Sunday, January 20, 2019

Best and Worst Films of 2018

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema revealed my picks of the ten best and worst films of 2018. You can find more, including rationales for each title and lists of honorable mentions and trends of 2018, here.

Best Films of 2018: 

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

2. First Reformed 

3. The Favourite 

4. Eighth Grade 

5. Free Solo 

6. The Tale 

7. Sorry to Bother You

8. A Star is Born

9. Chappaquiddick 

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 

Worst Films of 2018:
  1. Acrimony
  2. Fifty Shades Freed
  3. Holmes & Watson 
  4. Death Wish
  5. Mile 22
  6. The Death of a Nation
  7. Gotti
  8. Life of the Party
  9. Dark Crimes
  10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Sounds of Cinema 2018 Wrap Up Coming January 20th

The Sounds of Cinema episode for Sunday, January 20th will look back at the films of 2018 and count down my picks of the best and worst releases of the past year. Sounds of Cinema airs every Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. You can hear the show over the air and live streaming from each station's website or by using the TuneIn app on your mobile device.

Until then, check out an archive of previous Sounds of Cinema year end wrap ups and here are some year end lists from other critics:

The Atlantic
The 17 Best Films of 2018 

The Guardian
Mark Kermode's best films of 2018

The Hollywood Reporter
Best Films of 2018

10 Worst Films of 2018

The 13 Best Movies of 2018, According to the IndieWire Film Staff 

New York Times
Best Movies of 2018 

The New Yorker
The Best Movies of 2018 

Rolling Stone
20 Best Movies of 2018

10 Worst Movies of 2018

These Are the Best Movies of 2018
The 10 Worst Movies of 2018

Vanity Fair
The 10 Best Movies of 2018 

Best Movies of 2018

Worst Films of 2018 

Washington Post
Best Movies of 2018

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Movies You May Have Missed

The year comes to an end this evening and right now Hollywood is pushing many of their prestige films in the run up to the industry’s various award ceremonies. Sounds of Cinema will feature its own countdown of the best and worst films of the past year in a forthcoming episode. But for now, here is a look at some of the underappreciated titles of 2018.

American Animals
This mix of documentary and drama was the true story of a heist gone bad. The mix of dramatic recreation and documentary testimonials opens new perspectives on the events and to limits of each genre.

Blockers was the tale of a group of high school girls who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night and how their parents try to stop them. The film is a fun mix of raunchy comedy and good hearted drama.

One of several Black Lives Matter movies released in 2018, Blindspotting was the story of an African American felon (Daveed Diggs) with days to go on his probation when he witnesses a police officer shoot an unarmed citizen. Despite its wobbly ending, Blindspotting was a complex portrait of personal and cultural identity.

Border is a wonderfully weird Swedish fantasy picture. It’s best viewed cold but fantasy fans who are looking for something beyond superheroes should seek it out.

A novel zombie film starring Martin Freeman, Cargo takes the genre in new directions and offers emotional resonance that’s unusual for a horror film.

2018 has been the year of the political film but while everyone is talking about Vice and Blackkklansman one of the best and most provocative political releases of the year was Chappaquiddick, a drama about US Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. It has a complexity and intelligence that exceeds many of the other political films of 2018.

Lean on Pete
One of several “boy and his animal” movies of 2018, Lean on Pete is a terrific character piece about a teenage runaway. The story consistently takes the audience in unexpected directions.

The HBO drama was the latest collaboration between filmmaker Barry Levinson and actor Al Pacino. The film dramatizes the end of Joe Paterno’s career as Penn State’s football coach following revelations of child abuse by his former assistant coach.

Searching took the cross-platform found-footage genre to the next level in a gripping tale of a lost teenager.

A Simple Favor
Paul Feig’s adaptation of Darcey Bell’s novel was a stylish and fun mystery. Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively were terrific together.

Loosely based on a true story, Tag was a comedy of middle aged men who continue a childhood tradition. Although parts of it are calculated (and a few jokes are miscalculated) the film has an enjoyable sweetness and it's a refreshingly good-hearted take on masculinity.

Upgrade isn’t exactly original. The movie repurposes a lot of familiar sci-fi tropes but it does so in a way that is fun and fresh.

Widows was well received by critics but it was underseen by audiences. The film was an exciting thriller with some great performances. It’s the kind of film that would have been an Oscar contender a few decades ago, before the Academy Awards became preoccupied with political statements.

