Category Archives: 30Hz Cinema

The 30Hz movie-related ramblings

31 Days of Horror: 2017

Halloween brings out the best and the worst of us as obsessive moviewatchers. I can only speak for myself, but I imagine my experience mirrors many of yours. When October rolls around (now mid-September because the 31 horror movies in 31 days doesn’t jive with adult schedules), horror movies dominate all channels. The wife shrugs her shoulders. Hide the more explicit DVD cases from the kids. You start arguing about sequels and franchises and Argento vs. Bava vs. Fulci.

My wife joins in when I can find a nice, palatable mid-grade horror film. In recent years, she’s joined me for films like Tremors and The Fog and comedies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. (Though, she still tells me she’s nervously scanning the mist for ghost pirates whenever a nice fog rolls through the Pittsburgh hills.)

Each year for the past four years, I’ve embarked upon the journey to watch at least 31 horror movies by the end of October. Last year I joined @ElCinemonster’s Hoop-Tober challenge on Letterboxd.com. Each year he lays down a few challenges to help guide the viewing of his monstrous minions. This year I’m again combining my Cinema Shame Horror Shame-a-thon with the Hoop-Tober Challenge 4.0 to perpetuate the most unwieldy title in the history of movie blogging and watching.

Welcome to the @CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile/Shame-a-thon 31 Days of Horror 2017

31 Days of Horror 2017

Let’s lay down some rules for any lunatics that might want to play the home version of the 31 Days of Horror 2017.

Pick 31 never-before-seen (or unwatched DVD purchases) horror movies — “horror” is broadly defined as anything containing elements of the horror genre. So, for example, I’ve count the Abbott & Costello monster films in the past because of the classic movie monsters. Watch as many as you can stomach during your “month” of October.

I’m air-quoting “month” because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m borrowing @ElCinemonster’s notion that we’re busy goddamn people and 31 days is just not a reasonable duration for busy people to watch 31 horror movies. He’s beginning his “month” on September 15th. I plan to do the same. I hit 33 last year(!) and while I don’t expect to top that total I aim to match.

I’m going to pluck as many movies as possible from my Watch Pile (any film I already own that hasn’t been watched). I’ve been making a more concerted effort to watch more movies than I buy. The worthy remain. The ones I don’t see myself watching again hit eBay. I’ll note the outcome of each disc in my blurb.

And speaking of blurbs… after each movie, I’ll toss up a mini-review and a 30Hz rating that will correspond to my review on Letterboxd.com. The review may or may not contain any actual insight. The reviews are the part of this project that will leave you a quivering pile of bloody goo. And now for the more specific Hoop-Tober demonic hurdles, courtesy of @ElCinemonster.

6 sequels (mix-and-match. 6 total)
6 countries
6 decades
6 films from before 1970
6 films from the following: Carpenter, Raimi, Whale, Browning, Craven, Tom Holland (mix-and-match, or all one)
3 people eating people (non-zombie)
1 Hammer Film
1 Romero film
1 terrible oversight aka OVERT SHAME! (use this link, filter out the films you’ve seen and picked the highest rated film from the list that you can get ahold of)

And 2 Tobe Hooper Films (There must ALWAYS be a Hooper film)

-review them all.(eek)

Clearly one film can satisfy multiple criteria. Viewing and reviewing will begin at 12:01am CST on Sept 15th.

I plan to call some audibles when spur-of-the-moment cravings strike, but here’s my blueprint for the 2017 31 Days Of Horror CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-Thon.

31 days of horror 2017

Past #31DaysOfHorror Shame-a-thons: 2013 | 2014 | 2015 Part 1 | 2015 Part 22016 

*rewatch

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
  2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
  3. Brain Damage
  4. Caltiki: The Immortal Monster
  5. Cannibal! The Musical
  6. Christine
  7. Death Walks in High Heels
  8. Eating Raoul
  9. Friday the 13th
  10. Friday the 13th Part II
  11. House*
  12. House 2*
  13. House 3
  14. House 4
  15. Fox with the Velvet Tail
  16. Invaders from Mars
  17. Mill of the Stone Women
  18. Posession
  19. Prince of Darkness
  20. Shocker
  21. Spontaneous Combustion
  22. Suddenly in the Dark
  23. The Devil Doll
  24. The Dismembered
  25. The Green Butchers
  26. The Hound of the Baskervilles*
  27. The Wife Killer
  28. Spider (Zirneklis)
  29. The Velvet Vampire
  30. What Have You Done to Solange?
  31. Two Evil Eyes
  32. The Initiation
  33. The Fan (Der Fan)
  34. The Invisible Man (familiar comfort horror)*

the invisible man 31 days of horror 2017

What’s your list? What’s your plan for horror movie watching this year? If you’re keeping a list or participating in the Hoop-Tober challenge, I’ll link you in the header for my posts. Just leave a note with a link in the comments. Together we shall overcome… or we’ll be the loser pumped off in the first act to establish indomitable menace. It’s more comforting to know you’re not doing this alone.

