Thursday, October 31, 2013

Monster Serial: HALLOWEEN, 2007

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


By PATRICK McCRAY

1.  It is impossible to talk about the Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN and not talk about John Carpenter. 

2.  It is impossible to talk about what makes great art and not talk about HALLOWEEN.

I mean it.

When I think about what makes movies great, I think about John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Great art can be elaborate and marvelously complex, like a J.S. Bach concerto or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I’d wager that adding more and more to an artwork is the easiest path because creativity breeds creativity.  Look at the embarrassment of riches that is CITIZEN KANE. 

While still adoring All Things Orsonic, I think that elegance is the greater challenge.  I’d also wager that it creates the most memorable results.  Imagine the pressure of making as few creative choices as possible.  Each one would have to be exactly, precisely right and harmonious.  Gershwin did it.  Hemingway did it.  John Carpenter did it.  Yes, I put them in the same company...proudly.

His HALLOWEEN is as clean, elegant, and linear as possible, putting pure terror in the fewest strokes.  At center, an incredibly straightforward plot about unstoppable doom.  An explanation for it? Pure evil.  That is the best that his brilliant nemesis can muster.  Music that contains the sparest horror theme since JAWS.  The mask’s evil comes from its totally neutral passivity.  All topped by a seemingly simple ending, the existential crescendo of which is one of the greatest unfinished melodies in all cinema.


A remake was and is an essential show of respect and adoration because of the original’s simplicity.  It is a brilliantly textured canvas... a work of art in itself and a natural template for iterations and improvisation.  It is the Rhapsody in Blue of horror, and a study of jazz will reveal no shortage of brilliant and beautiful riffs on Gershwin’s masterpiece.  A marvelous cover not only celebrates the original, but finds the implicated nuances and possibilities of that original without descending into parody.
Which is where Rob Zombie comes in. 

Kevin Williamson specializes in heckling tropes.  Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino, while clever filmmakers, seem just as intent on showing off the genre films they’ve seen as they are telling a great story.  Sometimes, filmmakers can be so busy winking at the audience that I want to ask them if they need some visene. 

I vastly prefer Rob Zombie.  Yes, his films are inspired by other films.  Yes, he and the audience all share the same filmography.  But unlike the (less shining moments of the) aforementioned filmmakers, Zombie takes his characters and subjects seriously and with respect.  He uses the shared filmography as a foundation for storytelling more than genre commentary.  As a fan of the films that form his inspirations, I feel like I’m seeing the next evolution of something I love, and that gives me hope in an increasingly barren cinematic landscape.
 
The very fact that Rob Zombie inspires such controversy is a positive sign that he’s passionately engaged in his art.  The most controversial element in Zombie’s HALLOWEEN is the film’s first hour, detailing the evolution of Michael into The Shape.



We never really see this in the original, and it betters the film.  Carpenter’s (first) masterstroke was allowing Michael to be completely silent.  Ignoring the other films, why does a seemingly loved, normal boy of a clean, moneyed, seemingly affectionate household just start killing?  What does Loomis really see in an apparently catatonic boy to brand him as pure evil rather than a demented child?  Michael truly embodies the implications of Stanley Kubrick’s famous quote, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent.”


Michael’s murder spree is the definition of hostile, but his unexplained, gleeless indifference to his killings is what makes him truly scary.  Even the shark in JAWS is simply hungry.  Pazuzu shows great mirth in the possession of Reagan McNeil.  Hannibal Lecter clearly enjoys his diet and always seems as if he could be talked out of skipping a meal or two in the name of good conversation.  Michael is more of an answer from the universe that, yes, it really is out to get us...with an aggressive indifference.

Rob Zombie’s concerns are not so existential as they are psychological.  Learning of his youth and seeing Michael as quite conversational in his childhood is crucial to his cover.  There are many who want an exclusively silent Michael Myers.  Thank goodness they have a classic to which they can retreat any time they want.  While I can understand that kind of passion, I don’t share it.  I don’t want to see only one interpretation of Hamlet, Willie Loman, or Batman.  Why should I limit my horizons with a horror baddie?  To like Christopher Lee does not necessitate disliking Bela Lugosi...or even George Hamilton.



This childhood is very different from the one Carpenter depicted.  It’s not a quiet, suburban home; this is something out of a Harry Crews novel.  Michael has already started slipping over the edge, but he’s relegated his violence to animals.  While he has a fondness for masks, he can go without them.  Yes, the trampy older sister and the abusive stepfather are straight out of central casting, but Zombie’s actors and dialogue still have a unique shine.  Like Tarantino, he gives their interchanges more wit than earlier genre directors might have, but unlike Tarantino, Zombie knows when to have them zip it and move on.

For me, having Michael (as a child, anyway) speak is no worse than having the Creature speak in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, although the impact and mood are entirely different.  With Michael speaking, we can see that not speaking is a choice.  Something just snaps with Carpenter’s Michael.  Zombie’s is more profoundly disturbing because he can interact as a normal, lovable boy...and perhaps has moments as one.  But we see him choose to kill and choose to lie and choose to charm and choose to intimidate.  Seeing him make those choices implies that he is eliminating other options very conscientiously.  Yet why make those choices?  In the Carpenter film, he is a directed predator... a robot with only one prime directive.  In this film, he has complete autonomy.  That is just as scary to me because it suggests that everyone is constantly choosing not to be Michael Myers...which means that anyone can be. 

The first act of the film finds Zombie returning to the Poor White Trash world that’s his specialty.  Because that strata is not an ideal one for raising healthy children, Michael’s mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) makes every Dr. Spockian move to be patient and understanding with him, as if trying to prepare her son for a better world.  Unfortunately, she overindulges him.  So does Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), his touchy-feely and entirely unprofessional psychologist.  By this overindulgence, the evil side of Michael is ignored and begins to grow within him until it seemingly swells to gargantuan heights as an adult.  So, we think, this is Zombie’s time for fair play; he’s shown the evils of redneck family life, and now he’ll show the corrupting influence of 1980s permissive parenting.




He’s too smart a director for that.  By the time Michael escapes into adulthood, we find a Haddonfield where Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Thomas) enjoys parents who are loving, but are not pushovers.  Even the yahoo sheriff (Brad Douriff) is clearly a good and supportive, blue-collar, single parent of the lower middle class. It’s the most optimistic element in the movie...yes, it’s possible to raise good kids, with neither the abusive disdain of Michael’s grizzled stepfather (William Forsythe) or the ineffectually laissez-faire approach of Michael’s mom and doctor.  There are clear nature-vs-nurture messages that are very important to Zombie, and I feel he’s making his stance clear.  Yes, a balance is possible, and yes, it gives Laurie both the wit and grit to survive.

