Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1930’s
Some of my earliest moviewatching memories concern classic Universal Horror films. And if I had to pinpoint just one that propelled my interest onward, it would be James Whale’s The Invisible Man.
I’m quite sure I missed the finer points of Whale’s treatment of the material. All I knew was that Claude Rains’ invisible man did a lot of naughty things and laughed himself silly all the while. For an eight-year-old boy, that was plenty to warrant true love and adoration.
Chemist Dr. Jack Griffin has created an invisibility serum. The only trouble? He can’t find a way to reverse it and one of the components of the drug causes him to descend rapidly into madness. MADNESS, I SAY!
The MADNESS! makes The Invisible Man stand out as a singular work in pre-code horror. The film’s tone, frantic pacing and the lack of the overtly monstrous, places it at odds against all of the other Universal Horror films of the period.
As Griffin slides into mania, his actions grow increasingly more violent. He begins by nudging chapeaus and tossing bicycles at townspeople but winds up as a mass murderer. The movie plans reparations, but not before we get to revel in a nihilist anti-hero making mischief.
The film differs from H.G. Wells’ novel in that when we meet Griffin he’s always well on his way to insanity and far more ruthless. Wells allows his business associates to survive; Whale gives his Griffin revenge carte blanche. Having read the book in close proximity to watching the film, Whale and his screenwriter R.C. Sherriff made the novel perfectly and efficiently cinematic.
Despite Rains’ Griffin embarking on a series of despicable acts against innocent bystanders, The Invisible Man plays almost like a British black comedy — tongue in cheek and blazingly cynical. Consider that every time Griffin embarks on a crime spree, he strips naked and runs around totally unencumbered. Pre-code creativity of the highest order made possible by the film’s groundbreaking special effects.
Final The Invisible Man Thoughts:
There’s nothing quite like The Invisible Man in the Universal canon. Even the “Invisible” films that followed lack the same bite. They lacked the bold direction of James Whale and they lacked the distinctive voice of Claude Rains. Not that they’re bad films; they’re fleeting entertainment, forgettable. The original Invisible Man endures because everyone loves gleeful, untethered mischief.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Universal has yet to release the Complete Invisible Man Collection on Blu-ray. Until then, the DVD set will have to suffice. The print on this DVD could use some tender love and affection. Here’s to hoping we’ll see that Blu-ray sooner rather than later.
I first saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria when I was 16. I backed into the Argento brand of Italian horror via the brief theatrical run of Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore.
A one paragraph blurb the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette propelled me to see an Italian zombie movie playing at the Denis Theater. By this point, let’s say I’d… devoured… George Romero’s Dead trilogy so my interest in lumbering brain-hungry monsters had reached a crescendo.
In the part of my brain that might have otherwise been put to better use — by say, remembering a person’s name upon first introduction — I store information about the movies I watch. I can recall when and where I saw just about any movie, especially in a theater. Other cinephiles likely have similar powers, but muggles like my wife find this specific skill rather superfluous.
Built in the 1920’s and formerly a one-screen movie house, the Denis had divided its one large theater into four smaller ones. The upstairs house created using the balcony seats, where I saw Dellamorte Dellamore, provided the unique perspective of looking down onto the film. I only saw one other movie on that particular screen — David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996).
This viewing of Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetery Man as it was called during its US release, remains one of my most memorable theatrical experiences. Both the movie and the unusual experience contributed to this visceral memory. I detail this experience because as movie fans we always have those benchmark moments when our cinematic frame of reference suddenly and often violently gets thrown into flux. If movies like Michele Soavi’s poetic metaphysical Euro-trash zombie comedy existed what else might I find if I dig deeper into Italian horror?
In that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of Dellamorte Dellamore, the author called Michele Soavi a “Dario Argento disciple.” I went to Blockbuster Video the next day and rented the only Argento film they carried — Suspiria. I fell in love. I began ordering bootleg Argentos unavailable in the United States. In college I served up Opera (1987) to my unsuspecting friends one Halloween. 22 years later, I finally had the opportunity to see Argento’s masterpiece on the big screen.
