Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Ken Russell, and Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist

Recently, I mentioned here on the blog that I contributed an essay to a new Scarecrow Press anthology on the films of director Ken Russell (Altered States [1980], Lair of The White Worm [1988]).

This was a great joy for me because I've always been drawn to Russell's cinematic work, particularly his dazzling, often-incendiary visuals. I've also been fascinated on his commentary about religion, and Christianity in particular. As you can probably tell by my affection for De Palma, Carpenter and Friedkin, I prefer the expressionist form of film making, and in particular directors who can reflect their daring content with powerful visuals. Russell fits that bill perfectly.

Well, since my first report on the book, I've had the opportunity to chat with the editor of Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist, Kevin Flanagan, about Russell, his career and this project.

JKM: Kevin, can you tell us about how you first personally "discovered" the films of Ken Russell, and why they stuck with you?

KF: I first consciously discovered Ken Russell in 2000, but my first experience with a Ken Russell film was in 1999. In those days, the cable channel Bravo had a series of films which they called “Five Star Cinema,” often shown in prime time, especially on Friday nights (this before their nose-dive into cooking shows, fashion shows, and other “reality” programming). Typical, repeat titles included Patton (1970) and Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983).

ne night, I stumbled upon a remarkable film, which featured what to my mind was one of the most striking sequences I had ever seen: a man, in profile, with a look of contemplative agony, as the rhythmic shadows cast by a speeding train undulated across his face. I recall a few other sequences, none of which (removed of context, title, or who the principle people were, made much sense): a woman dancing a can-can on the coffin of a man about to be buried alive, children on a row boat in the middle of a lake asking about angels. For some reason I had to go meet friends that night, so I didn't get to finish watching the film. Also, this being the time before reliable “programming channels” on cable itself (that interactive “whats-on-what” channel that cable users are now tied to), I consulted the listings in my local iteration of TV guide, to no avail (just a generic listing for “Five Star Cinema”).

Anyway, it took me over a year—during which time I got a job at a video store and saw Russell's acknowledged masterpiece The Devils (1971) for the first time—to do enough sleuthing in order to figure out that the film in question was Russell's biopic Mahler (1974), which to this day remains one of the films I most admire.

JKM: What, in your eyes, makes Russell such a unique artist, and one worthy of book-length study?

KF: Well, there are two main reasons, each equally valid, though each of which positions him slightly differently vis a vis other directors. On the one hand, he has the most striking visual sensibility. In a cursory comparison to other (I'll stick with British) directors, he is justifiably paired with Nic Roeg, though I think that Roeg attains his best effects mainly through a combination of painterly camerawork and analytical montage (which is to say, Roeg's best films tend to work based on how they string their shots together). Russell's stuff has more to do, for me, with his taste in framing. He is able to use fantastic, often symmetrical, but also often off-beat, framing to isolate his subjects in the pictorial frame.

In the introduction to Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist, as the title of the book implies, I situate this within the Italian Mannerist painterly tradition. Russell works within a classicist's vocabulary, to an extent, but his content and the types of stories he seeks to tell usually verge into the weird, off-beat, and sometimes the horrific. Other comparisons might be made to celebrated British directors like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman (a Russell protege, having worked on The Devils and Savage Messiah [1972] well before his own films), whose work tends to be understood primarily by notions of a painterly, “art film” tradition, over and above narrative concerns.

So, outside of the kind of stock answer—that Russell's films have a “vision,” that he is a maverick, etc, though these sentiments are starting to feel like shopworn cliches—I had always felt that Russell's work had been done a great disservice because of how it was talked about, either in praise (the praise usually coming for the same set of reasons, and usually only in relation to his Monitor films and The Devils), or in dismissal. Russell has made an extraordinary variety of films, on subjects ranging from a man who paints agricultural steam engines (Mr. Chesher's Traction Engines [1962]) to an illicit staging of an Oscar Wilde play in a Victorian brothel (Salome's Last Dance [1988—incidentally, available for free viewing here:, yet he tends to only be celebrated in a few ways.

So I commissioned essays and worked with a number of film scholars on fleshing out the great variety of Russell's career. Not only did I want people to write about Russell in ways beyond what was already out there, but I hoped for a mix of pieces that at once gave due credit to some of Russell's lesser known films and provided justifiable criticism. Russell himself has at times been a harsh critic of his subjects within his films—in his biopics, especially, he has been unafraid to show limitations, flaws, miscalculations—and I feel that he deserves nothing less than this mutual sense of respect from those writing about him.