By the final act of the movie, Michael is clearly cutting a path to his sister, and I also appreciated that.  Movies and TV series change over time, finding the formula that works best.  Remakes often ignore those newer elements to their detriment.  Zombie seizes upon the sister plot twist from HALLOWEEN II and uses it as Michael’s driving force, reverse engineering Michael’s psychology as a result.  Laure is the one woman in Michael’s care.  As a child, he seems desperate for female approval.  He loses his mother to countless men every night -- an Oedipal nightmare on steroids.  His sister ignores him in favor of her boyfriend, and he kills both only to find his.  Michael’s killing begins to take on a pattern of punishing these women and their witnesses or eliminating anything between him and his sister.  He’s especially brutal with the adoptive mother (Dee Wallace Stone) who’s taken his own mother’s place in Laurie’s life.  He’s on a sad, purposeful, bloody quest for...absolution?  Punishment?  A hug? 

When he finally supplicates before a terrified and confused Laurie, he removes his own mask, a much deeper moment than we’re given in the original.  It’s a subtle touch, and going further, this great bear of a man appears to have shaved his face for her.  It’s his equivalent of putting on Sunday clothes, and it again shows that he’s very capable of making civilized choices. 

So are all the characters.  Loomis chooses to sellout with his experiences with Michael, captured in a tawdry paperback, and then chooses to atone.  There are times when healers must cauterize.  Laurie chooses to think with increasing strategy rather than give up.  At the film’s end, though, Michael appears to guide her hand to shoot him, and it’s the one choice that seems to drive her mad. 
In that madness, I see a strange hope. 

It proves that she’s human. 

It proves that movies are movies and that if someone were to experience this in real life, they would not wipe the moment away with a pun or quip of self-empowerment.  After trafficking in relentless violence -- which we view with almost the same scientific detachment as does Michael -- Zombie rounds out HALLOWEEN with a clear and sobering message about the decidedly unheroic aftereffects of real killing on real people.  Instead of leaving the film with a puffed up sense of vicarious triumph, coiled and ready for the next slasher to appear, I left Zombie’s HALLOWEEN in a state of mild shock.  It was purposefully rough hewn where Carpenter’s was smooth.  It’s ending of certainty was more disturbing than Carpenter’s mystery.  The film was many things, but among them all, it was a film with its own voice. 

But what voice?  The film was a ritual, just like the holiday for which it’s named.  Once it moves to the present day, I followed it almost mechanically because it was mechanical.  It was aloof.  It knew the procedure and followed it with no postmodern tomfoolery.  And Loomis wasn’t supposed to get his skull crushed.  Michael was supposed to be shot and vanish as Laurie and the brave doctor stand in shock, dread, and a reluctant readiness for the next appearance.  Not here.  In a film about consequence, the most human one cannot and will not be ignored.

That capacity to bring a new and distinctive voice of humanity to his genre is Zombie’s greatest strength.  Horror films have a bad reputation for turning its viewers  into monsters.  That’s an onus that Monster Kids have fought since the beginning.

Zombie shows us that horror may be the cultural voice most capable of preventing that.  In Laurie’s final scream, we know that we will implode from madness before we become beasts. 
Nietzsche said, “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster.”

In HALLOWEEN, Rob Zombie disagrees.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

Monster Serial: HALLOWEEN H20, 1998

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


By JONATHAN M. CHAFFIN

In 1998 when a projectionist called me after midnight on a Tuesday and said, "I'm building the print for H20 tonight and have to test it ... wanna come watch?" I damn well got back out of bed, got dressed, and ran every red light on the way to the theater. That's how I came to watch "HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER" a week before release in an empty theater in the wee hours of the morning with the sound cranked to max.  Hearing that signature theme boom and echo in the dark for the first time was a highlight of my life [1]. The movie did not disappoint then, and still doesn't.

A quick note before we dive in: The HALLOWEEN series LOVES its long titles, numbers, and subtitles.  I will refer to this film in text as H20 or HALLOWEEN 7, and rarely by HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER.  Also; this film deals with the character Laurie Strode who is living under the assumed name Keri Tate - I will primarily refer to her as Laurie.

I'm not going to talk overmuch about the psycho killer (or agent of Thorn if you prefer [2] ) aspect of the film; it's fun, it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it. "Who will survive and what will be left of them" is as relevant a question for this 1998 release as it was for the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 1974. Halloween 7 is a post-SCREAM slasher film; a little self-aware, a little clever, and  a little unpredictable [3].


What I LOVE about this movie, and what has made it my second favorite of the franchise after the first, is that like SCREAM, H20 deconstructs horror movie tropes and explores their logical consequences: fan theory as opposed to fan fiction.  This film pays the most attention to the evolution of Laurie Strode (in this film called Tate) from victim to heroine. Several young cast members and a talented rapper round out the cast as mostly forgettable cannon fodder for Michael's bloodlust.

It's easy to imagine H20 starting out as a thought experiment. If Michael Myers' sister wasn't actually killed in the prior movies, where would she be and what would she be like?  As originally conceived, H20 was intended to dovetail with Halloween 4, 5, & 6, and as such does not directly contradict anything except the originally shot ending of HALLOWEEN 6: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS.

Like you'd expect from any combat veteran/tragedy survivor, Laurie suffers from post-traumatic stress and unspecified anxiety disorders.  She medicates herself with both proscribed meds and booze. The bookish girl from HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II who has a caregiver role as a babysitter is now headmaster in a private school near a small town (which also conveniently isolates her from the wider world and, she hopes, from her murderous brother).


At the same time, Laurie has lived her life expecting and preparing for Michael to return and attempt to finish the job of slaughtering his entire family. This movie has fun with the audience's expectations in several places.  Other heroines in other movies wander around asking the darkness "Is anyone really there?"; when the phone goes dead Laurie goes straight for her hidden revolver. When I watched this movie a second time in the theater, there was a cheer when she pulled the weapon out.  Laurie has no intention of squaring off with her brother in a knife fight. When Michael is presumed dead she doesn't take it for granted that he's dead. Ever. 

All of these characterizations feel genuine for someone who has survived a horror movie. Laurie is believable. The mature Jamie Lee Curtis (now the Lady Haden-Guest, by the way) knocks this role out of the park with a touching blend of authoritarian instructor/overbearing parent and vulnerable survivor. Her transition into a tempered-steel Ripley-in-ALIENS heroine during the course of the movie is foreshadowed by a classroom discussion about fate. Regarding FRANKENSTEIN, a student says, "Victor should have confronted the monster sooner. He's completely responsible for Elizabeth's death. He was so paralyzed by fear that he never did anything." It is clear when Laurie chooses to get her son safely off the school grounds and then opts to return for a showdown with Michael Myers that she is working to choose her own fate. I particularly enjoyed the cat-and-mouse sequence as Jamie Lee stalks through the abandoned school wielding a fire-ax and shouting for her homicidal brother. Laurie Strode is essentially yelling, "Come on if you think you're hard enough!"


