Thursday, October 26, 2006

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

“They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” taunts the belligerent Johnny, well aware of his sisters’ innate fear of cemeteries – nighttime encroaching, no less – amidst whiny complaints of his own about the tedious process involved in visiting their father’s grave site and the three-hour drive home that awaits them. His disrespect of the dead quickly catches up with him, when the lurking individual he referenced actually attacks his sister and subsequently knocks him out cold, Barbra fleeing to a nearby deserted farm house before suffering a complete nervous breakdown. Night of the Living Dead was a shockwave of culturally lined horror when it first circulated nickelodeon theaters in 1968, and like any great work, it has allowed us to endlessly reinterpret it with new eyes ever since. What was once a pale allegory for 60’s racism can now be seen as America’s political failures after September 11th, 2001 (in that it turned inward on itself with xenophobic zeal rather than addressing the real problems at hand), no small achievement for a low-budget horror flick made in the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

Those who prefer their horror dealt out as formally as possible might take Night of the Living Dead as camp, but what frightens us most often has that slightly unreal quality, and between its completely un-subtle scoring and sporadic use obtuse camera angles, Night approximates these fears more than efficiently. Barbra is the initial audience surrogate; we may have seen the title of the film, but we know no more than the characters do in regards to what the hell is happening. For her, the unfolding events represent the manifestation of her deepest childhood fears, and for us there is a retroactive similarity to September 11th, with the surviving humans crowding around the television and radio eagerly awaiting updates on the situation (one begs the question: would the Bush administration be able to handle a zombie epidemic, or would we all be as supremely fucked as New Orleans?). But even without these real-world parallels, Night of the Living Dead works its purebred terror without mercy. Says Roger Ebert in his initial coverage of the film: “The kids in the audience were stunned…The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying…I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.”

The film didn’t have quite this much of an effect on my self during my first viewing (a horror buff at a young age, staying up past my bedtime to watch in on the Sci-Fi channel was nothing short of a religious experience, and one of the foundations of my love for film) – by age ten, I was already pretty seasoned in the genre’s gore quotient – but never for a moment have I chalked its violence and gore up to something that can be laughed off. The film shows you just enough tangible violence to inflame the nerves of your imagination, making everything else that is only suggested infinitely more nerve racking (the opening scenes track a car's approach and arrival at a cemetary with distant, static shots, as if suggesting a malevolent presence watching from afar). Night’s half-eaten corpse (eyeball staring outward from the flesh-stripped skull) might not match Dawn’s exploding head opener, yet there’s hardly a thing here that isn’t the stuff of our collective nightmares. Confusion of the unknown largely plays into this fear factor; before news updates reveal that the wave of murders sweeping the country is being compounded by the fact that the killers are eating their victims (who in turn come back to life to continue said behavior), all we and the characters know is that strange human figures are on the prowl with a decidedly unreal lurk about them.

The film is rightfully credited with forging the mold and “rules” of the modern zombie genre. Zombies are dead humans come back to life (!), zombies need to eat live human flesh (!!), a zombie can be killed by decapitation, killing the brain, or incineration (!!!), and anyone bitten by a zombie will become a zombie in time (!!!!). Ultimately, seven people are held up within the farm house, with the number of flesh-eaters outside escalating by the dozens as the night progresses. As their ranks increase, the humans begin to quarrel over whose in charge and what plan of action needs to be taken: Ben (Duane Jones) wants to stay upstairs, where the zombies’ activity can be monitored and an escape can be made if necessary; Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) wants to hole up in the basement, an admittedly stronger fortress, but lacking an escape route should the zombies break in. That they are black and white, respectively, is wisely left an ambiguous factor in their antagonism towards each other, but while Romero denies that the racial implications of Night of the Living Dead were wholly unintended at the time, the general state of tension and the ultimate reflection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination cannot simply be ignored.

