

Antichrist

Posted in Uncategorized on March 25th, 2010 by admin

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is the kind of intelligent horror movie that I have been praising and elevating in The Morbid Imagination from the start; how could I not like it?

To be sure, Antichrist is not a perfect movie.  Unnecessary pretension rears its ugly arthouse head from time to time and there are moments that don’t work, either as art or horror (the talking fox – ouch!). But overall, Antichrist is a thoughtful horror film in the tradition of Peeping Tom or Repulsion.

The movie opens with a lyrical sequence depicting the death of a toddler, who falls from an open window while his parents are having sex in the next room. His mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is traumatized and paralyzed by anxiety. The father (William Dafoe), a therapist, pushes a form of shock therapy on her in the hopes it will convince her to confront her grief and move past it. Eventually, he convinces her to join him in a remote cabin in the woods where she spent a summer alone with her toddler. Things don’t go as expected, of course, and his attempts to force her to confront her inner demons backfire spectacularly.

Antichrist is brutal and sexually explicit, in a way that is more daring than recent artsy horror films like Irreversible, High Tension, or Inside. Those films either failed to rise above genre forms or were undermined by pointless technical wizardry. There is a story behind Antichrist, a story that is believable, sad, and terrible. The time that von Trier spends developing his characters and the story pays off when the horrors begin to arrive; unlike the typical modern horror film where people die without ever developing beyond shallow, quickly sketched props.

Von Trier and Antichrist in particular have been attacked for their misogyny. So what? Do all stories have to have happy endings – particularly horror movies? I wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon watching von Trier’s films, but a downbeat slice of the underbelly of humanity is a nice palette cleanser every now and then. I loved von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) even though it is one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever seen. But as sad as it was, you cared about the characters, even the bad ones, because von Trier took the time to let you get to know them.

This is exactly what is generally lacking in the horror movie market today: intelligent and challenging movies that don’t conform to overly familiar formulas. I don’t care how big the actors are, or how slick the effects are, or how dazzling the director is, if filmakers aren’t getting the audience to invest in real characters and aren’t willing to take chances that keep them off balance, then it’s just disposable mass production.  You can get away with more in horror, anyway, so why not take chances?

Gothic

Posted in Literature, Movies on March 20th, 2010 by admin

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.

Tags: , , ,

Academy Awards Tribute to Horror

Posted in Movies on March 7th, 2010 by admin

My response? Underwhelmed.

Actually, the more I think about the more I am disappointed. Why?

♦ Introduced by two Twilight actors. Way to demonstrate that you really don’t get it.

♦ It’s just a bunch of clips picked out by some 20 somethings with a fairly obvious knowledge of horror and little sense of history. Michael Myers appeared about six times, Universal horror got about 5 seconds. Leprechaun? Really? Leprechaun?

♦ There were no horror movies made outside the US? Hammer films never existed? No Christopher Lee, no Peter Cushing?

♦ They go to all the trouble of giving Roger Corman an Oscar and they didn’t include even one clip from the Poe movies? No Vincent Price? Chuckie gets a couple appearances, though.

♦ Apparently, the golden age of horror was the 1980s, according to the Academy. Did I mention they spotlighted Leprechaun?

Just confirms my previous point: the Academy has not been kind to horror. Disappointing and patronizing.

Tags:

Casting the Runes

Posted in Literature, Movies on February 25th, 2010 by admin

james

While watching Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) a smile of recognition crept across my face. Here was another fine adaptation of M.R. James’ classic tale of terror “Casting the Runes.”

James’ short story is not credited, but the plot elements are there: a powerful occultist is offended and lays a curse on their tormentor, unseen forces begin to torment the victim, then demonic forces threaten them directly, and finally the victim come to realize that the only way they can escape destruction is to transfer the curse back to its originator by passing the object used to create the curse.

M. R. James was one of the finest authors of Victorian ghost stories. Generally, his stories revolved around a scholar doing research in a remote village or ancient cathedral leading to the uncovering and unleashing of some dark force of evil. The best moments in James’ fiction are small moments of suggested horrors, such as this example from “Casting the Runes”:

“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.”

The power of suggestion was splendidly carried forward in the most noted adaption of James’ “Casting the Runes:” Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur. Night of the Demon is a masterful example of the use of lighting, sound, editing, and smart screenwriting to build suspense and generate a mood of horror. This isn’t surprising, since Tourneur had previously directed some of Val Lewton’s subtle horror masterpieces (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man). Famously, the producers inserted model shots of a demon after shooting was completed, which Tourneur and others thought ruined the subtle effects originally intended. I am not convinced of this, except in a few moments featuring clumsy special effects. I think the power of the key scenes, as originally shot, still carry the weight of the film.

Raimi pays tribute to Night of the Demon by setting his final scene in a railway station and at some points in Drag Me to Hell he actually relies on suggestion rather than gore or pyrotechnics. But it would expecting too much from the genius behind The Evil Dead (1981) to not feature projectile eyeballs or explosions of maggots. Drag Me to Hell delivers good scary fun, but remains in the general modern mainstream of effects laden shock fests.

