What is it About the Genre Movies of the 1950s?

If you are a fan of genre films, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror there a better than even bet that no matter your age the movies produced during the decade of the 50s holds a special place in your heart.

While Universal Horror started in the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula by the 1940s they were already being seen as kids movies with their stories becoming more simple and more focused on spectacle. Remember the first ‘shared universe’ of movie is the Universal Horror franchise as the monsters frequently were thrown into the same movie for bigger and bigger fights and thrills.

However once we get to the 50s there is change in the movies. There still were not ‘prestige’ pictures. These productions did not boast A list stars, they struggled with budgets that were too small, and were rarely taken seriously by the critics. And yet these films are ones we still watched more than half a century later. These are the films, beloved and respected, that soulless corporate executives, produced from business universities and without creative artistic drive, that are rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into tent-pole films without the heart, soul, or intelligence of the originals. But why do we love those originals so much? What makes them so different from the bigger budget, more star-driven, and more elaborate movies of later decades? After all how many 70s SF movies, a prolific decade even before the KT Impact of Star Wars, are still being rediscovered today?

I think the answer lies in cynicism, or rather the lack of that bitter philosophy. When we left the 50s behind America entered a period of profound cynicism. The 60’s brought the Vietnam War, civil strife, televised police brutality, and a collapse of established social conventions. The 70’s grew darker with awareness of global pollution, economic shocks, military defeat, and of course Watergate. Distrust of government and nearly all institutions infected nearly ever aspect of our culture including cinema. All our films, including genre ones, took a dark turn surrendering to nihilism and cynicism that masqueraded as wisdom. The 80’s brought us the summer blockbuster, technically born in the 70’s The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, but it took the studios several years to begin chasing them in earnest. Light summer fare that ignored both the cynicism of the 60s and 70s but avoided serious thoughtful stories instead providing adventure as escape.

It’s now surprise that the movies of the 1950s appeal to an idealism that has been absent for far too long. Now we have to be honest and recognize that the 50s were not the idyllic American Summer. It was a period of repression, conformity, and suppressed individuality, but the lure of simplicity is powerful. Against that social conformity genre films of the 50s expressed not only an optimism stripped away in the follow years, but through movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, and many others they critiqued the culture and ourselves. How could such films not last the ages and not continue to find new and wider audiences?

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Two in One Day

Sunday witnessed the passing of two cinema icons; George A. Romero and Martin Landau.

George Romero is perhaps best known as the creator of the modern zombie with the legendary movie Night of the Living Dead. It is amusing that while credited as creating the zombie as we know it today Romero never used that word to describe the monstrous revenants of his film. Due to a last minute title change and clumsy editing of the film’s credit sequences, Romero lost the copyright to his movie and it passed instantly into the public domain. Romero went on to make a number of film most either horror or horror-adjacent but it was the zombies and those movies that brought him legions of undead fans. While Night was the first of the zombie movies, and made for what you might expect to spend on a single episode of a television series, in my opinion it was not the best of his zombie movies. That honor goes to 1979’s Dawn of the Dead. Benefiting from his growth as a filmmaker, writer, and with more resources and stronger themes, Dawn is a cinema classic that is as relevant and powerful today as when it was first released.

Martin Landau had a long and lauded career as an actor and as an acting coach. Depending on your age you may best know him for his roles in Mission: Impossible the original television series, Space:1999, or from his Oscar award winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s charming biopic Ed Wood. I have read that he was originally offered the role of Spock in Star Trek but turn it down, but I suspect that may be a bit of Hollywood urban legend. It was reported that he turned down the role because he was uninterested in playing a character without emotions but Spock in the original pilot had emotions, it the cold, logical character was the female second in command, Number One.

With or without the Star Trek connection there is no doubt that Landau left his mark on the industry and on the culture.

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Vintage Film Review: Blacula

As many of you are already aware I have a deep love of cinema. Sadly, one aspect of the cinema that my knowledge has been lacking in is the sub-genre of Blaxploitation. Traditionally defined this was a short period, primarily in the 70’s, when there was a sudden influx of movie that were black produced, black starred, for black audiences. Often dealing directly with issues of racial and social injustice these films addressed things from a more street-level rough around the edges style of production.

