Posts Tagged ‘film writing’

maxresdefaultA once-fabulous mansion in decline, its worn vestiges of better times heartbreakingly reflected in the deep shadows of its spider-webbed corners. A large 1930s home in a quiet, upscale suburb, hiding a lifetime of pain and dark secrets. The sprawling landscape of Hollywood is littered with broken dreams and ruined lives; the never-were scrambling for a chance at making their mark, while the has-beens fall into obscurity, earning, at best, a footnote in the clutter of contemporary American culture.

The movie industry is a particularly cruel business; everyone involved is just one flop, one bad review, away from ruin, a concept that most of us will never understand. We live our lives within our small circle of friends and family and, except in cases of abuse or neglect, that is where we stay: unknown to most, close to a few, in simple, manageable lives. For those who have tasted and enjoyed stardom, however, to be unknown is akin to being dead, but without the relative comfort of eternal rest and a marker at Forest Lawn.

In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), struggling writer Joe Gillis makes a fateful turn into a driveway while evading repo men, and finds himself propelled into the world of Norma Desmond, once the darling of film’s silent era, “the greatest star of them all,” as she puts it. As happened with countless others, Desmond’s career came to an abrupt end when the film industry changed over to talking pictures.

Protected from the outside world by the remains of her fortune and her loyal servant Max, Norma Desmond surrounds herself with memories, both real and imagined, blissfully unaware that she is all but forgotten in 1950 Hollywood. Seeing an opportunity with the young writer who falls into her life, Norma plots her return to the silver screen, with a script she has spent the last several decades writing. Gillis sees in Norma Desmond a chance to make some money and get ahead of his debts, because her script is, predictably, awful, not least because the fifty-one-year-old actress wants to play the role of Salome herself, despite the three-decade gap in age.

In her efforts to defy the advancement of time, Norma surrounds herself with past associates from the silent era, diligently applying her makeup to stave off the evidence of age, and re-watching her old films, night after night. Her sense of fashion is thirty years out of date, and we readily see that she is living in a time capsule, a safe place far from the world that has long since forgotten her. She is as much a prisoner in her world as Joe Gillis, bound by her delusions and an intricate web of dependency and lies, as real as the fan letters she continues to receive.

Gillis soon finds himself a captive in Norma’s world, seduced by the gifts she lavishes upon him, the convenience that her money provides. He becomes essentially a kept man, unable to break away for the sake of Norma’s fragile grip on her version of reality, as he discovers that his benefactor’s sanity is a delicate balancing act, enabled and supported by Max, and the secrets that bind them. Norma Desmond desires is to be back in the spotlight, on the screen, to beg for the acceptance and forgiveness of the fans that she left so long ago, and incapable of accepting that time continued marching forward and she has been all but forgotten. When she is ultimately faced with the terrible truth, tragedy naturally prevails, as inevitably as night follows day.

As Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson gives the performance of a lifetime, and an ironic one as well. Swanson, who had been Paramount’s top star for six straight years during the silent era, had retired from film and moved to New York, where she worked in radio, and later, television. Swanson, however, understood that her time in film had passed, and was comfortable with this knowledge. It is notable that numerous silent film stars had been invited to a screening of Sunset Boulevard, and gave Swanson a standing ovation at the film’s end.

Sunset Boulevard holds a brutal mirror up to Hollywood, daring it to look itself in the eye and acknowledge its complicity in the using and discarding of lives, giving no support or counsel to those who fight the tide, or whose demons won’t go unheard.

Robert Aldrich’s film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), further examines the phenomena of those whom the world once adored, but then discarded, in a story as dark as Sunset Boulevard, but with the added elements of sibling warfare and toxic co-dependency.

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In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson is the darling of the vaudeville stage, while her sister Blanche watches from the sidelines, seething with resentment while their father gives all his love and attention to the spoiled, tyrannical Jane. By 1935, both sisters are working in Hollywood, but it is Blanche who is now the star while Jane has nothing but failure, despite Blanche’s demand that for every film she makes, the studio must make one for Jane as well. A drunken car crash leaves Blanche confined to a wheelchair, with Jane as her caretaker. Jane’s failure has turned her into a bitter lush, and whose grip on reality has become tenuous at best. By 1962, their already difficult relationship has turned dangerous: Jane’s psychosis has become more delusional and violent, while Blanche seems to have all but surrendered to her demented sister. As sibling dysfunction and the realities of aging pile up, the sisters rush headlong into an inevitable confrontation in which secrets and lies come to light, leaving neither woman untouched.

