Silence is terrifying. Sure, screams and loud sounds will make you jump; there is something eerie about the silence. When moving pictures were first introduced in the late 19th and early 20th century: sound was absent.
For most movies this added little benefit and a lot to the imagination, what did the character sound like, were birds singing in the background? Sound is important for the very survival of creatures of all kinds; it allows for prey to hear the predators approaching from the distance. The lack of silence allows the predator to kill, unnoticed.
Vampires in all accounts are the perfect predator, they blend in among us, hunt from the shadows and use the noise of the metropolis to stay silent. At least, the modern interpretations, but what if we take a look back in cinematic history, where sound was absent and the darkness could only be cured by the grace of light. Continue Reading
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
Nothing is more alluring for both audiences and writers than dusting off old tropes. This is true. There is no argument against this statement. Resistance is futile. Boom. Done. Let’s pack it away, boys. No? Okay, I guess we could talk a little more about this very general statement I just made. And if I’m going to be talking about housekeeping motifs and tropes, do me the favor and humor me by nodding your head or something and when passersby asks why you’re nodding your head, you tell them about this brilliant piece you’re reading, as I delve into this odd analogy to FX’s dark horror show, The Strain. Let it be known now, while I may make mention of some of the newer seasons, my focus will mostly be with the first season, as it is the best and has one of my top ten TV/movies favorite openings/pilots. The only big let down with the second season is the new kid they got to play Zack Goodweather, as he plays a larger role in the second season, he became downright annoying and I’m secretly hoping something really bad happens to him. If that was the point then bravo to the writers cause I really do loathe that little bastard. Anyway, that’s not really why we’re here, is it? Tropes. That’s the term I used before and that is precisely what I want to talk to you about. Dusting off aged tropes is, in my humble opinion, an excellent method of storytelling. The classics for horror being Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Frankenstein, etc. etc, and how can we use these today? In this endeavor, The Strain is an excellent example we can learn from.
Before we scourge the graveyard any deeper, here’s a quick synopsis from our favorite source, IMDb:
A mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism ravages the city of New York.
Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause, if you please, for another stunning synopsis from IMDb. Well, they’re not wrong. There is a virus going around, and it certainly creates hosts that act very vampiric. A very fresh take, I think, on the classic vampire trope. No. This isn’t Lestat. These are monsters, as well they should be. And I love this reimaging of the vampire. The Strain uses invokes classic myths, such as The Master, or “patient zero,” as one of the characters refers to him as, in a way of explaining the legend to a couple of non-beliving doctors. Silver and sunlight are also here too. But no longer crosses and garlic, both of which are hardly ever mentioned. So, despite that the fangs are gone and they have a “stinger,” a worm like tentacle, that the vamps use to “latch on” to their prey, it’s still very much in tune with the aged trope. Better, in my opinion. While we all love Bela, the dashing vampire is too tired nowadays, and xenophobia is more rapid and in your face for such subtlety. We need monsters. Vampires are not lonely outsider boyfriends that sparkle. They are killers, and worse. They are a virus, a scourge, a blight. Some films get it right. 30 Days of Night was good. And Let the Right One In was an instant classic.
What really sets The Strain apart is the use of some of the more classic character types that are largely ignored in modern vampire storytelling. Sure, you cannot have a vampire movie without the preverbal “Dracula,” and in The Strain, we get The Master, who is without question truly terrifying and oddly alluring. But besides the “Dracula” character, what else is offered. I’m going to start off with my favorite. Instead of Abraham Van Helsing, we get Abraham Setrakian, an aged, very aged professor now turned pawn shop proprietor. His history within the context of the show is very rich. Setrakain is a Holocaust survivor who was taught by his grandmother regarding certain “creatures of the night.” As a young man, Setrakian believed her stories to be just that, stories. For a young Setrakian, the Holocaust proved to have enough horrors of its own without the need of mythical monsters. However, as it would seem, the concentration camp, Treblinka, in which Setrakian is incurred is besieged by, not just from war and death and human injustice, but also by a physical parasite that moves about during the night. Witnessing the creature with his own eyes, his grandmother’s stories flood back and he works quickly at finding a way to dispatch this monster. He fails at this but survives the encounter and the war. He then dedicates his entire life at tracking down The Master and his creations and riding the world of the Strain.
