Rise of the Planet of the Apes: A Welcome Addition to the Apes Mythological Canon

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) posterRISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – the new chapter in the PLANET OF THE APES series of films – is is an attempt by 20th Century Fox to breathe new life into the venerable franchise. This was a daunting task in that the film had to be done in such a way as to appeal to contemporary movie audiences, and yet also resonate with fans of the forty-three year-old Apes mythology. Thankfully, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does not disappoint; it is a solid science fiction film that contributes fresh material to the PLANET OF THE APES canon.


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES takes place in the present in California’s Bay Area. Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) works for Gene-Sys, a biomedical company, where he has completed medical testing on a chimpanzee for a new drug, ALZ-112, which allows the brain to heal itself, offering a number of promising applications, particularly for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Due to the death (during a disastrous attempt to court investors to bring the drug to clinical trials) of “Bright Eyes,” the chimpanzee used for testing of the drug, Rodman secretly takes her newborn baby into his home after the board of Gen-Sys decides that it will no longer fund this medical research. He soon discovers that the enhanced mental abilities of the mother have been passed along genetically to Caesar, the chimp child.
As Caesar grows physically, so do his cognitive abilities, including not only his intelligence but also his self-awareness, and his feelings related to the complicated relationships with humans. As a result of protecting Rodman’s father, Charles (John Lithgow),  from a neighbor during an altercation, Caesar is removed from Rodman’s home and placed in a facility for primates. During his captivity, Caesar comes to resent his lack of freedom and his inhumane treatment at the hands of his human captors. Consequently, he uses his mental capabilities to devise an escape, heading back to Rodman’s home where he steals canisters of the mind-enhancing ALZ-112 to give to his fellow prisoner primates at the facility. He then leads an escape of the apes, gathering more recruits from Gen-Sys and a local zoo, creating an army of simians in revolt against their human captors. As RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES concludes, Caesar and his group of apes find freedom in a Bay Area forest, while the viral wheels set in motion for the decline of the human race suggest the future rise of the ape civilization envisioned in the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES (although in that case, the cause was nuclear destruction rather than biomedically-induced self-annihilation).


As mentioned in the introduction, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a risky project; odds were that it would be mediocre at best, a failure at worst. Although classic science fiction films have been remade or reimagined successfully at times (e.g., John Carpenter’s 1982 redo of THE THING), more often than not they are seriously lacking, and this was specifically the case in a previous attempt with the Apes franchise (Tim Burton’s 2001 version of PLANET OF THE APES).
The bar was set high in 1968. The original PLANET OF THE APES combined a number of elements to make science fiction history. These included good source material in Pierre Boulle’s novel, Monkey Planet, a solid screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, A-list actors including Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, John Chamber’s groundbreaking makeup effects, Jerry Goldsmith’s daring score, and Franklin Schaffner’s diection. In addition, the story interacted with cultural and social anxieties and issues of the late 1960s, including the potential for nuclear annihilation, racism, as well as evolution and religious fundamentalism. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has continued in this vein, not only providing amazingly realistic apes through its motion-capture CGI, but also by combining the special effects with contemporary cultural issues, including biomedical ethics and non-human animal rights. In this way, the film provides something for those looking for more than a summer thrill, as well as for those interested in speculative fiction as a foil for social reflection and commentary.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES also gives evidence of a solid awareness of and respect for the PLANET OF THE APES mythology. At several points, the new film provides nods and a collective homage to the original PLANET OF THE APES and its sequels from the 1970s. A handful of dialogue lines are taken from PLANET OF THE APES, the names of some of the characters and objects from PLANET OF THE APES are found in the reboot, and the television screens in the primate facility quickly flash an image of Charlton Heston. In addition, the storyline and visuals include elements that tie RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES into the mythology established in the previous films. This is found in many of Caesar’s experiences at the hands of his human captors, which mirror those of the astronaut Taylor in PLANET OF THE APES, a brief television news flash about a U.S. spacecraft lost in space which will become the ship that returns in the future to find an earth ruled by apes, as well as the scenes involving the law enforcement officers on horseback battling the apes on the Golden Gate Bridge, which suggest both the imagery of Taylor’s first encounter with the apes PLANET OF THE APES and the symbols of the police state found in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, of which RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES serves as a fresh reinterpretation.
Commentators have long noted that the original PLANET OF THE APES includes social commentary on race. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does not include much by way of this element, except for brief glimpses that can be read into the final scene of confrontation between the police and the apes, which brings to mind memories of racial riots of the late 1960s. Perhaps the lack of inclusion of this element of social commentary indicates that our culture has come quite a way in race relations since the main thrust of cultural critique is found elsewhere in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
One cultural issue that receives special focus in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the issue of non-human animal rights. This finds graphic representation in a number of ways, from the opening scene in which Caesar’s mother is taken from her home in the jungle to the Gen-Sys labs, to the cruelty at the supposed sanctuary for primates. decades after the first PLANET OF THE APES film (which itself may be read as having something to say about animal testing through ape civilization conducting barbaric experiments on mute humans), RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES updates this topic and presents us with evidence of a greater concern on the part of many in Western culture in regard to their relationship, indeed kinship, with other creatures in the biosphere.
If criticism is to be offered of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, it is slight, at least from this reviewer. The focus is rightly on Caesar and his developing relationship with the apes that he will lead to revolt, but the film might have been strengthened with additional scenes in which Rodman and various medical colleagues debate the issues surrounding ethics in more depth beyond its brief mention. Such a discussion would seem especially relevant to our society’s ongoing debates about stem cell research and other biomedical issues such as the recent news announcement that British scientists have secretly created animal-human hybrid embryos.
With many of the positive initial reviews of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, some discussion has ensued on the Internet as to whether this film presents another indication of a possible tendency for increased frequency in the production of intelligent science fiction films. In recent years, audiences have been able to benefit from films like DISTRICT 9, MOON, SPLICE, MONSTERS, and SOURCE CODE. These thoughtful science fiction films do not mean that action-oriented space opera is going extinct any time soon, but they do provide hope that thought-provoking science fiction may arise more frequently.


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) - The Apes Revolt!The storyline for RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES leaves the door open for new chapters in the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, and Rupert Wyatt, the film’s director, has talked about his openness to a sequel. The work of Gen-Sys has provided the APES mythology with a new genesis that cries out for additions to the ape’s cinematic sacred scrolls. The opening weekend’s box office surpassed studio expectations, but it remains to be seen whether the overall financial results will give 20th Century Fox reason to further develop one of the earliest and most successful science fiction franchises in motion picture history. Given the strength of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, there is reason to be optimistic that thoughtful cinefantastique – with the ability to make us reflect on the difficult questions of our time – can compete with youth-oriented stories about young wizards and glittering vampires. Regardless, I take my hat off to those who brought RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to the screen. Despite my serious skepticism before hand, 20th Century Fox was able to rekindle my inner “damn dirty ape” and remind me why the PLANET OF THE APES mythology has held my fascination for over four decades.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (20th Century Fox; released August 5, 2011).  Directed by Rupert Wyatt, Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle. Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowa, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Jewlett.