JKM: When did you know that you wanted to write/edit a book about Russell, and how did you get the project off the ground?

KF: This is a long story, so I'll tell a condensed version. Many years ago, while doing work on a quickly ballooning honor's thesis that was partially to do with Russell, I realized that I had enough material, had accumulated enough of Russell's obscure films, and had enough of a differing perspective from the prevailing critical winds to write my own book on the filmmaker. I had envisioned something along the lines of a critical filmography that delved into areas that previous books did not. This was before Joseph Lanza's Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (2007), when the most recent book on Russell that was not written by the man himself was Ken Hanke's book Ken Russell's Films (1984).

Anyway, with this project in the back of my mind, I kept doing research. I came across John C. Tibbetts's excellent book Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (Yale University Press, 2005) soon after its publication. John, who had been studying composer biopics for years, did a very substantial chapter on Ken Russell, which covered his earliest composer films for the BBC arts programmes Monitor and Omnibus, including the oft-mythologized and controversial Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a film which elicited a vitriolic response from some viewers and critics for its treatment of the life of Richard Strauss in caricatured, comic-strip form. Anyway, Tibbetts was essentially the first person to have written about that film since its long-obscured broadcast date of February 1970 (the earliest writers on Russell, namely John Baxter and Joseph A. Gomez, had seen the film closer to its premiere: since then, it had languished in obscurity in the National Film and Television Archive). Thus inspired, I got in touch with John and discussed my own project, asked him about how/where he saw the film, mentioned some films I had which he didn't, etc.

We became friends and I was invited to contribute to a book that he and Jim Welsh—founder of the journal Literature/Film Quarterly — had been planning on Russell, to be published by Scarecrow Press.

Because of my research into Russell's recent—which is to say, post 1990—career, I was to write the last section of what was to be a 3 section book detailing Russell's career more-or-less chronologically. However, in 2007, I was invited to present at the Literature/Film Association conference in Lawrence, KS, partially in honor of Russell's 80th birthday. In addition to screening Russell's early short film Amelia and the Angels (1957), I presented on Russell's recent work. At the conference, I learned that John was bogged down by other projects, especially his book on director Tony Palmer and that Jim was likewise in the midst of several things (he has most recently done The Literature/Film Reader and a book on adapting No Country for Old Men . Anyway, to make an already long story short, I was asked to continue our project, but as an edited collection.

JKM: I believe you've met Mr. Russell on several occasions. Is he different in person than you might have expected, after seeing films like The Devils? What were/are your impressions of him?

KF: Yes, I've met Russell on two separate occasions. At first I was a bit worried. My friend Ken Hanke—critic at the Asheville Mountain Xpress and author of a formative biography on Russell—gave me Russell's phone number when I visited the UK for a summer. My first call was pretty disastrous: I had clearly called at a bad time, all of my questions were met with snappy answers. In short, it was initially disheartening. Anyway, through friend Paul Sutton (another Russell expert), I learned that Russell was to be at the Clerkenwell Film and Video Festival in London in a few days. Despite the fact that I was taking summer classes, I managed to rope a friend into an impromptu trip down to London to attend the festival. Turns out, Russell was very nice in person! The atmosphere was casual, and I had a chance to chat with him a bit (not a ton—he was the celebrity judge for the festival's contest).

I was next able to meet him at the Asheville Film Festival the following year, 2005, when he was guest of honor. He and his wife Lisi were very nice, supportive, and gracious. Russell even sat through a short interview, a portion of which appears in Mr. J.K. Muir's excellent book Horror Films of the 1980s! Since then, our contact has mainly been in writing. But Russell's a major celebrity again—thanks to his stint on Celebrity Big Brother, his newspaper column, his teaching appointments, etc...—so I try not to bother him too often.

JKM: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist -- which you edited -- was just published by Scarecrow Press . What can you tell the readers about this project? What, in your mind, does it attempt to achieve? And how does it go about achieving it?

