Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's Halloween!

Each October I concentrate on horror for the month, usually trying to focus on a theme. This year that theme sort of ended up being a personal one by default. Just entering into a new job I didn't have as much time to write and so when I did, more often than not, it was a personal recollection, like watching The Exorcist with my dad, watching horror movies with my daughter or an unnerving experience I had hiking in a forest. And so, it seems only fitting to wrap up this October with a personal posting, or clipping, if you will, of me with my brother, sister and mother demonstrating Halloween safety for the good people of Charleston, South Carolina way back in 1970 [pictured below]. I've had the paper for years (40 to be exact) and figured it was about time I scanned it for posterity.

Now, I have no clue how this all came about. None at all. I'm sure my mom told me several times but I've long forgotten. All I know is that, somehow, we were chosen for this piece and the paper provided the costumes. You can tell we're in a military town by my costume, a Special Forces uniform, at the height of American dissatisfaction with the Vietnam war. I'm sure The Green Berets was probably still playing in Charleston and was a big hit, hence the choice. Personally, I thought it was about as cool as you could get. I was so bummed when I had grown out of it the following year because, I mean, come on, Green Beret man! I still have the costume, neatly folded up in my closet at my parent's home. And it's still cool.

A few observations:

1: These Women. What the hell's up with that? There was a section of the paper entitled, These Women? It sounds dismissive, doesn't it? "I just don't know what to do with these... these... women!"

2: Fireproofing. I never knew how to fireproof clothing. Now I do. Thanks, These Women!

3: The clown costume: I don't know one way or the other, but I'm guessing my brother didn't really enjoy wearing that thing.

4: No horse play!: 'Nuff said.

5: Reflectorized tape: Oh, it's a word, I just love that they used it, and not the duller "reflective tape." Go "reflectorized!"

Finally, while I can't imagine they'd care, I have blacked out the names of my mother, sister and brother since it isn't their fault I decided to put this up.

[click to enlarge]

And as an added bonus, for true Halloween frights, here's the ad that's on the other side of this priceless piece of familial nostalgia. "The Greatest Wig Show on Earth," because, you know, there are just so many. Anyway, hope it doesn't wig you out.

[click to enlarge]

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stamped in Time

I've never been a stamp collector, ever, but for whatever reason, in 1995, when these stamps were issued I just had to have them. It's the only sheet of stamps I've ever bought without the intent of using them. Looking at them the other day reminded me why: These classic monsters fill me with peace and contentment. Strange, that something originally intended to shock and horrify is now a source of comfort, but I suppose that's how classic horror is to a lot of people. The level of talent and skill on display and the sheer fun involved can't help but leave you smiling. Horror has grown so much I neither expect nor desire anything like these characters and actors to ever arise again, but it's nice to know we had them and they'll always be there when we need them, isn't it?

Click on the picture to see the details of the stamps full size.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Defending the Unknown: The Blair Witch Project

I don't need to defend The Blair Witch Project, as the film has an ample supply of supporters and the backlash against it is as old news as a Y2K story banged out on a Smith Corona for next weeks' issue of George. I also don't need to go into the plot (3 teen/twenty somethings, woods, cameras, lost... you get it) or remind anyone that you don't ever see a witch in it. I don't need to go into the maddening cracks in common sense that the characters demonstrate (they pass the same stream twice and don't immediately think, "Let's just follow the stream.") or the acts of mindless stupidity ("Something's outside the tent. I'm going to run blindly from the tent into the night."). I don't need to because the people who didn't get that The Blair Witch Project got the fear of the unknown just right aren't going to listen anyway and I don't feel like arguing with them.

I understand movie viewers can sometimes be driven insane by some of the logical inconsistencies of a movie like this, and I sympathize because I too find myself gritting my teeth at movies that contain "Idiot Plot" elements (as described years ago by Roger Ebert, an "idiot plot" is any movie plot in which, if the characters weren't all idiots, would end in five minutes).


Sometimes a movie really is going for a feeling, a sense of... something. Something intangible, something unknown. That's what The Blair Witch Project is going for, something unknown, and it succeeds mightily. But I don't bring this up to drag out another defense of the movie but to herald the unknown as a viable source of horror genre fodder that is, surprisingly, rarely used. When I say "the unknown" I don't mean supernatural or paranormal occurrences that can't be explained, like The Amityville Horror or Paranormal Activity or Burnt Offerings. I don't mean movies about unexplained occurrences where investigators have to figure out what's going on before it's too late or movies about vampires, werewolves or poltergeists. I mean the unknown. Period. As in The Blair Witch Project, where nothing is explained and nothing shown and nothing, really, even strongly hypothesized. Our characters are there, in the woods, and they feel a menace around them. And that's pretty much all we ever learn.