American ballet student Suzy Bannon arrives in Germany to join a prestigious dance academy. Upon arriving late one stormy night, she’s denied entry, and a frantic girl exits the building babbling incoherencies. In the first of many troubling events, the girl is found murdered, stabbed and hung from the ceiling of a friend’s apartment building.
The next day, Suzy returns to the Academy and meets the staff and students. During her first session, Suzy faints and is prescribed a specific diet to “build up her blood.” Forced to reside on campus due to her illness, Suzy befriends a girl named Sara, who shares with her information about Pat, the girl who evacuated the building that first night, and the suspicions Pat held about the teachers and administrators at the school.
Maggots rain from the ceiling. Sara disappears. The blind piano player that scored the students’ practice is killed by his seeing-eye dog. Suzy starts to put the pieces together and unravels a centuries old mystery.
Dario Argento champions style over substance. Argento critics recite the phrase ad infinitum. But what if style is the substance? Filmmakers generally — as visual storytellers — must use an aesthetic to serve their narrative. But is it actually a negative when a filmmaker wraps narrative over an aesthetic to the extent that the story itself seems like the accessory?
The criticism arises most frequently when flaws can be found in other aspects of the production. With regard to Suspiria, I’m not blind to the inadequacies of the screenplay or the narrative simplicity; however, Suspiria‘s flaws do not detract from the tension as Suzy delves deeper into the bowels of the estate and they certainly do not tarnish Argento’s phantasmagoria of color and haunting soundscapes.
The weary “style over substance” criticism has been applied to films as long as projector gears have been turning. Critics hid this negativity behind layers of formal, ornamented prose, but their intent remained clear. Upon its release, German critic Herbert Jhering said of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): “If actors are acting without energy and are playing within landscapes and rooms which are formally ‘excessive’, the continuity of the principle is missing.” Jhering could have said the same about Suspiria 57 years later. Filmmakers as widely disparate as Sergei Eistenstein and Jean Cocteau echoed similar sentiments about Wiene’s masterpiece of surrealist cinema.
The most troublesome aspect of the modern use of “style over substance” isn’t its omnipresence. It’s a phrase that professes sincere criticism but offers none. I return to the thought that style in a visual medium is nothing short of substance. However, that a film values aesthetics first neither betrays nor necessarily elevates other aspects of filmmaking. A beautiful film may be resplendent, but it might also be vapid. The question must be: Does style contribute to the success of the filmmaker’s vision?
Nicolas Wending Refn dwells in that perverse balance of style and substance. Consider the differences between Drive (2011)and his latest Neon Demon (2016). Where Refn uses substance to propel and embellish a standard narrative in the former, a similar overall aesthetic fails to support the labored metaphors of the latter. Speaking of “labored,” this has been a convoluted way to state the obvious fact that the value of a film is a subjective verdict weighed against dozens of different aspects of filmmaking working together to unite a collection of signs and signifiers.
With regard to the production of Suspiria, Dario Argento clearly set forth to produce a visual and aural spectacle that titillated the senses and immersed the viewer into an otherworldly atmosphere. He bathes the viewer in an unnatural palette of gaudy blues, purples and reds. Blood spurts orange. Any individual frame could be used in a master class on composition and lighting, and these stylistic choices all contribute to the instability and visceral unease that the audience shares with Suzy Bannon.
Final Suspiria Thoughts:
Before heading off to see Suspiria on the big screen, I tossed in my old Anchor Bay DVD. I wanted to take one final look at the traditional home video color palette for this film before basking in the restoration work done by Synapse. Even though I’d only seen glimpses of the new images, it felt bleak.
