Night One: Shaun of the Dead
“Who died and made you fucking king of the zombies?”
Shaun of the Dead was a way to kick things off by watching a movie that isn’t just one of my all-time favorite horror-related movies, it is one of my all-time favorite movies, period. It is largely responsible for my foray into all things zombie, as well as one of the primary reasons for HMF. I’ve seen it many, many times, and while I think that I will take a break from it for a few years after having seen it at least once a year since it came out, I know I will see it many, many times more.
Night Two: Frankenstein
Henry: “Look! It’s moving. It’s sha — it’s… it’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive! It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive! It’s ALIVE!”
Victor: “Henry… in the name of God!”
Henry: “Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Among the most censored movies in history, in its time it was hugely controversial. The State of Kansas originally wouldn’t let the film be screened within its borders unless nearly half the film was edited out. That’s smart thinking, because when people watched the full version they went around throwing little girls into lakes, choking professors, burning down windmills, digging up corpses… it was anarchy. Since watching the film, I’ve already tried to reanimate monsters on four separate occasions. That wouldn’t have happened if I could have watched the cut-down Kansas version, which I imagine is just a story about a guy who gets really stressed out with some unseen experiments, burns out, gets nursed back to health by his fiance, has a super fun Bavarian wedding party, after which the village celebrates, Lakers fan style, by burning down a windmill.
One of the primary edits was that when Frankenstein achieved success and shouts, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”, Universal had to cover that up with a thunder peal, leaving the line unheard by the general public for a number of years. It was an important line. It helped hammer home a point about what happens when scientific progress is divorced from morality. Yet, The Man wanted it removed. It just goes to show you that censorship is a mature, intelligent response to things that make us uncomfortable.
Watching as the film version of Frankenstein’s monster is on screen for the first time, I wondered what it would have been like to be in a theater in 1931, seeing the monster for the first time. I grew up with the monster firmly embedded in popular culture, and in a very different time technologically and culturally. I’ve seen far scarier things than Frankenstein, and I’m far less sheltered from cultural artifacts that might be troubling or traumatic. That wasn’t so in 1931. I can only imagine the impact it would have had on me, if I’d been able to witness the unveiling of the monster with virgin eyes. It’s fun to go back and watch the birth of something that forever changed the course of future pop culture forever, even if in this case the plot is almost entirely nonsensical in a complete departure from the book. Once you see that the name of the main character is changed to “Henry Frankenstein,” (They mix up everyone’s names for seemingly no reason.), you know that things are going to be a little silly. Still, visually the film brings a lot to the table, and its impact on the rest of film history makes it more than worth the 70 minute runtime. By all accounts, Bride of Frankenstein is a superior movie, I am hoping all accounts are accurate.
Night Three: Bride of Frankenstein
“Made me from dead. I love dead… hate living.”
This movie is a classic, but it is a classic within the monster movie genre, so it will certainly have more shortcomings than some other classics from the same period.
Still, even with this in mind there were some massive misfires, the primary example being the little people Doctor Pretorius grew in jars. What the fuck? Maybe if they were bizarre, creepy little people, grotesques of some kind, they would have fit the film thematically, but they were just normal looking little people who squeak like cartoon mice. It was unreasonably stupid.
Also, if everyone knows that Henry Frankenstein created the monster out of corpses, why is he not held accountable when so many people are killed? This angry, irrational mob is pretty quick to ignore any link between Frankenstein and the body count. Maybe they are a more forgiving, gentler angry mob?
Still, while there is plenty of narrative absurdity at play, and there is tons more I didn’t even mention, it’s still pretty fun to see the growth of the monster movie. And Doctor Pretorius was a really great mad scientist when he wasn’t in a scene with tiny people in jars. He was delightfully creepy and amoral. There is a lot to look past, but if you can, there is a movie with some decent heart and some enjoyable visuals. Karloff was able to portray a homicidal monster you could really care about… you know, invite over for dinner and a smoke, leave your kids with while you went out for a dinner with the spouse. Bride also upped the ante on violence from the first one, which is perhaps just because there was no onscreen child violence. Seriously though, Frankie really fucked some dudes up in this one, especially the murderous assistant.
Side note: Apparently, it is culturally appropriate to refer to both the Dr. and the monster as Frankenstein, both are enough a part of the cultural vernacular to be considered proper uses. I always just thought it was misuse, but wikipedia points to three legitimate sources that claim otherwise.
Night Four: The Cabin in the Woods
“Cleanse them, cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe in the crimson of… Am I on speakerphone?!?”
As I’ve said before on this very blog, Cabin in the Woods is “a smart, original, scary, hilarious, crazy fun deconstruction of the genre.” It isn’t the first movie to make light of the ‘college kids go away to party at a cabin in the woods and get killed off one by one’ sub-genre, but it is my favorite. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a straightforward cabin in the woods movie, just movies playing with it in unconventional ways (like: Evil Dead 1 & 2 and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.) I’ll have to think about that more to confirm it.
Anyway, now for spoilers:
I won’t go into an long essay about the topic, but I think my reading of the film is that we are the angry gods that demand violence and punishment. I know, we are already clearly supposed to be the folks in the control room detachedly watching the brutal killings, but I think it is also to placate something dark and sinister, not deep inside the earth, but deep inside us as a species. I’ve never derived joy from watching people die on screen, even when I enjoy movies where that happens. I’ll never be the guy who gets into so called ‘torture porn’ movies like Hostel. Yet, I know it is pretty common throughout history for humans to demand violence and death, whether it be through straightforward human sacrifice, capital punishment, or gladiatorial combat. It isn’t God or gods that demand sacrifice for our transgressions, it is our own bloodlust and psychosis. Yet, maybe that is just my affection for gay, Catholic theologian James Alison talking. (Seriously though, read him, he’s amazing.)
It is we who fear that our own violent tendencies will overflow and destroy us all if we do not find an outlet for them.
“Good job, zombie hand.”
Night Five: Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face)
“They’ve removed all the mirrors, but I can see my reflection in the glass when the windows are open. There are lots of shiny surfaces… a knife blade, varnished wood… My face frightens me, my mask frightens me even more.”
Eyes Without a Face is a French film released in early 1960 in France, and in 1962 in the US. It is a quiet, poetic, subdued film revolving around genuinely disturbing acts.
After being the one to blame for an auto accident which massively disfigured his daughter’s face, Dr. Génessier begins abducting pretty young women in the hopes of transplanting a new face onto his daughter. Two of the main characters in the film commit unspeakable evil in such a matter-of-fact way, detached from how genuinely horrible their actions are. Yet, the film’s near stillness is lyrical, adding a contrast that can be seen in all sorts of similar films since. If this movie were made today, it would most likely be torture porn, upping the ante throughout the film to try and disturb the audience more and more. Yet, while Franju definitely has some off-putting shots by 1960 standards, the focus always remained on the psychological and relational aspects of what was happening, not on the gore. Personally, it’s not a film I’ll return to year after year, but it is understandable why this film is so firmly rooted in the horror canon. It’s certainly another reason I’m glad I do this every year.