Archive for the Horror Category
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.
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.
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:
- Film falls under the horror genre
- Film is at least 25 years old
- Film holds up to repeated viewings
- Film has influenced the way industry or directors make subsequent films
- Film stands on some artistic merit (e.g. cinematography, acting, casting, dialogue, story, direction and so forth)
- Film may or may not be critically received
Well, that’s just my input. Responses in a constructive manner as usual are appreciated.
With Halloween right around the corner I thought I’d pick my top horror films dealing with the topic of witchcraft. I’ve left four extraordinary films off the list, including Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which is a gothic horror film featuring Barbara Steele as a vengeful witch; Robin Hardy’s brilliant and unsual The Wickerman (1973), with pagan-occult themes, but no witches; Dario Argento’s colorful Suspiria (1977), considered by many to be a horror masterpiece; and the visually stunning, but generally overrated Häxan (1922), which is about witchcraft, but really isn’t a very watchable film.
First on my list is The Blair Witch Project (1999), which I originally watched in a sold out art theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Few films had such an impact on the audience and I can attest that people were either glued to their seats, vomited due to the hand-held camera motion, or were scared out of their wits. I found it to be one of the scariest films I had ever seen. Of course, the “found footage” gimmick has run its course. I also think the film loses much on a small home theater, as the reactions of patrons enhanced the whole aura and mystique of the film. I remember walking out of a theater thinking to myself what did I just see? The late film critic Roger Ebert called it “an extraordinary effective horror film”. It is and garners my vote for one of the best films on witchcraft ever made.
Under Roman Polanski’s direction, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) might be the quintessential witchcraft film. It offers everything and is arguably one of the finest horror films ever made. The script, acting, composition and music were all top-notch, with Ruth Gordon (Best Actress in a Supporting Role, 1968) and Sydney Blackmer standing out as the conjuring Castevets.
Mia Farrow was unforgettable as the lead who realizes she is being pulled deeper and deeper into the realm of witchcraft. Pay attention to how the massive apartment complex is used in this film —serving as a major character and enhancing the claustrophobic feel of the film.
I wish I could see this on a big screen. Be sure to view the Criterion Blu-ray which offers a sublime print and several supplements.
The Devil Rides Out (1968) is Hammer’s finest film on witchcraft and is far superior to earlier The Witches (1966). The Devil Rides Out is Christopher Lee’s vehicle all the way as occult specialist Duc de Richleau, who battles satanic leader Mocata (Charles Gray). The film was adapted by Richard Matheson from the classic horror fiction novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out, 1934). The film effectively captures the 1930’s with several vintage cars and familiar British landscapes.
The finale is unforgettable as the film’s protagonists battle an ancient evil. If you have some time be sure to listen to an audio commentary on the DVD featuring Christopher Lee. His knowledge of the occult is astonishing as he discusses the basis for the film and Wheatley’s original novel. The Devil Rides Out is essential horror viewing and one of the finest films ever made on witchcraft.
Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) features Boris Karloff as devil-worshipping architect Hjalmar Poelzig who battles wits versus Bela’s Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast. This was the first pairing of the horror icons. It holds up to modern viewing due to the charismatic leads, an unusual story, Ulmer’s tight direction, and John J. Mescall’s luminous photography. The Black Cat isn’t really a film about witchcraft, but includes a satanic mass and coven of satanic followers. Look quick for John Carradine as the organist.
Incubus (1966) is a found lost film starring William Shatner and featuring Conrad Hall’s stark black-and-white photography. It also has the distinction of being the only film using the artificial language of Esperantu. The film plays a bit like an Outer Limits episode due to direction by Leslie Stevens. Shatner basically encounters and battles witch-like demons and/or succubi. Of all the films I’ve selected, Incubus is the most unusual and has a bit of a cult following. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Devil’s Partner (1961) is a low-budget gem about a mysterious man who shows up in the rural community of Furnace Flat. After his arrival people start dying. Devil’s Partner offers a good score by Ronald Stein and etherial sounds of a theremin. Edgar Buchanon (1903-1979) plays a doctor in the film. He is of course best known as Uncle Joe Carson from the Green Acres and Petticoat Junction sitcoms from the 60’s.
Night of the Demon (1957) might be the finest film ever made dealing with witch-craft and the occult. Skeptic Dana Andrews has a hex put on him by satanist Karswell (well played by Niall MacGinnis), and slowly realizes a demon is after him. Val Lewton’s friend Jacques Tourneur helmed the film and the suspense is unforgettable. I watched this a zillion times as a kid on network TV.
City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960) is the quintessential Halloween film, with professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) sending a student to a rural New England village to do research on witchcraft. The film is incredibly nightmarish and adeptly directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker, 1972). Watch Horror Hotel Free Here.
Drag Me to Hell (2009) is my modern pick for witchcraft films. Portions of the movie are a rehash of Night of the Demon, but director Sam Raimi kept this fun, scary and suspenseful. I saw this in a drive-in theater in Muskegon, Michigan.
For Completists Only:
George Romero’s Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives, 1972) taxed my ability to stay focused on a cathode ray tube. However, the film might appeal to masochists looking for something different.
I’ve never been a big fan of Oliver Reed. I liked his performances in Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and as the aging warrior Proximo in Gladiator (his last film), but in too many of his films he plays the stereotyped tough guy -to the extreme. However, his performances rarely seem to stand out. I’ve never seen much range in the actor, who had no formal acting background or training on stage, and as the roughneck Ethan in The Shuttered Room (1967), he is largely unintelligible. However, Reed was a screen presence and was rarely boring (after all, he starred in the first film to drop an F-bomb). I liken his physical aura a bit to Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who is a great actor, but seems to have had juicy scripts and collaboration with fine directors.
I’ve reached a bit of a horror film impasse. After 40 years of watching horror-sci fi-fantasy films I’ve seen just about every mainstream “classic” available, and now rely on film literature, blogs, podcasts and websites searching for something new. I still have a long way to go with Japanese and Spanish horror films. Occasionally, I’ll find something different on a DVD anthology. Such is the case with The Shuttered Room, appearing as a double bill with the Roddy McDowall golem film IT! (1967).
The Shuttered Room is a pleasant surprise, with creepy long pans, perspective photography, an unusual progressive jazz score and off-beat casting with Gig Young and Carol Lynley (as husband and wife!), Flora Robson as a witch-like aunt, and Oliver Reed as Oliver Reed. The setting is a superstitious island fishing community off the coast of New England. The village draws comparison to the pagan community of Summerisle, off the coast of Scotland, in Robin Hardy’s superior The Wicker Man (1973). In The Shuttered Room, Carol Lynley returns with her husband to her home to discover her past. Lynley was an extraordinarily beautiful actress at her physical pinnacle in this film. She played well opposite older men such as Darren McGavin in The Night Stalker (1972). I also like veteran actress Flora Robson as witchy aunt Agatha, who played one of the Stygian witches in Clash of the Titans (1981). Robson plays the mysterious matriarch role to the hilt.
The film is strengthened by restrained direction and effective use of visually interesting outdoor settings, including a humdinger of a lighthouse, windswept beaches and coastal environs, craggy habitats and an old grain mill harboring a secret. A one-eyed puritan hiding behind a welder’s mask will delight almost any horror fan.
The Shuttered Room was advertised as being based on a H.P. Lovecraft tale. The story was actually penned by Lovecraft affiliate August Derleths. Don’t expect space creatures, ancient ones or monsters from the deep in the film adaptation. Overall, worth seeking out. I picked up The Shuttered Room/IT! DVD for $5 at Best Buy.
Check out this cool Japanese poster: