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Movie Review – The Witch (2016)

Movie Review – The Witch: A New-England Folktale  (2016)

I’ve lived my whole life in New England. The stony soil – the result of glaciers which sliced their way through the landscape and deposited their craggy remnants – and the fiery reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, are a source of solace to me. The rock walls that stripe the earth like grey, moss-draped spines, built by colonists and slaves, serpentine their way through dense forests that were once farmland. These things provide the comfort of familiarity and remind me that I’m home. We New Englanders like our village greens, Colonial and Federal architecture, covered bridges, lighthouses, maple offerings… and of course our witches.

As a child, the little utility shack constructed to look like a house at the local park was, at least to me, a witch’s house, its roof access padlocked not to keep kids from reaching electrical wires, but to keep that ancient wickedness in. The ring of pines trees in our three-century-old town cemetery hadn’t been planted there as part of a landscaper’s whimsy, but of course had grown in its unnatural symmetry as the result of the secret midnight covens held within. Unsurprisingly, this last feature was known to us kids as The Witches’ Circle. Witches permeate New England culture in ways most residents don’t realize, but they’re there. Arthur Miller, playwright of The Crucible, which dramatized the Salem Witch Trials so as to criticize McCarthyism, lived and is buried just a few miles from where I sit typing this piece.

Of course Salem, Massachusetts, is most famous for its witches, but my own home state of Connecticut was colonized by men and women of equal zealotry and superstition. The first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies was Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut. She was hanged from the gallows in Hartford’s Meeting House Square, now the site of Connecticut’s Old State House, on May 26, 1647. Five others were also killed. Mary Johnson of Wethersfield became the first woman in New England to confess, under duress, to “familiarity with the Devil” in 1648, and wallowed in a Hartford jail until she gave birth to her son and was subsequently executed in 1650. In Hartford 1662 seven trials resulted in four executions. While Salem was killing its twenty victims another witch hysteria broke out in Fairfield in 1692 when a servant girl accused five women. Fortunately, thanks to more stringent criteria set forth by Governor John Winthrop, Jr., cooler heads prevailed in that incident. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697.

Just as I grew up with witches in my woods, so too did filmmaker Robert Eggers in his home state of New Hampshire. He dedicated years of research to create what he hoped would be an “archetypal New England horror story”. What we consider fairytales today colonists in the seventeenth-century would have seen as legitimate daily hazards, and Eggers wanted to take at face value Puritans’ beliefs about witches and present them in their authentic, terrifying nakedness. The result is his impressive directorial debut, 2016’s The Witch, appropriately subtitled, A New-England Folktale.

Set in 1630, William (Ralph Ineson), a father, moves his family from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which he believes has strayed from God’s path, to deeper into the frontier, carving out a farm in the wilderness. Soon their infant son is stolen, their crops fail, and they begin to suspect a witch is at the root of their sorrows. Furthermore, they suspect the witch is among them, and begin to dissolve the familial bonds upon which their survival has depended. Truly, none of the family members are villains, but their flaws become exploited through the supernatural situation in which they find themselves.

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Eggers’s attention to historical detail, in set design, in costumes, in story, and in spirit, is nothing short of phenomenal.  During a panel discussion in Salem with Emerson “Tad” Baker, a historical archaeologist and professor of history at Salem State College who is known for his extensive work on witchcraft in Colonial America and who was the moderator, he said that he watched the film with a historically critical audience and they couldn’t find any glaring inaccuracies. The stellar cast handles the challenges of period language, dialect, and accent with impressive ease.

Furthermore, Eggers uses insight into the Puritan mindset to give, not a cartoonish version akin to Victorian attitudes about the quaintness of hats with buckles, but authentic drama stemming from a sophisticated understanding of Calvinist theology. As a prime example, Christian theology has had to reconcile the dilemma of predestination, which occurs when one believes that God is omniscient and therefore already knowing of who is destined for salvation and damnation. The quandary then becomes determining whether or not humans have free will, and whether their actions and destiny are pre-fated or the result of individual agency. Calvinists believed that God alone, before the creation of the world, decided upon who was to have salvation, using His unique knowledge and will, which is ultimately unknowable to humanity. No amount of faith or good deeds could earn one a place into heaven. This is known in theological terms as unconditional election. However, Puritans believed they could garner clues to their fates by how godly and pious they were. Through their reasoning, God predestining salvation opened minds to the gospel. While piety was not a guarantee of salvation, it was an optimistic indicator. Logic dictated, though, that for the Puritans, sinfulness, which was natural to the corrupt body of mankind, suggested damnation. So it is with Eggers’s fictional family, who obsesses and stresses over whether or not God has chosen them. Their every flaw is cause for doubt, and the flames of Hell feel ever hotter. Whether it is William’s pride, his son Caleb’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) lust, or his wife’s (Kate Dickie) doubt, there is never a dearth of causes for self-loathing and worry. They wrestle with spiritual uncertainties, such as whether or not a baby goes to heaven, or if it does, if they are destined to be reunited with them. The more William begins to doubt his own salvation, the more he cries out desperately to God that his children be spared. Eggers is able to show how naturally history can be compellingly, and accurately, weaved into a tale of terror.

Likewise, the forest was a powerful symbol for early English colonists, and the film properly depicts it as a foreboding, hostile world. For Puritans in New England, the wicked woods were the realm of The Devil, where law and order, and most importantly, the church, had yet to be established. It was home to pagan natives who, to their eyes, were under Satan’s sway. In 1630 the large-scale violent confrontations between English and natives had yet to occur – seven years later the Pequots would be wiped out in a genocidal massacre at Fort Mystic, Connecticut, and King Philip’s War was still forty-five years away – yet those on the frontier lived ever in fear of attack. William has carved out an island of farmland for himself, surrounded by dark, dense forestry, and he and his family look, ironically, unnatural within the setting. They look like intruders, whereas the witch, in her brief moments on screen, looks as if she is a part of the natural world which she embraces, and against which they struggle. Contrast, too, can be found in the portrayal of Calvinist culture with that of the witch’s, and the viewer can decide for themselves which side the narrative appears to favor.

