Twilight Zone: You Drive (1964)
You know, I’m fairly certain I’ve been a member of Netflix since the beginning, or at the very least since 2008, BEFORE the big streaming push and the demise of the video store. It happened slowly, I think. The takeover of streaming from home. There wasn’t much available to start. At the time, I still had the 2 DVD rental membership. Maybe it was around 2010 when we, the wife and I, did away with the DVDs. Why? Well…we didn’t need them. In fact, streaming became so much more convenient and affordable that we ultimately dropped cable television. My wife enjoys newer shows, but the ones she likes she streams from apps or catches up on Hulu. And for viewers like me, well…I’m more of a movie kinda guy to be honest, but the shows I do watch the most are typically…how do say…off the air. I watch old shows that have long since been canceled. There are a few newer ones that sometimes makes me wish we still had cable, shows like AHS and maybe a few others. However, if I’m patient enough, those very shows will eventually find their way onto Netflix’s monster cache of streaming availability.
But while newer shows have the glamour, I still indulge in older programming. We’re talking X-Files, MASH, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Star Trek, and yes even The Gilmore Girls (don’t judge!). But my number one favorite oldie to watch is without a doubt Rod Serling epic sci fi thriller The Twilight Zone. If you’ve never seen an episode…jeez…think black and white science fiction, but not just about space and rocket-ships, but also weird tales, time travel, magic even, or death itself. They’re also all moral stories, more or less, warnings and questions of our humanity, not to mention the consequences we could face given certain destinations. The other night I screened for the first time one of these consequence driven episodes, from season 5 episode 14, titled “You Drive.” And let me say, this was one of the more creepier episodes of the show with the most simplistic plot-lines.
It goes like this:
“After involved with a hit-and-run killing a child, Mr. Oliver Pope is haunted by his car.”
Now I can see where King and Straub and everyone else got their ideas from. Perhaps not as deranged as Christine, but no doubt the genius of those darker works of haunted cars that would eventually come out in the 70s and 80s. In “You Drive” businessman Oliver Pope is on his way home. He’s driven this route for years. He knows every turn. Every bump in the road. As it happens on this particular day, its raining, and maybe Oliver has had a long day at work, stressed over a new client or something. He’s distracted and as fate would have it accidentally runs over a young boy delivering newspapers on his bicycle. Now at this point, what Pope has done is nothing more than an accident, tragic certainly, but an accident all the same. He didn’t intentionally run down the boy. However, as Mr. Pope jumps out to check on him (the boy doesn’t look good) and notices no one around, he makes a choice.
Stay and face the consequences of his actions…
Consequences is what Mr. Oliver Pope is afraid of. Afraid of what people will think of him after they discover what he’d done. Not just running over and killing the boy (which we later discover died from his wounds), but running away, his cowardliness. This is perhaps the whimsical side of watching shows like The Twilight Zone, they show you an era in which people still gave a damn about character. And character is what Mr. Pope desperately clings to protect. He doesn’t want people to think less of him. Sure, we can get that, right? But what Oliver fails to understand is that it is our actions that define our characters, not what people perceive us to be.
Well, as par for The Twilight Zone, because of Mr. Pope’s horrible choice to runaway the natural order of things begins to bend. There’s something not right…with his car, the very one he killed the boy with. Pope wants to forget, to put the matter away, what’s done is done, etc etc. But the car will not let him forget. His car haunts him and everyone around him. It honks in the middle of the night. It stalls out when his wife attempts to drive it to the store. It appears back at home seemingly to have driven itself. Blaring its horn over and over. And when Mr. Pope refuses to drive it, the car follows him on his way to work. The car makes a show to run him down. It wont stop. It cant, not until…
Oliver Pope must decide.
Face the consequences of his actions.
Or be continuously haunted by his car.
“You Drive” is certainly a chilling allegorical story to be sure. Haunted by our mistakes, our poor choices in life, especially those that have or could have dramatic effects on the lives of others. And how the consequences of those mistakes cannot be forgotten, never completely. And there’s even a lesson about character here, if we care about such a thing anymore. Our character isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) defined by how people think of us, it is defined by our actions and our deeds, and it is by those deeds we will be judged.
My rating: 5/5
With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
My debut collection of horror shorts is now just $0.99!!!
Creature Features in Review: COMING SOON!!!
Greetings folks! Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. As we begin this new year it is my great pleasure to announce the start of a brand new “In Review” series. Creature Features…beloved by many, loathed by some, irrefutable masterpieces that tell a tale of where the world is during each era of release. From the nuclear wastelands of Hiroshima in Godzilla and the radiated test sights in Them! to the hideous shadows in swamps and space fiends coming to terrorize quiet small town America in Critters and Swamp Thing to the worlds of mad science and mythology to humanoids and mutations, Creature Feature films have been at every turn in pop culture. Spanning decades, here at Machine Mean, thanks to our mob of talented and twisted guest writers, will bring to you beginning this Thursday and running until December, on every Thursday a Creature Feature in Review. Set your clocks and mark your calendars.
The fun begins this Thursday on Jan 5, 2017.
Follow the series on Twitter at #MonsterThursday
My Top 5 Favorite William Henry Pratt (aka Boris Karloff) Movies
It has just occurred to me that I have never written a biographical piece on English-India born character actor William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff. Never. Not once. Sure, I’ve had other writers on here talking about some of the movies he has been in, namely Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and even The Mummy, but never, not once have I stepped up to plate. That ends here. For those who are betrothed to the dark and unusual of filmage, that this, horror movies, the name Boris Karloff is not unfamiliar, it is, in fact, legendary. And for good reason. Even tempered natured folks who do not ordinarily dabble in nightmare landscapes know, rudimentary, who Boris is, that is, the Monster, that Frankenstein monster that is. And they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s his role, after all, no skirting the issue or sipping from your craft beer or wine, dressed in some flannel button up with a shaggy beard, pretending as if he never endured the makeup. Just because you saw him in The Black Cat (1934) or Targets (1968) doesn’t negate his crowning achievement. He was the Monster. Don’t walk through the past with blinders on. He will always be the Monster. And here and now, I’d like to correct my above-mentioned misstep and celebrate his career (his work), as it is, highlighting briefly my top 5 favorite Boris Karloff movies.
5. House of Frankenstein (1944). I’m not entirely sold on House of Frank, particularly concerning the Dracula character and how easily he was dispatched; however, I cannot negate Boris’s role as Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist who has supposedly discovered Frankenstein’s secret to immortality and the creation of a new human race of perfectly made people. His role here, obviously, is not the Creature. And as a tip of the hat, I would say he was very dark in this movie, uncaring of dispatching anyone who got in his way.
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Say what you will, but I would feel horrible if I did not mention this classic film. Especially now that we’re shuffling towards the holiday season and Turkey Day tomorrow, I would be amiss to ignore one of my favorite Christmas movies. Even at the tender age of 79, Boris’s voice, his deep growls, and slight lisp is uncanny. His performance as the narrator is actually what draws me to the cartoon. If it had been anyone else, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much.