In two nicely-shot sequences that bookend the climax of the movie Laurie ends up eyeball to black eyeball with her brother. The first time her sense of panic and shock causes Laurie to fumble for her handgun and allows Michael time to disappear again.  The final time Laurie confronts her brother in this movie she seems to consider compassion…then opts to murder her brother, just to be safe. I'd love to hear some lawyers argue over whether Laurie's coup-de-gras at the finale of this film is manslaughter, self-defense, first degree murder, or what. We get to watch as she considers giving her brother a chance of redemption and discards it. The thoughts are clear on her face as she decides to snuff the light in "the blackest eyes ... the devils eyes."

To circle back to the classroom scene from the original HALLOWEEN: "fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Rollins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. The idea is that destiny is a very real, concrete thing that every person has to deal with."  With its' conclusion, HALLOWEEN: H20, TWENTY YEARS LATER was intended to bring closure to the tale of the Myers family and wrap it up in a tidy bow [6]. I think the film is a worthy revisitation of the themes of fate and free will as presented in the original movie. I really enjoyed the added bonus evolution of a scream queen into a fully-actualized hero. Watch it.

Happy Halloween!


1. (Star Wars fans probably know the feeling from the 1990s theatrical releases of those films).  No matter how good your home sound system is, I still believe there is a place for the epic sweep of a theater sound system.  Support your local art theater.

2. See HALLOWEEN 4, 5, & 6. Watch them as if they are a single movie, and get the producers cut of 6 if you want to think about Michael Myers in a dramatically different way. 6 also does a good job, in my opinion, of tying in the events of HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH.

3. In a fun nod to the earliest days of the slasher genre, the theme from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO is briefly used during the scene (at 42:00) where Laurie Strode spoke with Norma Watson.  Norma, Laurie's secretary in this film, is a cameo role played by Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis' real life actress mother. Janet played Marion Crane in PSYCHO and is seen here in front of a 1957 Ford Sedan, license plate NFB 418 [4], reputedly the same car she drove in PSYCHO [5].

4. NFB = Norman Francis Bates. Clever.

5. Her boyfriend in the movie was named Sam Loomis…why does that sound familiar? Oh yeah…Michael Myer's doctor from the entire Halloween franchise.

6. Before those bastards went back to the trough one last time before the reboots and in so doing entirely squandered Laurie's hero journey and potential.  Jerks. 


Jonathan M. Chaffin is an Atlanta-based graphic designer and art director and a lifetime fan of horror stories and film. His current project is www.HorrorInClay.com where he uses artifacts and ephemera to tell stories...he also produces horror-themed tiki mugs and barware like the Horror In Clay Cthulhu Tiki Mug. In addition, Jonathan occasionally does voice-over and podcasting work and appears on panels at sci-fi fantasy and pop culture conventions on a variety of topics. You can follow him @CthulhuMug on twitter or by friending HorrorInClay on Facebook and G+

Monster Serial: HALLOWEEN, 1978

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


By WALLACE McBRIDE

HALLOWEEN is a movie preoccupied with the idea of folklore, so it shouldn't be surprising that the film doesn't quite live up to its own reputation.

Released in 1978, the John Carpenter film has since been buried under a landslide of sequels, remakes and ripoffs. It's a solid, well-structured, spooky movie that might feel a little flimsy these days, mostly because its carcass has been picked clean by commerce. Carpenter famously declined to helm any of the sequels because it's an almost impossible concept to extrapolate upon. HALLOWEEN is not a movie composed of characters, but of situations, and any attempt to follow the original film could be nothing more than a glorified re-make. I think history has supported Carpenter's concerns.

But, back in 1978, HALLOWEEN had not yet become a "thing." Removed from it's unrealistic notoriety, it's a simple, elegant movie that does exactly what it sets out to do and nothing else.

The story: Fifteen years earlier in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Ill., something terrible happened. We're not told this, we're shown this, forced to watch young Michael Myers stab his older sister to death with a kitchen knife on Halloween night. Worse, the entire sequence is shown from Michael's point of view, making the audience an unwilling participant. It's an interesting creative decision because, after the movie's prologue, Myers is little more than a phantom. There's a lot of nebulous speculation about his goals and intentions, but Carpenter wants us to understand that this part of the legend is true. No matter what we hear later on, this actually happened.

What little we know about Myers comes from Dr. Sam Loomis, a rather superstitious physician played by Donald Pleasance. It's easy to see Loomis as the hero of the film, but it's questionable that he ever had his patient's best interest at heart. When a grown Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution at the start of the film, Loomis is more than a little dismayed. He refuses to even acknowledge that his patient is a human being, referring to Myers more often than not as "The Evil." Their therapy sessions must have been interesting.


While Haddonfield hadn't entirely forgotten what Myers did as a child, none of the characters seem to be familiar with the facts of the case. To the neighborhood children, the Myers house is a place to be feared, mostly because it's fallen into ruin in the years after the murder and just looks spooky. It's the only clue we're given about the fates of Micheal's parents, and it's more than a little sad. Judith wasn't the only victim that night; he appears to have murdered his entire family, at least on a spiritual level. Their home has become a scar on the community.

Upon Michael's escape from the mental institution (which might be the creepiest scene in the film, made up of blurry images of people in white gowns wandering in the darkness) he makes a beeline for his former home. "The Shape," as he's known in the movie's credits, spends the better part of the movie following three teenage girls around town, and this is where HALLOWEEN might stumble for modern audiences. Not a lot happens for most of the film; Carpenter spends much of the story's middle act following the activities of these girls with voyeuristic intensity. While we're never again given the "first-person shooter" perspective used in the film's opening, the photography doesn't let us forget that Michael is lurking nearby. Without this visual posture (the work of the great Dean Cundey) we'd be left with a movie about three really dumb teens.

And holy shit, they're dumb. Not so much the character played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who makes fairly reasonable decisions. But her friends appear to be scripted by an alien who only has the vaguest idea of what teenage girls might sound like. Here's a sample:
"So who cares? I always forget my chemistry book and my math book, and my English book, and my, let's see, my French book, and... well who needs books anyway, I don't need books, I always forget all my books, I mean, it doesn't really matter if you have your books or not ... hey isn't that Devon Graham?"
And so on.


