Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror - But Once Each Year?

Every year around this time I feel like an interloper. The great blogs with a focus on the darker side, from Arbogast on Film to Final Girl, from Frankensteinia to Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire and even Cinebeats and Coffee Coffee and more Coffee, not exclusively horror blogs as they cover all genres of films but are certainly comfortable tackling horror with precise expertise, must get annoyed at all the non-horror blogs suddenly joining the club for a scant 31 days and acting like they know anything at all on the subject. I must admit that with each post I write in October I imagine they are all out there shaking their heads thinking, "I've read about this topic about a million times before on horror blogs dude. If you read them too you'd know how stale this is." And I know that while my most paranoid visions may be false the general belief is true. For instance, I wrote a post on Peter Cushing this October. How many posts on Peter Cushing have there been on horror blogs? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? And yet each October I feel compelled to celebrate horror despite my amateur standing in the community. I feel compelled because I love both horror and science fiction and the fantasy elements they bring to film. But why only once a year?



I cannot stick to one genre for very long I admit. I once tried to do a whole month of nothing but Sci-Fi banners and even that I abandoned after a mere week. I love Sci-Fi but the idea of not using so many other great banners from so many other genres gnawed at me until I caved. In another case, a couple of years ago I devoted a whole month to movies and events important in the history of the Production Code. By the end of the month I was so sick of it I've yet to broach the subject again. But that's not the real problem. The problem is that I foolishly avoid the genre for most of the rest of the year. There have been times, too many to count, where I have an idea for a horror post that I don't do because I think, "I'll save this for October." Then when October finally rolls around the post has disappeared into the cobwebbed recesses of my doddering mind.

This has all been swimming around my brain lately because this year in particular proved a difficult one for saying what I wanted. There were and are many obligations that stood in the way of a full scale celebration of horror, mixed in with a generous dose of blogger fatigue and an ever increasing captivation with photo blogging (three of the four places I blog at are photo blogs). And so many of the posts I had planned never materialized, including a video post where I narrate the images to express my thoughts on the subject. And frankly, I know if I wait until next year almost all the ideas I had for posts this year will be lost forever and I'd still like to write them.

So write them I shall.

If you'll forgive me, this year's October celebrations will spill over into November, December, January and on through to September and why shouldn't they? Why restrict myself to one month out of the year? I don't want to be the interloper anymore. I don't want to feel like the Johnny Come Lately showing up at a bar full of regulars and acting like I own the place. So I think I'll follow the lead offered by Kimberly Lindbergs and Peter Nellhaus and throw horror into the mix whenever I feel like it. I still don't have anywhere near the expertise of either of them, or of the great Arbogast on Film, but I have a love for the genre and a compulsion to express it. If I'm honest, I suppose this whole post is just a way of saying I'm sorry I didn't do more this year. I'm sorry I let you down.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Halloween and a safe one. This year it falls on a Saturday which, if you have children in their late teens and early twenties (and I do), is always a bit of a worry. Trick or treating is much less fretful than late night parties with kids who are under the delusion they're adults. No matter how much guidance you give, how many restrictions you enact, at some point, it's up to them and for a parent that's always a bit scary especially when you look back and realize you didn't figure anything out until around 40.

So have a safe one and a happy one boys and ghouls. Happy Halloween!

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P.S. - That's me in the blog banner (as well as the picture at the top of this post) by the way. It occurred to me that most people didn't know after I asked a couple about it. I don't look like that all the time, I just hadn't had my coffee yet.

P.P.S. - I would be remiss if I did not point out that both Bill and Arbogast made the decision to do a special post each day (31 posts on horror fiction for Bill and 31 posts on horror movie screams for Arbogast) and by God, they stuck to it! Spend some time reading through them all when you get the chance if you haven't already. I humbly bow before both of them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Black Sabbath Poster Bonanza

Look at the great posters below for Mario Bava's Black Sabbath. They're courtesy of a wonderful site entitled The Wrong Side of Art and I heartily recommend going there and browsing their immense archives. I put them up to remind everyone that there are still three days to go in Kevin Olson's Italian Horror Blogathon. It's final day is Halloween itself so submit your own entry today! This simple poster post will have to suffice for my entry as I am not prepared to do anything more unfortunately. I'll level with you: it's been pretty damn busy around here with our oldest daughter reaching her deadline for college applications (this Friday) and I've been researching, writing and editing towards those purposes which explains why things have been more on the video side around here than the writing side. No one is applying to college next year (we hope) so I should have more time to devote to Cinema Styles October 2010: 100 Acre Horror, in which I spend the entire month interpreting horror through the lens of Winnie the Pooh and friends. The post on Eeyore alone should send chills down your spine. Until then, enjoy these posters and submit your own entry to the Italian Horror Blogathon soon!







Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Creepy Moments:
The Blood on Satan's Claw

I've been leaning a little heavy on the video clips lately but I have many videos I want to show and there's only four days left until Halloween. Here's another creepy moment, this time from The Blood on Satan's Claw. Enjoy.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Alternate Dream Sequence from
The Exorcist
What Might Have Been

The dream sequence from The Exorcist has become legendary: Father Karras trying to make contact with his mother, she turning away and that mask, the death mask that is Pazuzu. Most horror fans know it frame by frame. But what if the original version had made it into the film as seen in this newly discovered rough cut with it's unmatched lighting between the shots of Karras and his mother? Two famous actors were used for the mother and Pazuzu roles but later the shots were scrapped in favor of unknowns. The footage would never die however. A few years later Sidney Pollack would become intrigued with the footage shot of the famous actor as the mother and build a whole film around it, even using this original footage in that film. But what if William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, had left it in? What might have been.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Scary Face #1

Presenting the "Scary Face" series. Watch at your own risk. Images are terrifying. Small children should be gently but firmly escorted away from computer before playing. Not for the faint of heart. You've been warned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Building the Scene: The Birds


Alfred Hitchcock is a director so well known and beloved by both cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike that most writers on the art of cinema would prefer to talk about someone else should the opportunity arise. After all, hasn't Hitch been analyzed, critiqued, elevated and deconstructed ad nauseum at this point? Probably, but that's not going to stop me from doing it again. Why? Because sometimes a director is so well known and beloved that we take for granted just how skillful said director is behind the camera. For this extended edition of this October's "Creepy Moments" series I'd like to look at how effectively Alfred Hitchcock achieved extraordinary suspense and tension in the much misunderstood The Birds, a film considered at the time a lackluster follow-up to Psycho (but wouldn't most films ever made suffer from the same perception) but upon further reflection is as brilliant in many ways as Hitchcock gets.

One of the most effective elements of The Birds is its lack of music. Impressive and memorable musical scores are as associated with Hitchcock's films as Italians with guns are with Martin Scorsese's and yet The Birds is silent. It's music is the call of the birds themselves. It's opening credit sequence alone, with fleeting blurred images of crows flying in and out of the frame, their cacophonous caws the only sound we hear, is a marvel of tension filled disquiet. The film is in bold technicolor but without music it appears distant and faded, the conversations feel overheard, and the characters sans musical cues for heroism and courage seem all too human and all too vulnerable.

While there is much to admire here the setup for the attack on the schoolchildren is one of Hitchcock's finest hours as a director. Most documentaries on Hitchcock make the mistake of showing this scene from where Tippi Hedren sits down on the bench. This is wrong because Hitchcock begins the tension at the top of the scene with Hedren's convertible seen driving towards the schoolhouse. The audience doesn't know it yet but this opening shot is a psychological plant on the part of the director. He is fixing the image of the schoolhouse on the hill in the viewer's mind as a serene image of safety and security. Nothing can go wrong here. Later when the children are fleeing we will see this same shot only with hundreds of birds rising up magnificently behind it. It's a visual strong enough on its own to signal extreme and imminent danger but combined with the memory of the peaceful schoolhouse planted in our minds just moments before it becomes something else entirely, something more unnatural and at odds with our perceptions of how the world should look and work.

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By the time Hedren walks into the school to warn the teacher and students the scene is essentially over. The attack follows and works because Hitchcock built up a lingering menace in the playground first but it's superfluous to the tension already achieved. And again, when you watch it, take note of how quiet the scene is. The birds make little to no noise and the children's singing is muted from inside the schoolhouse. The song they're singing provides a kind of tempo to the scene as well as a haunting quality, as if ghostly voices were singing in the distance.


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Next is the attack. The opening swarm from behind the schoolhouse echoes the earlier serene shot with the car approaching it. As I said, the thrust of this scene is done anyway with the setup but is mesmerizing to watch regardless and provides a terrific payoff to the initial setup.