3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Seems like a total cop-out, but no, back to my above argument, we cannot ignore his masterpiece of horror cinematography. The Frankenstein monster was a role that was limited in dialogue, and so he had to manipulate audience reactions and emotions through gesture and skewed hardened facial expressions. Bride of Frankenstein showcases the evolution of the creature, from mute stumbler to an array of humanistic-like qualia. He was driven, not by fear, but by necessity, the most basic human desire, companionship, a mate.
2. The Black Cat (1934). One of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in a string of Poe-inspired films, among such as The Raven (both 1935 and 1963), House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, etc etc, The Black Cat wins the prize, for me at least. The story is adapted for the 1930s era and is based just after The Great War, which ended in 1918. Dr. Vitus Werdegast is on a quest for revenge against the man who took his beloved wife and daughter, an old friend and comrade in arms, Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig is harboring a few dark secrets, most of which he shares openly, all but for his insidious religion. Caught in the middle is a young American couple on their honeymoon. The Black Cat is not action oriented, but rather, filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in a long time. If you’ve been holding out, you need to see this movie. This 82-year-old movie may shock you.
1. The Mummy (1932). Without a shadow of a doubt, unashamedly, The Mummy is my all time favorite movie starring Boris Karloff. Why? Sure, we know and love and celebrate him for his role as Frankenstein’s monster, however, for me, his total sum of charisma and stage performance is defined in his role as Ardath Bey, aka Imhotep, priest of Pharaoh Amenophis, mummified for attempting to resurrect his forbidden lover, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon. regarding the other Mummy movies, though Lon Chaney Jr. did his best with what he had to work with, they did not, however, capture the tragedy that is Imhotep. Is he the villain? Perhaps. He certainly has his own agenda in mind. But there’s more. He’s a romantic. Deeply so. All he wants is his beloved princess. Not power or gold or influence, nothing political. He manipulates those he must. And strikes down those who get in his way. Love is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, it’s brutal at its core. Violent even. A man desperate enough to do whatever he must so he can attain that which he desires the most. True love. And Karloff, he plays the role wonderfully.
And there you have it folks, my top 5 Boris Karloff movies. I’m sure you’ve got a few in mind. What are some of your favorite Boris Karloff movies? Comment below in the comment box to enter for your chance to win a signed copy of my latest book, Conceiving (Subdue Book 3), scheduled to release next week on November 29, 2016. Now available for preorder on Amazon (wink wink), you can get your copy here. And if you are curious about my other books, you can find them on the altar of Amazon by following this link here. As always, you can stay connected with me on Facebook, where I post reviews, new book info, and other horror related topics. Thanks for reading everyone!
Universal Monsters in Review: a monstrous survey
For the past nine months, my weekends have had the added benefit of screening a new Universal Monster movie on Saturday or sometimes Sunday nights, from Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and all the lesser known sequels and House specials. The majority of which I had not previously seen. They were new and largely unknown to me. And of those unknowns, yes a few were just god-awful, but for the most part, the majority were intriguing, a few breathtakingly mesmerizing, and fewer still, though odd and unusual, they held a certain charm about them. When watching movies with 86 years of separation between then and now, you’re bound to find conflicts with storytelling and filmmaking that go against how you understand them. Things were done differently then. People held different beliefs and ideology than today. Different cultures and even customs. Some of those things are pleasant reminders of a simpler time, the way dialogue was crafted with care and chivalry, poetic in its own right. And there were also aspects that were uncomfortable to watch, such as sexism and discrimination towards women and those of African or even Asian descent. Remembering the historical context of the films can help relieve some of the conflicts we feel with those nostalgic glitches.
When Dracula released in February of 1931, the world was in a state of flux. The economic depression (known as The Great Depression) was setting root in not just America, but all over the world. In Germany, the first pangs of the rise of Nazism was felt. Though defeated by a majority win, in just two years time the elected German president, Hindenburg, will elect Adolf Hitler as chancellor . Eugenics was a pop science in which the sterilization of unfit parents and the “euthanasia” of “the defective” and “useless eaters” is making the rounds, not just in Nazi Germany, but also on the shores of the United States. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed (the first major steps in annihilation and extermination of European Jewry, ie, The Final Solution). In 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1937, the Rape of Nanjing, which is basically the systematic rape, torture, and murder of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers as they invade China. 1939, Germany invades Poland, and by December 7th, 1941, the Day that will Live in Infamy, the once “civilized” world is thrown back into global conflict. These were uncertain times, to say the least. And we have to keep in mind that this was the backdrop during the production of the majority of the Universal Monster movies. Intentional or not, history shapes and continues to do so.
Every decade, every generation has had a take on the original Universal monsters. Thru the 1950s, into the 60s, 70s, 1980s, 90s, 2000s, and even today, those pillar stories are still being told. And that is a part of what we’ll discuss here today. Those movies we call remakes, the hits of those and the blunders, as well as what waits in store for those of, let’s say, my daughter’s generation. What will the monsters look like tomorrow? This is roughly about 60 years of film history, so we will not tackle each and every monster movie, but rather a survey of each decade. Savvy? Let us begin.
When the last of the Universal monsters, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), aired, a new generation of monsters was born. The 1950s was a strange era, filled with mutated creatures and aliens from other worlds. Big hits during this decade included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, Forbidden Planet, and Them! (just to name a few). The classic Universal monsters faded into obscurity in America, becoming cult-B movies for those brave enough to venture into the movie theaters with duel Herman Cohen produced flicks, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and the return of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970, a mashup of classic Universal and atomic age science. While the monsters went B in America, they seem to thrive across the pond in the UK as major productions. Universal monsters were reborn in Hammer Production films and a great majority of these are still some of the best monster movies on the market, even by today’s standards. Movies, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy captivated a new generation of monster lovers. The Mummy (1959) starring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I found was especially good and horrific compared to the original Universal films which were not beloved by many.
Trends from the 1950s continue on into the 1960s. The majority of monsters are the creations of mad science or invaders from other worlds. Godzilla and Mothra being some of the most popular monsters during this era, and other very unique monster created by a couple of rogue filmmakers in Pittsburg, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But that doesn’t mean the classics Universal monsters had died away, there some… Hammer Productions continued with The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Shroud, and NOT FORGETTING the best of the best, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). In the United States, two classic Universal monsters were melded with the new age craze with the release of Atomic Age Vampire (1960) and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965) and super low-budget flick Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Leaving only one major production, a made for children stop-motion animated musical comedy titled Mad Monster Party? (1967) starring Boris Karloff in his last appearance in any of the classic Universal Monster movies as the voice of Victor Frankenstein.
