On April 15, 2019, I watched the television news with dismay and grief. The medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames, a city’s history and architectural soul escaping in thick, acrid smoke. As I feared for the grand structure’s future, I was simultaneously taken back to 2004, when my wife and I had walked its vaulted interior.
“Swift run the sands of life, except in the hour of pain.“
We were American twenty-somethings on our first trip to Europe and we had dedicated the morning to exploring the building. Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, the cathedral was designed to teach illiterate parishioners stories from the bible. Those tales came alive most especially in the intricate sculptures of the facades that surrounded the portals. We admired these for nearly an hour before finally entering.
As we explored the interior we continually found ourselves in the presence of a middle-aged French couple, presumably from the countryside, who were also looking on with gleeful awe at the art and architecture. We recognized in their expressions the same aesthetic worship. Though neither of us spoke the other’s language we managed to trade knowing smiles and gestures to share in our mutual appreciation and to ensure that neither party missed a hidden treasure. After losing the couple for a time the gentleman hurriedly returned to us, out of breath and sweating, holding up two fingers and then pointing towards the ceiling. The excitement on his face told me it was urgent. Through pantomime I somehow gathered that the tour guides were allowing two more visitors into the belfry towers. I thanked him profusely for his generosity and we followed him up the winding stone stairway (it’s truly remarkable how far he ran just to find us) up the tower and beheld an unmatched sight. This review is, in part, a public thanks to this stranger’s kindness.
We, along with the iconic gargoyle chimeras that perched on the edges, looked out upon the city. I imagined how this view must have changed over the course of the cathedral’s long history, pondered how many had stood where I was standing, and pictured in my mind’s eye the passing of time: the infamous filth of medieval Paris transforming into the City of Light, the Eiffel Tower rising above the cityscape like an elegant needle (with Tour Montparnasse protruding more crudely afterward). When we entered the belfry another vision came inescapably to my mind — the giant bell swinging and ringing from the enthusiastic pulls of the rope by the squat hunchback, Quasimodo. How could I not envision this? That fictional figure is tied to the identity of Notre-Dame de Paris just as the cathedral is tied to the identity of the city.
Thinking back in 2019, I recognized how fitting it was that Victor Hugo’s creation came once again to me. Hugo had written The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (simply Notre-Dame de Paris in its original French) as a way to save the structure from contemporary threats. In the early 19th century, Gothic architecture was regularly replaced, neglected, or outright destroyed to make way for the latest styles. In an effort to create greater awareness for these wondrous medieval works, Hugo published in 1831 the famous novel that would instill an appreciation for the cathedral with its long descriptive passages of the structure. The novel was a massive success, encouraging a historical preservation movement and helping to usher in a renewed love for the architectural form — Gothic Revival. In many ways, Hugo’s hunchback saved Notre-Dame. And when I pictured Quasimodo swinging from the ropes it was not the Disney cartoon nor Charles Laughton that I envisioned, but the American silent horror film star, Lon Chaney.
1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a traditional horror film, but it nevertheless had a profound influence on the genre, particularly with regard to its direction with Universal Pictures. Lon Chaney held the rights to the story and was committed to playing the hunchback. Advertisements of the film clearly linked Chaney to horror within the role. One trade wrote that “the Quasimodo of Lon Chaney is a creature of horror, a weird monstrosity of ape-like ugliness, such a fantastically effective makeup as the screen has never known and in all human probability will never know again.” What horror was present proved too much for Variety, which gave the film one of its rare negative reviews. It declared that the film “is a two-hour nightmare. It’s murderous, hideous and repulsive. No children can stand its morbid scenes, and there are likely but few parents seeing it first who will permit their young to see it afterward. Mr. Chaney’s… makeup as the Hunchback is propaganda for the wets.”
Chaney’s performance would catapult his already considerable stardom further. The director, Wallace Worsely, had worked with Chaney previously, including in 1920’s The Penalty. Chaney would also assist in much of the direction and artistic decisions, and had rights to the final cut of the film. Of course based upon Victor Hugo’s novel, a notable change from the source material is the transformation of Archdeacon Claude Frollo from literary villain to saintly hero, an adjustment brought about by pressure from the policy of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry’s “Thirteen Points” which forbade depictions of Roman Catholic clergy in a negative light. The movie became Universal’s most successful silent film.
The film is in many ways a response — a challenge, even — to the German Expressionist cinema that arose from the ashes of the Great War. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in particular, was an artistic breakthrough from a recent foreign enemy that injured the nationalist pride of American filmmakers. Their response was not to adopt the artificiality and emotionality of Europe, but to make a spectacle of the American propensity toward realism. Universal would produce three big-budget “Super Jewels,” as they were called, each driven by displays of the grotesque This emphasis on deformity and amputation was largely a reaction to the physical traumas of returned veterans whose bodies bore the evidence of the recent war. Hunchback was the first, with The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) following.
“Hear me, you two-legged cattle, and learn how to become men. Were you not also born of women after the manner of kings?”
The production of the film is, even by today’s standards, astounding. The recreation of 15th century Paris, and especially of Notre-Dame Cathedral, remains impressive. The scope and attention to detail was so complete it prompted one contemporary to quip that if the filmmakers spent as much effort in rebuilding actual Europe as they did in recreating it in Southern California, no traces of the devastating Great War would remain. The duplicate cathedral stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1967. Other elements are wonders to behold, such as the hundreds of extras used, many of which were reportedly prostitutes who plied a lucrative trade during production.
Even amidst all of this spectacle, the show belongs to Lon Chaney. Truly, it is a joy to watch him swinging from the bells or laughing gleefully as he drops stones and molten lead upon the mob attacking the cathedral. Chaney did his own make-up effects, making him a horror pioneer with every new trick, and the hunchback’s visage was his most complicated to date. Using putty on his cheeks and to cover an eye, while also wearing dentures, a wig, and a cumbersome body-suit, Chaney manages to be expressive and nimble. In order to prepare for the role and to do it proper justice, Chaney interviewed people who suffered from various kinds of physical deformities. As a price for his realism, he reportedly suffered back pain and vision problems afterward.
Other future horror alumni are present in the film. Captain Phoebus is played by Norman Kerry, who would appear again with Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927). Jehan, the main villain, is played by Brandon Hurst, who went on to appear with Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928) and, after the dawning of talkies, with Bela Lagosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue and White Zombie, both in 1932, and then with Boris Karloff in 1944’s House of Frankenstein.