Each sister carries her own demons and responsibility for the events that have led them to this place in time, and neither is completely innocent. Davis plays Jane as a grotesquerie, a monstrous, raging gargoyle that dresses as she did in her childhood heyday, heavily piling on makeup in a vain attempt at covering the ravages of failure, alcohol, and hateful spite. There is, however, a delicate sorrow to her character, of which we are given glimpses as the story progresses. Jane Hudson has become a lost soul; forty-five years have passed since she was a star, and she appears to have no idea how the time has passed, and the damage it has done to her, forever trapped in the mind of a petulant, over-indulged child. It is a tour-de-force performance for Davis, which won her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Crawford, on the other hand, imbues Blanche with an almost noble, quiet dignity, enduring Jane’s viciousness with the grace and compassion that we would think could only come from true caring. Blanche is the rational adult of the two, looking out for Jane even as Jane’s attacks become increasingly violent and disturbing. We learn that while she wants to sell their house and find a place where Jane can receive the care that she needs, Blanche doesn’t appear to have any plans for herself, so deep is the love that she seems to have for her troubled sister. With time, we come to realize that Blanche may not be as loving and altruistic as she appears, and that deep secrets and hostility run on both sides of their bitter divide, and that this is perhaps a shared family trait, with neither sister having exclusive ownership of bitterness.

 At the heart of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? lies a story of family, and the damage that family can inflict upon itself. Who would put up with Jane’s constant abuse, if not a family member? Who would take charge of Blanche’s needs, if not a sibling? While these are admirable traits, family can oftentimes be a source of great discomfort and frustration, causing more pain than any stranger ever could, and enduring abuse that we would accept from no one. Family can be a fine and wonderful thing; it can also be a nightmare of dysfunction and heartbreak.

Like Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? examines the lament of the forgotten; whenever Jane is out in public, she compulsively asks whomever she is talking to if they know who she is, seemingly unaware of how much time has passed since she was popular, and dreams of returning to her former glory in a world that has moved on without her, in much the same way as Norma Desmond, but without the funds, direction, or backhanded support that Desmond enjoyedJane and Blanche Hudson are prisoners in their lives as much as Norma Desmond, their horrors are what connects them to us, and make no mistake: these are both horror films. The horror of growing old and being forgotten, of having no control over one’s life, of all-consuming, soul-destroying resentment and rage, of losing oneself to madness. The monsters in this film are very real, and all the more horrifying because of their familiarity to people we might know.

The streets and graveyards of Hollywood are filled with the lost and forgotten, those who couldn’t make the transition from from child star to adulthood, from silent to talkies, who had their shot at stardom and blew it, who never had a chance or a prayer, with no clue what to do as time marches mercilessly forward, and no protector to save them from themselves. Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are harsh indictments against an industry that prizes youth and beauty above all else, but it is also a judgment against us, the audience, for our capricious willingness to discard those whose dreams, whose desires, are to gain our acceptance and love, to make a name for themselves by making a place in our hearts.

 

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In the pursuit of examining any significant era in filmmaking, and perhaps horror films in particular, one must first gain an understanding of the time in which it happened, as history provides context. Without context, films are merely images on a screen, events without meaning and while they may still evoke an emotional response, we don’t truly understand the depth, the scope, of the emotions.

When the First World War came to an end in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, dated 28 June 1919, required Germany, which had been defeated by the Allied Forces, to “Accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” incurred during the war. In addition, Germany was forced to disarm, make territorial concessions, and pay reparations for damages caused to the civilian populations of the Allied nations and their properties. As with any event in which countries seek to make demands of those they vanquish, it is often the general population that has the least involvement, yet pays the highest price.

In other words, Germany was defeated, humiliated, and broke, left in a state of social, economic, and political bedlam. The reparations demand placed a heavy burden on the economy, leading to a period of hyperinflation, during which the value of German Mark plummeted and came close to ruining the country’s economy. The average citizens had no choice in the matter, no options they could exercise; rather, they were forced to make difficult sacrifices, which led to unrest and suspicion of convenient scapegoats, which ultimately set in motion the events that would, in 1933, bring about the rise of the Third Reich.