I know that kind of thing exists because I experienced it once myself, years ago. I was in Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up and, bored, decided to drive up highway 17, north. Eventually I turned off onto some side roads, parked in a small open space off the shoulder and wandered into the woods of Francis Marion National Forest. I started walking into the woods, off any main trail, and continued to do so for about an hour. Eventually, I came to a clearing and if you hike a lot, and my wife and I do, you know that a clearing (a natural one) is, in many ways, a mystical place. Usually small spots where, for whatever reason (sometimes it's a dried up pond or lake, sometimes a rocky area), there aren't any trees but plenty of vegetation. They're nice, relaxing and inviting. Usually. But this time I got a feeling, a bad feeling. All of it was, with almost complete certainty, inside my head. Nevertheless, I stopped dead in my tracks. For reasons only my primal psyche knows, I wasn't about to walk into that clearing. I stood there, still, for about five minutes. I kept looking around, over my shoulder, behind me, but not moving forward. I had the feeling, crazy as it sounds, that something was waiting for me to move into that clearing, to get myself out in the open, and I wasn't about to oblige it.

I can guarantee you now what I could probably guarantee you then, that there was nothing there but the ancient synapses of my ancestors' primal fears firing into place, something instinctual about not letting yourself be exposed and vulnerable. Still, I felt it, and it was palpable. Eventually, after telling myself this was ridiculous for five minutes but not once convincing myself of said fact, I turned around and headed back, double time. To this day, it's the most unnerving hiking experience I've ever had. I've ventured back into the woods in South Carolina and Maryland and Vermont on numerous occasions without anything but glorious thoughts about nature's beauty and how wonderful it was and is to be alive. But on that day, I got spooked. And what I was spooked by was nothing. Nothing known, that is.

And that's the success of The Blair Witch Project, in the final estimate. It is not that "they don't show anything," as is often touted (although, admittedly, that's a big part of it as well). It's that they don't explain anything. We don't discover it was really just a bunch of backwoods rednecks, or pranksters or perhaps even a real witch. We don't find out anything. When the final words are spoken and the camera is blacked out, we have no answers to the question, "What happened?" All we know is there was something out there and our instincts told us to be afraid of it, and avoid it. The Blair Witch Project doesn't avoid it. Unfortunately, most of the horror genre does, which is a shame because the unknown, when done right, can trigger every primal fear we have. And that's a known quantity for the horror genre just waiting to be used.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Upstream to be Screened Thursday

I don't usually interrupt my October horror/science fiction posts in October for any reason but I must make an announcement that is close to my heart. Earlier this year Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren held a blogathon fundraiser for the National Film Preservation Foundation in an effort to preservation films in varying states of decay, resurrect previously lost films and raise awareness of the dire need to preserve our film history. I took part by creating the banners and commercials for the event, seen here and here. 75 American films from the silent period were discovered in a New Zealand film archive in 2009 and the blogathon/fundraiser helped raise money to preserve them. Specifically, the money raised went to the films The Sergeant (1910) and The Better Man (1912), complete with a credit for the blogathon itself. But also among the 75 films was an early John Ford backstage comedy, Upstream, and that's the subject of this post.

Two months ago I started working at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and this Thursday, at 7:00 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater on the lower level, the Archives will be showing Upstream, free of charge and open to all. I encourage anyone in the area to attend, especially cinephiles who want to experience a piece of film history (and how can seeing a backstage comedy directed by John Ford, of all people, not be film history). The details can be found at the Archives site, here. After October wraps up I'll post the full details of the experience along with a review. Hope to see you there.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Not Quite the Last Man on Earth

I love the narrative idea of someone being the last person on earth or, at the very least, a last group of survivors, holed up and fighting off the inevitable. For instance, I love the story of the Richard Matheson book I Am Legend, and like the Vincent Price (Last Man on Earth) and Charlton Heston (The Omega Man) adaptations very much. But I don't love them, and the reason I don't love them is because last-man-on-earth scenarios almost never travel down the road I want them to. Oh sure, I like those movies on their own terms but, for me, there's still something missing, and that something is simplicity.