KF: As mentioned above, I saw the project as a chance to bring a lot of articulate people together to write about Russell in ways that had previously been ignored, or not even thought of. My own personal goal was to combine my long-time study in Russell's films with a number of complimentary academic interests. I wanted to frame Russell's films in debates that had been complimentary, but generally relegated to other spheres, such as a larger discourse over governmental structures as potentially repressive cultural technologies, or the multi- and inter-disciplinary conversation about Britain's economic dependency on showcasing and exporting its cultural heritage. Personal goals aside, I wanted to showcase a few pieces of exemplary scholarship on Russell that already existed—I settled on Barry Keith Grant's fantastic essay on Russell in the 1980s, and on a largely archival and interview-driven essay by John Tibbetts on The Debussy Film (1965) as reprints—but otherwise wanted the book to consist of new work.

My introduction gives a very brief career overview and otherwise frames Russell as a mannerist, but that is not a guiding theme for the whole book. Rather, the authors come up with a number of different interpretive frameworks for talking about Russell, his films, and in at least one case, his entire career.

JKM: The book includes thirteen essays, covering all aspects of Russell's film career. Can you tell us, in broad terms about the essays and about some of the contributors?

KF: Of interest to your readers is your essay, which discusses Russell as an auteur in the tradition of 1980s horror (so feel free to say more about that yourself)! I won't spoil all of the surprises but: Tom Wallis has done a great job writing about Tommy (1975); Tom Prasch has written a highly informed piece on Salome's Last Dance (1988) which questions a lot of the iffy things that have been said about the film in the past; and Paul Sutton has provided the largest scale account of Russell's pre-1970 television films yet. The contributors range from younger to seasoned veterans. I think between us all, the authors of the various essays have written or edited over 50 books. Some are full professors. All, I think it is safe to say, are passionate about film!

JKM: Russell has been a biographer, a maker of horror films, a provocateur, and more. In what mode to most prefer Russell? Where do you think he's flourished, and where has he faced pitfalls?

KF: Well, I think that Russell has done some amazing things in all those areas you mention, but has also occasionally faltered in said areas. His greatest critical success, Women in Love (1969) means that many think of him most specifically as someone who does literary adaptations, esp. of D.H. Lawrence (those also, as you know, of Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Paddy Chayefsky, etc). If one is inclined to rock and pop modes, he's the man behind Pop Goes the Easel (1962), Tommy, Lisztomania (1975), and The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2001), a gonzo pastiche of Poe which also stars a rock-star (James Johnston).

Organizational clusters aside, I'll go with a safe answer overall: Russell is at his best when working with friends or constant collaborators, when he is given more-or-less free creative reign (yet, I'll qualify this: free creative reign that is mediated by close collaborators like editor Michael Bradsell or cinematographer Dick Bush, who worked with Russell in constructive ways and arguably brought as much to the table as Russell did), and when the topic of the film is something that he is interested in. His work-for-hire jobs, while occasionally wonderful, tend to be less interesting simply because Russell best directs his own material, from his own sustained research.

JKM: What about your essay, "Television, Contested Culture and Social Control: Cultural Studies and Pop Goes The Easel?" What did it crystallize for you about Russell as an artist?

KF: Again, I don't want to give too much away (where's the fun in that??), but that essay of mine seeks to help people work toward rethinking Russell's cultural contribution during his early BBC years. The conventional wisdom—commentators, critics, and Russell himself—casts his Monitor and Omnibus career as a kind of struggle with the documentary form and Huw Wheldon, one that was ultimately beneficial both to the programmes in question and to Russell's own method.

In this account, Russell's legacy with these films was the successful integration of dramatic elements into what was seen as a documentary form (i.e. his early films on artists were originally supposed to use talking head/still image visuals, were to have been purely told in voice-over, etc, whereas he fought to be able to use actors to portray dead artists, wanted to recreate key sequences in that person's life, etc).

While this contribution is certainly important—think of how mainstreamed this approach is now on the History Channel!--I also located at this early point in Russell's career a different contribution. The short of it is that, whereas films previous to Russell's (specifically Pop Goes the Easel, from 1962) tended to talk about art in purely venerable terms, idolized the isolated artistic individual as someone above most forces of social strife, and tended to approach the television audience in an explicitly educational, some would say patronizing way, Pop Goes the Easel showcases a more democratic understanding of what art is, who it was for, and how it could be used and enjoyed. It showcased 4 pop artists, who worked as a group and benefited from the dynamic interplay of their peers, and showed how they negotiated popular and commercial culture in the creation of their artworks.

I frame my discussion of the film using many key historical texts in the field of British Cultural Studies, some of which were explicitly contemporaneous to the moment that Russell captures. In some ways, the film is the actualized embodiment of that rarest of things: an autonomous text (in this case a creative documentary) that visualizes much of the emergent thought and theory of the day.