 The generation of artists who came of age during this turbulent time were quick to assign blame on the preceding generation’s values and ideals; gone were the traditional notions of beauty and art, replaced by darkness, violence, and the emotional chaos felt by many in the post-war years. On painters’ canvasses and on motion picture screens, cities were in ruins, with their denizens lost in inescapable states of fear, rage, and paranoia. By an odd turn of events, Germany’s embargo against imported films caused a boom for its own motion picture industry, as the populace clamored for entertainment and distractions. Rather than offering fantasy-laden escapist fare, filmmakers chose to express the inner angst and confusion of the times in a stark and surreal fashion, creating films in which the inner turmoil spreads radially, concocting a world of distorted angles, deep shadows, and altered perception where no one, despite their alleged social standing, was immune from corruption.

cabinet-of-dr.-caligariAgainst this dark and emotionally brutal background, director Robert Wiene unleashed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the story of a traveling carnival, and one of its attractions, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who can answer questions about the future while in his sleepwalking state. Cesare is controlled by the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose motives may be far more sinister than providing mere carnival tricks. Cesare ventures out into the world at the hypnotic behest of his master, performing whatever tasks are demanded of him. It is within these scenes that Caligari is at its most masterful; surely, the idea of being completely controlled by another person, while in a sleeping state when one is at their most vulnerable, has been the subject of countless nightmares for untold generations, and calls to question the very sanity of existence. Indeed, insanity is a significant component not just in Dr Caligari, but in many films of the German Expressionist era.

As the tale of Dr Caligari plays out, it sheds many layers. When one believes they have the story puzzled out, it changes; the rug is pulled out from under the viewer so many times that it becomes difficult to accept the reality of anything projected on the screen. This may have been the ultimate goal of expressionist cinema: the disorientation of the viewer and the total immersion into a world at once disturbingly alien and yet eerily familiar.

Dr Caligari is a landmark work in the field of motion pictures; the actors are grotesquely made up and move in unnatural ways, making them appear at times to be controlled by unseen puppeteers (as many of the time no doubt felt, completely out of control of their own lives and destinies), while the sets are abstract and exaggerated, reflecting the ravaged landscape and emotional turmoil of postwar Germany. Shell-shocked and reeling from the devastating effects of war, it is not unreasonable to believe that many moviegoers felt a warped kinship with the sleepwalker as Caligari directs his every step. The effect of these efforts is that the viewer cannot help but to be drawn in, to experience the nightmare on a personal level, for the simple reason that there is no semblance of normalcy to cling to. In the expressionist world of Dr Caligari, nothing is as it seems, and no one is innocent.

Wiene’s unprecedented use of light and shadow was revolutionary for its time, providing a virtual blueprint for the horror and film noir genres that would soon find their genesis in Hollywood, particularly as German filmmakers would flee the country in ensuing years, as right-wing fanaticism gained a foothold and horrors far worse than those in films arose to lead Germany into unfathomable darkness.

By most estimates, the Expressionist era lasted seven to ten years, but its trademarks of anti-heroes, moral ambiguity, and inescapable human darkness have endured and earned a much-deserved place in the canon of filmmaking and film history.

The films of the Expressionist period struck a discordant resonance with audiences, even if they weren’t quite able to explain what exactly moved them. The psychological currents of a nation in decline were writ large upon the movie screen, and people turned out to see the elements that came to define the movement: anti-heroes, an underworld populated by criminals, madness, paranoia, and extreme use of light and shadow, to name but a few. While films of this time generally relied upon exaggerated sets that mirrored the chaos of the story and its characters, one film stood out for its use of locations that conveyed the same themes, and while its story took place in the preceding century, it came to define not just a style of filmmaking, but also a primary mythos of horror films, the rules of which are still followed to this day.

NosferatuShadowNosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s film about a vampire was almost lost to history; the story was taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Stoker’s widow went to court to have the film destroyed. All prints were burned, save but one, which had been traveling abroad. Without that single print, the film would be a mysterious footnote in history, not unlike London After Midnight (1927), all prints of which are believed to be lost.

Nosferatu illustrates the growing of sense national xenophobia in a clever fashion; its antagonist, the vampire Count Orlock (Max Schreck) is shown as a beady-eyed, hooked-nosed, leering monster that sleeps in a box filled with dirt, and seeks to relocate from his home in Transylvania. This portrayal reflects the fears of many Germans, who were seeing immigrants pouring into the country with strange customs and unfamiliar appearances, bringing with them their money and religions, and the threat of their blood mingling with that of the German people. With these factors in mind, there is little wonder why this film was a success. In this landmark work of horror, the vampire, like the rats it sleeps with, is vermin, a literal plague carrier. It is no coincidence that vampiric folklore appears to have found its roots in Europe during the Black Death, and were vampires were suspected of being the source of the plague that claimed an estimated seventy-five to two-hundred million people in the fourteenth century. In a genre filled with beautiful, sensual and, perhaps most horrifyingly, sparkling vampires, it is important to realize that the cinematic birth of the undead bloodsucker shows it as a parasitic rodent.

