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Monday, 31 October 2011

When The Autumn Moon is Bright: Why Horror is Universal

The older I get the more I like Halloween. I like the parties and fancy dress clothes, carving pumpkins is definitely more fun than putting up the Christmas tree, and there's a delightfully knowing tackiness to the whole affair. And so in that spirit I have decided that this fortnight's post will be about the horror films that Universal Studios produced throughout the 1930s and 40s. While Warner Bros. were busy with gangster films like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties, Universal Pictures was creating its signature genre with a spate of horror films based on nineteenth century gothic fiction and folklore, with early examples including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Influenced by the menacing shadows and distorted angles of the German Expressionist films of the silent era, the Universal horror films in turn influenced horror iconography throughout the twentieth century, and are largely responsible for our modern perceptions of the classic Halloween monsters. Universal Pictures is a major studio nowadays, but in the early days it was best known for producing B movies. They were made quickly and cheaply, often with the same roster of character actors and stars appearing in each new film. However, with talent on board like director James Whale or the intense Boris Karloff, many of Universal's B-horrors rose above their roots as exploitation pictures. The Universal horrors have become so iconic that we are familiar with their imagery without necessarily being familiar with the films, or even from where that imagery originates. When we think of the Frankenstein monster and of Dracula, we invariably think of the Universal versions of those monsters, and it is largely the Universal Frankenstein series that is to blame for the modern confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. This post is a beginner's guide to four of the most popular and enduring films of the Universal monster canon, and the three that I personally find the most fascinating and compelling. Incidentally, all of these little summaries contain SPOILERS.




The Wolfman

Lon Chaney Jr. is having a very bad hair day.
Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, the unfortunate man who is cursed with the sign of the werewolf, in George Waggner's 1941 film that draws inspiration from European myths and folklore about lycanthropy and supernatural animal transformations. Although the wolf make-up looks primitive by today's standards, and the scenes with Larry as a werewolf are only mildly violent, Chaney Jr. cultivates a wonderful sense of pathos and frustration as the tortured but decent Larry Talbot, and is supported by a wonderful cast that includes Claude Rains (who also starred as the eponymous Invisible Man) and Bela Lugosi, who most famously played the evil Count Dracula. The pacing of the film is superb, developing Larry as an everyman before finally condemning him to his fate as the wolfman. The relationship between Larry and his father, played by Rains, is well developed, with his father convinced that Larry is merely suffering from a schizophrenic delusion that he is a werewolf. The 'no-one believes the hero' horror cliche is played remarkably well here, and what is particularly great about it is there is genuine ambiguity over whether Larry really is a werewolf, or merely insane. When, as a wolf, Larry attacks his victims, it is usually by strangulation, or other decidedly non-wolfish means, and when he is killed (by his own father, no less) after a final rampage, his body 'returns' to normal before anyone has a chance to see him as a wolf. Even his father remains suspiciously quiet, allowing the villagers to believe that a real wolf attacked Larry before he had a chance to intervene. Although the sequels dispensed with the ambiguity by having Larry resurrected by moonlight, I think the alternative reading of the original Wolfman stands up, and makes for a much more interesting film.

Dracula
Strange, powerful and iconic: Lugosi as Dracula
Adapted from Bram Stoker's classic novel, the 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning is part of the first wave of Universal sound pictures. Browning's film simplified Stoker's film by keeping the action in England and reducing the number of characters, but succeeds in adapting the eerie, uncanny atmosphere of its source. Compared to the other two films I'm discussing, Dracula feels a little wooden and stagey, with most of the scenes consisting of characters talking to each other in rooms. However, this is counterbalanced by Bela Lugosi's unnerving performance as the eponymous vampire, some incredible sets depicting Dracula's castle, and a great supporting cast including Dwight Frye as the lunatic Renfield. The film is loosely faithful the novel, but its brevity and less ambitious globe-trotting streamline Stoker's novel into a pacy and tense picture. Lugosi's Dracula is the iconic screen incarnation, with the widow's peak, east-European accent and sweeping cloak all a product of this film, and now indelibly associated with the character. Fascinatingly, there exists an alternative, Spanish-language version of Dracula that was filmed simultaneously on the same sets with a Spanish cast. In the days before dubbing was perfected, English-language films were sometimes re-filmed in different languages for the foreign market. The Spanish-language version of Dracula has become famous because, incredibly, it is superior to the original version. When they were filming, the Spanish crew would come in after the Americans, watch the day's footage and actively try to better it. As a result, the direction is far more fluid and less stage-bound, the sexuality of the female characters is less restrained, and it has a longer running time. Carlos Villarias plays Dracula in this version, and although good, he is no match for Lugosi. Despite the technical superiority of the Spanish version, Lugosi's Dracula will forever remain the iconic vampire of cinema and pop culture.

