Friday, October 31, 2014

It's Halloween!

Happy Halloween, everyone! We made it!

I struggled for a while to figure out what movie would be worthy of writing about for actual Halloween Day, but I finally decided not to do that at all. The movies were for counting down. We're here now, so let's just enjoy the day.

Not that scary movies won't be part of it. I've taken the day off from work and David's home from school, so we're spending our day watching movies and getting ready for tonight. I know The Lost Boys, The Black Cat, and The Private Eyes are on the docket, but we'll probably have time for more. Maybe some Vincent Price or Hammer's The Mummy. Tonight, we'll have our annual viewing of Disney's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

What scary movies are on your watch list today?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Who's In It: Jack Sparrow, Wednesday Addams, Rita Skeeter, Dumbledore, Tarzan, Ed Rooney, Uncle Vernon, Emperor Palpatine, Alfred Pennyworth, Max Zorin, Darth Maul, and Saruman.

What It's About: A loose adaptation of Washington Irving's story with Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as a detective instead of a schoolteacher.

How It Is: I loved this in 1999, but that's when Burton was still a director I trusted and cut a lot of slack. I was nervous to rewatch it considering my feelings about most of Burton's recent work, but it turns out that I still love it. He took one of my favorite stories and made it even better with his gothic, fog-shrouded sensibilities, a strong mystery, some great action set pieces, and more nerd-favorite actors than you can throw a pumpkin at. I honestly don't have a bad thing to say about it, so I'll save you a couple of paragraphs of me just gushing and skip right to the...

Rating: Five out of five childlike charmers.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

James Blish of the Jungle [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

James Blish won his place in Science Fiction history through the critical and the popular. On the critical side, his novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo for Best Novel of 1959, telling the tale of a Jesuit priest and his struggle with religious belief in an age that includes space flight and aliens. On the popular side he wrote the first novelizations of Star Trek episodes along with the first new novel, Spock Must Die in 1970. Whether you enjoy his original classics like Black Easter or Cities in Flight or are just a trekker, James Blish left his mark on SF. But every good SF icon has to start somewhere. You would not be surprised to know Blish wrote for the Pulps: Super Science Stories, Cosmic Stories, Astonishing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, none of these would be hard to believe. But Jungle Stories?

Blish sold two stories to Jungle Stories, "The Snake-Headed Spectre" (Summer 1949) under the pseudonym VK Emden and its sequel "Serpent Fetish" (Winter 1948-49) under his own name. Confusingly, the sequel appeared first.

"The Snake-Headed Spectre", a 112 page novella, begins with Kit Kennedy, known by the local tribes as K'tendi, being hired to lead a group of arrogant Europeans into the jungle on a mysterious quest. These outsiders are lead by Paula Lee, a beautiful but cold Englishwoman, and the fat and toady Stahl. Along for the ride are Bleyswijck and his marines. The local Africans are lead by Tombu, prince of the Wassabi and friend of K'tendi.

The safari does not go well as the major players all try to take control. Stahl boorishly strikes Tombu and the Africans are close to deserting when they discover a strange plain and then an unknown mountain, higher than Everest. The people who live beyond the plain play a loud work drum, frightening the locals. Kit and Tombu leave the party to scout ahead and run into Manalendi, the giant python. The snake is curious about Kit and they become friends after a fashion. The Europeans are captured by the strangers, who are cannibals, and Kit, Tombu and the giant snake go in search of them.

What the rescuers find in the jungle under the mountain is a village surrounded by a palisade and slaves who are working a strange mine. These poor devils are covered in sores and are missing fingers. Finding Stahl and Paula, Kit discovers the safari's real purpose, to investigate the appearance of radioactive pitchblende on the black market. Since the substance is lethal to mine, Stahl had suspected that slave labour was being used. Kit also discovers the man behind the operation is none other than Bleyswijck. The marine is in league with an Arab woman named Nanan, who acts as high priestess to the local Rock God. To save Paula and Stahl, Kit boldly walks into the village, with Tombu and Manalendi the giant python at his side, to challenge the king of the tribe, N'mbono. They fight on the giant drum with spears. The desperate battle ends with N'mbono dead and Kit now king of the tribe. During the conflict, Kit uses the drum's rhythm to send a message to the Wassabi warriors far away, asking for help.