Chaney’s Quasimodo was the catalyst of what would become the pantheon of Universal Monsters, and it would set the standard for horror films thereafter. The series’ first true horror entry, The Phantom of the Opera, also had the titular role memorably played by Chaney. While not a horror film per se, The Hunchback of Notre Dame nevertheless expanded the horizons for the genre and laid the trail for a new generation of “gods and monsters.”
The Great War (1914-1918) left countless scars, both apparent and hidden, among the Lost Generation. The conflict slaughtered men on an unprecedented scale. Yet as the weapons technology which dismembered young men had advanced, so too did the medicines used to treat the injured. Whereas gangrene would often finish the work that a bullet or bomb had begun, soldiers now stood a chance of surviving their injuries at the cost of their limbs, their teeth, or even their face. The U.S., which only entered the war after years of fighting had already claimed countless lives in Europe, could count more than 4,000 amputations. At first these returning amputees were viewed as heroes, yet as the costs of long term pensions and welfare assistance began to worry government officials, efforts were put forth to re-enter these so-called “war cripples” into the workforce as quickly as possible. The American Red Cross founded organizations such as the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York, which worked to get prosthetic limbs for these young men and to get them the necessary job training. For various reasons these efforts were largely unsuccessful, but nevertheless the public could not deny the presence of these disfigured men, and the horrific reminders of that tragic, senselessly violent conflict.
Whereas German Expressionism focused more upon the psychological costs of the war, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, American post-war cinema, which largely shunned the supernatural and leaned more towards Romantic realism, dealt more directly with the obvious physical costs of the conflict. There is no argument that the actor who most embodied these examinations of physical horror, both figuratively and literally, in the 1920s was Lon Chaney.
1920’s The Penalty is considered Chaney’s breakout role, and it is his first starring one. The plot, based on the 1913 novel of the same name by pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, revolves around a gangster named Blizzard, played by Chaney, who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a young boy and who now seeks revenge on the doctor, Ferris, who performed the surgery and lied to cover the error. This plan of retribution includes corrupting Ferris’s daughter, Barbara, and forcing the doctor to cut off the legs of Barbara’s fiancé, Wilmot, and graft them onto Blizzard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that silent film plots are boring.
It’s easy to see how Chaney became a star after this role. His dedication and screen presence are incomparable. In order to create the illusion of being a double-amputee, Chaney devised a harness made of buckets and leather, where his knees sat in the buckets and the leather straps pulled his lower legs back. The actor was wiry, and to compensate for the thick legs he padded his chest and arms, making him look like a hulking bruiser. The effect is shockingly realistic and Chaney sells it completely. It was also extremely painful and he could only wear the harness for up to twenty minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable. The studio doctors cautioned him against it but the man was dedicated entirely to his craft, and he would suffer problems with his knee muscles afterward. It would not be the last time he was physically damaged in pursuit of his art, though it can be difficult at times to distinguish fact from Hollywood promotional fiction when it comes to the tortures it is said Chaney endured. The effect, however, is entirely convincing, and Chaney is even able to closely imitate the illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy of Blizzard which were found in the 1913 novel.
In addition to his impressive illusion, Chaney’s acting is filled with primal aggression. Even as an amputee he is intimidating, a dominant force of nature in every scene. Blizzard’s criminal hideout is filled with pegs, ropes, and various contraptions that allow him to move about independently, and Chaney uses them with the graceful ease of a man who has had to rely on such things for a lifetime. The other actors do a capable job but always pale in comparison when he is in the frame. This is wholly Chaney’s picture.
The direction here by a talented Wallace Worsley, who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), is also quite good and the editing moves the pace along nicely. The film breaks away from the trappings of the stage and uses cut scenes to allow the viewer to be at two places at once. The cinematography and lighting are also beautiful, particularly in a sequence of scenes where a female undercover agent named Rose is searching Blizzard’s secret underground tunnels. The film also pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, featuring drug addicts knifing women and a nude model, things which would have not been allowed in the later years of the Hays Code.
The script is, for the most part, quite good, and improves upon the melodrama of the book. A motif of Satan’s fall from grace runs throughout and there are some choice lines uttered by the characters, such as when Blizzard states, as he plays the piano while a girl he wants to kill pushes the instrument’s pedals expertly, “I can murder anything but music.” Chaney’s acting is spotlighted in this scene as he goes from murderous rage to musical euphoria to contemplation and regret. And then there is this great line: “Don’t grieve for me, dear – death interests me.” The plot is often dark and makes one who loves the macabre excited to see where the story is heading.
And that’s when it falls apart. The tension and menacing story that builds for the first 80 minutes is suddenly, well, amputated in favor of a deus ex machina that leads to a sappy redemption story. The last ten minutes are unrealistic, hokey, and sour a lot of what had come before.
There are other elements that do not age well. Modern women will not appreciate Wilmot when he says to Barbara, as he tempts her away from her art, “True women need love, a home, children” – and they will certainly not appreciate the female character who then immediately concedes to marrying such a man. Barbara is a talented artist and both Wilmot and Dr. Ferris treat her as a miscreant for not giving it up to make babies. The more Wilmot was on screen the more I looked forward to seeing his legs sawed off. Blizzard is a villain, but he’s more sympathetic to a modern audience than these chauvinists. And before such criticism is dismissed due to the era in which it was made, it should be remembered that women were highly active in film throughout the 1910s (Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919) and many female characters were written as being strong and counter to the preceding Victorian mold, being independent and sometimes even saving the men. The Gibson Girls and the New Women were popular models for womanhood, emphasizing independence and education among females. This was also an era when film was more influenced by the sexually egalitarian world of the stage. After WWI, however, this began to change as movie budgets increased and the world of finance – a decidedly male world at that time – became more assertive. I can’t help but see a parallel between Barbara’s artistic impulse being suppressed and the time when women were beginning to be pushed out of the artistic realm of film. There was promise in the role of the undercover female agent, Rose, who at first is fearless and strong-willed before the character inexplicably becomes emotionally driven, swooning as a lovesick mess and bowing to the machismo of Chaney’s Blizzard.
