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[Horror History] Beastly Beginnings (1896-1929)

@craiggors

This is Part 2 of a series posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here.

A bat flies into a haunted castle and transforms into the Devil. He is represented, as often on stage, as a nattily dressed gentleman with a beard. From a giant, black cauldron this Mephistopheles proceeds to conjure up and dispel imps, demons, ghosts, witches, and skeletons. A cavalier then bursts in and brandishes a crucifix and the Devil vanishes in a puff of smoke. All of this occurs in just about three minutes. It is, officially, the first horror film ever made, The Devil’s Castle (1896).

Playing off of centuries of imagery from books, legends, and stage plays (among those figures conjured up by the Devil is is an old man with a grimoire, presumably Faustus himself), The Devil’s Castle has been noted for the bat transformation and the power of the crucifix, leading the vignette to not only be labeled as the first horror film in history, but the first vampire film as well. It should be noted, however, that the trope of evil being associated with bats and shrinking from religious icons were not exclusively associated with vampires until the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula the following year.

The director and star of The Devil’s Castle, Georges Méliès, is a man familiar to most film students and movie buffs. He is regarded as the father of the cinema fantastiqué, the successor to Auguste and Louis Lumière, the fathers of documentary realism cinema. Where the brothers thought there was little future in film beyond a passing experimental fad, Méliès was showman by nature, a trickster in an age where illusionists were top-of-the-bill attractions. He viewed trick photography as an aid to magic. As such, his films feature multiple exposures, dissolves, perspective tricks, elaborate props, and stage makeup to accomplish what were basically vaudeville acts on film. There is no grand story to The Devil’s Castle, it is simply a parade of tricks culminating in a flourishing exit.

Can’t you feel the flourishing?

Between 1896 and 1914, Méliès directed over five hundred movies. He did not confine himself to the fantastical, either, taking stabs at the animated “French postcard” genre with After the Ball (1897), historical epics with Joan of Arc (1899), religious spectacle with Christ Walking on Water (1899), topical political drama with The Dreyfus Affair (1899), literary adaptations with The Queen’s Musketeers (1903), and even parodist newsreels, like the one about the coronation of King Edward VII that even the monarch himself thought genuine. Before his own distinct style caught on, Méliès was among cinema’s first rip-off artists, capitalizing on the success of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) by filming other trains at other stations.

But it is for the magic that we remember Méliès. After The Devil’s Castle, Méliès produced a number of films of the same dark persona, often building whole movies around a demonic figure and a single great illusion, as in The Man with the Indiarubber Head (1902), wherein Méliès inflates his own head to giant size until it bursts like a balloon. He took his act from stage to screen and lived up to the title of one of his many 1899 films, A Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist.

Over time, Méliès’s films grew longer and more ambitious. Among his literary adaptations–where were often highlights rather than the whole story–were the screen debuts of Rider Haggard’s She: The Pillar of Fire (1899), the charlatan of Cogliostro’s Mirror (1899), Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1901), the grizzled pirate Bluebeard in Barbe-Bleu (1901), and the Wandering Jew in the eponymous film of 1904. Méliès often returned to Faust and Mephistopheles, but his filmography is littered with titles that suggest horror sub-genres in the making: The Bewitched Inn (1897), Cave of Demons (1898), Murder Will Out (1899), Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899), The Doctor and the Monkey (1900), The Dangerous Lunatic (1900), Beelzebub’s Daughters (1903), and The Witch (1906).

Georges, you tricksy little minx, you

His greatest success, and his most often seen/parodied work, was A Trip to the Moon (1901), whose loose plot concern a lunar trip of the type made popular by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells novels. Méliès was encouraged to make more of these “impossible voyage” films to locations such as the sun, under the sea and to the North Pole. He set out to amaze and chuckled as nervous patrons gasped in terror at dancing skeletons, phantoms, and devils. But Méliès was, at the end of the day, a trickster. He was not interested in cinema as a medium for telling stories, but for showcasing special effects. Despite not considering himself part of the “horror business,” Méliès’s scares and frightening imagery would come to define the genre and recur again and again in the coming decades.

By the beginning of the 20th century, movies had gripped people the world over, and there was already healthy international competition. In America, pioneers like Edwin S. Porter paved the way for cinema’s first iconoclasts, like D.W. Griffith, and in Italy there were regular feature-length epic spectacles by the second decade, like the tale of ancient muscle hero Maciste in Cabiria (1914). Meanwhile, in Germany the heirs of E.T.A. Hoffman began to play with shadows, and in Britain one-and-two-reel melodramas began to proliferate and become commercially successful. Activity was so hectic in this new field that oft-told tales would make their screen debuts and be done over again within a few months. William Selig’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), a film of the stage play that had been touring during Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifetime, is largely considered the first American horror movie. It was rapidly followed by a British remake, The Duality of Man (1910), a Danish version starring Alwin Neuss, Den Skaebnesvangre Opfindelse (1910), and another American version starring James Cruze and Harry Benham in the title roles, an interesting approach that has been rarely reused. In 1913, a German version vied with two more American versions, one a primitive colorized version and the other produced by Carl Laemmle, who would later become the patriarch of Universal Pictures, where the horror film found its first true home.

Things went quiet until 1920, when three new versions of the Jekyll/Hyde story arrived simultaneously: John S. Robertson’s lavish star vehicle for John Barrymore (whose steeple-headed, spider-fingered Hyde pre-empts Max Shreck’s similar looking vampire by two years), a quickie imitation with Sheldon Lewis, and F.W. Murnau’s Dr. Jekyll, a tragically lost version with Conrad Veidt as the doctor who, in this version, transforms under the magical influence of a two-faced bust rather than mad science. Bela Lugosi also had an early role in this version as the doctor’s butler. Even the first parodies of Stevenson’s novel surfaced at this time, Horrible Hyde (1915) and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925), starring Stan Laurel.

The peak of hilarity, clearly

Though Jekyll and Hyde was the most frequently adapted story of the silent film era, other famous monsters also made their debut during this time. Edison’s Frankenstein (1910), with Charles Ogle as the wild-haired creature whipped up in a vat like instant soup, was followed by Life Without Soul (1915), in which Dr. Frankenstein becomes “William Frawley” and the Monster is “the Brute Man.” The Frankenstein Monster (1920), possibly the first Italian horror film, also tackled the story, while The Picture of Dorian Gray enjoyed great success in Denmark as Dorian Gray’s Portrait (1910), with other versions following in 1915 from Russia, 1916 from America (this version starred Henry Victor, future strongman from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks), 1917 from Germany, and 1918 from Hungary (Lugosi played Dorian’s mentor, Sir Henry, in this version). Sherlock Holmes, who made his screen debut battling an invisible man in 1900 with Sherlock Holmes Baffled, was part of one of the earliest crossover events in Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery (1908), solving Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The sleuth’s creepiest adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) was first filmed in Denmark as The Grey Lady (1903) with a spectral woman instead of a Hound of Hell. Germany turned out a more faithful adaption of Baskervilles in 1914, followed by six sequels in which Holmes pursues the novel’s dog-training villain. This period also saw multiple early adaptations of genre staples like She, Trilby, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sweeney Todd, Maria Marten, Faust or Dr. Faustus, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Fu-Manchu.

Poe was a popular source in both France and America and it was D.W. Griffith who first took a frequently reused tactic by combining several Poe stories into one episodic narrative for The Avenging Conscience (1914). Meanwhile, the first feature-length British horror film, The Avenging Hand (1915), was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) with a revived ancient Egyptian princess and a severed hand. It was among a run of mummy-themed films popular at the time: The Mummy (1911), The Dust of Egypt (1915), The Eyes of the Mummy (1919). Other popular films included The Vampire (1913), about an East Indian snake woman and The Werewolf (1913), concerning a Native American shapeshifter. There were also a number of films about monkey gland transplants (a medical fad of the day) and Darwinian evolutionary theory best epitomized by the 1913 French adaption of Gaston Leroux’s novel Balaoo (1912) about a humanized gorilla. It was remade as The Wizard in 1927 and Dr. Renault’s Secret in 1942.

Already, some filmmakers were specializing in the macabre, and several actors were building reputations on the strength of their horror roles. Paul Wegener, a German actor/director, cut a hefty figure as Balduin in The Student of Prague (1913), adapted from H.H. Ewers’s Poe-like novel about a deal with the Devil and a deadly doppelgänger. He achieved massive fame, however, under a clay wig and built-up costume in and as The Golem (1915), the legendary living statue of the Prague ghetto, revived to rampage in modern times. The film was so successful it spawned both a parodic sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and an elaborate prequel, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920). Wegener also took on several bizarre roles in his career, as when he played a warlock modeled after Aleister Crowley in Rex Ingram’s French-American film The Magician (1926), or the title role in Svengali (1927). Wegener’s last bow in horror was in the multi-episode The Living Dead (1932), written and directed by his rival Richard Oswald, who had first come to the genre with a number of Hound of the Baskervilles sequels and stuck around to deliver adaptations of Hoffman, including a talkie version of Alraune (1930) with Brigitte Holm recreating her silent role as the artificially fashioned femme fatale.

