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Horror has a new home

Thursday, October 30, 2014

As far as haunted house movies go, there are few as creepy and unnerving as "The Conjuring." Such was the consensus opinion among CineVerse members who braved a viewing of the film last evening. Here are the conclusions we reached:

WHY AND HOW IS “THE CONJURING” AN EFFECTIVE MODERN HORROR FILM, CONSIDERING HOW DIFFICULT IT IS TO MAKE AN EFFECTIVE HORROR MOVIE OF LASTING QUALITY?
·       It isn’t innovative, pioneering or completely original, but instead it take a lot of the conventions, tropes and clichés we’ve come to expect in scary movies and blends them together for a nice macabre medley. Consider the tropes/conventions it uses:
o   The summoning of a team of “ghostbusters”/paranormal investigators (as in “Poltergeist,” “The Haunting,” and “Paranormal Activity”)
o   The depiction of demonic possession and of an exorcism rite (as in “The Exorcist,” “The Rite,” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”)
o   Use of a creepy/possessed doll (a la “Poltergeist” and “Child’s Play”)
o   Creepy sleepwalking sequences (think “Paranormal Activity” and even old school horror flicks like “The Uninvited” and “I Walked With a Zombie”)
o   Infanticide (as in “Frailty,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “The Ring”)
o   Animals/nature attacking a house and family (“The Birds,” “The Omen,” “The Amityville Horror”)
o   The notion of “sticky” hauntings, wherein the characters can’t escape the paranormal threat by simply leaving the premises (think “Insidious” and “The Sixth Sense”).
o   Hidden compartments/cubbies in the house (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Psycho)
o   Invisible grabbings by the spirit/demon (“Drag Me to Hell,” “Paranormal Activity”)
·       Its setting is the early 1970s in New England, making it a period piece; it’s sometimes harder to criticize modern movies set in the past; in this case, the film is tipping its cap to many classic horror films made in the 1970s and 1960s, and is trying to remind us of that time period by dating it to that era, evoking horror nostalgia.
·       It employs a nesting narrative (a story within a story) with the flashback sequence about Annabelle the haunted doll, which builds intrigue and creates a richer mythology around the story and its affected characters.
·       It follows two parallel storylines: the Perron family, and the Warren family, creating suspense/tension in our concern for the safety of both parties. This is achieved via good casting and performances, along with well-written roles and dialogue.
·       The story, as written, is a slow burner that builds tension by establishing the characters and their predicament in its first hour, then accelerating to full haunted house mode by the second hour. In other words, it’s not terrifying from the first few moments; it tries to create a plausible back story and introduce fairly well-rounded characters properly first.
·       As reviewer Scott Tobias wrote: “(The Conjuring) establishes the space extremely well. I know the layout of the Perron house as if it were my own, and the effect for viewers is that they know the danger areas, like the bedroom with the armoire of doom near the staircase, or the secret cellar of doom off the kitchen. This adds that extra layer of tension during those hid-and-go-clap games the Perrons like to play.”
·       The Conjuring also ratchets up the intrigue by claiming it is based on a true story (even though the credibility of that story and its sources are questionable; consider that Lorraine Warren has said the events dramatized in the movie are vastly different from what actually happened.) Even though this claim is deceptive (as is the claim that prefaces “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Blair Witch Project”), it is still effective at grabbing the audience. It’s also in keeping with the recent trend of many horror films claiming that they are based on actual events (for example: “An American Haunting”; “The Haunting in Connecticut”; and “The Possession.”)
·       Additionally, this is a rare example of a film that was given an R rating, despite not having any nudity, profanity or excessive graphic violence/gore, simply on the basis of being frightening. It doesn’t resort to cheap shocks, slasher tactics or gross-out effects. Executive producer Walter Hamada had publicly said that the MPAA told the filmmakers “It’s just so scary. (There are) no specific scenes or tone that you could take out to get it PG-13.”
·       While there are computer generated effects used in the film, most of the tricks and effects are achieved in the camera, without digital enhancement, lending old school cache to the picture.
·       The movie often relies on moments of unsettling quiet and stillness to scare viewers, as well as creative framing techniques (think about the scene where the demon appears on the edge of the frame as it comes into Lili Taylor’s vision), instead of resorting to overused music stings.
·       It also doesn’t try to end on a sudden jolt, twist or cliffhanger in the last shot, as if to suggest a coming sequel. Instead, there is resolution to the Perron family’s story, but not necessarily to the Warren family’s story, creating a feeling of uncertainty and unsettled emotion.