The Van Helsing motif in Setrakian was very well thought out, taking the old trope and making it more, giving it more life and substance. For me, Abraham really makes the show enjoyable, especially during flashback episodes that show Setrakian’s evolution.
Another interesting twist with tropes is the Renfield motif found in not just one character, but two, each with their own set of motives that feel very parallel to each other. The first is a human named Eldritch Palmer. While Renfield in the film and Bram Stroker book feels both pathetic and sympathetic, Palmer takes that notion to a different level. Due to his disabling sickness, whatever condition he seems to suffer from physically does not hinder the power of his will, his sheer determination to get whatever it is he wants. And what he wants most of all is to live. This desire seduces him in aligning with The Master and helping the Strain spread over New York. We feel bad for him, as we do with Renfield, for the kind of life he must have had, never knowing which breath would be his last, while at the same time we are appalled by his greed for life and uncaringness towards others. The second Renfield character is in the person of Thomas Eichhorst, played wonderfully by Richard Sammel. Eichhorst is, for lack of a better word, the Master’s right-hand man, but in reality, he’s more of a puppet than anything else and is in fact used quite literally as a puppet whenever the Master feels like “speaking” through him. But his character is more alluring for me than Palmer is. Palmer is just pathetic, especially in season 2. An old groveling to maintain his authority. Eichhorst has an interesting history that is connected with Setrakian, making the motivations for their rivalry very believable, and solidifying Eichhorst as a fan favorite baddy.
There are other characters in the show, a lot of hunters and community leaders, most do not necessarily correlate to classic Dracula trope. We could say that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather could be a close match to a Jonathan Harker motif. But Harker wasn’t really a well thought out character in the movie, perhaps more so in the book. There is one character though that needs mention. The part of Kelly Goodweather as a trope for Mina Harker. While the Master’s fascination with her still begs the question, her role is without a doubt very much Mina-like. When she is turned, she is used, more or less, as a tool to find her son, Zack Goodweather, and in turn to stop Eph and the merry band of vampire hunters. The Master’s interest in Kelly seems to only relate to his interest in stopping the good doctor, perhaps using Kelly and keeping her around just to taunt him.
Have you ever heard the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun?” It’s a saying from Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes 1:9. I’m often fond of saying it, especially when fellow writers pitch me their book or story idea and ask if it’s too much like another story. I’ve done the same as well, wondering if this “new idea” is too much like something else. Recently I published a short story with Matt Shaw is his release of Bah Humbug! An Anthology of Christmas Horror Stories. My story is called “Happiness U.S.A.,” and is “inspired” by a classic Twilight Zone episode titled “Garrity and the Graves.” The basic concept is a con artist that travels through an old west town and cons the town into thinking he can resurrect the dead. The catch is that the people in this old west town do not want their dearly departed returned to them, and so to put them “back in the grave” they have to pay Garrity more money. This is one of my favorite shows and one of my top favorite episodes. It’s both cheeky and disturbing, as many Twilight Zone episodes are. And I wanted to do my own take on Mr. Garrity and this old west town. But my version, my dusting off of the classic trope/motif was asking myself, what if Garrity wasn’t really a “con” artist per say, what if he could really bring back the dead. What kind of person or being could do something like that? An angel…or devil? So I took that concept and made my town of Happiness a small Texas oil town back in the mid-1970s. And the price the people of Happiness will have to pay will be much steeper than gold or silver.
This feels like a long way around to basically say, it’s okay to resurrect old trope, give them a good dusting, and retell the story in a new and exciting way. The Strain just so happens to be my favorite example and I wanted an excuse to talk about the show. I’ve started in on the novel the show is based on. There are some differences, but the meat and potatoes are pretty much the same. So if you need a recommendation, you’ve got it. Give this show and book a go. You will not be disappointed.
AND if you happen to be curious about that Christmas anthology I mentioned, follow the image below.
And if perhaps I can tempt you with one more book. I’ve got a new novel that released this week. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3). “…an evil [is] biding its time…waiting for them all,” Conceiving can be read as both a standalone or as part of the series. You can find out more about the book here. Or you can check it out on Amazon. Currently, the book is marked down to $0.99, but only for a limited time. Available for both kindle (or kindle apps) and on paperback.
