the phantom empire #1

Photo © Scott Seymour. All rights reserved.

It’s the dream of every cinephile, I think, to own a cinema.  If not to own their own cinema then, at least, they wish to be employed at a liberal-minded establishment that would allow them to program whatever they wished to screen.  It’s an idea I’ve often fantasized about.  It would be a single screen joint (a huge one, of course, because bigger really is better in this case), project real film (of course), and have excellent sound.  Beer and wine would be available, as well as coffee, tea, and a few soda pops.  Fresh buttered popcorn, black and red licorice, and a couple of chocolate bars would also be offered.  Vintage movie posters, lobby cards, and stills would decorate the walls of the foyer, and the place would definitely have an old fashioned neon marquee out front above the glass ticket booth.  The place would seat about 425 people.  Old trailers would be shown before every movie, a cartoon also (Looney Tunes, the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye the Sailor cartoons from the 1930s, and Tom and Jerry), and appropriate soundtrack music would play before each feature as people found their seats.  A different double-feature would appear every couple nights.  Friday and Saturday nights would have midnight movies.  Late mornings and afternoons on the weekends would show kid-friendly fare.  There would also be theme weeks periodically or showcases for a particular actor or director.  No genre would be excluded and discussion/arguments would be encouraged.  I wouldn’t care about profits.  Each double-feature would be $0.99 just like the old Broadway theater in Portland.  The old one.  The rundown one back in the 1980s where I once took a girlfriend on a first date to see Day of the Dead and where I witnessed, with another girlfriend, the subversive horrors of Lynch’s Blue Velvet while I was frying on multiple hits of acid.  Oh, the stamina of youth!

It would be what I imagine the afterlife to be like.

But the challenging thing about the place would be what to show.  I mean, it’s easy to come up with titles.  It’s the order of things I would be concerned about.  A good programmer would serve much like a dj or someone who makes mix discs.  It’s all about the perfect combo, the correct flow of things, and making sure it’s always entertaining.  Unless… you’re trying to fry their little brains or something.

So what would my first double-feature be?

I could go with my favorite films, but I’ll wait to do that later.  I could go with some childhood favorites, but I’ll pass for now.  I’m figuring that the premiere screenings would be in the evening… so no kid movies then.  How about something simple?  Yes, I’ll stick with two easy but pivotal and life-altering choices.  These were two of the earliest films I remember seeing and they, I believe, set me on a path of image intoxication.  I was forever doomed.  And though the love affair with movies has hit snags from time to time, careened down detours leading to nowhere, and occasionally offered only heartbreak (mostly in my teen years, I should emphasize)… it’s been a love affair well worth indulging in.  It’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.  I am forever doomed after all.

The first film screened would be the 1931 Universal horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  The second feature would be James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, also from Universal.  Like I said, nothing radically adventurous, but they each made significant impressions on me as a child.  In many ways they shaped my future love of the medium and set me on a path of loving horror movies in particular.  I first watched both films with my father when I was around four years old.  Back in the 1970s there used to be a Creature Features-type horror movie program on KATU in Portland, Oregon after the news ended on Saturday nights called Sinister Cinema, hosted by Victor Ives.

What could I possibly say about these films that haven’t been said before?  Well, nothing really.  They both contain two iconic monster movie performances, they’re both well-crafted and contain moments of exceptional poetry and beauty (as do many of the early Universal horror productions), but they’re not exactly created equally.  Dracula betrays its stage origins a bit too much for my taste, especially after the initial brilliant cinematic scenes with Renfield (Dwight Frye) journeying to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.  Even as a child it slightly bored me.  It doesn’t now, although I’m always a little disappointed at how talky much of the film is.  I guess in the end, I like the later Hammer version better.  However, it never seduced me like Browning’s creation did.  Dracula may not be perfect, but it ensnared me darkly with its images.  Anyway, like so many horror movies, it’s not about the entirety… it’s those individual moments of aesthetic beauty, poetry, and/or genuine terror that reward the patient viewer.

Unlike now, I wasn’t exactly a night owl at the age of four.  But I tried to keep up.  I only made it through the opening few scenes of Dracula… the best part actually.  I nodded off quickly after.  But the image that burned itself into my brain is the moment when I snapped awake to see Renfield laughing maniacally when the authorities discover him inside the hull of the ship carrying Count Dracula to the shores of England.  I think I passed out afterward from the fright.

Frankenstein is even better, although I don’t recall one specific moment that sent me over the edge.  The whole film cast a spell on me–the sets, lighting, music, the monster himself–and the first three Frankenstein films have been favorites of mine ever since.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel, is even more effective in its fusion of dark humor, melodrama, visual poetry, and melancholy.  But I didn’t see that film until much later.  This is the one that left its mark on my imagination… and for that I’m thankful.

Back in 1991 or so when I was in my early 20s, Dracula and Frankenstein were both screened at a small theater in NE Portland.  I lived on the other side of the city, didn’t drive, though I made sure I got to the screening.  It was great to finally see both films on the big screen with an appreciative audience of youngsters and older people.  And though I’d seen each of them numerous times over the years via videocassette, each unruly monster seemed to flourish unleashed in the flickering dark before a packed house of eager viewers.  Lugosi and Karloff were reborn.  Resurrected for a whole new generation of monster kids… a reminder to older ones that these cinematic creations still mattered.

