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.

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