Halloween Horror Movie #5: The Body Snatcher (1941)

Last night I turned to psychological horror with 1941s The Body Snatcher, the first film directed by Robert Wise. This is not to confused the 1956 SF/Horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a classic that has been remade too many time. This movie is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and it features Boris Karloff giving in my opinion his best screen performance.

the-body-snatcher3Set in Edinburgh 1831, just before the Anatomy Acts stopped the scourge of grave-robbing to feed the needs of medical school, the story is about an idealistic you g medical student, Donald Fettes as he learns about the dark secrets of his mentor Doctor MacFarland and the mysterious, dangerous cab-man John Gray that supplies the school with corpses for its anatomy courses. The horror here lies in the evil that people do for their petty and selfish motives. Gray is propelled by more than mere money but rather a sense of humiliation and a thirst for dominance drives his evil and cruel actions. MacFarland is trapped by his own cowardice and in the end becomes as evil as Gray in his own futile search for freedom from a stained and scandalous history with the cab-man. There is a charming and optimistic sub-plot involving a young girl who was confined by a carriage accident to a wheel chair illuminating that not everything associated with brutal medical schools of the time is doomed to failure.

Clocking in at just an hour and eighteen minutes The Body Snatcher illustrates that a film can be packed with character, story, and theme without suffering from a bloated running time. Karloff as Gray gives a charming and evil performance as a man who can smile sweetly just as he murders you. He gives the character a real sense of life and depth. Gray is monstrous but he is not a monster; he is far too human for such simplistic explanations.

I bought this film about twenty years ago at a shop where I paid something like $8 for a used laserdisc. Having never seen the movie it was a gamble but one that paid off by giving me one of favorite films. It is available on DVD as a double feature with I Walked with a Zombie, another Val Lewton production, these films are part of RKO’s attempt at horror which produced the original Cat People, but I cannot recommend I walked with a Zombie thought it is a small price to pay to own such an film as The Body Snatcher.


Halloween Horror Movie #4: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Last night I turned the Young People in Peril (YPIP) subgenre for my horror selection. Now this subgenre has been with us for quite a while, really taking off in 1979 with Halloween, launching this and the slasher subgenres as the dominate horror form for decades. Only the Zombie and ‘Found Footage’ subgenres have really challenged the primacy if this format.

2012 saw the release of The Cabin in the Woods, a film that both respected and subverted the YPIP format. Co-written by Joss 1-la-cabana-en-el-bosque-2Whedon and Drew Goddard, minds that collective have brought to the big and small screens such properties as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield, The Martian, and Daredevil The Cabin in the Woods reflects their sense of humor and horror.

On one level the film displays all the classic tropes of the subgenre. Five college students leave for an weekend at a distant and isolated cabin deep within the forest. They comprise the classic character types found in the films, the athlete, the scholar, the whore, the jester, and the good girl. After ignoring warning signs that things are not what they appear they accidentally awaken an evil force that methodically and remorselessly hunts them down for savage brutal murder.

As you can see this is a  well worn story line and just from that bit it would be difficult to say exactly which film I watched. It might have been Cabin Fever, or the original Evil Dead or any number of YPIP franchises. Two things make this movie stand out from the others.

First; the young people are real characters with real personalities they defy the broad strokes of their position in the plot. The Athlete is smart and well read, the relationships between the characters display true friendship and depth of emotion, making the later brutal scenes that much more horrifying.

The second element I can not truly discuss without delving into serious spoiler territory. These elements are presented from the very first scene of the movie and when the threads combine it can be read in several different ways. Drew Goddard has said that his father worked in nuclear weapons manufacturing and that part of what he wanted to explore as a theme was the stress and lives of people who are tasked with a job that truly horrific and utterly necessary.

The script has the trademarked Joss Whedon sense of humor and with his deft skill he plays that humor in the front part of the story, because once the horror starts there is little room for jokes and japes. This is what many people who try to combine comedy and horror fail to understand. You can have both, but having them in the same scenes rarely works.