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Finally there is the film's ending. I've talked to many a person unimpressed with this ending. "It just kind of... ends, you know." I don't know how to respond to that. It doesn't "just end" it fades out into quite possibly the end of the world, the beginning of an assault on humanity by nature or just the end of human settlement in Bodega Bay. Whatever the true "end" may be I find this conclusion to the story one of Hitchcock's ballsiest moments as a director. Note just near the end how the crows caws go from natural sound to heightened unnatural sound just before the fade out. What does that say? Again, no music, no credits, not even the words "The End." Note that the camera precedes the three principals making their way outside. For the camera to do this there can be no door, otherwise Rod Taylor would have to reach "through" the camera to get to it and then the camera would block it from opening. In a brilliant solution by the cinematographer Robert Burks, Rod Taylor simply mimes opening the non-existent door while a lighting effect fills in the rest. It works beautifully.


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If you haven't seen The Birds, and I can't imagine there are too many out there that haven't, it is readily available pretty much everywhere. Give it a look but be prepared to meet the movie halfway. The Birds is a movie that keeps its secrets closely guarded, under the wing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Gently Johnny: A Picture Book Story


"A picture of me arresting somebody would look soooo cool right here."

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The bacon trees are in bloom!

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and the manager gives me a smile;
'cause he knows that it's me;
they've been coming to see;
to forget about life for a while.

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"Excuse us please. Is this the Overlook?"

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Here comes the king, here comes the king, here comes the big number one.

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You're stupid!

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No you're stupid!

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Touchdown!!!

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Best tailgate party. Ever.

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For the real deal, go here. Best review of this film you'll read.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kiss Me, Stupid

I'll be at Illusions Travel by Streetcar today to discuss Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid for this month's TOERIFC selection but I'll be back for October festivities later. Come join us if you've seen it, admission is free.

Friday, October 16, 2009

One Last Reminder: TOERIFC Monday Approaches


October 19th is TOERIFC Monday which means Tom Sutpen will be hosting this month's discussion at his place. No, not the well-manicured grounds of Sutpen's Hundred but the well-manicured blog Illusions Travel by Streetcar. The movie? Kiss Me, Stupid directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. Our discussions usually begin at 10:00 EST and I encourage everyone to check out the movie and join in the discussion. It is readily available on Amazon and i-tunes so there's no excuse not to. See you there!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Synthetic Flesh

Continuing the "Creepy Moments" series for this month we move on to Doctor X from 1932, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy, none of whom are in this scene (but Preston Foster is). And yes, it's a scene not a moment. Furthermore, it's not very creepy with all the electronic gizmos and gadgets pulsating throughout the scene probably removing any sense of creepiness to the modern eye but I don't care because I love the movie, the whole damn ridiculous thing, and the scene. And if you've never seen Doctor X and would like to see it fresh DO NOT WATCH THIS SCENE. This scene is in fact the spoiler of the movie where the Moon Killer's real identity is finally revealed. Otherwise please do watch this entertaining and goofy scene in which the Moon Killer disguises himself before the kill by applying mounds of goopy synthetic flesh to his face (which is kind of funny because immediately following this scene he reveals who he is without hesitation to the other characters who have been trying to solve his identity).


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Remember These Monsters?

I've been blogging long enough now that I can actually feel comfortable pulling stuff from the archives that I want to highlight again. This is my favorite montage from last year by far, a short celebration of Lugosi, Karloff and Lanchester, the three "monsters" that put Universal horror on the map. Since I won't be covering any old-time Universal Horror or otherwise (sorry, but this year is all Hammer on up) I felt it apt to use this montage from last year as a substitute for any more in-depth posts on the subject. Enjoy.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Middle Ground between Light and Shadow


Twilight Zone: The Movie was a film I'd not seen since its debut on cable back in the early to mid eighties when I decided, some thirty plus years later, to give it another look. Watching it again with older, maybe wiser, eyes revealed a film so inconsistent as to make one wonder why they bothered releasing it. Add on to that the fact that three actors ( Vic Morrow, My-Ca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi) were killed during filming due to questionable filming practices, ignored safety standards and violations of child labor laws and one really does get the feeling that out of respect alone they should have shelved it. But they didn't and I suppose Vic Morrow, the great character actor with such an extraordinary gift for playing the jerk, deserves recognition for his final performance, something too often overlooked in write-ups on the film.

