Adventures in Criterion Vol. 3: Horror Movies

Thanks to the increasing respectability of the horror genre in academic circles, horror movies that previously were destined for the bargain bins or packaged in cheap 50-film packs are being rescued and given the kind of fully restored Blu-ray releases usually reserved for much more prestigious and respectable fare. Now there may be some who wonder if something like the quintessential B-movie The Blob deserves the full Criterion treatment, but given the fact that I am a self-avowed lover of the genre, you will not hear any objections from me. Here is a sampling of some (but hardly not all) of the horror movie Criterion editions I have lying around the house:


 

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CAT PEOPLE (1942) dir. Jacques Torneur
Spine #833

Cat People is less of a horror movie and more of a Grimm’s fairy-tale transported into a modern urban setting. It is also significant as the first movie in Val Lewton’s remarkable run of RKO horror films and as the movie that proved that the most effective horror is one that is left to our imaginations.

Simone Simon plays Irena, a fashion designer from Serbia who falls in love with the straight-laced all-American engineer Oliver (Kent Smith). And indeed for the first half of the movie, it plays like a straight romantic drama. Sure there are some warning signs of things going south when Irena enters a pet shop and all the animals go crazy, and she does tell Oliver about a tale from the home country involving the “wisest and most evil” witches who fled when the Serbian king ordered all practitioners of witchcraft killed, but nothing so serious as to suggest anything sinister is afoot as they eventually court each other become a happily wedded couple.

Any sense that this story could resolve in normalcy is shattered during their wedding dinner at a Serbian restaurant where a catlike woman comes up and greets Irena like a sister which immediately causes Irena to cower in terror and sets in motion the heartache and pain that follows. Irena, scared to be intimate with Oliver after being greeted by this woman, refuses to consummate their union which leads to frustration in their marriage. For a movie that was made in the heart of the puritanical Production Code, it is shockingly frank in depicting the disintegration of their marriage. The movie expertly uses the guise of something supernatural being afoot to explore the psychological tensions of a marriage-on-the-rocks, tensions that get further exacerbated when Oliver begins drawing closer to his work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) with all the vigor of an emotional affair. This naturally unleashes the beast within Irena, both figuratively and literally.

A lesser horror movie would use this point as a jumping off point to provide numerous scares with the appearance of Irena’s monster. However what sets Cat People apart is that it is a masterclass in restraint and atmospheric horror. It understands that what is not seen is infinitely more terrifying than what is, and amps up the tension accordingly. Alice is continually stalked by an unseen predator leading to the most iconic scenes of the movie including one involving a swimming pool that is a masterpiece of shadows and sound design that leaves the worst terrors to our own psyche.

Val Lewton understood intimately that what made horror so compelling was not the special effects or high production values. Rather it was because of its ability to mess with our minds, unsettle our preconceived thoughts, and psychologically upset us. It is a genre that revels in the shadows. While Lewton used that knowledge for the most part to keep his films cheap, Cat People stands as a reminder that this approach can sometimes also produce great art.

Rating: ★★★★½


 

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ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) dir. Eric C. Kenton
Spine #586

Thanks to The Simpsons’ much-beloved annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween episodes (the only episode of The Simpsons I still religiously watch) Island of Dark Souls is the rare pre-Code horror movie that has some level of popular culture recognition. However the fact that The Simpsons managed to lampoon the movie while faithfully adhering to most of the movie’s themes in a ten-minute sequence speaks to the movie’s lack of overall depth. Instead the movie relies on grotesque make-up, an antiquated (and mildly racist) fear of the “other”, and quasi-religious anxieties around science and technology to conjure up its scares; each of these elements have, to put it lightly, not necessarily aged well.

This is not to say however that there aren’t pleasures to be found with this classic. As with most of his appearances, Charles Laughton proves what a phenomenally entertaining actor he was, turning Dr. Moreau’s would-be rote mad-scientist role into something altogether sinister, sadistic, and much more fun. Bela Lugosi meanwhile shows exactly how underrated he was as an actor, iconically portraying the leader of Moreau’s creatures, including a fantastic monologue by the end. Meanwhile the make-up may not stand up to modern expectations of horror, but it undeniably creative as a multitude of creatures are rendered without ever looking alike. Paired with the fantastic atmospheric camerawork of Karl Strauss and you have a movie that more than makes up for its bland vanilla protagonists.

The movie may have lost most of its terrifying power, and as a result can come across as campy, cheesy, and more than a little hokey. Fortunately these elements help us enjoy the spectacle all the more.

Rating: ★★★½


 

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THE BLOB (1958) dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Spine #91

Unlike Island of Lost Souls (above) any pretension of taking The Blob seriously is thrown out the window the moment its title track plays (sample lyric: “it creeps, and leaps and glides and slides across the floor”). This is a movie that wears it’s B-movie credentials proudly on its sleeve and is a worthy addition to the entertaining annals of camp horror.

The arrival of an amorphous creature from outer space that turns out to be a malevolent and unstoppable force that terrorizes a small-town was already a tired sci-fi trope when The Blob was released. However several elements in this movie help it rise above the many creature features of the 1950s. First, it was one of the first to be shot in colour, which gives the gelatinous creature a morbid sense of foreboding and allows its simplistic form to be rendered as properly menacing. It is also one of the first horror movies to make its protagonists a bunch of low-life kids, right as the concern for teenage delinquency was swirling in larger culture – cashing in perfectly on the cultural cache of 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. And like Rebel Without a Cause, the movie was also the launching point of a superstar’s career (Steve “Steven” McQueen).

Of course these things make the movie intriguing only at a superficial level. It is a good thing Steve McQueen got a second chance at acting after this movie because he is only the best actor here on account of everyone else being that much worse. The pacing of this movie is also off as the actions of the characters in response to the murderous blob is either entirely too casual or over-the-top with little in between. In any case even when momentum is built up, it is quickly cut down by the overly heavy dialogue in which every character feels the need to explain every action they take.

Fortunately, though these flaws do keep the movie from truly achieving anything close to masterpiece standard, it still stands head-and-shoulders above the glut of 1950s B-movie sci-fi horror. And I can guarantee that at least that stupid theme song will stick in your head haunting your subconscious for months on end.

Rating: ★★★


 

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THE UNINVITED (1944) dir. Lewis Allen
Spine #677

When The Uninvited opens, we see Fitzgerald siblings Rick (Ray Milland) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey) falling in love with a seaside house overlooking some spectacular cliffs. The sun is shining bright, the wind is fresh with spring, and a swell of lush music give the film and buoyant feel. The last thing Rick and Pamela think about as they move to purchase the house is that this house could house something sinister, with the only portend of the horrors to come being the stern objections of the previous homeowners granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell). The truth is we are fooled too.

The Uninvited was a pioneer in that it was one of the first Hollywood movies that took seriously the idea of a ghost story without, like a Scooby-Doo episode, revealing some altogether natural explanation for the supernatural occurrences. It’s mode of horror is less in providing things to jump out from the shadows to surprise, but rather in providing us chills that skirt the lines of plausibility and sow seeds of doubt. The Uninvited perfects the kind of terror that we all have experienced, especially in new and unfamiliar places, where we hear an unexplained bang, a creak, or some other sound that shatters our rational skepticism and at least for a moment makes us wonder if ghosts exist. The movie illustrates something powerful about the nature of ghost stories – they are scary if you allow yourself to believe in them.

That these moments of terror in the movie are contrasted with much sunnier passages filled with humor and laughter at first glance looks like an awful tonal misstep on behalf of director Lewis Allen; it seems like evidence Hollywood hadn’t quite figured out how to tell a ghost story. But upon rewatching it this time, it seems that these tonal shifts are crucial to why the movie still manages to frighten me despite the numerous times I’ve seen the movie. The humor and light-hearted scenes paint a picture of normalcy for the Fitzgeralds, the kind of normalcy that would lead them to ignore the darkening clouds closing in on them as the sinister nature of their haunting becomes more apparent. The contrasts make each change of tone from happiness to darkness seem all the more terrifying, especially as the frequency of those changes increases as the movie veers towards its conclusion.

However, what ultimately sets Allen’s movie apart from a glut of other ghost story movies is that it provides a truly compelling tale for why the dead haunt this place. As Rick, Pamela, and Stella investigate further the mystery of this house they continue to stumble upon an unravelling story of tragedy, scandal, and woe. This has the chilling affect of making us both sympathetic to the spirits of the house while making us terrified for how they might exact their wrath. Martin Scorsese calls this movie one of the scariest movies of all time. While I am not inclined to place The Uninvited that high on my own list, each revisit helps me appreciate more why Scorsese would say that.

