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Monday, October 24, 2022

Whose Horror Is It?


Their Likes --- Our Likes --- They Differ

You Tube hands me more of the unexpected, comments to go with highlights from Van Helsing, one I assumed was Universal-ly disliked since 2004 when released. How wrong was that notion came clear via salute for many a fan’s favorite classic of any horror made, and they aren’t kidding. Not oddballs or outliers but raves by hundreds, many of whom spell and make complete sentences, a congregation born of the nineties who came of age right when Van Helsing hit. What they teach is never to assume any movie is bad no matter unanimity long thought in place. Whatever majority we imagined is largely edged out since 2004. A whole new monster army has arrived to school us all. I wondered if reappraisal extended beyond Van Helsing, and so sought two more from Universal’s “Dark Universe” … The Wolf Man (2010) and The Mummy (2017). As expected, more up-thumbs than down for both. These people feel not obliged to respond like critics or a then-public too prosaic to catch the wave, but sure they represent a loyal order who I suspect outnumber those once stood before shrines of old-school Universal. Consider an audience enormous by comparison with what attended in Classic Era past. Even if U’s Dark Universe disappointed on first exposure, think of afterlife post-theatres. One fan at YT spoke of Van Helsing as never-ending loop on his TV, discs played thin with nary concern for narrative stumble or dearth of characterization, these no longer factors whatever a published reviewer at-or-past middle age might think.

So how long has this gone on? Looks to me like twenty years at least. Superheroes have more than reached that duration of dominance. Van Helsing, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy are really heroes in monster clothes, more “action blockbusters” than anything meant to be scary. Popcorn movies used to be a mildly derisive term. Not now, and not for a long time. Were story, structure, and character things that Hollywood lost, or willingly gave up? A popcorn mindset obliges us not to crave anything past the butter and salt. Action loud and confusing enough, let alone projected upon IMAX walls, does not tax in terms of focus upon narrative. I don’t say this to deride the taste of current fandom or knock things I don’t understand. Those who get no charge out of Van Helsing may not know what they are missing. These spectacles find virtue in chaos, no one left on production ends to distinguish “good” from “bad.” I wonder what screenplay instructors tell pupils nowadays. There was a time when rules stood fast, or at least everyone knew why weak movies were weak. Now it seems discipline of a kind Billy Wilder and other ancients preached is done, and good riddance to it. Background on making of VH, Wolf Man, and Mummy are everywhere at You Tube and told largely in terms of what went "wrong." Fans chime in to challenge any such notion, nothing being amiss among timeless totems of precious upbringing. If budgets went off rail, a director was fired, then another, panic delays against a release date that was non-negotiable, these are but brush strokes toward perfection. Hail chaos, but will it yield to profoundest change recent years have visited upon filmmaking?

What prepares writers to write, let alone write well? Surely schooling has much to do with it, though sources suggest verbal and composition are not just lost arts but forfeited ones. There was time when education denoted classical education, literature, poetry, the Greek, Latin, all resulting in a well-turned-out scholar, many of whom went on to contribute written arts of their own. What became of all that? I’m told phonics quit in US schools around 1930, yet it was drilled into me during second grade by a teacher who hailed from the nineteenth-century and taught as though we were all still there (bless Miss Finley for that). Also am informed that education after WWII was redirected toward math and sciences in response to Soviet aggression, humanities getting short shrift from then on. Can only imagine what computer curriculum has done to literary study, even basic grammar, though glimpse at Twitter or Facebook give frightful enough account. Film writers decades ago got training at colleges where communication skill was paramount, campus-labs where the best of wits had short stories and light poems published on site, resumes built from age eighteen to eventual place with live theatre, radio, or film factories in search always for those who could fence with words. Did I say eighteen? There were boys before a turn of the century who graduated Ivy League schools before they were sixteen … William Holmes McGuffey of “Readers” fame was tutoring students when he was thirteen. These generations knew writing, thrived upon it. They learned from reading, not by watching old movies and regurgitating them. Such are lost arts Hollywood knows to be lost, if not consciously then at least to extent of realizing there is little chance we will get any such expertise back.