Vic Morrow's performance comes in the first tale told (there are four in all, bookended by a mildly entertaining, yet completely pointless, prologue and epilogue featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks). The tale concerns a hateful bigot who, after spending his evening complaining about every non-white ethnic group secretly controlling the world, walks out of a bar and into the Jewish ghetto in Nazi Germany. Get it? He's a Jew now, suffering divine retribution for his sins. Moments later he is a black man being held by the KKK (with a young John Larroquette as their leader) and then a Vietnamese man escaping American troops in Vietnam. This last sequence involved a scene where Morrow and two children (the actors named above) escape a helicopter attack which ended, in reality, horrifically, as the helicopter lost control and descended upon and killed all three actors below. Whatever that scene entailed it was clearly vital to the sequence because without it the Vietnam sequence is so weak and meaningless that it honestly should have been left out. Editing out the helicopter scene, and the previous scene with the two children, but leaving in all that surrounded it seems both disrespectful and dishonest. Because the sequence is so weak and barely understandable (it's not even made clear that he is a Vietnamese man - that was made clear in the footage with the children apparently) it feels like it was left in just so they wouldn't lose any usable footage. Of course, showing any of the footage the led to the deaths of three people on the set is highly questionable in and of itself and filming at night with child actors illegally hired to avoid adherence to child labor laws is deplorable.  (the details of the entire disgusting episode are here). But back to Morrow. He is, as expected, excellent. Whether at the beginning of his career (Blackboard Jungle) or near the end (The Bad News Bears) Morrow could project hate and anger like few others. He is perfectly cast here and makes an otherwise unmemorable segment better if deeply tragic.

Then there's the second segment, directed by Steven Spielberg and without a doubt the weakest of all four segments. No, that's not right, it's much worse than weak. It's horrible, insufferable, unbearable. It's a story about a group of old timers who get the chance to be young again thanks to a magic man with a twinkle in his eye and... need I continue? The music is goopy, the shots are sickly sweet, and the child actors playing the old timers after their transformation are painfully affected.  Someone should have stopped them and that someone was Spielberg, just coming off his massive success with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial the year before, a movie in which the child performers were uniformly excellent.  Maybe it was that success that caused Spielberg to drop his guard and let the kids run wild but one gets the feeling that no one is controlling their overbearing "acting" at all.  Sadly, it's not only the worse segment of this movie but probably one of the worst things Spielberg has ever done.  As none of the segments relate to the others or the prologue or epilogue, I'd recommend simply skipping this segment altogether.



Moving on to the third segment things improve dramatically. The music's still awful (only because Jerry Goldsmith, a great composer otherwise, doing "John Williams Whimsical" is just about the worst thing the Earth has ever known) but the story and pacing are a hell of a lot better. Kathleen Quinlan stars as Helen, a woman taken to a strange house by an odd boy named Anthony who can make anything happen by wishing. He has, we find out, held four people captive that he reveals to outsiders as his family. A fifth hostage, and true relation - his sister, sits in the bedroom silently watching cartoons, her mouth long ago removed by the vindictive Anthony. The story races along at a clipped pace as we watch the immensely entertaining set of character actors, including Kevin McCarthy, wiggle and squirm through sycophantic tributes to Anthony. The biggest fault of this story is it pretends to have a nice ending with Anthony telling Quinlan he let everyone go as she smiles and says she wants to be his teacher. Thing is, it's alluded to by one of the characters early on that his parents met a horrible fate at his hands. No mention is made of this as we all hold hands and watch flowers grow alongside the road as the new teacher and homicidal student drive off into the sunset. Ugh. I guess when Steven Spielberg is your producer these kinds of endings are unavoidable (or at least, I should qualify, the Spielberg of 1983).

That takes us to the fourth and final segment, a reworking of the original series classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. John Lithgow takes over the role William Shatner made famous as an airline passenger terrified of flying who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane destroying the engine. No one else sees it of course and Lithgow does a tremendous job of playing full-bore hysterical throughout most of the segment. It's not any better or worse than the original (maybe slightly worse - it plays the hysterical angle a bit too long) but it's not a bad capper to an otherwise undistinguished affair.

In the end, the first two segments (the first for its banality, the second for its no-holds-barred awfulness) weigh too heavily on this enterprise for the movie to succeed. By the time we get to the good stuff we've already entered an advanced state of indifference to the whole damn thing and even Joe Dante's and George Miller's very good third and fourth segments can't resuscitate this comatose patient. When the credits roll we feel a mixture of depressed detachment and relief. The movie didn't really affect us one way or the other and yet we're glad it's over. Like Rod Serling's famous narration, it occupies the middle ground between light and shadow, never really venturing fully into either, staying the middle course, playing it safe and finally, and ultimately, failing as both.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It was always Peter


