Category Archives: Horror

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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Movie Review: Don’t Breathe

So, Friday night I offered a friend of my a choice in which movie I’d load up into the blu-ray player; 2016’s Ghostbusters or a thriller/Horror Film Don’t Breathe. he selected the thriller

We regretted it.

The set-up is simple and right from it’s premise Don’t Breathe is a deeply flawed project. Three cardboard cut-put teenage characters engage in burglary for their chase. Money is he punk-kid character, without any redeeming qualities, Rocky is the girl trapped in a bad life searching for a way out, and Alex is the ‘decent’ kid doing this because he has a deep crush on Rocky. Alex uses his access to his father information at a security service to locate their targets. Nothing about these characters is unique or compelling, and more importantly nothing about them is engaging enough to overcome the fact they break into people’s house and rob them. They are thieves. If your characters are going to be thieves, they had better be interesting.

Things get going when they up their game from burglary to home invasion. The trio are tipped about an old blind man who scored a big settlement after a young woman killed his daughter in an auto accident. For reasons never explained – because they don’t exist – our trio knows that the blind old man keeps his big settlement in cash in his home and not in a bank or T-notes, or anything else that would actually make sense. Luckily for them the old man also is a subscriber to the right home security service so Alex isn’t utterly useless.

The three go and break in, displaying a level of smarts and idiocy that can only be plot driven, and get trapped in the house. The Old Man is blind but not helpless and it becomes a fight for their lives. In an effort to make the three more sympathetic the Old Man is revealed to have some pretty nasty secrets but that just transforms the plot into bad people doing bad things to other bad people.

Nothing about this movie is original or interesting. The plot details pile upon each other, breaking all sense of believability.

Truly we would have been better off with Ghostbusters 2016.

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Movie Review: Get Out

It has taken me a little longer to see this film than I had planned. There’s nothing about this film that I did not like and that did not work. Get Out is Jordan Peele’s freshman outing as a feature film director but you would not know that from the quality of the product.

Horror movies are a difficult beast to pull off well. There are tons of low budget horror films released each year, some to theatrical release and many directly to home video and streaming. What most horror films have in common as a weakness is an over reliance gore and explicit violence intended to shock an audience. Of course that very over reliance dulls any effect of gore and explicit violence, repetition turns the shocking into the mundane. Peele, as writer and director, understands the nature of horror far better than many who have toiled in the field for decades. Horror is a mood, is a sense of wrongness that creates unease. I have once heard horror defines as a knock on the door at midnight and when you open the door, there’s a clown.

Get Out is about a likable young man, Chris Washington, going away with his girlfriend Rose for a weekend at her family home. Going to meet the parents is always stressful, but this trip is more so because Chris is African-American, Rose is white and she has not warned her parents of Chris’ ethnicity. When They arrives Chris is aware that not only is he isolated in a sea of Connecticut Caucasians but the few other African-Americans in the small town act decided odd and suspiciously servile.

This movie has been favorably compared to the 70’s classic The Stepford Wives, and that is not an bad point of reference, though the plots of the two stories are distinctly different. Get Out does not rely upon ‘body counts’ to drawn the viewer into tension or to raise the stakes. The film is smart and expects its audience to be smart as well. there are details and elements that seems merely odd on the first viewing but later maker perfect sense and without the story stopping to explain them to you. This film is powered by mood and for me really getting into the terror of being alone and the other. The cast are uniformly great at their roles but I have to give a particular shout out to Betty Gabriel who takes a smile and a look and delivers gigabytes of information and terror.

This is a terribly good movie and one that should not be missed.

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Movie Review: Kong; Skull Island

 

The other day I was speaking with friend who also enjoys movie about Jackson’s remake of King Kong and he commented that he enjoyed the film it got back to New York. Now if you agree with that sentiment then Kong: Skull Island likely right in your wheelhouse.

The movie has the usual first act set up of meeting the characters, providing just enough depth to satisfy the requirements of a major tent-pole action film, and getting the relationships into a rough geography.

With the housework behind them then next two-thirds of the movie is action on Skull Island. Meeting fantastic beasts, being chased by monsters, the thinnest of explanations for why we haven’t seen these giant kaiju monsters before, and then wrapping all up with a message of ecology and humility.

This movie is competently crafted without glaring idiotic errors but that landed the final product, in my opinion, just okay. It was fun and engaging on the surface but it lacked the grip to hold my unbroken attention and my mind wandered.

Now as with all things your mileage may vary and I want to repeat that this is not a bad movie. I am happy I saw it, and the spectacle is enough to justify the big screen viewing. The film does more work establishing the shared cinematic universe to come than it does in servicing its own story and that’s the biggest flaw.

There is a button that follows the end credits but if you want it unspoiled do not read the title card announcing that this film is a work of fiction. (I did read it *sigh*)

Overall a fun film for giant monster fans but I’d keep to the matinee price level.

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