THE RITE: Satan, Possession, and Unlikely Sources of Faith

Anthony Hopkins and Colin O'Donaghue in THE RITE

The Devil and the related phenomenon of demonic possession, have been the source of several horror films for the years. Previous decades offered THE EXORCIST (1973), with its Roman Catholic perspective, and the various films that made up Protestant responses to it in THE OMEN (1976) and its sequels. Moving forward into more recent cinematic history, we have seen THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), and a dual release of diabolical films in 2010: DEVIL and THE LAST EXORCISM. Our fascination with the ultimate supernatural villain continues in 2011 with the recent release of THE RITE, which returns the horror treatment of Satan and demonic possession to the Catholic roots of THE EXORCIST. As a result of our present social and cultural circumstances, which echo much of the turbulence of the 1970s, we may be calling on Satan to help us deal with our current angst. As we will see, paradoxically, he may also provide some with faith in God.
THE RITE tells the story of a young American, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who has decided to leave the family business of running a mortuary with his father (Rutger Hauer) in favor of entering Roman Catholic seminary. As he explains his decision to a friend, the Kovaks do only two things, undertaking or the priesthood; with his increasing dissatisfaction with the former, it is time for Michael to explore the possibilities of the latter. Kovak completes his program of study, but just before taking his ordination vows, he submits his resignation because he lacks the faith that underlies the work of the priesthood and the church. One of his professors, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), sees potential in Kovak and, instead of accepting Michael’s resignation, sends him to a school in Rome that trains priests in the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism. It is here, Father Matthew argues, that Kovak may find the faith that he needs to become a priest.
After beginning exorcism studies, Kovak is assigned to work with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a priest whose many years of experience include thousands of exorcisms. Father Trevant is aware of Kovak’s struggle with faith, a struggle that Trevant himself has experienced from time to time in the past. Trevant immediately enlists Kovak’s help in assisting with exorcisms; the first involves the alleged possession of a pregnant teenage girl. After watching Trevant interact with the teenager, Kovak’s skepticism remains. He believes that her strange behavior can be accounted for by deep psychological problems, and that what she really needs is a psychiatrist. But after his experiences with Father Trevant, the allegedly possessed girl, and another case of possession, Kovak’s skepticism becomes more difficult to maintain. Eventually, he experiences strange phenomena, has deeply troubling and surreal dreams, and begins to wonder whether there may be some truth to the possibility of possession. As the film reaches its climax, Father Trevant and Kovak both have their faith tested, on the one hand, and given an opportunity for confirmation on the other, thanks to the presumed presence of evil supernatural entities.
Before addressing what I believe is the major thrust of THE RITE, I would like to make a few minor observations. At one point in the film, as Kovak begins his exorcism studies in Rome, he has a spirited exchange with the priest teaching the course, and Kovak notes that while the church accepts the veracity of demonic possession without hesitation, if someone reports a UFO sighting and alien abduction, the claim is immediately suspect. For Kovak, both claims are just as unlikely, so why should a strange claim in a mainstream religious tradition be privileged over a paranormal claim in what is often considered part of the cultural and religious fringe. Here THE RITE stumbles upon not only a question that can be found in any number of skeptical publications, but also an often unacknowledged issue in popular expressions and the academic study of religion. Phenomena like demonic possession or Marian apparitions are more likely to be take seriously, at least by believers, than other experiences by other segments of society outside the religious mainstream.
The second observation involves two of the actors in THE RITE. This film represents Anthony Hopkins’s return to horror, his prior effort being THE WOLFMAN (2010). Interestingly, in both films Hopkins plays a man who must wrestle with an internal evil. In THE WOLFMAN he battles the effects of a werewolf curse and releases his inner monster to roam and attack at will because, he says, “The beast must have its day.” In THE RITE his character likewise wrestles with an inner evil, but in this instance the evil is resisted, and deliverance is desired rather than unbridled relishing in that evil.
Another actor in this film completes the final part of my second observation, and that is Alice Braga. In THE RITE Braga plays a journalist, Angeline, struggling to know whether her deceased brother (who struggled for years with mental difficulties and claimed to hear voices) was really suffering from mental disease or demonic influences. Like Kovak, Angeline wrestles with the issues of faith and skepticism. It is worth noting that this is not the first time Braga has taken a role that depicts a character addressing faith in the face of evil. In I AM LEGEND (2007), Braga played Anna, a woman who believed that even in the face of a worldwide plague that turned most of the human population into contagious, monstrous creatures, God’s voice could still be heard if humanity was willing to listen.
It is here that the latter half of my second observation above leads to what I view as the major focus of this film: developing religious commitments in the midst of a skeptical age. But THE RITE presents this idea in a curious fashion, almost by “backing into” faith as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to this film’s reasoning, although life’s experiences, coupled with the reigning cultural narrative of the sciences as the arbiter of truth, make it very difficult to maintain traditional religious commitments in terms of belief in God, the presence of supernatural evil through demonic possession proves the existence of the Devil; by extension, this then proves the existence of God. If Satan exists, then God must exist as well.
Although this reasoning is problematic, it is not difficult to understand in light of Kovak’s experiences that are displayed in flashbacks and dreams over the course of the film. Kovak’s father runs a mortuary out of the family home, and thus young Michael was exposed to the unsanitized reality of death from a very young age. In addition, his mother died when he was a child; it was her death, coupled with his father’s enlisting Michael to assist with his mother’s embalming, that led to Michael’s functional atheism symbolized by the young Michael bending and twisting a crucifix behind his back as his mother’s casket is lowered into the ground. Many irreligious as well as religious convictions often begin at the experiential level, and then develop rational justification and support over time. Kovak’s lack of faith is understandable in light of the close proximity of death since his youth, and the loss of his mother, a woman of religious convictions.
Kovak’s experiences are mirrored by countless individuals in our late modern period. As just one example, a recent story in THE NEW YORKER on Guillermo del Toro included a telling paragraph which echoed similar sentiments in a National Public Radio interview of the past in which the gifted film director described his atheism as a result of his experiences with the corpses of young children in his native Mexico. In his view, no human beings can have souls, and no God can exist if even these innocents are tossed out like garbage. In other interviews with del Toro, we learn that other experiences played a part in his lack of faith, such as an overbearing religious grandmother, but the point is that the experiences of one of the greatest contemporary horror and dark fantasy film makers echoes the struggle of faith of Kovak in THE RITE. It is indeed difficult to believe in God, or in anything.
Yet here an unlikely source provides for positive religious inspiration. It is through his battles with evil personal entities – which he comes to believe are supernatural – that Kovak comes to accept the existence of the Devil. And as mentioned previously, if the Devil exists, it is argued, then in light of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then God must exist as well. Of course, there are other possible explanations, even if possession is granted as a legitimate phenomenon. After all, anthropologists have described possession across a variety of cultures and religious traditions. But it is interesting that in our skeptical age, the Devil is construed as a proof of God’s existence.
It remains to be seen how much longer Satan will be given a starring role at the box office. We have been fascinated with him for years in literature and cinema, as well as in religion and culture. Perhaps the moral ambiguity of our times – ever increasing since THE EXORCIST burst on the screen at a previous time of social upheaval and sent viewers vomiting from the theaters – demands the ultimate villain. By pointing beyond ourselves to an external and supernatural source of evil we can exorcise not only our individual but also our societal demons as well, and come to embrace faith, in something.

Music in the Horror Film: An Interview with Neil Lerner

Click the podcast button to hear Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, performed by Frederich Magle, courtesy of Magle International Music Forums.