You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s latest work isn’t what you might call a “feel-good movie” but it is a relentlessly bleak thriller about a hired gun (Joaquin Phoenix) who earns his living tracking down missing and kidnaped children.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Movies that Rock

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at movies that rock. Here is a recap of the films discussed on the show.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis Presley’s third feature for MGM was one of his biggest box office hits. The movie was considered scandalous in its day, as Presley’s character was a murderer recently released from prison. At the time of its release, Jailhouse Rock got mixed reviews but the sequence of Presley performing the title song is now regarded as on the most important musical moments in Hollywood history and Jailhouse Rock has been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture show began as a stage show that was adapted into a feature film. At the time of its release in 1975 the movie was a financial failure but it became one of the essential cult titles. The Rocky Horror Picture still plays at late night showings where the audience speaks back and interacts with the film and live performers sometimes act out in front of the screen. 

The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Blues Brothers was the first feature film to be spun off of a Saturday Night Live skit. The titular characters were played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and the movie featured cameos by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway among others. According to a retrospective in Vanity Fair, the owner of Mann Theaters (one of the biggest chains in the nation at that time) refused to book The Blues Brothers in suburban show houses because he insisted that white audiences would not want to see a movie with black musicians. The Blues Brothers played in about 600 theaters, about half the size of a typical wide release. Despite the hiccups, The Blues Brothers was a hit and became one of the most popular movie musicals.

Sid & Nancy (1986)
Sid & Nancy featured Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, the former bassist of The Sex Pistols, and focused on his relationship with Nancy Spungen, played by Chloe Webb. The movie captured the chaos and ugliness of the punk rock scene of the 1970s and provided an unsparing depiction of drug abuse.

Wayne’s World (1992)
The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was one of Queen’s biggest hits but its popularity was given a boost in the 1990s with its appearance in Wayne’s World. That movie was the most successful adaptation of a Saturday Night Live skit and Wayne’s World included cameos by Meatloaf and Alice Cooper. As part of the promotion for Wayne’s World, the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” was recut to include scenes from the film. Not incidentally, Mike Myers has a cameo in the film Bohemian Rhapsody as an EMI record executive.

Across the Universe (2007)
Across the Universe was a musical that used the songs of the Beatles to tell its story of youth working their way through the social upheaval of the late 1960s. The story is a bit generic ’60s but the musical numbers were interesting and director Julie Taymor brought her characteristic visual flair to the project.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs the World was directed by Edgar Wright and, along from Baby Driver, this is the best example of Wright’s use of music. The film interweaves the songs into the action, sometimes underscoring the drama and at other times glibly poking fun at the characters.

The Runaways (2010)
The Runaways was a biographical film about the band of the same name. Kristin Stewart was cast as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning played Cherie Currie with Michael Shannon as band manager Kim Fowley. The movie had terrific energy and authentic period detail.

Rock of Ages (2012)
Based on the stage show, an Oklahoma girl arrives in Hollywood looking to break into the entertainment industry. Rock of Ages isn’t a great film. It suffers from a pair of uninteresting leads played by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta but those who love 1980s hair metal ought to enjoy it. The film has a great supporting performance by Tom Cruise as rock star Stacee Jaxx.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Named after their signature song, Bohemian Rhapsody is a biographical feature film about the rock band Queen. The movie largely succeeds because of its cast. Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury and he captures Mercury’s charisma and stage presence. But just as impressive as the bravado are the ways Malek brings humanity and some complexity to a larger-than-life rock and roll icon. This film also has some exceptional musical performances, namely a recreation of the band’s performance at the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert. It is a breathtakingly shot, acted, and edited musical sequence that is a fitting tribute to Mercury and to Queen. 

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical. Driven by the disco music of Abba, this story was always intended to be a lighthearted, feel good show. The sequel continues that quality and it delivers more of what audiences enjoyed in the stage musical and its 2008 feature film adaptation. The story is thin. Here We Go Again is mostly an excuse to string together a series of musical numbers and the movie does that well but the Mamma Mia! sequel has no drama and virtually no stakes. But it does deliver lighthearted musical fun that fans of the original picture should enjoy.

A Star is Born (2018)
2018’s A Star is Born is the fifth iteration of this story following George Cukor’s 1932 picture What Price Hollywood? and subsequent feature film remakes in 1937, 1954, and 1976. The 2018 version stars Bradley Cooper (who also directs) as a rock and roller fueled by booze and drugs and Lady Gaga as a waitress who becomes a pop music sensation. 2018’s A Star is Born is arguably the best version of this story. It may not reinvent the show business narrative but it retells this story with intelligence and depth as well as an impressive visual style. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are terrific and Cooper makes this one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special 2018

Halloween is upon us again and that means it is time for the annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special. This program provides the soundtrack for your Halloween with an hour of music from scary films as well as some other audible tricks and treats. Each year's program is newly produced so be sure and tune in.

The Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will air at 11pm on Tuesday, October 30th on 89.5 KQAL FM. The show can be heard again at 10pm on Wednesday, October 31st on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota and on 91.3 KMSK FM in Austin, Minnesota.

You can hear the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special over the air and online at each station's website and on your mobile device using the TuneIn app.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Halloween Series Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the history of the Halloween film series. The franchise has spanned forty years and been subject to numerous sequels, reboots, and remakes as well as countless imitators. What follows is a look back at the phases of this series and its many ups and downs.

Halloween (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter with producer Debra Hill, Halloween has a simple story. On Halloween night in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers murders his sister. Fifteen years later he escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown, stalking a babysitter and the children in her care.

There are different kinds of horror films. Some, like Cannibal Holocaust and Antichrist, plumb the depths of evil and depravity. Others, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Herschell Gordon Lewis, go for the gross out. These sorts of movies are endurance tests that put us through gastric and emotional ringers and oftentimes leave the viewer with an unclean feeling. Those movies are distinct from a third category of horror film, those pursuing the scare. These movies are frightening but also fun and they release the viewer’s anxieties instead of exacerbating them. 1978’s Halloween is a prime example of the clean scare. The movie is frightening but it is a pleasing sort of scare that creates tension through masterful execution.

Everything in Halloween is synchronized to set up and pay off a scare and its success is rooted in its craftsmanship. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is an excellent example of using framing to create a scary mood. Potential victims wander in the darkness or they do mundane things in the foreground while danger creeps in from the edges of the screen. The film also has adroit use of sound. The filmmakers place sounds effectively and the music of Halloween is one of the great film scores.

Halloween introduced one of American cinema’s great villains with Michael Myers. However, Michael doesn’t actually appear much in the movie. Like the shark of Jaws, the killer of Halloween is shown just enough to be effective and the camerawork and the music fill in his presence as do the terrifically melodramatic speeches by Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis. Pleasence is another key to the movie’s success. He’s cast as Michael Myers’ psychiatrist and he sells the gravity of the situation and fills in what we don’t see. Another critical casting success of Halloween is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the lead babysitter. In her debut feature film role, Curtis balances intelligence and fortitude with vulnerability. Laurie Strode isn’t an action hero but she does defend herself and the children in her charge. The focus of this movie remains on Laurie and her friends and they feel authentic and accessible. That emphasis makes Halloween more engaging than many of the slasher films that followed.

Halloween’s influence on the horror genre and on American culture can hardly be overstated and for that reason alone it is an important piece of work.  But Halloween is also one of those rare films that achieves cinematic perfection. Every aspect of the filmmaking is executed with such intelligence and craftsmanship that it transcends its exploitative foundation to become a work of art.

Halloween II
When Halloween was released in 1978 it was a box office sensation. The picture made an estimated $47 million against a production budget of $325 thousand and Halloween is frequently cited as one of the most successful independent movies ever made. But Halloween’s success was unique because its success was both commercial and critical. Unlike a lot of its imitators, Halloween earned many positive reviews. Roger Ebert compared it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

After Halloween did so well, other filmmakers set about making imitators. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Terror Train, Motel Hell, and New Year’s Evil were just some of the slasher titles released in 1980. Of them, Friday the 13th was particularly important. Halloween had been distributed by Compass International, a small company, and it opened regionally. That means Halloween opened in one theatrical market, played for a while, and then the prints were shipped to another market. By contrast, Friday the 13th was acquired by Paramount, one of Hollywood’s major studios, and the movie opened nationally on over one thousand screens following an aggressive marketing campaign. This had never happened before and Friday the 13th reaped enormous financial rewards. Following that, other studios began acquiring and distributing slasher films. And so it came to pass that Universal distributed 1981’s Halloween II. Unlike its predecessor, Halloween II had a wide release and it opened at the top of the box office chart.

Halloween II was a continuation of the original story, starting where the first film ended. Michael Myers continued to stalk the teenagers of Haddonfield, Illinois and eventually tracked Laurie Strode to the local hospital. Jamie Lee Curtis returned for the sequel although she spent most of the movie in a hospital bed. Laurie comes to discover that she is in fact Michael Myers’ long lost sister. Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence continued to chew the scenery as Dr. Loomis. Unlike the open ending of the original picture, the climax of Halloween II implied that Michael Myers’ story was complete.