The kids in the film never feel real, not the least of which is because they're all a little old to be playing high school students. At 19, Curtis was the only actual teen in the film (the actresses playing her friends weren't far from their 30th birthdays,) but that's to be forgiven. This is not a character-driven piece, and it wouldn't have changed the story had actual 16-year-olds been cast. As with any fairy tale, only two things matter: That the characters get separated from authority figures, and that most of them get dead. You might even argue that liking these kids would detract from its entertainment value, a problem with horror films touched on in last year's CABIN IN THE WOODS. There's a fine line between horror and straight-up tragedy.

Things really begin to move in HALLOWEEN after the sun sets, though. The camera fully shifts away from Myers' perspective during the final act, sometimes revealing two stories simultaneously. There's the movie the characters think they're in, and there's the unsettling reality of the situation preparing to pounce upon them with murderous abandon from outside of their peripheral vision. This happens several times during the final act and it never fails to work. The most meta of these compositions involves a young boy watching Myers carry one of his victims across a neighbor's lawn as the electronic sound effects from FORBIDDEN PLANET blares from the television set. It's as though a horror movie is ripping its way through the screen and into our reality. Creatures from the Id, indeed.


HALLOWEEN is a film heavy with folklore. Everyone in the film has a story to tell, from the creepy cemetery caretaker's gruesome story that's interrupted by the discovery of a stolen grave marker, to the quaint superstitions about "The Boogeyman" and the Myers house shared by Haddonfield's children. The movie even gives us glimpses of its own DNA in clips from FORBIDDEN PLANET, a film about monsters of the imagination made real, as well as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which features a mute killer clad in a familiar-looking boiler suit.

Even the role of Dr. Loomis is as much Greek chorus as protagonist, providing us with constant reminders of the villain's "otherness." We should be afraid of Michael Myers, he warns. He's evil. And yet, nobody pays him much attention.  Loomis failed to convince the authorities of his patient's danger because he failed to scare them. Carpenter knows that it takes more to rile up an audience than insisting on an emotional response. If HALLOWEEN has a message, it's that there's nothing more important to a story than the telling of it.


WALLACE McBRIDE is editor of The Collinsport Historical Society

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Monster Serial: CURSE OF THE DEMON, 1957

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!

By PATRICK McCRAY

Bigfoot!  Yetis!  The Bermuda Triangle!  Donnie and Marie!  High weirdness everywhere!  Run for your lives!

It was all possible in the Seventies. 

But such an age needed heroes.  Other kids had… well, I don't know who they had.  Some rock star or sports goon.  Me?  My hero was the Amazing Randi.  Talk about a fighter.  A tiny imp of a smartass, he used the secrets of stage magic to expose nefarious psychic frauds.  Why was that so important to me?  I grew up in that odd, 1970's golden age of Vaguely Credible Weirdness, with Hans Holzer books at the grocery and IN SEARCH OF as a Saturday night staple.  Like Fox Mulder, I did and do want to believe that the universe is full of wacky stuff.  Finding anyone abusing the potential for these wonders was like finding the worst lie possible.  But there he was to save the day, James Randi!  And my fondness for Randi fed into my love for the Really Big Guys like James Burke and Carl Sagan. 

Caught between the romance of Fortean wonders and the power of the scientific method, I was a John Keel fan one day and an Agent for CSICOP the next.  This made me the least likely demographic for any film that could possibly be conceived.  Well, unless we're talking about CURSE OF THE DEMON.  It balances a professionally skeptical, level-headed hero and a charming mama's boy of an occultist-bully-badguy over dangers that are beyond both of their powers of reckoning.


 Balding, fastidious, and cheerfully pompous cult leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) has begun a bizarre assassination campaign against the skeptical scientists opposing him. His method?  By passing a slip of runic symbols to his victims, he summons a demon that will consume them in a week.  (Not just a ghost or a monster, but a DEMON!  From the start, the film goes big!)  And, along the way, he psychologically terrorizes them, mounting their expectations for the doom to come.  His latest vicarious murder, though, summons the interest of Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a cross between Sagan, Randi, and a hint of Nathaniel Branden.  He is, perhaps, cinema's greatest skeptic hero.  Now in England, the brash American takes on Karswell, who retaliates by passing the strip of runes to to him.  The rest of the film is a clever detective story with witty and unusual twists at every turn.  Karswell may simply be using the power of suggestion, but that theory becomes more and more unlikely as Holden encounters supernatural terrors that slide from the mundane to the malevolent.  By the end, although the film could have gone the route of total ambiguity, it is clear that Holden faces a paranormal threat most real. 


So, what would James Randi do in a situation like this?  The same thing as Holden.  He knows that reason and cool thinking will win the day, even if the day includes a titanic demon.  And they do.

Ambiguous words like "moody," "unsettling," and worst of all, "atmospheric," are slathered around movie reviews (often by yrs. fly.) like Miracle Whip on a cheap ham sandwich.  But CURSE is constructed so carefully and thoughtfully that each applies.  Directed by Val Lewton vet, Jaques Tourneur, the timing of many of the scares creates "boo" moments of surprise that actually contribute to the story.  They increase the tension, rather than pull a psychological spike-and-release.  In THE EXORCIST, it seems clear that Friedkin studied this film quite well, juxtaposing silence and noise, light and darkness, all to paint a universe much larger than any of the characters can conceive.  Using Ken Adam's gorgeous period sets, the film takes on a size worthy of the Stonehenge that metaphorically dominates the story.

Threading it together is a screenplay that surprises not just in shocks and suspense, but in charm.


Karswell is an endearing villain who makes excellent points about the plus side of being naughty.  His doting mother?  She tries to help Holden by taking him to nutzo seances.  This is a film that gives and gives to audience members, and is a wonderful glimpse into what that James Randi film franchise might have been like.

There is nothing predictable in CURSE OF THE DEMON.  Nothing we've seen before, or since.  Just the power of the human mind to take on and defeat the occult. In an age when the agents of evil always seem to win, CURSE OF THE DEMON feels more revolutionary than ever. 

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Monster Serial: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 1975

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!



By WALLACE McBRIDE

It’s 1993, and I’m standing outside a nightclub talking to Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult.

My own band had just broken up, which essentially decimated my social circle. I was depressed, but not so much that I was going to miss one of BOC’s rare visits to town. The last time I’d seen the band, though, two cars were needed to carry us all to the venue. This time, I drove alone. My hair was down past my shoulders, and I wore a black leather motorcycle jacket and matching boots. God only knows what Buck Dharma thought as I sprinted toward him in the darkness as he walked to his car after the show.

