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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...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

VIDEO REVIEW! My Son and I Take on PACIFIC RIM, Guillermo del Toro's 21st Century Kaiju Masterpiece!

Direct from Jack's Movie Town, the movie review blog of my son Skeleton Jack (a.k.a. Wee-Sol), I give to you this very special video review of the film that single-handedly saved the summer of 2013 for me...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Might Have Been: Peter Cushing in the ‘70s (And Beyond)

One of the most iconic performers in the history of the horror film genre, Peter Cushing attained that iconic status thanks to a string of roles—mainly for legendary Hammer Films—during the 1950s and 1960s that saw him play the likes of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes and others. A classically trained actor who played it much straighter during his earlier years in the 1930s and 1940s, Cushing will nevertheless always be remembered for the reputation he established as one of the true gentlemen of horror.

Nevertheless, after nearly 20 years as the face of British terror, Cushing’s career took a step back in the 1970s. There are a few reasons for this. One would be the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971—a loss that left him a shell of his former self for the remainder of his life. There was also the fall of Hammer from its position of prominence into oblivion. For much of the decade, the actor slummed it in roles that his fans and supporters believed to be clearly beneath him. Even the role of the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, for which Cushing is perhaps best known by younger audiences, was mainly undertaken by Cushing because he felt it would appeal to children. Whatever the reasons for it, there is no doubt that Cushing’s 1970s output was decidedly more erratic and of lower quality than the work that had come before.
But it didn’t have to be that way. There are several tantalizing “What Ifs” surrounding Cushing’s career during this period that are enough to give any horror aficionado pause. The 1970s (and even 1980s) could have played out very differently for him than they did, if only a few different choices had been made.
In 1970, when American International Pictures was in pre-production on a quirky, ambitious vehicle for Vincent Price, Cushing was approached to play the chief protagonist alongside Price. Aside from Price, the film starred an assortment of British character actors, and Cushing would’ve been perfect heading up the bunch. It would’ve been a breakout role for American audiences who knew him mainly for the British imports from Hammer. However, Cushing’s wife Helen was very ill with the emphysema that would soon claim her life, and the actor turned down the part in order to stay by her side and care for her.
The film was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and the role was that of Dr. Vesalius, the noble foil to Price’s titular villain. American Oscar-winner Joseph Cotten was eventually chosen for the part, and although he is very effective in the finished film, his American-ness does make him stand out like a sore thumb amongst the film’s cast (while Price was also American, of course, his bearing and demeanor always helped him get away with it somehow). The movie is easily one of the finest horror pictures of the entire decade, and arguably better than any Hammer film put out during the same period. There can be no doubt that Cushing’s presence alongside his fellow horror icon Price would’ve only made it that much better.
Cushing as the ship's captain in Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
Interestingly, Cushing—mere months after Helen’s passing—would appear in the 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, but in a tiny role so unworthy of him one wonders why he was even cast. It would not be until two years later that Cushing and Price would finally have the opportunity to properly co-star with each other, in the Amicus production Madhouse. It would be one of the only times.
Two years after Madhouse, wunderkind filmmaker George Lucas was ramping his soon-to-be game-changing space opera Star Wars into production. Although the cast would be made up largely of young unknowns, Lucas wanted two British actors with established gravitas for two of the key roles—that of wizened Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, and of the evil galactic tyrant Grand Moff Tarkin. Initially, the director approached Cushing for the role of Kenobi—but presumably the actor’s horror track record and aristocratic, aloof on-screen presence (a direct contrast to his warm, gentle personality in real life) led Lucas to switch gears and instead cast him as the icy Tarkin. Fellow acclaimed Englishman Alec Guiness was instead chosen to play the benevolent Kenobi.
Needless to say, had Cushing landed the part he was originally approached for, he would’ve had the opportunity to appear in both Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (as Guinness did in the role), not to mention have his character reprised by a younger actor in the later prequels (which Ewan McGregor did for Guinness). As it stands, Cushing’s appearance in perhaps the most successful movie franchise of all time is relegated to a one-time appearance that covers less than ten (albeit memorable) minutes of screen time.
Star Wars raised Cushing’s profile with American audiences higher than it had been in years, and hot on the heels of that mega-blockbuster, Cushing was approached by another young upstart filmmaker by the name of John Carpenter, hard at work on a project that was decidedly grittier and less grandiose, and yet just as ambitious in its own right: Halloween.
Carpenter was looking to redefine the parameters of horror, taking some cues from earlier films like Psycho, but moving them in a completely different direction. Nevertheless, it was a very small picture, and no one understood at the time that he was basically inventing the modern slasher subgenre. A rabid fan of 1950s and 1960s horror, Carpenter wanted Cushing, one of his idols, for a key role in the film—that of Dr. Sam Loomis, the beleaguered psychiatrist of psychopathic killer Michael Myers, who tracks the maniac down to the sleepy town of Haddonfield, Illinois.
The movie Cushing made
instead of Halloween

