Sunday, 31 October 2010

British Horror Cinema: A Literary Guide

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

For decades the study of British horror cinema lay in an arid literary wasteland. During the period of the British horror films greatest commercial success (which can be put at 1957-76) just a single dedicated volume was published. This was David Pirie’s landmark polemical A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946 - 1972. Pirie’s was a solitary voice in an empty ocean. Ironically when the second edition of this book was published in 2007 it largely got overlooked in a market overcrowded with yet more substandard books on Hammer Film Productions. British horror had been sustained through the 1980’s and first half of the 1990’s by genre specific magazines and fan publications (the best of which still remains Little Shoppe of Horrors) before a relative deluge of material flooded the market. Much of it was of poor quality, for example of the huge number of books dedicated to Hammer, I consider only five of value. The increasing popularity of horror cinema on undergraduate degree courses, and the continued ascendancy of the study of cult film has enabled publishers to take advantage. But the question still remains; where to begin? This guide is intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to offer the best overall library of books for the appreciation of British horror. There are over one hundred books on the subject, this guide reduces that number to fifteen. This will probably be a contentious selection, but I hope it helps people to make informed decisions, that will also hopefully save them a few pounds or dollars.

Friday, 29 October 2010

A Lycanthropic Halloween Collaboration

It's almost no more days to Halloween (thank god we wont have to hear that advertising jingle for another year!), so its time to slip on your Silver Shamrock masks (make sure you load up on bug killer first!) and head on over to The Film Connoisseur for the in-depth article Werewolves of the Blogosphere: 20 Werewolf Movies to Watch Under the Full Moon. I was invited to fly the flag for the United Kingdom, and to explore British horror cinemas relationship to our tragic hairy friends. Also in attendance in this monstrous collaboration was Brian from the brilliant Cool Ass Cinema, and Johnny Thunder from Johnny Thunder's Midnite Spook Frolic, a blog I've yet to explore, but will be certain to do so now. This is no trick, but its certain to be a treat!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Country: USA

I half considered waiting until Christmas Eve to post this particular review, but that would have been far too predictable. I’ll probably review Halloween (1978) on Christmas Eve instead. Speaking of which, when John Carpenter and Debra Hill elected to set their sub Psycho (1960) derivation around Halloween, there was almost an instant inevitability about a film like Silent Night, Deadly Night. This wasn’t the first Christmas themed slasher film though, that dubious honour goes to You Better Watch Out (1980 aka Christmas Evil - and it is as dreadful as it sounds!). It made the festive themed episode of Tales from the Crypt (1972) with Joan Collins look like a masterpiece…its quite surprising to think that this 20 minute Amicus segment still remains the gold standard of Christmas horror. Lobotomised audiences had also queued up for Prom Night (1980/2008), Mother’s Day (1980), New Years Evil (1980) Graduation Day (1981) and My Bloody Valentine (1981/2009), before Silent Night, Deadly Night appropriated the image of Santa Claus and subverted him into a homicidal maniac gleefully slashing and hacking through another troupè of badly cast stereotypes. Although the festive season was a major feature of Bob Clark’s Canadian chiller Black Christmas (1974), the films overall sense of irony and intelligence puts it in a very exclusive club of ‘slasher’ films that are actually any good (by my reckoning this club has less then ten members). Instead of dealing in irony SNDN deals in hard edged cynicism, and it is this pessimistic attitude to the festive season that has aided its continued prominence.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Race with the Devil (1975)

Country: USA

Race with the Devil is a hugely enjoyable and interesting independent production which manages to conflate a number of the thematic preoccupations of 1970’s American cinema into its form. Firstly we have an exploration (albeit rather unsophisticated) of satanic cults. The most disturbing aspect of which is the lengths such sects will go too in order to maintain the anonymity of its members. This film appeared in cinemas before the commercial battering ram of The Omen (1976), and continued to prove that the devil had significant commercial draw in the 1970’s. The director Jack Starrett exploits Satan to the fullest, even though the horned beast fails to put in an appearance. The film also draws on a cinematic current which sought to find horrors within the alienated populations of rural America. These ‘rural horrors’ such as Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) set the trend by having the feeble faces of urban modernity facing primeval fights for survival against fellow Americans forgotten and rejected by modernity. With its wide open landscape, empty and desolate roads, and lifeless towns Race with the Devil fits smoothly into this thematic terrain. The film is also a road movie, it venerates the automobile as a gadget for masculine expression, but challenges preconceptions of motor vehicles as a conduit of pioneer spirit. Our protagonists do discover something in the American outback, but it is something terrible and nightmarish. This is a film with generic hybridity, and by expanding the generic remit it is able to put its finger on a number of the ‘phobic pressure points’ that Stephen King so eloquently described in his work of non-fiction Danse Macabre (1981).

