Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR episode “The Black Cat” came out on DVD this week (I reviewed the film here), so it makes sense to make that the focus of this week’s episode of Friday Cat Blogging.
This is yet another adaptation of Poe’s story, more faithful than most, i which a man is driven by a “spirit of perverseness” that eventually leads him to murder. His crime is betrayed by a black cat named Pluto – or actually a cat that looks just like Pluto, the original having been hanged to death.
Pluto (named after the Roman god of the underworld) is a kind of black hole in the story, an enigma that could symbolize either supernatural revenge or psychological guilt. Does the cat really come back from the dead? Is the story’s drunken protagonist haunted by the monster, or is he simply delusional, seeking a scapegoat for his own self-destructive behavior? Either way, Pluto cuts a striking figure, glaring balefully from his good right eye or yowling triumphantly astride the murdered Viriginia’s head. He truly is one of the screen’s great scardy cats.
Today sees the release of the DVD for MASTERS OF HORROR – THE BLACK CAT. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story has inspired numerous adaptations, but director Stuart Gordon’s version is a rare exception that tries to stay true to the source material. Adapted by Gordon and Dennis Paoli, the teleplay’s most obvious conceit is to place Poe himself in the lead role; otherwise, the story plays out much as the author wrote it, with some additions to fill the required one-hour running time.
Poe (Jeffrey Combs, who also faced a fearsome cat in Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR) is driven to drink by poverty and his consequent inability to care for his ailing wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque, middle left). His attempt to earn money by writing a new horror story is interrupted by his wife’s cat, Pluto, who has a penchant for attacking the other family pets, including a goldfish. Enraged with frustration, Poe plucks out Pluto’s eye, then later hangs the cat. Later, on his way home, he is shadowed by another cat (top) that looks exactly like Pluto, down to the missing eye and a mark around its neck that looks like the trace of a noose. Poe’s attempt to ax the interloper is interrupted by his wife, who receives the fatal blow instead. Poe bricks her body into the cellar, but a strange wailing alerts police to the hiding place – Poe had accidentally walled in the cat as well. There is a twist ending that I won’t give away, except to say that it is well set up by preceding events and makes sense out of placing Poe as the lead in his own story. Read More
What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. Apparently quite a lot, as I happened to run across two posts recently (one by Chris Stangl, one by Gloria Steinem), both of which object to particular labels applied to certain films. First, Chris Stangle, at the Exploding Kientoscope, objects to the term “torture porn,” even though he did not particularly like HOSTEL and has little interest in HOSTEL PART II. His objection is that the phrase is not a “meaningful genre designation” but a way for critics to dismiss a film without bothering to engage it in any meaningful way.
Stangl may have a point, but I don’t think he quite makes the case that “torture porn” movies deserve to be engaged. More important, from my point of view, is the fact that words “torture porn” have a fairly clear meaning. As a general rule of thumb, if a phrase is recognized and understandable, then it is useful. I don’t think one can object that “torture porn” is too vague; it describes a fairly clear sub-genre of movies that include not only HOSTEL but also TURISTAS, SAW, and the upcoming CAPTIVITY.
To be fair, a phrase can catch on and yet still be a misnomer. Stangl argues the later case by insisting that we take the word “pornography” literally: “The defining genre identifiers of pornography are that it explicitly depicts actual sex acts.” I think this sets the bar a bit too high, identifying so-called “hard core” material as the only pornography. It is worth noting that the word “pornography” originally referred to written texts, which can never explicitly depict an actual sex act in the manner of a movie or even a photograph.
Stangl goes on to argue that there is a more substantive way of addressing movies like WOLF CREEK or SAW. By way of example, he offers this post by Joss Whedon (of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER fame). Stangl may be right: it is possible to address the underlying issues of “torture porn” in depth, but that’s not quite enough reason to eliminate the useful shorthand inherent in the phrase itself, and we cannot expect everyone who comments on these films to write a doctoral dissertation just to prove that that they are not “glib and dismissive and hysterical at the same time” (although I have no doubt that many of them are).
Second, Gloria Steinem does not like the term “chick flick.” Her basic point is relatively sound:
Just as there are “novelists” and then “women novelists,” there are “movies” and then “chick flicks.” Whoever is in power takes over the noun—and the norm—while the less powerful get an adjective. Thus, we read about “African American doctors” but not “European American doctors,” “Hispanic leaders” but not “Anglo leaders,” “gay soldiers” but not “heterosexual soldiers,” and so on.