As stated above, the characters and cast are terrific, but special attention should be paid to William’s teen daughter, Tomasin, played by a captivating Anya Taylor-Joy. She physically looks apart from the family, and from Puritanism for that matter, and her blossoming sexuality becomes cause for the family’s discomfort.  Eggers based Tomasin, at least in part, on a real girl named Elizabeth Knapp.  Knapp was a sixteen-year-old servant girl in Groton, Massachusetts, who was believed to have been possessed by a demon from October 30, 1671 until January 12, 1672. Her possession was documented in the journal of Samuel Willard, a prominent preacher in whose house Knapp lived. Willard’s approach to her possession was unique because he at first tried to find natural causes, and even when it was all over, though he believed her possession to be genuine, her claims to having made a pact with the Devil he concluded to be false due to the inconsistencies of her stories. Historian Elizabeth Reis, in her cultural analysis of the New England witch accusations and confessions, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, saw an intersection of gender and theology in Puritans’ perceptions and approaches to witchcraft. (For those interested in Reis’s thesis, I offer a bonus book review below.) For Reis, Knapp claimed the Devil tempted her in ways which revealed dissatisfaction with her life and station, that indeed,

“the devil appeared to Elizabeth Knapp precisely because she was dissatisfied with her life. According to Willard, Knapp confessed that Satan appeared to her and ‘that the occasion of it was her discontent, that she her condition displeased her, her labor was burdensome to her, shee was neither content to bee at home nor abroad.’ Earlier Knapp had admitted that the devil offered her things that ‘suted her youthfull fancey, money, silkes, fine cloaths, ease from labor to show her the whole world.’ Quite frequently Satan tried to lure people into his service by tempting them with riches, an easy life, and ultimately, salvation” (Reis 59).

The Devil, therefore, often played on their dissatisfactions within Puritan society. Tomasin, too, embodied by Taylor-Joy, looks ill-suited and alien within her Calvinist surroundings, causing her own ever more palpable discontent.

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Eggers maintains historical fidelity to Puritans’ beliefs about witchcraft as well, providing for a bevy of haunting, unsettling images, though those are best experienced first-hand by the viewer and will therefore not be recounted here. Though the film takes these beliefs at face value, Eggers offers ergot fungus on the family’s corn as an alternative, non-supernatural explanation, should viewers wish to take it. The fungi effects neural functions and a few historians had once linked it to the Salem Witch Trials (arguing that the girls were affected), but this has since been disproved.

This effective historical drama is filmed with beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke for mise en scène which wonderfully utilizes natural lighting. Composer Mark Korven’s evocative score, employing period instruments and voices to create haunting, almost organic music, completes the effect. Whatever shortcomings that are to be found in the movie are subjective. For instance, as I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder who, just ten years after the settlement at Plymouth, these European witches deep within the wood were. Yet issues such as these are minor quibbles and are ultimately the equivalent of criticizing a single brushstroke on an otherwise masterfully painted canvas. Eggers has succeeded wonderfully in conjuring an archetypal New England nightmare. The Witch is captivating, disturbing, and absolutely spellbinding.

Grade: A

Work Cited

Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Cornell University, 1997.

The Witch is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

 

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Book Review – Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England

In Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, a gender study of the Salem witch trials, Elizabeth Reis seeks to answer some important questions. Why were women accused of witchcraft more often than men? Why did more women confess to witchcraft than men? And finally, why were women so ready to accuse one another of witchcraft? To answer these questions Reis forms a multifaceted thesis that follows the intersection of three lines of evidence: Puritan theology, women’s gender roles in New England culture, and the belief in a corporeal Satan. Within this trifecta Reis finds the fertile ground from which the Salem gallows sprung and a people who were caught in the violent trap of their own theology.

In Reis’s view, the Salem witch trials were inextricably linked to Puritan theology, and the prominence of female victims to the social mores which it accompanied. This is not to discount other more secular explanations put forth by other historians, but to ignore these essential elements is to only partly understand the episode. Indeed, Reis’s work is meant to be read within, and as a compliment to, other scholarship about the era. Puritan theology was Calvinist in its essentials, yet though only a pre-chosen elect could enter heaven, they nevertheless believed that one’s sins could guarantee a place in hell. The souls of both men and women were viewed by New Englanders as feminine. This carried with it the social understandings and expectations of that culture of what it meant to be feminine, which included presumptions of weakness and insatiability. The Puritans believed that the strength of one’s physical body could act as a shield for the soul, and so women, who were naturally physically weaker than men, were seen as more susceptible to the sin’s (and therefore the devil’s) temptations. Their very nature’s made them more prone to corruption. As Reis contends, “New England culture as whole regarded women as more likely to be damned than men” (1). Women internalized this view and here Reis recognizes a distinction drawn along gender lines, for whereas men saw sin as corrupting their souls, women saw their very souls as corrupt, or as Reis says: “Lay women and men feared hell equally, but lay women… tended to believe it was their vile natures that would take them there rather than the particular sins they may have committed” (37). For men, sin was rust on the iron soul that could be cleansed with vigorous attention; for women, the soul was but tin. Add to this an idea of the devil, largely drawn from folk traditions, of a physical tempter and one to whose service a person may commit themselves – which was the Puritan definition of a witch – and a potent potion for witchcraft accusations, trials and condemnations for which women were the focus results. It also created a situation in which a woman’s “unwomanly behavior,” at least in the minds of Puritans, was evidence of their sinfulness and guilt, thus emphasizing social norms within the society.

Reis’s line of reasoning is certainly sound, though it is difficult for one unfamiliar with the resources of the era to ascertain whether or not the evidence she gives is sufficient to prove her contention, or whether or not contrary evidence exists. Indeed, her work assumes a prior knowledge of the details of the witch trials, including the outcomes and its victims, with which most lay readers may not be equipped. Her audience is not a general one, but rather one of scholarly peers. All this becomes especially evident in the first chapter when she seeks to make her case for women’s “sinful natures,” yet most of the conversion narratives and all of the sermons from which she quotes are from men. That these male accounts are given to what feels the point of redundancy does not help, and at times when one thinks Reis has moved on to a different part of her argument she then returns to an earlier part for reasons which are difficult to fathom. Women, which are the thesis’ focus, are drowned out.

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The Kingdom of Darkness, woodcut, 1688

Fortunately, however, she strengthens her case in the court testimonies later in the book, though the book as a whole would be improved by a more carefully plotted opening chapter. Other elements of the book are curious, such as when Reis oddly inserts herself into the analysis of the fourth chapter, feeling the need to declare: “Let me state frankly I do not believe the devil actually visited the people of Salem and urged them to sign his book in blood” (131). Was this a necessary confession? This late in the book, her position should be obvious. I would assume her academic peers, for whom she is clearly writing, would not expect otherwise. Are such clarifications necessary when discussing theology in the scholarly manner? Could this point to a sign of caution an author may face in being misunderstood when writing in an interdisciplinary format for multiple audiences, in this case secular historians and religious theologians, whose preconceived notions may interfere with their understanding of her thesis? Though it is a single line, it offers many intriguing questions about the state of the field of study.