I’m happy to report that everything I loved about Suspiria has been magnified. The big screen immersion just cannot be replicated at home — and maybe not even by the pending Blu-ray release. The colors envelop you — Argento’s grip is firmer, the tension more present. You’re properly captive. If you’ve never seen Suspiria on the big screen — or better yet, if you’ve never seen Suspiria at all — I cannot properly convey without a string of expletives how strongly I feel that you must see this film theatrically to properly judge Argento’s “style over substance.”
And do me a favor, if you still default to using “style over substance” as a criticism, follow that up by discussing how that style fails to support the filmmaker’s intent. Only then can we have a proper discussion about the value of Suspiria.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Pre-order the Synapse 3D Limited Edition Suspiria Steelbook from Diabolik DVD. This will, without a doubt, be the definitive version of the film on home video.
Nature of Shame: Revisiting on old favorite on a brand new Arrow Films Blu-ray box set.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s
From The Old Dark House, let’s move on to just plain old House, the horror comedy that mingles PTSD and George Wendt. While we’re on the topic of house-based horror movies, I wonder if you could fulfill and entire Hooptober Challenge list with only movies containing “House” in the title. Hausu, House of Sorority Row, Last House on the Left, House of Wax, , House II, House 3, House 4, Road House, Animal House, etc.
Take a moment to look at the word “house.” Don’t you think it starts to look a little strange? I looked up the origins, just for a little bit of learning this morning and came up with this:
Old English hus “dwelling, shelter, building designed to be used as a residence,” from Proto-Germanic *husan (source also of Old Norse, Old Frisian hus, Dutch huis, German Haus), of unknown origin, perhaps connected to the root of hide (v.) [OED]. In Gothic only in gudhus “temple,” literally “god-house;” the usual word for “house” in Gothic being according to OED razn.
It’s no surprise that the Germans had a hand in this.
Troubled author Roger Cobb (William Katt) misplaced his son and as a result of his separation from his wife, moved into the family house in which his aunt committed suicide.
He’s determined to finish the book about his time in Vietnam, but unsettling nightmares about his time in the war and his potentially sociopathic commanding officer (Richard Moll) deter progress. Soon the house itself attempts to expunge its new inhabitant. Cobb attempts to convey suspicions about the house to his next door neighbor Harold (George Wendt). Instead of assisting, Harold begins a peeping-tom suicide watch.
House remains an oddity in the horror genre — a goofy, schlocky horror film that simultaneously entertains a rather serious conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder. If you remove the creature effects (that owe a deep debt to Evil Dead and perhaps in turn influenced how Sam Raimi approached Evil Dead 2) and the light-hearted interaction between Cobb and Harold, House becomes a psychological thriller about the Vietnam War.
You have to peel back a few layers, but it’s there — even though the film’s limited budget (and William Katt’s hair) undermines the gravitas of the war-era flashbacks. So what is House exactly? Without more space and a greater study of the film’s specific eccentricities, we’ll call it a kitchen sink horror film of ideas and inspirations that works more often than it doesn’t even though it shouldn’t. Follow?
With that in mind, House‘s lasting value remains the “things” that go bump in the night. Backwood Films designed and fabricated seven different creature models for the film. The obese witch that Cobb chops to bits and Richard Moll’s rotting corpse of a solider leave lasting impressions but it’s the closet-bound “war demon” that deserves a special shout out. The elaborate, fully-mechanical puppet required fifteen operators/handlers. Modern CGI would have rendered this in a weekend. And it would have been dull and forgettable. Take a moment to cherish these efforts.
Directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2, Part 3) and produced by Sean S. Cunningham, the creator of Friday the 13th and director of Part 1, House boasts a curious pedigree and one of which I wasn’t even aware until this rewatch. House manages are few moments of legitimate suspense as Cobb dares to discover what might lie behind Door #3.
Final House Thoughts:
Still effective, still funny, House’s scattershot brand of horror succeeds because it embraces the audience experience. A little bit of horror, a little bit of humor, and a little bit of something to ground the film in real world trauma.
