Monday, October 27, 2014

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Events

This October 30th, Sounds of Cinema presents multiple cinematic events to help you celebrate Halloween.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Double Feature 
Sounds of Cinema has partnered with Winona State University's Darrell Krueger Library and the University Programming Activities Committee to present a double feature of 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street followed by 1994's New Nightmare.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

New Nightmare

The films will be be shown back to back in the Science Lab Auditorium on the Winona State University campus starting at 7pm on Thursday, October 30th. The event is free and open to the public. More information can be found here.

Halloween Special 
At 11pm on Thursday, October 30th both 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN will broadcast the annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special. This one hour program will provide the soundtrack to your Halloween with a a mix of music and clips from Halloween related films. A new show is created each year so be sure to tune in. The program can be heard over the air in each station's listening area and live streaming through each station's website. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look back at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Each of these films inspired a series of sequels and remakes, which I’ll examine below.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
There are a handful of movies, especially in the horror genre, that have acquired a reputation that is bigger than the movie itself. When that happens viewers are almost always bound to be disappointed with the film when they finally see it. The expectations that are built up in the viewer’s mind are rarely matched by what is on screen. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those rare films that lives up to the hype and it does so because its filmmakers employ cinematic techniques that, four decades later, remain a punch to the gut and the film tells a story that taps into primal fears.

When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974, sequels were not in vogue. A few years later, when sequels became commonplace for slasher films, the rights to the movie were stuck in legal limbo and a sequel wasn’t released until 1986 when the slasher trend was beginning its decline. Director Tobe Hooper returned to write and direct the follow up but he took a decidedly different approach to the material. At that time movies like Return of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th Part VI, and Evil Dead II brought a campy and self-conscious approach to the horror genre and Hooper followed suit with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Jettisoning the nihilistic terror of the original film, Texas Chainsaw 2 was a Grand Guignol farce. The sequel took a deliberately cartoonish approach which was not greeted warmly by critics or by fans of the original movie. This was too bad because, taken for what it is rather than what viewers thought it should be, Texas Chainsaw 2 is a very entertaining picture that combines mainstream slasher movie thrills with a madcap sense of humor and it is climaxed by a chainsaw duel between Leatherface and a Texas Marshall played by Dennis Hopper. It’s a flawed film but its originality, humor, and energy have made it a cult favorite and it is well ahead of later installments of this series.

The rights to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series were eventually acquired by New Line Cinema, which had found great success with its Nightmare on Elm Street series. The influence of the later Elm Street films is apparent in 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. The makers of this movie were clearly trying to make Leatherface a commercial bogyman that could be exploited for franchising as had been done with Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger. The results didn’t work out in New Line’s favor. The theatrical version of the movie was a mess due to cuts that had to be made to appease the MPAA’s ratings board and the attempt to turn Leatherface into another Freddy Krueger was ill advised.

Another sequel was produced a few years later. Directed by the screenwriter of the original film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation was an attempt to return to the basics and was billed as the “true” sequel to the 1974 film. It was actually closer in its style and tone to the second film than to the first but it didn’t have the over the top horror of part two or the grittiness of the original. The film was originally shown at film festivals in 1995 under the title The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Columbia/Tri-Star agreed to distribute it. The movie then went through a re-editing process in which it was retitled. In the interim its lead actors Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey became movie stars. McConaughey’s agent allegedly put pressure on Columbia/Tri-Star to bury the film and so it had a very limited theatrical run before showing up on home video in 1997.

After The Next Generation, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series remained dormant until the rights were acquired by the Michael Bay affiliated production company Platinum Dunes. The company released a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003 and it was a box office success that kicked off a fad of remakes of virtually every classic horror film from the 1970s and 80s. As a piece of cinema, the 2003 version of Texas Chainsaw was slickly made and managed a few scares, especially from actor R. Lee Ermey, but it was ultimately a by-the-numbers slasher picture that bore little resemblance to the qualities that made the 1974 film a classic. Platinum Dunes followed their remake with a prequel, 2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Where the 2003 version seemed like it was made by people who didn’t understand and maybe hadn’t even seen the original movie, the prequel was made by filmmakers who had apparently only seen the remake and it was a soulless rehash.

In the years since, things haven’t gone any better for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. In 2013 Texas Chainsaw 3D was released. The film was another attempt to be the “true” sequel to the original film and it began with a prologue that grafted this installment onto the ending of the 1974 picture. But it was all downhill from there and Texas Chainsaw 3D was the most useless installment of the franchise to date.

Despite the remakes, sequels, and imitators that have come since, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre soldiers on. The movie started as little more than drive-in fare and for many years that was the way it was seen, in scratched prints projected at second rate theaters and later on poorly sourced VHS tapes. It’s been slammed by critics, banned and prosecuted by politicians, and had its name raked through the muck by opportunistic hacks exploiting a familiar title for a quick buck. Yet, this film survives.

It does so largely on its own merits. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is extremely well made and in an era in which movies are increasingly violent this film manages to be a punch to the gut while tricking the audience into believing they’ve seen more viscera than they actually have. The movie also survives due to its legions of loyal fans who have kept this movie afloat and invested time and energy into websites and conventions and documentaries. Texas Chainsaw Massacre has also remained a relevant title due to film preservationists who have recognized its value and made efforts to present the film in increasingly better editions.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a title that suggests itself as a psychological thriller. That term is usually used to describe movies about law enforcement and serial killers or to “class up” titles whose makers shirk from the horror label. Yet, that is exactly what it is. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film that penetrates the viewer’s unconscious and subconscious fears. It upsets our rational expectations and plunges the viewer into madness and wanton destructiveness that is as thorough of a representation of the id as cinema has ever produced. In the words of writer and academic Carol Clover, “The unconscious is not a pretty place and movies are fantasies and fantasies are exactly to tap into these things. That’s what movies are for. Movies are not to be nice or to be politically correct. Movies are exactly where we go to revisit things that sometimes need revisiting on an unconscious or semi-conscious level.” This is precisely what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does and it is why the film remains so potent forty years later.

