Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Chapter Fifty: "Good Folk Fest 2012 Preview."

Good Folk Fest was started in 2006 and held three times until 2008 at the Mellwood Arts Center here in Louisville. Invented, birthed, coordinated, and protected by artist/musician/renaissance man Scott Scarboro, the event focused on the obscure and sometimes mysterious Outsider art, which can range far in style and aesthetics. Definitions fly around this moniker, with some of the most common debates settling on artists who pursue a style of folk art that can be described as homegrown or rustic. But the Outsider idea can vary to such a wide degree; its main pursuit is one of art that does not subscribe to a mainstream philosophy. Scarboro's focus has always been to combine music and visuals that marry newer materials and techniques with older traditions.  The descriptor I always adhere to is "raw." 

Joining the ranks of such long-running and celebrated festivals as NYC's Outsider Art Fair and the Doo-Nanny Fair in Alabama, Good Folk Fest summons and reigns in outsider/folk art and musical acts from across the country and rounds them up into one spot for a weekend. In 2009, Scarboro had to search for a new venue and found it three years later with the newly opened Kentucky Center for African American Heritage. Good Folk already had a genuine reputation for bringing some of the most interesting acts to play Louisville; with the KCAA the festival has the opportunity to be larger than previous years.
The dates set for this year's GFF are November 2-4. I wanted to present some shotgun-style brief previews of the music featured at this year's fest. The lineup curated by Scarboro becomes an adventure due to the amount variety throughout the entire weekend. You have no idea what the next act will bring to the stage. And with three stages, the diversity is upped even more. So, starting with Saturday's folks, on we proceed....

The headlining act this year is the fringe singer-songwriter Baby Gramps, who has been performing a creative mish-mosh of blues, rag-time, jazz and folk since the mid 1960s. Baby Gramps has pretty distinctive guitar, singing and arranging styles, and hangs in the echelon of underground performers reserved for such legends as Hasil Adkins, Jandek and other Outsider musicians. Baby Gramps will be performing a special invite-only opening ceremony on Friday night, as well as on Saturday at 3pm.


Prog-punk-new wave trio Madame Machine hails from Louisville. MM has become one of my favorites here in River City, and I was all excited when they got added to the lineup, presenting themselves at 10:30am on Stage A. I'm sure they'll have some copies of their debut seven-inch EP on Noise Pollution Records that was reviewed here on this blog back in April, along with an interview with bassist-guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist Salena Filichia. Madame Machine always strides chiefly into unpredictable rock areas that get spacey and then go all tight within a breath.

Salena in Madame Machine
 The 10am hour will be filled with a variety of sounds on Saturday, with Stage B hosting the acoustic-based story-book music of The Mack, led by singer-songerwriter and GFF veteran Jeff Shelton, whose 2009 album Lazy Bones is a pretty fine writ of tunes. Stage C will also see singer-songwriter Ben Traughber perform, whom I've seen appearing as a guest guitarists in several bands lately. His solo songs and their arrangements are primely captivating and original.

Ninnie Nu is another GFF veteran that will be returning at 11am this year. Ninnie is the musical alter-ego of performance/visual artist Cynthia Norton. She will be performing music from her CD "Freedom Rings from Within," a collection of sparse, haunting dulcimer-led songs that was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and reviewed here. Ninnie's shows can range in presentation from minimalist to a full band, and always sees her utilize found and reconstructed instruments. This year she will be playing a homemade seven foot dulcimer.

Ninnie...not my photo.

11:30am, Stage C: Nashville's Grandpa Egg is led by singer-songwriter Jeb who sometimes performs solo or with various accompaniment that can be loose in its arrangement. The ancestor of this style seems to be rooted somewhere in the vortex of Syd Barrett's material being framed by nicely diverse acoustic-based tunes as can be heard on the 2011 recording "Songs for My Cat."

At noon on A, Viola Buck will present junkabilly in its finest forms and as a family band. Led by Scarboro and his son Harlan, the band follows Scarboro's ideas and philosophies about Outsider art and music, as well progressing musical visions he pursued with his band Monkey Boy for many years. Homemade instruments that boils the ideas of garage rock-rockabilly-country and western psychedelic hillbilly music in a beaker in some underground laboratory in Scarboro's basement somewheres.

At 12:30, another GFF veteran will perform, the one-man-band Slate Dump. Returning from West Virginia, home of possibly one of the most famous of all one-man bands Hasil Adkins, Slate Dump will be the first of a few one-man-bands that bless the fest this year. One-personed-bands offer as much variance as any other configuration and can never be stereotyped. There is a primitive bluesiness that can bloom within a blink into a prickly punk rock in Slate Dump's sounds.

Slate Dump...not my photo.
Roll the abacus about and count as one-man-band number two, Bowling Green's Patson, will perform at 1pm on A, bringing a loud country caucus in what he calls his stag rock that references The Stooges into a monstrous pot of redneck garage punk.

At 1pm on B, the noise duo No Copper is scheduled. These two have released split materials with Louisville gnashers Tropical Trash. They're sounds range from drone to pure noise. Sometimes on their recordings it sounds like a someone taking a bath in motor oil while wearing a suit of lavaliers. Definitely interested in seeing this band's live performance.

When Scarboro announced the revival of GFF, one of the first thoughts that entered my brain was NYC's Brownbird Rudy Relic. Performing a mix of pre-war country blues blended with real rhythm and blues and doo wop and boogie woogie, Relic stands out for the amount of toned-up energy that he takes over his live shows. He sits and plays a guitar and sings into a mic in front of his mouth BARELY. By the time the song is nearing its end, he's nearly falling over, stomping out of the perimeters of the performance, despite whether its a ballad or a rug-cutter. People will swoon.  Brownbird's at 2 on B. No missing this guy.


Following up Brownbird will be Baby Gramps for his 3pm Saturday performance.

Miami's Los Bastardos Magnificos follow Gramps with their dark C and W jug bandness on Stage A. I fully expect a border draw of moonshine from behind a longcoat during this show. Los Bastardos Magnificos draws on dance-party-til-dawn corn liquor ruminations that flow through a collective of banjo, mandolin, washboard, fiddles and spoons. Dark murder ballades and boughten skip melodies galore.

At 4:30 on C enter Louisville's softcheque, a treasure of creative bizarre ladled up properly. Led by opera singer-keyboardist Dane Waters and including a family of River City visionaries, this group is completely unpredictable, swaying between dark and bloody synth music that explores pictorial alleys soft and loud.

Saturday closes with Lexington's trio The Asylum Gypsies Surf Band. Led by guitarist-singer-visual artist El To Po and prize-courting vocalist El Gitano, this is real pure bent surf rock taken from some era undetermined, bellied into a hurricane of lo-fi wrangling that all leads to the fact that their drummer is actually a horse named Alien Bill. Mexican wrestling masks and insanity.

Asylum Gypsies Surf Ban
  Enter Sunday. Garner the coffee, dust out the sleep, and Day Two of Good Folk begins at the crack of 10am with the manic hillbilly music of The Kentucky City Boys. Based out of Louisville, I've actually not yet seen this group perform before. Although from what I can gather, they seem like a string-based gang that exhales some humor into their honky tonk and may very well be spiking their coffee with rotgut that morning. Plus I really dig their live recording aesthetics. Reminds me of the recording techniques employed by the aforementioned Hasil Adkins and/or early Daniel Johnston. Press [PLAY] and its LIVE:

The earthly and traveled folk of singer-songwriter Sarah Elizabeth Burkey will be on Stage C at 10am, as well. Burkey tours extensively, is as well-known an author as a musician, and has collaborated with the likes of Barrie Barlow of Jethro Tull and Jean Ritchie. Burkey will be followed at 11am on A by The Man, a Louisville free jazz collective. The last show I saw The Man perform they took the room into space for a little while, so I'm interested in seeing this performance in this space.

Also at 11am is singer-songwriter Derrick Wade Manley, performing on Stage B. Full disclosure: He's my brother. I've had to make that disclosure a few times here, being I've reviewed both his solo performances, as well his work with his bands The Fuckmunkys and The Bottom Sop. Despite being related to him and knowing him all my life, I'm a big fan of his music. I believe for this set, Derrick is playing solo, levering his steer into the realms of honky tonk, country and folkish byways. There's always some rock n roll involved, as well. Derrick always delivers entertaining shows with enough charisma you have to wipe it off your pants afterwards, and I'll always contend he's one of the best songwriters in the world. Don't take his brother's opinion for it; come out to GFF and check him out. He may not be around Louisville for too much longer.

Derrick Wade Manley
At 11:30am in Stage A the return of Juanita, the all-girl Louisville garage-noise punk band that has roots in the 90s and has been playing a slew of shows recently, which can only be a good thing. Also at 11:30 on C local singer-songwriter Tyrone Cotton performing his mix of blues, gospel, jazz and folk.