If one theme of Night of the Living Dead emerges from all the rest, it would be a general attitude of nihilism towards the state of humanity, a theme that would only continue to escalate in both volume and complexity over the course of Romero’s career. Here, the zombies are an inexplicable “other,” a lightning rod for Vietnam instilled anxieties, but very much an immediate cause for alarm that only underscores the live human’s inability to cooperate in a time of crisis. No cannibalism is committed in the film, but when characters turn on each other in desperate attempts to ensure their own survival, the similarity to the flesh-eating undead is unsettling in no small manner. Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead would further these appropriately cynical attitudes, and fans of the series (myself include) debate endlessly as to their comparative worth. Yet there’s something pure and unstoppable about Night of the Living Dead, perhaps a result of it’s incredibly low-budget and the visceral energy that often comes about from such a production. It is the seminal modern horror film.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

White Zombie (1932)

Long before the days of flesh-eating ghouls (and even longer before the days that said ghouls could vigorously cover far distances by means of sprinting), zombies – while still referred to as the “living dead” – were more case for alarm as a manifestation of voodoo and supernatural evil rather than virus-transmitting corpses. White Zombie knows nothing of George Romero (or Rob Zombie, for that matter), and nor is it as much a horror film as it is a talky melodrama with supernatural overtones. However, it does feature one of Bela Lugosi’s most overlooked performances, one that, due to poor business management, he earned a mere $500 for. That the film (which is readily available in the public domain) has generally fallen into disrepair is of little benefit, but it does offer an entertaining glimpse into the blossoming characteristics of the emerging horror drama, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the goods compared to many of its brethren of the time.

Opening with an unsettling shot of a burial site located in the middle of a road (where the Haiti natives bury their dead so as to dissuade potential grave robbers), White Zombie is intensely focused on its environment even when it suffers from the limitations of early silent filmmaking. While nowhere near as stagnant as Dracula, but hardly as invigorating as Frankenstein, White Zombie – perhaps unintentionally – builds a resonant trance all its own, reflecting the presence of the silent and soulless undead onto the audience. Lugosi is a shady witch doctor known to use resurrected corpses for slave labor in his sugar plantation; a love stricken man, hoping to win over the heart of an otherwise engaged girl, seeks his aid in gaining her attention. A special drug is used to fake her death, but the disappearance of her coffin and body finds her tortured husband hunting down clues as to her whereabouts, dead or alive. The ensuing climax is both predictable and exciting, wrapping up its tale with the triumphant power of love in the face of evil. White Zombie’s better qualities are most undercut by how quickly they dissipate once all is said and done.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

The Wolf Man (1941)

James Whale’s homoerotic subversions aside, the Universal monster films, by their very nature, weren’t exactly open to the greatest range of subtext. This makes it all the more refreshing to see a gem like The Wolf Man, which creates a far more nuanced and affecting personal conflict than many another works with far bigger canvas’s on which to work. Like 1933’s The Invisible Man, there is no true villain at the center of The Wolf Man, only a protagonist whose better intentions have been subverted by an unforeseen conflict in which they were ill-prepared. The plot is miniscule: the always well-meaning Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., surely making his father proud) returns to his family home after a prolonged absence, meaning to take over the estate when his aging father retires. A night of harmless company with two local girls takes a turn for the worse when one is attacked and killed by a prowling wolf; only Larry sees the creature, and is able to kill it with his silver-capped cane, but not without suffering a bite first. When the policemen arrive at the scene, a dead man lies were the wolf had previously been, and Larry’s wound has mysteriously vanished the following morning. The plot thickens.

It is more than debatable as to how much of the film’s immense sympathy for its tragic main character comes from Chaney’s immense performance, which even manages to translate through the thick and awkward-looking werewolf makeup during his few scenes of transformation. His mammalian gestures are awkward at first, but come to convey the twisted humanity at the core of the unwilling man who awakens each morning only to learn of a new murder having taken place the night before. His periods of change often leaving him in a state of amnesia afterwards, it takes some time before Larry is even sure that he contracted the curse of the werewolf from his supposed bite, having been half-convinced that all signs of it are but a manifestation of his mind. The script offers little in the way of new material to the genre, but perhaps it is too easy to take for granted the film’s immense sympathy for its characters. Likewise, The Wolf Man features some of the most ravishing use of set design during this era of the genre, particularly emphasizing a sense of depth to create mood, while the swirling smoke and fog often parallels Larry’s own indistinguishable moral quagmire. Many of the best horror films are so because of what the expose within our selves, the fear of being unable to sway one’s own potential for evil being the central conceit here.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Blob (1988)

Thank (or blame - you decide) David Cronenberg’s 1986 masterpiece remake of The Fly for the existence of the 1988 remake of The Blob, a box office cash-in that is neither particularly good, bad, or ugly. Instead, it falls into the rare camp of being a quizzically interesting companion piece, building upon the original’s muted, suggested horrors with visually graphic gore and replacing the McCarthyist overtones with unquestionably anti-government sentiments and a fear of rampant religious zeal. While one can’t help but miss the original’s title song by a young Burt Bacharach, there is no doubt that this remake is a truly no-bars-held horror film, with each additional victim of the updated blob meeting their end in an increasingly grizzly set piece. Sure as anything, some delinquent teenagers discover the creature long before anyone else chooses to acknowledge its deadly presence. By the time the U.S. military arrives to “contain the organism,” bodies have been incinerated (externally and internally), phone-booth fortresses have been imploded, and entire bodies have been drug, kicking and screaming, down the kitchen sink. No, this is not for the squeamish.

