Blog Directory CineVerse

Wielding new weapons of terror: biology and sexuality

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Ridley Scott's "Alien" set the bar high for sci-fi horror, introducing a terrifying new extraterrestrial creature into the pop culture lexicon, plumbing the depths of body horror, and incorporating elements from the slasher subgenre to heighten the scare factor. The movie was a radical departure from audience expectations for horror/science-fiction, infusing fascinating thematic elements that leave a lot to think about long after the credits roll. Here's CineVerse's take on this late 1970s fright film gem:

HOW WAS THIS FILM DIFFERENT AND SURPRISING FROM OTHER SCIENCE-FICTION, HORROR AND ACTION FILMS THAT CAME BEFORE IT?

  • Its crew is quite different from other spaceship human crews depicted in other films; these folks aren’t clean cut, young, adventurous or scientifically curious; most are middle-aged, and they’re blue collar types concerned about getting paid and going through the routines of doing their jobs. 
  • It caught audiences off guard in that the handsome captain, played by top-billed Tom Skerritt, isn’t the final survivor; instead, a woman is. This movie continued the trope of “the final girl” who outlasts all other victims and eventually vanquishes the villain, a trope earlier established in horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. 
  • It deviated from the clean and antiseptic look of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “The pristine technologism that dominated interstellar interior decoration since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave way to a raw grittier view, with the ship being designed as all dark corridors and exposed, dripping conduits. Ridley Scott loves this textural bombardment and the ship’s look is one of the most exciting works of junk fetishism to grace the postmodern science-fiction movement. The look was influential – after Alien, the design schema of interstellar travel forever left behind the 2001 look of clean, white antiscepticism where technology would triumph over humanity, and took place in a gritty, rundown world inhabited by working stiffs.” 
  • It plays as both science fiction film that embraces plausible realism (consider the sequence featuring documentary-style live video footage) as well as slasher horror film conventions in which the monster picks off the cast one by one with shocking kills. 
  • This was a completely new and unique kind of extraterrestrial creature—one that stood as a biosexual monstrosity and aberration of nature, thanks to its inspired design by H.R. Giger, an artist known for his disturbing blend of the sexual and the mechanical. 
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “’Alien’ uses a tricky device to keep the alien fresh throughout the movie: It evolves the nature and appearance of the creature, so we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do…the alien is capable of being just about any monster the story requires. Because it doesn't play by any rules of appearance or behavior, it becomes an amorphous menace, haunting the ship with the specter of shape-shifting evil. Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, calls it a "perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility," and admits: "I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” 
    • This kind of alien stood in stark contrast to the benevolent aliens shown in Spielberg films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and, later, “E.T.” 
  • The suspenseful pacing is superb, forcing us to get acquainted with the crew and the ship for 30 minutes before any real action transpires. 
  • Like Jaws and Halloween before it, it doesn’t reveal what the monster looks like or show it in full form until we’re well past Act 1. 
THEMES AT WORK IN ALIEN:
  • Dehumanization: consider how the Weyland-Yutani corporation values alien life forms over its own human crew, and how humans are used as reproductive fodder for the aliens. 
  • Biological and sexual fears: The film is replete with symbols and acts suggesting how terrifying male and female reproductive organs are. Consider how: 
    • The alien’s head and inner jaws, as well as a newborn chestburster alien serve as threatening phallic symbols 
    • The strange ship the crew explores looks like two open legs and its interiors resemble a body cavity or uterus 
    • Many creatures and characters seem to be committing substitute forms of rape or biological violation, including the facehugger alien that forces entry inside the mouth; the chestburster that emerges from the torso; the fully formed alien that kills Veronica Cartwright (we see his tail pointed between her legs, insinuating a rape of sorts); Ash the android attacking Ripley in a rape-like action, wherein he uses a porno magazine to try to kill her; and the last scene where the alien attacks Ripley after she strips off her clothes. 
    • Male fears about the female body and childbirth: Kane becomes “feminized” and symbolically raped when he is impregnated by the facehugger, and later he exploits anxieties about the pain and viscera of birth when the alien pupa bursts from his chest. 
  • Primal fears: Slate critic Michael Agger wrote: “The staying power of Alien lies in the way it dredges up primal fears. Scott's long shots emphasize the vastness of space, the sense of being marooned in a hostile environment. The spaceship interiors were designed for maximum claustrophobia. And the alien itself, created by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, is not completely foreign. It's a corruption of nature—an intelligent insect—both comprehensible and terrifyingly unknown. Then there's the way many scenes play like a sophomore biology-lab experiment gone awry: Ian Holm poking at the glistening organs of the alien body or Skerritt cutting one of its fingerlike appendages with a laser saw, releasing a spring of acid blood.” 
  • Birth: There are several symbolic depictions of birth or conception in the picture: (1) when the crew rises from hypersleep; (2) when the ship untethers from its “umbilicas”; (3) when the crew explores the alien ship, entering through tunnels designed to resemble the female reproductive system; (4) the chestburster scene. 
  • The theory of the “abject”: Knoji essayist wrote: “The film represents the female as horrific and abject” (the theory of the abject refers to “the state of being cast off” and “marks the moment when we separate ourselves from the mother, when we first recognize a boundary between the self and the other”). “Birth is depicted as a horrifying process. The process of a male being impregnated with a creature that gestates in a being that has no womb and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles. Alien is about humans being forced to confront the abject which they have tried to suppress. The scene in the hypersleep vault suggests that in the future birth has been sanitized and sterilized. Technology has been used to banish the abject. However, the alien, with its monstrous reproductive cycle and horribly visceral nature, forces us to confront the true nature of humanity as abject and organic.” 
MOVIES THAT MAY HAVE INSPIRED ALIEN:
  • The Thing From Another World 
  • It! The Terror Beyond Space 
  • The Quatermass Xperiment 
  • Jaws 
  • Halloween 
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars 
MOVIES THAT WERE LIKELY INFLUENCED BY ALIEN:
  • Species 
  • Event Horizon 
  • Mimic 
  • The Relic 
  • Deep Rising 
  • Virus 
  • Supernova 
  • Pandorum 
  • Apollo 18 
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY RIDLEY SCOTT
  • Blade Runner 
  • Thelma and Louise 
  • Gladiator 
  • Blackhawk Down 
  • Matchstick Men

