Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero Retrospective

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at the careers of Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. Both filmmakers passed away earlier this year, leaving behind an impressive and influential body of work.

Tobe Hooper
Tobe Hooper was born in Austin, Texas in 1943. Hooper got his start in motion pictures as a documentary filmmaker and among his early works was a PBS documentary about the music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. His feature film directorial debut was 1969’s Eggshells, an experimental drama about the counter culture of the late 1960s. Hooper would primarily be known for his work in the horror genre and his movies were intelligent but also dream-like. The filmmaker frequently tapped into the madness, sexuality, and violence of the unconscious mind in stories that were modern day fairytales.

Hooper arrived on the filmmaking scene with 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now hailed as one of the great horror titles in American cinema, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre established Hooper as a horror director and he worked in the genre for the rest of his career. Although his filmography is wildly uneven, Hooper helmed several of the great horror pictures of the 1970s and 80s including Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. He also did notable work in television such as the miniseries Salem’s Lot and episodes of Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror. Hooper passed away on August 26, 2017.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
There are a handful of movies, especially in the horror genre, that have acquired a reputation that is bigger than the movie itself. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those rare films that lives up to the hype. What is extraordinary about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is obfuscated by its simplicity. The story is archetypal. A group of young people wander around the back roads of America and are picked off by a killer until only one remains. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is distinct from so many other slasher films because of its execution. Shot on Super 16mm film in the heat of the Texas summer, Chainsaw has a raw and visceral feel. The movie also uses unusual sound effects and an experimental music score and it is shot and edited in a way that creates a sensation of disorientation and madness.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced the world to Leatherface, a brutal but strangely child-like killer who wears a mask of human flesh. Leatherface was the first of the masked killers in the slasher genre and as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre grew into a Hollywood franchise the character became a cultural icon and one of the most recognizable horror villains.

Since its release in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has grown to become one of the best regarded and most influential titles in the horror genre. For Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was both a blessing and a curse. Most filmmakers work their entire career without making a movie with the impact and longevity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hooper was able to work for the rest of his life on the reputation of his sophomore directorial feature. But like many horror directors, Hooper was boxed into the genre and achieving such success so early on created an impossible standard that he never overcame.


Salem’s Lot (1979)
Television of the 1970s gave birth to the network miniseries event. Important titles from the decade include Roots, Holocaust, Sybil and Salem’s Lot, which premiered on CBS in 1979. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Salem’s Lot tells the story of a small New England town invaded by vampires. In those days, actors and especially filmmakers who were working in television aspired to get into feature films and it was unthinkable that a successful director would go to the small screen. In that respect, Salem’s Lot was ahead of its time. Tobe Hooper brought the skill and sensibility of a feature film to a television production and the movie is still a frightening and ambitious piece of work. Salem’s Lot was also influential in the way it merged classic gothic horror with contemporary America and it was the perfect fusion of old and new. In the ensuing decades, Stephen King’s literary work would be the basis of a lot of made-for-television features and much of that is due to the success of Salem’s Lot.

Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper’s most Hollywood production. It had (for its time) a lavish budget, well-known actors, and cutting edge special effects. The themes of the movie were right up Tobe Hooper’s alley; there is a through-line that connects the cannibalistic family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the neo-gothic vampires of Salem’s Lot, and the suburban haunting of Poltergeist. And at some level the movie also reflects the edgier themes of Hooper’s movies in the way it suggests that the affluence of suburbia is literally built upon the dead. Poltergeist is probably the most influential supernatural horror picture of its day. Its impact can be seen in The Conjuring series and the Insidious films.

Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper’s most financially successful movie but his contributions to it were disputed throughout the rest of his career. Poltergeist was officially directed by Tobe Hooper but the film was dogged by rumors that it was actually directed by Steven Spielberg. And Poltergiest has an undeniable Spielbergian stamp. Some of that is due to the talents involved. Poltergeist was written by Spielberg who was also the executive producer. The movie was made through Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company and the crew included several of Spielberg’s regular collaborators including producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, assistant director Pat Kehoe, and editor Michael Kahn. It’s no wonder that the movie looks like a Spielberg film; it was made in his factory using his workers. According to some of the cast and crew, Spielberg directed Poltergeist through Hooper, instructing him as to how to execute the set pieces. Friends and allies of Hooper have disputed this, arguing that Spielberg may have made suggestions but directorial decisions were ultimately made by Hooper and he therefore deserves the credit for the film’s success.


Cannon Films (1985 - 1986)
Following the success of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper entered into a three-picture deal with Cannon Films. Led by the colorful personalities and questionable business practices of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon Films produced an impressively broad catalogue of movies in just a few years, mostly in the horror, sci-fi, and action genres. Hooper’s first film for Cannon was 1985’s Lifeforce. Based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson and scripted by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce is part vampire movie, part alien invasion, part erotica, part contagion story and collectively it is full-tilt bonkers. The movie isn’t very good and it didn’t find a theatrical audience but Lifeforce has developed a cult following. Hooper’s next project was 1986’s Invaders from Mars. A remake of the 1953 movie, Invaders from Mars was a family-friendly romp steeped in nostalgia for the drive-in movies of the post-war era. Invaders from Mars was also a failure at the box office but in the wake of Hooper’s death several writers praised the movie as an underappreciated cult classic.

