Scary Monsters 2011, Round 3

Lists, reviews of classic and new horror, news and interviews. Updated through Halloween.
David Hudson

Following rounds 1 and 2, this one will take us right on through the countdown to Halloween and will surely be the most actively updated of the bunch. Best to begin, then, by grounding it in a classic, so we turn to David Kalat: "Frankenstein isn't a science fiction story about an arrogant scientist who intrudes on God's domain, it's a metaphor about our relationship to God." That's his argument, and I'll let him explain, but I want to pull back to a couple of earlier sentences in his piece. Mary Shelley's novel, "and the 1910 film version, treated the 'science' of Frankenstein as just so much folderol, a MacGuffin to introduce the artificial man into the story. Whale was so good at providing a reasonably convincing visualization of reviving the dead — no, more than that, a stunningly satisfying visualization of reviving the dead — it focused popular attention on that part of the story — and sequels/remakes/followers would invoke blood transfusions, organ transplants, atomic age science, and cloning as examples of Frankensteinian overreach."

Also at Movie Morlocks: Suzi Doll on the sounds of horror.

Eric Henderson introduces Slant's annotated list, "The 25 Best Horror Films of the Aughts": "It's both too glib and too jingoistic to suggest that 9/11 perhaps ushered in what has clearly become another golden age of horror, easy though it might be when we're examining a time span during which political speechwriters used the word 'terror' with more wonton relish than William Castle, Roger Corman, and the Crypt Keeper combined. Though the instantaneously repulsive spectacle in lower Manhattan and the deadening slow-mo retaliation certainly primed the world to absorb a whole lotta hurt, the new millennial horror paid forth brutalism in a multicultural banquet of carnage, grue, and dread."

"It's become a Halloween tradition around The AV Club to ask a horror-movie aficionado to program a 24-hour horror-film marathon that readers can re-create at home," writes Keith Phipps. This year, they've turned to Edgar Wright: "Anyone who's seen Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, or 'Don't,' Wright's contribution to the trailers featured in Grindhouse, knows that he has a deep knowledge of and affection for horror, and the 15 films he selected — organized around Shakespeare's seven ages of man — did not disappoint."

Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky, introducing a week-long series, "A Few Great Pumpkins VI," considers the state of contemporary horror: "Though James Wan's Insidious appears to be the year's breakout hit of the genre, and though it is an admirable and effective scare machine, shockingly adept at creating chilling images that stick in the craw, its overall conception and design is so derivative of so many horror 'essentials' (plus, oddly, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) that one would have to use some form of analytic astral projection to justify it as original. Stake Land has its fans, but I haven't taken the plunge. So, despite one upcoming winner (which might just be a benchmark of British horror, and which I will expound upon later in the week), 2011 is a fairly bloodless state of affairs for anyone who wants to see something a little, well, different…. Thankfully, as with every Halloween, there's a seemingly endless treasure trove of horror films from prior decades, and there are even still a handful in there that can take you by surprise. Imagine my happiness upon finally deciding to watch Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death, the final film in the cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by the independent impresario, and, as shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, the most sumptuous." Related: Ed Champion interviews Corman (28'52"), while, at Twitch, Canfield has details on a celebration of Vincent Price's 100th year coming up on Sunday in Chicago.

Also at Reverse Shot, Damon Smith previews one of the films featured in See it Big!, series running from Friday through January 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image: "Alien is a film about space, quite literally — not only the ingenious way that Scott deploys his camera in the cramped air shafts and passageways of the doomed crew's star flyer, where something unimaginably Other has hitched a ride and lurks predatorily, but also how the double-jawed menace accosts the travelers in the grim, lonely vacuum of the cosmos, a vastness that only intensifies the inescapable feeling of claustrophobia and entombment. Seeing this uniquely frightening creature feature on the big screen, where you can fully appreciate Scott's innovative-for-their-time visual effects, deeply unsettling sound design, and eerie evocation of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as post–Star Wars nightmare death trip, transforms those late-night, pillow-clutching jitters into a widescreen sensory scarefest with few rivals. Alien hasn't faded from view in the past three decades (a director's cut was released to theaters in 2003), nor has it lost its ability to induce a sickening dread in today's see-Saw-prone audiences, because the fear it evokes is primal and profoundly disturbing."

