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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Witch: Mining the Roots of American Horror for a Deliciously Disturbing Modern Masterpiece

Bless me Father, for I have sinned.

It has been 27 months since my last blog post. Life has gotten quite busy for ol' B-Sol, including writing gigs that pay actual money, and so the Vault has been collecting dust for quite some time. And yet, I am compelled to blow off that dust (for now, at least) and lift the lid on the Vault, thanks to a film which I can honestly say is the finest horror movie I have seen this decade thus far. Not only that, but one of the finest films of any kind that I have seen in some time. It is rare that a film like Robert Eggers' The Witch comes along, and I feel I must discuss it, in the most effective forum I have at my disposal.

As you may know, I enjoy horror movies. However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that most horror movies are the cinematic equivalent of junk food (and I love junk food!). I love them all, but I especially cherish those that go beyond being fun horror experiences and enter the realm of being not just great horror cinema, but great cinema, period. Films like Let the Right One In, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, etc. do more than make us jump out of our seat, and give us more than gross-outs and one-liners. They stand the test of time as pieces of art, put together by masters of the form. I believe that The Witch is one of these films, and will take its place among them. In fact, I haven't been this impressed with a horror film since Tomas Alfredson's aforementioned 2008 vampire coming-of-age fable.

I should mention that this is a review/discussion intended really for those who have already seen the film, so you spoilerphobic types should skidaddle at this point. There is much to talk about in this rich, marvelously constructed and directed motion picture, and some of it has to do with some important plot and character moments.

All the credit in the world goes to Eggers, a production and costume designer astonishingly making his feature film writing and directing debut with what feels like the work of a seasoned, insightful craftsman. He has thoroughly researched the life and beliefs of 17th century Puritan settlers not in a useless or masturbatory way, but all in the service of building a story that is like an Elizabethan-era folktale come to life. Having been fascinated with the topic myself in the past, I adored the way in which he captured that Puritan paranoia, as well as the fervent, fundamentalist Christianity that helped perpetuate a great deal of lunacy in early American times. It's like Cotton Mather's worst nightmare come to life.

One of the more fascinating things about the film is that it presents these terrible fears of witchcraft and Satanism not just as metaphors, but also as concrete realities. Yes, the film has a symbolic message about the dangers of unchecked patriarchy and religious hysteria, but make no mistake--in Eggers' world, the Devil and his magically powered minions are very much real. This is period drama, but it is also very much supernatural horror as well, and not ashamed of it.

Virtual unknown (not for long) Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Thomasin, the repressed teenage daughter of renegade fundamentalist preacher William, played by gravel-voiced veteran British actor Ralph Ineson. Thomasin longs deep down to be free of her drab and spartan life, especially after her father's extremist ways force even the Puritans to say, "Hey, this guy is kind of a looney tune," and banish the whole family from the community and into the terrifying, untamed New England wilderness. She longs for sweeter times at home in England, and seeks emotional escape through playfulness and imaginative flights of fancy.

And yet, she is rejected by her family. She is seen as a threat and burden by her mother Katherine, played with stern desperation by Kate Dickie, perhaps best known for her performance as the batty, breastfeeding Lysa Arryn on Game of Thrones. Her younger brother Caleb (breathtaking child actor Harvey Scrimshaw), at the very beginning of his sexual awakening in such a repressive environment, can't help but begin to view her in an erotic fashion. And her fiendishly precocious youngest siblings, the twins Mercy and Jonas, are terrified and outraged at the willfulness they see burgeoning inside her, labeling her a witch with the same childish zeal that undoubtedly led many innocent women to their deaths in Salem.

Thomasin is both tempted and horrified by the potential presence of Satanic forces in the woods near their homestead. Gradually but confidently, Eggers paints a picture of encroaching doom, as the family is preyed upon by this force and picked off, one by one. As with many horror films of the Satanic subgenre, there seems to be an implicit message that the Devil exists, but God does not--or at least if He does, He is far less directly manifest than His dark counterpart, preferring to have His followers stick it out for themselves rather than intervene directly. In typical Puritan distrust of the natural world, here the Lord of Darkness takes animal form, as a rabbit, a crow, and most memorably of all, in the form of the family's prize goat, Black Phillip, a creature who has enthusiasts of the film (including this one) singing his praises like so many black sabbath revelers.

There is moral ambiguity at play here which only adds to the richness of the experience. William's religious fervor and pride, coupled with his practical ineptness, has recklessly condemned his family to poverty and near-starvation. It is painful to watch these folks praying desperately to a God who simply does not seem to be listening, or to care, all while a cruel intelligence tears them apart. Clearly, part of Eggers' message is the futility of blind faith, and in fact the harmfulness of it. The family members turn against each other, and the Devil and his minions use each of their weaknesses against them: William's pride and stubbornness, Katherine's attachment to her children, Caleb's sexual curiosity, and even Thomasin's desire for freedom.