What separates this version of its 50’s counterpart, and – in a weird way, justifies its very existence – is its reframing of the main narrative points (here be spoilers), the blob no longer being a mysterious, insatiable visitor from afar, but a government-created virus deliberately sent into outer space in hopes of it mutating into the ultimate bio-weapon. When the developing creatures’ activity sent its meteorite vessel out of orbit and crashing to the earth below, the quickly digested town folk are but collateral damage to the power-hungry weapons manufacturers, whose corrupt ambitions are quickly cut short when they prove unable to control their own creation. Don’t count on your handy genre clichés here – no one, not nice guys, cute animals, or even children are safe from the government’s ever-growing creation (i.e. capitalism). Unlike the silent absorption of the original jell-o blob (would that make this one Blob 2.0?), this re-imagination is full of tendrils, layers, and ever-shifting masses, and its victims go anything but quietly into the pink abyss. Such a merciless film (many of its special effects being quite disturbing, screen cap below case in point) seems the appropriate response to the embittered feelings of the 80’s, yet none of the bone-snapping or flesh-dissolving chills come close to equaling the final shot, which suggests even greater terrors to come, this time in the name of God.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

The Blob (1958)

If artists use lies to tell the truth, then movies often use the impossible to expose the realities of the world (or do they?). Such is the case with any number of monster / alien invasion / horror films from the 1950’s, when growing cold war anxieties and a lingering fear of communism were a part of daily life. Certainly, many of these were but limp genre exercises, now (rightly) existing primarily to be seen as features on Mystery Science Theater 3000. One stellar allegory was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which replaced the mental invasion of communism with a physical one exercised by socialist aliens from afar. The filmmakers deny that this connection was intended, but how many artists even think of themselves as such in the first place? So goes my argument for The Blob as another sci-fi allegory for communism; specifically, from a crackpot McCarthyism perspective, the titular, globby invader equal to the slowly encroaching economic secularism that threatened to absorb everyone into a unified whole. Better dead than red, they say. Here, they’re one and the same.

The Blob’s genre conventions were as old as the hills even in 1958, the key difference being the film’s sly subtext, pitch-perfect approximations and boundless sense of fun. A theater packed full of teenagers for a “midnight spook fest” – showcasing obviously silly flicks of the genre – earns an eye roll from the embittered projectionist, only moments before he too is consumed by the silent, deadly goo. If nothing else, the movie – sensing the absurdity of its subject matter – certainly knows how to poke fun at itself. Two teens on their first date (Aneta Corsaut and Steve McQueen, both in their first roles) see a shooting star crash to earth and decide to look for the impact sight; shortly thereafter, they stumble upon an old man with a red, parasitic growth on his hand, agonizing in pain. The local doctor agrees sees the stricken man just as he’s heading out to a medical convention in a nearby city; when Steve (McQueen, sharing the same first name) sees the now larger red form attacking the doctor (who is nowhere to be found thereafter) later that night, no one believes him. Says a friendly local cop: “There’s nothing going on here that can’t wait until morning.” Yet the blob, growing larger and more powerful with each additional victim, will be an incredible force by sunrise, and if it takes some disturbance of the peace to bring it out in the open, so be it; the silently malevolent, godless forces of communism were already hard at work long before anyone chose to acknowledge them (i.e. we will walk in fear of one another).