Overthrowing Bleyswijck and Nanan, Kit's victory is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a triceratops, one of the night shapes rumored to live in the area. The drumming has infuriated it, causing it to crash through the log palisade. In the confusion, the Europeans depart. Paula, her husband dead, is very sick but throws herself on Kit: "...I want someone to make me back into a woman again..." The two become lovers. In the sequel it is suggested they lived together in the jungle a short while but split. Both stories were combined, refitted and republished in 1962 as the novel The Night Shapes. In the novel version, Blish inserts a short reunion conveniently at the end, and Paula returns to Ktendi to live happily ever after .

"Serpent's Fetish" is much shorter than its prequel. It finds K'tendi and his friend Tombu facing a second safari of whites invading their jungle, looking for dinosaurs in the Valley of Dragons, for rumours of Kit and Paula's first expedition have leaked out. Kit Kennedy tries to tell the invaders to leave but they won't. Kennedy knows it is not enough to simply kill the whites, for more would follow and the local tribes would be punished. Instead he concocts an elaborate plan to dispel the rumours of dinosaurs living in the jungle. To do this he pits Tombu's tribes against his neighbor, knowing the two armies would meet near the valley. He also gets a witch doctor to bring the rains early so that the lightning will start a forest fire near the dinosaurs, driving them out. The two armies then join forces to drive the beasts back into the valley before Kit seals it forever with dynamite. The safari and all those after will hear that the dinosaurs were dispersed into the jungle, making them near impossible to find.

There are some mysteries that surround Blish's jungle tales. First off, why was the sequel published first in the Winter 1948-49 issue then followed by the longer prequel in the Summer 1949? The use of the pseudonym VK Emden seems unnecessary if Blish had already published the sequel under his own name. One has to remember that pulp publishing was fast and loose. Perhaps the Winter issue needed a hole filled and Jerome Bixby (fellow SF author and editor) may have plugged it with the shorter sequel? It's confusing, but much of the Pulp business was. Unless an editor survives today to recall what happened, no one left any real evidence for us to sift through. Pulps were ephemera and not worth documenting.

Blish is of the HR Haggard school of jungle writing, presenting a more realistic version of Africa than Edgar Rice Burroughs does. Blish is familiar with Swahili and the customs and actions of Tombu and his people are less stereotypical than much of what appeared in Jungle Stories. K'tendi is not Tarzan, swinging through the treetops naked. Like Allan Quatermain, he wears clothes and carries a large bore rifle. How Blish learned about Africa I don't know. Looking at his bio I was prepared to see he had spent time in Africa, perhaps in the war, but he served in 1942 as a medical technician in Fort Dix. No jungle adventures there. Ultimately, he was a Science Fiction writer from New Jersey, so I have to assume he was a good researcher.

Blish's novel version is a weird combination of 1940s sexism and the growing freedoms of the 1960s. Paula Lee throws herself at Kit like any Pulp heroine while Blish inserts graphic (and gratuitous) descriptions of female circumcision and other details that do not further the plot. While you can make the argument that the idea of the "white hero" is racist (part and parcel of the genre), the relationship between Kit and Tombu is one of virtual equality. (This said Tombu hides Paula from Kit as a joke and Kit is willing to set Tombu's village against another in battle. Strange friends!) The sense of humor between the two friends is much more endearing than the icy cold romance with Paula Lee.

Kit's weird alliance with the giant snake Manalendi is also one of the story's best features. It's not surprising that their meeting was chosen for one of the edition's covers rather than a dinosaur picture. Despite the presence of dinos in the book, there are few good scenes with them. (To misquote Jurassic Park: "Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your... in your dinosaur novel, right? Hello?") Again I suspect the fact that Blish was writing for Jungle Stories and not Thrilling Wonder is to blame. The editors would tolerate a small amount of dinosaura, but the major portion of the story would have to be a "jungle" story. The legend of "Mokele-mbemba" is irresistible to a Science Fiction writer and James Blish does as good a job as any (and better than some, ie: 1985's Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend). Ultimately, Kit Kennedy is an odd but charming part of Jungle Pulp history.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Night of the Demon (1957)

Who's In It: Dana Andrews (Laura), Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy), and Niall MacGinnis (Jason and the Argonauts).

What It's About: A scientist (Andrews) travels to England to debunk a self-proclaimed warlock (MacGinnis), but his skepticism is challenged by strange doings and a threat on his life.

How It Is: When the British film Night of the Demon was released in the United States in 1958, it was chopped down by thirteen minutes and renamed Curse of the Demon. Though the cut footage isn’t crucial to the story, it does help set the film’s tone, so the original Night of the Demon (which is only 95 minutes long to begin with) is the one to watch. The reason I bring up the US version at all is because of the title change.

According to the film’s screenwriter, Charles Bennett, Columbia Pictures thought that Night of the Demon sounded too close to the title of Tennessee Williams’ short story, “Night of the Iguana.” That’s odd, because the famous stage play that Williams eventually created from that story wouldn’t premiere until three years after the release of Curse of the Demon, and the even more famous John Huston film adaptation of it didn’t come out until three years after that in 1964. Tennessee Williams was far from an obscure writer in the late ‘50s, so maybe mass audiences knew about the “Night of the Iguana” short story, but it does seem weird to rename a horror film because of one word it has in common with a story in a completely different medium. Still, the Night of the Iguana comparison is interesting because the Huston film and Night of the Demon share something important: an adjacency to the film noir movement.

Even though neither movie is true noir, important noir directors were in charge of them and brought in elements that call that genre to mind. Night of the Demon’s Jacques Tourneur also directed Out of the Past, one of the definitive noir films, in addition to other horror pictures like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. His use of light and shadow and cinematography gave his films a look and feel that fit right in with other noir films, even when his were about were-panthers and voodoo magic.

Night of the Demon has more in common with noir that just its look though. One of the things that stands out most about it is how it blurs the line between good and evil; quite a feat for a story about Satan worshipers. Dana Andrews (whose Laura is another film noir masterpiece) plays Dr. John Holden, a scientific skeptic from the US who travels to England to debunk the supernatural claims of a cult leader named Julian Karswell (MacGinnis). While there, Holden meets Joanna Harrington (Cummins from the film noir Gun Crazy), the niece of the last man to try to disprove Karswell’s abilities. Because Joanna’s uncle died horribly and mysteriously, she’s beginning to believe that Karswell may have the power he says he does. Holden believes none of it though. He stubbornly refuses to accept the supernatural, even when he sees evidence that he may be on the same path as Joanna’s late uncle.

Holden’s obstinate close-mindedness and his relentless persecution of Karswell keep him from being completely heroic and sympathetic. He’s also arrogant and not always pleasant to be around. Karswell, on the other hand, throws lavish parties for the kids near his estate and is convincing in his assertion that he only wants to be left alone to practice his religious beliefs with his followers. Of course those beliefs include killing those who stray from the flock, so he’s clearly the bad guy, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s dressing like a clown to do magic tricks for children.

Though it looks and feels a lot like film noir, Night of the Demon is inarguably horror. The film doesn’t rely on cheap shocks or even images of its titular monster to scare the audience, but Tourneur still delivers the creeps though stylish atmosphere and his viewers’ imaginations. The investigation story also builds tension and keeps the audience riveted as Holden gets closer and closer to the horrible truth.

The film doesn’t rely on images of the demon for scares, but it would have used them even less if Tourneur had had his way. His original plan was to be ambiguous about whether Karswell really had the power to summon demons, but his producer forced a definitive answer. In Tourneur’s initial vision, the demon would have never been shown, leaving the audience to decide for itself if Karswell had supernatural abilities or was just an extremely effective charlatan who perhaps believed his own lies. Producer Hal Chester had other ideas though, so the demon appears in the first several minutes of the film for the death of Joanna’s uncle and again at the film’s climax (you’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens there). Chester had to film the demon sequences after principal shooting though, without Tourneur’s help or cooperation.

While Tourneur’s version would have added a cool layer to the mystery, the version that exists is still an excellent, atmospheric, scary film. The vast majority of it operates on the principal that nothing’s as powerful as what you don’t see. But as effective as that is, the demon’s pretty scary too.

Even though the monster effects are primitive by modern standards, the design of the creature – based on actual, ancient drawings of mythological demons – is pretty terrifying. Tourneur’s version would have been stronger had it reinforced the themes of faith and skepticism by making the viewer decide which end of that spectrum he or she falls on, but the creature’s appearance doesn’t make the movie less unnerving. In fact, Martin Scorsese listed it as one of the eleven scariest movies of all time and he’s absolutely right.

Rating: Five out of five cordial conjurers.

This post was adapted from a guest post I wrote for my pal Ken's That F'ing Monkey blog.

Also, maybe check out my modern re-casting of the movie. I'm still really pleased with those choices.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Nosferatu (1922) on the big screen

A couple of nights ago, the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights screened Nosferatu accompanied by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra of Minnesota. I've seen the movie lots of times with lots of different scores, but never on the big screen and never with a live band.

Rats and People is great. The Heights has an awesome organ, so that got used of course, but there was also a string quartet and a percussionist, with a couple of the strings switching out on guitar and theramin. I'll say that last one again. There was a theramin!

The score they played was original music composed specifically for the movie; full of discordant, staccato strings, spooky organ, weird electronics, and measured percussion that counted time and increased tension. I'll be looking for other opportunities to see these guys accompany films.

The film itself is one of my favorite horror movies. It's easily the creepiest adaptation of Dracula I've ever seen and Max Schreck is unbelievably non-human as Count Orlok. There's been so much written about Nosferatu that I don't have much to add to that discussion, but seeing it on the big screen did change my perspective on it a bit.

There are details that I've missed on smaller screens, like the enormous pipe that Harding (sort of the Dr. Seward of Nosferatu) is smoking before he rescues Ellen (the Mina character) from sleepwalking on a balcony rail. I'd also never noticed that Professor Bulwer (Nosferatu's Van Helsing) cries at the end; probably because I've always been focused on the part of the shot that he's crying about. In addition to all that though, it's fascinating to see the characters' faces so much larger than I'd ever seen them before. It made me pay more attention to their performances and gave me a really good look at their makeup. But that's a double-edged sword.

The only frustrating thing about seeing Nosferatu on the big screen is seeing it with an audience, some of whom have never seen the movie before or, deducing from their reactions, any silent movie before. I'm not judging or suggesting there should be any requirements for attending a screening like this, but people come at these films from different places and that means that they react in different ways. For a lot of the audience I was in, that reaction was laughter.

I experienced this last Halloween at screenings of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. There are moments in those films - especially Bride - that are supposed to be funny, but there was also a lot of laughter at things that aren't intended as humorous, but are dated. Styles of acting, lines of dialogue; stuff like that. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a pretty good post about the reactions of an audience to a recent screening of From Russia With Love. He's a lot angrier about it than I am (and his audience sounds much more rude than mine was), but I can relate to his frustration. It's tough to immerse yourself in a movie you like when people around you are laughing at the monster.

Even more frustrating is that it affected my son's experience with the film. He had a great time, but his opinion of the movie is that it's funny and not at all scary. He's seen silent movies and enjoys them, so he's familiar with that acting style, but the audience's laughter influenced him and got him laughing too. I don't think he would have had that reaction had he been introduced to the movie at home.

But I'm not saying he's wrong. Or even that the rest of my audience is wrong. On the big screen, where you can see every detail of Orlok's face, he can come across as comical. Take this shot for instance.

You can read that a couple of ways. If you're into it, Schreck's expression and movements can seem inhuman and creepy. But if you're not as invested, it can look completely ridiculous, especially when it's blown up to giant size on a movie screen. A benefit of seeing the film on the small screen is that you're not picking up as many details, so there's more mystery, which creates more horror.

So I'm torn. For fans of Nosferatu, seeing it on the big screen is a treat. But if you're hoping to introduce it to someone who's never seen it before, and you want them to think it's scary, find a good print that you can show them at home. Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks are better big screen introductions to silent film.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mummy Monday | The Mummy's Curse (1944)

Who's In It: Lon Chaney Jr (The Mummy's Tomb), Peter Coe (House of Frankenstein), and Virginia Christine (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?).

What It's About: The final high priest of Arkham (Coe) makes a last ditch effort to recover the mummies of Kharis (Chaney) and Princess Ananka (Christine).

How It Is: So much for the Mummy series getting better with each movie. Looks like Ghost was the pinnacle.

Not that Curse is horrible. From a pure plot standpoint, I like how it continues the saga. The swamp where Kharis disappeared with Ananka in Ghost is being drained, which means that both mummies are able to move again, but they've gotten separated and Kharis has to track down Ananka. Sadly for him, she's got amnesia and he freaks her out. Various people from the swamp community try to protect her, but meet their doom one by one.

There's a different actor playing Ananka this time and the movie doesn't try to explain how she turns beautiful after becoming a withered hag at the end of Ghost. She emerges from the swamp mud in pretty rough shape, but a dip in clean water does wonders not only for her skin, but also her hair and clothing. My No Prize answer for how she becomes gorgeous is that the hag look may have simply been a cocoon effect as Ananka transformed from her reincarnated body (played by Ramsay Ames in Ghost) to her resurrected, original body (played by this movie's Virginia Christine).

