Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I'm suspecting that this abandoned, pitiful space is getting some hits due to "Hugo," the recent film featuring Georges Melies. If you've found your way here because of that, hello. I'm thinking of starting this up again. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Melies: Macabre Magician

Of the 500 or so films produced in stage magician and pioneering film-maker Georges Melies' career, only 90 survive, and only a quarter are fit for exhibition.

Melies, third son of a shoe manufacturer, is best known for his famous early science fiction film, "A Trip to the Moon," the style and sensibilities of which were most recently resurrected by the Smashing Pumpkins in their video for "Tonight, Tonight."

But watching a collection of his movies acquired through Netflix, I'm amazed at how many of Melies' movies touch on elements of the diabolical, the supernatural and the ghostly.

According to Adherents.com's "The Religious Affiliation of Director Georges Melies," "phantasmagoria, fantasy and the macabre were major thematic elements" of his work -- a fact that shows clearly in the shorts I watched, and apparently in many more of his films.

His worlds are filled time and time again with devils, spirits, monsters and even the Archfiend himself, most often played by Melies as a gleeful, capering force of mayhem, mischief and (at times) erotic temptation.

The fantastic abounds. In an adaptation of the story of "Bluebeard," the shades of the famous wife-killer's conquests stand in diaphanous accusation. Mephistopheles parades through an inordinate number of the pictures, Melies' frentic, grinning mug displaying a look of utter joy at his diablerie. The world is turned topsy-turvey as a mysterious boarder unpacks -- and later, re-packs -- a seemingly bottomless trunk with everything from furnishings to his perfect little family. A mad scientist interacts with a disembodied head, inflating it until it explodes. Considering his pioneering status in the world of film, some of these exercises in cinematic experimentation continue to amaze.

In addition to his own recurring role as the devil, Melies was apparently obsessed with depictions of women as bastions of goodness or tempestuous icons.

Adherents.com, quoting page 106 of "Marvelous Melies," written by Hammond, calls his overall philosophy "Manichean," his works filled with two types of women - angels and temptresses:
"Women are everything to Melies; they are objects of contemplation and externalisations of desire. They can appear from nowhere to change places with flowers, caterpillars, skeletons, coins, bits of paper, ghosts, marble, soap bubbles, their doubles, playing cards, clocks, veils, Jesus Christ, Satan, and being privileged beings, with Geoges Melies himself."

Seductive women appear as "ghosts and succubi, the seven deadly sins, as the devil's agents, and as Satan," Hammond says. Further horrific elements grace some of his other works, from prancing skeletons to what some regard as early visions of the latter-day vampire film.

Melies draws freely on folklore, history and legend, from 1906's "The Merry Frolics of Satan," which Hammond says is a variation on the Faust legend, to stories of the Wandering Jew, Joan of Arc, and the Temptation of St. Anthony.

A variety of classic horror tropes appear in his works, such as in "The Bewitched Inn," featuring a traveler frightened when his own clothing comes to life. M.R. James' seminal ghost story, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" deals with a similar spook in a similar setting.

His film "Le Manoir du Diable" is apparently regarded by many as one of the first vampire films. In it, the devil enters a creepy castle in the form of a bat and is later dispatched by a cross-wielding crusader. I haven't seen that one, unfortunately, and I can't find it online. But here are a few enjoyable shorts via YouTube for your viewing pleasure:

The Infernal Cauldron

The Infernal Cake-Walk

The Black Imp


Monday, July 2, 2007

Brief thoughts on 1408

Sorry for the delay. Lots of genuinely good reasons.

And now, not-really-a-review: We saw "1408" the day it came out, and I have to say that I still prefer the short story.

The original tale is very much an homage to Lovecraft, with quite a bit of other nods to famous horror tropes thrown in -- pictures and objects that change ala M.R. James' "The Mezzotint," mysterious messages on the telephone, etc. But mostly, it's Lovecraftian in tone because 1408 is just plain metaphysically and cosmically wrong. It's a Bad Place in the classical sense of the term.

In the film, it's turned more into the private torture chamber of Cusack's character, a place where past fears and suppressed pains meet in a personal hell. This moves the story from "The Dark Descent's" classification of Fantastic horror fiction to a more standard blend of Moral and Psychological, far more akin to something you'd expect to see in the "Silent Hill" games or the film adaptation of the same.

In both versions of "1408," Cusack's character, Mike Enslin, is a skeptic, but he's a skeptic for very different reasons in each variation.

In the film version, it's implied (spoilers follow):

That Enslin is a skeptic because of personal bitterness stemming from the death of his daughter. He can't comprehend why God would have taken her, so he chooses to jettison the idea of any sort of deity or life after death out of a palpable and inescapable pain. At one point in the film, he's asked how many faiths he has himself destroyed because of his skeptical writings. Obviously, this is part of his pain and thus, part of his punishment in 1408.
The film version of 1408 becomes a glimpse into a private purgatory, the implication (through a clock that resets itself over and over again) that Enslin will be condemned to repeat the same terror-filled hour over and over again until he "check himself out," so to speak. Like the short story, he escapes, but the implications of what this means are again profoundly different, pregnant with (to my eyes) implied Judeo-Christian profundities. At one point, the room is even cast into a Dantean chill, and Enslin drips the 10,000-pound clue that the deepest portions of hell are the furthest from light and warmth.