The Cabin in the Woods is a brutal, bloody, and horrifying story expertly crafted and executed. I had the good fortune of seeing it in the theaters and it is one of my favorites.


Halloween Horror Movie #3: Tarantula (1955)

So I have watched a ghost story, a monster movie, and for this third in the series of indeterminate length I selected a giant monster flick. Of course the giant monster films divide into two broad categories: giant beasts & insects and Kaiju, started by the classic film Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Tarantula is part of that American tradition started by the movie Them! of giant animals, usually insects, terrorizing the north American southwest.


Generally I do not consider the giant bug movies to be actual horror films. Horror is a deeply personal emotion and to convey it in a story you generally need deeply drawn and identifiable characters, while  giant bug movies are more about spectacle and disaster. However I recognize that I am in a lone minority with this opinion and so monster films or all types will be open to the film series.


TarantulaTarantula, perhaps best immortalized by Richard O’Brien with the lyric “… Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills...,”is not really the best of the big bug movies, though it is far from being the worst. The story is very simply, a pair of scientists working to prevent world-hunger by developing an artificial nutrient, accidentally create a giant tarantula that takes to the deserts of Arizona. In truth there isn’t a lot of giant spider in this movie. Most of the film concerns the local doctor, played by John Agar, trying to sniff out what the scientists are hiding when one turns up mysteriously dead and deformed. The super-sized spider only appears in the last act and when the authorities call in the military it is dispatched rather quickly. (Though you have to wonder what that town smells like after they burn the thing to death with Napalm. Suitable for all your pest control needs.)


The film is competently directed by Jack Arnold, who brought us the first two Creature from the Black Lagoon movies and a little know feature that has always had a fond spot in my heart simply due to it most unusual giant monster – The Monolith Monsters. Arnold brings in a few actors from his previous films, the afore mentioned John Agar, along with his second screen appearance in a genre film, albeit with his face covered by a fighter pilot’s oxygen mask, Clint Eastwood. The effects are credible and hold up decently considering budget and time. The biggest strike against this movie is the script. The protagonist does very little protagging and because of that the narrative has terribly weak momentum. Overall I can’t really recommend this movie except to complete your knowledge of classic films of this type from the 50s.


Halloween Horror Movie #2: The Abominable Snowman (1957)

From Japan on one side of the globe to the United Kingdom on the other the second film in the Halloween festival comes to us from Hammer Studios, the people who made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee while pioneering the bloodshed and bosoms style of horror films.

1-abominable-snowman-1957-poster-2Short on both bloodshed and bosoms and written by Nigel Kneale, the man who also created the Quatermass stories, The Abominable Snowman follows an expedition to the Himalayan peaks as a small band of men search for proof of the Yeti’s existence. What might have been just another ‘chased by the monster’ story is instead in Kneale’s capable hands turned into a thoughtful character piece that explores some mighty big themes, including man’s place in the world. There are plenty of wonderful character moments in this film. The lhama’s careful verbal bombs as he sabotages the expedition without revealing the true depth of his own knowledge, the open conflict between Rollason a scientist and ‘Friend’ (we never learn if that was his true name) a con man looking reclaim his tarnished image, and other members of the expedition slowly snapping under the stress all come together very nicely.

The cast performs quite well, particularly Peter Cushing as the scientist John Rollason who is driven by the quest for knowledge and Forrest Tucker, best known to baby boomers as a comedic actor from television shows such as F Troop, turns in a very credible performance as Tom Friend, a man with too many secrets. The Abominable Snowman starts with the premise that the Yeti is a dying species, an evolutionary dead end but by the end  the story has turned that cliché on its head.

The film does suffer from the period in which it was produced. The staged mountain tops are clearly dressed sound stages and match up poorly with the location shooting from high in the European Alps. Being the 1950s the film also suffers from ‘yellow-face’ casting where European actors play Asian roles leaving only bit parts to be played by actors that match the ethnicity of their characters.