Somewhere movies became go-to for excitation and little else, at least ones aimed at crowded cinemas. That was OK with producers because special effects could now disguise poverty of ideas. Got to where sophisticated writing was a last thing they wanted. It all makes sense. If you can render absolutely anything upon screens, why stand still ever, let alone emphasize people merely talking. Youngsters got the Van Helsing and Wolf Man they wanted, however critics headed for a scrapheap carped about it. Watch You Tube “highlights” from any corner of Universal’s Dark Universe and know delirium tremens without the drinks. If fans now repeat-watch these and intend to go on doing so, where do others of us go for comfort? For me it is increasingly to the dialoguers and gesture-folk, or moments so passive you barely hear sound, like what once were radical and even a threat to public sobriety. I watched Horror of Dracula again last week. It plays on a loop in my brain anyway so why not air images out? I’m convinced therein lie health benefits, this impulse toward quieter reflection. Consider HoD’s host of uneventful scenes, the crackle of fire Jonathon Harker throws another log onto, Dracula’s letter in lovely script apologizing for his absence, push of the tray and its clatter upon the floor. Dracula says “there are many volumes to be indexed” in his library, which makes me want to see more of that room and what sort of books Dracula reads when not occupied elsewhere. Van Helsing in the person of Peter Cushing is a man of infinite resource and subtle expression. He is highly educated, has a voice-recording device I would prefer to any modern derivation, wipes off a chair cushion he offers a lady guest. A blood transfusion he conducts is as precise as stakings necessitated by his profession. I wonder if after liquidating Dracula, Van Helsing remained behind to see whether the vampire’s reading selections overlap any of his own. Had Dracula relaxed his reign of terror, there is every chance he and Van Helsing would have become more congenial.

What once was the Universal horror brand is not to be recaptured. What they spent on one among the Dark Universe would finance entirety of the cycle as it unfolded through the thirties and forties. Extravagance breeds waste we’ve seen, and fear of botching the job for which individuals answer. More than a few blockbuster directors do not direct anymore. Demands upon modern filmmakers go way past reason. There would be less pressure defusing unexploded bombs. The system isn’t likely to permit another James Whale. Closest might be a “Best Picture” winner of late (2017) where the woman falls for a Creature offshoot in a lab tank, which union they consummate. Yes, this won Best Picture. Did viewers in 1954 wish such an outcome for Julia Adams? Oddly it was Fox Searchlight that released The Shape of Water, not Universal. I thrive upon humble sets and actors for horror films revisited. The best of Universal were done modestly and with modest expectations. Now it seems lives are at stake should something fail. Certainly, careers are. The Black Cat in 1934 cost $92,548 to make, The Mummy’s Hand in 1940 $80,000. Universal’s Dark Universe is well-named, for we speak of an entirely different universe between a Classic Era and now. But latter-day followers regard DU’s as marvels good as Marvel, and that must be understood, if not applauded. Once a thing ramps up, there is no un-ramping. I took a chastise, around when Van Helsing came out, for using 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire at a university show, had promoting stunts, even contacted a showman in Arkansas after seeing a ’63 trade article about how he sold Kiss. Drew a crowd alright, but boy did they flay the movie. Learned that night how what raised me happy was never going to do so for millennials.


Blogger Ken said...

Count me among those whose movie likes lean very strongly toward pre-60's titles. I count vintage Universal chillers like "Night Monster","Son of Dracula" and "House of Frankenstein" among my all-time favorites.
Tom Cruise's version of "The Mummy" is indeed one rancid load of rubbish - not a patch on the 1932 and 1999 versions, each wonderful in its own way. But - for all its shortcomings - "Van Helsing" does offer some truly stunning visual set-pieces. And for that reason I can never bring myself to write it off.
As for the 2010 version of "The Wolfman" directed by Joe Johnston, it's one of my all-time favorite films. The best and most satisfying screen treatment the old legend has ever had as far as I'm concerned. Aside from the great look and sound of the thing, it's full of superb performances. I don't think I've ever been more impressed by Emily Blunt in any other role (and I like her!).
Even stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor is marvelous. There's a sequence (available as a Blu-ray extra) that involves the "monster"stumbling into a concert hall where a soprano is warbling the beautiful Gilbert & Sullivan song "Poor Wandering One". It's a stunningly executed piece of poignant juxtapositioning that's stayed with me ever since.

3:46 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I think the one angle on this that's worth exploring is the "sameness" of many studio films nowadays.

Your showing of "Kiss of the Vampire" may have bombed with audiences because they weren't expecting a particular aesthetic moviegoers in 1963 would have associated with a Hammer film.

In recent times, with the rise of CGI, films might be produced by different studios with different casts and directors, but they pretty much wind up looking and sounding the same. I saw "Van Helsing" and the overall look and feel of it reminded me of "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". I had to look it up to confirm it, but "Helsing" was a Universal picture and "Gentlemen" came from 20th Century Fox.

There's a reason for that. CGI requires films to be shot in certain ways to accommodate the effects. Then, the effects are farmed out to independent contractors and small effects houses around the globe, with two or more working on the same shots in the same movie. It's no wonder that they all look the same and have the same pacing.

This is also happening with film scores. Often the "composer" of a piece simply roughs out some sketches - or even just general suggestions - and troops of independent contractors actually compose all the bits of pieces of the needed score.

In Ye Olden Days, you could watch a few minutes of a movie of most any genre and figure out if it came from Warners, MGM, Universal or Paramount. Even after the break-up of the studio system, Corman pictures, Hammer films, or United Artists dramas or comedies had a certain look and feel - a kind of "brand" - that audiences were conditioned for.

Now, it's hard to tell one big budget action picture from another, for example - a Bond looks pretty much like a Tom Cruise "Mission Impossible".

Without knowing the specific comic and studio, can you tell the difference after a few moments of viewing, between a Marvel or DC movie?

There are a few studios and directors bringing some unique style to what they offer. Many of A24's horror films follow a certain aesthetic and are distinctive. Jordon Peele has carved out a unique style for his pictures. Michael Richie's action films have his own style that's often imitated on lower budgets.

Sometimes, the appeal of a movie comes from expecting a certain look and style. Younger audiences today don't have an awareness of those older "brands" and, I suspect, feel "out of place" when they stray from the sameness of current product.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

While reading this I thought to myself that the movies have been losing their audience. Where first run cinemas sat thousands now they seat hundreds. Even getting people to sit on those hundreds of seats is difficult. The movies were once about something. Now they are largely about nothing.

Say what people will about D. W. Griffith (and people will). His movies premiered in 5,000 seat cinemas at top Broadway prices. Contemporary cinema can't hold a candle to him.

Don't judge his works by what we see today. The scores on all of them sound like they could be played in a church. People went to church because they had to. They went to the movies because they wanted to.

Now they no longer, it seems, want to.

Back in the 1980s for brief period I rented a mini-cinema above a porn theater that offered five soft porn movies for a dollar. I showed one movie with an intro by me for $20.00. As the people in the line for the soft porn watched the line for my program growing they asked how much. When I told them they asked, "How many movies do we get for that?" I said, "One." They said, "It must be a good movie." Then they lined up to see it. Did they walk out satisfied? You betcha.

The movies began to die when the industry began to sell them as "cheap entertainment."

3:45 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Mr.Hartt: What was the movie? Something the fellows in line might have heard of already, or with a familiar star?

I'm not sure how much weight you can put on the "cheap entertainment" label. Movies took off when admissions were low enough to make them a habit, respectable enough for all ages, and plentiful enough that challenging, high-quality films sometimes slipped through the studio system and into the theaters. If a caviar-to-the-general Lubitsch turned up one weekend, the next would bring a Monogram western and all would be forgiven. But then television became the undifferentiated amusement pipeline, and movies were a fairly big decision rather than a default ritual. People came for specific films for specific reasons: spectacle or stars, prestige or prurience, chuckles or chills. As movies became more of a substantial expenditure than a cheap, casual indulgence, audiences increasingly clung to known quantities and spurned the unfamiliar to protect their investments.

Hence the constant search for franchises, each a very specific promise of a very specific experience. Stars, comics, and clowns each prospered by guaranteeing a fresh serving of a known recipe. Likewise horrors from 30s-40s Universal and 50s-60s Hammer, AIP beach movies, Disney live action Bs, Harryhausen color fantasies, etc.

And now, "cinematic universes" elaborately connect movies into a single fictional world. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and superhero films are less about telling new stories than paying a return visit to the 21st century versions of Universal's European street and spooky mansions. Studios and audiences alike are hesitant to take a flyer on anything new or challenging, precisely because it's NOT cheap.

