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Posts Tagged ‘Horror Films’

Shocking News! Movie Trailers Lie!

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Would you believe it? Sometimes movie trailers – especially for horror films – can be deceptive!

As Jordan Crucchiola notes in Vulture, “If you went to see the horror movie It Comes at Night, chances are you saw a movie that was entirely different from the one you were expecting. Based on the movie’s trailers, you might have thought you were getting a highbrow take on a cabin-in-the-woods movie, with an unknown terror waiting to jump out at any moment. What you got instead was a dark, deliberate rumination on what it means to be human in a violent, unstructured world. That’s a movie that one subset of horror fans will love, but it’s not the movie A24 was selling.

This isn’t an exceptional situation. Any time an incredible trailer comes out, fans whip themselves into a state of high anticipation, even while fretting over the possibility that all the cool shots have gone into the previews. It’s long been a play in the bad-movie handbook to dazzle ticket buyers with two minutes of tantalizing material, only to leave them dissatisfied when the movie turns out to be a mess. (Suicide Squad, please stand up.) But what we’re seeing a lot more recently is studios selling good movies with deceptive trailers. It Comes at Night is the most recent example, but it’s hardly alone: One hallmark of the new wave of prestige horror is that the movies are often nothing like the trailers.

In its mood and setting, It Comes at Night is reminiscent of another A24 horror movie The Witch, which was heavily lauded at Sundance and enjoyed healthy studio support for its release last spring. Critics loved it, and it made a lot of money for a micro-budget film — but a lot of viewers walked out of it unsatisfied. While it pulled in a 91 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score was just 56 percent. (The same has happened to It Comes at Night: Audiences, feeling the bait and switch, have given the movie a D CinemaScore rating.)

When people see the word Witch and watch a trailer with lots of exciting 17th-century action, they’re not buying a ticket for a quiet, suspenseful period drama. When expectation doesn’t match reality, fans are bound to be disappointed, no matter how good the movie is. But even if The Witch didn’t live up to the excitement of its trailer, the movie at least had a witch; there’s no ‘it’ in It Comes at Night.”

It’s true; I’ve seen the film, and it’s more of a low key survivalist drama with very little plot, lots of atmospheric lighting, and long sections where various cast members prowl around a large, deserted house in a supposedly post-apocalyptic world – and nothing happens. The set up for the film is admirably sparse; a family in a house is trying to survive as a mysterious illness sweeps the nation in a world after some sort of unspecified global meltdown.

All well and bad, but from there, the film reminds me of nothing so much of the numerous Italian horror films of the 1960s in which the various protagonists would wander through the halls of some ancient castle, candelabra in hand, only to discover after a long series of elegantly executed tracking shots that there’s nothing really happening – other than a “shock” scare that lasts only for a second. It’s a handsomely mounted, but ultimately empty film.

I’m somewhat amazed at the stellar reviews this film is getting; oh, well.

Jason Blum Should Helm Universal’s “Classic Monsters” Project

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

When it comes to horror films, Jason Blum is the smartest man in the room right now.

Here’s a link to a great piece by Amy Nicholson in LA Weekly on Jason Blum, the man behind Blumhouse, the most successful and prolific producer of horror films right now working in Hollywood. As she writes, “an average studio movie costs $75 million, plus another $30 million in marketing. That model is: Go big or give up on making a fortune in China. As a result, audiences moan that Hollywood has become too glossy, too bland, too costly, too safe.

There are too many superhero movies and too few of everything else. Midpriced films have vanished, those solid romantic comedies and middlebrow crowd-pleasers that kept adults happy for decades. Blum’s frighteningly successful formula argues that there’s another way to do business: Think small. Hollywood is intrigued, and it has two questions for him: How does he make movies so cheaply? And can other producers — and other genres — do the same?”

Yes, if they want to do so – and Blum will be the first to admit that not every project works out to his advantage. His production of Jem and The Holograms stiffed, but as he put it, with just a five million dollar budget – generous for Blum – “the model is, really, if everything goes wrong, we will [still] recoup.” And then there’s Whiplash, not a horror film at all, but budgeted at about $3 million, which led, of course, to La La Land.

And, of course, the most interesting and successful film, regardless of genre, of 2017: Get Out, a horror film with real social commentary. That was another $5 million film. Some of Blumhouse’s films never make it to a theater; they’re released via VOD and some just wind up hanging out in the vault, never to be released. But that’s just the minority; Blumhouse has many more hits than failures, both critically and commercially, and that makes him a definite outlier in contemporary Hollywood.

Which leads me to my main point here: Universal’s “Dark Universe” series. Frankly, I’m sick of discussing this, since there are so many other much worthier films to address, but it struck me this morning that since Universal clearly doesn’t know what to do with its most valuable intellectual property, why not give Jason a crack at it?

