Playing Horror Catchup: 2009 Edition

For the second year in a row, I’ve devoted the majority of my movie-watching in October to horror films. Since I am, as I’ve said, relatively new to the genre, there are still a lot of horror classics for me to watch, and I still didn’t get to a lot of them this month (I really, really wanted to see The Exorcist, for example, but didn’t). And with my love for classic film, more often than not I tend to gravitate towards the older ones in the genre, and what I see is also quite dependent on whatever Los Angeles’s Cinefamily has programmed for the season. This year it was Technicolor Terror, so you’ll see a lot of that in this recap post. I also saw a couple of Italian horror films, but I put those in another post.

A Tale of Two Sisters

2005 Korea. Director: Ji-woon Kim. Starring: Su-jeong Lim, Guen-Young Moon, Jung-ah Yum, Kap-su Kim.

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This is not only one of the finest horror films I’ve ever seen, it’s also a fantastic film regardless of genre. Two sisters, one of them apparently just out of a hospital stay for some kind of mental trauma, arrive with their father and stepmother (with whom both girls have a very distrustful and possibly abusive relationship) at a seemingly peaceful country home. But all is not as it seems, and soon ghosts or spirits or something starts haunting the girls and stepmother. It would be a crime to say more to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I will just say that the narrative here is built as well as any film ever made – just the right amount of information is revealed throughout to make you start guessing what’s happening, while still planting seeds of doubt in your own suppositions. In fact, because of how perfectly it’s plotted, I bet it will remain riveting on rewatch, even once you know the answer to the central mystery. In style, it has a quiet confidence, slow but intense pacing, and an ability to keep you on the edge of your seat even when nothing is happening. Technically, cinematography, sound design, editing, acting, all top-notch. And also, it’s really scary, in the best, most rewarding way. It earns every jump and scream 100%, yet without ever really showing much of anything.

Häxan

1922 Denmark. Director: Benjamin Christensen. Starring: Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Tora Teje, Elith Pio.

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Easily one of my favorite films of this Halloween season. It purports to be an educational examination of witchcraft through the ages, beginning with a dry, lecture-like chapter describing (with medieval illustrations and, yes, a wooden pointer) the medieval mindset toward demonic activity. But this is not really a documentary, and very soon we get narratives of Satanic rituals and visitations, with fanciful flights into Satan’s very presence. The visual effects are amazing (especially for 1922, but I don’t mean that as a qualification so much as a magnification), and there’s never a dull moment. The final section carries us into the 1920s as director Christensen ties what medievals understood as witchcraft and possession to the symptoms of hysteria (that, in itself, is kind of quaint today, of course). But as much as Christensen’s narration puts on the persona of sympathetic educator, he clearly takes a huge amount of glee in showing the horrors of torture and the wickedness of Satan’s lair. It’s like he’s constantly going “Oh, wasn’t it horrible how they treated these women in the Middle Ages…here, let me show you exactly what it was like in closeup detail, because it’s actually kind of awesome.” And it is. And beautiful, mesmerizing, scary, and funny.

Horror of Dracula

1958 UK. Director: Terence Fisher. Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough.

Horror of Dracula

My first Hammer horror film! Lots of firsts this month. And I quite enjoyed it once I made myself stop being distracted by the changes from Stoker’s novel (at first I was really confused, thinking that since Jonathan was actively hunting Dracula, it must be some sort of sequel) – actually, taken on its own, it works quite well. Christopher Lee plays Dracula somewhere between Nosferatu‘s ghoulish monster and a more modern, sexual version – both of which are actually evoked in Stoker’s original, but most adaptations choose one approach and ignore the other. That’s what really, for me, anyway, made this film work, even though Dracula’s only on-screen for a few minutes total. The rest of the time Peter Cushing anchors the film as a learned Van Helsing. And Michael Gough provides unintentional comic relief as Jonathan’s earnest brother.

The Host

2006 Korea. Director: Joon-ho Bong. Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae, Ah-sung Ko.

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A sort of contemporary Korean Godzilla – a group of 1960s scientists dump biochemicals into a bay, then forty years later a creature emerges to terrorize the city. I expected them to hold off on showing the creature, actually, building tension by sound and fleeting shadows and stuff, but this is not that kind of movie. Nope, almost immediately after the scientist prologue and a brief, manic introduction to our main characters, the monster jumps out of the water and starts gallumphing around eating people. The film has a few creepy sections and a few jump scares, but it’s far more a humorous monster movie than a truly scary one. And as that, it succeeds quite well. It also pretty much throws everything at you – missing children, estranged families united in crisis, government intervention and propaganda, viral infection scares, and of course, the inevitable invitation to a sequel. Most of it sticks, and it’s certainly an enjoyable ride.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum

1933 USA. Director: Michael Curtiz. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Glenda Farrell, Fay Wray, Frank McHugh.