And this is admittedly nitpicky to mention, but we also get an odd “sissy” archetype cameo that has no bearing on the plot. Such an archetype was already well known to audiences of 1920 even though it would not see its heyday until the 1930s. There isn’t much to say here other than that its inclusion solely provides an opportunity for Wilmot to bully one of Barbara’s artistic friends and solidify his alpha-male status. I’m not sure if we’re meant to dislike Wilmot for this or cheer him.
Attention should also be paid to the depiction of the handicapped in this film. Chaney’s Blizzard is clearly capable and self-reliant, but people react with distaste when they first see him as a cripple. In the pre-war novel, such sentiments are magnified and can say a lot about people’s sensibilities at the time, with lines such as, “Some pitied him because he was a cripple; others, upon suddenly discovering that he had no legs, were shocked with a sudden indecent hatred of him,” or “She forgot that he was a cripple, a thing soured and wicked.” Wilmot says of Blizzard that he “isn’t a man. He’s a gutter-dog, a gargoyle, half a man,” and after railing about his criminality goes on to add, “And at that – good God, you might stand it, if he was a whole man! But he isn’t. It’s horrible! He has no legs – and you want to stamp on him till he’s dead.” Such reactions to Blizzard are tempered in the film, though not entirely absent. To Chaney’s credit, though Blizzard is a killer, the actor manages to convey sympathy and understanding to the crime boss’s personal plight and his feelings of inadequacy. One can only imagine how Chaney’s depictions would have affected those veterans just returned from Europe only two years before, and would have “spoke suggestively of the impotent rage of maimed war veterans who were being assimilated back into society in unprecedented numbers” (Skal 65). It would not be the first amputee Chaney would effectively portray, and “although he never appeared in a movie in which his disfigurement was blamed on battle, his physical and mental victimization in story after story clearly struck a chord in this post-war audience” (Haberman 118). His later famous characters would also serve as ghostly reminders of the war, with Quasimodo and The Phantom both resembling the thousands of facially scarred veterans seen by bystanders in the Armistice Parades.
Finally, a few words must be said about Lon Chaney. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and any fan of horror should be proud to count him among our disrespected pantheon. He was born to deaf and mute parents and learned from the start the importance of pantomime while cultivating an intense empathy for those who were different, which would no doubt affect the roles he chose and the way he chose to play them. He was considered a premier actor of his day and a pioneer in the field of make-up effects, even writing the 1929 entry for the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was very private, seldom giving interviews, and stayed out of Hollywood drama, preferring to entertain close friends at his home and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, he would pass away from cancer in 1930, perhaps from a flake of fake snow that lodged into his lungs while filming. Of course, most horror fans will know his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would play the title role in The Wolf Man in 1941 and in several sequels after.
Yet do a Google search for the best silent film actors and you’ll be unlikely to find him on a Top Ten” list. When people think of the silent era, they often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, men who finely crafted their personas and characters over many years, or a charismatic romantic like Rudolph Valentino. They were geniuses, absolutely, and what they achieved deserves reverence and remembrance. But Chaney took the opposite road, morphing himself into different characters continuously, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” unrecognizable behind makeup that still has the power to shock and awe. Perhaps because of this and his untimely passing at the dawn of “the talky” the general public has largely forgotten him. Of course, being an icon of horror means an artist will rarely receive the recognition they deserve from those outside the genre.
When I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time as a young man I was stunned by him, and in The Penalty Chaney gives all indication of the magic he would put to film in the decade to come. The final ten minutes of the film disappoint me, but Chaney never could.
Do you enjoy playing board games with friends? Do you frequent Ren Faires wearing garb? Was or is Dungeons & Dragons a source of fond memories for you? If you can’t answer “yes” to at least two of these questions, 2016’s 13 Demons is not the film for you.
The low-budget film revolves around three geeky slackers who come into possession of an old board game which had been banned years ago, as it was believed to have contributed to a string of odd murders. The film cuts between the trio getting high and playing the game, to losing themselves within the game’s narrative, while also showing two of them later on being interrogated by police, covered in blood and believing themselves to be Golden Paladins on a mission to slay demons.
The plot of a board game connected to strange deaths conjures the memory of the hysteria surrounding D&D in early 1980s, exemplified in the strange made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters (1982), starring Tom Hanks in one of his earliest film roles. That film depicts a college student who loses touch with reality while playing an RPG, and generally suggests that people are compelled to play such games due to an unfulfillment of deep psychological needs. It was based on a fictionalized adaptation of the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a college student who disappeared and subsequently committed suicide, but whose motivations were inaccurately reported in the media as being linked to playing D&D. The 1988 murder of Lieth Peter Von Stein by his step-son also had true crime adaptations written and filmed about it which tried to link D&D to the crime. Let us not forget as well the many Christian groups who have linked the RPG to devil worship and witchcraft, especially during the years of the Satanic Panic.
13 Demons was no doubt inspired at least in part by D&D’s reputation during that time, though in a far more superficial sense than what I detailed above. It’s a film with an intriguing premise, however, as a piece of entertainment it barely misses being a critical failure. The fantasy scenes are distractingly unconvincing, with poor demon makeup, bad choreography, and an epilepsy-inducing amount of flashing lights. The film builds to a third act and botches the roll, ending the film abruptly after an unintentionally comical exchange of two characters repeatedly yelling back and forth at each other, “It’s a game!” “It’s not a game!”
13 Demons is not a good film, but I’m not writing a review of it to shit on it. The thing is, I can answer “yes” to all of the questions I posed before, and the film is written for and about a very particular geek demographic of which I am a part. These are characters I recognize as I drink beers and play board games into the night with friends (I even host a charity gaming marathon at my home in the summer), or take my kids to the Ren Faire, or look back fondly at those high school and college nights playing tabletop RPGs and, even now, crave an opportunity to try out D&D 5th Edition. My friends and I are more well-adjusted adults than the film’s central characters, but I feel I understand what the filmmaker was going for even if it doesn’t reach a modicum of the premise’s potential.
That being said, there were aspects I rather enjoyed. The gradual transformation of the characters is fairly well done, and I liked the scenes where their voices change and the game pieces move of their own accord. The game’s text, read aloud by the characters, is actually decently written and engaging. The score, of both contemporary and medieval-style music, was excellent. In terms of gaming as a central premise, I think it understands the early 1980’s fantasy games better than 2016’s Beyond the Gates understood the VHS board games it sought to emulate. Had certain aspects been better handled, the film would have been something which I would be more compelled to recommend. For instance, I feel it would have been better if more mystery was left as to what was going on, if it played more with perceptions and ambiguity while upping the violence to effectively portray these characters’ acts. In short, there’s potential that’s been discovered here but that’s gone unmined.