JKM: How do you contextualize Russell in terms of cinema history. Do you see him as an auteur? A part of a specific movement? A pioneer? An artist shunned by his own country, to some extent?

KF: Well, all of those things...but also none of them. He is an auteur, but not in the strictest terms or in the most waterproof way. As I think the book makes clear, it simply isn't that interesting to only thing about his work in those terms, when there are so many other ways of thinking about his films and their status in a wider world. As a maverick, he has peers but no exact parallels. In fact, he was recently chosen as one of Sight & Sound's “Wild Bunch” of cine-mavericks who continue to shock, thrill, and provoke. But beyond that level of sensation (remember, Russell took great care with Tommy's credo of “I'm a Sensation”--the phrase applies as much to the director and his career as to the film in question), his works constitute a great contribution to 1980s horror, British cultural history, the biopic genre, and the personalized documentary.

JKM: What are the reasons, do you think, that Russell isn't making films for Hollywood right now?

KF: His films have basically been absent from the mainstream of first-run cinemas since Whore (1991). There are a number of factors, many of which Russell discusses in his autobiographical books and films: his theatrical films of the 1980s were slightly fringe, made for Vestron, who went out of business at the end of the decade; the vogues for his types of films had waned by the end of the 1970s, a decade when chances were taken on a great many strange films, most of which could not have been made under the more conservative production slates of Hollywood in the post-Star Wars blockbuster era. Remember, as great as films like Jaws and Star Wars are, their success changed the entire paradigm of US film production. While Russell's films, despite their bombast and their appeal to a number of audiences (for the most part), worked better through word of mouth, as gradual roll-out art films. Moreover, despite the fact that Russell is still active as a filmmaker—see his strong contribution of the recent horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006)--he is getting on in years. Older directors can't get as easy of a break. Cinephile audiences tend to get screwed over because of the hesitations of the money-men.

JKM: Tell us where readers can find the book...

KF: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist is published by Scarecrow Press. It is available on their website, (where it is currently being offered at a discount!), Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold—or, more appropriately, can be special ordered, since this is something of a niche title. The book is being sold worldwide, so check the Amazon site that services your country or region!

Friday, October 09, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Redacted (2007)

"All the images we (currently) have of our war are completely constructed — whitewashed, redacted."

- Brian De Palma

During the 1990s, I had a good buddy serving in the American Armed Forces. He was (and remains...) -- in every way imaginable -- a stand-up guy: exactly the sort of individual you would want defending our country. He is moral, centered, responsible and articulate. In all his dealings with other soldiers and with the enemy (that I knew of), he understood when sensitivity was called for; and when toughness was called for. He remains a center-right Republican to this day, and also one of the fairest, best men I have had the good fortune to know.

There were (and are) a great many men and women exactly like my friend serving in our Army in Iraq today. But even my buddy confided in me, at one point -- with a keen sense of disappointment and disillusionment -- that some young Americans join the Army simply because they want "to kill people."

Truth be told, he was experiencing a difficult time relating to this brand of soldier; some of whom were under his command. The aim of these men was not defending the U.S.A or helping other nations. They simply wanted to use live human beings for target practice.

In no small way, Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007) examines the vast gulf between these two brands of American soldier. There are the guys (and gals) in the Army who are just like my friend. These are the patriots who fight for us, and who serve our nation at great personal risk and at great sacrifice. And then there are the others; and they tend to be really messed-up: ignorant, arrogant and racist...and they carry big guns.

De Palma's controversial 2007 film (for which he won "Best Director" at the Venice Film Festival) dramatizes in unflinching, brutal terms how the American military -- and these different types of soldiers -- interface with the locals in Iraq. Specifically, the film deals with the rape of an Iraqi teenager in Samarra (in 2006) by two redneck American knuckle-draggers.

This is a fictionalized account of a real incident. In real life, two American G.I.s in the 101st Division were charged in October of 2006 with the murder and rape of a young girl and the murder of her entire family.

Again, just to underline that fact: De Palma didn't pluck the story out of the ether. He didn't invent it from whole cloth. It happened. He fictionalized the details (because of possible litigation); but the incident happened.

Still, some commentator went nuts over Redacted and asserted that by shining light on such a terrible incident, De Palma was smearing the troops.

Michael Medved wrote: ""It could be the worst movie I've ever seen" ... "[T]he out and out worst, most disgusting, most hateful, most incompetent, most revolting, most loathsome, most reprehensible cinematic work I have ever encountered."