I come from a generation of fantastic film fans who wanted a greater depth of knowledge about the films we loved. This moved beyond knowing who the actors and even the directors were. We knew about the special effects technicians, the make up artists, the matte painters, the model makers, stop-motion animators, and even who composed the scores. Some of my favorites included Bernard Herrmann, James Bernard, Jerry Goldsmith, and of course John Williams.
A few moments reflection on the movie going experience, especially in regards to the horror genre, reveals how important music is. Some of the more noteworthy examples are the shower scene in PSYCHO, the main theme for JAWS, and the memorable music for John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Unfortunately, while the images of horror have been the focus of much critical and academic discussion, little attention has been paid to the music. Addressing this deficit, Neil Lerner has edited the book Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (Routledge, 2010). Lerner is Professor of Music at Davidson College, where he teaches courses in music as well as film and media studies. His work on film music has been published in numerous journals, essay collections, and encyclopedias. Lerner discusses horror film music in this special interview for Cinefantastique Online.
John Morehead: Neil, thank you for being willing to discuss your book here. Can you begin by sharing a little of your background in music, and why, on a personal level, you chose horror as the genre of film for analysis in terms of music’s significance and impact?
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Neil Lerner: First of all, I want to you thank you and Cinefantastique for your interest in this work. As a longtime fan of Cinefantastique, it’s a great honor to get to discuss these things with you.
My professional background is as a musicologist, and my dissertation studied music in some U.S. government documentary films. At the time I started working on my dissertation, there were only a handful of music scholars who were taking film music seriously. So that’s partly why I went with these documentary film scores, by established concert hall composers like Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland: because they were in many ways safer to the academy. It was also a case where I was confident I could get to the relevant archival material, like score manuscripts and production papers, something that’s still not easy to do with Hollywood scores.
One question that I found myself drawn to throughout that research on documentary scores was whether or not a composer could do more experimental things in a score for a documentary than in a Hollywood fictional narrative. I actually found several instances where composers could push the compositional envelope in a documentary film score—like using extended dissonances, or writing fugues, things that didn’t happen too much in Hollywood’s mainstream scores—and that question of where and how modernist strategies enter into film music continues to interest me.
Finally, I’ve always been a fan of horror films, but I started studying film more seriously in college, which, believe it or not, was at Transylvania University. I had one particularly brilliant professor there who took great pleasure in talking about vampire films in his film courses, and his intellectual curiosity was contagious. In many ways, then, I’ve been on a crash course with this topic.
John Morehead: Can you sketch how music developed in terms of its inclusion in the horror film? Viewers take its presence for granted in contemporary cinema, but may forget that there was a process of development as it was included in film, and in horror as well, beyond the jump from silent films to sound.
Neil Lerner: I think studying music in horror films brings with it the same challenges as in other genres in that transitional period between “silent” and sound film: composers had multiple strategies for dealing with different kinds of dramatic situations; it’s often difficult or impossible to reconstruct with certainty what early musicians did (in cases of live accompaniment); and it’s too easy to over-generalize based on just a few examples. There’s still a good deal of basic research to be done in trying to map out just what was done in horror films in the 1920s, but we have some important clues in a book like Ernö Rapée’s Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures (1925), which lists all kinds of categories and topics that musicians accompanying film could have used. That book doesn’t have notated music, but rather it has lists of possible pieces that would fit each topic, giving us now an idea of what music was considered appropriate (at least according to Rapée) for different genres. If you look up “horror” in the Rapée, it directs you to the topics of “gruesome” and “outcry,” which themselves then direct out to other categories like “dwarfs, ghosts, spooks, and mysteriosos” (for “gruesome”) or to “dramatic” in the case of “outcry.” It ends up suggesting quite a wide spectrum of music that was available to someone accompanying a scary scene, but certain basic ideas tend to surface over and over again in these pieces, and these are things that aren’t unique to music for horror film, but rather things that fall in a much longer tradition of ways that composers could create a sense of fear or dread: extended unresolved dissonances, surprising bursts of sound, unfamiliar timbres, etc.
I do think Robert Spadoni’s recent book on horror film and the transition into the sound era makes a strong case for the significance of the sound track and how it could make films more horrific. The success of horror films coming out of Hollywood (starting in 1931) really does overlap in interesting ways with the coming of synchronized, recorded sound to the cinematic experience.
Candace Hilligoss stands before the church organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS
Candace Hilligoss stands before the church organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS

John Morehead: Your book begins appropriately with a consideration of the organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS in a chapter by Julie Brown, with a comparison of the same instrument in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Was this the first major instrument to be used in horror films, and how significant is it in associations with the genre today?
Neil Lerner: I don’t know if we can say that it was the first major instrument of horror films, just because I’m not certain we know enough yet about music in horror film in the 1920s, but Julie Brown’s work makes a compelling case for why the organ would recur so much in horror films. Namely, the instrument’s connections with certain kinds of religious spaces as well as its associations with funerals are all rich things to explore in a genre (horror) that probes at our sublimated anxieties. The tradition of the baroque organ is one where its huge sound was supposed to overpower its listener through sheer volume and acoustic weight, in ways that Robert Walser has compared with heavy metal music (and how heavy metal music works in horror films, when it starts to appear, etc., is another topic that needs work).
The film that I researched for the book, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), makes the organ a central icon connected with Henry Jekyll, adding a musical dimension that doesn’t occur in Stevenson’s novella. I believe it’s there to provide a quick and efficient clue to Jekyll’s character: he has a certain level of wealth and high culture sophistication in that he plays Bach organ works for pleasure at his home, and it also suggests something of Jekyll’s piety and goodness (towards the end of the film he cries out to God).
Our first glimpse of Dr. Jekyll: his hands playing a pipe organ
Our first glimpse of Dr. Jekyll: his hands playing a pipe organ

Yet there’s another component to Jekyll’s organ playing that I explore in my essay, and that’s the possibility that Rouben Mamoulian’s conception of Jekyll & Hyde might set the entire narrative up as a dream occurring in the midst of Jekyll’s organ playing. The film opens with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a piece that recurs in the middle of the film—with some of the middle of the organ piece—and then the film closes with the final measures of the organ work. I know it’s a fairly radical way to read the film, but I found some other clues in the literary references that I believe at least complicate some of our assumptions about that film and how it works.
John Morehead: Of course, PSYCHO is perhaps the horror film most associated with striking music, as in the infamous shower scene. In the interesting chapter on this film, Ross Fenimore connects the film’s “aural fragments” of imagined and real voices with the musical “screams” of Marion’s (Janet Leigh) death as she is stabbed in the shower. Most viewers are familiar with the significance of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the film, but may not have connected this as part of a bigger aural whole that paints a picture of terror. How do these elements come together under the direction of Hitchcock?
Neil Lerner: I agree with you that the shower scene music from PSYCHO has become an iconic example of horror music, but I’d extend it even further, to say that it’s become one of the most iconic examples of all film music. Ross Fenimore’s essay raises some important questions about the music and to whom it might be connected (to Marion? to Norman? to Mother? to someone else?), which becomes really interesting when you start to factor in the film’s trickery in regards to connecting voices to characters.
I don’t know, however, how much credit should go to Hitchcock’s direction. I mean no disrespect to Hitchcock here, but I think it’s important to remember that Hitchcock originally wanted that shower scene to have only natural sound effects (like shower and knife sounds) without music. Herrmann lobbied to put music into it, and Hitchcock acquiesced, but Herrmann probably paid a heavy price later with Hitchcock for upstaging his director with a better idea. Herrmann’s score here is just brilliant; he was a composer at the peak of his powers, creating music that continues to yield new readings and interpretations. It’s just so marvelously simple and effective in its blend of extended, unresolved dissonances (major sevenths and minor seconds), descending registral gestures (moving from high to low), and repetition. Plus there’s the effect of having the string instruments play the quick portamento, the sliding up on the string, which creates a terrible ripping or tearing effect; it fills in the blanks of what’s happening because visually, we never actually see the knife ripping through flesh, but aurally, we get a clear idea of what’s happening.
John Morehead: As a long-time horror fan I should have been aware of this, but it was not until I read Music in the Horror Film, and Claire Sisco King’s chapter on music in THE EXORCIST, that I realized that the film includes an unconventional approach to musical scoring at the insistence of director William Friedkin. Why did he approach music in the film in this way, and how is this reflective of cultural anxieties of the time as well as the film’s narrative?
Neil Lerner: It’s hard to try and get inside a director’s head, but Claire Sisco King does a fabulous job of collecting all sorts of evidence from the production of the film, thereby giving us clues to what might have been motivating him. I was struck at Friedkin’s resistance to thinking of THE EXORCIST as a horror film, because it reminded me of Rouben Mamoulian’s similar remarks about DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. I have a hunch both of these directors might have felt that horror as a genre was perhaps too undignified for the kinds of larger ideas they were addressing, and appropriately enough, both of them ended up transforming and complicating the genre in pretty important ways. Friedkin was motivated by a kind of documentary impulse in THE EXORCIST, and Claire Sisco King argues how this probably led to the unconventional musical choices he made. She then goes on to read the music in relation to the larger cultural anxiety of a widely perceived crisis of masculinity. I think her essay can help viewers to see THE EXORCIST in a new and different way—note the visual metaphors here, it’s just tough to escape them—but the underlying goal behind all of the essays in the book is the idea that by paying closer attention to the music, the ear can lead us to see these films in new ways.
John Morehead: I was raised on the fantastic scores of folks like Bernard Hermann, James Horner, and a little later John Williams. But one of the others I enjoyed was director John Carpenter with his synthesizer music. Your book includes a chapter discussing Carpenter’s music in THE FOG, and I wonder how original and significant you see his electronic scoring in this and other films like HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK?
Neil Lerner: I think there’s still a good deal of basic work that needs to be done on this question, but K. J. Donnelly’s essay makes a strong case for the potential returns in giving close attention to film scores that might be thought of as too simple or basic. A good deal of scholarship on film music has tended to focus on fully notated orchestral film scores, but of course there’s a much wider spectrum of musical strategies out there, like rock or jazz, and Donnelly has been an important scholarly pioneer in this regard.
The synthesizer timbres weren’t original to John Carpenter—several of the important Vietnam-era horror films, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, or LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, have some prominent use of electronic instruments—but Carpenter does seem to have done something that worked well and proved influential with the synthesizer scoring in HALLOWEEN (1978). Plus I just think those early modular synths were incredibly cool, so I’m happy we got a picture of a Moog in the book.
John Morehead: It is understandable that, since film is a visual medium, the image has been the primary focus of film analysis, but given the significance of sound and music to film, particularly to horror (not to mention science fiction and fantasy), why has musical analysis been largely ignored? And is this situation starting to change?
Neil Lerner: My college film courses emphasized that film is a visual medium, and of course much of the writing about film does that also, but maybe because I was studying music while taking film classes I was more attenuated to what was happening in the soundtrack. I’ve always found it interesting that so much of the attention in film goes to the visual elements, but the experience of film (and now television and video games) is almost always tied together with a soundtrack. One might speculate that there’s a larger cultural bias against the acoustic, that there’s a hegemony of the visual; what we consider basic educational skills dwell largely if not exclusively on things that are visual, like reading, but where in our culture do we teach about the sonic and the musical? I believe most of us are self taught in regards to knowing how to interpret the music we encounter with a film or video game—if we’re raised watching these things, we figure it out from the context—and most people can interpret these musical codes with a great deal of nuance, even if they aren’t trained in music and have no idea how the music is doing what it does. It’s useful, therefore, to have music scholars devoted to studying music in screen media as a way of providing students and devotees with another tool in their own lifelong encounters with these things.
As a music historian, I’ve long heard the truism that concert hall music in the twentieth century, particularly the experimental, avant-garde styles, hit a kind of impasse where audiences became disinterested in it and where many of these musical languages then found their way into film genres like fantasy and horror. One of my goals with the book was to help to provide some examples of that, whether it be through the radical sound collage that Mamoulian created for the first transformation scene in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE or the later appropriations of Penderecki in THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. There’s still a great deal of work to be done in tracking all of these musical languages, and that’s exciting for musicologists, film scholars, and folks who love movies.

(Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, performed by Frederich Magle, courtesy of Magle International Music Forums)

House of Usher: A Celebration of 1960 Review

House of Usher (1960)Although many younger television and movie fans may think that the 1970s represent an archaic time in entertainment, there were certain advantages to growing up during this period. One was that television was all about local markets, and this made it necessary for local stations to find programming that would keep the viewer’s attention. One reservoir often tapped during this period was horror films, not only as late night fare, but also as afternoon and weekend entertainment. This television broadcasting circumstance worked to my advantage as a young fan of the wondrous and horrific: it opened a world of horror cinema that is hard to find today, short of rare videos at specialty stores or online. One such film that holds a special place in my heart is HOUSE OF USHER, which I knew by its alternative title in the U.S. and U.K. (as well as on the DVD cover I hold in my hand as I write this article), THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.
I first saw this film as a teenager, and it came with a sense of great anticipation. At an early age, I had gravitated toward all things fantastic and the horrific, and this included the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I developed a habit of searching each week’s TV Guide and circling the fantasy, science fiction, and horror film, so that I could watch as many as my parents would allow me to see. In past programming searches, I had learned of a series of horror films based upon Poe’s writings. I had already seen THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and enjoyed those immensely. Now HOUSE OF USHER was soon to air, and I was sure it would deliver the same cinematic frights. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher
Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher

HOUSE OF USHER tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has traveled to the house owned by the Usher family in search of his fiancé, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He is anxious for her to leave with him in order to be married, but Madeline’s brooding brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), desperately desires that she stay in the home. He is convinced that she is tainted by the family curse, which Roderick feels he shares as well, as does the Usher house that is literally fracturing around them. After some conflict between these characters over Madeline’s fate, she apparently dies following an argument with her brother and is buried in the family crypt, located in the basement. Winthrop eventually discovers that Madeline was buried alive, with the full awareness of her brother, but has escaped her tomb to prowl the grounds as a mad woman intent on seeking vengeance for her death. Eventually, the last two remaining Ushers meet their tragic end, as does their house, fulfilling the alternative title of this film both metaphorically and literally.
Much critical analysis has been devoted to director Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, often to the neglect of his other films, but this is not without good reason. Corman had himself been inspired by Poe as a young person, and was able to adapt this source material for a popular audience of the period. Although the Poe films were produced on modest budgets, Corman was able to maximize the investment in order to produce atmospheric and frightening films without recourse to lavish special effects or gory makeup, which would become popular in the 1970s and which dominate contemporary trends in horror.
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title

HOUSE OF USHER, and the other series of Poe films directed by Corman, have the distinction of being part of the brief revival of American gothic horror that had been fueled by television broadcasts of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the fresh interpretations of these classics by Britain’s Hammer Films. While this classification has some merit, HOUSE OF USHER may also be understood as a hybrid in keeping with another trend in horror from the period. HOUSE OF USHER is in a sense Gothic, in that it takes place against the backdrop of a mansion that appears at first glance to be a haunted house; however, it is not haunted in typical supernatural fashion by ghosts or poltergeists. Instead, the haunting of the Usher House takes place through the troubled psyches of the homeowners who wrestle with their family legacy. In this sense it is similar to another classic of 1960 cinema, PSYCHO, which signaled a shift from supernatural horror in the 1930s and 1940s, and the science-fiction-horror of the 1950s, to an internalization of horror (horror is not the supernatural other; it is us) that would later take a quantum leap forward with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
HOUSE OF USHER was well received by audiences in 1960. One of the “fun facts” included with the DVD release, as part of the MGM Presents Midnite Movies series, states that it “scored among the top 5 box office hits of 1960.” But how well does it hold up today? That depends upon what one is looking for in a horror film. If one is a fan of much of the drivel seen in contemporary horror cinema, then you are likely to find HOUSE OF USHER disappointing. Fortunately, if you have a broader appreciation for horror, you will likely find this film of continued value.
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)

Beyond the rich atmosphere emodied by the Usher House, and the great performance of Vincent Price (who would continue to build on his work as the horror actor successor of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), HOUSE OF USHER provides something for viewers who want to probe a little more deeply into horror. One of the film’s interesting facets is its treatment of the struggles of personal identity within the context of family legacy, particularly a dysfunctional one. Roderick Usher is convinced that he is doomed by the Usher curse, and that neither he nor his sister can escape. Rather than engaging in a flight of fancy and illusion by trying to flee, he has consigned not only himself but also his sister to what he sees as an inevitable outcome. Contemporary audiences are perhaps more aware of the dysfunctional nature of all families (to some degree) than were audiences of the 1960s, and this self-awareness – coupled with the realization that, despite a problematic family history, it may still be possible to transcend the “curse” of the lineage and the past – makes this film relevant for the present day, and an item for self-reflection.
If you are a horror fan who hails from my generation, then a new viewing of HOUSE OF USHER will provide a nice trip down memory lane. If you are a younger fan interested in considering a solid piece of horror filmmaking now celebrating its 50th  anniversary, then this film is worth adding to your library.

