Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"One for De-Money!" - Eerie

EC Comics met its untimely demise thanks to the creation of the Comics Code Authority...  But horror comics were resurrected in the the late 60's in the form of the comic magazines. To escape the curse of the Comics Code Authority, Warren Publishing printed in the magazine format.  The magazines Creepy and Eerie gave readers illustrated tales of terror in black and white on a bimonthly basis.  Featuring a roster established artists of EC fame along with budding new talent, the comics remain highly influential to this day.

Warren Publishing was a something of a spiritual successor to the EC legacy in many ways.  Like the EC Comics, each story was introduced by a "host" who usually made wise-cracking commentary on the plot using puns and dark humor.  Creepy stories were introduced Uncle Creepy while Eerie's hosting duties fell to Cousin Eerie.

The quality of the comics began to wane in the later years as the original creative team left and editors came and went on a regular basis.  The magazines began to rely on reprints of the early stories to stay afloat until they finally ceased publication in the early 80's.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Godzilla Through the Years - Part 4

Return of Godzilla (1984)

After about a 10 year hiatus Godzilla made a comeback in Return of Godzilla (1984).  It seems fitting that Godzilla, a monster born from a nuclear disaster, would make his return during this tense era of history, at the beginning of the Cold War.  Thus, Return of Godzilla is a return to the monster's dark roots.  From its inception, The Return of Godzilla was meant to be a more serious film in keeping with the tone of the original film, Gojira.  To drive this point home, The Return of Godzilla is meant to be a direct sequel to the 1954 film, ignoring any of the continuity established by the films of the original series.

The plot of the movie reflects the paranoid strains between the superpower nations at the time.  When it is discovered that Godzilla has returned, Japan imposes a media blackout, hoping to avoid worldwide panic.  But when Godzilla destroys a Russian submarine, the secret is soon exposed and Cold War tensions further escalate.  Godzilla then attacks a nuclear reactor, absorbing its energy and becoming more powerful.  The monster once again heads toward Tokyo to wreak havoc.

In the midst of Godzilla's attack, the Russians launch a nuclear missile at Tokyo, hoping to eliminate the monster's threat.  This prompts the United States to fire a counter-missile strike to destroy the Russian bomb.  Meanwhile, the Japanese unveil an experimental anti-Godzilla weapon, the Super-X to thwart Godzilla.  The Super-X's assault nearly destroys Godzilla, but just as it seems the monster is taking his last breath, the Russian missile detonates and Godzilla is revived by the radiation.

Godzilla then makes short work of the Super-X and continues his rampage.  In the meantime, scientists discover that  they are able to lure Godzilla using bird calls (this is explained by Godzilla's dinosaur heritage).  Using this information Godzilla is tricked into falling into the mouth of an active volcano.  While Godzilla cannot be destroyed, the creature is subdued for the time, falling into a sort of suspended animation until he returns once again...

For the American release of the film (called Godzilla 1985), Raymond Burr returned to reprise the role of reporter Steve Martin from Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  Mr. Martin serves as a consultant to the pentagon through the course of the film and offers some poignant commentary on the destructive nature of the titular monster.  Once more, Godzilla is referred to as a force of an unstoppable force of nature.  Martin says the following in a haunting voice-over as Godzilla is seen falling into the maw of the volcano:

"Nature has a way sometimes of reminding Man of just how small he is. She occasionally throws up terrible offspring's of our pride and carelessness to remind us of how puny we really are in the face of a tornado, an earthquake... or a Godzilla. The reckless ambitions of Man are often dwarfed by their dangerous consequences. For now, Godzilla - that strangely innocent and tragic monster - has gone to earth. Whether he returns or not, or is never again seen by human eyes, the things he has taught us remain..."

Toho had tried for several years prior to begin production on a new film to rejuvenate the franchise, but failed each time.  With some re-releases of films from the original series in Japanese theaters receiving interest, the studio decided the time was right to once more unleash the atomic beast.  Unfortunately, in the years since the last Godzilla production, the filmmakers had to almost completely re-learn how to make giant monster films!  From suitimation to miniature making, the filmmakers had a daunting task ahead of them.

They began by redesigning Godzilla.  Godzilla once again became a malevolent atomic monster bent on humanity's destruction and so his design was changed to fit this role.  The new suit incorporated vampire-like fangs and a menacing brow.  The scale of Godzilla had to be changed for the first time.  Godzilla's original size was about 50 meters in the original film.  This would prove to be much to small relative to Japan's new skyscrapers, which would have made the monster seem puny by comparison, so Godzilla's size was upped to about 80 meters.

A new suit was made for this film, weighing nearly 250 lbs in weight.  The updated suit featured an electronically controlled face which moving eyes and jaws, creating the most expressive onscreen Godzilla seen up to this point.  However, as was often the case, the suit posed many problems, especially for the actor inside.  Kenpachiro Satsuma, who portrayed Godzilla for this film, stated that on several occasions, he actually feared for his life.  The top-heavy suit was difficult to balance and Satsuma was in particular danger in the water scenes in which drowning was a real possibility.