It was quite a meaty role, but Cushing nevertheless turned Carpenter down. Perhaps the then-somewhat-sordid subject matter was the reason for this, although that argument loses some steam when one realizes that Cushing instead chose to star in a clunker called Son of Hitler. Incidentally, a disappointed Carpenter next asked Cushing’s Hammer cohort Christopher Lee, who also turned down the part—a decision he would later cite as the biggest mistake of his career. The part instead went to another British character actor—and former Bond villain—Donald Pleasance.
In the wake of Hammer’s demise, Halloween could have been Cushing’s grand return to horror relevance. The film became one of the most groundbreaking horror pictures not only of its time, but of all time, and Cushing as Dr. Loomis would’ve been the most eloquent evolution of his old Van Helsing character, a scientist tracking a ruthless murderer, taken to a whole new, thoroughly modern level for a new generation of horror fans. It also would’ve all but guaranteed repeat appearances for Cushing as Dr. Loomis in the three Halloween sequels in which Pleasance instead appeared over the course of the 1980s. That would’ve meant we’d have Peter Cushing front and center in a top horror film series during an era when all his fellow former horror icons had faded from prominence in the face of Freddy, Jason, Pinhead and their ilk. Now that would’ve been something.
As it stands, we’re left only to speculate on the further greatness Peter Cushing may have sustained in the 1970s and 1980s, and an alternate reality in which Cushing starred alongside Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes, played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movies, and was Michael Myers' mortal enemy. Clearly, it just wasn’t meant to be, and the actor’s deep depression during those years is reflected in both his lackluster roles and comparatively half-hearted performances. Peter Cushing gave us all he had during his entire career—it’s just sad that in those later years he had so little left to give. We’ll have to be happy with the Peter Cushing of the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of his powers, creating a breathtaking and unforgettable body of work. For most of us, that’s more than enough.
This post is part of Pierre Fournier's Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of horror's greatest treasures. Please check out Pierre's excellent blog Frankensteinia to find all the other posts in the blogathon!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

VAULT VLOG: Attention Amateur Filmmakers! Take Part in Bedlam at the Bijou's B-Movie Contest!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hump-Day Harangue: Why Hammer Beats Universal (Almost) Every Time

As a fan of classic horror—by which I mean anything before Romero’s zombies threatened the countryside and Rosemary had her baby—I’ve often gotten caught up in that eternal debate: Which studio was superior, Universal or Hammer? And by writing this, by no means do I want to denigrate one or the other, or imply that one is subpar. Rather, both the Universal Studios output of the 1930s/40s and the Hammer output of the 1950s/60s/70s represent high watermarks in the history of horror. It’s just that, given the choice, I usually go with Hammer.

That’s right, I’m choosing the Brits over my own countrymen. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Universal’s iconic cycle of horror flicks, which first introduced moviegoing audiences to the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and more. I just believe that by reinvigorating the gothic genre in the era of radioactive monsters and exploitation, Hammer did Universal one better and set the benchmark even higher.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, first and foremost—in my estimation, both James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are superior to any film ever put out by the Hammer studio. That said, outside of those two films, I generally find the Hammer body of work to be more enjoyable than the Universal body of work. There are a number of reasons for this.

Maybe chief among them would be that Hammer represented my original introduction to the horror genre. I like to think I’m not so prone to such a subjective view, but I must at least entertain the possibility that I’m biased. As a very small child, I first discovered what horror was all about thanks to those weekend afternoon showings of Hammer gems on syndicated TV in New York. Channels 5, 9 and 11 were my tutors in pop culture, and among the gifts they gave me was Hammer. In fact, Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire may have been the first horror movie I ever saw.

But beyond this mere nostalgia, there’s more. As time went by and I came to discover Universal not long after, I also developed a strong love for their brand of horror as well. But it never supplanted Hammer in my heart.