"Eerie, gritty, unpredictable, and brilliant in flashes, The Blood on Satan's Claw is one of the best horror films of the 70s, and could have been even better," writes Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films. "It's a work that outdid Hammer Studios at their own game, presents a bridging point between 60s Gothic horror and the inversions of The Wicker Man (1973), as well as the darker body-centric horrors of the next few decades in the genre, and also develops on elements introduced to the British horror film by Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General (1969). Director Piers Haggard belongs to a category including Robin Hardy, John Hough, Hans Geissendoerfer, Jorge Grau, John Hancock, José Larraz, Alfred Sole, and other directors to take a sojourn into the horror cinema in the late 60s and 70s and suggest great talent but achieve only a ragged and stuttering subsequent career…. The Blood on Satan's Claw is, amongst other things, a classic example of the filmmaking of its era now much fetishized by genre fans, with a lustrous yet gamy physicality in the cinematography and unvarnished production style that seems unreproducible with today's so-slick ways of shooting and editing films."

This year's edition of Toronto After Dark runs through Thursday, and Bob Turnbull reviews Scott Leberecht's vampire tale, Midnight Son: "Akin to George Romero's best film (IMO) Martin, but with superior acting and even more sympathetic characters, Midnight Son succeeds on just about every level as a storytelling vehicle: a genre exercise, a different spin on a well-worn legend, an examination of several themes (loneliness, self-realization) and a simple love story. It is easily the best told tale of the festival so far."

"This week brings film buffs and comedy devotees alike the pleasure of Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend, author Robert Ross's revelatory new chronicle of the turbulent life and premature death of the titular British TV and film comic Feldman," writes ST VanAirsdale. "Feldman's broad influence on British comedy of the 60s receives a close look from interview subjects including Michael Palin, Terry Jones and, from tapes recorded for his unfinished memoir, even Feldman himself. But his impact hardly ended there — as anyone who's seen Young Frankenstein knows. In Movieline's exclusive excerpt from Marty Feldman, filmmaker Mel Brooks and writer/co-star Gene Wilder recall the 'gift from God' that helped make their collaboration an instant comedy classic."

Last week saw the beginnings of a roundup on Erle C Kenton's Island of Lost Souls (1932), with mentions of Susan Arosteguy's "10 Things I Learned" and Criterion's "Three Reasons" video. This week, Dave Kehr notes in the New York Times that this adaptation of HG Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau was "so extreme in its effects that Wells himself denounced it. The film was banned in Britain until 1958, when the censors finally passed it with an X rating." Now, "just in time for Halloween here's the Criterion Blu-ray edition that fans have been praying for, and I'm happy to report that the film has lost none of its powerful whiff of perversity." More from Michael Rawls (Cinespect), Christine Smallwood (Current), Bill Ryan on the novel and Josef Braun: "The film's celebrated atmospherics are perfected by the absence of music to soften the agonized cries of those titular souls subjected to ongoing torture in the bluntly dubbed 'House of Pain.'" He then slips in another Criterion disc: Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba (1964) "scared the bejesus out of me when I saw Criterion's release of it some years back, and Kuroneko [1968] wields a similar primal power, much of it deriving from carefully crafted details: a house that seems like a theatre of mist designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the kimono who's outer diaphanous layer resembles the wings of a fly; the peculiar use of slow-motion or the breath that hangs in the frigid air."