Book of Eli on DVD: The Use and Abuse of Religion

click to purchase
click to purchase

The recent release of THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) on DVD provides an opportunity for a reassessment of important elements within its story. Viewers with religious convictions have interpreted the film in strongly positive and negative terms; however, another reading is plausible that avoids these extremes. Taking into account its late-modern-Western and post-9/11 context, THE BOOK OF ELI may be interpreted as a film that urges caution in the use of religion by both its practitioners and the irreligious – who variously objectify religion and justify violence in fundamentalist fashion while failing to heed the message of religion or recognize its power as a form of social control and a tool for oppression. This review will address these elements, which appear to be overlooked in many reviews of the movie.
THE BOOK OF ELI is the latest example of Hollywood (and popular culture’s) continued fascination with and exploration of the post-apocalypse. Blending genre elements from the Western and action films, the story follows a man (Denzel Washington), who lives in a near-future world ravaged by nuclear war. He is on a personal mission to carry a book, which he holds sacred, to the West Coast. Along the way, he stops for water in a town under the leadership of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), an oppressive and violent man who rules with an iron fist. Carnegie is looking for a book with the power to control people and expand his power; his search dovetails with Eli’s mission to protect the same book in his westward journey. The resulting conflict sets the stage for the rest of the film, with post-apocalyptic elements providing the backdrop and context for the exploration of religious themes.
As the narrative unfolds, we learn that after the war Washington’s character (who only at the end of the film do we learn is named Eli) responded to an internal voice that told him where to dig in the rubble for an important item. There he found the book, more specifically a Bible, around which the story circulates. The voice also told Eli that it was his mission to carry the book West and that he would be given divine protection in his travels. THE BOOK OF ELI provides a number of examples of Eli’s devotion to his faith and his calling, such as prayer over his food, daily Bible reading, and the quotation of biblical verses, even in connection with the slaying of his enemies.
Before considering an alternative reading to the pro- and anti-Christian readings of the film prevalent in many commentaries, a few words are in order about the possibilities related to someone actually thinking they could be the recipients of divine revelation in a period of great social upheaval, such as the post-apocalyptic scenario of this film. While skeptics will be doubtful of any such possibilities in the assumption of the absence of the supernatural or the transcendent, even so, sociological evidence exists that can account for such beliefs. Noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, in his discussion of revelators in new religious movements and major world religions, notes that “all successful religious movements arise in response to crises.” He goes further and develops a proposition from this idea, stating that, “During periods of social crisis, the number of persons who receive novel revelations and the number willing to accept such revelations are maximized.”
In THE BOOK OF ELI, we are led to believe that religion has largely disappeared since most of the previous generations of religious people have died, and at some point at least the Bible if not all religious Scriptures have been destroyed; however, the post-apocalyptic scenario certainly provides the social context of extreme crisis wherein people would be receptive to the possibility of personal revelation. As this plays out in the film, it is not so much the surviving humans who are looking to hear the divine, but rather Eli himself who hears the inner voice which for him provides a strong sense of divine vocation. Understood as developing in a context of social crisis, it is not so much Eli’s understanding of divine vocation that is problematic, but his actions that come as a result. Eli’s actions as a man of religious devotion, often violent ones, have resulted in different interpretations of the film, and in light of this they deserve further exploration.
A sampling of the reviews and commentary on THE BOOK OF ELI by those with religious convictions, particularly those with a Judeo-Christian orientation, reveals diverse interpretations of the film in regards to its relationship to Christianity. On the one hand, there are those who take exception to the film, seeing it as incorporating a strongly anti-Christian caricature; on the other hand there are those who see the film as sympathetic to Christianity (one website even going so far as to describe it as “positively Christian”).
In my view both of these readings are problematic. For starters, THE BOOK OF ELI is not presenting Eli as a Christian. Although he reads from the Bible, and gives thanks for his meals, the name of Christ is never once invoked in the film. Instead, Eli prays to “the Lord” and closes his prayers with a simple “Amen.” In this way his brand of religious devotion may be understood as a generic brand of Judeo-Christian theism rather than a specific expression of Christianity. If the film does not present the Christian faith and the actions of a devoted Christian, then it is difficult to see how the film could be construed as either pro- or anti-Christian.
If these popular readings may be inaccurate, then what reading might better account for various elements of the film? I suggest that, instead, THE BOOK OF ELI should be understood as a critique of the misuse of religion by skeptics and religious devotees alike. First, consider the late-modern and post-9/11 context of the film. Late modernity, or postmodernity, often includes critique of dominant cultural narratives, including religious ones. In addition, we live in a post-9/11 world, where religious tensions and violence around the world exert a constant influence in our lives. When these two considerations come together, it is plausible that the cultural context out of which THE BOOK OF ELI has arisen is one that attempts to critique prominent religious narratives, particularly those that have led to violence.
This leads to my second consideration, and that is the ways in which religion is used by the two principle characters in THE BOOK OF ELI. On the one hand, we have Carnegie, a violent man who seems to have no religious convictions of his own but who seeks a Bible because he recognizes its potential for expanding his power over others. In one scene he shouts to his cronies that “It’s not a book, it’s a weapon!” Here we have a character who seeks to use an important aspect of a religious tradition in order to gain control over “the weak and desperate,” but not as an important part of his heartfelt religious pathway. As the villain of the film it is clear that viewers are to recognize the illegitimacy of Carnegie’s (mis)use of religion.
However, there is a second major character for whom religion is significant: Eli. While his use of religion is presented more positively, it is not without its difficulties. Eli is a lone hero with a divine mission who must do everything he can to protect the holy book as he carries it West. In a post-apocalyptic world where people are fighting for their lives, Eli’s mission results in mayhem and violence for those who try to kill him and steal his belongings, including the Bible. Not only is Eli prone to violence in his mission, perhaps understandable in the survivalist context, but his violence is selective.
In one scene Eli sees a man and a woman traveling who are accosted by a roving gang affiliated with Carnegie. The man is killed and the woman is violently raped. Eli is moved by this viciousness, but he tells himself that he has his mission and that the violence taking place around him is not his concern. So in the case of Eli we have a man of religious devotion who is driven to great violence to protect a religious object, but who is not driven to “love his neighbor as himself” to the extent that his faith compels him to assist those suffering around him. Thus, while Carnegie’s use of religion is clearly problematic, Eli’s is as well, perhaps more so in light of his religious devotion.
For those who may dispute this interpretation of Eli’s actions, Eli himself seems to come to understand that his own faith missed the mark. Near the conclusion of THE BOOK OF ELI, after Eli has lost the book to Carnegie, he is rescued by his traveling companion Solara, to whom he acknowledges that he was so caught up in protecting the Bible that he failed to live its message. Eli’s religious faith was focused on the externals, that of protecting a sacred item of Scripture, often leading to grotesque violence, perhaps necessary at times; in the process, he failed to internalize the essence of his religion and, in so doing, turned a blind eye to the suffering around him that he might have been able to alleviate.
Viewed from this perspective, THE BOOK OF ELI may be read as not so much articulating a pro-Christian or anti-Christian message. Rrather, arising out of a critique of religious narratives of our time that often incorporate violence and neglect marginalized, this film may be read as one that cautions against the abuse of religion by believers and non-believers alike. For those willing to stretch themselves in their consideration of religion, from whatever their personal frameworks, THE BOOK OF ELI provides some interesting aspects for personal reflection.
The DVD and Blu-ray discs of  THE BOOK OF ELI include a handful of special features. The standard version of the DVD is disappointing in that its bonus material is limited to some additional scenes and an animated tale that develops the storyline further. The Blu-ray Combo Pack includes more – not only the additional scenes and animated story, but also explorations of other aspects of the story related to Eli’s journey and post-apocalyptic, as well as a soundtrack for the film.



Legion (2010)