Yet there are many highlights to this work. Her chapter on the changing perceptions of the devil in New England that preceded and followed the trials, from that of a physical aggressor who captured souls to a symbolic tempter of sins (which are punished by God alone), is clearly presented and fascinating. Overall, the book improves as it goes on, the structure tightening and the evidence becoming more directly relevant, culminating in a pleasurable analysis of Hawthorn’s “Young Goodman Brown”, which she employs to demonstrate her arguments about the New England Puritan mindset. Reis also presents an eye-opening insight into the heterogeneous nature of Puritan society, including the many skeptics that commented on the trials both during and after their commencements, such the forward-looking Thomas Brattle, who wrote that our own modern world “will laugh at the demonstration, and conclude that the… [Salem gentlemen, being the courts] are actually possessed, at least, with ignorance and folly” (86). He cannot be proved more correct.

Reis’s work includes many helpful illustrations, though further additions to the text would enhance the lay reader’s understanding and pleasure. As mentioned earlier, Reis assumes a foreknowledge of events in her audience, and therefore a quick summary of the Salem witch trials at the beginning of the book would shed more light upon the court testimonies, as would a timeline of events or, at the very least, an appendix which lists the victims of the 1692 hysteria that a reader might turn to for reference. In the end, Damned Women offers an interesting thesis that takes into account the Puritan’s own declared convictions, a theological lens which was inextricable from how they operated and interacted with each other and the world around them. Other motivations may have been at work in the witchcraft trials, but Reis convincingly shows that the trials would never have been possible were it not for Puritan ideas about women, the devil, and the soul. Like later popular images of the witch, warts and all, the thesis is difficult to disregard.

Movie Review – Midnight Faces (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Midnight Faces (1926)

1926’s Midnight Faces is another entry into the “old dark house” subgenre, and is heavily influenced by The Bat, which had a tremendously successful run on Broadway beginning in 1920 and a film version which came out also in 1926. By comparison, Midnight Faces is a rather cheap imitation. Though the film is classified as a horror-thriller, comedy could easily be added to its descriptors.

The plot involves a young man, played by Francis X. Bushman, Jr., who inherits a mansion from his uncle which is nestled in a dismal Florida swamp. Though the house is supposed to be empty we see an intruder enter, and soon after the servants arrive it becomes apparent that threats are hiding within the dark recesses and behind secret passageways.

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The movie has not aged well. The writing is rudimentary and mostly implausible nonsense and is overly reliant on stereotypes and genre tropes. As comic relief the film provides the character of Trohelius Snapp, played by Martin Turner, the loyal manservant to the protagonist. Turner was a talented physical comic who is nonetheless trapped in the racist stereotype of the black buffoon, spooked by every creak and bump and unable to exert self-control over his fear. He is not alone in the paper-thin tropes, as we have a Fu Manchu-looking Asian and a black cape-wearing prowler to add to the warmed-over stew. The director, Bennett Cohen, borrows heavily if not entirely successfully from Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu with its use of disembodied shadows grasping and reaching along walls and fixtures.

In the end, Midnight Faces is sometimes fun, most times flawed, and ultimately forgettable.

Grade: D

Midnight Faces is available on DVD.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Monster A-Go Go (1965)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Monster A-Go Go (1965)

In 1963 exploitation director Herschell Gordon Lewis released Blood Feast, considered the first “splatter” film, a shocking milestone in horror. Two years later he needed a second film for his double-bill release with Moonshine Mountain, and he acquired a half-completed Bill Rebane film called Terror at Halfday which Rebane had abandoned in 1961 due to depleted finances. Lewis finished the film, recasting different actors to continue character roles and slapping it together as quickly as possible. One actor which he re-hired from the Rebane portion had changed his appearance so dramatically that he was recast as the brother of the original character. Lewis put minimal effort into completing the film, and it shows. Boy, does it show.

Firstly, the title is an absolute misnomer. The term “a Go-Go” refers to unrestrained, erotic dancing, particularly to popular music, and while there’s a gratuitous dance scene, there is nothing unrestrained about this film. Monster A-Go Go (1965) is the nadir of such suggested dynamism. Instead we get an incoherent plot about a returning astronaut who is either replaced by or transformed into a tall skulking monster (Henry Hite).

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Rebane’s story was muddy at best, but Lewis’s additions only served to confuse rather than clarify matters. The film mainly consists of static shots of people talking… and talking… and talking. We hear about the monster being captured and escaping, but never see it. The same is true for anything else that might be of interest. When we are shown the monster, the screen is often too dark to make out what’s happening. Likewise, sometimes the audio is so poorly rendered the listener must strain to hear what’s being said (and then they’ll wonder why they even bothered). In one scene sure to induce eye rolls, instead of an actual phone ringing we hear an actor voicing a quick “bbbrrrr” imitation before pretending to answer it.

Supposedly the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000, who featured this film in 1993, considered this to officially be the worst film they ever did on the show. If you must see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with their company, as even with their colorful commentary Monster A-Go Go is a torturous test of endurance.

Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Considering the decades of supremacy which the Western genre held in American cinema, and itself being a genre which frequently employs blood, brutality and violence in its storytelling, it’s rather surprising that it hasn’t wedded itself to horror more often. There are a handful of examples, such as 1999’s Ravenous, but the relatively few others have been largely forgettable. Those who read my reviews regularly know that I’m an absolute sucker for mixing horror with period piece cinema, and that I’m fond of Westerns only made my anticipation of 2015’s Bone Tomahawk even more potent.

From first time director S. Craig Zahler, the film, despite its small budget of only $1.8 million, showcases a stellar cast, with Kurt Russell being pitch-perfect as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer, Matthew Fox as John Brooder, and Richard Jenkins stealing the show as the lovable, loyal, but not all mentally there, Chicory. He delivers memorable dialogue and helps to fill the space in otherwise quieter moments. These four characters ride out in search of abducted friends and loved ones, seeking the home of semi-mythical, cannibalistic troglodytes. Zahler was already a successful Western novelist and had sold many scripts which unfortunately went unproduced. Looking at what budget was available to him, Zahler wrote the script for Bone Tomahawk to specifically meet those financial ends, and the first draft of the script is the one he subsequently filmed.

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And what a wonderful script it is, rich with witty, expressive dialogue that the actors, with Russell and Jenkins in particular, deliver with ease. The characters are well-realized and the film is very much a character study of these four men, although one also gets a sense for the town of Bright Hope from which the men leave in the beginning of the film. In this sense the movie sways more into the less plot-driven entries of the Western genre, and horror fans not accustomed or expecting this may come away feeling the film is slow. We get a sense for the characters and find ourselves rooting for them, for even the Fancy-Dan Indian-killer, Brooder, who as we unravel his past come to understand why he is the way he is. The men are united partly by a sense of duty, but also in their love for their women, whether those women are safe, deceased, or missing. In all their faces one can see the profound impact and dependency they’ve placed upon the females in their lives. Only Brooder is unattached, but his history gives reason for why he has chosen to remain so, to avoid the fear and pain his three compatriots display. As he tells Chicory, “Smart men don’t get married.”