I never got around to fully covering the coverage of all the films that screened in Venice and Toronto (perhaps some day I will? Groucho eye-roll), but having at least wrapped up Toronto's Midnight Madness, let me pull out two titles from Venice that fit neatly in this round, the first being Kotoko, named best feature by Jia Zhangke's Orizzonti Jury. "Mother love gets the Shinya Tsukamoto treatment in the Japanese auteur's latest mindfuck, a boldly abrasive, sometimes overwhelming tour of an unbalanced psyche," writes Fernando F Croce at the House Next Door. "Said psyche belongs to a young, single mother (played by J-pop star Cocco) who imagines sinister doppelgangers lurking everywhere, stabs potential suitors with forks, lacerates her skinny arms with razors ('I cut my body to confirm it,' she muses in voiceover) and, above all, turns any activity involving her toddler son into grueling bouts of hysteria." Neil Young for the Hollywood Reporter: "Whatever else one can say about Tsukamoto, he certainly brings his distinctive vision of the world to the screen with minimal compromise and interference. As well as writing, directing and appearing here, he edits the movie and collaborates on the cinematography with Satoshi Hayashi. Because while Kotoko can't be faulted for the way it takes us directly into its heroine's states of crippling neurosis — Masaya Kitada's deafening sound design makes a crucial contribution here — the hallucinations and fantasies yield increasingly diminishing returns as they pile up and up, and drag on and on." More from Kurt Halfyard (Twitch), Matthew Hardstaff (Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, where Chris MaGee interviews Tsukamoto) and Boyd van Hoeij (Variety).

"How did Mary Harron, the skilled and reliably intelligent director of American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, make a film as inept as The Moth Diaries?" asks Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "You can see where the attraction might be for a feminist filmmaker like Harron: Based on Rachel Klein's novel, the film is a vampire tale set in an all-girl boarding school, offering a chance to express the vampire myth in wholly feminine terms and assert a classicism absent in the Twilight movies…. The Moth Diaries deals with the intense emotions of girls in the blush of adolescence, but Harron, perhaps wary of exploitation, pours cold water over them." Similarly, Guido Bonsaver (Sight & Sound), Kevin B Lee (Fandor), Oliver Lyttelton (Playlist) and Neil Young (THR).

At Twitch, J Hurtado is glad to hear that Kino Lorber has acquired Redemption Films' library of euro-horror classics, including work by Jean Rollin. Kino will be releasing five of his films — The Nude Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), The Iron Rose (1973), Lips of Blood (1975) and Fascination (1979) — this spring on DVD and Blu-ray.

Dan North collects "100 Posters of the Living Dead," while Hollywood is Dead turns posters for more mainstream fare and zombifies 'em.

Viewing (1'11"). "Ant Timpson and Tim League's The ABCs of Death competition has received more than 170 short films vying for slot 26 in the alphabetical horror anthology," notes indieWIRE's Dana Harris. "And now they have a red-band trailer to prove it."

Updates, 10/26: "The Shining turned out to be, paradoxically, Kubrick's most controlled and most chaotic film, an exquisite structure that finally busts apart, as though with an axe," writes Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot. "In Stephen King's pulpy best-seller, the director saw something more than just a tale of a haunting, or a possession, or extrasensory perception, or split personality, or alcoholism, or the dissolution of patriarchy, or the question of what constitutes domestic normalcy — though it's all of these things. Kubrick noticed in this story of a family isolated in a Colorado resort hotel during the deserted winter months an immense psychological labyrinth, an epic expression of man's weakness and his incomprehension in the face of his own mortality. It's a behemoth of a film, a monster in its own right, which bears down on the viewer, in both image and sound (those openings horns from the fifth movement of Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique,' accompanying vertiginous helicopter images of the Colorado mountains instantly set up something grandly surreal)."

Meanwhile, in his capacity as an editor at Criterion, Michael Koresky notes that a "plum example" of Boris Karloff as an "amalgam of the comforting and the forbidding is his performance in British producers Richard and Alex Gordon's atmospheric 1958 shocker The Haunted Strangler, directed by Robert Day." In the film, "set in foggy 1880 London, Karloff plays the upstanding James Rankin, a novelist and social reformer committed to exonerating wrongly convicted criminals, alive or dead…. Rankin grows oddly obsessed with one case: the 20-year-old execution of Edward Styles, a one-armed man known as the Haymarket Strangler, whom he is convinced was innocent of the brutal murders of five young women. The more Rankin digs into the cold case, the further he descends into a kind of derangement… Karloff's depiction of this metamorphosis eschews gothic theatrics in favor of an embodiment of mounting dread, underpinned with a profound sadness. Maitland McDonagh, in her liner notes for the Criterion release of the film, points out that, 'where lesser actors might have squeezed every drop of pulp melodrama from Rankin's agonies, Karloff taps into a vein of pure, understated tragedy.'"