And the irony is – he works for Universal!

In fact, he has a unique deal in place that he can greenlight any film at all as long as the budget is $3 million or less, and then Universal gets a first look. He’s a smart person, who knows about the history of the genre, and the main figures; Val Lewton, Terence Fisher, James Whale, and all the rest. And Blum uses the key strategy of successful low budget production as one of the cornerstones of his philosophy; use one central location for 90% of the film’s narrative, and you don’t waste a lot of travel days, and cut down considerably on expenses.

Come to think of it, Hammer Films used a house/studio at Bray for their most successful films, many of them brilliant Gothic thrillers shot for a mere pittance – like Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula – so Blum is merely copying, in a sense, a very successful model. Val Lewton, even though he worked for RKO in the 1940s, did the same thing; one set for most of the scenes.

So my thought is this; instead of just doing the “Dark Universe” series of updated action films – like 2017 version of The Mummy, which is raking it in at the box office not because it’s a horror film, but because it’s a Tom Cruise action flick – Universal should initiate a “Classic Monsters Universe,” which reboots all the studio’s major horror figures in an honest and unadulterated fashion, and put Jason Blum in charge.

Keep it simple; one location, unknown actors, perhaps one star (Ethan Hawke loves to work with Blumhouse), and stick faithfully to the source material, making it a genuine horror film which ups the graphic specificity of the material – as Hammer did in the 1950s – without sacrificing the intrinsic integrity of the genre.

It would be great if this series was set off from the other Universal films with it’s own logo at the top; the Universal globe spinning into place, and as it does so, a brief montage of clips from the classic black and white horror films of the 1930s and 40s matted into the center of the screen, alerting audiences to the fact that this will be a return to the values that originally inspired Universal’s classic Gothic thrillers.

The cost – about $5 million a film – would be nothing by Hollywood standards – and Universal could keep the other “Dark Universe” series going at the same time. There’s no reason they have to conflict, since one is really a series of action movies, and the other authentic Gothic horror – and even if everything goes wrong, as Blum notes, “we will recoup.” So something to think about, since franchise films seem to have taken over the mainstream cinema so decisively; why not try something a bit edgier, with little financial risk, and see what happens?

You can read the entire interview here; fascinating stuff.

The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age

Monday, April 17th, 2017

I have a new article out today: “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age.”

As I note in the article, “this essay takes its title from Erle C. Kenton‘s 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’ Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content.

Universal is rebooting their stable of classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy in Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise, with revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow if the film is successful. Significantly, the 2017 Mummy is more of an action film than anything else; it seems that mood and menace will no longer hold an audience. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value?”

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

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen‘s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm‘s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

The Visit may be M. Night Shyamalan’s last chance at mainstream success.

As Chris McKinney argues in the web journal Movie Pilot, “while the majority of movie-goers might identify M. Night Shyamalan as washed up, I don’t. I don’t quite understand what happened to the days when he created films like the Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, but those days seem to have faded from Shyamalan. Every couple of years or so we get another announcement of the next Shyamalan film, and many articles have the same theme, ‘is this going to be when Shyamalan returns?’

I don’t have the answer yet, but because he’s shown an ability to do good work, I’ll always know it’s possible. While many people like to cast blame on directors for bad films, that’s not always the case. Sometimes studios like to put their fingers and toes in on projects, taking away creative freedom from the creator because they’ve somehow convinced themselves they’re the authority on good and bad ideas. While I’d like to use this as an excuse for Shyamalan, I can’t apply it to all his projects; there’s just too many. But what you shouldn’t do if you’re a studio is take and alter a filmmaker’s vision.

At first glance, from the clips I’ve seen, The Visit does have that original M. Night Shyamalan look and feel to it. It feels like a less complex project than we’ve come to see over the last 10 years and that might be a great remedy for him to get back on track.

The film has an estimated $5 million budget, and was somehow secretly filmed in Philadelphia. Shyamalan turned the money he made from the Will Smith produced After Earth, in which Smith clearly used the film as a launchpad for his son, to help fund The Visit. He said The Visit was ‘an attempt to regain artistic control’  after his recent movies had been denied in their final cut and some of those films taken from his hands in post-production.”

While Shyamalan is certainly not a major artist, and seems to have a very limited vision indeed, I think that McKinney is right when he cites big budget Hollywood interference as one of the many possible causes for the relative collapse of Shyamalan’s career of late. But with The Visit, he’s shooting a film on a tight budget, with a tight schedule, and working with Jason Blum, the showman / genius behind Blumhouse Productions, who clearly knows how to market a film, and also how to bring out the best in any existing project.