Would I recommend 13 Demons to another fantasy-gaming geek? Not really. It’s not a successful film but I can’t bring myself to fully dislike it. If you recognize yourself in anything I’ve described, you may want to check it out. But if you’ve never even heard the name Gary Gygax, you are not the audience for this film.
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that determined the course of history. In it, he urged the president to begin continuous dialogue with American scientists who were surmising
that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.
Einstein was prompted to write this letter after Nazi Germany, which had recently taken over Czechoslovakia, had stopped the sale of uranium from that country, indicating that they, too, were working towards the creation of a nuclear bomb.
Roosevelt heeded Einstein’s warning and ordered the creation of the top secret Manhattan Project, which was tasked with producing these nuclear weapons. He appointed J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, with the task of putting the weapons together. On July 16, 1945, the first atom bomb test, codenamed Trinity, successfully detonated at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. Upon witnessing the terrifying explosion, Oppenheimer would later explain that he had a foreboding Hindu verse going through his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” By this time the Nazis had surrendered, but Imperial Japan, driven by the samurai code, held steadfast in its refusal to admit defeat. President Truman gave the orders to use the deadly new technology on the cities of Hiroshima, on August 6, and Nagasaki, on August 9. Conservative estimates of the number of killed and wounded in the two attacks are placed at around 225,000, nearly half of these from the after-effects of the bomb, including radiation sickness caused by cellular degradation.
These terrifying bombs would be at the forefront of the minds of Americans thereafter, moreso beginning in 1946 with the increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A 1946 article in Life about the Bikini Island test detonations declared that the “atom bomb test will determine the future of man, animals, birds, fish, plants and microorganisms” (1 July, pp. 41). In other words, mankind now had the capability to destroy all life on Earth. In 1949 the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb, officially entering the growing club of potential planet-killers.
In 1952 the United States would up the stakes by detonating its first hydrogen bomb, and in 1954 would detonate its highest yield bomb ever, the 15 megaton Castle Bravo, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT (Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was only around 17 kilotons). I had the pleasure of knowing a man who was present at this moment in history. He was a sailor in the U.S. navy when he witnessed the explosion, and he recalled how the winds had unexpectedly shifted, sending radioactive fallout over the American ships. He spent several days below decks while the surface was scrubbed. Even so, many sailors later contracted cancer. A Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryū Maru, also came in contact with the fallout, causing the crew to experience acute signs of radiation sickness, reigniting sensitive memories of the use of American nuclear power against the people of Japan.
Certainly, the atomic bomb attacks were a trauma with which the Japanese were still coming to terms. In 1954, the same year as Castle Bravo, the Japanese released Gojra upon theater-going audiences. Awoken by American hydrogen bomb testing, Godzilla wreaks havoc upon Tokyo, the destroyed buildings and melted steel left in its wake immediately reminiscent of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the very thorough American firebombings of Tokyo.
There is no defense against such powerful, indiscriminate weapons, and considering the potential destruction these weapons could unleash it’s no wonder that they were at the vanguard of people’s fears. One way to cope with such anxiety is to give it shape – to make it into a monster which can be defeated by conventional means. Cultural historian David J. Skal writes of monsters in the nuclear age:
Audiences after the war were still interested in monsters, but the suave Mephisto in the black cape was no longer a compelling image for the modern moviegoer. Dracula’s threat of a quaint venous invasion was tired indeed when compared to the overwhelming border violations the world had so recently witnessed. An enveloping cloak was no longer an image of dread. But a mushroom cloud was. The threat of mass destruction was bigger than ever in America’s mind, and so were its monsters… Fifties monsters personified the Bomb as well as the Cold War itself. (Skal 247-248)
Once again in 1954 Americans were looking to cinema to give their fears shape. One of the earliest examples of the “nuclear monster” films, and the first “big bug” picture, was Them! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas from a story by George Worthing Yates. Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, it was originally conceived as a 3D color film but the budget was cut and the film was photographed in the traditional black and white. With crisp cinematography and dynamic camera movements, Them! tells a tale of mutated ants grown to gigantic proportions in New Mexico – an unintended consequence of the 1945 Trinity test. The ants spread around the country while a team of professionals, including State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson, FBI Agent Robert Graham, and a father-daughter team of myrmecologists, Dr. Harold Medford and Dr. Patricia Medford, try to hunt them down before it’s too late.
Them! is perhaps one of the clearest examples of American cinema coping with nuclear anxieties in the thick of tensions with the Soviet Union. As one reporter asks, “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” Or take, for example, this ominous exchange, the final lines of the film:
Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then? Dr. Patricia Medford: I don’t know. Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.
In the Fifties, it was no longer the figure in the dark that struck terror in people’s hearts, but the blinding flash and what would follow. The nuclear bomb was a Pandora’s box of deadly possibilities, and what it meant for humanity’s survival no one could say with certainty.
The giant ants also bring to the surface another consistent source of anxiety, one certainly suggested in H.G. Wells’s more intimate The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) but shown here more vividly and with further reaching consequences. It is the “fear that other creatures may usurp the place of man or threaten to destroy what we think of as human civilization… creatures of the animal world which we tread underfoot or exploit for our benefit may be able to rise against us,” in this case, “as a result of some unexpected mutations” (Prawer 52). Them! is perhaps one of the first prime examples of this fear being presented in a horror film, and it would certainly be followed by classics of both the horror and science-fiction genres, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Planet of the Apes (1968).
I had first seen Them! as a teenager, and at the time I didn’t know what to expect from a Fifties monster film. My exposure to the era and to its cinema was limited, as of course was, as would be expected of my age, my knowledge and perspective. I was underwhelmed and afterward lumped it in with the other giant creature and monster movies I saw over the years from the late Fifties and early Sixties. However, upon revisiting it twenty years later, it is clearly a cut above those imitators. Them! is solidly paced – the first twenty minutes unravel like a procedural crime mystery – with scenes which are beautifully photographed. The ants are obviously large puppets, but though they are not entirely convincing, they’re never poor enough to distract from the story, and their memorable high-pitched sounds were created by recording bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker.