CAN YOU CITE ANY RELEVANT THEMES EXAMINED IN THIS FILM?
·       The American Dream turned into a nightmare: the Perrons imagined their Rhode Island farmhouse as their dream home, but it gradually turns into a house of horrors.
·       The power of love over evil, of functional families (the Perrons) over dysfunctional families (Bathsheba’s family), and the holy over the profane.

WHAT OTHER MOVIES DOES “THE CONJURING” REMIND YOU OF?
·       The Haunting (1963)
·       Poltergeist
·       The Changeling
·       The Exorcist
·       Psycho

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY JAMES WAN
·       Saw (2004)
·       Insidious (2011)

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You haunt to be in pictures...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On October 29, CineVerse concludes its Shocktober Theater series for 2014 with perhaps the most frightening film of the last 10 years: “The Conjuring” (2013; 112 minutes), directed by James Wan, chosen by Erik Martin (warning: this film contains disturbing content).

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End of the year schedule ready for viewing

Thursday, October 23, 2014

CineVerse has just unveiled its November-December 2014 schedule. To view the lineup of films we'll be watching and discussing over the next several weeks, visit http://1drv.ms/1oxVGHV

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A closer look behind the mask

"Eyes Without a Face" is that rare breed of horror flick that makes you think for a change, linger on its characters and ponder the motivations for their actions. Such was the conclusion our group reached after viewing and discussing this 1960 French movie of the macabre. Here are several other key observations we touched upon:

WHY IS EYES WITHOUT A FACE CONSIDERED A LANDMARK FILM IN THE HORROR GENRE, CONSIDERING ITS YEAR OF RELEASE, 1960?
·       American horror films of this period were cheap, quickie B films that primarily focused on monsters and science fiction/atomic age terrors, while European horror was in the Hammer horror vein, where classic monster tales were updated with color, blood, and sex. Almost all fright films were not taken seriously.
·       This picture, by contrast, is a thinking man’s thriller, and, like Psycho in the same year, a major stepping stone into the era of the modern psychological horror movie.
·       It’s also a poetic horror film that uses powerful visuals, timeless themes and suggestion to provoke ideas and memorable imagery, much as fantasy/horror French predecessors like Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus,” and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Vampyr.”
·       The story and its characters are a cut above typical scenarios and caricatures found in horror movies of this time period: the plot presents a moral and ethical dilemma (the doctor feels guilty for disfiguring his daughter and will go to any length to bring back her beauty), and multidimensional characters that we care about or are at least interested in.
·       Although it is visually poetic and artfully crafted, “Eyes Without a Face” was shocking for its time, however, especially its mid-film depiction of the inhumane surgery where an innocent girl has her facial tissues removed, and the suggestion that dogs are tortured. While there is virtually no blood or gore, what we see and what is insinuated terrified and disgusted many Europeans as well as Americans.
·       Nevertheless, it did get approved by censors because the filmmakers were very careful to refrain from exploitation and cheap shocks and delicately balance the tone, which can shift from gruesome horror to poignant drama to even a hint of black humor.
·       According to the Criterion Collection essay on this film, director Georges Franju had to be careful not to include excessive blood (which would have angered French censors), show cruelty to animals (which would have touched a nerve with English censors) and make the lead a mad scientist type character (which German censors wouldn’t like). To solve a lot of these issues, the writers cleverly changed the story’s primary focus from the doctor to his daughter, which arguably made both characters more sympathetic.
·       According to reviewer Glenn Erickson, “critics in 1959 were probably most offended by Eyes Without a Face because it refuses to make moral judgments. Louise and Genessier pay for their crimes but it doesn't seem enough to balance the suffering they've caused. Their utter disregard for the basic rights of others is monstrous.”
·       Dr. Genessier is depicted as both inhumane and humane at the same time, creating a conundrum for viewers: his actions are despicable, but at least half of his motivation for mutilation and murder is understandable—he loves his daughter and wants to give her a new face.
·       This film also treats its audience intelligently and causes us to think harder about things rather than provide explanations for everything; for example, is it possible the scar on Louise’s neck is proof that her doctor lover has changed her face? And could it be that this was done to change her identity because the two of them had killed his wife?