As just one example, The Visit was originally titled Sundowning, a title that clearly has no punch. Just as with Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (see below), which was originally titled Weirdo, the new title for Shyamalan’s film is much sharper, more direct, and the trailer is a minor wonder of mounting dread in a two minute, thirty second format. But the television spot for the film (click here, or on the image above) is even creepier, and I think the film may well be the path back to mainstream acceptance for Shyamalan.

As always, working with no money is really liberating when you’re making a film; you have almost no interference, and you can do exactly as you please. Most of the film is shot on one location – a large, seemingly comfortable house in the country – with a small cast of relative unknowns. Shyamalan edited the film himself in a mere two weeks, claiming he had to make only “minor adjustments” to get it to work, and in his Twitter account, he seems deeply grateful that Universal is giving him perhaps his last big shot at widespread theatrical distribution for a September 2015 release.

Once again, Blumhouse – horrormeisters extraordinaire, but also the producers of The Normal Heart and Whiplash, intervenes again with a solid sense of both artistic and commercial matters. While the final film may not work, and I may regret writing these words later – or even recant them – for the moment I’m sticking with McKinney, and giving Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt – I hope The Visit works for him. The film is already screening in Australia, and more fine tuning may be in order. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Visit opens September 11, 2015.

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural is a forgotten horror classic – now on DVD.

After the amazing boxoffice and critical success of his film White Zombie (1932), independently produced for a mere $50,000, and starring Bela Lugosi hot off his success with Dracula, Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, decided that with some real resources at his command, director Victor Halperin could create an even greater boxoffice success, and offered him a chance to make a major studio production. The result was Supernatural, surely one of the most unusual and poetic films ever made in Hollywood during the Pre-Code era.

Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is a rich young heiress whose brother John (Lyman Williams) has recently died in an unspecified accident. Inconsolable, she turns to phony psychic Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who promises to contact her brother during a séance. Meanwhile, convicted murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) has been found guilty in the strangling death of three men, something that Bavian had knowledge of, and betrayed her to the police. After Rogen’s death in the electric chair, her body is claimed by psychologist/scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), whos attempt to stop Rogen’s malevolent spirit from passing on to someone else.

Roma, however, stumbles into Houston’s laboratory just as the doctor is attempting to exorcise Rogen’s spirit, which immediately takes possession of Roma’s body, forcing Roma to carry out Rogen’s plan of revenge against Bavian. In yet another subplot, Bavian’s landlady Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer) discovers Bavian’s plot to steal Roma’s money through a series of supposed “messages from the beyond” from her deceased brother.

In response, Bavian promptly murders her, and then throws her body on the elevated railway tracks to cover up evidence of the killing. I’ll stop with the plot summary at this point, if only because I don’t want to give any more away – suffice it to say that events continue in a downward spiral until a rather reasonably happy ending brings the film to a satisfatory conclusion.

At just 65 minutes, the film is more a mood piece than anything else, and Halperin used most of his technical crew from White Zombie to create the film, albeit on a much more generous budget. Randolph Scott, in an early role, plays Grant Wilson, Roma’s predictable love interest, but has little to do in the film, and it’s clear that Halperin is more interested in creating a sensuously sinister atmosphere than anything else, as in another Paramount entry from the same period, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls.

With richly detailed camerawork by the gifted Arthur Martinelli, Supernatural proceeds as a fever dream devoid of logic but suffused with an odd sensibility of eternal waiting that was Halperin’s trademark; sadly, the film was not as successful as White Zombie, and has more or less fallen out of the public consciousness.

Writing in The New York Times upon the film’s initial release in 1933, critic Mordaunt Hall noted that “notwithstanding the incredibility of many of its main incidents, Supernatural, the present picture at the Paramount, succeeds in awakening no little interest in its spooky doings. It not only depicts the various tricks of a charlatan spiritualist but also undertakes through camera wizardry to show the spirit of a dead murderess entering the body of a wholesome girl and causing her to behave like a savage.

The story, which owes its origin to one written by Garnett Weston, is worked out shrewdly and the scenes are for the most part pictured in a fashion suited to the eerie happenings. At the outset one is reminded that Confucius issued a warning to treat all supernatural beings with respect, but to keep aloof from them. Mohammed and the New Testament also are quoted and to put the spectator in a receptive mood there are wind and rain and dirgelike music.

Allan Dinehart plays the crooked spiritualist, Paul Bavian, who is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his methods to extort money from a wealthy girl named Roma Courtney. Bavian had been on intimate terms with Ruth Rogen, who, after killing three of her lovers, expiates her crimes in the electric chair. It is the theory of a Dr. Houston that the spirits of dead evildoers continue to commit crimes through other flesh and blood mediums. He has more than a mere suspicion that Ruth Rogen’s spirit will be running amuck and that susceptible women had better keep out of its way.

