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Posts tagged “film history

Fright Fest: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Though zombie is never said in Night of the Living Dead, this 1968 horror film set the standard for all following zombie films: radiation raises the ghouls (as they’re called in the film) to life (though, as of this film, radiation as a cause is only speculation), they move in a slow, plodding manner, they eat the flesh of the living, and the people they kill turn into zombies.

What makes George A. Romero’s Dead films so important, though, isn’t the thrills and chills they provide, as generous as that providing assuredly is. It’s the social and political commentary, hidden beneath the piles of corpses, that distinguishes him from his imitators. The following is my interpretation of that commentary, a theme of mindless, pitiless killing, and a killing not limited to what the zombies commit, by the way.  Continue Reading

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The Hands of Orlac: 90 year review

The Hands of Orlac (or Orlac’s Hände) is a dark humorless movie. Much like all German Expressionist films, The Hands of Orlac is filled with madness, depression, disenfranchisement, alienation, and death motifs. According to film historian Lotte Eisner (a remarkable woman who, because of her Jewish heritage, fled from Germany in 1933 to escape growing persecution at the hands of the Nazis, she was later captured while in hiding and sent to a concentration camp in  Aquitaine, France. Eisner survived the war and enjoyed a long and memorable career until her death in 1983), in her work The Haunted Screen:

“Mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields. The hecatombs of young men fallen in the flower of their youth seemed to nourish the grim nostalgia of the survivors. And the ghosts which had haunted the German Romantics revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood.”

From a blue-collared film historians perspective, such as myself, German Expressionism, as it seems to me is just as any other film in regards to depictions of the time in which they were made using symbols, imagery, and themes to show the audience an expression of the directors and/or writers interpretation of some event or trend; however, German Expressionism is, in its own style, heavy-handed in its imagery and symbolic relation to the age in which it was made. In effect, German Expressionist films, such as The Hands of Orlac, give us a gut wrenching depiction of the aftereffects of World War I. Consider that in Austria-Hungary alone, some 1,495,200 soldiers died during the Great War, including 480,000 that would die as prisoners of war. The Storm of Steel, a phrase coined by German solider, writer, philosopher Ernst Jünger, is considered to be the first mechanized war. And according to European historian Eric Brose:

“[The] ghastly maiming machines of modern war had changed…the streets [of Europe] of 1914, [that were] so full of life and youthful vigor, [into monstrous] defacement’s, [men with] their lips and jaws blown away, feeding tubes inserted where mouths had been, wads of gauze stuffed in nose holes bigger than silver dollars…and piles of amputated body parts. [The] survivors among these half-men would somehow have to adjust to civilian life” (Brose, pg. 77).

the hands of orlac, 1924

The German Expressionist movement is a byproduct from said “adjustment.” Down to a film, The Hands of Orlac is an amazing story; heart wrenching when interpreted in its own subjective history. One of the most chilling scenes is a horrific train wreck towards the beginning of the film, in which the main protagonist, concert pianist Paul Orlac loses both his hands. Disturbing enough for sure, but paralleled with the history of 1924 when the streets of Austria and Germany were filled with mutilated veterans, the scene is all too real. Journalist and critic John J. O’Conner, during the 1990’s commented regarding the uncomfortable expression we often find in film, that “horror is not limited to comic books. Primal nightmares are rooted in reality, and the overlapping of images can be disorienting.”

Hands of Orlac, blackmail genuis

The wife of Orlac, Yvonne pleads with a surgeon to save her husbands hands. The surgeon does, but uses the hands of a recently executed murderer called Vasseur for the transplant. Here again, we are presented with a dual image: pianist and murderer. One bound to creation; the other, bound to destruction. Its interesting that director Robert Wiene (famed director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) had used this dual relationship and struggle for poor Paul Orlac. Before the Great War,  Europe had enjoyed an era of artistic relativism. In March of 1899, composer Richard Strauss was considered to be rather ordinary “elegant-looking man whose odd style matched the polyphony of [his] strange [performance in] A Hero’s Life.” Strauss, much like Paul Orlac, was a famous conductor of music. In A Hero’s Life, preformed in Frankfurt’s Municipal Museum (though the building would survive WWI, it would be destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII) to an audience made up of European aristocracy who sat uncomfortably in their chairs, clinching against a melody that reflected a mood anguished by the birth pains of modernity. According to historian Brose, Richard Strauss’ performance pulsated, not just with disdain for the new social transformation, but also with the rapid growth of industrialization and technological change occurring within a “political structure poorly [suited] to withstand such [a] challenge.” One of the most curious moments during Strauss’ A Hero’s Life was when, while crouching, he would suddenly stand upright and point toward the brass players hidden on either side of the orchestra, as if with a wave of his baton, Strauss orders a battalion of conjured soldiers in a “forward march.”

