Archive for the Horror Category

Uncanny Bodies (Film Book Review)

Posted in Film Studies, Horror with tags on April 29, 2014 by monsterminions

Uncanny Bodies (Cover)I found this book at the 2014 Motor City Nightmares convention.  I am familiar with and have read professor Robert Spadoni’s essay on Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935), which I like, so after a brief thumb-through and spot check on Amazon (5 star reviews),  I picked up Uncanny Bodies, The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre (University of California Press, 2007). This is a not a book about Frankenstein (1931) or Dracula (1931), although these influential films figure prominently in Spadoni’s thesis.

Uncanny Bodies is a serious treatment on the evolution of horror film from silent expressionist and Universal Chaney films to the early sound horror features from 1931 (Dracula) to 1936 (Dracula’s Daughter). This is a literate and meticulously researched book which students of film studies should enjoy.  Uncanny Bodies is not for the layman, and casual film buffs might get bored with the opening chapters.

Three of the chapters dive into the development, evolution and influences of the Universal films Dracula and Frankenstein. Lugosi/Browning and Karloff/Whale fans will enjoy these chapters. Spadoni is not a critic although he seems to agree with most critics and film historians that Frankenstein is the better film.  I too agree, but I won’t go as far as Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver who note (Universal Horrors, 2007):

The flaws inherent to Dracula are so self-evident that they are outlined in nearly every critique; only Lugosi freaks and the nostalgically inclined still go through the motions of praising and defending the film.

Spadoni’s basic thesis is the concept of the uncanny body modality of early sound films. I’m going to go out on a limb a bit and describe this as horror film umami —the uncanny body is an audience perception for film-goers who witnessed this new sensation. It is a modality that exemplifies the physical attributes in the fantasy (unrealistic) genre. Spadoni refers to an ethereal quality (like a ventiloquist projecting his voice) that film-goers witnessed when first viewing these unfamiliar talkies.

Spadoni uses Dracula and Frankenstein as examples of the uncanny body. MGM’s visceral adaptation of H.G.Wells’ Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Karl Fruend’s The Mummy  (1932) also certainly fall under this veil. Spadoni presents a simple graphic illustrating four quadrants with the uncanny body occupying the lower left.  For contrast I have added additional films that might occupy this illustration: The Most Dangerous Game,  a graphic and believable tale of a man who hunts humans; Hitchcock’s Psycho, a realistic mind-fuck; and Altered States,  a cerebral mind-trip.  The Silence of the Lambs (1991) might be an example of a modern horror film on the opposite spectrum of the uncanny body, while The Blair Witch Project (1999) might be a neo-uncanny body for ushering in found-footage hand held camera indie horror.  At least that is my take.

The Uncanny Body Uncanny Bodies is essential horror film reading and one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Spadoni on Uncanny Body

Spadoni’s Case Western Page

Book Review

Monster Mask

Posted in Horror with tags on December 2, 2013 by monsterminions

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Chicago Monstrous Movie, WFLD

Posted in Horror, Miscellania with tags on November 11, 2013 by monsterminions

Night of the Living Dead Amish

Posted in Horror with tags on October 26, 2013 by monsterminions

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Toledo Amish Zombies

Posted in Horror, Old School with tags on October 26, 2013 by monsterminions

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Dracula, Grand Rapids Ballet

Posted in Horror with tags , , on October 26, 2013 by monsterminions

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With the exception of Guy Maddin’s film Dracula, Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), starring Wei-Qiang Zhang as the undead count, I had never seen Dracula translated to dance. On October 25, 2013, I attended in company Grand Rapids Ballet (Michigan) opening performance of Dracula. The ballet was presented in two acts with a brief intermission and running approximately two hours. We sat in the front row and enjoyed every blood-letting minute.

Fans of the macabre will rejoice during Act II, which features an electrifying chase sequence where the protagonists Jonathan Harker (Nicholas Schultz), Texan Quincey P. Morris (Steven Houser), Lord Arthur Godalming (Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida) and Abraham Van Helsing (Dave Naquin) pursue in athletic prowess the nefarious Count Dracula (Stephen Sanford). The resurrection of Lucy (performed with tongue-in-cheek gusto by Yuka Oba) gave me shivers, with choreography reminiscent of the restored “spider Regan staircase” footage from The Exorcist (1973). Issac Aoki probably has the funnest and most athletic role in the ballet as the insect-chewing straight jacketed madman R.M. Renfield.

Stephen Sanford is terrific in the lead, reminding me physically of actor Frank Langella (Dracula, 1979). I preferred seeing Sanford paired with Dawnell Dryja’s Mina Harker, but admittedly, I know nothing about dance and this purely comes from the opinion of a film buff.

Horror fans will appreciate a gruesome bite scene at the end of Act I. This was grand fun appropriate for all ages with a nod toward patrons of the macabre. Dracula plays through November 2, 2013 at the Wege Theatre.

www.grballet.com

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What Makes a Horror Film a Classic?

Posted in Horror with tags , , on October 21, 2013 by monsterminions

What makes a horror film a classic? That is a good question.