Given the current cultural climate, I'm not suprised that the filmmakers took this route. I realize that adapting any sort of short story to film length requires revision and expansion, but the difference between the original tale and this is pretty radical, even though many major plot points and even salient events are kept.

The film adaptation injects an implied good/evil duality that simply has no place in King's original story, and perhaps a further implication of a Guiding Hand leading Cusack's Enslin to a destined appointment with the Evil Room. Samuel L. Jackson's mysterious hotel manager, Olin, seems positively deific in one scene when 1408, now ablaze thanks to Mike's actions, is being consumed forever in hellish flame. "Well done," he intones, eyes aglitter with a grim pride.
Don't get me wrong - I didn't demand my money back. But the "1408" of the short story collection "Everything's Eventual" and the celluloid version are very, very different from one another. This is neither better nor worse, but simply an interpretation open to personal preference. I lean toward the Lovecraftian. Others may like the room depicted in the film. I guess it depends entirely on what scares you.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

H.P. Lovecraft and the Personal Apocalypse of "Young Goodman Brown"

Nathaniel Hawthorne's seminal short story "Young Goodman Brown" is in some ways horribly ham-handed and fraught with obvious metaphor.

But at deeper psychological levels, the tale is a frightening meditation. While utterly reflective of the post-Puritan period in which it was written, if subjected to further examination "Young Goodman Brown" is shockingly modern -- and even hauntingly forward-thinking.

"Goodman Brown" is groundbreaking in terms of both its place in the history of the American short story and for its still-powerful vision of a personal apocalypse, the tale of a man who finds all that he once took for granted to be false, a fore-tremor of the cosmic-level terrors of Poe, Lovecraft and those who come after.

The story concerns Brown's encounter with supernatural forces in the woodlands near witch-haunted Salem. Whether the spectral sabbat Brown attends is a phantasmagorical dream or stark, hideous reality is never firmly established. In the latter part of the tale, Brown admits the ambiguity of the event, as does Hawthorne himself as the voice of the narrator.

But the effect of the daemonic visions upon Brown and his psyche is permanent and deleterious:
"And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave...they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

With a wife named "Faith," Hawthorne's tale of Brown's meeting with the devil contains some fairly obvious allegory and deliberate moralizing:

"Faith kept me back a while," Brown says to the mysterious, demonic figure that resembles both his own father and certain traditional depictions of the devil. He is late. Perhaps too late because he has chosen to meet his midnight guide at all.

Later, he sees an old woman who taught him his catechism (1), heading off to the sabbat. He thrills with horror to hear this once-venerated mentor and the devil discussing things almost insensibly horrific, including the blasphemous ingredients of the witches' flying ointment.

"What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?" he asks.

The story is full of such asides, with Brown's wife eventually swept up by the Satanic throng in perhaps his ultimate moment of terror and pain. It is never actually revealed whether Faith accepts her seeming dark destiny, but to Brown, she, and what she represents, is already lost:

"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given."

As the story progresses, Brown comes to understand that all of the "good" people he has admired, and all of the bad ones he has attempted to not be like, are all given over to the devil, from simple townsfolk to clergymen to the land's highest authorities:

"Wickedness or not," the devil says, "I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest. The governor and I, too--But these are state secrets."

Whether the visit to the sabbat is real or illusory, Satan triumphs. His world utterly shattered, his hope gone, Goodman Brown descends into a life of quiet agony, becoming "stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man:"

"On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

Lovecraft, in his still well-read essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," has this to say about Hawthorne's own Saturnine nature:

"Evil, a very real force to Hawthorne, appears on every hand as a lurking and conquering adversary; and the visible world becomes in his fancy a theatre of infinite tragedy and woe, with unseen half-existent influences hovering over it and through it, battling for supremacy and moulding the destinies of the hapless mortals who form its vain and self-deluded population."

There is more than a passing debt to the tone and character of Hawthorne in some of Lovecraft's own tales, such as "Dreams in the Witch-House," and a definite nod to the author's family in the following section:

He knew his room was in the old Witch-House - that, indeed, was why he had taken it. There was much in the Essex County records about Keziah Mason's trial, and what she had admitted under pressure to the Court of Oyer and Terminer had fascinated Gilman beyond all reason. She had told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond, and had implied that such lines and curves were frequently used at certain midnight meetings in the dark valley of the white stone beyond Meadow Hill and on the unpeopled island in the river. She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab. Then she had drawn those devices on the walls of her cell and vanished.

According to the Web site http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/, Justice John Hathorne, Hawthorne's paternal great-great-grandfather, is "best known ... as the 'witch judge' as he was a magistrate of the Court of Oyer and Terminer and the chief interrogator of the accused witches in the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692."

What is interesting to the readers of both men is how much "Young Goodman Brown" presages much of Lovecraftian fiction. Of particular interest is Brown's encounter with reality-shattering truth.

One can argue that his madness stems from the general hysteria against witchery that gripped Salem, and that would be a perfectly modern, psychological evaluation of the story(2). A true visitation from evil is an equally valid possibility, and Hawthorne wisely leaves the reader to decide.

As Lovecraft himself writes in "The Tomb:"

"Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal."

Whether the events are empirically true or merely a dream, Hawthorne's tale is one of a genuine personal apocalypse, an utter unhinging of Brown's personal perceptions of himself, his neighbors and his wife, much akin to the terrible price of knowledge that later becomes de rigeur in Lovecraft's own fiction and the popularized "Cthulhu Mythos"-tinged stories that follow. Goodman Brown's world is forever changed, the once-simple joy of his young life and the purity of his love for Faith -- what she symbolizes and her physical embodiment -- forever turned toward darkness and quiet misery.

(1) An interesting aside: According to http://www.newadvent.com/, "catechumen," in the early church, "was the name applied to one who had not yet been initiated into the sacred mysteries, but was undergoing a course of preparation for that purpose."

(2) For one such example, see http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/Virtualit/fiction/criticaldefine/psychessay.pdf

Monday, June 4, 2007

Population 436 (Film Review)

Full of traditional tropes, Population 436 is a somewhat muddled, largely cliche-ridden film that manages a bit of charm despite its overall disappointing experience.

The narrative focuses on the mysterious goings-on in the little town of Rockwell Falls.

Much is cribbed from Shirley Jackson's far superior take on this sort of story, "The Lottery:" Perfect little town, sort of a timeless place, but there's a powerful price the residents pay for their bliss and idyllic lifestyle -- one paid in blood.

So, by now you've guessed the sort of tale we're spinning here. The twist is that the population has maintained a perfect number of 436 since the place was rebuilt after a fire, a fact that attracts the attention of the U.S. Census Bureau. They send their man, Steve Kady (played by Jeremy Sisto, best known for his turn as Billy Chenowith in the late and lamented Six Feet Under), to check it out.

Mysterious deaths -- and arrivals, either in the form of births or new faces -- keep the population at a constant 436, a "perfect" number determined through some sort of pseudo-kabbalistic system divined by the gent who refounded the town 100 years ago.

The residents believe that God himself punishes those who try to leave with the "fever," a malady that only the local doctor knows how to quell.

The biggest problem is that the film is its predictability, the only question being will Kady, and the little girl he soon decides to rescue, make it out or not.

There's the regular ending and an alternate ending, and I don't consider it a spoiler to say both possibilities are covered.

Overall, there's too little explanation about the whole 436 business, which is unfortunate.

There's some sort of malarkey about how if you stay overnight, then you're considered part of the town. This explains some obvious questions, such as why every UPS driver and grocery deliveryman isn't drawn into the darkness.

There's also mention of some sort of dark stranger that came to the community in the past, busted its then-perfect 436 population, and started spreading sin and wickedness. The "great fire" was the supposed punishment for such transgressions.

This potentially vital bit of history is only mentioned once and never delved into again. It feels like an utterly undeveloped, throwaway premise -- a shame because this background could have enriched the story greatly.

Other issues abound.

A woman is shown, quite pregnant. The narrative, in fact, begins with a birth.

It begs the question of how births and deaths are regulated, since they would have to be. I figured the doctor was some sort of abortionist, but they didn't go there.

All of this stems from pure logic: When every accidental pregnancy means someone in the population has to die in exchange, there has to be some way to make sure you're not killing off all the adults at a dangerous rate.

The number of children allowed to a couple, and the frequency with which they are allowed, would have to be tightly controlled if only to ensure the preservation of certain skill sets

This is partially explained by a regular festival ala "The Lottery," dependent on the population, in which one person is doomed to die when the total hits 437. Random lots are chosen to see who will get the axe.

The process answers some questions, but doesn't satisfy others.

A predictable love triangle rounds out the mix of easily-augured components. Kady, the outsider, almost immediately attracts the interest of a local pretty young thing, a favorite of a Rockwell Falls sheriff's deputy. A conflict is inevitable.

There's also a subplot with a missing family that's just too hokey for words.

All this said, I didn't hate the film. There's enough creepiness to make it fun and plenty of screamingly-silly dialogue and plot points to keep you at least giggling.

The sad thing is that there's the nascent seed of a really good movie in here, and all it would take is a bit more background and a touch more care with the plot.


Mission Statement (Of Sorts)

The vast majority of these writings will be devoted to literature, with a few good bits about various films I see from time to time thrown in for good measure.

Said writings will include:

- Reviews.
- Essays.
- Philosophical meanderings on the nature of horror and the "fun" of being scared.
- Whatever else strikes my fancy.

I encourage and appreciate feedback. Drop me a line and let me know you're reading and what you want to see more of here.