A lesser-known production of mighty Hammer Studios, my sweetie-wife obtained a copy of the film for me a few Christmases ago from an on-demand service. (Or it may have been for our anniversary which occurs the same week. And if you think a movie is a poor anniversary gift you don’t know me. Movies are ALWAYS a good gift.)

If older films with a more sedate pacing are you speed, this one is certainly worth a look.


Halloween Horror Movie #1: Ringu

This year as Halloween approaches I have decided to bing on horror films, Most if not all of these will be older films from my personal collection though there may one or two from a streaming service.

Horror films have been a part of my life as long as I can remember. When I was a wee boy my older brothers would go to the drive-in on the weekend and promise our parents that they would select something suitable for my impressionable mind and we often ended up watching horror films. The only fiction books I owned as a child were ghost stories so horror and ghosts in particular have always been a part of my experiences.

1-ringuIn 2002 the film The Ring was released, an American remake of a 1998 Japanese film Ringu. I saw The Ring on videotape – how very ironic – loved it and when I moved over to DVD obtained a copy in that medium. Some years later through Amazon I purchased a DVD set of the original films, Ringu and its sequels.

Ringu is based on a Japanese novel of the same title but the film and its sequels diverge significantly from the source material.

The plot of Ringu is fairly straight forward; a cursed videotape summons a ghost who kills people seven days after they watch the tape. A female news reporter discovers the story, views the tape and scrambles to unravel the mystery before the ghost arrives and claims her.

This movie has all the classic elements of a ghost story, the mystery, the unjust death, the focus of atmospherics over ‘kills’ to propel the horror. It is one of my favorite horror films. If you have seen The Ring you’ll know most of the beats that occur in Ringu but there are story elements that were not translated to the American version and these make watching Ringu a different experience than watching the Ring. The DVD has no dubbed English language so if you watch it you will do it via sub-titles. (Not a hindrance for me. I generally prefer sub-titling over dubbing.)

The sequels and prequels are uneven and perhaps are best approached as films in their own right and not directly tied to Ringu. That said, I would heartily recommend Ringu to anyone who like creepy horror fiction over splatter kills.


L.A. Trip and 3-D Dawn Of The Dead

Saturday a friend and I made the couple of hour drive from San Diego to Hollywood to fulfill a bit of seasonal entertainment. Using some discount combo passes I got through my day job we planned to do Universal Studios in the afternoon then stay for their ‘Halloween Horror Nights‘ before taking off for the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd and the World Premier of the 3-D version of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead.

For the most part the trip went as planned. The drive to Universal wasn’t too bad, moderate traffic, but a lot more than what I normally run into when I did the same thing on early Sunday mornings. Our Combo passes allowed entry into the theme parks after 2 pm so there was a lot of time but we of course visited the new attraction, a scarehouse inspired by the AMC program The Walking Dead. We got in a few rides and then it was time for dinner.

After a brief meal we re-entered the park for the Halloween Horror Nights. Here the park has set up themed mazes, more scarehouse really, and themed area with some fo their attractions still running. Because we had a movie to get to at 10 o’clock we knew we’d be fighting time and opted as our first maze the one with the shortest posted wait time – Freddy vs Jason.

Okay it may have had the shortest posted wait time, but it was beyond the park itself at the far end of the backlot. The hike to reach was long, but I did get to see sections of the lot I had never seen before. The maze itself was fun, with clever practical effects.

After that we returned to the upper lot of the theme parks – another long hike – and selected as our final maze Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Blood Brothers. This was a longer line and after the maze we departed straight for the Egyptian.

We arrived and discovered a line that stretched form the box office, through the theaters courtyard, down the sidewalk and around the corner. I had purchased our tickets on line we there was little fear of being locked out due to a sold out performance.