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Country: USA

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a ferociously effective film with a power to disturb that remains undiluted after thirty six years circulating in the social consciousness of humanity. It is tempting to view the film as an exceptional and isolated event, certainly there is no other American horror film of the 1970’s to match its all pervasive atmosphere of charnel house terror. However, in retrospect Chainsaw was clearly a part of a strain of American cinema in the 1970’s that explored the dichotomy between the urbanity of city or suburban life and the simpler climes of the countryside. These clashes between modernity and rural existence were witnessed in varying degrees of success in Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), Badlands (1973), and one of my personal favourites Race with the Devil (1975). In his book Nightmare Movies Kim Newman terms these films ‘Rural horrors’, and their rich thematic territory explores issues of environment and ecology, the nightmarish inversion of American landscape and pioneer spirit, alienated and disenfranchised populations, and the sour decaying underbelly of ’American dream’ capitalist endeavour. They are also united by a belief in the backwardness of rural communities, with intimations of in breeding and aberrant behaviour or rituals adding a layer of hysteria to the horror. Of all of these films perhaps it is Chainsaw which succeeds best in creating the requisite tone and atmosphere to match these thematic concerns, and quite rightly emerged as one of the most radical horror films ever produced in America.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Mother of Tears (2007)

Country: ITALY/USA

La terza madre
Mother of Tears: The Third Mother

The monumental capitulation to mediocrity that has beset the cinema of Dario Argento from 1990 onwards (with the honourable exception of Sleepless (2001)) remains one of the most perplexing chapters in horror history. Argento’s cinema has for the past twenty years been a creative wasteland. Part of the reason in my view was a steadily building sense of self awareness that appeared from Opera (1987) onward. I think Argento began to believe all of the ‘auteur’ nonsense hype of a number of under researched academic and critical pieces that sprang up in the 1990’s. Along with an awareness of this status came a self-consciousness within the films themselves. Where before Argento explored psychoanalytical concepts and gender issues (usually in a playful manner) as part of the plot dynamics of his films, in the 1990’s these theoretical paradigms began to take centre stage over the plot. This reached a ludicrous extremity in the utterly abysmal The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) in which Argento sought to use an obscure psychoanalytical device to cover up for the fact that the film was essentially a tawdry and grimy rape/revenge thriller with little redeeming value. The revisionist criticism this cinematic offal has received should not in any way convince you the film is any good. This is something scholars, academics and critics do very often - in a bid to be different (usually for the purposes of funding) they will attempt to reclaim those films which are lesser known or have been dismissed. With this in mind Mother of Tears will probably also experience a period of critical revisionism in the future, I wish whoever takes on the task all the luck in the world.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Camp on Blood Island (1958)

Country: UK

The Camp on Blood Island is one of those Hammer obscurities that I’ve wanted to watch for a long time. Fortunately, and thanks to Sony Pictures, the film made its UK DVD debut in October (along with a rash of other Hammer films that were distributed by Columbia Pictures) and can now be enjoyed in an excellent presentation which retains the original Megascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1. One thing that Megascope does achieve is an impressive depth of field which in just a few shots gives us a sense of the large number of extras used by Hammer to populate their Japanese POW camp. The director Val Guest is able to use this broad compositional palette to powerful effect, emphasising both the isolation and hopelessness of the men, and in mounting several harrowing sequences which deal out death from a sobering distance. This is an expansive film which makes tremendous use of the Surrey countryside, and the studios at Bray, to concoct a heady tropical nightmare of imprisonment and desperation.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Ten Most Overrated Horror Films of All Time

October is the month to wax lyrical about the horror genre, a time to celebrate a misunderstood and much maligned form of cultural and cinematic expression. In the total opposite spirit of Halloween I’m proud to present The Celluloid Highway’s guide to the most grossly overrated and over-appreciated horror films in cinema history. Those films which critics, academics, and fans have convinced us over many years are essential landmarks in the development of the genre. This article is partly inspired by a recent post celebrating the most influential horror films from the 1930’s to the 1980’s by Brian over at Cool Ass Cinema, and partly by my own review of Night of the Living Dead (1968). I was finally able to get my dissatisfaction with Romero’s over rated debut film out of my system, and in so doing discovered that my dislike of this sacred cow could be joined by numerous others. If you’re one of these mentally ill people who actually get upset when a film you like is criticised you may wish to avoid this article. Or it might help you just to repeat this mantra - To avoid fainting repeat….Its only a blog post, only a blog post, only a blog post…you get the drift.

