Tag Archives: Horror

Pre-Code Hollywood #3 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

JekyllHyde1931Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton

The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
6 - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.

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Top 100 Films #4 – The Exorcist (1973)

 

scariest-movie-exorcims#4. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: William Peter Blatty (based on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb

The Exorcist has long been considered to be the scariest movie ever made, and for good reason. William Friedkin’s intelligent take on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name is one of the most successful horror films ever made, both on a critical and financial level. The Exorcist follows actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) as they live their quiet, but busy, life together in Georgetown. After Regan plays with a ouija board and becomes acquainted with “Captain Howdy”, strange things begin to happen all around the MacNeil house. Soon, it is apparent that something is wrong with Regan – she is experiencing seizures, using obscene language, and displays abnormal levels of strength for a 12-year old girl. After countless rounds of medical testing, Chris is tired and desperate for answers – she contacts Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who reluctantly agrees to perform an exorcism on the young Regan. Karras along with the veteran Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) prepare for the long, exhausting, and dangerous exorcism on Regan MacNeil, who grows worse by the hour. The Exorcist is an incredible example of the power that pacing can have on a film – the mounting level of intensity and mystery builds to a boiling point in the movie’s final act, and what follows is one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history. Director William Friedkin used manipulative hands-on techniques behind the camera to get reactions out of the cast, and it works to great effect in The Exorcist’s more horrific moments. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair (with help from Mercedes McCambridge) deliver incredibly physical performances, with the two women hitting each other and interacting with various parts of the set. Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil tries to remain brave and fierce for her young daughter, but by the end is exhausted and at her wit’s end – the journey is an incredibly taxing one for Chris. Friedkin went as far as firing blanks on the set in order to get reactions out of Jason Miller and Max von Sydow during the film’s climactic exorcism scene, and clearly the obnoxious technique paid off. Both Miller and Sydow perform brilliantly as Fathers Karras and Merrin, with Sydow bringing a great deal of wisdom to the role. Miller’s Karras is a deeply conflicted and complex character, which is greatly appreciated for any supporting character. Aside from the terrific pacing and acting found in The Exorcist, the film’s special effects still hold up today. The transformation of Regan MacNeil from innocent 12-year-old girl to the horrifying being known as “Pazuzu” is incredibly effective and creepy, with uncredited actress Mercedes McCambridge lending the unique and horrific voice to the character. Other impressive practical effects include large household items violently sliding and flying across the screen seemingly on their own volition towards Ellen Burstyn’s character. The score performed by Mike Oldfield and Jack Nitzsche adds a great deal of mood to the film’s already thick atmosphere, most notably with the creepy “Tubular Bells” theme. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1974, include Best Picture, Best Director (Friedkin), Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Miller), and Best Supporting Actress (Blair) among others, bringing home only two for Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay (Blatty). The success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains unparalleled for a horror film, and the movie continues to age like a fine wine. It’s horrifying, thought-provoking, full of great performances, subtle writing, and rich with creepy atmosphere – it’s the greatest horror film ever made.

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Top 100 Films #19 – The Thing (1982)

 

the-thing-macready#19. The Thing (1982)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Bill Lancaster (based on Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell Jr.)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, T.K. Carter, David Clennon

