Category: Horror

Zombie Amalgamation: Origins of the Modern Revenant

Zombie Amalgamation: Origins of the Modern Revenant

Durher
The idea of the reanimated corpse shambles along the pages of history, and even before there were written records the undead were with us. The modern iteration of the zombie is not one of these creatures, but it is something new. A revenant fueled on modern fears of infection, and mass hysteria, while birthed from the ancient fear of reanimated corpses. The power of the modern zombie comes from the persistent fear of disease and infection. This infection is then paired with different social, economic, and cultural fears to create an ever evolving, but constantly horrifying creature that has become a staple of modern American and even global popular culture. The zombie is a stand in for all sorts of fears. Romero used the zombie to first lay bare the fear of encroaching infectious communism in Night of the Living Dead then he turned 180 degrees and took a shot at commercialism in Dawn of the Dead. Romero proved that the zombie can stand for almost any modern fear because essentially the mindless, raving zombie is man himself.

 

Four Distinct Origins

Our modern zombie who slowly ambles or even quickly chases our hero across the film or TV screen is really the amalgamation of four separate monsters from different portions of the world. The revenant, the ghoul, the vampire, and the Haitian creature of the same name, but different attributes raised up by voodoo. All these undead forms combine in the modern cinematic zombie. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that all these were finally condensed into one by George Romero that we get the fully formed creature.
The revenant who is sometimes confused with the modern zombie is probably the closest ancient creature to the modern zombie myth. Revenants were undead creatures from Western European mythology that rose from their graves at night after burial to harass and attack the living. Traditionally those killed by revenants did not themselves come back from the dead. Instead like vampires in Eastern Europe the revenants spread disease and death to the living they attacked. Chapter 24 of book five of the History of England by William of Newburgh attempts to lay out a chronological history of revenants and their attacks on innocent people.

It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity. (Newburgh)
Revenants were always thought to have been evil personas in life as well and their evil deeds haunted them beyond the grave. The revenant is also killed in a similar way to the more popular vampire. Beheading the corpse and burning it traditionally stop the revenants from returning from their graves. Revenants however do not have a taste for human flesh. They are most often depicted attacking with claws a teeth but not devouring their victims. The revenant is however a mindless killing machine, much like the modern zombie
Ghouls like revenants are undead creatures. They haunted graveyards at night and unlike the revenant they ate the bodies of the dead and sometimes the living. The mythology of the ghoul was originally Mesopotamian and later Arabic but the idea spread into Western culture at the end of the 18th century from the gothic horror novel Vathek.

“At the moment that their attendants were placing two wreaths of their favourite jasamines on their brows, the Caliph, who had just heard the tragical catastrophe, arrived. He looked not less pale and haggard than the goules that wander at night among graves.” (Beckford 99).

Ghouls display some very classic zombie features. These creatures seek out human flesh in Western stories it is usually the flesh of the dead but in Arabic stories it can be either, they are also undead creatures who have left their graves for the land of the living. The biggest difference and like the revenants is that their curse is not transferrable. They may kill the living but they do not infect the living, they are also not mindless often being depicted as cunning hunters.
The vampire unlike the other two early creatures is an infectious disease of a sort. In the vampire we come close to the very modern nature of the zombie. While vampires lack some distinct criteria such as mindlessness, he and his kin are more closely related to the modern zombie than even the Haitian undead which bears its name. Vampires have become creatures of infection and so are the modern zombies. In fact the infectious nature of zombism is what powers the fear of the zombie. Without the ability to infect a zombie would not really be much of a monster. This infectious nature of vampires was not a classical aspect of the monster and other than one or two stories of vampires creating other vampires the infectious nature of vampirism is really a result of an update to the story in the 19th century. Most vampire attributes “are in fact creations of the fictional vampire, as drawn by Western writers of the nineteenth century.” (Wasik, Murphy). As the 19th century wore on more and more was learned about infectious disease and rabies was raging in Europe. Even on the verge of a cure the disease was being linked to vampirism in fiction. Vampires were to come into possession of the most powerful horror that science could conjure…disease. The idea that a sane man or woman could be permanently transformed into a raging blood fueled monster is terrifying. Even more so would be the zombie who is not only a raging infectious monster, but mindless as well.

The final creature needed to create the modern zombie was an undead creature resurrected by magic and controlled by a mystical wizard or witch. The word Zombie or Zombi is relatively new. It is supposed to have been first used in the book History of Brazil by Robert Southey in 1819. The book is online and after an exhaustive search of volume 1-3 in both English and Spanish this elusive first mention of the word was not to be found. Not to be detoured the next mention of zombies comes to us from the Haitian tradition. In Haiti the zombie is the corpse of a person thought to be revived into a sort of half life by a practitioner of voodoo. This necromancer is called bokor. These undead creatures serve at the behest of the bokor, who has removed the living soul from the body and use it to control the zombie. Zombies are not considered to be mythology in Haiti article 246 of the Haitian criminal code mandates that,
“Est aussi qualifié attentat à la vie d’une personne, par empoisonnement, l’emploi qui sera fait contre elle de substances qui sans donner la mort, auront produit un état léthargique plus ou moins prolongé, de quelque manière que ces substances aient été employées et quelles qu’en aient été les suites.“ this roughly translates to “Any qualified attempt on the life of a person, by poisoning , the use made against it without substances that cause death , have produced a more or less prolonged lethargy , however these substances have been employed and whatever may have been the result” (Haiti criminal code)
While zombies are considered people in prolonged states of lethargy induced by chemical substances under the law the mythology of the traditional zombie has little to do with our modern idea. Other than being revived corpses these creatures have very little in common with the popular mythology of the modern zombie. To find the roots of our modern brain eater we must combine aspects of all the undead that have shambled into Western culture.
Modern Amalgamation.

Since the modern zombie is a combination of several creature archetypes from Western literature how did these creations amalgamate into the modern mythology? George Romero most certainly did not create his zombie creations out of whole cloth. His zombies have a very distinct Hollywood linage. White Zombie released in 1932 is the first zombie film. It depicts the traditional Voodoo zombie controlled by an evil bokor in this case played by Bela Lugos. Lugusi plays Murder Legendre who is a white bokor controlling zombies that work on his plantation. In a way this movie is a social commentary on the evils of slavery which ties into later zombie films which often have social commentary at their core. White Zombie is important because it set the stage for the look and feel of zombies in movie. The shambling dead eyes and even a hatred for the living that the dead exhibit in the movie translates to later work that would make the zombie less controllable and more menacing.
The modern zombie would never have developed without the work done by Richard Matheson in the book I am Legend which was published in 1954 and the movie made from the book called The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Prince in 1964. The film was released just four years before Romero was to film Night of the Living Dead and it is without a doubt a direct precursor to both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Matheson’s book and later movie depict a world that has been wiped out by a virulent virus. The virus kills most people but others it transforms into what are essentially vampires. The vampires have all the classic weaknesses. They can only come out at night, they are allergic to garlic, they can’t stand to see their reflection in mirrors, and they must be staked in the heart and then burned. These are not however the classic vampires in another sense. They are weak and slow. They shamble about exactly how you would expect a modern zombie to do. They do have a limited intelligence and can speak at times, but this seems to be an exception that only certain undead possess. The movie and the book are also social commentary. You discover at the end that not all the vampires are evil and that many of the vampires that the main character hunts down and kills during the day are actually fully human but suffering from vampirism. The moral of the story is a thinly veiled attempt at addressing racism. With his work Matheson sets up almost all the factors you will see in the future concerning zombie films. His work explores contagion, social commentary, post apocalypse living conditions, undead hordes attacking people who have walled themselves off from the outside, and isolation. Isolation is almost certainly the cure to infection but it is also a prelude to fear. Who is to be trusted? Matheson packs all this into his work.
Modern Fears and the survival of the Zombie

