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Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I have a review essay out today on the new film 300: Rise of An Empire in Film International.

As I write, “It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called ‘quality’ films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.

You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard ‘I want revenge’ card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.

That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; ‘Bloody Sam’ would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.”

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

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014)

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Four years ago, Gareth Edwards (that’s him above) made a small and very effective film, Monsters (2010).

That film cost practically nothing, and was shot on location in Mexico on a catch as catch can basis, picking up scenes along the way and then repropping them with low cost but very effective CGI enhancement, something that Edwards is really good at. At the time, Edwards said that with Monsters, he wanted to create a film that was a cross between War of The Worlds and Lost in Translation, and oddly enough, the film was just that; a thoughtful, low key monster film, in which the monsters were kept out of view for most of the movie, only to be revealed rather spectacularly at a gas station in the middle of the desert in the film’s final moments.

Now, he’s back, with something much more conventional; yet another reboot of Godzilla, based on the 1954 Ishiro Honda original. Actually, Godzilla – both the character, and the movie – could really use a reboot, for once, since it’s been the subject of so many subpar remakes and sequels, not to mention – let’s please don’t mention – the miserable Matthew Broderick remake a few years back. But here, Edwards seems to be taking a Christopher Nolan approach to the material, and the cast is first rate; Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche all are involved. So this may work.

Click here to view the trailer , which is full of destruction, but no monster until the very end. Check it out.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Catching Fire Flames Out

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my review of Catching Fire in the November 22, 2013 issue of Cinespect, edited by Charles Meyer.

I open with the text above, and continue by noting that in the film, “stalwart Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again pressed into service in a new round of Hunger Games, while tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) rigs the games to kill all the previous winners by pitting them against one another in a special 75th anniversary edition of the contest.

This time around, Snow is assisted by the newly installed Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his ‘games master,’ while Katniss is aided by her old cohorts Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as she readies herself for the competition, which is once again emceed by the unctuous Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his fey sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).

But things don’t go as smoothly for President Snow as they did in the initial entry of the trilogy; in fact, there’s already an insurrection brewing at the start of the film, and inevitably, the unrest snowballs until it threatens to engulf Snow’s dreams of empire. The film is certainly elaborate enough. The production design is appropriately Riefenstahlian, the sets are grandiose and overblown, the special effects are state of the art, and the combat sequences are suitably violent for a PG-13 project, but the film never, shall we say, catches fire.”

You can read the rest of the review here; but I can’t recommend that you see the film.

Andy’s Gang, or Saturday Morning of the Living Dead

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I have a new article in Film International on the utterly bizarre 1950s children’s television show Andy’s Gang.

As I write, in part, “let us now consider Andy’s Gang, a horrific children’s television show from the 1950s. For those who live outside the United States, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War, this series may be absolutely unknown, and if this is the case, you can be thankful. For Andy’s Gang is the most twisted, most willfully odd and perverse television show imaginable, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. As one viewer put it, ‘the show reminds me of something David Lynch would come up with,’ but actually, that’s selling the show short. This one is truly off the charts, existing in a hermetically sealed land all its own, a phantom zone of non-performance and non-participation which is staggering in its dimensions and implications.

That’s quite a claim, but if I had to compare Andy’s Gang to anything else that comes under the heading of a moving image construct, I’d be almost instantly reaching for the horror films Castle of the Living Dead (1964), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), or Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973, a.k.a. The Mansion of Madness). For here is a television show, ostensibly aimed at children, in which the host never met – not even once – any of the members of his supposed audience, or was even in the same room with them, or even the same year – and which is comprised of such serial repetition of actual footage, as well as ceaselessly repeating its own internal structure, that it almost defies description. Indeed, as I’ll show later, there are virtually web support groups for aging baby boomers who seem to have been traumatized by the show as children, more than 53 years after the final episode of the series aired.

Saturday morning television in the United States in the 1950s belonged exclusively to children; this was a holdover from the tradition of Saturday morning shows in movie theaters in the 1920s through the early 1950s, when boys and girls would rush down to the local theater to see a double bill of two genre films, usually a western and/or a science-fiction or horror film, plus some cartoons, a chapter of a serial or ‘cliffhanger,’ some trailers, travelogues, shorts, and other assorted screen fare. When television took hold in the mid 1950s, it spelled the death of these morning screenings – serials, for example, ceased production entirely in 1956 as a direct result of competition from television – and television did its best to slavishly copy the model the movie theaters had followed so successfully.

So, on Saturday morning network television, you could forget about anything aimed at an adult audience; instead, one got a nonstop diet of such series as Kukla, Fran And Ollie, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon, Lassie, Annie Oakley, Ding Dong School, The Paul Winchell Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Captain Z-RO, The Rootie Kazootie Club, Winky Dink And You, Super Circus, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Captain Midnight, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Pinky Lee Show, Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and many more.

Each of these shows had their own peculiarities; Howdy Doody was a live puppet show, with a real live ‘Peanut Gallery’ where kids would scream and holler as the show progressed – in short, genuine audience interaction; Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland, was filmed in West Berlin in converted beer halls on a miniscule budget; Winky Dink and You encouraged kids to actually draw on the picture tubes of their television sets with crayons to trace this week’s mystery clue – one was supposed to place a special “magic screen,” actually thin plastic film, over the screen before marking it up, but many kids, enthralled by the suspense, simply forgot this part of the process – and so on.