The-Hands-of-Orlac-insideIn 1924, Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) re-teamed for The Hands of Orlac, which tells the story of a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident, only to have them surgically replaced with the hands of an executed killer. Orlac (Veidt) cannot play the piano with his new hands, but soon learns that the hands still carry their previous owner’s urge to kill. The feeling that one no longer has control over one’s own body or mind, coupled with advances in medical science, fueled fears over the loss of self in the midst of a changing world over which the individual had no control, are archetypal of the era. Orlac, while an Austrian production, is nonetheless considered an important film of the Expressionist movement.

As the 1920s progressed, the themes expressed within the Expressionist era became more pronounced, as the gap between the privileged and the poor grew ever-wider, and the nation teetered closer to a breakdown, nowhere was this disparity been documented as spectacularly as in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis (1927).

300007-metropolis_productionstill_300dpi_09While wealthy industrialists and their children live and play in aboveground luxury, the masses toil below, working at the machines that provide power for the city, in subhuman conditions. To die from exhaustion is a common occurrence, but a minor inconvenience, as there are always more ready and willing to enslave themselves to the machines. A chance occurrence leads a young man of privilege to see the world that exists just beneath his feet and it is from this revelation that the young man fights to bring the rich and poor together.

The story of Metropolis echoes the desire of the industrialists who sought to overthrow the postwar Weimar Republic, and the working and unemployed classes who were left with no choice but to float along in their wake, assured of nothing but a future filled with uncertainty. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Republic led to the ascendency of failed artist and former prisoner (sentenced for treason) Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power would effectively bring an end to the already fading Expressionist movement, and ushering in an new era of unimaginable horror, forcing scores artists and filmmakers to flee their homeland. Not coincidentally, many German filmmakers found a new home in Hollywood.

the-last-will-of-dr-mabuse-aka-le-everett1933: Fritz Lang, acclaimed director of Metropolis (1927) and Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) finds that his latest film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, has been banned by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda under Adolph Hitler, stating that the film would be a menace to public health and safety, because it “showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence.” Goebbels was, however, impressed enough by Metropolis that he extended to Lang the opportunity to make films for the Nazi party, which caused him to flee to Paris that night, according to Lang, although this accounting has been questioned.

Whatever the case, the tide in Germany was turning, and it comes as no surprise that many of the first casualties of the rise of the Third Reich would be the artists, those who were able to communicate complex ideas to the masses; truly a terrifying ability in the eyes of those who sought to control those same masses. Starting around 1933, directors and actors Karl Freund, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Curt Siodmak, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Edgar Ulmer, and Douglas Sirk, to name but a few, emigrated to the United States due to a ban, by Goebbels, of all non-Aryan film professionals whose politics or lifestyles were considered unacceptable by the Nazi Party.

The flood of immigrants into Hollywood would have far-reaching effects on American filmmaking, particularly in the realm of horror films. Carl Laemmle, a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1884, founded Universal Studios in 1915. By the 1920s, Universal was making a name for itself in horror, with the legendary Lon Chaney proving to be a vital draw for the company with such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In 1928, Laemmle gave his son, Carl Jr, Universal Studios as a twenty-first birthday gift. Carl Jr went to work creating what is now known as the Universal Horror era, releasing Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and many others. Many of these now-classic films contain vital elements of the Expressionist style, such as heavy use of light and shadow, disfigurement, mental instability, mad science, loss of identity, and flawed antiheroes.

003-sunrise-theredlistFW Murnau, director of Nosferatu, immigrated to the United States and was immediately put to work directing the silent masterpiece Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans (1927), which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning three Academy Awards in the Academy’s first ceremony. Sunrise makes use of the mise-en-scene, a common element of Expressionist cinema, to ‘bring’ the audience into the picture, utilizing all aspects of the shot, from sets, composition, costumes, music, and performances, all carefully composed to convey a specific message; in this case, the mise-en-scene takes the viewer into the heart and mind of a man and woman’s affair, which may lead to a devastating outcome.

Flicker_coverOf the homages to the German Expressionism movement, particular attention must be paid to Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel Flicker, which takes the art of the era to a sinister level. Flicker is the story of Max Castle, a fictional German filmmaker who immigrated to the United States, making Poverty-Row movies, few prints of which still exist. Castle’s films utilize the darkness of shadows and the gap between frames (the ‘flicker’) of motion picture prints to install subliminal images that could, if the lost and missing films are seen, bring about tragedy of an apocalyptic scale, perhaps echoing the concerns of those who sought to ban such ‘subversive’ films in real life. Meticulous in detail and message, Flicker is a dense, disturbing, and fascinating look at the power of filmmaking, and an absolute must-read for any enthusiast of cinema.