I’m old school. That is to say I generally prefer analog to digital. I like the crackling sound of a vinyl LP plumbed through the guts of a vacuum tube amplifier. I like the mechanical simplicity of an old Leica camera loaded with black and white film. My favorite football team entered the NFL as the Decatur Staleys 93 year’s ago, and they haven’t had a reliable QB since Sid Luckman won championships in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946. People from Detroit ask me why I don’t cheer on the Lions. I respond that I’m not a Lion’s fan. I’m a Bear’s fan. Growing up in the Calumet Region, I’m also a fan of Svengoolie and the Bert I. Gordon film The Beginning of the End (1957) that features giant mutant grasshoppers descending upon downtown Chicago. Peter Graves even coaxed the strigulating locusts into Lake Michigan.

Yes, I was there to see the original Svengoolie (the late Jerry Bishop) and Screaming Yellow Theater. I like monsters rendered out of a combination of varying media, including but not limited to collodion, yak hair, cut up rabbit fur coats, latex, Karo syrup, red dye 40, glycerine, chicken wire, polystyrene, clay, fuller’s earth, cast and machined metal, glass, gelatin and mayonnaise (makes good slime).  I like a Godzilla fabricated by talented people with a gifted actor playing Godzilla. Give me Mosu Goji anyday. I dislike monsters rendered out of terabytes. That is to say I am old school and I like the classics. I like monsters derived from human handiwork. Sorry, I’m not buying into pixel-punching as handiwork.

What do I consider a classic horror film? By distinction, a classic is a perfect example of a particular style that has stood the test of time. Sometimes we hear the term “an instant classic”.  Ah, rubbish.  I’m suggesting around 25 years as the test of time, allowing for a new generation of film-goers to appreciate a film. I also think it is too soon to call the landmark fast zombies film 28 Days Later (2002) a classic, while Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a classic —well, at least in my book. The film holds up today for several reasons. First off, the film is funny and satire displayed during an economic recession in the late 1970’s still holds up in a recession in the 2010’s.  The late film critic Roger Ebert called Dawn of the Dead “brilliantly crafted, funny…. and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society”.  The film also succeeds in shocking us with one remarkable set piece after another, from Tom Savini’s exquisite cosmetic head explosion, to the demise of the helicopter zombie, and the fate of the unfortunate biker who decides to check his blood pressure.  The film is wickedly observant in depicting zombies as just wanting to be human. Maybe we are all zombies?  To me, Dawn is George Romero’s masterpiece, even surpassing Night of the Living Dead (1968), but sending out a political message.  Both films are classics in being definitive zombie films that changed how other filmmakers approached the subject.  Dawn also falls under the difficult classic category of “horror comedy” of which there are few and far between.

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Let’s look at another classic. For my money, Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959; dubbed in English as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus) might be the most beautiful horror-fantasy film ever made.  It defied French cinema with one particularly gruesome in-your-face (no pun intended) sequence (reproduced here), which led one critic to surmise that Eyes Without a Face was actually film noir masquerading as a horror [film].  Yet, Face is horror and director Franju has openly stated his interest in the cinema fantastique.  The film was highly influential, spawning countless imitations and probably at least one Twilight Zone episode.

Like James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and David Lynch’s bizarre Eraserhead (1977), which comes as closest to a nightmare that I can imagine, there are no horror films quite like Eyes Without a Face. Chef Anthony Bourdain even picked the film in his top 10 list. Anyone who has seen it will remember certain scenes.

So why is the film a classic? For me a film’s atmosphere or imagery goes a long way. I think that is why I liked both Blade Runner (1982) and Prometheus (2012), even though both films had questionable scripts.  Yes, I consider Blade Runner a classic. Time will tell if Prometheus holds up to repeated viewing.  I also like the look of Orson Welles’ brilliant Touch of Evil (1958), but nothing on this planet will convince me that Charlton Heston was well-cast as a Mexican narcotics agent. Thankfully, Welles made a terrific and imposing Hank Quinlan.

Face is also suspenseful and Franju keeps the viewer off-kilter. After the face transplant anything could happen.  Anthony Bourdain said it freaked him out.  By the way, both Bill Warren and Tom Weaver, noted genre film historians and contributing editors for Leonard Maltin’s “Classic Movie Guide” omit both Dawn of the Dead and Eyes Without a Face, but include with one and a half stars Beginning of the End.

However, to me, Eyes Without a Face is not only a classic but a masterpiece.  These are the finest films in a director’s canon. Can we say that Bride of the Monster is Ed Wood’s masterpiece?  Maybe. But, I don’t consider Bride of the Monster to be a classic —it’s a fun b-movie starring Bela Lugosi in one of his best last performances.  Coining a horror film, or any film for that matter, a classic is highly subjective and personal.

However, I’m proposing a few criteria for a horror film to be a classic:

  1. Film falls under the horror genre
  2. Film is at least 25 years old
  3. Film holds up to repeated viewings
  4. Film has influenced the way industry or directors make subsequent films
  5. Film stands on some artistic merit (e.g. cinematography, acting, casting, dialogue, story, direction and so forth)
  6. Film may or may not be critically received

Well, that’s just my input.  Responses in a constructive manner as usual are appreciated.

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