Sunday, December 8, 2013

Film Reviews: December 8, 2013

Here is a summary of the film reviews from today's show:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire matches and in many ways exceeds its predecessor. Although a lot of moments in the Hunger Games sequel are familiar both from the first film and from this genre in general, it does those conventions much better than a lot of other pictures.

Delivery Man is acceptable as a feel-good holiday bauble of a film. As a warm and gooey family story, Delivery Man will entertain the crowds who like this kind of thing but its story is undeniably sloppy and the issues in it deserve a much better and more thoughtful presentation than they are given here.

There isn’t very much in theaters these days for viewers who are seeking a religious story or musical entertainment. Because of that absence, Black Nativity manages to fill a void in the movie marketplace but the picture isn’t very good and holiday audiences deserve better.

Dallas Buyers Club is a terrifically made picture not just as an AIDS drama but in terms of dramatic moviemaking. The performances by McConaughey and Leto are some of the best of both actors' careers and the film is a compelling and involving story.

How to Survive a Plague is an important documentary film. It’s a valuable historical document that manages to distill a long and complicated issue into a discernable narrative. It’s also an exceptionally well made film that balances expository information with the human struggles of AIDS.

You can find the full reviews in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Film Reviews: November 24, 2013

Here are the film reviews from today's show:

About Time is a pleasant little film. It isn’t the kind of picture that’s going to change anyone’s life but it does pass as a “comfort movie,” the kind of picture that viewers watch on a rainy afternoon with a pint of ice cream. 

Mr. Nobody is a film that is difficult to recommend because it is unlikely to appeal to a mainstream audience but even the art house crowd is likely to find it underwhelming because it is so compromised. But those who enjoy movies of this sort may want to check it out simply for its ambitions.

Although Free Birds arcs upwards in quality over the course of the picture, it is just too mediocre to recommend. The movie has none of the heart or character that viewers look for in a holiday movie and it is unlikely to entertain anyone.

The Bling Ring is smart and well-made but it also manages to conduct an existential examination of consumer culture while having a laugh. That’s a unique accomplishment and this film does it well enough to make The Bling Ring one of Sofia Coppola’s best films.

You can find the full reviews in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.

Friday, November 8, 2013

89.7 KMSU Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato is currently holding its fall pledge drive in which the station asks listeners to show their support with a financial donation.

Pledge drives have two goals. The first is obvious: to generate the money that will keep KMSU on the air. Your donations cover the day-to-day overhead expenses of running the station so that the KMSU's volunteers and staff can keep the programming coming to you.

The second goal of a pledge drive is about public relations. Space and money are at a premium across higher education. Your pledge demonstrates to the university that KMSU is an important and valued part of the community and allows the station and its staff to justify their existence. This means that the amount you give is not as important as the fact that you do give.

To make a pledge to KMSU, please call 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also visit and click on the "donate" icon. Leave your name, address, phone number, and the amount you would like to pledge. Please do not leave credit card information in an email or voicemail as they are not secure.

The November 10th edition of Sounds of Cinema heard on 89.7 KMSU FM will be a special pledge drive edition that will showcase what this program has to offer. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled broadcast.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Film Reviews for November 3, 2013

Here are the reviews from today's show: 

The Counselor is a frustratingly bad movie. The picture has some extraordinary talents involved but that makes its failure all the more disappointing. To say it is a train wreck is unfair because train wrecks are at least watchable.

Escape Plan plays like a direct-to-DVD feature that somehow finagled a theatrical release. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have been in plenty of bad movies but they may never have been in one as boring as Escape Plan.

Lock Up is a very well made prison film and it is one of Sylvester Stallone’s better movies from the 1980s. It is recognizably an action picture from that period in both good and bad ways but it is very entertaining and the humanistic qualities of the picture make it stand out.

You can find the full reviews in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special

The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special can be heard the evening of October 30th. This one hour program includes music from a variety of All Hallows Eve related films as well as some other audio tricks and treats.

The show will air at:
Remember that if you don't live in the broadcast area you can still hear the show live streaming over the web at each station's website. 

Tune in for the soundtrack to your Halloween.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Films of Stephen King

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined films adapted from the works of Stephen King. Here is a recap of the pictures discussed on today’s show as well as a few additional titles.

Carrie (1976)
Carrie has been adapted three times: first in 1976 as a feature film directed by Brian DePalma and starring Sissy Spacek and again in 2002 in a made for television movie directed by David Carson and starring Angela Bettis. The novel was most recently adapted in 2013 as a feature directed by Kimberley Peirce and starring Chloe Grace Moretz. The original film was also followed by a sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2, released in 1999.

Salem’s Lot (1979)
Many of Stephen King’s works have been adapted for television. The first and still one of the best regarded is Salem’s Lot. Originally broadcast on CBS in the fall of 1979, Salem’s Lot tells the story of vampires invading a small New England town. Although it is recognizably a product of the 1970s, Salem’s Lot has aged very well and it is impressive not only as a made-for-television production but as a motion picture in its own right. Salem’s Lot was directed by Tobe Hooper, who had previously helmed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and would later direct the adaptation of Stephen King’s short story The Mangler. A made-for-television remake of Salem’s Lot was broadcast on the TNT cable network in 2004.

The Shining (1980)
Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining was adapted by director Stanley Kubrick for a feature film released in 1980. The novel tells the story of a couple and their young son who spend a winter as caretakers for a haunted hotel and the supernatural evil gradually overtakes the father. Kubrick’s film downplayed the supernatural element, turning The Shining from a story about external evil embodied by the hotel and into a story of the evil inside of the father. The film was released to lukewarm reviews although it is now regarded as a horror classic. Stephen King has admitted to hating what Kubrick did to his novel and so he produced a made-for-television miniseries of The Shining that was broadcast in 1997. King has since written a sequel to The Shining titled Doctor Sleep.

Creepshow (1982)
Like a lot of horror storytellers who grew up in the postwar era, Stephen King was influenced by the horror comics popular in the 1950s. King teamed with Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero to make a tribute to those comics. Creepshow is an anthology of five short stories written by Stephen King and featuring an impressive cast including Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, and Ted Danson. King appears as an actor in the short “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” A sequel was released in 1987.

Christine (1983)
Directed by John Carpenter, Christine tells the story of a teenage boy who becomes obsessed with his car, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. The movie raised the profile of the car, resulting in it becoming a popular automobile among collectors.

The Dead Zone (1983)
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, The Dead Zone was directed by David Cronenberg and starred Chistopher Walken as a man who awakens from a coma with psychic powers. He has a vision of an up and coming politician elected President of the United States and starting a nuclear war. The psychic then weighs whether or not he should assassinate the politician. Filmmaker John Badham, known for Saturday Night Fever and Wargames, was originally slated to direct but pulled out of the project when he decided that the material was irresponsible. The Dead Zone was later turned into a television series starring Anthony Michael Hall that was broadcast on the USA network from 2002 – 2007.

The Running Man (1987)
Based on the Stephen King novel (originally published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man is a dystopian story in which convicts compete in a gladiatorial game show. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a wrongly convicted protagonist who must fight his way through the games. The cast also includes Richard Dawson, the original host of Family Feud, as the emcee of the game show.

Pet Semetary (1989)
Pet Semetary tells the story of a family that moves into a new home near a burial ground for domesticated animals. When deceased creatures are buried in the ground they return to life but with a corrupted spirit. Stephen King came up with the concept for the novel Pet Semetary while teaching for a year at his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. King based the book on his family’s experiences during that year, including the death of the family pet. King did not like the finished manuscript and was going to shelve it but he ultimately published Pet Semetary in order to fulfill his contract to publisher Doubleday. Despite his misgivings about the novel, King was very involved with the production of the film adaptation; he wrote the script, was present on set, and is even featured in a cameo role as a minister. 

It (1990)
Stephen King’s novel It was adapted into a made-for-television mini-series that was broadcast in two parts on ABC in 1990. The first half tells the story of young people who are terrorized by the ghost of a child killing circus clown known as Pennywise. In the second half, the surviving children, now adults, return to their home town to fac5e the demon once again. The first half of the mini-series is far stronger than the second half, partly because the conflict between Pennywise and the children is more compelling but also because the ending of Stephen King’s novel was more cerebral and that quality did not translate cinematically. Despite its shortcomings, It is still among the most popular adaptations of King’s works and that is largely due to Tim Curry’s magnificent performance as Pennywise.

Misery (1990)
Many of Stephen King’s stories are led by protagonists who are writers but Misery was most directly about King’s experiences as an author. In this story a successful novelist is held hostage by a crazed fan who demands that he keep her favorite character alive. Misery was directed by Rob Reiner, who had also helmed the King adaptation Stand By Me, and featured James Caan and Kathy Bates in the lead roles. Bates’ character in Misery is one of the most terrifying villains in motion picture history and she won an Academy Award for her performance. At the time it was considered quite strange and even shocking that an actor in a horror film would be given such a mainstream award.

Needful Things (1993)
Several of Stephen King’s novels take place in the small Maine town of Castle Rock, including The Dead Zone, Cujo, and The Dark Half. King’s 1991 novel Needful Things was billed as “The Last Castle Rock Story” although the town has since reappeared in other works. The book was adapted into a film released in 1993 and it is one of the more interesting adaptations of Stephen King’s work. The filmmakers combine shocking violence with witty humor, giving the picture a fun, mischievous tone. Needful Things is helped considerably by the casting, especially Max von Sydow as mysterious shop owner Leland Gaunt. The novel had a broad scope with many character and intersecting storylines. A lot of these subplots were scripted and shot but ultimately discarded in order to cut the film down to a feature length. The extended version can sometimes be seen in television broadcasts.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption was adapted from Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” part of the collection Different Seasons (which also included the source material for Apt Pupil and Stand By Me.) The film stars Tim Robbins as a wrongly convicted man sentenced to life in prison and Morgan Freeman as a fellow inmate who is inspired by his companion’s hope. The film adaptation was released in 1994 and although it was well reviewed it was box office disappointment in its theatrical run. The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but being released the same year as Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Quiz Show, the movie was lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t until it premiered on home video and was broadcast on basic cable on a nearly constant basis that it found an audience and The Shawshank Redemption is now considered one of the great movies of all time.

The Stand (1994)
The Stand is an apocalyptic fantasy film in which nearly the entire human race is wiped out by a plague, setting the stage for a showdown between the forces of good and evil. Stephen King first published the novel in 1978 and it was later rereleased in expanded and updated editions. The film adaptation was in development for a decade, with Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero attached to direct at one point. The Stand was eventually produced as a television miniseries broadcast on ABC in 1994 and it was a very ambitious production for its time. A feature film remake of The Stand is currently in development.

Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Kathy Bates returned to the works of Stephen King in the title role of Dolores Claiborne. This film tells the story of a woman who is suspected of murder and in the course of her interrogation she reveals a traumatic life story of abuse. In addition to the film adaptation, Dolores Claiborne has recently been converted into an opera.

The Green Mile (1999)
Following The Shawshank Redemption, filmmaker Frank Darabont adapted Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile. This film tells the story of prison guards working on death row in the 1930s. The daily routine of the cellblock is disrupted by a mysterious new inmate, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, who has supernatural powers. When the film was released it became the biggest box office hit based on Stephen King’s source material. King has referred to The Green Mile as the single most faithful adaptation of his work.

1408 (2007)
Based on a Stephen King short story of the same name, 1408 tells the story of a skeptic who specializes in debunking supernatural myths and spends the night in a supposedly haunted hotel. The film went to theaters with a different ending than the one originally written and shot. Test audiences reacted negatively to the intended downbeat ending and so the conclusion of 1408 was reconceived. A director’s cut of 1408 was issued on DVD and restores the original ending.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cannibal Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined cannibal movies. Here is a look the movies discussed on the show as well as a few additional titles. Warning: Some of the videos below are NSFW.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, a subgenre of cannibal films came to dominate the exploitation horror movie market especially in Italy. Of these, the most well-known and the most infamous is Cannibal Holocaust. The second half of this film plays like what is now known as a “found footage” picture but in 1980 the format was entirely new. Because the audience didn’t quite know what to make of what they were watching and because the film’s distributors played up the illusion of authenticity, prints of Cannibal Holocaust were seized by Italian authorities on the belief that it was a snuff film. Although murder charges were dismissed, director Ruggero Deodato found himself in trouble over animal cruelty as Cannibal Holocaust contains several unstimulated sequences of the actors killing real animals. Whatever one thinks about this footage, it should be noted that historically violence against animals was quite frequent in the motion picture industry, from exploitation movies to Hollywood productions. Due to the scenes of violence against animals, as well as a barrage of other savage imagery, Cannibal Holocaust was censored the world over and is believed to be among the most widely banned films in cinema history.

Cannibal Ferox [aka Let Them Die Slowly] (1981)
Released amid the Italian cannibal phase of the 1970s and 80s, Cannibal Ferox was one of the nastier entries in the subgenre. The film came after Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and the film duplicates a lot of the elements as that film including actor Robert Kerman and unstimulated scenes of violence against real animals, although Cannibal Ferox did not suffer the same kind of legal persecution as Cannibal Holocaust nor does it exhibit that film’s complexity and intelligence.

Hannibal (2001)
Bar none, the most popular cannibal in the history of cinema is Doctor Hannibal Lecter, immortalized on screen by actor Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. However, Hopkins was not the first actor to play Lecter. That honor goes to Brian Cox who played the character in 1986’s Manhunter, an adaptation of the novel Red Dragon. Although that film wasn’t successful at the time it is now held in high regard. The Silence of the Lambs reintroduced the character and was later followed by Hannibal and another adaptation of Red Dragon, all featuring Anthony Hopkins in the Lecter role. This was followed by a prequel, Hannibal Rising, which featured Gaspard Ulliel in the title role and more recently an eponymous television series featuring Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter.

Titus (1999)
Excepting the adventures of Hannibal Lecter, cannibalism is generally regarded as a feature of supposedly “low culture” stories. But anthropophagy figures into everything from the myths of ancient Greece to mainstream Hollywood movies. The enduring applicability of cannibalism is evidenced by William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, which was adapted into the 1999 film Titus, directed by Julie Taymor. This film was a bold adaptation, mixing ancient and modern design, and it has a gleefully insane performance by Anthony Hopkins in the title role. According to Taymor, the adaptation was an attempt to connect the violence of the ancient world with the violence of the present day. Although Titus is an uneven movie—some would say a train wreck—it is also the kind of picture that you can’t stop watching. 

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Following his filmmaking debut with 1972’s Last House on the Left but preceding his mainstream success with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, writer and director Wes Craven released The Hills Have Eyes in 1977 and it remains among the filmmaker’s best movies. Inspired by the tales of the Sawney Bean family, The Hills Have Eyes tells the story of a middle class family whose motor home breaks down in the middle of the desert and they find themselves under siege by a group of cannibals. As in most of Craven’s best efforts, The Hills Have Eyes mixes savage violence with intelligent storytelling and this film is extremely well made. A remake was released in 2006 and although it does not eclipse the original version it was much better than a lot of the other remakes released around the same time. 

The People Under the Stairs (1991)
The People Under the Stairs was one of Wes Craven’s strangest films as it tells the story of a young black boy who breaks into the home of a white suburban couple only to find the residents are cannibals who keep children locked up under the floorboards. The movie is more than a little weird and ultimately uneven but it also has tremendous energy and an overt economic subtext that plays very well today.

Blood Feast (1963)
Herschell Gordon Lewis was one of the great exploitation filmmakers and one of his earliest and most successful features was 1963’s Blood Feast. In this film a caterer kills and mutilates women with the goal of preparing a sacrifice to the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. The movie was more gory than scary but in 1963 gore was not seen very frequently if at all on the silver screen and Lewis went pretty far with some of the imagery, even by today’s standards. But the real talent of Herschell Gordon Lewis was not in making movies but in selling them. He realized that a good marketing campaign could make a terrible movie profitable and marketing notices for Blood Feast warned that it should not be viewed by those with a weak heart. Audiences who took up the dare were given vomit bags at screenings and Lewis and company actively secured an injunction against their own movie from a Florida court just to say it was banned.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the ultimate midnight movies. In it, a newly engaged couple is stranded at the house of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his companions. The movie is made up of musical numbers chock with allusions to the science fiction movies of classic Hollywood like Bride of Frankenstein and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the course of the story, Dr. Frank-N-Furter kills a delivery boy and feeds him to his guests.

Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
Before Matt Stone and Trey Parker found mainstream success with the South Park television series, they collaborated on a musical adaptation of the story of Alfred Packer, a notorious prospector who restored to cannibalism when his company became stranded in the Rocky Mountains in the winter of 1874. Despite the very meager resources that these filmmakers had at their disposal, Cannibal! The Musical is a very ambitious production. The picture was originally filmed as a student project, and that is quite obvious in the film’s production values, but it was picked up by Troma Entertainment and developed a cult following when South Park became a hit television show. Cannibal! The Musical is also interesting as a precursor to some of Stone and Parker’s later work, especially the film Team America: World Police and the stage show The Book of Mormon.

Ravenous (1999)
Set in the 1840s, Ravenous tells a story of cannibalism at a remote US Army frontier outpost. This film was unique from other cannibal stories in that it included a supernatural element in which people who engaged in cannibalism took on regenerative qualities, miraculously healing from serious injuries. The film is frequently bizarre, part action movie and part horror picture, and mixes bloody violence with comic relief. The strange tenor of the movie has made it appealing to a cult audience.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Sweeney Todd was an adaptation of the popular stage musical, which itself was adapted from folk tales. The title character is a barber who has gone insane and teams with a deranged baker. He kills his customers and she uses their bodies as the key ingredient in meat pies. The 2007 film was directed by Tim Burton and although it features many of Burton’s regular collaborators it was overall a very different movie for the filmmaker. Burton’s films have usually had a gothic and macabre tone but there was also an innocence about Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and even Batman. By contrast Sweeney Todd had none of that innocence and was a much grislier affair than Burton’s other films.

I Drink Your Blood and I Eat Your Skin (1970)
In the early 1970s there were a lot of films about murderous hippies following the Manson Family murders. I Drink Your Blood and I Eat Your Skin reflects this, as a band of hippies terrorize a small town. In retaliation, a local boy feeds them meat pies infected with rabies, turning the hippies into homicidal maniacs. The film is a notable precursor to 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974 and tells the story of a group of young people traveling through rural Texas who are picked off by a family of cannibals. The major character associated with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding simpleton who wears a mask of human flesh. The character was loosely based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and in subsequent sequels and remakes Leatherface would become the common element of the franchise. Director Tobe Hooper had initially hoped that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would get a PG rating and so he staged a lot of the violence in such a way that most of the bloodletting is only implied. But the movie is so intense and has such an oppressive tone that it not only earned an R-rating but was also banned outright in several countries. The critical response to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was tepid at the time but it is now regarded as one of the great American horror films.

Soylent Green (1973)
Directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tora Tora Tora) and starring Charlton Heston, this highly influential and often imitated science fiction film takes place in a dystopian future in which the public depends on a mysterious foodstuff. When a detective discovers the secret ingredient he is pursued by industry and government agents.

We’re Going to Eat You (1981)
We’re Going to Eat You is a very strange combination of a lot of different genres. Originating from Hong Kong, this film tells the story of a secret agent who discovers a village of cannibals. The movie combines gory violence with comedy and martial arts, giving the movie an offbeat tone. We’re Going to Eat You takes an additionally strange turn as the movie uses cannibalism as a political metaphor. Director Hark Tsui has described We’re Going to Eat You as an anti-Communist film; the distribution of meat among the cannibals was a stand in for redistribution of wealth.

Parents (1989)
Parents is a creepy but thoughtful movie. Set in 1950s suburbia, a boy begins to suspect that his parents are cannibals. Rather than the campy exercise its premise suggests, Parents is full of nightmarish imagery that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The picture is very re-watchable because there is so much in it that merits deeper exploration.

The ’Burbs (1989)
Director Joe Dante was known for effectively mixing horror and comedy in movies like Piranha and Gremlins and among his most successful films was The ’Burbs. In this dark comedy, the residents of a quiet suburban neighborhood begin to suspect that their new neighbors are cannibals and they go to increasingly absurd lengths to prove it. The film is a very entertaining mystery, as it plays coy over whether the new family are really murderers or if it is all a delusion of the bored suburbanite mind. It also has a stellar cast including Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, and Corey Feldman.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Terror of 'The Exorcist' and 'The Wicker Man'

Today's edition of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at two film celebrating their 40th anniversaries: The Exorcist and The Wicker Man. Among the many things distinguishing these pictures is the way they frighten their audience. Although they are both horror films, each of them demonstrates a distinct approach to terrorizing the viewer. [Note: Spoilers Ahead.]

The Exorcist
The term “religious film” generally calls to mind pictures like The Passion of the Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, movies that deal specifically with Biblical narratives. But this term ought to be applied more broadly than that. The Exorcist is unique as a religious horror film and its religiosity is a key part of its terror.

When The Exorcist was revised into the cut that is now known as The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, the film had several scenes added. Most of these were additions of a small sort such as an alternate opening sequence, an exchange of dialog between the priests, and a preliminary visit to the doctor by the possessed girl and her mother. Among the most notable additions was in the ending. As originally written and shot, a local priest visits the family as they move out of the house and sees them off. He is later joined by a police detective who has been prowling around in the background of the story. The two men hit off a friendship and the picture ends on a hopeful note. For the theatrical release, the entire exchange between the priest and detective was cut, ending the film very abruptly.

The truncated ending always bothered producer and writer William Peter Blatty in part because many critics and moviegoers interpreted The Exorcist as a story in which evil was triumphant. Blatty was upset by that reaction, as it was exactly the opposite of what he had set out to do, and he felt the extended ending corrected the tone of the film.

However, with the original ending restored, the ultimate meaning of the conclusion and of the film itself is still somewhat ambiguous. Friedkin and Blatty’s flabbergast response to the audience’s dark interpretation of the ending is not entirely fair and Blatty is naïve to argue that tagging a two minute sequence onto the denouement would change the momentum of the film. In fact, the popularly dark understanding of The Exorcist is a direct result of the way the film is made.

The Exorcist is shot in a cold, verite style and it does not use music or other cinematic techniques to manage the audience’s emotional reactions. The film does delineate decisively between good and evil but the presentation of evil in The Exorcist is overwhelming while goodness is frail. Given that unbalanced screen presence, and given that the climax of The Exorcist unfolds so quickly as to evade reflection, it is no wonder that audiences have often come away from the film feeling as though the Devil was the victor.

Perhaps the most important addition to the extended version of The Exorcist is the brief exchange between the two priests. While Fathers Karras and Merrin break from the exorcism ritual, the younger priest asks his elder why this is happening. His response:
“I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”
This piece of dialog is really the thesis of The Exorcist and when juxtaposed with the climax it does a lot for Blatty’s case about the meaning of the film. The movie does depict good fighting against evil and ultimately good does triumph: the girl is saved and priest’s faith is restored. But that is the silver lining in what is still a very dark cloud. As The Exorcist depicts it, the struggle between good and evil is not equally matched, and to fight on the side of good is a Sisyphean effort that may require the ultimate sacrifice.