Sunday's noon set on A features another GFF vet, one-man-band J. Marinelli. I remember during the first GFF taking immediate notice of Marinelli. While there elements of blues and country in Marinelli's style, what set him apart from other one-man-bands was the fact that he leaned more in the direction of chiefly punk and older indie rock, and that he was one of the loudest acts at the fest, nearly sticking his heel through the craw of his snare. He's a prolific writer and seems to crank out a couple of albums a year, each better than the last, splaying his lo-fi crunch and wail for all to hear. It's garagey and loose, yet has a secure catchiness woven inside of it all that is hard to describe. Look for a full length interview with the man himself here in a week or so on this blog, including a review of several of his last releases.

J. Marinelli

12:30pm on B is Sir Salamander, an instrument builder who is currently living in here in Louisville. Salamander, also known as Jason Rubino, is a singer-songwriter who combines a variety of genres and styles from around the world, as well as from popular forms in the US, and meshes everything together, creating a sound that fastens itself to unpredictability.  Soon following, at 1pm on C, legendary local country music singer-songwriter Scott Mertz will perform. I've seen Mertz several times and always enjoy his music.

The Smacks! will reunite at 1:30pm on A. Full disclosure: I'm in this band, so I excuse myself from talking about it in some gesture of trustworthy blog-reporting. ("reporting"?)

J. Glenn performs at 2:30 on B. One of the first performers I met and watched upon moving back to Louisville almost seven years ago, Glenn has performed in a variety of bands over the years. I've always been a big fan of his solo material, and reviewed his latest release "Magick Eagle Ate the Magic Snake" released last year. For years he performed as a one-man-band, although I think that since he has expanded into a bigger project, always experimenting with his sound. J. Glenn pours out an industriously vigorous rustic rock that is blessed with some domed country from inside his guts. Purty and rough.

J. Glenn

On Stage B at 2:30 there will be local singer-songwriter Joel Henderson who just released his album "Locked Doors and Pretty Fences" in April of 2012, a recording of a mix of country, blues and pop that features members of Over the Rhine and John Prine's band.

Closing the day and the fest out will be North Carolina's The Mad Tea at 3pm, a duo that links back to 60s garage and surf rock. The group consists of Ami Worthen performing electric ukelele and guitar while Jason Krekel maintains both guitar and drums one-man-band style. They have a seven inch EP out called "Rock n Roll Ghoul" that was produced by Greg Cartwright of The Oblivions. Some punkabilly wildness will do nicely to close out the Good Folk weekend.

From one-man bands, scrawlish hillybilly music, seven foot dulcimers, Louisville prog, punk and garage, homemade surf and junkabilly, and all varieties of songsters, the fest offers a diverse ringaround the idea of Outsider music. And oh yeah, there's art, too. I'll let someone more qualified than me preview that.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chapter Forty Nine: "Theatre of Blood: A Basic Guide to the History of Horror on Film. Part V."

The legend goes that after monumentally bombing at the box office, “Heaven’s Gate” is the scapegoat that caused the studios to crack down on allowing directors free reign in Hollywood to experiment with ideas and blank checks. Following the huge losses for a film that cost $36 million to make, the majors reshuffled the deck, taking more control of the films. It’s been said that in the 70s the directors made films; after that, the studios did. Test audiences were employed and if their reactions weren’t sufficient, films were re-cut, re-written, re-shot. Films had become such multi-million dollar entertainment fodder, the theory goes that they started to become a little watered down during the 80s in order to appeal to bigger audiences and reduce possible losses. The look and feel of films from the 80s definitely changed from the darker, grimmer 70s motion pictures. Also, special effects had made a new jump forward, allowing creatures to look more real. The 80s audiences enjoyed shiny things, and the studios delivered.

Paramount was one of the first studios to pursue the thirst for blood created with independently made films like “Halloween.” In 1980, “Friday the 13th” debuted, captured the teen slasher-fan market, made Jason Voorhees a national pop star, and earned a lot of money.  The film helped launch the “have sex and die” mythos that became popular in “Halloween,” and has been a mainstay theme in the slasher films since. With the bleed of the 70s aesthetic into the early 80s (the film was shot in 1979, after all), it still has a grim b-movie look. Paramount launched a massive advertising campaign that helped push the film into superstar status. 80s horror was secure, and so was a franchise that continues to this day.