A Nightmare on Elm Street
During the 1980s, slasher films were all the rage in the horror genre. Following 1978’s Halloween, which was one of the most successful independent films of all time, major Hollywood studios started looking for their own slasher films. Paramount picked up Friday the 13th and released it nationally in 1980. The film was such a success that many other filmmakers and distributors got into the horror business and in the twelve months after the premiere of the original Friday the 13th over eighty slasher films were released. These movies generated tremendous box office but were derided by critics and media watchdog groups. By 1984 the market was saturated with movies about masked killers maiming teenagers and the genre was in decline. It was in this context that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released. The movie adapted the format of the slasher film but approached the genre with intelligence, filmmaking skill, and introduced one of the most memorable villains in the history of the movies.

One of the funny ironies about the making of A Nightmare on Elm Street was that writer and director Wes Craven had taken his script to virtually every studio in Hollywood and was universally rejected on the grounds that the script wasn’t scary or that the conceit of the movie wouldn’t work. Craven finally got a green light from New Line Cinema, which at that point was a small operation that was primarily distributing movies to prisons and college campuses.

New Line’s founder and president was Bob Shaye and Shaye saw the potential in Wes Craven’s script. Shaye raised the money to get the film made, primarily through co-financing deals and presales of the video rights. Because New Line was in a weak bargaining position, the deals that Shaye worked out wouldn’t result in New Line getting a lot of money from the box office revenues or rentals but it would at least get the company established as a movie producer as well as a distributor.

When A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984 the movie was a hit. In order to get his original script produced, Wes Craven had relinquished all rights to the property and New Line, because of its financing deals on the first film, didn’t make a tremendous amount of money from its theatrical run. What the studio did come away with was a copyright on a potentially valuable property and the decision was made to start producing sequels. The first of those was released the next year.

1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one of the oddest installments in this series. The movie reverses the gimmick of the original film in that Freddy Krueger attempts to exit the dream world by possessing a vulnerable young man. This sequel was a hit at the box office, actually out grossing its progenitor, but it was regarded as a disappointment by fans, critics, and even the filmmakers themselves.

A Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven had nothing to do with the second film but he participated in the third installment, subtitled Dream Warriors. The initial script was co-written by Craven and returned the series to its roots while expanding the conceit. A new group of teenagers are haunted by Freddy but they find their own superpowers in the dream world and band together to fight Krueger. The film was directed by Chuck Russell, who would later direct 1994’s The Mask, and the script went through massive rewrites by Russell and Frank Darabont, who would later direct The Shawshank Redemption.

Nightmare 3 was an even bigger success, grossing nearly as much as the first two installments combined. It also fundamentally changed the series both in its tone and in its marketing and all subsequent films would have more to do with the style of Dream Warriors than they would with the original picture. Dream Warriors was lighter and more fantastic and Freddy came out of the shadows to become the centerpiece of the franchise.

Dream Warriors benefited from a national advertising campaign and widespread merchandising. Freddy hosted his own MTV special (back when the network actually played music) and all manner of products were peddled to consumers including Freddy dolls, model kits, Halloween costumes, board games, comic books, and record albums.

Throughout the remainder of the 1980s New Line Cinema continued to grow on the exploits of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, earning it the nickname “The Studio That Freddy Built.” In addition to the movies, Freddy Krueger landed on television with the syndicated series Freddy’s Nightmares, a horror anthology in mold of Tales from the Crypt and hosted by the Elm Street slasher. However, as New Line continued to bleed A Nightmare on Elm Street for all it was worth the series became increasingly diluted. The films continued with 1988’s The Dream Master and 1989’s The Dream Child but Freddy was no longer recognizable as the villain from the first movie. He almost never used his trademark claws and filmmakers emphasized humor over horror, turning an edgy villain into a consumer friendly corporate logo.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series formally ended with the sixth film, 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Unfortunately it wasn’t the sendoff that the series and its fans deserved. Whatever the problems of The Dream Master and The Dream Child, they did manage to tell engaging stories and had a scary moment here and there. In Freddy’s Dead the series collapsed into self-parody.

The trajectory of the Nightmare on Elm Street series from the original film to its underwhelming finale is an interesting example of what seems to inevitably happen to all icons of evil. Dracula began as one of the most formidable villains of literature and film but eventually became a puppet who taught mathematics to children on Sesame Street and more recently has been reimagined as a virtuous superhero in Dracula Untold. Between 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and 2007’s Hannibal Rising, the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter gradually transformed from a madman and into a cannibalistic antihero.

The case of Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street is not entirely unique but it is one of the most dramatic examples of the tension between art and commerce. Horror is a subversive and transgressive genre which does not lend itself to mainstream appeals or mass marketing campaigns. When a horror character or series eventually does strike a chord with the audience and especially when it does so under the banner of a major Hollywood conglomerate, the logical impulse is to replicate it so that there are more versions for consumers to purchase and pressure is exerted to make that character or that series as accessible to as many people as possible. The result is a gradual flattening of the original idea that usually ends with it becoming a parody of itself.