Hooper’s final movie for Cannon was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. In the twelve years since the release of the original film, the slasher genre had peaked and was now in decline. Hooper wrote and directed the follow up but he jettisoned the nihilistic terror of the original film in favor of the campy and self-aware black comedy of titles like Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II. The result was a Grand Guignol farce that was also an early deconstruction of its genre. The sequel took a deliberately cartoonish approach which was not appreciated by critics or by fans of the original movie. But taken for what it is rather than what viewers thought it should be, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is an extremely entertaining picture that combines slasher movie thrills with a madcap sense of humor. It’s a flawed film but its originality, comedy, and energy have made it a cult favorite and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of the best horror sequels.


Assorted TV Work
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper’s film career largely declined. He continued to direct feature films and made a few interesting pictures such as The Mangler, based upon a short story by Stephen King, and 2013’s Djinn, which was a ghost story set in the United Arab Emirates. However, the best work of Tobe Hooper’s later career was done for television mostly on horror anthology programs. He directed an episode of the Steven Spielberg produced series Amazing Stories and HBO’s Tales from the Crypt as well as two episodes of Night Visions. Hooper also directed the pilot episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, a television spinoff of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, which told the backstory of Freddy Krueger. Among Hooper’s most successful television work was on Masters of Horror, an anthology series which recruited such well respected directors as Takashi Miike, John Landis, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento. Since Master of Horror was broadcast on premium cable, the show was able to include some outrageous content and Hooper’s episodes certainly delivered on that.

In 2014 Tobe Hooper sat down with Mick Garris for an wide ranging interview:


George Romero
Filmmaker George A. Romero was born in The Bronx in 1940. After a brief stint attending Carnegie-Mellon University, Romero and some of his friends founded the Image Ten production company in Pittsburgh which primarily made commercials. Romero and company pooled their money and resources to make 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, which became a landmark piece of American film and gave birth to the zombie genre. For nearly five decades, Romeo continued to write, produce, and direct additional zombie films as well as titles like The Crazies, Creepshow, and Knightriders. He passed away on July 16, 2017.

Several qualities distinguished George Romero’s movies. One was the scale and skill of his filmmaking. Romero was able to get a lot of production value into low budget movies and he was very savvy about making his films look more expensive than they were. There is also a playful quality to his work. Romero’s films possess a strange contrast between the filmmaker’s evident sense of humor and a dark and at times pessimistic view of society. That’s indicative of another quality of Romero’s films – their political subtext. Romero used the horror genre, and especially his zombie films, to comment upon the political and cultural zeitgeist.

George Romero is best known as the godfather of the zombie movie and those films are certainly at the core of his filmography. But he made a lot of other terrific and very interesting movies that are worth revisiting.

The First Living Dead Trilogy (1968 - 1985)
George Romero made two zombie trilogies. The first one spread across three decades: 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, and 1985’s Day of the Dead. Because of the passage of time between installments and due to complexities regarding the copyrights over the films, each installment was its own independent entity with its own continuity and characters.

The original Night of the Living Dead was a seminal movie for George Romero, for the horror genre, and for American filmmaking in general. Film writer Ben Hervey observes that Night of the Living Dead was a fusion of a couple of inspirations. One was the post war monster movies that played in drive-in theaters of the 1950 and 60s. The other was the political and social upheaval of the late 1960s including the civil rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam. The imagery from those sources coalesced in Night of the Living Dead and the content of the movie reflected this as a diverse group of people fight among themselves while besieged by a growing horde of cannibalistic zombies. The movie is a product of American instability at that time and Night of the Living Dead is as essential to its era as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider.

American culture had changed significantly by 1978 when Romeo made Dawn of the Dead and so the filmmaker’s approach changed with it. Updating the movie to accommodate the consumer culture that was taking hold at the time, Romero moved the setting of a zombie siege from an abandoned farmhouse to a shopping mall, which was a new feature of the American landscape in the late 1970s. The first portion of Dawn of the Dead is a straight up horror picture but it gradually becomes a satire. The movie is a bloody romp that sent up consumerism and its excesses were deliberately numbing. It’s rare for a sequel to outdo its progenitor but Dawn became the most popular of Romero’s films and it was just as influential as the 1968 film. Virtually every cinematic zombie apocalypse to come later can be traced back to this movie.

Romero waited until the middle of the next decade to make Day of the Dead. A far darker and more pessimistic film than Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s third zombie picture took place in a military bunker in which soldiers and scientists have formed a tenuous alliance. A reflection of the Reagan era, Day of the Dead is about the way in which the culture had become militarized and it is a far more cynical movie than Romero's other zombie pictures. It’s telling that the most sympathetic character of Day of the Dead is Bub, a zombie that one of the scientists is trying to domesticate through Pavlovian conditioning. The movie wasn’t as successful as Night or Dawn but time has been kind to Day of the Dead and it has undergone a reevaluation. Incidentally, Romero said that Day was his favorite of the first three Living Dead films.