The Exorcist is an assaultive film, one that gets in the viewer’s face with an uncompromising depiction of evil and corruption. In the era of slasher and torture films, its visceral horrors are significantly less shocking. But The Exorcist remains unnerving because its filmmakers concoct a formulation of evil that is so feral and so nihilistic that it does not offer a heroic alternative. Horror villains like Dracula, Freddy Krueger, and Hannibal Lecter eventually become embraceable and even strangely heroic figures while Frankenstein’s Monster and Norman Bates are pitiable creatures. But the demon of The Exorcist does not inspire admiration or pity. The image of this infernal being parasitically attached to the body of a young girl is a desecration of too much that is sacred. The confrontation with this monstrosity reaches beyond the immediate circumstances of the film and touches something primal in the audience.

Now, as in 1973, American audiences have lost their faith in most of the institutional pillars of society. Government, the military, the press, professional sports, and organized religion have scandalized themselves to a point in which it is nearly impossible for citizens to be anything but jaded. That leaves art and in particular motion pictures as one of the few places that people can go for relief. A film like The Exorcist turns the movie theater into a sacred space in which viewers can get, for lack of a better term, a spiritual experience.

The Wicker Man
The Wicker Man is properly categorized as a horror film but much of what is in the film does not suggest itself as a horror picture. As a British film from the early 1970s, The Wicker Man does not have the story or settings that characterized the pictures of the Hammer studio which were popular at that time. The film plays even more strangely for a contemporary audience. The movie was offbeat in 1973 and for today’s audience it is often just plain weird. The depictions of pagan sexuality come across like scenes of a 1970s soft core adult feature and the strange musical numbers look like something out of a family-oriented movie. But the weirdness of The Wicker Man is why it works so well, why it has been adopted by such a devoted cult audience, and ultimately why this film is rightly categorized as a horror picture.

A lot of horror films are deliberately scary, which is to say they are imagined and executed in a way that puts the viewer in direct confrontation with darkness. Such pictures take place in haunted homes, ruined castles, or disheveled farm houses and the characters are assaulted by malevolent spirits, the undead, or psychotic murderers. These familiar settings and antagonists are comfortably scary. They are recognizable as a terrible place in which lurks a horrible creature and these stories generally involve mainstream characters who ultimately destroy the monster.

The Wicker Man doesn’t work that way. This film is headed by a mainstream character but he isn’t entirely sympathetic and he arrives in a place that is not obviously threatening, at least not in the way of Dracula’s castle. Instead he is met by a community that upends many of the basic beliefs and values of mainstream culture and the longer he spends on the island the less recoverable traditional reality seems to be. The folk music, strange costumes, and bizarre traditions give this film the atmosphere of a carnival. In that respect, The Wicker Man is unsettling in the same way that a clown can be frightening.

In some horror films the images and ideas are only frightening for particular audiences while in other horror pictures the source of terror stems from something universal to the human experience. The Wicker Man includes both approaches.

As a police officer and a devoted Christian, Sergeant Howie represents mainstream society, especially in 1973. His values are the values of the mainland culture, he carries the authority of the government, and he repeatedly reminds the islanders of those facts. But during his time on Summerisle, Sergeant Howie’s authority is constantly undermined until he is eventually overcome. The finale of The Wicker Man is the immolation of the establishment and so the horror in this will be most resonant for viewers who share Howie’s religious and political views.

But The Wicker Man isn’t just disturbing for conservative (in the most basic sense of the word) viewers. The movie gets to more essential fears of being an outcast or simply sticking out in a crowd and it does that by way of religion. The police sergeant is an emphatic Christian and he expresses indignation at paganism, often belittling the islanders’ ideas and traditions while proclaiming the truth of his own religious views. This makes him an outsider and his otherness and isolation are constantly highlighted by the detective’s own proclamations as well as by the filmmaking techniques. The Wicker Man has many scenes emphasizing the detective’s isolation such as numerous shots from Howie’s perspective in which the villagers stare at him silently. This plays on nearly universal fears of standing before a crowd, which is rooted in evolutionary instincts of being exposed. The end of The Wicker Man is so powerful and so haunting because it validates a suspicion that most of us harbor, that the stupidity of large groups of people can actually be lethal, as well as a deeper animalistic fear of the pack turning on us.

The religious aspect of The Wicker Man takes a further turn in the finale. As Sergeant Howie meets his fate, he invokes the Christian god and proclaims that the Almighty will smite his enemies. Of course, that does not happen and among the final images of The Wicker Man are pagans and a Christian singing competing hymns to their gods. The final impressions the film leaves are not of religious martyrdom or pagan triumph but of the empty promises of superstition and the horror of delusional fantasies leading people over a rational and moral precipice.

The fears that The Wicker Man plays upon are not as obvious as the dread of being murdered or eaten alive or even being attacked by evil spirits but the fears that it invokes are nevertheless powerful. The oblique style of the movie, its strange characters, and its fairytale-like setting make it uncanny but at the same time disguise its horror. There is something fascinating and puzzling about the movie and that may be why it has continues to play for audiences four decades after its release despite its flaws.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Werewolf Films

Today's edition of Sounds of Cinema kicked off the month long Halloween theme with a look at werewolf movies. Here is a review of the films discussed on the show as well as some additional pictures.

The Wolf-Man (1941)
The Wolf-Man is part of the ensemble of classic Universal Monsters that includes Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. This film came comparatively late in that cycle, premiering a decade after the release of Todd Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein. As a result it has a more polished look than those films and it benefits from a familiar cast of other Universal horror actors including Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi. The title role of The Wolf-Man was played by Lon Chaney Jr., and the actor brought a lot of charm and sympathy to the role. Like many of the other Universal Monsters, Chaney’s Wolf-Man was a tragic figure and just as Bela Lugosi’s turn as Dracula and Boris Karloff’s iteration of Frankenstein’s Monster defined those characters for all time, so Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as The Wolf-Man did much to define the lycanthropy genre.

The Wolfman (2010)
In 2010 a remake of the 1941’s The Wolf-Man was attempted by director Joe Johnston, with Benicio del Toro cast in the title role. Although it featured some impressive talents in front and behind the camera the finished film wasn’t very good. The production was chaotic with the project passing through multiple directors and Joe Johnston was assigned to the project just three weeks before principle photography. This finished film had less to do with the 1941 picture and much more in common with subsequent werewolf movies such as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling but even in comparison to those pictures, the remake of The Wolf-Man wasn’t very successful. It was originally intended as a gothic horror story but, perhaps in response to the torture films that were popular at that time, it also featured copious amounts of gore and put an emphasis on action instead of terror. However, the music score by Danny Elfman is quite fun.

The Howling (1981)
The Howling is a unique entry in the werewolf genre. Most of these films are about single individuals who are stricken with lycanthropy and the stories often take place in the woods or other isolated places. The Howling introduced werewolves to the city and imagined lycanthropes living together as a social group. The film was immensely influential in part because of its new approach to the werewolf story but also because of its makeup effects which were ground breaking at the time.

The Howling II (1985)
After the success of The Howling, a follow up was put into production and the result was one of the most bizarrely disastrous sequels ever made. The Howling II teams up the brother of the survivor of the first film with a werewolf hunter played by Christopher Lee. They journey to Eastern Europe and uncover a cult of werewolves led by a matriarch played by Sybil Danning. The movie is nearly incomprehensible with a convoluted plot, terrible special effects, and hammy performances. The movie is also frequently and unintentionally hilarious and because of that, Howling II is one of those rare features that is so bad that it is trashy fun.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
An American Werewolf in London was directed by John Landis, who was generally known for comedies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers. It’s unsurprising then that An American Werewolf in London includes almost as much humor as horror. The film was especially notable for its special effects and renowned makeup artist Rick Baker won the Best Makeup Oscar for his work on this film. Interestingly, the transformation and werewolf makeup of An American Werewolf in London were very similar to that seen in The Howling, which was released the same year. Rick Baker had initially agreed to do The Howling but left that production to work on An American Werewolf in London, leaving his protégé Rob Bottin in charge of the effects for The Howling. A sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, was released in 1997. The film wasn’t well received although it is notable as an early entry in the filmographies of Julie Delpy and Julie Bowen.