Alluring Alraune, alright?

Wegener and Oswald were principally adaptors of others’ work. Their films have pictorial virtues and an obvious feel for the material, but little sense of the developing potential for cinema. Others came at horror from a different direction, not just hoping to trade on well-known material but expanding the boundaries of film as art. Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the most influential and famous example. Weine’s direction, in conjunction with the sets of scenarists Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, the art direction of Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm (who devised the stylized sets, painted shadows, and designed other visual tricks for the film), and the input of Fritz Lang, who was signed up to direct but moved on to something else after devising the frame story that reveals the whole action to be taking place inside the mind of a lunatic, created lightning in a bottle. Lang’s narrative input turned what might have been a confounding arthouse picture into a gimmick picture. The revelation meant that patrons disturbed by the imagery could leave the theater thinking they now “understood” what they had seen, i.e. the visualized ravings of a distorted mind. Mayer and Janowitz despised this angle, having intended to depict a world that was cruel and insane rather than a protagonist having bad dreams.

Nevertheless, the film was a hit, especially for breakout performers Werner Krauss as the top-hatted mountebank and mesmerist Caligari, and Conrad Veidt as the leotard-clad, hollow-cheeked somnambulist/murderer Cesare. Both would join Wegener among the emerging group of proto-horror stars. Veidt, whom Universal considered casting as Dracula in 1930, played The Count of Cogliostro (1921), the rumored diabolist-violinist Paganini (1923), the pianist with a murderer’s hands in Hands of Orlac (1924), Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (1924), and the titular characters in Rasputin (1930) and The Wandering Jew (1933). Krauss would later play Iago in Othello (1922), Jack the Ripper in Waxworks, and the Devil in The Student of Prague (1926).

F.W. Murnau also cast Veidt in The Head of Janus (1920), a rip-off Jekyll & Hyde film scripted by Caligari‘s Janowitz (this was the strange case of Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor). Murnau assumed that Bram Stoker’s widow would be as negligent as the Stevenson estate and so attempted another literary adaptation with a few plot alternations, turning Count Dracula in Count Orlok for Nosferatu (1922). Whereas The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s expressionist style was created entirely in-studio, Murnau took his vampire out on location, filming in Slovakian mountains and ruins. Nosferatu still stands as the only screen adaptation of Dracula to be primarily interested in terror. Max Shreck’s rat-faced, corseted, stick-insect of a monster possesses no undead glamor, nor even the melancholy brought to the character by Klaus Kinski and Willem Defoe in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Just as Dracula can serve as the template for the horror novel, Nosferatu serves as the template for the horror film. Murnau added wrinkles to the Stoker story that have persisted, notably the vampire vanquished by the first light of day.

Or a competent dentist

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu might be the most cited examples of Expressionism, but they’re not the whole story. Throughout the 1920’s, as German society spiraled out of control, German cinema became shadowed with figures as sinister as Cesare, Caligari, and Orlok. Fritz Lang turned out the epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) in which Rudolf Klein-Rogge incarnates superhuman evil as a master criminal in the mold of Fu-Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Mabuse is a founding text for all manner of far-fetched thrillers, including the Hitchcock japes of the 1930’s, the film noir of the 1940’s, the super-spy pictures of the 1960’s, and the paranoid conspiracy dramas of the 1970’s. Lang brought Mabuse back to exact malign influence from an asylum cell and beyond the grave in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but his most influential early talkie is the layered and haunting M (1931), the first great serial-murder film. Peter Lorre stars as a pedophile killer stalked by cops (including Mabuse’s nemesis, Inspector Lohmann) and criminals. Paul Keni, another German director, put Jack the Ripper on the screen in 1924 in Waxworks, but his presence was muted. The missing link between Werner Krauss’s tubby, trench-coated Ripper and Lorre’s whistling, whining Franz Beckert is the mild-mannered, pathetic Jack the Ripper as played by Gustav Diessl in G.W. Pabst’s masterful Pandora’s Box (1928), who kills the innocent heroine Lulu (Louise Brooks) under the mistletoe. Alfred Hitchcock, who served an apprenticeship in Germany, took note of what was going on both in politics and filmmaking and used this for his own British Expressionist Ripper story with The Lodger (1927).

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, horror as a solidified film genre was still somewhat murky, but the first true horror star was on the rise in the form of Lon Chaney. A master character actor and makeup artist, Chaney played full-on monster roles as the ape-man in A Blind Bargain (1921), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and the skull-faced Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), plus a comedic mad scientist in The Monster (1925) and a fake vampire in London After Midnight (1927). His most distinct work, however, is found in melodramas, usually those directed by Tod Browning. Their joint masterpiece is The Unknown (1927), in which Chaney plays a murderer hiding his giveaway double-thumbs by binding his arms and posing as an amputee, performing a knife-throwing act with his feet. The heroine (a young Joan Crawford) affects to abhor a man’s embrace, so “Alonzo the Armless” has his arms surgically removed to become her ideal lover–only to learn she’s changed her position on hugging and is now canoodling with the circus strong-man, prompting Alonzo to plot bloody revenge. The difference between Chaney’s grotesques and the creatures of German expressionism is that most of Chaney’s brilliantly mimed, remarkably made-up freaks are just grump guys who don’t get the girl (a theme that Chaney raised to obsessive levels), rather than the incarnation of evil or insanity in semi-human form. Perhaps this is why his most horrific films, though illuminated by moments of masterful acting, wear less well. Arguably his best work, in Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) and Victor Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924) fall on the outskirts of the genre.

When Universal Pictures, the backers behind Hunchback and Phantom, lost Chaney to MGM they replaced him with Conrad Veidt as the Joker-grinning freak of The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni, who also helmed perhaps the most important American horror film of the 20’s, The Cat and the Canary (1927). Based on John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play, the film was a semi-spoof of already well-established Old Dark House mystery in which a group of people gather for a reading of a will in an isolated, spooky locale and are menaced by a monstrous figure who turns out to be the most cheerful, helpful suspect. Think lots of clutching hands, secret passageways, and bodies tumbling from wardrobes. Similar titles included The Bat (1925), directed by Roland West and remade as a talkie, The Bat Whispers (1929); Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen, who also helmed the striking Danish semi-documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1921); multiple versions of Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917, 1925, 1929), a property rehashed as late as House of the Long Shadows (1983). Others in this arena included The Ghost Breaker (1922), The Gorilla (1927), The Thirteenth Hour (1927), The Haunted House (1928), and the first all-talkie, The Terror (1928).

The Man Who Laughs…his way into your nightmares

As talking pictures caught on, Murnau and Leni were perfectly positioned within Hollywood to direct horror films. Dracula had been running on stage in Britain and the U.S. since the mid-1920’s, and the rights had been legitimately bought by Universal Pictures in the hope that Chaney would star. However, within a few years, Murnau, Chaney, and Leni were all dead through freak accidents or illnesses. The future of Dracula, and by extension the entire horror genre, was up for grabs…

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will tackle fear of the “exotic” throughout the 1930’s

[Horror History] Early Evil

@craiggors

This is Part 1 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade

If there’s one thing that almost every major horror franchise has fallen prey to it’s the origin story. So from what dark corners of the world did horror cinema spring from? Well, those who study film know that “the movies” essentially began in 1891 when Thomas Edison, assisted by his colleague William Dickson, took the celluloid film roll invented by George Eastman and used it to create the Kinetograph, a camera capable of exposing images in rapid succession. Developed in a strip and viewed inside a turn-the-crank device called the Kinetoscope, the ribbon of pictures would give the illusion of movement to the viewer.

The Kinetoscope became a fairground novelty, operated by a coin in a slot and was designed for a rapid turnover of single spectators. Slideshows, magic lanterns, praxinoscopes, and several other pre-cinema spectacles had been popular attractions for decades, but the idea of showing movies to an audience gathered as if for a lecture or a play did not immediately appeal to Edison.