One last thing I especially like about Curse is how the high priest doesn't fall in love with anyone this time. He's committed to his mission. Not that that's going to make him any more successful at it. And since this is the last in the series, it sounds like George Zucco doesn't have any more high priests in line after this one.

But even though I like the general story of Curse, everything else about it is a total mess. The continuity is the worst: jumping ahead another 25 years (there was also supposed to be a 30-year gap between Hand and Tomb) so that if The Mummy's Hand takes place in the year it was released, Curse has to take place in 1995! The setting has also inexplicably moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana, where a guy named Cajun Joe has a stereotypical Italian accent for some reason. And finally, it's tough to take the mummy seriously when his shambling has unintentionally comical consequences. There are a couple of goofy moments where he's trying really hard to get someone, but not only do people easily get away, they don't even see the mummy sneaking up behind them as they're leaving. He might as well be snapping his fingers in disappointment at losing them.

Rating: Three out of five promenading, preserved princesses.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

Who's In It: Kris Lemche (Ginger Snaps), Heather Stephens (The Forgotten), and Timothy V Murphy (Sons of Anarchy).

What It's About: The descendent (Lemche) of the possible historical inspiration for Victor Frankenstein leads an expedition into the Canadian wilderness to prove that his ancestor really did create a monster and that it still exists.

How It Is: My hatred for found footage movies was overcome by my curiosity about Frankenstein movies. I should have paid more attention to my found footage feelings.

It's not all bad. Shot mostly in Alaska, the scenery is gorgeous. And Murphy is quietly amusing as the grizzled guide who's taking no crap from the young, wise-cracking members of the documentary crew. Other than those two things though, the movie's horrible.

My problem with most found footage movies is that they're all about building tension and very rarely do they pay off. The feeling I always get is that the movies aren't structured that way because they're especially interested in tension for its own sake, but because it's a lot cheaper to just film people walking around, arguing, and looking for things. The mistake these movies make - and The Frankenstein Theory is among the worst of them - is to think that just prolonging the reveal is enough to keep an audience engaged.

In The Frankenstein Theory, none of the characters are the least bit interesting. They're just copies of people from other movies who react to their horror scenario exactly like people always do in these things. I had hopes for Lemche's Jonathan Venkenhein, who not only wants to find the creature, but to befriend it. I'm fascinated by that idea too: what would happen if someone tried to treat Frankenstein's monster with compassion and kindness? But Frankenstein Theory isn't actually interested in that as a theme. It's just another symptom of Venkenhein's possibly insane drive to find the creature. And while I say "possibly insane," the movie's not interested in exploring that either. Maybe Venkenhein is crazy and maybe he isn't. He could be right about the monster, but still be insane. That would be a fascinating character study if the movie was as interested in it as it is in having Venkenhein argue with his crew of cliche, whiny unbelievers.

As bad as the build-up is, the resolution is still disappointing. I might forgive the movie if it had a rewarding conclusion, but not only does it fail to say anything interesting about Frankenstein's monster, it doesn't even offer a good look at him. The image on the poster is a better view of the creature than is ever seen in the film and the reveal of the monster is as murky and unsatisfying as the resolution of The Frankenstein Theory's plot.

Rating: One out of five scenic shacks.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Scream of Fear (1961)

Who's In It: Susan Strasberg (Picnic), Ann Todd (The Paradine Case), and Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein).

What It's About: A disabled woman named Penny (Strasberg) goes to stay with her father and step-mother (Todd) after her caregiver dies. But though Step-Mom claims that Dad is out of town, Penny keeps seeing his dead body around the estate.

How It Is: Scream of Fear would almost be more thriller than horror, but the reappearing body is pretty darn scary. That's partly because you never know when it's going to turn up, but partly because Fred Johnson just looks very creepy as a corpse.

If it's weren't for that element, the movie would go neatly into the sub-genre of psychological thrillers where the protagonist questions whether she's actually going insane or if someone just wants her to think she is. It's a really good one though, filled with great twists and turns and a fun appearance by Christopher Lee as a sinister doctor who keeps turning up at the estate as a guest. Don't want to say too much, but I highly recommend this one and the less you know going into it the better.

Rating: Four out of five paraplegic people in peril.


Related Posts with Thumbnails