Monday, October 30, 2017

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special

The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will air on October 30th and 31st on 89.5 KQAL FM and 89.7 KMSU FM, respectively.

The Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special features an hour of music from scary films as well as some other audible tricks and treats. Each year's program is an entirely new mix with different musical selections from the previous year so don't miss it.

The Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special can be heard Monday, October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM and then again on Tuesday, October 31 at 10pm on 89.7 KMSU FM. The programs can be heard over the air and live streaming from each station's website.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Look at Horror Remakes

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at horror remakes. Remakes are now a cornerstone Hollywood's regular release slate with reboots like 2009's Star Trek and reiterations like Disney's Beauty and the Beast. But the current trend of mainstream remakes is rooted in the horror genre. Here is a look at the films discussed on the show as well as a few other titles.

Cat People (1982)
Dir. Paul Schrader

1942’s Cat People was about a woman who fears that her own sexual awakening will cause her to turn into a cat. The material was given an erotic and surreal update in Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake which expanded the concept in the story of a woman who discovers that her family members have the habit of turning into panthers. Like the original, the remake of Cat People retains the core fear of our own sexuality and the 1982 version has become a cult title.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Dir. Zack Snyder

The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead was one of the first and most successful titles in the recent trend of horror remakes and it was the feature film directorial debut of Zack Snyder who went on to helm movies like 300, Watchmen, and Batman v. Superman. In many respects, Dawn of the Dead portended the rest of Snyder’s career. George A. Romero’s original movie was intense but also smart and it used the zombie genre to send up mass consumerism. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead had double the action but only half the brains. It works as an action oriented horror film that’s very entertaining but the remake is bereft of subtext and it stripped the ideas down to almost nothing.

Evil Dead (2013)
Dir. Fede Alvarez

The original Evil Dead was about a group of young people who retreat to an isolated cabin where they are besieged by demons. The movie was one of the seminal horror films of its day and it was renowned for its gore and intensity which caused the original Evil Dead to be censored and banned in several countries. Despite its controversy, Evil Dead launched the career of filmmaker Sam Raimi and inspired a franchise of sequels, video games, and a television series. A remake of Evil Dead was released in 2013. It was a respectable effort that retained the core idea of the original. It was a slicker movie and didn’t have the amateur appeal of the original film but it was nearly as intense and the remake included some shocking and innovative visuals.

The Fly (1986)
Dir. David Cronenberg

1958’s The Fly was a mad scientist movie in which a teleportation experiment goes wrong and turns a scientist into a man-insect hybrid. David Cronenberg remade The Fly in 1986 in a version that was consistent with his obsessions with the body and identity. His film retained the core premise of the original movie but presented it in a way that was more dramatic but also more grotesque.

Halloween (2007)
Dir. Rob Zombie

In the 2000s, nearly every major horror property from the 1970s and 80s was remade. One of the most contentious was Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. As in the original, Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown for a night of murder and mayhem. Unlike the original, the first half of Zombie’s remake portrayed Myers’ home life and cast him as the product of a dysfunctional family. 2007’s Halloween was flawed but it was also one of the most audacious and fascinating remakes of its period and Rob Zombie deserves credit for making his own film rather than a soulless rehash. An even more ambitious sequel followed in 2009.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Dir. Philip Kaufman

The Red Scare era produced a lot of great paranoia movies and among the best was 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the citizens of an American town are replaced with alien duplicates. As written and shot, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers ended ambiguously but a prologue and epilogue were added in post-production at the behest of studio executives. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was remade in the late 1970s with the emphasis shifting from communism to consumerism and this version retained the downbeat ending.

The Last House on the Left (2009)
Dir. Dennis Iliadis

Wes Craven’s directorial debut was one of the most important horror films of the 1970s. An unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, 1972’s The Last House on the Left told the story of a pair of teenage girls who are abducted, tortured, and murdered by a band of psychopaths who then inadvertently seek shelter in the home of one of their victims and the parents take revenge. The movie was made for very little money by people who didn’t know what they were doing but its amateurishness gives the movie a rawness and authenticity that’s very powerful. Craven produced a remake released in 2009. The new version was better in almost every respect; the acting, the production design, and especially the cinematography were all first rate and the remake fixed some of the storytelling problems of the first film. But the slickness of 2009’s Last House on the Left polished off the edge that made the original film so impactful.