Chafing at the bonds of her father's faith, her future seemingly dictated by his choices, she embraces the darkness in the end, giving in to the frightening voice inside her that was pushing her toward it all along. And yet, in Eggers' world, this is not the black-and-white issue the Puritans themselves may have viewed it as. Forced to accept the inherent sinfulness of her nature as preached endlessly by her father, she could not even enjoy the acceptance and affection of family, but was constantly pushed away by parents and siblings she loved. Instead, she finds unconditional acceptance, and yes, freedom at last, in the silken, soothing tones of Black Phillip and the release and power offered to his followers. Moments after being compelled to murder her own mother in self-defense, she seems to heave a figurative sigh of relief, and her first instinctive actions are to literally let her hair down and remove the attire that had kept her physically and emotionally bound up. In the final moments of the film, she rises above everything, once again quite literally, and exults in complete and total joy. It is thrilling, cathartic, and terrifying, all at once.

This is a film without easy answers, that challenges our beliefs as great art should. Is Thomasin's character arc the ultimate expression of feminist independence, or a reinforcement of the very anti-feminist stereotypes promulgated by Puritans both then and now? From where I sit, Eggers seems to be using the reported accounts of witchcraft from those olden days to weave a very modern story that delivers a moral that probably would've been abhorrent to the religious thinkers of that time. It is about the rejection of a constrictive society for the liberty of hedonistic indulgence, and not necessarily as a bad thing. And it generates fear on a deep, primal level.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and composer Mark Korven both contribute greatly to achieving Eggers' vision of inevitable gloom and despair. Blaschke's work is bleak and understated, recalling some of the best work of Kubrick lensman John Alcott. And Korven, best known for his work in documentaries, delivers a chilling, relentless aural onslaught that is part Philip Glass, part Gyorgy Ligeti.

Such work enhances some of the most disturbing imagery I've encountered in horror in a long time. Caleb's death scene, played with shocking maturity by young Scrimshaw, is something from which I fear the hairs on the back of my neck may never fully recover. Caleb's encounter with the witch in the woods, a moment that would make the Brothers Grimm proud. Katherine's breast-feeding scene (a Game of Thrones inside joke, perhaps?) makes the last scene of Paul Solet's Grace seem like Elmo's World. And the unexpected moment (for me, at least) when Black Phillip does indeed speak and the Devil reveals himself made me gasp in enthralled shock.

Horror often gets a bad rap for being a genre that seeks primarily to make us feel a basic human emotion, as if that were a negative in and of itself, something cheap or undesirable. It's very encouraging to find one that makes us feel in such an emotionally complex way, and also makes us think. The Witch is a powerful piece of film that represents the best that horror can be--less Eli Roth, and more Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's one that I'll certainly be revisiting many times in the years to come, and was more than worth the effort of delving back into The Vault of Horror one more time. If you haven't seen it, do so. If you have, see it again.

Oh yeah, and Hail Black Phillip.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Visceral Visionaries: The Cloisters, Vol. 2

Christ Child with an Apple. Willow with original pain and traces of gilding. Michel Erhart, Germany, c.1475.

Four long years ago--my, how time does fly--I paid a fateful visit to The Cloisters, one of NYC's best-kept secret and a haven for rare and often creepy-as-hell medieval European art. If you don't believe me, you can read about it right here. Anyway, ever since then I've been haunted by the beautiful and disturbing things I saw on that day, and so it was only a matter of time before I returned.

Thanks to a collection of free passes acquired by my daughter Zombelina, I was encouraged all the more to make the return trip to the northernmost tip of the island of Manhattan a couple of months ago to once again immerse ourselves in the twisted imaginings of the pre-Renaissance Western world, when the oppressive yoke of religion forced its will upon everything, and turned men's minds to thoughts of a most bizarre nature.

That's not to say that there isn't a lot of pleasantness here, as well; although I chose to pictorialize only the most frightening imagery for the purposes of this rather single-minded blog, I would encourage a visit to The Cloisters for many other reasons, including the peaceful herb garden (don't eat the hemlock) and the magnificent views of the might Hudson River.

Sadly, we were ousted abruptly due to an earlier-than-expected closing time, and so I'm proud to say we returned once again a mere few weeks later. Two visits to The Cloisters in one summer! It gets no better. Well, enough of the wistful musing! On to the gloom and doom...

 Saint Michael. Tempera, oil, gold and silver on wood. Master of Belmonte, Spain, c.1475. The detail on Lucifer is quite gruesome, indeed.

From Panels with the Crucifixion and the Lamentation. Tempera on wood with tooled gold ground. Master of the Codex of St. George, Italy, 14th century.

House Altarpiece. Oil and gold on wood; metal fixtures. Germany, c.1490. That's St. Anne, holding both her inexplicably diminutive daughter Mary and her grandson Jesus. 

The Lamentation (detail). Walnut with paint and gilding. Spain, c.1480. Originally found in a Benedictine monastery, the intense emotion was meant to urge the faithful to imagine themselves present at the death of Christ.