Action-Horror Meets Postmodern Angelic Apocalyptic

Legion (2010)In 1975 evangelist Billy Graham first published his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents. The book would go through numerous printings and inform popular angelology for Protestant Christians for years. In the 21st century angels are still the subject of interest in popular culture, but they are no longer secret, and with the film LEGION, they are not necessarily agents working in tandem with the Divine.
LEGION begins with the coming to earth of Michael the archangel, in rebellion against God because he has lost patience with humanity and has decided to destroy them. Michael decides to fight on the side of humanity, and as a part of that process he removes his collar (perhaps some kind of divine domestication device?), cuts off his wings, and thereby loses his immortality. After arming himself with the latest weaponry, Michael heads to a small diner in the middle of the desert where a waitress is pregnant with a special child. It is here that the battle for humanity will take place as God sends his angelic forces who possess humans and who thereby act as his agents of divine judgment. The end of the film brings a confrontation between Michael and Gabriel, instances of individual sacrifice both human and angelic, and lessons for God himself about mercy and compassion.
Prior to viewing this film the trailers gave the impression that LEGION would be more about action and gun-play than horror. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the film included a little more horror than hinted at prior to its release, but even so, almost all of the horror moments in the film were presented in the trailers leaving little for audiences to experience in theaters and in homes with the DVD release. Two of the more unsettling horror scenes are found in an old woman with razor sharp teeth who rips the throat out of a diner patron before climbing the walls and ceiling and dying from a shotgun blast, as well as an possessed ice cream man that turns into a monstrous creature with elongated limbs (played by veteran sci-fi, fantasy, and horror actor Doug Jones). The ice cream ma creature is scary enough to make any child think twice before flagging down the ice cream truck in the neighborhood this summer. Yet even with these horror elements the filmmakers seemed more interested in emphasizing action in this action-horror drama.
As might be expected in a film that draws upon characters taken from a religious tradition, in this case Judeo-Christianity, there are plenty of religious elements here for reflection beyond the obvious in terms of the angelic figures of Michael and Gabriel. This includes symbolism such as a cross-shaped hole that forms after an explosion in the door of a building from which Michael takes his weapons for battle, as well as one of the victims from the diner who dies while hanging in an inverted cross position, the same way in which Christian tradition says the Apostle Peter was martyred. Other religious elements include the name of the diner, Paradise Falls, and the inclusion of a child who somehow is desired by both of the archangels, one desiring to save the life of the child and the other wanting to kill it. The meaning of the child is never fully developed in this film, which is depicted more as possessing prophetic significance in terms of telling future humanity how to live rather than in messianic terms of deliverance. But this failure to flesh out an important element of the story, and one with religious significance, is a problem throughout this film. Numerous religious elements are included but they presented without much significance, indicating that perhaps they are intended to do little more than tap into the viewers lingering sense of cultural religious memory rather than being part of a new coherent framework for storytelling or a re-envisioning of traditional religious elements for late modernity.
This leads to consideration of the late modern or postmodern context of the film, particularly in the way in which it incorporates apocalypticism. Apocalyptic stories of humanity’s demise are expressed frequently in popular culture as we wrestle with the conditions that threaten our existence, from rogue nations connected to nuclear weapons to environmental challenges to the possibility of global economic collapse. Each culture and the religions within them include stories of beginnings as well as endings, and the West has been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition in its consideration of how the end might come and what this might involve.
Legion (2010)With post-modernity comes a new twist: traditional sources of cultural narrative are reworked, and the source of the narrative itself is critiqued. As noted previously, LEGION draws upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it provides variations on its elements as well as critique of the religious narrative itself. One major example of this in is the way in which the character of God is portrayed. In traditional Christian theologies God is viewed as perfectly just and unchangeable, needing nothing from his creatures, but existing with all of his attributes in perfection. However, in LEGION Michael has rebelled because God has forgotten or is neglecting important moral aspects such as forgiveness, mercy, and sacrifice. Through Michael’s actions, especially in the giving of his life for humanity in his battle in the diner with Gabriel, he claims to have reminded God of these important moral qualities. Beyond this, Michael’s rebellion is more valued than Gabriel’s blind obedience to Divine wrath. Such a depiction of God’s nature will be unsettling for Christians who have a basic knowledge of traditional theologies, but it does provide a window into a postmodern critique of conceptions of God found in traditional apocalyptic.
In this reviewer’s opinion, LEGION is an average action-horror film that could have been better, but it could also have been far worse given the state of affairs in contemporary horror. Regardless of its quality as a horror film, it provides an interesting contemporary perspective on an apocalyptic narrative courtesy of the angelic-religious figures that have fascinated us for centuries.

Blu-ray & DVD Bonus Material:

  • Creating the Apocalypse
  • Humanity’s Last Line of Defense
  • From Pixels to Picture

Blu-ray Exclusive Bonus Material:

  • Bringing Angels To Earth: Picture-in-Picture
  • movieIQ+sync and BD-Live connect you to real-time information on the cast, music, trivia and more while watching the movie
  • A Digital Copy of the film (for PC, PSP, Mac or iPod)

LEGION (Copyright 2010; theatrical release January 2010; home video release May 11, 2010). Directed by Scott Stewart. Written by Peter Schink and Scott Stewart. Cast: Paul Bettany, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Adrianne Palicki, Kevin Durand, Jon Tenney, Willa Holland, Kae Walsh, Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Quaid, Doug Jones.

Favorites Nightmares from Elm Street: Sleep, Dreams, and Discerning Reality

Freddy makes an impression.
Freddy gets you at your most vulnerable - while asleep.

Although I have never been a fan of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, Freddy Krueger, or slasher films in general, there are several aspects of the series that I find intriguing. They are all related, arising out of Freddy’s ability to enter into the consciousness of his victims as they sleep in order to launch his attacks. Like other films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and more recently Paranormal Activity (2009), the Elm Street films were able to tap into a basic human fear related to our extreme vulnerability when we sleep. We have all read news reports of sleeping homeowners awakened by intruders who have broken in in order to steal their belongings, and horror films like the Elm Street series take this one step further by suggesting that it is not merely human entities that we should fear during our nocturnal slumbers. Our childhood fears of the dark at bedtime continue into adulthood as filmmakers suggest that various slashers, monsters, aliens, or paranormal entities threaten to inflict harm, perhaps even to the point of fatality while we sleep.
But the Elm Street films take this further – into a realm where not only does the most basic and necessary of human functions such as sleep subject us to risk of attack, but our dreams become the entry point into which Freddy inserts himself to engage in his mayhem. Scientists and psychologists do not agree on why we dream, but it is certainly a common human experience, and this important part of brain functioning demonstrates another example of vulnerability exploited by Krueger.
Finally, the question of discerning reality in relation to dreaming and awakened states of consciousness is one of the frightening facets of the Elm Street films. In the series the victims try to stay awake, and when that ultimately proves impossible, they are also unable to realize they are dreaming, and thus vulnerable to Krueger’s attack. If they could awaken they might be able to avoid their doom. And yet this never seems possible. Perhaps the greatest cinematic treatment of this problem is found in The Matrix, in which Morpheus says to Neo as he begins his own journey of “waking up” from the illusionary dream world of his “reality”: “What if when you woke up, you didn’t know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?”
Freddy Krueger has been frightening filmgoers for generations. Perhaps the reason that so many have found this horror mythology intriguing is its ability to exploit some of our most basic human processes and needs.

NOTE: This article was originally posted under an incorrect byline.

The Changing Face of Biblical Horror & Fantasy Films

Legion (2010)

Recent Hollywood horror movies exploit Biblical themes – but in a post-modern context far removed from traditional religious values.