Nevertheless, we want to see all these men succeed, or we at least want to see them go out in a “blaze of glory” like in many Westerns, but the horror elements lead us to believe that only death and pain awaits these heroes, and perhaps their deaths will be in vain. In this way the film creates tension. There is very little music, and the only music present gives very little reason to hope their journey will be successful. As a local Native American tells them in the beginning, they have no hope of overpowering these troglodytes even with their firearms – their mission is a futile one.

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Yet Sheriff Hunt realizes early on their only chance of success lies in their wits, if they can keep them, when he tells O’Dwyer, “The only advantage we have over these cave dwellers is being smarter.” Thus the film becomes a crashing of worlds as the prehistoric troglodyte culture comes up against the periphery of American civilization, though by American standards the Western frontier was hardly civilization at all. By the turn of the century Native American populations were largely subdued beneath the boot-heel of white “progress,” and so these remote cannibals become the last victims of Manifest Destiny.

Bone Tomahawk recreates its era well, in language, sentiment, and location. The cinematography serves the story and evokes the Western expanse while its story takes nods from Western genre classics, most notably John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Race relations, though focused upon, are nonetheless not softened for modern viewers, giving a further air of authenticity. When the film delves into horror, and the titular weapon does its work, it does so realistically and unflinchingly. I can only hope more filmmakers will take inspiration and infuse the macabre into other historical periods.

Grade: B+

Bone Tomahawk is available on Blu-ray.

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

1926’s The Student of Prague, also known as The Man Who Cheated Life, is a remake of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1913 film, which starred Paul Wegener, was directed by Stellen Rye, and which had been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839). The film is directed by Henrik Galeen, who wrote and co-directed 1915’s The Golem and co-wrote Wegener’s 1920 classic, wrote the screenplay for Nosferatu (1922) and Waxworks (1924), and wrote this screenplay as well. In 1928 he would go on to direct Alraune. In this film Galeen uses some of the tricks learned from Murnau in Nosferatu, such as Scapinelli’s disembodied shadow manipulating physical objects.

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The story is of a Prague student named Balduin who signs a contract with the mysterious Scapinelli, promising him anything in Balduin’s room in exchange for 600,000 florins. To Balduin’s horror, Scapinelli chooses the young man’s reflection and commands the doppelganger to ruin the real Balduin’s reputation and good name. The movie follows the same story-line and structure as Stellen Rye’s original movie but with understandably more flair and sophistication as filmmaking had advanced considerably in the intervening years. Steve Haberman writes of Galeen’s style:

[He] incorporates a Romantic use of natural locations, cinematic subject shots and montage, studio-built landscapes of the mind, chiaroscuro lighting and camera-sensitive acting. Whereas Rye in 1913 staged scenes in a single static shot, like illustrations to a storybook, Galeen marshaled all of the arsenal of cinema to involve the audience emotionally in each moment. The result is one of the most moving and filmically complex works of the German screen. (Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film, pg. 78)

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This film once again reunites Conrad Veidt, who plays Balduin, and Werner Krauss, who plays Scapinelli, both of whom had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Waxworks (1924). Seeing Krauss commanding Veidt’s slow-moving double draws direct parallels to their earlier Caligari and somnambulist roles, both in their spirit and in their mannerisms. Veidt, in particular, carries the central role well and, as always, hands in a master-class performance. The sets are designed by Herman Warm, who created the exquisite Expressionist sets for Caligari, and though more realistic are perfectly suited to enhance both the mundane and fantastical elements of the film.

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Unfortunately, as of this writing the only copy currently available is a poor VHS transfer from Alpha Video, and The Student of Prague is a film that deserves a good print. It’s a solid movie which effectively uses special effects to bring the haunting story to the screen.

Grade: B-

Work Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

The Student of Prague is available on DVD.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

The film that billed itself as “The First Horror Monster Musical” was fifteen years later described by Stephen King as “… an abysmal wet fart of a picture” (Danse Macabre 164). Filmed in Connecticut, The Horror of Party Beach (1964) sought to cash in on the popularity of both the Roger Corman-style shockers and beach party movies by combining the two genres, complete with rock ‘n’ roll tunes, biker gangs, and “beach blanket boppers in their bikinis and ball-huggers.” When director Del Tenney passed away in 2013, the Stamford Advocate had this to say: “Connecticut had its own Ed Wood, an actor, director and entrepreneur named Del Tenney who made a series of truly awful pictures in the Stamford area during the 1960s, the most notorious of which is Horror of Party Beach, a 1964 drive-in quickie about an atomic mutation that terrorizes Stamford (“party beach” was actually Shippan Point).”

The story tells of creatures created by dumped toxic waste who come ashore to kill beach-goers – young people dumb enough to continually return to the site of danger to display their bad 60s beach fashion, bad 60s beach dancing, and bad 60s innuendos. The monsters are a far cry from the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and look stiff and made from papier-mâché. Tenney directs the film with the grace of someone who just discovered the features on their new camcorder as zooms are continuously and needlessly overused. Add to this an offensive mammy stereotype that makes it difficult to believe that The Civil Rights Act would be signed just a few months after the film’s release. Finally, we get some original music by The Del-Aires, although the drummer is conspicuously absent despite our clearly hearing percussion.

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Nevertheless, even Stephen King was willing to grant it some credit for being ahead of its time (and not just by foreseeing the popularity of motorcycle movies). King sees some credibility, albeit unintentional, in the film’s pointing towards the impending danger in how we dispose of nuclear waste:

“The fact that they created a film which foresaw a problem that would become very real ten miles down the road was only an accident… but an accident, like Three Mile Island, that perhaps had to happen, sooner or later. I find it quite amusing that this grainy, low-budget rock ‘n’ roll horror picture arrived at ground zero with its Geiger counters clicking long before The China Syndrome was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye.”

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, as the saying goes, and it takes only a little seemingly insignificant spark to reveal spilled gasoline. But we don’t go to movies like The Horror of Party Beach to be stimulated intellectually – we’re looking for other parts of the body to be stimulated. While it’s goofy and tame today, it was sort of sexy stuff back then. For modern viewers, however, it at least still passes for tasteless entertainment.

Movie Review – The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Movie Review – The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

“Braaiins!” That one line is practically synonymous with cinematic zombies, and the idea that the undead are out to consume gray mater has inextricably entered the general public’s accepted mythos surrounding the creatures. Most of them would be surprised to learn, however, that this element did not originate with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead or any of the zombie films which followed in the 1970s, but was actually not introduced until 1985’s horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead.

