Posts Tagged ‘ horror ’

Review: The Monster (1925)

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The Monster isn’t a film that belongs to its star Lon Cheney in the way  his appearances in The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or London After Midnight do. But while his role in as Dr. Ziska gets pushed into the shadows of this bizarre horror-comedy, Roland West’s film made a distinct mark on cinematic history.

Widely considered to be the first “mad scientist” movie and the first “old dark house” movie, The Monster delivers a bizarre look at the thin line between what makes us laugh and what makes us scream. The deep shadows, horrific make-up, and maze of set pieces clash with the light and dopey characters. West sets up his hero as a man hilariously unfit for the situation he finds himself in, a scenario viewers would find again and again throughout the years since the film.

The plot of The Monster resembles another film released only one year earlier, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. Aspiring detective Johnny Goodlittle investigates the disappearance of John Bowman. The trail leads him to an abandoned sanitarium, where he meets Dr. Ziska, a former patient who, along with his merry band of freaks, has overrun the asylum.

Roland West splits the difference between comedy and horror by creating some beautifully creepy castle designs and expressionistic lighting and a very weightless plot. Retreading the some of the same ground as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, West’s film relies less heavily on a dream-like expressionsof horror. West’s designs, including the intricate passages, dungeons, and laboratories, are ahead of their time, and would later be appropriated by Vincent Price for his haunted house movies.

His use of camp and horror, however, would be later perfected by Abbott and Costello. By placing an unlikely hero at the center of the film, West parodies his genre at its inception. Goodlittle’s inexperience gifts him an absent mindedness that allows him to solve the case, but not without fumbling his way through the set first. The Monster, for all of its goofiness, might as well have been the world’s first Scooby-Doo episode.

Despite being regulated to the background, Lon Chaney’s Dr. Ziska has a presence that permeates throughout the film. His hand lay firmly in each of the sinister plans for his house guests orders about a some particularly ghoulish minions. Rigo, Caliban, and the unfortunately-named Daffy Dan seep into the background of the scenes, allowing Ziska to lure his guests into his web.

Lon Chaney, however, really doesn’t get the most screen time nor is his character the most interesting. Yet while Johnny Arthur’s Johnny Goodlittle played up the laughs, Chaney’s Ziska really does aim for scares. Less made-up than in his more famous pictures, Chaney’s ability to slap a malevolent smile on his face and stalk his victims never ceases to keep up the creepy side of the film.

The Monster, despite being the birthplace of the old dark house, the mad scientist, and the horror comedy still feels inessential. Neither particularly scary nor funny, the film struggles to balance the two throughout. By the time the film reaches its climax, reality becomes so heightened it seemingly detaches from the horror world entirely. The Monster never  establishes a consistent tone for either, West’s ability to create a frightful tone for the film does win over in a few, select spots.

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The Birds and Attack the Block come to different conclusions about outsiders

Outsiders can generally be found at the center of horror movies. Their presence causes a disturbance that sends the community, whether it’s a summer camp, a small town, an apartment, or a neighborhood block, into flux. The values of the outsider gives the horror something to oppress, and the character a core system of belief to uphold. This can be most easily be pointed out in slasher movies where disruption generally follows “The Last Girl” or the virgin. Because she won’t conform to the standards of her sinful friends, she must uphold her pureness against the monster. In the end, if she can maintain her beliefs, she will survive.

Two movies in particular use the disruption of outsiders to their own advantage, one to punish and the other to politicize. The Birds and Attack the Block were made for and in different eras. The former exists at the dawn of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, the latter in a world rife with gentrification and racial profiling. But while these movies seem completely different externally, at their core, they pit a social outsider against an invasion, allowing them to be punished or vindicated. Continue reading

James Wan Resurrects Horror

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In the past three years, James Wan has resurrected horror movies from the grave. 2011’s Insidious, an updated version of Poltergeist, re-established the fundamentals of movie trickery, not twist endings or gory bloodletting, as the engine behind the horror. Two years later, Wan’s unassuming followup, The Conjuring and the Insidious sequel cemented Wan’s ideas: the right actors, setting, and a little ingenuity can make a house feel haunted again.

More than anything else, Insidious takes the ideas of the haunted house movie and brings them into the 20th century. With influences ranging from Vincent Price to Poltergeist to Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, Insidious dusts off some old scares and shows that they still work. A family moves into a new house for a fresh start, and immediately, books fly off the shelves, ghostly figures appear outside their window, and Tiny Tim records play seemingly on their own. Wan employs some of the oldest tricks in the book, but finds new roles for them. Instead of a ghost being behind someone’s back, it’ll be in the corner of the screen. The audience still gets that helpless omnipotence in a way that’s more subtle and infinitely more creepy. Continue reading

The Fog (1980)

Directed by John Carpenter, Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, 89 minutes, Rated R.

As the AV Club pointed out in their Primer for John Carpenter, Carpenter is a disciple of the church of director Howard Hawks. The Hawksian approach–which focuses heavily on economy and clarity–appears in much of Carpenter’s work. But while films like Halloween and Carpenter’s remake of Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, The Thing, use tight shots, light exposition, and clear emotion to drive much of the horror, The Fog collapses under its own excesses. With a wealth of characters and mythology, The Fog hurts its classic touches, but still generates some worthwhile, if fleeting scares.  Continue reading