The suit was not the only special effect wizardry that served to bring Godzilla to life.  A 20 foot tall robotic Godzilla was also constructed, along with an amazing 60 foot long model of Godzilla's foot.

The Return of Godzilla reestablished the Godzilla brand as an international success.  This movie marked the beginning of what was to be called the "Heisei" series...

Next Entry:
Part 5 - The Heisei Series (1984-1995)

Previous Entries:
Part 3 - The Original Series (1955-1975)
Part 2 - Gojira (1954)
Part 1 - Past, Present, and Future... Godzilla and Me

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

“If I am the phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.”

Following the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, Universal began to plan the production of another epic spectacle.  In 1925 the studio released their silent adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.

The Phantom of the Opera is based on the novel of the same title by Gaston Leroux.  Taking place in the Paris Opera House, the story begins with the new owners scoffing at the legend of "The Phantom"... until a mysterious figure is witnessed making a startling appearance in Box Five before vanishing.  

The shadow of the Phantom is witnessed stalking the backstage area by many of the workers who nervously exchange rumors.  The owners then begin receiving letters from the Phantom, demanding that they give the lead role in the opera to the young Christine.  The managers refuse which prompts the Phantom's wrath.  The Phantom ends up dropping the opera house's huge, grand chandelier, crushing numerous patrons.

Thus, Christine is given her moment in the spotlight during the next performance.  She puts on an amazing performance and receives a standing ovation from the crowd.  Raoul, Christine's fiancé, awaits outside her dressing room to congratulate her but is stunned to find that she has disappeared.  It is revealed that Christine has been receiving music lessons from a mysterious voice for years.  This "voice" turns out to be that of the Phantom, who captures Christine.

The masked Phantom takes Christine to his lair through a series of labyrinthine subbasements deep beneath the opera house.  The Phantom professes his love for Christine, but when Christine's curiosity gets the best of her and she unmasks the Phantom, she is horrified to see his disfigured face.  This is seen as an act of betrayal by the angered Phantom.  He allows Christine to escape, but only on the condition that she never sees Raoul again.  When she later attempts to meet Raoul in secret, the Phantom vows revenge!

With a budget of 1 million dollars, this production proved to be just an ambitious undertaking as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Just as in the aforementioned film, thousands of extras were employed to portray the opera house's audience, performers, and stage hands.  However, unlike its predecessor, for this film no trick shots or matte paintings were utilized by the filmmakers to give it its epic scope.  The scale of the opera house is realistic because a practical, full five-story replica was built in Universal's back lot.  Additionally, the Phantom's subterranean lair, including an underground river, was actually constructed.

Amazingly, the scene in which the grand chandelier falls on the audience was a practical effect.  This was achieved by gently lowered the chandelier onto the extras and then filming it being reeled back up to the ceiling.  To make it look as if patrons were actually being crushed to death, the scene was played backwards.

The extravagant budget also allowed some scenes to be filmed in color, utilizing the then-new method of Technicolor.  The scenes filmed in color included a masquerade ball in which the Phantom, disguised the Red Death, confronts Christine and Raoul.

Erik, the Phantom, is an intriguing character for a number of reasons.  While there is not direct explanation for his disfigurement there are hints that lead one to believe his gruesome appearance comes from leprosy, namely the fact that he is a criminally insane escapee from Devil's Island (a real-life leper colony).  The Phantom apparently had a hand in the construction of Paris Opera House which explains its various secret passageways and his familiarity with catacombs beneath.  Erik is not only an architectural genius, but also an adept musician and a master strategist more than capable of outsmarting his opponents.  He is also described as being a "Master of Black Art".  Due to his unfortunate affliction and subsequent life of rejection and exile he has been driven mad, making him not only a figure of dread, but also a somewhat tragic, sympathetic character.

Lon Chaney took on the role of the Phantom and was once again allowed to create his own makeup and prosthetics to create the gruesome visage of the titular character.  Chaney's Phantom makeup remains a shocking sight to behold even to this day.  To create the effect of a skull-like face, Chaney wore a set of false teeth and a bald cap with wisps of greasy, black hair.  He glued his ears to the side of his head, and, using putty, exaggerated his cheekbones. He also used a piece of material to pull his nose straight up and then used wire to enlarge his nostrils which gave the appearance of not having a nose.  To complete the effect, Chaney made his eyes seem larger by strategically placing white and black paint on his lower and upper eyelids.

To increase the effectiveness of the scene of the Phantom's unmasking, the studio did not allow the public to see any pictures of Chaney wearing the makeup in advance.  This is something that was actually played up in the marketing of the film, stating that it was "too shocking" to reveal.  There actually may have been some truth to this;  It was reported that more than a few audience members audibly screamed and subsequently fainted during this scene.