The Crazies (1973)
George Romero made more than just zombie films. In between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero wrote and directed two movies that rank among his best work. 1973’s The Crazies was the story of a viral outbreak in a rural community. The infected people become murderously insane and government forces attempt to quarantine the disease but only make matters worse. The Crazies is the most baldly political film of Romero’s career and it references a number of popular images of its day, namely the murder of anti-war protesters at Kent State University and the famous image of a Buddhist monk immolating himself. As a work of its era, The Crazies captured the sensation of society coming apart—perhaps even better than Night of the Living Dead—and it was early evidence that Romero was a filmmaker with a distinct voice and a recognizable style. Echoes of The Crazies can be found in subsequent Hollywood movies such as 28 Days Later and Outbreak and a remake was released in 2010.

Martin (1978)
One of George Romero’s most unusual films was 1978’s Martin. This was a vampire film unlike any other. The title character, played by John Amplas, is a vampire who is the exact opposite of the suave and powerful Draculas played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Martin is a shy and awkward man of slight build who doesn’t actually want to hurt anybody but who is driven to murder by his need to feed on human blood. The movie does away with all the superstitions of vampire mythology; in this story vampirism is a genetic disorder and so the character walks around in the daylight and is immune to garlic or crucifixes. He struggles with his sexuality while also suffering humiliation and discrimination from his cousin who sees him as a demonic being. That makes Martin one of the first movies to not only make the vampire the central character but also to make him sympathetic. So much of the vampire fiction that came later, from Interview with the Vampire to Twilight, owes a debt to this movie.


Knightriders (1981)
Between Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, George Romero made one of his few non-horror pictures with 1981’s Knightriders. This movie takes place among a medieval reenactment troupe who ride motorcycles rather than horses. But everything they do is quite serious and life within the company is ruled by a specific knightly code. The king of the troupe, played by Ed Harris, tries to preserve a dying way of life and the company’s internal struggles and rivalries are exacerbated by the intrusion of big business and commercial interests. Knightriders was one of Romero’s most personal films. He was an outsider in the movie business and even when he penetrated the mainstream Romero struggled to maintain the integrity of his work. Knightriders visualizes the tension between independence and commercialism and in some respects it is a eulogy for the last remnants of the countercultural idealism of the 1960s and 70s. It’s a unique and fascinating movie and one that Romero counted as among his favorites.


Creepshow (1981)
George Romero had a regular staff of collaborators that he repeatedly cast as actors or hired on the crew. One of the most important of these relationships was with special effects artist Tom Savini. He was a rock star in the horror genre during the 1980s renaissance in makeup effects. His work on Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead was very inventive and Savini would work on several other Romero movies as a makeup artist as well as an actor and a stuntman. Savini’s work on Romero’s films, as well as his contributions to Maniac, Friday the 13th, The Prowler, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 set new standards for realism in gore.

Another of George Romero’s key working relationships was with writer Stephen King. There were initial plans for Romero to direct an adaptation of King’s book The Stand. When that didn’t materialize, Romero and King exploited a mutual love of the EC horror comics which were popular in the 1950s before they were snuffed out by moral crusaders. 1981’s Creepshow was an anthology film written by King and directed by Romero that was a tribute to those horror comics. It had the same tone, mixing bloody horror with a sense of humor, and Creepshow included some animation in the transitional sequences. It also attracted a high caliber cast including Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshall, and Ted Danson. The movie is a lot of fun, perhaps the most fun of any title in Romero or King’s filmographies. A sequel was released in 1987, directed by Michael Gornick with a script by Stephen King and George Romero. The making of the original Creepshow has recently been archived in the documentary Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow.


The Second Living Dead Trilogy (2004 - 2009)
At the start of the new century, the living dead invaded virtually all forms of media as seen on television with The Walking Dead, books like World War Z, and movies such as the Resident Evil series and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. George Romero returned to the genre with a new trilogy: 2004’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and 2009’s Survival of the Dead. Unlike the earlier films, the new movies were interconnected and featured recurring characters. Of the three, the best was Land of the Dead. The movie reiterated themes of the earlier zombie trilogy and reinterpreted them for the millennial audience. As in his earlier films, Romero also had a political point to make and Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead were explicitly post-September 11th cinema. Land was about the way the powerful and corrupt distract the masses with bread and circuses as society crumbles around them and Diary was a found-footage movie that connected the fragmentation of media with the crisis in authority and the loss of truth. Survival of the Dead was a bit different from any of Romero’s other zombie pictures and it gave the director a chance to make a western, a genre he had long enjoyed. Romero’s second zombie trilogy was nowhere near as good or as influential as his earlier Living Dead films but they do make an interesting bookend to his career.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Techno-Horror Movies

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at techno-horror movies. We tend to expect that technology will inherently improve our lives and bring about a better world. Of course, things don't always work out that way. Technology is only as good as the people using it and technological breakthroughs have the ability to reshape our lives for the worse. Here is a recap of the movies discussed on the show as well as some additional titles.


Altered States (1980)
Dir. Ken Russell

Directed by Ken Russell and written by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States was an ambitious reworking of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this film a scientist conducts experiments that plumb the depths of the unconscious mind and awaken primal instincts. As the experiments continue, the scientist regresses to a state of primitive man. Altered States is a mix of thoughtful science fiction and monster movie shlock that is very effective. Its premise could very easily have become silly but the performances are credible and the tone is managed well enough to keep the movie from flying off the rails.


