Category Archives: horor films

A Whole Bunch of Exploitation/Grindhouse Film Documentaries

Below is a list of documentaries about exploitation/grindhouse/b-movies and, where possible, links to where you can find them on-line. Consider it a public service. So feel free to skip this intro and scroll down to the links instead…

Lately, and by lately I mean my entire life, I’ve been watching a lot of cheap, cheerful exploitation movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love cinema full-stop. I’m happy to watch a respectable, Oscar winner or an art-house film. For me, as for so many others (you know who you are), film is a drug. All of my movie-watching has always been about dragging myself through the celluloid streets for one more angry fix; an attempt to recapture that first high of watching a King Kong/The Day the Earth Stood Still double-bill when I was three or four. Exact details are obscured by time. Only traces remain. I was in the spare room, not my bedroom. Put there for a nap maybe? There was a small TV in there, old enough (this would have been 1981/82) that it had a dial for changing the channels. Certain images are seared into my brain. Kong pushing the trees aside, light emanating from Gort’s visor. These visions changed me as fully as any later, more clearly remembered, more ‘real’, life experience.

Film as drug: If a classy, prestige Hollywood picture is an expensive bottle of wine, exploitation and B-movies are cheap amphetamine. A quick sleazy, scuzzy buzz compared to the mellow high of the prestige picture.  Not that it is simply a question of budget. Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce was one of the most expensive movies of it’s day, but has B-Movie spirit coursing through every frame. Indeed, we might argue that post-Star Wars (or even post-Jaws) the vast majority of Hollywood’s output has actually just been big budget B-movies. For the true film junkie, however, there is no real distinction. Example: Scorsese’s love of 1953’s cheap, sci-fi quickie Invaders from Mars (particularly it’s set design and use of colour) is made manifest by in the opening scene of his own, far more “respectable” Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

At this point I should point out that I am aware that there are proper distinctions between the terms ‘exploitation movie‘, ‘grindhouse‘ and ‘B-Movie‘, but this is a blog post people, not a Film Studies journal article so let’s just agree to use them in an interchangeable, somewhat colloquial sense. It’s true that no actual B-movie has existed for decades, while most of the grindhouse theaters and drive-ins that showed exploitation movies have long since closed down and been replaced by the vanilla spectacle of the multiplex. So let’s treat it like the definition of obscenity: we’re not sure what it is but we know it when we see it. No-one has ever mistaken Maniac Cop for Driving Miss Daisy, dig?

Driving Miss Daisy

Maniac Cop

 

Continue reading

Advertisements

Dark, Deranged and Disney

What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From  Dorfman and Mattelart’€™s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971),  Henry Giroux’€™s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward€’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:

The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.

All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.

Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror.  Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released.  The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,

awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. 

In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the  “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes. Continue reading


Special Effects Auteurs (and the particular genius of Screaming Mad George)

Freaked (1993)

Watching the documentary Fantastic Flesh The Art of Make-Up FX an idea came to me. When  auteur theory was being developed by film theorists and critics way back when in the 20th century its aim was to have film directors recognised as the true authors of a film even though film production was both a collective and industrial process. Despite these factors the true auteurs voice, style and thematic concerns could, so the argument went,  be discerned in any of their works. I had the idea that this article would present a complex theory of the special effects artist as auteur but on reflection thought it would be more fun to celebrate the work of Screaming Mad George, and watch a bunch of videos of cool special-effects on the way.

Some context wouldn’t hurt though. So it is interesting to consider which special effects artists have become more well-known to the public than others. Certainly other effects artists could recognise certain work. In  Fantastic Flesh Tom Savini (see below) describes going to see films featuring the work of favoured effects artists as, “the lastest exhibit from your favourite artist”. A potted history might start with Jack Pierce (featured in this 1933 issue of Modern Mechanics!). Pierce was in the fortunate position of being head of Universal’s make-up department when that studio inaugurated the first horror film boom of the 1930s. Counting Boris Karloff’s instantly iconic make-up as Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (both below) among his creations, Jack Pierce could arguably be said to be the granddaddy of special effects auteurs. In the Fanatstci Flesh documentary dire ctor Frank Darabont describes Pierce’s Frankenstein make-up as, “as iconic as the Empire State Building”. Difficult to argue with that really.

Jack Pierce working on his Wolfman

And working on the Monster

Here I’ve already muddied the waters though. Because Pierce was make-up artist on what perhaps remain the most famous iterations of these monsters, but does this make him a ‘special effects’ artist? Ought we to lump Pierce’s special make-up effects in the same category as, say,  Douglas Trumbull‘s effects for 2001: a Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind? And even if we broaden our definition whose Frankenstein are we really talking about? Jack Pierce’s because he designed it? Boris Karloff’s because he performed it? Or is James Whale our classic auteur by dint of directing it? If Pierce is not quite the special effects auteur we are looking for he still possessed the hallmarks of a true artist. According to Fantastic Flesh Pierce was fired from Universal for taking too long to perfect his work.

Continue reading


Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave

Hello Humans.

Here to introduce this post is Pinhead from Hellraiser:

In a throwaway aside in his review of Brian Yuzna’s From Beyond (1986) in this month’s Sight and Sound the ever-incisive Kim Newman writes:

From Beyond is worth revisiting for its ambitious themes-it takes the torch from Videodrome and passes it to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, prompting sociopsychological musings on why exactly cosmic horror in the 80s was always yoked to sadomasochistic dress-up.

Naturally I thought, “Somebody need to write about that! I’m going to do it right now!” Several thousand words later I never really pinpointed why the 80s were especially conducive to the conjunction of sadomasochism and cosmic horror, or even if that’s really the case upon closer inspection. However, I do think Kim Newman’s on the money in as much as there remains a good case to be made for establishing a connection between cosmic horror and S and M. Both, I want to argue, offer ‘limit experiences’ that mirror one another as in the alchemical rule that the microcosm (human body) is a mirror of the macrocosm (universe). The bondage practitioner and the protagonist in cosmic horror are both taken to extremes of experience that open up new forms of consciousness. The article concludes by arguing that such “limit experiences” need not always end in evisceration as they do in many horror films. There are also narratives in which the iconography of fetish clubs (if not the practice) is adopted as a form of liberation from threats to reality, as in The Matrix and Return of the Living Dead 3.

Before reaching that final destination though we must embark upon a strange journey that takes in H.P. Lovecraft, Michel Foucault, Hellraiser, Nietzsche, Alisteir Crowley, and the X-Men and more along the way. It is also a companion piece of sorts to my previous post Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex which also dealt with new forms of posthuman sexuality in horror films. Continue reading