Bill O'Reilly wrote: "The American military is doing important, noble work. Brian De Palma and the others who back him should be ashamed."

All I can say is this: the Medveds and the O'Reillys (and throw in the Hannitys, Coulters, Malkins, Limbaughs and Becks while you're at it...) are contributing to the dumbing-down of America with such all-or-nothing, black-and-white nonsense.

As adult, responsible citizens of the United States, we are all fully capable of countenancing life's contradictions and subtleties. In other words, we can understand that our troops are, by and large, worthy of our support and loyalty.

And, we can also understand -- at the same time -- that there are some who, to put it mildly, are not so noble. To acknowledge this reality is not to smear anyone or any organization. Name me one organization or profession in which every practitioner is an angel. Why would we expect differently of the Army:? And even Thomas Jefferson once said "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Well, how can we be vigilant if we don't know what is being done in our names by our own armed forces?

And that's very much the subject of Redacted: a plea for vigilance in an environment where news about the war is censored, skewed and redacted. Seek the answers through unconventional, unofficial channels if you must, but seek them nonetheless, the film implores.

Why is this necessary? Well, this is a war in which American journalists were not allowed to film the caskets of American soldiers returning to home soil. Why? Because if we had to actually see our beloved dead, we might no longer support the war effort.

Support Our Troops
. But please Ignore Those Corpses.

This is also a war in which embedded journalists surrendered their professional objectivity and road in humvees with soldiers. The consequence: they became cheerleaders. Remember when that "liberal" Dan Rather said "and when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ may be?" Does that sound objective? It didn't matter that we were invading the wrong country; that we had been ginned up by Bush, Cheney and the others on the basis of a lie (where are the WMDs?). But instead of asking why we were at war in the first place with a country that did not possess the capability to strike our soil, the American corporate media cravenly encouraged the war. At every turn. And worse, the reporters even rode with the troops right into battle so they could get better pictures. There's your liberal media for you.

Since the Iraq War began, between 93,492 – 102,016 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Redacted explains why, and in a manner that doesn't, on its face, demean the American military. Instead, it examines a serious problem. Structurally, the film is composed of a variety of perspectives (a video journal; a French documentary, a youtube-like video, etc.) and we get two views which explicitly contradict each other at one point in the proceedings. We see American soldiers guarding a military checkpoint on the French documentary; and we hear the soldiers hollering for an Iraqi civilian car to stop at that checkpoint. The car does not stop -- even when adequately warned -- and the soldiers open fire with lethal force. In the process, they kill a pregnant woman and her unborn child. The family was on the way to the hospital for the delivery...

From an Arab news channel, we get a different story. The Iraqi driver of the car mistook the stop signal of the American soldiers (hands raised, palms up...) for being "waved through." So the driver went ahead. It was all a tragic, "lost in translation" moment. So who, in such a situation, can you rightly claim is at fault? The soldiers did their job; but the Iraqis didn't understand what was being asked of them. The French video also point out that there are signs (in Arabic) all around the checkpoint warning cars to stop. Again, this is true. But as the film points out, it is also true that over 50% of Iraqis are illiterate.

So they can't read the signs telling them to stop at the checkpoints.

So ask yourself: is this a slander of American soldiers? Or is this an indictment of war, and, in particular, the fog of war? The American soldiers aren't portrayed as drooling Orcs out to kill anybody and everybody. And Iraqi civilians aren't shown to be nefarious terrorists trying to blow Americans away, willy-nilly. Again, the movie provides statistics. Only 60 out of 2000 Iraqis killed a month at such check-stops are actually insurgents. Clearly, something systematic is wrong here, and if we don't know about it, who is going to fix it?

Redacted does features two American soldiers, in particular, who are brutes. They are named Rush -- presumably after Mr Oxycontin himself, Rush Limbaugh -- and Flake. These two men commit the rape and murders, and they are terrible, racist, monstrous human beings who refer to Iraqis as "sand niggers." Do men like this exist in America? Be honest: when you were in high school and had to spend time in the locker room before and after gym every day, they were a dime a dozen, weren't they? Why pretend this isn't true? What is served by pretending?