However, things weren’t quite over for A Nightmare on Elm Street just yet. Three years after Freddy’s Dead and ten years after the original picture, Wes Craven returned to the series with New Nightmare, which tells the story of an actress terrorized by a specter who looks a lot like Freddy Krueger. Craven took the opportunity to correct the course of a series that had veered drastically from his original conception but instead of rehashing the original movie, the filmmaker adopted a radically different approach. By taking the film outside of the continuity and diegesis of the existing series, New Nightmare allowed Craven the opportunity to reflect on the success of the series and what it meant to its makers and to the audience. The film is a smart riff on the original picture, prefiguring the rise of self-referential trends in popular culture, which Craven would do again two years later to great commercial success with 1996’s Scream.

New Nightmare is also a thoughtful dramatization of the psychological and social function of fairy tales and horror stories. Throughout his career, Craven had butted heads with the MPAA ratings board and had fended off accusations that horror films were somehow harmful to viewers. In the context of the movie, Craven suggested that stories allowed people the opportunity to deal with difficult, irrational, and frightening aspects of life and that stopping these kinds of stories would cause those things to show up in real life.

Robert Englund would play Freddy Krueger one more time in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, which pitted the Elm Street slasher against Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th series. The movie was a satisfying romp and benefited from energetic direction by Ronny Yu; it was funny and campy but also vicious. In some ways it was a look at what Freddy’s Dead could have been with a higher budget and better direction.

Following the successful remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, Platinum Dunes acquired the rights to produce a new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was released in 2010. Robert Englund had signed off from the role of Freddy Krueger and the glove was passed to Jackie Earle Haley. The new version retreaded a lot of the visuals and set pieces of the 1984 picture but didn’t do them nearly as well and the redesigned look of Freddy’s facial scars was especially terrible. The one positive note about the film is that it provided actress Rooney Mara one of her first leading roles in a feature film.

Thirty years after its original release, A Nightmare on Elm Street continues to frighten its audience. The movie was a mainstream breakthrough for filmmaker Wes Craven and it remains one of his greatest contributions to American cinema. Although Craven’s career has seen dramatic highs and lows, his movies are consistently intelligent and frequently include a political subtext. His characters deal with violent manifestations of social injustice as seen in The People Under the Stairs, and the stories often take place on the seam between the idealized notion of American life and the blemished reality of it as seen in The Last House on the Left. Craven’s films also frequently tread on the boundaries of reality, whether that is the relationship between life and media as seen in the Scream series or the malleability of cultural realities as in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Part of what is special about A Nightmare on Elm Street is that it captures all of these dimensions of Craven’s work in a single film. The movie balances the unsettling and horrific with intelligent filmmaking and presents all of that in a storytelling mode that is generally accessible to a mainstream audience.

Whatever may have happened to this series over the years, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the great American horror stories. Whether or not the series has a future is unclear but the central conceit of Nightmare and its memorable villain continue to keep viewers up at night.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vampire Films

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look at vampire films. Given the recent release of Dracula Untold, the first half of the show considered some notable adaptations of Bram Stoker’s character and the second half looked at a variety of vampire movies, demonstrating the flexibility of this subgenre.

Here is a summary of the films discussed on today’s show as well as a few other titles.

Blacula (1972)
Dir. William Crain

The Blaxploitation movement of the 1970s primarily produced street movies in which African American characters fought mobsters and corrupt cops. But there was also a series of black-themed horror pictures including Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde and Black Frankenstein. Among the most popular of these films was Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream. In this film an African prince is bitten by Dracula and turned into a vampire who haunts 1970s Los Angeles.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Dir. Frances Ford Coppola

One of the most high profile versions of Dracula was 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film featured terrific production design, a memorable music score by Wojociech Kilar, and a prestigious cast of A-list stars including Gary Oldman as Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, Tom Waits as Renfield, and Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Van Helsing. Despite its title, the movie takes a lot of liberties with Stoker’s novel and is really no more or less faithful than most adaptations of the book. Among its contributions to the vocabulary of Dracula movies was an explicit link between the vampire myth and the historical Dracula, an innovation that has been seized upon by later filmmakers.

Dracula (1931)

Dir. Todd Browning

The original Universal production of Dracula is still among the best adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel. There are actually two versions of this movie – one shot with an English speaking cast and featuring Bela Lugosi’s classic performance in the title role and another version featuring Spanish speaking actors. In those days subtitles and dubbing weren’t viable so in order to make a version of Dracula for the Spanish speaking markets, Universal had a second crew that worked the opposite shift of the English speaking production. The Spanish crew was able to look at what the English filmmakers had done during the day and make improvements, resulting in a movie that is cinematically superior to the version that most people are familiar with.

Fright Night (1985)
Dir. Tom Holland

In the 1980s horror and comedy began to bleed together in movies like Return of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Among the films mixing laughs and frights was 1985’s Fright Night. In this movie a teenager discovers that his neighbor is a vampire and when he fails to convince anyone of the truth, he turns to an aging horror actor who hosts a late night television horror broadcast. Fright Night was remade in 2011 is a version starring Anton Yelchin and Colin Farrell and it was surprisingly good.

Horror of Dracula (1958)
Dir. Terence Fisher

1958’s Dracula (titled Horror of Dracula in the United States to avoid confusion with Universal’s film), was the first of a long running series of vampire pictures produced by Britain’s Hammer film studio and the first to feature Christopher Lee in the title role. Lee would play the vampire in nine films and—along with Bela Lugosi’s turn in Universal’s 1931 film—his performance is generally considered the definitive Dracula.