Okay, maybe the title of this post is a little what kids call”clickbaity,” but hey…I make no excuses. The world is what it is. Filled with click baits…and fake news sites…and paranoia…and silent conversations over Thanksgiving dinner… (sighs) Well, now that I have you here, assuming you fell for my ingenious trap, I’m more than ecstatic to announce the release of my new book, Conceiving. Now available on Amazon, B&N, and iTunes. This book really does feel like a long time coming, especially when considering that Dwelling and Emerging released back in December 2015, almost a full year ago. Anyhow, if you’re new to the series and don’t want to spend time catching up by reading the first two books, no worries. Information regarding the first two books is included in this new one without being drab, but only generally. So you know what happens and are not lost in this new book. If you’ve read both Dwelling and Emerging and have been waiting for this new book to release, I bid you welcome home. The real benefit of reading the entire series is the intimacy of getting to know the characters and experiencing why and/or what they are in Conceiving.
Conceiving is a supernatural thriller of which I would humbly compare to the likes of a mashup between Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Old and new readers will follow the somber adventures of Bobby Weeks, one of the major carry overs from the series, and Luna and Ronna Blanche, minor characters in the series that now have larger roles. New characters include Boris and Neville Petry, and yes Neville is a girl.
The Petry’s are my new favorite. A young couple wanting what most young couples want, a family, a dream home, and dream jobs. I imagined Boris like this “cool” history professor if such a thing can exist. He loves his area of expertise and wants to move up the ranks of his profession and among his peers. Like most academics, he wants to be respected and revered for his work. Neville, on the other hand, I saw as this young college educated woman who doesn’t really believe women need to be “stay at home” moms or wives, but choices to take on that role. She often compares herself to her mother, but not always positively.
In the fashion of how I typically tell stories, these individuals and groups begin separated, facing their own troubles alone, but there are forces at work pulling them together, inching them toward some cataclysmic event that will shatter their perception of reality and perhaps take more than just their sanity.
Conceiving is available on Amazon kindle or kindle app. You can get your copy here for the low price of $3.99……..https://goo.gl/4EWzSU
Or if you’re a traditionalist and prefer paperback, you can get your copy here for $15.99…….https://goo.gl/5pTAQ4
Swooping down from the Carpathian Mountains comes…Senior Drácula…. HOLD UP! You may be wondering, “But Thomas, haven’t you already published a review on Dracula?” Oh yes. I certainly have. If you’re brave enough to search the catacombs of Machine Mean, you’d be likely to stumble across a few. From memory, I’m fairly certain I’ve written a review on the Roxy Theater initial release of Dracula. I’ve written a post on Dwight Frye who played Renfield. And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a post celebrating Bela Lugosi, who we all know and was in fact buried as Dracula. But now comes the time, my friends, when we finally get to review the Spanish version of Dracula. According to film historians and most of everyone else in the biz, it was not uncommon for Universal Studios and most of Hollywood to produce Spanish or French or even German adaptations of their films. The unique thing about Drácula is that the Spanish version was filmed during the night on the same set and during the same time as the one we’ve all come to love and adore. That’s right folks, Dracula and Drácula were filmed at the same time, the American Todd Browning directed version during the day, and the Spanish George Melford during the night. The only real difference being the director, the cast, and subtle differences in wardrobe. In fact, according to Lupita Tovar, the Mexican-American actress who played Eva (love interest of both Harkin and Drácula), in the new introduction offered in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, said that because the Spanish film was done on the same set as the American version, the actors used the same markings on the floor that directed them where to stand while being filmed. In this way, Drácula is a near perfect shot-for-shot version of the original.
Now, given the near perfect similarities between the two films, there’s been a rumor among horror fanatics and run-of-the-mill fans alike. The rumor is that the Spanish directed Dracula is better than the American shot version. There is no secret of the troubles Todd Browning’s version faced. Watching the movie even now, one can see how it seems pieced together with more than a few mishaps on stage. The one saving grace was the powerful magnetism of the cast of actors, mostly Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye (if you ask me). In transparency, I must confess, last night as I inserted the DVD, my thoughts went back to those rumors, of how the Spanish version was superior to the original. And after watching the wonderful Lupita Tovar give the introduction, one would think certainly the rumors were true. Well…I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Was it? Was the Spanish version better than the American?” Before we get into that, let’s back things up for a moment and fill in some gaps for those readers who have not yet watched Dracula or even read the Bram Stroker novelisation (poor souls).