Romero picks up where Matheson left off. The importance of these films are that all of Romero’s Zombie movies are social commentaries. In an interview he did with Rick Curnutte in the Film Journal Romero states, “We really were trying to make it as much a metaphor as it was a thrill ride. And I’ve always tried…I don’t know, I’ve never wanted to just do movies about guys in hockey masks with knives, you know? I don’t think that way. I sort of think of what underlies it first.” (Curnutte,Romero). This is at the heart of what makes zombie movies constantly relevant. There is a constant repositioning of the zombie as a social problem. Romero’s zombies are contagious but that contagion is of an unknown origin. In the interview with Curnutte he said, “There were three proposed causes, and we cut two of them out because the scenes were boring and the scenes around them were boring, and that one we left in because it was part of that newscast and it made it seem a little bigger. And that became for a while, people said, “Oh, that’s what happened.” You know, some Venus probe came back and brought some kind of bug. And so I was determined…I don’t want there to be a cause.”(Curnutte, Romero) If the cause were known it may be curable. Romero wanted to keep the audience paranoid and thinking. It worked.
The idea that zombism is an infection becomes real to a modern audience. This realism is important in the staying power of the zombie as a modern monster. Matheson’s vampires were too much a creature of legend. Vampirism is equated with magical thinking. The zombie gave the audience a monster with a scientific cause. A virus that can reanimate the brain and causes the dead body to walk among the living. While this is still a dead body walking around to the modern audience disease, infection, and even inoculation are just as magical. They are things that can’t be seen affecting people in ways that are not understood by the average person. Deep down we see infection as the harbinger of death…why not an undead harbinger.
Zombism as a metaphor for infection and even death was enough to scare the audience but the modern zombie represented much more. Directors like Romero came to link zombies with communism, commercialism, AIDS, terrorism, and even the fear of global warming. Anything that the modern mind feared could be linked to the zombie. At the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty first vampires had been reformed. They sparkled and granted eternal life to good little boys and girls. Werewolves hardly existed on the horror scene replaced by serial killers in masks, who were frightening, but were certainly not world threatening. Frankenstein had stopped being scary the day after the first heart transplant, and forget about the mummy. The mummy was stuck in action comedy. Zombies became kings of horror because the zombie was everything and everywhere. Anyone could become a zombie at anytime.
This brings us back to the real underlying fears of zombism. Infection and Isolation are the currents within the mythology that cause fear to wash over the public. We have talked at length about infection, but what about isolation? In a zombie movie or TV show isolation is the result of the zombie apocalypse. You are left alone in a world of monsters who want to eat you and survivors who want to steal what you have and occasionally they also may want to eat you. You are alone. The reason this is horrifying to the viewer who is not really experiencing a zombie outbreak is the fact that the viewer realizes that they are living in this isolation even without hordes of zombies at their door. Isolation is even more personal than the fear of infection. We all experience isolation. Do we know our neighbors in the twenty first century? Do we trust them? That is a fear that everyone can relate too. It is not a fear that other traditional monsters inspire.
Conclusion

When looking for the roots of the modern zombie the quest can either take you to creatures that are not quite a perfect fit, or to creatures that when combined become the modern zombie. Modern zombies are creatures of modern mythic thinking. They are the embodiment of the fears of modern men written on the template of older monsters. The ancient undead pulling themselves out of the grave pale in comparison to the power modern men have given to our current creature. No monster had the power to destroy the entire world, which was solely the domain of gods in older mythic thinking. The zombie is able to accomplish that feat without a second thought, because infections do not think. Zombies are scary because the zombie embodies any fear we may have as an individual and they embody fears that all humans have such as disease and isolation. This is a very powerful combination. It leaves the zombie in the position of the king of the monsters, a creature so flexible it encompasses any fear.
Bibliography
Beckford, William. Vathek. Paris: Perrin, 1893. Print
Curnette, Rick “There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero” The Film Journal. http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue10/romero.html . Web. 4 Dec 2014.
Haitian Penal Code http://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/fr/hti/fr_hti_penal.html . Web 4 Dec 2014.

Halperin, Victor, Edward Halperin, Garnett Weston, Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, Xavier Cugat, and William Seabrook. White Zombie. Los Angeles, CA: Roan Group Archival Entertainment, 1999.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: ORB, 1995. Print.

Newburgh, William. The Church Historians of England, volume IV, part II; translated by Joseph Stevenson (London: Seeley’s, 1861) Web. 4 Dec 2014

Salkow, Sidney, Robert L. Lippert, Logan Swanson, William F. Leicester, Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter, Colli F. Delli, Gene Ruggiero, and Richard Matheson. The Last Man on Earth. Beverly Hills, CA: Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.

Streiner, Russ, John Russo, George A. Romero, Duane Jones, and Judith O’Dea. Night of the Living Dead. New York, N.Y: Elite Entertainment, 2002.

Wasik, Bill, and Monica Murphy. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. , 2012. Print.

Movie Review: Zombeavers

Movie Review: Zombeavers

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ZOMBEAVERS follows a direct line of descent from such 1950s films as THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, although I doubt that the makers of this movie have seen them unless they are also fans of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Instead, it’s more likely that they were inspired by the tributes to such films made by those who grew up with them, such as Ron Underwood’s TREMORS, Fred Dekker’s NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and especially, Joe Dante’s oeuvre, particularly PIRANHA, THE HOWLING and the GREMLINS films, which affectionately satirized low budget science fiction and horror films of an earlier era while at the same time working effectively in their own right. Unfortunately, the end result is much more like ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES: instead of a good-bad movie, what we have here is simply a bad movie that is nowhere nearly as entertaining as its progenitors and predecessors.

I can summarize the plot in probably less time than it will take you to read it. Some stupid truckers somewhere in upstate New York accidentally dump some barrels of toxic waste into a nearby river into a nearby river that float into a beaver lodge. Some stupid teen girls show up to vacation in a cabin nearby (with only a few stupid redneck neighbors living around them), go for a swim, and notice that the beaver dam has green marks on it. Beaver urine must be green, think stupid girls. Stupid boyfriends of stupid girls then make their entrance with some stupid false scares. And then…BEAVER ATTACK! Stupid characters behave in a stupid fashion to send-up stupidity of entire genre! And did you know if you’re stupid enough to get bitten by a zombie beaver, you turn into a really stupid-looking werebeaver? Oh, the stupidity!

I’ll admit that I enjoyed the opening credits sequence to the film, but for the most part, ZOMBEAVERS is on the level of one of Troma’s better productions, which is not very good at all. As you can imagine by the title, a lot of time in ZOMBEAVERS is spent on smutty sex jokes and uncomfortably leering shots of the young actresses (although only one appears nude or topless). When not doing so, it indulges in other sophomoric forms of humor instead of the genuine wit that has been the basis of the best genre parodies, which isn’t surprising considering all the characters have pond silt for brains. Sure, it’s all tongue in cheek, but when a major plot point is that one of the girls can’t tell it’s her own best friend cheating with her boyfriend in an Instagram picture, it doesn’t help to generate sympathy for anyone involved. All the performances are overly broad, and except for a decent shot making use of the multiplane effect, the direction lacks energy and imagination and frequently seem to be at odds with the script, not knowing whether to play it straight or to go for all-out laughs. For instance, there’s plenty of great humor potential in one scene where the beavers start popping out of the floor and the “heroes” starting smacking them in a grotesque game of Whack-a-Mole, but the staging totally botches any comic effect. Halfway through, the movie seems to forget it’s a comedy, as if it expects the absurdity of its premise to carry it. Instead, it just winds up being….well…stupid. Even though it’s all a put-on, I nonetheless felt ripped-off by the crude special effects. Fanboys who go on and on about how practical effects are always better than CGI should watch this, if only to be properly shamed into silence.

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While watching ZOMBEAVERS, I found myself reflecting more on both THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, and found myself respecting both those movies and the people who made them more than ever. No, they weren’t great films, but they were sincerely made, with a degree of effort to make something reasonably entertaining and competently done, and they do genuinely work in their own small way. ZOMBEAVERS is the type of film made with the intention of counting the money made from it and seeing if there’s enough to make a good movie next time.

Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.

Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.

Two years ago, Cineplex Odeon played a pair of Universal horror classics, Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, as part of its Classic Film Series. While I can watch Whale’s film (and the rest of his horror output) countless times without exhaustion, Browning’s version of the Bram Stoker novel had always been for me and many others quite a chore to watch. Made while the film industry was still undergoing growing pains in the transition to sound, it always seemed  too slow and static, and with much of the action offscreen, is reminiscent at times of a filmed stage play (which it in essence actually was) or even a radio play, if you close your eyes. Not even a special score added years later by Phillip Glass and The Kronos Quartet did anything to alleviate things; it now kept me awake, but it was more out of annoyance over the endless ringing and repetitive screeching, a textbook example of what my friend David Sindelar has called an “elevator score,” a musical soundtrack that sounds the same no matter what the actual action on screen is.

Browning's Dracula

But something miraculous happened during this particular viewing. Not only did I stay awake and find myself actually drawn into the action, but the movie actually scared me. No, there were none of the sudden shocks that has come to characterize modern horror, but I still felt genuinely afraid. Browning’s DRACULA is still a flawed film, with stodgy direction (Browning would fare much better with the later FREAKS, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and THE DEVIL DOLL, all of which successfully recaptured the style of his macabre silent classics), and inconsistent acting, but Bela Lugosi’s performance  is revealed to be an excellent characterization, no longer seeming hammy when projected on the big screen instead of being viewed on a relatively small TV  and the opening fifteen minutes have such an incredible power when seen under the right conditions, that this time, instead of being letdown by the remainder of the movie, they lingered so deeply that they succeeded in elevating subsequent scenes. Obviously, the problem wasn’t with the movie itself, but the shoddy conditions I had seen it under initially. When watching it as it was intended to be shown, with a fully restored image and projected on an appropriately-sized big screen, it worked just as intended.