I recently watched The Curse of Frankenstein again and was once again impressed with how boldly Hammer Film Productions, director Terence Fisher and write Jimmy Sangster all worked together to produce such a splendid reboot of a story (before they were called reboots and one year before their Dracula reboot) so familiar to so many fans. How they took the basic framework of the story and twisted it around just enough to make a story they could call their own while still enjoying the benefits that come from attaching the name "Frankenstein" to the end product. I was again impressed with how well Christopher Lee does in evoking sympathy for the pathetic creature he must play, much more pathetic than his original literary counterpart or the 1931 Universal creation. But more than anything I think I realized, or perhaps better put, finally let myself accept, that without Peter Cushing Hammer films would have never succeeded. That is high praise indeed and I intend it to be the highest praise I can give to an actor underrated by legions of non-horror fans and deified by those in the fold.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are associated with Hammer more than any other two names but the two films that put Hammer on the horror map were this one and the previously discussed Horror of Dracula and in both, even Dracula, Lee is but a supporting player. It is Cushing that carries both films. It is Cushing that makes both films. Without Cushing neither film would have been the success it was and Hammer, perhaps, would have moved on to other things. Goddamit, it was Peter. It was always Peter.

And it's not just that this film, this Frankenstein, wouldn't have worked without Cushing. The 1931 Universal Frankenstein wouldn't have worked with Cushing in the role of the doctor. That role needed an actor who could exhort wildly that his creation had life and then recede into the framework while we follow the monster and his doings. Colin Clive played that role and did it well. But this Frankenstein is Cushing and nothing else. The creature is damn near an afterthought. In fact, he could have never succeeded in bringing the creature to life and it wouldn't have hurt the movie. He could have just kept on killing people and kept on trying and that would have been enough. With another actor it wouldn't have been but with Cushing? Yes, easily.

Peter Cushing had an intensity as an actor that few like him have possessed. Critics and actors like to use the word "intensity" to describe the Marlon Brandos or the John Garfields of the acting world (or any actor associated with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler or Sanford Meisner), actors playing a brutal or brutalized working class American raised on the streets of Brooklyn. But Peter Cushing had an intensity that put all of them to shame - And NO, I am not just saying that for the sake of hyperbole, October celebrations or to give respect to a disrespected genre. I am saying it because it is true. How many people remember Peter Cushing in Star Wars? Everyone! He has but a few lines and yes, I know it's among the most popular films ever made so even minor characters are known, but still, with all the action and starfights and light sabers and Darth Vader roaming around all moody-like there's Grand Moff Tarkin, and he stands out. Now, think back to the movie, the whole saga in fact. There is no character working for the Empire, save the Emperor himself of course, who does not tremble in Vader's presence, except Tarkin. Cushing's intensity was such that he simply wouldn't have been believable fearing anyone.

It is that intensity that makes his Dr. Frankenstein such an astonishing creation. His face, his eyes, his build, his manner of speaking all signal to the audience far beyond the machinations of the script that this Doctor is mad. Homicidally mad. And that becomes our story, and would further become the story of more Hammer Films Frankensteins because fans couldn't get enough of this great yet sadly unheralded actor playing crazy. Peter Cushing changed the way horror fans thought of Doctor Frankenstein. There was the Doctor from the Universal films, the Doctor from the television productions that followed the novel more closely or even the Doctor from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. They all had a madness to them, an obsession that drove their desire to create life from dead tissue. But they were all also, at their core, decent human beings who loved and felt guilt and revulsion at what they had wrought upon the world. And then there's Cushing's Frankenstein. No guilt, no revulsion. This Doctor is a bastard.

While the movie contains many scenes that make this clear, including a scene early on where the good doctor kindly ushers a brilliant scientist guest to his death over the second floor railings just so he can use his brain for his reanimated creature, the scene that projects it best and brilliantly is one of true horror and perversion. Frankenstein has dug up his first failed creature and brought him back to the lab where he has chained him to the wall and brought his former tutor and mentor to the lab to show him off. He orders him thuggishly to "Stand up!" "Sit down!" and so forth while the creature performs these rudimentary actions with oafish inexactitude. His mentor, and the audience, see a pathetic and horrifying display. A mentally disabled man, chained to a wall, clearly afraid, being yelled at to perform like an organ grinder's monkey. But one look at Frankenstein and the audience knows he's thinking, "Isn't this great?! Look at this! That son of a bitch does whatever I tell him - And he was DEAD before! Goddamn I'm good! Aren't you stunningly impressed?" Peter Cushing's Frankenstein cannot, will not, see that he has done something morally repugnant. He can only see personal glory no matter what the cost has been to others (Cushing would have been superb as Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai - not that Alec Guiness wasn't mind you).

