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House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

With Halloween coming up, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged on this classic horror film.

Please forget the terrible 1999 remake, which many people consider the only version of this film – this is the original, directed in stark black and white by William Castle, starring Vincent Price as an apparently eccentric millionaire who throws a “haunted house party,” where each of the guests will collect $10,000 for attending – if they survive until dawn. As critic Fred Beldin wrote, “cinema showman William Castle’s best films are imbued with an infectious sense of mischief that overcomes deficiencies, and House on Haunted Hill is no exception. An excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price and one of Castle’s most beloved concoctions, this lightweight ghost story is lots of fun even without the director’s trademark theater gimmicks. Price is in prime form, alternating between pure ham and quiet subtlety, able to express a macabre notion simply by arching an eyebrow. Co-star Elisha Cook Jr. has only one task here, to look shell-shocked and mutter predictions of doom, and he performs it with twitchy, sweaty aplomb. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with only ingenue Carolyn Craig standing out via her shrill shrieks and stilted line readings. Castle directs House on Haunted Hill to be spooky rather than frightening, with floating skeletons and flickering candlelight, but a few ghastly images of acid baths and hanged women slide in for the E.C. Comics crowd. Campy and creepy in equal measures, House on Haunted Hill deserves its status as a horror classic.”

You can see the entire film now, for free, by clicking on the image above.

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

The 15 Best Silent Horror Films You Can Watch On YouTube

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Jake Walters of Taste of Cinema has compiled an excellent list – with videos – of fifteen classic horror films.

It’s getting closer and closer to Halloween, and Jake Walters of Taste of Cinema has thoughtfully compiled an annotated list of some of the greatest silent horror films that you can watch – for free – on YouTube. As he writes, “early cinema was less a known quantity bolstered up by professionalism and stately film-making than a playground of pure delight, a cavalcade of wonders experiencing the birth pains of newness to the world. In place of a defined set of filmic rules, men and women were free to exploit the unease of the medium to create works of wonder and awe that looked to all inspirations and mashed them together with cheerful abandon. Silent cinema, when traditional narrative film-making was still finding its legs, was a time of wild-man exploration, when film could descend to the pit of man’s fears and the heights of human desire. And all without too much of a pesky plot to get in the way.

Fittingly, the genre that saw the greatest fruits for silent cinema was horror. Horror was never particularly well fitted to narrative – perhaps tellingly the genre found its greatest and most consistent prestige during the silent era. A focus on story often only had the effect of distracting from the more primal, primordial haunted imagery and the raw, viciously oppressive direct sensation of experiencing a screen of demented wonders. Silent horror was a place for audiences to directly address the screen, to confront images placed before them, and for those images to imbue themselves less onto the thinking mind than the unconscious one. While it wasn’t busy trying to make logical sense, silent horror found time to capture the human soul in all its facets, laid bare and split open uncomfortably and given to us on a silver platter. Even when they don’t scare, silent horror films provoke in untold ways that often can’t be described through written word. To this extent, here are fifteen of the greatest silent horror films.”

You can see all fifteen films by clicking here, or on the image above.

Netflix Steps Into Feature Films

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Netflix plans to make feature films that bypass traditional theatrical exhibition entirely.

As Gregg Kilday writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos shook up the Hollywood status quo twice this week with a couple of announcements signaling that the streaming video service is out to up-end the existing movie business just as it’s challenged the television industry. On Sept. 29, he announced a deal with the Weinstein Co. to finance the sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, which will premiere on Netflix and in Imax theaters on Aug. 28. In a backlash from theater owners, exhibition giants Regal, AMC Theatres and Cinemark said they wouldn’t show the film on their own Imax screens.

Then, the following day, Sarandos announced an even more ambitious pact:  a deal to make four movies starring and produced by Adam Sandler (who also retains a non-exclusive, first-look deal at Sony). All four movies will debut exclusively on Netflix. Having dropped those two bombshells, Sarandos explains how Netflix’s growing global imprint has influenced the decision to begin producing original movies, why Sandler was willing to forego theatrical releases for the films and how exhibitors, resisting change, have all reacted ‘in lockstep.’”

This is a real game changer – you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

Why Do You Watch Ads on YouTube?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Really, why do you watch those damned ads on YouTube?