Recently, Cinefantastique Online’s administrator-editor, Steve Biodrowski, brought an article to my attention from earlier this month and asked for my feedback. The article was “Hollywood heroes on a mission from God,” by Anne Billson, originally published in a publication in the UK, but I interacted with a republication in The Sydney Morning Herald. The article discusses the prevalence of “biblical themes” in many contemporary horror and fantasy films. The article is worthy of further commentary, not only because of the main thrust of the article, but especially because Billson is missing important dimensions of the subject matter that will be brought out in the following article.
Billson is correct to note that many contemporary horror and fantasy films draw upon biblical themes, symbolism, and imagery. In the early section of the article, she specifically mentions THE BOOK OF ELI, SOLOMON KANE, and LEGION. The influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition is evident in these films, and the others cited later in the piece, but this influence is not surprising given the long history of this religious tradition’s presence in the West.
Unfortunately, Billson largely fails to account for the cultural changes in the West and how this alters “biblical horror and fantasy.” Specifically, Billson does not address the shift from a Christendom culture, with Christianity occupying a more positive source of cultural influence, to a post-Christendom culture in which increasing numbers of people express skepticism of the institutional church. In the post-Christendom context, the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition is still evident, but it takes on a decidedly different twist. It is surprising that Billson missed this aspect of the subject matter, since her UK cultural context is very different from America’s in regards to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The absence of a national Christian conscience should have provided Billson with an alternative framework that would enable a different reading of biblical influences in horror and fantasy.
But what does this post-Christendom depiction of horror look like in contrast with a Christendom expression? At one point, Billson mentions depictions of vampires in horror in times past, and how “they were kept at bay with crucifixes, holy water and men of the cloth.” Yet this is the only sentence the author devotes to an important religious shift in horror. In the Christendom context, the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition is central, strong, and reverent. Good and Evil are depicted as a Christian dichotomy, bordering on the Manichaean; Christian symbols have great supernatural power (as evidenced by the cross and holy water in opposing the vampire for example), and the church as an institution with its clergy is presented in positive terms as agents of God opposing Satan and the forces of darkness.
In the post-Christendom context, this situation changes dramatically. I was reminded of this recently while watching 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. As the race of vampires continues its onslaught on the Alaskan town, they use an injured woman as bait to lure any humans out of hiding. When the ruse fails, the vampires turn on the woman instead. Realizing her impending fate, she falls to her knees and exclaims “Oh, God!” In response to her plea the lead vampire, Marlowe, mockingly looks up into the sky for any hint of divine rescue, only to look back at the woman and remark in matter of fact fashion, “No god.” In 30 DAYS OF NIGHT not only do we find an absence of the church, clergy, and Christian symbols, but the monstrous creatures deny the existence of God, or at least deny that a God is present who will provide any kind of deliverance to humanity from the forces of evil. The point to take away from much of contemporary horror is that, while it may be influenced by biblical and Judeo-Christian elements, the way in which these elements are treated is very different.
The postmodern context adds an additional twist that is especially evident in apocalyptic films. Billson rightly notes the popularity and prevalence of apocalyptic in cinema over the last several decades. But again, the way in which apocalyptic is depicted has shifted. In the 1970s, a film like THE OMEN provided Hollywood’s version of a popular Protestant eschatological scenario, complete with the son of Satan as the antichrist working through the political process to achieve world domination and thereby ushering in the “end-times.” Although many Christians would be more comfortable with those apocalyptic films produced by Christian companies such as the LEFT BEHIND series, THE OMEN drew upon elements of Protestantism in ways that would resonate with many in the culture in the waning days of not only Christendom, but also modernity.
In the postmodern context, Christian apocalyptic is still featured prominently, but the formerly inspiring narrative is subject to critique. This is especially evident in the recent apocalyptic-horror-action film LEGION. The underlying religious narrative for the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic in the past was that, after exercising great patience and love, God sends his angelic messenger to mete out justice upon a sinful humanity and perhaps upon the forces of darkness, which have gained power in the end-times. In LEGION, this underlying narrative is turned on its head. God has “tired of his children.” He sends his archangel Michael to lead in the judgment of humanity, but Michael rebels and fights on behalf of human beings against the archangel Gabriel and a fantastic horde of angelic warriors.
Even the title of this film demonstrates a postmodern twist. In the New Testament, the name “Legion” is the self-designation of the demons within a man exorcised by Christ. In the film, this name is applied to God’s forces massing against humanity. As Elizabeth Rosen writes in APOCALYPTIC TRANSFORMATION: APOCALYPSE AND THE POSTMODERN IMAGINATION (Lexington Books, 2008), “postmodernists have remained interested in the apocalyptic myth, even as they reject the myth’s absolutism or challenge the received system of morality that underlie it.” Postmodernists also challenge the received system of religion in which western apocalyptic finds its roots, that of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In a final consideration it is interesting to read some of the comments from Christian spokespersons in Billson’s article, regarding Christian influences in film. One states that Christians in the audience will welcome any film that “sensitively explores the stories of the Bible.” Another states that “biblically themed movies that herald justice, compassion and perseverance appeal to audiences.” Billson correct notes that the horror and fantasy films she has discussed in her article do not exactly come across like Sunday school material, but even so she states, “horror and fantasy have gone all biblical on us.”
Perhaps that is true, in a manner of speaking, but as good students of cinema and culture we must be careful to distinguish between the very different expressions of “biblical horror and fantasy” in the post-Christendom, postmodern context. Film critics, and especially clergy and church-connected institutions interacting with film and culture, need to do a better job of understanding the the continually prominent yet changing role of religion in horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
Note: This article has been revised since its initial publication due to a message sent from Billson regarding a correction needed regarding the source of the original publication.

AVATAR: Probing Beyond Visuals to Culture and Identity

For many months now I have been looking forward to the release of James Cameron’s AVATAR. But with all the hype, much of it coming from Cameron himself, I was prepared to be mesmerized by the visual display, but to feel let down by the storyline. Thankfully, the visual elements lived up to the hype, and the story exceeded my expectations in a great holiday science fiction/fantasy film experience.


AVATAR is set in the future in space. As the story begins, we are introduced to Jake Sully, a marine who has lost the use of his legs and is confined to a wheelchair. He awakens from the suspended animation of space travel to arrive at the planet-like moon Pandora where he is given the mission of controlling a biological avatar genetically engineered with a combination of human and alien DNA from the Pandoran race of the Na’vi. Earth is in need of new natural resources, and Pandora is teeming with one particularly valuable one. A major corporation has been working with a paramilitary unit to gain the trust of the Na’vi in the hopes of convincing them to move away from the part of the land most rich in the precious metal, and with the clock winding down on the diplomatic efforts, the use of military force to secure the resource is threatening. Sully “drives” his Na’vi avatar and gains the trust of a tribe, at first to provide intelligence data in order to secure the planet’s resources; however, as his time with the Na’vi continues, he begins to sympathize with the race and their way of life. This complicates his military mission and sets the stage for the unfolding drama of the film.


As many commentators have noted, the visual elements of AVATAR are impressive. In 1968 viewers were amazed at the realistic depiction of space flight created for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and in 1977 they were awed with STAR WARS’s swashbuckling variation on the theme. Cameron achieves a similar visual wonder with his new system of motion or performance capture, computer-generated animation, and digital imagery. Many previous attempts at generating the human form have been less than impressive, always having a very contrived look and feel to them. Although there have been exceptions, such as FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, Cameron has taken this further, to the point where audiences forget that with the shift from the scientific and paramilitary compound to the realm of Pandora and the Na’vi, they are actually shifting from watching live action to watching human-like forms created in a computer.
Not only are the Na’vi rendered impressively; they live their lives and tell us their story in a lush fantasy realm of Pandora’s natural beauty. James Cameron and his cinematic team have brought the best of fantasy art’s depictions of alternative worlds to life with imaginative forms of landscapes, plants, and animal life. One minor critique from this reviewer comes in the form of the portions of the planet that have luminescence: although this feature is breathtaking at first, Cameron spends a little too much time on this aspect of Pandora’s landscape – to the point where it almost feels like an obsession with 1970s black light posters.
In terms of the storyline, I was expecting something that would struggle to keep pace with the visual effects, and which might come off more than a little “preachy” in terms of its anti-colonialism. As mentioned in the introduction, the story was better than I had hoped, and although the film does critique the West’s unfortunate history of colonialism, the abuse of indigenous peoples, and the plundering of natural resources, for those not overly sensitive to much of the contemporary angst and self-loathing that is expressed in Western self-critique in popular culture, it does not hit the viewer over the head and fits within the current cultural zeitgeist as the West reassess its historic past in interactions with those of other cultures.


Some of the more interesting features of AVATAR for this reviewer are its cultural and religious aspects. With the Na’vi, James Cameron has created an entire culture with a language, a way of life, a relationship with the land, and a religion or spirituality. This provides one of the entry ways for critique of the West, when we hear the corporation and the paramilitary organization with whom they are working refer to the Na’vi as savages and primitives who must obviously be backward because they live in trees rather than modern dwellings with all their technological comforts.
The religious beliefs of the Na’vi are belittled by most of those from Earth as well in favor of some kind of secular utilitarianism, with the Na’vi and their planet’s resources used as means to an end, rather than by way of contrast with some kind of monotheism. But Na’vi religious life, and its connection to nature, receives some level of respect from the scientific researchers as might be expected with a film that provides a duality and contrast between the evil corporation and paramilitary and the more benign group of scientists. Much like secular anthropologists who have studied Earth’s indigenous tribes and respected their beliefs even while viewing them as unenlightened and unscientific, the researchers in AVATAR do much the same with the spirituality of the Na’vi, even as they come to reassess the “validity” of these beliefs through their own experiences with the Na’vi and the land.
In regards to Na’vi religion, some commentators have referred to it as pantheism, but this is technically inaccurate. The Na’vi believe that Eywa, the divine “All Mother,” is connected to and in some sense “in” all things, but the “things” of the planet are not identical to Eywa and the All Mother is not the only reality. AVATAR’s religion may be more properly understood then as a form of panentheism and animism, the belief that deity resides within the world, including its animals and plants, but not that deity is the only reality.
An Internet search of “AVATAR and religion” yields a variety of perspectives, including many from those unhappy with the film’s religion. In one sense, it not well received due to the current culture wars between conservatives and progressives, but even so it would appear to fit well within the context of twenty-first century “progressive spirituality,” which meets current needs, according to scholars like Gordon Lynch, such as “the need for a credible religion for the modern age; the need for religion which is truly liberating and beneficial for women; the need to reconnect religion with scientific knowledge; and the need for a spirituality that can respond to our impending ecological crisis.” Religious conservatives on the right chafe at AVATAR’s depictions of deity and nature, but they might also pause to consider that it may have arisen as a response to perceived shortcomings or deficiencies in more traditional forms of Western religiosity.