The original Halloween was not intended to inspire sequels and John Carpenter was not really interested in making it. But Carpenter and co-writer and producer Debra Hill realized that the sequel would get made with or without them and so they joined the production. Several other key crew members returned for Halloween II, namely cinematographer Dean Cundy, but directorial duties went to Rick Rosenthal. Carpenter’s directorial touch is noticeably absent. Halloween II did an admirable job of matching the look of the 1978 film but it wasn’t nearly as polished. Halloween II is a sloppier and sleazier movie than its predecessor. It followed the trends in the horror market at that time by including gore and nudity and a lot of the kills are staged clumsily. Michael Myers moves so slowly and is so overexposed that he comes across like a monster from a 1950s drive-in movie. Some cast and crew members reported tension on the set between Rick Rosenthal and John Carpenter and Carpenter stepped in to direct some second unit work.

Despite its flaws, Halloween II was a box office success in 1981 and the movie has proven to be one of the most popular entries in the series among Halloween’s most ardent fans.

Halloween III
After the success of 1981’s Halloween II, plans were made for a third installment. However, the next film would be a very different project. The decision was made to pivot away from the slasher subgenre with the hope of reimagining Halloween as an anthology series. Each film would tell a new spooky yarn centered around the holiday. Halloween III: Season of the Witch told the story of an evil corporation whose Halloween masks contained a deadly secret. The film had more in common with The Twilight Zone than it did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Released less than a year after the second film, Halloween III was not a financial success and the fans hated it. There’s endless speculation as to why that might be. At the time, the slasher film dominated the horror genre and the box office charts. The genre tends to go through phases and the audience wasn’t necessarily receptive to the kind of horror offered by Season of the Witch. Also, coming off the second film, the audience had been conditioned to associate Halloween with Michael Myers and the new approach probably caused confusion among the viewers. It’s also worth pointing out that Season of the Witch was released in 1982, a year that also saw the release of Blade Runner, Star Trek II, TRON, Conan the Barbarian, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Creepshow, Friday the 13th Part 3, Poltergeist and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, among others, and the sci-fi/fantasy/horror market was flooded with competition.

Halloween III was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously been the production designer on the original film and would go on to direct the 1990 television adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Wallace proved a competent filmmaker and the movie had some ambitious ideas. Season of the Witch is a smart and sardonic take on corporatization, especially the way in which our lives are shaped by products and slogans. It’s also about the ubiquity of television and the way the media has penetrated our homes.

Although it disappointed at the time of its release, Halloween III has enjoyed a reevaluation in recent years. In some respects, Season of the Witch was ahead of its time and horror audiences have begun to catch up with it. Had this movie been a success it might have led to a very interesting series of films.

Halloween 4 & 5
After the box office failure of 1982’s Halloween III, the series took a respite. John Carpenter and Debra Hill left the franchise to work on other projects and control of Halloween consolidated in producer Moustapha Akkad. A filmmaker in his own right, Akkad had financed the original Halloween and remained involved in the second and third installments. Akkad was interested in giving the audience what they wanted and he rightly recognized that viewers wanted to see Michael Myers. The fourth Halloween film, subtitled The Return of Michael Myers, was released to theaters in 1988 and its financial success vindicated Akkad’s instincts.

While returning the series to its roots, Halloween 4 also shifted the focus. It brought back the infamous killer as well as Dr. Loomis, played again by Donald Pleasence. It also introduced a new character, Jamie Lloyd, played by child actor Danielle Harris. Jamie was the daughter of Laurie Strode, who had died in an off-screen car crash. Halloween 4 and the sequels that followed this line of continuity were about the relationship between Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd and Dr. Loomis. Danielle Harris proved to be an impressive young actress and Donald Pleasence turned up the drama, with Loomis developing a Captain Ahab-like obsession with Michael.

Halloween 4’s success is partly due to the way it played to the audience but it is also a well-made film. In fact, The Return of Michael Myers is one of the best slasher pictures to come out of the 1980s. It provides everything that the audience is looking for in a movie like this and does it with style. The movie also has a terrific twist ending that could have sent this franchise in new and compelling directions.