 Gore still reigned supreme, and although the studios had tightened their grip, many of the early 80s films still delivered shocking scenarios. This was the most apparent with popularity of “video nasties”, films that followed in Herschel Gordon Lewis’ footsteps of creating the most shocking gruesome scenes. Video nasties rose to prominence in the 80s with selling of millions of early VCRs. Now a new film market, home video allowed very cheaply made films to go straight to video, avoiding marketing and major budget distribution in theaters. It was cheap to make them, and cheap to put them out. Video nasties specialized in very little plot or suspense, and instead focused on nothing but gore and sex. Fans argued over which film showed the worst ways to die. Splatter was alive and well with such unrated classics as “Nightmares in a Damaged Brain” (1981), “Night of the Demon” (1980) and “Toxic Zombies” (1980). Many of the straight-to-vid nasties were 70s low-budget films that suddenly found new life and popularity among teens, and many of them were banned in the UK for fear of corrupting society. The home video market also allowed cult followings for films such as “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980) to exist. This same market allowed Troma to create its splatterish splatstick cult-favorites, including its biggest hit, “The Toxic Avenger” (1985). 

 Meanwhile, a game changer hit the big screens in 1980 from Kubrick, who decided to destroy everyone’s minds with “The Shining.” This film has been picked apart and studied far more than I will here in this space. Suffice to say, it was a crossover horror based on a Stephen King novel that was straight art as only Kubrick can conjure. It’s about evil and madness, and well, you should watch it.

Monsters remained in the foreground throughout the 80s. John Carpenter returned with “The Thing” (1982) bringing scary aliens to Earth. Werewolves returned with the comedy-horror “An American Werewolf in London” (1981) which boasted an amazing human-to-wolf transformation scene set to CCR. In fact, comedy began to infuse several of the most important horror films during the decade. Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “Evil Dead 2” (1982) are tributes to splatter and monster horror of the past, although they both run with a complete tongue-in-cheek manner that is masterful. Steven Spielberg returned to horror after breaking box office records with action and sci-fi films by producing “Poltergeist” (1982). The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, and presented a much different style than Hooper had created in previous films, creating a very scary movie that was still acceptable and loved by the masses.

 Hooper had directed television film adaptation of Stephen King’s book “Salem’s Lot” in 1976. King was a prolific horror writer, and with “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” he had become known in the film world. However, it was the 1980s that adaptations of King’s novels became very popular and numerous. There was Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” in 1980. Starting in 1982 with “Creepshow,” nearly every year of the 80s (and most years in the 1990s) featured a King adaptation, including (and limited only to those considered horror): “Cujo” (1983); “The Dead Zone” (1983); “Christine” (personal favorite) (1983); “Children of the Corn” (1984); “Firestarter” (1984); “Cat’s Eye” (1985); “Silver Bullet” (1985); “Maximum Overdrive” (1986); “Creepshow 2” (1987); and “Pet Cemetary” (1989). King’s influence on horror cinema is as great as his influence on horror literature.

The fallout from the outcry that horror and violence were corrupting everything held dear in the world led to censorship and eventually to a great watering down of the scares and gore. The 1980s definitely saw the advent of very family-friendly horror. “Ghostbusters” (1984), “Gremlins” (1984), “House” (1986), “Fright Night” (1985), “The Monster Squad” (1987), “The Lost Boys” (1987) and “Beetlejuice” (1989) were all major hits and did not offend. But, these films also allowed horror to flourish in cinemas. 

Franchises had flourished in the past (I can’t even begin to count the amount of Godzilla or Frankenstein films there have been), and they continued to do so in the 80s. Wes Craven created one of the biggest ones with “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), a decidedly creepy film that led to a series that devolved further and further into one-liners delivered by the teen-killer Freddy Krueger. The original film is well done in its portrayal of nightmares, and demonstrates again that Craven had studied tricks from horror of the past.

 The franchises continued into the 1990s. Both “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “Child’s Play” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” continued cranking out the most popular sequels, although each seeming further and further from the quality of their original incarnations. I’ll throw in my one-cent opinion here: while the 1970s made such an impression on me as one of the greatest decades in film experimentation, the 1990s stand to me as one of the most watered down decades in cinema, especially in the horror genre. The filmmakers seemed to want to distance themselves from the family-friendly horror and horror-comedy that dominated the second half of the 80s, and at the same time eschewed the over-the-top gore styles that many other directors pursued. The beginning of the 90s came off to me as slightly directionless and somewhat dumbed-down. It almost seemed that the cinema of the 90s was having a difficult time finding its identity and style, which makes some sense being in the middle of the decade that in the 2000s is often called “the decade of no style.” However, after reading and watching and visiting films from the 90s, I think I see the 90s in a slightly different light. 

The market for video nasties did not slow down in the 90s, but in fact increased. With the introduction of DVDs to the market, re-releases of back catalogs of horror competed with straight-to-video b-movie splatter films. Fans of the low-budget horror collected both, allowing the history of horror to continue, as well the future of horror to remain a market in this sense. 