The club’s name at the time was Rocky’s, and was located on Independence Boulevard. The establishment had changed hands and names so often that I've long since lost track of its spiraling personality disorder.  I think Public Enemy was on the bill the week before BOC played the club, which should give you an example of how effed up this place was. It’s since been torn down.

At this point you’re probably asking yourself, “What does Blue Oyster Cult have to do with Rocky Horror?” The answer? Not a goddamn thing.

EXCEPT: Next door to Rocky’s was an old theater called the Silver Screen Café, which was once Charlotte’s hot spot for midnight movies. Frozen on its roadside sign were the names of the final films it showed before going out of business. One of them was HEAVY METAL, for which BOC coincidentally contributed a song. The other was THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It felt like a convergence of my two favorite obsessions, only a little too late.


By this point, I loved ROCKY HORROR as much as a person could without having actually seen it in a theater, which is an essential component of the film’s function. With ROCKY HORROR, audience participation represents about 70 percent of the experience, and I was acutely aware that I was missing out. So much so that, 20 years later, the memory of Silver Screen Café’s derelict sign still sorta haunts me. “THE MOVIE WAS HERE, BUT YOU MISSED IT.”

I wouldn’t get to see ROCKY HORROR in a theater until much, much later. It's not that I've never been in the same town as a ROCKY HORROR screening. There just always seemed to be social barriers between me and the film, which is understandable when you're an underage military brat. Asking an adult (especially one in that kind of culture) to take me to something like ROCKY HORROR would have been like asking them to sit with me on a float at a Gay Pride Parade. I’ve since come to value my status as Honorary Homosexual, but teenage me felt a great deal of anxiety about such things.
 

I'd first seen ads for ROCKY HORROR in newspapers in the late 1970s in Virginia, but the imagery was confusing. The logo looked like that of a horror movie (it even had the word “horror” in the title) but what was the story with those lips? On the off chance that I’d accidentally initiate a conversation with an adult about a porno film, I kept my curiosity to myself.  A few years later, I came across an article about the ROCKY HORROR phenomenon in an issue of STARBURST, published near the release of quasi-sequel SHOCK TREATMENT. The image of Tim Curry in drag, with his finger stuck in Peter Hinwood’s navel, didn’t exactly dispel my confusion. Where was the “horror” in ROCKY HORROR? What was I looking at?

So, flash forward to the night of my 15th birthday. I was at a mall, and a pocket full of cash was burning a hole in my pocket. There must have been some kind of “thing” happening that night, because the place was full of fly-by-night vendors selling all kinds of weird crap. When I went home that night, tucked under my arm were one-sheets of BACK TO THE FUTURE and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

Also in my clutches was a copy of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION ALBUM. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.

The album was recorded with a live audience during a screening of the film, and was the most vulgar thing I’d ever experienced (at the time.) There was a feeling of chaos on the album that was a little terrifying.  It sounded like outright anarchy, only it wasn't. While everyone was screaming their lungs out, they seemed to be doing so in chorus with each other.

And it was hilarious.


For parental security reasons I had to listen to this album with headphones on. I was also left wondering about some of the gags that obviously involved on-screen queues. But I was intrigued, and have loved the movie ever since ... even if I didn't actually watch the movie until the inevitable home video release around 1990.

It wasn’t until 2010 that I got to see the film in a real theater, with a real live audience. I caught THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW at the Terrace Theater in Charleston, S.C., in August that year. Despite the punishing thunderstorm that hit that night, it was a record turn-out for the monthly screening. I had a blast, and spent the next six months making monthly treks to the coast for later screenings. (The group that stages these “shadowcasts” is called Back Row Productions, and you can find them on Facebook.)

But, things had changed since ROCKY HORROR’s glory days in the early ’80s. There were all new “lines,” squirt guns had morphed into Super Soakers, and the “props” prone to attracting roaches (hot dogs, bread, rice, etc.) were no longer a part of proceedings. It was like I was seeing the film for the first time, and I felt at home in that theater in a way I can’t completely explain.


Even better, the “shadowcast” that hosted the monthly screening used an actual print of the movie, not just a DVD. As a reward for my decades of patience, that print was the uncut UK edition of the film, complete with the song “Superheroes.” If I felt a moment of isolation during the event, it was in my surprise that nobody else seemed to think that was a big deal.

I mean, that was a big deal, right?

WALLACE McBRIDE is editor of the Collinsport Historical Society.

Podcast: Big Finish goes BEYOND THE GRAVE



Big Finish will release the latest DARK SHADOWS audio drama, BEYOND THE GRAVE, later this week on Halloween. The episode follows the misadventures of a British television crew who attempt to stage a live broadcast in Collinsport as part of an investigation into local folklore. It's part "found footage" epistolary, part mockumentary, and inspired by the British television film, GHOSTWATCH.

Aaron Lamont, the writer of BEYOND THE GRAVE, joins us in this episode to talk about the evolution and execution of this tale, which caps off a year's worth of loosely connected DARK SHADOWS episodes. A word of warning: I was a little loopy during the interview, having returned home the previous evening following a week-long trek through Disney World. I was exhausted, my feet looked like John McClane's at the end of the first DIE HARD movie, and the echoes of It's a Small World were still rattling around inside my skull.

Note: I don't know how serious they are, but some fans of the DARK SHADOWS audiobooks are discussing the possibility of live blogging the episode on Halloween.  Because fans live in different parts of the world (and, consequently, different time zones) the idea will require some careful scheduling, so keep an eye on the forums for updates.

Listen to the episode streaming above, or download it as an MP3 by clicking HERE.

And subscribe to THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY podcast on iTunes for free by clicking HERE!

Monster Serial: THE WICKER MAN, 1973

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


By PATRICK McCRAY

Today is 9/11; that's a good day to write about THE WICKER MAN.

In the film, a devoutly religious — virginal, in fact — Scottish policeman (THE EQUALIZER, himself, Edward Woodward) answers an anonymous letter beseeching him to visit a remote Scottish island and search for a missing girl.  The island is known for its private community and uncharacteristically robust fruit.  The detective quickly finds that the populace are dedicated, sybaritic pagans, eagerly awaiting May Day.  (Not Grace Jones, in this case.)  As he follows the confounding trail, our hero discovers that due to crop failure, a human sacrifice is called for by their religion, and he alone fits the bill.  There was no kidnapping.  Instead, it was an elaborate scheme to lead him to the island and then into a gigantic, wicker stature in which he's roasted alive by a jubilant community who matches his dying religious hymn with their anthem song of rebirth.

When I show the movie to groups, I get two reactions.  Those on the more deistic-to-atheistic scale usually explode enthusiastically at the powerful and on-point message that's just unfolded.  The more religious the audience, the quieter they get.