Summer Reading Challenge: Don’t Disturb the Dead – The Story of the Ramsay Brothers

Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers
by Shamya Dasgupta
Harper Collins India (June 5, 2007)
238 pages
ISBN: 9352644301

Unwittingly my Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge jumped from the pioneers of American horror films at Universal Studios to the pioneers of horror on the subcontinent — the Ramsay brothers.

For those that haven’t been exposed to the Ramsay oeuvre, I’ll give you quick rundown of the fundamentals. Low-budget amalgamations of violence, gore, ancient curses, atmosphere, monsters, voodoo, skin and (always obscured) sexuality, and traditional Bollywood musical numbers. Until one has seen a Ramsay film, a Western viewer likely will not understand how all these pieces fit together. Even though I’d been aware of the Ramsays as filmmakers, I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion of a Bollywood horror film. And then I watched Veerana for my Halloween Horror Challenge last October.

The Ramsays were a family of filmmakers that discovered an untapped niche in the Indian film industry. Until the early 1970’s when the Ramsay’s conquered the market, no one in India made horror films. Despite their financial success, they met both cultural and market-driven barriers to widespread acceptance. Conservative viewers condemned their risqué output, and operating as independents outside the Bollywood system caused friction within the traditional chain of release. As a result, the Ramsays peddled their spook films to areas outside major metropolitan areas. Over the years their films became events, celebrated entertainment for the masses, but they also never gained the respect bestowed upon successful filmmakers.

Purana Mandir (1984)
Scene from Purana Mandir (1984) directed by Shyam Ramsay, Tulsi Ramsay

Before viewing Veerana, I knew the Ramsays only by reputation. India’s version of Hammer Horror. In as much as that rings true (they Ramsays modeled themselves after Hammer studios) it also sells their enterprise short. Using Hammer as inspiration they created culturally specific horror films that defined a generation.

Don’t Disturb the Dead breathes life into the Ramsay’s global reputation by focusing on the way the filmmaking collective assembled an internal team of directors, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, set designers and shot full-length feature films on shoestring budgets and cultural limitations.

As my exposure to Bollywood is limited, the names and places that Dasgupta spouts as reference points for the Indian film industry models of success and failure wash over me. At first I spent time looking up each name, but this grew tiresome and I soon left explanation to authorial context. As a comprehensive history, Dasgupta relies on familial anecdotes and therefore fails to convey a concrete sense of history. Many stories are undermined by the hazy or conflicting recollections among the surviving Ramsays. In many ways this seems fitting coming from an industry that even into the 1980’s believed that cinema was merely a transient form of entertainment. The lack of preservation has left us only with storytellers.

The English-as-Second-Language translation of Don’t Disturb the Dead could be viewed as a detriment as well. The narrative descriptions sometimes feel clipped from amateurish imdb.com synopses. Take for example the following description of the film Darwaza (1978):

“Let’s go over the story, though it’s more more fun – obviously – watching it; if nothing else, for the atmospherics of fear, the sheer spookiness of it, the effect of the hand-held camera sneaking up on you, which is something Gangu uses is many of the films very smartly. Ye, the screaming Ramsay leading ladies are all there somewhere, and so are some random bits, but it’s a taut screenplay, all of it leading somewhere, and, before the end, there are a number of questions that remain, which keep you hooked. And spooked.”

Long segments of interview with some of the Ramsay brothers appear unedited and these, translated into English, also offer some simple charms where translation has made an earnest attempt to turn Indian idioms into proper English. I made a point to mark a quote from Arjun Ramsay (editor): “You can’t only add chili in your food – thoda khatta, thoda meetha (a little salt, a little sugar) … and we did what we did and the aim was that the audience liked it.”

The structure of the book allows for an occasionally maddening centripetal nature. Don’t Disturb the Dead highlights the different parts of the production team, but as Dasgupta begins each segment he takes us back through the Ramsay filmography as it serves the topic. Rather than going film to film and organizing his thoughts chronologically, he continually circles back. While this allows each of the brothers to get a moment in his spotlight throughout the production chain, it also creates a Back to the Future-esque branching timeline for someone unfamiliar with the films and Bollywood players that float through the Ramsay’s story. From his perspective, this serves a specific end: the movies themselves stand as a testament to the family that made them and the stories they told and shared. Readers will note a specific, culturally-ascribed attitude difference toward the actresses in their films and the women in their family, but we must view these through an appropriate lens.

