Friday, 4 April 2014

Lights Out; or How To Boost Sales Of Lightbulbs

"Lights Out" is a short film by David F Sandberg which has been pinging about on the internet lately, efficiently terrifying people in just over two and a half minutes.  The premise is simple and classic - what if there was a figure that appeared when you switch off the lights?  Whilst not wildly original, the idea is extremely well-executed - a strong feeling of claustrophobia is established in the corridor where a silhouette is first glanced, and we quickly gain sympathy for our nervous protagonist as she huddles under the covers, attempting to operate the lamp from the supposed safety of the bed.  The shock payoff is effective, avoiding cliche with an unusually-designed look for the apparition - an extra layer of uncanniness by the fact that the same actress plays both parts.

I genuinely (and rather shamefully) hesitated a fair while when going to switch off my bedside lamp the evening that I watched this - irrefutable evidence of a scare well-delivered.

This film also makes the horrific and ethos-shattering suggestion that gaffer tape may be fallible.  Truly terrifying...


Lights Out

For more of Sandberg's work see his website here.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Classic Horror: Bride of Frankenstein

There's a quite considerable gap in my knowledge of the horror genre, much of it being the early classics.  In an effort to address this, I've been consciously trying to actually view the films which broke the ground in the early years.  It's surprisingly easy to know a lot about such canonical works, through films which they've influenced or critical texts which cite them; to the point that you almost feel you've experienced the source material.  (Case in point:  I got through an entire English Lit. degree without ever reading Hamlet or seeing it performed.)

Considering how many later works it has influenced (anything in the mad-scientist vein, featuring doomsday devices or sympathetic monsters), Bride still feels fresh and relevant and there are some very chilling moments. At the start of the film, the monster brutally kills two villagers whilst escaping from the burning mill - a reminder to the audience that whilst we may sympathise with the monster's plight, Frankenstein has unleashed an unstable being that has hugely destructive force.

By the time of the sequel, Victor Frankenstein has sworn off hubristic life-creating antics, and decided to settle down for a quiet, married life. His old mentor Dr Pretorius has now taken up the mantle of power-crazed scientific genius, creating miniature humans that he keeps in bell jars. The scene in which Pretorius shows Frankenstein his creations is deliberately light-hearted in tone, with the miniature humans being given comedic personalities and having petty squabbles. The scene does, however, demonstrate Pretorius's attitude to life and humanity in general - that it is something which can, and should, be under his control; a belief shown again in the probable murder committed in order to obtain a heart for the Bride.

The most effective moment is probably the Bride's awakening and realisation of the intent behind her creation. After the long and tense build-up, her confusion and horror at being introduced to her intended mate exposes the folly in Pretorius and Frankenstein's endeavours. Her jerky, unnatural movements mark her out as another thoroughly unhuman creature, her screams wordlessly condemning the doctors for their arrogance and hubris.

There are parts of the film which seem somewhat dated, though these are fairly few. Una O'Connor's performance as Minnie (Elizabeth Frankenstein's maid) is a tour-de-force of over-the-top hysteria, which though adding excellent comedy value distracts somewhat from the subtler elements of the film. It's also difficult to hear Frankenstein's cry of "It's Alive!" without the vast number of samplings of it springing to mind.

As a classic, Bride of Frankenstein has certainly stood the test of the decades (and has a rare place in the hallowed Hall of Good Sequels) - the many references and homages to it over the years doing little to diminish its importance and impact, even upon a first-time viewer jaded by consumption of some of its paler imitators.







Thursday, 20 March 2014

Creepy Things Around Town

A side effect of having horror as a staple in one's consumption of fiction is the tendency to see parallels to horror everywhere you look. A short woman in a red raincoat? Don't Look Now. An arts festival brochure? Pan's Labyrinth. This advert for a telly? Practically shot-for-shot the elevator scene from The Shining.

Sometimes, however, things crop up in everyday life that are so unecessarily creepy they serve as proof that it's not your FrightFest-addled brain imagining things: there must be people out there doing their utmost to randomly terrify the population at large. Exhibit A: Freaky Mannequin It must be a tricky task to design a mannequin that isn't a bit unnerving - gingerly treading a tightrope stretched over the uncanny valley, and trying to get past the associations with TV serial killers. The main options appear to be:



Unfortunate Decapitation


 
Totally Blank-Faced and Inhuman



Budget 70s Sex Doll

Bad Acid Trip




But there really is no excuse for this:



Seen in my local camping shop and clearly a nightmare hybrid of Damien Thorne and the children of Midwich; someone, somewhere seems to have watched the opening credits of American Horror Story: Asylum and thought: "That look would really help to sell outdoors leisurewear!"


Oh Dear


Thursday, 25 April 2013

Links List

I've been trawling about the internet looking for interesting / informative horror-related sites - here's a few good ones that I've dredged up.  In no particluar order...

Rereading Stephen King
A blog by James Smythe on the Guardian newspaper's website.  He's reading every Stephen King book in chronological order and writing a commentary on each work.  James' reviews are balanced and insightful, and it's intriguing to follow his rediscovery of older works, and the way in which the interpretation of a book can change when revisiting it at a later date. There are also summaries of common Kingian themes and connections, and a handy Randall Flagg alert.  As a bonus, this blog has a Comments section used by readers who universally polite, friendly and well-informed. (Quite a rarity for a Guardian feature, comments on which are generally of the snide / sarcastic / pompous variety!)

Horror Personality Test
Another Guardian link - slightly silly but amusing questionnaire article.  Comments below the line somewhat prove the above point about Guardian readers' comments...

Classic Horror Campaign
A site dedicated to the classic era of horror.  Full of splendid stuff - a campaign to get the golden scream-fests of yesteryear back on the telly; horror-related news; screenings and events, and reviews of pre-'80s horror movies.  It's run by a certain Cyberschizoid, a most gracious chap who even allowed some of my half-baked scribblings to appear as reviews on the site.

New York Times - The Critique of Pure Horror
An article examining the old question: why do so many enjoy horror fiction - an inherently unpleasant medium?  The author (Jason Zinoman) briefly discusses some of the major academic theories surrounding this question, and the article works well as an introduction to some of the works most often cited in horror theory.

Good Reads: Horror
A fairly comprehensive-looking list of books about horror.

 Horror Studies Journal
An academic journal which promises to "inform and stimulate anyone interested in a wider and deeper understanding of horror".  There's an interdisciplinary slant to it, with artforms outside the the more usually discussed film and literature being examined.  The only drawback is the cost - eighteen US dollars per article (about £11.65)  Happily, however, the first issue is free to download! Just avoid the temptation of looking at the contents of later issues, unless your bank balance is squarely in the black.

 Journal of Media Psychology
An article by Glenn D. Walters, Ph.D. entitled "Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model".  I haven't actully read it yet (update forthcoming when I do...), but from first glance seems fascinating.

Contamination
A rather enigmatic site, that nonetheless has an abundance of useful lists - horror theory books, DVD covers, reviews and the like.

 A Humean Definition of Horror
Another interesting academic article I haven't yet thoroughly read... but shall...  From a quick skim, involves thorough discussion of Noel Carroll's 1990 work "A Philosophy of Horror".  (Also much recommended!)

Backtrack
An upcoming independent film featuring psychological horror, past-life regression and camping on the South Downs.  I came across this project via a poster stuck on a bin, which in my opinion shows admirable dedication to the old-school advertising methods - in your face, Twitter!  (Okay, so it's on Twitter, too: @BacktrackFilm.)






