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Posts Tagged ‘Horror Films’

Terence Fisher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958)

“Do I believe in the supernatural? Oh yes, certainly. I can’t believe, I can’t accept that you die and that’s the end. Physically maybe it is a fact. But there’s something about the mind that’s more than that.”

Terence Fisher is the director who brought the modern horror film to life, with his Hammer Films classics Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which were simultaneously more faithful to their source material, and also, as the image above aptly demonstrates, far more brutal in their execution.

I am admire Fisher deeply, and consider him, in a way, the John Ford of England, working within the mythos of the British Gothic tradition, in the same way that Ford embraced the American Western. I wrote a book about Fisher a long time back, which remains the only full-length study of his work as a director, now unfortunately out of print: “The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher,” which makes this case in detail.

Fisher took his work as a horror director absolutely seriously; his films depict a deeply Christian struggle between good and evil, in which good inevitably wins, but only after a prolonged and difficult struggle, which is articulated perhaps most fully in his late film The Devil’s Bride (1968).

Here’s more on Fisher, and if you have the time and inclination, you should seek out his major films and view them. He is, without any doubt, the person who brought the horror film back to life after Universal had abandoned the classic monsters in the late 1940s, in an entirely new form.

The Skull

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Patrick Wymark and Peter Cushing contemplate The Skull

Those who are in the mood for an atmospheric and intelligent horror film could do much worse than checking out The Skull, a 1965 horror film directed by Freddie Francis from a script by Robert Bloch, based on his short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Recently released in an immaculate DVD in both regular and Blu-ray formats, in its original Techniscope / Technicolor aspect ratio, and boasting a cast that includes Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green and Jill Bennett, with music by avant-garde symphonic composer Elisabeth Lutyens, The Skull is perhaps Francis’ masterpiece as a director, and if you haven’t seen it — well, what are you waiting for?

Those who are looking for gore will be disappointed, but those who can appreciate an intelligent and superbly photographed film — the last 30 minutes are absolutely wordless, consisting only of a series of ever more ominous images as the skull takes possession of those who would trifle with it — recall the best of Val Lewton’s 1940s films, and remain as arresting and evocative as when they were first presented on the screen. Francis also photographed numerous films for other directors, including David Lynch’s Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story – this is the work of a master craftsman, who won two Academy Awards for his cinematography on Sons and Lovers and Glory. As a director, his work is hard-edged, brutal, and always stylish.

Here’s the trailer for the film – now get the DVD before they’re all gone.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Here’s a real curiosity – one that lingers in the mind long after the last frame has vanished.

One of the most curious horror films of the late 1950s, Edward L. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) centers on Professor Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz), a “professor of Occult Sciences” at an unspecified university, who is convinced that he and all the male members of the Drake family are victims of an ancient curse, handed down from his descendants, who as colonialist explorers massacred all the members of a Jivaro native tribe in South America in the late 1800s.

As a result, every male member of the Drake family dies of a mysterious paralysis at the age of 60, and Jonathan Drake is 59 1/2. Further, before the bodies can be buried, they are mysteriously beheaded, and only the skulls are returned to the family for burial. Nor is Jonathan mistaken in his apprehensions, as a supernatural agent of the Jivaros, Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) is working feverishly to make sure that the curse does, indeed, descend upon Jonathan Drake, the last male member of his family line.

The film opens with a quotation from Act 3, scene ii of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”), and Drake muses, “What if Shakespeare were right? What if the power for good dies when the mind dies, and that only the evil men do lives after them?” What follows is a curious mixture of the obvious and the hypnotic, intertwined into a narrative that is at once preposterous and yet grimly serious, directed by Cahn as if in a trance.

As Zurich notes late in the film, “when the head of a strong, valiant enemy is properly taken, the possessor acquires the spirit, the soul, the vital spark that kept his enemy alive – a degree of immortality.” So it is with this absolutely singular film, a curious artifact of 50s pop culture that, like its undead protagonist, refuses to die.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this deeply peculiar film.

Classic Comedies: Young Frankenstein

Monday, August 1st, 2011

An affectionate spoof of the Universal Frankenstein series of horror films from the 1930s and early 40s, appropriately shot in period-style black and white, Young Frankenstein (1974) is writer/director Mel Brooks’ tribute to the undying legend of the Frankenstein monster, played for laughs with a superb cast that wrings every ounce of parody out of the source material. The film almost immediately became a cult hit, and is frequently revived today; what makes the film so effective is its combination of visual stylization, coupled with Brooks’ irresistible Borscht belt humor. This, in short, is slapstick comedy at its finest, and one of the funniest films produced in American during the 1970s.

Actor Gene Wilder, who collaborated on the screenplay of Young Frankenstein with Brooks, plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who continually insists that his name is properly pronounced “Frahnkenstein,” and avoids any mention of his infamous ancestor. As Young Frankenstein opens, Frederick Frankenstein is working as a lecturer at an American medical school, but soon news arrives that he has inherited his grandfather’s ornate castle in Transylvania. Arriving to claim his birthright, he meets Inga (Teri Garr), who will become his assistant; Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), a stern taskmaster who urges him to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps; and Igor (Marty Feldman), a hunchback whom Frankenstein soon presses into service in his experiments.

In short order, Frankenstein and his motley crew of associates have whipped up a new monster (Peter Boyle), assembled from the body of a recently executed criminal, but handicapped by an “abnormal brain” that makes him unpredictably violent. Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars, in a parody of a role made famous by actor Lionel Atwill in the original films) is suspicious of the activities in Frankenstein’s laboratory (which used the original “mad lab” equipment designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for the original 1931 film, and its subsequent sequels). When the monster escapes, he is briefly befriended by a blind hermit (Gene Hackman), but is soon recaptured by Frankenstein, who dresses him in white tie and tails and teaches him to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for a group of amazed fellow scientists.

More plot complications lead up to an obligatory happy ending, but the film’s real strength lies in its deep respect for the original Frankenstein films, starting with director James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and continuing on though Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and director Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939). Brooks’ film borrows plot elements, characters, and situations from all of these films, and yet manages to remain both fresh and funny entirely on its own terms.

Much later, Brooks would transform Young Frankenstein into a successful Broadway musical, but the 1974 film version is easily the better production, and is often screened at “midnight matinees” in film theaters around the world. Brooks parodies the Frankenstein legend, but at the same time, he is faithful to it, resulting in a film that even purists can enjoy, and one of the most successful comedy films of all time.

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 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 wdixon1@unl.edu.

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