Yet De Palma also presents two American soldiers as a counter-weight to Flake and Rush. First is the moral and decent McCoy, who refuses to participate in the attacks and is assaulted at gunpoint by his fellow soldiers. And second is the intellectual Blix, who exhibits the good sense not to be involved with Rush and Flake. Straddling these poles of "bad" and "good" is the man who records the rape/murder on his camera: Angel Salazar. He is not really good or bad per se; he's just a follower who didn't know when to put down the camera and do the right thing.

I point out these characters simply to demonstrate that De Palma doesn't paint all American soldiers as evil redneck rapist/murders, as right-wing commentators would have you believe. Instead, Redacted represents a nuanced view that asks the audience to consider the morality of the situation, and then reveals characters on all sides of the issue. For instance, Rush and Flake are rightly upset about the death of their sergeant by insurgent IED, but their righteous anger over his death does not justify the crime they commit. Their anger is understandable, but they misplace it. They direct it at innocent people. But De Palma nonetheless presents their argument; to help one understand where these guys are coming from.

One of De Palma's soldiers states in Redacted that the camera "tells the truth." Another soldier replies that it always lies (a reflection of De Palma's personal world view). By fracturing his narrative into a million little pieces (a "Just a Soldier's Wife Blog Site," a terrorist web feed, a French documentary, a night-vision camera, etc.), De Palma asks for our continuing vigilance in determining what is truth and what is lie. His film is built on the presumption of intelligence from viewers; on the presumption that people can view the Iraq War outside the black-and-white parameters of universal, unconditional support for the troops.

In Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon (1950), the director revealed how it is impossible to know the truth when a variety of human perspectives are involved. I wonder what he would have made of the world in 2006 - 2009. It's difficult to see "the whole truth" or even "the whole picture" in this Information Age. We've got Youtube, network news and blogs to show us the world today, but less certainty over those images than ever before in our nation's history. So De Palma can end his film with authentic photographs of dead Iraqi children, and yet war supportors still shout "Support Our Troops" and even claim that those photographs were doctored for a political agenda.

As Redacted reminds us (verbatim): "The first victim in war is the truth." And here's another, corollary quote from the history of cinema that fits perfectly the strident response to Brian De Palma's film. I direct it to the TV pundits:

"You can't handle the truth..."

My New Office...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Cyber Horror Elite's Reading List: The Greatest Horror Literature of All-Time

B-Sol at the must-read blog Vault of Horror has once again gathered the voices of the "Horror Cyber Elite" (a self-deprecating title...) to produce a fascinating "greatest of" list, this time devoting attention to "The Greatest Horror Fiction" of All-Time.

Eight of my top ten personal choices made this list of thirty best. Those eight titles were: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Black Cat, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, At the Mountains of Madness, Who Goes There? and The Hellbound Heart.

One title that didn't make the list was my Stephen King selection: Carrie. Still, King is well-represented on the final list, I think. Also, on my list, I put Frankenstein ahead of Dracula -- in the number 1 spot. But with the enduring popularity of vampires, I can't take much issue with the first place finish of Stoker's work.

For me, one of the great values of such a list involves B-Sol's dedicated parsing of the data, breaking down and cataloguing information by decade, century, author, and so on. The list thus provides a good guide to horror history, and more than that even, a valuable snapshot of the genre (and genre tastes), right now, in 2009. Can't wait to see the next list, and as always, it's a pleasure to be involved. Make sure you go read the entire list of thirty, and read B-Sol's analysis.

Hindsight Is...?

Now here's a fun blog topic. Author and friend Mark Phillips has written a post called "When Critics Attack and Applaud SFTV." Basically, the article collects critical comments about genre TV programming going back to the 1950s and Men in Space.

So, here you will find the once-current reviews of series such as The Outer Limits, The Prisoner, Star Trek, etc., and you'll be surprised by which programs got bashed!
Here's a snippet from the critical responses to The Outer Limits:

Australia's The Age was torn. "Some episodes zoom to cosmic heights while others should have been destroyed in the laboratory."

A young mother wrote TV Guide and protested, "Why is the network programming a horror like this in the early evening hours?"

The fiercest criticism was from American politicians who saw the series as downright dangerous. Concerned over juvenile delinquency, they blamed television. Scenes from Outer Limits were screened in Washington DC as part of an investigation into "brutal television violence." Producer Joseph Stefano struck back. "I would rather have my five-year old son see my TV monsters than watch a TV show where a bunch of black-jacketed thugs beat up people." Stefano did withdraw a story idea where cats were possessed by hostile alien beings, realizing it could be upsetting to children. Outer Limits later went on to become a classic. Historian John Baxter said in 1970, "Outer Limits gave television some of its finest moments and for consistency of imagination, it had few equals. The result is something of which both science fiction and television should be proud."