Here is a synopsis of the American film:
The dashing, mysterious Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), after hypnotizing clerk Renfield (Dwight Frye) into his mindless slave, travels to London and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon Dracula begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to the count’s never-ending bloodlust.
And here is the synopsis of the Spanish film:
Soon after beginning work for Conde Dracula (Carlos Villarias), the clerk Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) learns that his employer is, in fact, a vampire who lives on human blood. Now under Dracula’s spell, Renfield helps his master travel to London, where the vampire takes another victim (Carmen Guerrero). Dracula also has eyes on the lovely Eva (Lupita Tovar), but her fiancé, Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and a wise professor named Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) seek to stop him.
Some slight differences but otherwise pretty much the same. As it should be, given they’re both working with the same script. One of the biggest differences that I noticed right away was how much more easily it was to follow along with the plot of the Spanish version of Dracula. If that was more of my familiarity with the subject or not, I cannot say for certain, but I did find it easier this time around. And even though the Spanish crew was using the same sets as the American one, those sets seemed to have better lighting, maybe this has to do with them filming at night rather than during the day, but the mountains and rooms and villages looked brighter and I enjoyed getting another perspective of the uniqueness and craftsmanship of those designs. The costumes looked mirror image to those of the American version of the film, the one difference (that I noticed) was the design of dresses Eva and her friend wore, which is to say, a little more low cut in the breast region. Lupita Tovar comments on the same during her introduction of the film, quoting that the director had told her the dresses made them look sexy. Watching the film today, the design feels on point to what we normally see in more classy movies, however, I can imagine watching this back in 1931 during a more conservative film era.
The real nitty-gritty for me boils down, not to stages or costumes or scripts or lighting, but the actors themselves. Did the Spanish-American actors outdo the originals? Perhaps I’m bias, seeing how I’m a huge fan of the original…that being said, I had some qualms with some of the performances in the Spanish version. The biggest star of Dracula will inevitably be Dracula. In the original, we were introduced to Bela Lugosi, a very exotic actor (at the time). With Drácula we were introduced to Carlos Villarias. Both actors were largely unknown, and both were recent immigrants to California, Lugosi hailing from Belguim and Carlos from Spain. Despite Carlos’s advantage of being able to act while speaking his native tongue, Bela to me was the better of the two Draculas. It is even more amazing when we consider how Bela was not yet proficient with the English language during the time when Dracula was being filmed and recited the script phonetically from memory. Now, I’m not saying Carlos was a bad actor. He was good, it just…his portrayal as Dracula felt very comedic to me. His facial expressions were, to be frank, hilarious, and thus it was hard to take him seriously.
Secondly, both versions of the lawyer/clerk Renfield were played marvelously by both Dwight Frye and Pablo Alvaerez Rubio. They both felt very empathetic and loathsome…however, again perhaps due to my bias as a fan of the original, Dwight Frye gave the role the extra added creepiness that brought the movie to a whole other level. I was completely fine with Pablo as Renfield until the boat scene with the dock crews searching for survivors and discover the poor clerk below deck. That image of Fyre looking up from the staircase and his maniacal giggle still gives me chills. All Pablo offered was laugh like some loon. And there were a few other scenes, like when Renfield crawled on the ground toward the fainted nurse, Dwight seemed to me like a spider, Pablo…well, I don’t know what he was doing.
Third, the only other really important character to get right would be Professor Van Helsing. In the American version, we are treated to the likes of Edward Van Sloan. In the Spanish version, we get Eduardo Arozamena. Both performances were pretty much the same, in fact, both actors even looked a lot alike. The only difference being the subtle charismatic acting of Van Sloan versus a more pragmatic acting by Arozamena. For me, personally, again perhaps due to my bias, I prefer the American version of Van Helsing. As for the damsel, a truism for most Universal Monster movies during this era, again both Mina (Helen Chandler) and Eva (Lupita Tovar) were very well done. But, looking closer, a think I prefer Lupita Tovar’s performance over Helen Chandler’s. She was not only more exotic, but she was also more sympathetic, in my opinion.