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If DRACULA was greatly improved by being shown on the big screen, how would FRANKENSTEIN, a much more visually audacious and fluid film, brilliantly directed by James Whale and superbly acted by Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, fare under the same conditions? I’ve always loved this film and appreciated its genius and artistry even more this time. Not only was it genuinely frightening (with one actual, famous jump scare that made the audience gasp even as they knew it was coming), but the entire film has a pervasive feeling of evil and corruption which grows and develops, the same sort of sensation of encroaching horror and menace that the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT would successfully exploit as well. It became very obvious to me why this movie frightened and moved so many people on its initial release, and why it has continued to do so even as more graphic and extreme horror films became the norm. Karloff’s performance was all the more powerful this time around, his expressions in close-up having even greater impact when blown up to proper size. It was also much easier to appreciate Whale’s superb compositions and visuals now that I could truly see them in full, but for the first time, I was aware of just how effectively he uses sound to convey horror (something Browning forgot to do), in such scenes as the one where the villager carries his daughter’s body, with the incessant ringing of the church bells contributing greatly to its effectiveness. Karloff and Whale were not the only artists who had their work properly rewarded by the restored theatrical print; make-up artist Jack Pierce’s work on Karloff also looked even better than ever, as fine details that were not obvious on earlier viewings suddenly became apparent, and I became aware of just how meticulous and well-conceived Pierce’s handiwork was. For instance, I had noticed for the first time the outlines of veins and and sinew, and that Pierce had placed bolts not just on Karloff’s arms but under the Monster’s skin as well.

The Mummy and The Wolfman

Last year, Cineplex-Odeon played a Barbra Streisand film for Halloween (which is scary in its own right, but not the same thing), but this year, it’s playing a double bill of THE MUMMY and THE WOLFMAN at select theaters, on Sunday October 26 and Wednesday October 29. Both films are classics in their own right and among my own personal favorite horror films of all time; needless to say, I am eagerly looking forward to seeing them in fully restored theatrical prints. If you have never seen either of them before, this is your chance to see them for the first time under the best possible conditions, and I envy you for the experience.

 

Ancient Curse, Modern Cure: The Horror of Victorian Sexual Repression

Ancient Curse, Modern Cure: The Horror of Victorian Sexual Repression

 

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The social aspects of nineteenth century Gothic horror are a study in the dichotomous nature of the Victorian mind. This period, characterized by its sexual repression, gave rise to some very salacious fiction, especially of the horror variety.  Early in the century The Second Great Awakening had renewed religious fervor in both Europe and America. This is juxtaposed against eighteenth century cultural trends that had seen great strides towards intellectual, scientific, and sexual enlightenment. The reemerging repressive attitude seems to have been a reaction to the more libertine nature of the previous century and it is possible this grew out of advances in female empowerment. The temperance movements and the social purity movements of the period acted as a political outlet for women in a time when they were locked out of more traditional political activity. These movements worked hand in hand with the newly empowered religious institutions to counter any and all things they perceived as sexually or morally deviant.  Sexuality had to go underground and find new outlets of expression safe from the burgeoning social nanny state. One of the most obvious of these outlets was the convergence of sexuality and literature specifically as found in Gothic horror fiction.

Gothic horror became a cloak under which the Victorian who wished to explore ideas of a more sensual nature could feel free to do so with abandon. From the first half of the century we have such works as The String of Pearls (better known today as Sweeney Todd). Here, ideas regarding sex are completely disguised in the form of a cannibal, his victims, and his accomplices: The sex is merely suggested and never acted upon openly. However, the very act of eating human flesh is one of the most intimate acts one could possibly imagine and becomes a means through which the author relates the deviancy of the characters. It also doesn’t take much imagination to link the horror created by Sweeney Todd to many sexual practices that would have been considered deviant at the time such as bondage and elicit affairs between married partners. The story is full of semi-hidden double entendres, but it was far from the open bucking of cultural conventions when compared to later more explicit works. These later authors touched on subjects as varied as physical seduction, bestiality, and very surprisingly frank depictions of transvestism. Two late Nineteenth Century novels represent the peak of this trend towards sexualization in Gothic horror literature, Bran Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.

The two novels explore sex in a very open and frank way. While it is still depicted as deviant and dangerous, there is no doubt it was meant to titillate the reader.  Not only did these novels seek to express sexual themes, they also took shots at British imperialism and conformity. To the modern reader sex and imperial rule would seem very disconnected but, to the Victorian sensibility, sexual prowess and imperial might were intimately intertwined. Inserted into this mix, the villains of both Dracula and The Beetle seek to overturn British hegemony through “means of the appropriation and destruction of symbols of the moral, spiritual, and racial superiority of England’s ruling class- its women.”(30). Thus the two novels explore the ideas of sexual deviance through the domination of racial “others” over pure British womanhood. This interracial aspect of sex acts depicted in both books feed into both fear and arousal. 

      In the article, “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis”, Kathleen Spencer seeks to explore the sexual undertones of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the perspective of the body of literature available during the Victorian period. It is her belief that the novel should be read in context with the other novels that explore sexual and supernatural situations, in order to form an overall synthesis of how sexual mores are expressed in these works. Spencer breaks these works down into their composite pieces to illustrate how abnormal sexual situations could be presented through supernatural aspects without causing the Victorian reader to reject the works outright. This would be important in inoculating the literature from conventional social forces that may seek to ban these novels.

 Authors like Stoker set their works in the contemporary period to lure their readers into a sense of the normal. Spencer states that, “First and most important, the new authors insist on the modernity of the setting not on the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader, but on their identity. A modern setting means, most profoundly, an urban setting, as by the end of the Nineteenth Century well over half the population of the British Isles lived in cities.” (200).   The authors of the time were intent on relating to their readers and to bringing them into their stories. They used a variety of techniques, from using familiar settings to creating intense emotional content, to capture the reader’s attention. This increased the tension within their narrative and resulted in much more vivid storytelling. The authors then introduced fantasy elements to shock the reader out of their normal lives, allowing them to embrace ideas and situations that would not appear in mundane society.

 Spencer then goes on to explore further how sexuality is expressed in Dracula and other novels of the period. She contends that, “the crucial distinction between Dracula and his opponents: he is degenerate.” (213). Dracula represents the opposition to the sexual norm. He and his creations are monsters of the fantastic and illustrate the dangers of degeneracy and sexual deviance. These monsters are powerfully alluring, but they can be defeated. Men and even woman can hold out against their sexual power, at least for awhile, and those that can’t are doomed. It is important that those characters shown to fall prey to the sexual deviant are damned, as this plays into the themes that protect the novels from conventional social criticism. If these novels are seen as cautionary tales against evil then they could break social/sexual taboos without fear of reprisal by moral authorities.

The Beetle, published the same year as Dracula, delves even further into what Victorians would have seen as sexual aberration. It was so successful that it outsold Dracula into the first decade of the Twentieth Century.  Victoria Margree calls the novel The Beetle “an extended homoerotic and masochistic fantasy.” (76) The book focused on the strict attitudes against female empowerment and women acting as men. We, as a society, may not be as concerned with female identity as we once were, but the interplay of homosexuality in the book fits well into the fears and anxiety of our own society and its struggle with the idea of gay marriage and rights. This is a novel that broke all the rules regarding sex and morality of the period and managed to be one of the best selling novels of its day without raising an as much as an eyebrow among the religious elite.

The horror genre continues to be a place in which authors, artists, and especially filmmakers can explore the fringes of human experience. Attitudes toward sexuality may change, but horror fiction continues to push the boundaries of society on that front. My generation often attended horror movies just to see the scantily clad bodies of the girls who would be menaced once again by those eternal supernatural creatures. Those movies taught us that having sex would surely result in decapitation or a bloody death in a lakeside cabin. It never prevented me from returning each week and it certainly never really turned anyone off sex. We were just playing the same century long game of hide and seek with the puritanical among us.

 

Works Cited

Garnett, Rhys. “Dracula and the Beetle: Imperial and Sexual Guilt and Fear in Late Victorian Fantasy”. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990: 30-54. Print.

Kathleen L. Spencer.Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis.”ELH, 59.1 ( 1992): 197-225 The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Margee, Victoria. “Both in Men’s Clothing: Gender, Sovereignty and Insecurity in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.” Critical Survey 19.2 (2007): 63-81. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.