Creature (1998)
Dir. Stuart Gillard

Novelist Peter Benchley recycled the formula he had pioneered so successful in Jaws in two other books: Beast and White Shark. The latter was about a genetically engineered shark-man that terrorizes a seaside community. White Shark was adapted into a television miniseries first broadcast on ABC in 1998. The story was significantly reworked for the miniseries and it was retitled Creature.


Deadly Friend (1986)
Dir. Wes Craven

Wes Craven had an up and down career, with horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes offset by a few really terrible movies. But even Craven’s blunders were interesting, especially 1986’s Deadly Friend. A teenage boy loses his girlfriend in an accident and brings her back to life with robotic implants that turn her into a monster. Allegedly, Deadly Friend was written and shot to be a PG-rated thriller but Warner Bros. executives demanded changes in post-production that turned the movie into an R-rated horror picture.


Demon Seed (1977)
Dir. Donald Cammell

Demon Seed is based on the novel by Dean Koontz. Scientists create a supercomputer that has achieved consciousness and the computer infiltrates the home of the lead scientist and turns the automated conveniences of the house against the wife, played by Julie Christie. The wife is then held hostage in her own home. This isn’t a great movie but it is daring and ahead of its time. In the age of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, the core idea of Demon Seed doesn’t seem that farfetched and the movie visualizes the way our electronics and consumer goods control our lives.


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Dir. Kenneth Branagh

One of the most frequently adapted horror stories is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which has been in print since its publication in 1831. Frankenstein is the story of a scientist who stiches together a man out of body parts harvested from corpses and is then haunted by his creation. Most versions of Frankenstein have only passing resemblance to Shelley’s novel but Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation was very close to the source material and it is one of the better adaptations of the book.


The Island of Dr. Moreau

H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau was the story of a scientist who attempts to create new breeds of humanoid creatures through vivisection. The novel is a commentary on the bestial nature of humanity and the fragility of civilization and it is one of Wells’ most popular works. The Island of Dr. Moreau has been adapted to the screen several times. The best regarded version was 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls, starring Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, and Bela Lugosi. Also notable was the 1996 version starring Marlon Brando, David Thewlis, and Val Kilmer. The production was disastrous and so was the film and the making of it was recently recounted in the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau.


Jurassic Park (1993)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Michael Crichton made a career out of spinning tales of technology gone awry. Both a novelist and a filmmaker, Crichton wrote and directed 1973’s Westworld, about an Old West theme park that goes haywire. (Westworld has since been adapted into a television series on HBO.) Crichton repurposed the central idea of Westworld for his most successful project: Jurassic Park. In this story, dinosaurs are brought back to life through genetic engineering and, as in Westworld, the park’s automation eventually fails and puts everyone in peril. Steven Spielberg turned Jurassic Park into a 1993 movie and it became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It also broke new ground in special effects and Jurassic Park was one of the major advances in filmmaking’s transition to the digital age.


The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Dir. Brett Leonard

One of the earliest experiments with digital filmmaking was 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. The movie concerns a scientist whose virtual reality experiments turn a simpleminded groundskeeper into a genius. As his abilities grow, the titular character gradually becomes unstable and achieves god-like powers in cyberspace. The Lawnmower Man is very much a product of the early 1990s but few films have used digital technology as creatively or as boldly as it is employed here.


Re-Animator (1985)
Dir. Stuart Gordon

Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator is a horror comedy in which a medical student concocts a serum that restores life to dead tissue. The movie is gruesome but also very funny. Jeffrey Combs turns in a terrific performance as Herbert West and the movie is a camp classic that is really entertaining.


Soylent Green (1973)
Dir. Richard Fleischer

In the 1960s and 70s, actor Charlton Heston starred in a number of movies about dystopian futures. In titles like Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, Heston was cast as humanity’s last hope. Among Heston’s output in this period was 1973’s Soylent Green. In this film, Earth has been ravaged by overpopulation and industrialization and humanity subsists on a foodstuff that is manufactured by a powerful corporation. The movie has become a minor sci-fi classic, in large part because of its ending.


The Terminator (1984)
Dir. James Cameron

The original Terminator is as much a horror film as it is a science fiction and action picture. At its core, The Terminator is a slasher movie; an unstoppable killer hunts down a series of women until a sole survivor remains. Filmmaker James Cameron decorated that core idea with science fiction concepts and action movie set pieces and constructed a story about technology turning on the human race. The killer cyborg, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, became one of the most iconic characters in American film.


Unfriended (2015)
Dir. Leo Gabriadze

Wifi and social media technology have been the basis for a number of horror films of recent years such as One Missed Call, Friend Request, and Pulse. The problem with a lot of these movies is that they are geared toward the youth market but dramatize the fears of older audiences who don’t get what kids are doing with their new technology. One of the better examples of these social media-horror films was 2015’s Unfriended. The film consists of the screen activity of a group of teenage friends following the death of classmate and Unfriended successfully plays on the particulars of digital media and contemporary concerns about cyberbullying.


