Saturday, October 31, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Frankenstein

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Spoiler Warning:  You know what?  This movie is over eighty years old.  The statute of limitations has run out for spoilers on this one.

Frankenstein is actually one of the last of the classic Universal monster movies that I haven't seen.  To be honest I get more out of them as historical documents than I do as fully immersive films.  It's always been difficult for me to engage with these movies, and it's hard to say way.  It could be the stilted dialogue or the clunky effects (by today's standards) but these types of things abound in shitty 80s horror and in some cases I love them all the more for it.  And I also love older movies in other genres like Duck Soup or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  For some reason, though, horror movies of this generation just don't capture my imagination the way that more recent genre films do.

Frankenstein was directed by Carl Laemmle, Jr. and released in 1931.  It is, of course, based on the classic 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley.  For the three of you who may not know the plot, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a scientist who believes he can create life, and he sets out to do so with a few visits to fresh graves to get the body parts he needs to create a new person, apparently by having it get hit with lightning.  The newly created Monster (Boris Karloff) is violent and erratic, possibly because his brain is one of the abnormal specimens stolen by Frankenstein's assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye).  The Monster proceeds to go on a rampage, and at the climax is cornered and killed by the villagers.

As with my previous experience with Universal horror, my enjoyment from watching Frankenstein was in observing it a prototype for future horror movies.  Throughout the movie you can see where modern pop culture has borrowed from or referenced it.  Even the introduction, where a man in front of a curtain warns the audience about the horrific show they are about to see, should look familiar to any fans of the Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror.

While the Simpsons may have parodied Frankenstein's introduction gimmick, a multitude of horror movies have genuinely used similar tactics to pique the audiences interest.  As mentioned in a piece earlier this month, producer William Castle had life insurance policies taken out on audience members for his films.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used prologue narration that claimed the film to be based on true events.  Advertisements for Last House on the Left tell audiences in the trailer warns audiences "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, "It's only a movie...It's only a movie."  So many films briefly break the fourth wall as a way to tell the audience how scary their movie will be in the guise of sincerity, and Frankenstein's introduction marks the beginning of that trend.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the movie is one where you actually don't see many horror movies follow suit:  the death of a child.  The Monster, during his wanderings around the village after his escape from Frankenstein, finds a small girl playing near a pond.  As she teaches him to throw flowers in the water to watch them float, he tries to do the same with the little girl herself, and winds up throwing her into the pond where she drowns.  In the decades of horror movies that have followed Frankenstein, I can think of only a handful that have depicted the death of a child.  What's more interesting is that the movie does so while still managing to depict the Monster as sympathetic.  His killing the girl was an accident born of a lack of understanding, so while it's still a horrible act, the Monster is not necessarily horrible.  

Frankenstein, while not my particular brand of horror, will forever have my respect for what it did for the genre.  It, alongside other movies in the Universal stable, laid the foundation for horror and essentially served as its birth in cinema.  Certainly there are silent horror films such as Nosferatu that predate Frankenstein, but Universal was the first studio to really initiate horror as a phenomenon rather than a one-off.  For us to fall in love with Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface, our grandparents first had to fall in love with Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: The Fly (1958 version)

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  As with House on Haunted Hill, this is a Vincent Price movie and is old enough to start receiving AARP junk mail.  But I am still giving you fair notice about spoilers.  You've been warned!

After having been luke-warm on House on Haunted Hill, I was a little wary of checking out The Fly.  This was especially the case given that I'm such a big fan of David Cronenberg's 1986 remake.  Cronenberg's version is a body horror masterpiece filled with gore, absolutely incredible acting from Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, and enough pathos to satisfy the emo kid that lives inside me waiting for an excuse to feel feelings.  Could the original possibly measure up?  I doubted it.

The premise is similar to the remake, but director Kurt Neumann stayed more in line with the 1957 short story on which it is based.  Helene Delambre is spotted at the scene where her husband, scientist Andre Delambre, is found crushed by a hydraulic press.  Questioned by Andre's brother Francois and the local police inspector, Helene must explain what happened, which she does through an extended flashback sequence.  Andre, using himself as a test subject for his new teleportation device, does so without knowing that a housefly had made its way into the device, and Andre is merged with the fly to become a mutated hybrid.