The script is clever, moving the story along quickly while moving its characters across the country in search of the ants, and it allows us moments of levity. Though the film takes the ant threat seriously, it doesn’t forget to give the characters some humorous moments to shine, such as when Police Sgt. Peterson is trying to teach a frustrated Dr. Medford how to properly use the military radio.
The cast does wonders to help the material and bring their well-drawn characters to life, particularly James Whitmore as Sgt. Peterson, who is instantly warm and likable, and Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Medford, who most would recognize as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Gwenn’s voice holds the audience, and manages to make even the most rudimentary of exposition captivating. James Arness, who had played the “walking carrot” in The Thing From Another World (1951), is also fitting as the square-jawed FBI agent. Joan Weldon is Dr. Pat Medford, and fortunately we get an intelligent, headstrong female who stands up to the men when they underestimate her resolve or abilities – refreshing for an era in which women were pressured to remain at home and find fulfillment in domestic duties. And while I mention the cast, it would be a violation of my Trekker prime directive to not mention the small cameo by Leonard Nimoy.
There isn’t a great deal to criticize about this film, though a few aspects left me scratching my head or rubbed my sensibilities the wrong way. It’s never explained why a State Police Sergeant is able to join up with Federal investigators, order around a general, or carry a fully loaded machine gun in his squad car. Also, there’s a comfort with, and practically an endorsement of, casual government overreach, such as keeping an innocent man in a mental ward just to keep him quiet or declaring martial law in the name of public safety where it likely isn’t warranted. The script displays little trust in the abilities or intelligence of average citizens, and it appears to embrace an excessive control over the people by a Big Brother-like state when difficulties arise. (Though it’s perhaps interesting to note that the characters must continually enter mental wards to gather legitimate intelligence to help them in their search.) By the end of Fifties and into the Sixties such confidence in authority would have largely disappeared, for instance in The Blob (1958) where teenagers try in vain to convince a distrustful adult authority that danger exists, and average citizens are required to gather and assist the police and military to overcome the threat rather than stay in doors under curfew.
Them! surprised me, as it surprised audiences at the time. It’s a B-movie concept with an A-movie treatment, and it still holds up. The thought of a film about giant ants was as laughable in 1954 as it is today, but it won audiences over. A New York Times review entitled “Warner Brothers Chiller at Paramount” by A. W., published June 17, 1954, reflects the film’s effectiveness and the shadow of the Cold War that loomed over contemporary viewers’ heads. It reads:
EDMUND GWENN’S final, slightly doleful but strictly scientific observation in “Them!” indicates that when man entered the atomic age he opened new worlds and that “nobody can predict” what he will find in them. The Warner Brothers, fearlessly flouting this augury, have come up with one ominous view of a terrifyingly new world in the thriller that was exposed at the Paramount yesterday, and it is definitely a chiller. The awesome fact is that the Warner Brothers have planted ants on our planet—giant nine to twelve-footers, with mandibles like the tusks on a mammoth, and keening like all the banshees in a fevered imagination. There’s no point in making for the hills, though. It’s fascinating to watch. Since it is difficult to assign specific credit, suffice it to say that the combination of three writers, director Gordon Douglas, producer David Weisbart and a cooperative cast have helped make the proceedings tense, absorbing and, surprisingly enough, somewhat convincing. Perhaps it is the film’s unadorned and seemingly factual approach which is its top attribute. At any rate, from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico State trooper, discovers a six-year old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, “Them!” is taut science-fiction. There are, of course, several unexplained killings before Dr. Gwenn, that eminent entomologist, and his daughter, also a top researcher, whom the Warners specifically term myrmecologists, discover that the destroyers are the formidable formicidae, monstrous mutations resulting from the New Mexico atomic explosions in 1945. The problem, of course, is to destroy the outsized ant colony before the queen ants escape and start propagating their sport species. Well, it appears that a couple of these do get out for a mad mating flight and it is nip and tuck before our scientists, the trooper, James Arness, an F. B. I. man and Army and Air Force contingents wipe out the nest in one of the storm drains beneath Los Angeles. Edmund Gwenn looks the scientist he is supposed to portray, despite his bumbling, absent-minded manner. His daughter, played by Joan Weldon, is pretty but hardly the academic type, and James Arness, James Whitmore, Onslow Stevens, Fess Parker and Olin Howland (who add a few necessary comic touches) are natural in other leading roles. The stars, of course, are the horrible hymenoptera. They are enough to make a man welcome the picnic-spoiling variety and give the atomic age back to the Warner Brothers.
Early on in the film, when Dr. Harold Medford has concluded that giant ants are indeed attacking people in the New Mexico desert, he says ominously, looking out into a sandstorm, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’” In reality, there’s no such prophecy to be found in the Bible, but Them! is a good enough film to make you entertain the idea that such a prediction could actually come to pass.
As a preteen in the early ‘90s, I was very aware of the phenomena of video board games, which sought to blend the traditional family board game with popular visual media, namely the VHS. Though I didn’t get the chance to play many of the them, their commercials were a constant fixture on my television screen, particularly the game Nightmare (or Atmosfear in Europe), which was released in 1991, wherein hooded Belarusian actor Wenanty Nosul screamed arbitrary rule changes at players.
It’s surprising how long it’s taken for a horror movie to be made about these games, a full quarter-century after their peak. Directed and co-written by Jackson Stewart, 2016’s Beyond the Gates tells of two brothers who come across a mysterious version of one of these games, and supernatural occurrences soon plague them after they begin playing (like a horror version of 1995’s Jumanji). Barbara Crampton plays the game’s insidious video host, and there is plenty of self-aware fun to be had within the script.
Beyond the Gates is well-acted and really tries to create characters that the audience can attach itself to. Overall it’s an enjoyable film, and the retro-inspired synth score and video store setting help invoke an undeniable nostalgia for the Eighties and Nineties.
Nevertheless, there are moments when the viewer can feel the constraints of the budget. The film feels too small for its premise, and one gets the impression that many of the scenes were originally conceived of in a grander scale than the finances would allow. Though there are some good scenes peppered throughout, the film leads the viewer to what is ultimately an underwhelming final act, especially when “beyond the gates” leads to a world of smoke machines and pink and purple lighting… and little else. Also, the film doesn’t feel like it correctly captures its central narrative centerpiece – the board game – especially when on several occasions not all the players are present when the game is being played, or the characters stop and restart their game-play with frustrating frequency. Despite a strong first half, Beyond the Gates plays like so many family nights of Monopoly – it sounds like a great idea, and at first it’s an enjoyable time, but in the end it’s simply not as fun as you imagined it would be.