While there are some respected big screen films that appeared in the early 90s, the decade seemed divided between three major types of films. At first, the studios could not let go of the 80s franchises. As CGI began to emerge, many fans flocked to the sudden leap in science-fiction and fantasy films that were being released during the decade. These new effects were used to produce 90s versions of the original monsters, as well. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994) attempted to present more literal translations of the original novels these monsters had spring from. “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) brought a new vampire storyline to the theaters based on popular novels by Anne Rice.

 The second theme that began to permeate the 90s was that of self-reflexive filmmaking. It became the decade of meta-horror or postmodern horror. Films such as “In the Mouth of Madness” (1995), “The Dark Half” (1993) and “Candyman” (1992) presented films that examined the building blocks of a horror film. Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” (1992) functioned almost the same as Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series, creating a humorous splatter fest that was made in homage to horror films of the past. Wes Craven experimented the most with this meta approach. “New Nightmare” (1994) was the seventh film in the “Nightmare on Elm Street series, but presented the film as a self-aware adventure, viewing killer Freddy Krueger as nothing more than an actual movie character who eventually invades the real world during the making of a “Nightmare” sequel. And finally, Craven struck it big with the creation of a new franchise in 1996 with “Scream,” a film that served to combine comedy and irony with the slasher genre, poking fun at its conventions, while having fun with them, too. “Scream” is credited with helping to rebound the genre, despite it satirizing it.

While horror films suffered from a lack of direction, the third theme that seemed to successively resound in theaters was the return of the thriller film, which almost seemed to replace the horror for scares. Psychological thrillers about serial killers flourished in the 1990s with such films as “Se7en” (1995), “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “Kalifornia” (1993) and “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990). Perhaps the most successful of these was “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), which opened the decade with a calm, intelligent and frightening cannibal, the character of Hannibal Lector, who has persisted in films since. 

Foreign-made horror films during the 1990s, however, were not directionless, nor lacking in quality. Guillermo del Toro created a fantastically artful reinvention of the vampire legend with his “Cronos” (1993). The end of the decade also saw the rise of Asian horror with Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” (1998) and Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999). 

The 1990s ended with one two surprise hits in the US. In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan made his mark with the ghost-mystery movie “The Sixth Sense,” which contained one of the most hushed surprise endings I can remember in history. However, it was the cheaply made “The Blair Witch Project” in the same year that became a surprise runaway smash and influenced the future of horror films. The film was shot by amateurs on digital camcorders, marketed through the use of the newly available Internet as an authentic collection of found footage, and completely hit its mark. Made on a budget under $750,000, the film grossed $248 million dollars before all was said and done. Although the found footage style had been used in the past (“Cannibal Holocaust” in 1980), it had never been done this successfully, and the style had been adopted by many filmmakers in the 21st century. 

The close of the 1990s also saw the beginning of a trend that continues persevere into the 2010s: the horror film remake/reboot. Films have been remade since their inception in the 1890s. Cecil B. Demille remade several of his own films once sound came into play. Remakes of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” have continued for 100 years. However, the remake/reboot trend seems to have hit upon an all-time high in the 2000s, and it seems to have begun with Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho” (1999) and Jan De Bont’s remake of “The Haunting” (1998). 

As the new millennium began, this trend went into overdrive as the genre horror scrambled to stay relevant. Remakes of horror from the 1970s and 1980s abound, with very little being sacred. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (2003), “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), “The Amityville Horror” (2005), “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006), “Halloween” (2007), “Friday the 13th” (2009), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (2010), “Children of the Corn” (2009) and on and on. A remake of “The Evil Dead” is scheduled for 2013. There have also been prequels and sequels to these remakes, as well as sequels and prequels made to films of the past, including “The Thing” (2011).

 The 2000s have also seen the return in both vampire and zombie films. Perhaps the most celebrated was 2002’s “28 Days Later,” a low-budget indie by Danny Boyle that became a surprise box-office hit. George A. Romero has returned to the genre he basically created the template for with three films: “Land of the Dead” (2005), “Diary of the Dead” (2007) and “Survival of the Dead.” The comedy “Shaun of the Dead” also became very popular in 2004. As the direct-to-video market continues to boom (although now in the form of downloadable films), independently-made low-budget b-movie zombie films are very numerous. Vampires have returned to the screen in various forms, although the franchise that won the most devoted fans (and critics) during the 2000s are the “Twilight” films, which combine teen romance with the vampires and werewolves.