The full text of “Casting the Runes” may be read here:

http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~fadey/castrunes2.html

Tags: , , ,

Universal Horror in the 21st Century

Posted in Movies on February 13th, 2010 by admin

werewoflondon

With the launch of The Wolfman (2010), Universal Studios has finally returned to its roots as the premier outlet for big budget horror, and for monster movies in particular.

The Wolfman is first of all, a damn fine werewolf movie. There are no shaggy, hunky werewolves and they don’t sparkle. It doesn’t stray far from the original, it’s no reboot or re-imagining, it’s something rare: a respectful and vital remake. It expands on the 1941 classic without changing into something altogether different. And it is drenched in dark gothic beauty.

The Wolfman almost makes up for the hyperactive turd that was Van Helsing (2004). Almost. What would redeem Universal from that travesty is a slew of smart and loving remakes drawn from their library of monster classics; movies very much in the vein of The Wolfman. Sadly, there is little evidence that Universal has the foresight to see the potential in a modern, well-made monster franchise. I suspect they are waiting to read the box-office returns of The Wolfman.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon remake, which has been stuck in development hell for decades,  is currently in pre-production, maybe. There have been numerous directors attached to this project for years and currently some nobody named Carl Rinsch is slated to helm it. That is not reassuring. God save us if Stephen Sommers gets his hands on this property. Hopefully he will tied up with G.I. Joe 2: Rise of T.U.R.D. for a while.

Supposedly, the mammoth success of Avatar (2009) is going to lead to a slew of movies in 3D. Wouldn’t it be ironic if that tide finally got The Creature off the shelf and into theaters?

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the property that makes the most sense, of course, as a remake. But what about the other beloved Universal properties? Here’s what I think might work:

♦ The Werewolf of London. This has always been a personal favorite of mine. I like the minimalist make up, the scientific angle, and Henry Hull’s sympathetic performance. (Better than Lon Chaney, Jr. IMHO) The Wolfman has already covered a lot of the same territory, but I think that this would be an interesting property for an imaginative twist in the right hands. David Cronenberg?

♦ The Bride of Frankenstein. One of the things that has weighed down most of the recent re-imaginings of the Frankenstein story is the whole monster creation storyline. Superhero movies have the same problem: you have to spend half the movie introducing the character and explaining why they are the way they are. A remake of The Bride would eliminate that problem; you could start the movie with a fully imagined, Karloffian, bad-ass Frankenstein monster. The plot could center around the monster’s efforts to track down Dr. Frankenstein and force him to make a bride. I could even see it as an R-rated gore fest, perfect for someone like Rob Zombie.

♦ Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman. Why not? Half the matchup is in the can already; this could be the follow-up to my Bride re-imagining. Marvel is doing it with The Avengers, creating a franchise of multiple characters feeding into one big budget orgy of genre spectacle.

♦ Dracula’s Daughter. This was one of Universal’s smartest and most sexually subversive offerings. Like the Bride re-imagining, this angle would free filmakers from having the burden of dealing with the whole Dracula mythology and would present an opportunity for an, adult, intelligent take on vampirism. Post-feminist? Lesbian?

I’m sure that none of these ideas will go anywhere; instead Universal will green-light The Mummy 4 or Van Helsing 2: The Teen Age Years. Meanwhile I will savor at least one movie that made me nostalgic for the magic that once was Universal.

Tags: , , , , ,

A Song About James Ensor

Posted in Art on February 3rd, 2010 by admin

Thanks to my son for finding this video of They Might Be Giants singing about James Ensor. What an amazing bunch of guys! They make nerds seem so cool.

Meet James Ensor – They Might Be Giants

Tags:

31 Days of Oscar

Posted in Movies on January 31st, 2010 by admin

Oscar has not been kind to horror.

Despite the fact that many classic horror films are now regarded as some of the most important movies in cinema history, Oscar has tended to overlook the genre. Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the notable example, winning 5, including Best Picture. The Exorcist (1973) won 2, and was nominated for 8 more, including Best Picture; The Omen (1976) was nominated for 2 music Oscars (including Best Song????) and won one; Psycho (1960) received 4 nominations, no wins; Rosemary’s Baby (1968) won one for Ruth Gordon, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) won 3, all technical awards; and Alien (1979) won 1 for special efffects.

I’m sure I overlooked a few, but you get the idea.

Here is a list of movies shut out of Oscar contention: Freaks, Peeping Tom, Repulsion, The Innocents, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Les Diaboliques, Night of the Living Dead, The Thing (both versions), Dawn of the Dead (the original) and The Shining. Many of these films have been selected for preservation by the National Film Board.

Turner Classic Movies is again running its annual 31 Days of Oscar, showing round the clock Oscar winning and nominated movies. It’s a great chance for anyone who is a movie buff to fill in the blanks in their movie appreciation or to get deeper understanding of movie history.

