Late Summer Horrors

"'Even a Man Who is Pure in Heart': Filmic Horror, Popular Religion and the Spectral Underside of History," an essay that appeared in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture in 2005, piqued Michael Guillén's interest in its author, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, "a native Montrealer and 'monster kid' who teaches courses on genre cinema and monsters in the Humanities department of John Abbott College." So they met up a few weeks ago at the Fantasia International Film Festival and Michael's transcription of their conversation — touching on national identities, filmmakers who straddle the high and the low, "the knowledge systems of ordinary people" and more — is one of the week's best reads, which is why I wanted to point it out right at the top of this little roundup of horror-related items.

The splashiest of these will surely be Jason Zinoman's survey of "a diverse collection of filmmakers about the scariest movie they'd ever seen" for the New York Times. Zinoman, as you'll have likely heard, has a new book out, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, and he's been making the rounds, appearing recently, for example, on Fresh Air and Slate's Culture Gabfest. Many reviewers have seen the book as a sort of alternative history of American cinema in the 70s as opposed to, say, the version Peter Biskind chronicles in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — even as Zinoman borrows Biskind's narrative template, that is, one in which young upstarts knock off their father figures.

Writing in the NYT, Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr finds, "He gets the what and the who, but the why and the how elude him in a book that struggles to bring the larger picture into focus." Zinoman, "concentrates on a handful of films and filmmakers that brought the corpse [of horror] back to life during the late 1960s and early 70s, and he convincingly conveys what made movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre different from anything that had come before: more unsettling, purer in their sense of dread. What's missing is (you should pardon the expression) the connective tissue, particularly discussions of broader changes in the film industry, audience tastes and the culture as a whole." You'll find somewhat more approving takes on the book from Joshua Chaplinsky in Twitch and Zack Handlen at the AV Club. The Film Doctor quotes some of passages that have engaged him most and, for the LA Weekly, Sarah LaBrie lists "Five Astounding Revelations About the Horror Movies You Love."

But back to that survey. Zinoman popped the scariest-movie-ever question on Joe Cornish, Guillermo del Toro, Larry Fessenden, James Gunn, John Landis, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Marti Noxon, Eric Red, John Sayles, John Waters, Ti West and Edgar Wright. A summing up of the results:



A few more items before turning to a handful of this week's new theatrical releases. First, yesterday's announcement from Hammer: "We are deeply saddened to report the death this morning, at the age of 83, of veteran Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. Sangster had a profound influence on Hammer's creative direction, writing the scripts to many of the company's groundbreaking Gothic horrors in the 1950s including The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy." In 2008, Sangster was "guest of honor at an evening devoted to his long and remarkable career" at what was still then the National Film Theatre in London and John Exshaw's posted a full report for Cinema Retro. Sean "The Butcher" Smithson has posted a few clips from films Sangster worked on at Twitch. Update, 8/21: "In 1957, Hammer Films revived gothic horror — in abeyance in a decade which offered nuclear or cosmic horrors that made the classic monsters seem tame — with The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee." For Kim Newman, writing in the Guardian, Sangster's take is "a radical depiction of Frankenstein as a determined, charming yet corrupt dandy who could still chill in an era of nuclear proliferation. Sexually amoral (he uses his monster to murder the maid he has impregnated), rigidly dividing his life (making a bloody hash in the laboratory; prissily refined at the breakfast table) and intent on his 'higher calling,' this Victor Frankenstein was as ruthless, fascinating and yet remote as the social climber of Room at the Top or the early James Bond."

Gualtiero Jacopetti, who has died at the age of 91, didn't make straight-up horror, but he helped create a mini-genre to be filed right next to it. In Mondo Cane (A Dog's Life, 1962), the "stupidity of mass consumerism and the absurd delusions of elite culture suddenly seemed as bizarre as cargo cults and cannibalism," writes Mark Goodall in the Guardian. "The ambiguity of any political message shocked critics but delighted the novelist JG Ballard, who included Jacopetti in his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition. The power of Mondo Cane came from a side-stepping of documentary neorealist principles in favour of a hyper-realism dubbed 'shockumentary' because of its brutal edits ('shock cuts' Jacopetti once remarked), rapid zooms, heightened post-production sound effects and sharp contrasts between mise-en-scene and musical score." Update, 8/21: "By expanding or lowering the standard for what people would watch," writes Time's Richard Corliss, "Mondo Cane indirectly spawned nearly everything lurid that followed it, from the Faces of Death and Shocking Asia fakeumentaries of the early VCR age to the exhibitionism of talk-show and reality TV. In The Godfathers of Mondo, critic Jeffrey Sconce points out how the Fox network in the 1990s plundered Jacopetti's style and tone with the Cops docu-series and such tabloid exposés as When Good Pets Go Bad and Extreme Behavior Caught on Tape. And what is the Internet but a delivery device for all things Mondo?"