Pictured: a rollicking good time

Enter Auguste and Louis Lumiere, two French brothers who, in 1895, developed the Cinematographe. This device could take moving pictures (like the Kinetograph) and project them onto a screen. On December 28, 1895, the brothers conducted the first film show for a paying audience in history. Held in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris, they screened brief snippets taken during the year that have since become famous amongst film students and scholars. Most of the short films were accounts of everyday activities, such as Exiting the Factory (1895), which depicted workers at the Lumiere factory clocking out for the day. Other films were staged, like The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895), in which a boy plays a trick on a gardener–possibly the first action film–but the hit of the evening was the first true sensation of the power of cinema: a couple-second film titled The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). Having never seen a motion picture before that night, many Parisian patrons could not quite tell the difference between a silent, black-and-white image of a locomotive steaming towards the camera and a real train crashing through the basement wall and threatening to plough them down.

For about ten years, the Kinetoscope and the Cinematographe coexisted, seemingly not in competition, but it was the Lumiere vision of cinema as a theatrical attraction that caught on around the world, drawing masses of people and inspiring film’s earliest pioneers. Edison’s gadget, meanwhile, was primarily used for “what the butler saw” type peepshows. By the beginning days of the 20th century, Edison had moved to the projected-on-a-screen variety of cinema as well. Among his best known productions from this time was the very first film version of Frankenstein (1910). Ironically, by then, the Lumiere brothers were out of business and Edison was raking in the cash thanks to a near stronghold on American film production. Edison had patented the sprocket holes, the perforations that allowed film to run through the projector. This vicegrip would only be broken by film enthusiasts who fled the Edison-dominated New York film scene to found a new movie stronghold in California–Hollywood.

Thomas Edison: climbing in yo windows and snatching yo ideas up since 1847

Well that covers the birth of cinema, but where was horror? Formats that would become movie genres were fairly well defined in other media well before Edison and the Lumiere brothers came to prominence. Adventure and detective stories were universally developed in prose. The musical was the staple of the theater. Cheap novels were the homes of Westerns, while the love story seeped into nearly every form of narrative art. The religious spectacular was familiar in painting, and the great epic had been around since antiquity. Even science fiction had coalesced into something recognizable by the late 19th century thanks to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Yet for all these distinct genre arenas, no one alive in 1890 would have any idea what you meant if you called something a “horror story.” This is not to say that such stories did not exist but just that horror was only now starting to come together into its own classification through the efforts of a disparate bunch of creative minds, much like cinema itself.

Horror as a genre had been a long time coming by this point, folks. The earliest known narrative in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is rife with gruesome and fantastical elements. Heroes fight monsters in Graeco-Roman and Norse mythology with astonishing regularity, a trend that continued up through the eighth century Old English epic poem Beowulf. In typical horror fashion, some dark and strange force is raiding the hall of King Hrothgar every night, leaving dead and mutilated corpses behind. The hero traces the trail of trouble to the monster Grendel, whom he kills in battle. The epic even contains its own sequel (the staple of the horror genre), as Beowulf must then confront the dead beast’s vengeful mother almost like a weird, backwards version of Friday the 13th (1980).

Of monsters, men, and mommies–the horror trifecta

Countless other myths, folk tales, legends, and epic cycles conform to the structure of the horror story. With the right slant, they could all be made or remade as horror films with ease, and many of them have. Working from the Bible alone, you have the horrors of the ten plagues of Egypt, which were the inspiration behind the influential The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971); the trials and tribulations of Job, which was perhaps the first “conte cruel” or “cruel tale,” in history; and the apocalyptic vision of the Revelation to John as the source of such Antichrist yarns as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Omen (1976), and numerous other “Christian” horror tales. Even classical drama is full of blood and guts; Oedipus blinds himself when he realizes how dreadfully he has transgressed into a world of hate, murder, and revenge.

Theater had a long history of peddling the macabre and helped give rise to horror’s many sub-genres. During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, English audiences flocked to theaters to see “revenge tragedies,” productions that drew on classical models but played up ghosts, grim, and gore. Hamlet (1611) features its vengeful specter in the night, an exhumed skull, multiple stabbings, poisonings, and Ophelia’s mad scene. The doom-haunted tone of Macbeth (1606) is set in the very first scene by the three witches chanting their wicked prophecy, but Shakespeare really went balls to the wall for the kind of shock value that Italian filmmakers would later relish with his blood-soaked tragedy Titus Andronicus (1594), the source for the lengthy sequence in Theater of Blood (1971) in which rape victim Lavinia has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t identify her attackers but foils them by writing down their names with her bloody stumps.

Even still, Shakespeare is tame compared to his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, particularly his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1592, the archetypical deal-with-the-Devil story) or even Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which opens with the stage direction “Enter VINDICE, holding a skull.” These plays and others would demand increasingly elaborate stage effects, such as hidden bladders of pig’s blood pricked by daggers for John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), fake heads branded about after onstage decapitations for The Duchess of Malfi (1623), or the Duke of Gloucester’s bloodied eye-sockets in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606).

Do you see where I’m going?

It wasn’t all just on stage, however. In 1764, English novelist Horace Walpole published what he claimed was a rediscovered manuscript, The Count of Otranto. It was a saga of ghostly and criminal doings set in an old Italian castle. It was the first in a series of increasingly lurid “gothic” novels, but it was Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), among others, who became the most successful of the gothic novelists. She wrote of imperiled heroines facing magnetic yet repulsive villains, often in old Italian palaces with contested inheritances and secret passageways a-plenty. Any and all supernatural business was explained away with Scooby-Doo-like deduction and the ghost riders unmasked as bandits in disguise. By the time that Jane Austen paid homage to Radcliffe and her many imitators, while simultaneously parodying them, in Northanger Abbey (1817), the gothic form was an established strain of popular culture. Parents were said to be concerned of the effect that gothic novels might have on their children, while the rise in mock-medieval architecture indicated how pervasive the gothic influence really was.

Mrs. Radcliffe’s works were relatively genteel, however. Parental caution most likely stemmed from Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 bestseller The Monk, which unashamedly plunges into the supernatural with an enthusiastic catalogue of depravity thrown in for good measure. It is virulently anti-Catholic, as are most British gothic novels, and is, boiled down, a variant on the Faustus story. The Monk follows the saintly Ambrosio, who is visited by a demon in the form of a young girl that tempts him into a succession of fleshly pleasures and crimes that escalate into matricide, incestuous rape, and worse. In the end, Ambrosio is torn to shreds by the Devil himself. If there was any contemporary writer more extreme than Lewis, it was the French aristocrat Donatien Alphonse Francois, better known by his title, Marquis de Sade. In 1800, the marquis wrote that the gothic novel was the “necessary fruit of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe,” and thus became one of the first critics to perceive a connection between the upheavals in society and fantastical fiction, a connection still widely examined today.

The latter gothic period produced a number of masterpieces, like Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and the style lasted well into the 19th century before it began to peter out with the longer novels of J. Sheridan LeFanu: Uncle Silas (1864), The House by the Churchyard (1863), and the much-filmed vampire tale and precursor to Dracula, Carmilla (1872). It was also at this time that the gothic began to somewhat evolve into the serialized penny dreadfuls that chronicled the exploits of such brooding figures as Dick Turpin, Varney the Vampyre, and Sweeney Todd.

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!that means read

But of course, the most famous and lasting horror novel of the gothic period is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published anonymously in 1818. At the time, Mary was not the respectable Mrs. Shelley, but the scandalous Mary Godwin, a teenage runaway adulteress and Romantic poetry groupie. The novel is supposedly the result of a tale-telling competition between famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary, as depicted on film in the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in other features like Gothic (1986), Haunted Summer (1988), and Rowing with the Wind (1988). Frankenstein owes its convoluted structure of stories within stories to the gothic, but it does break new ground in its tale of the callous scientist Victor Frankenstein and the tragic yet maligned Monster that he creates. The novel is a cornerstone not only of horror but of science fiction, and utilizes a complex moral framework. What is interesting about the novel is that Victor’s true crime is not making the Monster, but in being a bad parent–everything would have been alright if he’d taken care of his creature rather than rejecting it simply because it looked hideous.

Before the supposed contest that birthed horror’s first true milestone, Dr. John Polidori, a member of the Shelley-Byron troupe as well, had published an influential if somewhat whiny short story entitled “The Vampyre.” The titular vampire was a caricature of Byron and the tale itself was the first vampire story written in English. The troupe had all been collectively researching folk and horror tales translated from German and likely encountered the works of E.T.A. Hoffman, whose story “The Sand Man” is about a doll that comes to life and is spiritual precedent to Frankenstein.

Edgar Allan Poe also acknowledged the influence of the Germanic gothic in his own work. His distinct horror tales, written during the 1830’s and 40’s, started playing with the mechanics of the genre, often breaking away from traditional story structure to creep into the minds of his deranged protagonists, presenting torments that were more physical and more spiritual than the conflicts in their typical gothic predecessors.

