Category Archives: Essays

KARLOFF

After the death of the silent star, , The King of Horror crown was up for grabs.  It was Universal Studios contract actor who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly crowned King.

Boris Karloff as the Monster (1931)Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s greatest vampire in ‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in ‘s Frankenstein (also 1931).  With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.  Lugosi liked to tell the tale of how he turned down the role of Frankenstein’s monster, thus “giving” Karloff his career-making role.  It is merely a story.  Lugosi was not wanted by either the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.).  Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos.  In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role.

In sharp contrast, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969.  Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted revenge (from beyond the grave) on the thespian who stole his crown.  Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff.  This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with Continue reading KARLOFF

IN DEFENSE OF PRETENSE: THE JOYS OF PRETENTIOUS MOVIES

As a teenager coming of age in the 1980s, I became briefly obsessed with progressive space-art-rock band Pink Floyd in general, and their album “The Wall” in particular. The record was mopey, morbid, and self-absorbed, presenting even the simplest personal problems (an absent father, overprotective mother, trouble relating to women) as agents of an acute psychic apocalypse that could be casually compared to the Nazi bombing of London or the summary execution of minorities and misfits at a fascist rally. When I soon discovered there was a feature film version—one that added startling drawings spotlighting grotesque and frightening animated vaginas to the already overwrought mix—my fate was sealed; I rented the VHS tape whenever I could—several times a month, at the peak of my addiction—and forced it on all my friends.

Pretentious still from Pink Floyd the Wall (1982)
Typically subtle symbolism from Pink Floyd: The Wall

Now, my sixteen-year old self recognized that with The Wall I had stumbled across a masterpiece on the order of the collected works of Shakespeare, or even the Beatles. Its emotional impact on me blew away the stuffy literature crammed down our throats in English class: the narrative was more relevant than Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” the poetry more stirring than John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the insights pithier than “Pride and Prejudice.”

I was pleasantly disillusioned to discover that most of my Top Gun-quoting, Pac Man-playing peers weren’t enlightened enough to grasp the profundity of The Wall. Their beer-chugging, party-hearty shallowness threw my depth of feeling into sharp relief. Unlike them, I had insight about the bleak nature of reality, as Continue reading IN DEFENSE OF PRETENSE: THE JOYS OF PRETENTIOUS MOVIES

TED HOOD, JR., AUTEUR OF “GRAVEROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE”

“God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which the God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst of poets he sang the best of songs?”Ion

On September 13, 2010, I received an email that would have changed the course of cinematic history, had misfortune not intervened. The message contained the startling claim that the worst movie ever made—the inimitable Graverobbers from Outer Space (later retitled Plan 9 from Outer Space)—was not the work of incompetent transvestite director Ed Wood, Jr., but in fact an imitation of Wood’s style by the writer’s dead husband, the unrecognized genius of avant-garde filmmaking, Ted Hood, Jr. (1932-1958). Though I was skeptical of her claim, Mrs. Norma Jean Shady-Hood—whose attempts over the years to interest the late Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and TMZ.com in her story had all fallen on deaf ears—invited me to visit her on her deathbed so she could set the record straight about her dead husband’s greatest achievement.

Ted Hood's Plan 9 from Outer Space
Original unaltered credit screen for “Graverobbers from Outer Space”

You will search in vain for a complete (or partial) filmography of Ted Hood, Jr. In fact, you will have difficulty finding mention of the underground auteur anywhere; so ahead of his time that his work was rejected by his contemporaries, his obscurity is ample proof of his importance. Hood had a letter to the editor published in Cahiers du Cinéma arguing that “Dwain Esper‘s orangutan rapists and tea-smoking pianists are fully as dialectical and twice as proletariat as Cocteau’s grasping candelabras and mirror tricks, and the King of the Celluloid Gypsies deserves the Continue reading TED HOOD, JR., AUTEUR OF “GRAVEROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE”

THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

“Even a Man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.

The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t that good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).

The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who, frankly, was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon  Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career. Damn few out of literally hundreds of films. He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was only good when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.
Still from The Wolf Man (1941)
Even considering his success with Lenny, Larry Talbot is out of Lon’s range. Never once does Talbot’s amorous nature register. Evelyn Anker’s repeated flirtations with the hulking, rubbery Chaney only evoke numbing disbelief. If Jr. the romantic lead is ludicrous (that side seen at its mustached worst in the execrable Inner Sanctum series), then seeing Lon’s Talbot crying on the bed inspires cringe-inducing embarrassment.  Chaney’s performance as Talbot was marginally Continue reading THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL

The uncanny—by which I mean the type of horror story that focuses on an encounter with supernatural powers and the existential dread that comes from contemplating the Unknown—was the first style of narrative weirdness storytellers indulged in, but for most people today the term “weird” is almost synonymous with the term “surreal.”  This is a shame, because “surreal” has come to be thrown about loosely and imprecisely as a term for anything that is even mildly unusual.  For evidence of this, just look up movies that have been tagged with the keyword “surrealism” by IMDB users.  Among legitimately Surrealist works, you will find such questionable entries as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Disney’s The Lion King (!)  Until recently, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall also appeared on this constantly evolving list.