The show time was 10 pm but we weren’t even inside and the appoint hour came and left. We did eventually get in and I turned away from the crowd leading us up to the balcony. The Egyptian is an old school movie palace, huge and lovely. We had pretty decent seats and after getting our snacks settled in for the blood and mayhem.

Before the show there was a short talk by the film’s producers who over saw the 3-D retro-scan, making that start time even later. In the end I didn’t care.

The film looked gorgeous. The image was sharp and bright, the 3-D effect better than many films shot and released in the 3-D today. There were times when I thought to myself ‘This is like looking through a window, not at a screen.’ I was very nice seeing the film in a theater. I own it on blu-ray and consider it to be Romero’s best Zombie movie, but I had never seen it in a proper theater. During the 1979 run I did see the film – at a Drive-in theater with spotty sound, a washed out picture, and while sitting on a bicycle. (I owned no car in high school.) So this was a real treat and worth not getting home until 3 o’clock in the morning. If you like this movie, or bloody gory zombies films, and this plays in your area, see it.


Supergirl – Two Episodes In:

1-supergirl_tv_series_0001Before going to bed each night I usually watch something to let my brain wind-down from its high RPM state. For this I either select something known to me and this requiring light processing or something less heavy for the last two nights it has been the new series Supergirl. (Which is now on Netflix so I am a season behind, but that make no matter to me.)

I do like that this show has a light tone. It doesn’t play it all for yucks, but the over touch is a whimsical one and a generally optimistic outlook. a far cry from Snyder’s dreary, washed, whinny take of the Man of Steel.

I have two observations about the series so far.


First: the writing needs a little more polish. The plots are fine and story works but where it feels clunky is in the dialogue. Characters tend to speak to specifically and not in the usual shorthand that real people use among each other.

Second: this series shows the vast gulf between DC attempts at a cinematic universal and the same project as realized by the Marvel Studios. The deep mythology of the story is inconsistent.

Does the Superman Symbol stand for hope or is it a family crest for the moto ‘Stronger Together?’

Is Krypton a world of genetic engineering and unnatural births or one of families and even twins?


I’ll stick with the series, unless it seriously upsets me, the tone is fun and perfect for an unwinding brain, but I do hope the dialogue gets sharper.



What Does the GOP Believe In?

For eight years the GOP has lectured us that President Obama was a narcissistic celebrity; then they nominated Donald Trump.

For twenty years the GOP has lectured us on the moral failings of President Bill Clinton; then they nominated Donald Trump.

For thirty-five years the GOP has championed fiscal prudence as their watchwords; then nominated Donald Trump.

For fifty years the GOP has claimed as their own the ethic of the silent majority; then they nominated Donald Trump.

For seventy years the GOP has proclaimed themselves the stalwart enemies of Communism; then they nominated Donald Trump. (Who has praised Communist dictators as they murdered their own people.)


When this is over and Donald has lost, and I hope more than anything for a massive loss, they will ignore him and try to tell us this was an aberration, an event, a nominee unworthy of notice. I will not forget. I will remember those who stood on the stage and try to sell us this man because they wanted, above all principle, to win.

My principles are not for sale.


Sunday Night Movie: All The Way

Sunday night I pulled All The Way from my HBO watchlist queue for that evenings entertainment. I was not disappointed.

1-all_the_wayAll The Way tells the story of Lyndon B. Johnson from moments after President Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s sudden thrust into power as the accidental president through to his massive electoral victory over Republican Barry Goldwater. Johnson principle objective is presented a fulfilling Kennedy’s goal of civil rights reform for African-Americans. Arrayed against Johnson are the Southern Conservative democrats, the rising limited government conservatives of the Republicans, violent reactionary racists and impatient radicals no longer willing to accept half-measures or partial victories.

The drama is compelling and the historical stakes presented as enormous but this production would not be a quarter as good without its stellar cast.