Following the financial success of the fourth movie, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers was rushed into production and was in theaters less than a year after its predecessor. Halloween 5 continued the story of Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd and Dr. Loomis but it didn’t follow the implications of The Return of Michael Myers and wasted a terrific setup. Instead, Halloween 5 mostly reiterated a lot of Halloween 4 but without that film’s style or execution and it often fell back on gore and slasher movie clich├ęs. The filmmakers attempted to expand the Halloween mythos with the introduction of the Cult of Thorn but this was underwritten, almost an afterthought, and was handled clumsily.

Halloween 5 was not a success. The movie remains the lowest grossing title in the entire series. The Revenge of Michael Myers primarily suffered from simply being a mediocre slasher movie that was indistinguishable from any other low rent Halloween knock off. But there was something else happening in the cinema market at that time. Halloween 5 opened in 1989, the same year as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. All of them disappointed at the box office. The reign of the slasher film, which had been one of the most popular and profitable trends throughout the 1980s, had come to an end.

The Curse of Michael Myers
The horror genre goes through cycles in which certain kinds of films are popular to the exclusion of others. The genre also experiences lean periods in which audiences don’t show up to the box office and Hollywood studios aren’t making these films. Such was the case in the early 1990s. The heyday of the slasher film was over. It had been replaced by more realistic kinds of stories like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Silence of the Lambs.

After Halloween 5 failed at the box office the series languished for a few years as the producers struggled to figure out what to do with it. The 1989 film had ended on a cliffhanger that no one seemed very interested in resolving. Closure would finally be attempted with 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. The film attempted to make something out of Halloween 5’s messy ending but the result was itself a disaster and, among the fans, probably the most contentious entry in the series.

The sixth Halloween originally went into production with the subtitle The Origin of Michael Myers. The film intended to explain the source of Michael’s evil and his invincibility. The answer to that was a convoluted backstory involving an ancient Celtic cult. The movie mixed the familiar stalking scenarios with supernatural evil reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. Among the problems with The Curse of Michael Myers is that it was so far afield from the original movie that it no longer resembled the original idea. Michael Myers was introduced in the 1978 film as a violent psychopath in its purest form. He had no empathy or personality. By the end of that film he’s come to represent something more sinister. Like his trademark facemask, Michael Myers is empty on the inside. He’s evil in the theological sense—which is to say the absence of good—poured into the body of a man. That’s why Michael Myers is often referred to as The Shape, because he is just the silhouette of a human being. Giving Michael Myers a motive or making him the tool of a cult completely misses the point.

The Curse of Michael Myers had a difficult production. The completed movie was shown to a test audience who did not like it. The picture went through a significant reshoot and reedit that reduced the length of the movie, inserted gore and removed exposition, and completely reworked the ending. However, actor Donald Pleasence died between principal photography and the reshoot. The filmmakers had to piece together the new climax and the result didn’t make any sense.

The eighty-eight minute theatrical cut of The Curse of Michael Myers opened in cinemas in the fall of 1995. Although it was profitable the movie was regarded as a disappointment. However, the original version, dubbed “The Producer’s Cut,” began circulating on bootlegged VHS tapes and fans clamored for an official release. They finally got their wish in 2014 when Shout! Factory issued the Producer’s Cut on Blu-Ray. The Producer’s Cut contains about forty-minutes of alternate or additional footage and has a different tone than the theatrical cut. It also makes more sense, in and of itself, but the climax lacks intensity and the Cult of Thorn storyline is stupid. Ultimately, neither version of The Curse of Michael Myers can be seen as the definitive cut. They are different takes on a fundamentally bad idea.

Halloween H20 & Resurrection
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers was released during a slow period in the horror genre. That lull would be broken the next year with the release of Scream. Written by Kevin Williamson and featuring the original Halloween within the diegesis of the story, Scream reinvigorated the horror genre with a self-aware and sardonic style. The movie was a huge hit and one of the defining titles of the 1990s. Horror was back.

Starting with The Curse of Michael Myers, the Halloween franchise was now owned by Dimension Films, at that time a subsidiary of Miramax (which was owned by Disney), and Halloween went from an independent series to a corporate product. Dimension had also released Scream and they set about trying to reimagine Halloween in a way that would play for the 1990s audience. Realizing that the Thorn storyline wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t doing anything for anybody, Dimension made a bold choice. The new film discarded with all of the continuity following 1981’s Halloween II and caught up with Laurie Strode, again played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Laurie was now a divorced mother raising her son in an isolated private school when Michael Myers shows up to finish what he started in 1978.