Altarpiece with Scenes from the Life of Saint Andrew (detail). Tempera on gold and wood. The Master of Roussillon, Catalan, c.1425.

Altar Frontal with the Man of Sorrows (detail). Wool, linen and metal thread. Germany, c.1465. "Man of Sorrows" was a common medieval euphemism for J.C. himself. Note the amount of blood, consistent with passion plays of the Middle Ages.

Wooden sculpture of a lamenting woman, presumably Mary. Sadly, I did not get the details on this one.

Lurking in the herb garden...

Friday, November 1, 2013

"Get Away from Her, You Bitch": Maternalism in James Cameron's ALIENS

"My mother was a housewife, but she was also an artist. My father was an electrical engineer."
                                                                                                        --James Cameron

Much has been made of the sexual imagery of Ridley Scott's Alien. Stylistically based as it is on the work of H.R. Giger, it would be difficult for it not to be--after all, Mr. Giger has traditionally been fixated on all things genital-related. I won't even get into what those alien heads really look like. No doubt about it, sexual and birth-related imagery abound in the film.

But when it comes to Aliens, James Cameron's 1986 actionized sequel, that symbolism has been taken to its next logical stage (biologically speaking, anyway): Parenthood. In particular, motherhood. Aliens is preoccupied with maternalism, and I would go so far as to say that it is far and away the central theme of the movie.

To be sure, motherhood plays a certain role in Scott's film, as well. After all, the Nostromo's central computer is called "MOTHER"--it doesn't get any more blatant than that. And the manner in which the main characters rebel and rail against their cold, unfeeling, even treacherous "Mother" throughout the film has "mommy issues" written all over it. This culminates, of course, in Ripley's desperate attempts to escape before Mother destroys the ship, as she refers to the disembodied ship's voice as "You bitch!"

However, it's in the second film that this theme, merely touched on in the first, comes to full fruition. And it all centers on Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo. In the first film, Ripley is a decidedly asexual character. In fact, she isn't even feminized with the first name Ellen until the sequel. The fact that the character was originally written to be a man, and that not a single word of the script was changed following the decision to cast a woman, speaks volumes. In short, Ripley's womanhood is irrelevant to the plot. She is a protagonist who just happens to be a woman--albeit a very strong and resourceful one who's more fit for command than any of the men on the ship. But that part could've been played--as it was originally intended--by a man, and no one would've batted an eye.

When we get to the second film, though, Ripley's womanhood comes front and center. The Ripley of Aliens could not have been played by a man. Being a woman is essential to the character. In that film, James Cameron did something remarkable--he created cinema's first truly viable mainstream female action hero. (Considering Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, the female action hero seems to be something of a preoccupation for the director.) Not only is being a woman essential to Ripley's character, but being a mother in particular.

Cameron's genius here is in giving us a character who is not a strong protagonist despite her femininity--as in Scott's film--but rather because of her femininity. Cameron grafts all the tropes of the action movie hero--particularly the 1980s action movie hero--onto the image of the woman in her most traditional social role, that of the mother. And it works--because Cameron knows something most of us instinctively know, that mothers, as positively characterized, can be among the most determined, strong-willed, and powerful forces in all of fiction (as well as real life). Driven to protect their young, as well shaping who they grow up to become, the limits of their heroism are nearly boundless, and it could only be in a heavily paternalized culture as our own that this role would ever be demoted into something lesser than.

Cameron knows better, and succeeds in making a character simultaneously maternal and decidedly kick-ass in a stereotypically "masculine" sort of way. In the era of Predator and Rambo, Ripley stands out as a subversion of that macho ideal. Cameron has the vision to take the trope to places other filmmakers were too close-minded to go--or perhaps where they feared their audiences wouldn't follow.

If you've only seen the theatrical version, you're missing a big piece of the puzzle. In one of the worst examples of a movie being somewhat hamstrung in the editing process and much better served by the director's cut, there is a scene--included in the latter but missing from the former--in which we learn that Ripley was a mother. Tragically, because she was trapped in hypersleep for nearly 60 years, she has missed out on her daughter's entire adult life, and learned that she lived to a ripe old age and died just a couple of years before Ripley was recovered in deep space. It's a shocking moment for her and for us, and informs the character so greatly for the rest of the film. It's mind-boggling to me why it would've been removed, thus removing an important part of the movie's impact.

Knowing that Ripley was a mother who lost her child changes the way we look at Ripley's relationship with Newt, the little girl who is the only survivor of the ill-advised colony on planet LV-426. It is that loss which colors the rest of the movie, and their interaction in particular. Ripley has suffered the greatest trauma an adult can suffer--the loss of a child--and she'll be damned if she's about to let it happen again. For her, Newt represents not just a surrogate for her own biological daughter, but a second chance to indirectly "make up" for what happened the first time. Ripley was powerless to change anything about what happened to her own child, but she has the power to make a difference in this little girl's life, to substitute for her lost parents, and protect her from harm in a way she couldn't do for her daughter.

