Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween from Maila and Me

And so another Halloween arrives. This year Cinema Styles produced a scant five posts (this one included) for the month of October but you know what? I said what I needed to say. My posts on the 1st and the 15th pretty much sum up where I'm at right now with horror and little more needs to be said.

I'm writing a book right now that deals with the paranormal and keeping up with posts and articles for TCM also in step with the celebration of horror that is October so I feel no less about my production this month than any other October, it's just been more scattered than centralized. Facebook takes a lot of the shorter posts that, in the past, would have ended up here.  It's perfect for the short post of a picture, a joke or just a fleeting idea about horror movies.  My contributions at the great Gunslinger blog usually have little to do with horror but even so, I got in a pic of Peter Cushing yesterday, just under the wire, so my October there would not pass without recognition of one of my favorite horror movie icons. Now all that's left for me to do is bid you, one and all, a Happy Halloween! Maila Nurmi does too, from a Halloween party in Los Angeles, October 30th, 1956. Enjoy.

Maila Nurmi, in costume, for Halloween Party.  Oddly, she didn't just go as Vampira.
It doesn't say who the guy is next to Maila, but James Dean died one year and one month before this party and I'd swear that costume is intended as a sick joke to that effect.  Also, her nails.  Jesus Christ, her nails. 
The guy on the Conga drum seems pretty lazy in the costume department. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen with a movie you've heard so much about is to not love it or hate it but find it essentially competent and banal.  You want to be  passionate, to love it and tell the naysayers to go to hell or walk out in disgust and tell its supporters they're all a bunch of morons.   The worst thing is, "Yeah, I can see how people would like that, I guess.  On the other hand, I can also see how people wouldn't like it."  What good is that?

Cabin in the Woods met with such a reception from yours truly and I was desperately hoping for an "I loved it!" or "I hated it!" reaction because movies and me go back a ways and I love being passionate about them but Cabin in the Woods didn't inspire that passion in me. It's one of those "clever" ideas and competent enough that it at once works within its own premise but also asks the audience to ponder the purpose of genre conventions while not merely mentioning them.  

But this isn't about Cabin in the Woods really.  It's about how movies take on certain ideas and get praised for merely taking on the idea, whether they did it well or not.  For instance, Network is praised as a great satire on television, mass media, corporate culture and the utter subservience of the American television viewer (the genius of the "mad as hell" scene isn't the rebellion Beal inspires, it's that he's telling them to rebel against being told what to do by television by shouting "I'm mad as hell" out their windows and like the good sheep they are they open their windows and shout "I'm mad as hell.").  And it is a great satire but it's also on a very short list of media satires so while it may compare favorably to Wrong is Right or A Face in the Crowd, it also only has to compare favorably to those two and a handful of others.

So when a movie like Scream comes out and gets meta about how much it knows that the conventions it's following are conventions in horror movies, it's praised (at least it was when it came out) as the cleverest and goddamnedest thing you ever did see when all it was really doing was saying, "Horror movies do this and we will do it too but we're also going to take a second to tell you we know we're doing it," and, somehow, that exceeded everyone's wildest dreams of cleverness.  Advance to the present day and Cabin in the Woods most clearly outdoes Scream in just about every meta way possible but it's still only taking the idea a single step further:  Horror movies do this and we will do it too but we're also going to take a second to tell you we're going to do it and we're going to have characters who literally control the conventions for a specific reason!   And that reason is utterly beyond ridiculous because if it were banal who would get the joke?

In other words, pleasing the gods of old is brought in as the final statement about the unforgiving horror audience that must have their expectations of horror satisfied or else.  But what if the big reveal was that they were doing all of this simply because they were told to?   What if they're doing it because it's in their job description. What if five young people suffer brutally and horribly for something that became unnecessary fifty years ago but by then the bureaucracy was so embedded they just kept doing it because no one told them to stop?  Isn't that more in tune with genre movies?  We keep getting the same thing because no one comes up with anything new because they're told  the old stuff still works and that we're happy to stomach it because we've never seen anything different because no one told them to make anything different because the old stuff makes us happy.  And on and on and on.  Is the audience really as demanding, or demanding at all, as Cabin in the Woods perceives them to be, or are they more in line with Howard Beal's sheep, happy to go where they're led?  My vote's with the sheep.

The problem is that I fear when something becomes meta, it's essentially dead.  When self-awareness gets adopted as the go-to attitude and smug cleverness substitutes for dialogue, where else can the genre go?  Then I start thinking, "Is this it for horror?  Is it over now?  Will I never again see a movie about a monster or a vampire or a vengeful spirit that isn't overly excited to tell me it knows it's about a monster or a vampire or a vengeful spirit?"  I wonder if there can ever be another movie about the supernatural or paranormal that plays it straight that isn't a found footage film? We still get them but they seem to be fading when thrown up against the meta-movie storm.