Last year as the start of my education in this cinema I watched Black Caesar, basically a modern retelling of Little Caesar but for a (then) contemporary black audience. Today, while I was home sick with a viral head cold, I watched Blacula. An urban vampire story from this particular sub-genre

The story of Blacula is the story of an African Prince, Mamuwalde (portrayed by the ever talented William Marshall whom geek audiences will remember as the creator of the M-5 computer in the original Star Trek.) and his mission to Europe to try and end the slave trade. Sadly his mission has taken him to Count Dracula who takes a fancy to Luva, the Prince’s wife and is offended at the idea of giving up slavery. When Mumawalde’s resistance offends the count Dracula turns him to a vampire and the entombs Mumawalde and his wife, who has not been turned so that the prince will hear his wife slowly die and then spend eternity trapped and suffering a thirst for blood that can never be fed. I have to admit, that’s a pretty nasty curse. Fast forward a lot of year and Mumawalde is freed and loose in 1970s Los Angeles.

I enjoyed this movie, despite the production being hampered by a quite limited budget. The vampire make-up effects are far from ideal, but I like the story, and I liked the characters; that is what really matters. If you have not seen it you should at least one. Be aware of the very limited budget and non-existence of modern special effects going in and you may enjoy the way I did.

 

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Sunday Night Movie Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Last night I was in the mood for something from yesteryear. Now some time ago Universal put out boxed set for their classic monsters until the branding of ‘Legacy Collections.’ I have many of the set including the one for Frankenstein. The Legacy Collections include the original film for each series, some decent bonus material about the classic horror film, and several of the sequels or associated films.

Ghost of Frankenstein is the fourth film is the series and it continues the story from the previous entry, Son of Frankenstein. Ghost is used metaphorically as the Frankenstein of this film is the second son of the original mad scientist but titling a movie Second Son of Frankenstein seems underwhelming.

The population of the village of Frankenstein, convinced that the area is under a curse dues the action of Henry and his son Wolf Frankenstein dynamite the standing castle where in the previous story the monster had fallen into bubbling sulfur pits. The explosions free the monster and aided my Ygor, who has somehow survived the hail of bullets from the last movie, escapes fleeing the town. Ygor takes the monster to Ludwig Frankenstein, Henry’s second son, in hopes that the creation might be healed and returned to full ability, allowing Ygor to manipulate it to continue his own evil schemes.

The creature kills of the Ludwig’s associates and this after much turmoil with the local populace, prompts Ludwig to plan to transfer the brain of his dead associated to the monster’s body as a way of undoing the crime and transforming the monster into a non-dangerous creation. Ygor, working on the ego of Ludwig’s disgraced mentor gets his brain placed into the monster without Ludwig’s knowledge. These villagers arrive, torches are barred, great manor houses are burned, and Ygor in the monster’s body goes blind because the great mentor hadn’t considered blood type mismatch.

Over all this is pretty standard fare for a Universal monster sequel. It pays fair attention to continuity but hand-waves is way past anything that would actually kill the story, such as Ygor’s ability to survive the gunshot wounds without medical care. Dr. Frankenstein once again pays the price for meddling in things that ‘man was not to know.’ (Hmm we should really have a Lord of the Rings moment in some film like this where the female mad scientist proclaims she is no man.) In terms of the Universal classic monster cycle, which was the first cinematic universe, this is purely a middle-grade entry. The movie did not descend in unintentional farce as with Son of Dracula casting Lon Chaney jr as the Count,, but neither did the film come close to matching the atmospheric heights of Frankenstein.

As this film was from 1942 I did ponder a sequel in which Nazi’s took the castle and ended up dealing with mad scientists and the classic monster. Ah movies that were never even considered.

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Sunday Night Movie The Babadook

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this past weekend presented me with more writing work than I normally engage in during this blissful days away from the day-job. When I finished editing a potential piece for submission to Viable Paradise I rewarded myself with a movie, The Babadook.

Hailing from down-under this 2014 horror film is about a widowed mother and her young son, still scarred by the traumatic death of their husband and father, being tormented by a malicious spirit.

Horror often works via isolation. In lesser quality stories and films that isolation is achieved by the creators via hard barriers to prevent the characters from escaping the threat. The car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, the bridge has washed out, the ghost can fill the doors and windows with red bricks at will, there are no bars on your cell phone, so on and so on. With better-crafted material the isolation is psychological, for example in the novel and film The Exorcist in addition to the fact that the demon is within the child, the fact that no one outside of that home could possibly accept the reality of its events isolates the characters. The Babadook successfully employs the psychological isolation.