So much has already been said about Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990) that I won’t go too in depth in talking about this film. When I first saw Troll 2 I was too young to recognize that it was a bad movie, but old enough to discern that it had no trolls in it (there’s goblins) and that it bore no connection whatsoever to 1986’s Troll, which I had seen on television quite often. At age nine I was able to focus on the main character’s perspective without irony, especially as he spoke to his dead grandfather, and I even recall thinking that “Nilbog,” being “goblin” spelled backward, was a clever word puzzle. Please believe me, I’ve come a long way. I say this because, like 1953’s Robot Monster, Troll 2 does work on some level “when viewed as a child’s eye monster fantasy.” Though even then I knew that the goblin masks were shit. When seen through the perspective of a mature, rational human being, however, it’s a hilarious piece of accidental surrealism.
Fragasso is an Italian filmmaker, and language barriers and cultural misunderstandings only partly explain some of the bizarre choices found upon the screen. The amateur cast is able to do little with Fragasso’s poor approximation of American dialogue, and the confused story-line, cheap special effects, and questionable choices only serve to heighten the fever-dream nature of the film. There is only overacting or no acting at all, no in-between, and one of the “actors” was actually a real life mental patient… and it shows. The characters never act like natural people and instead come off like alien impersonators, such as when the mother, who is the unintentionally creepiest element of the film, tells her son, “Joshua, start singing. Come on, sing that song I like so much,” and they proceed to awkwardly sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” What? Or when the daughter, Holly, tells her boyfriend, “If my father discovers you here, he’d cut off your little nuts and eat them.” WHAT!? Truthfully, this is one of the more technically competent films on the list, but the writing and artistic choices are so fucking bananas that not a minute goes by without some oddity leaving the viewer scratching their head or laughing aloud at the absurdity.
Troll 2’s infamy has developed a dedicated cult following and has even become the subject of an endearing documentary, Best Worst Movie (2009), directed by Micheal Stephenson, the actor who as a child played Joshua. The film helps to give a lot of perspective on what ended up being on screen, and helps to answer or at least reaffirm various aspects that devotees of Troll 2’s awfulness only suspected. With this pedigree, Troll 2 is the epitome of tasteless entertainment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rick Sloane, after seeing the popularity of pint-sized creature features like Gremlins (1984), Ghoulies (1984), and Critters (1986), decided to capitalize on the trend by creating 1988’s Hobgoblins. The film gained its certified awfulness after being relentlessly riffed upon on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and show writer Paul Chaplin later reflected,
“Oh, man. You have no idea the torture it was to watch this movie several times in the space of a week. It shoots right to the top of the list of the worst movies we’ve ever done. Speaking personally, the only one I hated as much was probably Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, and even that experience bred a less intense sort of hate, leaving an aftertaste not quite so malignant and foul. On the bright side, there’s potential for a real peace in Northern Ireland for the first time in living memory. At least this movie did nothing to prevent that.”
Hobgoblins attempts, and fails, to be a sex-comedy horror film. There isn’t a funny joke to be found, and it’s the only sex-comedy I’ve come across that makes intercourse look unappealing. The acting is awful, but even if it were good one is unlikely to want to see any of these characters live more than a few seconds after they’re introduced. One dumbfounding scene involves a rake fight in which two guys endlessly strike the handles together. Perhaps even more unnecessary is the musical live performance we get at Club Scum, where the movie stops so we can see an entire song being played.
Most hilarious of all, however, are the creatures themselves. Sloane has stated that he didn’t see the hobgoblins until just before scheduling was set to begin, and they’re a far cry from the world of Jim Henson. What we get are hand-puppets and plush toys that barely move – if they move at all – and watching the actors fight with them, rolling around on the ground, is a sight to behold. Honestly, it’s the only genuine laugh you’re likely to get out of the film. It’s not high entertainment, but it is a tasteless form of one.
“I haven’t held one of these in twenty years,” says Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, playing the role of Earl as he picks up a chainsaw. “Feels good.” It’s just one of many nods to remind you of all the better horror movies that you could be watching instead of 1995’s Mosquito, directed by Gary Jones.
The story, which involves mosquitoes mutating to the size of large dogs after feeding upon the alien carcasses from a crashed spaceship, has enough camp to get connoisseurs of such poorly made films through the run time. It’s the kind of film best viewed with some good-humored friends and drinks. The film has some passable effects and even a few decent moments of horror. Also, we get a shot of a proboscis in an ass cheek. In addition to Hansen’s cutting tool nostalgia the movie has some other callbacks, such as the aliens looking like those from War of the Worlds (1953), or when Parks (Steve Dixon) and Hendricks (Ron Asheton) trade stories about Vietnam while Ray (Tim Lovelace) talks about boy scouts before the mosquitoes attack, which appears intentionally reminiscent of the famous scene in Jaws (1975) between Quint and Hooper and Brody where they trade scar stories.
Unfortunately, the bad acting can’t salvage the poorly written dialogue. While it’s fun to see Hansen, who made some great performance choices in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), he’s not much of an actor, and it’s absurd that though he manages to get his hands on a chainsaw it takes several minutes of wielding it to kill just a single mosquito. In the end, his mullet steals the show. However, no actor infuriated more than Ron Asheton, whose performance is incapable of delivering a line naturally. He plays Ranger Hendricks, which I assume is a nod to Jimi Hendrix given his previous career. Asheton, an incredibly influential guitarist, had formed The Stooges along with Iggy Pop and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, and bassist Dave Alexander. When his musical career stalled he turned to acting, though he had far less natural talent for it. Sadly, Asheton was found dead in his bed at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 6, 2009, apparently having died of a heart attack a couple of days earlier. Sonic Youth’s album The Eternal is dedicated to him.
Despite it being a film I cannot recommend, I would honestly love to see a docudrama about the making of this film because of the bizarre episodes that occurred during its production, such as the original special effects artist saying “I’ll be right back, I’m going to get a pack of smokes,” and never coming back, or actress Margaret Gomoll having a camera accidentally dropped on her head while she filmed her nude scene in the tent, or when actor Mike Hard developed a concussion from mosquito puppets repeatedly hitting him in the head. That’s the movie I’d like to see.
Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, though it is arguably the first film that could properly be called “Hitchcockian.” Here begins many of the themes that would come to be closely associated with the brilliant director for the rest of his career, particularly the connection between sex and death, lust and homicidal intent, while allowing his penchant for German-style filmmaking to truly shine. It also marks his first film cameo appearance, though his back is turned to the camera, as a newspaper editor talking on the phone (the actor had not shown up that day and Hitchcock improvised).
The story is an amalgam of two sources: a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes based upon the Jack the Ripper serial killings, and a comical stage adaptation of the same novel called “Who Is He?” It tells of a killer known as The Avenger who targets blonde women each Tuesday night. A lovable older couple, the Buntings, with a fair-haired daughter named Daisy, played by June Tripp, takes in a new lodger (Ivor Novello), a young man who they gradually suspect may be the killer and who is growing ever closer to Daisy.
Hitchcock allows the actors, who are all terrific, and the editing, which is also wonderful, do most of the storytelling, leaving little reliance on intertitles. He presents information in interesting ways, such as a news ticker or a telegraph machine. He allows ambiguity to build tension, making even the simplest of the lodger’s actions seem potentially sinister.
Influence from the German Expressionists is evident in the odd angles, lighting, and shadows. Novello even evokes Count Orlock at times, with his slow movements and long, slender fingers. Novello was a huge star at the time, renowned for his beauty. His immense popularity even necessitated a script change – the original script had the character’s guilt left ambiguous, however, according to Hitchcock, “They wouldn’t let Novello even be considered as a villain.” Indeed, Hitchcock even goes so far as to evoke Christ imagery around Novello during the film’s climax. The actor was also openly and flamboyantly gay, even counting the talented World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon as among his lovers, and a few lines of dialogue in the film suggest that the other characters suspect the same of his. Whether this was accidental or not is difficult to guess, but I am apt to believe that it was Hitchcock’s cinematic equivalent of a wink and a nod.
Hitchcock makes London come alive with point-of-view shots in speeding cars, people walking outside windows in backgrounds, and car headlights sliding across the walls through closed curtains. It all feels lived in and one forgets that the action is taking place on sets. He uses, too, other innovative techniques, such as a transparent ceiling in order to see the lodger pacing in the room above. When he completed the film, the studio was unhappy with the product and hired a young Ivor Montagu to make some changes, which included little more than reducing the number of title cards, adding symbolic triangles to them, and a few minor reshoots. Hitchcock was furious at first but Montagu’s intrusion was slight and Hitchcock ultimately approved of the changes, and what remains is unquestionably Hitchcock’s work.
The Lodger helped to create the modern thriller and is, in Steve Haberman’s assessment, “the only British [silent] horror film of note” (96). The September 16, 1926 issue of the trade journal Bioscope went further, declaring that “it is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.” Of course, Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” would time and again set the standards for filmmaking in the coming decades, most notably in the horror genre with 1960’s masterpiece Psycho and 1963’s The Birds. Born in 1899, Hitchcock struggled his whole life with obesity, yet his signature silhouette, coupled with his gallows humor, made him perhaps one of the most recognizable filmmakers in history.
Billy Wilder was a much loved American filmmaker, writing and directing numerous classics, including Sunset Blvd. (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and one of my personal favorites of the romance genre, The Apartment (1960). His brother, W. Lee Wilder… not so much. Which brings us to 1954’s Killers from Space, produced by Lee Wilder’s independent film company, Planet Filmplays, for distribution by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves, Killers from Space is a sci-fi/horror most memorable for its goofy looking aliens, whose sole make-up effect consisted of buggy eyes which looked to be made from Ping-Pong balls. In many ways this is a prototypical 1950s drive-in film replete with atomic fears, giant insects and reptiles, naïve scientific notions, and obvious miniature models. Unfortunately, no doubt due to its minuscule budget, the aliens have a penchant for talking… and talking… and talking some more to fill up the run time. Still, it’s got a decent ending.
Killers from Space is a bad movie that’s still a good time if you’re in the right mood and of the right persuasion. Had it been better produced, I suspect it would have gone down on those essential lists of indispensable 1950s sci-fi classics.
Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Poor Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter. We thought we had left him behind after his vicarious relationship to 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but the trickster Deities of Terrible Movies were not done with him. While in a Texas coffee shop he happened to bump into local fertilizer salesman and amateur thespian Harold P. Warren, with whom he was friendly. Warren declared to Silliphant that anyone could make a horror movie and went so far as to bet him that in fact he could do so, and he immediately began sketching his ideas on the coffee shop’s napkins. His story, taking some obvious cues from Dracula, involves a family who becomes lost while on vacation and end up at a remote home which houses a nefarious cult. The film was tentatively titled The Lodge of Sins, however, during post-production Warren changed it. The first clue for viewers that what they are about to see is incompetent is the movie’s final title, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates with ludicrous redundancy to Hands: The Hands of Fate.
Warren set about gathering his cast from the local theater, including John Reynolds as Torgo and Tom Neyman as The Master, and young women from a local modeling agency to play The Master’s wives. Also prominent is the beautiful Diane Mahree as Margaret. Warren, not surprisingly, cast himself as the film’s hero, Hal. Not having enough money to pay his cast, he instead promised them a share in the profits. Warren’s hand-wound camera could only record 32 seconds at a time and sounds were added, incompetently, during post-production, by only a very few people.
The resulting film is one of the most tedious cinematic experiences of my life. Never have 70 minutes felt so long. Manos abounds with slothful driving sequences (which Warren had intended to use for credits, but never did), frustratingly poor editing (with the clapper visible at one point), and the camera lingering uncomfortably long on actors, who sometimes appear just as frustrated. The plot is largely incoherent, especially as Hal bullies his way into a clearly dangerous situation, and as I write this shortly after seeing the film I’ve already forgotten most of it. The pacing is dull and the experience soporific. I felt that had I been dying while watching it the result would be similar to the effect which mesmerism had on the title character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), with me also in a permanent hypnotic state upon the edge of oblivion, unable to leave consciousness, but instead of talking with surrounding physicians I would be forever watching Torgo’s maddeningly twitching face.
