Category Archives: Essays

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”