It is not disclosing any great secret to say that Bavian has an easy way of getting rid of those who thwart him. A little poison in a ring, a handshake and they die. This sinister faker writes to Roma telling her that he has heard from the spirit of her brother, who recently died, and that he (Bavian) was requested to summon her. This missive subsequently leads to Roma and others visiting Bavian’s apartment, where the crook pretends to go into a trance and in an artful manner impresses the girl.”

The film received similarly respectful notices from most other critics, but ultimately, Supernatural was too subtle to entice the public to see it in droves; and Lombard was apparently unhappy with her role as a possessed killer, feeling much more at home in comedy – and she was right; the film remains an interesting one-off in her screen career, which ended with her tragic death in 1942 while on a War Bond tour. Nevertheless, Supernatural remains a peculiar, but deeply felt project, and one of the most innovative and neglected films of Hollywood in the early 1930s.

An odd film in every respect, Supernatural deserves your attention; it’s a film that resonates in one’s memory.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

Looking for a truly original, really scary horror film? Try Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook.

As Wikipedia notes, “Kent studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art [in Australia]—where she learned acting alongside Babadook‘s lead actor, Essie Davis—and graduated in 1991. She then worked primarily as an actor in the film industry for over two decades. Kent eventually lost her passion for acting by the end of the 20th century and sent a written proposal to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist on the film set of von Trier’s 2003 drama film, Dogville, to learn from the director. Kent’s proposal was accepted and she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.

Prior to Babadook, Kent’s first-ever feature film, she had completed a short film, titled Monster, and an episode of the television series Two Twisted. Kent explained in May 2014 that the origins of Babadook can be found in Monster, which she calls ‘baby Babadook.’ . . . Kent has stated that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness with ourselves, the ‘fear of going mad’ and an exploration of parenting from a ‘real perspective’ . . .  In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable, so that “we [the audience] really feel for them” . . .

Kent drew from her experience on the set of Dogville for the assembling of her production team, as she observed that von Triers was surrounded by a well-known ‘family of people.’ Therefore, Kent sought her own ‘family of collaborators to work with for the long term.’ Unable to find all of the suitable people within the Australian film industry, Kent hired Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk, for whom Babadook was his first-ever English-language film, and American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. In terms of film influences, Kent cited 1970s and ’80s horror—including [John Carpenter’s version of] The Thing, Halloween, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining and Let The Right One In—as well as Vampyr and Nosferatu.”

Partially crowd funded on Kickstarter, and completed for roughly $1.5 million US dollars, The Babadook has received numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a screening at the Sundance Film festival, and when it opened theatrically in the United States on November 28, 2014, the critical response was equally adulatory. But since it isn’t a mainstream release, and as yet is available only on Australian DVD – an all region version, however, so I bought it immediately – you can only see it on demand, if you’re lucky enough to have it on your cable system, or in a theater if you live in New York City or another major metropolis.

This, of course, is the real tragedy here – this is an intelligent, absolutely riveting and completely original film that will keep you guessing right up to the last frame, and at the same time scare you to death, as a horror film should, but without the requisite gore and misogyny that seems to mar the horror genre of late – and it deserves the widest possible audience. There are echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw here, at least for me, and traces of De Maupasssant’s The Horla, and the overall feel of the film is akin to Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents, but The Babadook is really a completely unique vision, immaculately photographed in CinemaScope and suitably subdued color.

As Anthony Lane wrote in his ecstatic review of the film in The New Yorker, “let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. It would curb so many antiquated tropes: the use of young women, say, underdressed or not dressed at all, who are barely fleshed out as characters before that flesh is coveted, wounded, or worse. Beyond that, the law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition. Such thoughts are prompted by The Babadook, a fine new Australian film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is about a woman in peril, yet it has no truck with the notion that she is a mere victim. At times, indeed, the peril seems to be, if not her fault, at least of her own making. Is she the sum of all fears, or the root of them?

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, living in a small and ill-lit house with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her only child. He is unmanageable, but, then, his origins were dire; his father was killed in a car crash, nearly seven years ago, as he drove Amelia, who was in labor with Samuel, to the hospital. Now it’s just the two of them, although they are soon joined by an unexpected third. The Babadook is towering and dark; he looms taller as you look at him, like an unhappy memory that swells in the traumatized mind. He wears a top hat, like the Artful Dodger, and his hands could be a child’s drawing of hands—a splay of simple spikes. He cleaves to what we ask of our monsters, that they be both amorphous and acute: oozily hard to pin down, but manifestly there, like a knife against the throat. His name has a nice Australian tang; Aboriginal legend tells of a frog called the Tiddalik, with an insatiable thirst.”

Watch the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above; then see the film as soon as you can – it’s that good.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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