WHAT THEMES ARE DELVED INTO IN THIS FILM?
·       Identity: the search for it (Christiane and her father are seeking a new facial identity for her), and the ability to have multiple identities (consider how the doctor is both killer and benefactor, butcher and innovator; Christiane is a damsel in distress as well as a monster in appearance and a silent witness to her father’s crimes; Louise is a lover, accomplice in crime and an assistant; Jacques is a past lover, business partner and aid to the authorities).
·       Masks, both real and figurative, and how each of us wears one to hide our true natures from others.
·       Guilt: the doctor’s guilt over causing his daughter’s facial deformity drives him to commit terrible crimes.
·       Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and his choice to exploit others for a reason he may think is morally justified but which society would not.
·       Patriarchal control and its repercussions
·       The dangers of science run amok and out-of-control ambitions
·       Prometheus, Frankenstein and man’s attempt to become a God-like creator. Think about how Genessier resembled the word “Genesis.”
·       Surface textures, from the smoothness of Christiane’s blank white mask to the shiny plastic raincoats worn by Louise and Edna to the corrugated surface of Louise’s car.

OTHER MOVIES AND BOOKS THAT “EYES WITHOUT A FACE” REMINDS US OF
·       “Diabolique” and “Vertigo,” also both written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who authored this screenplay
·       “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (book) and “Island of Lost Souls” (movie)
·       Jean Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” and “Beauty and the Beast”
·       Cheap imitators like “Circus of Horrors,” “The Awful Dr. Orloff,” “Corruption” and Mansion of the Doomed”

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A horror film that's a cut above the rest

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On October 22, CineVerse's Shocktober Theater meets World Cinema Wednesday, and the results are blood curdling! Join us for the French classic “Eyes Without a Face” (1960; 88 minutes), directed by Georges Franju, chosen by David Ries; Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the November/December CineVerse schedule.

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Born again into a world without fear and hate...or love

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philip Kaufman's 1978 reboot of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" acquits itself nicely as one of the finest film remakes ever, as evidenced by the positive reception given the movie by CineVerse attendees last evening. Here's what we concluded about this notable sci-fi/horror hybrid:

HOW IS THIS REMAKE DIFFERENT FROM THE ORIGINAL RELEASED IN 1956?
·       The original examined “society’s fear of the things that lie outside its rigid conservative confines,” according to reviewer Richard Scheib. That was a film whose subtext explored Americans’ paranoia about communist infiltration into our society (with the pod people being conformist, non-emotional, unthinking communist clones). 1950s America was also fretful about the bomb.
·       This movie, by contrast, reflected a vastly different society that was distrustful of the government and political institutions following Watergate and Vietnam; the 1970s society depicted in the remake is more concerned about conspiracies and nihilism.
·       The remake is set in a bustling metropolis (San Francisco), whereas the original is set in small-town suburban America, and the protagonists try to make it to the safety of the city; in this 1978 version, the hero tries to get as far away from the city as he can. The remake suggests that “urban isolation leaves us abandoned in times of need,” wrote blogger Timothy Brayton.  Also, “urban alienation has become such that the actual meeting and contact of people is seen as something unsettling, which is surely a complete reversal of the message of the 1950s,” Brayton posited.
·       The remake is also different from the original and other remakes, for that matter, in that it assumes our audience intelligence: it doesn’t have to explain that it’s aliens at work here, or try to give us that same backstory; we see right from the opening credits that it is extraterrestrials at work.
·       The original moves along at a faster clip, building tension with a quickening pace and unrelenting directorial style; in the remake, the filmmakers opt for more of a meditative, lingering approach that gives scenes room to breathe and for us to ponder the brooding atmosphere created by lingering on characters and maintaining longer shots. That being said, the film does feature a lot of moving camera and indirect details that you need to pay attention to in every frame.
·       The 1956 version is concerned about threats to the survival of the nuclear family, while the remake seems focused on threats to the survival of heterosexual coupling, sexual love, and traditional reproduction between a man and a woman. Consider all the male/female symbolism (in the house, the décor includes busts, dolls, and paintings pairing males and females. Consider, too, how the pod transformations replace any need for heterosexual reproduction to perpetuate its species.
·       There seems to be more hope at the conclusion of the 1956 original, as if suggesting that we need to wake up and begin to fight back; the last words are “it’s an emergency!” But in the remake, the ending is much more pessimistic and nihilistic; it ends in a terrifying shriek and the bleak knowledge that the hero we’ve been trusting is now a pod person, too.
·       The remake also boasts an outstanding score and sound design, including harsh industrial sounds and bleats; additionally, the movie’s score was mixed using the four-channel Dolby Stereo process, which was new and innovative for its time.

HOW IS THE 1978 REMAKE A TIME CAPSULE PRODUCT OF ITS TIMES, YET ALSO A TIMELES TALE?
·       There are a lot of 1970s trappings and tropes built into the story, including pop psychology and the self-help movement, music for plants, mud baths, era-specific authors like Immanuel Vellikovsky, and self-absorbed intellectualism (on display in many a late 1970s Woody Allen movie).
·       The subtext seems to criticize the “me” generation and the post-hippie/post-Vietnam acquiescence to conformity and compromise that had occurred. Director Philip Kaufman was quoted as saying: “We were all asleep in a lot of ways in the fifties, living, conforming other-directed types of lives. Maybe we woke up a little in the sixties, but now we’ve gone back to sleep again.”
·       It’s fitting that the setting is late 1970s San Francisco, which had been the host of many a flower power child and counterculture figure; by the late seventies, however, any power that Frisco had as a countercultural home base had dissipated after the death of the 1960s ideals.

SYMBOLS AND MOTIFS FEATURED IN THIS FILM:
·       Spiderwebs (e.g., broken windshield, spores spreading out over the leaves, alien tendrils, etc.)
·       Clocks and pendulum movements
·       Garbage trucks
·       The pyramid building (standing almost like a phallic symbol)

WHAT OTHER FILMS COME TO MIND AFTER VIEWING THIS REMAKE?
·       They Live
·       Seconds
·       Conspiracy/political thrillers from the 1970s (e.g., Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, etc.)
·       A Nightmare on Elm Street (terror of falling asleep)
·       Alien and The Thing (remake): two other films featuring gross-out effects depicting aliens infiltrating the human body

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR PHILIP KAUFMAN
·       The Right Stuff (1983)
·       The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987)
·       Henry and June (1990)
·       Quills (2000)

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The Pod People meet the Me decade

Sunday, October 12, 2014

CineVerse's Shocktober Theater takes a terrifying detour into science fiction on October 15 with one of the best remakes of all time, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978; 115 minutes), directed by Philip Kaufman, chosen by Dan Quenzel.