Hammer Productions continued to flourish with classic monster films such as The Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. During this decade we’re introduced to a few well known B-Italian (and German and French included) classic monster movies with Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney in his last reprisal in a “Universal” monster film), The Werewolf Versus The Vampire Women, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and the very strange Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein). Now, for classic Universal monsters in the United States, the 1970s gave birth to a very interesting phase called Blaxploitation. In 1972, on the eve of Blaxploitation, we’re blessed with the likes of Blacula, the tale of an African prince (William Marshall) is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula (Charles McCauley). Sealed in a coffin for several lifetimes, “Blacula” reawakens in 1970’s Los Angeles. Leaving a trail of bloodless victims in his wake. And Blacula returns in 1973 with Scream Blacula Scream. Some other noteworthy Blaxploitation-classic-Universal-monster films include 1974’s Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!!!
In 1974, Mel Brooks produced and directed one of the greats spoofs set within the classic Universal monsters lexicon…Young Frankenstein, starring the late great Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Gar, and Marty Feldman (to name a few). Though I am a rabid fan of both Hammer and Blaxploitation films, my love for this era falls directly on Young Frankenstein. The film was absolutely respectful of the roots of Frankenstein and even used what remained of the original set. Not to mention was wonderfully written, directed, and acted. Less not forgetting a few other honorable mentions, Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy who Cried Werewolf, Werewolf Woman, and Legend of the Werewolf are all wonderfully gritty and fun to watch.
It’s really hard to hate the 1980s, especially regarding the volumes of horror movies produced during this VHS era. So many monster films and the birth of a new sub-genre, The Slasher, and the reclassification of Universal tropes, whereas the Gillman from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, became Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger. One of the more obvious “Universal” carry-overs would be Jerry Warren’s Frankenstein Island, starring John Carradine, one of the last surviving members from the original Universal Monster films. But what made this era really great were three films that took the concepts developed by the traditional Universal tropes and created something new from the old.The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Silver Bullet took what The Wolf Man did in 1941 and set it in a more reality-toned story if you can believe that. The rules of werewolfism became more complex and reminded audiences how fun these kinds of movies can be if done properly. Now…I’d be a horrible film historian/fan if I failed to mention the one single most recognizable “Universal” heavy monster movie from the 1980s. That’s right folks, I’m talking The Monster Squad (1987). This movie took every 80s cliche and every classic Universal Monster cliche, boiled it in a stew and served it with nard pudding. You either love it or you hate, and if you hate you’re probably too terrified to say so, considering how many damn people love this movie!
Looking back on the 90s is like looking through a kaleidoscope. There were so much realism and so much snark the 90s is often really hard to separate diamonds from the squares regarding monster flicks. The 90s gave us more creature features, not necessarily mutated or atomic…just…creatures. And as far as the use of classic “Universal” monster tropes, we have two different extremes. On one end, we get Frankenhooker (1990), a raunchy B-movie where a New Jersey mad doctor (James Lorinz) rebuilds his girlfriend (Patty Mullen) with body parts from exploded hookers. And not forgetting (though I wish I could) Mel Brooks directed Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But on the other extreme, we get these melodrama films such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), both of which did their best to follow the source material that inspired the original Universal Monsters. In the middle of all this dueling complexity, we have at least one movie that keeps to both melodramatic and B-ish action, one of my person favorites from this decade, NO, not Monster Mash, I’m talking 1998’s comic to film flick, Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristoffer, and Stephen Dorff.
And I guess I’d be amiss if I did not mention one of the first more modern remakes directly linked to the Universal Monster classics. In 1999, The Mummy released starring (then loved now somewhat shunned) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, and America’s favorite weirdo Kevin J. O’Connor. The remake followed most of the basic tenets of the original Mummy while kicking up the action. I remember actually being really impressed with the film and truth be told…I had seen this one before screening the original. Unfortunately, it suffers from what most 1990s movies suffer from, the crappy use of CGI. But overall, The Mummy is still a fun romp on a late night.
(Shhhh…if we’re quiet and don’t make any sudden movements, no one will mention 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris…)
The 2000s were not entirely unkind to Universal Monster tropes. Strange…but not unkind. Universal Studios themselves had put out a what should have been a return or at least a nod to the classic hey-day with Van Helsing (2004)…and while they did capture the feeling of watching a Universal Monster flick, the story itself and odd choices with effects and the horribly outdated CGI dropped the bottom out on this movie. It’s amazing how much of a turd Van Helsing is, and it could have been so much more, a virtual House of Dracula, giving audiences werewolves and vampires and hunchbacks and even Frankenstein’s creature but instead filmmakers ignored the lore and added strange new rules that didn’t make sense, making a complete mess of a movie.
The decade was not without some gems. I thought Dog Soldiers (2002) was both brilliant and horrifying. There was also Ginger Snaps (2000) and Ginger Snaps II which were both smart. And, though not a lot of folks liked this one, I thought it was fun and an awesome throwback to the classic vibe of Universal Monsters, 2004’s Wes Craven directed Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson. Another fan favorite during this decade was action-thriller Underworld (2003), starring the very leather-clad Kate Beckinsale and the always magnetic Bill Nighy. Underworld has developed into a series franchise, putting audiences into a world of vampires versus werewolves. The sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans released back in 2009. All of which all fun and entertaining, though very obviously films in a post-Matrix world with all that leather and gun-play. Another vampire hit, for me at least, was 30 Days of Night (2007) which shed the “it’s fun to be a vampire” motif and actually allowed them to be monsters. And while sequels are not always a favorite subject matter, we cannot discount Blade II (2002), this round being directed by then up and coming monster director Guillermo del Toro… And be honest here, who doesn’t love a movie with Ron Pearlman in it? But let’s stop there. No need mentioning Blade: Trinity…ugh!
And as for the best of the 2000s decade, my hat goes off to Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish “romantic” horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist about a bullied 12-year-old boy named “Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved they slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.” Let the Right One In was one of those “unknowns,” coming right out of left field. It was a slow burn, but so atmospheric and moody and dark…it gives me the chills just thinking about the movie.
Here we are…roughly 70 years of film history. And with just six (nearly 7) years into the new decade, it seems as if those classic Universal monster tropes are making an epic comeback. Or at least, that’s the vibe I’m getting. Let’s start things off here with my favorite, the 2010 direct remake of the original 1941 The Wolf Man, with a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and David Schofield to name a few. Now, I’m not saying the movie didn’t have some flaws. The fight scene between Hopkins and Toro is…well…a little odd, but for the majority of the film, the effects and even added CGI wasn’t too shabby. Considering the original is my preferred archetype regarding werewolf stories, I pretty much fell head over heels for this one. And wait, there’s more! Not only did we get a directly linked werewolf movie, but it looks as if the indie film community was filling in where Hollywood failed to capitalize. Consider this fan-favourite and truly underrated horror flick, Late Phases (2014), about a secluded retirement community plagued by mysterious and deadly attacks until a grizzled blind war veteran moves in, rallies the residents, and discovers a beast is behind the killings. Another unrated flick and extremely well done, Stake Land (2010) gives the classic vampire trope a plague-like treatment.