The Ramsays
The Ramsay family of filmmakers. Standing: Arjun, Kiran, Kumar, Gangu, Keshu; Sitting: Tulsi, F.U., Shyam

While not an especially exhaustive discussion of the films themselves (I did just read an encyclopedic textbook about every Univeral horror film), Don’t Disturb the Dead paints a specific picture of familial devotion and the closed-circuit nature of the Indian film industry. Little scholarship has been devoted to the Ramsays, and their films remain underseen curiosities in the West. I would be shocked if someone read the introduction to this book and wasn’t at least curious enough to check out a Ramsay movie… or at least a clip.

If Dasgupta manages to expand the Ramsay’s audience and finds a few more fans in the West, he’s done his job. Even though the movies will look rather cheap and more than a little silly to our eyes, there’s talent and devotion to the craft behind these escapades that welcomes sincere and ironic enjoyment in equal measure.

Luckily, the films are now available on YouTube for our enjoyment. Here’s the film that jumpstarted my curiosity in the Ramsays.

This review is part of my participation in the Summer Reading Challenged hosted by Raquel Stecher’s Out of the Past Blog

Summer Reading Challenge: Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946

Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946
by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas
McFarland & Company; 2nd edition (February 15, 2007)
608 pages
ISBN: 0786429747

When I dared to undertake the reviewing of six books about classic cinema in addition to my regularly scheduled summer fiction regimen, I should have had the foresight to choose something other than a textbook-sized compendium on every horror and horror-related film released by Universal during their first and second horror cycles.

I once claimed proficiency in these types of films. Now, I find that notion “quaint” and perhaps “simple-minded.” I’ve only scratched the surface. Sure, there’s the roll call of A-list monster titles that we all know and love. Dracula. The Wolf Man. Frankenstein. And my own personal favorite, The Mummy. But then there’s all the rest. I suppose I originally engaged with this book because I wanted to know about those gems that slipped through the cultural cracks.

Be careful for what you wish. (Using that, the grammatically preferable form of that statement, makes it sound positively Lugosian. Say it out loud. Claw-like hand gestures optional.)

Universal Horrors excels because the authors not only document these forgotten films (also orienting them in time and space with relation to the more popular films that overshadowed their existence), but they dare to offer a definitive opinion about every single film. Since many of these gems require a bit of hunting to track down, the opinions contained within certainly help focus my attentions on worthy searches. Only once do I recall the authors throwing up their hands in futility because they couldn’t track down a copy of a film. 

Deep Cut Universal Horrors
Some deep cut Universal Horrors dominate my Letterboxd.com Watchlist

Universal Horrors covers 86 films in great detail, diving into great detail about the behind-the-scenes production, the temperaments of the actors involved, and the contemporary reception upon release. Stories told to the authors by surviving cast and crew pull back the curtain on the Universal production demands of the era. Though I knew quite a bit about the rigorous studio demands on their creatives, I repeatedly found myself surprised by the regard (or lack thereof) with which Universal treated these cogs in the machine.

It’s particularly interesting to chart the course of the studio’s major players — Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. — as their careers carried on beyond the iconic roles of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. The authors also, in no less detail, devote substantial sections of the book to the lesser stars of the era such as Gloria Stuart, Evelyn Ankers, Dwight Frye and Maria Ouspenskaya, just to name a handful of the players brought to life again on these pages. The tragic figures on the screen often mirrored the real-life tragedies of the people responsible for these beloved Universal horror films.

claude rains and gloria stuart in the invisible man
Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in James Whale’s The Invisible Man.

Universal Horrors becomes a grind — as would any book of this nature — because it labors over plot synopsis for each of the entries. For certain films I welcomed the refresher course, but by and large, these retellings interrupt the torrent of more interesting bits of cultural context and production details. Thankfully, the authors quarantine the synopses, never burying interesting nuggets among the rote regurgitation, making them easy skips. You’ll welcome the opportunity to move along on page 400 or so during another middling entry in the Inner Sanctum series.

It’s possible that Universal Horrors would appeal mostly to die hard fans of the genre, but due to the depth that the authors go to document the era, the book should appeal to all fans of classic cinema. Hearing the words of Universal’s contract players and indentured filmmakers of the era sheds light on a time and place and a production style (movies written and filmed in under twelve days!) that seems alien by today’s standards. It’ll make you nostalgic for a moviemaking business that wasn’t so damn serious, when horror movie monsters were an ironic escape from the horrors of a decaying world.