Not to sound like a Philistine, but a large part of this had to do with Hammer’s vibrant Technicolor. One of the main elements that the studio itself took pride in was that it was reinventing these classic horror tropes in a color medium, replacing Universal’s crisp black and white with the garish, comic book-like hues never before seen in gothic cinematic horror. And while generally I deplore the attitude that black and white is somehow inferior, in this case—especially as a child—I was more drawn in by those bold, almost shocking colors.

Needless to say, one of the main uses Hammer made of that full color palette was to show blood. And by “blood” I mean some of the first major instances of simulated bloodshed ever seen in horror movies, especially of this kind. Whereas the Universal canon was more staid in its presentation, leaving more to the viewer’s imagination (often due to constraints from the Hayes Committee), Hammer let it all hang out, splashing the camera with more bright red plasma than had ever been seen. This meant that instead of a fangless Dracula (all due to respect to Bela Lugosi), we got a fanged and fierce Christopher Lee, gore dripping from his lips, his eyes ringed in scarlet. For an eight-year-old, literally the stuff of nightmares.

Hammer made a splash (pardon the pun) through their then-liberal usage of blood, but they also became known for something else: beautiful women. Although it may sound silly to harp on it, Hammer’s unprecedented emphasis on sexuality was a big deal, and also helped usher horror into a new era just as much as the blood did. The buxom and often exotic women who populated Hammer’s films brought blatant sex appeal like never before, in stark contrast to the often prim and buttoned-up sexuality occasionally glimpsed in Universal. This is not to say that Universal horror was not dealing with sexual themes, just that they did it in a much more (necessarily) subtle and subtextual way, whereas Hammer—in typical studio fashion—loved bashing you over the head with it.

Another aspect of Hammer that they often don’t get enough credit for is the return of gothic horror to its proper Victorian roots. Whereas Universal’s films often took place in some vague, unknown time period that seemed like a confusing cross between modern times and the 19th century, Hammer was careful to set its stories firmly in the Victorian era (or earlier in some cases). 

This worked especially for many of the tales, like Dracula and Frankenstein, which were set in earlier time periods and were for the first time being presented that way—but Hammer went much further than that. Perhaps out of a sense of national pride in their own fabled history, they enjoyed making nearly all their films period films, delighting in breathtaking costume and set design that really gave you a sense of being in an earlier time. It would be a new standard that would be copied by all gothic horror going forward, right up until today.

In short, I think what makes Hammer my preferred source for classic horror is that their output generally works better as horror films, if that makes sense. While the Universal classics were usually more polished, especially those of the 1930s, and were superior as films, Hammer’s work was just downright scarier, with more of a flair for the horrific. While Universal had fine filmmakers like Tod Browning and Whale, exceptional cinematography from the likes of Karl Freund, brilliant set design from the likes of Russell Gausman, and of course the writing of the great Curt Siodmak, Hammer answered back with workhorse director and writer Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster, meticulous costume designer Molly Arbuthnot and the blaring musical scores of James Bernard. 

While Hammer generally worked with a smaller budget, they made you feel as if their productions were more lush. Universal may have been more mainstream and high-profile, especially in the U.S., but Hammer made up for their technical shortcomings with more of a genuine relish for horror. They threw themselves into taking the groundwork laid by Universal and ratcheting it up about five or six notches. And they were damn good at it.

So while I thoroughly enjoy my Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney just as much as the next horror nut, my soul belongs, in the end, to Cushing and Lee. Pressed to make a choice between Universal and Hammer, I’ll go with Hammer. But it’s kind of like asking me to choose between Sinatra and the Beatles, or Marvel and DC—I may go with the Chairman and the Board and the House of Ideas, but that shouldn’t take anything away from my profound love for the Fab Four and the Distinguished Competition as well. There’s room for all in my horror-lovin’ heart.

And if you, like me, enjoy a good Hammer flick—or two!—I urge you to join me tomorrow night in Bridgeport for BEDLAM AT THE BIJOU: Hammer Horror, a unique double feature in which I’ll be screening both Hammer’s version of The Mummy and the vastly underrated Curse of the Werewolf! Plus, we’ve got Hammer DVD and book giveaways, and a special appearance by the LoTTD’s own John Cozzoli of Zombos Closet of Terror! Hope to see you there, Vault dwellers…
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