The Hunger (1983)
Dir. Tony Scott

The Hunger was an early directorial effort by Tony Scott, who would go on to make Top Gun and Days of Thunder. This film told a sensuous story of an elder female vampire who turns both young men and women into her undead lovers but lets them perish when she tires of the affair. The movie was extremely stylized and revitalized the vampire genre by introducing these creatures into an urban environment. 

Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Dir. Neil Jordan

Adapted from Anne Rice’s novel, Interview with the Vampire starred Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as vampire companions Louis and Lestat and twelve year old Kirstin Dunst as a girl that they turn. The film remains one of the most popular vampire movies ever made and it features one of Cruise’s best performances. Ironically, novelist Anne Rice initially protested the casting of Tom Cruise but upon seeing the film she changed her mind and took out an ad encouraging her fans to see the movie. 

Let the Right One In (2008)
Dir. Tomas Alfredson

One of the most popular vampire films of recent years has been the Swedish film Let the Right One In. The movie is led by two child actors, one of them playing a centuries-old female vampire and the other a lonely boy. The picture is one of those rare horror pictures that is not only frightening but is also emotionally resonant because of the bond between the two young characters. The movie was subject to a largely needless American remake with the shortened title Let Me In

The Lost Boys (1987)
Dir. Joel Schumacher

A product of the 1980s, The Lost Boys was a horror-action hybrid. The movie is in some ways an undead version of Rebel Without a Cause in which a teenager gets caught up with the wrong crowd, the wrong crowd in this case being a gang of vampires led by Kiefer Sutherland. Like most movies led by teenage characters, The Lost Boys is very much a product of its time but it remains a lot of fun. 

Nosferatu (1922/1979)
Dir. F.W. Murnau/Werner Herzog

One of earliest surviving vampire films is the silent picture Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau. The film was adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula but without obtaining legal permission. The Stoker estate filed a lawsuit and as a consequence all negatives and prints of the film were supposed to be destroyed. However, Nosferatu survived to become one of the most influential horror films of all time. In 1979, Werner Herzog directed a remake of Nosferatu starring Klaus Kinski as the vampire. Kinski’s makeup included very long fingernails and his performance would later inspire Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Channeling The Hunger, Only Lovers Left Alive is a really interesting vampire film. In keeping with more nuanced ideas about vampirism, the film portrays a pair of vampire lovers who reunite after a long separation but their lives are disrupted by the arrival of their unpredictable younger sister. The movie locates them in Detroit and the decaying urban landscape is a fitting background for the contemporary undead.

Twilight (2008)
Dir. Catherine Hardwicke

Among the major cultural phenomena of the past decade was the Twilight series. Adapted from the novels by Stephanie Meyer, the films chronicle a young woman’s love affair with a vampire. One of the strange things about Twilight is its underlying social conservatism. Most vampire movies have an undercurrent of sexual deviance but the values of Twilight are very traditional. They court, abstain from sex until their wedding night, and subsequently form a nuclear family. Perhaps by the time Twilight came around these ideas were unfashionable enough to be considered in their own way deviant.

Vampires (1998)
Dir. John Carpenter

John Carpenter often mixed horror and action in his movies. His 1998 film Vampires was essentially a Western with vampires in which a crew of vampire hunters must recover an ancient artifact that will allow the undead to withstand sunlight. It’s a goofy movie and was part of a trend of action heavy vampire films from that time including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Blade.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Film Screening: A Nightmare on Elm Street Double Feature

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the most popular and enduring American horror stories. Please join us for a double-bill of A Nightmare on Elm Street followed by Wes Craven’s 1994 follow up, New Nightmare.

The films will be shown in the Science Lab Auditorium on the Winona State University campus on Thursday, October 30th starting at 7:00pm. This event is free and open to the public. A brief educational presentation will occur between the screenings.

A Nightmare on Elm Street tells the story of teenagers who are stalked in their dreams by Freddy Krueger, a mysterious figure who wears a glove with knives fashioned onto the fingertips. If the teens are killed in their dreams they die in real life. Writer and director Wes Craven executed this novel premise with near perfection, combining thoughtful storytelling with skillful cinematic craft.

Originally released in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a hit and a series of sequels followed, although creator Wes Craven had little to do with them. Throughout the second half of the 1980s, the Nightmare series grew into a cultural phenomenon and Freddy Krueger became one of the most recognizable figures in American culture. However, in the effort to turn the character into a corporate logo, Krueger and the Nightmare series gradually lost much of the edge that had made the concept interesting in the first place.

Ten years after the original picture, Wes Craven returned to the series with New Nightmare, which tells the story of an actress terrorized by a specter who looks a lot like Freddy Krueger. Craven took the opportunity to correct the course of a series that had veered drastically from his original conception but instead of rehashing the original film, the filmmaker adopted a radically different approach. By taking the film outside of the continuity and diegesis of the existing series, New Nightmare reflected on the success of the series and what it meant to its makers and to the audience. The film is a smart riff on the original picture, prefiguring the rise of self-referential trends in popular culture, which Craven would do again two years later to great commercial success with 1996’s Scream. The film is also a thoughtful dramatization of the psychological and social function of fairy tales and horror stories and what happens when icons of evil are commercialized.

You can find additional information about the screening and the films here and join the Facebook event page here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare are rated R by the MPAA.