You see, my biggest problem with end-of-the-world scenarios is their complexity, which I would say is needless. The draw of watching, or being, the last man on earth is that there's no one else around! All complications, dropped. Full exploration of the character, on. This has been done a few times to semi-success, The World, the Flesh and the Devil and The Quiet Earth being the two best examples, but in both of those someone else eventually shows up, and then another. Why, oh why, can't they just make one person, man or woman, the last person on earth?! Castaway, with Tom Hanks, proved a great success at the box office by letting the audience watch one man, by himself, interact with the world around him. They gave him a volleyball to talk to, to be sure, but essentially made him the last man on earth by removing him from civilization, rather than remove civilization from where he lived. In that way, it plays like a last-man-on-earth scenario, even if it isn't one. And while that film doesn't do much for me, I like that they didn't have a woman suddenly appear from the other side of the island and then, later, another man so we could all be "enthralled" by their love triangle.

The Quiet Earth does this very thing, as does The World, the Flesh and the Devil and in that exact order. There's a last man for a third or even half of the movie before the screenwriter and director stop trusting the audience will be intelligent enough to follow this person through to their ultimate psychological demise, or victory, and introduce a woman that can become a love interest until another man pops up and becomes a rival. Excuse me one moment - yaaaaaaaawwwwwwnnnn. When I'm going into a story about the entire population of the planet earth being wiped out, the last thing I want to see is a goddamn love triangle! Aren't there more interesting things to direct our focus?

So, to any screenwriter out there looking to reinvent the "Last Man on Earth" scenario for a new generation of moviegoers, give this a try:

Don't have a "last" man and hordes of zombies/vampires/infected crazies trying to kill him. That means he's not the last man.

Don't introduce a woman or man, depending on the gender and orientation of the last person, to become their love interest. Couldn't give two shits less.

Don't introduce another man or woman with a slightly sinister edge, who may or may not become the antagonist to the so-called last man.

Instead, make the last man on earth the last man on earth! Have him talk to corpses in varying stages of decay if you want to give him some company. Have him live a kingly life off of all the preserved food and material goods until, a few years down the road, even those aren't good anymore and watch him slowly become a wild man living off the land. Fuck reinventing civilization, show him becoming feral again (I'd love to explore what happens to Burgess Meredith's character in the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last" after he breaks his glasses) until the last moment when, with his death, the human race is gone. Then pull the camera back on a chimpanzee or a gorilla or hell, a cockroach for all I care, and indicate that now it's their time.

The above rules apply to end-of-the-world disaster scenarios as well. If an asteroid's going to hit, let it! If neutrinos or solar flares are going to destroy or engulf the earth, let them! Don't show me Frodo on a motorcycle climbing a mountain, Liv Tyler being told her dad's a helluva guy or some kid who has trouble making potty declare she shall no longer wear diapers. And don't destroy the world only to show some kids running around a Thomas Kinkade painting with a bunch of creepy angel-types. Show the world destroyed and when the last human's dead direct our attention to some multiplying microbes as we realize it's all going to start anew.

I just want to see a movie about human-made civilization gasping its last breath and think, done right, it could be a compelling and powerful film. The earth itself has been wiped out before (When Worlds Collide, The Martian Chronicles, Knowing) but there's always survivors starting over somewhere else, and there's nothing wrong with that, I just want the scenario explored where humanity is done, it's over and there's no turning back. And, surely, I can't be the last man on earth to want that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Okay, so maybe I do drink wine

We all know he played Dracula, and did so memorably, but how many know that at birthday parties he got all super goofy and shit? Exactly.

Happy Birthday, Bela!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Devil Don't Do Ya the Same Way Twice

Unless, of course, the first try wasn't entirely successful (the Devil does fuck up sometimes).

Still, it would seem each person's method of demise is set in stone, so in the case of Mrs. Thorn, whose ability to withstand a fall was severely underestimated by the Prince of Darkness, the fall is simply increased, tenfold.

Desired outcome achieved...

...the little shit.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Long Live the Queen

Using footage taken from higher budget Soviet sci-fi productions and combining them with newly shot low budget footage, Queen of Blood is a little wonder of a movie. Cheap, ill-paced and flatly written, it nevertheless has something about it. Something ethereal, intangible. And while it's got everyone from Basil Rathbone and John Saxon to Dennis Hopper and Forry Ackerman (yes, that Forry Ackerman!) it's Florence Marly*, as the Queen of Blood, that gives it that something special. Director Curtis Harrington gives her a nice intro, pulling the camera in close as she comes to on the American ship, after being found unconscious on the Martian surface. As she's gawked at by Hopper, she slowly opens her eyes until she spies him and gives him a smile. Later, she kills him for his blood but honestly, she's the sweetest villain you're ever likely to see.