It won’t hold up under the critical eye of someone looking for flaws, but that’s not our concern. Don’t we all just want to have some fun with our 80’s haunted house flicks? House is probably a three-star film, but I hold a special place in my heart for movies that dare to give me a Victorian mansion filled with oozy, drippy, practical-effects creatures from another dimension.
30Hz Movie Rating:
#20. House II: The Second Story (1986)
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s Sequels
First of all, love the punnage, House II. Bravo.
Miner and Cunningham abandoned House. Ethan Wiley and Fred Dekker snapped it up. If you’re a horror fan, there’s a good a chance you were familiar with the names Miner and Cunningham; I doubt, however, that Wiley and Dekker ring many immediate bells. You’re excused.
Fred Dekker actually had a nice little career in the offing at this point in 1986. He’d had hand in the screenplay for House (1985) and wrote and directed the fantastic Night of the Creeps (1986). He added The Monster Squad (1987) to his resume a year later. His films tended to earn a nice critical reception, but flop at the box office.
The House II filmmakerslooked at House and said, “We’ll make that look like a Merchant Ivory melodrama when we’re done here. Also, dollars to donuts, Indiana Jones is gonna rip off this crystal skull bit.”
I’ll tell you, but you won’t believe me.
Jesse (Soul Man‘s Arye Gross) and his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln — real name!) move into an old mansion that had been in his family for generations. His parents were murdered there; you know how that whole childhood nostalgia thing goes. As a kind of housewarming party, Jesse’s friend Charlie arrives with his wife Amy Yasbeck for a sleepover.
Jesse finds a picture with his great-great grandfather holding a crystal skull thing and he decides for some reason that the skull must be buried with him. So they dig him up. After “Gramps” returns to life and tries to kill them, they all become buddies. Just two crazy friends and their redneck cowboy. Why this never made the leap to TV sitcom, I’ll never understand.
The boys drink and carouse and tell stories and Gramps explains that the family house was actually built with Aztec stones that somehow, with the help of the skull, certain rooms create a portal across space and time. Gramps then makes Jesse and Charlie promise to protect the skull from the forces of evil that would try to steal it.
So here’s your inciting incident. I’ll just lay it out plainly so not to confuse anyone.
At an impromptu Halloween party, a barbarian guy steals the skull, which is just hanging out on a pedestal at the party, while Jesse fends off a drunk ex-girlfriend, meets a baby pterodactyl and a worm-dog thing, and his current girlfriend runs off with Bill Maher in a jealous rage over the ex’s party presence. Obviously the guys keep the pterodactyl and the worm-dog thing as pets. Obvious. No concern over the cross-dimension consequences.
This ushers in the film’s most inspired sequence where Bill (John Ratzenberger) arrives to inspect the old house’s wiring and introduces himself (with business cards!) as an “electrician / part-time adventurer” and proceeds to lead Jesse and Charlie through the inter-dimensional portal to retrieve the skull and rescue a would-be virgin sacrifice. I cannot stress this enough. John Ratzenberger as a time-traveling spacetime adventurer should have been a 12-movie franchise.
And yada yada yada, they get the skull back and Jesse fights an undead gunslinger named Slim Reeser and saves the day.
Final House II Thoughts:
This movie doesn’t give two $&^#s about anything, and I can admire that about a movie. Two guys got drunk on tequila and wrote this thing on expired Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Don’t settle for the stateside offering of merely House and House II when you can have all four House films by ordering Arrow Films’ House: The Collection. On the other hand it’s a bit rare now, so you should probably just go ahead and order the US edition, House/House II: Two Stories. And upon further review, it appears that that is also rather hard to get. So. Here’s the newly available House and House II single movie editions.