Interview: Silent Film Historian Steve Joyce

Interview: Silent Film Historian Steve Joyce

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If you’ve been around the Internet long enough, you quickly learn that every genre and era of the cinema has its fans, and if you’re curious enough to read up on them, you learn to appreciate just why they have gained their adherents. For those curious about fantastic cinema of the silent era, an indispensable new book, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929, provides what is not just to date the most comprehensive collection of original reviews of American films of this particular genre and time period, but a fascinating journey into the film-making and -watching culture of a century ago. Four authors, John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce and Harry H. Long, along with researcher and archivist Bill Chase, undertook this massive project, and they were recently rewarded for their efforts with an Honorable Mention from the Rondo Awards, chosen by the on-line community of classic horror fans worldwide. We spoke with co-author Steve Joyce about the book and science fiction films of the silent era in general.

1. Thanks granting us this interview, Steve! In the preface to the book, you and your fellow authors discuss your own personal relationships with fantastic films of the silent era, and how you grew interested in them. While science fiction and horror films of every decade of the sound era enjoy fan followings of their own, they all consist largely of people who grew up with them either during the time they were first released to theaters, or distributed to television. How did your own fascination with the genre films of the silent era develop, and do you find that most other fans come upon their interest in a similar way?

Thank you, Andrew. I’m flattered and honored that you approached me to do this. It was a pleasure working with John, Henry, Harry and Bill who all brought their own unique perspectives and backgrounds to the table.

I watched my fair share of 50s sci fi growing up but not a whole lot more than the average kid. So, no, I’d have to say that my interests didn’t quite develop like many of my fellow Baby Boomers. While most of today’s long-time diehards seem to have had their awareness in vintage genre movies aroused by Forest J. Ackerman and the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I was blithely passing Famous Monsters by on my merry way over to the comic book rack.

My fondness for comics gradually gave way to the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., then “juvenile” s. f. novels and finally to the more “serious” stuff by Heinlein, Wells, Ellison, Dick, Silverberg, Bester, Brunner and others. As I think about it, I suppose exploring “what came before” always tickled my fancy. When I found out about Tom Swift, Senior and all of those Golden Age superheroes, well, both events were just about the coolest thing back then. Really only once vhs – and its associated instant availability – came into vogue did I finally shift genre gears media-wise. That was kicked off by a viewing of Metropolis back in the 80s.

By the way, I find one thing kind of amazing. Even though about 80% of all silents are lost – the viewer of today probably can see as much or more in practical terms than the actual theatergoers of last century’s first few decades ever managed. Showings came into town and left. That was it; there was almost always no second chance. Somehow, over the last 25 odd years, I’ve managed to amass at least some digital footage from close to 150 silent films that could be arguably classified science fiction and all viewable on a whim. You might say that we’re living in the second golden age of silent film.

2. When I interviewed our mutual friend David Sindelar, we discussed how the advent of both the Internet and DVD had changed both viewing habits and access to movies. Today, movies that were once just footnotes in the Don Willis, Walt Lee or Phil Hardy books can be easily accessed on YouTube, and companies such as Kino have put out DVDs of silent classics, as fully restored as they will ever be, at their normal speed and in close to pristine condition. How else have advances in technology improved the silent film viewing experience?

Indeed! Dave and I often swapped tapes way back when. We both still might have video boxes that by rights should’ve long ago qualified for frequent flyer miles! These days we’d more than likely exchange via Rapidshare. So, cyber-networking with like-minded aficionados is a great way to track down the more obscure titles. Plus, via software downloaded to their home p.c., more and more enterprising enthusiasts are willing and able to add title card translations and/or music to their movie computer files. Both are, needless to say, important aspects when it comes to silents.

To take the conversation slightly off point, the internet also provides some incredible tools to recreate a lost film’s “experience”… if not literally, in the mind’s eye. AbeBooks, Alibris and other online used book suppliers yield some nice (and often pleasantly inexpensive) source novels, plays and the like. Every day, new vintage newspapers and film trade journals go online and with them an abundance of plot summaries, reviews, cast listings, etc. Rare stills and lobby cards can be had with a few Ebay clicks (and only with sufficient bankroll, unfortunately). A visit to the Library of Congress website begins the fairly easy process of obtaining copyright records. The list goes on and on.

3. Although you and your co-authors focus specifically on American fantastic film of the silent era, much of the great and innovative work was done in Europe. How did American films differ from their European cousins and conversely, how did they influence each other?

Let’s start off with one caveat. Russian films essentially need to be put off to the side insofar as one major distinction; they generally came with heavy-handed Soviet messages placed into just about everything.

Beyond that, both American and European features were culturally significant in their own way. We can only talk in generalizations, but with that stipulated, American genre films struck the more mainstream pop culture chord in their methods be it in plot, dialogue or whatever. They even dabbled in the schlock of 3D and offered name-that-film contests. On the other hand, the Europeans leaned toward achieving, for lack of better phraseology, a higher art form or “culture” with a capital “C”, if you will. To defend the American approach a bit, it might be considered more genuinely representative of everyday life and the typical person walking down the street.

Pictures from the States tended to aim for the spectacular while the Europeans usually looked wherever they could for subtlety and finesse. Even Metropolis – visual spectacle that it was – gave us the delicate scenes where Maria roams the catacombs’ shadows and the well-framed and executed Moloch Machine sequence. In the book’s entry on Cecile B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday – a time travel fantasy akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – we briefly touched on one particularly key scene and compared it to a similar one in Germany’s Hands of Orlac. DeMille’s goal was to induce awe by replicating a believably looking train wreck. In contrast, Robert Weine leveraged the skill of his crew to present Orlac’s accident as an eerily lit montage via the locomotive’s front headlight.

Film was a more international animal back then by its very nature. It was a simple matter to translate a few title cards, splice them in anew and send prints all over the world. I get a big perverse kick out of one anecdote concerning The Battle Cry of Peace which we also cover. It’s a pre-WWI alternate history picture preaching preparedness against a Ruritanian (read German) invasion. Long story short, the Germans got hold of a print and changed it into their own propaganda piece!

Naturally, a migration of talent took place between both continents and, thus, there was cross-pollination; but, the mute nature of cinema years ago made it especially easy for actors to move back and forth. Two genre luminaries that come immediately to mind are Conrad Veidt and Paul Wegener; and, if I can take a moment here, I’d like to announce an upcoming book covering Wegener’s fantastika by my friends and colleagues, John Soister and Henry Nicolella. They’ve let me preview the manuscript and it’s awesome.

4. Science fiction film, as a genre, existed well before it was named or defined as such. In fact, the coining of the term by Hugo Gernsback coincides with the beginning of the sound era in film. How did the early precursors of science fiction literature influence the development of its cinematic counterpart and conversely, did the cinema have any affect on development of the written genre?

Believe it or not, by sheer coincidence, I recently stumbled across a passage by one William Wilson defining “Science-Fiction” back in 1851! There’s always something that “came before”! But yes, Gernsback popularized the term and this is an excellent question.

Basically, there’s always been a strong interaction between science fiction literature and film. Let’s start right from the get go with George Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. Clearly, Melies lifted the space gun from Verne and the Selenites from Wells. He even went farther than that. In select exhibitions of his short film, a narrative crafted by Melies would be read out loud. In that narrative, Melies gave his astronauts such names as “Alcofrisbas” (in tribute to Alcofrisbas Nasier a.k.a. Francois Rabelais, a 16th century fantasy writer), “Micromegas” (after a space-travelling character of Voltaire’s), “Omega” (likely in homage to any number of 19th century last man on earth novels), etc. The Father of Science Fiction Film definitely was well versed in the genesis of his genre…even if he didn’t exactly know it by name!

Of course, A Trip to the Moon was fraught with light-hearted trick effects and most of the sci fi shorts of the remainder of the decade played merely for amusement and comedy as well. Films like L’Homme Invisible (1909) and Melies’ own 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907) scarcely followed the plots of their sources. Maybe the first s.f. films to seriously zero in on their written brethren were the trio of films by the Brit, Walter Booth: Aerial Torpedo (1908), Aerial Submarine (1910) and Aerial Anarchists (1911). All three channeled the ideas put forth in Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist, Verne’s Master of the World and Wells’ War in the Air. Oh, an aerial torpedo is better known these days as a guided missile by the way.

