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.”
Posts Tagged ‘Horror Films’
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.
As I note, “The Conjuring is a remarkably traditional film in both style and content; once again exorcism and possession are ramped up for the usual thrill ride, complete with objects flying around the house, children in peril, a possessed mother, ghosts from the past tormenting the living, with special effects that seem remarkably similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the film that really kicked off the whole trend nearly half a century ago. Indeed, the film itself is set in the early 1970s, and everything about it seems linked to the past; one might easily imagine that it was shot in the 1970s, as well. And, of course, it’s based on a true story!
Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a crumbling isolated house in the middle of nowhere because it’s the best deal they can get; they don’t have much money, and the house is a real fixer-upper. Having gotten the property from the bank in a foreclosure proceeding for a song, they haven’t really inquired too closely into the house’s past – like, for example, the fact that it has a walled off cellar that apparently no one ever told them about, or that several murders and suicides have taken place on the grounds, but hey – a bargain is a bargain.”
This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.
As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”
“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.
“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema
“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College
This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.
As I argue in my essay, “the films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought.
In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.
Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.”
Following years of a certain radioactive beast’s domination at the box office, many Japanese studios tried to replicate the formula with their own brands of monster movies. One of the most fascinating, if short-lived, dives into that fiendish deep end was the one by Shochiku, a studio better known for elegant dramas by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment. This four DVD set contains impeccable transfers of the following films, at least two of which are much better than the promotional material suggests:
THE X FROM OUTER SPACE
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1967
When a crew of scientists returns from Mars with a sample of the space spores that contaminated their ship, they inadvertently bring about a nightmarish earth invasion.
GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL
Hajime Sato 1968
After an airplane is forced to crash-land in a remote area, its passengers find themselves face-to-face with an alien force that wants to possess them body and soul—and perhaps take over the entire human race.
THE LIVING SKELETON
Hiroshi Matsuno 1968
In this atmospheric tale of revenge from beyond the watery grave, a pirate-ransacked freighter’s violent past comes back to haunt a young woman living in a seaside town.
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1968
The insects are taking over in this nasty piece of disaster horror directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu. A group of military personnel transporting a hydrogen bomb are left to figure out how and why swarms of killer bugs took down their plane.
Of these, Genocide and The Living Skeleton are easily the most interesting entries. Genocide is an intriguing genre hotwire fusing elements of the Yakuza crime films, horror and science fiction films, melded together with a political subtext which becomes more pronounced as the film rockets through its brief 84 minute running time. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the American occupation forces in the film are clearly the villains of the piece, and when the film finally crashes to an abrupt halt with an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, I guarantee that you won’t have seen it coming. It’s a fascinating pop culture commentary on the uneasy truce between East and West during the waning years of the Cold War, when the tensions of World War II — particularly in Japan — were still omnipresent.
The Living Skeleton, the only film of the group shot in black and white CinemaScope, comes off like a moody mixture of Carl Th. Dreyer meets Lucio Fulci, with nods to Val Lewton and the early films of AIP along the way. The film is, to my mind, the most accomplished and sophisticated of the quartet in terms of its visual structure and narrative, while Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The X From Outer Space are more traditional Japanese horror movies, though Goke does have an usually downbeat conclusion, as do all of the films here; happy endings are definitely not on the menu.
My only caveat is the liner notes, which occasionally descend into dreaded fanboy territory; factually accurate, they nevertheless display an unfortunate condescension to the films — partially deserved, it must be admitted — but in doing so, the notes miss much of the pop culture relevance of the films, even though they allude to this in passing. Still, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in pop culture of the 1960s, genre films, or the ways in which various genres can be used to deliver a potent social and political message in the guise of escapist entertainment.
I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.
Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.
But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.
Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.
But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.
As Choice notes, the list of Outstanding Academic Books “comprise[s] less than 9 percent of the titles reviewed during 2011 and 2.5 percent of those submitted during that same time span, [ensuring that] these exceptional titles are truly the ‘best of the best.’” In addition, A History of Horror will be released as an audiobook by Redwood Audiobooks in 2012, and has just gone into a second printing from Rutgers.
Ever since horror leapt from popular fiction to the silver screen in the late 1890s, viewers have experienced fear and pleasure in exquisite combination. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is the only book to offer a comprehensive survey of this ever-popular film genre.
Arranged by decades, with outliers and franchise films overlapping some years, this one-stop sourcebook unearths the historical origins of characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman and their various incarnations in film from the silent era to comedic sequels. A History of Horror explores how the horror film fits into the Hollywood studio system and how its enormous success in American and European culture expanded globally over time.
Dixon examines key periods in the horror film—in which the basic precepts of the genre were established, then burnished into conveniently reliable and malleable forms, and then, after collapsing into parody, rose again and again to create new levels of intensity and menace. A History of Horror, supported by rare stills from classic films, brings fifty timeless horror films into frightfully clear focus, zooms in on today’s top horror web sites, and champions the stars, directors, and subgenres that make the horror film so exciting and popular with contemporary audiences. More than 50 rare stills from classic examples of the genre illustrate the text.