The film’s birth stems from interesting circumstances. After co-writing Night of the Living Dead, John Russo parted ways with George A. Romero and entered a legal battle over who retained the rights to the phrase “living dead.” Russo won the rights and in 1978 he published a novel entitled The Return of the Living Dead, which takes place directly after the 1968 film. Looking to adapt the story to the screen, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) was originally brought on to direct before aborting to make another project. Dan O’Bannon, who had penned the story for Alien (1979), had been hired to rework the script and when Hooper left he was offered the job, which he accepted on the condition that he could significantly alter the script so as to make it distinct from the world which Romero had created. He accomplished this by adding humor and dramatically changing the rules. The film would be O’Bannon’s feature film directorial debut.

O’Bannon distances himself from Romero while also paying homage to him, directly referencing Night of the Living Dead in the film. In the story, two medical supply warehouse workers, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews), accidentally release toxic gas from a barrel which houses a corpse. The fumes not only infect the men but also cause the dead to rise and hunger for brains in order to alleviate their pain. Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends – characters who are a mix of post-punk and new wave sensibilities – hang out in a nearby cemetery waiting for him to get out, and are in the thick of things when the corpses start crawling from their graves.

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The zombies in this film are not mindless. They talk, problem solve, and set traps for victims. They are aggressive, fast, and unrelenting. Each attempt to destroy them seems to only make them stronger, and each effort to solve the problem only exacerbates the chaos. Considering certain elements of the film, this could easily be read as a satire on the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, as the war-head solutions of the rival nations are perhaps more dangerous than the conflicts which initially spawn their seeming necessity. Our supposed protectors may very well prove to be our greatest threats. The film’s cynical and nihilistic view of the military would support such a reading.

The Return of the Living Dead is often referred to as the “punk-rock zombie” film, and it’s easy to see why. O’Bannon leaves 1968 far behind in terms of style, bringing zombies and their victims firmly into the 1980s. Unlike many other films from the era, the soundtrack of punk and deathrock bands still holds up. The young adults, with obnoxious names like Trash (Linnea Quigley) and Suicide (Mark Venturini), are disenfranchised and dissatisfied with what the world has to offer, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. As Suicide says of his leather and chains attire: “You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life.” They mention several times that they’re afraid of being shot by the cops. But for all their outward appearance of rebellion these punks are fairly tame and feel misunderstood by society, in a manner defying their earlier cinematic depictions as malicious anarchists. When Scuz (Brian Peck) suggests they wait for Freddy in the cemetery, Spider (Miguel Núñez) asks, “What do you want to do, Scuz, turn over gravestones?” To which he replies, “No, I just want to look around the graveyard – I never seen one before.” When in the graveyard they party, and we get that famous gravestone striptease from the delicious Linnea Quigley, but they do no damage to the graveyard. Later, when Spider is trying to flee the zombies and find refuge in one of the buildings, he’s asked by someone inside if he’s on PCP. “Nobody’s on any drugs, man!” he calls back truthfully, “Just let us in!” The Return of the Living Dead is certainly a punk-rock zombie movie, but it’s made in an era when the punk had become mundane and normal, and had lost its former edge. The following year’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) derives much of its humor from this very fact. These punks act out because they don’t feel like they belong in society, or that their lifespans are destined to be short due to nuclear war, toxic waste, or pollution – Trash’s obsession with death likely stems from this – and O’Bannon’s script offers nothing to quell these fears.

The Return of the Living Dead 1985 still

Yet in the end, the punks are largely peripheral characters. The majority of the story focuses on two middle-aged protagonists: Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson, the owner of the medical supply business, and Don Calfa as Ernie Kaltenbrunner, a mortician who the film subtly suggests is a former Nazi (O’Bannon maintains that naming these two heroes Burt and Ernie was entirely coincidental and had nothing to do with the Sesame Street muppets). Burt and Ernie try their best to cope with the situation and bring it to a satisfactory end. Their characters are well-written – Ernie reacts realistically to Burt’s initial reluctance to reveal the gravity of their quagmire and Burt is quick to try to get medical help for his employees when he finds out they’re sick, the consequences be damned. Together the two characters anchor the increasing frenzy around them and allow for level-headed, experienced personalities to confront the undead – the other characters merely react while these two try to be proactive against them, perhaps giving due respect to a generation that fought against fascism and communism with a can-do attitude, even by acknowledging the dangerous byproducts of that active zeal. For all the mohawks and safety pins, in a film touted as a punk-rock movie it’s these older men who support the main narrative. They’re like the teens from the 1950s monster movies all grown up.

The Return of the Living Dead boasts some good creature effects, particularly what has become known as the “Tarman” zombie. Additionally, the cast is strong, and many will certainly recognize many of the actors from other horror films which were released around the same time. James Karen and Thom Mathews especially give sympathetic performances as they succumb to the necrotic effects of the toxins. All of these elements – the music, the style, the directing, the acting, and the smartly humorous script – make for a film that still has the power to entertain. It retains its youthful energy and gives viewers a combination of mild exploitation coupled with a grounded maturity. It’s still punk-rock, but the fogies have come to the jam session to class the joint up a bit, and the film is better for it.

Grade: A-

The Return of the Living Dead is available on Blu-ray.

Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)

Cinema, as an entertainment medium, is a balance between storytelling and visuals. Some movies strike a harmonious balance while others, particularly genre films, tend to lean towards one aspect or the other, often to the movie’s detriment. Horror movies, in particular, not always but generally rely more upon the images on the screen than upon the strength of the story being told. However, there are some movies where the visuals are so captivating that the story, present though muddled into incoherence, becomes almost unnecessary. A Page of Madness (1926), directed by Japanese filmmaker Teinosuke Kinugasa, is such a film.

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It is perhaps a small miracle that we still have it. Most of Japan’s silent films are lost forever. Already accustomed to moving pictures via the tradition of Magic Lantern shows, the country’s foray into cinema began in 1897, and the following year they were making ghost movies. Heavily influenced by traditional theater, cinemas began incorporating benshis who became integral parts of the filmmaking industry. These performers, following a rich tradition of oral storytelling, would narrate the silent films, often accompanied by music, spouting the dialogue of characters, explaining scenes, or sometimes even informing the audience of scenes that were missing. They gave viewers an immersive peek into the filmmaking process. With the rise of talkies, the benshi’s place quickly waned. Yet they alone would not disappear. The early twentieth century was not kind to film – almost no one saw the merit in preserving it, and the nitrate film quickly decayed, particularly in Japan’s humid climate. The earthquake of 1923 sent many more movies into the nether, but perhaps no eater of films was as voracious as the U.S. bombers that rained fire and destruction upon Tokyo in World War II.

Originally released in 1926, the movie was lost until Kinugasa found it in his storehouse in 1971. The movie was unlike anything Japan was producing at the time. Movies in that era were played in one of two types of the theaters: ones that played foreign films and ones that played domestic films, which were generally viewed as inferior. Kinugasa took inspiration from outside Japan, particularly among the French and German Expressionist directors, and A Page was a rare domestic product which played in Japan’s foreign theaters.