Once the teens rolled around, quite a number of heavy hitting s.f. stories began getting (more or less) faithful treatment…several more than once. To name just some there’s First Men in the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916 style) and Mysterious Island, Frankenstein, Connecticut Yankee, The Lost World, Renard’s The Hands of Orlac and Gaston (“Phantom of the Opera”) Leroux’s Balaoo. Maybe the king of them all is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone will ever completely determine how many silent adaptations of that particular title were made; but, including burlesques, the count is somewhere around 20 with a whopping 6 in 1920 alone. Even some really putrid potboilers made it to the moving picture screen. Fair warning: don’t ever try to read The Diamond From the Sky!

I’d say the flow in the other direction was not nearly as pronounced….or maybe it’s just plain harder to determine. Sure, there were occasional movie tie-in fictionalizations in Moving Picture Stories Magazine and other publications … and I don’t know how to classify some of Thea Von Harbou’s output … but, speaking in broad terms, there were more quality films made from quality literature than visa versa. That’s pretty much still the case today. What did typically happen is that both forms – again like today – concurrently (give or take) picked up on the scientific trends and speculation of the time. This led to examination of such themes as evolution, death rays (o.k., they were hoaxes but the hoaxes were real), the “monkey gland” and Steinach methods of rejuvenation (a lot of people got taken in there too), futuristic warfare, artificial diamond manufacturing (believe it or not, once a biggie), the problems and solutions concerning trans-oceanic travel, outer space journeys, visitors from other planets, television, radio and wireless based just about anything you could imagine, mechanical men before the term “robot” was even invented, and so on and so on.

5. Much has been written about how social concerns and anxieties of the 1950s and 1970s heavily weighed upon the science fiction films of those eras. Did the social and political climate of the 1910s and 1920s exert a similar effect upon the science fiction films of that era, or did the films mostly shy away from overt or even implicit social commentary in favor of escapism?

Well, there was more censorship back then implying some film-makers were trying to push the envelope. Often viewers in one state would see slightly less footage than in a neighboring one due to some local official’s ready scissors. It was easy enough to cut out offending frames without worrying about dialogue on a soundtrack and those offences many times depended merely upon the individual sensibilities of a select few. I’ve seen a copy of the New York censorship records of the silent version of the British import, High Treason and the handling of its pacifistic viewpoint was considered almost obscene, as I remember.

When you mention the 1950s, I think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers capturing the air of paranoia of the day. Similarly, there was a cycle of rejuvenation films in the 20s that very much captured the hoped-for youthful exuberance of those roaring days. Clara Bow, the It Girl herself, played a flapper in one of them. Likewise, after the Great War, the fantasy of reincarnation definitely tapped into the mass sadness caused by the loss of loved ones.

Speaking of the war, before the U.S. ever entered it, there was a rash of alternate history preparedness / cautionary tales; we already discussed Battle Cry of Peace but there were others too. On the flip side, Thomas Ince’s Civilization was a pacifist statement hoping to avoid further bloodshed. Things were polarized, to say the least.

Even going back to the one and two reelers, women’s suffrage was another topic sometimes addressed; these attempts usually involved one variation or the other of a female controlled world and were handled with satirical humor…. I don’t imagine many of the lady folk were too happy with that. The Last Man on Earth is a feature that we covered with that very theme and tone.

Darwinism pushed even more buttons back then than it does now. I recall researching a silly little 1919 exploitation of the subject called A Scream in the Night. One reviewer really got himself into quite the uproar over it.


6. Despite much notable and innovative work, there wouldn’t really be a science fiction boom until the 1950s, and although the genre and its idioms were a frequent subject for the film serials (more often than not, adapted from comics), there wasn’t much in the way of science fiction features being produced in America during the 1930s and 1940s. What accounts for this drop-off, right when the genre was starting to take off in the pulps?

Tough one, actually. I don’t think that the 40s yielded anything that should legitimately be placed on anyone’s top 100 list after you, maybe, get past Dr. Cyclops (1940). The whole decade seemed to have a lot less creativity and most of it can be discounted easily enough because of the impact and aftermath of WW II.

When it comes to the 30s, things get more dicey. Let’s look at economics first. The pulps were – by their very definition – just about the cheapest form of entertainment to produce; so, in theory, that would account for part of the difference. Yet paradoxically, during the Great Depression when money was tightest, people flocked to the theaters to forget their troubles. So – pretty much – there goes that idea.

The 30s also brought in the talkies and, with it, growing pains. I think it’s fair to speculate that had some impact. If you look at foreign product, the studios initially fought through the new-found language barrier by producing multilingual science fiction releases such as Der/Le (and Transatlantic) Tunnel, Gold/L’or, three different language versions of Brigette Helm in Atlantis and 3 others adapting Curt Siodmak’s FP-1. For some reason, American studios passed on that strategy. Perhaps the inability to find polyglot actors held them back. Or perhaps they felt – at least, in the beginning – that sound technology was lacking and hiding microphones in the proverbial “potted plants” didn’t quite jibe with the special effects required.

Then too, every genre suffers from ups and downs and horror films were then on the rise. Many of the film titles that roll off the tongue from that era were more a Science Fiction / Horror combo than anything: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Invisible Man, King Kong. I’d have to dig down deep and come up with a couple of little-known gems, Men Must Fight and Deluge, as the best pure representatives of 30s American science fiction on film. And…let’s just forget about Just Imagine, shall we?

7. Actually, I kind of liked Just Imagine. Read into that what you will! 🙂 Finally, although our readers may be familiar with such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or George Melies Une Voyage Dans La Lune, what are some of the other silent science fiction films you think are especially worthy of rediscovery and you’d recommend to someone just starting to venture into this wonderful cinematic world?

Andrew, you just opened up Pandora’s Box! My compulsions force me to give a long-winded three-tiered response since I’m keeping my fingers crossed that once enticed, many will want to delve further. Here goes…

(1) Films available on easily obtainable quality DVDs:

– you couldn’t go wrong with any of Fritz Lang’s silent fantastic films but for pure Science Fiction there’s Woman in the Moon. Insist on getting the complete version.
– It’s also hard to go wrong with checking out more by Melies. Voyage a Travers l’Impossible, and Conquête du pôle are in the tradition of Le Voyage dans la lune. La Photographie Electique a Distance is a personal favorite. They might be a good start.
– Conrad Veidt in Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac)
– Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
– Rene Clair’s Paris Qui Dort
Le joueur d’échecs a.k.a. The Chess Player is marginal s.f. but such a delightful film on many levels.
Himmelskibet (1916) is an interesting early look at space travel as well as being quite the message movie. You can only get it from the Danish Film Institute in European DVD format. They do ship to the States and it does have English subs. It comes packaged with another Danish s.f. silent called Verdens undergang (a.k.a. The End of the World).
Aelita, Queen of Mars: more foreign space travel…this time from Russia and with a propaganda flavor as well as a bevy of Martian robots.
– I’ve always found Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea just a little bit ponderous but others might disagree. The underwater cinematography is groundbreaking.
– Last but not least, one of the all-but-complete restorations of The Lost World is absolutely essential.
Go for either the David Shepard Image DVD or the George Eastman House version that comes as an added bonus to the Irwin Allen take on the story.

That should provide a solid sampling. Shorts are – except for Melies – excluded since they’re generally sprinkled on compilations and it would be expensive to pursue them that way. In any event, a lot of them pop-up online.

(2) Worthwhile films available in lesser quality via grey-market DVD vendors, thru the trade grapevine or online:

L’uomo Meccanica (a.k.a. The Mechanical Man) and Saturnino Farandola, although now extant in fragments only, are totally zany fun. Abel Gance’s complete La Fin du Monde is a visual masterpiece and deserving of the effort to locate it…but, unlike the vastly inferior Americanized truncation is not really silent. If you ask me, Algol and L’Inhumaine are very under-appreciated and also worth the effort. Mysterious Island has mysteriously never officially been released in video form but it’s out there too. We’ve already mentioned High Treason

As for the shorts, two come to mind for historical significance: The X-Ray Fiend from 1897 might just be the true first cinematic science fiction and Aerial Torpedo as we already talked about (look for this second one under its various names). Edison’s Frankenstein has some nice touches. Or how about Gance again and La Folie du Docteur Tube? Anything from Segundo de Chomón’s s.f. oeuvre would round things out.

(3)Films that should be available!

There are still reels and reels of film sitting in archives that have yet to see the light of day. The complete Exploits of Elaine, a serial starring the famed Pearl White and featuring ominously destructive infra-red rays, a gizmo to revive the dead, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like villain and full of pseudo-scientific gadgetry, is all a vintage sci fi geek could ask for…and yet it still eludes the masses! And …that’s despite the film’s status on the National Film Registry. “Elaine” is just one example. Perhaps readers of these words will one day join us in clamoring for it and other films like it to be released from captivity.

Anyway, now’s the time to stumble back down off of the soap box and thank you again for your interest. Stay well, Andrew…

Will do Steve! In the meantime, you can purchase American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 at Amazon or preview it at Google!