Bryan Cranston leads the cast as LBJ. I have often joked that every film can be improved by more Bryan Cranston but that is only half jest. Cranston is one of the finest actors of our time able to cover a wide range of character and emotion with seemingly effortless ease. He crawls into LBJ’s skin, with the help of superb make-up, and brings the man to life. He is the focus of the film and carries that weight with consummate skill.

Anthony Mackie, best know to genre film fans as Sam Wilson (The Falcon) from the Marvel Cinematic Universe performs equally well against Cranston playing Martin Luther King jr. It is always a difficult job taking on the role of a historic person, particularly one from living memory, whose image has grown the mythic proportions. Mackie has a deft touch with his voice and expressions that capture the images and sounds we know from news and film sources, but also gives us glimpses into the man behind the movement.

A real surprise and a very pleasant one came from Stephen Root. Root is best know as an actor of tremendous comedic gifts most notably from the TV show News Radio and the film Office Space, but here he turns on his dramatic chops and own the role of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI.

There are numerous other great performances, Frank Langella as Southern Senator Richard Russell and Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey . truly the cast in the production is terrific.

The movie captures the drama of high-stakes politics, the tragedy of racism and its violent support, and the courage of convictions. If you have HBO I urge you to watch this.


Genes and Gene Expression: an Analogy and Some Speculations

Consider something purple displayed on your monitor. It looks purple, the color is vibrant and clear. However if you take that monitor apart and examine it down to the smallest components you will never find a purple pixel. The only pixels you will find will be Red, Blue, and Green. Where does that purple come from?

Now if you know anything about monitors, or color theory, or light, you already know the answer to my rhetorical question. Red light plus Blue light will create purple light. If both Red and Blue pixels light, then their combined color will be purple, that much is simple and straightforward.

Now for an analogy, think of genes as pixels. Each gene does its one thing; code for mRNA from which a protein is created. There are a lot more different genes then there are pixels. For full color you only need 3 pixels, but humans have an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes, so a directly analogy, like all analogies, can only go so far but stay with me here.

Like pixels genes are either on or they are off, and they are not always on to full intensity. Just as a pixel can be dim or bright a gene can express, that is produce, either a little product or a lot.

Most of the genes in your cells are actually switched off Livers cell have no need to produce proteins for muscles and the same if true for nerve cells acting like skin cell and so on. Critical to life and everything that it entails is proper gene expression. Just as there is circuitry that controls the pixels, switching them on, off, dim or bright, there is a control system doing the same for genes and that is epigenetics. It is the system outside of your inherited genes that controls when and how your genes express.

There is a growing body of evidence that epigenetic traits are inheritable and may be responsible for a wide range of things never before suspected, including sexual orientation.

This would explain the paradox of twins. Identical twins can and do vary in sexual orientation eve though they have identical genes. Some have tried to use the twins data to argue that orientation is then not inherent but somehow chosen. However your epigenetic settings are not under your control and many of them are determined during gestation. And even identical twins in the same womb do not have identical experiences in gestation. The search for a ‘homosexual gene’ is misguided both due to excessive binary thinking, people are not either simply gay or straight, and it’s a quest to find a non-existent purple pixel. All sexually reproductive species will need to have a sexual response mechanism. It is likely that the form of the response, activated by maturity, is a result of gene expression over a number of genes. I suspect the same may be true of gender identity.

Any species with sexual reproduction and sexual dimorphism is going to have some form on internal gender identity and if that is a result of gene expression that variation in expression may result in variation in internal gender identification.

Your phenotype may be male but if your pixels light up for female that may be your self-identified gender.

This gets very science-fictional when you consider that the epigenetic controls look to be hackable. In mice we have already changed the epigenetic settings and changed behavior.

What if we unlocked such keys and controls in humans? Is it ethical for parents to modify a child’s orientation or gender identity? If it is ethical for a person to under go treatments that alter the phenotype to match and internal model is it also ethical to allow that person to alter the internal model to match the phenotype?

I am not proposing answers. These are big big questions, but they are questions we may very be faced with sooner than we think.