DRACULA (Tod Browning, USA, 1931)

This version of Dracula, which features a side splitting performance by Hungarian ‘actor’ Bela Lugosi is a cinematic disaster. At no point does Tod Browning’s turgid direction escape the stiff and static theatricality of the play upon which the film was based. This is a film of immobile and stagnant tableaux, with a camera that lacks the courage to do anything other than stay motionless. It also lacks the valour to explore the manner in which Dracula deals death, and in one of horror cinema’s most unforgivable decisions has Dracula vanquished off screen. The concurrent Spanish language production directed by George Medford and featuring Carlos Villarias as the bloodsucker is far superior. The only people too emerge with credibility from this incredibly dull film is Karl Freund due to his expert lighting (and who was rewarded with the direction of The Mummy (1932)), production designers John Hoffman and Herman Rosse and actor Dwight Frye who provides some distraction as Renfield.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Yesterday's Enemy (1959)

Country: UK

The underappreciated and adult World War Two drama Yesterday’s Enemy was Hammer Film Productions’ fourth serious look at a conflict that had only concluded fourteen years before. It followed on the heels of The Steel Bayonet (1957), the hysterical and racist The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and the taut but highly compromised Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). Val Guest contributed direction to a Hammer film for the eighth occasion, illustrating that in the 1950’s at least he was the British companies most prolific director. The material was particularly suited to Guest’s gritty and realistic talents, and is shot in sumptuous monochrome by the brilliant Arthur Grant. Guest is perhaps more well remembered for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), but I’ve always felt his talents were better suited for a film such as Yesterday’s Enemy. The film was shot in Megascope, and whilst this creates a certain distance between the audience and the events of the film, it gives the film an expansive quality that highlights the suffocating climate of the Burmese jungle. If you’re looking for protracted battle sequences you will be disappointed. This is an intelligent character driven film, with a plot that revolves around two major moral decisions.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film

Publication Date: 28th October 2006

Despite ever greater prominence in the age of DVD popular Italian cinema from the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s has still received relatively sparse coverage in the literary world. With the continued rise in the study of cult film (and its acceptability within academic circles) this is an oversight that needs redressing. Aside from a handful of articles (one particularly important one is Leon Hunt’s A (sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film from a 1992 edition of Velvet Light Trap) gialli have mostly found themselves discussed as part of auteur driven studies of the most visible directors of the form. But I have long believed that this durable cycle of films is deserving of a multitude of critical approaches, and to file them away as part of some half assed fan worship auteur nonsense does them a great disservice. Mikel J. Koven’s study is important for a variety of reasons. It represents the first occasion that gialli have been treated to a book length study in the English language and Koven’s thesis concerns itself as much with the audience of these films as it does with the formal properties that make the films so distinctive in the first place.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Mysterians (1957)

Country: JAPAN

Chikyû Bôeigun
Defence Force of the Earth
Earth Defense Force

Released originally in Japan under the title Chikyû Bôeigun in 1957, Ishirô Honda’s second major foray into science fiction after the success of Gojira (1954) was picked up for distribution in the United States by MGM and released in 1959 under the title The Mysterians. No doubt the abominated bastardisation that Gojira experienced when released under the title Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956) prompted US distributors to keep a keen eye on the development of Japanese science-fiction/monster movies, even if ham fisted dubbing and subtitle translation reduced the enjoyment and power of the films. The Mysterians was particularly fitting for US distribution because it is an invasion narrative, and it fed nicely into the fears and anxieties of the day. If Gojira borrowed numerous plot elements from King Kong (1933), then the major influence on The Mysterians is War of the Worlds (1953). What is most distinctive now is the wonderfully expansive use of Tohoscope, which gives the film an epic grandeur, some impressive model work, and the rich colour cinematography of Hajime Koizumi. The combination of these stylistic elements gives the film a look that would be repeated for many years in numerous Japanese monster movies. In this respect The Mysterians holds a significant position in the influence of Japanese science-fiction, a position that is somewhat underappreciated in the west.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street Poster Gallery

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) - German poster

A Nightmare on Elm Street #2 - US poster

A Nightmare on Elm Street #3 - Japanese poster

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Vault of Horror (1973)

Country: UK/USA

After the commercial success of Tales from the Crypt (1972) there was a certain inevitability about Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg’s decision to once again return to the black humour and irony of EC Comics’ gore soaked pages. The stories of Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines were particularly suited to Amicus’ method of production, even if Amicus were never able to fully realise the viscera. Unfortunately The Vault of Horror is too light and inconsequential a follow up to Tales from the Crypt, and in all honesty is probably the companies weakest anthology. In the space of just a year what seemed exciting and interesting had degenerated into tiredness and datedness. The names on the marquee which included Tom Baker, Terry Thomas, Daniel Massey, Curt Jurgens, and Edward Judd represent the weakest casting to date for an Amicus anthology. Though scraping below the surface we do get dependable turns from Denholm Elliot, Anna Massey, Glynis Johns and Dawn Addams. The film opens with a series of establishing shots of Westminster, The Thames, and The Houses of Parliament as if too emphasis the films British credentials.. The only surprise in the film is that the ‘Vault’ itself is situated in the sub-basement of a non-descript tower block. Once our exclusively male incumbents have seated themselves they began to tell each other about the recurring dreams they have been experiencing. The only successful aspect of this extremely weak bridging narrative is the occasional inspirational shot from Roy Ward Baker.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Harlequin (1980)