This event is sponsored by Winona State University’s Darrell Krueger Library, the University Programming Activities Committee, and Sounds of Cinema.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Look at Meta-Horror

The terms “meta-text” or “meta-fiction” are used to describe stories in which the author draws attention to the mechanics of the narrative. These stories tend to play on the conventions of particular storytelling forms, exposing the clichés and commenting on the joys or expectations that audiences have of a chosen genre. Meta-fiction tends to be playful or satirical, if not outright funny, but it is distinct from parody. Parody tends to exaggerate a story or a genre or make absurd juxtapositions that result in comedy. A piece of meta-fiction may exaggerate its inspiration a little but these stories tend to maintain the tone and scale of other entries in their field and retain the satisfaction that audiences get from that kind of narrative. The intent of a piece of metafiction is to comment upon a genre or a storytelling style and make the audience think about how these stories work and what they mean for the individual viewer and for the culture. For that reason, metafiction can be highly instructive for audiences, at least when these meta-stories are done well.

Horror has seen moviemakers take a meta approach more than any other film genre. The reasons for that may have partly to do with a heightened level of awareness among the genre’s filmmakers and fans. The horror audience tends to be a little more educated on the history and craft of filmmaking, at least more so than the average viewer of action pictures and romantic comedies. The frequency of metafiction in the horror genre may also be due to the mythological aspect of these films. A lot of horror stories play out like folk tales and urban legends and so they have an inherent mythological quality that lends itself to analysis and deconstruction. The horror genre also has a renegade quality. These movies are considered disreputable and even subversive, leading filmmakers and their fans to defend the genre. Meta-horror gives filmmakers an opportunity to “class up” their films by appealing to the intelligensia or a chance to provoke the mainstream by embracing horror’s counter cultural tendencies. Lastly, these movies allow for bonding between the filmmaker and the audience. Because horror tends to be marginalized, its fans and craftsmen are bound together by something they love and meta-horror allows filmmakers to wink at the audience, acknowledging the joy they share in the genre.

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a close look at some notable meta-horror titles. Here are the films discussed on the show as well as some additional selections.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Dir. Scott Glosserman

Released a decade after Scream, this film sent up the slasher genre in much the same way that Wes Craven’s 1996 film had but Behind the Mask is distinct. For one, Scream was a movie made by and for fans of the horror genre but Behind the Mask is a little more cerebral and plays like a movie made by and for film students. It also makes effective use of the pseudo-documentary format as a crew follows the preparation and training of a guy who is planning to become the next great American serial killer in the mold of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. This is a very smart and well-made film and it’s one of the best horror pictures of the past decade.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Dir. Drew Goddard

Co-written by Joss Whedon, The Cabin the Woods invokes a lot of clichés from a wide swath of horror subgenres including the zombie film, the haunted house movie, and slashers. For fans of horror there is a lot of fun to be had in spotting all of the references to other movies. The Cabin in the Woods includes a very inventive twist on horror clichés and the ending is especially interesting, in part because the scenario has dark and provocative implications for why audiences crave horror stories.

Candyman (1992)
Dir. Bernard Rose

Candyman was based on “The Forbidden,” a short story written by Clive Barker. Filmmaker Bernard Rose adapted the material, setting it in the Cabrini–Green housing projects in Chicago. The film tells the story of a white female academic writing a thesis on urban legends. While investigating the myth of the Candyman, the ghost of a black male with one hand replaced by jagged hook, she begins to suspect that the myth might be real. The film was somewhat controversial at the time because it utilized imagery of a white woman being accosted by a black male, but this is a very smart film about the history of slavery and the legacy of racism as well as the social function of urban legends.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Dir. Ruggero Deodato

The “mondo” genre refers to what are usually called “shock-umentaries,” which usually consist of news outtakes and staged death scenes as seen in the Faces of Death series or footage of non-Western cultures offered up for exotic titillation as in Africa Addio. The mondo genre was at its height in the 1970s although it continues today, primarily through the internet. Capitalizing on the popularity of the mondo genre and the then-popular fad of cannibal movies, filmmaker Ruggero Deodato made Cannibal Holocaust. The film told the story of a group of filmmakers who disappeared in the Amazon while making a mondo-style documentary about cannibalism; in the first half of the movie an anthropologist embarks on a rescue mission and finds their footage and in the second half that footage is screened. It’s revealed that the documentarians attacked the natives, attempting to incite savage behavior for the cameras, and eventually the natives struck back and killed the Westerners. Cannibal Holocaust gave birth to what is now regarded as the “found footage” genre and as a matter of cinematic craft it is extremely well produced, especially in the second half. However, Cannibal Holocaust is also one of the most hated films ever made and it frequently appears on lists of the most disturbing films of all time. The killing scenes were so convincing that the movie was pulled from Italian theaters because authorities believed it to be a snuff film. The movie’s infamy is also due to the fact that it features the actors killing real animals. Its outrageous content makes Cannibal Holocaust genuinely unpleasant but it also possesses an intelligence that goes beyond what viewers expect from an exploitation film.

Fright Night (1985)
Dir. Tom Holland

Fright Night is intended as both a tribute to Victorian horror and an attempt to update those stories. A teenager discovers that his neighbor is a vampire and when he fails to convince anyone of the truth, he turns to an aging actor who hosts a late night horror telecast. The movie is mostly just fun but it’s got enough self-awareness that fans of the vampire genre will get something more from it.