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The "Devil" is in the details

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" may have been mandatory reading for many Baby Boomers in high school, but the film adaptation of this popular story is an oft-overlooked and forgotten relic from Hollywood's golden age. We unearthed this chestnut last evening during our CineVerse group meeting and came away with the following observations:

WHAT MAKES “THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER” MEMORABLE AND DISTINCTIVE?
·       Excellent casting choices, especially Walter Huston as Old Scratch, Edward Arnold as Webster, and Simone Simone as the seductress manifestation of Lucifer.
·       It features a number of RKO in-house craftsmen who worked on “Citizen Kane,” including Bernard Herrmann (who won an Oscar for this score), Robert Wise as editor, and the same effects technician and art director.
·       The visuals are quite interesting and ambitious, with its use of high contrast lighting, odd camera angles, unorthodox juxtapositions of shots (e.g., long mastershots followed by extreme close-ups), suggestive dissolves (e.g., the wheat fields dissolving into a supine and pregnant Mary stone, insinuating fertility and sex), zippy editing and writing that moves us quickly through time, sophisticated shots that depict lengthy and undisturbed stretches of dialogue, and innovative special effects (e.g., the axe that disintegrates in midair, carving the initials on the tree).
·       This film would have been daring and risky as a commercial film, considering its mix of macabre elements and agrarian folksiness and its political themes.
·       The lawyer is seen as an upright moral bastion of society in this film, which would have been fitting for this era, when attorneys like Clarence Darrow were considered national treasures and respect and adulation were bestowed upon courtroom professionals, unlike today.

WHAT ARE THEMES, ESPECIALLY POLITICLA MESSAGES, ARE PLAYED OUT IN THIS FILM?
·       According to essayist Tom Piazza, this movie plays as an allegory for America on the cusp of World War II, painting a picture of a “society gone mad with materialism, a premonition of the opportunities and dangers awaiting the United States as it recovered from the Great Depression.”
·       Piazza continued: “The Devil and Daniel Webster contains numerous traces of the leftist and populist politics of the 1930s, but the film is ultimately morally and politically ambiguous. Its implied moral equation seems is: that neighborliness, and mutual aid—community—as exemplified by the grange, are good. The Devil, being bad, undercuts community by encouraging people to indulge their individual appetites at the expense of group values. So the question of personal choice is a question of community health as well, and one cannot secede from the social contract without doing immense damage to all the other souls around one.”
·       Put in other words, the film’s moral message could be that mutual help is mutually beneficial and good, while the inclination for self-advancement is greedy and bad. This can be reflected in a larger lens upon the people of America, who, it is suggested here, must work together for us to survive and prosper collectively and for us to overcome the temptations and evils of the world.
·       In short, this is a film about performing the greater good instead of following materialism.
·       Nationalism and patriotism are other themes suggested; consider how Webster pleads for Jabez’s soul to be saved in the context of American nationalism. “Jabez’s freedom from damnation is directly equated with American freedom from oppression and the constitutionally enshrined right to self-determination. “Ladies and gentleman of the jury don’t let the country go to the Devil,” Edward Arnold’s Webster argues at one point,” wrote reviewer Richard Scheib.
·       The picture is also surprisingly partisan in depicting Webster as an unabashed Republican (despite the fact that he was a member of the Whig and Federalist parties) and espousing conservative Republican values of this period. It also lionizes Webster as a flag-waving, patriotic hero, when, ironically, he had supported slave owner rights politically in legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act.
·       Ironically, conservatives would have raised an eyebrow at the notion of the central theme at work here: that the formation of a Grange (an agricultural commune where area farmers pool their resources together and balance out the rewards and risks) is the economic answer to a longtime agricultural problem. This smacked of socialism/communism.

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR WILLIAM DIETERLE
·       A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1934)
·       The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
·       The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
·       Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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Why it's Old Scratch, 'natch

Sunday, October 5, 2014

You won't want to miss CineVerse's second installment of Shocktober Theater on October 8. This time, it's “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941; 107 minutes), directed by William Dieterle, chosen by Len Gornik.

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