*Sadly, she died of a heart attack at only 59. A brief bio can be found here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Time for BAMFs

As Footloose taught the world, there is a time for everything. I spend most of my time here deconstructing movies in one way or another in an effort to continually better my understanding of them and, as a result, watch movies with a sharper, more discerning eye than I ever did in my cinematic infancy. But sometimes I just don't have time for that 'cause I'm too busy thinking, "That is one badass mutha fucka!" So alert Kevin Bacon, because it's October and that means it's time for some shout-outs to my favorite BAMFs of horror and sci-fi!

Now this won't be a list per se, more a haphazard collection of thoughts on some of my favorite BAMFs in the horror/sci-fi universe that kind of, sort of forms a list-like thing. Plus, there's no rules. Sometimes it's a character, played by multiple actors, sometimes it's a particular actor playing a particular character. Sometimes it's lead, sometimes supporting. I guess the only thing I'm going to purposely avoid are the characters that are written as badasses, you know, the Vin Diesel or Arnold Schwarzenegger types or what Ripley became to the Alien series. Ah, hell, let's just get started?

- The BAMF that got me thinking up this whole thing in the first place is Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing. Now this is a perfect example of what I'm talking about because Van Helsing's been played a million times, from Edward Van Sloan's unflappable Nosferatu obsessive in the original adaptation of the stage play of Dracula (1931) to Anthony Hopkin's rather loud and excitable vampire hunter in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). But nobody, and I mean nobody, got Van Helsing as undead-on right as Peter Cushing.

When you watch Cushing at work in Horror of Dracula or Brides of Dracula, you see an actor at the top of his form, yes, but also an actor who understands the character he's playing better than anyone else before or since. When it comes to playing Van Helsing, Cushing really is the smartest guy in the room. He's got the analytical side, the blood-vengeance side and, above all, the cool-in-the-face of terror side that makes his Van Helsing the best there is to offer. Take away his hammer, stake and crucifix and this mutha will grab a pair of candlesticks, construct a makeshift cross and bring the curtains down, literally, to do away with your sorry blood-sucking ass. Bite him on the neck and leave him for undead and guess what? He's going to whip out some holy water and a hot iron and burn your filthy disease right out of his body while another couple of vampires look on in stunned amazement. When all's said and done, there's no doubt about it: Peter Cushing's Van Helsing in one Bad Ass Mutha Fucka!

- Now for a character from a series of movies I usually give a pretty hard time here at Cinema Styles: Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars Saga. Now, it's true, I got my problems with the saga overall but there's no questioning old Ben Kenobi's official BAMF status. And for the purposes of this inclusion please understand, I'm not talking expanded universe, I'm talking about the movies that were released. So I don't really care if there's some bigger bad-ass in Jedi Exile: The Journey to Malachor V or if something that happens in the movies is explained away in The Great Sith Encasement, Episode 17. Really, it's not possible for me to give even two shits less than I already do on that front. But Kenobi in the movies is number one, unquestionably.

When Darth Maul takes down everyone who stands in his way, including Kenobi's own mentor Qui-Gon Jinn, Kenobi leaps up from a prone position, grabs his saber in mid-air and slices the Sith shitheel in half. Anakin Skywalker, darkside Jedi at the height of his powers? Ha, ha, that's funny, because while Anakin can kick everyone's ass, from Count Dooku to an entire village of sand people, he can't do shit to Obi-Wan. In fact, when Anakin attempts a leap-in-the-air-from-prone-position finisher like Obi-Wan did with Darth Maul, he gets the legs cut out from under him, literally, and an arm too, just for good measure. Years later, an old Obi-Wan doesn't even break a sweat holding off Anakin, now Darth Vader. It takes Luke giving in to his anger to defeat Vader in Return of the Jedi but Obi-Wan? Sheeee-it, he not only dies of his own choosing but - and think about this - has the situation so under control he can actually take the time to look over at Luke, and mull it over first(!), while in the middle of a lightsaber duel with Vader! Obi-Wan Kenobi - Bad Ass Mutha Fucka!