Edgar Allan Poe–Master of the Macabre, Sexy Ass Mo-Fo

It should be noted, however, that Poe was essentially too awesome to limit himself to one form. Besides horror, he more or less invented the detective story as we know it today. He also wrote important early science fiction, bizarre humor, journalistic hoaxes, puzzle stories, vicious and toadying reviews, and begging letters. It is his horror and mystery stories, however, that reveal his true imagination and that have seen countless adaptations over the years. These core Poe tales include “The Black Cat” (1843), “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842).

Whereas gothics tended to revolve around a virtuous but imperiled heroine who would be saved at the end of the day (or night), Poe’s stories present women who were dead, dying, or spectral. His tales concentrated on the kinds of male protagonists who are on the verge of madness or transcendent wisdom. They obsess on details to the exclusion of all else and think in a frenzy, made evident by dash-ridden sentences that spill from the author’s pen like the ramblings of a drunken lunatic. As such, it would be easy to write Poe off as a neurotic who put his own failings into his writing. Just as his poems use complex meter and rhyme schemes, his prose is finely wrought to seem like the ramblings of an insane person while the author remains in complete control of the effect.

By the late 19th century, though, the gothics seemed quaint and bordering on comical. Trace elements did still remain in a few works, namely the labyrinthine constructions of Charles Dickens (Bleak House, 1852) and Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1859). Poe was now remembered as much for his messy life as for his stories, which were more popular in France than in England or America. However, the decades immediately preceding and following the birth of cinema saw an unparalleled burst of horror fiction. More key texts were written in this comparatively short time than in all the centuries before and arguably, the time since. In about twenty years, the world was given Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Sir H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow (1895), H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), Algernon Blackwood’s The Empty House (1904), Arthur Machen’s House of Souls (1906), William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908), and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1911). And those are, quite frankly, just the titles that have held firm in the public eye. Heaps of other lesser known horror titles were published in the same era.

Gothic Fiction Bundle! Dreary moors and brooding aristocrats not included

As these novels hit shelves and found their way into personal collections, cinema was advancing from experimental flickering snapshots to feature-length stories that could compete with the grandest stage productions of the time. Most of the titles listed above began to be filmed over and over again and have, to this day, spun off so many sequels, prequels, imitations, homages, revisions, reworkings, reboots, and other variants that it’s entirely possible a full 50% of all horror films ever made are, in some fashion or another, drawn from this brief two-and-a-half decades of literary production. Toss in Frankenstein and the works of Poe and that’s a comfortable 3/4.

It may be that this outpouring of what would soon definitively be labeled as “horror” was linked to the contemporary accelerated development of cinema and other technologies of the time (think the telephone, automobiles, and airplanes). When the world changes rapidly people are often both scared and excited. That collective societal thrill encourages storytellers to play on those emotions and can be found as an underlying theme in many of the above-mentioned masterpieces.

The gothic novels all looked back, their settings either in the past or in a fantasized foreign country portrayed as somehow less advanced. Though we now view them through a London fog of gaslit nostalgia, the late-19th century horror cornerstones were up-to-the-moment. Stevenson, Stoker, and Leroux all included newspaper clippings in their works to add weight to their fantastical tales. Wells and Haggard traipsed off to the far corners of the globe only to bring terrifying stories home to oak-paneled drawing rooms. Hodgson, James, and Blackwood found ancient ghosts, curses, and sorceries nestling into an uncertain modern world.

Titillating yet ghastly

Interestingly, in some of the early gothic novels now considered horror classics, the horror elements aren’t even primary. Jekyll and Hyde is a twist-at-the-end crime thriller whose last chapters, published serially in 1886, would have been a jaw-dropper that made Mr. Hyde look like the Tyler Durden or Keyser Soze of his day. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a black satire. Wells’s novels are often considered as scientific romances, yet he wrote better monsters than anyone else of his day–cannibal Morlocks, beast-people, invisible maniacs, vampires from Mars. Heart of Darkness is considered “serious literature,” but, you know, with severed heads stuck on poles. And then, Hound of the Baskervilles is a whodunnit concerning the rationalized supernatural.

But what is remembered, what lingers in pop culture through the years, are the set-pieces that have made them cinema staples: Dorian’s portrait in the blue frame, aging to a withered corpse; Jekyll taking the potion and transforming into the “somehow deformed” Hyde; the Martians devastating everything from village to skyscraper; creepily angelic kids under malign, perhaps spectral influence; James’s nastily physical little ghosts; and then, most of all, Dracula in his Transylvanian castle, climbing down the walls, creeping into the bedrooms of English ladies to drink blood and defy an array of heroes only to decay into nothing once his blackened heart is pierced.

If modern horror starts somewhere, Dracula is as good a place as any. It deploys exactly the strategies, learned from Collins and Stevenson, that still serve for Stephen King, Carmen Maria Machado, and Stephen Graham Jones, not to mention almost every horror film being made today. And yet Dracula has a plot that isn’t far removed from Beowulf. A credible, realistic setting–unlike those of the early gothic novels or Dorian Gray–is established, which allows for suspension of disbelief when the monster is introduced. There is a mystery element as the human characters, aided by the scholarly Dr. Van Helsing, puzzle over strange phenomenon and work out who and what the villain is; discovering the monster’s powers, limitations, and weaknesses. In the climax, the hero and his heroine overcome the monster through applied knowledge and moral superiority and destroy it, though not without cost.

And yet, a full year before the infamous Count came to the printed page, it was the Devil who made his big screen debut…

The King of Vampires. And maybe also arthritis

Stay tuned for Part 2, covering horror cinema’s beastly beginnings through the roaring 20’s

[Review] THE FOREVER PURGE (2021)

@craiggors

All empires end, even The Purge. As one of the most financially reliable horror franchises of the last decade, writer James DeMonaco’s The Purge series has spawned five films and a two-season television show that have dominated political horror discussions among genre enthusiasts. The topical themes of the films–race, class, a divided America plagued by prejudice and violence–make this the most overtly political franchise in horror, but the series has often been accused of being too heavy-handed in its critique of American patriotism. The Forever Purge, the supposed final entry in the saga, is not a subtle film by any means, but its pointed observations on the state of our nation still ring frighteningly true.

Eight years after the Purge was stopped at the end of The Purge: Election Year (2016), the New Founding Fathers have resumed office and immediately reinstated Purge Night, their annual “holiday” wherein all crime, including murder, is legal for twelve hours. The reinstitution of the Purge comes in the wake of a national crisis surrounding immigration, as depicted in the opening sequence where married couple Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta) pay a coyote to smuggle them across the border from Mexico to Texas. Ten months later, on the eve of the first new Purge, Juan and his friend T.T. (Alejandro Edda) are working as ranch hands for the wealthy Caleb Tucker (Will Patton) and his son Dylan (Josh Lucas). There is tension between Dylan and Juan, as the former is wary of Mexican laborers, a prejudice not shared by his pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) or his cowgirl sister Harper (Leven Rambin). Nevertheless, everyone involved despises the Purge and is able to survive the night unharmed. But the Purge is not over. After the siren signaling the end of the Purge, an armed group of “Ever After Purgers” attack the ranch, sending our core characters fleeing, only for them to realize that nowhere is safe. The Forever Purge has begun and anyone deemed to be “un-American” isn’t safe.

What’s more American than bondage, amirite?

What follows in writer DeMonaco and director Everardo Valerio Gout’s film is an interesting twist on the basic plotline of all the prior films. Whereas our heroes in the prior Purge movies had to survive the night, now they must survive after the night. 7 a.m. cannot save them. It’s an intriguing flip and one that the series has been building to for some time: what happens when enough people take the Purge too far? A background subplot makes it clear that The New Founding Fathers have lit a fire that not even they can control, calling to mind the January 6 insurrectionists indirectly empowered to attempt their coup thanks to hateful rhetoric spewed from official political channels. It’s all the more prescient when one considers this movie was filmed before the events at the Capitol.

Like its predecessors, The Forever Purge is not a nuanced film by any means, and it paints in broad strokes for both narrative and character. Juan and Dylan are archetypes that must not only overcome the external threat of the Forever Purge to survive, but their own internal biases towards one another in order to work together. While there are touches of who these characters are as people, there’s never enough to justify our investment in them as the viewer. Instead, we are left uninterested in their relationship and its symbolic undertones and instead focused on Adela, easily the most interesting character with the most intriguing background. de la Reguera steals every scene she’s in, a charismatic and talented performer acting as the emotional anchor of the film, but not given nearly enough to do on screen.