Funny Games (1997/2007)
Dir. Michael Haneke

Funny Games tells a home invasion story in which a family is held hostage by two preppy teenagers who torture and humiliate them. The film was intended to have a confrontational tone with its audience. Filmmaker Michael Haneke was disgusted with the way in which American filmmakers present violence in their movies and he intended Funny Games to question that violence. He initially made the film in 1997 with an Austrian cast but due to its non-English language the movie’s American distribution was limited to art house theaters. Years later, in the midst of the popularity of torture films like Hostel and Saw, Haneke remade Funny Games literally shot-for-shot but with English-speaking actors. Unfortunately for Haneke, the 2007 version of the film wasn’t much more successful at the box office. Nevertheless, the merits of both versions of Funny Games are fiercely debated among the audiences and critics who have seen them.

Grindhouse (2007)
Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino

Films that are described as “meta” often draw attention to the fact that the audience is watching a movie and they deliberately break the illusion of the motion picture or draw attention to the narrative and filmmaking conventions. Sometimes this is done to critique the form, other times filmmakers do this to pay tribute to their favorite movies, and in a few cases it’s simply done to play with the audience. With 2007’s Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino set out to create a simulacrum of the sleazy independent theater experience of the 1970s. Grindhouse was a double feature of two movies—Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof—with trailers before and between features and defects on the film print. It was a self-indulgent but fun tribute to a bygone era although watching Grindhouse in a corporate multiplex did not necessarily give the movie the venue it deserved.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Dir. Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie, who had established himself as the front man to the rock band White Zombie, made the transition to feature filmmaker with House of 1000 Corpses. The movie was initially a Universal production, was shot on the Universal lot, and utilized the iconography of the classic Universal monster movies. Zombie’s goal seems to have been to merge the classic monster movies of the 1940s with the grindhouse movies of the 1970s and the music video aesthetics of contemporary media, creating a composite horror aesthetic. The result was disturbing in some places and obnoxious in others. Universal executives were horrified by the final result and sold it to Lionsgate. Zombie greatly improved his filmmaking skills in the 2005 sequel, The Devil’s Rejects.

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (2011)
Dir. Tom Six

When The Human Centipede (First Sequence) was released in 2009 it caused an uproar among critics and horror audiences. The film told the story of a mad surgeon who kidnapped three people and used skin grafts and stitches the sow them together, mouth to rectum, to form a single gastric system. For The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), filmmaker Tom Six stepped outside the diegesis of the first movie to tell a story of a disturbed fan of First Sequence who creates his own human centipede but with barbed wire and a staple gun. Full Sequence is even more grotesque than its progenitor but it’s unclear what viewers are supposed to make of the meta approach. A third installment (Final Sequence) is forth coming.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Dir. John Carpenter

Filmmaker John Carpenter has had an up and down career but his highs were very high including titles such as Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing. The last great movie that Carpenter made was 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. In this film Sam Neil plays an insurance fraud investigator who searches for a missing horror writer on behalf of a publisher. The author’s books are known to cause violent mental breakdowns in his readers and as the investigator digs into the literature he finds reality and fantasy become indistinguishable. This is a smart, scary, and sometimes very funny movie about the cult-like qualities of fandom.

New Nightmare (1994)
Dir. Wes Craven

In 1984 Wes Craven created A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film about teenagers stalked in their dreams by Freddy Krueger, a bogeyman who wears a glove with knives fashioned onto the fingertips. The success of the first movie spawned a series of sequels, which Craven had little to do with, and turned Freddy into a cultural icon. Ten years after the original Elm Street picture, Craven returned to the series with New Nightmare. This film was unique in that it took place in the “real world” and featured the cast and crew of the original film playing themselves as they are haunted by a specter who closely resembles Freddy Krueger. The film was an opportunity for Craven to reflect on what his creation had become and upon the relationship between commerce and art. New Nightmare is among the best titles in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and of Wes Craven’s career.

Peeping Tom (1960)
Dir. Michael Powell

Horror was changed in 1960 by two films: Psycho and Peeping Tom. The former, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is now celebrated as one of the greatest movies ever made while the latter has languished and only recently has the film begun to gain the attention it deserves. Peeping Tom is about a photographer and a filmmaker who is a scopophiliac—he has an obsessive erotic attachment to visual images—and he is most stimulated by images of women in fear. In order to satisfy his fetish, the photographer documents himself killing women with a hidden blade that juts out of his camera tripod. Peeping Tom is about the link between imagery and desire and it’s an important precursor to the found footage format. When it was released in 1960 Peeping Tom so horrified audiences that director Michael Powell, who was considered an esteemed filmmaker to that point, had his career effectively ruined. Decades later Martin Scorsese championed the film, claiming that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Federico Fellini’s collectively said everything there was to say about filmmaking. Scorsese briefly considered remaking Peeping Tom but after rescreening it he concluded that there was no way to top what Michael Powell had created.

Scream (1996)
Dir. Wes Craven

Following New Nightmare, filmmaker Wes Craven directed Scream. In this movie, a group of teenagers are stalked by a killer that abides by the so-called “rules” of slasher films: those who drink or do drugs, have sex, or say things like “I’ll be right back” end up dead. Scream was more populist than New Nightmare; as Wes Craven would put it, New Nightmare was for the people who made the movies and Scream was for the audience. Although some of the story’s technical details have dated (the interrogation about cell phone ownership is ludicrous now), Scream is a really fun murder mystery with a sharp wit and a judicious use of violence. It spawned a series of sequels that, although never as good as the original, were better than most horror follow ups.