Videodrome (1983)
Dir. David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s movies obsess upon the relationship between individuals and society and the ways in which the most personal parts of our selves are molded by technology and ideology. In this picture, a television program director seeks out the edgiest material and finds it in an underground broadcast. Videodrome was a reaction to the advent of home video and cable television and it explores the way the medium could become a mechanism for remolding reality. One of Cronenberg’s most successful movies, Videodrome combines the visceral pleasures of a horror movie with the intellectual and artistic ambition of an art film.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Look at Feminist Horror Films

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at feminist horror movies. The horror genre has a reputation for being sexist and there certainly are titles which fit that bill. However, horror is one of the few genres that regularly features female leads and gender parity in its casting. These pictures also comment upon patriarchy, misogyny, and gender politics that other films take for granted.

The Seventh Victim (1943)
Dir Mark Robson

In the 1940s homosexuality was forbidden under the Production Code and sexuality and the occult were treaded upon very lightly. The Seventh Victim was, in its day, quite radical. According to Thomas Hobbs, the movie's "female characters control their own destinies, share intimate sexual relationships with one another, and aren't afraid to answer back to men."


She (1965)
Dir. Robert Day

Writer H. Rider Haggard’s book She: A History of Adventure has been adapted into a feature film at least seven times. She is the story of British adventurers who discover a lost city in Africa presided over by Queen Ayesha. The movie was adapted into a 1965 film by Hammer with Ursula Andress in the title role. Its success led Hammer to produce a series of films with female leads including Countess Dracula, Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers, and One Million Years B.C. It also appears that this movie had some influence on Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.


Carrie (1976)
Dir. Brian De Palma

When a movie is described as “feminist” it is often taken to mean stories about strong and assertive female characters. That’s certainly one formulation but it’s far too limiting to encompass all feminist stories. The title character of Stephen King’s Carrie is not an assertive character; she’s meek and docile but the film renders her with depth and compassion. In fact, nearly all of the major characters of this film are women, including the teenage bullies, the would-be heroic gym teacher, and Carrie’s psychotic mother, and the film offers a range of views of womanhood.


Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Dir. Steve Miner

The slasher movies of the 1980s were frequently attacked by critics and women’s groups for, among other things, exploiting women in danger. According to the popular criticism, these movies specifically focused on the bloody deaths of women and punished female characters who had sex. While there were some films that did this, most slasher movies actually featured equal numbers of male and female victims and the link between sin and punishment was overstated by critics. Among the best examples of this was Friday the 13th Part II. Ginny, played by Amy Steel, was a smart and resourceful heroine who not only stood up to masked killer Jason Voorhees but also to the male camp staff. Ginny was also smart and educated and in the climax of the movie she uses her knowledge of child psychology to defeat Jason.


Ms. 45 (1981)
Dir. Abel Ferrara

Ms. 45 is a rape revenge movie about a mute woman who is sexually assaulted--twice in one day--and then stalks the streets of New York City, killing men Death Wish-style. Unlike some of the other vigilante films of the 1970s and 80s, Ms. 45 is uncertain about the morality of killing and this woman gradually loses her grip on sanity. At the time it was released, Ms. 45 was criticized for exploiting sexual assault but in the years since the movie has been reevaluated and it is now considered an important feminist work.


Aliens (1986)
Dir. James Cameron

One of the great characters in both science fiction and horror is Ellen Ripley from the Alien series, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley was a terrific heroine partly because she was tough and rose to the occasion but also because she retained vulnerable human qualities. It’s not a coincidence that the best film in the series also featured Ripley at her most compelling and most feminist. 1986’s Aliens presented the character as a survivor coping with post-traumatic stress and put Ripley on a trajectory of facing her fears and saving the day.


The Stepfather (1987)
Dir. Joseph Rubin

The Stepfather is one of the best and most subversive horror pictures of the 1980s. The title character of this film (played terrifically by Terry O'Quinn) is a twisted version of the suburban dad; he’s a man who bought into the idealized version of the nuclear family—and the ideology associated with it—and then is driven to murder when his expectations aren’t met. The violent disillusionment of the title character feels remarkably contemporary, much more so than the 2009 remake.


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Dir. Jonathan Demme

1991’s The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most popular horror stories and the movie is mostly associated with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins. However, The Silence of the Lambs is really about FBI trainee Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster. Every scene unfolds from her point of view and filmmaker Jonathan Demme is always conscientious of Clarice’s place in a man’s world.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui

Before it was a hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, and Paul Reubens. It was the first feature film project of Joss Whedon, who is credited as the writer. The film wasn’t very successful and probably would have been forgotten if not for the television series that ran from 1997 – 2003, guided by Whedon and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as a champion of placing women in lead roles.


The Craft (1996)
Dir. Andrew Fleming

Fantasy movies have a way of literalizing abstract ideas or making mundane everyday experiences new and exciting. 1996’s The Craft was a mix of fantasy and horror in which a group of high school girls dabble in magic. This is at heart a high school clique movie like Mean Girls but it smartly uses the fantasy to visualize young women coming of age and the power of adolescent angst. As the women realize their power they have to learn to take responsibility for it and one especially troubled member of the group is led into dark magic, which literalizes the rage and destructiveness that is inherent to adolescence.


