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.