Nature of Shame: No shame. Just a brilliant new restoration on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater — Dormont, PA.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1930’s
99% of all movies merely exist. They’re created to make money. They play in theaters. And then they disappear. Sometimes people remember them. Sometimes they don’t. There’s no sense of divine intervention or immaculate conception; they come about as the result of a screenwriter sitting at his desk wondering what someone might want to see.
And then there’s James Whale’s The Old Dark House. The Old Dark House doesn’t give a damn.
At face value, The Old Dark House descended from “the wayward travelers stranded in a spooky house” boilerplate. One might easily mistake it for any of a dozen other films where doors creak, lightning crashes and a damsel leaps into the arms of her rock-solid man-hero.
We’ll skip ahead to the part where the wayward travelers (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart) learn that their host, Horace Femm, a man with twitchy, cavernous eyes, is on the run from the law, and his overbearing, bible-thumping, disapproving sister Rebecca Femm believes all modern humans are condemned to rot in hell. Oh, and then there’s Boris Karloff’s Morgan, the alcoholic mute butler with a streak of sociopathy. You apparently couldn’t even get good help in 1932.
While it’s true that The Old Dark House is filled with long shadows, billowy drapes and mysterious voices, the film differentiates itself because screenwriters R.C. Sherriff and Benn Levy populated the film with properly bizarre and often untethered moments. You’ll never look at a bowl of potatoes the same way again.
Credit owed to Universal’s Carl Laemmle. Laemmle fancied himself a lover of film, a champion of the artist’s vision. Uncle Carl admired Whale’s and Levy’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) and brought them together again to work on an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s Benighted, a novel about post-World War I disillusionment. Sherriff came on to add that touch of comedy to the script.
Despite garnering mostly popular reviews, The Old Dark House fared poorly at the American box office. According to the booklet accompanying the Kino Lorber DVD, poor word of mouth sunk the film after its initial weekend. Rialto Theater in New York City pulled The Old Dark House only ten days into its initial three-week run.
Disappeared from the public conscience, the film maintained a critical reputation as a stunning example of the gothic style of early Universal horror. After Universal lost the rights to the story in 1957, William Castle remade the film in 1963. The original became a forgotten commodity and potentially a lost film. Whale’s friend, director Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood), went on a quest in 1968 to assure the film’s survival. He discovered a print in the Universal Studios vault and persuaded the George Eastman House to finance a new print and a restoration of the nearly destroyed first reel.
Even though we can still enjoy the perverse pleasures The Old Dark House (in a newly and beautifully restored Blu-ray from Cohen Media to boot), it saddens me as a lover of classic film that something so singular very nearly disappeared forever — despite being the product of a revered filmmaker such as James Whale. What other treasures have slipped through the cracks from directors we never had the pleasure of knowing? What other films debuted decades ahead of their time only to be met with public confusion and disinterest? These are no new epiphanies; certain films just rekindle old standard film-lover woes.
Final Old Dark House Thoughts:
Top to bottom, The Old Dark House wriggles beneath under your skin — not in that lingering gonna-haunt-your-dreams way. You’ll be thinking about The Old Dark House for days after viewing, whether its your first or your fourth. It’s all the little things that add up to something unforgettable.
The old woman dressed as an old man because Whale couldn’t find an old man worthy of playing a frail character of 100+. #HaveAPotato. Gloria Stuart making shadow puppets as if she had merely found some downtime on set. Melvyn Douglas taking time out to woo Lillian Bond in the garage while chaos ensues inside the house. The ornate and shadowy staircase and bannister. Boris Karloff’s hulking and mischievous servant, falling off the wagon and glaring through broken windows. I could come up with 100 reasons why The Old Dark House is worth your time, but then what would be left for you to discover? Or discover all over again?
30Hz Movie Rating:
Buy this brand new Blu-ray immediately. The film will never look better and this is an essential film in any self-respective classic horror lover’s collection. Check that. It’s an essential in any self-respecting film lover’s collection.