-Next up, Rosemary Woodhouse from Rosemary's Baby. Yeah, yeah, I know, you're thinking, "Don't you mean Sarah Connor from The Terminator or Ripley from Alien?" No, I don't. See, they're like the Diesel/Schwarzenegger characters, as in, prepackaged badasses, even if theirs were quite a bit better rendered than any Diesel or Schwarzeneggar characters ever were. Besides, you know how every now and then you stumble upon (usually by, in fact, using StumbleUpon) some list of the top ten this or that in the movies and the lists always suck because their choices are SO FUCKING OBVIOUS! That's because they're written by and for idiots who have no real connection to the movies or understanding of dramatic conflict. Well, guess what? Those guys would put Ripley and Connor on their list of badasses and for Star Wars, they'd list Vader, not Obi-Wan. Whew... so, back to Rosemary.

Rosemary's a badass because, in the end, she takes control and doesn't look back. Her husband, her doctor and seemingly every member of the AARP do their level best to marginalize her out of existence but when it comes time to walk the walk, Rosemary does a full-on strut! Keep in mind, this is a woman who was roofied by Satan and had her baby stolen by the Beelzebub Chapter of the Boynton Beach Club and she still has enough guts to 1) yell at everybody for what they did to her baby, 2) shove Roman's lies right back in his face ("Shut up. You're in Dubrovnik, I can't hear you.") and 3) in the middle of listening to a bunch of old witches bitch about how she's unfit, pick that baby right up and say, "Fuck it! It's here, it's mine and I'm taking care of it." She owns the situation and everyone present. Only one thing left to say: Bad Ass Mutha Fucka!

- And speaking of mothers, how about Diane Freeling in Poltergeist? Seriously, think about how much she does in that movie. First, she handles the loss of a pet with aplomb. Second, she's naturally curious, not scared, of the strange phenonemon taking place in her house. And on top of that, she never looks exhausted and worn out like hubby Steve Freeling does even though she's handling much more. When her daughter gets taken she bucks up, brings in people to explain the options and stands at the fore (remember when the ghosts start descending the stairway and she's right there, ready to go up those stairs to meet them?). When someone has to go into the void to get their daughter, Steve says he'll do it but she gives him some malarkey about how they need him to hold the rope and yadda, yadda, yadda. We all know the real reason is because he'd fail. Here's why (and I say this in all seriousness): Once, at work, I heard two people talking, one of them complaining about a seemingly impossible series of tasks that would have required either several people or one person with eight arms. That's when the other one said, "A mother could do it." She was, of course, a mother. That was before I was with my wife and our children but now that I am let me just say, "Yup."

So anyway, she goes in, gets her daughter and comes back out. Later, the gates to hell relocate to the closet in the kids' bedroom and Diane is thrown against the floor, walls and ceiling of her bedroom to prevent her from reaching her kids. She gets out. Then, the hallway elongates to the point where running gets her nowhere. But she keeps running anyway and eventually, she gets out of that one too. Then, when she swings the door open to the kids' room she damn near gets sucked in to a full-fledged vortex. But she doesn't. Know what she does? With one arm on the door frame and one arm holding onto her kids against 200 mile-per-hour sucking winds, she pulls those goddamn kids out, that's what she does. And I didn't even mention the monster in the hall, the corpses in the pool or the completely useless idiot neighbor. Diane Freeling gets everybody out to safety, no exceptions. After doing all the dirty work all hubby Steve has to do is get everyone in the car and drive them to a motel. Lucky for him his wife is one Bad Ass Mutha Fucka!

- Let's top out our first five with Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist. Karras is different kind of badass because everything that makes him a badass comes as the final culmination of taking one flying turd in the face after another. Damien Karras is a priest the world has decided to shit on, daily. He's stressed out and broke, has to go to New York weekly, from Washington, D.C., to take care of his ailing mother, then deal with her being in a horrible nursing home until she dies alone and depressed while he's 300 miles away. If that weren't bad enough, he's brought into a bad situation with a demon-possessed girl who insists on vomiting on him when he asks her to back up what she's saying about his dead mother. And through it all, he follows the rules. He does his duty, to a fault. He psychoanalyzes and when that doesn't work he goes to the church and asks for special permission to conduct an exorcism. When he's told "No, but you can assist this old bastard we know who'll run the show," he doesn't complain. When he tries to fill the old guy in on what they're about to walk into ("The demon seems to have three distinct personalities") he's rudely cut off ("There is only one!"). While most of us would respond with, "Hey, fuck you, I'm just trying to help," old Damien keeps quiet. When he walks in the room and the demon looks like mom and he yells "You're not my mother!" and starts crying and the old guy says to leave, he does.