2013’s Wer was another surprise, giving lycanism a hereditary twist and 2012’s Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t too shabby for a largely unknown action thriller. And 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army was just bizarre enough to be entertaining. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) was a smart and surprise hit among monster fans, where residents of a worn-down Iranian city encounter a skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) who preys on men who disrespect women. And I thought Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was good for a late night screening.
Now…because I’m a dad (totally using this as an excuse), I have to mention one of my top favorites thus far for this decade before moving on to anything else. Hotel Transylvania (2012) was absolutely brilliant. Fun. Funny. And full of classic monster tropes. The story goes, “When monsters want to get away from it all, they go to Count Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) Hotel Transylvania, a lavish resort where they can be themselves without humans around to bother them. On one special weekend, Dracula invites creatures like the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and others to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, an unforeseen complication unfolds when an ordinary human unwittingly crashes the party and falls in love with Mavis.” Say what you will, but I love this movie!
As for the duds…though I still haven’t screened this one, I’ve heard that the steady-cam take on the Mummy monster trope The Pyramid (2014) was not very good. The concept sounded interesting…maybe I’ll give this one a go before passing final judgment. The same for Dracula: Untold (2014), I just haven’t gotten around to watching it, but I’ve heard that it was decently entertaining. And I still haven’t caught up with We Are The Night (2010) or Byzantium (2012), both of which follow a more feminine-centric story trope. One dud that I did actually watch was comic-book based I, Frankenstein (2014). “Two centuries after Dr. Frankenstein assembles and reanimates his creature, Adam (Aaron Eckhart) is still living. He becomes embroiled in a war between two immortal races: gargoyles, the traditional protectors of mankind, and evil demons. Since Adam is neither human nor demon, gargoyle Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) and demon Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) each want him for their own purposes. It is up to Adam to discover his inner humanity and the reason for his continued existence.” The movie could have been so much more but casting pretty-boy Eckhart as the monster…well…it seemed to reek of trying too much to be like Underworld to have any real chance of being its own movie. The concept was fun and the addition to the Frankenstein lore…so, at least it had that going for it.
Also on my to watch list: What We Do in the Shadows (2015), and Freaks of Nature (2015). It just seems, part of my problem is that there are so many classic films to choice from my tastes typically shy away back to the 1970s or 80s. That’s not to say the 2010s have nothing to offer, just look at the list above and you’ll find more than one blockbuster worthy of your time. And the year is not even over yet. A think, largely, everyone has their own tastes for horror, and this is especially true for those of the classic Universal Monster breed. My biggest disappointment is the lackluster treatment of my favorite Universal Monster, The Mummy. While the 1999 remake did a rather bang-up job, that’s been…what, 17 years now? I have to wonder what the aversion is. I’m assuming it’s because the Mummy is not a “fan favorite.” Vampires and werewolves sell movie tickets, is that it? You put a screenwriter who loves the trope, some solid practical effects, and a director who knows what they’re doing, and I guarantee you a great film will be made.
And now…a peek into the FUTURE….
As you’ve no doubt heard, Universal Studios will be reviving from their vaults, the return of the classic Universal Monsters in a new series that will eventually tie together all our beloved baddies. This news has been generating for about two years now and it looks as if they’re finally getting the ball rolling. The first monster up for theatric return will be The Mummy, with a June 2017 release date, and starring none other than Tom “Top Gun” Cruise. It feels fortuitous that my favorite Universal monster will be up first in this new rival. The Wolf Man is said to be next, with a 2018 release date and rumors of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking on the lead role. Scarlett Johansson is rumored to be on Universal’s radar for the led in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein. Johnny Depp for The Invisible Man. And supposedly, Dracula: Untold‘s end sequence opens the door for what all these remakes will be leading towards. At first, I had my reservations. Some of the descriptions for what the producers wanted sounded un-horror and un-betrothed to what the originals were. But it seems those rumors were just that, rumors. As more information has released, the more excited and cautiously optimistic I’ve become. If you’ve tuned into any of the reviews in this series, you’ve no doubt noted how much of a fan I am of the classic Universal Monster. And by-Geroge, I’m glad they’ve finally decided to bring them back to their full glory.
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new paranormal series, The Subdue Books, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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A Grotesque Mannequin: Europe’s Old Conscious within a New World Paradigm (1945-2002)
World War II in Europe had come to a horrible end. The ashes of homes, roads, and people covered a once lush countryside of an epoch healing within the bruised and blushing scars of WWI. Survivors faced an unimaginable future in 1945. According to historian Eric Brose, “the infrastructure of an entire continent – roads, railroad tracks, tunnels, train stations, bridges, port facilities, and airports – lay in ruins” (Brose, 267). The casualties were beyond imagination, and among the maimed and broken soldiers, the women murderously raped and rapid suicide following wars end, Europe peered into the same mirror Elie Weasel once did after the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, and watched the reflection of a disfigured corpse crying out for retribution, contemplation, and atonement. Europe was torn apart and reassembled according to new existential principles. In the years following 1945, Europe’s old consciousness was forced to occupy a new paradigm and marched unsteadily from post war malaise, through the Cold War and the atomic age, and terrorism. In the popular and controversial films of Post-WWII Europe, such as: The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and the particular history each film reveals, we will peer into the mirror ourselves and ascertain how postwar Europe’s displaced, suppressed, and reshaped reassembly was sadly unsuccessful. But we’re talking nearly sixty years of history here! How could we possibly cover so much time and so much history in is meager blog? Simple, we can’t. Instead, we’ll cover the evolution or devolution (depending on how you interpret events) in each decades most predominate historic theme.
The beginning in the end…1945:
In the autumn of 1944, Käthe Kollwitz, a preeminent German sculptress who had attempted to convey the bitterness and helplessness felt during the post war years following World War I, lamented regarding the resurgent bestial realities of the new age when she said, “I am dying in this faith [in humanity]. People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it” (Brose, 266.) Kollwitz held out, despite the unimaginable devastation, “the life of the world might move forward” (266), that somehow the dignities of the individual could be elevated above the authority of the state, that people would avoid mechanized-obedience and become ethical, moral creatures, concerned with the suffering of others. However, in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, the political landscape darkened once again and old motifs, such as: Nazism and Fascism will prove hard to eradicate. According to historian Eric Brose, with communism sweeping into Eastern Europe uninvited, “Understanding reality and coping with life’s dilemmas became even more difficult as the Grand Alliance came apart along ideological seams and the far more frightening image of atomic Armageddon appeared on the horizon” (Brose, 267). In the midst of the atom, Europe picked the pieces of her crumbled and fractured landscape.