Interview: Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Film Musings and Ramblings

Interview: Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Film Musings and Ramblings

There are numerous film review sites on the Internet specializing in science fiction and fantasy cinema, but few are as ambitious or as comprehensive as that of Dave Sindelar. For more than a decade now, he has been watching one movie a day in the science fiction, horror or fantasy genre, accumulating more than four thousand reviews in the process, from the very first years of the cinema (date of release of the oldest film: 1895) to the early 1980s, from all around the world. The sheer breadth of films covered and the comprehensiveness in the coverage of the full range of fantastic cinema make his site, Fantastic Films Musings and Ramblings, a must for any film buff or science fiction fan. Dave kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his project for The Freehold.

1. Thanks for granting us this interview Dave! You explain to us how this project got started on the Musings and Ramblings website but explain to us a little about your own interest in film and how it led to the Movie of the Day project.

Two things led to my interest in film – monsters and lists. As a kid, I was always fascinated by monsters and I loved looking at pictures of them. This is what led me to start watching my local creature feature (called CREATURE FEATURE) which had the advantage of airing late enough of Saturday nights that no one else wanted the TV at those times. I’d have to say that as a kid, the only movies that really caught my attention were monster movies and comedies.

Yet, as I grew, my tastes started to widen somewhat. Here’s where my fascination of lists came into play. I loved books that consisted of long lists of movies, and ended up amassing several of them as I grew. One of my favorite things to do was make sub-lists of those lists, and try to see the movies; I remember attempts at trying to see all of the four-star movies in the Maltin guide, as well as to watch every movie in Danny Peary’s GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC. As might be expected, these early attempts eventually ran out of steam.

It was twelve years ago that I began toying with the idea of the project in question. The big factor that had come into play was the Internet. Up to that time, there were big limitations as to undertaking the project, as I had a much more limited income and was at the mercy of what they were willing to show on TV or stock at my local video store. It was only after spending some time on the internet that it occurred to me that a whole new world had opened up, and that a project of this magnitude didn’t seem quite as impossible.

Still, this project might have fallen through if it hadn’t been for one other thing; about five months into it, I began posting my Movie of the Day listings on the board at Sinister Cinema. All of the sudden, it was no longer a private project, but a public one, and it was my awareness of that difference that made me commit to it on a level that I hadn’t done previously.

2. When you began the Movie of the Day project, DVD was in the process of overtaking VHS as the main means of watching movies at home, and there has since been another major revolution in the rise of streaming movies on the Internet. Tell us some more about how these have affected your project.

The impact of DVD over VHS was pretty important in a couple of major points. The first is storage. When I began the project, I already had a massive VHS collection, partially from purchase and partially from having recorded movies off of TV. Trying to maintain and update this collection was proving to be more and more difficult, mainly because of the bulk and the difficulty of storage. With DVD, I was able to reduce the bulk of the collection tremendously.

Another impact of DVD was the rise of bulk purchasing. Just for example, I have quite a few DVD megapacks from Mill Creek. These sets contain 50 movies that can fit in a space just a little bit larger than a single VHS cassette, and cost low enough that you’re only paying about fifty cents a movie. Since my project involves trying to watch as much as possible from certain genres, they prove a quick way to amass a good collection with minimum outlay and fitting into a smaller area.

The rise of streaming video is just beginning to make a real impact on the project; I can watch movies for a fraction of the price without concerns of personal storage at all. I still haven’t fully incorporated streaming into my project, but I’m very sure that as my project moves forward into the future, I’m going to end up watching more and more movies this way than any other. I also think it’s making a greater volume of movies available to the average viewer, and this makes it more likely that I’ll be able to find some otherwise inaccessible films.

3. How do you approach each movie as you review them, and what is your writing process like?

First of all, I called the site “Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings” for a reason; though much of what I write could be classified as reviews, I don’t see them being tied exclusively to that approach. If I see my write-ups as serving a purpose, it is as a snapshot of the viewing experience I had, and as opportunities to bounce my wit (such as it is) off of that experience.

What I basically try to do is give a certain minimum of information about the movie, and I try to give only the bare bones of a plot description. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m reading a write-up of a movie, the plot description is the part I’m most likely to skip. If I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to know. And if I have, I don’t need to know.

Then I do quick scan of my mind to see what feelings I have about the viewing, and I try to encapsulate that, with certain thoughts as to the reasons I feel the way I do (which, to be fair, may not be the fault of the movie itself). I don’t back away from the quirks of the experience; sometimes my reaction has a lot to do with factors that wouldn’t come into play if I watched it another time, and I’d rather acknowledge those factors if I can.

I try to be compact. Since I’m not keen on writing a novella about every movie I see (I don’t have the time or the inclination), I try to get to the heart of the matter quickly. If the movie is bad and I’m feeling playful, I may resort to one of my “ten thoughts on…” write-ups. If I feel like probing deeper, I will; for example, my viewing of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT inspired a fairly lengthy (for me) analysis of the movie; it’s what the movie left me feeling I wanted to do.

One point I always try to cover is what it’s genre qualifications are. Sometimes, it’s obvious, and in that case, I may skip it. If not, I try to cover it, if for no other reason than to find out why someone classified it as genre, and as an exploration of just which elements play into genre classification.

Of course, some movies don’t inspire me much at all in the writing department, for some reason. This is especially true if I’m watching a two or three-minute silent short with no real story. So I trot off what I can and move on to the next one.

4. You regularly update your Movies of the Day on the Classic Horror Film Board and one of the highlights of that page is your Essentials List of recommended movies. How does your list differ from other similar “must-see” lists and what do you think it provides for the curious viewer?

As far as the Essentials list goes, it was an attempt to emulate what Danny Peary was doing in “Guide for the Film Fanatic”. That guide never pretended to list the best movies ever made; it was more interested in providing a wide of some of the most interesting movies ever made, and some bad movies are more interesting than some good ones. I wanted to give a strong sampling of the best, but I also wanted to represent sub-genres that are often neglected (like the Italian Sword and Sandal movies), highlight some bad films that make for interesting viewing, provide examples of the work of some of the famously bad directors (how can you really comment on the work of Jerry Warren or Larry Buchanan if you haven’t seen any of them?), add some movies that are historically significant, have strong cult followings, or are personal favorites that I feel are unjustly obscure.

I wanted to feel that if someone watched all of the movies on the list, they’d emerge with a solid grounding in the fairly wide world of fantastic cinema. There are movies on the list I don’t like (and some I loathe), but none I think make for worthless viewing experiences. It all depends on how you approach them. At the very least, I hope the list isn’t boring.


5. Out of all the movies you’ve seen, what have been the most pleasant surprises and alternately, what have been the most crushing disappointments?

Pleasant surprises abound. Anytime I encounter a movie that I’ve not heard anything about and discover that it’s excellent goes on this list. Before I saw them, I knew nothing about AN INSPECTOR CALLS, THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1948) or THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, just to name three that pop into mind immediately.

As for crushing disappointments, these are more difficult. My most memorable crushing disappointments occurred before the project started; for example, ARNOLD was one of those movies I’d been excited about, since it sounded like something I’d love, but I was extremely disappointed on my first viewing of it.

However, some movies did indeed disappoint me. I was hoping I would like ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW more than I did. I was expecting a lot more from THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL. SILENT RUNNING was one I harbored some hope for and was fairly appalled at the final result.

Yet, I do think I can point to one disappointment that sticks in my mind strongly, even though it was a movie I was already familiar with. When I viewed the 1956 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (a movie that I do recognize as one of the classics of the genre), I sadly realized that the movie no longer held any appeal for me. Sitting through it proved a chore, and I’ve come to realize that the movie simply doesn’t resonate with me anymore. This was perhaps the saddest revelation I’ve encountered on the whole project.

6. Finally, although you’ve reviewed over four thousand movies in more than twelve years time, there’s still several classics or historically important films you have yet to watch for your project. Which ones are you most looking forward to finally catching?

I think I can say that I’ve covered almost all of the really important genre films up to the early seventies at this point, Probably the earliest significant film that I haven’t covered so far would be THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and I know there are several others from the seventies (CARRIE, to pick one off of the top of my head) that I have yet to deal with. Of course, many of these I’ve already seen; I just haven’t done so for this project, so I already know in advance what I’m dealing with. If you’d asked me that question a year ago, I would have probably opted for DAWN OF THE DEAD as the one I was most curious about seeing, but that finally popped up last year. From the seventies, I’m probably most curious about PHANTASM at this point; it sounds intriguingly weird and rather original.