Do you think we can Ubereats tonight?

That said, there’s still a lot to like about The Forever Purge. Cinematographer Luis David Sansans shoots and frames the Texas countryside beautifully, almost making the film feel like a traditional Western. There’s also a great long-take that follows the characters as they move through the war torn streets of El Paso seeking shelter before their final push to flee to Mexico, a clever if on-the-nose inversion of current global affairs. As always, there are some hella creepy masks, though for the most part the true terror of this film is the bland, mask-less Ever After Purgers and the very idea that this horrific night has now escaped beyond its bounds.

Honestly, I’m impressed that a franchise can produce a film this serviceable for its fifth entry, and if this truly is the end of the Purge story as we know it, I think it’s a fine conclusion. The film closes on a note that doesn’t shy away from how dire things have gotten for the United States, but that also doesn’t completely doom the country entirely. Hope remains. The battle to keep hate at bay and challenge systemic wrongs is neither easy nor clear at times. As Chiago (Gregory Zaragoza), the indigenous coyote guiding our heroes to safety in Mexico, says, this fight is forever.

The Forever Purge

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy

3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

@craiggors

There’s no doubt that James Wan’s 2013 haunted house/possession chiller The Conjuring is one of the most important horror films in the last decade, and certainly a key moment in the history of the genre as a whole. Its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2, also directed by Wan, is a masterclass in how to follow-up a lauded frightfest with an equally terrifying outing. While the other films in the so-called Conjuring Universe have their own charms and quirks, none have quite matched the brilliance of their namesake films. As such, there was a lot for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the first film in the main franchise without Wan at the reins, to live up to; and while it’s a serviceable enough film, Wan’s absence is noticeable and rather than a horror hat trick, we’re left with a bit of a turkey.

Based on the real life murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, Devil once again reunites us with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren as they exorcise a vicious demon from eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) in the summer of 1981. During the chaos of the rite, Ed notices the demon switch hosts to David’s sister’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), but before he can warn anyone he has a heart attack. By the time he wakes in the hospital, Arne has murdered his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins). The Warrens, feeling responsible, take on the monumental task of attempting to prove to the court that demonic possession is real and that Arne was not responsible for the killing. Their quest for evidence will lead them back into a dangerous world of witches, curses, and twisted supernatural entities.

There was a lot of speculation during production that the film would feature heavy courtroom scenes interlaced with horror, much like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), but screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and director Michael Chaves largely eschew the legal angle in favor of the “psychic medium aiding cops” trope as Ed and Lorraine use their gifts and expertise to uncover that there is a curse at work here, a curse placed by a witch that must be found and stopped before it can be completed. It’s all very Satanic Panic, which would have exploded onto the public consciousness a year prior, so in that sense it feels historically appropriate, and witchcraft/deals with the devil were a plot point in the original film so its not entirely uncharted territory for the Conjuring Universe, but does lend to this film feeling very different from its predecessors in more ways than one.

As in the first two films, Devil opens with the Warrens in the midst of a case, the exorcism of David Glatzel. Unlike those cases from the earlier movies, however (Annabelle and the Amityville Horror), the Glatzel case is the throughline of the film, as its characters (human and demonic) stick with us throughout the story, the curse transferring from David to Arne and setting in motion the main plot of the film. There’s some really effective, frightening moments during the opening, but it almost feels like the film throwing its best stuff out first to hook the audience, as the rest of the scares are somewhat tame compared to what we see in the first ten minutes. Beginning the story at the climax of Glatzel possession also renders the audience unable to know the characters outside of their demon-harangued lives. What were they like before this dark thing descended onto their lives? Were they quick to accept that something otherworld was tormenting them? We don’t know, because the characters are already so attuned to the mechanics of possession, so when it emerges that Arne is now host to the malevolent spirit, the fear of his loved ones is too familiar. They’ve been there, they know what to expect. We don’t see dawning terror overtake them, and as such, its hard to relate and or fear with them.

This lack of emotional investment is meant to be picked up by the Warrens, who become the central focus for the first time in the franchise. While Ed and Lorraine were always the charm and heart of the first two Conjuring films, their story was second to the respective haunting/possession. In this third film, they are the driving force, with Arne’s story meant to provide jump scares here and there to break up the Warrens’ investigation. Luckily, Wilson and Farmiga once more bring their A game and it’s thanks to their stellar chemistry that the film stays afloat amidst its weaker story moments. O’Connor (The Spanish Princess, Handsome Devil) is also great, conveying the immense psychological burden Arne carries as he wrestles with the dark force inside of him, and Hilliard (The Haunting of Hill House, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) once more shines as an adorable little boy beset by paranormal predators.

As for those evil forces, they’re largely forgettable, and don’t deliver that thick sense of dread so memorable from the first two Conjuring films. The Devil Made Me Do It has no clapping game or Valak painting to hang its hat on as its “Iconic Scare.” The waterbed scene so heavily featured in promotional materials is decent, but the overexposure eliminates any sense of suspense or surprise. The continuous story also means there’s no secondary demonic figure lurking about, a la Annabelle or the Crooked Man. The human nature of the villain isn’t a bad route to take, as a Satanic witch is always inherently scary, but she’s not all that difficult to take down in the end, nor does she leave much of an impression. You’re more likely to remember the plethora of homages to past horror films that Chaves inserts far too often, The Exorcist and The Shining being the most noticeable. It’s fine to borrow imagery and pay tribute, but if what sticks in your audiences mind the most from your film are nods to other, better movies…that’s a problem.

Chaves was faced with a difficult task, and should be applauded for stepping into Wan’s shoes to follow-up two of the most well-received horror films in recent years. He’s a fine director, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t bad by any means. There are solid performances, some great shots, and a decent score from series veteran Joseph Bishara. Put in context with the other spin-offs in the Conjuring Universe, it’s a respectable middle of the pack entry, but it’s nowhere near the edge-of-your-seat nightmare machines that Wan directed. Terrible? No. Average? Frustratingly so. It’s certainly not a death-knell for the franchise, but you do have to wonder if it’s worth further films if this is what they’ll look like. I guess when the devil makes you do something, it should be no surprise if it ends up damned.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] A QUIET PLACE PART II (2021)

@craiggors

Last year, the world went quiet. A strange menace we had to learn about as we fought it took hold of the globe and forced us all to question what was truly worth living for. It’s fitting then that one of the first movies to screen exclusively in newly reopened theaters is A Quiet Place Part II, which explore both the origins and aftermath of the events in the original film. It’s a film that was one of the first to be delayed last year and hits all the more harder now that we have some context as to what it means when a foreign entity forces you to retreat to your home and stay there in order to survive.

Written and directed by John Krasinski, who also helmed and starred in the first installment, Part II opens on the day that the sound-sensitive creatures were first unleashed upon the world, presumably from a flaming mass of space debris that collides with Earth. After we see the initial moments of the invasion, the film jumps ahead to pick up immediately after the end of the first film. With Lee (Krasinski) dead and their home destroyed, the remaining Abbotts flee their broken homestead in the hopes of finding shelter with other survivors. Mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is grief-stricken and exhausted, fearful for her newborn baby’s survival as well as her deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and traumatized son Marcus (Noah Jupe). When they stumble upon family friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy), someone they knew in the “before times,” the Abbotts learn that there may be a haven for what remains of humanity nearby, but with the monsters still ravaging anything that makes even the slightest noise, it will be almost impossible to get there…

Into the uknownnnnn

With A Quiet Place (2018), Krasinski proved himself a master of tension, and he reminds just how good he is at threading that needle in the film’s prologue, a deliciously nail-biting sequence that sees Lee going about town in what we know will be the last few normal moments of his, and the world’s, existence. Krasinski knows just what to do in order to make the audience almost sick with anticipation and then masterfully, when the invasion finally begins, shifts into a different kind of tension as all hell breaks loose and society as we know it crumbles. It’s tight, focused, directing and an excellent exercise in how to induce terror, establish pace, and set tone within the first few minutes of a film. It’s all the more palpable given how quickly we saw the real world shut down in the wake of real world emergency last spring.

That thrilling yet awful sense of dread continues throughout the film, proving both Krasinski’s growth as a director and knowledge of the genre. For a big studio film, there’s a number of unexpected scares that will catch even the most hardened horror fans out, myself included. Damn, there’s nothing like that feeling when you realize you can still be surprised, still jump in your seat, and still involuntarily suck in your breath out of fear. This is edge-of-your-seat film-making at its finest.