Erika Morphy of E-Commerce times asked me the same question, and as I told her, “YouTube encourages the viewer, more than other sites, to constantly keep clicking from one image source to the next, and with many of the ads starting automatically at the top of the video — though some have a five second ‘opt out’ feature — the temptation to click on the video to see what it might offer is almost overwhelming. Viewers essentially see ads on YouTube as another video, rather than being a commercial — just another video to click on and view. In a world which exists entirely through clicks, the viewer just keeps on hitting the next button, and then the next, until the entire site becomes a seamless blend of content and commercial advertising.”

You can read the whole story here; YouTube really is now all advertising – the death of a platform.

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Why Can’t You Stop Watching Netflix? – CNN

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Netflix wants you as a viewer – and you’re responding – in droves.

As Todd Leopold writes in today’s CNN.com, “the streaming and DVD service [Netflix] knows what you’ve rented and streamed and how long it took you to watch. It knows what genres you like and what performers you prefer. Who knows? It may even have an idea whether you prefer your popcorn lightly salted or slathered with butter. (Don’t want the rest of the world to know? It’s also testing a privacy mode.)

It has taken this knowledge and managed to produce a few hits of its own — not just with audiences, but also within the industry. Netflix is having a moment. Its series, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, recently picked up 31 Emmy nominations. Wall Street approves of the strategy, having bid up Netflix’s share price 10-fold in the last five years.

And the audience? Netflix just announced it has cracked 50 million subscribers, more than double the number it had just four years ago. It has taken some old showbiz lessons — trust the creatives, budget them appropriately — and added some new twists: Binge-watching. Deep data mining. Exploiting the catalog as if there were nowhere else to go.

Can it maintain its dominance? It wasn’t so long ago that the place was posting losses and alienating customers. Pop culture doesn’t sit still, and neither does business. Netflix, which helped drive Blockbuster into oblivion, has to watch challenges from distributors such as Amazon and Hulu — not to mention stay friendly with content providers like movie studios.”

What will happen next? Stay tuned – I contributed a few thoughts to this piece.

 

Approved for All Audiences: A Brief History of the Modern Movie Trailer

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Gary Susman has an excellent overview of the movie trailer in Yahoo News with my comments.

As he notes, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, movie trailers were just commercials, disposable ads for upcoming films. Then, in 1998, came the trailer for what was then the most eagerly awaited movie in years: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Fans bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to see the Star Wars clip and walked out before the supposed main attraction started.

In a pre-broadband, pre-YouTube era, fans downloaded the Phantom Menace promo millions of times, poring over it for clues. And an evolution that had begun more than 20 years earlier finally became evident: the modest movie trailer had grown into an attraction in itself, one as worthy of scrutiny and appreciation as the art form it advertised.

Today, the Internet has made available to us a cornucopia of trailers we can watch when we want, as often as we want, for free. In addition to tracking the box office, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter now chart the most popular new trailers as well, with the top clips scoring in the millions of streaming views. (The Fault in Our Stars trailer, at this writing, has drawn more than 25 million viewers, more than twice as many as have bought tickets to the hit movie itself.) And online critics can now give close readings of trailers the way they do for full-length films.

The humble film promo wasn’t necessarily built to withstand such intense scrutiny. But over the past 50 years or so, trailers have matured into bite-size pop-art commodities, worthy of both critical study and mass consumption. (Indeed, it’s easy to watch the online clips the way we eat popcorn, one morsel after another, after another.) Here’s a brief history of how trailers have come into their own.”

You can read the entire piece by clicking here or on the image above; lots of great trailers embedded throughout.

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

80,000 British Pathé Newsreel Clips Free Online

Monday, May 19th, 2014

British Pathé Newsreel has put up more than 80,000 newsreel clips on YouTube  – all free.

As the site notes, “Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cinemagazines, and documentaries from 1910 until 1976 in the United Kingdom. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era. The Pathé News archive is known today as British Pathé. Its collection of news film and movies is fully digitized and available online. Follow us through the 20th Century and dive into the good and the bad times of the past. Feel free to explore more than 80,000 videos of filmed history and maybe you’ll find stuff no one else has ever seen. From next week on you’ll get a new playlists each Monday and Thursday, a special collection of videos we’ve picked out for you. On top of that you’ll get a weekly highlight video every Friday! Look forward to Top Ten lists, special occasions and recent events put into context. Have fun with 3,500 hours of filmed history!”

This is a truly amazing resource; click here, or on the image above, to access the entire library – free!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/