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Wartime destruction is not the only euphemism Wiene conjures. Consider also that five years after the Great War had ended, “almost three million civilians in Germany and Austria-Hungary…[were] succumbing in great numbers to tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhus, and a deadly new mutated strain of influenza.” For the people living in the times of 1920’s Europe (while America enjoyed the Jazz and roar of prosperity), the horizon was truly apoplectic. And the films during this era embraced those very sentiments. Have you considered the themes of some of our most beloved movie monsters here in America? Where do you think Frankenstein and Dracula were born?   .

the cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The remainder of the film besets a tortured Orlac, who can no longer play the piano, becomes destitute, and is eventually blackmailed by the convicted and supposedly executed murderer Vasseur. I won’t spoil the end for those of you who haven’t given this film a gander, but I’ll say that it had a somewhat bizarre if not entirely cheerful ending. Among many firsts, The Hands of Orlac is a precursor to the forensic crime movies found during the Weimar film era. The plausibility of using wax impressions or similar techniques to falsify prints seems far fetched, this was pre-CSI. Forensic science was just becoming a method for police/criminal investigations. And though the method is used incorrect in the film, the director moves us to question if it can be reliable, as Orlac’s proof of innocence comes from eye witness testimony and not from this new age science detectivery, something completely opposite compared to today, as witness testimony has been proven to be far less reliable than scientific evidence. Perhaps another jab by the director toward modernity during post-war malaise. Basically, can people be trusted behind the cog and wheel of industrialism? A notion that has forever remained a centerpiece for film; a question we are left to ponder as Orlac, with reassembled hands, carries his distraught wife off into the sunset.

Sources:
David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, W.W. Norton, 1993.Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunting Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, University of California Press; 2nd Revised edition edition (September 29, 2008).

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Often called The Hemingway of Horror, Thomas S. Flowers secludes away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. 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 and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow from Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.


Political Unrest in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975

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 the Bunderrepublik 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.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975, victimization scene.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975, victimization scene.

While the film itself is a somewhat dull watch, until the very last bits of the movie when Katharinaunshackles her discontent, fellow historian Jack Zipes does an excellent job separating these two renditions of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum while they are simultaneously attempting to convey the same story. However, his comment regarding the drama of American, so-called, “good cop, bad cop” motif is somewhat lacking. The American filmic expressions of the late 60’s and early 70’s, depending on the genre you’re talking about, are not vague impressions of the time in which they were made. Consider the gruesome social critiques in the up and coming era of Savage Cinema, especially the word of Wes Craven, in films like: The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes as perfect examples of political unrest in American cinema. Savage Cinema was loud, gruesome, and not the lease bit disturbing, but these films also compelled audiences to question the validity of the times. Last House on the Left, if anything else, begged the question if reactionary violence was a justifiable resolution. The Hills Have Eyes was a critique about repression and violence and repercussion using the most taboo form of expression: cannibalism. And there are many more examples during this era to pick from. Regardless, Zipes makes an interesting case regarding the wild swings on the pendulum during Germany’s political unrest of the 1970’s with the RAF and student base movements. The media, if anything, should keep government (of all walks) in check, not condone extreme reactionism.

 

Sources:
Jack Zipes, The Political Dimensions of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1976. 

The Thing (1982): 32 year review

The Thing, 1982.

The Thing, 1982.