The impact of the Expressionist movement upon American and international cinema is immeasurable, with countless films, from The Third Man (1949) to Blade Runner (1982) to music videos (Rob Zombie’s Living Dead Girl is a loving tribute to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,) owing much of their appeal, aesthetics, and emotional impact to a filmic movement created by a post-war desire for humiliation and blame-laying, and fueled by the rise of a nationalist fascist dictator.

thestandjpg-7125d8_1280wIn his epic 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King killed everything. An intensely aggressive form of influenza is accidentally released from a government research facility and one panicked guard escapes before quarantine is initiated. The guard spreads the plague, which grows exponentially, until 99.4% of the population is dead. Those who remain are alone or in splintered groups scattered across the United States, with a common thread. Many of them begin to have dreams: some dream of a kindly old woman in Nebraska, while others see a dark man in Las Vegas. Drifting aimlessly around the corpse of America, the paths of survivors eventually intersect and when it is realized that they are having the same dreams, the groups decide to travel to one of the two dreamed-about locations. The battle lines are being drawn; the time has come for humanity to make its stand, in the final war of good against evil.

While the story is one of survival in a radically changed landscape, it is also one of humanity lost and humanity found; each of the nearly thirty main and incidental characters faces a choice at some point in his or her journey, and it is these choices that ultimately dictate where they will land. The central protagonist, an East Texan called Stu Redman, is a good ol’ boy whose life is marked by tragedy and regret, and his mysterious immunity to the disease unfortunately lands him in a government research facility, located in Vermont. His experience in quarantine is truly nightmarish and through Redman, the reader is subjected to the horrors of isolation and confinement, of having no say in the course of one’s life, instead subjected to the poking and prodding of scientists who have no answer for his resistance to the illness. A frightening parallel could be made to the experiences of those who were subjected to imprisoned in concentration camps, whose minds and bodies were completely controlled by doctors whose motives were less than humane.

Other central characters include a rock star whose self-centered ways may be his ruination, a young expectant mother, a high-school boy whose resentment over being an outcast at school guides him bitterly but, in the new post-plague world, he has the chance to reinvent himself, provided he can leave the past behind. A sociology professor, a troubled woman with a dark secret, a developmentally disabled man, a young deaf-mute, a petty criminal, a schizophrenic pyromaniac, and numerous others round out a diverse cast, each of which have a past to contend with, and a future to decide.

While the characters are well-developed, as is common with King’s work, two particularly stand out: Harold Lauder, a sixteen-year-old whose intelligence and social awkwardness made him an outcast in the pre-plague world, and Donald Merwin Elbert (aka “Trashcan Man”), the aforementioned pyromaniac whose own troubled past appears inescapable and guides his actions, even when salvation is at hand. Like Arnie Cunningham in Christine, these two characters are incredibly well-written, both having significant paternal issues and episodes of being bullied and tormented at school, and the rage that fuels the actions of each. These characters are essential to the King canon, being possible extensions of his own childhood; indeed, bullies appear in nearly all of King’s works, and the ends that come to many of them reinforce the possibility that King may have been cathartically working out some issues.

Although published thirty-five years ago (with an extended version released in 1990, The Stand is eerily prescient with its themes of nuclear and biological warfare, governmental bungling, religious fanaticism, and police-state imagery. It is a cautionary tale for the ages, inviting the reader into an all-too real America in which each person must wade through their personal nightmares and pasts, and decide whether to take a stand, to make a claim for their own life and the direction in which they choose to take it.

In 1979, the paperback edition of The Stand noted that the book was soon to be made into a film by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead); however, after languishing in development for years, Romero dropped out and the plans were scuttled. In 1994, The Stand aired on television as an eight-hour (about six hours without commercials), four-part miniseries.

Long-time fans of King’s masterwork were split on their opinions, and for valid reasons: important characters were eliminated, unnecessarily changed or combined with others, plotlines were altered or abandoned, and the casting of actors was wildly uneven, ranging from brilliant to absurd. Fans rejoiced in the casting of Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman, Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen; the decision to have Rob Lowe portray Nick Andros was at first curious, but worked out well, while casting Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man was absolute, demented genius. However, the project was bogged down by the unfortunate casting of Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec as Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, Laura San Giacomo as Nadine Cross, Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid, and Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Ferrer was completely wrong for the part of the gullible, criminal man-child; Nemec carried none of Harold’s toxic rage or inner conflict; Ringwald made Frannie whining and weak, San Giacomo bumbled around, seemingly lost and, worst of all, Sheridan turned Flagg, the embodiment of death and destruction, possibly the Antichrist, into a leering caricature more suited for a soap opera.

