Latest Entries »

pit_7QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)

Hammer’s sequel to Quatermass 2 (1957) earns most of its stars through a warped and imaginative conclusion; the closing scenes of this wordy film demonstrate surprisingly eerie imagination—finally showing us something wordlessly (and exquisitely) weird.

But before that: Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is summoned to help investigate a mysterious metallic shell uncovered during tunnel repairs to the London Underground. He extracts from within some big crusty bugs—perfectly preserved fossils—that he deduces are ancient Martians. Naturally the authorities won’t have a bar of it, and hinder his every step. Meanwhile the craft itself begins acting up, hurtling nearby objects and inducing madness in a few of its meddlers.

Diverging from iconic Hammer fare in its modern, urban setting, the film is a rather low on atmosphere early on, focusing primary on the Professor’s inquiries being stymied by obnoxious officials. Given the innovative Underground setting, one thinks of the missed opportunity to play on this more fully (perhaps using a few haunted-house conventions to evoke a uniquely urban sense of the uncanny). Moreover, the earliest strange happenings (objects levitating near the craft) are disappointingly explicable—by visible wires.Quatermass-6

The pace quickens after the plot has been rather exhaustively unpacked (an explanation involving local legends, ancestral memories, psychic powers and alien ethnic-cleansing). Then we get what we’ve surely been waiting for all along: quakes and chaos emanating from the Underground to threaten busy London above. Most effective is the film’s attribution of a sense of the ‘demonic’ to its ultimately extra-terrestrial menace.  Once this note is resoundingly struck, the technical mumbo-jumbo of science-fiction seems left behind, allowing us to be held and haunted by the film’s final spectacles of terror.  3.5 / 5

Review: Congo (1995)

T7QY2nwLJ5s.movieposterCONGO (1995)

Pulp adventure and primate horror—how could they miss? For a start, with dull/miscast characters and poorly orchestrated suspense sequences. The above aren’t the only types of film vying for expression either, and Congo struggles to set a tone that will juice the most out of such a patchwork of material. Hardly woeful—there are flashes of great potential here—but this gorilla-flick never gets up a full or frightening charge.  2.5  / 5

black-lagoon-gif-200.gifCREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)

Rarely does a horror film improve much after flubbing its initial scares. The titular Creature initially gropes with fishy fingers from the water a couple of times, but fails to evoke any real alarm. Having him wetly trudge along a boat’s deck in full sunlight is not an effective use of frog-face either. Yet, later, long sequences of the monster stalking his human prey through the weedy depths are urgent, entrancing and masterfully orchestrated.

The tale of the long-lost mutant is foregrounded by evolutionary hypothesizing, and the journey down the Amazon in quest of a mythic specimen is also a journey back in time: the film’s adventurers seek a prehistoric place where all manner of freaks may yet thrive. For all his gillsCreature_from_the_Black_Lagoon_poster and fins, the monster is also conspicuously anthropomorphic, and the suggestion of our continuity with so strange a cousin provokes unease through a blurring of the human-animal binary.

The Creature’s crafty abduction of a human bride, Kay (Julie Adams), is of course iconic.  Since the strapping lover of this damsel (Richard Carlson) refuses to commit to her outright, Gill-man’s predilection for female company hints at an exploded patriarchal fear that she is not sexually “secured”—indeed, she is also desired by a rival explorer (Whit Bissell) during the journey. Later, however, the subtext shifts and the menacing Creature seems to reflect Kay’s fear of angering her lover, since she fancies his rival right back. As these thematic adjustments suggest, the film hits a sweet-spot of anxiety and ambiguity, charging us for confrontations in which humans thrash in life-or-death struggles against the amphibious terror, as well as propelling us toward the tragic finale.  4 / 5


12970972_10154257545264728_4008495880967706715_o.jpgPHASE IV (1974)


2001: A Space Odyssey
meets Them!, Saul Bass’s Phase IV sees the humble ant granted cryptic intelligence through a vague series of cosmological adjustments. From the beginning of the film, extreme close-up sequences depicting ant activity impose upon us a world to which we ordinarily have only the most limited awareness and access, both physically and visually. Yet here our knowledge of this unique perspective, so removed from our own, intensifies the conflict between us and “them” as the ultra-organized ants range themselves against other earthly inhabitants, especially humans. The strange events begin in the US desert, and a duo of scientists, entrenched in a high-tech base of their own design, begin various experiments to solve the riddle of this mysterious ant-agonism (sorry). Ostensibly a thriller, but with little to pound the pulse, Phase IV’s virtue is rather its engrossingly moody visual mode and the creeping sense of the uncanny to which it gives rise. 4 / 5

I’m excited that I will be giving, as part of the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival’s Mary Shelley Symposium, the following presentation:

rott2.gifBAD DOG!
The Rogue Hounds of Horror

Domestic dogs regularly earn the affectionate adjective “faithful” in tribute to the numerous ways in which they complement and enrich human lives: as companions, guardians, workmates, friends. However, horror cinema provides multiple instances of dogs turned treacherous, canines who fiercely reject our attribution of fidelity and who abuse the special status we afford them in our culture. With attention to several films, including SUSPIRIA (1977), THE THING (1982), and CUJO (1983), this illustrated presentation takes a stern yet understanding look at these “bad dogs,” considering the terror and allure of imagining the rebellion of our furry friends.

The talk will be held on Saturday April 16, 11 am. Cost is $6 or $4 (Conc.), or free with a Festival Pass (see below).

This exploratory but accessible talk will be of interest to lovers of cinema, genre, horror, and—of course—dogs.

I really hope as many people as possible attend this wild and wonderful festival, which Director, Founder and Programmer, Briony Kidd, along with others, are working tremendously hard on. A tantalizing array of films (both shorts and features) await your attention and enjoyment, as well as in-depth talks and presentations. For more info visit: http://www.strangerwithmyface.com

I will be donating my speaker’s fee to The Dogs’ Home of Tasmania, so you can come and enjoy a talk about angry dogs while your support indirectly helps very vulnerable ones.

The Man Who Loved ChildrenMy guide to Christina Stead’s 1940 Australian classic The Man Who Loved Children has been published by Insight Publications. The Man Who Loved Children is now part of the Australian year 11-12 English curriculum, and this 73-page guide is especially designed for college-level students and their teachers. It contains: character map; synopsis; background on the writer; sections on genre, structure, and style; discussion of historical context; chapter-by-chapter analysis with key quotes and study questions; detailed discussion of themes; essay questions; guidelines for planning and writing an essay; and sample essays written to year-11/12 A+ standard.

Available now from publisher Insight Publications (in both paperback and digital editions) and Angus & Robertson, with others to follow.

Thinking in the DarkI strive to make Jacques Lacan accessible in this new anthology from Rutgers UP on film theory. Each chapter considers a different theorist/philosopher whose ideas have been influential in cinema studies, and via analysis of two films (one classic, one contemporary). My chapter discusses Laura (1944) and Black Swan (2010). I’m honored to be included in a book with the likes of Tom Gunning and Dudley Andrew (and of course its wonderful editors Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer). Anyone who teaches film or is otherwise in need of a vibrant introduction to film theory: check it out.

And remember: “What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?”

tumblr_nqy4b0oO0B1tvwvpwo1_500View at Amazon
View at Rutgers University Press

 

 

 

Thank you to the wonderful Dave from Critical Dave for this review of my book, Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors. Dave is one of my favorite online critics, an insightful, erudite and no-bullshit writer, and a great guy too, so I’m thrilled by and grateful for his comments.

Critical Dave

Cover

I opened my review of The Bad Seedwith the following words: “So if further evidence was needed that all children everywhere are evil, enter Rhoda Penmark and The Bad Seed”. I’d intended the quip as a pithy little one, relying more on my curmudgeonly ways than any reflection of actual children, but it was still an easy one to make – do we in fact find children a bit creepy and evil?

It’s a subject that’s considered, addressed, refuted, supported, reinterpreted and discussed all throughout Dominic Lennard’s Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film. Charting the depictions of delinquent all the way through to monstrous children in film from (roughly) the post-war era to the modern day, Lennard’s work doesn’t so much say “yes” or “no” to the question, but considers all ways of considering it.

He puts forward multiple readings and…

View original post 466 more words

George Cukor: Hollywood Master (2015)I’m excited to announce publication of George Cukor: Hollywood Master, edited by the wonderful Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in which my work is included. This anthology includes critical discussion of every feature Cukor directed, including Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, and of course numerous others.

A number of George Cukor’s films focus on the critique and correction of social personae, featuring protagonists who must fuss over the most “appropriate” or culturally desired presentation of self. Addressing this theme, my chapter is titled Libel, scandal and bad big names: on not being ‘yourself’ in Camille (1936), Romeo and Juliet (1936), It Should Happen to You (1954), and Les Girls (1957).”

 

 

An MGM-style all-star cast of critics proCamille sentimental.gifvide innumerable fresh insights into Cukor’s rich and surprisingly varied career, his working methods and his signature subjects. The self-effacing Cukor believed in not calling attention to his craft, but he would have appreciated the sophistication and nuance with which these scholars illuminate his achievements.

–Professor Matthew Bernstein, Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory University

View at Amazon

View at Edinburgh University Press

In commemoration of William Friedkin’s 80th birthday today: earlier this year the legendary director participated in this wonderful extended interview following a screening of Sorcerer (1977). Friedkin speaks and takes questions with characteristic gusto on a broad range of topics related to his career and achievements. Video courtesy of the School of the Cinematic Arts at USC.