In the aftermath of 1945, as displaced people huddled together in Red Cross camps, dreaming for the return of normalcy, Europe struggled in understanding the causality of WWII and the Holocaust. In doing so, Europe reassembled according to new existential philosophical principles in the growing shadow of countless mass graves and post war malaise. According to Brose, philosophers and the great thinkers of the post war age, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, struggled to understand the “authentic state of being.” Basically, these thinkers were motivated in answering the question of war, why it happened, again, and why the Holocaust happened in a modern society by understanding the reality of a hostile and threatening world and the complexity of human problems and moral dilemmas. These “existentialists” urged that “individuals controlled their own density by the choices they made” (Brose, 268). The pursuit is understandable, but the determinations, I think, are harder to grasp, especially for those of us who never experienced Europe at war, and the generations that did are rapidly fading from memory. To help future generations understand the determinations those existentialist thinkers were searching for we can look at the films of the era these dilemmas were actually being grappled with, which is the struggle between existentialism and the pessimistic and optimistic qualia of human nature. In films, such as, The Bicycle Thief (1948), audiences confronted the existentialist understanding of á priori morality, the existence of a self-evident moral, law-abiding society where certain values are taken seriously (Goldstein, 489), juxtaposed with the grim images of grisly, ruined lives; thus becoming an issue between morality verses reality.
Furthermore, consider the evolving relationship between father and son in The Bicycle Thief, during which the father obsesses to find his stolen bicycle, an important symbol of individuality during an era of overcrowded cities. In the pursuit to regain his independence, the father’s relationship with his son changes drastically throughout each episode. Before the bicycle was stolen, when the father’s individuality was intact, smiles abounded, the mood was carefree and light, and there was purpose despite the apparent dirtiness of the city and the chaotic state of employment. With the bicycle, the family dynamic seems normal and fluid; when the bicycle is stolen, and when the father loses his chaotic pursuit, outnumbered by the thieves, outnumbered by the protective neighborhood, outnumbered by an unsympathetic police presence, outnumbered by the disassembled bicycle parts at the market, the same family dynamic and their dreams for a better life become swallowed whole into the faceless sea of the crowd. The Bicycle Thief tares apart and reassembles existential principles in the reality that the individual cannot overcome the larger nature of society where in desperate situations people will act accordingly to desperation. A society in which individuality as become faceless in the overcrowded cities; where the human connection with each other has become twisted and malformed.
The loss of individuality and community were at the epicenter during Europe’s progression toward reconstruction. It was the ambiguous care of refugees in displacement camps, where Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, laborers, and German nationalists who fled the Red Army in Eastern Europe, who converged together in a cesspool of disillusionment and desperation, and although Allied forces worked diligently to provide the necessities of life for the uprooted souls that numbered in the millions, who had “no alternative but to remain day after day” (Perry, 273), the remnant of “death, physical injury, loss of human dignity, and material destruction left most Europeans bereft of energy for anything other than piecing their lives back together” (Perry, 269). It was during this period when Germany faced criminal and moral guilt for justification and/or rationalization regarding the commission of the Final Solution and other atrocities of war as simple acts of patriotism (Brose, 274). This is the backdrop where the precarious geopolitical differences between the Soviet Union and the United States collided. When Hitler’s crumbing house finally fell in the early spring hours of May 1945, as German High Command, General Alfred Jodl, surrendered unconditionally, the need arose within the Allied ranks to push German political, diplomatic, military, and industrial leaders toward a nationwide effort of denazification, disarmament, and democratization. According to historian Brose, the first step in this program was to “somehow [deal with] Nazi War criminals [and] to set a postwar example of rule of law” (Brose, 282). However, despite all the overall agreement to bring justice to Nazi leadership for “war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity,” the continuity of chaos proved divisive between the United States and the Soviets. While the Americans wanted an international law against future acts of aggression, which had already been established in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, the Soviets hesitated to condemn aggression as an initiation of war (as their own government was born from “aggressive liberation” during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917).
Nevertheless, the Nuremberg Trials began in November 1945. The first docket showcased twenty-two Nazis considered to be “top level defendants,” including: Hermann Goering, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Julius Streicher, and Joachim von Ribbentrop (Brose, 283). Among the cohorts there remained an empty seat reserved for Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private sectary. Bormann made an excellent candidate for the first round of executions for his part as a major player in the collaboration of the mass murder of millions; however, Bormann had been mysteriously disappeared after his May 1945 escape from the Fuhrerbunker in his attempt to evade the approaching Red Army. The Bormann myth has been queerly popular in the decades following the Nuremberg Trials. Told like a monster story, various and conflicting sightings across the globe were reported, adding to a strange and abundant fascination with the at-large war criminal motif. At-large Nazi fascination reflects, in a way, an innate desire to separate oneself from the actions of perpetrators. As if to say, the monster is out there in the unknown, an unordinary entity, and as such, controlled by an unordinary fate. However, in the late 1990’s, scientists tested and confirmed the DNA of skeletal remains discovered at the bottom of a mass grave in Berlin in 1972. It was Martin Bormann, who committed suicide mere hours after leaving the Fuhrerbunker, unable to escape the chaotic streets of a crumbling Berlin; a banal and uninteresting demise for such a wildly popular myth. In the end, the Nuremberg Trials witnessed the execution of 486 Nazi perpetrators, a majority of which was hanged.
The Atomic Age and Cold War Malaise 1950’s-60’s:
The Cold War had effectually swung in from the gallows of Nazi perpetrators, ushering in a new paradigm with the old consciousness torn out from the nerve steam of Fascist ideology, grinded and reassembled into a grotesque machination of something that once was. There is no other movie that recants this strange new creature other than Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). Considered by many film historians and critics to be Stanly Kubrick’s best work, Dr. Strangelove provokes “laughter through tears” in a nightmare comedy designed to stir a response toward nuclear strategy and weapons (Maland, 190). According to historian Charles Maland, the “American consensus to which Dr. Strangelove responds was rooted in the late 1930’s and in the war years [when] Americans began to feel more threated by the rise of foreign totalitarianism” (Maland, 190). The paradigm of fear was solidified after the Axis defeat during WWII and the “economic prosperity fostered by the war [effort]” (Maland, 191). Dr. Strangelove shows us a world unaware of this continued paradigm dominating the American “social and political life through the early 1960’s” (191) using dark comedy in a dramatic world that no longer made sense. Kubrick describes making Dr. Strangelove during an interview in 1970, he stated:
“It occurred to me I was approaching the project in the wrong way. The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy, or better, a nightmare comedy, where the thing you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible” (Maland, 196-197).
According to Maland, Dr. Strangelove utilizes nightmare comedy as a method of satire to expose four dimensions of the Cold War consensus: “anti-Communist paranoia, the culture’s inability to realize the enormity of nuclear war, various nuclear strategies, and the blind faith modern man places in technological progress” (Maland, 198).