Earlier this year, Park Chan-wook, "the man behind such acclaimed works as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, teamed up with his brother Chan-kyong in an attempt to create a frightening, fantastical film using only an iPhone 4," writes Steven James Snyder for Time. Night Fishing is a "short film about psychics, floating corpses and the afterlife proves that riveting major-league cinema can be created on the tiniest of devices."

Cheryl Eddy in the San Francisco Bay Guardian: "As Stephen Thrower notes in Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (an essential tome for its gore-geous photo plates alone), 'Fulci's zombies [are] far more revolting and putrescent than Romero's.' I'd agree, even with Dawn's epic exploding head. But you know what, horror fan? You don't have to choose. There's room enough in the world for two zombie kings. It's been a whole lot easier for Americans to feast on Romero films over the years, though, which is why the Roxie's three-day screening of Zombie is such cause for excitement. The theatrical re-release is part of a nationwide rollout by Blue Underground, one of the current leaders in the give-trashy-movies-the-classy-DVD-releases-they-deserve movement (the company was founded by William Lustig, director of 1980 cult classic Maniac — speaking of exploding heads)."

Tom Hall posts notes on and clips from his "Top 11 Horror Films."

"Over the weekend, Paranormal Activity 3 took in $52 million at the US box office, the best September/October opening in history and the highest ever for a horror movie." For Slate, Sam Adams explains why the franchise is working — big spoilers here, by the way.

At the Daily Beast, Sharon Begley explains "Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies."

For Greg Ferrara, writing at Movie Morlocks, it's the little things: "Everyone knows The Exorcist and, frankly, I get tired of seeing it all over the internet during October but, hey, it's a gold-standard horror film so that's to be expected. But the single most effective thing about the whole movie occurs early on and, importantly, director William Friedkin, to his credit, doesn't call attention to it. It happens after Karras (Jason Williams) has seen the homeless man on the subway, who says to him, 'Father, can you spare some change for an old altar boy?' After he asks, the trains rushes by and his face reflects the patterns of light and shadow from the train.  But that's not the whole thing, that's only the beginning of it. The part that gets me, the part that really sends a rush of cold wind through my lungs, is when Karras is in the bedroom with Regan (Linda Blair) and as he turns away from her, she mimics the voice of the homeless man perfectly, repeating his plea, 'Father, can you spare some change for an altar boy?' That. Is. Primal."

For Flavorwire, Alison Nastasi lists "10 Hauntingly Beautiful Horror Film Soundtracks."

Listening. "Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People," via Coudal Partners.

Viewing (2'14"). Joe Dante at Trailers from Hell on Roger Corman's The Undead (1957).

Updates, 10/27: "Just in time for Halloween, the first student film from famed horror director John Carpenter has been found in the archives at the University of Southern California and will be restored with the help of a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation." Mike Barnes has more on Captain Voyeur in the Hollywood Reporter.

25 years on, The Fly may be not only "the defining synthesis of every major theme in David Cronenberg's filmography," writes Josef Braun, but also "the modern big-budget genre film that synthesized an intelligent query into the most vital and troubling issues faced by contemporary philosophers, scientists and policy-makers with an absolutely primal and inspired display of body horror theatrics. There is no other movie at once so smart and so disgusting."

"If there was one piece of hype that was circulating during this year's Toronto After Dark festival," writes Bob Turnbull, "it was that the relatively low-budget horror film Absentia would shake us all, was easily the scariest thing we would see all week, possibly all year and that we should prepare ourselves... And if there was one thing that the crowd (at least those that I talked to afterwards) mostly agreed on after seeing the film was that the hype had improperly set everyone's expectations. The film didn't actually scare the pants off anyone or make them jump out of their seats to the rafters as advertised (except for one early scare that was executed brilliantly and made several people actually cry out). However, it did end up being the kind of real horror movie that lets its concepts sit and stew with you and provide fodder for the deep dark corners of your mind to pick up and play with when you aren't paying attention."