Holy books talk of martyrs, but we never see them in everyday life... unless we're branding them as terrorists.  I don't think the meaning of religious martyrdom really hits home unless you see it in a film like THE WICKER MAN.  With the 9/11 terrorists, the discussion often takes a political direction as scrutiny is moved off of Islam, and that may be correct.  Well, there's nothing (pardon me, Marxist scholars) political in THE WICKER MAN.  It just shows a faith-based initiative taken to a logical extreme.

I don't know the exact inner monologue of the more religious audience members, but I think they may be (perhaps unconsciously) kinda scared.  I don't say that in cruelty.  For the less religious of us, people doing things out of faith can be very unsettling.  Swell, it's curing the sick one day.  But what could it be tomorrow?  This film provides a fine mirror for that fear.  I'm not expecting everyone to go all Hitchens due to the film, but if the more myopic are a tad less myopic as a result, the movie has used horror as a very constructive tool.

And yes, myopia comes from many sources, not all of them being religion.  Grand lists could be made about the link between horror and myopia on any number of subjects.  A favorite horror film of mine is OLEANNA, which deals with  the dangers of other forms of myopic thinking.  But this is a film about religion.

Still, I don't find anyone storming away from THE WICKER MAN.  Everyone seems to like it, although it may take them a bit of time to recover.  It speaks deep, human truths with a demented clarity.  The film is charming, witty, highly erotic, and paced like lightning.  It has so many songs that a friend of mine successfully argued that it could be considered a musical.  Woodward's protagonist is a stiff-necked grouch who is easy to love, and watching him match wits with Christopher Lee's liberated and charming island leader is a joyous melee sure to put a goofy grin on anyone's face.  Plus, there are cameos aplenty by cinema faves like Britt Ekland (who plays a mean wall in the most unforgettable musical number in teen-guy-stumbling-across-this-on-cable history), Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, and one of England's great "hey it's that guy" performers, Aubrey Morris.


Most importantly, it doesn't have Nicholas Cage, although I encourage you to see his version afterward.  It does a wonderful job of making you appreciate just how many things that director Robin Hardy and author Anthony "The Guy Who Wrote SLEUTH" Shaffer mastered.

(Editor's Note: In order to hit our movie-a-day target throughout the month of October, many of these pieces were written well in advance. This particular column was written Sept. 11, 2013. — Wallace)

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Quentin's Theme comes to life



SO MANY ENVIES ....

Patrick Lynch shared this video on THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY Facebook page this morning: A working wax cylinder containing Robert Cobert's chart-topping QUENTIN'S THEME from DARK SHADOWS. I'd be interested in hearing more about the process of actually creating this cylinder, but for now I'm going to have to settle for feeling jealous. Here's what Patrick had to say about the creation:
"Thanks to an astonishing gift from a friend yesterday, I am now in possession of an actual Edison style 2 minute wax cylinder that actually plays the correct Quentin's Theme. I just now need to get the right Edison Home Phonograph to play it on. My later Edison Amberola 30 only plays 4 minute cylinders and there are other technical issues. Here is a video of the cylinder maker test playing the cylinder. Having it is a lifetime dream come true. Interesting the phonograph in the video is already quite similar to the early appearance of Quentin's player."

Monster Serial: TALES FROM THE CRYPT, 1972

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


By PATRICK McCRAY 

Tales from the Crypt.

I can think of few things I wanted more as a kid and few things more beyond my reach. When I’d read books on comics history, I’d drink in the unbelievable images of gleeful gore and morbid morality, forever wondering what the full stories contained.  At the time, they were out of print or only available in hideously expensive slipcover sets, so there was no way I’d get to read them in full.  The only thing I knew was that this was the good stuff.  I found the answer in the Amicus Tales from the Crypt anthology movie from England.  I was in the third grade when I saw it (and its slightly wonkier sequel, Vault of Horror), and it was deeply formative.  Twilight Zone had yet to go into syndication in Louisville, but here were morality tales served up with lurid panache and Grand Guignol ironies.

Oddly, though, it was so formative that I totally forgot about it until the DVD arrived, and it all came back in a flash.


The stories all come from various EC horror comics, but updated to 1970’s England, decorated with enough fantastically bad design taste to fill a dozen James Lileks books.  Five English tourists are exploring a, you guessed it, crypt when they are warned by their guide to stay with the group in the labyrinthine catacombs.  Thus advised, they immediately wander off from their guide because the movie needs them to, and they wind up in a stone judgement chamber overseen by a monastically garbed Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper, by turns indulgent and judgmental.  Each of the five receives what seem to be warnings of what will happen to them once they leave the crypt to make Bad Decisions.  A callously homicidal wife (Joan Collins, cast ideally) will encounter the kind of scary Santa Claus who makes scary Santas legitimately scary.  A philandering husband (Ian Hendry) is repaid by the cosmos when an accident blinds his girlfriend and turns him into a zombie.  (Look, laugh all you will, but these things happen.)  A scheming fop has his heart cut out by the reanimated corpse of Peter Cushing after driving the old man to suicide.

(Cushing’s performance is especially touching.  A year before, the actor’s wife of several decades died.  This demoralized him for the rest of his career, and he freely admitted it.  His character is a profoundly fragile widower, and Cushing allows himself a vulnerability that goes beyond mere acting.  The audience is invited in to a very truthful, very haunted place in the life of one of our greatest actors.  It would be an uncomfortable moment of voyeurism were it not for a strange, almost therapeutic generosity in Cushing’s work.)

In a later story, Games of Thrones fans will enjoy Roy Dotrice as he stands as a helpless witness to a retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw”...  a version that has one of my favorite punchlines.  In the final tale, the denizens of a residential home for the blind, led by Patrick Magee, take revenge on a cruel superintendent involving a starving attack dog, eyes, and hundreds of razor blades.

Then, we find out these are not predictions for the five, but explanations of their misdeeds.  Then, they all voluntarily leap into the pits of Hell.  And... scene.

Great movie.

 
In watching it, I had the same experience I have with all great art; I was reminded of 1966 Batman TV series.    

No, really.  And let me rewind a bit.

I have to confess that while I admired the HBO Tales from the Crypt TV series, I found it a bit too goofy for my tastes.  It was a bit like the person who laughs really loudly to let everyone know what great sense of humor they have.  However, it was impossible to assert that its tone deviated from comic book series.  But the comics achieve two effects at once, just like ABC’s Batman.  When I watch Batman, I still enjoy it for the comic book adventure as much as for the comedy. The source material supports both readings.  Similarly, those original EC horror tales can be read as legitimate horror stories as well as wry satires of horror and morality.  The original Mad Magazine, in every sense of the word.  