The focus on youth as a source of salvation permeates the film’s flawless plotting: determined in the face of ridicule, Steve ultimately rallies together his punk friends to wake up the entire town in the middle of the night so as to get the warning out. Too late: the blob, now dozens of times its original size, has made its presence known beyond any doubt, and unswayed by the citizens’ efforts to stop it with gunfire, acid, electricity, and fire. Backed into a diner’s basement with no way out, Steve tries to extinguish the incinerating building with a handy fire extinguisher, only to discover that CO2 – cold – drives the monster away. “I don’t think it can be killed,” says police chief Dave, but it can be contained and removed from the population it once partially assimilated. To ensure that the mysterious life form never thaws out, the military drops the frozen creature into the artic, where it will remain safe “as long as the artic stays cold.” Thus, The Blob’s cheeky resolve becomes and unintentionally retroactive criticism against the Bush administrations insistence on turning a blind eye towards global warming. Cheeky indulgence into reckless political beliefs has rarely been as fun as it is here.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

Monday, October 23, 2006

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein represents director James Whale at the top of his form, as well as what is arguably the best film to emerge from Universal’s monster series (as well as one of the finest sequel films ever made). Effortlessly shifting gears between sly camp, satire, drama and horror, it extends the original film (framed as the actual story by Mary Shelley, despite numerous changes from her actual novel) after the supposed death of the monster, who somehow survived the fire only to emerge from the wreckage, bruised but not broken. The many subversive themes – religion, science, the nature of man, etc. – all take backseat to the dexterous manipulation of genre in the name of unrivaled entertainment. Bride of Frankenstein both uses and forges clichés (was this the first film to feature a self-destruct mechanism?) in perfectly approximated portions, its sly wit largely the result of the Mr. Whale being forced to weave his potentially offensive material beneath the film’s surface. Today’s Hollywood barely has tolerance for gay sensibilities, let alone that of 1935. Retroactively speaking, we’re all the better for it; Bride of Frankenstein is a time capsule of subversive cinematic triumph over tyrannical normative standards.

Few films of the genre have better employed caricature, yet through its overtly expressive performances emerges its subtle queerness; unlike the attention-calling drag queen, Bride of Frankenstein turns standard conventions on their head in ways oblivious to those who would rule otherwise. While Bryan Singer used his X-Men films to reflect on gay acceptance in the early 21st Century (albeit with limited success, even before Brett Ratner took things down the road of the atrocious LCD spectacle), James Whale channels these feelings of alienation through Karloff’s monster, who yearns to be loved even if he looks different on the surface. The comparison only holds up so far, admittedly; the monster is prone to murderous rampages when crossed, and clearly desires the notion of a female counterpart. But these are only surface manifestations, and politics and sexuality aside, what remains in his story is the basic longing for acceptance. There’s a childlike gratefulness in his eyes when he happens upon a blind hermit who takes him in, one of the few who hasn’t passed judgment based on his externalities.

From mistress Minnie’s gut-bustingly hysterical outbursts to the exaggerated gothic overtones during the final laboratory set scenes, the film walks a fine line between the sly and the silly and emerges triumphantly between the two; Whale’s manipulation is plainly obvious, but no less deft as a result. Case in point: once the final experiment gets underway, the cinematography switches to intensely skewed angles and muggy facial shots, heightening the intensity of the mood and increasing the sense of personal conflict. It’s never in question that this is a movie very much aware of itself, from the forebodingly obvious sets to the self-gratifying score, but there’s no trace of selfishness in how readily the movie deals out the goods to the audience. Reprising the monster, Karloff is as brimming with humanity as ever; although he opposed the choice, that the monster learns to talk (not unlike a toddler acquiring necessary life skills) in this film only increases his dramatic and emotional potential. Ditto Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein once more, but perhaps most notable here are the newcomers: Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester as the titular bride (quite possibly the most infamy any cinematic character has gained per minutes of screen time). As a purely cinematic exercise, Bride of Frankenstein comes close to being unrivaled.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

The Wicker Man (1973)

Horror in The Wicker Man comes equally from those qualities that forsake genre conventions as it does those that emulate them. Exposed here are the barbarities of the human action in the name of religion, of the damning power of intolerance. Taken at face value, religion is but a set of unverifiable answers to a series of unanswerable questions; belief in the unknown can indeed be a comforting approach to take to many of life’s troubles, but look no further than the Crusades, slavery, the WTC attacks and everything thereafter to see but a fraction of what has been committed in the name of religion. The Wicker Man assumes a more specific, but equally damning, approach to this notion, employing a deceptively typical whodunit narrative only to blindside the viewer with the unexpectedly inhumane yet perfectly consequential climax. The film may be bloodless, but at a humanitarian level it trumps even The Passion of the Christ in its ability to disturb (in this case, too, these troubling qualities are productive – rather than reductive – in nature).