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At CineVerse, everyone can hear you scream

Monday, October 15, 2018

It's been called a haunted house movie in space. And one of the scariest films of all time. Don't miss CineVerse on October 17, when Shocktober Theater returns with “Alien” (1979; 117 minutes), directed by Ridley Scott, part 3 of our Quick Theme Quartet we call Out-of-this-world Horror.

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Cineversary podcast carves up "Halloween" for its 40th birthday

Sunday, October 14, 2018

For its fourth episode, the Cineversary podcast celebrates the 40th anniversary of John Carpenter's classic horror film "Halloween." Host Erik Martin interviews two guests: the film's production designer/editor Tommy Lee Wallace, who spills his guts about how the movie was made--including his important role in creating the look of Michael Myers; and Southern Utah University film professor Kyle Bishop, who performs a film analysis autopsy on "Halloween" with Erik. Listen or download this latest episode by clicking here or on the play button below.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at www.tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast, like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cineversarypodcast, and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.


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Reliving the night zombie culture was born

Thursday, October 11, 2018

It might be easy today for some to dismiss George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" as schlocky, dated and amateurish. But these folks would be missing the big picture. Because, truth is, this film was enormously influential on the horror genre and pop culture. It also remains an effective chiller five decades following its release. Here's further evidence of these claims, as discussed yesterday at CineVerse:


WHY IS THIS FILM IMPORTANT AND WORTH CELEBRATING 50 YEARS LATER?
  • It’s arguably the first truly modern horror film in its amplified, random violence, gore, documentary visual style realism, and dark tone (consider that everyone we care about dies at the end, and there is no accepted rationale for why the zombies attack or what created them); this film was truly shocking upon initial release.
  • It created the zombie film subgenre and established the modern conventions for zombie monsters—that they eat human flesh, that they infect others, that they attack mindlessly and not necessarily energetically.
  • Night of the Living Dead was well-timed to exploit the fears and emotions of teenagers and young adults who were distrustful of our government and its involvement in the brutal war in Vietnam, traumatized by the political assassinations and unrest of the time, and mindful of racist attitudes of that era.
  • It features an African American male as its main protagonist, which was bold and revolutionary for a 1968 movie of any genre, but especially a horror movie. The fact that this character, the lone final survivor, is ironically gunned down at the conclusion, helps this film rise from exploitative B-picture material to a deeper sociopolitical statement.
  • It demonstrated that a lot of creativity and ingenuity, despite a low budget and lack of major studio involvement, could reap significant box-office and critical rewards for the genre; this film’s success paved the way for other independent small-budget filmmakers to release their horror magnum opus works, like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and John Carpenter’s Halloween.
  • At a time when color films were much more prominent, it was shot on cheap black-and-white film, which helps to bridge the gap between old school horror movies and the new wave of increasingly violent and adult scary fare. Using black and white allows us to focus on the characters and the action and not see the flaws or low-budget deficiencies as much.
  • This movie lacks the sex and nudity that would have attracted horror audiences at this time to drive-in theaters and midnight showings. Instead of tawdry thrills, it’s all about stark, abject, senseless terror.
  • There was nothing like this at the time—no precedent for audiences to grasp onto; they had never seen a film about zombie flesh eaters, about monsters who looked like everyday men, women and children. This would have put viewers off guard, made them vulnerable and therefore more frightened and disturbed.
    • Blogger Brian Eggert wrote: “Night of the Living Dead was not another pulpy B-movie wrought with space aliens, monsters from the abyss, and atomic-era mutations. Romero’s film turned people, among them our friends and family members, into flesh-eating ghouls.”
  • Interestingly, the filmmakers reportedly forgot to put a copyright notice on the movie, which meant that it was considered in the public domain; film pirates duped and exhibited it, which ironically led to greater exposure for the film, helping to cement its popularity.
WHAT THEMES STAND OUT IN THIS FILM?
  • Zombies as stand-ins for whatever currently ails society; in 1968, they could have been symbols for bigots, counterculturalists, Americans deadened by the violence around them, consumers, etc.
  • Eggert theorized: “Other described the film’s cannibalism as humanity’s irrational compulsion for violence, our seemingly embedded need to destroy one another. Elsewhere, viewers saw the film as a reaction to anti-war protests of the current Vietnam conflict, a critique of the media, an indictment against familial and governmental establishments, and a severe blow to civil defense.”
  • Irony: the fact that the black hero of the movie outlasts everyone else thanks to cunning and instincts, but is tragically shot to death by white men who, presumably, think he’s a zombie.
  • Senseless violence, which viewers would have been used to by the late 1960s due to the war, police brutality, assassinations, racist actions, the Manson family murders, and other current events.
  • The breakdown of society and civilization that is inevitable when human beings don’t work together to solve problems.
WORKS AND EVENTS THAT MAY HAVE INSPIRED NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD:
  • The Last Man on Earth (I Am Legend)
  • Carnival of Souls
  • Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son
  • The Vietnam War and the rising counterculture of the late 1960s
  • The Civil Rights movement and black power movement
LATER WORKS INFLUENCED BY NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD:
  • The Return of the Living Dead movie series
  • 28 Days Later and its sequels
  • Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland
  • The Walking Dead TV series
  • World War Z
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY GEORGE ROMERO:
  • The Crazies
  • Martin
  • Five Dead sequels, including Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead
  • Creepshow

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The night when zombies turn golden

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Three different themes converge on CineVerse on October 10: Shocktober Theater part 2, Quick Theme Quartet: Out-of-this-world Horror part 2, and Cineversary: a celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968; 97 minutes), directed by George Romero. Plus: we'll watch "Light in the Darkness," a 24-minute retrospective on the legacy of "Night of the Living Dead."