From the eighties, I’m probably most looking forward to checking out THE EVIL DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR, both of which I’ve heard quite a lot about. On another level, the movie I’m most looking forward to reviewing is FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, which I’ve seen several times but haven’t covered yet. I can practically guarantee I’m going to have at least ten thoughts about that one. [Addendum: The Evil Dead and Frankenstein Island have both since been reviewed]

Thanks again Dave! Be sure to check out the Musings and Ramblings website, and if you’re ever in Omaha, be sure to check the schedule at the Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre; Dave may very well be performing in their next play!

Seductive Beasts: The Female Werewolf in Victorian Literature


      The most exotic and interesting of all werewolves  must be the female werewolf. While the she-wolf is rare in any period’s literature, she does appear in the Victorian period quite a few times. Her appearance in literature is much rarer than in the oral history of lycanthropy which is full of women changing into wolves at night. When she does appear the she-wolf is often a sexual beast. She uses her dual nature and female charms to ensnare her prey. She is also a vehicle for at least one author to explore feminism and male sexual obsession something that would have been frowned on if it had been written about outside of the peculiar confines of Gothic horror.

 

A Rare Breed? The Female Werewolf

The female werewolf while very uncommon in literature holds a prominent place in myth and folklore. In our modern age when we think of female shape shifters wolves are often the last thing to come to mind. There are literally thousands of popular books depicting women turning into cats or catlike creatures but not wolves; however the female werewolf was much more popular in European mythology than our modern literary and media tradition would suggest. The female werewolf was prevalent in medieval stories and was often a witch that transformed herself with a magical potion. While the witch werewolf hybrid was the most common form of female werewolf it is far from the only type. Just as with males, female werewolves could be created by supernatural curses, deals with the devil, and even wearing the skin of wolves. Women could even turn their unborn children into werewolves by a simple magical spell that makes childbirth painless, “If a female at midnight stretches between four sticks the membrane which envelopes the foal when it is brought forth, and creeps through it, naked, she will bear children without pain; but all the boys will be were-wolves,” (Baring-Gould 80).

The female werewolf  was written about by several 19th century authors such as Clemance Housman and Frederick Marryat.  Housman was a writer, illustrator, and a leading feminist of her day. She wrote stories which fit more in with the traditional folklore than some of the other Gothic horror novelists. Her werewolves are the most interesting of the Victorian period and her exploration of the theme was more thoughtful and thought provoking than any of the other werewolf literature at the time.

 

 White Fell: Feminism, Sexuality, and Duality

The Were-Wolf, by Housman introduces us to the story with very little in the way of context or exposition. We know that it is winter, this is a large farmhouse, and that an extended family lives there. The names of the characters and even their pets give very little away about where or when this is taking place since they are a mix of Norse, Anglo Saxon, and Celtic names. We do know that this story probably takes place before the invention or at least the popularity of firearms as the only weapons used are an ax and a boar spear. Housman seems to have intentionally masked the characters in time and place to give the reader a sense of timelessness. This is important to the story in another way. White Fell, who we discover later is a werewolf, does not surprise the characters with her appearance. In she acts and dresses like a man and this is important for Housman’s underlying narrative. While White Fell is certainly the villain of the piece she also seems to be an extension of Housman’s ideas on feminism. White Fell is the equal to a man on every level. She is obviously a successful huntress. She able to best Christian (one of the two brothers in the story) in a foot race even after the narrative suggests that Christian is almost preternaturally fast. She is also able to outfight Christian and eventually gets the best of him. White Fell seems to represent a ferocious female spirit which can’t be defeated by any normal means.

This is however a Victorian novel and as such the female protagonist must be in some way depraved. Housman is able to get around that Victorian trope in several innovative ways. White Fell is the object of desire by Sweyn. Sweyn is the more beautiful and athletic of a pair of twins. He is only bested in one thing by his twin Christian and that is in the ability to run quickly. It may also be suggested that Christian has a much more keen sense of danger than Sweyn since Sweyn is totally taken in by the “Fell thing” (Housman 27). In Housman’s story it is not the werewolf who is the sexual wanton it is Sweyn. There is no suggestion in the story that Sweyn falls under the sway of the wolf woman by guile or even supernatural methods. No, Sweyn falls for White Fell naturally and because she is beautiful. He will hear no protest by his brother that she is a werewolf and his lust for her blinds him to the truth and to his brother’s concern. The tragedy of the story is not that a werewolf has arrived, but it is the unreasoning lust/love of Sweyn. This lust allows each death in the story as he protects White Fell from all accusations.

Christian from the beginning warns Sweyn and then the entire family that White fell was a supernatural creature but Sweyn convinced them all that Christian had gone mad with jealousy. In the end it was actually Sweyn’s jealousy that doomed them. White Fell is merely a predator doing what any predator would do. She is a monster but she would have had no power over the family if not for a lust that was not her own. Housman created what should be taken as a warning to all men that unreasoning love/lust is destructive.

Housman’s work is one that delves deeply into many issues that were prevalent in her time. Early on she explores the twin concepts of sexuality and feminism. Here she rejects the Victorian norm in which the strong sensual woman is the sexual predator. White Fell is a predator just not a sexual one. Instead she explores the idea that men are the origin of sexual deviancy and furthers her own ideas of feminism through the White Fell character. In fact if the last page of the story was missing this could have well been a story of a strong woman falsely accused of lycanthropy.

 

For Housman the female werewolf in her classic story is a vehicle for her to present a strong feminist inspired female character. White Fell is as competent as any man and had she not been hiding the creature inside herself she would have been the epitome of the perfect confidant woman. It is possible that Housman was telling the world that women had a hidden strength and that men should beware of their own hidden nature. This is an important concept because while White Fell has a dual nature the two male protagonists represent a dual nature of their own. The two men are twins and that alone should suggest this duality. Sweyn is beautiful and well made. The perfect male form but he harbors lust and distrust in his heart. Christian on the other hand is not beautiful and not the equal to his brother but he is pure of heart. Housman creates a modern parable by weaving a tale around three people who are never what they seem on the surface. It is a warning not to trust appearance but to find out the contents of a person’s heart.

Works Cited

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1865). The Book of Werewolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition. New York: Causeway Books, 1973. Print.

Clemence Housman (1896). The Were-Wolf. Web (Project Gutenberg) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13131

 

 

 

The Beetle: A Forgotten Classic

The Beetle was first published in March of 1897 in the literary magazine “Answers” as a serial story under the name “The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man”. Written by the enigmatic Richard Marsh the Serial ran for fifteen weeks and was initially targeted at a lower class audience. Then in September of 1897 the serial was repackaged as a novel and refined for the middle and upper middle class. The name was changed to reflect the tastes of this new audience and the novel was published with mostly good reviews.

The novel was continually in print until the late 1920s and it went through 27 print runs in that time. During the late 19th and early 20th century it would be more popular than Dracula, with which it shared similar themes. The Beetle then fell into obscurity in the 1930s. It was not really rediscovered until the 1960s and had very little critical evaluation until the early 1970s. It’s rediscovery among literary critics is due to the themes of sexuality and gender confusion that pervade the novel. The novel’s intense focus on gender in Victorian society has been the crux of much of the modern literary interest and has spurred new editions to be published by several different printing companies. As the book is in the public domain it can also be found free online at sites such as Project Gutenberg and several free editions on Kindle.

Gender, feminism, and homosexuality are the main focus of the novel. The book explores these in depth and the attitudes of the Victorian to each of these in enlightening. These attitudes tell us much about the foundations of our own culture which owes so much to the Victorians in terms of cultural mores and our expectations of gender roles. The Beetle turns gender roles upside down. Portraying women in drag and showing us a very dominating woman who is often mistaken for a man. Not only does the novel delve into the ideas of gender it is also a cautionary tale of mixing the mysticism of the East with the culture and science of the West. The themes of otherness and of eastern influences which corrupt and even dominate white Victorian society are also very prevalent in the novel. Finally the novel is viewed in terms of the psychological oppressiveness of its environment. The villain/creature roams the streets of London hiding in dark places that allow her freedom to work her black magics on her victims.

Most of the literary criticism of this novel has revolved around the idea of gender. The novel is full of scenes of women dressing and acting as men. Much of this gender swapping is forced by the hypnotic suggestion of the priestess of Isis but the character of Marjorie Holt who is forced to dress and act as a man has already been introduced to the reader as one of the “New Women”. She is a feminist and her feminism is juxtaposed against her transgender domination by the priestess of Isis. This priestess when first viewed is almost universally mistaken for a man. These two women form a core of feminist ideology and gender confusion around which the novel becomes rich fodder for gender, feminist, and queer criticism. “Victorian fear of the den depravity, the hidden potency, of the female.” (Hurley 213) the idea of the female using her sexuality was frightening to the Victorian mind. This is a common theme in Victorian literature and it is fully on display in The Beetle. Not only is the priestess able to dominate her victims mentally she is able to walk in both the world of man and woman. She is the ultimate predator both sexually and physically.