Sunday, 7 April 2013

Review: The Beast Must Die (1974)

The Beast Must Die was produced in 1974 by Amicus – rather wonderfully described on the DVD cover as “the studio that dripped blood.” It is a classic in the “eccentric millionaire invites guests to secluded mansion, horrible deaths ensue” mould. The eccentric millionaire in this case is Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockheart), who invites people he suspects of being werewolves to his country estate (fully equipped with surveillance equipment) in order to fulfil his hunter's ambition of bagging the ultimate predator. Newcliffe gathers his guests and explains to them the reason for his certainty that one of their number is a werewolf – all have been in the vicinity when unsolved animal-like killings have taken place. There is also a werewolf expert, Dr. Lundgen, on hand to enlighten all as to the nature of the beast (a splendid performance by Peter Cushing's cheekbones.)

Our intrepid hero does his best to rile his potentially lupine guests – he points out the full moon, serves up almost raw meat, sprays wolfbane pollen liberally about, and instigates the the exceptionally awkward parlour game of Pass-The-Silver-Candlestick. The wolf thus baited, night falls and the hunt begins...

This is truly a cracking movie. It's short, punchy, entertaining and does exactly what it sets out to do. One of its notably quirky features is the gimmick of the “werewolf break”. At the start, an ominous voice informs the audience that one of the characters is a werewolf, and they must figure out who it is. Helpfully, we the viewers are provided with a thirty second pause in the action to gather our thoughts and decide on a culprit. The film stops and a clock appears, ticking away the seconds in a scene so reminiscent of Countdown that one feels a slight but distinct urge to tackle an anagram or do some mental arithmetic.

Special mention must go to Mr. John Hilling, for providing Lockheart with such superb costumes – his wardrobe including an impressive array of jumpsuits, diamante-studded shirts, PVC jackets and the widest flares ever seen on someone not performing in a glam-rock band.

The Beast Must Die has a thoroughly enjoyable effervescence to it – from the funk-sountracked opening chase to the final dramatic reveal of the identity of the werewolf. It is a film unlikely to ever be regarded as one of the great classics of horror, but by my reckoning is well a worth 80 minutes of anyone's time.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Despite this being near the top of my Things To Watch list, it took me quite some time to get around to actually seeing it, likely due to a slightly subconscious view of silent films as somewhat “difficult”. (There never seems to be a perfect time to just kick back and watch a revered silent film of historical importance, featuring surrealist set design and lashings of German Expressionism.) In any case, the moment did arrive, during an altruistic mission to ease another's illness with multiple DVDs and a selection of fine snacks, and I'm heartily glad I got round to viewing it in the end.

As the first acknowledged horror film, Caligari sets the bar high. The plot cracks along at a fast pace, and at only around 70 minutes' running time (less than even a Police Academy film), there's not a great deal of time to fit all the action in. The plot centres around a fair in the town of Holstenwall, at which Dr. Caligari exhibits (after experiencing some clerical difficulties at the Town Hall) his somnambulist, Cesare. The somnambulist awakens on command, and utters a prophecy of death to one of the audience. When the audience member is found dead the next day, suspicion falls upon Caligari, and the investigation takes a distinctly uncanny turn.

The genius of Caligari lies not with the plot, but with the atmosphere conjured by the scenes presented to the audience. Much has been written about the incredible set design – and in a far more eloquent and knowledgeable way than I am able. I will say, however, that the peculiar asymmetric sets add to the feeling that the story being told is not rooted in real life, and is more akin to a fable – something deeply metaphorical and of universal importance. Here is also perhaps the first instance in film of the sympathetic monster – Cesare does not willingly murder, but does so under the influence of his master. He is a tragic creation in the vein of Frankenstein's monster, and Conrad Veidt manages to inspire sympathy simply through the act of opening his eyes – the pained expression he displays shows in a few brief seconds both his character's reluctance to be a pawn, and also his helplessness and inability to resist.

Surprisingly for a film made in 1920, there are many elements of the film and its marketing that are thought of as distinctly modern. There is a twist at the end (which I must admit to having not foreseen), an element that seems to be almost mandatory for recent creators of horror films. There was also, apparently, a viral advertising campaign when the film was released – a key phrase from the film: “Du musst Caligari werden!” appeared on posters around Berlin with no further explanation given. So, it seems all those Blair Witch shenanigans were pre-dated by some ninety years.