But then, when he comes back in and the old guy's dead and the demon possessed girl is on the bed, giggling, brother, he's done! He's tried talk. He's tried following church procedure. He's tried doing what the old guy says. And now, finally, Karras' true badass self emerges as he quietly says in his head, "Man, fuck it, it's clobbering time!" What follows must surely be the only time in cinematic history that the sight of a grown man viciously pummelling the face of a 12 year old girl is not only welcome, but encouraged. But that wouldn't make Karras a badass of the Mutha Fucka variety. No, you know what it is that does that, right? It's when he makes his whole goddamn life worthwhile in one single instant by saying to the demon, "Come into me! Take me!" He's saving the girl and sacrificing himself at the same moment. People, that's not just a hero, that's a Bad Ass Mutha Fucka!

And that's it for now. Sure there are millions more I could have done but I'm hoping these were the less obvious choices than, say, Taylor from Planet of the Apes (although I in no way deny his status as a fully licensed BAMF). Also, another non-obvious runner-up: Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL kills everyone on board and then tells a stranded Dave that he isn't going to open that pod bay door and that Dave is screwed because he doesn't have his helmet so he can't come in manually. And you know what Dave does? He comes in manually anyway, without a helmet, and takes HAL apart! After that he follows his own destiny to beyond the infinite and becomes the star child who will provide the next step in our intellectual evolution. Awww, fuck yeah!

And so I leave you with dreams of your own favorite BAMFS of sci-fi and horror. To paraphrase the immortal words of Mr. Bacon, there is a time to laugh and a time to weep, a time to mourn and there is a time for BAMFs. Everybody dance!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Horror Doesn't Scare You

There's a phrase that I find particularly frustrating when applied to a good horror movie, especially one I happen to like: "It's not even that scary!" My reaction, usually, but not always, spoken silently to myself is, "Oh, shut up."

I know this will sound strange to some, yet obvious to others, but horror doesn't have to be scary to be good. It's basic quality of goodness or badness has, in fact, little to do with how scary it is and more to do, as with all art, with how effectively it conveys its meaning. If that means an overall sense of dread rather than a lot of scares, so be it. Hell, I like an overall sense of dread in horror.

On Facebook recently I posted a status update alluding to The Exorcist and Larry Aydlette chimed in to say he never found the movie scary. He was not, as some do, posing this as a criticism, merely an observation. Rod Heath did the same, carefully adding, "but that's not a fault, just a personal reaction." Marilyn, on the other hand, wrote, "I was terrified the first time I saw The Exorcist. The audience was freaking out all around me, people running up the aisle screaming. It was a happening." Sounds like it. My first experience with The Exorcist was quite different.

I saw it on an early cable showing in the seventies (it may have been HBO but I can't remember) with my sister, mother and father. Yes, I was around ten and my parents watched it with me. They were never the hysterical type, worried that if we were exposed to something with violence or language we would turn to a life of crime or insanity. And my father, and this is important, was a true believer, still is. He left college after his parents died to enter the monastery but left before taking his vows, deciding that marriage was the sacrament for him. His sister, on the other hand, stuck with it and became a nun who became Mother Superior of an order in Massachusetts. Finally, in our house, along the second bookshelf in the den, was and is the entire set of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism. So The Exorcist was a movie he had to see and, what the hell, might as well watch it with the kids.

My sister was decidedly scared and freaked out through most of it and I, while more fascinated than upset, was a little creeped out by things like the desecrated statue of Mary and the death mask flashing on the screen. By the time Merrin and Karras were doing battle with Regan in the bedroom at the end of the hall my father was more bemused than anything else. Bemused with my sister's reaction and the movie itself. He assured my sister there was nothing scary in the movie. It was a girl under the control of a demon, a demon that would be driven out by the faithful. No harm would come to her and, aside from exploiting an old man's weak heart, she could bring no harm to anyone else (Burke Dennings notwithstanding). Besides, he noted, this stuff doesn't even really happen like this. Yes, my dad's one of those types of movie viewers, the ones that too often let reality get in the way of a good story. But here's the thing: I agreed with him (on the "not scary" part, not the other stuff). I thought it was an excellent movie, but I couldn't be sure what everyone found scary about it. I mean, it's a girl. On a bed. Tied down, no less.