Released to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the original movie, 1998’s Halloween H2O was one of the better sequels in this series. Kevin Williamson was hired as a producer and the film has a post-Scream feel but not in a way that was obnoxious. H2O was directed by Steve Miner, who had previously helmed Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3 and Miner knew how to tell this kind of story and make it scary. Jamie Lee Curtis also brought a lot of credibility to the film as her character struggles with post-traumatic stress. H2O wasn’t without its flaws. The Michael Myers mask did not look anything like the original and in fact it changes throughout the film. The film included an original score written by John Ottman. However, cues were moved around and parts of Ottman’s score were omitted in favor reusing excerpts from the score to Scream. H2O also forced a stupid ending onto the finale that painted subsequent filmmakers into a corner.

The success of Halloween H2O led to another installment and Dimension Films followed one of the best sequels in the franchise with one of the worst. 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection had an interesting core idea. Channeling The House on Haunted Hill, a web-based reality show hires contestants to spend the night in Michael Myers’ house. Naturally, Michael shows up and starts picking them off.

Resurrection was ahead of its time but in a way that has caused it to age terribly. The movie is a parade of stupid and nonsensical choices but none more so than the pre-title sequence in which Laurie Strode was killed. The relationship between Laurie and Michael was the heart of that continuity of films and to summarily kill the character with no payoff or resolution was a cheap gimmick to allow Dimension to put Jamie Lee Curtis on the poster. The cast also featured rapper Busta Rhymes as the show host and the Halloween series’ lowest moment is probably Rhymes climactic kung-fu fight with Michael. Resurrection saw the return of director Rick Rosenthal, who had previously helmed Halloween II, and the ineptness of this film clarified the extent to which John Carpenter’s interventions probably salvaged the 1981 film.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween
In the early 2000s, musician turned filmmaker Rob Zombie found success writing and directing House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects. House of 1000 Corpses was a mess. Zombie had tremendous technical acumen but too often the movie was a disconnected cacophony of images. The Devil’s Rejects, however, was a masterwork and one of the best horror films of the 2000s. This caught the attention of Dimension Films and the producers of Halloween. At this time, horror remakes were all the rage following the box office success of new versions of Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the decision was made to give Rob Zombie the job of rebooting Halloween.

Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween was very much his own film. It reused some of the key elements of the 1978 picture, namely the mask and the musical themes, but it was stylistically distinguished and deliberately vulgar. The major innovations were packed into its first half which dramatized Michael Myers’ transformation from a troubled ten-year-old boy and into a psychopath. This portion of the movie is masterfully unsettling as Michael’s personality disintegrates and he becomes a mute killer. In the second half of the film, Michael Myers escapes and returns to Haddonfield and the remake mostly adheres to the structure and plot of the 1978 film. The latter half of 2007’s Halloween is certainly weaker than the first half, in part because Rob Zombie is much more interested in Michael than in his victims who are not interesting and frequently obnoxious.

2007’s Halloween was successful enough to warrant a sequel. Rob Zombie returned but made a very different film. 2009’s Halloween II focused on Laurie Strode, played by Scout Taylor Compton, as she copes with the aftermath of the first film. Where 2007’s Halloween was split between new material and retelling the original story, 2009’s Halloween II was in all new territory. Zombie turned everything up to eleven and the movie is unrelentingly grim with extremely brutal violence and explicit sexuality but it also has some extraordinary visuals. Halloween II took the audience into the mind of Michael Myers and discovered his motivation and in the process it blurred the line between reality and fantasy.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween couplet is a flawed but unique set of movies. Unlike a lot of horror remakes from the 2000s, which either lazily reiterated the original movie or cashed in on a title with no regard for the source material, Zombie’s Halloween films were germane to the core idea but stood on their own and were ambitious and even thoughtful. But like a lot of Zombie’s other work, they were overproduced and excessive. The films were also disconnected from the concept of The Shape. Unlike the force of nature in the 1978 film, Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers is a man-child who has lost connection with reality and just wants his family back. The Freudian psychology, and the films’ ultraviolent white trash aesthetic, might have been better suited to a remake of Friday the 13th.

Halloween (2018)
Horror in the 2000s had been defined by ultraviolent gore pictures like Saw and Hostel as well as remakes of nearly every major property in the genre including Dawn of the Dead, The Amityville Horror, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. As is often the case, what the horror genre started the rest of Hollywood imitated and remakes of all sorts were released. In the 2010s this took another turn with the soft reboot or nostalgia sequel. Movies like Creed, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens found major success reinvigorating dormant franchises by making new movies that appended onto the continuity of the existing series.