This review is part of my participation in the Summer Reading Challenged hosted by Raquel Stecher’s Out of the Past Blog

The History of the Mummy Movie Monster

the mummy 2017 poster

During recent Stanley Cup Final broadcasts, NBC broadcaster Doc Emrick plugged The Mummy (2017) with the assertion that the Mummy has (and I’m paraphrasing here because I wasn’t taking movie notes about this Mummy article during a hockey game) “terrified and fascinated humanity throughout the millennia.” He’s of course making a glib, studio-prescribed sales pitch that highlights the fact that mummies are really old.

I love deflating these prosaic platitudes with darts of reality.

The History of the Mummy Movie Monster

To be more specific, the ad men are saying that the Egyptian mummification process first appeared on the historical record circa 3400 BCE – and “true mummification” using evisceration techniques (removal of the vital organs) began circa 2600 BCE. This means that these shrouded monsters officially began terrorizing fragile moviegoer constitutions starting around 2600 BCE! Clever!

The Mummy as a fictional monster didn’t appear, however, until 1932 during the first Universal horror cycle under studio founder Carl Laemmle and that of his wide-eyed and eccentric son and head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. Even though Mummies time somewhere between the Blob and Zombies on their rates of attack, the cinematic Mummies in question didn’t literally take 4000 years to reach multiplexes near you – not even with Tom Cruise and his baggage in tow.

Instead of merely offering hokey studio taglines some side-eye, let’s look at the actual genesis for the Mummy monster. Even though the Mummy seems like such a natural villain, the journey from sarcophagus to movie immortality was hardly predestined. Three primary events came together at just the right time to inspire Universal’s wildly successful The Mummy in 1932.

 

dracula 1931

The success of Dracula (1931).

German expressionism ushered in a new era of visual storytelling. Dramatic, high contrast cinematography, gothic surrealism and the ultimate import of these filmmakers, like Paul Leni, shifted the visual landscape of American film in the early 1930’s.

Few pundits believed American audiences were ready for a deadly serious, full-length supernatural horror film. At the time of its release Dracula was considered an enormous risk, despite the cultural acceptance of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel into the public conscience. And although America had reacted positively to silent thrillers like The Cat and the Canary (1927, directed for Universal by the aforementioned import Paul Leni), Dracula would not pull back the curtain to reveal a trick ending or comic relief. Until now the “Scooby-Doo ending” had been a common tool to delegitimize the supernatural elements and release the viewer from the on-screen terror.

 

karloff the mummy makeup

William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff.

One story suggests that James Whale’s domestic partner, David Lewis, saw the actor in the stage production of The Criminal Code and recommended him to Whale for the role of the monster in Frankenstein. At this point, Karloff had been toiling in Hollywood anonymity for about 15 years. Even at 5’11”, Karloff projected the physicality and provided a countenance that had been lacking in other actors testing for the part. Karloff plus John P. Pierce’s makeup equaled movie magic.

Variety called Karloff’s performance “a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism,” and the film went on to become the highest grossing film of 1932. Universal immediately wanted to find a new vehicle for the buzzy actor, billed then as “Karloff the Uncanny.” The studio went forward with a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Universal’s story editor Richard Schayer called “Cagliostro” about an immortal man who’d lived through many millennia. With rewrites by John L. Balderson (who’d written a stageplay called Berkeley Square that concerned a romance across the ages) based on recent events, the immortal European wanderer became an undead high priest of Ancient Egypt.

 

king tut 1922

The 1922 discovery of Pharoah Tutankhamun.

Archaeologist Howard Carter and financier Lord Carnarvon explored the Valley of the Kings in Egypt for more than a decade before finding the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun. The discovery ignited a very public obsession with Ancient Egypt. The King Tut craze inspired songs, movies, and the name of President Herbert Hoover’s Belgian Shepherd. The mysterious deaths of some of those involved in the tomb’s excavation resulted in the legend that has become known as the “curse of the pharaohs” – the perfect real-life fuel for cinematic nightmares.

 

The Rise of the Mummy

In the hierarchy of classic monsters, the Mummy often takes a backseat to Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. Vampires are sexy. Frankenstein features the re-animation of parts from dead people using lightning. Lycanthropy even sounds snazzy and legitimately science-y.

the mummy 1932 poster

The terror of the Mummy, meanwhile, took the form of a shrouded monster in raggedy bandages that wandered around (slowly) picking off those that dared interrupt his beauty sleep. (In many ways, the Mummy became a proto-zombie figure.) Someone inevitably doubts the legend and reads a forbidden scroll and so on and so forth. It’s all very formulaic and predictable – when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It’s not a stretch to consider the Mummy Universal’s least loved monster.