American Psycho (2000)
Dir. Mary Harron

Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho was one of the most controversial books of the 1990s. The novel, which focuses on the life of a psychotic Wall Street executive, featured lurid passages of violence, particularly against women, and American Psycho was a target of protest. However, Ellis intended the book as a feminist piece; it was a send up of the emptiness, materialism, and chauvinism of upper class society pushed to satirical extremes. American Psycho was adapted into a motion picture directed by Mary Harron and co-written by Guinevere Turner with Christian Bale cast in the lead role. In their hands, the violence was slightly toned down while the sardonic tone was turned up and the film version of American Psycho made plain the book’s satirical intentions. Looked at now, it is a striking (and often funny) indictment of what’s popularly called “toxic masculinity.”


Monster (2003)
Dir. Patty Jenkins

Monster was the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a sex worker who murdered several men. Wuornos lived a horrific life of homelessness and abuse and writer/director Patty Jenkins approached the story with an appropriate level of compassion. Wuornos is played by Charlize Theron in what remains the most extraordinary performance of Theron’s career and she is paired with an equally impressive Christina Ricci as Wuornos’ girlfriend.


The Descent (2005)
Dir Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall’s 2005 movie The Descent follows a group of women on a spelunking adventure. While exploring a series of caves they become trapped and then are preyed upon by subterranean monsters. The creature-feature aspects of The Descent are good and scary but the most intense moments of this movie are the claustrophobic cave set pieces. The Descent also has some impressive character work and the filmmakers do an impressive job characterizing these women and suggesting some depth in their relationships.


Death Proof (2007)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s half of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse was a play on slasher films with knives swapped out in favor of muscle cars. A group of women are stalked by a deranged stuntman who deliberately crashes his cars for a sexual thrill. The movie plays on the sex and gender politics of slasher film as well as some of the facets of the rape-revenge genre. This was Tarantino’s first step in using movies to comment upon the politics of different film genres, which he would progressively do better in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.


Hostel: Part II (2007)
Dir. Eli Roth

Eli Roth’s follow up to his hit 2005 splatter movie was the rare sequel that surpassed the original. The Hostel series is about an organized crime syndicate that abducts tourists and sells them to bidders who pay large sums of money to torture and kill the victims. Hostel: Part II's considerable gore belied the fact that this was a smart movie which drew connections between the gender politics of horror movies and the real life sources (and economic incentives) of misogynistic violence.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Suspiria and Eraserhead Retrospective

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at Dario Argento's Suspiria and David Lynch's Eraserhead. The program featured a couple of interviews and you can listen to the full discussions in the embedded files below.

Interview with Donald May Jr.
Donald May Jr. is the President of Synapse Films, a DVD and Blu-Ray label that restores and releases sci-fi, horror, cult, and erotic films. Synapse Films will release a restored version of Suspiria later this year and in this interview May discusses the legacy and technical qualities of Suspiria, the process of preparing the film for release, and the status of the home video market. You can find out more about Synapse Films online at synapse-films.com.



Interview with Kenneth George Godwin 
Kenneth George Godwin is the author of the e-books The David Lynch Files. In this interview Godwin discusses Eraserhead and David Lynch's career. More about Godwin and his work can be found online at cageyfilms.com



You can find other Sounds of Cinema interviews here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2017

October is just about here and that means it’s time for a month of Halloween-related programming on Sounds of Cinema. Each episode this month will take a look at a particular theme or set of films and feature music to match. Here is a preview of what’s to come:

October 1: Suspiria and Eraserhead Retrospective 
This episode will take a look back at two pictures from 1977 on their fortieth anniversary: Dario Argento's Suspiria and David Lynch's Eraserhead. The show will include interviews with Donald May Jr., President of Synapse Films, and Kenneth George Godwin, author of The David Lynch Files.

October 8: Feminist Horror 
The horror genre has a bad rap for its portrayal of women. Sometimes that's deserved but horror is one of the few genres that regularly features gender parity in its casting and features heroic female leads. This episode will consider a few examples of horror films with feminist bona fides.

October 15: Techno-Horror 
Technology is supposed to make life better but it sometimes it goes very wrong. From Frankenstein to Demon Seed to Jurassic Park, horror films have explored our anxieties about technology.

October 22: George A. Romero & Tobe Hooper Retrospective 
In the past year we lost two of the great horror directors: George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper. Romero was best known as the architect of the zombie genre but he was was a much more diverse filmmaker than that. Hooper created some of the most memorable horror films of the 1970s and 80s including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot, and Poltergeist.

October 29: Reboots and Remakes/Pledge Drive
On October 29th, KMSU and KQAL will air different programs.

89.5 KQAL FM: For better or worse, reboots and remakes are a cornerstone of Hollywood's release slate and the horror genre paved the way with Dawn of the Dead and Halloween. This episode will look at the horror remakes that equaled or eclipsed their predecessors.

89.7 KMSU FM: The station will be in the midst of its fall pledge drive.  Sounds of Cinema will feature the pledge drive program. 