Nature of Shame: Shame for wanting to watch it, maybe.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s
Sometimes it’s okay to be fashionably late to the party. Maybe you were avoiding someone. Maybe you just needed to make a short appearance before heading home to binge The Great British Baking Show. Maybe it was a sushi-making party and goddamn you’re not eating any homemade sushi, but you wouldn’t want to offend anyone.
Let’s consider the worst case scenario. You misunderstand the invitation, show up a day late. Your host greets you in his sweatpants and Slippery Rock University hoodie and invites you in for leftover sushi while watching some west coast NBA action that doesn’t feature the Golden State Warriors. Sincerely invites you in. Not that obligatory invitation. He seems genuinely interested in your company.
That’s Spellcaster. A 1983 premise filmed in 1988 and released (finally) in 1992.
The fictional music video channel Rock Television (R-TV) has put on a contest whereby seven lucky finalists get to join booze-soaked pop superstar Cassandra Castle (Bunty Bailey, made famous as the girl in A-Ha’s “Take On Me” music video) in an old Italian castle for the weekend and compete for a $1million cash prize. All they have to do is find the $1million dollar check.
Downside: R-TV has no plans to give them any money and the castle is owned by Satan.
Upside: Satan is played by Adam Ant, which is an inspired bit of MTV-era casting… if director Rafal Zielinski had any clue what to do with this gift.
Spellcaster aims to latch onto a fleeting zeitgeist at the intersection of the slasher-crazed 1980’s and the music video generation. With the contest hosted by real-life famous Los Angeles DJ/VJ Richard Blade, the movie aims for a measure of authenticity. Aims. It fails as a slasher (with a few exceptions), though the premise has been giftwrapped, and it fails as a winking extension of the music-video era.
Even though the film professes self-awareness, it never actually embraces the meta-fantastical nature of the production nor the music that should become the core of the film. Murder and rock make delicious bedfellows when done with a little bit of competency.
When I saw Charles Band’s name as executive producer in the opening credits, I probably should have questioned my decision making. Band, you may recall, has been responsible for some of the most legendary trash of the 1970’s and 1980’s including Laserblast, Troll and Ghoulies. Band has 273 production credits as of this morning; he’ll no doubt add ten more before afternoon tea.
Band had no interest in nurturing the film’s musical aspirations — the part of Spellcaster that would have required some, you know, actual filmmaking talent. Instead it errs on the side of cheap slasher. With the exception of a few inventive kills, Zielinski fails to build any tension. It’s not like he had any tools at his disposal. Gothic castle. Mysterious count. Plenty of atmosphere. A killer chair.
Ahh, yes. The killer chair. If you’ve actually heard of Spellcaster, you’ve likely heard of the murderous chair that begets the film’s only good sequence. And it’s an inspired slasher setpiece with some really nice practical effects. Spellcaster dispatches its victims with a measure of creativity — yet the space between the murders lacks any personality. The characters are one-dimensional and/or annoying and/or anonymous. Only Bunty Bailey’s pop damsel develops any personality with her time on screen.
Spellcaster squanders so many ideas that its hard to credit the filmmakers for even having them in the first place. A movie about rock music — featuring Richard Blade and Adam Ant! — with no music. None. The reality-TV contest for the million dollars could have been rather inventive for 1988. Yet, R-TV sent one host and one camera and they don’t even film the contest, just Richard Blade doing intro bits. And the film’s most egregious offense by far is filming in a gothic castle and failing to create any unique sense of place or tension through isolation.
Final Spellcaster Thoughts:
But I didn’t turn the thing off. Why? Spellcaster plays like cotton candy. An attractive cast, fun makeup effects, and a brisk delivery. Plus the film withholds Adam Ant (to its own detriment) until the final moments of the film (and you’ve got to stay to see Adam Ant, who proved to be a terrific screen presence in the underappreciated Slam Dance). Of course, in the end, the film does nothing with Ant because if there’s anything that Spellcaster does well it’s waste inspiration.