The comedic use for illustrating technological mishaps of a nation can be somewhat disturbing, if not entirely revealing. Consider the scene in Dr. Strangelove where the distraught American President Muffley attempts to call Soviet leader Kissov and the back and forth parodical small talk is mixed in with talk of a renegade American B-52 inbound for the Soviet Union to unload its cargo, the bomb. According to Maland, Dr. Strangelove challenges the fundamental assumption of the fear paradigm, where the nearsighted nationality “[and] human death instinct leads man first to create machines, then to use them for destroying human life” (Maland, 205). Kubrick prods a contemplative stance on technological marvels: has technological means surpassed the bounds of human rationality and morality? Though Dr. Strangelove does not suggest that Soviet leaders are any better, it does, however, suggest that perhaps “no nation-state has a monopoly on foolishness and that the backstage strategies of military and political leaders are simply exercises in paranoia” (Maland, 206). But what does this say of Dr. Strangelove himself, the man who the film is named after? Dr. Strangelove doesn’t say much during the movie, not until the end at least, but his character is carefully crafted and shaped to represent the grotesque surviving mannequin of fascism. When Dr. Strangelove speaks his poorly hidden German accent comes through and becomes more obvious the closer the bomb is to being launched. Dr. Strangelove’s broken and crippled body moves sporadically in quick violent jerks as he attempts to contain something bubbling within. And when the bomb becomes inevitable, Dr. Strangelove bolts his arm upward, eerily reminiscent of the Sieg Heil (German hail to victory) salute.
The character Dr. Strangelove represents the monster once thought destroyed, a fascist creature devoid of feeling, horribly cold, and calculating (Maland, 202-203); the film Dr. Strangelove gives voice to Käthe Kollwitz’s 1944 lament, that though people would have to work hard, a better state can be achieved. Kubrick’s astonishing work, Dr. Strangelove, evokes her passion for a resurgence of social justice and social awareness in a society that has embraced, if not utterly conformed to the paranoia enabled by the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, and the growing discontent of the late 1950’s, a decade plagued by othering, a symptom indicative to the historical context that spawned, according to historian Konrad Klejsa, “[the] impulse which led to the decision to start developing an atomic bomb [in the first place]” (Klejsa, 438). However, Kubrick also begs the question: do people want to work to achieve a better state or what is the better state? By 1968, it was becoming apparent that denazification could not shake the old ghost of National Socialism. The voices of those maimed by the machinations of war were becoming extinguished in the great wind of militant indifference toward world destruction, the bomb, nuclear holocaust. This disconnection really shows the disenchantment and horrible calamity of the era.
Europe’s Uncertainty during the 1970’s:
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum: Or How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead, is the story of a young woman who is scrutinized and harassed by police and tabloid (sleaze) press after she spends the night with a suspected terrorist. Film historian Jack Zipes begs the question regarding the political reality and repression in the Federal Republic of Germany (Bunderrepublik) during the 1970′s using both the film and novelization of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. Zipes first illuminates the reality in which these two depictions are attempting to criticize. According to Zipes, the reality of theBunderrepublik of 1972-75 is “on one level the entire history of the student movement or extra-parliamentary opposition [which] provides the subject matter of the novel and film” (Zipes, 75). Basically, the history these two forms of the same story attempt to bring to light depictions of social political attitudes and conditions regarding the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the SPD uber-conservative government (75). The political situation in Germany seems to be volatile during this period, especially due to the actions of a few militant terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof Group, aka the infamous RAF. Because of the actions of the few, according to Zipes, the conservative forces of the German state and mass media made it appear as if the entirety of the “Left,” the progressive forces of the Bunderrepublik were associated with terrorism. An incredible swing on the American-esk McCarthy pendulum, ushering never-ending witch-hunt bonfires stacked with the stench of 800,000 progresses and reformers who were no longer fit the state’s “legitimate” government program (76).
According to historian Zipes, Heinrich Böll’s writings are concerned with gross human rights violations and origins of violence (77). The novelization of the story, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, for better or worse, urges for the reformation of mass media, of the press, radio, and TV. Considering Zipes interpretation of the novel, a strange dual world emerges where the fictional narrative is more truthful than the non-fictional reports carried out by the corrupted mass media. Though, according to Zipes, Böll does not create a perfect explanation of the “socio-political dynamic of violence in the Bunderrepublik” (78); however, it nevertheless a straightforward participatory revelation of a moralist’s case for political resistance (79). In Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of Böll’s novel, Zipes mentions a more distinguishable focus on a cohesive left movement that was nearly nonexistent in the novel (81). According to Zipes, director Schlöndorff “focuses [his film] on the power relations in the case of Katharina Blum in order to facilitate the viewer’s comprehension of how the police and mass media conspire to victimize private citizens” (81). Basically, where Böll focused on the power in the use of words, Schlöndorff gives greater attention to the unfolding of human drama in the interpersonal relationships of his characters. And while the film is somewhat of a bore, the character development and the unshackling of Katharina toward the end is an important conceptualization of the possible effects of extreme othering and incredible swings on the pendulum.
Moving into a new era (1990’s-2002):
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1994 seemed like a sunbeam cast on a dreary landscape haunted by ghosts and monsters for nearly a hundred years. However, throughout the post-WWII years, with the stream of immigrants coming into Europe, old animosities and ideologies resurfaced (Brose, 457). As the iron curtain fell over Moscow, once restricted communities were once again able to move toward the “imagined good life in the West, and labor shortages soon [followed] giving way to sluggish [economic] growth and high hovering unemployment after the 1970’s” (Brose, 457). During the 90’s, the European Union sought to make labor movement within Europe easier, whilst simultaneously making immigration stricter. In 1995, Jacques Chirac stated a common sentiment among Europeans, “France cannot accept all the wretched of the earth” (Brose, 457). In Germany, the ressentiment against “outsiders” seems even more staggering considering their contextual history, with, according to Brose, “10,037 hate crimes” committed in 1999. After a century of othering, it would seem old motifs have survived for the dawn of the 21st century.
In the film, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), director Gurinder Chadha tackles the growing issue with xenophobia in a post 9/11 world, where, according to historian Brose, terrorist attacks “ushered in a period of intense cooperation on security and defense between Europe and the United States” (Brose, 459), which in no small way exasperated tensions between migration and emigration. Throughout the film, dual characters Jess, an orthodox Sikh, and Jules, a seemingly average white female Brit, deal in similar situations that confront the complex limitations of society. Gurinder Chadha’s film, much like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, also calls back to the 1944 lament of Käthe Kollwitz, as Jules and Jess challenge multicultural barriers that surround them in their place in 21st century history. The best illustration for this positive call for change can be seen in the final montage sequence in Bend It Like Beckham, after Jess’ father tells her to fight boundaries, but simultaneously is unaccepting of Jess’ love interest with couch Joe, an Irishman. Demonstrating with each boundary overcome, there are still more boundaries to cross. The final breakdown at the close of the film shows Jess and Jules “spotting” famed soccer player David Beckham at the airport, representing the resurgence of Englishism, followed by Jess’ sister’s pregnancy, representing family and tradition, and followed at the end with Jess’ father playing lacrosse with Joe. The finality of the film gives audiences the impression that there doesn’t need to be a stereotype “British,” or “American,” or “German,” culture, but that a melody of multiculturalism could work. As we look back at the close of the 20th century, we can see evidence of the failure of accepting the other; however, the 21st century is still in front of us.