John Carpenter’s terrifying remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s’ 1951 film The Thing from Another World stands as one of the best remakes in the history of the medium, doubling down on the original film’s sense of isolation and dread.  The Thing takes place at an isolated Antarctic research station and sees a group of men terrorized by a mysterious shape shifting organism.  The organism travels to the station in the form of a sled dog, and begins to quickly take human form, ultimately making each member of the research team untrustable.  The cast of characters includes the level-headed leader R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David), and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) among others.  After discovering the motivations of the organism, the men must band together in order to destroy it, or let their fear and paranoia get the best of them which may ultimately lead to their demise.  From the get-go, The Thing is an exercise in suspense and tension, giving viewers a palpable sense of isolation and distrust. The screenplay by Bill Lancaster is tremendous, establishing the camaraderie between the research team in the beginning of the film, and slowly but surely twisting the knife and creating subtle chasms between the entire group.  Since nobody is sure who the alien organism is posing as, nobody knows who may be an imposter version of themselves.  When this revelation kicks in, our cast of characters go into a controlled panic – they stop sleeping, eating, start acting erratically, and begin spending far too much time alone.  The incredible makeup and practically special effects by Rob Bottin are the highlight of The Thing in my mind – every one of his creatures is slimy, unnatural, and deeply disturbing.  The effects still hold up today, and help push the sense of horror that John Carpenter and company are trying to infuse into the film.  The performances from all-male cast are another highlight of The Thing, with Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Wilford Brimley’s Blair being the two major highlights.  MacReady is quickly forced into a leadership role, and he takes it and runs with it throughout.  When the cast of characters begin to slowly lose their minds, it is MacReady who manages to keep a level head and direct his team.  Blair on the other hand becomes one of the most paranoid, untrusting, most erratic characters on the crew, and Brimley captures it brilliantly.  Also worth mentioning is Keith David’s Childs, whose apprehensiveness towards MacReady, followed by their eventual partnership is an absolute highlight of the film’s last act.  My favorite scene in the film involves both Kurt Russell and Keith David involved in one of the most tense moments in film history – the blood test using a heated piece of copper wire. Carpenter’s direction during the blood test scene is frantic and claustrophobic, creating one of the most iconic moments in horror history.  The Thing is an absolute tour de force in horror filmmaking, and one that every fan of the genre needs to see, if only for its mounting sense of dread and excellent special effects.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #3 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Film1956-InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers-OriginalPosterInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney)
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones

As previously mentioned in my review of 1954’s Them!, science fiction and horror films of the time were chock full of political and social allegory that resonated with audiences for decades.  Much of this can be credited to the burgeoning Cold War: the imminent threat of nuclear extermination, the ongoing Red Scare, and the subsequent inability of American’s to trust their fellow man.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most famous and subtle example of this paranoia, creating a hell of a legacy for itself in the process.  The film is based on writer Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which has been the basis for nearly every remake and re-imagining to be released since 1956.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by cult movie master Don Siegel came out at the perfect time to resonate with audiences who felt they could relate with its subject matter.  It was filmed in just 23 days, and with a budget that had been cut significantly which restricted the use of big name actors that Siegel initially wanted to use.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers starred Golden Globe nominee Kevin McCarthy and television star Dana Wynter, though the Oscar winning Anne Bancroft had been considered by Siegel before the film’s budget slash.  After a re-shoot to lessen the harshness of the film’s original ending and numerous poorly received pre-screenings, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was ready for a successful countrywide release.  Despite being largely ignored by critics upon its original release, the film still managed to earn more than six times its meager budget of slightly over $400,000.  The paranoid adaptation of Jack Finney’s influential novel is now seen as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre, has spawned countless remakes, send-ups, and tributes, and currently sits in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with a paranoid and clearly disturbed man being detained in a California hospital.  He introduces himself as a doctor, and begs for the acting doctor to hear out his story.  The doctor in custody begins to tell his story, which leads directly into a feature-length flashback sequence.  We learn the crazed doctor is Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who we see meeting with multiple patients.  All of Bennell’s patients suffer from “Capgras delusion”, or the belief that a loved one has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.  His former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has recently returned to town, and she soon finds out that her cousin Wilma fears that her Uncle Ira may also be an impostor.  A psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Dr. Bennell that they’re merely experiencing an epidemic of paranoid hysteria.  Later that night, Dr. Bennell’s friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovers an undeveloped body identical to his, and then another is quickly found in Becky’s basement.  Before they can call for help and arrange for more witnesses, the bodies mysteriously (and conveniently) vanish.  Bennell and friends eventually come to the conclusion that the entire town is being replaced with doppelgangers when they fall asleep.  The gang splits up, half to go to the next town over in order to seek help, and Dr. Bennell and Becky seek shelter and avoid falling asleep until backup arrives.  Soon, Bennell and Becky realize that they’re alone in this fight against what they call “pod people”, as even their closest friends and family members succumb to the invaders.  Can humankind prevail against a force they have no idea is coming, or will the invading pod people wipe out humankind, starting with the town of Santa Mira, California?  Find out in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

bodysnatchers 1956 review

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter on the run in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Having seen and loved Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was incredibly excited coming into Siegel’s original take on the source novel.  While I have to report that I prefer Kaufman’s darker and schlockier take on the story, I’m also happy to say that say that this film is so far the best I’ve seen during my feature on 1950’s sci-fi.  The film has an incredibly tight run-time at just barely over 80 minutes long, and hits every important note needed of an effective thriller without creating unnecessary filler.  The characters and their interactions with each other all have a purpose, and the story clips along at a brilliantly fast pace.  One of the things I appreciated most about Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the setting in the small California town of Santa Mira.  Don Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks do an incredible job of mapping out the town, especially its most notable and relevant locations like Becky’s apartment, Dr. Bennell’s office, and the highway leading out of town.  All this mapping and world-building is done in less than 90 minutes, a feat that most science fiction or horror films couldn’t do even with more than two hours at their disposal.  Don Siegel progressively ratchets up the tension as the film chugs along, creating a palpable sense of dread and paranoia.  Not only do our lead characters not know who to trust or where they can seek refuge, but the audience is constantly kept guessing as well.  When you’re not even sure whether or not your two main characters are still human, you can rest assured that the film is doing an incredible job at keeping you on your paranoid, irrational toes.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuinely scary film in a lot of ways, because more often than not what you aren’t seeing is infinitely scarier than what you are.  The images of the townspeople slowly being consumed by the pod people swimming through your head as Dr. Bennell and Becky struggle to stay awake and alive are undeniable, and help the film to feel highly effective.  Along with incredible atmosphere and world-building, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very well acted film considering its lack of major star power and budget.  Kevin McCarthy shows us that he can flip the proverbial switch and play both crazed and paranoid in one moment, and a strong, confident leader in others.  Dana Wynter’s Becky is very competently played as well, but she doesn’t get nearly as much important screen-time as McCarthy does.  Supporting our lead players is a tremendous script, never wasting a moment of precious screen-time as previously mentioned.  The paranoia of McCarthyism and the fears of imminent Red invasion are weaved into subtle allegory that never overpowers, but is also very clearly there to anybody looking for it.  I can’t imagine growing up in an era where North American’s could not trust anybody they don’t directly know, but this film gives a great (if exaggerated) sense of what it must have been like for some.

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Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) taking it to a potential pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of classic horror and science fiction.  Tight direction, a terrific script with little exposition, good lead performances, and an undeniable sense of dread, paranoia, and fear help to make an experience that goes mostly unmatched all these years later.  Don Siegel’s film may have been topped by later efforts, but the film stands as a fantastic example of anti-McCarthyist art that will and should be analyzed for years to come.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets my highest recommendation for all sci-fi or horror fans.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #2 – Them! (1954)

Them02Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Written by: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (story by George Worthing Yates)
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

One of the most charming things about classic science fiction films is that many of them were somehow able to reflect the real fears and concerns of western society, but project it onto something so mundane and have it be so horrifying.  Them! does just that, taking America’s post-war blues and fears of atomic weapons and using giant monster ants to get the message across.  While it may sound goofy all these years later, Them! has been remembered as one of the great pieces of 1950’s sci-fi for a reason.  Prolific child-star turned director Gordon Douglas was the perfect fit for an ambitious B-project like Them!  Douglas had previously directed dozens of films of various genre, size, and scope, but found arguably his greatest success with this Warner Brothers produced science fiction allegory.  The film starred big screen heavy hitters like the Academy Award nominated James Whitmore and future Gunsmoke television star James Arness.  In a classic bit of movie magic, Whitmore was forced to wear lifts in his shoes to compensate for his utterly average height when standing next to the taller Arness.  As a short man myself, I feel every bit of James Whitmore’s humiliating pain.  The two relatively big name actors, a competent director, and groundbreaking and innovative special effects led to Them! becoming Warner Brothers’ biggest success of the year, and would ultimately help the film cement its place in sci-fi and horror history.  It made $2.2 million at the box office, and helped to kick-start generations of “creature features”, often imitating but never duplicating the critical and commercial success of Them!  The Academy Awards honored the film’s special effects with a nomination for Best Special Effects, but the award ultimately went to the bigger budget screen adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Them! starts with two police officers finding a small girl wandering around the hot New Mexico desert.  The young girl is in shock, so the two officers get her to safety and begin to retrace her steps.  After finding no sign of the girl’s family, the girl hears a high-pitched squeal carried by the wind, unbeknownst to the officers around her.  Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is one of the responding officers to the scene of a general store that has been completely decimated from the outside.  The owner is found dead, and a large barrel of sugar is found smashed to pieces.  His partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) is killed by an unknown entity while Peterson is filing a report away from the general store.  The deaths of the general store owner and Trooper Blackburn pique the curiosity of the FBI, who sends Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to aid in the investigation.  Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) join Graham on the trip.  Dr. Medford is able to revive the small girl from her catatonic state, prompting her to scream the words “them!” over and over without any sort of explanation.  The team soon comes face to face with the source of all the chaos in the New Mexico desert, a colony of genetically mutated giant ants.  The first encounter ends after the use of an automatic machine gun, but the group learns that the creature was merely a forager from the colony.  A plan is concocted to gas the ants out of their nest with the use of cyanide, with the team descending into it in order to eliminate any leftover ants.  While inside, Dr. Pat Medford discovers that two queens had hatched and escaped from the nest to establish new colonies.  Can the team stop them with the power of brute human force, or will the mutated ants prove too much to bear?  Find out in 1954’s Them!