October 30/31: Halloween Special
Airing on Monday, October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM and then again on Tuesday, October 31 at 10pm on 89.7 KMSU FM, the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music.
 
Sounds of Cinema can be heard every Sunday morning on the following stations:
  • 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at kqal.org
  • 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at kmsu.org

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What to Make of 'Mother!'

Before it leaves theaters, I want to weigh in on Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! I’m not so interested in explaining or exploring the film’s allegory and what it means. There is plenty in the movie that is provocative and fascinating (you can find my review of the film here) but for the moment the actual content of Mother! takes a backseat to the implications of its disastrous theatrical release. This film clarified where American cinema and its audience are at this moment and the results aren’t good.


 
First, we have to acknowledge that Mother!’s release was a failure. As of this writing, the movie has made just over $14 million domestically. That’s not even enough to cover its modest production budget of $30 million. The movie did fairly well at Rotten Tomatoes (68% fresh) but CinemaScore, which polls opening night audience reactions, gave the movie an F.

Why did a generally well-reviewed movie from one of today’s most interesting directors land so badly? I would argue that a film’s theatrical success is not really determined by reviews or by the quality of the movie. Instead, the box office is really a referendum on the marketing campaign. Paramount sold Mother! as a horror picture. It has horrific elements but this was not a movie for the audience that showed up for It and Annabelle: Creation and they probably felt tricked. The wrong crowd was drawn to the theater and they hated it.

Another problem was the release strategy. Many commentators have praised Paramount for opening the movie wide like a blockbuster title. (Mother! played in over 2000 theaters in its first weekend.) While I am happy to see a major Hollywood studio put out such an interesting and daring movie, the wide release was a mistake. Wide releases are fine for mainstream movies or franchise films that have a proven brand name. Mother! was anything but that.

Because of the closing gap between theatrical and home video release dates (and the ever present threat of piracy) there is increasing pressure to get the movie out to the public as quickly as possible. As it is, most releases make about a third of their theatrical gross in the first weekend and make the majority of the total theatrical gross in the first few weeks. Titles are typically gone from cinemas soon after that.

This “open wide” strategy (or “hit-and-run” if you prefer) has become the norm for studio releases over the last three decades. And as Hollywood studios continue to give up on medium budget films in favor of big movies with multi-million dollar production costs they end up treating everything like a franchise title. With Mother!, Paramount tried to put a circular peg into a square hole and it didn’t fit.

Mother! should have been a platform release, which is to say that it opens in a few theaters at a time and gradually expands. That is no guarantee of box office success but it is a much slower release process and—critically for a movie like Mother!—it allows the picture to find its audience. There is a contingent of people who really like this movie, myself among them, but Mother! didn’t reach those people first. Instead, Paramount courted the Friday night audience with a movie that wasn’t made for them.

This brings me to the viewers. It’s easy for me to be cynical here and sound like a snobby critic so I’ll try my best not to.

The mainstream Friday night audience doesn’t come to the theater looking for a challenging cinematic experience. They are interested in entertainment, not art, and that is fine. But it’s hard to be a movie fan and be anything other than discouraged when something special like Mother! gets released and audiences don’t respond. The movie requires effort by the viewer to engage with its visuals and parse out their meaning. I don’t think today’s mainstream audiences are willing to do that. This is partly due to what viewers have been acclimated to expect. Almost all mainstream movies are literal. There isn’t a lot of experimentation with form and style in Hollywood releases or even in the independent film market. I have to speculate that if Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange or David Lynch’s Eraserhead were released today they would probably get an F rating at CinemaScore.

Mother!’s failure is all the more boggling because the internet is full of consumers complaining that Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas. Numerous articles were written in the past four months explaining the depressed summer box office with “franchise fatigue.” Meanwhile, the top grossing movies released so far this year are almost entirely sequels or spinoffs as are the titles presently dominating the box office. But when something really creative and original comes along like Mother! (or something good but not based on a major property like Detroit or Wind River or Logan Lucky) the audience stays home. Remember that when you see the trailer for the next sequel, reboot, or remake. Hollywood isn’t the one hostile to creativity. We are.

The final insult to Mother!’s theatrical release came from  its writer and director Darren Aronofsky and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence. The movie is an allegory and Aronofsky and Lawrence decided that the prudent thing would be to explain the symbolism in their press interviews. This is a disastrous decision. The whole point of making an allegory is to let the audience figure it out. I recently spoke to writer Kenneth George Godwin and on the subject of symbols and allegory he said, “To just tell people what [the film is] trying to say, I think [the audience is] going to say, ‘Well, that’s just claptrap and who cares.’ Whereas if you leave it unexplained, then the person can experience the film for themselves.” Godwin is exactly right and that’s precisely what’s happened. Explaining the meaning takes the mystery out of the movie and makes it easy to dismiss as pretentious. As long as the meaning remains open to interpretation, the work inspires the audience to keep talking about it and find things in it that the author may not have intended. This is what sustains great works of art. That necessarily means that the filmmaker loses some control over his or her creation as it goes out into the world. Ironically, I would argue that this is central to what Mother! is about, much more so than Aronofsky’s intended ecological message.