When I got older I realized that, while some people may be scared by it, what I felt was a sense of dread. A pall of death and familial collapse hangs over the house throughout the movie. Very, very little, if anything, in the movie actually feels good. And that is what makes it a great horror movie. To me, it's not meant to scare, it's meant to disturb, and those are two very different things. The Exorcist is disturbing, as in it disturbs our view of a normal mother/daughter relationship. It disturbs our view of faith, in ourselves and, if we choose, God as well. Most of all, it disturbs our view of what is right and wrong and good and bad. It is, in fact, one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. So whether I'm scared by it or not hardly even matters. The feeling's the thing, and the feeling is one of dread, a dreading of what's coming and how much worse it can still get.

I've had that feeling with several movies and some movies I consider the very best of the genre I would never consider scary, The Wicker Man for instance. I think it's brilliant but not because it's scary, rather, because it feeds on uneasy feelings of isolation, "us and them" belief systems and societal dysfunction. That it's not scary doesn't affect its quality one iota. It's brilliant, as is The Exorcist, in taking a feeling and building a whole movie around it. Sometimes people get the wrong idea about horror, even if they're a fan. They think it's about jump scares and gore and evil creatures and, actually, it is! It is about those things but it's also about so much more and whether or not it frightens isn't always the end-all, be-all of whether or not it succeeds. Sometimes, the best thing a horror movie can do is fill you with a vague, creeping sense of discomfort. Disquiet. Disorder. And when it's done right, it can be downright scary.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where Did the Time (for horror) Go?

Over at TCM's Movie Morlocks, I take part in a semi-regular roundtable called The Horror Dads, in which a few of us (including fellow bloggers Dennis Cozzalio, Jeff Allard and roundtable ringleader Richard Harland Smith) discuss watching horror with our kids. Although the youngest is my stepdaughter, rather than biological (I never actually use the term "stepdaughter"), I've been with her since she was a toddler so I've had the full experience of watching her grow. Somewhere along the way, Friday night became movie night for the three of us (me, my wife and daughter) and shortly after that started (somewhere around six years ago) the weekly pick became horror, or at least 90 percent of the time. There is an occasional comedy thrown it but even then, it's usually comedy horror.

As I've discussed at the roundtable, we usually keep ourselves to pre-1970 horror so that nothing gets too disturbing for the youngest. We've watched all the Universal classics, most of them multiple times, and all the Corman and Hammer classics. But we've also watched less celebrated thrillers like The Spiral Staircase or Hangover Square. We haven't watched Psycho with her yet but we have watched City of the Dead, twice, and although that also has a death by stabbing halfway through the movie, it's done as a cutaway so nothing is seen. It's not that she really understands something like Hangover Square but she appreciates the ambiance and feel of a horror movie or thriller or mystery. It's what she likes and there's no getting around it.

Most of that came not from me but from her mother, my lovely wife, Laura. Laura loves October, witches, black cats and graveyards. We spent a lot of time in an old graveyard in Massachusetts when we drove our oldest daughter up to college, reading tombstones and taking photos. There wasn't a person buried there with a birthdate later than the 1700's and most were born in the 1600's. That kind of thing holds a certain allure for us and it's something that Laura has implanted in the youngest since day one.

It's a love of the macabre but a gentle one. It's the atmosphere of it all that we love more than anything and, more often than not, movie night runs along the line of fantasy horror, such as vampires and mummies and sorcerers, rather than the mad killer variety. Still, I have occasionally tried, and failed, to bring a stronger variety of horror to the fore.

About two years ago I foolishly thought Theatre of Blood might be a hit on movie night. Laura told me that was a big mistake and I should pick something else. But, I countered, the youngest loves Vincent Price, loves him! I'd tell her to cover her eyes when anything too bad happens. So yeah, anyway, I'm an idiot. Nobody needed to say, "I told you so," because I was telling myself two minutes into it when the homeless crazies descend upon the first victim and it was quite clear this was not entertaining the youngest, but rather, freaking her out. It was turned off and put away. Another movie was shown but now, I can't remember which.

Of course, I saw Jaws at eight, in the theatre. I watched The Omen and The Exorcist at ten. And so, I thought, if I could handle it, she could. But, it occurs to me, there are three different types of horror fans (well, in a sweepingly general kind of a way, at least): The ones who like the gentler more ambient horror of yesteryear (1970 and before), the ones who like hardcore, disturbing horror from any time (Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining) and the ones who like both. I fall into the "both" category, my wife into the "yesteryear" category and the youngest? I think I have to accept she falls into that category too, the kinder, gentler variety. Sure, there's time to grow into it but as she approaches middle school, I wonder. How many horror fans know early on, very early, that they like the hard stuff too? I did. It's usually not something that waits until puberty to manifest itself.