In terms of visual style the film reminded me of both David Lynch and the American version of The Ring. The images are not straightforward literal monsters, but more subjective and impressionistic interpretations. Much of the dread, unease, and horror is created by the stylistic and unusual visuals.

The movie did not work 100 percent for me however. I had a difficult time get engaged with the material at the start because the emotionally troubled young son was very difficult to bear. This is by design as we are meant to emotionally connect with the mother who is struggling to manage with a son who has serious emotional issues while having not yet processed her own grief. Once I managed to get past the establishing acts of the story I did find myself more engaged and invested in the outcome.

It is interesting that one valid interpretation of the film is that, like with The Haunting, there is no spirit and that the mother is suffering from a mental breakdown. While Shirley Jackson has made it clear that Hill House is haunted and evil, I have no knowledge about the intent for The Babadook so it is up to you if the evil spirit has a reality or if it’s a tale of madness. While this film had a difficult opening for me, holding me at a distance, in the end I am glad I watched it. Creepy, atmospheric, and ultimately about the power of grief The Babadook is a worthy film in the horror genre.

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Craftsmanship Takes Time

So today Universal, the people who originated the shared cinematic universe, released The Mummy, an attempt to launch a new cinematic universe to drink from the fire hose of money that Marvel discovered.

But the reviews are saying that The Mummy sucks.

And Marvel did not discover that fire hose of money, Marvel laid the pipes, installed the plugs, corrected defects, and the opened the valves.

Oh, and Iron Man did not suck.

In 2008’s Iron Man there are hints of the hopes for a Cinematic Universe, but those hints never upend the storytelling of Tony Stark’s journey to self-discovery. During the play of the film the biggest hint is SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, a part that looks utterly forgettable on the page but brought to fantastic and sardonic life by Clark Greg. Hell, they don’t even call it SHIELD until the end of the movie, making the long, cumbersome full name a jibe for characters to play off and a hidden bonus for fans of the property. The most famous hint of the wider universe Marvel hoped to bring to life didn’t even happen until after all the credits had finished  when Stark met Fury.

If you never watched another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in your life, Iron Man would remain a self-contained and fully satisfying film. This is putting the story and the movie first, ahead of corporate plans, but more importantly it is understanding that quality can rarely be rushed.

Warner Brothers, with the suits meddling in the productions, has tried to rush to their big shared universe and to date the movies of that cycle have produced one watchable film, and it just came out last weekend. (The Christopher Nolan Batman movies are lovely but were not designed as part of the DCEU and they do not graft well onto the larger framework because they are best viewed as a stand-alone series.) Mind you, WB/DC has a rich history and mythology to draw from, half the work is done, and still they are botching the project. Universal seems to think you can just slap together any series of movies, force linkages, and that will make people line up at the box office.

The Mummy, classically, is a horror story. (In fact the original film was mainly a rip-off of Universal’s big hit Dracula.) Later, as the Universal’s horror movies stressed the monsters over the horror they began having their creations battle each other, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-man, and so on, but these films played more and more to children. This incarnation of The Mummy seems to have lost all elements of being a horror story and is instead an action movie. One, if reviews are to be believed, that spends considerable amounts of time delivery poorly written exposition that does not even explain this movie but hopes to establish their ‘Dark Universe.’

Tell this story, tell this story really really well, and lay foundations for future expansions, that’s the thing you needed to do Universal. All you have done this outing is waste money and the audience’s good will.

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On Horror and Un-credited Horror Directors

Horror is a mood, and when we speak of horror in the arts we speaks of an artist’s intent to create that mood. With words, and sounds, and images the artists seeks to undermine the viewer/readers comfort, replacing it with a sense of dread, danger, and unreality.

That unreality is not to the same as a sense of something being unreal, but rather the knowledge that reality is not what you thought it was. The idea that the world does not work along the laws and principals that you thought it did is one of the core elements of horror. When you walk onto a stair, expecting the first step but instead it is missing and your foot falls an extra four inches for that moment when you fall you are in a brief state of horror. You knew that the step was there, in darkness you plunged forward fully confident of its existence, but the instant your foot plummets past the step your world is suddenly rendered wrong.

The moment passes quickly and the horror vanishes with the firm feel of the very next step. The explanation destroys the horror. If excellent horror fiction that return to ‘normal’ reality never arrives and the new unfamiliar reality goes on forever,

I think that David Lynch is one of our greatest horror directors. Not everything he makes is horror, certainly Dune is not, but a lot more is horror than is conventionally recognized.