Teen Wolf (1985)
One of the many werewolf films to be released in the mid-1980s was Teen Wolf, a high school comedy starring Michael J. Fox. Teen Wolf is unique in that it played against the typical werewolf clichés. Instead of making Fox’s character a monstrous outcast, lycanthropy actually sends him to the top of the high school queue, especially after his werewolf powers make him the star of the basketball team. Teen Wolf is an absurd movie and a noticeably cheap production but it’s also very charming and has inspired a very dedicated cult audience. Despite being a movie that was anticipated to disappear after its theatrical run, Teen Wolf has thrived, subsequently inspiring a sequel, a Saturday morning cartoon, and it has recently been reimagined as a dramatic television series for MTV.

Skinwalkers (2006)
As has happened with vampires, many of the more recent werewolf movies have added some gradation to these creatures, making them more than violent monsters, and put an emphasis on social relationships. Skinwalkers tells the story of a teenage boy who discovers that his family are beneficent werewolves who have protected him from a warring clan of violent wolf-men.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
The third Harry Potter film is one of the better entries in the series, partly due to inspired direction by filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón but also due to better source material. The Prisoner of Azkaban introduced a complexity in the story and characters that would come to distinguish the Harry Potter films. This entry introduced a new character, Professor Lupin, played by David Thewlis, and as his last name suggests he is a werewolf. Series creator J.K. Rowling has commented that Lupin’s lycanthropy was a metaphor for mental illness.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
This drive-in feature was one of American International Pictures's most successful productions and it led to a series of I Was a Teenage . . . spin offs. The film is also notable as the feature debut of Michael Landon in the title role.

Ginger Snaps (2000)
This werewolf picture focuses on a pair of death obsessed teenagers who are struck with lycanthropy. The film has inspired an entire series of films and is well regarded for its intelligence and black humor.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
The Hammer film studio put out a tremendous number of horror films in the 1960s and 70s and the studio is best known for its Dracula pictures starring Christopher Lee. But Hammer only put out a single werewolf picture: The Curse of the Werewolf, starring Oliver Reed in his first lead role. The Curse of the Werewolf is unique in its genre. The film is set in 18th century Spain and Oliver Reed’s character is not bitten by a wolf. Rather, his lycanthropy is a product of his conception. As dramatized in the opening of the film, his character was the outcome of a sexual assault and as a result the lycanthropy metaphor of this film takes on a decisively different and more disturbing tone than other werewolf pictures. Originally released in 1961, The Curse of the Werewolf had a lot of trouble with British and American censors and only recently has the original cut of the film been restored.

Wolf (1994)
Wolf stars Jack Nicholson as a senior book editor who is bitten by a wolf and gradually becomes more aggressive, adopting canine traits and eventually transforming into a wolf-like creature. The filmmakers and makeup artists made interesting choices for the transformation. Instead of going for full makeup when Nicholson’s character is overcome by the beast he instead sprouts fangs and grows sideburns. The minimalist makeup approach is unique but it also frequently looks silly, more so than full monster makeup. Wolf was directed by Mike Nichols, who was a proven director, having helmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, and Postcards from the Edge, but his repertoire hadn’t included horror or action pictures and it shows in this film. The non-horror parts of the movie play very well and Wolf has some great comic moments but the frights and the thrills aren’t so well done. The movie references some of the signature visuals of 1941’s The Wolf-Man but ironically Wolf is most similar in style and tone to 1982’s Cat People.

The Company of Wolves (1984)
An early feature from director Neil Jordon, The Company of Wolves is more of a fantasy film than a horror picture and it will probably appeal to cult audiences but the film is an intelligent take on fairytales.

Dog Soldiers (2002)
In this Predator-like story, a group of British soldiers on a routine training mission find themselves under siege by a group of werewolves. The film is one of the better combinations of action and horror and a notable early directorial effort by filmmaker Neil Marshall who went on to make The Descent and Centurion.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
The third and best film in the Underworld series is a prequel that explains the origin the vampire-werewolf feud. Actors Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen elevate the B-movie material with earnest performances.

The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)
While not strictly a werewolf film, it merits mention. Taking place in 18th century France, a wolf-like creature haunts the countryside and a broad group of characters attempt to stop it, gradually uncovering a bigger mystery in the process. Even though the plot is at times confusing The Brotherhood of the Wolf is a tremendous spectacle with some fascinating imagery.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sounds of Cinema October Programming

Throughout October, Sounds of Cinema will feature a month of Halloween-related programming.

Oct. 6: Werewolf Films
Tune in for a look at lycanthropy on film, including music from The Wolf-Man, The Howling, and Teen Wolf.

Oct. 13: The Exorcist and The Wicker Man
2013 is the fortieth anniversary of the release of The Exorcist and The Wicker Man. This episode will look back at these films.

Oct. 20: Cannibal Movies
This episode will examine movies about cannibalism including Cannibal Holocaust, Hannibal, and Cannibal! The Musical.

Oct. 27: Stephen King
Stephen King's literary works have been the basis for an enormous library of films. This show will consider several of them, including It, The Stand, and The Shawshank Redemption.

Oct. 30: Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special
Airing on Wednesday, October 30th at 11pm, this special will provide the soundtrack for your Halloween with a mix of Halloween related film music and other audio clips.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reviews for September 29, 2013

Blue Jasmine is a Woody Allen film but it is the rare kind of Woody Allen film that goes beyond the writer/director’s usual quirks and gets at something deeper. This movie may not be the kind of typically funny picture that audience’s associate with Woody Allen but in many respects it is something better.

Prisoners is a tough and sometimes unsettling movie but it is also a terrific thriller. This film is smartly plotted, excellently acted, and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of what people will do in desperate situations. That complexity is welcome in a movie marketplace that often gravitates toward simplicity.

Behind the Candelabra is a well-made film with some terrific performances. This is a thoughtful story about living in the spotlight and the cost of fame.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Film Screening: Night of the Living Dead

Sounds of Cinema is sponsoring a film screening of the original Night of the Living Dead on Friday, September 20th at 10pm. The film will be shown in the Science Lab Auditorium (located between Pasteur and Stark Halls) on the Winona State University campus. The event is free and open to the public.

Named one of the scariest movies of all time by Entertainment Weekly, added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and called “one of the great American films” by author Carol Clover, Night of the Living Dead is a horror classic. In the forty-five years since its release, this film has emerged as one of the most influential movies of all time.

View the trailer below:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Film Review for September 15, 2013

Here is a recap of the films reviewed on today's show:

Riddick is an entertaining sci-fi adventure. That is all the film is trying to be and it succeeds, so its problems are forgivable and the filmmakers deserve praise for their unique stylistic choices.

Getaway is a direct-to-video feature that somehow made its way into theaters. The movie is passably entertaining as a mindless car picture but it’s too stupid to be taken seriously.

I Declare War is not a film that can be described as “politically correct” but it does come across as truthful and that is far more important. It is flawed but what the filmmakers have managed to accomplish in I Declare War is exceptional and at times extraordinary.

Battle Royale is an outrageous movie but it is also well made with demonstrable intelligence to complement its sense of showmanship. It has become a very influential picture in the sci-fi death match subgenre and fans of movies like The Hunger Games should check it out.

Remember you can find the full reviews in the review archive.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Film Reviews for September 9, 2013

Here is a recap of the films reviewed on today's show:

The Spectacular Now is a tough but sensitive movie about growing up and despite some shortcomings in its ending there is a lot in it that is refreshingly honest. The picture has some exceptional performances and it deserves to be regarded alongside movies like Good Will Hunting and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Closed Circuit is a sloppy thriller. The moviemakers wanted to make a statement of some sort but it doesn’t seem like they knew what that statement was. The resulting picture is a mishmash of thriller clichés and wild conspiracy theorizing that goes on for ninety-six minutes and then it stops.