In Tales from the Crypt, Amicus largely takes their EC adaptations dead seriously, allowing the ironies to insinuate the stories rather than dominate them.  I really like that approach, and I think it’s essential viewing for those who’ve only been exposed to the Zemeckis interpretation.  There are legitimate moments of pathos and dread, and yet the episodes are short and pithy enough that I never feel a lugubriously heavy hand... which can be just as much a vice of horror.

When I was older, I finally got to revel in the actual EC comics, and they were as grand as I had hoped.  But I missed Sir Ralph Richardson’s regal ambiguity as the Crypt Keeper as much as I missed the presence of Peter Cushing.

As much as I cherish the tone and content EC comics, I love the Amicus interpretation even more.


PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.
 

Monster Serial: FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973)

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies! 



By ANSEL FARAJ

One of the most interesting and underrated versions of Mary Shelly's novel, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY originally was broadcast as a two part miniseries on NBC in the fall of 1973.  Something of a curiosity, and very loosely based on the novel, despite the title - I feel that this is one of the best FRANKENSTEIN movies ever made.

The film stars James Mason (pre-SALEM'S LOT) as Dr. Polidori, sort of a Dr. Pretorius (see BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) figure, except his name is taken from history: The real Dr. Polidori was present that fateful weekend in the Villa Diodati  when Mary Shelly wrote FRANKENSTEIN - he was one of Lord Byron's guests and wrote THE VAMPYRE which was the novella that laid the groundwork for all future vampire novels and stories. But here, we have a Dr. Polidori, who is deep into ancient mystic arts and a progenitor for Dr. Clerval (David McCullum) and his colleague Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whitting).

The story follows the basic routine of FRANKENSTEIN, but what makes it so interesting to watch is where screenwriters Christopher Isherwood (who wrote the novel A SINGLE MAN, and BERLIN STORIES which would eventually be turned into CABARET for those of you who are taking notes) and Don Bachardy go off on their own. The first thing they do is give Polidori and Clerval a homoerotic twist, which then spreads to Frankenstein and his slowly rotting creation, played marvelously by Michael Sarrazin.


Elizabeth (Nicolla Pagett, who resembles Emily Blunt at times) is another character they mess with, and this version of the classic "Oh no!! Victor I love you!!" character has been turned into a conniving and castrating woman who is jealous of anyone that comes within 10 feet of her Victor. Just the opening scene in which Victor tries to save his younger brother William from drowning, which Elizabeth looks on coldly, is so odd and dark - it's entirely refreshing to the viewer instead of the normal "screaming heroine" one is accustomed to in these films.

The "creation" scene and the monster itself is also different. Rather than the electrical storm as cemented by Universal Studios, we instead see the "Monster" brought to life via solar energy. It's a very ethereal sequence in the film and also fascinating, when one considers how solar energy is now being used almost as widely as electricity. The Monster is also interesting in that he's born "perfect", but slowly begins to rot over the course of the film, causing his father Victor to reject him, rather than continue to keep him as his housemate.

Polidori - as touched on before - is another interesting twist. With hands gruesomely burned away from an accident with some chemicals, and assisted by two Chinese henchmen, he is a traditional alchemist rather than a "modern scientist"; with his goal set upon conquering the world by using careful manipulation, magic, and hypnotism. Sounds like Dr. Mabuse. Hmmm..... When he entraps Victor into helping him create a female mate for the Monster, solar energy is ditched in favor of what I'm going to call "lava lamp mysticism" which then produces Bond Girl Jane Seymour. How awesome is that.


Prima, as "The Monster's Mate" is called, doesn't have hair standing up accessorized by white lightening streaks on the sides, but instead has a scar around her neck, which she hides with a choker - a la the classic tale THE GREEN RIBBON, which is only fitting considering what she's got coming to her.

The film features an array of great supporting actors which add to the film's production value: Sir John Gielgud, Agnes Moorehead, Clarissa Kaye (James Mason's wife), Ralph Richardson, Margaret Leighton, Michael Wilding and Tom Baker (the 4th Doctor!) all show up to the ghoulish yet classy proceedings, and the English locations really add to the flavor of the whole piece. It's more open aired WITCHFINDER GENERAL, than studio bound Hammer proceedings (though I am not digging at Hammer, believe me.)

At a run time of 182 minutes, it's a perfect film for a lazy October Sunday afternoon. Its strong cast, nostalgic effects, and 'ahead of its time' script, make it a piece of great entertainment that really needs to be rediscovered - both as a 1970s Gothic classic, and one of the best FRANKENSTEIN movies of all time.

Ansel Faraj is an award-winning independent American film director, screenwriter, and producer. He recently wrapped production on his latest film, DOCTOR MABUSE: ETIOPOMAR.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Monster Serial: MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, 1964

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


 By PATRICK McCRAY 

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
- William Blake
Visit THE NITRATE DIVA for more Vincent Price this week!
This is absolutely true of MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which is curious given the balance shown by its lead, the magnificent Vincent Price.  It is a horror film in only the most superficial sense.  How do you film poetry?  Because even when Poe is writing prose, his work is drunk on language and metaphor.  Director Roger Corman very wisely eschewed literalism and looked to the more experimental directors of his time for inspiration.  In doing so, he may have improved upon them.  He begins the film with his tarot casting representation of the Red Death, and Corman ends it with that same figure.  Between, we take a more literal path of storytelling, but not without dream sequences and other moments of heightened narrative designed to convey a mood more than a story.  And that's fine.  At its heart, the film is a deeply existential debate on humanity's relationship with gods.  That it should end in an epic, modern dance sequence?  Just trust me; it works.

At the height of the Red Death, we meet Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, an unforgiving sadist who keeps his moneyed guests in his castle for his own amusement as much as for their own protection from the plague.  He takes with him a beautiful peasant girl, Francesca (Jane "Paul McCartney's Girlfriend" Asher), as well as her father (Nigel Greene) and her lover (David Weston)… the latter of whom are prisoners.  Prospero is revealed to be a dedicated, theistic Satanist, mixing Ragnar Redbeard with Dennis Wheatley.  As the story unfolds, he finds himself musing on the nature of fear, good, evil, pleasure.  This is all an attempt to educate Francesca, whose faith in Christianity is as firm (if uncontemplated) as his own confidence in the potency of devilish indulgence.  Ultimately, although he gains her acquiescence, he is foiled at his masquerade by the red death itself, striking all guests, who haunt him in an orgiastic dance.  In his attempt to escape, he is confronted by the actual Red Death personification, who explains that he is not Satan.  There is no God but what we fashion for ourselves.  Ripping away his mask, Price confronts his own face, stained red with the plague.  All he has wrought has been death and misery, and this consumes him as fitting justice.  We are left with the Red Death meeting similarly cloaked brothers as they discuss the various plagues they represent.  They march off to consume more of humanity with a joyless sense of inevitability. 