Frankenstein
It's alive! Boris Karloff gives life to Frankenstein's creation.
Perhaps the only other monster to rival Dracula in terms of recognisability is the Frankenstein monster, and again, it is the Universal studio interpretation of the character that has lodged itself firmly in the popular cultural zeitgeist. The flat top of the monster's head, exaggerated brow, and electrodes through his neck are all products of the Universal film, but are now as inseperable from the character as the widow's peak is from Dracula. Frankenstein, masterfully directed by James Whale and released the same year as Dracula, is often criticised for reducing the intelligent, articulate character of Mary Shelley's superlative novel to a lumbering, dumb brute, and for only loosely following the novel's events. But Boris Karloff, under layers of make-up, invests the monster with surprising and disarming pathos, sensitivity and subtlety. Besides, we all know that criticising adaptations on the basis of their faithfulness is a rocky position. Incidentally, that Frankenstein the novel has a tradition of adaptation, borrowing from and referring to previous works of literature, makes, I think, the film one of the most interesting of the Universal horror stable. In many ways, the film pays tribute to the experimental nature of the novel, playing with and reinterprating the characters and their relationships. The transgressive nature of the relationship between Henry Frankenstein and his creation is subtly hinted at in the first film, only to be expanded on in the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

Bride of Frankenstein
To a new world of gods and monsters: the eerie Bride.
Bride is one of the few sequels in the Universal canon that not only matches its predecessor, but actually betters it. The audacious opening positions the film directly as an adaptation, but is only slightly more faithful to the novel than the original film. It also introduces the new character of Dr. Pretrorius, who has created life through alchemy, in contrast to Frankenstein's scientific approach. Pretrorius convinces Frankenstein to create a bride for the monster, and while Pretrorius does not exist in the novel, his presences allows the film explores the conflict between the natural and the unnatural suggested in Shelley's work. More importantly, the strange, slightly predatory and very homoerotic relationship between Drs. Frankenstein and Pretorious is made all the more interesting and poignant given that Whale himself was both homosexual and working within the restrictive and homophobic strictures of the Hays Film Code. The final scene of the film, not present in the novel, is a brilliantly executed, and is by turns a tense and tender sequence, the impact of which is visible in Danny Boyle's recent, otherwise faithful, stage version of Shelley's novel which refers explicitly to Whale's film in a sequence that mirrors the final scene in Bride.

These summaries are by no means an exhaustive account of the horror films produced by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 40s (I'm still working through the library myself), but I hope they give a sense not just of the series itself, but from where we draw much of the iconography of this season. The films that Universal produced during this period have given us imagery that remains popular and recognisable, but if we return to their source, also give us some incredibly rich, nuanced and, yes, frightening cinematic experiences.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Baby Mine: Why Children's Films Are Brilliant

Disney matures: The Lion King
Last month, the 1994 animated feature The Lion King was re-released in cinemas (pointlessly 3D-ified), topping the box office and re-establishing itself as one of Disney's greatest feature films and one of the most enduring children's animated films. Last year, Toy Story 3 was the most successful film at the box office in 2010, and one of the highest grossing films of all time, and from Saturday 22nd October, the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne are hosting a season of films to watch before you're 13, ranging from classics such as The Wizard of Oz, to modern films like Toy Story and School of Rock. Evidentally, children's films are popular with adults as well as their offspring, and the extraordinary success of Toy Story and The Lion King demonstrates that there is a considerable adult market for films aimed primarily at children. I wonder what makes children's films so popular amongst adults, and whether the joint factors of nostalgia for the films we watched as children, and the necessity of joining the kiddies at the cinema fully accounts for the tremendous popularity of children's films amongst grown-ups.

Incidentally, if you've somehow avoided seeing The Lion King, Bambi, Toy Story, The Land Before Time et al, then you might want to consider leaving the following paragraphs alone, as they are going to be SPOILERIFIC. You might also want to consider watching them, as they're fucking class.

The Problem of Nostalgia
I might argue that nostalgia explains the popularity of these films, and certainly it explains a lot. For those who saw The Lion King at the big screen as a child (as I and many of my peers did), who could resist re-visiting not just Mufasa's death, but also all the memories that came with that moment back in 1994, when the Sega Mega Drive reigned supreme and Freddoes were still at the correct price of 10p? This certainly plays a very large part of my love The Lion King, amongst other films from that era, but that can't be the only thing that draws me back after 20 years, can it? The buffalo stampede is a truly powerful cinematic moment, regardless of what age you see it at. Although nostalgia is important for our affections for children's films gone by, I suspect there is more to our collective love of them than merely looking through rose-tinted spectacles. I recently conducted a highly unscientific survey on favourite children's films (by which I mean I asked some of my friends on Facebook what theirs were), and I found the results quite surprising. Rather than, as I suspected, the films that were chosen as adults being the same as the favourites they had as children, they were almost uniformly different. In other words, as people grew up, their favourite children's film was not dependent on what it was when they were six. I think there are several ways to interpret this. Either that kids' films are getting better (I don't think so), that they are more consciously aimed at adults (partially, more on this later), or that what we look for in films changes as we get older, and that this also applies to children's films. Either way, nostalgia isn't playing as large a part as we might expect.

The most popular films for the 'children' were predictably divided between Disney classics such as The Jungle Book and The Lion King and 80s adventures like The Goonies and Labyrinth, whereas the favourite films for those same people as adults came mainly from new kids on the block Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Even more interestingly, the adults' films were almost exclusively animated, and far less varied than their choices as children. I realise that there are complex reasons to do with what we're exposed to as children, and what we choose to watch as adults, not to mention the utterly un-rigorous nature of my 'research', but nevermind all that, as I think my assertion still stands that mere nostalgia isn't sufficient explanation for adults' enduring love of children's films. 

Grown up children
So as grown-ups, I think, we're picking films that speak with an adult perspective on childhood. Most of them  deal with loss, death, and symbolically, the end of childhood. These are themes that centre around childhood, but it doesn't follow that they are themes exclusively for children. Don Bluth's 1988 The Land Before Time, for example, is a film that features anthropomorphic talking dinosaurs, but it not only deals with the loss of a parent, but also the subsequent feelings of denial, despair and acceptance that accompany bereavement. Transposed into live action, we might expect the next Ken Loach or Charlie Kaufman film to explore such issues. One person justified his choice of The Land Before Time as both his child and adulthood favourite: 

the whole film is about children not having adult support and having to deal with their problems as a team [...] I also love the way it tackles the issue of racism: 'three horns never play with long necks [...] These are obviously the reasons why it is my favourite film as an adult. As a child I liked it because it was just fucking mint.
As an adult, he's made an intellectual decision for his love of the film, whereas as a child, it was more intuitive: because the film was 'fucking mint'. You might think as an adult he's simply rationalising his choices as a child, and this probably holds some water - I certainly do this all the time - but the important thing here is that The Land Before Time works as both a film for adults and children, and crucially, for the same reasons. Both audiences know how painful the prospect (or even reality) of losing a parent is.

Why Pixar Nailed It in 2010
Dreamworks: Big on stars, low on story
I think what makes for a great children's film is that it doesn't become boring, or seem less emotionally complex as we grow up. Rather, it actually becomes more satisfying, exhilarating, and even painful the older we get. And importantly, the message is essentially the same for both the adult and child, which is why most of  Dreamworks' Studio's output fails as great children's cinema. Shrek, for example, mainly appeals to children through a cast of goofy, funny characters, and it appeals to adults through ironic pop culture references and big name stars, but there is very little emotional connection between the two audiences. The adults are not transported back to childhood, and the children are not challenged to think like adults, in the way that the protagonists of The Lion King, Bambi, or The Land Before Time are. In contrast, this is why I think Pixar's recent hat trick of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 is so astonishing. Both Wall-E and Up, I'd argue, are barely even exclusively children's films; they're viewed as such because they're animated, produced by Pixar, and both have caricatured, cartoonish characters. But they undoubtedly push the emotional complexity of traditional children's cinema, and moreover, they appeal to adults not through lame in-jokes but through the fact that their  characters and stories are just as compelling for grumpy old bastards as they are for the bright-eyed enthusiasm of youth.

Andy makes his ultimate decision one last time
And this brings me to Toy Story 3. For my money, this is one of the best films of the last ten years, and was certainly the best mainstream film of 2010. It not only achieved that rarest of qualities, the not-disappointing second sequel, but also succeeded in surpassing both its predecessors. Moreover, and this is partially why I find it so fascinating, it managed to be a children's film that was squarely aimed at adults, and I can't think of one other film that does that. Even the great Studio Ghibli, for all their beauty, mystery and wonder, have yet to pull off the magic trick that Pixar did with the third Toy Story. They knew that the children who saw Toy Story 1 and 2 the first time around would be twenty-something adults in 2010. And boy, did they nail us with those final scenes. When I saw it at the cinema last year, children happily munched away on popcorn while grown men and women audibly sniffled, and remained awkwardly motionless in their seats. As garbage-compacted doom seemingly closed in around Woody and Buzz, it was our own childhood experiences that we witnessed careering towards the scrapheap. Pixar were consciously invoking nostalgia for these characters, but in doing so seemed to elaborate on the themes already hinted at in the previous films.

The impending death of the toys was the death of childhood, and their temporary salvation mirrored the audience's child-like revisiting of the world of the films, and implicitly their own childhoods, after a decade. The incinerator sequence, as far as I'm concerned, and without hyperbole, is one of the greatest dialogue-free scenes ever filmed. The sigh that Andy's mother lets slip when she realises he's leaving home is just as heart-breaking, and the bittersweet coda as Andy gives up his toys is deceptively dark. One of the only criticisms I and others initially had was that the toys weren't killed at the end, and the literal deus ex machina that rescues them at the end was a minor betrayal of the impending fate that was so skilfully woven throughout the rest of the movie. But really, to have killed the toys would have been too dark for a children's film, and besides, they have already faced and accepted their own mortality. Whether or not they are actually killed is really a moot point and, I'd argue, would alienate the child audience. Essentially, Toy Story 3 is able to have its cake and eat it by giving us a happy ending without sacrificing the reality of the scrap-heap that the toys are inevitably headed to. This is not something that adults' films can do without appearing mawkish, sentimental or lazy. Great children's films appeal to both kids and grown-ups, which is a claim that very few great adults' films can make. It is only in children's films that the death of childhood can be properly explored, and so the best children's films achieve a maturity that is rarely seen in grown-up cinema.