Daddy Murphy over here

Blunt once again delivers a performance of grace and strength in the face of unimaginable tragedy, this time with a subdued sense of desperation at how dire the circumstances have gotten. Murphy is a fantastic addition, playing vulnerable and defeated in deft equal measure. He’s particularly good in his scenes with Simmonds, who is once again the standout performer for her captivating portrayal of Regan. She is the heart of the film, much as she was in the first entry, and that essential emotional core never gets lost amidst the carnage and drama. If A Quiet Place was essentially about grief and wounds that refuse to heal, Part II is about facing that trauma head on and learning to move on and live with hurt in a world that will never be the same again.

Perhaps the one foible I had with the film was that this movement, both physical and psychological, feels a bit forced at times. The story forces the characters into consistent trouble in a way that feels heavy-handed at times. I’m also not a fan of when characters are split up in order to increase tension, though I understand this is often necessary in order to move a narrative into its conclusion. At least when the characters do split here, everyone’s motivation makes sense, even if the choices they make don’t always add up. This is probably the most predictable part of the film overall, though in retrospect there’s not much new added to this world that we couldn’t have already assumed from the first film. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a Part III in a few years, especially given the somewhat banal ending.

I don’t think that’s a log…or a fish…

So while it doesn’t break explosive new ground in the genre or reinvent the wheel, A Quiet Place Part II does everything it’s supposed to do, and it does it right. It’s an excellent reminder of just how fun it is to be scared in a big, dark room with strangers and the joy of communal movie-going. If you haven’t been back to a theater yet and want something that will keep you engaged and alert throughout, look no further than this film. Just make sure you keep all those screams locked in your throat…you never know what might hear you…

A Quiet Place Part II

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy

3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021)

@craiggors

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but like any conscious American I know that it’s a city with a reputation for being both a glittery, glitzy haven of overindulgence and pleasure-seeking and a sleezy, scuzzy monument to mindlessness and braindead, gluttonous consumerism. Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead takes that braindead moniker quite literally, producing an epic zombie film that bites off a bit more than it can chew while still being an enjoyable enough ride through post-apocalyptic desert mayhem.

Co-written by Snyder (Justice League, Dawn of the Dead ’04), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3), and Joby Harold (Awake), and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead explores what happens when an undead infection takes hold over Las Vegas and decimates those that live there. After a rapid spread, the City of Sin is quarantined to prevent further contamination. Cutting their losses, the U.S. government prepares to annihilate the city and its entire walking dead population with a nuclear bomb set to drop on the Fourth of July. Thirty-six hours before detonation, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuka Sanada) recruits ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team of misfits to infiltrate the barricaded city and retrieve five hundred million dollars from the vault in Tanaka’s casino. Tempted by the thrill of one last job, Ward and his rough-and-tough cronies drop into Vegas, unaware of the true danger that lies ahead of them…

Heat stroke, obviously

Snyder, who directed the well-received remake of Dawn of the Dead, is no stranger to both zombie movies and big, flashy, look-at-this-cool-shit films, so you’d think this would make for a pleasing combo, but the magic of his earlier entry into the genre is missing here, and though the colors and the gore pop, the rest of the movie is dull and uninspired.

It’s a shame, as the movie starts strong with a gorgeous opening sequence depicting how the outbreak happens (road head is involved, so it’s automatically an A+ origin story) that segues into a credit sequence montage of Vegas getting overrun and falling into glorious zombie chaos. Oh and there’s zombie strippers in the montage at one point because Vegas. Also because Zack Snyder. I don’t know, it works. It’s a high energy, balls-to-the-walls type of opening, and it sets the stage for what should be a thrilling heist story set against the brain-eating background but instead becomes a string of quasi-decent action sequences broken up by scenes full of halfhearted dialogue exchanged between uninteresting cardboard characters.

Honestly the money has more personality than like six of these characters

Arguably, Snyder has always been a director that favors style over substance, and that’s certainly the case with this film. The neon-infused aesthetics of the posters and promo materials carries over into the film, but isn’t pushed nearly as much as it could have been. In that same vein, there’s a few choice set pieces, but the desolated Vegas wasteland remains underused. We see almost nothing of the plethora of iconic Vegas landmarks and locations, the film containing itself to bland hallways and unremarkable hotel lobbies. It’s an odd production decision, especially because when we do get the occasional well-crafted set, often between action sequences.

As to the action, there’s certainly some blood-pumping chases, fights, and explosions. Snyder has always been adept at delivering on Big Movie Action. The trouble here is there’s too much downtime between each throwdown. The film pushes 160 minutes and its characters just aren’t interesting enough to justify that runtime. The “getting the band back together” sequence takes almost an hour, and by the time they’re finally equipped and ready, you’ve forgotten half their names. Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters and Matthias Schweighofer’s safecracker Dieter do stand out, but as is the running theme of this film, they’re underused.

Break me open, Daddy

No one seems to know quite what to do with the zombie genre these days, and I do applaud the film for experimenting with some different narrative approaches, namely the idea that some of the undead are intelligent and that the Alphas like Zeus (Richard Cetrone) can somehow “make” other smart zombies who are capable of communication and strategic thinking. As many horror fans know, grandfather of the modern zombie George Romero originally intended to have semi-intelligent zombies wielding weapons in Day of the Dead (1985) and the fast-moving, quick-thinking zombies of Snyder’s film feel like a fruition of that discarded story idea.

All in all, Army of the Dead delivers enough hyper-stylized action, gore, and grit to please the average zombie lover. It’s overlong and carries no emotional weight, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re having a lazy afternoon that could use a shot or two of undead adrenaline. While the overall gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s not a whole lot to lose, so you might as well play.

Army of the Dead

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW (2021)

@craiggors

Where do you go with the ninth entry in a franchise? Change directions? Stay the course? Perhaps a little of both? It’s a question that’s plagued the Saw franchise before, when the series took a hiatus after the dismal reception of Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) and again after the lukewarm Jigsaw (2017). The series has never been shy about evolving its storyline and taking the narrative down new paths, but Spiral: From the Book of Saw may be the biggest departure yet, while also borrowing the most from the original 2004 film that started it all.

Twelve years after turning in a crooked cop, detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is a pariah at his precinct. Hounded for being a rat, a snitch, and a traitor, Zeke has hardened into a lone-ranger-type trying to get out from under the shadow of his hero dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), the former police chief. When he’s paired up with eager rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke expects to wear him down with the drudgeries of being a homicide detective. But then the mutilated body of a Jigsaw copycat victim is discovered–a fellow detective–and it becomes a race against time to stop a psychopath using John Kramer’s legacy to target cops and wipe out corruption in law enforcement.

Oraetta, is that you?

Directed by franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, & IV) and written by Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger (Jigsaw), Spiral starts strong then gets tangled up in its own web during the third act. As per tradition, the film opens with a gruesome, bloody kill in one of the most squirm-in-your-seat traps of the franchise. It’s a great setpiece, but it’s not quite classic Jigsaw. Then again, it’s made clear from this prologue that we’re not dealing with Jigsaw as we know him anymore. Despite executing games from beyond the grave for four or five films, John Kramer is well and truly gone in this film and what we’re dealing with now is a certified copycat. Unfortunately, this means that the gravelly, chill-inducing voice of Tobin Bell is gone as well, replaced with a warped, high-pitched warble that’s anything but intimidating. Also nowhere to be found? Billy, the iconic rosy-cheeked puppet. In his place is a pig puppet that, while creepy, isn’t nearly as unique as little Bill on his trike.

These changes take some getting used to, but they’re not detrimental to the film as a whole. The pig puppet becomes a symbol of the film’s primary theme: corrupt cops. Law enforcement has always been central to the through-line of the Saw series, but Spiral truly puts “the force” under the microscope, and the blade, for the first time. Dirty cops get their comeuppance in this film, a wish fulfillment for so many in our society fed up with the abuse of police power and subsequent lack of consequences. It’s not a subtle critique by any means, but nuance isn’t exactly what we sign up for with these movies anyway, right?

Congratulations trainer! Jigsaw has awarded you the PIGGY BADGE!

Narratively, Spiral eschews the standard formula of a main game A plot alongside an investigative B plot and instead has the traps play out in “real time” as cops disappear and are tested one by one, the killer taunting Zeke all the while. It’s an odd choice, giving the film the feel of a standard police procedural as opposed to the gritty, grimy cat-and-mouse chase of the original film, which it’s clear the filmmakers were trying to emulate here. Zeke and William also don’t do a lot of actual investigating. It’s mostly waiting around for the next detective to disappear and creepy package to show up at the station leading to the next murder site. When the traps do appear, they deliver on gore, as a good Saw trap should, but not as much on tension. They don’t quite feel like “games” even if they are some of the more memorable torture scenes in the franchise (one in particular will have you curling your fingers in phantom pain).