Sean of the Dead (2004)
Dir. Edgar Wright

The first feature film collaboration between director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost came with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. The same way Scream played on slasher film clichés, Shaun of the Dead emphasized the conventions of zombie movies while fulfilling them and it found a devoted audience. Unlike a lot of the spoof movies of the past decade, which lazily and with great contempt spewed pop culture references at the audience, the makers of Shaun of the Dead took the time to tell a substantive story with interesting characters and they clearly loved the movies that they were referencing.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Dir. E. Elias Merhige

One of the earliest surviving vampire movies is the 1922 silent feature Nosferatu. Based (without legal clearance) on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and directed by F.W. Murnau and featuring actor Max Schreck in the lead role, Nosferatu remains one of the most popular and influential vampire movies. In 2000 E. Elias Merhige directed Shadow of the Vampire. This film told a fictional story inspired by the making of Nosferatu with John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck. In this mix of horror and comedy, Murnau is a madman who has recruited an actual vampire to play the role but Shreck has the unfortunate habit of killing the cast and crew.

Targets (1968)
Dir. Peter Bogdanovich

Based loosely on the murders of Charles Whitman, Targets was a startling tale of a lone gunman out on a killing spree. The film starred Boris Karloff (in one of his last roles) as an aged horror actor who realizes that the Victorian gothic horror he had made a career out of is no longer relevant. Targets is a thrilling story that juxtaposes the violence of entertainment with the violence of the everyday and does so in a way that is thoughtful and disturbing. It has become a forgotten classic but it deserves to be more widely seen. 

Urban Legend (1998)
Dir. Jamie Blanks

Following the success of Scream and Scream 2, self-referential movies became all the rage in American cinema and two years after Wes Craven’s 1996 film, Urban Legend was released. As in the Scream pictures, the cast of Urban Legend were a group of young people who were terrorized by a killer whose drew inspiration from popular stories. In this case, the kills were based on urban myths. The moviemakers of Urban Legends desperately follow the path trod by Scream and Scream 2 but to mixed effect.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Movies About Witches and Witchcraft

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema kicked off the month-long Halloween theme with a look at movies about witches and witchcraft. Here is a recap of the films discussed as well as a few additional titles.

Black Death (2010)
Dir. Christopher Smith

A modern take on the witch hunt films of the 1960s and 70s, a young monk leads a group of soldiers to an isolated village that is believed to be protected from the bubonic plague by a pact with the devil. It has the appearance of a silly exploitation film but Black Death has terrific performances and a smart script.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

In 1999 the found footage genre was new. There had been a few precedents like Peeping Tom, Cannibal Holocaust, and The Last Broadcast but these films hadn’t entered the public consciousness yet. The Blair Witch Project was purportedly the found footage of a group of filmmakers who had been investigating a rural myth and the film had a very convincing illusion of realism that was matched by distributor Artisan Entertainment’s very effective (and some would say dishonest) marketing campaign. The movie was among the first to employ the internet for viral marketing and pseudo-documentaries about the myth of the Blair Witch ran on television. Some people who saw the movie in theaters actually believed that it was real, despite the fact that cast members had been on television talk shows to promote the movie. 

Black Sunday [aka The Mask of Satan] (1960)
Dir. Mario Bava

The feature debut of Italian filmmaker Mario Bava tells the story of a witch, played by Barbara Steele, who returns from the grave to take over the body of young woman. It’s a familiar story but the movie benefits from striking cinematography and production design and it plays like a mix of the classic gothic horrors of the Universal and Hammer movies but with the style of an art house picture. At the time of its release, the violence and gore of Black Sunday were considered shocking but it was very successful at the box office.

The Craft (1996)
Dir. Andrew Fleming

In the 1990s the goth subculture become trendy and television programs like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Charmed were quite popular. One of the more memorable films to come out of this trend was 1996’s The Craft, which starred Robin Tunny, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, and Skeet Ulrich. The film tells the story of a high school clique that dabbles in witchcraft and it tapped into teenage culture of the time. The movie uses supernatural power to visualize the challenges of adolescence and there are some interesting parallels between this film and 2012’s Chronicle. The Craft wasn’t much of a box office success but it has become a cult favorite.

Cry of the Banshee (1970)
Dir. Gordon Hessler

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Vincent Price starred in several films adapted from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Cry of the Banshee is part of this trend and it was based, at least in its title, on one of Poe’s short stories. As the catalogue of Poe’s work was tapped, filmmakers began applying the titles of his work to movies that had little to do with the source material; such is the case with Cry of the Banshee. As he had in Witchfinder General, Price played a corrupt prosecutor who indulged in debauched excesses under the auspices of combating witchcraft.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace

The original Halloween, about a masked killer who stalked babysitters, was a tremendous hit and was followed by a sequel that was grafted onto the events of the first film and told the story of the same characters on the same night. When it came time to do Halloween III, the Michael Myers storyline was jettisoned with the plan of turning the franchise into scary tales that were somehow connected to the Halloween holiday but were not necessarily going to be knife pictures. The audience rejected the new approach and for years Halloween III was regarded with derision. This is too bad because the movie is actually pretty good in its own right and it plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Harry Potter Series (2001 – 2011)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were one of the defining cultural phenomena of a generation and the movie adaptations were consistently good. The film series got off to a rocky start with a couple of titles that were bloated and too conventionally made but later movies took off in creativity and characterization. Since the filmmakers were able to retain most of the same cast throughout the eight films (the last book was split into two parts) viewers were able to watch the characters and the actors who played them grow up and that gave the series some additional impact, especially for those viewers who were approximately Harry Potter’s age (or had kids who were).