Passion is an erotic thriller is neither erotic nor thrilling. This is a lousy movie that is soporific and stupid.

Stoker is a terrifically strange movie. Because it trends on so many taboos and is so unconventional its potential audience may be limited. But its strangeness is exactly what makes it special and Stoker is one of the best thrillers of the past few years.

Remember you can find the full reviews in the review archive.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Someone Has to Stand Up to the Fans

In the past month there have been two major fan-base meltdowns over high profile casting decisions. The first was the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman for the Man of Steel sequel. The other was the backlash against the casting of Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson for the upcoming movie adaptation of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Fans unhappy about the casting decisions have used social media to protest. The furor over Fifty Shades of Grey was intense enough to prompt the producer to defend the decision.

These protests echo similar complaints to be found in blogs, discussion boards, and Twitter feeds in which fans of popular source material hurl insults and grievances over changes made by filmmakers. There was last year’s flap over the casting of actors of color in The Hunger Games, the critiques of alterations to World War Z, and disappointment with the elimination of Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring and the loss of the scouring of the shire from Return of the King.

I’m sympathetic to the passion these fans have for the stories and characters that are important to them and it is certainly true that filmmakers have turned great novels into disastrous movies. But the protests of fans—usually worded as “They ruined the book!”—reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about what filmmakers are supposed to do. The job of a filmmaker isn’t to translate a novel—or recreate the version of the novel in your head—and put it on screen without comment. Adaptation is a craft and it requires filmmakers to change the material from a literary source and into the cinematic form. Things that work better in a comic book or as prose may not work on screen.

A good example of that is this year’s version of The Great Gatsby. That novel is primarily a literary work, which is to say it is a book whose greatness is not found in its plot or its characters (elements that can be readily translated into a feature film) but in the subtleties of its language. When Gatsby is adapted to cinema, it loses the very thing that makes it special. This is evidenced in the difference between the party scenes and the driving set pieces, which are terrifically cinematic, and the dialogue-heavy dramatic scenes which are a drag.

There is an assumption that source material, and especially books, are inherently better than film adaptations but this is a baseless prejudice. There are plenty of examples of movie adaptations that removed significant parts of their source or made radical changes that ultimately improved the text: Dracula (1931 and 1992), Psycho, Jaws, The Godfather, Die Hard, and The Lord of the Rings.

We are in an age in which fans have been enabled by social media and in many ways that’s great. When filmmakers adapt a beloved piece of literature or other art and do a lousy job fans can make their voices heard. But the creation of art cannot and should not be a democratic activity. Filmmakers must be able to take a character or a story, including those that are beloved, and make something interesting out them. Sometimes that means the movie you get isn’t the one you expected.

But innovation isn’t the trend in the Hollywood marketplace. Films adapted from preexisting material are increasingly faithful to their sources, often to a fault. In fact, several recent high profile adaptations of popular novels turned out to be duds because they didn’t make changes. Consider the Twilight series and the adaptations of Dan Brown’s books The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. All of those films were headed by competent directors but the filmmakers barely strayed from the source material when they clearly should have. These films were terrible because their source material was terrible.

This problem isn’t likely to change because it is systemic. Hollywood studios are especially risk adverse and are producing movies from a shallower and shallower pool of material, making sequels and spin offs until they run aground, and then discarding the property or rebooting it. At the same time these studios are committing tremendous amounts of resources into blockbuster movies which need to become megahits in order to support the Hollywood business model. One of the ways they’ve found to ensure success is to court the fans. Conventions like Comic-Con, which were once small gatherings of devoted enthusiasts, are now major corporate showcases. It’s nice to see that studios are taking an interest in what the fans want but their efforts to appease the fan base may result in movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Fandom is vocal and passionate but it is also fickle and sometimes wrong. When it was announced that Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker in The Dark Knight, fans reacted with disdain. Less than a year after the film was released, fans (probably the same ones) were demanding that DC Comics retire The Joker from all future Batman films out of deference to Ledger’s performance.

Not all creative decisions lead to great films. But creativity requires risk taking and a commitment to artistic vision. Fan outcry can deter bold casting and innovative filmmaking. As much as filmmakers may want to court the base there has to be a point at which they take a stand. Otherwise the studios might as well just film cosplay activities, covert it to 3-D, and broadcast it to theaters. Then maybe the supposed super fans will have what they really want: themselves on the screen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Film Reviews for September 1, 2013

Here is a recap of the films reviewed on today's show:

The World’s End is disjointed but it is also one of the most enjoyable movies of the summer of 2013. Despite its similarity to Edgar Wright’s other films, The World’s End is refreshingly distinct in a movie marketplace that is increasingly homogeneous and it’s a whole lot of fun.

The Mortal Instruments is another failed attempt to launch a film franchise from a young adult fantasy series. Whatever potential the books may have had is wasted in a film that does nothing interesting and is often boring.

Planes is a mediocre movie. It isn’t terrible and very young children may find it holds their attention but for a theatrical release from Disney this is well below expectations.

You’re Next has some great stuff in it and for horror fans the movie is a must-see. General audiences will probably be flummoxed by it but You’re Next seems destined to develop a cult following and it is the kind of genre piece that horror fans will rave about.

Would You Rather is a successful combination of Saw and Rope. It’s nowhere near a perfect movie but it is quite well done and a unique addition to the torture films that have been so popular. It’s much smarter than many of them and it’s the kind of movie that horror fans and academics will find fascinating.

Remember you can find the full reviews in the review archive.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Controversial Films 2013

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was the annual Independence Day program in which I celebrate free speech by taking a look at banned, censored, and controversial films. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial films, just a selection of noteworthy pictures that have rattled the cage. For more information on controversial films, see the links at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year's episode.

Bully (2012)
Dir. Lee Hirsch

This documentary feature about high school bullying became the center of a very public feud between the film’s distributors and the Motion Picture Association of America. The ratings board certified Bully with an R-rating because it contained four instances of the f-word. The Weinstein Company, which distributed the film, argued that the language was tied to the integrity of the documentary and that the R-rating would forbid the intended audience of high school students from seeing it. The dispute was picked up by the press and Bully became a flashpoint for critiques of the ratings board, particularly the MPAA’s double standard in which coarse language is treated more harshly than actual on-screen violence. This hypocrisy was highlighted by the coinciding release of The Hunger Games, a PG-13 action adventure in which children and teenagers kill each other for society’s entertainment. Defending its decision, the MPAA insisted that it had to maintain the integrity of its ratings standards while Harvey Weinstein pointed out that the board had given the Iraq War documentary Gunner’s Palace a PG-13 rating even though it contained forty-two instances of the f-word. For a time, Weinstein considered bypassing the MPAA altogether and releasing Bully to theaters unrated although the president of the National Organization of Theater Owners warned Weinstein that all mainstream theater chains would regard an unrated film like one that had been certified NC-17, meaning that no one under the age of 17 would be admitted to screenings. Despite gestures of support for the film by moviegoers, critics, celebrities, and even some politicians, Bully was eventually censored with the offending language removed and it was subsequently granted the PG-13 certification. In the aftermath, there were reports of renewed resistance to the ratings board by filmmakers and widespread concern among Hollywood executives that the ratings board had done its public image considerable harm.

The Program (1993)
Dir. David S. Ward

The Program was a drama about college football that was released to theaters in 1993. The film included a sequence, which was featured in the trailer and television commercials, in which a group of players proves their mettle by laying on a lane line in the middle of dense traffic as cars pass by at high speed. Film critic Jack Garner wrote about the scene in his review for the Gannett News Service in which he expressed fears that young viewers might try to duplicate the stunt. A few weeks after the review was published Garner’s fears were realized as some young men were killed and others were critically injured while imitating the scene. At first, Touchstone Pictures responded by offering condolences to the families but defended the film. As public pressure continued to mount, Touchstone re-edited the movie and excised the scene. It still hasn’t been restored.