Happily, Rock is a standout and carries the film through its foibles. He expertly flips between biting, comedic monologues and weary, rage-fueled outbursts. His best scenes are with Jackson, who is severely underused, unfortunately, and there’s a great dynamic there between the respected hero chief and his estrange son, forever an outsider for doing the right thing. Both men believe in justice, both men know the system is failing, but tension arises over their perspectives on how to fix that failing and wipe away the grime, symbolized by the film’s nauseous yellow and green hues, a return to the color schemes and dirty, sweaty looks of the original films.

Surprise, motherfucker

Spiral certainly gets points for attempting to resurrect the mystery components of Saw and for cracking open an entirely new storyline, but it plays it safe just as it should go big, and any Saw fan worth their salt can spot the twist from a mile away. Taking into account the missing iconography and uneven pacing, the film fails to make an impression. Were it not “from the Book of Saw” it may have been a better film, but as is stands it’s just missing too much to be a solid Saw film. There’s some hard and fast rules to this franchise, and if Jigsaw’s taught us anything, it’s that the rules should never be broken.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

Top 20 of ’20 – Miss Mel

@melmoy

Read on for Miss Mel’s favorite 20 films of 2020, and here to take a look at Mr. Craiggors’.

Don’t forget to share your top films of the year with us in the comments, or on Twitter! Lots of overlap? Things we missed? Let’s chat!

20. Underwater

A group of researchers in the Mariana Trench are hunted by an unknown creature. I love me some alien creature feature even if this was an average entry into the canon.

19. The Rental

A pair of couples rent a home for a few days and feel something is watching them. This was a pretty confused tone and genre and ultimately fell a little flat but was interesting along the way.

18. Amulet

A homeless veteran is welcomed into a decrepit mansion by a woman and her aging mother. This one gets wild and a little weird but was fun with a fair bit of lingering dread.

17. The Lodge

A woman becomes snowbound in a mountain lodge with her husband’s children. This is some good atmospheric horror with some great actors and I love some isolation horror.

16. Blood Quantum

A group of First Nations people are immune to a zombie apocalypse. I enjoyed the concept but ultimately I don’t think zombie films, even socially conscious zombie films, are really my thing.

15. The Babysitter: Killer Queen

Two years after the first movie, Cole goes on a weekend vacation where the bloodbath starts again. This was fan service and much less charming and surprising than the original but it was fun to be back.

14. The Dark and the Wicked

A pair of siblings visit their childhood home to visit their ailing father. This feels like a couple other films I’ve seen before but it was a genuinely creepy ride through domestic hauntings.

13. Black Box

A single dad undergoes an experimental cognitive treatment for memory loss and finds himself questioning his identity and reality. Flatliners meets Jacob’s Ladder meets Get Out that’s a bit overstuffed and emotionally confusing at times but its characters really bring home the humanity of a fantastical story.

12. Relic

A woman suffering from dementia is taken care of by her daughter and granddaughter. This functioned both as a spooky psych thriller and creepy house story as well as a tale of the existential dread we have of losing our parents and our own eventual deaths.

11. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

A woman on the brink of breaking up with her boyfriend goes on a road trip to meet his parents. This is trippy and confusing as shit but is engaging and entertaining and makes me wish I had read the book first to experience it fully.

10. Vampires vs. the Bronx

A group of teenagers must protect their Bronx neighborhood from a gang of vampires. I love teen stories and I love vampires. This was a fun comedy horror film with a bit of commentary on gentrification.

9. The Invisible Man

A woman believes she is being stalked by her abusive ex-boyfriend who faked his suicide. An uncomfortable ride through the horrors of an abusive and toxic relationship that does a great job updating its premise.

8. Impetigore

A pair of woman travel to a rural village where one of them may have a dark past. International films have been killing it this year. This is creepy, shocking and unique and who doesn’t love skin puppets?

7. His House

Sudanese refugees believe something may be lurking in their new home. I was excited for this since I first saw trailers for it. This was a great combination of haunted house horror and real life tragedy.

6. Color Out of Space

An asteroid disturbs an otherwise peaceful New England farm and brings with it an alien terror. This is a wild ride of a classic Lovecraft that manages to hit on all cylinders when it comes to psychological horror, body horror, and Annihilation levels of alien-based science fiction.

5. The Platform

 A man wakes up in a social experiment known as “the hole,” where food distribution is heavily stratified. This dystopian, social horror film feels like something out of a Saramago novel and is at times hard to watch for its gore and brutality but it makes interesting political statements–if confusing ones–and manages an incredibly depressing tone.

4. Possessor

A corporate assassin infiltrates bodies to carry out hits and finds herself in a combative host. This concept might have made for a C grade thriller film in other hands, but Cronenberg delivers a psychedelic trip through the psychology of the body, identity, and how they interact to rival the works of his father.

3. Sputnik

A cosmonaut, who returned from a mission with a alien parasite, is held prisoner by the Soviet military. This film doesn’t do anything new in the genre or make any larger social or historical statements about its Cold War setting, but it’s an incredibly entertaining sci-fi horror film with charismatic humans at its core.

2. La Llorona

A genocidal former dictator is haunted by the ghosts of the Ixil people he murdered while confined to his house. Foreign language films are the future of horror. While domestic art house horror tells gripping social stories, this film–reminiscent of Beloved in the best ways–uses the tension of human tragedy to propel its horror forward.

  1. Host

A group of friends host a seance over Zoom during the pandemic and things take a turn. This was a delightful little project that utilized its context without relying or milking it. It’s not unique in either plot or medium conceit, but it was incredibly fresh and effectively entertaining.

Top 20 of ’20 – Mr. Craiggors

@craiggors

No question that 2020 will be remembered as being absolutely horrifying. It deserves nothing less than an excruciating, fiery death while the rest of us dance on its corpse in post-traumatic delirium/glee/drunken abandon. But the year will also, hopefully, be remembered as being horror-ful.

Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed a number of major studio sequels like Candyman, Halloween Kills, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, as well as bumping back a number of highly anticipated original fare such as Saint Maud, Antlers, Last Night in Soho, and Malignant; but horror as a genre was far from deterred. Debut directors dropped movies that blew our minds and broke our hearts, streaming services filled the theatrical release gap in spades, and film festivals opened their doors to at-home audiences in hitherto unknown fashion. The result was that, against all odds, 2020 was one of the strongest years for horror in recent memory.

As such, narrowing this year’s offerings down to a best-of list proved extra difficult for both myself and Miss Mel. As such, we’ve forgone the traditional top 10 in favor of a Top 20…each! I suppose we could have been more savage and cut the lower ten, but come on, hasn’t this year been brutal enough?

Read on for my Top 20 Horror Films of 2020, and find Miss Mel’s list here.

20. Spiral

A somewhat familiar narrative that’s well acted, nicely shot, and offers a satisfying conclusion for those who are patient with it, Spiral was a commendable treat. I also loved seeing a same-sex male couple as the central characters, and even though I wish Malik’s backstory had been more fleshed out, it still resonated with me.

19. Freaky

Fun and flighty with plenty of giggly moments and a few that actually made me guffaw, but not quite as much substance as in Christopher Landon’s other playful slasher send-up Happy Death Day. The “clam jam” line makes up for absolutely everything, though.

18. The Hunt

An ultra-violent satire with an over-the-top premise that puts an interesting twist on The Most Dangerous Game. By casting “redneck deplorables” fighting for their lives against vegan NPR neoliberals, the film challenges and holds a mirror to us-vs.-them mentality. Thought-provoking if not always profound, and Betty Gilpin is absolutely delicious in the lead.

17. VFW

A futuristic dystopian low-budget siege film that features Stephen Lang kicking ass in a neon-soaked, grindhouse hellscape all set to a score that would make Carpenter jealous. Come ON, in what world would I not love this?

16. The Cleansing Hour

A chilling update to the possession sub-genre that plays out on the set of a vlogger-exorcist’s fake YouTube show. Cynical, creative, and quite shocking at parts, plus the much underused Kyle Gallner make this a win for me.

15. The Mortuary Collection

2020 was the Year of the Horror Anthology. Two of the three major ones are on this list (Scare Package just missed the cut). The Mortuary Collection is a creepy, atmospheric, gory blast. I was completely in love with the production design, and I firmly believe Clancy Brown needs to play The Tall Man in a Phantasm reboot.

14. Sea Fever

Great films are often those that understand exactly what they are and don’t try to be anything more, they just focus at excelling as themselves. Sea Fever is one such film. It’s icky and disturbing and doesn’t hold back. Alien meets The Thing meets Cabin Fever set on an Irish trawler. I mean, YO!