Arriving on a secluded island (“famous for its fruit and vegetables”) after an anonymous report concerning a missing girl, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) quickly undergoes a state of massive culture shock. Raised an ardent Christian and still an unmarried virgin, the open frankness towards sexuality (schoolgirls discuss the phallic symbol as a regular lesson) and public copulation – both common and somewhat expected behaviors in the village – only enrage him further when he discovers that his own religion is studied as but an “alternative” in the region. His unshakable faith is upset by his inability to imagine it coexisting with any other (and a generally defensive, power-hungry attitude to boot), although his suspicions of foul play and potential murder aren’t completely unfounded (eerily foreshadowed by Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, his own personal favorite role, this being his favorite film of all he ever partook in). If the mystery surrounding the affairs on the island feel somewhat contrived, that’s largely the point: Howie is so absorbed with defending his own life choices (by means of denouncing others) that he fails to see the larger picture before it is too late.

The sexual practices of the village are certainly uneasy but nonetheless grounding in a recognizable reality; only when their religious practices begin to reveal themselves (during the climactic May Day celebrations) does the culture shock transpose itself onto the viewer. They appear as any religious practices would appear to an outsider, but while their pagan rituals (heavily characterized by nudity and a use of animal imagery) are atypically bizarre on the surface, the kinship they share with even familiar religious behaviors is what lends them their most internally dreadful qualities. The film’s austere visual compositions and loose framing increases this sense of a familiar-yet-unfamiliar setting, only for the potent images to take peel back the layers of meaning as the truly terrible truths lurking behind the surface of things reveal themselves. The film shares more in common with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" than anything even remotely close to the slasher genre, which is to say that it’s more profoundly disturbing than any amount of bloodletting could hope to be. In the end, it makes one of the best cases for taking up atheism imaginable.

Note: This review concerns the 88-minute theatrical version of the film, specifically.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Vampyr (1932)

Through a hallucinatory combination of desaturated images and muffled audio (as if implying that the viewer themselves is in the state of a trance), Vampyr exercises its muted horror not in the form of a traceable narrative but by means of the lingering vision of a haunted and often logic-defying dream. It’s cloudy visual aesthetic the result of an accidental stock exposure (which, when discovered in the dailies, impressed director Dreyer so much that he chose to repeat the process for the entire film), the film’s ever-gliding camera effortlessly creates an overwhelming sense of place, even while that place is ever-shifting and just out of grasp. Bodiless shadows, unseen spirits and other suggestions of the unreal cumulate in a nerve-racking sense of menace, the conflict manifesting less in physical violence than a dreadful unease. We never really see the vampire at the source of the film’s death and misfortune (at least not in expected fangs-and-cloak form), but the presence of the undead is unmistakably felt throughout.

Given the emphasis placed on mood, it is unsurprising that the scenes committed to narrative exposition are among Vampyr’s least compelling, yet even these approach a level of tonal mastery. The loose, loose story concerns a wandering philosopher, David Gray (Julian West), who comes upon a country manor, his arrival immediately foreshadowing some sense of doom when an old man inexplicably enters into his room, leaving behind a note marked “Do not open until after my death.” Compelled to explore his bizarre surroundings, David bears witness to the bizarre murder of the old man and subsequent attack on one of his two daughters. The shadowlike spirits abound and mysterious folk suggest deeper threads of foul play, although David has less of an active role in the matters than he does simply act as an audience surrogate. The story here is beside the point; what we’re watching is not unlike some metaphysical duel between the spirits of good and evil in a pseudo-physical manifestation.

If Vampyr is but a dream on film (which is to say it’s not nearly as complex as any of Lynch’s dream-within-a-dreams, although at times its just as seductive as his Mulholland Drive), then Dreyer’s camera acts as the dreamer’s floating presence. Tranquil pans convey a sense of action beyond the limits of the frame, often happening upon dreadful deeds just committed. Characters themselves act as if in something of a trance, hardly sedated but nonetheless acting as if controlled by forces other than their own. This languished tone conveys the spiritual chaos at the core of the film, but its use of inexplicable and eerie imagery – from a funeral procession seen from inside the coffin to a person buried beneath a pile of purifying flour – is equally foreboding. Dreyer – fresh off his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc – again uses his composition to its fullest potential, the characters and their surroundings positioned in manners most suggestive of ill will lurking about. That some consider it one of the finest horror films ever made is both a blessing and a curse - Vampyr is a masterwork, but more than simply being frightening, it penetrates deep into the psyche to carry out its menacing, ethereal lurk.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006