The growing bond between Ripley and Newt is quite touching to watch, as she begins to care for the child, gradually filling the parental role in a very real and emotionally invested way. It represents the heart of a film that is often consumed with macho, militaristic sci-fi. Or is it? Perhaps one of Cameron's greatest tricks is to subvert this macho ideal. All is not what it seems here. Rather, the Space Marines are portrayed more or less as ineffectual cartoon caricatures (with the exception of Hicks as well as Vasquez--the toughest soldier in the squadron who is, quite tellingly, a woman). Also, they are unable to stop the alien threat and properly protect the civilians Ripley and Newt. It falls to Ripley, in the role of "warrior-mother", to stand up and do the job herself. And she does it better than her militarized compatriots, unencumbered as she is by testosterone-driven hubris. Rather, she channels her maternal instincts and becomes the most formidable of them all.

In the process, she becomes cinema's first bona fide feminine action hero. She's not a woman posing in a traditionally "masculine" way, as a character who could either be a male or female, but just so happens to be a woman. Rather, her womanhood is tied directly into her action role. This is not to say that womanhood is only defined by motherhood; but rather, it is to say that, as written, the Ripley of Aliens must be a woman.

Make room for Mommy!
For the film's final conflict, Ripley is forced to do battle with another mother. But this is a very different mother--an "anti-mother" if you will. Of course, I'm talking about the Alien Queen. It's interesting to note that this creature would appear to be created for Cameron's sequel. As conceived in the original Alien, there's no indication given whatsoever that there is such a being. In fact, given what we know now about Ridley Scott's mythos with the expansion of last year's quasi-prequel Prometheus, it seem as if the eggs on that ship weren't necessarily laid by a mother at all, but rather, genetically engineered. Given the evidence we have, it's reasonably to argue that the "Alien Queen" device was invented specifically to further drive James Cameron's maternal themes in Aliens.

The Alien Queen represents the negative side of the mother--whereas we think of mothers bringing life, this mother, in a sense, brings death. Her offspring are killing machines, and her purpose for existing is solely to destroy and to breed others to destroy. She is the poisonous, cancerous mother. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that despite her ugly traits, she still retains that primal aspect of motherhood--the desperate need to protect her young. We can palpably feel her horror when Ripley torches the eggs in her chamber.

In order to truly save Newt in the end, Ripley must protect her from this evil maternal force which also seeks to possess her. And so, one of the watershed action films of the 1980s--if not of all time--culminates in a battle of Mother vs. Mother. And finally, it is the good that triumphs, the nurturing mother driven by altruism. Ripley redeems herself and achieves catharsis. In her final scene, she has become the surrogate mother, figuratively embracing Newt in the womb-like sanctuary of hypersleep.

Yes, this maternal triumph is heart-breakingly nullified by the opening scenes of the next film, David Fincher's Alien 3, when we learn that Newt dies when her hypersleep chamber malfunctions. In my opinion, this creative decision was destructive from a storytelling point of view. However, this need not diminish Cameron's achievement in Aliens, and when taken as a film on its own, as it should be, it remains one of the most impressive accomplishments of '80s cinema. Disguised as a traditional action sci-fi flick, James Cameron gave us one of film's most enduring odes to the nurturing power of motherhood.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Art. Zombies. Rock 'n roll. Catching Up with Lara Hope

B-Sol here to tell you all about one very special woman whose band will be headlining Captain Cruella’s 4th annual Village Invasion on October 19 in Saugerties, New York. The woman is Lara Hope, and the band is Tigeriss. Lara was on hand and tore it up last year, and knowing her as well as we do, it’s a lock that she’ll be tearing it up once again.

But as if one band isn’t enough, the overachieving Ms. Hope happens to be a member of several rockin’ ensembles. Her rockabilly band Lara Hope and the Arktones is prepared to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help them record their very first full-length album—a project they’ve been dedicating a lot of hard work to as of late. On top of that, Lara is gearing up yet another group, the Misfits tribute band known as the Miss-Tits (!!), to make a boobalicious debut at her very own Rosendale Zombie Festival.
Yes, you heard that right. In addition to her musical endeavors, Lara is also the brains behind the Hudson Valley’s other undead extravaganza, the Rosendale Zombie Festival, which will also be celebrating its fourth year on Saturday, September 28! This one will be used as a fundraiser for the Rosendale Food Pantry. Check out the official Facebook page right here!
In addition to this, as part of the Gold Hope Duo, Ms. Hope had the opportunity to be a part of the northeast leg of the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, in which she opened for Dave Chappelle and Flight of the Conchords. After Halloween, both the Gold Hope Duo and Tigeriss will be embarking on a northeast tour along with fellow New York band S.S. Web.
And as if the whole music and zombies thing wasn’t enough, did I mention that Lara Hope is an artist as well? Recently, she has begun focusing on up-cycled, functional artwork, which includes turning cigar boxes into mini coffins, as well as painting picture frames, mirrors and other items. On Friday, September 13, she had her very first show opening at the Ark Riot in Kingston, New York. Her work will continue to be on display for the rest of the month. For more info, check out the official Facebook event page.
There’s no doubt about it—Lara Hope is a true renaissance woman and a match for even Captain Cruella herself in the events and arts departments. Be sure to check out the Rosendale Zombie Festival later this month, and then we “hope” (heh) to see you on hand to watch Lara and Tigeriss perform at Village Invasion IV!