So…who was better? Dracula or Drácula. Were the rumors true? No, and yes. There were many aspects of the Spanish version that I enjoyed. The sets. The more developed story structure. Even some of the acting. But, I think, there is more to love with the original Dracula. Bela and Frye, for starters. And despite the issues with filming, Todd Browning brought a sort of stylization and his own strange vision to the quality of direction in Dracula that George Melford did not have. That’s not saying Drácula is not good. It certainly is and ought to be screened by any fan of horror or fan of the Universal monsters. I’m actually really happy the creators of the 30-movie boxset included this version. Otherwise, I may have never given the movie a chance. But when compared to the Dracula filmed during the day, there just are no substitutes.
My review: 3.5/5
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 Subdue Series, 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 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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Is Robocop (2014) a political movie? This is my question that I want you to consider as we discuss certain reoccurring themes throughout the film. For starters, yes I know I’m way behind the curve here for a movie review. What can I say? I missed Robocop in theaters and was only able to finally sit down and watch it over this past weekend. And to my surprise, this was not the 1987 version of Robocop. Sometimes remakes go to far to re-imagine or recreate the nostalgic feel of the original, and while this Robocop has certain 80’s-esk qualities, it is in itself, its own movie. The 1987 Robocop was…well..to put it bluntly a 1970’s grindhouse picture filmed in the 1980’s. Grindhouse (or savage cinema) is all about random acts of violence, but not any ole violence; grindhouse overexposes the audience to violence in order to send a cultural/political message about the time in which the movie was made. In the 1970’s, it was about Vietnam and Watergate and all that mess and disillusionment. The 1987 Robocop was giving a magnificent nod toward the over-consumption, over-consumerism, over-cooperated culture America had entwined herself during the 1980’s with over the top, albeit grotesque, hyper-violence. As film historian William Latham has noted, “seeing a corporation as the ultimate savior and the villain at the same time, where a man becomes a product, gave [Robocop] a special meaning in the 1980’s.” If we boil it down, the message of a grindhouse picture during the 70’s is the same as it is during the 1980’s, which is to say: Does the end justify the means? My question before you today is if Robocop (2014) is still a political movie? We’ve left behind the 20th century, some fourteen years now. Does the same message of justifiable means linger on in the 21st century? Do our ends justify our means? Instead of going through the entire film (which would take a while to digest), we’ll discuss two of the most powerful themes dominate in this new Robo-endeavor.
Robocop starts off with Samuel L. Jackson, not a bad way to start a film, playing the part of Pat Novak, a television talk show host (something similar to what you can find on Fox’s Bill O’Reilly Factor) giving a discussion over the use of a unmanned police robots in the United States. His stance is very clear, stating: “Omnicorp law enforcement robots are being used in every country of the world, except our own….why are we [Americans] so robophobic?” To prove his point, Jackson’s character, Novak, cuts from his monologue to a film crew broadcasting from a Iran-esk country where Omnicorp “peacekeepers” are demonstrating a live-action sweep of a recently pacified neighborhood. Novak’s positive position is juxtaposed with close ups of the neighborhood population whose faces are a combination of fear, resentment, confusion, violation, and anger. As the film crew continues their broadcast, we discover that not everyone has accepted pacification. There is a small group of suicide bombers that are planning to strike back. Their attempt fails, obviously, but just when we’re thinking the end justifies the means, the young son of one of the suicide bombers runs out into the street to join his father carrying a kitchen knife. One of the larger bipedal tank-like drones warns the boy “to drop his weapon.” Out of fear, no doubt, the boy refuses and as the camera pans away, we hear gun fire in the background. Pat Novak will tell you, very bluntly that the ends justify the means, because “those droids just saved my coworker,” but did they? His comment about the safety of the film crew is another juxtaposition, this time against the death of the young boy with the kitchen knife. This scene may have a different ambience for you; for me the message is about our current use of unmanned drones in foreign operations and the current debate on drone use over U.S. soil. The beginning scene here begs the question: does the use of drones to keep soldiers safe a justifiable end to the means of using drones in foreign and domestic operations were the loss of innocence could have been avoided?