Eric Piepenburg for the NYT: Evan Husney, "the director of the independent distribution company Drafthouse Films, is part of a small but devoted subset of fans, distributors and programmers who thrill to low-budget horror from the movies of the 1980s: the kind in which brains were made of Jell-O and the cast was paid in wine coolers. These fans aren't watching movies on a tablet or DVD. Instead they're blowing the dust off their VCRs and sliding in movies that have been newly released on the behemoths known as VHS tapes."

Listening (59'58"). "'Disco Argento,' a horror theme disco versions cash-in mix."

A list at Fandor from Craig Phillips: "Out of the Crypt: Nine Hidden Fright Films for Halloween."

Literary journal editor Francis Ford Coppola introduces a new issue: "In honor of the inspiration I found in Poe's work, we present this special edition of All-Story, which is dedicated to new horror stories." As it happens, the new Granta, Issue 117, is also a Horror Issue. Online: "Robert Coover reads his story 'Vampire' and discusses the intersection of myth and the modern world. New fiction from Madison Smartt Bell accompanied by his essay on Haitian Vodou and creative possession. A story from Toby Litt about a man who meets an unexpected and sudden end. Chris Womersley's story 'A Lovely and Terrible Thing' in three installments."

"The fifth edition of Film Society of Lincoln Center's popular Scary Movies series starts tonight in the Walter Reade Theater and is serving up a Halloween weekend full of spooks, thrills and chills!" announces Nicholas Kemp.

In Criterion's Current, Chuck Stephens has mini-portraits of the cast and crew of Island of Lost Souls.

Updates, 10/28: "What's the scariest scene you've ever seen in a movie?" AV Club writers and readers take on the question — with clips. Time Out London lists "50 Terrifying Movie Moments" — again, with clips. And the Boston Globe's "Top 50 scariest movies of all time"? Clips.

Here are a couple with no clips: indieWIRE's "13 Best Indie Horror Movies to Watch at Home on Halloween" and the Playlist's "10 Foreign-Language Horrors To Freak You Out This Halloween."

"21 Essays is an experiment in blogging," writes Lee Price at Fandor. "For a set period of time, I challenge myself to post daily essays on a tightly focused topic." He's currently spending three week's with Paul Wegener's The Golem (1929).

From the Alamo Drafthouse: "As perfect as the film is on its own, we believe the score performed by Graham Reynolds and The Golden Arm Trio adds immeasurably to the horror that is Nosferatu." Sunday evening at 6 and 9.

Jim Coudal: "Barry Moser illustrations from the University of California edition of Frankenstein. Splendid." Sort of related, but not really: The Bride on black velvet.

Dan North's got 125 vampire movie posters.

Updates, 10/30: Catherine Grant presents a "Halloween Guide to the Philosophy of Film Horror."

Kathleen Murphy on why we love zombies.

Kimberly Lindbergs has been indulging in Mod Macabre all month long.

Rebecca A Brown and Paul Anthony Johnson talk horror — at considerable length, too — at Cinespect.

Barbara Steele, excerpted at the Chiseler: "I don't have an objective overview of Black Sunday. My memories of filming it were totally subjective. It was a series of intense little incidents, partially of the making of the film and partially of one's life around the making of the film. Especially an Italian film, with all its melodrama and chaos."

"Dark Stars Rising is an anthology of 25 years of interviews, a series of 'conversations from the outer realms,' quite literally, now that some of Shade Rupe's early subjects, like Divine and Chas Balun, have long since died," writes Jonathan Penner for the Los Angeles Review of Books. "Rupe persevered at the extreme edges of film and art journalism, and finally got this gorgeous paperback in print…. If Alejandro Jodorowsky (who directed El Topo and stranger things) and Tura Satana (of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Astro-Zombies fame) are your bag, it's a treat. [John] Landis's book is also loving, but it's big, glossy and Hollywood-centric…. With Monsters in the Movies, he has produced a granddaddy-of-them-all tome for your coffee table, with hundreds of wonderful photos, softball interviews with other filmmakers, and pithy captions loaded with juicy bits and trivia. The text is pedestrian and laundry listy, but it's a very fun stroll through a genre he obviously adores."

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