I’d take the fate of the Lament Configuration over this any day. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) was a disjointed snooze, but at least it was brightly lit enough to see what was (or wasn’t) happening. Add to this a superfluous scene of two teens making out (one of the models broke her leg so Warren reused her here) and being hassled by the cops, and other shots that are confounding in their unnecessity, and the experience becomes ever more trying. At the least the mind-boggling cat fight between the wives is sort of entertaining.
However, I’ve yet to fully explain the worst aspect of Manos. John Reynolds’s Torgo is one of the most infuriating performances I have ever watched, with his erratic mannerisms and his awkward waddling with cartoonish swollen thighs (he’s supposed to be a satyr, but that never comes across in the film). Reynolds is like a man on drugs – in fact, he is a man on drugs. He was high on LSD while filming, and it shows. The aggravating, stuttering voice-over work doesn’t help matters. As I watched Torgo I couldn’t help but be reminded of a porn VHS tape from the early 80s I somehow once got a hold of when I was young. There was a scene in which the performers were clearly out of their minds with drugs, saying their lines over each other with no rhyme or reason. One of the women forgot all about the set up dialogue and began immediately fellating the delivery guy while he was still trying to remember and deliver his lines in pathetically slurred speech, swaying drunkenly in the doorway. It took him five minutes to realize the sex had already begun. At that pubescent age my libido was on a hair trigger, but even then I could only look on uncomfortably until I finally shook myself from my stupor and hit the fast-forward button. Watching Reynolds struggle through his lines produced a very similar effect.
Reynolds was ultimately a tragic figure who didn’t live to see the film’s premiere. As Bob Guidry, the Director of Cinematography, once explained: “He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn’t really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It’s a shame, because he was really a talented young actor.”
Because at rare moments the universe is a just place, the local premiere of Manos: The Hands of Fate was not met with glowing reviews and the film fell largely into obscurity until Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected it for their show in 1993. If one is as morbidly curious as I was to see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with the help of the MST3K team, because even if with their remarks this film is still an absolute endurance test.
As I watched 2013’s Cheap Thrills, from E. L. Katz in his directorial debut, I kept hearing the voice of Walter Sobchak: “You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me… Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish.” Both The Big Lebowski (1998) and Katz’s film can lead one to ask the same question: How much is a toe worth? Or, for that matter, any appendage? Or one’s health, self-respect, and reputation? What’s the price tag on your body and dignity?
Cheap Thrills tells the story of two financially strapped old friends who meet a wealthy couple ready to dole out cash to whoever is willing to subject themselves to increasingly dangerous, morally questionable behavior. I was skeptical at first as to how well Katz would be able to keep the premise/gimmick going, but he succeeds in creating a darkly humorous, tension-filled experience based on a smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo. The cast, which includes Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner, are all superb in their roles, embodying well-rounded characters who act as realistic as can be expected throughout the film, as greed for money or power pushes their ethical limits to their frontiers.
Each dare grows organically and each monetary amount, while not paltry, is hardly enough to solve the men’s financial problems, at least in the long term. The rich couple is bored – their wealth has given them all their desires, and now they’re desensitized. Their enjoyment comes from exploiting the underclass and turning it against itself. Certainly, a metaphor could be read into this regarding American capitalism and the insurmountable chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots, and the way the former side manipulates and misuses the latter. The blue-collar men compete to demean themselves, and they find victory in their meager spoils. The question becomes, ultimately, can one be said to have truly succeeded when one’s integrity and moral character has been compromised?
In the end, Cheap Thrills is oddly poignant. That every character acts of their own volition makes the proceedings more striking and, sadly, somehow more believable.
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.
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.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has long been touted as the ideal children’s tale, but even as a kid I felt that there was something sinister about it. Perhaps Wonderland seemed like a fun and magical place to visit to other kids, but the maliciously grinning Cheshire Cat, oyster gobbling Walrus, decapitating queen, and rules which seemed to change at a whim were the brick and mortar of nightmare worlds to me. When I read the book as an adult, I still couldn’t see the story as anything but maddeningly nefarious.
In 1988 the surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer made his own interpretation of the tale, and the macabre puppets and disturbing imagery are for my money, despite its relative obscurity, the closest adaptation in spirit of Carroll’s whimsical story. It begins with the lines, in Alice’s voiceover, “Alice thought to herself… Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps…’ But, I nearly forgot… you must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything.”
In a 2011 interview with Electric Sheep Magazine, Švankmajer said of his adaptation of Carroll’s book, which he called “one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization,” that
“So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.”
As I began watching the film with my wife, I commented aloud that this was supposedly considered somewhat of a horror film. My wife looked with wide eyes and nodded, telling me – her desensitized husband – that yes, this movie was absolutely horrifying. Švankmajer’s Wonderland is populated with animated skeletal and taxidermic animals. The White Rabbit frees himself from a display case by removing the nails from his paws and feeds on sawdust to keep his stuffed carcass inflated. The stop-motion animation which brings these creatures to life is some of the finest I’ve seen.
Alice’s (Kristýna Kohoutová) world is almost entirely indoors, surrounded by an impressive array of antiques. We see only two outdoor scenes, one of which is a fantasy and the other of which is barren of vegetation, and Wonderland is arranged with the understanding and interpretation of a young girl who lives her life almost completely within a single home, and a single room without windows at that. The animals we see are essentially dead, and we can presume that Alice has had very little experience with live ones. Except for the skeletons, everything in Wonderland is artificial. Of his approach to these aspects of the film, Švankmajer says,
“Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other… I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.”
Švankmajer also gives Alice an appropriate mean streak, dispelling notions of sweet, innocent little girls. There can also be read in this a slight political metaphor, especially in the trial scene. The director had, of course, recollections of the Slánský trial from 1952, which was an orchestrated show-trial designed to quell a discordant faction of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Taking cues from and buckling to pressure from the Soviet Union, Rudolf Slánský, the party’s General Secretary, was put on trial with others who were chosen to serve as warnings to their respective groups of what might happen for their potential disobedience. This political farce is reflected, albeit only slightly, in Alice’s trial before the king and queen. Of this, Švankmajer says,
“An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.”
Alice is an entirely unique film which has the capacity to awe and unnerve. It’s certainly not designed or recommended for mainstream audiences, but for those looking for a macabre interpretation on a beloved children’s classic that can surprise and unsettle a viewer, if not exactly frighten them, Alice is most highly recommended. Children’s viewing, this is not.