Perhaps my wariness for the 1958 version of The Fly managed to effectively temper my expectations, because I found myself surprised at how much I liked this movie.  Sure, "nuanced" isn't a word I'd use for any of the performances in the flick, but this is a 1950s B movie, where you'd have about as much luck finding someone carrying a cell phone as you would finding someone playing their role in a low-key manner.

However, the cast still won me over, especially David Hedison, who as Andre had to do most of his acting under a black shroud and talking through a series of knocks as he tries to hide his hideous transformation from his wife.  Patricia Owens is also fantastic as Helene, as she has to carry most of the movie once Andre has transformed.  Plus, my mind came close to exploding watching Vincent Price play a sincere good guy role without a hint of sarcasm or menace.

Also, while the effects couldn't possibly match the 1986 version, I was very impressed with what they were able to accomplish.  The fly head was very intricate, but I think the claw effect was even better, due in part by Hedison's ability to play that part of his body as if it had a mind of its own.  The end scene in which the fly that mutated with Andre's head and arm is attacked by a spider was also surprisingly well done.  It should be noted that this element was left out of Cronenberg's version, which I think was probably for the best as it would likely have been a bit too silly for the tone of the remake.

It's funny that, as opposed to most original/remake debates, I find myself comparing the original to the remake rather than the other way around.  But the Cronenberg version is one of those anomalies where it's just so good that people barely recognize the original as much more than silly camp.  I now see this assumption is a mistake, however, as both of these movies share the same tragic core of a legitimately good man who becomes a victim of his own good intentions.  Sure, one movie ends with a spring-time picnic while the other ends with a shotgun blast to the head, but surprisingly both of these endings provide satisfying conclusions to the same basic story.

Thanks for joining me on my truncated trip through some Vincent Price selections.  Join me next week as I get to my finale, where I finally (well, hopefully) get to the four movies that I'm most ashamed to have missed so far as a horror fan.  See you then!

Month of Horror Blind Spots: House on Haunted Hill (1959 version)

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  Although the movies that I watched for Vincent Price week are literally decades old, I suppose that I should still give you a heads up that this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned! 

OK, so my vacation came up a lot faster than I thought it would, so in getting ready for it I didn't have much time to dedicate to my Vincent Price week.  So it's with my apologies to one of the late masters that I present this past-due, truncated version.

Instead of getting in three movies, I was only able to catch two Vincent Price flicks, The House on Haunted Hill and The FlyHouse of Wax gets short shrift because Netflix apparently decided to drop a ton of horror movies in October, and I'm too cheap to rent it.

We'll start with House on Haunted Hill, a 1959 horror/mystery directed by William Castle, who you may remember as the man who mastered gimmick marketing in the 1950s, such as insuring audience members for $1000 lest they die of fright during a movie, or the vibrating chair gag he created for another Vincent Price vehicle, The TinglerHouse on Haunted Hill has a fairly straight-forward premise, with Price's Frederick Loren inviting 5 seemingly random guests to spend one night at an allegedly haunted house for a party that he and his wife are throwing.  Every guest that stays the night will receive $10,000, as long as they are alive to collect it.

This simple premise, however, serves what turns out to be a very convoluted scheme...actually, TWO very convoluted schemes.  Loren's wife Annabelle attempts to manipulate the guests into fearing Loren so much that they will shoot him with one of the .45 caliber guns given as "party favors."  At the same time, Loren manipulates the guests to his own end, making them believe that one of them had in fact killed him, and then faking an attack by his skeleton to coerce Annabelle into a tank of acid.

For me, there are a lot of holes in this plot and a some things that don't quite make sense (wouldn't Annabelle have sensed something was up when Loren invited Dr. Trent, her lover and fellow plotter?).  However, I should note at this juncture that I fell asleep for 15-20 minutes of the movie, so I had to infer quite a bit from the ending as well as a perusal of the Wikipedia plot summary.  Is this unprofessional?  Yes.  But I'm not getting paid for this so technically, I'm not a professional.  For those of you reading this, you get what you pay for. 

I'll also admit that my falling asleep wasn't entirely the movie's fault, as I have the sleep patterns of a 72-year-old Floridian retiree, so I should have known better than to start a movie after 11pm on a weeknight.  However, I also think that I may have gotten more enjoyment out of this movie when it came out in theaters.  There, Castle would have deployed his latest gimmick, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton called "Emergo" that theaters would release during a faked black-out.  There's a reason some of these movies relied on such gimmicks: they're kind of hokey.

Perhaps more interesting than the movie itself, however, is the subtext of class politics.  David Skal discusses this in his book The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror.  Skal claims that House offers "an American microcosm of haves and have-nots" with Price's eccentric millionaire "exerting malign influence over his guests."  Most of the guests are there explicitly attending the party because they desperately need the money, and they have no idea they are acting as pawns for a murderous game between two wealthy sociopaths.

As a whole, I think House on Haunted Hill works better for me when viewed as a piece of horror history rather than a movie I'd watch just for pure enjoyment.  I'll always enjoy watching Price act like a smarmy bastard, but I've seen movies where he's done that in more of an enjoyable movie, such as Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death.  I think if I watch House on Haunted Hill again, I'll want it to be in a group, preferably with access to a giant skeleton that can be dropped into the room.

Further Reading:

Skal, David.  The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror.  New York:  W.W. Norton &
           Company, 1993.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Kairo (Pulse)

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned! 

I suppose rather than refer to this as my Asian horror week, I should have been more specific and called it Japanese horror week.  It wasn't intentional, but all of my selections for this week have been from Japan.  I have gotten lucky, however, in that I've seen some pretty contrasting styles my choices.  Battle Royale is fast-paced and kinetic, while Ju-On is more psychological and methodical (and, if I'm being honest, kind of dull).  With two polar opposites, I was intrigued to see where Kairo, my final film for the week, would land on the spectrum.  

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and released in 2001, Kairo (or Pulse) tells parallel stories of Kudo and Ryosuke.  Kudo's coworkers begin to be haunted by ghosts , either via the internet or found in rooms marked with red tape.  Ryosuke, a college student, sees the same thing happening to students at his school.  Anyone who comes into direct contact with these ghosts either commits suicide or eventually disintegrates into a pile of ash.   Kudo and Ryosuke's stories converge as more and more people are affecting by this spreading plague of ghosts, as they discover why the dead are returning and the dark secret about the afterlife.

If Battle Royale is brutal, and Ju-On is boring, I think the best way to describe Kairo would be bleak.  This is a movie that posits two things about the afterlife (SPOILERS):  1.  There is only so much space in afterlife, and ghosts are coming into our world because that space has run out.  2.  The afterlife sucks.  Not in a "fire and brimstone" kind of way, but rather in a "you spend eternity alone and lonely" kind of way.  That is a pretty terrifying notion, and one that I don't think I've ever seen presented before.  Sure, plenty of people believe that when you die, that's it, and that there is no heaven, hell, or any other kind of afterlife.  There's just nothing.  But I don't know of anyone who believes that you'd be conscious of this nothingness.

I also have to respect the scope of the movie.  Most supernatural movies are small, affecting a house, or a relatively small group of people.  In Kairo, by the end of the movie it looks as though the entire planet is effectively haunted, and very few people, if anyone will come out the other side.

This is one of those movies that didn't scare me due to camera work, special effects, or specific set pieces.  The movie's philosophy is what's truly scary.  Other movies make you afraid how how you are going to die.  You might get your head chopped off, or you might be eaten alive by some hideous creature.  Kairo makes you afraid of death itself.  It doesn't really matter how you die, because when that's over it's the rest of eternity that's really going to fucking suck.

Needless to say, while I'm glad that I included Kairo in my list for this week, I'm happy to be moving on to horror that won't give me any further existential crises.  In fact, next week I'll be starting my Vincent Price week, so I feel like in comparison these movies will be downright chipper.  Stay tuned, and thanks for joining me for Asian horror week. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Ju-On-The Grudge

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned!

I suppose it's a bit misleading to say I've never seen any Asian horror before taking on this month's theme.  I've seen a couple of interesting examples such as The Host (which was awesome) and Tokyo Gore Police (which was fucking weird).  What I'd never really seen before, however, is what's traditional J-horror, or Japanese horror films known for their psychological/supernatural elements.