We cut away from Pat Novak’s lingering lament for our robophobic culture and arrive in a near-future Detroit. Corruption abounds and sets the main catalysts in motion setting up the creation of Robocop. Raymond Sellars’ argument before a legislative committee, that drones do not feel anger or resentment or prejudice, but act according to the limits of the law. And on the other end of the pendulum is Senator Hubert Dreyfuss whose sole purpose throughout the film is to defend the legislation in place that prevents the use of unmanned drones in police duties because, according to Sen. Dreyfuss, machines cannot experience what it is like to kill. They have no feeling toward killing and as such cannot conduct themselves in a manner in which life has value. This back and forth is somewhat of a dual allegorical picture of our current political situation and the “means justifying the ends” question throughout the film.
While all this is contemporary and interesting, it does not compare to the second most powerful scene in Robocop (2014). Ignore Alex Murphy’s flat superhero-esk character for a moment and focus on his resurrection as Robocop. There is really a lot to chew on here, lots of ethical questions and metaphysical ones to be sure, such as the meaning of free will and the illusion of it and all that jazz, but what I want to look at is the imagery of amputees, especially wartime amputees, that becomes a bigger more meaningful part of the movie. When we get to the “lets put a man in a machine” part we’ve all seen in the trailers and Keaton’s spectacular acting, we open up in one of the research and development/rehabilitation areas within Omnicorp. We know its Omnicorp because of the technicians and doctors and the fancy sign on the door, right? But take all that away and limit this to single image and we get the feeling we’re in an army rehabilitation hospital. This could be a familiar scene at Walter Reed Medical Center or Brooke Army Medical who provide rehabilitation for OIF/OEF casualties who have sustained amputation or burns. The “man becoming a product” message William Latham commented on for the 1987 movie is still there, but for me it is not the most dominant message. This also is a major disconnect from the original film. In the 1987 version Alex dies from his wounds and is brought back to life via Omnicorp salvaging his brain and transplanting, along with his face, into a machine. No one knows about the operation until everyone knows about the operation. In the 2014 version, the transformation between man and machine is liken to extreme prosthetics. Alex Murphy did not die, he was saved with the operation. Now, the “saved” part comes under question when his wife (who must sign permission for Omnicorp to do this operation on Alex) asks “what kind of life will he have? You say you can save him, [but] what does that mean?” This, in my opinion, is a very power question, especially when it becomes juxtaposed with the image of the dissembled Murphy. In order for Murphy to face the reality of his situation, Dr. Dennett Norton, with the use of a mirror, begins to take away the robotic parts of Murphy, leaving only his organic self, which is basically only his face, brain, one hand (no arm, just the hand and nerves), and his heart and lungs that are contained in a sac like substance. And at the end, in a very horrific moment, Murphy cries out, “Jesus…there’s nothing left…there’s nothing left of me….”
The extreme amputation and prosthetic becomes a major issue throughout the remainder of the film. Even the vengeance quest is extremely short compared to the longevity of how Murphy deals with, or badly deals with, his new life as a man with prosthetics. Instead of a vengeance as justifiable means to an end, Murphy is put through the ringer of a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world. In many ways, Robocop (2014) becomes one of the first movies to actually question and illuminate PTSD, amputation, post-war family dynamic, legislation, political talk-show mongrels, and corruption. The piecing together of man and machine is a classic horror motif that draws all the way back to Frankenstein (1931) a movie that dealt with similar issues for a different post-war generation. As film historian David Skal has commented on the form of Frankenstein, the symbolization of the monster that represents “displaced, suppressed, and reshaped humans to conform with the machine world. Whale’s film depicted a monster squarely in the grip of this confusion, a pathetic figure caught, as it were, on the barbed wire between humanism and mechanism.” The “pathetic” tug we feel in the new Robocop is Alex’s self image or how he sees himself. After being shown what remains of his organic form, he demands never to be shown himself again, especially not to his wife. This self-loathing in a post-war image is another throwback to an earlier horror monster from another time, consider The Phantom of the Opera (1911), when Gaston Leroux writes, “Look! You want to see! See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness!”