Extremism became injected into horror as filmmakers searched for newer ways to shock. The splatter genre has already existed for decades. However, with better sound and CGI effects, splatter became mainstream. Often called “torture porn,” several films focused the plots entirely on the torture of its victims. While the characters were definitely tortured in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Last House on the Left” in the 1970s, it was not the full extent of the film. Movies such as “Saw,” “Hostel,” “Wolf Creek” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” all being released in the years 2004-05, concentrated explicitly on depicting graphic torture scenes with as much realism technology would allow.  The other difference separating these films from the earlier versions of splatter was the wide distribution, budgets and millions of dollars they made at the box office. Torture porn continues to exist in the 2010s, reaching for new heights of graphic scenes with “The Human Centipede” series, of which the second film was banned in the UK in 2011. Torture porn has also edged its way into the remake trend through such violent movies as “The Last House on the Left” (2009) and “I Spit on Your Grave” (2010). 

Besides being caught within remake-mania, homage to the styles of films from the 1970s allowed modern directors to tribute the films they grew up watching, as well as tread into near splatter/torture porn zones that would appeal to modern audiences. Quentin Tarantino's films have a definite respect and referential tone toward certain genre types, mostly from the decade of the 1970s. This has crossed into horror fandom with his films "From Dusk Til Dawn" (1996) and his half of the "Grindhouse" double-feature, "Death Proof" (2007), both of which honor the sexploitation and extreme violence styles found in drive-in films from that decade. Roberto Rodriguez half of "Grindhouse," "Planet Terror," approaches the same subject matter, conjuring zombies. Musician/director Rob Zombie took a similar approach with his films "House of 1000 Corpses" (2003) and its sequel "The Devil's Rejects" (2005). Homages to the extremes that could be found in both mainstream and b-movie grade horror of the 70s have become more common. And Ti West's "House of the Devil" (2009) definitely tributed the pace and feel of a late 70s/early 80s haunted house/Satan cult film.

My favorite horror film of the 2000s OR the 2010s remains the Swedish film "Let the Right One In" (2008). A vampire tale based on the 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, LTROI follows the meeting and bonds formed between a depressed adolescent boy and the child-vampire that moves in next door. The film is completely narrative-driven and some consider it more of a scary drama. In my opinion, it definitely has some of the more chilling scenes put to film as of late. 

There are so many directions and films and genres and ideas I'd love to have branched into with this essay, but as I stated in the beginning, it was originally written to provide an extremely basic background to horror film. I hope its served that purpose. I feel the lack of coverage of foreign films is crime, and there were piles of movies that had to be skipped just from lack of time. I was never that huge of a horror film fan growing up in Louisville, although I saw my fair share of them. It wasn't until sometime in the late 90s that I began to curate my own personal Fright Fests in order to re-educate myself on a genre that has been around since the dawn of film, and will remain one of the most popular, important and fun genres as film marches forward. 

The End.

This history would not be possible without help from the following sources, which I recommend to any horror fans:
Carroll, Noel. "Why Horror?" In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002). 
Hutchings, Peter. "The Problem with British Horror." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).
Jones, Alan. The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. (Rough Guides 2005)
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s. (McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002)
Richards, Andy. Asian Horror. (Kamera Books. 2010).
Todorov, Tzvetan. "Definition of the Fantastic." In Ken Gelder (ed.) The Horror Reader. (Routledge 2000).
Viera, Mark A. Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2003)
Wood, Robin. "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chapter Forty Eight: "Theatre of Blood: A Basic Guide to the History of Horror in Film. Part IV."

Each decade represents a shift in the style of the horror film when viewed and painted in broad strokes, which I’m doing for this essay simply out of space and time. I mean, this is a blog, so theoretically, there is plenty of space. Time is my main enemy due to jobs, life, and the fact I’m not getting paid to sit here and delve as far into detail as I would love to. Viewing horror through these broad strokes, certain decades stand out for me. The early experimentations with a new medium in the 1890s and 1900s are fascinating in their surreal nature and the sheer historiography naturally grafted in them. The 1930s obviously stand out for the foundation of the iconic gothic imagery and popularization of Monsters.  The 1950s captivate me for the campiness and the migration of features to the drive-in, changing the style and visual ambience found in horror. The 1960s are interesting for the modernization of the genre. However, if I were to pick a single decade that would be my absolute favorite, the 1970s are that decade. Partially based on my age, these films were being made as I began to become aware and eventually addicted to the movies and television, and are stamped on my brain. Plus, I’ll maintain that the films of the 70s were the scariest. This opinion is shadowed again by the fact that I saw these films at a certain early age that makes things scarier. But to paraphrase Bill Hicks, it’s my opinion, sure, but hey, it also just happens to be the truth.