When asked what my favorite scary movie is, the geek in me knows there are just too many gory and spooky films to choose from. There are bunches and bunches of awesome horror out there, but,for better or worse, John Carpenters The Thing is one of my all time favorite horror movies. There are few horror movies that I can watch over and over without ever getting bored. Some horror movies are seasonal, such as: Friday the 13th is typically reserved for Friday the 13th’s or anytime during the summer, Halloween is reserved for Halloween, Gremlins is during Christmas, and so on. There is something about The Thing that keeps me coming back. From the opening scene with the space craft crashing into the earths atmosphere, to the seemingly innocent snow dog running from a deranged Norge gunman, and the discovery of the still smoldering Norwegian base camp, the setup reels you in and doesn’t let go.  As we watch these scenes progress, we’re given little nibbles of foreshadowing (death, isolation, and an otherworldly discovery in the Arctic tundra) and the ever present somber tone, beautifully captured in the movies main musical score (some of Carpenters best musical scores), all this sets the pace and mood till the final conclusion.

 

Released during the summer of 1982, Carpenters take on John W Campbell’s novella, “Who goes there?” faced steep competition from other sci-fi releases, including: E.T. and Blade Runner. The Thing held the #8 spot during the summer blockbuster season and garnered some rather harsh criticism for being overtly graphic and agonizingly slow. The Thing presented a message that just was publicly receptive at the time. As George Romero has commented on the film, it was an era when we had little trust for those around us and ourselves; however, The Thing has since grown in popularity (mostly with horror geeks) and through the decades has established an impressive cult following. What Carpenter once called his “biggest regret” has now been named amongest the best in science fiction and one of the scariest movies in horror. This proves again how inconsequential box office rating are compared to how good a horror movie really is. In my eyes, The Thing could have eaten that nerd E.T. and assimilated Rick Deckard; however, apparently The Thing was a creature before its time.

Instead of going through the movie, giving away key plot develops that you could be discovering for yourself, i’ll go through the parts of the movie that impressed me the most. The Thing, as I see it, is one of the best science fiction horror films ever to grace cinema. The only other contender is Dead Space, a game which is fundamentally similar to The Thing, but hasn’t yet been made into a live action movie…not yet at least…and since we’re on the subject, who could pull off a Dead Space film other than John the master of horror Carpenter? (I know its just an internet rumor, but wouldn’t it be amazing for him to direct Dead Space?) Anyhow, this is all beside the point. Lets get back to the subject at hand. As we discussed in the opening of this review, The Thing comes at us with the perfect setup, the small little bits of information, drawing you in, forcing you to beg the question: What the heck is going on here?!? The best part is how isolated the characters are in the story are. Nothing tops old man winter to make one feel all alone!

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And isolation is a classic backdrop for any horror story. Separate you’re characters from the world and odd choices will ensue when conflict rises. The Arctic adds the feeling of  vulnerability; in contrast, a swampy humid location would typically coop stories about madness. However, The Thing isn’t so much a story about madness; its more about paranoia. Cut off from outside help characters become forced to take matters in their own hands, making isolation (or closed environments) the best way to heighten the feel of terror.

 

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As far as characters go, John Carpenter could not have picked a better actor to play anti-hero MacReady than Kurt Russel. Other than Escape from New York, Big Trouble in little China, and Star Gate, The Thing is one of my favorite movies with Kurt Russel at the helm. His portrayal as the ruffy, drunk camp pilot, with a keen leadership ability during a crises, was spot on and completely believable. The same could be said regarding the rest of the actors, including both Wilford Brimley and Keith David. Each and every character was perfectly portrayed without the cheesy need of explaining who does what. Unfortunately, many horror movies fail with simplicity. You do not need to explain every single detail; let the story explain who the characters are through their actions. Just a little something to consider whenever you write your next screenplay: less is more.

 

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Reading through some of the old reviews, the one thing that had turned most critics off in the 80’s was the very thing that made this movie a legend, the use of traditional special effects. Oh, and don’t worry, i’m not going to go on a rant here regarding CGI and traditional, but let me just say, comparing the original 1982 with the recent prequel, Carpenter’s will always be better because of his employment of hand crafted monsters, instead of computer simulations. For me, traditional effects are able to gross me out more than CGI; and its all because of the real factor, knowing somewhere out there in some back lot studio garage, these painstakingly crafted Things are still there, waiting to be rediscovered and sold in some Hollywood auction.  Call me a horror snob all you want, but can you honestly disagree that when the Norris-Thing’s head started spouting spider legs, the sound and image didn’t make you cringe? This memorable scene was an unforgettable moment in horror. Norris has a heart attack, or seems to, and poor doc Copper steps in to save his life, only to lose his…and his arms! The Norris-Thing’s transformation was the second best monster moment in the movie, topped only by the Blair-Thing at the end of the movie.

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Despite what others critics have said, the effects do not overpower the story, nor are they over done. The story, etched in paranoia, is still very potent. Well into the second day, folks at the United States National Science Institute Station 4 rapidly become suspicious of each other. The Thing, as they discover, can assimilate any biological life it comes into contact with… “It could be anyone of us…” is a phrase said once or twice around camp. Eyes dart between old friends and anyone acting or doing anything out of the ordinary is called into question.  Who is friend and who is foe? Who can I trust? As MacReady told Blair, “Trust is a hard thing to come by these days.”

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Not knowing who can be trusted magnificently adds to the feeling of isolation. Who’s got your back if the only person you can trust is yourself? In this respect, Carpenter brought out a lot from Campbell’s original novella, “Who Goes There?” Beside the Norris and Blair-Thing’s, the Bennings-Thing, with its thunderous scream, echoing out into the winter storm, was one of the creepiest moments in The Thing, and an excellent moment of paranoia. The effects were minimal here, there wasn’t much of the monster to see. The scary part was that Bennings was the first –known– member of station 4 to become absorbed by the alien. And as Garry so eloquently pointed out, “Bennings was my friend….I’ve known him for ten years.”

Though this review is without a doubt positive, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie isn’t without its imperfections. There were a few bumps in the story that threw me off. The biggest one was when MacReady and company discover, or assume, the Things plan to go back into hibernation as it waits for the spring rescue crew to arrive. To this, MacReady plans to “heat things up around here,” which I wasn’t sure if he meant to burn the Thing or to heat up the camp so that it couldn’t go into hibernation…see where i’m going? Their in the antarctic, the fire will eventually extinguish and the Thing will still be able to hibernate. However, if you’ve been following our heroes development through the movie, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that MacReady isn’t really thinking straight, he’s sleep deprived and extremely paranoid. Endings can be the hardest part in a story to pull off without upsetting the audience. Everyone has an opinion. And though MacReady’s plan didn’t quite make sense to me, it was still an excellent and believable ending. They know their going to die, they just want to ensure the Thing dies with them.

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The bottom line: The Thing is obviously a favorite. My review is glowing. The Thing is a favorite not only because of my love for the 1980’s or John Carpenter flicks, but because of its sheer intensity as a horror movie in general. Every aspect of this movie screams horror: a movie thriving on classic macabre motifs (isolation and paranoia) to deliver something uniquely chilling, which is: Who can we trust? If you are a true horror fan, of any caliber, you really need to watch this movie. Some folks may argue and say Halloween or Prince of Darkness was Carpenter’s best work; however, it is my humble opinion that The Thing was Carpenter’s best. The only hiccup in the story, for me at least — other folks may spend countless hours trying figure out and make sense of every single thing said, which is pointless — was MacReady’s plan at the end of the movie. However, sometimes these imperfections can actually make the story more believable and besides, isn’t the point of horror for its characters to make dumb decisions that do not always work out in the end and they have to do something different to save the day or fail doing so because of said dumb decision? Sure, The Thing wasn’t a box office success, but who cares? Since the 80’s, The Thing has become enshrined as one of the most important horror-sci-fi films with one of the longest lasting shelf life any film can hope to accomplish, which is to say, timeless. And regardless of what some critics are saying, The Thing was not a remake of the 1951 classic film The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s take was actually more true to the original novella that spawned both movies. However, Carpenter being the classy guy that he is, payed tribute to Christian Nyby’s film with a few added easter eggs.

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So, however you can, either buying it, renting it, borrowing it, or streaming it, watch this movie! You will NOT be disappointed.