Concurrent with the advent of the nostalgia sequel, horror found renewed currency. In fact the genre may be in the middle of a new golden era of horror with movies like The Witch, The Babadook, Hereditary, and A Quiet Place, among others. Interesting, the patron saint for many of these filmmakers was John Carpenter. His influence, and especially the legacy of Halloween, can be found in many recent films including It Follows, The Purge series, The Hateful Eight, and the television show Stranger Things

One of the major architects of this horror renaissance was Blumhouse. The studio specialized in horror and has had a string of successes including Get Out, Insidious, and Sinister. In 2015, Dimension Films lost control of the Halloween franchise and Blumhouse stepped in. A new Halloween film, directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by Green and Danny McBride, went into production with John Carpenter producing and providing the score alongside Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies. Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to reprise her role as Laurie Strode. The resulting film, simply titled Halloween, was a direct follow-up to the 1978 film and ignored the continuity of the other sequels.

2018’s Halloween reset the series and thereby did away with the concept that Laurie Strode is actually Michael Myers’ sister. This returned Michael to his origins as a random predator and the new movie makes him scary in a specific way that hasn’t been seen since the original movie. The film largely focused on Laurie, who has been coping with post-traumatic stress for the past forty years, and Jamie Lee Curtis did an impressive job in the role. We can see a hint of the teenager from the original film but decades of anxiety weigh on the character and Curtis brings that out vividly in her performance.

Halloween (2018) also succeeds as a nostalgia sequel. Like Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film found a way to reinvigorate the series while playing to audience expectations. It matched the look and tone of the 1978 film and it is an example of fan service done right. References to the older movies are there but are never obnoxious. The movie suffers from some out of place humor and the premise undoes the ending of the 1978 film. But 2018’s Halloween was the best sequel in the series and the box office results have been impressive.

Where Halloween goes from here is unclear. The success of the latest installment makes future Halloween films a near certainty. The 2018 picture appears to bring Laurie Strode’s story to a close and any future films are probably going to have to strike out in new areas. But surveying this series, it is clear that the Halloween concept is pliable enough to adapt to new generations and durable enough to survive creative mistakes.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Frankenstein and Other Literary Horrors

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at literary horror films. 2018 is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein and so the program examined a few adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel as well as other horror movies derived from literary sources.  What follows are the movies discussed on today’s show.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
 Frankenstein was originally published in 1818 and written by Mary Shelley. The title refers to a scientist who stitches together the remains of corpses and brings the being to life. The doctor is repulsed by his creation and rejects him. After a time, the monster returns to terrorize Frankenstein and his family. The book has been the source of numerous adaptations for screen and stage as well as the inspiration for a lot of mad scientist tales.

Although film adaptations of Frankenstein trace back to the silent era, the defining Frankenstein films were produced by Universal in the 1930s and 40s. The series began with 1931’s Frankenstein, directed by James Whale with Colin Clive cast as the doctor and Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff’s makeup had little to do with the descriptions in Mary Shelley’s novel and are largely the work of make-up artist Jack Pierce who came up with the flat head and the bolts in the neck. This design became iconic and inspired countless Halloween decorations. The monster terrified audiences of 1931 but Karloff imbued the character with a childlike innocence that made him sympathetic. The popular image of Frankenstein’s monster is now inextricable from the 1931 film and the ongoing popularity of the story probably owes as much to Karloff, Whale, and Pierce as it does to Mary Shelley.

Karloff, Whale, and Pierce reunited for Bride of Frankenstein which is often cited as the high point of Universal’s classic monster series. The studio continued to make Frankenstein films—seven entries in all—including crossover titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, making Universal’s monster series the original cinematic universe. After Bride, the Frankenstein films became inconsistent. The monster acquired the ability to speak, something Karloff was unhappy about, and he played the character just once more in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The role of the monster would go to other actors including Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Glenn Strange but Karloff would return to Universal’s monster series as Doctor Gustav Niemann in 1944’s House of Frankenstein.

Thirty years later, Mel Brooks sent up the Universal films with Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy was both a parody and a loving homage to the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. Brooks tracked down Ken Strickfaden who had been the production designer on the Universal Frankenstein films and Strickfaden still possessed many of the props which he loaned to the filmmakers. Young Frankenstein was as much the product of Mel Brooks as it was Gene Wilder who co-wrote the script and played the lead as the grandson of the infamous scientist. Brooks has said he considers Young Frankenstein to be his best work as a director.