“This is an excellent survey of horror movies. The author, a veteran film historian, takes the reader back to the beginning, when, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, such directors as Georges Melies, F. W. Murnau, and Paul Wegener were defining not only the look of a genre but also cinema itself. The period between 1930 and the late 1940s saw the rise of the classic Universal Studios characters —Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy—and the actors who played them: Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr. By the end of the 1940s, horror was dying, “killed by a plethora of poorly made sequels.” But never fear: the period between the late ‘40s and 1970 saw a massive resurgence, due in part to gimmicks (such as 3-D); low-budget quickies from the likes of Roger Corman, the wizard of the B movie; and the stylish resurrection of the classic Universal monsters by Britain’s Hammer Film Productions. This survey, which takes the reader right up to the present, is full of fascinating information and is delivered in an accessible manner. Required reading for horror fans.” — David Pitt, Booklist, August 4, 2010
“Dixon surveys the development of the horror genre from the earliest Frankenstein and Dracula films through the decades of classics by Hammer studios, William Castle, Roger Corman, and Val Lewton. Dixon covers movies seldom found in other histories and more modern, international titles such as Wolf Creek, Black Water, and The Grudge. The endurance of horror, trends like remakes and sequels, and such popular franchises as Child’s Play and Halloween are also discussed. In the final chapter, Dixon analyzes the decline of modern horror owing to desensitized audiences, graphic gore, violence, and lack of solid plot lines or character development. Lists of the best horror websites as well as the 50 movies covered round out this volume [. . .] This concise overview is an informative and entertaining read [. . .] Recommended for all libraries.” —Rosalind Dayen, Library Journal, September 16, 2010.
“In less than 250 pages, author Wheeler Winston Dixon manages to cover the trends and sub-genres of film horror from 1896 to 2009. Bonuses include a list of top horror sites, a list of fifty classic films, and a pretty wonderful bibliography. Dixon offers analysis without lapsing into academic language. He also provides the occasional behind-the-scenes anecdote. The main purpose of A History of Horror, however, seems to be delineating themes and trends as they work their way through each generation of horror filmmaking. At this the author excels, and the result is much more useful to fans than the clumsy attempts at thematic links provided by Amazon and Netflix. I found several titles that were completely unfamiliar to me and added them to my ‘watch instantly’ list [. . . ] Well written and well researched [. . . ] and offering an enjoyable overview of more than one hundred years of cinema, A History of Horror is a quick, delightful read. If you appreciate lucid, informed, but not stuffy analysis, here’s your guide.” — S. P. Miskowski, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, November 5, 2010
“[Dixon's] book is a page-turner! It is a fabulous piece of work. A breathtaking panorama, written with wit and candor, showing how the horror film has shaped cinema from its the origins of the genre until now. I am really thrilled by the way A History of Horror refuses to fetishize the horror film at the same time it brings into view the complexities of history informing the genre. The very critical assessment of recent films in the final pages is a reminder to readers and filmmakers that, as the author has done himself, they would do well to take keen note of its rich and variegated past in view of its reinvention.” –Tom Conley, Harvard University
“Rich with excellent illustrations and clever anecdotes, this book will appeal to fans of horror as well as film students and scholars interested in a readable overview of the history of the genre.” — Rebecca Bell-Metereau, author of Hollywood Androgyny
“There is a wealth of research material here for anyone willing to follow Dixon’s many threads [. . .] the author offers generous and moving portraits of three American giants of horror: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. [. . .] Dixon’s book is illustrated with a sprinkling of photos from the classic moments of the horror film genre. We see Lugosi as Count Dracula, Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Linda Blair looking possessed, Sissy Spacek covered with blood in Carrie, an unusually maniacal Jack Nicholson from The Shining, and more gore-bedecked actors than one could shake a skull at.” — Martin A. David, New York Journal of Books
“The metric ton of movies listed in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror could have easily overwhelmed. However, thanks to witty and clever summations, as well as his ability to group films in such a way as to provide an excellent overview, the book is a breeze for this horror fan . . . even a casual reader will find themselves needing to keep a notepad handy, so as to keep track of everything you’ll want to search out.” –Nick Spacek, Rock Star Journalist
“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.” —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
From Wikipedia: “Dead of Night (1945) is a British portmanteau horror film made by Ealing Studios, its various episodes directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. The film stars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave. The film is probably best-remembered for the ventriloquist’s dummy episode starring Redgrave. Dead of Night stands out from British film of the 1940s, when few genre films were being produced, and it had a huge influence on subsequent British horror films; most particularly, the anthology films produced by Amicus in the 1960s and early 1970s.”
From Screenonline: “Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is one of just a handful of ‘true’ horror films of British cinema’s first half-century, and certainly the most important film in that genre until the beginning of Hammer’s horror cycle a decade later. Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing’s.
The film was a truly collaborative venture, including many of the figures who dominated Ealing’s output during and after the War. Directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer, writer T.E.B. Clarke and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe represent the popular Ealing comedies; writer Angus McPhail was active at Ealing as early as 1939; Basil Dearden would pioneer the postwar ’social problem’ film; veteran Alberto Cavalcanti had already made his mark with Went the Day Well? (1943) and was a hugely influential figure at Ealing, despite directing only one further film there. Another studio mainstay, director Charles Frend, was forced to pull out early in the production due to other commitments. The cast included Ealing regulars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.
Dead of Night stands up well despite the passing years. The linking narrative, directed by Dearden, holds the film together effectively, building up the sense of dread towards the suitably delirious conclusion. The five supernatural tales may be uneven, but Cavalcanti’s story – a talented ventriloquist is driven to attempted murder by his apparently conscious dummy – is eerie and gripping, and features a powerful performance by Michael Redgrave as the troubled and finally unhinged ventriloquist. Even better is the story by first-time director Hamer, in which an antique mirror with a dark history exposes the cracks in the relationship of smug middle-class couple Peter (Michael) and Joan (Withers).
The film sets up a classic horror genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer a rationalist interpretation of his fellow guests’ stories are dismissed and, finally, he pays for his scepticism with his life. Despite its success, Dead of Night was a dead-end for Ealing, which never really dabbled in horror again; the genre largely went back underground until the Hammer era.” – Mark Duguid
About the Author
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 numerous books and more than 70 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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/