The Curse of Frankenstein put Peter Cushing in the public eye but he never achieved the peer recognition that an actor of his immense talents should have. The Curse of Frankenstein is a fantastic reboot of the Frankenstein story but without Cushing it would have been so much less. The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula that followed set Hammer up for life but none of it would have happened like it did without Cushing. It was Peter. It was always Peter.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Young Frankenstein in Five Minutes

Because I can and I was bored. Seen it a million times? Never seen it? Doesn't matter. Here it is in highly abridged form for your Friday enjoyment.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Burn Witch Burn!


City of the Dead was released in September of 1960 in England and several months later in the United States, along with an unfortunate re-title Horror Hotel. The change in name didn't help its fortunes in the states and the movie quickly fell off the radar of horror fans the world over. It didn't help that it was released just months after Psycho (but began filming a full month before Psycho) which grabbed all the business and all the headlines with its shocker story and twist ending. Another strange turn of fate was that both films used a similar structure in setting up their respective stories. In both films the heroine goes off on her own to an isolated hotel/motel and around the halfway point of the movie is quickly and unexpectedly killed, both times by stabbing. But that's where the similarities end and one wishes the film had been given a better release because City of the Dead is an excellent tale of witchcraft, sorcery and sacrifice.

Tony Award winning actress Patricia Jessel plays Elizabeth Selwyn, a witch burned at the stake in 1692 but living on in the ghost town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, just the place our heroine, Nan Barlow (Vanetia Stevenson), decides to go to research a paper on the occult. She finds the town by way of her professor, played by Christopher Lee. He recommends it to her having grown up there and we soon suspect the Professor may in fact be a member of a coven intent on sacrificing two women every year, one on Candelmas Eve, and one on the Witches' Sabbath.

John Moxey, the film's director, displays a real gift for mood and atmosphere but don't look for any great list of cinematic achievements from him. Except for this feature film and two others he spent his entire career directing nothing but shows and movies made for television, including the original Night Stalker pilot. But here we can see his visual gifts were strong and he takes the rather drab set of the small town with its storefronts and sidewalks straight from the backlot and infuses it with a real sense of claustrophobia, isolation and creeping menace. And he does an admirable job of creating tension and suspense as our two heroes, Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis) and the dim Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), race in the end to rescue the second sacrifice before time runs out, in a climax a bit on the ridiculous side (the way the coven is disposed of is questionable for even the most forgiving viewer). Nonetheless, Moxey does a great job with it and it's a shame he didn't have a more successful career with theatrically released movies.

Christopher Lee, affecting an American accent satisfactorily, does well with a small role as does Valentine Dyall in the role of Jethro, Elizabeth's former lover. But the movie is dragged down in the first half by the lifeless Vanetia Stevenson as Nan Barlow, an actress simply lacking all charisma. It's not that she's bad with her delivery, it's that she's blank in her delivery and had the movie focused on her entirely it would have been a lost cause. Fortunately, many of her scenes are played with Patricia Jessel, an actress of commanding strength who rightly grabs our attention every moment she is on the screen.

City of the Dead isn't as famous as a movie with its sense of atmosphere and mood should be but perhaps that will change. It's in the public domain and has been released on a twofer DVD with William Castle's House on Haunted Hill for a dollar. Yes, a dollar for two movies and yes, believe it or not, it's a pretty good transfer. If you can find a copy of it somewhere for sale I recommend giving it a look.

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Here is the opening sequence to City of the Dead, an opening sequence I absolutely love. You might recognize the shadowy figures at the beginning as being the stars of my first "They're Coming" trailer for October. The last notes of an 'Ave Satani' type chant (16 years before The Omen) can be heard from the credit sequence as we go to 1692 Massachusetts and the burning of Elizabeth Selwyn. The scene ends by abruptly cutting us to the present as Christopher Lee lectures to his students. Enjoy.


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One extra clip. This clip was a "WTF" moment for me when I first saw City of the Dead. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) has been relaxing in her bathrobe and decides to join the guests in the lobby dancing to jazz. In a completely gratuitous moment of "let's show off the blonde" she removes her bathrobe to reveal she is a... French whore! Enjoy.


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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

We Interrupt this October for an Important Announcement

Well, two actually.

Announcement Number One: The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club (TOERIFC) stops for no man, or theme month celebration, and October is no different. Take a break from the spooks and ghouls of October to discuss Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid, October's TOERIFC selection hosted by Tom Sutpen at his blog Illusions Travel by Streetcar. The post goes up on October 19th at 10:00 a.m. and to whet your appetite for the discussion please read this brief but superbly written excerpt from Tom's piece on the film. And by all means, grab this classy sidebar banner (I always like the black and white banners the best) to advertise it at your blog as well. The movie is available from i-tunes, Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand so you have no excuse not to see it before the expiration date. Hope to see you there.