The chaos depicted on screen was somewhat mirrored by some real-life turmoil on the set due to friction between Lon Chaney and the director, Rupert Julian.  Apparently the situation was so bad that the actor and director would not directly speak to one another, but depended on communication through other crew members!

In spite of all this, The Phantom of the Opera remains a classic.

For your viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Freaky Factoids: Thagomizer

Did you know that the "business end" of a Stegosaurus' tail had a name?  Apparently, the part of the tail adorned with the rows of sharp spikes (thought to be used as a means of defense against potential prehistoric predators) is called the thagomizer.

It turns out that the term owes its origin to an old Far Side comic by the cartoonist Gary Larson.

I suppose this could be considered one of those situations in which life imitates art...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Opinion: Gore in Horror Cinema

I may take some flak for this, but here it goes...

I consider myself a fan of horror, but I am not a fan of gore.

Maybe I'm just squeamish, but gore does not frighten me, it merely sickens me.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good zombie movie.  I can appreciate the occasional splatter and rolling decapitated head.  Evil Dead 2 is one of my favorite rainy day movies.

In spite of all this, I'm simply not a fan of gore for gore's sake.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of "horror" is as follows:

1     hor·ror     noun     \ˈhȯr-ər, ˈhär-\

: a very strong feeling of fear, dread, and shock

: the quality of something that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock : the horrible or shocking quality or character of something

: something that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock : something that is shocking and horrible

Other definitions state that the meaning of "horror" includes a sense of revulsion and general repugnance.  Gore certainly fits in with this category, it is indeed horrific.  I do think that gore has its place in the realm of horror movies, but I think that it is just one of many tools that a filmmaker can use to frighten and shock their audiences.

However, I think that gore is very much at risk of being overused in the genre as of late with many filmmakers being over-reliant on gore in a way somewhat akin to the directors of major blockbusters in recent years having become dependent on CGI set-pieces as a means to compensate for a weak plot and unengaging characters.

It seems to me that gore has overshadowed other elements of horror cinema and has been taken to a level of disgusting excess which is almost pornographic in nature.

For example:  I recall watching the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre many years ago.  I found it amusing that this movie had this reputation of being such a gory movie and yet I found that, for the most part, the gore was much more alluded to than actually shown.

Take the infamous meat hook scene for instance.  This scene depicts Leatherface carrying his victim into the room with the meat hooks, him lifting her up, and then a shot of her feet dangling with blood dripping down.

Compare this to the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre that came out in 2003.  This same scene plays out very much in the same way with one major difference:  This time we see the meat hooks penetrate the victim's back.

Was it necessary to show this?  What did this add to the experience?  Was it suddenly more terrifying because we saw the meat hooks cut into the skin?

One difference between the "classic" horror films of the yesteryear and the modern movies of our generation is the strict rating system and censorship that the filmmakers had to adhere to.  Censorship is bad, yes, but one positive is that it forced filmmakers to be very creative in their storytelling techniques.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a great example.  Obviously, a gory scene depicting the titular psychopath actually stabbing a woman in the shower was not going to survive the censors in the early 60's, so the innovative director made modifications.  Employing some clever editing using quick cuts between the murderer and its victim, the audience is tricked into believing that they are witnessing a very brutal act in its entirety... when in fact nothing is actually being shown, but merely alluded to.

I would argue that the end result is much more effective.  The lighting, editing, music and a host of other elements combine to create something uniquely terrifying an much more memorable.  Your imagination fills in the gaps.

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” 

“Suspense is like a woman. The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement..."

― Alfred Hitchcock

Paranormal Activity is one of my favorite horror films in recent years.  The scares in this movie were proceeded by long, slow burns of tension and suspense that paid off at various times throughout the film before leading up to a final, terrifying climax.  Sure, it took a while to get there (probably an eternity by the standards of today's audiences), but the scares were very effective.

Any time it shifted to a night scene I could feel an almost tangible sense of dread welling up inside me.  The scenes of onscreen terror stuck with me and I had trouble sleeping many nights afterward (It probably didn't help that after I left the theater that I had to go home to an apartment that looked an awful lot like the townhouse in the movie).

I was disappointed to find out that there were many who did not like Paranormal Activity at all.  Yet I was surprised at the reason they didn't like the movie...  It turns out that most of these folks were very much into slasher films.  It was almost as if a cinematic experience wasn't "scary" to them if there wasn't blood oozing across the screen every five minutes.

Perhaps that is an issue with today's audiences.  Or perhaps it's an issue with today's filmmakers.

Maybe filmmakers think that we lack the imagination to "fill in the blanks" and that's why they end up tossing all subtly out the window.  Or maybe they just feel like they need to "push the boundaries" and (unfortunately) the only way they know how is by ramping up the gore and violence.

I don't know what the answer is.  I just know it's not for me.  And you're certainly welcome to disagree.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the matter:  What do you think about gore's role in Horror cinema?