Eat it, Ingmar.  That's an ending!


Included in the mix is a fantastic subplot based on another Poe story that involves a little person burning an evil person alive in an ape suit.  Not enough?  Nigel Greene, one of England's best and most underused actors of the period, delivers a magnificently muted performance, representing a moral voice that has no sanctimony, only firm clarity and conviction.  You'll recognize him from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS as the Greatest Hercules Ever, as well as the deliciously smarmy master villain in one of the four greatest Matt Helm films, THE WRECKING CREW

It is obviously Vincent Price's vehicle, and he gives us one of his most focused and balanced performances.  Scripts and directors so often pulled upon Price's comedic aplomb… or his grave capacity for projecting utter malevolence. In this, he mixes both.  He is utterly ruthless and toxically charismatic; thus, it's easy to see why he has followers and why they humiliate themselves for his delight.  Much of the film has Price rhapsodizing on his philosophy of evil, knowledge, delight, and indulgence.  He makes a pitch that is wonderfully seductive and rational… up to a point.  Any other actor would have simply twirled a mustache and rolled his eyes.  Price, however, succeeds that most rare of acting challenges: acting grandeur with humane subtlety.


Charles Beaumont's script certainly doesn't hurt, nor does Nicholas Roeg's editing nor Roger Corman's confident, polished direction.  Along with THE INTRUDER, it is easily his finest work, and shows a vision and discipline equal to any studio's finest talent.  Of all of the AIP Poe films, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH stands as genuine art and genuine entertainment.  Like CASABLANCA, it is a film where every element works.  But beyond CASABLANCA, it is also a sumptuous and abstract meditation on huge ideas.  I have no doubt that it led generations of kids to ask their parents innumerable uncomfortable questions about gods, morality, metaphor, and responsibility.

Yet another reason why it stands as one of the finest films of its era… or any era. 

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Monster Serial: THEATRE OF BLOOD, 1973

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


By PATRICK McCRAY

Let's not talk about camp, okay?  It's there, it's funny, it works.  Easiest thing to discuss about the film, and it's also the most superficial.  I'd rather talk about its heart.

Visit THE NITRATE DIVA for more Vincent Price this week!
Spurned by a cadre of catty London theatre critics, we find hardworking actor, Edward Lionheart.  He's a man whose acting style is sadly too grand for the "Method" age of performance that has eroded that last bastion of Grand Performance, the Shakespearean stages of London.  Decades out of fashion, he is denied these critics' highest award (and suffered their editorial slings and arrows) one too many times.  Despondent and like any tragedian worth his greasepaint, he takes his own life as a final response. 

Or so he tries.  Rescued from the Thames by a homeless retinue of loyal winos -- and bolstered by his ever faithful daughter (Diana Rigg at her most excruciatingly dishy) -- Lionheart decides to rob each critic of his life.  His calling card?  The murders are all inspired by the works of Shakespeare.  Yes, the interpretations  can be often hilariously loose, but we get an odd satisfaction from Lionheart's final curtains.  The Phibes doctors screwed up.  These critics are relentlessly and needlessly mean-spirited over years and years, with no conscience for the hard work and great dreams dashed by their acid bon mots.   In a flashback, when Lionheart confronts his nemeses before his suicide attempt, we feel equally angry for him and embarrassed by him, and that sums up the sad ambiguity of this most Shakespearean of horror films.


THEATRE OF BLOOD is really the third of the Phibes Trilogy, and if it's not the best known, it's certainly the classiest, smartest, and most emotionally rich.  And, for anyone who has ever been in the position to win and lose an award, it's the most bittersweet.  Awards are so cruel.  To win one is to know that others lost.  To lose one is, well, to lose one.  It would be easier to say "they don't matter" if everyone would stop giving them and praising them.  But they don't, and in theatre, where the art is so damnably ephemeral, sometimes an award is the only thing a man has left that says, "I did something that mattered."

Edward Lionheart understands that, and the last of his critics to live -- Peregrine Devlin, played by Ian Hendry -- does, too.  Devlin's conscience genuinely eats at him, and that's why we can feel sympathy for him.  Ultimately, though, we're reluctantly rooting for Lionheart's sense of spirit and celebration of pique.  God, what a sad movie, and what a beautiful one, whose melancholy and bombast are aided by Price's great co-star, Michael J. Lewis' heartbreaking score.

Price really has it all in this film.  Does he get to Grandly Perform?  Yes.  Does he have quiet moments that summon our tears with only the sad truths in his eyes?  Yes.  Does he get to inhabit a variety of wildly funny, diverse characters with a creative immersion that would awe even Sellers and Aykroyd?  You bet.  The whole movie is the greatest audition reel that the man never needed, and it's the best argument that Vincent Price was the most versatile genre star of all time. 

Perhaps with the exception of Lugosi, and I'm just guessing there, the great genre actors seemed pretty mature about their genre work's invulnerability to awards.  They even seemed pretty self-deprecating about the films, knowing full well that they weren't working for Billy Wilder.  As fans, though, we see tremendous dimension to their labors.  I don't think it takes being a Monster Kid to appreciate what was accomplished by Lugosi and Karloff.   We see what an impact their work had, not only on cinema but on our very cultural lexicon.  We know how deserved and appreciated the truly Big Awards would have been to these men.  I think we sense the unfairness that they were never recognized.  And it rubs off on us, because as fans, we don't have their Oscars at which we can point.*


This movie is about that, too.  It could have been made with any great actor.  Olivier would have put in a stunning turn, but only Vincent Price could have communicated the story.

Under the hilarious gags, zingy dialogue, marvelous performances by many of England's great character actors, genuine suspense, auto-self-congratulating Shakespeare shoutouts, and a truly memorable white miniskirt and subsequent blue top on Diana Rigg, there are deep truths being told.  And, like the works of Shakespeare, it nimbly pops between tonalities with confidence and mirth.  As for the gore?  Given that the Bard's biggest moneymaker in his day was, I believe, TITUS ANDRONICUS (the original "torture porn"), I think Good Will would have considered it a very palpable hit.

*But when you can connect a horror great with an Oscar, it's delicious.  Man, the minute a hipster putz thinks he's winning the room by cracking on Grayson Hall, the citation of her Oscar nomination for a Tennessee Williams movie really shuts him up.  Try it some time.  

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.
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