Unfortunately, working from this premise she comes up with some rather dubious conclusions. The first is that much of the classic literature we read would be called “Chick Lit” if it were written by women: The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina, A Doll’s House, The Glass Menagerie. Steinem suggests that, had the authors been women, their work would be forgotten, “only to be resurrected centuries later by stubborn feminist scholars.”
She goes on directly to say:
Indeed, as long as men are taken seriously when they write about the female half of the world—and women aren’t taken seriously when writing about themselves much less about men or male affairs—the list of Great Authors will be more about power than about talent.
Somehow forgotten in all this are the likes of Mary Shelly, the Bronte Sisters, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Daphne DuMaurrier, none of whom required resurrection by feminist scholars – because, miraculously enough, their work survived on its own merits. I also find it rather dubious to assume that the works of Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Flaubert, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams are around only because of the authors’ “power” as opposed to their talent.
But never mind. The point Steinem is building up to, with heavy-handed irony, is to offer “a modest proposal” for an alternative to the term “Chick Flick.” To wit: “Prick Flick.”
One cannot deny there is a certain justice to putting the shoe on the other foot, but it really only works if the shoe fits. Steinem suggests that “prick flick” could apply to the following
All the movies that glorify World War II
All the movies that glorify Vietnam, bloody regional wars, and the war on terrorism
All the movies that portray violence against women, preferably beautiful, sexy, half-naked women
All the movies that insist female human beings are the only animals on earth that seek out and even enjoy their own pain.
It’s the last two that concern us here. Steinem describes that “violence against women” category like this:
These feature chainsaws and house parties for teenage guys, serial killers and sadistic rapists for ordinary male adults, plus cleverly plotted humiliations and deaths of powerful women for the well-educated misogynist.
I’m not sure exactly what Steinem is describing here – this sounds like an amalgam conjured up by someone who has never seen a horror movie but only heard them described by someone else who probably hadn’t seen them either. In any case, I don’t believe there have been many movies made about “sadistic rapists,” and I certainly don’t believe that such films are made to appeal to “ordinary male adults.”
Also, I have apparently been missing out on all the movies designed for the “well-educated misogynist.” Perhaps tellingly, Steinem offers no examples, suggesting that she may be battling the demons in her own mind, rather than anything in the real world.
As for films that portray women seeking out and enjoying their own pain, Steinem does a little better offering one example, BOXING HELENA, “a man’s dream of amputating all a rebellious woman’s limbs,’ after which “she falls in love with him.” Steinem asserts that these films “provide self-justification and how-to manuals for sadists.’ Ironically, BOXING HELENA was written and directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch – a woman. Perhaps future generations of stubborn feminist scholars will resurrect this film from obscurity.
Following up on his earlier concerns that the box office failure of HOSTEL PART II and 28 WEEKS LATER signals a potential long-tern downturn for the horror genre, Lucius Gore of Esplatter.Com reposts and expands upon an essay he wrote last year. The gist of the piece is that horror waxes when Republicans are in power and wanes when Democrats take over. With Democrats running both Houses of Congress, and with a likely Democratic victory looming in the next presidential election, Lucius believes that horror is doomed for the next decade.
I do believe Lucius is on to something here. There is no doubt that pop culture – including the horror genre – reflects the current cultural zeitgeist, including political changes. However, I do not think there is quite the one-to-one correspondence that he would have us believe, and if you look at the evidence he adduces to support his case, it’s a little shaky.
Lucius credits PSYCHO to the Eisenhower administration, even though it came out in 1960, the year Kennedy took over the White House. On the other hand, he credits NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which came out in 1968, to the Nixon Administration, even though they had only recently taken over that year from Lyndon Johnson, a democrat.
Perhaps the biggest stretch is when he credits the Republican Congressional electoral victory of 1994 for resurrecting the genre after a dearth of horror films in the early 1990s. For the record, there was only a brief two-year period, from 1992-1994, when democrats won both the White House and Congress. That period includes ALIEN 3, ARMY OF DARKNESS, BATMAN RETURNS, BRAIN DEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALIVE), Coppola’s DRACULA, CANDYMAN, CRONOS, THE CROW, DEATH BECOMES HER, DR. GIGGLES, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, JASON GOES TO HELL, JURASSIC PARK, Wes Craven’s NEW NIGHTMARE, and WOLF. Not all of them were hits, and some are only borderline horror films, but that’s not too bad a list for a short period of time.
Skip ahead to 1995 – the year year the Republican Congress was actually in power – and what do you get? SCREAMERS (a box office and critical dud); CASPER (a cartoon ghost remade as a live-action joke); BATMAN FOREVER (not a horror film but shows a distinct trend toward light-heartedness after the dark morass of BATMAN RETURNS); SPECIES (not bad but not a blockbuster); LORD OF ILLUSIONS (a heavily hyped bomb from Clive Barker, the release of which was delayed over and over while the studio tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear). The one horrifying blockbuster hit was SEVEN, but just to balance things out, this was also the year of the wonderful, whimsical BABE.