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A brilliant wax sculptor loses years of work (as well as the use of his hands) in a fire days before his museum of wax figures was set to open. He relocates from London to New York to start over, but is somehow able to get his new wax figures ready for exhibition much more quickly this time. Meanwhile, a rash of disappearances plague the city. I found this slight little horror thriller much more enjoyable than it had any right to be, from the shadows and angles betraying an Expressionist influence, to the evocative green and red tints of two-color Technicolor, to Glenda Farrell’s spunky performance as a female reporter trying to land the big story. Also on board – classic scream queen Fay Wray and B-movie staple Lionel Atwill as the shady sculptor. It’s certainly a notch above your standard 1930s B-level potboiler.

Doctor X

1932 USA. Director: Michael Curtiz. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster.

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Doctor X has a good bit in common with The Mystery of the Wax Museum – director Michael Curtiz, ingenue Fay Wray, staid Lionel Atwill, two-color Technicolor, and a series of odd murders investigated by an energetic reporter who needs a big scoop. But while it has its moments, it’s not nearly as tight a narrative or as enjoyable. I trace a lot of that to the reporter character, who is male here and 95% annoying as hell. Made me appreciate Glenda Farrell in the other film that much more. It does have some fun incomprehensible pseudo-psychology, though. So there’s that.

The Revenge of Frankenstein

1958 UK. Director: Terence Fisher. Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn.

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A sequel to the Frankenstein story, as Dr. Frankenstein fakes his own death to avoid execution for his crimes, then continues his attempts to create artificial life incognito. And he succeeds in creating a very natural-looking man and surgically implanting it with his physically-disabled assistant’s brain. But there are…complications, as one might expect. It’s not that great a movie, and a fair amount of it doesn’t even make sense, but it was decent enough. And I was pretty fascinated with the laboratory set-up – great example of pre-electronic technology involving prodigious amounts of chemical tubing, beakers and switches.

Dr. Cyclops

1940 USA. Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian.

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A scientist working on a secret project brings some colleagues down to help, only to use his discoveries to shrink them to 1/6 their normal size and keep them captive when they try to delve too deeply into his research. Exactly WHY he’s trying to learn how to shrink people isn’t clear, but if you don’t ask too many questions it’s fairly enjoyable. Sort of like The Incredible Shrinking Man meets The Most Dangerous Game, but without the underlying philosophical questions of either.

The Phantom of the Opera

1943 USA. Director: Arthur Lubin. Starring: Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier.

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Gaston Leroux’s novel has been adapted for the screen many times. This is not one of the better attempts. The basics are here, with Claude Rains as the disfigured phantom dwelling in the sewers below the Paris opera house and obsessing over ingenue Christine, who’s courted by soldier Raoul. They’ve added a lot more back story for the Phantom, but instead of making him more sympathetic, it just makes him more pitiful (not in the good way). But the biggest issue, honestly, is creating a character not in the original for Nelson Eddy to play – basically, the film’s an excuse to showcase the studio’s opera singers, and they sing ad nauseum. Not that I have anything against opera, but the amount of opera in here leaves little focus for the Phantom story, which becomes an afterthought to the love triangle.

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Bob Turnbull
Admin

"Haxan" is all kinds of wickedly good awesomeness isn't it? The effects are indeed quite remarkable – I thought it would be cheesy, but these are some of the best representations of demons I've seen on film.

I'm glad you liked the Curtiz "Mystery Of The Wax Museum" too. I was surprised at how much fun it was since I expected (I'm not sure why to be honest) it to be a minor B picture. Fay Wray is just lovely too, isn't she?

If you haven't seen it, you'd probably also like Andre de Toth's "House Of Wax" (1953) with Vincent Price – it's full colour images (and of course Price himself) give it the edge out of the two of them for me (but it's close).

I haven't seen "Revenge of Frankenstein", but your description sounds right. Part of my love of Hammer is their set design and use of colour. The plots are almost secondary sometimes…

Marina Antunes
Admin

I'm happy to report that I've seen a few of the films on the list but the one I'm missing which I'm most looking forward to seeing is Haxan. Looks bloody awesome! Definitely making an effort to see that ASAP.