The horrifying set pieces from the novel appear restricted by the small screen both in scope and in budget, their terror muted and sanitized for a general audience, and even the final confrontation, in which an enormous, angry mob draws together for a show trial, a final reckoning, during which all present must decide which side they stand on, comes off as a small gathering, carrying none of the gravity that it could and should have. Budgeted at twenty-eight million dollars (US), there simply wasn’t enough money to make The Stand as grand as it should have been, and eight hours did not give enough time to bring the book truly to life. Additionally, the sensibilities of 1994 did not allow ABC Television the freedom to bring much of The Stand’s horror and grimness to life, and many of the book’s themes were downplayed or muddled. Still, ABC made what appears to be an earnest attempt and, given the constraints under which they were working, one can forgive some of the decisions that were made.

That said, it has been reported that that Warner Brothers and CBS Films are developing a feature-length film adaptation of The Stand, and that it may be produced as a trilogy of films, with Ben Affleck at the helm. Given his recent run of successes and rebirth as a serious player in Hollywood, The Stand may yet make a transition to screen that will not only satisfy its lifelong fans, but also spur the uninitiated into taking on the dark nightmare of King’s epic masterpiece. The recent casting of Matthew McConaughey as the Main in Black (Randall Flagg)  in the big-screen adaptation of King’s Dark Tower, has many fans hoping that he will carry the role over to the new telling of The Stand; this writer thinks it would be a perfect match.

9f4768b4bd4a205e1d3a60398ab022a2_567x210There is a special kind of magic when a guy gets his first car; it’s a feeling of liberation, of freedom, to climb in and just take off. The mysterious allure of the open road, the siren song of several hundred horses under the hood and a tiger in the tank, rocketing into the future without a care in the world. There is a darker side as well, that of squealing brakes and crushing metal, the bitter sting of humiliation, shattered dreams, and innocence torn asunder. Of love betrayed and forever lost.

These are the central themes of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), in which Arnie Cunningham purchases his first car, a broken-down 1958 Plymouth Fury, against the wishes of his parents and against the advice of his best and only friend, Dennis Guilder. Arnie is portrayed as a quintessential high school nerd, scrawny and pimple-faced, constantly harassed by the school bullies, invisible to the opposite sex. As Arnie gets to work on restoring the car, which he names Christine, the visible changes to the car causes a metamorphosis in Arnie; the blemishes disappear, awkwardness gives way to coolness, and even the girls begin to pay attention to love-starved Arnie. Arnie’s liberation, however, carries with it a steep price: a bond forms between Arnie and his car, and Christine appears to be systematically killing those who had victimized him and those who attempt to attract Arnie’s attention. Christine, as it turns out, is a jealous sort, and she won’t tolerate anyone coming between her and her man. Arnie’s newfound confidence and appearance finds him with the prettiest girl in school, with calamitous results.

Christine is a story told in three parts: first is a first-person account from Dennis’ point of view, the second is in third-person and focuses on Arnie, then returns to Dennis in first-person for the conclusion. This technique makes for a very intimate telling, and allows the reader to gain the perspective of one who is losing their best friend to forces they can’t understand, as well as the painful changes that often happen in long-term friendships when those involved grow in different directions, for different reasons. Dennis likens Arnie’s spiral into obsession with Christine to that of a nice guy who winds up with the school tramp; try as he might to convince everyone that she’s really a special, wonderful person, they all know deep down that she’s trouble, and that no good will come of it, but he won’t hear of it, because she is the first girl who ever paid attention to him and sometimes, that’s enough.

Arnie Cunningham is doubtlessly one of King’s best-written characters and the reason is readily apparent: Arnie, just like Harold Lauder and Trashcan Man from The Stand, are extensions of King himself. The years of not fitting in, social and physical awkwardness, bullying, humiliation, crushes, and pent-up rage are masterfully funneled into these characters and it is this authenticity, this heartbreaking honesty, which makes these characters so compelling, so real. We cheer Arnie’s growing coolness at first, but are later repelled by his inability to understand the reality of his situation and his unwillingness to extricate himself from a relationship that redefines the concept of codependent dysfunction.

Each chapter in Christine opens with a passage from a 1950s car song that gives subtle indication to the action that will follow, and the three parts, titled Teenage Car Songs, Teenage Love Songs, and Teenage Death Songs, give us an idea of where the exquisitely paced story arc is headed, without giving anything away. From the first page, the story is suffused with a feeling of profound loss at that most delicate time of life, when one attempts to make the transition from child to adult. Being written by Stephen King, we can assume that Christine is a horror story, which it most certainly is, but perhaps the horror isn’t the scary car, but rather the realization that youth’s blossom fades too quickly, and that not all of us are able or willing to grow up. Despite all our best intentions, fate follows its own agenda, often with tragic, irreversible results.