Most of the books I’ve read about horror in the 70s points to one point: horror films of that decade became more “grown-up,” more serious and scarier based on the fact that there were more things to fear in the 70s. Like all preceding decades, the culture of the times influenced the fears portrayed onscreen, and the 70s were considered a grim period in American culture. The optimism from the 50s and 60s had faded and the US was just chockfull of anxieties. Despite triumphs made in the 60s for civil rights, a horrible divide still existed racially and sexually. With technological innovations abounding, society was becoming more and more dependent on machines. After the Nixon/Watergate scandal, trust in government completely eroded. Environmental fears circling around our petroleum dependence came to light. The Vietnam War offered nothing by casualties piling up in what seemed like a never-ending assault. Americans felt the morals of the past had become devalued and that society had become “godless.” All of these issues were transferred to film and addressed one way or another. 

With the dawn of the decade, the influential age of Hammer Horror had faded. The studio continued cranking out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels, but their approach seemed dated. Following “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968, audiences clamored for horror that was more personal and closer than the threat of space monsters or gothic creatures. Distrust within the family unit became a theme. Plus, the popularity of horror films continued to rise, bring about bigger budgets as they once again took over the mainstream. It’s been said that the scariest decades produce the best rock music; the same can be said of the cultural influence on horror films.
With the fall of Hammer, the British studio Amicus remained active, producing a series of horror anthologies throughout the decade, including “Tales from the Crypt” (1972). Amicus really attracted attention with its 1970 film “Scream and Scream Again,” which cast the three biggest horror icons in one film: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. However, by the mid-70s, the studio exited the horror genre. Price remained one of the most sought after horror stars during the 70s, appearing in such great films as “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Theatre of Blood” (1973), which I reviewed on this blog here.  Lee would contribute to one of the greatest cult horrors of all time with 1973’s “The Wicker Man.”

Before the fall of Hammer Horror, the studio released this anthology film in 1970 with the three biggest stars of horror at the time

Attempts to remake the classic monster icons in a 70s mold brought about some interesting films in the blaxsploitation sub-genre. Blaxploitation rose in the early 70s, originally made to appeal to an urban black audience, but quickly found crossover appeal and became extremely popular, leading to filmmakers to try the horror genre. “Blacula” (1972) and “Blackenstein” (1972) led this charge. William Girdler, of Louisville, capitalized on the success of this sub-genre with his 1974 film “Abby,” which became his breakthrough release and major box office success. However, the film was pulled after two weeks of release after threats from Warner Bros. because the movie was deemed too derivative of their own breakthrough horror film, “The Exorcist,” which had been released in 1973.

“The Exorcist.” Even typing the words makes me look over my shoulder. No film has ever frightened me as much as this one. It is considered by many to be the scariest film ever made, and I’m one of those many. To this day, I still feel the same fears when watching it as I did when I first saw it as a child. It seeped into my psyche, scared the shit out of me, and has never left. 

William Friedkin’s film, based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, is marked as one of the most important horror films ever made. The film brought awards and increased respect to the genre, and inspired a serious of films that addressed fears contained within religion, specifically of the existence of the Devil, and how easily he/she can rip the fabric of reality and normal life apart. There are no attempts at humor in the movie, giving horror a renewed nature of seriousness in filmmaking. For kids raised Catholic, “The Exorcist” seems like a personally-made attack on everything they had ever been taught in school, coming down to one point: you ain’t safe from the Devil. Ever. 

Despite receiving an X-rating, “The Exorcist” became a major blockbuster, caused debates among theologians, conjured up new nationwide fears of possession (causing even the Pope to issue a statement about the Devil’s existence), and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It’s said people often left the theaters nauseous and shaking. The revolutionary effects and Friedkin’s filming style made the frenzied intensity of the movie seem real, and influenced dozens of religiously-themed films to appear throughout the 70s. It also made children scary throughout the decade. While it wasn’t the first “devil” movie of the 70s (that claim might go to William Girdler’s “Asylum of Satan” (1972), it overshadowed all of them. Its biggest competition in the sub-genre of Satan films in the 70s was Richard Donnor’s “The Omen” (1976), another child-Satan movie which became influential and popular itself.

Made in 1972 by Louisville-native William Girdler, this may be the first of the "devil" movies of the 70s

The 70s in general saw a birth of experimentation in film, being the last decade before major studios took over the output of movies and began using test audiences and marketing schemes to control the films begin released. It also saw the rise of several directors fresh out of film school with very unique visions and styles. This was the decade that such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Brian de Palma, and many others began making their marks on film history. Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) turned the idea of blockbusters on its head, and created horror out of a real oceanic monster, and basically provided a template for modern suspense that has never left the real of motion pictures. In fact, spawned from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963), horror from nature rose during this decade in such films as “Willard” (1971) (rats), “Food of the Gods” (1976) (giant rats), Girdler’s “Grizzly” (1976) (giant bear), “Piranha” (1978) (guess) and “Orca” (1977) (killer whale). These are just a few examples.

The penchant for brutality in horror increased as the decade continued. Gore mixed with suspense sold well, and films got bloodier and bloodier. “Savage cinema” entered as another sub-genre, often examining the elements of violence in society and at the same time presenting images that plain made people uncomfortable. Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971) while not necessarily ranked in the horror genre, presents horrorific elements in the form of remorseless rape and murder. Stanley Kubrick explored similar themes in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). Wes Craven debuted at this time with the ruthlessness of “The Last House on the Left” (1972), bringing about a series of “rape and revenge” films that often sickened audiences and critics, while at the same time bringing in filmgoers. Craven continued in this vein during the 70s with “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977). Low budget “rape and revenge” culminated with 1979’s “I Spit on Your Grave.”
Along with Straw Dogs (1971), Wes Craven's 1972 debut began a decade of "rape and revenge" films

Cannibalism returned in this quest for severe brutality, resulting in Romero’s zombie sequel “Dawn of the Dead” (1979). However, another groundbreaking moment horror film history occurred in 1974 with Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a crushing masterpiece of unchecked violence and cannibalism. Hooper wanted to give the film a realistic feel, shooting handheld with 16mm film, giving the movie a grainy, documentary feel that increases the ill feeling throughout the picture. As the lost teenagers find themselves fighting for their lives against the cannibalistic Sawyer family, they also, along with the viewer, slowly descend into a sadistic madness that can’t be escaped. The final scene of the film really offers no relief, and just sets grim in the belly, with everything about reality feeling lost and destroyed.  


Blood and more blood swept through the 70s in more iconic films than I can fit here. Dario Argento’s beautifully disgusting scenes in “Suspiria” (1977) re-introduced the splatter genre to modern audiences. Brian De Palma’s gallons of blood and destruction in “Carrie” (1976) helped influence the beginnings of the teen slasher concept, and introduced the film world to Stephen King. The teen slasher concept had already had a bump with the unbelievably creepy “Black Christmas” (1974), which keeps the blood spill to a minimum, but utilizes Hitchcockian maneuvers to scare paranoia into the audience through a series of prank phone calls on a sorority house.

 Then 1978 happened.

Once again, another iconic, heavily influential motion picture was released whose elements have since been so imitated, the film itself might sometimes be overshadowed in cliché. However, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) is nothing less than a masterpiece, and it’s from this film that all slasher movies stole in the 1980s and beyond. What is noteworthy about Carpenter’s movie is that it does not rely on gore, but instead an endless build-up of suspense done through subtle scares, amazing use of shadows and darkness, the fear that this could happen in any neighborhood anywhere in the US, and the concept that some people are just born evil. No explanation is ever given to why Michael Myers kills people; he’s just driven to without any human emotion. The story has Hitchcockian elements, although unlike other “Psycho”-influenced films, Carpenter’s antagonist has no motive and cannot be explained through the use of psychology. He just kills. (This brought about heavy criticism of Rob Zombie’s remake of the film in 2007, which attempted to give a psychologically analysis to Myers’ motives.) Although Carpenter has criticized Val Lewton, the film seems often to utilize the Lewton Bus method of creating tension through creative camerawork and subtle narrative.

The 1970s ended on a high note with haunted house tale of “The Amityville Horror” and a return to space-horror with Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” both in 1979. To me, the decade resonates as one of the most influential in the history of film because of the culmination of cultural realities mixed with the ability for filmmakers to experiment without the crush of the major studios taking over final cuts in the name of appeasing test audiences. Directors were able to attempt to achieve their visions, and the independent companies were thriving, allowing for a great amount of diversity at the time. 

To be continued...

This history would not be possible without help from the following sources, which I recommend to any horror fans:
Carroll, Noel. "Why Horror?" In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002). 
Hutchings, Peter. "The Problem with British Horror." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).
Jones, Alan. The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. (Rough Guides 2005)
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s. (McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002)
Richards, Andy. Asian Horror. (Kamera Books. 2010).
Todorov, Tzvetan. "Definition of the Fantastic." In Ken Gelder (ed.) The Horror Reader. (Routledge 2000).
Viera, Mark A. Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2003)
Wood, Robin. "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).