"It seems inconceivable to me that we should fail to notice something as profoundly affecting as a movie soundtrack, and that goes double for the horror genre," writes musician Stephen Thrower in a clip-laden overview of the essentials for the Guardian.

And for Fandor, Simon Abrams recommends Frank Woodward's documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown.

 


"The original Fright Night hit theaters in 1985, telling the tale of a suburban high school geek squaring off against a bloodsucker next door," begins Ted Douglass in the Stranger. "It was a moderate financial and critical success, but more importantly, it signaled a change in the way vampires would be portrayed in pop culture forever. That might seem a bit hyperbolic, but it's true: Fright Night was the first remotely successful horror flick to feature characters that lived in a world where vampires previously existed in fiction. Much like those in Scream a decade later, Fright Night's characters acknowledged and adhered to a preexisting set of rules they had learned from the movies. It was a precursor to The Lost Boys, Buffy, and Robert Pattinson's stupid weepy face. It wasn't perfect, but it made up for its flaws with solid pacing, a good number of scary-for-their-time thrills, and inspired performances from Chris Sarandon as Jerry the Vampire (yes... Jerry) and Roddy f'ing McDowall as a vampire slayer."

"Having procured cult status with period fetishists as much as genre fans, it's inevitable that Fright Night has been shuttled onto the studios' seemingly endless remake/recycle assembly line," writes José Teodoro for Cinema Scope. "Thankfully, Fright Night 2011, directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and scripted by Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer/producer Marti Noxon, defies the cynicism of its origins, retaining nearly everything that made the original engaging (save perhaps the endearingly modest production values and genuinely goofy-looking adolescents) and integrating some interesting new elements." The cast, for one: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Colin Farrell and Toni Collette.

More from Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Ed Gonzalez (Slant, 2.5/4), Logan Hill (Vulture), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3.5/5), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 3/4), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 6.5/10), Keith Phipps (AV Club, B), AO Scott (NYT) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Salon, where Drew Grant lists the "four things horror movie remakes get wrong").

 


"Twisting the serial-killer story into an unexpectedly novel shape, Adam Wingard's film A Horrible Way to Die is a restrained, ripely atmospheric thriller that relies more on mood than on special effects," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Structured around parallel narratives that gradually converge, Simon Barrett's cunning plot introduces Sarah (Amy Seimetz), a withdrawn dental hygienist battling alcoholism and nasty memories. While Sarah moves haltingly toward a relationship with a clean-cut AA buddy (Joe Swanberg), an escaped murderer named Garrick (A J Bowen) is moving toward her…. Viewed simply as a horror movie, A Horrible Way to Die is diverting; viewed as commentary on our willingness to tune out evil for the sake of emotional connection, it's devastating." More from Sam Adams (AV Club, C+), Kalvin Henely (Slant, 1.5/4), Benjamin Mercer (Voice) and Henry Stewart (L). At Brooklyn's ReRun Gastropub Theater.

Michael Atkinson in the Voice on Fernando Barreda Luna's Atrocious: "A Spanish Blair Witch DIY-er with a nutsy pre-emptive title, this trifle scoots and skitters along guilelessly, as if the mock-doc horror trope hasn't already been tourist-trampled to death." More from Canfield in Twitch.

The LA Weekly's Karina Longworth notes that Kevin Smith has "booked the New Beverly Cinema this week to give Red State an Oscar-qualifying run." It's "an impassioned polemic wrapped in a slow-burn exploitation film, unabashedly villainizing the Christian lunatic right in the name of common-sense humanism, and its key selling point is its performances — particularly from John Goodman, Oscar winner Melissa Leo and character actor Michael Parks, a regular in the films of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino…. But Red State is not a Tarantino film, and while Smith the writer has produced the darkest, most serious-minded screenplay of his career, Smith the director doesn't do the material many favors."

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  • chrryblssmninja

    The television special “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss” aired on BBC 3 (I think – I watched it through other channels) in October of last year, and would complement some of the articles and books mentioned here.

  • Michael Guillen

    You always make me feel like a million bucks, David. Thank you for the shout-out, and especially for drawing attention to Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, who we should all read with rapt attention.

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