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It was a collaborative effort of talented writers and artists. Yasunari Kawabata, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, wrote the original story, which would be elaborated upon by Kinugasa and others. Kinugasa then worked with a group of avant-garde performers known as the School of New Perceptions (Shinkankaku-ha), who, to save money, often slept on set over the course of the month-long filming. The star of the movie, Masao Inoue, forwent pay in order to support its making.

The print today is missing nearly a third of its original state, and the lack of inter-titles makes the story confusing at times. The famous benshi Musei Tokugawa narrated the film at its premiere, but without this element to guide modern viewers some scenes are confusing, or their place within the timeline uncertain. The viewer is left guessing and trying to piece together images like a puzzle which we know is missing pieces. Nevertheless, a story can be salvaged: A man’s wife is placed into a mental asylum after, we can guess from various images (a crying baby in a drain, etc.), she tried to drown a baby. He takes a job as the asylum’s janitor, not revealing his identity, to stay near her, though it appears she is unable to recognize him through her hallucinations. One day his daughter and son arrive to visit their mother, seemingly surprised to see their father there, and we can gather that the daughter is there to announce to her mother her recent engagement. At some point the man has an argument with his daughter which compels him to hatch an escape for his wife, but things don’t go as planned. It’s unclear if the final third of the movie is a representation of the man’s own sanity slipping, or his realization of the repercussions that his actions may cause, though this viewer takes it to be the latter.

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Nevertheless, the story is largely a mystery, but it is also beside the point. It’s the visuals, which continually place the viewer in the skewed perspective of insanity, that make the movie mesmerizing, and the seeming incoherence of the story only serves to emphasize this aspect. A Page of Madness is a combination of influences, most notably the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Weine, which dealt with an asylum and the perceptions of madness, and Abel Gance’s experimental 1915 French film La Folie du Docteur Tube, which used distorting lenses to simulate people being high after inhaling a white powder.

A Page begins like a fever dream, with images of an elegant dancing woman in a club intercut with a rainstorm and drums and brass instruments. Gradually the viewer realizes that the music and elegant setting is in the head of a tattered dancing girl in an asylum, played by the captivatingly beautiful Eiko Minami. Though the film is silent, the images and rapid rhythmic editing make the viewer disorientated and think that they too can hear the drums. From there the movie slides back and forth between sobriety and unhinged indulgence, depending on whose eyes the lens is peering through. It’s an experience that, though the viewer is not quite sure what they saw or how to explain it, will linger.

A Page of Madness gif

Grade: A-

A Page of Madness is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Creeping Terror (1964)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Creeping Terror (1964)

By 1964 Stirling Silliphant was a respected writer for television and would go on to write some of the most popular movies of the 1960s and 70s. His two brothers, Robert and Allan Silliphant, also wanted to break into the movie industry and Allan wrote/produced one of cinema history’s most bizarre films, The Creeping Terror, though practically nothing of what made it to the screen was how he had envisioned it. They teamed up with director A.J. Nelson, who went by the moniker Vic Savage and who, unbeknownst to them, used their brother’s pedigree to lure in potential investors, often paying Savage a few hundred dollars in return for bit parts. Essentially, Savage was a con-man, a sociopathic egomaniac (starring in the film himself), and a drug-addicted sadist looking to make a quick buck. When they realized their association would hurt their brother’s reputation, the Silliphants backed out of the project. However, just before the release of the film Savage was sued and, facing possible jail time for fraud, fled. Savage’s misdeeds are chronicled in the aptly named docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera (2014). He would die in 1975 of liver failure. Eerily, Savage would not be the only connection to crime that the film would have, as the assistant director was Hollywood stuntman Randy Starr. It would be Starr’s gun that would be used by the Manson family in the Sharon Tate murders in 1969.

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Vic Savage, the real creep.

If there’s a thread of commonality between many of these terrible films from the 1960s, it’s the absence of live sound as a cost-saving measure. Like The Beast of Yucca Flats, Savage filmed the movie silently and added audio later, and not very well as the lips often do not match up. The long stretches of silence with occasional voiceover recall those educational videos from the 1950s, though there’s far less continuity to be found here. And here’s a question: did we really need the scene of a mother giving her baby a rectal thermometer?

Regardless, these shortcomings pale in comparison the majesty of awfulness that is the monster, which is basically a slow, awkwardly shuffling bundle of carpet and fabric that makes Star Trek’s horta look like a masterpiece of creature effects. It’s languid pace is not a problem for the teen-hungry creature because nobody in this movie knows how to run, walk, or roll away from it. We see a woman laying on a blanket, screaming as it takes its time getting to her. It’s the kind of stuff you see in parodies of monster films, but not in monster films themselves. And luckily for the U.S. military, which sets out to incompetently confront the monster, its crashed ship is filled with dials that are labeled in English.

At one point it appears as if we’ve intruded on the plot of another film filled with long scenes of teens dancing goofily at a party until, of course, the creature shuffles in to swallow them and no one is able to find a well-marked exit. Truly, the monster is something that must be seen to be believed, particularly when it humps a car in order to try to flip it, but the rest of the movie is a horrendous mess. The carpet-creature is tasteless entertainment, but the rest is an endurance test, so have the fast-forward button ready.

Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Maciste in Hell (1925)

The Hercules-like character of Maciste, one of cinema’s oldest recurring characters, first hit Italian screens in the 1914’s Cabiria, with Bartolomeo Pagano playing the central role. Throughout the silent era (27 films starring Pagano before 1927), and again in the 1960s, the physically and morally strong hero was placed in fantastical situations, usually involving evil rulers and black magic, and the macho Maciste needing to rescue a beautiful damsel. It’s all very much the stuff of boys’ pulp fantasies.

On rare occasions Maciste would venture into the horror realm, sometimes literally. In 1925’s Maciste in Hell, the hero (once again played by Pagano) is kidnapped by a demon and sent to the underworld where he must use his bulk to battle his way out. The movie borrows heavily from the images of 1911’s L’Inferno, a feature-length adaptation of Dante’s work in which the author is shown through the levels of Hell via a series of imaginative special effects (coincidentally, it was the first feature length Italian movie and the first feature length film shown in its entirety, in one screening, in the United States). Maciste in Hell borrows that film’s volcanic landscape, the tortured souls chained and tormented by demons, and even the giant Satan snacking on souls like they were milk duds. We even have a giant help the hero get to another level.

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Yet whereas L’Inferno was a serious film, Maciste is an adventurer’s romp where the bruiser smashes his adversaries and smiles at the metal-bikini clad she-devils. Truly, the special effects are both terrific and creative, such as when Maciste punches off a demon’s head, which then lands on a trident and is healed, thrown back to the standing body, and reattached to allow the demon to keep fighting. Other special effects are just as impressive and add to the sense of fun, and any young boy can’t help but smile as Maciste uses his brute force to push a crowd of demons over a precipice.

Where Maciste doesn’t excel is in the story itself, which is understandably simple and geared towards younger viewers, where the line between good and bad is clearly drawn. When the demons take human form they become the mustache-twirling villains in black capes and black top hats that early silent comedies employed as their antagonists, famously tying people to railroad tracks or saw tables. While many people today associate these Snidely Whiplash-like characters with silent cinema, few understand that these archetypes were seen at the time as products of clichéd Victorian melodramas and were used purely to comic effect, and the same is true in Maciste, where they come off more as pranksters trying to get people to blaspheme than truly potent menaces. Children watching the movie could feel confident in resisting them as well as Maciste himself.

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Maciste no doubt influenced and was influenced by pulp fiction, and probably had a hand in creating comic book heroes in the following decade. Likewise, we would begin seeing many of the same tropes in blockbuster cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s, from Princess Leia’s slave attire to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ultra-macho shows of strength, such as in Commando (1985). Likewise, the idea of an otherworldly being playing with their severed head would arise in a movie like Labyrinth (1986).

Maciste in Hell is another example of silent cinema pushing creative boundaries even as it retreads earlier works. With the advent of “talkies” and therefore bulky sound equipment, it became more difficult for filmmakers to create the spectacle of chaos that silent films could muster, where the sounds on stage or at a location didn’t matter. It would be a few more generations before movie technology and directors’ visions could once again catch up to the standards of fantasy set by movies like this.

Grade: B

Movie Review – Pernicious (2015)

Movie Review – Pernicious (2015)

Pernicious (2015) is a Thai-American production directed by James Cullen Bressack, who wrote the story with Taryn Hillin. Shot completely in Thailand, the story follows three attractive American women who arrive in the country to do volunteer work and who find a mysterious gold statue of a little girl in their rented house (a pretty nice property for volunteers, I might add). Soon the statue disappears and the girls experience violent dreams and come to be haunted by the statue.

Pernicious was a frustrating experience. It combines J-horror supernatural aesthetics with graphic gore, to mixed success. There were elements that I felt were done very well, such as the unexpected torture scenes. It’s very rare that an effect will have me cringing, but there’s one involving teeth that had my gaze turning ever-so-slightly away from the screen. While there were many predictable jump scares, they were executed well. Also, the idea of the gold statue coming to life was novel.

However, there were many other areas where the film falters. The lead actresses play well off each other, even if they’re prone to overacting, but their dialogue is often childish. The story itself is decent, but it’s execution awkward, with odd choices being made such as a character deciding to run full speed after a random little girl they’ve just met on the street who asks them to follow her. (Here’s a travel tip: if you’re in a foreign country where you’re obviously not a local and some stranger tells you to follow them to a remote location without witnesses, even if it’s a kid, do not do it.) I was never convinced that these girls were traveling, and the location shooting was underutilized – we never get a feel for Thailand, which is unfortunate. When the origin of the ghost is revealed, it is done so in an overly long, convoluted flashback. Also, the ghost aspects are simply rehashes of what we’ve seen before – one scene involving a ghost beneath the covers is a direct copy of Ju-on: The Grudge (2002). And Bressack even gives us another bathroom medicine cabinet jump scare. The errors in spelling and punctuation in the subtitles didn’t help either, particularly when they decide to disappear altogether before dialogue can be completed. In the end, the shortcomings and retreads can’t overcome the few unique aspects to be found in Pernicious.

Grade: D+

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

The film, written and directed by Coleman Francis, opens with a woman getting out of a shower and toweling off. She then sits down on her bed and looks up rather indifferently as a man’s hands slowly reach out and strangle her. The man then places her fully on the bed and the audience is given a dose of implied necrophilia. This would be disturbing if it at all fit or had any bearing upon the rest of the movie, which it does not. In fact, when asked about the scene’s existence by film historian Tom Weaver, producer Anthony Cardoza explained: “Uh … Coley liked nudity. That’s it! [Laughs] Her name escapes me; she was an Italian girl from New York. I saw her that one time there, and that was it. She was choked by a guy who doubled for Tor Johnson. (That was obvious, right?)” Therefore, it’s best to forget about it as quickly as possible and attempt to refocus on the rest of the mind-numbingly boring The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961).

Just as I had promised in my review of Plan 9, Tor Johnson returns to the list as a Soviet scientist-turned-monster after being exposed to nuclear radiation, condemned to wander Yucca Flats and slowly strangle people. The movie was filmed without a soundtrack, so we get added special effects, voices that are heard only when mouths can’t be seen so that the audio would not have to be synchronized, and the rambling and repetitive narration by Francis where he says the word “progress” more times, and more nonsensically, than any word should be used: “Boys from the city. Not yet caught by the whirlwind of Progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.” It’s the kind of smug dialogue that only Rod Serling could pull off in small doses in The Twilight Zone, but throughout an entire film it becomes nearly unbearable.

The Beast of Yucca Flats 1961

The film is largely a test of endurance, though those who make it to the final moments do get a treat when a rabbit unexpectedly enters the monster’s death scene. As Anthony Cardoza said of it in that same interview with Weaver: “The rabbit comes up to Tor Johnson during his death scene. And do you know that that was a wild rabbit that came up to Tor? That wasn’t a trained rabbit, it was a baby jack rabbit that came out of nowhere, a bunny. It was like a miracle – he came over to Tor while we were shooting, and he was lying on the ground dying. Tor opened his eyes and saw it and kissed it. Can you imagine that? Isn’t that an amazing scene?” Admittedly, it kind of is, but it’s not enough to make up for the confusing, boring slog of the movie that precedes it.

A Shout-Out from The Girls in the Back Row!

The lovely ladies at The Girls in the Back Row podcast gave both The Revenant Review and The HorrorCast podcast a generous shout-out on their latest episode, where they discuss one of my favorite films, 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Kate and Tab’s show, part of the Fangoria Podcast Network, always showcases well-researched, thoughtful discussions. They appreciate horror as much as they do cinematic artistry and their film selections reflect a knowledge of and respect for the genre. Additionally, Tab has begun an interesting and inventive blog wherein she watches the films discussed in Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films and gives her impressions on them. Highly recommended!

Thanks again, Kate and Tab!

Movie Review – Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (1990)

Movie Review – Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (1990)

The troubled story of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990), his second feature-length film after 1987’s Hellraiser, is as labyrinthine as it is long. Based on his novella, Cabal, Barker set out to create an adult fairy tale where the monsters are the sympathetic heroes and the humans are the violent aggressors, the latter fueled by their intolerance and insufferable envy. Originally conceived as a trilogy, Nightbreed was to be the first in an epic in the vein of Star Wars.

And then everything that could go wrong apparently did. With the genre being the perpetual whipping boy of Hollywood, the studio did not understand Barker’s mixture of fantasy and horror and cut much of the film at the last minute. It then mis-marketed the film as a slasher. Ultimately, Barker was immensely dissatisfied with the resulting product and Nightbreed went on to receive mostly negative reviews.

In 2009 missing footage was recovered and put back into the film, creating what was called The Cabal Cut and clocking in at over 150 minutes, and was played at various film festivals and reactions were generally favorable. In 2014 yet another version was released through Shout! Factory using recently recovered original film elements. Overseen by Barker, this version would be The Director’s Cut, and can safely be considered the final, definitive version of Barker’s original vision for Nightbreed. As Barker said in an official statement:

“This is film history and beyond my wildest dreams of realization. When Scream Factory told me that they found the NIGHTBREED film footage, I was gob-smacked… There’s never been a reconstruction that’s had as little chance of succeeding and yet has succeeded on as many fronts as this film has. It’s unprecedented. To now have a movie that we can put together in the way that I fully intended it to be seen when I first set out to make this film in 1989 is extraordinary. The project has moved inexorably to this conclusion.”

If one thinks about it, horror has its roots deeply embedded in the fantasy genre, in the ancient myths of monsters and particularly in the fairy tales of witches and naughty children getting their due. Horror fiction is really, and most plainly when it deals with the supernatural, dark fairy tales for adults. When macabre story elements become more visceral they cross the line from innocent childhood anxieties to the fears of a mature mind fully aware of its frail mortality. It then becomes what we would consider true horror, and this acknowledgment of horror’s mature status explains why it is the only genre outside of porn to be considered of an adult realm, at least when taken seriously. Show a child fantasy and sci-fi and people don’t bat an eye, but show them horror and they will seriously call into question your mental and ethical fitness. Ultimately, however, the difference between kids’ fairy tales and adult horror becomes a matter of degrees, and I would be remiss to discount the many examples of films which fall in the middle.

An adult horror fairy tale, therefore, is an idea which should come more naturally to horror filmmakers, or at least embraced more explicitly as Barker does here. Like in Hellraiser, we see themes of unfulfilled desires in the envy of the humans for the monsters’ powers and in the monsters for their wish to walk freely without fear of violent reprisal. Barker sets in motion many elements which immediately put Nightbreed on a solid footing, including music by Danny Elfman and casting the body horror maestro David Cronenberg in the role of Dr. Philip K. Decker, a serial killer who wears a creepy mask and who frames the film’s protagonist, Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer). The film also boasts some imaginative creature designs, some of which admittedly look better than others.

Nightbreed 1990 still

While there are moments of genuine fun and excitement in Nightbreed, it still in many ways feels like an uneven, even rushed film. Decker is menacing, but as the film proceeds it becomes more difficult to discern his motives. He goes from being a crafty, manipulative nemesis to a sloppy, careless slasher in fairly quick time. Decker’s character isn’t the only one who feels underdeveloped. The monsters are underused and there’s little to no character development among them, and this becomes an issue when we’re asked as an audience to sympathize with them. The cops, too, are thinly drawn in a most cartoonish manner. Their commitment to excessive violence and disregard for due process may fit with the simplistic fairy tale theme, but it also makes it difficult to buy into the story. The main problem, however, lies with the character of Boone, our hero. In the end, he’s fairly boring, and unfortunately Sheffer is unable to bring much charisma to the screen.

I feel that if I had seen this movie as an adolescent, it may have really resonated with me. Kids connect with monsters because they recognize their disenfranchisement and they sympathize with how they’re misunderstood and/or underestimated by the adult population. I still connect with them for those same reasons, but I require more story to get me there. When I was eight I saw 1989’s Little Monsters, a movie I really loved at that age (though I suspect it wouldn’t hold up to an adult viewing), and I couldn’t help but think of that film as I watched Nightbreed (which was released a year later, curiously enough, and makes one wonder if Barker was inspired by it). Both films confirm our suspicions that monsters exist below the surface and exploit our desires to live and be among them – to become them, even. Even the creature designs and the underworld in which they inhabit bear striking similarities, though these may be more superficial than my foggy recollection is suggesting. Nevertheless, viewing Nightbreed for the first time now, as a thirty-something, I have difficulty connecting to the characters and feel that the film never comes together or progresses in a convincing manner.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925)

Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest (1925), also known simply as Wolf Blood, is saddled with some modern misconceptions. Firstly, it is often erroneously described as the first werewolf film, but that honor belongs to the now lost The Werewolf from 1913, considered by some to also be the first true Universal monster, though the much later The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) would have far greater impact in establishing that studio’s series. The Werewolf involved a Navajo witch who transformed into a wolf to kill white settlers, and then returned a century later to kill again. (Some are even more in error in calling 1935’s Werewolf of London the first werewolf film, but it was merely the first mainstream Hollywood one.) Nevertheless, Wolf Blood can properly be considered the earliest surviving werewolf movie.

Secondly, Wolf Blood is today advertised as a horror film, but really it’s a drama-romance with some werewolf elements coming into play in the second half. It tells of the manager of a logging camp named Dick Bannister who falls in love with his pretty young boss. After a fight with a business rival he requires a blood transfusion, and the only blood available is that of a she-wolf. Worries about the effects soon spring forth and he fears that the blood is changing his brain, edging him ever further toward homicide and madness.

Lycanthropy comes fairly late in the film, more than half-way through. There is no transformation scene. Instead, we see Bannister running through the forest in a fit of madness alongside ghostly wolves. Before the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, American films generally shied away from inserting the sincerely supernatural into their narratives, unlike their German and Scandinavian counterparts. American plots had a tendency to explain away the seemingly supernatural with human agency, misunderstanding, or mental breakdown, and the trend is no different here.

The director and star, George Chesebro, was a regular fixture in B-movie Westerns, often playing a villain. Likewise, his co-stars were also well-known to contemporary Western fans, and the influence of that genre can be felt throughout. Also present are numerous jokes about Prohibition and jazz, as well as a pinch of racism, placing this film firmly within the time in which it was created.

The forest vistas, with the stately pine trees, are beautiful to behold, but the rest of the movie is very dimly lit and at times difficult to discern. The story is simple and the curious ideas about blood transfusion innocently quaint, but there isn’t much to invest the viewer’s attention. I couldn’t find contemporary reviews, but I imagine this was seen as pretty middling-fare even in the 1920s.

Wolf Blood, while not being a bad film, does not have a great deal to offer the modern audience except for its novelty as the longest surviving runt in a very particular pack.

Grade: D

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