Announcement Number Two: Kevin Olson at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies is hosting the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon from October 19th through the 31st. For more information follow the link to Kevin's place here and again, snag this sidebar banner here (or choose from two more at Kevin's place) to put up on your blog to advertise this grand affair.



Toerifc Number Ten and the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon. Two things to make your October that much better. See you there.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hell Hath no Fury


When I decided that I wanted to explore the passionate side of horror this October, from love to obsession to madness and back again, I knew I wanted to include Christine, John Carpenter's 1983 film version of the Stephen King novel. The story takes the idea of love, obsession and madness and places it between a boy and his car. It's different I thought. Why not mix things up a bit? I wasn't expecting much as I had seen it upon its release back in the day and found it a rather lackluster, run of the mill genre flick. I bought a copy to watch again and prepared myself to write a half-hearted review of a mediocre movie I could neatly pigeon-hole into my October theme. I wasn't even utterly convinced I should watch it again. Would a viewing 26 years later reveal anything new? Would my opinion of it really change all that much? Yes and hell yes. Much to my surprise Christine is a damn good little film. No all-time horror classic mind you, but pretty damn good nonetheless.

One thing that surprised me, and continues to surprise me every time I pop in a genre flick from the late seventies through the mid-eighties, is the deliberate pacing. Genre flicks, from action (especially action) to sci-fi to horror, have eschewed pacing in the last ten years in favor of the adrenalin rush. Smash cuts, ramping, shaky-cam and blurred macro-closeups can all be expected in the first five minutes of a genre flick today with the beauty of the sustained shot ever receding into the past. But Christine builds slowly and beautifully before losing its nerve with a rushed ending that runs counter to all the build-up that came before.

For those unfamiliar with this story of boy meets car Christine begins in 1958 as the Plymouth Fury named Christine rolls off the production line fully painted in sharp contrast to the unpainted models surrounding her. Christine is special which doesn't escape the notice of the men working the line one of whom gets his hand smashed under her hood before another gets killed, presumably by suffocation as he makes the grave error of tipping his cigar ashes onto her seat. Christine doesn't like being mistreated.

Flash-forward 25 years and we meet Arnie (Keith Gordon) and Dennis (John Stockwell), local nerd and football star respectively and friends since childhood. Arnie is a beaten character, dominated by his mother at home and bullys at school. Dennis does his best to defend and protect Arnie from both but it's a losing battle. Then one day Arnie sees Christine, broken down and beaten, just like Arnie, rusting away in the back yard of LeBay, played splendidly by that National Treasure of a character actor Roberts Blossom, an actor in desperate need of a Wanderers write-up. LeBay tells Arnie Christine is special but he's preaching to the choir: Arnie knew Christine was special the moment he saw her. Much to Dennis' and his parent's dismay, Arnie buys Christine and begins to fix her up. Not long after Arnie's behavior changes, dramatically.

There's not much more to tell after that. Arnie fixes Christine up, bullys destroy her, Christine kills bullys. And so on. The last third of the movie is a rush job that does a great disservice to the build-up that precedes it. Consider, in a movie one hour and 46 minutes long, it is not until the 46 minute mark that Christine does anything physically harmful to anyone in the present day story and not until the hour mark that the audience finally gets to see with their own eyes that Christine is indeed possessing of supernatural abilities. This build up contains great creepy moments where hints and suggestions are all the audience has to go on to know something is wrong. Take the moment when Dennis goes back to try to talk LeBay into taking the car back. LeBay refuses and tells Dennis of his late brother, the original owner of Christine. He tells Dennis of the great love his brother had for that car. How his brother's wife and daughter both perished in it and still he drove it. Finally LeBay says he made his brother get rid of the car for decency's sake. He pauses, then looks at Dennis and says, "Of course three weeks later the car came back." That's a great moment but once Christine starts exacting revenge on those around her the great moments disappear into a blur of attack sequences.

What remains impressive about the film despite the rushed conclusion is the visual artistry of John Carpenter and the impressive lead performance by Keith Gordon. Carpenter frames each shot with care and takes the now (and even perhaps then) cliched gimmick of lens flares in the camera and turns it into a character marker for Christine with each flare becoming a sparkling ray of life shining from Christine's "eyes." The film never loses interest visually and the sight of a blazing Plymouth Fury roaring down the highway begs for a second look.