[This has been a cross-post from Cruella's Crypt.]


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Announcing the 5th Annual Cyber Horror Awards!

It took a lot longer than usual this year--thank you, day job!--but earlier this week, I was proud to finally release the complete list of winners for the 5th annual Cyber Horror Awards! I encourage everyone to head right over to the official page of the awards to find out all the winners, as voted on by the online horror journalism community.

Since 2009, the CHAs have been the only annual horror movie awards voted on exclusively by bloggers and other online critics. It's always a blast putting them together, and always fun to recognize the best in horror cinema each year. This year was quite an interesting one! For the first time, the awards were not dominated by one big movie, but rather by two: Drew Goddard's The Cabin the Woods and Ridley Scott's Prometheus. For the most part, Scott's Alien quasi-prequel snagged prizes in the more technical areas, while Goddard's meta-horror chestnut received more of the content-driven awards--which is pretty spot-on. Also, it's worth noting that this year saw the fewest amount of films winning awards, with only four. However, they were arguably the four best horror films of 2012, which makes me happy.

We saw a tie for David Cronenberg Award for Best Director, and a winner of the Dwight Frye Award for Best Supporting Actor who received more votes than all the other nominees combined! Ti West's The Innkeepers won three awards, and two of them were the Jamie Lee Curtis Award for Best Actress and the Linnea Quigley Award for Best Supporting Actress--a testament to that movie's strong female performances.

For the complete lowdown on all the winners, please proceed directly to the official Cyber Horror Awards page! And as always, I'm eternally grateful to the luminaries who took the time out to cast their votes this year:

Matt-Suzaka of Chuck Norris Ate My Baby
Dod March of The WGON Helicopter
Bryan White of the Rondo-nominated Cinema-Suicide
John W. Morehead of Theofantastique
Stu Conover of BuyZombie
BJ-C of Day of the Woman & Icons of Fright

BC of Horror-Movie-a-Day
Max Cheney of the Rondo-winning Drunken Severed Head
John Cozzoli of the Rondo-nominated Zombos' Closet of Horror
William Israel of Nightmare Castle
Christine Hadden of Fangoria.com and Fascination with Fear
Michele Eggen of The Girl Who Loves Horror
Anna Dynamite of Bemused and Nonplussed 
Johnny Squires of Freddy in Space and Fearnet 
Paige MacGregor of Fandomania 
John Kenneth Muir of Reflections of Cult Movies & Classic TV 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Karen Black 1939-2013

"There aren't any more movie stars, which is terrific with me, it's very healthy. A lot of love now occurs in the business, people helping each other to do good work, getting high on each other's success. Isn't that great?"

She rose to prominence as part of a new wave of "actor's actors" changing Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s, but would later redefine herself as what is often referred to as a "scream queen". Yet that simple term unfairly reduces the contributions she made, both to mainstream film and the horror genre, over the course of her 45-year career. Karen Black was a one of a kind, and has inspired a devoted following which was saddened to learn that she had lost her three-year battle with ampullary cancer last Thursday at the age of 74.

Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois, she took her stage name from first husband Charles Black, whom she married at the tender age of 16. The marriage would last only seven years, but she would keep the name for the rest of her career. And she was advanced for her age in more ways than this, as at the time of her marriage she was already a student at Northwestern University. However, she was bitten by the acting bug early, and dropped out of college to head to New York and Lee Strasberg's world famous acting studio at age 17.

She started appearing in a number of off-Broadway roles in her late teens and early twenties, and even had her first bit part on screen in 1959 in the exploitation flick The Prime Time, at the age of 20. By 1965, she had debuted on Broadway to acclaim in the short-lived critical darling The Playroom. The following year, she got her first major screen role in the early Francis Ford Coppola film, You're a Big Boy Now.

By the latter part of the 1960s, Black had begun to establish herself amongst a new generation of young and hungry actors, born of the Stanislavsky method and eager to turn Hollywood on its ear--actors like Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and others. It would in fact be her 1969 appearance alongside Hopper, Nicholson and Peter Fonda in the groundbreaking biker opus Easy Rider that would truly introduce her to the world as a major star.

Black turned her heads with her self-named role, and followed it up the next year with another turn co-starring with Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. This time, she earned an Oscar nomination, and the first of two Golden Globe awards she would receive in her career. Karen Black had become one of the most buzzworthy actresses of the new decade--a decade in which she would participate in changing the face of American film.

At the apex of her career in the 1970s, Karen Black got to star in Coppola's adaptation of The Great Gatsby alongside Robert Redford; The Day of the Locust with Donald Sutherland and Burgess Meredith; and Airport 1975, in which she became the infamous "stewardess flying the plane" that would inspire the title and theme of Ron Hogan's excellent book on '70s cinema.