13. The Wolf of Snow Hollow

A darkly amusing genre mashup exploring toxic masculinity, fatherhood, and internal demons. I’m an admitted sucker for werewolf stories and this movie reminds me why. There’s some great comedic and horror beats, and the camera work is bursting with style and personality. It’s no Thunder Road, but Jim Cummings proves he’s still one fearless fucking filmmaker.

12. The Lodge

Paralyzing, agonizing, and very mean-spirited yet full of gorgeous cinematography and outstanding performances. Probably the most nightmarish film of the year as you really, really, really don’t want to see what happens next, but you can’t find a way out. Also? Fuck dem kids.

11. La Llorona

A quiet and tantalizing film that has less to do with the Latin American legend of the Weeping Woman and more to do with the inherited cultural trauma of the Guatemalan Civil War, La Llorona has stuck in my mind for months, and will continue to do so for many more.

10. Gretel & Hansel

An impressive update of the age-old Grimm fairy tale. It’s moody and heavy and packed to the gills with dread. It’s also aesthetically stunning and gorgeous and one of my new favorite Films-That-Use-Color-Expertly. Patient, meditative, and rich from start to finish.

9. Hunter Hunter

On the surface, the film appears to be any other run-of-the-mill survival story of a scrappy family living in the remote wilderness facing a roaming wolf on their land. But slowly it becomes clear that this film is…so much more. Horrifying, gripping, and unforgettable. And that ending is BRUTAL.

8. Relic

Haunting and heart-wrenching, this very slow burn mounts to a truly terrifying third act. Dynamite performances from Emily Mortimer and Robyn Nevin elevate a metaphorical story that mediates on grief and parental loss. Debut director Natalie Erika James doesn’t hold back or hold hands, and I’m very curious to see what she does next.

7. Anything for Jackson

Has there ever been a more sympathetic or likable pair of villains than the elderly couple at the center of Anything for Jackson? The answer is no, so props must be given not only to Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy but also director Justin G. Dyck for bringing to life one of the unnerving, dark, and strangely humorous films of the year.

6. His House

Another outstanding 2020 debut feature. Director Remi Weekes effortlessly blends existential terror with the supernatural to craft a new sort of haunted house film that sticks in the mind and soul thanks to twisty, striking visuals and bravura performances.

5. Scare Me

Delightful. So freaking delightful. Easily the film that most surprised me this year, and one that genuinely stands out in a crowd. It’s minimalism done to a T, relying on sound, dialogue, and performance to frighten and entertain–and it works! Cozy, witty, and razor-sharp on its dissection of writing culture, an A+ for debut director/writer/star Josh Ruben and co-star Aya Cash.

4. The Invisible Man

A relentlessly uncomfortable viewing experience in the best possible way, Leigh Whannell updates the time-tested tale into a suspenseful exploration of domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, and resilience. A gut-punch of a film that weaponizes space and pushes psychological terror to the max to profound effect.

3. Host

Unquestionably the hottest horror film of 2020, Host will also be a perfect time capsule of its time. Made entirely in quarantine, it’s a brief, nail-biting little film-that-could that had everyone, myself included, jumping at shadows and small noises in the night. Not only will this be the film we all remember as the pinnacle of what it meant to live the horror of 2020, but its techniques will be imitated by filmmakers for years to come.

2. The Dark and the Wicked

Easily the most terrifying film of the year. A perfectly executed masterpiece of insidious sound design, shadow play, and suffocating dread all wrapped around some supremely disturbing visuals. It’s incredibly bleak, a different yet equally unsettling sort of nihilism perfected in director Bryan Bertino’s earlier creep-fest The Strangers.

  1. Possessor

Mind-bending, unflinching, and bizarre. Brandon Cronenberg follows up Antiviral with a film that is both homage to his father’s work and a showcase of his own sensibilities as a filmmaker. Everything about the film is slick and sleek, from the gory violence to the glorious aesthetic to the spellbinding performances. Cerebral and evocative and stunning, it takes the top spot for me this year for how unique and (you guessed it) possessive the viewing experience was.

Well, that does it for 2020–a truly solid slate of horror. Here’s to keeping up the creep in 2021! See you there, Chatterers!

[Review] THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

@craiggors

As we all know, these days every half-decent movie studio is all but required to create a shared universe between films that are show even a modicum of success at the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the pinnacle of this modern blending of franchises, but the idea isn’t limited to superhero films. Warner Bros. Conjuring Universe spans seven films with an eighth on the way this year and now foreseeable end in sight. In 2014, Universal Studios attempted to reboot their classic 1930’s monster movies with Dracula Untold. It was to be the beginning of wha they termed their Dark Universe, but the film bombed. They went back to the drawing board and tried again with The Mummy (2017), only to be met with more disappointment. Like in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out with this kind of stuff, but with Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, it appears this game is still on.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is trapped an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a billionaire scientist specializing in optics. After executing a carefully plotted plan to escape his home, his grasp, and their marriage, Cecilia is free but traumatized. Living in hiding with cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), she’s always looking over her shoulder, waiting for Adrian to find her. The comes the news via Cecilia’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), that Adrian has committed suicide and that, per Adrian’s final wishes as explained by his brother/lawyer Tom (Michael Dorman), Cecilia is to inherit five million dollars on condition of her sanity. Slowly, Cecilia begins putting the pieces of her shattered life back together. But then strange things start happening around her, and Cecilia can’t shake the feeling that’s become so familiar to her over the last few years of her life: the feeling of being watched. It’s not long before Cecilia is convinced that Adrian isn’t gone, and that he’s closer to her now than ever before.

The Invisible Man, also written by Whannell (Saw, Insidious), is a tight, small-scale film that focuses on mood, tension, and atmosphere as opposed to the big budget foolery of The Mummy and Dracula Untold. Shifting the focus from the title character, as was the case in the original novel by H.G. Wells and the 1933 film, Whannell positions the viewer to experience the story from the point of view of the person being tormented. In this case, it is a timely commentary on patriarchal domination, abuse, and victim belief. The opening sequence, covering Cecilia’s masterful escape from Adrian, is a nail-biting introduction to this world, these characters, and this tense situation achieved with minimal dialogue and well-timed sound effects. This moment is a literal jailbreak for Cecilia–she’s disabling cameras, deactivating alarms, and scaling walls–and the audience every heart-pounding second of Cecilia’s desperate hope and escalating dread.

The timeliness of Whannell’s updated spin on the story makes The Invisible Man the perfect movie for our present culture, but what will make it stand firm amongst the upper tier of horror films is that it is, well, horrifying; it’s not just a movie ideally situated to remark upon the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, but a film that digs at the true horror of abusive relationships. Like many people, primarily women, who have been trapped in dangerous marriages, Cecilia struggles to get others to believe her plight. Having been so emotionally beat down by Adrian, her cries for help come off as exaggerated paranoia to those around her. Whannell even makes the brilliant choice to keep the audience dangling for a good while, refusing to confirm if Cecilia’s suspicions about Adrian are correct, forcing us to become doubters as well. After all, we see photos of the body. The police report. The news. How could Adrian still be alive?

Moss (Us, The Handmaid’s Tale) delivers one of her best performances, a battered and lonely woman with a burning will to survive. In her eyes alone, we can track Cecilia’s journey from primal fear to cautionary optimism to overwhelming joy to creeping doubt to sheer terror. It’s masterful work. The supporting cast also do an excellent job of crafting earnest, believable characters whose love for Cecilia feels genuine and wholesome, thus making it all the more devastating when Cecilia is blamed for the actions of the invisible being and starts to lose her circle of support. Like any abusive relationship, things start small–sheets tugged off the bed, food burnt on the stove–but then escalate, all with the goal of isolating the victim and making them feel crazy, alone, and dependent on the whims of another.

When the big hits do come, they come hard, and it’s impossible not to wrench at the unseen blows. Clever camerawork and dance-like choreography, combined with spine-crunching sounds, imbue these moments with a disgusting beauty impossible to turn away from. Several major touch points get spoiled in the trailer, but there are still enough hidden surprises to keep things spicy. There are a few plot points that require the audience to suspend their disbelief in a way that grazes incredulity, but it’s all in service of the story and it’s themes. With The Invisible Man, Whannell has updated the classic Universal monster to tell a frighteningly real tale that explores unseen trauma, twisted narrative, and the confrontation of past tragedies. It’s a reinvention worthy of establishing a cinematic universe, yet can easily stand alone as its own masterwork. In short, Chatterers, you’ve just got to see this one.

The Invisible Man

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror