Vampires, Wine, and Roses: a classy collection

I admit, I’ve been bad about actually posting reviews for things related to this month’s theme of romantic and sexual horror. Frankly, it’s because I haven’t felt in the mood. Not only am I bored by the entire romance and erotic genres, it seems that in this post-PC era of “grab ’em by the pussy” dark-ages style sexual conquest, romance is dead.

So after watching several 1970’s lesbian vampire movies in the hopes of finding something, anything, worthy of discussion and deconstruction, I remembered my vast home library of horror fiction. In the process, I rediscovered a now out-of-print short story collection, Vampires, Wine, and Roses, featuring stories by classic and contemporary authors. Fortunately, copies are plentiful on the secondary market, in both a trade paperback format and a handsome hardcover edition (pictured above).

Although a couple comedic shorts by Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce are a bit out of place, the collection as a whole is great reading for anyone with a hunger for classy and romantic vampire stories. Here, we have stories by Bram Stoker,  Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton, Anne Rice, Rod Serling, Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Ray Bradbury, and others. Despite the inclusion of contemporary authors, the effect as a whole is that the reader is transported to a more genteel time. This isn’t an ideal collection for those who are looking for explicit erotica, but nonetheless conveys a great deal of passion and genuine creepiness.

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My Horrific Life gets kinky this February

Still from Jean Rollin’s Living Dead Girl

Now that we are abandoning January’s pleasant apocalypse fantasies, February will be devoted to something far more horrific: romance. In honor of Valentine’s Day and our corporate overlords who mandate that we purchase obligatory tokens of affection for those whom we love, we are kicking things off with our favorite romantic horror films and sexy vampire movies. Then as the romance wears off–as it always will–we will try to keep the spark alive by exploring horror that features kink, sadomasochism, and taboo sexuality.

As February is also Black History month, we will also be featuring reviews of race-related horror, including my current read Lovecraft Country: A Novel. We really can’t contain our excitement for Get Out, which looks something like The Stepford Wives, except subservience is  along racial, rather than gender lines.

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Asmodexia’s chiral apocalypse

As Apocalypse Month draws to a close, I’m going to plug an underrated and relatively unknown Spanish film, Asmodexia  (2014). It initially seems like any other exorcism/Biblical “end of days” movie, but then the ending ruins all of those preconceptions. This is not to say that clues were not embedded throughout the film or even in the title itself.

I’m going to spoil the ending for you.

The title “Asmodexia” is a portmanteau of “Asmodeus,” a king of demons in Judeo-Christian tradition, and “dexia,” the Greek word for “right-handed.” Right-handedness is associated in many cultures with righteousness. In occult terminology, there are “Right Hand Path” traditions and “Left Hand Path” traditions, the former being associated with blessings and seeking union with the divine, and the latter associated with curses and seeking the divine within (or glorifying the self). In organic chemistry, asymmetric molecules are considered right-handed or left-handed. “Chiral” molecules appear to be mirror-images of each other, identical in composition but opposite in handedness. The molecules necessary for life on Earth are more often than not left-handed. Chirality is occasionally a trope in fictional works such as Through the Looking-Glass or the “mirror universe in the Star Trek series, in which not only molecules are reversed, but morality and any number of social norms. So, perhaps the title implies that our left-handed world, in which Christianity is a dominant religion, is evil; and in the right-handed mirror world, Asmodeus/Satan is righteous. This is supported by protagonist Eloy’s references to mirror worlds and reverse scriptures.

If my logic seems tortured and obtuse, wait until you see the movie.

Just think of it as “every day is opposite day,” or “Alternative Facts: Religious Edition.” This is bound to take the offensiveness right out of it, at least for American evangelicals.

Jesting aside, other works have employed similar devices. The first that comes to mind is the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters, in which characters frequently refer to “Our Father” and “The Evil One.” But since the reader knows up front that the characters are demons, it’s no surprise that the traditional meanings of these terms are reversed. By the end of Asmodexia, we learn that the father-daughter exorcist duo Eloy and Alba are not casting demons out of the afflicted, but rather exorcizing the indwelling of Jesus and the Holy Spirit from the bodies of ” heretics.” They journey across Spain to initiate Resurrection Day, in which Asmodeus will emerge as the savior of humanity. I confess, I did not entirely see the twist ending coming, because I’ve become so accustomed to films on the tradition of The Exorcist that I didn’t assume frequently-used terms such as “the Lord,” “Savior,” “unclean spirit,” and “Evil One” had meanings other than the norm for the sub-genre. One comment made during an exorcism seemed potentially Satanic, but I wrote the subtitle off as perhaps merely poorly translated from the Spanish dialogue. Yet, there was always something noticeably “off” about Eloy and Alba.

Because of similar themes, Asmodexia is a great movie to watch in conjunction with Prince of Darkness. While it hasn’t received the recognition it deserves, I hope it gains respect for its original twist on a worn-out subgenre. Asmodexia is currently available on Netflix’s streaming service and also on DVD.

 

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Apocalypse 2 – My Horrific Life

Just one Podcast about the Apocalypse in not enough!  Join Erica and Todd as we discuss even MORE fun stuff about the end of the world!

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Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS”

 

Although it’s enjoyed popularity due to frequent references on True Detective: Season 1, Thomas Ligotti’s first and only non-fiction work, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, is not bound for approval by the masses. Ligotti is all too aware of this fact. As he states in the introduction, “As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: ‘If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal.’ ” While a promising series, even True Detective could not maintain Ligotti’s worldview. In the first season finale, die-hard pessimist Rustin Cohle has a benevolent vision of the afterlife and is converted to a more socially acceptable worldview. Ligotti would never pen such an ending, in his fiction or otherwise.

Early in the book, Ligotti rhetorically asks if life is worth living, to which he answers his own question with a resounding NO. Drawing from diverse sources including philosophy, psychology, neurobiology, and selected religious texts, Ligotti makes a compelling argument to support this claim that human existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (his emphasis). Although Ligotti does explore varieties of theistic determinism (see also my previous post on Calvinism), and doesn’t seem to entirely dismiss the possibility of a  malevolent Higher Power manipulating us like human puppets, his own view is atheistic. According to Ligotti, we are “Nature’s blunders,” programed by our genetics and evolution to have no free will, yet evolve to develop consciousness, which serves no good purpose. It merely provides us with the illusion of having a self, and constantly reminds us of our own inevitable demise. The “Conspiracy” of the title is committed by the human race against the human race. That is, we lie to ourselves and others that life is worth living, and by reproducing, we doom future generations to needless suffering.

In case you wonder how this book fits in with Apocalypse Month, I include it because he offers suggestions to proactively correct Nature’s blunder of giving us consciousness: “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?” Ligotti provides suggestions. The mildest solution would be to strive for ego-death, as advocated by Buddhism. Alternately, we could willingly opt to gradually reduce the population into extinction by instituting a one child per couple policy, or all all of us could decide to stop reproducing altogether. The most extreme solution would be for us to leave the planet, and before exterminating ourselves, blow up Earth from outer space to prevent Nature from ever making such as mistake ever again.

Ligotti’s views are bound to be censured or dismissed outright. Paradoxically, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is sometimes comforting. I doubt that was the intended effect. I’ll explain. My favorite section of the book is the chapter “Cult of the Grinning Martyrs,” which is really about the cult of positive thinking. Ligotti is in part influenced by Schopenhauer, whom he quotes, “I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the most unspeakable sufferings of mankind.” Our culture is relentlessly “bright-sided“to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term. Our society doesn’t merely favor optimism, but actively suppresses and marginalizes those who recognize the negative side of human existence. Between positive psychology and the Law of Attraction, we take it up one end or down the other. We are forced to actively lie to ourselves about things that cause us pain, either pretending these things don’t exist, actively lying to ourselves and everyone around us about these realities, or, well, looking for the “bright side.” Only a vision as dark and uncompromising as Ligotti’s could serve as a counterbalance to this trend, but it’s strange that such a malignant work could be so gorgeously written.

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In the Mouth of Madness (part 3): “You are what I write”

The Black Church is the gateway for humanity’s destruction.

In this final post on John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, I’m going to explore the film’s take on religion in general and Christianity in particular. I’m a bit surprised that the film has not drawn fire from Christian media watchdogs. Perhaps the film flew under the radar of most Christian viewers, but my Christian friends who have watched it don’t seem to regard it as particularly offensive.

In the Mouth of Madness makes a number of overt claims that would be regarded as heretical. In the church confessional booth scene, horror author turned deity Sutter Cane informs protagonist John Trent, ” Do you want to know the problem with places like this? With religion in general? It’s never known how to convey the anatomy of horror. Religion seeks discipline through fear, yet doesn’t understand the true nature of creation. No one’s ever believed it enough to make it real. The same cannot be said of my work.” He goes onto explain that his books have been translated into 18 languages and have sold over a billion copies. “More people believe in my work than believe in the Bible… It’ll make the world ready for the change. It takes its power from new readers and new believers. That’s the point. Belief! When people begin to lose their ability to know the difference between fantasy and reality the Old Ones can begin their journey back. The more people who believe, the faster the journey.” Later, Cane informs Trent, “I’m God now.”

Popular horror author and deity Sutter Cane

The idea that belief create reality is a subversive one, especially if that means that people create gods and not the other way around. It calls to mind occult theories of tulpas and thoughtforms.

What’s potentially more inflammatory than the overt text is the subtext. It became apparent to me–after many viewings–that In the Mouth of Madness is actually about Calvinism. And it presents one of the best arguments against Calvinism, at least if one has any investment in the belief in free will and in God’s inherent goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it was named for the 1500’s theologian John Calvin, whose ideas were branded heretical by the Catholic Church. Calvin’s ideas still hold some weight among some Protestant denominations, though are hesitant to embrace all of its tenants. (Hence, you hear people describe themselves as four-point Calvinists as opposed to five-point Calvinists.) The big issue with Calvinism is that it opens a big can o’ worms regarding the nature of evil and whether God is good. Other forms of Christianity address these issues by stating that God is absolutely good, but evil exists because God allows his creations to have free will. Free will may be limited, because all people are born into sin and are incapable of absolute holiness, but people still have a great deal of freedom to make choices. In this model of Christianity, humans also have the free will to reject or accept the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Therefore, God does not damn anyone to hell. Rather, some people elect to be sent there. It’s a decent explanation for why the world is so awful without besmirching God’s goodness.

In contrast, Calvinism posits that all of humanity is absolutely depraved and have no free will to avoid sinning, nor to freely accept or reject salvation. Instead, God “predestines” some for salvation and others for eternal damnation. (This is not the same as an all-knowing God knowing the outcome of every human choice before it happens.) Adherents who fail to see the nightmarishness of this have simply not followed the logic through to its natural conclusion. A belief in zero free will and in predestination cuts to the heart of any argument in God’s inherent goodness and justness. After all, how just and righteous is it to eternally damn a large segment of one’s own creation when they never had a choice to do wrong in the first place, nor the choice to reject an offer of salvation?  It seems that such a God would be damning people for the lulz, or as Calvinists would prefer to say, “for the good pleasure of His will.”

Trent takes a deeper look into the Word of God.

Trent protests, “God’s not a hack horror writer.” But a purely Calvinistic God surely would be. How else could one explain the entirety of human history, which reads like a long list of atrocities? Such an account only fits in the horror genre, and is nastier than anything conceived by even the most extreme writers. God would be an like an author who develops characters and scripts their every action in advance, writing out their ultimate ends in His infallible Word. His creations can consult his Word to see how it all turns out, but have no free will to exercise in the outcome. This is exactly what happens in In the Mouth of Madness, in which Cane, the Creator, does all of this with the added sadism of giving his creations consciousness and allowing them to labor under the illusion that they are real people who have a will of their own. Which is, I guess, also the same sadism present in Calvinism and other versions of theological determinism.

A funny meme (author unknown) offering a gentle reminder to anyone seeking to make anything great again.

Continuing the analogy of Sutter Cane as God, John Trent could be read as a perverse and inverted Christ, “the Word made Flesh.” This is where In the Mouth of Madness departs from Calvinism or any other form of Christianity, because Trent doesn’t deliver salvation to anyone. Rather, he is the unwitting and unwilling carrier of Cane’s “new Bible,” which will doom the entire human race. And for the people who don’t read, there’s a movie version.

Trent adorned with and surrounded by crosses

Of course, not everyone takes offense at the notion of a sadistic puppeteer god who pulls the strings of creations who falsely believe they have a self, as we’ll see in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

 

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In the Mouth of Madness (part 2): “The sooner we’re off the planet, the better”

In our last post, I discussed the various literary influences apparent in In the Mouth of Madness.  Today, I’m delving a bit deeper into some of the tropes and philosophies that informed Lovecraft’s work, and this film in turn.

In the Mouth of Madness opens with John Trent being admitted to an insane asylum, where he recounts his story to an investigator (David Warren). One of the most common tropes in Lovecraft’s work is the notion that some truths are so terrible as to cause the knower to go insane. Consider this noteworthy opening quote from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In some Lovecraft stories, acquiring forbidden knowledge not only causes insanity, but forces bodily mutations upon the victim. This is apparently a trope within Sutter Cane’s fiction and also happens to unfortunate readers  of his newest novel, In the Mouth of Madness. In some respects, these mutations are reminiscent of transformation scenes in John Carpenter’s earlier film The Thing.

An ominous painting foretells the fate of residents of Hobb’s End

Misanthropy was rampant in Lovecraft’s fiction. In a letter to Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote of a young writer who wished to pen a story of a mad scientist who strives to conquer the world by unleashing a plague. To Lovecraft, this vision unoriginal and simply did not go far enough. “Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology–the usual stock in trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace…Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?…I told my friend, he should conceive of a man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself, who wishes to extirpate from the planet every trace of biological organism, animal and vegetable alike, including himself…Only a cynic can create horror–for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, longs to pull them to pieces and mock them” (Quoted in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror) .This attitude is rampant in Sutter Cane’s work, and John Trent offers a similar opinion at one point when he tells Linda Styles, “The sooner we’re off the planter, the better.” However, Trent is ultimately unable to maintain that stance–or perhaps it was mere posturing all along–because he tries desperately to save humanity in the film’s final act.

The last and perhaps most important Lovecraftian trope is identity-based horror. (And here I spoil the best scene in in the movie.) In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft writes, “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.” Savvy viewers would know that John Trent is set up for such a fate, given his arrogance and frequent comments along the lines of “I’m my own man; nobody pulls my strings.” The revelation that he is not his own man and in fact has no free will is expected, but the specific nature of this revelation delivers a gut-punch arguably superior to similar twists penned by Lovecraft himself. In a confrontation with between Trent and Sutter Cane, Cane reveals, “This town didn’t exist before I wrote it, and neither did you…You are what I write!” Trent sputters and protests that he is not, in fact, a “piece of fiction,” Cane responds, “I think, therefore you are.” Trent is not even left with the solace of having once been human. He simply never was what he believed himself to be, and technically, was never real.

I will further discuss the notion human existence as puppet existence in our final post on In the Mouth of Madness and its religious implications, and in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

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In the Mouth of Madness: “Reality is not what it used to be” (part 1)

Today we discuss In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s final entry in his so-called apocalypse trilogy. It’s also my favorite of the three films. It has layers of complexity that allow for multiple viewings. As a result, I decided to break up my commentary for this film over multiple entries. Be advised that I will be spoiling every major plot point and trope in this film. But, I will be discussing aspects of the film that aren’t generally known or discussed.

In the Mouth of Madness is a 1990s meta-horror film about an insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) who is hired by a major publishing house to find missing author Sutter Cane, and deliver his newest manuscript, In the Mouth of Madness, for publication. It’s a big deal because Cane outsells all others.

With a name like Sutter Cane, it may seem that he is based on Stephen King. However, it’s quickly apparent that he is actually modeled primarily on H.P. Lovecraft. As you can see from the covers below, and others glimpsed in the film, the titles are derivative of Lovecraft titles, including “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” “The Color out of Space,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”

Excerpts of Cane’s writing are distinctly Lovecraftian: “Trent stood at the edge of the rip, stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown, the Stygian world yawning blackly beyond. Trent’s eyes refused to close, he did not shriek, but the hideous unholy abominations shrieked for him, as in the same second he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion black pit, choked with the gleaming white bones of countless unhallowed centuries. He began to back away from the rip as the army of unspeakable figures, twilit by the glow from the bottomless pit, came pouring at him towards our world…”

That said, many viewers may not recognize that this film borrows concepts from a ’90’s meta-horror short story collection…An 1890’s meta-horror story collection, that is. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos. The King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellow which is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease.” Consider the excerpt below from “The Repairer of Reputations”:

“When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect.”

As with In the Mouth of Madness, characters who read The King in Yellow go insane, become convinced they are characters in the book, and meet a variety of nasty ends. One of the characters in The King in Yellow is even named J. Trent. Adding an additional layer of complexity, The King in Yellow borrows concepts and characters from Can Such Things Be? by Ambrose Bierce.

When watching this film, there are a few ways to interpret it. One is that the book is a type of mind-virus, and everyone who believes it becomes convinced that they are characters in the book. Another is that Sutter Cane has indeed been promoted to a god-role and can write reality as he wishes. Or as Cane’s editor Linda Styles states, “What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view…Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become a majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”

In the next posts, I’ll discuss the film’s relationship to other Lovecraft tropes and its religious implications.

 

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John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: “Logic collapses on the sub-atomic level”

Today we discuss the second installment of John Carpenter’s “apocalypse trilogy,” Prince Of Darkness, perhaps one of Carpenter’s most misunderstood and criminally underrated films. It’s also daring by virtue of using concepts of quantum physics as the glue combining Christianity and aspects of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

As discussed in my last post, the first installment in the trilogy, The Thing, was ultimately reassuring. Because of a basic scientific understanding of the threat, order could be restored and a stealthy apocalypse avoided. Prince of Darkness undermines both science religion, institutions that provide comforting explanations for the nature of the universe and our place in it. This is explicitly discussed in the film, during Dr. Edward Birack’s lecture. “From Job’s friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930’s proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we’ve sought to impose order on the universe. But we’ve discovered something very surprising: while order DOES exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind!” However, at the start of the film, we learn that both religion and science are under threat, respectively due to suppressing aspects of reality and failing to understand it completely.

A church holds the future end of humanity

The instability of reality is also addressed in Professor Birack’s opening lecture: “Let’s talk about our beliefs, and what we can learn about them. We believe nature is solid, and time a constant. Matter has substance and time a direction. There is truth in flesh and the solid ground…. None of this is true! Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level… into ghosts and shadows.” The uncanny and seemingly illogical discoveries of quantum physics open up the possibility of science acknowledging the validity of religion. The film’s surrealistic special effects support this theme, defying logic and the laws of Newtonian physics.

When  a Catholic priest requests that Birack and his graduate students study a mysterious container in a church basement, their findings undermine orthodox Christianity as well. Birack provides a radical proposal to the Priest: “Suppose what your faith has said is essentially correct. Suppose there is a universal mind controlling everything, a god willing the behavior of every subatomic particle. Well, every particle has an anti-particle, its mirror image, its negative side. Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror image instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe. Maybe he’s anti-god, bringing darkness instead of light.” Prince of Darkness is not the first work to contemplate a parallel and opposite universe. I’ll discuss chiral and mirror-image words further in future posts. What’s unsettling here is that the evil world, ruled by Satan or anti-God is in fact the “normal” or default reality. In this instance, our world is the aberration that needs to be corrected or stamped out. The concept of the mirror world is revisited repeatedly when possessed characters attempt to use mirror as gateways into this other universe.

A possessed woman reaches into the other side of the mirror.

In case you find this view of religion intriguing and are wondering where Jesus fits into this, a document  concealed by the Church reveals that He was a benevolent extraterrestrial. This point is never mentioned again.

In the end, neither science nor religion can provide refuge for humanity. As the evil force warns a scientist via her computer screen, ” The Holy Ghost won’t save you. The god plutonium won’t save you. In fact…YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!” As with The Thing, humanity is saved at the end, but the victory is only temporary. A vision of the future reveals that evil will merely wear a new face.

In our next post, we will contemplate how the apocalypse could be started by something as benign as popular fiction.

 

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Happy Horror Christmas! My Horrific Life

Ho Ho Ho!  Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!  Erica and I discuss fun Christmas-themed horror, including Joe Hill’s recent book NOS4A2, and a fun Finnish movie Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale!

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Happy Birthday Boris Karloff

During this episode Erica and Todd discuss Boris Karloff’s life and our favorite Karloff movies.   Don’t miss a discussion about this Horror Icon!

 

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Welcome to My Horrific Life!

Reposting our first podcast.  Join Erica Wright and Todd Fleischer for our new podcast, where we will discuss all things horror (and maybe a little sci-fi-fi)!

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John Carpenter’s The Thing: Identity Crises

I have so much love for the films that comprise John Carpenter’s so-called apocalypse trilogy, but I am in the minority for loving In the Mouth of Madness the most of the three. In fact, I would posit that the entries in the series get progressively better due to increasingly complex and intriguing concepts. All three films feature Lovecraftian concepts to some degree. All three are also obsessed with the dissolution of personal identity. And all three films challenge popular notions of reality.

(Beware of spoilers ahead.)

The first of the trilogy, The Thing, was full of fantastic special effects, but was still grounded in conventional science. Most people who are reading this blog already know that the Carpenter film was a remake of a 1951 film The Thing from Another World, which was in turn adapted from the John Campbell story Who Goes There?. In The Thing, an alien life form is able to “take over” our terrestrial life forms, replacing their cells with its own cells, and perfectly imitating the original life forms’ appearance, memories, and personality. Aside from mind-bending special effects, the creepy thing about this movie is that your friends may not be your friends. Even creepier, you  yourself may be a Thing and not even know it yet. Creepiest yet, if the Thing were able to replace all life on the planet, there would be one species constantly hunting and eating itself in its many forms, making life on earth a sort of grotesque biological recycling facility.

The “Thing” in the process of imitating a dog.

There are aspects of the Thing’s physiology and behavior that the characters can’t explain, but it’s clear that these things eventually could be explained by science. At the end, science and good-old-fashioned masculinity save the world from this stealthy form of alien takeover. Even though it’s implied that the two surviving characters will meet a bad end, it’s reassuring that the world is safe and order is restored.

As we’ll soon discuss over the next few days, this isn’t the case with Prince Of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.

 

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What is Evil? – KitchenShrinks

What is evil?

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New Cover Art

Lovin’ our new cover art!  What do you think?

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Apocalypse – My Horrific Life

Let’s talk end of the World!  Erica and Todd discuss their favorite and not-so-favorite apocalypse movies and books.   Fun stuff!

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Weirding the Apocalypse Part 2: Pontypool

Based on the Tony Burgess novel Pontypool Changes Everything, the film Pontypool is a strange take on the zombie apocalypse narrative. Instead of a conventional contagion, the cause of the outbreak is a virus of language itself, with the English language and terms of endearment designated as especially dangerous. The afflicted begin to repeat words and nonsensical phrases before attacking and cannibalizing others. A doctor terms the disease Acquired Metastructural Pediculosis, and determines that the infection is caused by not merely hearing the infected words, but by speaking them and fully understanding their meaning. He also states that if the disease is left unchecked, it could threaten the fabric of reality itself. This would imply that language creates reality and not the other way around. While the doctor never explains this fully, it seems that some familiarity with semiotics and postmodern theory is useful when watching this film.

The strangeness of the film’s concept nearly overshadows the great performances by Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, respectively portraying ex-“shock jock” morning show DJ Grant Mazzy and his producer Sidney Briar. The radio show format is perfect for a story about language and understanding. There is very little on-screen violence and gore. Instead, most of the “action” is narrated to us by Mazzy and other radio personalities, based on briefings from law enforcement and calls from panicked citizens.

It had been several years since I first watched Pontypool, and have just now begun reading the novel, which is even weirder. Burgess uses a writing style that resembles the language of the infected, or the language of the cure as presented in the film adaptation. It’s also worth noting that Burgess himself adapted the novel to a screenplay. Pontypool Changes Everything is part of a loose trilogy of Burgess novels, also including The Hellmouths of Bewdley and Caesarea, available as a one-volume set The Bewdley Mayhem.

 

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I Have a Special Plan for This World: “No more worlds like this, no more days like that”

It’s not often that we get to feature apocalyptic audio recordings, especially of poetry. I Have a Special Plan For This World is the result of a collaboration between Thomas Ligotti (author) and the experimental band Current 93. Ligotti’s poetry describes a vision for his “special plan” which involves the destruction of this world and all worlds, perhaps even the destruction of reality itself. Current 93 provides an ominous soundtrack with Ligotti’s verses read broodingly by David Tibet. An oddity is the intro of the opening track, which was allegedly created by a mentally ill man who left tape recordings of his ramblings near Ligotti’s workplace.

As this recording is a mere 22 minutes long, it should be experienced firsthand. I Have a Special Plan for This World has been uploaded in its entirety to Youtube (see the link below). Though out of print, copies of the CD can be purchased second-hand through retailers such as Amazon.

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Weirding the Apocalypse Part 1: Carnosaur (1993)

Scoring only 3.5 out of 10 stars on IMDb and 11% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the 1993 Jurassic Park knock-off Carnosaur (directed by Adam Simon and produced by Roger Corman) doesn’t get a lot of love. Technically, it isn’t a knock-off, as it’s loosely based on a 1984 novel by John Brosnan  (a.k.a. Harry Adam Knight), which itself predates  Crichton’s novel.  But the timing of the film’s release was certainly meant to cash in on the success of Jurassic Park, and even adds an additional callback by casting Diane Ladd, mother of Jurassic Park‘s Laura Dern, as a mad scientist.

Carnosaur doesn’t boast the then-cutting edge special effects of Jurassic Park. In fact, the dinosaurs are overly rubbery and the film as a whole is incredibly low budget, but in other respects, Carnosaur is the weirder, gorier, and more tantalizing of the two films.

Let me explain.

Despite Jeff Goldbloom’s character in Jurassic Park being quite delicious as the resident pessimist, like all Spielberg movies, the entire film is very much Up With People in its outlook. It’s comfortably anthropocentric, with dinosaurs being genetically engineered for the sole purpose of humans’ entertainment and corporate profit. Of course things go badly, but order is ultimately restored with humanity reasserting itself as the dominant species.

Carnosaur also has a plot involving the creation of genetically engineered dinosaurs, but with a twisted motive. Dr. Jane Tiptree (portrayed by Diane Ladd) is a female mad scientist (a rarity in horror films), who has a strange plan to save the earth. She has created and introduced a food-borne virus into poultry products that recodes human DNA in such a way as to cause women to give birth to dinosaurs, killing the female host and thereby preventing the human race from reproducing. Dr. Tiptree wants humans to become extinct and to “give the earth back to the dinosaurs.” This is an absurd, even arguably idiotic apocalypse scenario. What makes it effective is Dr. Tiptree’s misanthropic philosophy.

Carnosaur isn’t the first film to depict and apocalypse in which humanity is supplanted by another species. Better-known and more popular examples include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and its remakes) and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Those films depicted a quiet alien invasion in which the alien species can imitate other life-forms. They didn’t celebrate the extinction of the human race. Carnosaur is nastier by virtue of Jane Tiptree acting as a species-traitor who promotes misanthropic and anti-natalist perspectives, viewing humans as nothing but a “set of instructions for the reproduction of the species.”

She explains her reasoning: “Just imagine. An ugly cancerous grey planet littered with the dying remnants of biological life as we know it. I actively worked on that in industry and in government. The earth isn’t ours to destroy…I don’t want to end the world, just one unruly species…The human being is the WORST. The human species is a disaster.” Tiptree’s radical solution to save the earth and the environment even includes her own extermination after serving as a vessel for her new breed of dinosaurs. The end of the film is ambiguous. The hero obtains the serum needed to reverse the effects of the virus, but he may be too late to save the high percentage of people infected.

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Disturbed Divination: The Necronomicon Tarot

Not many tarot decks in my collection fit this month’s apocalypse theme, aside from the Zombie Tarot (reviewed last November) and the Necronomicon Tarot by Donald Tyson. And boy, is this one bleak.

In case you aren’t familiar with Tyson, he has written a series of books (Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred, Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon, Grimoire of the Necronomicon, and The 13 Gates of the Necronomicon: A Workbook of Magic) outlining a system of occult practice based on H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the various Elder Gods, monsters, and aliens of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos.” That Lovecraft indirectly spawned an occult system and a tarot deck is ironic, considering that he was vocal about his atheism and that he worked with Harry Houdini to debunk fortune-telling and spiritism. Authors such as Tyson would argue that Lovecraft was an unwitting prophet with insights into the malign forces at work in the universe.

Tyson’s Necronomicon Tarot is intended as a companion piece to the aforementioned books, and follows the Rider-Waite format. It is not a beginner-friendly deck, however, and those used to working with Rider-Waite images may not see the resemblance. (It’s there, but obtuse and twisted.)

Despite Lovecraft’s dislike of religion and fortune-telling, the art of the Necronomicon Tarot does, for the most part, faithfully convey concepts and themes present in H.P.L.’s fiction. But…if you know Lovecraft’s fiction, you can guess this makes for some pretty depressing readings. Between the often grisly art and Tyson’s dark interpretations of even the most positive cards, you will end up with a cold and unforgiving answer to any query, reminding you of your insignificant place in the universe and of all of the indifferent forces influencing your meaningless life.

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Happy New Year from My Horrific Life

While most people associate the New Year with new beginnings and seek to fully embrace life’s possibilities, we here at My Horrific Life are celebrating the eventual end of the human race, which may come sooner than we think. We won’t discriminate about the means to this end, as we delve into all manner of fictional, religious, and theoretical possibilities, including Biblically-inspired narratives, disease, nuclear war, climate change, zombie hordes, linguistic viruses, alien invasions, and a takeover by Lovecraft’s elder gods.

Stay tuned for reviews of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic film and fiction, including a spotlight of John Carpenter’s so-called “apocalypse trilogy.”

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Necrophilia – My Horrific Life

Check out our new podcast on Necrophilia!  During this podcast we discuss Erica’s fascinating chapter on Necrophilia and Necroeroticism in mainstream pornography, and Necrophilia (and other paraphilias) in general.  Warning – this is explicit!

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Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (book review)

Steve Finbow’s book Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia  is one that I wish I had known of while drafting my own chapter for Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, however, it went under my radar during my initial lit review and subsequent revisions.

Finbow has a unique approach of moving seamlessly from real-life case studies to fictional narratives and back again, weaving them together with a variety of theoretical discourse. Because there is nothing to mark the transition between real and fictional examples (aside from consulting the end-notes), I foresee mishaps for rushed researchers. For example, a hapless undergraduateswriting a research paper and could easily misattribute a quote by fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman of American Psycho to Ted Bundy.

My favorite section of the book, and what would have been relevant to my chapter in Understanding Necrophilia, is Finbow’s discussiom of hyperrealism and simulacra in the context of the pornography use of necrophiliac serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen. Dahmer and Nilsen had remarkably similar behaviors in terms of pornography consumption, in their tendency to create homemade pornographic images their victims, and in their pattern of dismembering victims and using parts as masturbatory aids. Finbow observes:

…the object aethetized or eroticized is fundamentally dead, it has no being apart from its image, the image of and over which one masturbates, replacing the object with its copy…the body becoming rejectamenta, the person no longer, just something to be used and then to be disposed of. For Dahmer/Nilsen, living human beings were simulacra, they were copies of copies  of copies of objects of desire to be mut(il)ated into yet more copies until the subjects (torn, tattered, erased, decomposed) had to be disposed of, annihilated, or turned into things (p.133, Kindle edition).

As the passage above indicates, Grave Desire may not be reader-friendly for those unaccustomed to this type of academic writing, but I do recommend it for those interested in cultural theories of necrophilia.

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A Carol for Another Christmas, Rod Serling’s forgotten film

I confess…I haven’t been in much of a holiday spirit. And with a proliferation of reviews for popular Christmas movies such as Krampus, I didn’t feel compelled to add my own reviews to the mix. That said, I’m a sucker for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and for the many film adaptations of that story. Perversely, the Ghost of Christmas Future segment was always my favorite by virtue of being so grim.

Imagine my delight at discovering A Carol for Another Christmas on Turner Classic Movies earlier this month. This was a made-for-TV movie scripted by Rod Serling and released in 1964. This anti-war political modernization of the Dickens classic is grim in its entirety, with a message that is, unfortunately, still appropriate and timely.

In this version, an powerful industrialist Daniel Grudge coldly dismisses his nephew’s request to sponsor a cultural exchange program, instead adopting an isolationist political view. Like Scrooge, Grudge is visited by three spirits. In the past segment, he meets the ghosts of every soldier killed in every war in human history before meeting the disfigured survivors or Hiroshima. In the present segment, he is invited to a lavish feast but is forced to watch starving refugees in interment camps. When angered that he has to watch the suffering of the poor from other nations, the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds Grudge of his previous stance that providing aid to the poor prevents them from becoming self-reliant.

While the entire film is quite depressing, the future segment is, as usual, the “best” part. Grudge is shown the aftermath of a nuclear World War III, in which Peter Sellers portrays a demagogue known as the “Imperial ME,” dressed in a pilgrim costume and a cowboy hat cut to look like a crown. Sellers’ insane rants at the ruins of the town hall resemble Grudge’s own isolationist views taken to an extreme.

A Carol for another Christmas can be watched in it entirety at the Youtube link below, or purchased on DVD.

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Review: Understanding Necrophilia

For this edition of Scary Scholarly Saturday, we are going to look at the anthology Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, edited by Drs. Lee Mellor, Anil Aggrawal, and Eric Hickey. I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased in my review, because I authored the chapter “Objects of Desire: Necroeroticism in Mainstream Pornography.” I won’t go into detail about my own chapter (you can read the supplemental material here), other than to say that I did my best to ensure that I was the villain this anthology deserved. I’m so pleased and honored that my first print publication is in a collection alongside chapters by those listed above, as well as other personal heroes including Katherine Ramsland, Michael Stone, Louis B. Schlesinger, and my BFF Cody Charette.

In my (biased) opinion, there are no bad chapters in this book. Furthermore, this book is truly the first of its type, due to its multidisciplinary approach to the subject of necrophilia, which tends to be under-studied and under-reported. Many of us presented new research findings, or furthered existing discourse on the subject. I can’t discuss all of the chapters in depth, but will cover a few highlights.

Chapters are grouped by discipline and subject matter, including historical and legal issues, cultural aspects (including depictions in literature and popular culture), etiological models, forensic investigations and treatment, and case studies.

*In “A Wider Shade of Pale” and “Mincing Words,” Lee Mellor examines paraphilias associated with necrophilia. The most important being that he finally lays to rest (pun intended) the idiotic term “necrosadism,” which  has been used to describe acts of piqcuerism and mutilation committed against corpses, and replaces it with a far superior term, “necromutilophilia.”

*In “Laws Pertaining to Necrophilia in the United States,” Dr. Cody Charette conducted a thorough examination of individual state laws un the U.S., debunking some often-misreported laws in the process. It is true that some states have no laws on the books against necrophilia. What I found interesting was the fact that a handful of states have laws containing gendered language that would theoretically allow female necrophiliacs to operate without fear of prosecution.

*Necrosurrealist artist David Gough was commissioned to create a new portrait for this anthology. The resulting piece, Putrefying Venus, is quite stunning.

*Jens Foell and Christopher Patrick discuss brain imaging data of paraphiliacs in “A Neuroscientific Perspective on Morbid Paraphilias.” Unfortunately, there are no brain imaging studies of necrophiliacs specifically, but the authors present a thoughtful discussion of how the existing research applies.

*Anil Aggrawal revisits his proposed typologies of necrophilia, previously outlined in his book Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects, another book worth reading. I expect his typology to become essential in discussions of necrophilia.

Lastly, I want to point out that Understanding Necrophilia isn’t just a collection of academics and professionals dissecting necrophilia from the outside. This anthology also features an essay by a self-proclaimed necrophile. As a side note though, in my personal observation, successful academics and professionals don’t necessarily stand at a distance from any perversion, if you get my meaning. More than a few of us understand perversions from the inside looking out. But the gesture of including such an essay is unique and further sets this book apart from typical academic anthologies. Understanding Necrophilia further departs from the typical academic publication in that it embraces the fringes of pop culture by its inclusion of a chapter co-authored by Robert Rhine, the creator of Girls and Corpses Magazine.

 

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Love is Dead, and so is 2016

After a mild illness and a whole lot of work, I’m back! We will be bringing you reviews of Christmas-themed horror films and novels (be sure to check out our recent podcast) as the holidays draw near. But also, since 2016 is almost dead, it seems fitting to feature discussion of all things related to necrophilia. OK, it’s a bit self-serving as the book to which I contributed, Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, is now in print.

Come back tomorrow for a review of that book, but in the meantime, do you remember that time Alice Cooper and Ann Landers had an argument about his song “Cold Ethyl,” with Landers titling her column with the rebuke, “Necrophilia not funny, Alice”?

…Let’s agree to disagree, Ann.

Landers issues her complaint a few years after “Cold Ethyl” appeared on Cooper’s solo debut Welcome To My Nightmare. And it was not the first time Cooper recorded a song about necrophilia. “I Love the Dead” (performed live in the video below) was featured in the band’s 1973 album Billion Dollar Babies.

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The Mary-El Tarot

For this month’s Disturbed Divination feature, I wanted to cover a Christmas or Yule-themed tarot deck. But since I have none in my collection, I’m opting instead to review The Mary-el Tarot: Landscapes of the Abyss, in which Biblical and apocalyptic imagery abounds. This is one of my favorite decks in my collection. Marie White’s cards are simply stunning, and come with an in-depth guidebook detailing each card’s symbolism.

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She draws upon the Rider-Waite, Thoth, and Marseille decks with results simultaneously sacred and devilish. My favorite variation in this deck compared to other decks is that the Aces (beginnings) are represented by the Four Heavenly Creatures of the Bible and the 10’s (ending or completion of cycles) are represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s a morbid, yet appropriate, touch. The guidebook finds connections between Biblical, Pagan, Qabalistic, mythological, and pop culture concepts. Although somewhat unconventional, this deck is appropriate for beginners and for any tarot-lover.

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Understanding Necrophilia now in print!

 I am pleased to announce that the book to which I contributed original research, Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, is finally in print! This is the first time my work has been published in print, and I wasn’t prepared for the grueling (yet fun and challenging) process it would be. The creator of this meme below has the right idea.

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Looking ahead, December at My Horrific Life will be both a month of creepy Christmas cheer and a month of necrophilia, as I’ll be posting a review of Understanding Necrophilia (as soon as my contributor copy arrives) and reviews of complementary books. Stay tuned for our December podcast episodes as Todd and I discuss my research and our favorite Christmas-themed horror entertainment.

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Boris Karloff Month Finale: Targets

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For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

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The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

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The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

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Boris Karloff month: The Black Room and The Walking Dead

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Today, I want to briefly discuss two Boris Karloff films that I adore, but do not get much attention. Be advised, there are spoilers for both films ahead.

The Black Room (1935), is in some respects average and predictable, but it’s Karloff’s performance in a dual role that helps it shine. Karloff plays twins Gregor and Anton, both members of a European royal family in the late 1700’s. The great thing about this film is how it showcases Karloff’s acting range as the kindly twin Anton and the depraved twin Gregor.

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While Gregor’s appearance is slightly disheveled, and Anton has a paralyzed arm, there are no significant differences in makeup effects for the two characters. The radical difference in demeanor is all due to Karloff’s versatility of performance. Although Anton is predictably murdered by Gregor at the halfway mark, it was great to watch Karloff in a kindhearted role that more closely mirrored his own personality. Some of Karloff’s other great scenes in the film are when Gregor assumes Anton’s identity, only to struggle with maintaining a facade of kindness as well as mimicking Anton’s disability.

The Black Room is available on DVD in the Boris Karloff Collection – 6 Movie Set: The Black Room, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, and The Boogie Man Will Get You.

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The next film I want to discuss is The Walking Dead (1936), directed by Michael Curtiz. The Walking Dead is, in many ways, a ripoff of Frankenstein, but inverts the tropes of that film so extensively that the results are rather unique. Karloff portrays John Ellman, who is framed and wrongfully executed for murder. After being put to death by electric chair, Ellman is resurrected by a benevolent scientist who wishes to learn the secrets of the afterlife.

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Contrary to the salacious movie poster (see above), Karloff isn’t a bloodthirsty monster at all, but rather, a victim. Karloff’s performance is so effective because of his wonderfully expressive eyes, which bleed vulnerability. Like his character in Frankenstein, Karloff plays the role of monster-as-victim, with some important differences. Ellman retains his skills as a concert pianist and remains verbally articulate. He has a surprisingly sweet and gentle platonic friendship with the lead female character. And, most importantly, he doesn’t kill anyone. Ellman unwittingly becomes an agent of karma or of God’s judgement, because when confronts the men who framed him, they kill themselves. Each time, he is distressed to see them die and saddened that his own unjust death is never explained.

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The Walking Dead is available as part of a 4-film DVD set, Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway). This set is worth purchasing for this film alone and for the excellent commentary tracks on The Walking Dead and on Frankenstein 1970.

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Horrific Homemaking: Classic Horror Film Coasters

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While at Horrorhound Indianapolis 2016, I met the guys from Tarr and Fether’s Psycho Cinema, and notice their series of cool 4-piece coaster sets based on classic movie posters. As you can see, I went with the set that reflected the work of my favorite actors Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, among others.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t see a listing for other coaster sets at tarrandfether.com, but you may be able to inquire about purchasing a set there. Better yet, try to pick up a set  in person at one of their conventions!

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Introducing the Justin Beahm Radio Hour

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In case you haven’t caught it, my dear friend Justin Beahm started his own podcast earlier this year, The Justin Beahm Radio Hour. You may already know Justin through his work as a writer with Fangoria and many other horror magazines, as well as the producer of many Blu-ray special editions of great horror films. And of course, Justin had a leading role in Silk, which was previously reviewed on this blog. In his podcast, Justin conducts thoughtful interviews with a variety of people in the horror film industry.

Episode 6 of Justin’s show is a real treat, because Justin interviewed my friend Andrew Divoff. This episode is special not only because I can hear two good friends’ voices, but also because this may be the most in-depth and personal interview Andrew has given.

Check out Episode 6 here.

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Support Justin’s work by subscribing to his podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Youtube.

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Black Friday Special: Discounted Karloff Movies

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No, we aren’t actually selling any Karloff movies today. Rather, we are recognizing that Boris Karloff, like all great actors, starred in a number of films either not worthy of his talents, or films that were quite good but overlooked and discounted by critics and moviegoers alike. Coincidentally, many of these films are available for purchase at a bargain bin discount – often in a multi-movie set – through retailers such as Amazon.

I’ve personally decided to boycott Black Friday shopping in favor of revisiting these discounted Karloff films. It seems only appropriate to start this list with…

Black Friday (1940). Karloff plays a mad scientist who transplants the brain of a gangster into the body of a kindly professor. This is not done merely to see if it can be done, but because the gangster had access to a sizable sum of hidden cash which Karloff needs to fund his hospital and experiments. Where this film falls down for me is the fact that the brain recipient retains both the memories of the criminal and the professor, shuttling between the two in Jekyll and Hyde fashion. Even within the illogical nature of horror film logic, this was…illogical.

Frankenstein 1970 (1958). Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein rather than the monster in this meta-ish 1950s reboot of the classic tale. Karloff’s character is working on a new Monster, which will be re-animated using atomic power. Things get complicated when he decides to allow a TV film crew to document his work. This film never breaks the 4th wall, but leans heavily against it. This movie isn’t as cool as it should have been, due to hammy performances and unintentionally funny moments in which Dr. Frankenstein bumbles and fumbles multiple sets of eyes intended for the Monster, necessitating the murder of multiple characters whose bodies get thrown into an oversized garbage disposal. The best part of this film is easily the commentary track on the DVD set Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway)

The Climax (1944). This film had a great concept, with Boris Karloff in his first color film portraying a mad scientist who stalks an opera singer and attempts mind control experiments against her. There’s also implied necrophilia as he keeps the body of his former love object preserved in his chambers. Karloff has some great moments in this film, but like many 1940s movies, the plot frequently grinds to a halt to introduce a series of musical numbers. Worse, the musical numbers are not even true opera pieces, but instead a series of dated and forgettable songs performed by the heroine in shrill, yodeling soprano vocalizations. This is fine if you like 1940’s musicals, and the upshot is this movie featured some fun costumes and choreography. If it’s not your thing, fast forward through the musical numbers and shave off 50% of the viewing time.This is available, along with other films, in The Boris Karloff Collection (Tower of London / The Black Castle / The Climax / The Strange Door / Night Key)

Son of Frankenstein (1939). The was last time Karloff donned the makeup to reprise his role as the Monster for Universal Studios. Fans of Mel Brooks’ spoof Young Frankenstein  will recognize this as the source material for several funny scenes and characters. Son of Frankenstein is worth watching, even if lacks the weirdness and brilliance of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. My favorite thing about this film is actually the account of behind-the-scenes tickle wars between Karloff and other cast members, as described in Stephen Jacobs’ Karloff biography More Than a Monster.

You’ll Find Out (1940). Like stereotypical white girls everywhere, I can’t even. This movie wastes the talents of three great actors: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Bela Lugosi. This is a painful haunted house slapstick comedy punctuated by even more painful and unnecessary musical numbers. This is a movie I reference to illustrate that the 1940’s, along with the 1990’s, committed more crimes against the horror genre than all other decades combined. Avoid this unless you are a masochist or sincerely love 1940’s slapstick musical horror-comedies.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).As you can tell, 1940’s horror comedies are not my favorite, but there is some clever writing here, especially in the dialogue. For instance, the villain offers a character the choice of how he wants to die, and gets the response, “old age!” Despite the title, Karloff is actually not the killer. If you enjoy the comedy of Abbott and Costello, you will enjoy this.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). In this film and its sequels, Karloff dons “yellowface” to play the titular character. The upside is that, unlike his turn as Dr. Fu-Manchu, Karloff’s character is a positive, capable, and heroic character. This series is likely to be overlooked by horror fans, but is entirely worthwhile for those interested in crime dramas and murder mysteries.

The Night Key (1937). A solid crime drama in which Karloff plays a scientist who invents a cutting-edge security system and ends up being held hostage by criminals who want the key to crack his invention. Karloff’s character is a kind elderly man with failing eyesight, and it’s easy to empathize with his misfortune. This film is worth watching just to see the diversity of Karloff’s acting range apart from monsters and villains.

Given Karloff’s career in over 200 films and TV shows,  this list barely scratches the surface of his overlooked  and discounted films. Stay tuned for additional reviews of his work as November draws to a close.

 

 

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Happy Birthday to Boris Karloff, a beautiful soul

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Today is Boris Karloff’s birthday, so it seems fitting to dedicate this post to his life, and to extend happy birthday wishes to his daughter Sara Jane Karloff who shares his November 23rd birthday.

I confess that I knew very little about Boris Karloff as a person before beginning this blog, but exploring his life has been a beautiful, inspiring journey. The first biography that I read was Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff by Cynthia Lindsay, who was a friend of Karloff’s for many years. Lindsay’s book is entirely worth reading, as she provides some wonderful insights into Karloff as a kind and devoted friend. But her book raises as many questions as it answers. Despite having been his friend for decades, there were many things that Cynthia did not know about Karloff’s life due to the fact he was a vey private person. Despite her best efforts at research, there were many details she simply could not uncover. Some of these details I found mysterious and unnerving. For example, he never discussed his childhood and revealed his five marriages after many years of friendship. I wonder if , in this era in which people share minute details of their lives on social media, people would regard Karloff’s secrecy about his private life with suspicion. Perhaps such discretion regarding personal matters is a lost virtue.

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The next book on the list was Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life  Scott Allen Nollen. The author was able to consult with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, resulting in a more detailed account of Karloff’s life. My only complaint about this book is that the print is surprisingly small and there is no ebook edition. But if one can overlook the irksome font, this is a delightful book that gives great insight into Karloff’s character.

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Boris with his daughter, Sara Jane, who shares his birthday.

Lastly, there’s Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster by Stephen Jacobs. This is, perhaps, THE authoritative text on Karloff’s life. I admit that I have not finished reading it yet, as it is over 500 pages long. What I’ve read is absolutely engrossing, as Jacobs was able to obtain previously unpublished material, including family letters. (However, what I’ve read so far does not shed much light on his five marriages.) I highly recommend this book, but am sad to report that it appears to be out of print and it is difficult to obtain affordable copies. Currently, the best and least expensive way to obtain a copy is directly thought Karloff.com, the official site maintained by Sara Karloff and other relatives.

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Boris as a child

Obviously, there is no way to summarize these three biographies, so I’ll just share a series of interesting and inspiring facts about Boris Karloff’s life and personality.

Karloff’s birth name was William Henry Pratt. He claimed his stage name “Karloff” was derived from Russian ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. However, all of the biographies I’ve read state that he was of Anglo-Indian heritage, and didn’t find evidence to support his claims of Russian ancestry.

Boris came from a long line of English diplomats. He was considered the black sheep of the family due to his lack of interest in  adopting their profession.

He attempted to join the British military during World War I, but was rejected due to a heart murmur. He was also bow-legged and had a severe stutter and lisp.

Karloff started his acting career in the theater, and then performed in roughly 80 films before getting his “big break” as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Before this role made him famous, he earned most of his income through hard labor, including ditch-digging.

Karloff was liberal in his political views. Biographer Cynthia Lindsay describes him as a “civil rights fighter.” Interestingly, despite being an advocate for all people, he never revealed his own East Indian heritage due to the racism of his time. When asked how he got his deep tan, he would give responses such as “Too much sun. Out of work, you know!”

He was one of the charter members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG was founded because actors were forced to work in truly hazardous conditions at that time, and often for little pay. Karloff served as the director of SAG for multiple terms.

Karloff’s charitable work included dressing as Santa Claus and visiting a local hospital at Christmastime. In their excitement to see him, the children knocked over and trampled the large Christmas tree that decorated the children’s wing. Other charitable activities included renovating old churches and creating a fund to help young athletes.

Boris had a great love of animals, and cared for several dogs, chickens, turkeys, a cow, and a pet pig at his farmhouse. He also tended a vegetable farm and flower garden on his property. In the A&E documentary The Gentle Monster, one film historian went so far as to describe Karloff as the “St. Francis of Assisi of horror actors.” His other hobbies included playing soccer and cricket.

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Boris with Elsie the cow.

The sources I’ve read unanimously describe Karloff as an extraordinarily kind and gentle person, though the press seemed to have trouble reconciling his kind personality with his villainous film roles. Boris himself claimed negative social effects from being typecast: “I’m a quiet citizen, I have my home, my dogs and my orchids. I vote and pat little children on the head. What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

However, those who knew him reported a different perception. His wife Dorothy states that these roles were beneficial: “Before Boris began playing sinister parts…he was a much more irritable person than he ever has been since. Whether or not these roles give him the opportunity of purging himself of any latent streaks of malevolence he might ordinarily possess, I cannot say. But I do know that…he is a much sweeter person at home than before. He really is a lamb.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

In a 1941 radio show, Boris referred to himself as “Cuddles Karloff,” which wasn’t inaccurate according to his friends. Cynthia Lindsay recalls, “I never thought of him as a ‘movie star,’ only as a woolly friend. And there is a tactile memory of him that is woolly, the good soft tweeds and the silvery gray hair that had always been shaved for some monstrous role and for which, as it grew furring in, he charged fifty cents a feel. In advance. (Beards were a dollar. They were rarer.)”

Former President Ronald Regan shared his memories of Karloff in a letter to Cynthia Lindsay as “one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever met, and at all times a perfect gentleman… He had great, good common sense plus a sense of fairness typical of his great integrity.”

 

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Horrific Homemaking: Things to Make and Do With Boris Karloff

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Today we are doing our fist edition of Horrific Homemaking, wherein we will cover anything related to home decor, cooking, and arts and crafts. In honor of Boris Karloff’s birth month, I’m kicking this off with Things to Make and Do…with Boris Karloff. If only this were a real craft book. It’s actually a two-part craft project outlined on the blog Baking With Medusa. (Note: the images in this post are from that blog, not my own creation).

In Part One, there are instructions for making Boris Karloff finger-puppets. Just print out images of your favorite Karloff characters, add cardboard backing for support, and cut out holes for your index and middle fingers.

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In Part Two, we are given instructions for creating a miniature theater, so you can recreate the iconic windmill scene from Frankenstein.

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In other news, Todd and I have recorded our first two podcast episodes! We are now working on upgrading the website to become compatible with uploading them.

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Review: House of Psychotic Women

As this blog grows, I’ve decided to designate at least one day a month as Scary Scholarly Saturday…or something like that…perhaps a catchier name will come to mind.

Speaking of disturbed minds, this month’s featured academic book is House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse. This isn’t your typical film criticism book, but rather an analysis of selected films through an autobiographical lens. As the title suggests, it’s an examination of neurotic, psychotic, and otherwise “crazy” women in horror and exploitation films. It’s a book that works my nerves on a number of levels, but also has a lot on its favor. So let’s get the perceived negatives out of the way first.

To foreground this discussion, I must point out that I’ve become so disgusted with people casually using the term “crazy” in reference to women. The term itself is rather lazy, and stigmatizes mental illness, but also tends to be used to silence and discredit women in particular. As discussed in an article by Harris O’Malley, men usually don’t label women as crazy in reference to an actual diagnosis, but usually to delegitimize any behavior or emotion that is merely perceived as inconvenient or annoying. This labeling is also often brilliantly mocked and satirized satirized in the spoof women’s magazine Reductress.

So imagine how irked I was with Kier-La Janisse’s statement in the introduction, “every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another.” Like so many men who use this label to describe women, she often does not refer to any formal diagnosis. In this book as in common parlance, “crazy” is a catch-all term for anything from mere eccentricity to debilitating psychosis. The rest of the book involves relating her own craziness to the on-screen craziness of various female characters. She never does offer a definition of what constitutes craziness, or its elusive opposite, sanity. Likewise, she never posits whether she views women as crazy in an essentialist sense, or that all women are crazy due to the pressures of patriarchal society. Given her description of her horrifically abusive childhood, I was saddened that she constantly labels herself crazy as well. Most of the evidence she presents for her self-described craziness runs along the lines of maladaptive coping behaviors that seem perfectly understandable given her dysfunctional upbringing.

My final criticism is that while horror films do depict a great deal of ” craziness” of different types and degrees, it isn’t a genre specifically about that nebulous category of women’s “craziness.” While I haven’t done a quantitative analysis of the subject, my viewing of thousands of horror films seems to indicate that depictions of mentally ill men are at least as prevalent as those of women, if not more so. Focusing exclusively on “crazy” women excludes their male equivalents. What about Jack Torrence, Norman Bates, and Michael Myers, not to mention scores of mad scientists, serial killers, and cultists? Male craziness is a staple of horror literature. Just ask any of Lovecraft’s protagonists. Janisse even discusses her affinity for the “neurotic” music of Alice Cooper, who has coopted “craziness” and mental illness as part of his personal brand following his treatment at a psychiatric facility. However, she doesn’t explore representations (or self-representations) of male “craziness.” At some point, I would love to see someone compare and contrast gendered constructs of “craziness” within the horror genre. Furthermore, I would eventually like to see a discussion of the perceived benefit of owning “craziness” as a personal brand or label.

On the positive side, Janisse does provide in-depth and thoughtful commentary on many  overlooked movies, which are presented alongside her autobiography, and separately in  a lengthy appendix. There are also many beautiful black-and-white and full color movie stills and poster reproductions throughout the book. Even though I had issues with the premise, House of Psychotic Women was fun to read. Janisse’s autobiography is interesting in its own right, and it’s fascinating how horror films can resonate with people on so many different levels. Clearly, depictions of  “crazy” women serve a cathartic function for Janisse. I am constantly amazed at how many varied readings arise from the horror genre, and this was an aspect I hadn’t previously considered.

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The Purge Trilogy: films we deserve this election season

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This election season has been the most grueling and absurd of my lifetime. Since I voted early, the only thing left to do today is hole up at home, set my home security system, have a Purge marathon, and start drinking. I may be in lockdown mode longer than tonight in the event that these prescient films have accurately predicted mass riots following a Trump loss.

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The Purge and its first sequel have served as a biting commentary on U.S. political rhetoric, especially that of the more Ayn Rand-ish faction of the GOP. The third entry in the series openly attempts to tie into the current election cycle. The premise is both ridiculous and plausible.

For those not familiar with the series, it’s set in a not-to-distant future in which the U.S has a new government which legalizes all crime on one day of the year.  Ostensibly this allows citizens to “purge” their darker impulses allows them to be happier, better-adjusted, and more productive the rest of the year. Superficially, the policy works, as the U.S. economy is at an all-time high and non-Purge-Day crime is at a record low. Of course, there is a hidden agenda driven by greed.

The original Purge is a home-invasion movie in which an upper-middle-class family is targeted for sheltering a homeless man who had been selected by another group for elimination. Embedded within the cat-and-mouse suspense, there’s a commentary about the inherent class-based unfairness of the Purge. Wealthy people can afford elaborate home security systems, but those who live in poverty face a distinct disadvantage when it comes to self-defense.

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While the first film focused on the plight of an upwardly-mobile white family, its immediate sequel,  The Purge: Anarchy tells the story of the working poor and other vulnerable people. This is the best entry in the series and also the darkest. In this film, we learn that the New Founding Fathers are proactively trying to eliminate the poor, especially those who live in government subsidized housing. It’s simply better for the national budget to not waste tax money on people who are a “burden” or who perpetually need a “handout.” It smacks of some GOP politicians’ proposals to cut or completely eliminate welfare programs, unemployment benefits, and social security. In the film, the government gets even more hands-on by sending SWAT teams into housing projects to gun down the residents.

When trailers dropped for The Purge: Election Year, I was pumped. The earlier entries in the series seemed prescient in terms of the rhetoric of both parties during the primaries, but this film is an obvious attempt to satirize and critique the current election. As the title suggests, this films provides insight into the New Founding Fathers and government politicians. The villain is a Randian psychopath who has managed to ingratiate himself with the religious right. This seems appropriate enough because many conservative evangelical Christians do have Objectivist leanings, even though the political and moral components of Rand’s Objectivism have NOTHING to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ! I feel bad for evangelical conservatives right now. The truly pious have good reason to dislike both candidates, and the Trump supporters have to pull off some dizzying mental gymnastics to justify their decision given Trump’s distinctly non-Christlike statements, actions, and policies.

And just look at the trailer  below and tell me if the heroine, with her rhetoric about the Purge targeting the poor, isn’t modeled after Bernie Sanders?

Unfortunately, by the time The Purge: Election Year  was released in theaters,  Sanders had effectively lost Democratic nomination, which made the content of the film feel somewhat disjunctive to current events. This was also, disappointingly, the weakest entry of the series. Sometimes the script felt heavy-handed and repetitive, and sometimes the acting during the presidential debate scenes was bad. A close friend declared it “porn-acting bad.”

The sad thing is that in retrospect, that scene was so much better, more rational, and more presidential than any of the actual presidential debates. And, the film’s plot involving the assassination attempt of the Senator by the  New Founding Fathers is a bit too close for comfort, given Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” should “do something” about Hillary Clinton. (See also my earlier post about the Dead Zone audiobook’s delayed release.) Naturally, the Sanders-esque Senator wins the presidential election and outlaws Purge Night, leading to mass riots by Purge supporters. Despite some flaws, it’s still an interesting film that develops the mythology of Purge Night, with more emphasis on how greedy corporations and insurance companies fit into the equation, and the twisted form of Christianity practiced by the New Founding Fathers.

The Purge trilogy is now available for purchase as a 3-Movie Collection.

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The Racist Escapism of Fu Manchu

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A rare color still of Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu

While visiting the post office this week, I had an interesting conversation with the clerk, who also spent her weekend watching 1930s horror films. We both noted that pre-Code films have a lot in common with post-9/11 “torture porn” films. This nice lady who assisted me with shipping my numerous packages went so far as to say that 1930s horror films are almost like “snuff films, but more elegant.” Of course, 1930s films are nowhere near as graphically violent as torture films, let alone snuff films, but there are many thematic similarities to post-9/11 horror films, including sexual sadism, human captivity narratives, torture, and rampant xenophobia. It’s as though American horror cinema has come full circle.

Since I’m on already covering Boris Karloff’s villainous characters, and with covering genre entries that seem to relate to the rhetoric of this election, today I’m covering The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), a film under fire for decades for its racist portrayal of Asians. Today, the anti-Asian and specifically anti-Chinese stereotypes won’t resonate with most viewers…even though one of our candidates proclaimed that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese.

In the opening scene, two English men discuss the need to locate the sword of Genghis Khan. The older gentleman advises our hero that in his hands, the sword will merely be a harmless artifact in the British museum, but if the sword falls into the hands of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, the entire Asian race will believe Fu Manchu to be Genghis Khan reborn, and will attempt to exterminate the entire white race. In summary, the treasures of other cultures must be plundered in order to protect an “inferior” races from their own ignorance and superstition.

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The opening dialogue alone gives us a taste of the racist and colonialist twaddle to come, but the rest of the film becomes so much worse than that. Soon after, we are introduced to our villains, Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter, respectively portrayed by Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in dragon-like “yellow face,” complete with “exotic” robes and talon-like fingernails. Dr. Fu Manchu, possibly a coded homosexual, who relentlessly mocks the values of white Christian society, advises his Asian acolytes to “conquer and breed. Kill the white man and take his women!” He even attempts to pimp out his own daughter in exchange for the sword’s location. We subsequently discover that she can’t be pimped out against her will, because she is a “sadistic nymphomaniac” (Myrna Loy’s term, per the DVD commentary) who tortures, sleeps with, and eventually murders numerous white men with her father’s approval. The scene in which she has the white hero flogged by half-naked African slaves no doubt exploited racists fears of the era. Fu Manchu and his daughter embody the “Yellow Peril,” a perception that an influx of Asian immigrants would rob Western whites of their jobs and moral values. Sound familiar?

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Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s nymphomaniac daughter

Despite the censorship and numerous cuts imposed upon The Mask of Fu Manchu, it was only one entry in an extremely successful decades-long franchise based on a series of books by Sax Rohmer (which somehow manage to be more racist and sexist than the film adaptations), followed by numerous film entries, comic books, and radio dramas.

Yet, for all of the awfulness, of the film, I admit I enjoy The Mask of Fu Manchu and other entries in the series, mainly for the absurd campiness and the fun performances by Karloff and Loy, and because I have a soft spot for fictional villains. Karloff’s Fu Manchu is even a bit lovable for all his awfulness. The film is also noteworthy in Karloff’s career as his first true speaking role. I’m quite glad that an uncensored version still exists, if only to serve as a time capsule of the era’s values.

I wonder if the average 1930’s viewer took the film’s racism seriously. Boris Karloff did not, according to Greg Mank’s commentary track, but rather dismissed the film as harmless escapism. According the biography I’m currently reading, Karloff  (whose birth name was William Henry Pratt) kept his East Indian heritage a secret during those bigoted times, declaring his heritage as partially Russian instead, and stating that his stage name “Karloff” was taken from a maternal relative. The author also states that Karloff was a liberal who advocated for civil rights. It’s an interesting factor to contemplate when looking at the racist content of the film itself.

The only uncut version I’ve found is part of Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection (Doctor X / The Return of Doctor X / Mad Love / The Devil Doll / Mark of the Vampire / The Mask of Fu Manchu), which includes other films essential for horror enthusiasts, along with excellent commentary tracks by film historians.

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Politics of Insanity in “Bedlam”

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Boris Karloff month continues with our second film review:Bedlam (1946), a film with some historical basis. “Bedlam” was the nickname for St. Bethlehem Memorial Hospital, England’s oldest mental hospital. Bedlam was known for its barbaric treatment of patients and for raising funds by charging admission so that the public could be entertained by the “lunatics.” It was all too easy to be committed such an institution against one’s will. In fact, it was not uncommon for husbands to commit their wives to insane asylums once becoming tired of their marriages.

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This is one of a few films in which Karloff’s character is truly villainous, rather than merely misunderstood. Karloff plays George Sims, the sadistic (and a tad lecherous) apothecary general in charge of the asylum in the 1760’s. His patients are not merely abused as part of misguided medical treatments, but deliberately tortured for the amusement of aristocrats. In one scene, Sims paints a patient in gold gilt to perform at a dinner party, and laughs as the poor man suffocates. Film historian Tom Weaver, who provided the commentary track for the DVD release, shared an interesting story that the actor who played the patient was indeed painted from head to toe in gold paint, and did begin to suffocate as a result. Karloff was actually the first to notice the young actor’s plight and was able to procure medical treatment for him in time.

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The female protagonist Nell is not amused by Sims’ mistreatment of patients. Eventually she poses a threat to Sims’ position, so he arranges a hearing to have her committed to Bedlam. Thank goodness that could never happen today. That would be like, say, threatening to jail one’s political opponent if one wins an election.

Nell’s character seems unusually feisty for a Code-era film. Check out Divas, Damsels, and Smudged Mascara for more about the feminist aspects of this film. Sims believes inmates at Bedlam are all savages and will harm Nell, but because she shows them kindness and tries to ease their suffering, Nell’s actions eventually lead to reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill. Of course, not before Karloff’s nasty character gets his just desserts.

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The DVD edition I own is a Karloff double feature including Isle of the Dead, which is also a solid film. Tom Weaver’s commentary track is a treat, as he delves into the history of the real Bedlam hospital as well as fascinating stories about the filmmakers and the film itself.

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Boris Karloff’s Tales of the Frightened

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While virtually everyone has some familiarity with Karloff’s films, it’s not as well know that he also narrated books and performed radio dramas. Boris Karloff Presents: Tales of the Frightened is a delightful audio collection of short stories narrated by Karloff himself. Each story is approximately five minutes long, usually involving murder or freak accidents, yet without being overly gruesome or explicit. Nonetheless, each story has a bit of a mean-spirited twist ending that implicates the listener as the next victim.

I really do enjoy Boris Karloff’s voice. While narrating these stories, he comes off as a kind-hearted man who is paradoxically saying creepy things. I confess, I’ve actually fallen asleep to this recording several times in the last month, because it has a weirdly cozy, comforting vibe.

There is also an out-of-print paperback edition containing the same stories, but the recording is currently available as an Audible download  Audible download for the low, low price of $4.87.

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