She would also begin to dabble in the horror genre, beginning with the horror-tinged thriller The Pyx in 1973, but starting in earnest in late 1974, when she took a major role in the TV movie Trilogy of Terror--mainly because her second husband, Robert Burton, had landed a part. The two would be divorced by the time the movie aired, but Black's sojourn into the realm of the dark and bizarre had begun. She followed it up in 1976 with starring roles in Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings with Bette Davis, and in Family Plot, the final film of Alfred Hitchcock.

Karen Black's career would never again reach the heights it did during the 1970s. And although she once again turned heads in 1982 with an appearance in Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, by this point she had embarked on a different stage of her career--one that would wind up defining her for the next quarter century. Karen Black had become a so-called "scream queen"--yet her acting chops and legit training helped her stand out from the pack of '80s horror starlets. In truth, she was a cut above.

Her resume during the 1980s would include such movies as Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars remake and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive. By the 1990s, she had settled firmly into B-horror shlock territory--her films of that era include the likes of Children of the Corn: The Gathering and other obscure direct-to-video fare. It was a far cry from starring roles in Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman pictures, but she continued to work steadily and had found a niche for herself which endeared her to legions of fans like never before.

Black's most memorable role of the new century, and perhaps the part for which she is most known to younger horror fans, would come in 2003 thanks to horror aficionado Rob Zombie. A fan of the genre--particularly the '70s and '80s era of splatter and exploitation, Zombie had been a big fan of Black's work and decided to thrust her back into the horror mainstream along with other cult favorites in his debut picture, House of 1,000 Corpses. As the unforgettable Mother Firefly, Black was the best thing about the film, and it instantly reminded fans of just what a talent and a gift to the genre she truly was.

Nevertheless, House of 1,000 Corpses didn't quite lead to the full career resurgence fans of Black had been hoping for, and she continued to ply her trade in B cinema for the remainder of the decade, most notably in the 2011 underground horror comedy Some Guy Who Kills People.

However, by that point, Black had already been forced to curtail her career thanks to a diagnosis of ampullary cancer in 2010. Through surgery and treatment, she was able to beat it within months, but it returned aggressively last year, and on August 8, 2013, with fourth husband Stephen Eckelberry by her side, it claimed her life.

Although her career trajectory did not follow the same path as many of her compatriots from those exciting game-changing days of the late '60s and early '70s, in her own way Karen Black left a mark that will never be forgotten. She found a niche and a formula that worked, keeping her working and beloved by fans of horror and B-movies for decades.

All in all--a legacy most actors would kill for.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Random Ramblings from the Vault!

  • Random Ramblings is back this week, and I'd like to kick it off by shouting to the rooftops how excited I am about the impending release of the long-pined-for restored version of Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. Director Hardy had long lamented the seemingly permanent loss of 14 minutes of the film's footage due to a ridiculous studio bungle. Now that it's finally been found 40 years later, I can't wait to see Hardy's true, original vision at last.
  • I've spent years educated my kids on the joys of horror, but till now have kept things relatively confined to the PG/PG-13 realm. I recently broke that edict with a screening of the brilliant '70s zombie chestnut Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (a.k.a. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue). I'm proud to report that Zombelina and Skeleton Jack (ages 11 and 9) are alive, well and untraumatized. Like Luke Skywalker, they've taken their first step into a larger world.
  • Is it just me, or has True Blood been improving this season? For me, the show has always seemed so erratic, going from interesting to unbearable at regular intervals. But I have to say, this season so far has captured my attention and seems to be getting back to more of what made the show so intriguing in the first place.
  • As you might have been able to tell by the recent vlog here in the Vault, and elsewhere in Jack's Movie Town, I'm seriously on a Pacific Rim high this summer. I've now seen the film three times, and it's successfully washed away the taste of the horrendous Man of Steel and the slightly disappointing Star Trek: Into Darkness. If you haven't seen it yet--SEE IT. Word of mouth is spreading, and it now looks like a sequel may actually happen.

  • Did you know that Weird Tales magazine is back in publication? Shame on you if you didn't. The classic old school horror pulp, which boasted such authors as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard among its contributors, has been back for a little while now, and I strongly encourage you to support it. We need solid outlets for new horror short fiction, and I can think of no better home for it than the legendary Weird Tales. 
  • I always love putting together the Cyber Horror Awards, because it gives me a chance to catch up on the best horror films of the past year that I may have missed. This time, I'm taking some time to discover Lovely Molly, Sinister and Mother's Day...
  • For many years, I've admired the amazing Alamo Drafthouse from afar. A theater that combines good movies with good food and drink, and also has genuine knowledge of film history and respect for the moviegoing experience? Count me in. Color me ecstatic at this month's brand new opening of an Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, New York, a mere 20 miles or so from me. And among their first screenings will be Stanley Kubrick's The Shining! I'll be heading down there very soon, you can count on that...
  • For all you supporters of my Bedlam at the Bijou series, I just wanted to let you know that our run at that venue has ended after a glorious and very fun year. However, fear not--because I'm looking to take the Bedlam brand on the road and continue the coolness at a new location in Connecticut. Stay tuned for more updates on where and when you can expect to see vintage horror double-features in the mighty B-Sol manner.