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Sandy Deschner as the young catatonic girl who unknowingly sets off the events in Them!

I was originally going to review another film as my second feature of this spotlight, but I felt compelled to write about Them! as soon as the credits rolled.  I went into it expecting nothing but a fun, mindless cheesy science fiction flick, but what I got was so much more.  While it might not be nearly as thought provoking or innovative in hindsight, this is a film that was doing a lot of new and original things at a time where studios weren’t taking many major risks.  Allegory always seems like a better idea in genre films, and it works perfectly in Them!  The fears of the common American citizen can be felt towards the end of the film, especially when the research team finds out the scale of the colony and what the ants are capable of.  They know that they’ve indirectly lent a hand in their creation by allowing atomic weapons to be created, and they know that they must now stop something that’s far more powerful than they themselves are.  The entire first act of the film with the little girl being found has enough atmosphere to match even the best modern sci-fi/horror films.  The fact that the audience doesn’t see the actual ants right away is another effective decision, forcing viewers to create their own monstrosities in the theatre of the mind.  While none of the performances are exceptional (or even noteworthy), it’s probably worth mentioning that the entire principal cast has really solid chemistry together, with no one performance trying to hog the spotlight.  This isn’t exactly a character study as much as it is a “giant monsters destroy things and get destroyed” kind of film, which makes the unmemorable performances a lot easier to swallow.  The direction fits under this “good, but ultimately forgettable” umbrella as well, which I pretty much expected from a journeyman director like Gordon Douglas.  He does his absolute best to hide weak moments in the special effects using dust storms and playing with light and darkness effectively, which helps the creatures feel much more imposing and threatening.  Other than hiding some potential weak SFX, Douglas doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with his camera, nor does his direction stand out in any way.  The best part about Them! is without a doubt its screenplay, which says a great deal about the aforementioned nuclear holocaust fears and Cold War-era paranoia, but does so in a fairly subtle and evenhanded way.  The film’s message is obvious and anybody with any knowledge of the time period can figure out where it’s going and why it’s stressed so much, but it never overshadows the best part of the film: giant, badass killer ants.  The effects hold up better than those previously seen in something like previous year’s The War of the Worlds, mostly due to the decision to not overexpose the ants and the effective use of animatronics.

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The famous first encounter with a giant mutated ant in 1954’s Them!

Overall, Them! is an incredibly fun science fiction film that in no way feels like it should be nearly as good or important as it is.  At face value, none of the cinematic aspects of the film actually stand out as being different or even anything more than competent, but it just somehow works.  Them! gets by on having a tremendous script that plays its hand at being allegorical, but never opts for heavy handedness that would overshadow the intentions of the B movie that it really is.  The special effects look incredible for the time period, and the atmosphere during the first and lasts acts of the movie feels perfectly chilling and creepy.  Them! is a hell of a good time, and is highly recommended for anybody who loves some allegory in their giant ant movies.

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