Maniac (2013)
Dir. Franck Khalfoun

The splatter film became quite popular in the 1980s and in many movies of that period the majority of the effort went into the gore effects. The viscera drew crowds but it also caused condemnation from critics and cultural commentators. Among the most controversial was 1981’s Maniac. The movie was a character study of a disturbed man, played by Joe Spinell, who murders women and mounts their scalps on mannequins. A remake of Maniac, starring Elijah Wood, reiterated the premise but it had the unique quality of being entirely shot from the killer’s point of view. 2013’s Maniac wasn’t as controversial as its predecessor although it was banned in New Zealand.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Dir. Tom Savini

George A. Romero created the zombie genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and he subsequently released sequels in each of the following decades except for the 1990s. Instead of a new zombie film, Romero produced a remake of Night of the Living Dead with his frequent collaborator Tom Savini directing. 1990s’s Night of the Living Dead mostly adheres to the story of the 1968 film but with a few critical changes, especially to the ending. The remake did not have the impact of the original film (that was impossible) but it was a fun retelling of a familiar story.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Dir. Werner Herzog

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire film Nosferatu is one of the most influential horror movies ever made. Filmmaker Werner Herzog directed a remake released in 1979. As is typical of Herzog, his version of Nosferatu was contemplative and considered what meaning life would have for an immortal being. A Nightmare on Elm Street actor Robert Englund has said that his portrayal of Freddy Krueger was influenced by Klaus Kinski’s performance in Nosferatu.

The Ring (2002)
Dir. Gore Verbinski

2002’s The Ring was a remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu. The story follows a reporter who investigates a series of deaths connected to a mysterious video tape. The Ring followed the original movie quite closely and its success ushered in a wave of American remakes of Asian horror films.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Dir. Marcus Nispel

The 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre began the remake craze that seized Hollywood throughout the past decade. It was also the first release from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company which led the way in remaking many of the classic titles from the 1970s and 80s such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. The remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a financial success that pioneered the look and style that would be followed by most subsequent remakes and by the horror genre in general, in particular the blue-gray color scheme and ostentatious gore. The movie was better than any of the subsequent Chainsaw films but it wasn’t especially memorable.

The Thing (1982)
Dir. John Carpenter

1951’s The Thing from Another World told the story of scientists and military personnel who discover a flying saucer buried in the arctic snow and must fight off the attacks of an extraterrestrial. Filmmaker John Carpenter directed a remake released in 1982. In Carpenter’s version the alien disguises itself as other living beings and so the men must figure out who is infected. At the time it was not very successful but The Thing is now considered one of the best monster pictures ever made. It is a masterful work of suspense and paranoia combined with impressive practical creature effects.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

89.7 KMSU Fall Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its fall pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

The funds raised in KMSU's bi-annual pledge drive pay for the overhead cost of running the station, maintaining and replacing the equipment, and keeping KMSU on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact that KMSU's content has on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. Your pledges to KMSU demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, October 29th, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Techno-Horror Movies

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

Altered States (1980)
Dir. Ken Russell

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

Creature (1998)
Dir. Stuart Gillard

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

Deadly Friend (1986)
Dir. Wes Craven

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

Demon Seed (1977)
Dir. Donald Cammell

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

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

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

The Island of Dr. Moreau

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

Jurassic Park (1993)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

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

The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Dir. Brett Leonard

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

Re-Animator (1985)
Dir. Stuart Gordon

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

Soylent Green (1973)
Dir. Richard Fleischer

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

The Terminator (1984)
Dir. James Cameron

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

Unfriended (2015)
Dir. Leo Gabriadze

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

Videodrome (1983)
Dir. David Cronenberg

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Look at Feminist Horror Films

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

The Seventh Victim (1943)
Dir Mark Robson

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

She (1965)
Dir. Robert Day

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

Carrie (1976)
Dir. Brian De Palma

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

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

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

Ms. 45 (1981)
Dir. Abel Ferrara

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

Aliens (1986)
Dir. James Cameron

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

The Stepfather (1987)
Dir. Joseph Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

The Craft (1996)
Dir. Andrew Fleming

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

American Psycho (2000)
Dir. Mary Harron

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

Monster (2003)
Dir. Patty Jenkins

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

The Descent (2005)
Dir Neil Marshall

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

Death Proof (2007)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

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

Hostel: Part II (2007)
Dir. Eli Roth

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Suspiria and Eraserhead Retrospective

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

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

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

You can find other Sounds of Cinema interviews here.