Tonight I fixed that by watching the 2002 movie Ju-On: The Grudge.  Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, The Grudge is actually the third film in the Ju-On series, which I didn't find out until I'd already started watching the damn thing.  From what I can tell, viewing the first two films isn't really necessary to follow The Grudge, as the plot is fairly simple:  In the home where a man murdered his wife and child, a curse was born that kills anyone who visits the house.  The film focuses on those unfortunate enough to enter the house through a series of segments in which, spoiler alert, everyone dies.

And here in lies my issue with The Grudge.  I never really doubted that everyone in the movie was going to die.  As it turns out, this can take away suspense just as much as knowing that everyone is going to live.  All of the segments in this flick hit the same beats.  Person has contact with the house. Person is followed by ghosts of either the original family or by dead loved ones killed by the curse.  Person is then also killed by the curse.

I suppose haunted house stories have always been hit or miss for me.  I do enjoy when a movie plays on creepy elements, and The Grudge did have its moments, such as the Predator-like growling of Kayako's ghost over the phone, or the first two or three times we see her awkwardly crawl toward her prey.  But the more the movie used Kayako, the more routine it became.  Plus, during the climax, main protagonist Rika encounters Kayako three times within the span of about two minutes.  During this time, all I can think is, "Why the fuck are you still in this house?"  And then I feel like an asshole because I hate when people act like they know what they'd do in an extreme situation like that.  But still...why the fuck are you still in that house??

Anyway, I can't say there's anything actually wrong with Ju-On.  It's well shot, the actors all hit their beats well, and the story makes good use of playing with the way everyone in the movie is connected by the house.  I think my lack of enthusiasm for the movie is simply a matter of personal taste.  I'm an child of the 80s slasher genre.  I like my villains corporeal and stabby, and I like knowing that at least one person will survive the ordeal.  But I'm not giving up on the J-horror genre.  I've still got one more for this week, the 2001 movie Kairo

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Battle Royale

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look.  

To kick off my quest for horror credibility, I'm starting with a week of Asian horror.  Most of my experience with Asian horror up until this point has been references to their superiority when discussing their American remakes (which I also haven't seen).  I put out an ask via Twitter for some suggestions to get me started, and I got a lot of recommendations for the movie that will kick off this series:  Battle Royale.

Directed by Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku and released in 2000, Battle Royale tells the story of class 3-B, a group of unruly students selected by the government to take part in the titular contest, in which they are all trapped on an island and forced to fight to the death.

This movie is pretty wild, as rather than hiring a group of "teenagers" who are actually pushing thirty,  Fukaskaku cast actual middle-school age children.  This choice heightens the impact as they begin killing one another in pretty brutal fashion.  At the same time, I don't know if I would call the movie realistic.  Everything takes place in a more kinetic fashion.  Sure, death in this movie is taken seriously, but it also plays as very over the top, with fast-paced set pieces, dark humor, and digital effects that tone down the realism just enough so that it's not unbearable to watch.  It actually reminded me of the slightly tweaked reality depicted in Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

The Faculty of Horror Podcast also points out the interesting choice to have actual children cast in Battle Royale.  In fact, if you want in-depth analysis about the sociological context of the movie, I highly recommend taking a listen to the episode.  They provide such great insight into the movie that anything I try to add would be redundant.

Their discussion about Battle Royale's comparison to the Hunger Games, however, struck me as particularly interesting.  They note that the claims of Hunger Games ripping off Battle Royale aren't accurate given the different approaches the films take, and I agree with this assessment.

The Hunger Games is an indictment of culture and media, positing that our lust for diversion allows for such a despicable form of entertainment.  Battle Royale's scope, however, seems much smaller.  The larger ramifications are hinted at, but mostly the movie explores the politics of adolescent relationships, imagining how those politics could play out under such extreme situations.

What makes this so interesting to me is that provides for many small stories to play out during the movie.  While Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa are the main protagonists, virtually everyone in the movie has at least a small piece of significance to add to the plot.  We get to just enough time with people and get just enough backstory to care when they die, which I think is a pretty tough feat for a class of forty plus people.

Battle Royale was definitely a worthwhile watch, and I'm glad that so many people recommended it.  Next up, I'll be watching something that I assume is a little bit more measured in its pace, with 2002's Ju-On:  The Grudge.