So, as the political pendulum swings, do I expect to see horror die a slow, lingering death, kept on life support only by direct-to-video releases. No, I think the current torture-trend in horror will come to an end, but something else will come along to replace it. Maybe it won’t even be called horror (a label filmmakers often eschew, preferring “thriller” or some such other label), in one way or another there will be frightening films at least as good as the ones we’ve had over the last twelve years.
Horror never dies… UPDATE: Looking over this post, it occurs to me that I begin by saying Lucius is on to something, then spend the rest of the post only offering evidence that his theory is wrong. My take on it is this:
The great horror booms seem to be ignited by times of great stress in the culture. WWI gave us the first great wave of silent thrillers, when Lon Chaney became a star by playing deformed characters like the Phantom of the Opera. The Depression launched the Sound Era’s classic movie monsters: DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY. The Nuclear Age ushered in a decade of radioactive mutants and alien invaders. The Vietnam War begat NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
When things are bad, people look for change, and that change can involve politics. Horror films perhaps seem more apropos during cynical times. If a new election sweeps in a wave of optimism, then yes, the apetite for horror can dwindle somewhat. But how much it dwindles depends on how much the underlying desire for change is addressed. If people elect a Democratic congress to end the war in Iraq, and they do not end the war, our culture could remain in a state of anxiety that make audiences receptive to horror entertainment.
This feeble attempt at a mind-bending thriller has a vaguely interesting premise, but its potential is soon lost thanks to dreary execution that blunts the emotional impact, rendering the story as an academic exercise in convoluted plot structure, without offering any compelling reason for viewers to be engaged in the puzzle.
Linda Hanson (Bullock) is confused by a telephone message from her husband Jim (McMahon) who refers to a conversation she does not remember having; moments later, a sheriff knocks on the door to inform her that her husband died on the road to a business trip the day before. Linda’s shock and grief soon turns to confusion when she wakes up the next morning and finds Jim alive and well. Her relief is short-lived when she wakes up the next day and finds Jim’s funeral in progress. Her attempts to explain her situation to her mother (Nelligan) and her best friend (Nia Long) only convince them that she has lost her mind with grief, so they have her committed to the care of a psychiatrist (Stormare). The psychiatrist is surprised to learn that Linda’s husband died on Wednesday, because he says Linda previously showed up at his office on Tuesday, seeking help dealing with the emotional fallout from Jim’s death. The next time Linda wakes up to find Jim alive again, she realizes that her experience of his death is a promotion of things to come, and she soon finds herself living through events leading up to the fateful crash. Her attempts to understand the situation lead her to find that Jim was on the verge of launching an affair with Claire (Valletta), a woman at work, and Linda briefly considers giving up her quest to prevent Jim’s death. After consulting with her local priest, who recounts historical cases of people who foresaw the future, Linda gives Jim another chance. Unfortunately, he insists on attending the business trip even though he gives up the idea of sleeping with Claire. Linda pursues Jim in her car, calling him by phone and trying to get him to avoid his appointment with a big-rig truck… Read More
This monster movie from the Republic of Korea is one of the best films of its kind, thanks to director Bong Joon-ho’s insistence on touching all the bases: THE HOST seems equal parts horror story, domestic drama, paranoid thriller, and political satire. Perhaps the filmmaker’s greatest accomplishment is that his loftier ambitions never undermine the horror; he mixes the various ingredients perfectly, creating a wonderfully convincing story in which the monster’s existence is thoroughly believable, its predations intense and terrifying.