Now that I’ve sufficiently lowered expectations, let’s circle back so I can explain all the reasons why the Mummy became my personal favorite of the classic Universal horror franchises.

The makeup effects in The Mummy (1932) stand as one of Jack Pierce’s greatest achievements.

The Universal Mummy franchise lacked the dramatic highs of the Frankenstein series or the legendary countenance of Bela Lugosi, but consistently churned out a capable mixture of chills, romance, and eventually humor through six Universal-produced films between 1932 and 1944. Highlights include the elaborate and exotic set design, Jack P. Pierce’s painstaking makeup effects, and innovative variations on a narrow thematic bandwidth.

Like the other Universal horror films, The Mummy (originally titled Im-Ho-Tep) relied on mood and setting. There’s nothing face value terrifying about these films, but they burrow under your skin for reasons other than their fright-factor. As a kid the Mummy ignited my imagination in ways that the other movie monsters couldn’t. I’d dream of exploring ancient tombs or discovering spiritual artifacts that could resurrect the pharaohs. Meanwhile, I recoiled at the thought of dissecting a frog so no part of me wanted to deal with cadaver bits. And what kind of fresh nonsense was a man that turned into a wolf during a full moon? What about heavy cloud cover? And what would a lunar eclipse do to his disposition? For whatever reason, I’ve always found the Wolf Man a more problematic transformation than Gremlins.

The Mummy had magic, mystique and romance. Within the tattered bandages and decomposing flesh lived the beating heart of a romantic. The resurrected walking corpse almost always had love on his mind – the kind of timeless love that spans multiple regenerations. He’s really just a Romeo with an unfortunate hobby of homicide. Like the other monsters, he was just a little misunderstood.

Read my Countdown of the 10 Essential Mummy Movies to watch in preparation for the latest Mummy resurrection at Action-A-Go-Go.

 


To read more about the Universal Horror Monsters, I recommend the following books:

And in case you missed it, Universal just released the Mummy Legacy Collection on Blu-ray. 

2017 TCM Film Festival Recap

2017 TCM Film Festival Recap: The Year the Popcorn Went on Strike at the Egyptian

Past recaps: 2015 TCM Film Festival / 2016 TCM Film Festival

Each night in Los Angeles, I fell asleep listening to Julie Byrne’s excellent new record Not Even Happiness. The number of songs I’d hear each night decreased until, upon the third and final night, I finished nary a song. Did I even press play? If an album plays when no one lays awake to hear it…

That’s what the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival does to you – if you’re doing it right, it stretches you beyond the point of human exhaustion. Wring every ounce of blood from that gracious movie stone. It tests you. It brings you to the point of breaking. You’re tired physically – good luck getting on with a total of 8 hours of sleep over two nights. You’re drained mentally – after seven feature length films in one day, you exit that midnight screening of Zardoz beating your chest, yelling “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!?”

TCM Film Festival

Even though this test of endurance takes place once a year, each subsequent festival conditions you for the next. Sleep deprivation. Survival techniques. Making due with irregular and insubstantial sustenance. Remembering to pack emergency nut clusters.

At the 2017 TCM Film Festival I dozed off during only one film – High Anxiety – and survived both midnight screenings with nary a cat nap. I’ve found that a late afternoon lunch supplemented with a little popcorn  adequately nourishes the sedentary moviewatcher without inducing the midnight groggies. Which is precisely why I found this whole Egyptian popcorn strike so unsettling.

When asked about the case of the disappeared popcorn, Egyptian staff could only cite the prepared statement that the theater had just been renovated. Popcorn – that apparent defiler of classic cinemas – had become corna non grata. Only packaged items could be sold. You could only buy a packaged bag of popcorn. What brand of heinous trickery is this?

2017 TCM Film Festival #Bond_age_ Day 3 t-shirt

But back to the movie thing.

Each of the past two years, I’ve composed a letter to family and friends regarding my experience at the festival. The first time it happened organically while I waited for my departing flight to board. Last year I still had new feelings to enhance my original thoughts. This year? Meh. I’m running on instinct and repetition. I’m two days removed from the festival and rather well rested, having taken the afternoon flight home on Sunday to save myself the horrors of the red eye with a layover in San Francisco. So now, with sound mind, and a headful of clarity, let’s compose an obligatory message that lacks the bleary-eyed delirium of years past. Just imagine it on a really nice stationery to class it up a little bit. Continue reading 2017 TCM Film Festival Recap