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.