By the time I watched these films in the theater, I was already a veteran horror film watcher–from silent classics to Hammer horrors to cannibal holocausts to necromantik evil dead maniac butchers… I had the psychic eyeball scars to prove my cred.  And though these Universal horror films would never be able to compete with their modern day unholy brethren in terms of graphicness or intensity, they did excel when it came to lyricism, imagery, pathos, and wit.  So for nostalgic and artistic reasons, Lugosi and Karloff would open the show… hopefully luring a whole new generation into the phantom empire.*

Stay tuned for further screenings….

 

 

* The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century is a book by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.  It’s sort of an impressionistic, subjective, secret history of the medium–obsessive, fetishistic, and cosmic.  It’s a brilliant piece of writing and one of my favorite non-traditional books about cinema.  I would name my theater in its honor.

 

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horror movie trailers from the 1960s

Horror movies were a big, pivotal influence on me during my youth, especially in the post-Halloween years.  In the 1980s I watched everything I could get my claws on, whether in the theater (it was a time when the local theaters could care less if you were underage, just as long as your mom popped her head in the box office and gave the ticket cashier the “okay”), on cable, or on videocassette.  I watched things I probably shouldn’t have (Maniac, Don’t Go in the House, Don’t Answer the Phone, et al).  But I also viewed movies that branded themselves in my overactive brain, ruining me forever in the best of ways (John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Shining, Dawn of the Dead, Phantasm, Scanners, Gates of Hell,  and so many more), and have never failed to entertain, fascinate, and disturb me to this day.

Although a steady diet of slashers, Italian zombies, and rubbery over-the-top gore fests were what kept me sane through my teenage years, it was horror films of an earlier vintage that put their hooks in me.  My first real memories are of monsters, ghouls, and creatures from beyond the grave–King Kong, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Godzilla, and all the rest.  Back in the early 1970s in Portland the local television station KATU would air a program on Saturday nights at 11:30 called Sinister Cinema, that would show a double-feature of old horror movies hosted by a bearded Victor Ives in Dracula cape, along with his sidekick the late Jimmy Hollister.  It was monstertastic, to say the least, and the perfect entertainment for a monster kid like myself.  Not to get too nostalgic… but I sometimes feel sad that kids now don’t get programs like Sinister Cinema or Creature Features (a Bay Area program that I used to see whenever we’d visit relatives down in San Jose every summer).  Then again, cable television and DVDs have made it a whole lot easier for monster-minded parents to indoctrinate their horror-happy tyke with a wider variety of scaretastic goodies in ways that I couldn’t have dreamed of as a wee lad.  There’s simply so much more out there to offer up.  And I say cheers to that!  But sadly, the horror hosts seem to have left the mausoleum for good.

As we creep toward another Halloween, I thought I’d post some trailers from a few of my favorite horror films.  I’ll start with some from the 1960s, one of my favorite eras.  Not necessarily the best trailers, but definitely my favorite films.  Now, outside of Rosemary’s Baby (which I remember seeing on television when it aired on ABC when I was around six), I sadly didn’t see any of these until my late teens or in my twenties.  Nevertheless, they’re faves and I revisit them often.

The first trailer is for Georges Franju’s lyrical masterpiece Les Yeux sans Visage (1959), aka Eyes Without a Face.  Although the American trailer–double-billed with the deliriously enjoyable though campy The Manster–makes it seem over-the-top, this French film is anything but despite the plot elements straight from a 1930s pulp magazine.  It’s a haunting, strangely moving experience and one that sets the tone for other serious-minded, atmospheric, fetishistic, and extreme Euro horrors that would be released over the next two decades.  Though no film, except for perhaps moments in Argento’s Suspiria or Inferno would be able to capture the dark poetry so integral to Franju’s parable.

The second clip is for the Italian film The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), starring the iconic Barbara Steele.  Talk about fetishistic!  It’s one of my all-time favorite horror films and why it hasn’t been released on DVD is a crime.  You can read more about the film here, which was written by Glenn Erickson aka DVD Savant originally for the online web zine Images (a site I also wrote reviews for).  The trailer doesn’t really sell it correctly… but don’t let that stop you from seeing the film if you run across a cassette of it.  It’s brilliant.

The third trailer is for Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966).  If the first five minutes doesn’t pull you into its fierce, hallucinatory design… then you may just not like horror films.  Bava’s a favorite around my house and he has more than one great film in his long resume.  But there’s something about this one–the period setting, the little girl revenant, the score–that nails me every time.  It obviously made an impact on Fellini as well, since he pays wonderful homage to it in his Toby Dammit segment of Spirits of the Dead.  And one can’t help but think that Martin Scorsese had Bava on the brain when he made The Last Temptation of Christ, personifying Satan in the guise of a little girl to tempt Jesus from the cross.

The fourth trailer is for the great Hammer horror film, The Devil Rides Out (1968).  Based on the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name, this is one of the best non-monster movies that the famed British studio ever put out, if not the best.  Black magic, an Aleister Crowley-type villain, Christopher Lee as the suave hero Duc de Richleau, satanic orgies, and a blitzkrieg-paced script by Richard Matheson… what’s not to love?  This is old school Hammer horror at its finest.

And then there’s Rosemary’s Baby.  This is Roman Polanski at his most fiendishly polished and enjoyable.  Along with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist it’s also one of the best big studio horror productions ever.