But Andy’s Gang was a breed apart. One thing above all set it apart from its competitors; all of the shows listed above were fiction, and presented themselves as fiction, and the audience – except perhaps for the very young viewers – recognized this. But Andy’s Gang was fiction masquerading as reality. None of it was real; the whole series was a fictive construct. But it didn’t start out that way; it took the death of the original host, and a canny television producer/director possessed of a peculiar vision to make this particular Twilight Zone of fantasy/reality.”

You can read rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image above; an amazing cultural Cold War artifact.

Inside The Asylum: The Outlaw Studio That Changed Hollywood

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I have a new article on The Asylum Studio in Los Angeles in the latest issue of Film International.

As I write, “Some people get into the movie business because they have a passion for film. Some have dreams of creating the ‘great American movie,’ or rising to the top of the Hollywood Dream Factory. But as mainstream films become ever more expensive, routinely costing $100,000,000 or more simply to produce, and then under-performing at the box office – Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger are two prime examples – it seems that the old system of making movies is broken.

The risks are simply too great – a few bad bets can sink a studio. Low budget films like The Purge and The Conjuring, both made for a pittance, rule the multiplexes. Spectacle and special effects just don’t bring in audiences anymore; people want something new, and outrageous, for their entertainment dollar. And a relatively new studio in Hollywood, The Asylum, is dedicated to doing just that; giving the viewer something the majors won’t. Something like Sharknado (2013).

The Asylum is following in a long line of low budget Hollywood production companies. Independent film studios, like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons in the 1970s and 80s, offered viewers something the mainstream studios couldn’t; films aimed directly at their target audience – outlaw movies that made up their own rules as they went along.”

You can read the rest of the article on this fascinating studio here, or by clicking on the image above.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – First Trailer

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Liam Hensworth, director Francis Lawrence, and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Catching Fire (2013).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, opens this coming November, and for once, I am more interested in the sequel than in the original. The reason: Donald Sutherland is more front and center, and he was the best thing about the first film; as you will see in the trailer, he’s joined by the always excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the effortless manner in which these two superb actors play off each other is a delight to behold. Jennifer Lawrence is back, and just on the evidence presented here, seems much more assured in her role as Katniss Everdeen; Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson also return, so the cast is exceptionally strong. But the real difference here is that Francis Lawrence, an expert action director with a real edge of brutality in his visuals, is at the helm, and I think that the results will be much more interesting than the rather bland and uninvolving original, indifferently directed by Gary Ross. In any event, here’s the first trailer; judge for yourself.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the first trailer for the film.

Mr. B.I.G.

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Orson Welles and director Bert I. Gordon on the set of Gordon’s film Necromancy (1972).

He never made any big budget films, and never really made any truly successful films, but Bert I. Gordon’s threadbare special effects extravaganzas, if that’s the right word for them, have a place in the affections of many film goers from the 1950s and 1960s. With such titles as The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End (all 1957), Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, and Attack of the Puppet People (all 1958), along with many other films to his credit, Gordon seemed obsessed with films that employed bargain basement trick photography (which Gordon himself was responsible for) to create images of enormous animals, insects, and/or humans wreaking havoc on society, shot in matter-of-fact black and white, and presented with ruthless economy in every department.

For sheer absurdity, they’re hard to top; perhaps my favorite moment in any of his films comes in Earth vs. The Spider, in which a group of teenagers accidentally discover a truly enormous and seemingly lifeless arachnid in a local cavern. The spider is subsequently transported to the local high school gymnasium (of course) for further study. Naturally, the students decide that this would be an excellent time for a rock and roll dance party, which awakens the spider, allowing it to embark on yet another murderous rampage. It’s all junk, but it’s pop art junk, and a real part of the American cinema experience in the 1950s, and for 75 minutes or so, worth the time to view as an authentic talisman of a vanished era. Still alive as of this writing, Gordon is in retirement, but his films are shown all the time on television, and many are available on DVD.

To see a brief video interview from 2010 with Bert I. Gordon, click here or on the image above.

Donny Miller Interview in Film International

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

I recently did an interview with the artist Donny Miller for Film International.

As I wrote in that issue of FI, “Donny Miller is one of the more interesting visual artists working today; he’s active not only in graphics and painting, but also video art, performance art, and site-specific installations. He is best known for his book Beautiful People with Beautiful Feelings (2006), which juxtaposes near-advertising images of glamorous men and women culled from clip out art with sardonic commentaries on the human condition. But there’s much more to Miller than that, as a brief tour of his work on the web illustrates. Intrigued by Miller’s take on contemporary society, and also by his turn towards more optimistic work in his recent Universe series, and other new works, I interviewed him by telephone at his home in Los Angeles on February 24, 2013; what follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.”

And you can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Who would have expected this from Criterion; a box set of classic Japanese horror?

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.

GENOCIDE
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.

But no matter; here they are in immaculate transfers, and they’re well worth owning.

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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