This year, there are only a sprinkling of horror movies on the schedule. Here they all are (all times Eastern):

Feb. 4, 8:00 pm: The Uninvited (1940)
Feb. 8, 11:30 am: The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
Feb. 8, 5:00 am: Poltergeist (1982)
Feb. 13, 8:00 am: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Feb. 26, 3:00 am: Seconds (1966)
March 3, 10:15 pm: Alien (1979)

And that’s it. A little disappointing, but that’s more the fault of the Academy rather than TCM. Most of the list should be familiar to horror fans, but maybe not Seconds or The Uninvited. Save them on your DVR or catch them live if you can, both are very good movies.

James Ensor

Posted in Art on January 16th, 2010 by admin

ensor3

Like many other artists of the macabre, James Ensor was a misfit toy: he spent most of his days living above the curio shop owned by his parents in Ostend, Belgium. After his parents prevented him from marrying in the mid 1880s, his art turned from darkly shaded to bizarre and morbid.

His life was hardly limited to madness and reculusion, however. He was well regarded by contemporaries – especially the Expressionists, was regularly exhibited, and received a number of honors from his home country late in life. Here again, a dark visionary found a welcoming home amongst the Expressionists and the turn of the Century European Avant Garde.

One of the things that distinguishes Ensor’s work is his use of satire and direct criticism, usually directed towards the contemporary Art establishment. Demons Tormenting Me (above) hints at paranoia, as the artist stands before his tombstone, pulled at from all sides by grotesque spirits. Other works are more direct, such as Doctrinaire Nourishment (not shown) which depict authority figures crapping directly onto the masses.

One of Ensor’s better known works is Scandalized Masks (below). Ensor’s family shop sold carnival masks and he incorporated them frequently into his works. Here you have traditional Punch and Judy images transformed into a dark tableau with overtones of alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man (bottom) combines two of Ensor’s favorites: skeletons and masks. Two skeletal hags stand over the desiccated form of a clown, with a crowd of leering, masked intruders pressing into the room.

Ensor was an influence on Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee, and others, and was an important innovator at an important time in art history. He didn’t do it with pretty pictures of marigolds or abstract canvases of bright colors; he made his mark with a cramped view of a world populated with grotesque masks and grinning revenants.

 ensor1

ensor2

Tags: ,

The Innocents

Posted in Literature, Movies on January 10th, 2010 by admin

Innocents

Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is perhaps the greatest novel of the supernatural in the English language. Or maybe it isn’t. And that’s what makes it a great piece of literature.

In the “Turn of the Screw” a young, inexperienced governess is hired by a dissolute English nobleman to care for his orphaned niece and nephew. When she arrives at his country estate and meets the children she comes to realize that the previous governess and the handyman were carrying on a scandalous sexual liaison. Both died under tragic circumstances and it appears the children had been directly affected by the whole affair. The governess begins to see shadowy figures haunting the estate, reacts hysterically, and the story escalates to a tragic end.

The power of “The Turn of the Screw” is that it is never really clear whether the governess is actually seeing the ghosts of the doomed pair or whether she is suffering from some form of sexual hysteria. Thus, it is either a great supernatural tale or it is a great tale of psychological horror. I think it is both and is indisputably the greatest novel of horror ever written. (OK, well, the greatest one I have read)

The most notable film adaptation of James’ masterpiece is The Innocents (1961), masterfully directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess. The film was beautifully photographed by Freddie Francis and uses shadows, camera effects, and suggestion to create an atmosphere of dread and horror. Kerr is especially good, as are the two young actors playing the niece and nephew.

The one flaw of the movie is that, unlike the source material, it comes down firmly on one side of the ghosts/no ghosts proposition. It doesn’t spoil the film, but it does waste the primary power of the novel.

One of the interesting facts I ran across during research for this post is that the actress who plays the niece Flora with such creepy assurance went on to star in several notable horror movies. A few years after The Innocents, she appeared in the excellent The Nanny (1965), starring Betty Davis. And she had one of the leading roles as an adult in the well made Haunting of Hell House (1972). In Hell House, she had a memorable scene where she invites a ghost into her bed and allows him to make love to her, awaking to find a rotting corpse on top of her (implied, not shown). She also starred in lesser efforts like Food of the Gods (1976) and Satan’s School for Girls (1973).

Despite it’s Freudian leanings, The Innocents remains one of best ghost story movies ever filmed.

Tags: ,

Jack Arnold Honored

Posted in Movies on December 31st, 2009 by admin

On Tuesday, the Library of Congress announced its annual list of films added to the National Film Registry. The Incredible Shrinking Man was among the 25 films honored; I recently spotlighted this film and the other classic sci-fi films directed by Jack Arnold.

Every year the National Film Registry chooses 25 films which are culturally, historically, or aesthetic significant to be preserved for all time. The list is usually a diverse selection, mixing in the obscure with the acclaimed with the mundane. Previous genre movies selected include: Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dracula, The Thing from Another World, and Halloween.

As I stated in my previous post, because his films captured the underlying unease of his age, Arnold was an important artist. Glad to see the government agrees with me.