Comedies, science fictions, westerns and musicals all have conventions and it's the knowledge and acceptance of those conventions that often makes me want to watch them.  And when I watch a musical, I want to know it's a musical, but I don't want the characters to know. I don't want Gene Kelly telling me, "Yeah, I know it's a musical, too.  Look, now I'm going to dance to music that comes out of nowhere. Crazy, right?"  Maybe if we say that Cabin in the Woods is the best meta-horror movie ever, that it's so good that no one can top it, no one will make any more like it.  And then we can get back to making straight up horror films in which vampires are scary, monsters are real and zombies aren't a complete fucking joke.  There's still time to raise horror from the dead. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Man Head Dog Revisited

Man Head dragon,  Festival of the Tarascan, France, 1946.

Man Head dog, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Old School Horror, 17th Century Old School

I am of the considered opinion that woodcuts from the 18th century depicting witchcraft in the 17th century did a better, spookier, creepier job of depicting the supernatural than most movies I've ever seen.  That isn't to say there aren't scores of great horror movies out there, just that the level of pure malevolence on display in some old woodcuts takes Hollywood to task and makes them look rather meek in the process.  Behold:

Not even modern werewolf movies get quite as hardcore as this cut from 1794.   At least The Howling and American Werewolf in London made the creature resemble that but the level of viciousness wasn't as up front and personal, more off-camera and made up of blood spatters.  But where the woodcuts really take off is in the depiction of witchcraft and demonology.

I'd love to see a horror movie that takes it for granted that goblins and demons and naked, haggard, ghastly witches existed in the 14, 15 and 1600s and portray a story as such.  Not a modern retelling, not a witch or demon transplanted to our time but a story about demons, goblins and witches terrorizing villages in the days of old.   While there have been plenty of witch movies and Hammer has had many forays into historical horror, no one has quite given the full treatment to something like this.

Probably wouldn't make a nickel.  Still...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Horror, the View from Mid-Life

There is almost no movie seen in youth that doesn't look or feel different in middle-age.  I can only assume the same will be true of my advanced years, watching movies again then decades after first seeing them now.  Age and time are, indeed, the ultimate critics.  And so it goes with horror.

Horror, for years now, has no longer been about scaring me than about a mood and a feel I get from the atmosphere of the story.  I am no longer scared by a movie though that's not to say it can't happen, just that as a general rule, it doesn't.  Not only does it no longer scare me but revisiting things that once did now feels a bit strange.  I watched Burnt Offerings again recently and found the dreaded chauffeur (Anthony James), so creepy to me as a child, singularly unfrightening.  In fact, his skinny frame, aviator glasses and goofy smile (intended wholeheartedly to be eerie) made me laugh a little bit.  I thought, why would Oliver Reed be scared of him?  Just walk over there and deck that skinny little shit to the ground.  But that's because I'm older and I've now seen the "creepy smile" cliche about three or four thousand times.  It's a fairly standard go-to in cinematic horror, from Norman Bates to Jack Torrance, and you can't watch much without seeing it far too many times.

And I find myself seeing similarities everywhere, even if they're not very close matches but approximate the same look, like this shot from Burnt Offerings...

...that reminded me of this shot from Suspiria.

Or like when I watch The Exorcist and immediately think of the last shot of Norman from Psycho...

...when I see this shot of Regan.

Also, judgment calls constantly come into play.  For instance, I'll give Suspiria the nod for the shocked death face and Psycho the nod for the better superimposition, because it's minimal and less showy.  And I'll give them those nods while I'm in the process of watching the other movie.   And that's because at a certain point (and that point is probably somewhere around the five or six thousandth movie watched) you have enough of a backlog of information that watching is no longer just about that movie, the one on in front of you right now, but every other movie that feeds into it, or from it or simply hovers inside the same sphere of influence.  Like anything else in life, the more you know about it, the more you appreciate it.   And the more you appreciate it, the more you can see the missteps as well as great leaps.

So watching something like Burnt Offerings provides for a frustrating night because the missteps outnumber the great leaps.  The actors are great but the dialogue is dull.  The shots are inspiring at times but the lens is smeared with Vaseline in a tragic decision to film the whole movie in soft-focus.  The two most interesting characters in the movie, the brother and sister Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart), return triumphantly at the end - in voiceover.  And one of the early scenes intended to show the house has a mind of its own (in which a light to the pantry that did not turn on seconds before, now does - though why the house chooses to do that I have no idea) is played under some of the most ridiculous dialogue ever written, instantly robbing it of any chills it might have provided (the term "ding-dongs" tends to do that). View it in all its glory below:

But when the movie's over, because of the surrounding folklore, I still think about it because it informs me in ways it couldn't were it the only horror movie I'd ever seen.  That is to say, there's enough good in something like Burnt Offerings that it satisfies my need for a haunted house movie (or possessed house, in this case) because it can make me think of other haunted house movies and the true delight in taking it in is the feeling that comes rushing back in from all those other horror movies that came before.

Maybe what all this means is that things really do get better with age.  Simple pleasures mean more and  the memories of all that came before inform the present and make the cliches more bearable if only because they bring to mind those that did it better.  October and horror mean more to me than rituals and movies, they mean familiarity and middle-age comfort zones.   And at this point, that's something I'm okay with.  Bring on the horror.