Child's Play 1 - 3 (1988 - 1991)
Dir. Tom Holland, John Lafia, Jack Bender

The horror movies of the 1980s and early 90s produced a number of memorable villains including Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th and Michael Myers of Halloween. Among the most popular of these characters was Chucky, the killer doll of the Child’s Play series. In the film a serial killer transfers his soul into the body of a twenty-four-inch doll and terrorizes a family.

Compared to other slasher films of this period, the original Child’s Play received generally positive reviews from critics and the Chucky character quickly gained a cult following but the film was also a source of controversy. At the time of its release, toy manufacturer Hasbro had a popular line of “My Buddy” dolls and Chucky had a remarkably similar look. It has been speculated (but never confirmed) that the similarities beween My Buddy and Chucky ended up killing (ahem) Hasbro's doll. In later interviews the filmmakers claimed that Chucky was actually inspired by the “Cabbage Patch Kids” dolls which were also popular at that time. Child’s Play also generated controversy among those who objected to the violence of the film and while it was in theatrical release a demonstration was held in front of MGM studios, with protesters arguing that the movie would inspire violence in children.

Due to the controversy, MGM relinquished its rights to the Child’s Play films. The series was picked up by Universal, which turned out a series of sequels. Child’s Play 2 and 3 were also controversial as each of the films were linked with high profile murder cases. In Australia, the 1996 shooting rampage of Martin Bryant was linked to Child’s Play 2 when press reports surfaced that a copy of the videocassette was found in his apartment. In the UK, two murders were linked to Child’s Play 3: the murder of Suzanne Capper in 1992 and the murder of three year old James Bulger in 1993. Elements of the Capper murder directly referenced the Child’s Play movies but in the Bulger case the link between the movie and the crime was fabricated by sloppy journalism. In both Australia and the UK, the publicity over the murders and their tenuous or non-existent link to the Child’s Play films were used to campaign for stricter censorship laws.

Deep Throat (1972)
Dir. Gerard Damiano

Prior to the 1970s, the adult entertainment industry did not exist as we know it today. Before Deep Throat, adult entertainment consisted of what were called loops, which were single scenes that played cyclically in private projection booths. With Deep Throat and similar features released in the early 70s, adult motion pictures became B-movies with explicit sex. With the later advent of video tape the genre devolved into mindless vignettes and become what is properly recognized as the pornography industry.

Deep Throat was not the first film of its kind nor is it particularly exceptional as a sex film but it was an important picture because of the events that happened around it. The film was released amid the sexual revolution of the 1970s and when it opened in New York City the film became a social event with public screenings drawing audiences from all levels of society, including celebrities. As the picture rose in prominence, the filmmakers of Deep Throat found themselves at the center of a legal battle over obscenity and free speech. Screenings of Deep Throat were subject to police raids, the film was banned in twenty-three states, and actor Harry Reems was indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute obscene material across state lines. The legal prosecutions only furthered the movie’s box office success and the court battles were ultimately won by the filmmakers. The legal and cultural legacy of Deep Throat is twofold: it widened the latitude for filmmakers to explore sexuality in films of all kinds, from independent features to mainstream Hollywood movies, but it also established the foundation for the contemporary porn industry which is now a multi-billion dollar business.

After the obscenity hurdles had been overcome, the filmmakers of Deep Throat found themselves indicted by one of their own. Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, published a memoir in which she claimed to have been beaten and coerced into the porn industry by her ex-husband and manager Chuck Traynor. The former adult actress was embraced by anti-pornography activists who propped up Lovelace as a voice against misogyny. The actress found new fame in television appearances and even testified before Congress during the hearings of the Meese Commission. Lovelace’s claims have been disputed and her activism did little to actually hurt the porn industry. In later years she had less than complementary things to say about anti-porn advocates, claiming they had taken advantage of her. Before her death by car accident in 2002, Lovelace returned to the adult industry. Whether her return was a reconciliation with her past or a matter of economic necessity is unclear.

Those interested in learning more about the political and cultural legacy of Deep Throat should check out the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat.

Pretty Baby (1978)
Dir. Louis Malle

Pretty Baby tells the story of a twelve year old girl living in a bordello in New Orleans in the early twentieth century. The film is very well made with strong performances, terrific cinematography, and production design that features particular attention to historical detail. It is also a sensitive but bold examination of human sexuality and the way in which women’s bodies are commoditized.

The starring role of Pretty Baby was played by Brooke Shields, who was twelve years old at the time, and in several scenes the actress is fully or partially naked. This led to accusations that the film was exploitative or constituted child pornography.  (It is notable that the same year that Pretty Baby was released, Superman: The Movie featured equivalent scenes of full frontal underage male nudity, although without the sexualized context.) Pretty Baby was banned outright in several places, including some Canadian provinces, and it was edited for other markets through optical effects or by reframing the image to crop out the nudity.

Pretty Baby is a unique film and very much a product of a particular time. This film would never have been made during the Production Code era and it could only be produced after the breakthroughs of movies like Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, and even Deep Throat. But despite the freedom of the post-New Hollywood era it is virtually inconceivable that Pretty Baby would be made today given the anxieties about child exploitation voiced in the furors over recent pictures like Hound Dog and Hard Candy.

Fatal Attraction (1987)
Dir. Adrian Lyne

Fatal Attraction tells the story of a married man who has an affair with a business associate. When he tries to put a stop to it, the other woman begins to stalk his family with increasingly violent behavior. The film was an enormous success both critically and commercially, but it was a flashpoint for a cultural conflict that had been brewing throughout the 1980s. Although feminists had made great strides in the 1970s much of that success plateaued in the 1980s as American culture became more conservative. Fatal Attraction portrayed a single, sexually independent, career woman as a psychopath and the character was taken by feminist critics as an example of the conservative establishment’s contempt for modern women. Others saw the film as a reaction to the sexual liberation of the 1970s or reflecting the sexual paranoia of the AIDS crisis. Although Fatal Attraction resulted in a very public debate about how Hollywood portrays women it is a debate that has never really reached a conclusion and so the film remains a standard bearer for discussions about representations of gender in movies. The success of Fatal Attraction led to a number of pictures with similar themes such as Basic Instinct and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Dir. Roman Polanski

Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a pregnant woman who fears that a satanic cult is planning to sacrifice her unborn child. The picture was released in the late 1960s and the responses to it exposed the new and changing attitudes about American religion at that moment in time. The reactions of two organizations in particular highlight this. Rosemary’s Baby was given a condemned rating by The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures for what it called the perversion of Christian beliefs and for mockery of religious figures, practices, and persons. But the picture was spoken of favorably by Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, which had been established just a few years earlier. LaVey even claimed that he was a consultant on the film although that has never been definitively proven. The success that Rosemary’s Baby achieved at the box office led to a trend of occult and Satanic themed films released over the next decade, many of them controversial in their own right, including The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Devil’s Rain.

Psycho (1960)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho was released in 1960 when the Production Code was still in effect. Although the contemporary ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America has its own problems and limitations, it is nowhere near as restrictive as the Production Code. Movies that didn’t get the seal of approval from the PCA did not just get a restricted rating – they didn’t play in US theaters at all. Under the Production Code, profanity, nudity, the suggestion of nudity, or the inference sexual perversion were strictly forbidden and scenes involving men and women in bed together, premarital sex, or violent brutality were frowned upon. Psycho has all of these and the production of the film, especially the infamous shower scene, had to be executed precisely in order to get the film past the censors. One of the more amusing fights that Alfred Hitchcock had with the PCA over Psycho was the inclusion of a toilet in the bathroom scenes. No studio movie under the Production Code ever showed a toilet on screen, much less allowed it to be flushed. Hitchcock got around that by making the toilet a critical part of the murder mystery.

Aside from making the cinema safe for lavatories everywhere, Psycho was a breakthrough in its exhibition. At this time it was not uncommon for viewers to enter a movie auditorium mid-screening. Hitchcock insisted that theater owners prevent anyone from entering into a showing of Psycho after it had begun in order to preserve the surprises of the story. This had the impact of stoking public interest in the picture and ultimately changing the way audiences watched movies.

Although Psycho was a box office hit the film was not greeted warmly by critics. It was much smaller in scale than Hitchcock’s previous effort, North By Northwest, and was regarded as a step down in both production value and taste. But Psycho is now considered a classic and among the greatest films ever made.

Bandit Queen (1994)
Dir. Shekhar Kapur

Bandit Queen is a biopic of Indian outlaw and politician Phoolan Devi. As dramatized in the film, Phoolan was shunned from her rural Indian village after suffering a sexual assault and after a series of misadventures she took up with bandits that targeted people in the upper strata of India’s caste system. Along with her lover, Vikram Mallah, Phoolan became the co-leader of the gang but when he was killed the other members turned against her. Phoolan was handed over to the very people they had raided and she was held prisoner for weeks and subject to physical and sexual abuse. After she escaped, Phoolan raised a new gang and returned to seek vengeance in what became known as the Behmai massacre. As word spread across India about Phoolan’s exploits, fact and myth bled together and a public image emerged of Phoolan as a hero of the lower castes and a feminist hero who avenged sexual abuse. Phoolan eventually surrendered to Indian authorities in 1983 and was imprisoned until 1994, at which point she entered politics and served in India’s parliament until her assassination in 2001.

Phoolan Devi’s early life and career as an outlaw were dramatized in the 1994 picture Bandit Queen and it was extremely controversial in its home country. The film was highly critical of Indian society, and the story is a series of misogynist and classist episodes. Depictions of sexuality in Indian cinema are highly restricted and this picture includes several brutal and prolonged scenes of sexual assault. Due to the graphic nature of the film, Bandit Queen was initially banned in India but interestingly one of the strongest opponents of Bandit Queen was Phoolan Devi herself. The reasons Devi opposed the film are not entirely clear. Her initial grievance was over the graphic depiction of her sexual assault although Phoolan’s integrity is suspect given that she dropped her complaint when the filmmakers paid her. Given Bandit Queen’s unflattering depiction of India and the culture’s problematic regard for female sexuality it may be that Phoolan was concerned that the movie would jeopardize her political ambitions. It may also be that Phoolan was simply uncomfortable with such a personal and traumatic experience turned into a motion picture.

The Triumph of the Will (1935)
Dir. Leni Riefenstahl

The Triumph of the Will is a documentary directed by Leni Riefenstahl about the 1934 Nazi Party convention in Nuremberg. The film was intended to showcase Adolf Hitler as a messianic figure and communicate the solidarity and strength of the Nazi state to the German public as well as to the international audience. It is a very well made picture and highly influential; virtually every subsequent film with fascistic themes often borrows techniques and visuals from this film, including Star Wars and Gladiator. Because Triumph of the Will paints a flattering portrait of Hitler and the Nazis it is generally regarded with disdain and held as an example of irresponsible filmmaking. To be fair to Leni Riefenstahl, in 1934 the Nazi’s crimes against humanity had not yet mushroomed into their full monstrosity and the film does not contain any explicitly anti-Semitic content. But the film’s association with the Nazis and its heroic depiction of Hitler are enough to make Triumph of the Will one of the most reviled films of all time. It has been subject to protests and bans, including in post-war Germany, and director Leni Riefenstahl’s ties to the Nazis followed her for the rest of her life.

Although Triumph of the Will is controversial now because it favorably portrays Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, it was also controversial among the leadership of the Third Reich. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had total control over the movie industry of Nazi Germany. He fancied himself like legendary studio figures such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, and Goebbels’ determined what films were produced, how they got made, and who starred in them. Goebbels obsession with film was partly based on his belief that it was the most effective medium through which to advance the Nazi agenda. However, Goebbels’ recognized that the cinema’s most powerful rhetorical technique was suggestion. He did not authorize films directly about Hitler or the Nazis but made dramatic stories that emphasized nationalism and similar themes. He was not a fan of documentaries because they often addressed their topics too directly. 

Triumph of the Will was commissioned by Hitler, not by Goebbels, who found himself shut out of the production. This caused a rift between Goebbels and director Leni Riefenstahl, and he came to despise her. But because Riefenstahl was close to Hitler, Goebbels could do nothing about it, and Riefenstahl went on to make the two-part documentary Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics which is one of the most important sports pictures ever made.

The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl from Book Passage on

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, culminating with the raid on the bin Laden compound in 2011. Sony Pictures marketed and distributed the film with the goal of courting the critics and ultimately the Hollywood awards circuit, hoping to duplicate the Oscar wins of The Hurt Locker in 2010. When the movie opened it was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, with several critics calling Zero Dark Thirty the best picture of 2012.

However, Zero Dark Thirty was controversial in political circles. Before it even opened some right-wing political commentators claimed that the movie was a bid to influence the 2012 presidential election. The studio and the filmmakers denied they had any partisan intentions and the release date was moved to December. Accusations were also made that the filmmakers were given improper access to classified information. Cooperation between Hollywood and Washington D.C. is not unusual but nevertheless the Senate Intelligence Committee began an inquiry although it was subsequently dropped when no wrongdoing was uncovered.

By far the most intense controversy over Zero Dark Thirty was the charge that it fallaciously made the case that the use of torture techniques by the CIA and its allies led to the discovery of bin Laden’s location. US Senators John McCain (R-AZ) Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Carl Levin (D-MI), members of the US Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter of protest to the chairman of Sony Pictures, saying “With the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.” Columnists also took shots at Zero Dark Thirty, with Naomi Wolff publishing an editorial in The Guardian that compared Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow to Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Zero Dark Thirty was not without its defenders. Filmmaker Michael Moore, former CIA director Leon Panetta, and a 9/11 survivors organization all voiced their support for the picture.  In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Kathryn Bigelow defended her movie, saying “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

The resistance to Zero Dark Thirty is partly rooted in viewing habits. Audiences have been conditioned to expect stories to present overly simplistic moral conflicts and to spoon-feed that simplicity to viewers in unchallenging, bite-sized portions. When a film like Zero Dark Thirty comes along and does not overtly spell out the moral lesson that ambiguity is taken as endorsement. Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture, at least not in the sense that the television series 24 did so. The film is ambiguous on the morality of torture but attentive viewers will notice that the terrorism suspects who are tortured fail to give useful information. It isn’t until those suspects are treated humanely or bribed that they provide leads. But because the torture scenes are so strong and because Zero Dark Thirty is so morally ambiguous, inattentive viewers may draw the conclusion that torture led to actionable intelligence.

The anger over Zero Dark Thirty is also an expression of liberal frustration with the Obama Administration. Although they ended the use of torture techniques, the president and his associates failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and chose to not prosecute those who advocated and carried out torture policies. This, and the failure of the mainstream news media to accurately inform the public or keep torture in the public eye, has left the arts as the only place in which American audiences can reckon with what was done in our name. In the same way that the infamous Nixon-Frost interviews gave the disgraced president the trial he would never receive, art is the only remaining venue to correct the public record on torture.

But the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty did not set out to make a film about torture. The topic comes up in due course but the point of Zero Dark Thirty is to immerse the audience in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and capture the frustration, danger, and moral ambiguity of being on the frontlines of a covert war. The filmmakers succeed in doing that and at its best Zero Dark Thirty is a harrowing thriller. The critics and politicians who attacked Zero Dark Thirty were not angry with this film for what it was. They were upset with the film for what it wasn’t.