Also in 1983, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter directed the film adaptation of Christine, at a time in which King adaptations were being produced at a furious rate, with often-dubious quality. Happily, Carpenter’s version follows the source material keenly, and the casting of Keith Gordon as Arnie and John Stockwell as Dennis works very well; the chemistry of the actors is organic and believable. In Carpenter’s version, Christine’s pedigree has changed: in the book, the reader is introduced to the car as it sits moldering in its owner’s yard; in the film, Christine is first seen on the assembly line, injuring several workers in the act of building it. This change is significant, as it turns Christine from being a vessel for the suppressed rage of its owners into something that was essentially ‘born bad’ and causes a major shift in the relational dynamic from personal to impersonal. The resulting film, which is very enjoyable, loses a fair degree of the emotional depth and overwhelming sense of tragedy that the book conveys.

This is a chief complaint with many King book-to-movie adaptations: when the author invests a great deal of energy and emotion building characters to very specific standards, as King does, much is inevitably lost in the transition to film. While Carpenter’s film is well-directed and worthy of respect, the themes of the book, as discussed above, are largely lost. In both versions, ancillary characters are not nearly as developed largely because their purpose is to propel the main characters, Arnie, Dennis, and Christine. When all is said and done, both versions stand up well, each on their own merits, and each worth a second look.

lifeforceThe Cannon Group. To those who were of a certain time, in a certain place, mere mention of The Cannon Group conjures giddy images of days spent in second-run theatres with sticky floors and scratchy prints. When the lights went down and the Cannon logo appeared on the screen, the audience knew precisely what to expect: low budgets, second-tier stars, improbably laughable scripts, and cheesy special effects. Cannon was for the 1980s what American International was for the 1960s: a reliable workhorse that churned out B movies with an ethos that quantity was far more valuable than quality. And yet, for those devotees in the dark, Cannon signified nothing less than magic.

Fresh from the box-office triumph of Poltergeist (1982), director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) signed a three-picture deal with Cannon; his first project, which was reportedly forced on him, was a film adaptation of the lamentably titled 1977 novel Space Vampires. The picture was given a twenty-five million dollar budget, an astonishing sum for Cannon to put into a single feature. With Hooper at the helm, a screenplay co-written by Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead), cinematography by Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, A View to A Kill, A Fish Called Wanda), effects by the legendary John Dykstra (Silent Running, Star Wars, Django Unchained), and music by Henry Mancini, Lifeforce seemed poised to make a big splash. But this didn’t happen. Cannon co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had intended Lifeforce to be a mega-budgeted science fiction / horror blockbuster; however, the film ended up grossing around eleven million dollars and was considered a flop. Home video fortunately allowed Lifeforce to find its audience, giving it the second chance it deserved, and a devoted cult following ensued.  

A joint United States / British scientific team are investigating the passing Halley’s Comet, when they find what appears to be a ship in the midst of the comet. Further investigation reveals the presence of three humanoids in suspended animation, which are taken into their shuttle for analysis. As it turns out, the three are vampires of a sort who, instead of blood, siphon the soul, the energy, of their victims. When they come to Earth, all hell breaks loose and Armageddon is but a stone’s throw away. The themes explored in Lifeforce are familiar to the vampire genre: the loss of control over one’s self, killing to live, and immortality. The film’s strength, however, isn’t in the story, but rather the telling; Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter, The Stunt Man) handles his starring role capably, balancing action and drama well, despite the occasional rough patch of dialogue. Patrick Stewart maintains a small but vital role, just two years before finding international fame as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. The effects work is excellent, particularly when considering the budget and lack of computer generated imagery. As the film winds toward its climax London descends into chaos, and the scenes of terror in the streets are extraordinarily well done although, admittedly, scenes of terror in the streets are my weakness.

The film works because of, rather than despite, the occasional bit of ham-fisted dialogue that harkens back to American horror films of the 1950s (obviously intentional with O’Bannon as the writer), astounding practical effects, genre-appropriate scoring, outstanding cinematography, solid performances, and the jaw-dropping Mathilda May in a one-of-a-kind performance that none will forget.

The real star here is Scream! Factory; their Blu-Ray treatment of Lifeforce is superlative, and includes the truncated US release (101 minutes), and also the vastly superior, international edit (116 minutes). The prints have been nicely restored and for the most part look great, aside from a few scratches here and there. The sound quality is top-shelf, and sounds excellent on a 6.1 surround system. Extras include a vintage “Making Of” featurette, as well as new interview segments with Railsback, Mathilda May, and Hooper, all of whom look back fondly at the film. To have taken the time to film new segments with the three principals is a commendable touch, especially for the fans who have embraced this great, if somewhat odd, film for nearly thirty years. If the treatment of Lifeforce is any indication of Scream! Factory’s dedication to preserving and presenting genre films to a new generation of viewers, the future looks bright indeed, provided there aren’t any naked space vampire invasions on the horizon.