As for Gordon, his performance is as tightly screwed as any in a horror film I can remember. He plays nerdy Arnie so dead on that when he gets into Dennis' car and recounts a story of Scrabble from the night before one can't help but cringe at the awkwardness of his delivery and the fact that he ever thought the story might be of any interest to anyone in the first place. Later when madness and obsession take over Gordon makes the courageous decision to play Arnie as an all-out prick. His character is unlikeable in the extreme and yet sympathy for the plight of this bewitched teenager remains when his pathetic demise occurs.

Christine is a movie that comes pre-packaged with one strike already against it: It's a story about a possessed car. In other words, good luck finding a non-horror fan that's going to give that premise any respect. Its all too by-the-numbers ending, with Christine becoming a non-stop death machine, delivers strike number two. But strike three never comes thanks to a great setup based on suggestion and mood, sharp striking visuals and a great lead performance by Keith Gordon (as well as fine supporting performances by Blossom as LeBay and Harry Dean Stanton as a nosy detective). It's not a great horror film but it's probably a lot better than most people remember.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Creepy Moments #1

All month long I'll be presenting Creepy Moments, just short bits from horror films, or otherwise, that I find eerily effective. The first comes from Carnival of Souls (d. Herk Harvey, 1962). I've cut it off right after the change occurs because it is the moment of the change that I find so effective. One second the sounds of everyday life surround her. The next... silence.


video

Thursday, October 1, 2009

This. Is. Horror.



Dracula is horror. He's not the first horror figure by a long shot, that role belonging to some long-forgotten figure spoken of in the caves and drawn on the walls, probably some part mammoth, some part monster. And he's also not the oldest passed down in writing either, with such figures as the golem far surpassing his longevity. But Dracula is horror. He is monster, myth and menace, sexual menace, rolled into one.

Dracula is dread. He's the guy who comes into your home, into your bedroom, and takes care of your wife or fiance while you're away, or just in another room. When he leaves she has a disease, one that you can't cure unless you kill him before she dies and if she dies first there's nothing to do but drive a stake through her heart and cut off her head. But the part that really stings is... she can't wait for him to come back. And it's not like you can compete with him because you can't. See, it's not about looks because he doesn't have any. He's dirty, has a foul odor, sleeps in a coffin and has hairy palms... and she can't wait for him to come back. But it gets worse: He is most decidedly not a subject of the British Empire. Oh no, he's one of those swarthy types, an Eastern European lacking the refinement of a well-bred, well-educated Anglo-Saxon man. That's right, your girl has the hots for a foreigner. A foreigner who spreads disease and can disarm you physically in seconds, throwing you to the ground or out the window while your best girl pants in expectation and pulls back the sheets. You. Are. Impotent.

Dracula is the Victorian man's worst nightmare. And Dracula can be or mean almost anything. He can be the sexual predator, he can be the untrustworthy foreigner or he can simply be the monster hiding under the bed. The fact that Dracula can stand in for so many ills and dreads of our society as the perfect scapegoat is a testament to how well drawn he is in the epistolary novel written by Bram Stoker and first published in 1897. But I'm not here to talk about his multiple meanings or vampire symbology or why people are so afraid of the whole sense of "other." Rather I am here to state boldly and without reservation that the movie that best understands everything stated in the first two paragraphs is 1958's The Horror of Dracula (Dracula in Britain), directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing.

The Horror of Dracula is a reboot, only they didn't call such things reboots in those days. It takes the basic, very basic, story of the novel and runs with it. The names are changed, the relationships are changed, the plot points are changed. But what they do is more extraordinary than providing a faithful adaptation (that was done by others later and didn't prove very interesting). What they do is cover the themes and ideas of Dracula and throw everything else away. Look not here for a deep reflection upon Van Helsing or Dracula or any of the characters. Look here for the bewitched damsel getting up to open those windows and unlock those doors because he's coming back tonight. Look here for a vampire woman attacking a good English man only to be thrown to the floor by Dracula and later to be staked, through the heart that is, by that very same good English man, already falling victim to the disease himself. Look for children led astray, burned impressions of crucifixes on foreheads, blood spurting death scenes and sunlight sending the unwanted one, that goddamn dark, stinky, swarthy son of a bitch, to his grave, as it were. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Horror of Dracula is about the idea of Dracula. It couldn't give less of a damn about the story of Dracula and that's why it's my favorite of the vampire genre. Because sometimes the best way to adapt a work of one medium to another is to interpret, not transcribe.

Dracula the vampire, and all of his ilk, will play strongly into the ideas and themes discussed this month here at Cinema Styles and so it seems fitting to introduce the month by introducing the Count but make no mistake: There will also be madmen and monsters, witches and ghosts, corpses and killers. It's October and we here at Cinema Styles welcome you and bid you good morning. Let the horror begin.