In the 1950s and 60s, the horror genre was dominated by Britain’s Hammer studio. The company remade many of the classic monster stories that Universal had found success with a couple of decades earlier. In 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing played the doctor and Christopher Lee was cast as the monster. (Cushing and Lee would subsequently be cast as Doctor Van Helsing and Count Dracula in Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula.) Lee’s monster was a stumbling idiot who was dispatched in the climax of the first movie and Hammer’s subsequent Frankenstein series was unique in that the stories focused on the doctor. In each movie, Baron Frankenstein would try new experiments that toyed with the boundaries between life and death and unleashed horrors on the nineteenth century British countryside.

One of the most unusual Frankenstein films was Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound. All versions of Frankenstein are science fiction but this gave the premise a contemporary twist. Channeling a bit of Star Trek, a scientist (John Hurt) is transported from 2031to 1817 where he meets Doctor Frankenstein and his monster (Raul Julia and Nick Brimble) and is flung into the events of the novel. But the scientist also meets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) who is working on her book. It’s a bizarre film that delivers the Frankenstein story while taking a self-aware angle. It is also one of the first films that attempted to be faithful to the original material.

The 1994 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel was directed by Kenneth Branagh who also starred as Doctor Frankenstein. Throughout the 1990s, Branagh directed some well received adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, making them feel cinematic and contemporary. He did the same with Frankenstein and the film had tremendous energy and impressive production design. With a few minor deviations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lived up to its title as the most faithful adaptation of the novel. 

Frankenstein continues to find its way on screen with filmmakers taking passes at Mary Shelley’s novel or using it as inspiration for new stories. I, Frankenstein offered a dumb but fun superhero take on the monster while Frankenstein’s Army revisited the themes of the original story in the context of a war movie. There are also cult titles like Frankenhooker and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (aka Flesh for Frankenstein) which gave the material a necrophilic twist. And Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie adapted the story in a way that was accessible to family audiences.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula originated as a book by Bram Stoker published in 1897. The book was not a major financial success although it was successfully adapted to the stage. The first film version was 1922’s Nosferatu but this adaptation was unauthorized and Stoker’s estate waged a legal battle against it with the court eventually ruling that all prints of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. But some copies survived and Nosferatu is now regarded as one of the definitive titles of German Expressionist cinema. Ironically, the success of Nosferatu reignited interest in Stoker’s novel and it’s now one of the most popular books of its era.

Dracula had many screen adaptations and the title character has appeared in over 270 films. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, that makes Count Dracula the most portrayed literary character in film. The two most renowned portrayals are Bela Lugosi’s turn in Universal’s 1931 film and Christopher Lee’s many portrayals of the Count for Hammer. What is notable about Lugosi and Lee is that they portrayed Dracula as a suave and sophisticated aristocrat where the vampire of Stoker’s novel was not so attractive. Lugosi and Lee set the tone for subsequent cinematic vampires especially other versions of Dracula and other actors to don the cape include Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and Gerard Butler.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is the story of paranormal researchers who spend the night in a haunted mansion. It was the basis for two feature films. 1963’s The Haunting was directed by Robert Wise (who also helmed The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still) and it is widely regarded as one of the best haunted house pictures. The film is so scary because of what it doesn’t show. The haunting might be real or it might be all in the characters’ heads. The suggestion allows for mystery but also psychological complexity.  A remake of The Haunting helmed by Jan DeBont (director of Speed and Twister) was a released in 1999. It was the stylistic opposite of the 1963 movie. The remake was a big budget special effects show that was entertaining but had none of the depth of the 1963 picture. The Haunting of Hill House was recently made into a series for Netflix.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde told the story of a scientist who concocts a serum that turns him into a belligerent monster. The concept is so ubiquitous that the title of the book has become shorthand to describe a two-faced or unpredictable person. Film adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde trace back all the way to the silent era. Notable actors to play the dual roles include John Barrymore, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and John Malkovich.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells 1896 book The Island of Dr. Moreau is the story of a mad vivisectionist who creates a race of creatures on a remote island. The book has been adapted to film several times. The best regarded version is 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls. The book was subsequently adapted in 1977 in a film starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York and a 1996 version starring Marlon Brando and David Thewlis.

Various works by Edgar Allan Poe
Throughout the 1960s, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe were adapted to the screen in productions often starring Vincent Price. These include The Bat, House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, and The Tomb of Ligea, among others. Price got Poe in a way that was very special. The best evidence of that is 1970’s An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe which was simply a recording of Price reciting the stories aloud. Poe’s work was also the basis for Extraordinary Tales, an animated anthology with narration by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, and Guillermo del Toro, among others.