Ranking: ★★★★


 

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DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) dir. Nicolas Roeg
Spine #745

The travel writer Rick Steves described Venice as the perfect city to explore because, even though it is a labyrinthine city with many hidden passages and walkways, it is only an island and you can hardly get too lost. This same assurance seems to permeates Nicolas Roeg’s haunting Don’t Look Now, where Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple recovering from the grief of losing their child by holing up in Venice. The opening scene, where the drowning accident happens, is a devastating one portraying the greatest terror of every parent made real, but it also sets the tone for the movie where seemingly genteel and domestic actions live alongside horrors barely present around the corner.

While John (Sutherland) buries himself in his work restoring a chapel, Laura (Christie) is shocked out of her grief when two English ladies tell her that they’ve communicated with her dead daughter. The chance to commune with her daughter spurs her out of her misery which her husband notices, leading to a rekindling of their relationship (in perhaps the best and most normal love scene ever put onscreen). Although Laura is open to the psychic possibilities of life beyond the grave, John scoffs at the idea, especially when the women begin to warn John that he is in danger and should leave Venice. The irony of course is that it is John who displays an uncanny and almost psychic ability for precognition.

Roeg’s movie is a horror movie not in that it seeks to leap out and scare us, but rather because it deals with fear of dread. Like the mosaic John seeks to complete in the cathedral, the movie is an expertly placed series of fragments and images with each piece making little sense in isolation but then coming together in masterful and horrific fashion. It is only in hindsight that we realize that we have been shown things out of order, and that the clues were hidden in plain sight. Yet it is to the credit of this movie that this revelation has come to me every time I’ve seen it.

It is also impossible to discuss the haunting power of the movie without talking about the movie’s setting. Roeg’s Venice is one devoid of the usual tourist trappings, instead focusing on the maze of abandoned walkways and narrow paths that make up the city, turning the romantic city into a sort of nightmare. The city is painted not in the romantic colors of summer, but the austere colors of autumn giving the city a decidedly Gothic and ominous feel. The city, like the movie itself, is familiar to us but just askew enough as to leave us completely unsettled.

There can be some criticism that the end of the movie feels like a bit of a letdown, failing to fully cash in on the promise of its buildup. Yet perhaps this is besides the point, because the power of the movie lies not in whatever gets revealed at the end but rather in the chill and dread that it inspires along the way.

(Note: I also learned this time round that originally this movie was part of a double bill with The Wicker Man which is such a perfect double-feature I’m so annoyed the pairing never occurred to me before.)

Rating: ★★★★½


 

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KWAIDAN (1965) dir. Masaki Kobayashi
Spine #90

The anthology horror movie is one of the trickiest kinds of movies to get right as so much of the success of the movie depends not just on the excellence of each individual segment (with usually at least one segment falling short) but also on how each segment fits in with the larger narrative. Most great anthologies manage to achieve one of these goals but then fail in the second. Kwaidan is the rare feature that not only excels at these two goal but also sets the standard for how to make a horror anthology in the first place.

It helps that Masaki Kobayashi places the entire movie on extremely solid ground by employing the Noh performance style to tell his horror stories. Immediately this sets Kwaidan in a much more ancient, and thus inherently more mysterious and intriguing, setting. The eerie and sparse music employed set the tone for the deliberately meditative and hypnotic ghost stories Kobayashi weaves, fully establishing the atmosphere for the movie even before a scene has been shown.

The source material is also extremely compelling, drawing from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of ghost tales which also helps unify this epic. The ghost stories here are chosen not so much to frighten us, as Kobayashi dreams up a world in which ghosts are not only accepted but are an expected part of human existence. Instead almost all of them function as morality plays, reminding us of the dangers of breaking our vows, especially when it comes to the spirit realm.

Of the stories themselves, only the last one about a man who sees his rival in a teacup, feels like a weak link but this is mitigated by the fact that it might be intentionally so. The first three segments meanwhile build on one another in deliberative and meditative precision. The opening segment, “The Black Hair”, is perhaps the closest thing to a traditional horror story about a man who leaves his wife to pursue fame and glory by marrying a more prestigious bride. The comeuppance he faces is both poetic justice and horrific. The second story about a female spirit who saves a dying farmer from the cold meanwhile starts out terrifying, but quickly morphs into something more tragic. But it is the third, and longest, segment “Hoichi the Earless” that is the standout masterpiece in this movie in which a blind musician unintentionally finds himself performing an epic song about a battle for the ghosts of the people who died in them.

Kwaidan may not have anything resembling a traditional “scare” for horror fans. Yet it is a fever dream of a movie, whose images linger long after their unsettling power has gotten ahold of us.

Rating: ★★★★½


Other Adventures in Criterion posts:

Vol. 1: Crime Movies

Vol. 2: Screwball Comedies

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