As she grows older I wonder if we'll continue to watch horror together. Will we graduate to stronger stuff or will she lose interest in the genre only to retain a nostalgic sense of warmth for its atmosphere, memories of Friday night with pizza and ice cream? I don't know. I do know there will still be plenty of mysteries and ghost stories to watch with her even if she never wants to watch the other stuff. But I'll also miss the enthusiasm that I fear will diminish as she grows older and has less time for Mom and Dad and more time for friends and parties. Oh well. It's been a hell of a good run and something I'll always hold on to, tightly.

As she grows up I realize more than ever how much a debt of gratitude I owe Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, James Whale, Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Terence Fisher, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, Peter Lorre, Jimmy Sangster, Roger Corman, William Castle, Hammer Studios, Universal Studios and a hundred other artists who helped make the Friday nights of my daughter's youth some of the best nights we'll ever have together. Without them, it never could have happened.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Opening the Door to Horror

I write about all genres of film all year long so when I focus my attentions on horror in October, it's not just a way to write up horror films all month long (because I can do that any time) but a way to try and understand better the genre that, along with science fiction, first attracted me to film in the first place. In an effort to find a moment or a scene or an action in a movie that defines horror for me, one that I could use to kick off the month and set the cornerstone for building on my understanding of it all month long, it didn't take long and, surprisingly, doesn't even come from a movie of which I'm a very big fan.

None of that matters because I can honestly think of no better example of what horror exemplifies to me, and my understanding of it, than the opening scene of 28 Weeks Later. And it's opening is, quite frankly, so stunning, so unbelievable in the emotional cruelty it inflicts on its characters, that it may very well be the reason I'm not a fan of the film so much because, really, what film could follow that opening? Allow me to provide a general overview of what happens in the first few minutes of 28 Weeks Later (I write this under the assumption the premise of both films is known to all) to help us all better understand what horror, the genre, strikes at, and sometimes hits with deadly accuracy, in all of us.

The movie opens in a country house in England, where several people huddle together with windows boarded and doors barricaded. They are in hiding from the population of infected souls, poor Brits infected with a virus, the "Rage" virus, that, quite simply, drives one murderously insane and once a victim is attacked they too become infected, instantly, and begin rampaging as well. Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife, Alice (Catherine McCormack) are making dinner for everyone, by candlelight, as there is no electricity. As they sit to eat a knock comes upon the door from a frightened child that no one wants to let in. It could be a trap or simply that the boy has been followed by the infected and by letting him in they will blow their cover. The argument over letting him in is bad enough but nothing compared to what will follow.

Still, here, immediately, we are given a taste of what horror deals with, a confrontation with fears and instincts that no one wants to acknowledge. Letting the boy in is the only humane thing to do but what if it means the death of everyone? Finally, they make the decision to let the boy in.

Once the boy is inside, as feared, the infected begin attacking the house. They break through the barriers. They rage homicidally, killing the other four in the house. Don and Alice and the boy make their way upstairs and separate. Finally, Alice is attacked in the upper bedroom while Don is across the room in the doorway, the doorway that is his only means of escape now that the infected have come in from the other side. She sees him and instinctively screams to him for help. He knows she is doomed and if he helps her, he too will die. Every instinct we have as viewers tells us he will die trying to help her. But he doesn't. To our shock, and hers, he turns and runs. And runs. He makes his way outside where, upon briefly turning around, he sees her, in the upstairs window, looking on in shock as she is attacked. The infected pursue him across the field and down to a river until he gets to a boat, fights off others and narrowly escapes. There is momentary relief after he escapes until one reflects upon the wages of his escape, which can only be described as horrific. Truly horrific.

The rest of the movie couldn't hold up to that opening sequence for me but it doesn't matter because that opening sequence is, in and of itself, a kind of stand-alone horror short. More importantly, it does something few horror movies do: It made the human weakness more horrific than supernatural or physical terror. The basic moral flaw of Don is the true horror, not the infected attackers. He has done something that affects us as more vile and repulsive than any physical gore or violence we will see throughout the rest of the film. And that about sums it up right there. Too many horror movies rely on the monsters of the body, not the monsters of the mind.

This October, Cinema Styles hopes to open the door to the horrors of the human mind as portrayed in the genre while exploring the supernatural and superstitious fears that it has always used to get us there. The door's open. Come on in.