Lynch’s world are often very much like our own, but quickly he leads the audience into a nightmare where nothing is what it seems, where images and sounds unsettle, where identity crumbles, and sane rational explanations never arrive. In Twin Peaks, now returning for its 3rd season after a break of 25 years, there is unquestioningly super natural elements, but even with demons and doppelgangers Lynch finds horror to unsettle and unnerve us. But in other works, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Earserhead, these same very powerful sensation are invoked and rational explanations are withheld. Though the critics, devoid of thee usual easy identifiers or aliens, monsters, and bloody deaths, rarely labeled these films as horror, to me that is exactly what they are.

The only question is intent. Lynch is famous for never explaining the purpose or meaning of his films. Part of any art is the viewer/reader’s interpretation and for Lynch that means you don’t impose, in any way. your won view as artist, but rather you leave the viewer fully empowered to experience it on their own terms. This is challenging and Lynch has never and will never find easy commercial success but we would be poorer without his visions disturbing and unsettling us.

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Setting vs Genre

At a fellow writer’s Facebook wall we’re discussion the elements required for a story to be noir. Because we are SF writers the conversation naturally revolves about the intersection of noir and science-fiction. This has gotten me thinking and those and a few other terms and I’ve come to the conclusion, probably not original, that there is a difference between Setting and Genre

In this concept Science-Fiction is a setting, it has particular rules that govern its use and violation of those rules can lead to some and even most people excluding a piece from the setting definition, but it seems to me that genre is more about what is the intended or likely emotion reaction of the reader and as such is independent of the setting.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was, according the author, written as an SF/Romance. The setting is science-fiction, the far future, humanity spread out among the stars broken into new nationalities. The genre is romance, the story of two people divided by their warring cultures and yet who fall in love.

Alien is Science-Fiction/Horror the setting is clearly sf, a spaceship deep into space. The genre is horror as the characters, trapped aboard their isolated spaceship, contend with a monstrous being.

Back to the Future is science-Fiction comedy the science-fiction elements, a lone scientist, time travel, are clear while the story is a farce about the clash of perception versus reality when it comes to one’s own parents.

All three of these works are Science-Fiction but looking at them simply through the lens of their setting tells us very little and nothing at all about if these are stories we want to experience. It is only when we examine to the mood intent of the piece, romantic, horrific, or hilarious that we can gather these disparate works into recognizable useful categories.

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What is Horror?

Defining a genre, any genre, is difficult. Particularly when that genre is as diverse as horror. My definition is no absolute, it is what works for me and may work for you.

horror encompasses a wide slate of stories and films, everything from the purely psychological such as Silence of the Lambs, to the most fantastic premises such as kaiju movies like Godzilla. (Or Gojira is you are a purist.) trying to find one definition, one element that binds all of these together is perhaps a fools errand. In fact my working definition of horror actually excludes the purely psychological sub-genre, as I tend to place thrillers in their own genre distinct from horror. Not better, not worse, just their own genre.

So what is my definition? Horror is the field of story telling where the essential nature of the story is that the world is not as the protagonist, and by extension the viewer/reader expects it to be. The rules that the protagonists have accepted are reality are undone and can never be assumed to be true again.

Consider ghosts. We live in a materialistic world where the belief in ghosts is consider eccentric. They are not considered a part of reality and certainly not reality as described by either the physical or biological sciences. If someone comes home to a haunting that is frightening because it violates accepted reality.

Horror becomes adventure when the new reality is the accepted paradigm. Hence Alien is a horror film, Aliens is an adventure film. It also explains the difficulty in craft an genuinely good horror film fro well mined material, vampires, werewolves, zombies and the like have well known rules and that very existence of well known rules undercuts and destroys the sensation of horror.

Now for some horror is about violence, bloodletting, and if we are talking film, explicit effects, but for me that is mere shock and falls short of true horror. Horror to me is a very cerebral sensation. the best stories and films leaves me with a sense of unease that haunts my thoughts well after the tale is told. It the unsettled image of a man sleeping every night in the bed with the ghost of his wife. It is the image of a mother, son, and a VCR on their way to find someone to pass the curse to, to kill. It is the old house on the hill and its power over a poor young woman weak of spirit. These are not images of violence, but they have a violence of the soul in them. To me that is the most powerful horror

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Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

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