Although the word “surreal” is common today, it’s a very new word, less than a century old.  “Surréalisme” was coined by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), but it was André Breton who redefined the term and gave it its current meaning when he wrote the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 to describe a new artistic and political movement.  The word derives from the French prefix “sur-” (above, beyond) and “realism,” and suggested that this new movement would produce works that transcended realism.  Throughout most of human history, the artist’s dominant concern was realism, the quest to accurately depict or reproduce external reality (e.g., to paint a flower that is instantly recognizable as a flower to any viewer; to tell a story that “really could happen”).  Deeply affected by Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious, Breton was concerned that art was unfairly limiting itself to only a part of the human experience, the rational, waking world, and ignoring the separate language of dreams and myth.  He also believed that with the rise of science and the attempt to apply scientific principles to all realms of life, things were only getting worse: “The absolute rationalism which remains in fashion allows for the consideration of only those facts narrowly relevant to our experience…  In the guise of civilization, under the pretext of progress, we have succeeded in dismissing from our minds anything that, rightly or wrongly, could be regarded as superstition or myth; and we have proscribed every way of seeking the truth which does not conform to convention.”  He defined Surrealism, his counterpoint to this Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL

WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

“What is weird?” is a question I’m sometimes asked. I don’t like to answer the question, because I think we’re all familiar with that “weird” feeling, and I’m more interested in seeing what other people think is weird than in defining it myself. In some ways, the problem we have identifying a weird movie is like the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had identifying obscenity: “it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The weird is what makes you feel… well, weird.

Still, we can see trends of movies that tend to be recurrently weird. Of these, the one species that comes to mind is the horror film.  Of all the popular film genres, horror films are the ones that most consistently give us that “weird” feeling.  If we’re looking for a word to describe the subclass of the weird that horror films exploit, I suggest the term “uncanny.”

The Wikipedia dictionary defines uncanny as “strange, and mysteriously unsettling (as if supernatural); weird,” which perfectly describes the feeling that the best horror movies seek to evoke.  I believe “uncanny” has more of a strict supernatural connotation than “weird,” which is often used simply to describe anything that deviates from the norm. You might speak of a boy as being a “weird kid” if he insisted on wearing a tie to school and was obsessed with Bigfoot, but you probably wouldn’t call him an “uncanny kid” unless his eyes glowed like one of the tykes from Village of the Damned (1960).

For a long time, “weird” and “supernatural horror” were almost synonyms.  The pulp magazine “Weird Tales” was founded in 1923, focusing mostly on horror but also including fantasy fiction (such as Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories).  In 1938 H.P. Lovecraft wrote Supernatural Horror in Literature and used “weird” essentially as a synonym for “supernatural horror,” devoting chapters to “The Weird Tradition in America” and “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles.”  In his Introduction, Lovecraft wrote, “[t]he one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

ARTSPLOITATION – THE BASTARD OFFSPRING OF “BLOOD OF A POET” AND “SEX MANIAC”

Every knows what “exploitation” films are: films that deliberately appeal to audiences baser nature, and try to lure in viewers with the promise of sex, nudity, violence, and moral degeneracy.

When a film tries to appeal to an audience’s higher nature, to their intellect and aesthetic sense, but at the same time promises plenty of sex, nudity, violence, and moral degeneracy, then you have an “artsploitation” film.

Not all art films which deal with sex or include nudity or violence qualify as artsploitation films.  There needs to be some gratuitous or sensationalist element to merit the “-ploitation” suffix.  There’s little truly exploitative about the way sex is treated in Sex and Lucia, for example; sex is a natural part of the character’s relationship and there are good plot and thematic justifications for each coupling.

Although the “artsploitation” genre can’t be reduced to a simple recipe, and does not necessarily involve remaking some sort of recognized formula film in an arty way, as a first step at identifying the category, here’s a short list of some art films that also fit neatly into a recognized exploitation film sub-genre:

  • EL TOPO (1970) = arthouse + Spaghetti Western
  • THE DEVILS (1971) = arthouse + nunsploitation
  • LIQUID SKY (1982) = arthouse + science fiction
  • GOTHIC (1986) = arthouse + horror
  • LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988) = arthouse + horror
  • SANTA SANGRE (1989) = arthouse + serial killers
  • THE THIEF, THE COOK, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)= arthouse + gross-out cannibal film
  • DELLAMORTE, DELLAMORE [CEMETARY MAN] (1994) = arthouse + zombie film
  • KIDS (1995) = arthouse + juvenile delinquency
  • NOWHERE (1997) = arthouse + juvenile delinquency + drugsploitation + sci-fi B-movie

Another simple way to identify an artsploitation film: look for the name “Ken Russell” under director.

Exploitation films, which used to play at drive-ins, fleapits and grindhouses, and are now often released directly to video, are considered “trash cinema,” and distinguishable both from mainstream films and from art-house films.  They began as early as the 1930s, when Hollywood’s Hays Code created a lucrative gray market for films dealing with forbidden subject matter like prostitution, drug abuse, and revenge killings.  Cheaply made films such as Reefer Madness [Tell Your Children] (1936) (the famously campy anti-marijuana flick), Child Bride (1938) (which dealt with the “serious” problem of child marriage among hillbillies by having a 12 year old girl perform nude scenes), and Mom and Dad (1945) (which advertised itself as a “hygiene” film and showed the birth of an illegitimate baby in graphic, gaping detail) quickly stepped in to take advantage of Hollywood’s shyness about sex.  An alternative, parallel cinema of forbidden delights Continue reading ARTSPLOITATION – THE BASTARD OFFSPRING OF “BLOOD OF A POET” AND “SEX MANIAC”