I have to admit, I’d never heard of this movie until it landed in my mailbox; that said, I can’t believe something so undeniably awesome totally flew under my radar for thirty years. Yes, it’s schlock, but it’s old school schlock, and isn’t that really the best kind? Give me stop-motion and process shots any day, because at least they’re organic and we know someone was actually putting hands on the props to make them work.

Q – The Winged Serpent at Zombie Hamster

Further, marvel at the aerobatics involved in the final action sequence, and understand that the stuff they’re doing is no longer allowed.  I could rant for hours, but you get the idea. This movie was more fun than it had any right to be. Super big thanks to Larry Cohen for making such a great movie. Also, a big shout out to Shout Factory for their spankin’ new Blu-Ray release of Q – The Winged Serpent!

It’s been a rotten week. I don’t even want to get into what made it bad, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Moving forward, I took a recent look at a couple of John Carpenter’s classics, and gave them a few scribbles.

The Fog

Prince of Darkness

With regard to Prince of Darkness, I’m going to take the soapbox for a moment, because I think way too many ‘fans’ claim disappointment with this film, and they seriously need to re-examine their reasons for liking his films. Carpenter is a goddamn visionary whose career is made up of more than just Halloween. Granted, Halloween is an excellent film and, for my money, the only slasher film worth a damn. Because it was the first, and not part of the crapalanche of ripoffs that followed it. He followed Halloween with The Fog, which is a traditional ghost story, and a damn good one. He’s done fantasy adventure (Big Trouble in Little China), romance (Starman), urban paranoia / class warfare (They Live), and so many others that are all different, all unique. Prince of Darkness attempts, and to my eye succeeds, in looking at theology from a scientific viewpoint, and does so quite intelligently. It is very much a Big Picture film, is worthy of repeat viewings, and will long be considered one of the great films in Carpenter’s oeuvre.  So there.

1980’s Terror Train. No matter how you slice it, it’s just not a great movie. Cheesy and wildly predictable, it was a quickie cash-in on the unfortunate ‘slasher film’ era. That said, for those of us coming of age during that time, the movies were simple fun, offering distraction without much thought; only with age do I realize that the Reagan-esque moralizing was so heavy handed, and that a jump-scare isn’t really a scare at all. It’s a startle at best, immediately recognized and quickly forgotten. For the viewer, there’s no terror on this train, but what the hell – at least we’re enjoying the ride.

Terror Train at Zombie Hamster

“And that’s the Critic’s Corner for this morning. Now please slow down, so that I may murder you in a creative fashion with my giant mustache.”

Scream Factory gave this 80’s flashback a nice Blu-Ray release and for that, I thank them. It’s great to showcase the smaller films, once considered throw-aways, because one never knows how they might age and, for we who are aging, they’re oftentimes accompanied by a flood of nostalgia.

And yes, the movie had me reduced to giggles most of the way through because, although they kept referring to the killer’s costume as Groucho Marx, I could not stop seeing his uncanny resemblance to beloved film critic Gene Shalit, and the notion of Gene running around a train causing mayhem just ruined me. I freely admit that this is my fault, as I’m fairly certain that the filmmakers didn’t do this intentionally. Unless they did, in which case, congratulations – you are now epic.

Last week, I had the delightful opportunity to check out a film called Cockneys vs Zombies, and found it to be quite fun, if perhaps a little light on the red and the ultraviolence. But what the hell, it has Brick Top and Pussy Galore killing the undead and the most suspenseful pensioner-with-a-walker chase sequence ever committed to film. Want to know more?

Cockneys vs Zombies at Zombie Hamster

Although the Zed-word genre may seem to be running on fumes, it appears there may still be some ideas to be mined, and this one does it pretty well. Shout Factory’s Scream Factory sub-label presents this nifty little film, packed with fun extras.

darkstarI recently took a look at an old favorite, which I had the absolute pleasure of seeing on the big screen in my younger days. This 1974 film revels in its low-budget glory, alternating seriousness with the type of goofiness that can only come with the profound boredom of protracted interstellar travel and the inescapable overfamiliarity of one’s shipmates.

The film wears its age like a gold star, and showcases the blooming brilliance of its young creators, one of whom we lost way too soon. Directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, I present the philosophical, knuckleheaded odyssey that is Dark Star.

Dark Star at Zombie Hamster