It's a good reality check to read some of these old reviews. It makes me wonder how history will judge my reviews of new genre series, such as FlashForward or The Vampire Diaries? Was I too hard on them? Too easy? And finally, does a critical consensus even matter?

Very interesting...

Pop Art: Charlton/Space:1999 Edition

Monday, October 05, 2009

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Alien - The Illustrated Story (1979)

Back in the mid-1980s, I discovered this Heavy Metal "illustrated story" in a clearance bin at a small book store in Boston. It was in that bin with a stack of about a hundred other copies, each selling for just a dollar. I picked one up (I should have picked up ten...) and have kept my copy in my book collection ever since.

Heavy Metal's Alien: The Illustrated Story by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson was distributed by Simon & Schuster, and it's a graphic (and I mean GRAPHIC) re-telling of the landmark 1979 horror film...down to all the chest-bursting, gory details. Character likenesses are good; and even the "tech" (of the Nostromo, Narcissus and the Derelict) exhibits a tremendous fidelity to the movie's production design.

The comic-book adaptation opens with a quote from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, "We live as we dream - alone," and then launches into the story of the Nostromo's encounter with a hostile life-form. The comic follows the details of the theatrical release very closely. For example, it doesn't feature the famous deleted scene with Dallas's transformation into Alien Egg.

There is, however, some alternate/new dialogue in the Narcissus coda, particularly Ripley's conversation with Jones: "Funny Jones, you what I think I'll miss the most? The smell of Kane's coffee when I first wake up..."

Alien: The Illustrated Story
originally sold for $3.95, and it's a pretty sturdy book. Hell, it's held up well for thirty years now (about half as long as Ripley's hyper-sleep journey back to Gateway Station...)!

I still haul my copy out every now and then to admire the gonzo, blood-soaked, highly-detailed art work. I thought it would be fun to share a little of that gruesome good stuff today, especially as Alien celebrates a thirtieth anniversary this year.

Just gazing at this books with the drawings of the Space Jockey and the alien itself, I'm reminded of how Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger, Sigourney Weaver and Dan O'Bannon pushed the frontiers of space horror in a frightening new direction here. The haunted house in space concept had been seen before Alien on several occasions, but never with such visual aplomb and naturalism. I still remember talking to friends and family members about the film, and in particular the harrowing chest-bursting sequence. Today, we know it's coming, and we sort of take it for granted. But back then, it had people puking in the aisles.

Ah, the good old days!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

And The Worst Horror Film Remake So Far Is...?

...Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls.

The original Carnival of Souls (1962) was a one-of-a-kind experience. Forged on a tiny budget in the middle of nowhere Kansas, it was undeniably crude. Yet the film by Herk Harvey was surreal and creepy too; a mesmerizing, unsettling journey into a disturbing, black-and-white netherworld.

In my review of the film, I wrote:

"Performances in Carnival of Souls are truly variable, from the exquisite and sublime (the entrancing Hilligoss) to the terrible (there's a moment when a stranger by a water fountain addresses the camera directly), but there's an alchemy at work in Carnival of Souls, one impossible to dismiss.

The film's production deficits somehow manage to play into the overriding sense of the unreal and dream-like. There are no zombie attacks, no fierce action sequences, no bouts of blood-letting here. Instead, the venture methodically and memorably (and with unforgettable imagery) charts one woman's tragic plight as she slips slowly - piece by piece - from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In that half-detected twilight between life and death, she begins to regret that she never embraced life as meaningfully as she should have. Because now, death's cold embrace - a dance partner in the carnival of souls - is all she can look forward to.

The 1960s Carnival of Souls had budgetary drawbacks but viewers could easily overlook them because the film nonetheless expressed something powerful and resonant about mortality. That abandoned Saltair Carnival was a realm of terror, and our heroine was never going to escape it; no matter how hard she tried. Ultimately, we're all going to have our dance card punched by Death too; and thus something rings true about the stark, mysterious film and the hopeless, inevitable air that dominates it.