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"They're here already! You're next!"

Thursday, October 4, 2018

It's interesting that some of the greatest horror movie classics of all time were B-pictures often made on shoestring budgets (consider, for instance, the original "Halloween," "Night of the Living Dead," and "Cat People"). Slotting nicely within this formula is arguably the best scary movie of the 1950s, Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which works across many subgenres, including the paranoid political thriller and the alien invasion sci-fi flick. Over 60 years later, the original continues to hold us tight in its suspenseful grip. Here are some of the reasons why, as discussed yesterday at CineVerse:

WHAT DID YOU FIND DIFFERENT, REFRESHING OR UNEXPECTED ABOUT INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?

  • The story moves along at a fast clip, building tension with a quickening pace and unrelenting directorial style. 
  • The opening and ending feel tacked on and forced, as if the filmmakers were bowing to pressure from censors and popular thought that the film was too bleak and frightening. There seems to some hope at the conclusion, as if suggesting that we need to wake up and begin to fight back; the last words are “it’s an emergency!” 
  • There isn’t much “sci-fi” here; lots of fiction, but not much science. In other words, the aliens look just like us, and there aren’t many special effects and no spacecraft or otherworldly technology shown. 
WHAT THEMES ARE AT WORK IN THIS MOVIE?
  • Fear of infiltration from outside forces—including infiltration of political forces like communism. This film examines “society’s fear of the things that lie outside its rigid conservative confines,” according to reviewer Richard Scheib. The subtext explores Americans’ paranoia about communist infiltration into our society (with the pod people being conformist, non-emotional, unthinking communist clones). 1950s America was absorbed with the McCarthy communist witch hunts and was also fretful about the bomb. 
  • The peace and sanctity of small town suburbia is a myth; fear, anarchy and corruption can occur in a town with white picket fences. 
  • The survival of the nuclear family is under threat. 
  • The mind can figure out everything except itself, as the psychiatrist character says in the film; this reinforces the notion of the mysteries of human existence, and the existential dilemma of never being able to truly know yourself—which suggests that we are vulnerable to infiltration by outside forces. 
  • The value and sanctity of being an authentic human being who has his/her own mind and emotions. 
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 DON SIEGEL
  • Dirty Harry 
  • Escape From Alcatraz 
  • The Killers 
  • The Shootist

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The pod people formally invite you to Shocktober Theater

Sunday, September 30, 2018

It's that time of year again. Shocktober Theater returns to CineVerse, this time in the guise of a Quick Theme Quartet we call "Out-of-this-world Horror." Once a quarter (every third month), CineVerse will explore four movies tied together by a theme. Our fourth quartet will focus on four horror films with science fiction elements.

Part 1 happens October 3, with “The Invisible Man” (1933; 71 minutes), directed by James Whale; and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956; 80 minutes), directed by Don Siegel.

Note: due to the long combined runtime of both films, we will start CineVerse promptly five minutes earlier, at 6:55 PM.