  • Captain Cruella's Village Invasion is returning with an amazing FOURTH annual installment in the town of Saugerties, nestled in New York's idyllic Hudson Valley. It's the Northeast's premiere zombie crawl event, and this year looks to be bigger and better than ever. Check it out at the official Village Invasion website, or stay tuned to Cruella's Crypt for more news and information!
  • While I'm bragging and boasting, I'd like to take this moment to give a mention to my Twitter and Instagram presences. For Vault updates and more, plus a coveted glimpse into my ever-fascinating life, feel free to follow me @B_Sol on Twitter, or @B_Sol13 on Instagram. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Better Late Than Never: Announcing the Nominees for the 5th Annual CYBER HORROR AWARDS

It all started four years ago as a novel idea... how interesting would it be to give the horror blogosphere a platform from which to praise the best in horror movies each year? Other critic-based movie awards exist out there, so what about one for online horror journalists--who happen to be among the most opinionated, vocal critics of them all? So I came up with the Cyber Horror Awards, taking advantage of the connections I had made in the online horror world to create a system that could be used to recognize greatness in horror cinema each year.

Each year, I reach out to a select group of notables to help me select nominees in 13 different categories. Once that's done, the official ballot is emailed to scores of online horror critics (this year that number reached nearly 150), both blogger and non-blogger alike, asking them to select their choices. And then, at long last, the winners are declared over at the official home of the Cyber Horror Awards. Needless to say, this is all happening a few months later this year than I'd normally like, but hey, sometimes real life can be a bit of a nuisance.

Speaking of the official CHA website, by going there you can check out the official list of this year's nominees, highlighting some of the best and brightest the horror genre had to offer in 2012. It's quite an interesting field this time out... In previous years, a single movie usually dominated the nominees: 2008 was the year of Let the Right One In; in 2009 it was Trick 'r Treat; 2010 was dominated by Black Swan; and last year it was Attack the Block. This year, however, there are three films which are running neck-and-neck: The Woman in Black, with 10 nominations; The Cabin in the Woods, with 11 nominations; and Prometheus, with a whopping 12 out of 13 nominations (all that was missing was Best Supporting Actor... poor Idris Elba.) The Innkeepers also made a significant showing with 6 nominations.

But enough jibber-jabber. To give you a taste, our nominees for the Val Lewton Award for Best Horror Film of the Year are:

  • Prometheus
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • The Woman in Black
  • The Innkeepers
  • Sinister
Head over to the Cyber Horror Awards website and check out the full list now! Ballots have been sent out, with a deadline of August 15. I expect to publish the results not long after that. And incidentally, if you're an online horror critic/blogger and you have NOT received a ballot from me, feel free to reach out to me, and we'll see what we can do to rectify that!

And now, I leave you with a handy guide to all the awards and their previous winners:

Val Lewton Award for Best Film
2011: Attack the Block
2010: Black Swan
2009: Trick 'r Treat
2008: Let the Right One In

David Cronenberg Award for Best Director
2011: Joe Cornish, Attack the Block
2010: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
2009: Michael Dougherty, Trick 'r Treat
2008: Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In

Jamie Lee Curtis Award for Best Actress
2011: Jodie Whittaker, Attack the Block
2010: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
2009: Isabelle Fuhrman, Orphan
2008: Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In

Vincent Price Award for Best Actor
2011: Rutger Hauer, Hobo with a Shotgun
2010: Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island 
2009: Woody Harrelson, Zombieland
2008: Kare Hedebrant, Let the Right One In

Linnea Quigley Award for Best Supporting Actress
2011: Angela Bettis, The Woman
2010: Delphine Chaneac, Splice
2009: Lorna Raver, Drag Me to Hell
2008: Lizzy Caplan, Cloverfield

Dwight Frye Award for Best Supporting Actor
2011: John Goodman, Red State
2010: Vincent Cassel, Black Swan
2009: Bill Murray, Zombieland
2008: Vinnie Jones, The Midnight Meat Train

Curt Siodmak Award for Best Screenplay
2011: Joe Cornish, Attack the Block
2010: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin, Black Swan
2009: Michael Dougherty, Trick 'r Treat
2008: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In

Karl Freund Award for Best Cinematography
2011: Hallvard Braein, Troll Hunter
2010: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
2009: Anthony Dod Mantle, Antichrist
2008: Hoyte Van Hoytema, Let the Right One In

Albert S. D'Agostino Award for Best Production Design
2011: Roger Ford, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
2010: Dante Ferretti, Shutter Island
2009: Steve Saklad, Drag Me to Hell
2008: David Hackl, Repo! The Genetic Opera