So what are we to make of Mother!? Aronofsky made a bold and fascinating movie that is destined for cult status when it hits the VOD and disc markets. But for all its impressive visuals and big ideas, Mother!’s greatest revelation may be how crippled American movie-going has become. Maybe Hollywood studios don’t know how to sell a movie like this anymore and perhaps there’s no theatrical audience for it. If that’s the case, it’s a shame and it doesn’t bode well for the future of American cinema.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer 2017 in Review

Labor Day brings an end to the summer and to the summer movie season. Here is a review of some of the trends in American cinema since May.



Box Office Armageddon
A lot has been made of 2017’s box office which was the worst summer season in a quarter century. The popular explanation for the downturn is franchise fatigue and Hollywood’s overreliance on sequels. The problem with that explanation is that twelve of the top twenty-five grossing movies released so far in 2017 were sequels and that number climbs to fifteen if we count spin offs of existing franchises like Wonder Woman and The LEGO Batman Movie. Meanwhile, plenty of original films didn’t perform well at all such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Logan Lucky. Even The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which has been the top earner for the last three weeks, has made less than $60 million.
 
It could be that the summer paradigm is over. Historically, summer was a dead season for movie attendance (especially in the early years of cinema before air conditioning was commonplace). Prior to the 1970s, the fall and winter holiday season was the most lucrative time for Hollywood and major releases opened at Christmastime. After the success of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, summer became synonymous with blockbuster spectacles and it has remained that way for the past four decades. However, we may be in a period where the calendar is shifting once again. The spring release of megahits like The Hunger Games in 2012, Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, Furious 7 in 2015, The Jungle Book in 2016, and Beauty and the Beast in 2017 indicate that the blockbuster season is gradually moving from May-June-July to March-April-May. Indeed, five of the top ten grossing movies released so far this year opened in the spring.

The other shift is in television. Throughout the network era, the summer was a wasteland of reruns and the fall was prime TV season with new shows debuting and hit shows returning with new episodes. In the era of HBO and Netflix, new and popular television programs like last summer’s Stranger Things and this year’s The Defenders and Game of Thrones are coming throughout the year and television habits have unmoored from the traditional seasonal schedule.

There is also a more obvious answer: a lot of the big movies this summer just weren’t very good. Alien: Covenant, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Rough Night, Baywatch, and Transformers: The Last Knight were lousy movies and their box office performance reflected this. Hollywood’s constant scapegoating of Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film reviews, is a tacit acknowledgement that these films weren’t good.

Superhero Films to the Rescue
Despite all the doom and gloom about the summer box office, one consistent performer was the superhero genre. Yes, the comic book marketplace is saturated and yes, many of these films are redundant with one another. But the fact is that several of the most successful and most entertaining movies of summer 2017 were superhero adaptations including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. In fact, it’s safe to say that 2017 offered the best crop of superhero movies since 2008.

Comedy Ain't Funny
The worst genre this summer—by some stretch—was comedy. This was the summer of The House, Rough Night, Baywatch, Snatched, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. These movies were derivative, lazy, and not funny. Critics and audiences seemed to like Girls Trip but I wasn’t impressed.

You Probably Missed the Best Movies of the Summer
Although the superhero films dominated the summer box office, several impressive adult-oriented dramas were released this summer, some of which will be best-of-the-year-list contenders. The trouble is no one went to see them. The heavily publicized release of Detroit only generated $16 million domestically. Its box office failure is disappointing not only because it was a great movie but it was also in touch with this political and cultural moment. (Then again, that could be exactly why viewers skipped it.) Also underseen was the crime drama Wind River. This film wasn’t promoted as heavily as Detroit but it did have recognizable stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. It’s discouraging to see these films fail at the box office, especially for those of us who want Hollywood to break up its bloated end of the year release slate.

On the lighter side, there were some other great films that didn’t quite find their audience. Atomic Blonde, an R-rated action film based on a graphic novel, was another good entry in the resurgence of practical action moviemaking. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh returned with Logan Lucky, an Ocean’s 11-style heist movie that was a lot of fun. War for the Planet of the Apes was modestly successful but it wasn’t the hit that it should have been. And the best family movie of the summer was the underseen Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie.

There were also some really good indie films released this summer. The most notable was The Big Sick, starring Kumail Nanjiani as himself in the story of how he met his wife Emily Gardner. Some other interesting titles include The Wall, A Ghost Story, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, and The Beguiled. As independent features, many of these titles didn’t open outside of metropolitan areas but many of them should be available on disc or streaming services this fall.

In Summary
The box office failure of many big budget films was the dominant story in entertainment media this summer but it tended to obfuscate that there were at least as many good films as there were bad ones.

The Best Movies of the Summer
  • Atomic Blonde
  • Baby Driver
  • The Beguiled 
  • The Big Sick
  • Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie
  • Detroit
  • Good Time
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Ingrid Goes West
  • Logan Lucky
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • The Wall
  • War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Wind River
  • Wonder Woman

The Worst Movies of the Summer

  • Alien: Covenant
  • All Eyez on Me
  • Baywatch
  • The Dark Tower
  • The Emoji Movie
  • The Mummy
  • The Only Living Boy in New York
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  • Rough Night
  • Snatched
  • Transformers: The Last Knight