The mirror Elie Weasel peered into after the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, when we saw himself as this ghostly apparition, a reflection completely unfamiliar to him, his body tortured by all he suffered during the Holocaust, we too must beg the question of our own reflections and the reflections made in history. The physicality of Europe was in no small way torn asunder. But when Europe was reassembled according to new existential principles, was she born again or was she tragically the same entity forced to occupy a new paradigm, a sown monster marching rigidly from post war malaise, through the Cold War, into the atomic age, and eventually facing new forms of terrorism and xenophobia. In the popular and controversial films of Post-WWII Europe, such as: The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and the particular history each film reveals, we witnessed the continuity of old ideologies that originally gave birth to the maiming machines of war that gnarled a post WWI generation whose voices had been extinguished in the great wind of Russian Revolution, the complete and utter failure of the Weimar Republic, the rise and fall of the Nazis and ultimately the horrific revelation of the Holocaust. The history archived in films, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), along with novels like, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), demonstrate the progression of chaos in Europe, while films like, The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) demonstrates, sadly, how the fabric of fascism and extreme othering were simply ripped from one body and sown onto another. For the most, this was a 20th century history; what can be said of the 21st? Will the monster continue to terrorize the countryside? Or can we hold out for hope, as Käthe Kollwitz once did, and “believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” (Anne Frank, 1944)?
Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
While some leaders of the Civil Rights Movement empowered others to test the limits of oppression, other leaders tested those same limits themselves. Fannie Lou Hamer is an inspiring example of the direct action response against injustice, inequality, and oppression. While leaders like Ella Jo Baker developed ordinary people into becoming grassroots leaders, building upon their own potentials and sense of social justice, Fannie Lou Hamer, despite all the hardships: losing her job, being harassed, shot at, partially blinded and beaten, challenged the limits of oppression in Mississippi more directly by inspiring those around her to get out and vote, canvassing, and eventually forming a new political party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964, Mrs. Hamer spoke against the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in New Jersey, delivering a passionate account of the 1963 police beatings of Winona, Mississippi, which had left her partially blind. Both leadership styles were equally important during the Black Freedom Movement. One typically could not work without the other, as it was Baker’s influence over SNCC and how SNCC conducted themselves in Ruleville, Mississippi that inspired Hamer to take a more direct role in the battle for equality.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Ruleville, Mississippi during a period of widespread social discontent that had been building momentum across the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi since the 1920 Great Migration. Before the fateful summer of 1962, according to historian Chana Lee, Fannie Lou Hamer was a middle-aged plantation timekeeper who speculated that, “hard as we have to work for nothing, there must be some way we can change things.” Sentiments commonly heard among laborers, sharecroppers, and rural disenfranchised in the Delta of Mississippi. When SNCC descended on Ruleville, Mississippi in August 1962, James Forman and James Bevel set up a mass meeting to discuss with the community about voter registration. Hamer was disinterested at first; however, she eventually decided to attend the meeting being held at her Ruleville church, Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church; the only house, according to Lee, that “allowed voter registration workers a forum” (this is an important part of history to note, its commonly assumed churches played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement, and while churches were important, their numbers were few and far between).
SNCC alums Bob Moses, James Forman, and Reginald Robinson were among the speakers who discussed with Ruleville audiences about their constitutional rights as citizens of both the United States and as state constituents. They discussed the power of the vote. According to Lee, SNCC’s presentation “lit a fire in Hamer,” she was instantly attracted to their commitment in maintaining local autonomy and empowering local leadership, building up those who would remain when the young activists inevitably returned home. Among those who signed their names as volunteers, Fannie Lou Hamer emerged as a leader by sheer consensus among her peers because, according to Lee, “her bravery made them brave,” and because of her impromptu testimonial had encouraged others to join. The community do doubt looked upon Hamer as a natural leader because of her timekeeper position on the farm. As a timekeeper, Hamer was responsible for tabulating the hours that each wage laborer worked on the farm and for measuring the cotton that each sharecropper and day laborer picked that day. According to historian J. Moye, “The Job had placed Hamer in a position of trust and honor… [and] in time, Hamer had developed a reputation for being fair to her coworkers at risk to her own job.” Hamer was looked to as a woman who was concerned with social justice before she ever became involved with the Civil Rights Movement.
When Fannie Lou Hamer “flunked” her first voter registration test, her resolve to challenge the limits of oppression intensified; unfortunately though, so did the means of the oppressors. When the small group of Ruleville volunteers returned to Indianola, Mississippi, Hamer was confronted by her terrified and shaken family. News of her voter application had reached plantation owner W.D. Marlow who was “blazing mad and raising sand” that one of his tenants had done such a thing. Marlow demanded that Hamer return to the registers office and withdraw her application or face eviction from the plantation. It did not seem to matter to Marlow that Hamer had failed her literacy exam; all that mattered was the apparent shame of having one of his employees challenge how things are run in Ruleville, which no doubt caused some embarrassment for him among his friends in town. According to historian Lee, Fannie Lou Hamer left with little hesitation, despite knowing that there were some difficult days ahead and that her husband, Pap, would have to remain on the plantation because of their family’s fragile economic situation. Hamer went to stay with friends Mary and Robert Tucker in Ruleville, who were already building a reputation for taking in voter registration activists. But even here Hamer was not safe. According to Lee, on September 10, 1963, ten short and agonizing days sense her departure from the angered and bitter Marlow and his plantation, the Tucker residence became one of many victims in a wave of drive-by shootings taking place across Ruleville during the SNCC-leg voter registration campaign. Night riders targeted activists “Mississippi style – politically motivated, pointed in intent, and indiscriminate in consequence.” Fortunately, no one was harmed during the shooting. Despite financial woes, shootings, and harassment, little could deter Fannie Lou Hamer from continuously testing oppression. Instead. these attacks steeled her resolve, because, according to Hamer, “They take me from my husband and they take my home from me. But still, at the next election, I will be there, voting just as much as white folks vote.”
Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman of indomitable will. Hardship, harassment, shootings, beatings, name-calling, being jailed and other means of violence could not deter this courageous southern middle-aged black woman from testing the limits of oppression and making her voice heard in the rural counties of Mississippi. Even with the tragic death of Medgar Evers, an NAACP Greenwood branch organizer, shot in the back in his driveway of his home, did little to slow Hamer down. The loss of friends was taking its toll. In 1964, David Dennis lamented at the memorial for James Chaney, “I’m tired of going to funerals…I’m tired!” The deaths of Evers and other activists was a crushing blow on the spirits in rural Mississippi, but somehow, these tragedies inspired Hamer to fight even harder. According to historian Lee, Hamer would “[rise] with the sun” and go out during those early morning hours to canvass among day laborers in the fields, and in the evening, join small countryside churches where she sang freedom songs and preached a message of hope “to anyone who would listen about the power of the vote.” And on April 26, 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party came into being with a rally of just over 200 people in the state capital of Mississippi, Jackson. For months prior to forming the MFDP, Fannie Lou Hamer had worked tirelessly to get on the ground floor of the traditional Mississippi Democratic Party, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not breach the traditionalist political lines of the Old South.
According to Victoria Gray Adams, a Mississippi businesswoman who supported SNCC and eventually became a full time activist herself, remarked regarding the formation of MFDP that it had grown “out of the frustrations of people attempting to participate in the regular political structure.” The MFDP emerged in 1964 as a direct action against the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. According to Miss Adams, “We were doing our politicking; we were making our speeches,” and it was here when Fannie Lou Hamer gave her famous televised testimonial. On the morning of August 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer, along with, as Adams nicknamed the “big guns,” three national civil rights icons: Martin Luther King Jr. (SCLC), James Farmer (CORE), and Roy Wilkins (NAACP) made statements on behalf of MFDP to the credential committee; however, it was Hamer’s emotional recounting and exposure of Mississippi’s brutal treatment of blacks that summoned the attention of the nation. Even a nervous Johnson, who had pulled all his legislative aptitude to secure moving the Civil Rights Act a mere few months earlier through Congress, was almost hysterical about keeping pressure on the Credentials Committee not to side with the MFDP and during Hamer’s speech had prompted the television network broadcasting the Democratic National Convention to cutaway to cover a press conference at the White House. However, despite LBJ wanting to lessen the impact of the MFDP testimonials (and keep favor with the Dixiecrats), Hamer’s message got out; according to historian Lee, MFDP “received hundreds of telegrams in support of it efforts.” According to Miss Adams, the MFDP challenge at the 1964 Democratic National Convention “really frightened the powers that be,” by giving the MFDP and the people they represented a national stage and voice, an incredible challenge to the limits of oppression.
Women like Fannie Lou Hamer were inspiring leaders who continually tested the limits of oppression in the South Hamer is the perfect example of Ella Jo Bakers famous saying, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Hamer was, despite losing her job, harassment, shooting, beatings and imprisonment, a strong woman who embraced direct action as a means of challenging the limits of oppression throughout Mississippi. By helping form a new political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer gave others new means of challenging those same limits of oppression because, in her own words, she “thought with all my heart that if the Constitution of the United States means something to all of us, then I know they would unseat [the all-white delegation].” Fannie Lou Hamer is an important historical leader in the Black Freedom Movement. She tested the limits of oppression in seemingly impossible ways, and inspired ordinary people, just as Miss Victoria Gray Adams, that “everybody has something to say and something to offer.” May her memory and her deeds continue to inspire today and tomorrows generations.
Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Women in American History), (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Victoria Adams, ed., Hands On the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in Sncc in They Didn’t Know the Power of Women, ed. Faith S. Holsaert et al. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi 1945-1986, (The University of North Carolina Press, November 17, 2004).
The Deer Hunter & the Superman in Vietnam
In film historian Leonard Quarts article, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” the author discusses an interesting notion how the film (Deer Hunter, 1978) in itself created an American mythological figure, the soldier, living beyond conventional values and projecting heroic, almost alluring, emotional invulnerability. According to Quart, Hollywood has used this mythology to blur the argument of our involvement with Vietnam War away from the political world, away from any specific policy, and back into an introspective question regarding the human condition in Vietnam. Using The Deer Hunter as a backdrop, Quart reconstructs the main character, Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), and illuminates his superman archetype as the American mythological figure for the human condition. This reconstruction can be seen in three character developments: first, Michael, as local steel-mill worker, second, seeing Vronsky as an accomplished hunter and woodmen, which directly leads into the third character development, Vronsky’s leadership ability during his stint as a Vietnam POW. These three reconstructions demonstrate two years after the Vietnam War ended (1978), how the overwhelming sense of self-confidence and invulnerability drew many American fighting men into Vietnam during the 1960’s.
The myth of the superman in Vietnam is first constructed in the persona of Michael Vronsky, as the Pennsylvanian, blue collar, working class hero. During the film, even the small factory town to which the main characters belong was glozed over with a refined middle-class shine. Men, working without complaint, nor distressed, nor sweat from countless hours of back-breaking work; even their steel-mill uniforms are absent of blemish. This image of the working class town fits perfectly as Michael Vronsky’s fortress of solitude; a town that emulates intrinsic values of church and country, indicative to middle class America. The picture perfect sleepy little industrialized town, far removed from the hustle of modern cities, gives the audience a sense of romanticism, the American Dream in its natural environment.
The second construction mentioned, was how Quart uses the development of Vronsky as the American superman through his prowess as a hunter. Vronsky can be pictured as “an outsider…[,albeit] chaste, honorable, forbearing, revering the mountains and nature, and given to a purity of purpose embodied in his deer-hunting gospel of the one-shot-kill. ” Michael as an actual hunter, an ultimate outdoors man, he becomes the myth of a romanticized figure of American folklore and tradition who constructs his identity in conflict with nature, similar to historically famous Americana outdoorsmen, such as: Davey Crockett or Teddy Roosevelt.
The third construction Quart uses in the development of Vronsky as the American superman myth, is during his performance at the Russian-roulette table in the Vietnam POW camp. Here, Quart complements Vronsky’s characterization in notions of a Hemmingway-esk sense of heroic grace and indomitability. Vronsky’s capacity for violence is seen as calm and controlled and when he frees his fellow patriots, he becomes “the incarnation of the superman…the apotheosis of American courage and daring…a transcendent figure who seems almost immortal. ” However, this comparison also begs the question, regarding the state of the human precondition, if a person can kill without fear or constraint.
Quart’s article on The Deer Hunter as an allegory for the mythological superman in Vietnam is a convincing argument. The director obviously attempted to portray the middle-class American as both the hero and victim of the war in not only how Vronsky was developed, but also how his town changed as the people themselves changed. If film symbolizes our hopes and fears, The Deer Hunter represents our ideological need to create certainty where there is none. However, the horror of Vietnam is too ambiguous and complex to explain or dismiss away within the concept of the American superman; Vietnam is not the OK Corral or some other western motif where the Duke rides in on a white horse and justifies the atrocity of war and our involvement. The Deer Hunter is an awesome movie, a must see for any Vietnam War movie buff, but like Quart, the film lacked significant historical accountability, and, even more important, the film lacked social realism that would have allowed the movie to go beyond being just another cartoonish depiction of middle class America in the Vietnam War.