Secondary to the modern reader but more important to those contemporary to the novel is the idea of post colonialism, or even reverse colonialism that is presented. “The Other” as represented by the priestess of Isis can be seen as an infection of Western culture by that of the far East. The creature could be seen as a “means of the appropriation and destruction of symbols of the moral, spiritual, and racial superiority of England’s ruling class- its women.”(Garnett 30). The Monster feeds through its domination of women and men, in this way the creature corrupts Victorian society and everything it touches. It is made plain in the book that the monster craves the white flesh of its victims. It wants both to have that flesh literally and to possess it sexually. This sexual corruption is certainly an allusion to the fear of the “Other” or people moving into London from the colonies. The creature in craving white flesh could be seen as a Victorian fear of miscegenation. The average Victorian must have felt that natives arriving in London were not much better than primitive savages and were there to corrupt and destroy their society.  The Beetle came along at just the perfect time to feed into these ideas of reverse colonization. This may go a long way towards explaining why this novel did so well originally even outselling Dracula in its day and it also may be a reason it declined in sales after the first World War as cultural fears began to change in the West. It would be interesting to look at how interest in the novel changed over time with cultural value changes.

The reader of the novel also can’t help but be struck by the environment in which the novel takes place. Some of the literary criticism has taken the environment and ecology into account when looking at the novel. Based in 19th century London The Beetle takes place in a crowded and dark urban environment. Much of the action of the novel takes place at night and in the shadows. This idea of the environment adding to the fears of the reader has not been lost on the critical reviewers of the piece. Speaking of  Marsh’s work Minna Vuohelainen states “his fiction provides us with phobic readings of monstrosity which are closely linked to the spatial experiences of fin-de-siècle London.”(Vuohelainen 32). Her supposition is that much of the horror in The Beetle is derived from a fear of claustrophobia. London at the turn of the century provided a perfect setting for this type of fear. It was crowded and a constant pallor of smoke lay oppressively over the city. The city was almost a living organism itself giving rise to a fear of being overwhelmed by it at any moment. Onto this backdrop Marsh sets his story of sexual perversion and horror and it created a true psychological mixture that put fear into the audience. I don’t think any of us not living in that city at that time could fully appreciate the gothic novels that revolve around the oppressive nature of London.

            The Beetle is a rich nuanced text full of both horror and what would seem like overt sexual situations to the Victorian mind. By today’s standards these seem a little dated and most of the action is hinted at rather than blatant. There is however something to be said for horror that occurs off screen. Our minds are free to create the most intense horror for ourselves, out of our own imagination, and from our own intimate fears. The Beetle creates a world in which the Victorian mind would have felt fear and anxiety. It is a novel dominated by women out of their natural element. Women corrupted by vile magic. This is true of both the female villain who transforms from Man, to beetle, to priestess or the female victim suffering the sexual appetites of the villain and being forced into a transgendered parody of herself. The Beetle is a masterpiece of horror that gives us many different visions of how the Victorian mind looked at sex, foreigners, and the horror of their own backyard.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Hurley, Kelly. “The Inner Chambers of all Nameless Sin: The Beetle, Gothic Female Sexuality, and Oriental Barbarism.” Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. ed. Lloyd Davis. New York: Suny Press 1993: 193-213. Print.

 

Garnett, Rhys. “Dracula and The Beetle: Imperial and Sexual Guilt and Fear in Late Victorian Fantasy”. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. ed.  Rhys Garnett and R.J. Ellis. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990: 30-54. Print.

 

 

Vuohelainen, Minna. “Cribbd, Cabined, and Confined: Fear, Claustrophobia and Modernity in Richard Marsh’s Urban Gothic Fiction.” Journal of Literature and Science 3.1 (2010): 23-36. JLS online. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

Dracula Returns to TV on NBC

Dracula Returns to TV on NBC

Daniel Knauf creator of Carnivàle will be bringing the Dracula legend back to life for NBC in a new ten part series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the undead Count. Knauf has stated his Dracula will be true to the original monster and will not be one of the current brand of metrosexual, whining, fang boys. I look forward to Mr. Knauf’s vision. As a student of Gothic horror, Dracula is one of my favorite Victorian novels right after The Beetle……. Mr. Knauf if you are reading this we need a TV show or movie based on The Beetle it is the perfect project for the modern audience. Very few stories even today feature a transsexual, energy vampire, who is also a giant beetle, But I digress.

Dracula returning to the small screen has made me nostalgic for my favorite vampire movies. For a creature who according to the Hollywood legend can’t be filmed, Dracula and his vampire minions have been featured on more rolls of celluloid than probably any other monster. It would be almost impossible to discuss even a tenth of the movies inspired by Bram Stoker’s masterwork so I would like to focus on the ones I feel have done the best job conveying the creature Stoker created. While these films are not always faithful reproductions of the novel, I feel they capture the feel and even some of the subtext of the book. I refer of course to the Hammer Films “Dracula” movies.
The first of these was released in 1958 and was simply called “Dracula”.  As I said it is not fully faithful to the novel but I believe it to be faithful to Stoker’s vision of Dracula. Dracula is not a sympathetic figure he is a predator both feeding off the living and a sexual predator, a creature of desire. In the novel Stoker introduces us to a host of sexually alluring vampires which feed off their hapless victims. Stoker’s  female vampires are described in animalistic terms. They lick their scarlet lips, they arch their backs suggestively, and they use sexto their advantage . These are not your typical Victorian women. Hammer films capture these creatures perfectly. They are walking talking damnation both sexually and physically. A danger to any man or women they happen to meet. The Victorian sexual prudishness is exposed by these creatures and Hammer productions exposes the same vein of prudishness in 50’s society. In fact, while there is very little nudity or even real overt violence in the first hammer “Dracula” feature that first movie was given an X rating. By today’s standards the film could be aired almost in its entirety on television.

These films feature Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Von Helsing. They are not in every film in the series but do have recurring roles throughout.

The movies Hammer Films produced about Dracula are

1. Dracula
2. The Brides of Dracula
3. Dracula Prince of Darkness
4. Taste the blood of Dracula
5. Scars of Dracula
6. The Satanic Rites of Dracula
(There may be a couple more I have forgotten)

these movies are well worth watching my favorite is “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” mainly because Dracula in this movie is a monster but one that is much more intelligent and thoughtful than in the earlier movies. I prefer my vampires evil the way they were meant to be Hammer Films deliver. Let’s hope the new Dracula TV show delivers as well. I’ll be watching.

Aliens and Serial Killers: The New Season of American Horror Story

Aliens and Serial Killers: The New Season of American Horror Story

Spoilers……

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the first season of American Horror Story. The show is brilliant. As much as I would probably hate the politics of the show runners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk I can give them a pass simply because they are masterful storytellers. If you know anything about me you know that for me story is the most important aspect of any entertainment endeavor. So last season was a masterpiece of the storyteller’s art.

We have been promised that each season will be a different type of horror and that each Season will be one encapsulated story. An anthology series in which each story is a season long. Has this ever been attempted before? If not this is a genius idea. The new season introduces us to an entire cast of new characters, some of which are being played by actors from the first season. In the same way that each season will be a separate story the show runners have promised that each season will feature a different kind of supernatural horror (they have promised never to have that horror be vampires).  I was wondering what this season could possibly have in store for us as the monster/ghost/etc and as I watched last night and it blew me away. (Ok, that pun was intentional and when you watch the first episode you will know why) all I need to say is that we are being presented with a story that combines serial killers and aliens. Before last night I would have said “That’s Insane” (another intentional pun). I would have never believed that you could combine the two and create a watchable show but Murphy and Falchuk have pulled it off.

Now I did have some minor quibbles. The show starts off with some very stiff, uneven, and even unwieldy dialogue.  I believe the problem stemmed from needing to quickly impart to the viewer what the show was about and this led to an overabundance of expository dialogue and that never works well. As the show progressed across the hour it left this behind and by the end the dialogue was crisp and worked well. At least we have now been informed about each of the character’s motivations so I expect no more problems.

As I was watching I thought the inclusion of the aliens would end up being just part of Kit Walker’s (Evan Peter) psychological delusion. I was floored when the Doctor (James Cromwell) discovered an alien implant in Walker’s neck. We will see more of that implant I am sure. The fact that the aliens abducted an interracial couple seems likes an appropriate homage to the story of Betty and Barney Hill who claim to have been abducted in the early 1960s. I am giving this show very high marks and believe that it will be one of the television highlights of the season.