Tag Archives: horror films

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 Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.