Dark Forces

One of the wonderful side effects of Australian New Wave films of the 1970’s such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was the birth of what has become known as Ozploitation. Two of the major figures in the production of low budget genre pictures in 70’s and 80’s Australia were producer Anthony I. Ginnane and screen writer Everett De Roche. Between them they worked on Patrick (1978), Thirst (1978), Long Weekend (1978), Harlequin (1980), The Survivor (1981), Road Games (1981) and Razorback (1984). These are some of the most accomplished genre pictures ever produced in Australia, and still to this day remain the most well known. Of this selection of titles Harlequin is perhaps the most obscure, an obscurity which is undeserving because there are a lot of positive aspects to the film. The film is anchored by a brilliantly enigmatic turn by Robert Powell as the mysterious magician Gregory Wolfe. Powell also took the lead in the Ginnane produced adaptation of James Herbert’s The Survivor. The De Roche screenplay is a modern reinterpretation of the Rasputin narrative, and De Roche does little to hide the historical parallels, and in fact plays them up on numerous occasions. Much of the tension derives from the fact that we are never entirely sure if Wolfe possesses genuine psychic and supernatural abilities or whether he is just an accomplished con artist. This tension is important because the film chooses to explore most of its ideas through dialogue rather than action.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Country: USA

In a tribute to utter pointlessness I present yet another review of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I’ll get all those predictable words like seminal, legendary, and landmark out of the way now. No review of this film would be the same without them. Unfortunately I don’t believe that Romero’s film is seminal, legendary or a landmark, but that is probably besides the point. Three other adjectives do spring to mind though - amateurish, crude, and rudimentary. I’m not one to herd the sacred cows of the horror genre into the slaughterhouse just for the sake of it, but neither am I party to the sort of unthinking and mindless worship of a film on the say so of a bunch of ex hippy critics and academics who were around at the time of the films release. Histories are written retrospectively and its rarely mentioned for example that Night of the Living Dead was not a major success when it was first released. Instead the film languished for three or four years before it became a success on the Midnite Movie circuit. One version of history will have you believe that Romero’s film distilled all the anxieties of the day and was a white hot rebuke to mainstream American culture up there with Easy Rider (1969). The fact is all these qualities were drawn out of the film retrospectively. Therefore the much lauded allegorical dimension of the film was only appreciated when the time had passed. However Romero did have an effective metaphor for consumerism in his depiction of a zombie horde stripped of the mystique of voodoo.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

John Carpenter Poster Gallery

This weeks poster gallery celebrates the filmography of John Carpenter. Carpenter is a filmmaker that I have a love/hate relationship with. This isn’t that surprising really because he emerged at a time in the 1970’s when the concept of the ‘auteur’ had great prominence in the American cultural landscape. I say it isn’t surprising because most of the directors that emerged in the era of ‘New Hollywood’ were repugnant and arrogant individuals with a bloated sense of their own importance. Carpenter is by no means as bad as pond life like William Friedkin or that most vulgar of imbeciles Francis Ford Coppola, but like these ’men’ he began to believe the hype. This moment of self awareness which I date at around 1983 and the production of Christine saw his films drop markedly in quality. It is no exaggeration to say, that with the exception of They Live (1988), Carpenter hasn’t produced a decent film since The Thing (1982). The films following this bleak and unforgiving Antarctic masterpiece have been mild distractions - empty headed entertainments devoid of the tensions in his earlier films. From 1974 to 1982 Carpenter went on an incredible run, and perhaps only David Cronenberg could challenge his brilliance at this time. The evidence of these earlier films, the films I consider to be Phase 1 of Carpenters career, leads to much head scratching when watching the films of Phase 2 (1983 onwards). In those earlier efforts, most notably Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978) Carpenter possessed a revisionist attitude to genre, one which was able to transplant familiar stories into an unfamiliar and extremely violent contemporary world. For those films from 1974 to 1982 Carpenter holds a legendary position on The Celluloid Highway, the rest of his films are merely pot holes. But that’s enough about Carpenter….lets have a look at these posters!

Dark Star (1974) - US Poster

Related Posts with Thumbnails