Assume the credits roll here. What did you think of the movie? Was it political? And most importantly, did the ends justify the means? Answers are never clear-cut. However, movies like Robocop help us deal with the mental processes we continue to struggle with, even though we may never arrive at same agreed upon destination. Its worth pondering and coming to our own conclusions.
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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 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.
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).
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.
Book Review: “I’ve Got The Light of Freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.”
One of the greatest pursuits in social history is understanding the peoples narrative. Social history looks at the collective memory of ordinary people and their contributions while living “everyday lives.” Social history is precarious to be sure. The evidence is collective in buck shot and is tedious. There is too little scholarly research done in understanding ordinary people and their history from the bottom up. Mainstream historians focus on prominent persons; singular people or in small groups made famous or infamous by some popular or well-known event. Consider the Civil Rights Movement and how schools are teaching kids about famous leaders within the movement or famous people from the movement who may have not been leaders per say, such as: MLK, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X…and…and that other guy! There is another popular misconception that the Civil Rights Movement was lead by the southern Christian church. Rev. Aaron Johnson, a WWII vet, in 1962 was among the first of a few churches (First Christian Church) in Greenwood, Mississippi who actually showed interest in the voter registration and citizenship movement. Rev. Johnson has often pointed out in interviews that people give too much credit to churches during the Civil Rights Movement than was actuality; people saw leaders who were ministers and assumed churches were at the root. During the Birmingham, Alabama campaign, no more than 10% of the churches were involved. Although difficult, and especially time consuming when collecting evidence and testimony, social history, history from the bottom up, is an important perspective when looking at historical events, such as: the Civil Rights Movement, and in elevating truth over popular misconception and assumption.
Historian and sociologist Charles Payne, in his work, “I’ve got the light of freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle,” has accumulated countless first person testimonies of ordinary people who lived and breathed the Black Freedom movement in the southern delta and the particular history from which the Freedom struggle grew out of. Charles Payne reconstructs historical truth and gives a more accurate depiction of the Civil Rights Movement as it was for regular everyday people living in the rural south. The working class become illuminated as the leadership responsible for giving the movement vitality. Payne steers away from popular mythology regarding popular figureheads of the movement and instead focuses on the organizing process in Mississippi spanning thirty years or more, from the 1940’s through the 60’s.
Honestly, this is one of my favorite books for the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t get me wrong, charismatic leaders are an important qualia for any movement, be it for equality, labor, or otherwise; however, the life and blood of movement are in the ordinary people (the you and I’s of the world) who in the course of their everyday lives play a critical role in moving a movement. And Payne tells the story as a true social historian, from the lives of regular people. My favorite family from his book was the McGhee’s. Laura McGhee (or mama) seem to have had a reputation for personal fearlessness, demonstrated in her first attempted to register to vote in 1962 before the big groups and big support from organizations like CORE and SNCC. Mama also encouraged her friends and neighbors to follow suit. She own her own farm outside of Greenwood, Miss. where she taught citizenship classes, and hosted meetings and rallies. Mama also encouraged and supported her three sons, who were all active during the 1964 Freedom Summer Project era. Silas McGhee, her youngest thought the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was a sham because it only offered rights he thought were already legislated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Silas tested the new bill to see if anything actually changed because of it. In July 1964, Silas walked into the Leflore Theater (whites only) and sat down to “watch a movie.” He was asked to leave by the management. The following day, Jake McGhee went to the same theater, but had to fight his way out of an angry crowd after being asked to leave. A few days later, both Jake and Silas returned to the same theater and when asked to leave they scarcely made it out of a mob that had formed outside. In August 1964, after shuttling SNCC workers all day, Silas was shot in the head while waiting out a storm in his car. He survived and in the span between June and December 1964, Silas and Jake were arrested seven times between them. The courage of the McGhee’s inspired those around them to take more direct action in testing the limits of legislation and in traditional mainstream history, their story would simply be a footnote, easily and sadly overlooked.
If you are interested in digging deeper into the Civil Rights Movement and reform, check out Dr. Payne’s book, “I’ve got the light of freedom.” You will not be disappointed.
Charles Payne, “I’ve got the light of freedom,” five out of five stars!!!