In 2000, an American doctor (Scott Wilson) on a military base in South Korea orders toxic chemicals poured down a drain that leads into the Han River. Six years later, a mutant monster emerges from the river in broad daylight, attacking helpless picnickers and snatching the young Park Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) from her mentally slow father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who works at a food stand owned by his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong). Gang-du, Hee-bong, and Gang-du’s brother and sister, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), are quarantined by the government, who believe the creature is the host for a deadly virus. That night, Gang-du receives a brief call from Hyun-seo on her dying cell phone, telling her father that she is trapped in the creature’s lair, somewhere in a dark sewer. Gang-du tries to convince the government doctors and other officials that his daughter is alive, but they think the mentally challenged man was hallucinating or dreaming. Hee-bong pays some crooks to break them out of quarantine, and the family goes searching the sewers for Hyun-seo. Meanwhile, the monster deposits more victims in its lair, all of them dead except for a young boy that Hyun-seo protects, hiding him in a small hole where the monster cannot reach. Eventually, Gang-du’s brother Nam-il, a former student protestor, seeks help from an old college friend who now works at the phone company, tracing Hyun-se’s phone call and thus narrowing the search. Gang-du is captured, and an American scientist (Paul Lazar) insists on an operation to find evidence of the virus, which proves elusive. Gang-du escapes and rejoins his family, tracing the monster to its lair, but the creature swallows the two children it has captured and swims away, inadvertently coming ashore near a protest that has formed around an American attempt to eradicate the alleged virus with a substance called “Agent Yellow.” As the yellow gas disperses the protesters, the Park family attacks the creature, and Gang-du strives to pull his daughter from the monster’s maw. Read More
Over twenty years after “Hannibal the Cannibal” made his film debut in MANHUNTER (1986), the Dr. Lecter saga peters out with this misguided sequel. The absolutely insurmountable problem is that the psychiatric serial killer was most intriguing and frightening as an inexplicable enigma – a walking, talking question mark regarding the nature of evil: Why would someone do this? Answering that question is a bit like a magician revealing the trick behind his magical illusion: the explanation is never as interesting as the mystery, which is thoroughly destroyed in the process.
Building upon a flashback introduced in the novel HANNIBAL (which was abandoned in the film adaptation), HANNIBAL RISING posits that as a boy, Hannibal Lecter saw his sister eaten by soldiers in Lithuania at the end of World War II. It’s a pretty horrible thought but goes nowhere toward explaining how Lecter himself became a cannibal serial killer, so the new storyline – set mostly with Lecter (Gaspard Uliel) as a young medical student – portrays his bloody quest for revenge in the aftermath of the war. The storyline’s sick little joke is that (like HANNIBAL) it will ask you to identify with Lecter as a kind of anti-hero, because his opponents are even worse than he is. Read More
This tale of a killer crocodile in Africa resembles a throwback to Roger Corman-type exploitation movies from decades ago: Put together a cast of faces vaguely familiar from television and/or co-starring movie roles; put them in a film with a rampaging monster; go for the gore with gusto; and leaven the whole thing with a little unsubtle social commentary (as if to assuage the guilt of churning out lowest common denominator trash cinema). The difference is that, back in the 1970s, the production would have utilized cheap process shots and a rubber reptile; today, we get actual location shooting and a computer-animated croc. The result is a slick-looking movie that lacks the gritty goodness of old-fashioned exploitation and is too silly to take seriously as a mainstream thriller. What keeps it amusing – well, at least interesting – is watching the filmmakers try to walk the tightrope between the two. Read More
PENNY DREADFUL takes its title from a Victorian form of literature that often wallowed in melodramatic excess and prolonged action (because writers were paid a penny a word and dragged everything out in order to make as much money as possible). Screenwriters Diane Doniol-Valcroze and Arthur Flam felt it suited their story because it features a girl named Penny (Rachel Miner) caught in a dreadful situation: she has a phobia about automobiles, but she must take refuge in one that’s broken down in the middle of the woods, leaving her at the mercy of an unrelenting psycho killer lurking outside.
Producer-director Richard Brandes optioned the script and rewrote it for what is essentially his feature-film directing debut, after years of writing, producing, and/or directing direct-to-video and made-for-television titles. The finished film, which also stars Mimi Rogers as Penny’s therapist, is an effective combination of slasher-horror and psycho-thriller that tries to do for the automobile what Hitchcock did for the shower in PSYCHO. Read More
PENNY DREADFUL is an enjoyable combination of psycho-thriller and slasher horror, which somehow achieves a slick, Hollywood-calibre visual style in spite of its modest budget. The film is not afraid to deliver gruesome horror, but it also dwells on the suspense, offering a tense situation featuring a vulnerable character trapped in a terrible predicament guaranteed to induce nail-biting in the audience – when they’re not leaping out of their seats at the shocks.
The story follows Penny Dearborn (Rachel Miner), a young woman who suffers from a phobia of automobiles ever since she survived an auto accident that killed her family, leaving her an orphan. Her therapist Orianna (Mimi Rogers) drives Penny on a long trip to the scene of the accident. Unfortunately, this confrontational therapy is sidetracked when Orianna’s car hits a pedestrian on a lonely, isolated road. The victim – who seems more than a little sinister – survives, hitching a ride with Penny and Orianna to a closed-down camp in the woods. The car breaks down; the therapist goes looking for help, and eventually Penny finds herself trapped inside the automobile when the hitchhiker turns out to be a homicidal lunatic, recently escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane. Read More