Avatar Considerations

Finally, a few words need to be said in relation to the title of the film. AVATAR refers to a well known concept in cyberspace wherein a person creates a virtual embodiment of the self that represents them in the digital realm. The term “avatar” is a Sanskrit word that refers to the incarnation of a Hindu god, but in common usage today it refers to our use of virtual forms of embodiment. AVATAR takes the concept of virtual embodiment further than previous treatments of the concept, moving beyond mentally inhabiting digital representations in a computer-generated reality such as THE MATRIX, and beyond the mental control of robotic avatars in SURROGATES, to neurologically inhabiting and “driving” biological entities as the “alien” persons and living their lives through an embodied state.
This unique form of avatar incarnation can lead to interesting personal choices. At one point in AVATAR, Sully states that for him his alternating experiences between his personhood as Sully and his Na’vi identity have switched: who he is as Na’vi seems more real than who he is as Sully. In other words, he comes to prefer and identify more with his avatar than with the identity “driving” the avatar.
There are real world implications for this aspect of AVATAR. When we consider that millions of people inhabit cyberspace and utilize an array of avatars, and that according to Tom Bukowski’s anthropological exploration of Second Life, “[e]mbodiment can be physical, but ‘we are also bodies in a social and cultural sense, and we experience that, too’”, it should come as no surprise that many people struggle with a sense of identity, many times preferring their avatar and the alternative worlds they inhabit to the physical bodies and worlds in which they live. With this in mind, although AVATAR is a science-fiction-fantasy film, it touches on very real questions, as virtual worlds continue to overlap with the non-virtual, whether in the cinema or in cyberspace.


The critical commentary is still coming together for AVATAR, from those who love it and consider it one of the best science fiction films ever made, to those who hate it and consider it to be yet another product of the progressive left in their conflict with cultural conservatism. Beyond these extremes there is much to be appreciated in the film, and it is exciting to speculate upon what Cameron and others will achieve, cinematically and imaginatively, with the digital technology that has been created.

Surrogates: Sci-Fi Thriller’s Reflections on the Self and the Synthetic

Surrogates (2009)Last month I heard about a forthcoming science fiction film by thumbing through one of my wife’s entertainment magazines. A little further research on the Internet led to a trailer, and after viewing it I was hooked. The movie became an instant part of my “must see” list for the last few months of 2009. The film is SURROGATES, and it caught my eye because it includes several elements that are attractive for me, especially its storyline, which involves the increasing interpenetration (if not dependence) of human beings upon technology, particularly various digital technologies such as robotics.
Like many science fiction movies these days, SURROGATES is based upon a graphic novel, in this case by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. It tells the story of a society in the not too distant future when advanced robotics have come to play a significant part of life around the world. As the film’s opening narrative discusses, the first experimentations with robotics began with an animal-robotic interface, before moving on to the use of robotics to assist those with physical disabilities, and then taking quantum leaps in application when the military became involved in the technology by creating robotic troops to enter into battle.
The robots are the products of Virtual Self Industries, and the technology becomes so advanced that it is possible for human beings to connect the neural pathways of the brain to robots so that everything the robot experiences is felt as the experience of the human being. This makes it possible, indeed desirable, that people live their lives not through the imperfection and limitations of their bodily selves, the “meat bags” as they are derogatorily referred to in SURROGATES, but through robots who are designed by each human being as an idealized expression of themselves. This creates something of a utopian world where fantasies can be lived out, and crime rates drop dramatically around the world as people immerse themselves in their surrogacy of robotic life and fantasy.
But in human experience utopia is often interrupted and broken. In the case of SURROGATES someone begins killing robots, which shouldn’t be a problem because of built-in safeguards that protect human users from damage and destruction to their “surries,” but in this case the deaths of robot surrogates lead to the deaths of the human users on the other end. Murder of human beings through surrogates presents the first instance of murder in many years.
This leads to a criminal investigation led by FBI agent Greer (played by Bruce Willis), with his partner agent Peters (Radha Mitchell). Like the rest of the world, Greer and Peters live their lives through robotic surrogates, and as they pursue the investigation they discover the frightening ability of a human to kill another human through secret military technology, apparently with connections to Virtual Self Industries, and the serious falling out between the corporation and its founder, Older Canter (James Cromwell) who’s son was one of the first murder victims that began the investigation.
Along the way Greer uncovers conspiracy and cover-up, questions about the military and the extremely powerful VSI, a potentially dangerous tension between the mass of society dependent upon surrogates and a group of humans living without and in opposition to surrogates on human-only reservations under the leadership of The Prophet (a quasi-religious figure played by Ving Rhames), and through all of this Greer comes to grips with his own relationship to surrogates and its impact upon his marriage.
Although SURROGATES will likely not set great box office records, in my view the film is a significant one. Many times I build up great expectations based upon film trailers and storyline summaries, only to become somewhat disappointed when the film does not live up to its hype and my perhaps unrealistic hopes. Thankfully, this was not the case with SURROGATES. It presents a well written storyline that includes a good balance of drama, as relationships and tensions between characters are developed, and a good dose of action and crime drama to compliment these elements. When this is combined with the futuristic possibilities and questions posed by our relationship with technology, it makes for not only entertaining, but also thought provoking cinema as well.
In terms of the serious cultural issues suggested in the film, in my reflections on these matters prior to the film’s release I wrote previously:

“Although the sci-fi premise and scenario of SURROGATES might seem far removed from our own circumstances, it may not really be the case. Consider our fascination with ‘pseudo-events,’ the play revolution fueled by digital entertainment, and posthumanism. In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage, 1992), historian Daniel Boorstin argues that Americans live in an ‘age of contrivance’ and that our public lives are filled with various ‘pseudo-events’ or ‘artificial products’ that simulate reality and which leave the individual who experiences the events or utilizes various products feeling as if they have experienced reality when in fact they have had their stereotypes confirmed by an encounter with the simulation.
“In addition to our experiences with pseudo-events, recall the great amounts of time we spend on play, particularly in the digital realm. Play is becoming an increasingly significant facet of life in those parts of the world where economic factors allow it to be so. This is particularly the case with the continued popularity of professional sports, and a new dimension of play has arisen with the increasing numbers of people spending time in various virtual worlds in cyberspace, such as Lineage, Gaia Online or Second Life. In his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), Edward Castronova believes a ‘fun revolution’ is underway that will change the way in which we behave in the ‘real world.’ He says that, ‘An understanding of fun will become integral to understanding why the real world is losing people [to virtual worlds], and what to do about it.’
“Finally, there are the discussions of transhumanism or posthumanism where the combination of robotics and human consciousness are seen as the next steps in human evolution and societal development. When the concepts of pseudo-identity, the large numbers of people spending great amounts of time in cyberspace or in other forms of digital entertainment, and posthumanism are taken together, it is not too much of a stretch to conceive of a future wherein people play or live their lives immersed in fantasy scenarios through robotic avatars as in SURROGATES.”

Millions of people spend countless hours online immersed in social networking sites like Facebook, or in alternative worlds like Second Life. Is it much of a stretch of credibility and possibility to consider human beings spending most if not all of their lives experienced through robotic surrogates if the technology were available and affordable?
Science fiction has a long history of presenting warnings to human beings about the dangers of technology, including the robotic, and SURROGATES is part of this tradition, but it also includes far more. It provides seeds for reflection to those who are able to use the film in a way that offers the critical distance necessary to think about the uncomfortable issues it raises. These include things such as the value and place of simulated and synthetic experiences, virtual and “real world” identities, idealized selves, and cultural conceptions of personal beauty.
For me SURROGATES was both a thrill ride and a venue for serious reflection, akin to a combination of WESTWORLD and BLADE RUNNER for the 21st century. With films like this and DISTRICT 9, the latter half of 2009 has been a good period for quality science fiction.

SURROGATES (2009). Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Screenplay by Michael Ferris & John D. Brancato, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditt and Brett Weldele. Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Francis Ginty, James Cromwell, Ving Rhams, Jack Noseworthy.