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Singing the Black Rock blues

Thursday, September 27, 2018

How do you build an effective action film without much action? Turn it into a whodunit western thriller and cast Spencer Tracy in the lead role as a deceptively strong and resourceful protagonist on a mystery mission in a small town where nobody wants him around. That's the recipe at work in "Bad Day at Black Rock," and it cooks up a pretty tasty stew for audiences to savor. For further proof, here's a summary of our major CineVerse discussion points from last night:

THEMES BUILT INTO THIS FILM INCLUDE:

  • The ugly legacy of xenophobia and racism 
  • Our civic duty to stand up for the oppressed, bullied and outnumbered 
  • The dangers of crowd conformity and not thinking for yourself. 
  • This film is considered by many to be a subtextual criticism, like High Noon was, of the McCarthy communist witch hunts years earlier that resulted in many people being unfairly ostracized and blacklisted to little public objection. 
  • The movie also represents one of the earliest indictments by Hollywood of the way Japanese Americans were interred and unfairly treated during World War II. 
  • The Riding the High Country film blog suggested a further theme: the nature of the west itself. “When Smith points out that suspicion of the unfamiliar is just a natural throwback to the old days, Macreedy observes that he always thought the old west was characterized by hospitality. And there’s the point, that the myth of the old west was subverted through time into the kind of small-minded defensiveness represented by Black Rock. To Smith, this new west has been neglected and forgotten, of interest only to academics or businessmen seeking a quick buck. Although it’s never explicitly stated, the inference is that the responsibility for the death of an innocent Japanese doesn’t rest merely on the shoulders of the bunch of ignorant rednecks who dealt the final blow. The suggestion is that these people have been bypassed by progress (the train that never stops) and abandoned to their own prejudices – an embarrassing by-product of the apathy in wider society.” 
WHAT MAKES BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK MEMORABLE AND DISTINCTIVE?
  • It’s essentially a contemporary western, in which you have the man in the white hat who vies against men in black hats within a very small, undeveloped frontier-like town. 
  • It’s also essentially an action film, yet there’s not much action or violence to speak of. 
  • It’s interesting to see, during the postwar 1950s, considered by many nostalgic types to be a golden era for America, a movie that isn’t afraid to point the finger at deeper social issues, like racism, morality and guilt for our nation’s past actions. 
  • The movie ratchets up the tension effectively by limiting the viewer’s knowledge and by establishing a whodunit thriller: we don’t know why, until later, Macreedy has arrived at Black Rock, and we don’t know what’s happened to the man he seeks or who is responsible for him disappearing. 
  • Arguably, the film is effective because it’s lean and brisk; it’s only 81 minutes long, and the filmmakers don’t waste time on superfluous subplots, romances, flashbacks, or otherwise. 
  • You could make a case that Spencer Tracy is miscast here due to his older and pudgy appearance and the fact that he’s not known as a tough guy action hero. 
    • Others would contend, however, that this is nice casting against type that’s both refreshing and unexpected. 
    • Also, Tracy’s visage is considered by many to be one reflective of our nation’s collective morality and conscience. Consider how Tracy’s characters are often imbued with higher moral authority in movies like “Boys Town,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and others. With this admirable baggage, he’s ideal to play this role. 
  • The widescreen aspect ratio was a smart choice to demonstrate visually how desolate this Bad Rock setting is and how isolated Macreedy is within any given shot he appears in. Note that this was one of the first pictures by MGM to be photographed in CinemaScope, so it was a relatively new format. 
BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK CAN ALSO MAKE US THINK OF THESE MOVIES:
  • High Noon—another film featuring a solitary man pitted alone against formidable foes and another veiled allegory for the Hollywood blacklist and the McCarthy communist witch hunts 
  • Platinum High School—which revamps the basic story as a cautionary tale about juvenile delinquents 
  • Yojimbo 
  • Billy Jack 
  • Conspiracy 
OTHER MOVIES DIRECTED BY JOHN STURGES
  • The Magnificent Seven 
  • The Great Escape 
  • Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 
  • The Eagle Has Landed 
  • The Old Man and the Sea 
  • Last Train From Gun Hill

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A Bad Day at Black Rock, but a good day for CineVerse

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Even a silver-haired Spencer Tracy can whoop some ass, as proven in “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955; 81 minutes), directed by John Sturges, chosen by Mike Bochenek, slated for CineVerse on September 26. Plus: prior to the film, join us for a movie trivia game, with a chance to win DVD prizes,

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