The same could not be said for the dreadful 1998 remake. It stars Bobbie Phillips as Alex Grant, a young woman who witnessed the murder of her mother twenty years ago by an abusive clown, Louis Seagram (Larry Miller). On the anniversary of her Mom's murder, Alex is accosted by Louis once more, and she drives her car into the waters of a California harbor rather than let the sadist endanger her younger sister, Sandra (Shawnee Smith). Following the accident in the harbor, Alex begins to move throughout different stages of her life, is terrorized by Louis repeatedly, and even sees gesticulating, spasming demons straight out of Jacob's Ladder (1990).

Technically-speaking, Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls is a much less-accomplished effort than the original film, an odd fact given that the remake undoubtedly cost far more than Herk Harvey's groundbreaking original. In fact, this 1998 film is staged so ineptly that sometimes reverse angles don't even match. And the characters are so often shot in in close-up and medium-shot that you can't tell where characters are positioned in relationship to each other. One scene that features Louis popping up in the back-seat of Alex's car is so badly composed and edited that you aren't even sure that Miller and Phillips were in the same car at the same time to shoot the scene. Additionally, the movie is over-lit and blandly shot in a style that makes your average Sci-Fi Original Movies look like Fellini.

The newer Carnival of Souls also boasts all the tell-tale marks of bad 1990s screen-writing. In the original film, we met a character who happened to be in a car wreck, but the audience knew little about her background. As the movie went on, we learned she was a bit of a cold fish, and that she had held a job as a church organist. But we came to sympathize with her through her experiences; through the strange events occurring all around her. We identified with her because something strange and terrible was happening to her; and because, we felt, it could happen to us too.

By contrast, the 1998 film layers on facile psychology and off-the-shelf characters (in much the style as Rob Zombie's Halloween remake, actually...). Alex is a "psychologically damaged" character with "a tragic past" she must overcome. The events of the film take place on the anniversary of her Mother's murder...the event she could never get past. How many times have we seen that kind of predictable set-up before?

The Boogeyman of Carnival of Souls this time around has changed too. He is not some wide-eyed, pale-faced personification of Death, but rather Alex's "personal" demon: the groping, gruesome and utterly obvious Louis. The focus on the inner life -- on mortality itself -- has been turned outward to the simple defeat of a two-dimensional "bad guy" the audience can hiss at. Certainly, a good film could be made from these concepts, but this isn't it. These changes only make Carnival of Souls much more two-dimensional, much more run-of-the-mill than the original film.

The 1998 film is also slathered with dopey New Age, touchy-feely dialogue about death. Alex shares a discussion with a man who might be an angel. He tells her, "It's time to let go." She replies "I can't. I haven't lived yet." At another point, during a discussion of closing down her bar (The Mermaid Bar), Alex tells her sister "I'm not ready to go." Sandra replies "I know, but you're closer than you think." Welcome to Foreshadowing 101. But once more, the whole concept of the original film is undercut because death is now a safe harbor, a peaceful zone...not a realm of the unknown and the terrifying. I suppose this change has occurred so that the film can end with a kind of happy ending: our heroine has beaten the bad guy, "achieved" the rescue of her sister, and moved on to a "good place."

This movie should have been titled Horrorway to Heaven.

Really, I could go on and on about what a lousy film this is. There's a gratuitous sex scene on a boat that pops up out of nowhere with bizarre urgency but then leads nowhere. And the movie constantly skips time frames -- back and forth between scenes -- thus negating even the most rudimentary sense of narrative momentum (and precluding the need for that pesky thing called "continuity.")

And rather ungraciously, Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls even fails to credit the original 1962 film as a source of inspiration. There's no "based on" opening credit here, despite the fact that the overall outline of the film is the same as the original (a woman dies and doesn't know it...) and despite the fact that certain shots are explicitly re-staged (the car pulled from the water...). The IMDB lists John Clifford, the writer of the original Carnival of Souls in the credits for this film, but I watched this film yesterday and his name is nowhere on the front of the film. The opening credit reads: written for the screen and directed by Adam Grossman.

Bottom line: Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls is a bad remake, and an arrogant one too. It has the audacity to adopt the title of a beloved older film but then substitutes weak ideas for the powerful ones of the original. A remake of Carnival of Souls need not have been slavishly imitative of the original, but it could have captured at least some of the ambiguity, some of the terror, some of the spikiness of the 1962 effort. This remake fails on all fronts.

I'm a big admirer of Wes Craven, but I sure as hell wish his name didn't appear before the title of this travesty, the lousiest of horror remakes.

What were my other contenders for that title? Next in line: the remake of The Hitcher (2007), and Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999).