In conclusion, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is mesmerising, haunting and a must-see for anyone with a love for any aspect of the fantastic genre that we call horror.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Women in Horror Month (was last month...)

A small article I wrote back in February, when it was actually Women in Horror Month...!


Women In Horror Month: Let's Hear It For The Theorists

Scream queens, final girls and femmes fatales! I've been reliably informed that it's Women In Horror month, and so it's time to celebrate the great work done within the genre by those of the XX persuasion.

Actresses have always played a pivotal role in horror – from the haunted expressions of the silent era stars, through the Hitchcock blondes and the almost dynasty of Leigh / Lee Curtis, to slasher survivors and Neve Campbell's post-modern turn in the Scream films. In writing, too, women have come to the fore. Some of the best-known horror fiction has been written by women – the works of Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier (to name but a few examples) are rightly regarded as classics, and have indelibly influenced the genre.

There is, however, another area of horror at which many notale women have excelled – the field of academic writing on the subject of horror. Looking through collections of essays, female names crop up a great deal: Joan Copjec, Helene Cixous, Mary Russo, Laura Mulvey, Jennifer Wicke, Julia Kristeva, Tania Modleski... the list could go on.

There are two books by female theorists that I've read recently which I'd highly recommend to any horror fan – and they are both (appropriately enough for the month's theme) about the role of women in horror films. The two works are Men, Women and Chain Saws by Carol J Clover and The Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed. They differ greatly in their structure, style and conclusions, but each contribute a great deal to the study of the horror genre.

Clover's book examines mainly the slasher sub-genre, and in essays in the book such as “Carrie and the Boys” and “Her Body, Himself”, she deals with the themes of audience identification. Clover challenges the assumption that young males in the audience for a slasher film will automatically identify with the killer – an assumption that frames these films as a misogynistic artform. She emphasises the pivotal role of the “final girl”, saying that “we understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main storyline.” (Clover p.44) This kind of cross-gender identification is also demonstrated, in her opinion, by the camerawork – despite the frequent use of POV shots from the killer's perspective: “Our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes... by the end point of view is hers.” (p. 45) In other chapters, Clover discusses male / female narratives in possession and revenge films, and the role of voyeurism / the eye in horror films.

Barbara Creed's “The Monstrous Feminine” is an exploration of the various types of female monster in horror film, relating these characters to feminist and psychoanalytic theory. In the first part of the book, Creed takes the various types of feminine monsters (and notable films in which they feature) as the focus for each chapter. These themes are: Archaic Mother (Alien); Possessed Monster (The Exorcist); Monstrous Womb (The Brood); Vampire (The Hunger); Witch (Carrie). In each of these chapters Creed investigates the psychological reasons why these character types occur frequently in horror narratives, and how and why they inspire such
fear. The second part is more focused on psychoanalytic theory – Creed reinterprets at length Freud's case study of “Little Hans”, which formed the basis Freud's theory of the castration complex. Creed argues that the figure of the mother / female is perceived as terrifying because she has the power to castrate, opposing Freud's theory that the fearful aspect is the female's apparent lack / castration. This is very much the theme throughout the second half, and as such the remainder of the book will certainly be more enjoyable if the reader has a high tolerance for lengthy discussions of castration, vagina dentata, femmes castratrices and modern-day Medusas. The Monstrous-Feminine is certainly a fascinating read, and enables the reader to see many of the classic horrors in a new light.

Anyone wishing to delve into the theoretical side of the role of women in horror could do a great deal worse than taking a look at these two books. Don't just take my word for it – there's this recommendation on the back cover of Men, Women and Chain Saws from one Joe Bob Briggs (drive-in movie critic of Grapevine, Texas): “I like this book so much that I almost don't wanna recommend it, because what if everybody says 'Oh, don't read that, Joe Bob likes it!' Joe Bob says check it out.” I reckon Joe Bob would get quite a kick out of Creed's work, too.