Bernard Herrmann Award for Best Score
2011: Tie: Joseph Bishara, Insidious / Steven Price, Attack the Block
2010: Clint Mansell, Black Swan
2009: Christopher Young, Drag Me to Hell
2008: Johan Soderqvist, Let the Right One In

Tom Savini Award for Best Makeup
2011: Sharon Toohey, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
2010: Rick Baker, The Wolfman
2009: Greg Nicotero, Drag Me to Hell
2008: Greg Nicotero, Diary of the Dead / Mirrors

Ray Harryhausen Award for Best Visual Effects
2011: Troll Hunter
2010: Black Swan
2009: Coraline
2008: The Ruins

Molly Arbuthnot Award for Best Costume Design
2011: Ha Nguyen, Priest
2010: Milena Canonero, The Wolfman
2009: Magali Guidasci, Zombieland

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Exorcist XL: Is Friedkin's Film Blasphemy or Reverence?

With the 40th anniversary of what is arguably considered the most frightening horror film of all time--and unarguably the most financially successful--my intention has been to celebrate that milestone all year. Much like I did with the 25th anniversary of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 2009, the 50th anniversary of Psycho in 2010, the 30th anniversary of An American Werewolf in London in 2011 and the 90th anniversary of Nosferatu in 2012. Alas, my schedule has made this more difficult than I originally planned, but at long last I'm able to sit down and put together the first of my "Exorcist XL" series, commemorating 40 years since the release of the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture...

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, The Exorcist was a film that has filled me with dread for as long as I can remember. On the sidebar of this very blog, I recount the traumatic experience of first being exposed to it at the tender age of 8. It was a film that had an aura of the forbidden, and seemed in many ways to be the literal embodiment of evil. However, over time, I've come to the conclusion that--far from the unholy terror it has often been portrayed to be--The Exorcist is actually a very pious work. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it pro-Catholic propaganda. And that's coming from someone with the utmost admiration for the film.

I've heard religious individuals condemn The Exorcist as being the work of the Devil, and of being an immoral and irresponsible movie that devout Christians should avoid at all costs. Never mind the fact that, to my knowledge, the Roman Catholic Church (nor any major religious group, for that matter) never came out openly against the film in any way. In fact, the film even had the full participation of the Jesuit order, and even lent one of their brethren, Fr. William O'Malley (a licensed exorcist) to not only consult on the film, but to even appear on camera as the character Fr. Dyer, close friend of Damien Karras.

Why would this be the case, if The Exorcist were in fact a Satanic, anti-Catholic movie? If anything, it is quite the opposite. Within the world of The Exorcist, the priests are the good guys--they are soldiers of Christ. In fact, the movie is almost medieval in its thinking, casting the scientists as misguided, ineffectual and even actively negligent in their inability to help Regan during her plight. God and the Devil are quite real here, and only the disciples of God can be of assistance. Von Sydow's Fr. Merrin knows this to be true, and calmly dismisses more secular approaches.

One can even go so far as to interpret Regan's possession as a punishment for her mother's atheism--a belief system that in the world of this film leaves her without the ability to protect her daughter in any way. Chris MacNeil must go on a journey that forces her to confront the existence of traditional spirituality--much like Fr. Karras must struggle with his own loss of faith. It is only when Karras abandons his nihilism and embraces the empathetic virtue of self-sacrifice that he is finally able to find a true solution that separates Regan and the demon (although one can argue his selflessness is not necessarily religious but simply humanist in nature.)

Those who choose to avoid The Exorcist because they consider themselves good Catholics are missing the whole point. The movie may portray things that are considered hideous and obscene sacrilege, but these are depicted solely to demonstrate the work of the Devil in all its explicit evil. The movie does not take the demon's side--if anything, it is the men of God whom we are most encouraged to root for. Regan's revolting words and actions are shown simply to make the defeat of the demon that much more satisfying. And there is nothing seen that cannot also be found in actual reports of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests. I do not believe the film glorifies these elements, but rather uses them to establish the significance of the threat.

In short, the world of The Exorcist postulates that God and the Devil exist, that radical good and evil also exist, and that Christian spirituality is better equipped to combat evil than man's 20th century secularism. In other words, it is an extremely traditional film in theme and philosophy, and not the sordid, blasphemous work its opponents have often characterized it to be. In fact, I'd go so far as to speculate that the film can be interpreted as alarmingly archaic in its traditionalism, eschewing modern humanistic developments for a very black-and-white, fire-and-brimstone Old Testament version of reality. Far from being a Satanic work, it could easily have been based on an ancient or medieval fable, intended to keep potential stray believers on the straight and narrow.

The Exorcist may make the Devil seem cool, but don't forget that in the end the Devil loses--and it's the power of Christ that compels him.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Faces of Fear: Vampires

Tonight we debut a brand new feature here in The Vault of Horror, in which we will spotlight various distinguished denizens of our nightmares. For our first edition, we take a look at what is perhaps horror's most iconic monster of all...

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