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
Dir. Benjamin Christensen

This silent film is a documentary about the history of witches and witchcraft, with special attention to the persecution of supposed witches in the Middle Ages. Haxan mixes the documentary and dramatic forms and it has surreal imagery that is enhanced by the filmmaking techniques of the silent era. It’s a movie that ranges between being funny and frightening and its filmmakers are sympathetic to the victims of witchcraft prosecutions and confrontational toward those who carried them out.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Dir. Kenny Ortega

In this Disney film, a trio of witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy) return from the grave three centuries after the Salem Witch Trials and attempt to absorb the life out of Salem’s children so that they can have eternal youth. Hocus Pocus is a weird combination of adult and child-friendly material and the more mature bits come as a surprise in a Disney film. It isn’t a great movie but it generally works as a family-friendly Halloween title.

The Lords of Salem (2012)
Dir. Rob Zombie

Leaning heavily on the history of Italian giallo pictures, Rob Zombie created one of the more interesting horror films of recent years with The Lords of Salem. A lot of American horror films invoke the Salem Witch Trials and tell stories of persecuted sorceress returning from the grave for vengeance. One of the things that is interesting about The Lords of Salem is the way it deals with that history. The main character of this film is a recovering drug addict who is chosen by a coven of witches. Her descent into madness and into the realm of the supernatural may be a feminist awakening to her own womanhood or it may be a consumption by evil and the ambiguity with which The Lords of Salem deals with that, as well as its excellent production values, makes this film re-watchable.

Suspiria (1977)
Dir. Dario Argento

Often cited as one of the great horror films of all time, Suspiria is a very intense story of  witchcraft and murder. A young American dancer attends a German ballet academy and discovers a coven operating at the school. The movie does not adhere to the narrative filmmaking style that mainstream audiences are accustomed to seeing when they go to the movies and so its appeal tends to be lost on some viewers. The strength of Suspiria is not really in its story but in its cinematic qualities. The film is renowned for its visual style and for its music score by Goblin, which together make this a creepy and surreal viewing experience.

The Witches (1990)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg

Based on the book by Roald Dahl, a young boy discovers a coven of witches masquerading as a child abuse prevention society. Like a lot of fairy tales, The Witches is the story of a young person discovering that there is evil in the world. The contemporary spin on this familiar theme gives the movie some subversive juice and it features some frightening makeup effects.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Dir. George Miller

Based on John Updike’s novel, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer play a trio of women who dabble in witchcraft and are seduced by the Devil, played by Jack Nicholson. The movie is more comedy than horror with Nicholson hamming it up as the Prince of Darkness.

Witchfinder General [aka The Conqueror Worm] (1968)
Dir. Michael Reeves

In the late 1960s and early 70s, there was a trend of movies about the witch trials of the Middle Ages such as The Devils, Mark of the Devil, and Cry of the Banshee. In Witchfinder General (which was also titled The Conqueror Worm in reference to a poem by Edgar Allan Poe), Vincent Price played a corrupt prosecutor of witchcraft. With its old Europe setting, Witchfinder General recalled classic gothic horror films but it was also extremely brutal, breaking boundaries in the presentation of sexuality and violence, and it challenged traditional religious authority, which had been the root of the heroic identity a lot of earlier horror protagonists.

The Wicker Man (1973)
Dir. Robin Hardy

Regarded as one of the best British horror films, The Wicker Man tells the tale of a puritanical British police officer who visits an isolated New Age colony in search of a missing girl. The movie is not traditionally scary in the way audiences usually think of a horror film as frightening. Instead, the movie is creepy in the same way as a circus clown and it picks up on the unease of being the outsider. The final sequence is one of the great endings in horror cinema. The Wicker Man was subject to a disastrous 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage.

The Wizard of Oz (1989)
Dir. Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz is important and influential in many ways but perhaps the most widely recognizable facet of this movie was Margaret Hamilton’s role as The Wicked Witch of the West. Hamilton’s performance as the cackling and green skinned bad witch inspired millions of Halloween costumes and shaped how villainous witches would be portrayed in cinema for years to come. It’s no coincidence that the revisionist takes on L. Frank Baum’s stories like Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful have placed the Wicked Witch at the center of their stories.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sounds of Cinema October Programming

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

Oct. 5: Witches
Witches are enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment and this show will take a look back at some of cinema’s famous spell casters, both the good and the bad.

Oct. 12: Meta-Horror
Meta-films (or meta-fiction) are stories that draw attention to the clichés and conventions of popular storytelling forms, often for the purpose of deconstructing the mechanics of narrative and examining what these stories mean for the audience. Meta-filmmaking has become a fixture of the horror genre and this episode will take a look at some notable and thought-provoking titles.

Oct. 19: Vampires
Vampires continue to be popular and between Let the Right One In, Dracula Untold and Twilight their presentation in the movies is as diverse as ever. This episode will take a look at both classic and contemporary bloodsuckers.

Oct. 26: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the thirtieth anniversary of the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street. This show will take a look back at the legacies of these legendary horror films.

Oct. 30: Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special
Airing on Thursday, October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL, this special will provide the soundtrack for your Halloween with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music.

Update: The Halloween special will air on both 89.5 KQAL in Winona, MN and 89.7 KMSU in Mankato. Both stations will air the program at the same time, at 11pm on Thursday, October. 30th.

Sounds of Cinema can be heard every Sunday on the following stations:
9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at 
11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at