3:10 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The title of the movie and those in it had nothing to do with the decision to cross over into my line.

The films you write about were never meant to be more than diversions.

Movies today do not cost what top Broadway shows cost. They are still cheap.

Griffith's films did.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Only if the film industry monopolized all venues could they charge ticket prices equivalent to live performances.
The costs of the projection of an existing film are miniscule compared to the costs of staging a single Broadway performance, which costs repeat every night - so expecting the venues to charge the audience for things not happening right in front of them in the theater - ie the production costs of the film being projected - as if there were such costs actually involved in every night's projected entertainment is a non-starter.
Griffiths was overcharging his audience, and I think maybe for a long time the entire film industry was, too.

3:00 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Griffith was overcharging his audience."

No, he was not. If you took the time to research how the picture was actually presented you would know that.

in the 1980s I was charging only $1 for my programs so that as many people as possible could see them. The burden that low price imposed on myself was huge. I could not no matter how big the crowd cover my expenses.

I raised the price to $20 figuring if I kept a few I would make as much as I was doing with many. I also produced in-depth program notes which I gave people for free.

Three things happened. The first was that I got more people. The second was that the free program notes were left on the floor. The third was that the next week I charged $1 for the program notes. People took them home with them. This worked to increase my audience after the people they lived with read my program notes.

Bear in mind my programs have always included talks by myself. Film buffs often said if I stopped talking they would come. Consequently I do not program for film buffs. There are not enough of them to cover my costs. .

3:06 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I did those $1 shows one woman left a note saying, "You have given me the most expensive feeling I have ever had in my life at the lowest possible price."

When I raised my price my printer was because I no longer had a problem paying his bill. The people who owned the space I was using were happy because their rent got paid. The people working with me were happy. The audience was happy.

I'm not saying all films could be marketed this way. Many could not.

I raised the price because I wanted to be able to pay my bills.

After I did it I discovered more people valued what I give them than do not.

Raising my price enabled me to do a much better job. I could now afford much better equipment.

It made the people I rented films from happy to work with me as their percentages increased.

When we raise expectations we have to surpass them. That surpassing expectations is the essence of show business.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In 1986 I was invited to bring my program to The Ouimetoscope Theater in Montreal: . Their regular admission was 99 cents. I said they were going to charge $10 or I would not come. Once 1,000 seats it had been cut into a 50, 300, and 500 seat venue. I wanted the 500 seat room. They gave me the 300. I did 4 shows over three days pulling twelve hundred people with hundreds turned away. My first night I said, "I'm Reg Hartt. I was born in New Brunswick. I live in Toronto. I understand you people in Montreal don't care much for Toronto. I love Toronto. I only speak one language. English. If you do not like it, tough." The audience said with one voice, "Ahhhh! An Anglo with balls." When I was leaving the manager said they had had complaints. I said, "Upstairs in the five hundred seat room you pulled sixty people over the three days we pulled 1200 people in the 300 seat room. Upstairs you grossed $60.00. Downstairs you grossed $12,000.00. I would expect that with that many people we had a few complaints but if I were you I would be saying. 'Thank you. How soon can you come back?" The manager said, "You are too rude. You're never coming back." I then played THE RIALTO which had 1,000 seats. Again we turned away hundreds repeatedly. . THE OUIMETSOSCOPE is long gone. If people are not going to the movies in the numbers they once did it is not because there is not an audience for the movies. I have a unique perspective. TORONTO LIFE in a piece on my work said, "People come for the movies. They come back for Reg Hartt." In 1992 I played new York's Thalia Theater. I did seven shows in a row on one day. The audiences were small but most of each audience stayed over. The last show was a tribute to Shamus Culhane who was my guest of honor. One very old Chinese man had sat through the first show to the last. Before he left he said to me, "Thank you. You have given me the best day of my life." I looked at the historical treatment of men like him in America when he said that. It was better to hear him say that than it would have been to get an Oscar.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

I think one demographic dividing line is which version of Star Trek you liked the best. This is in large part because each iteration reflected the tastes of its period. One cohort these movies alienated were those who consider the 1930s movies their baseline. Another factor in this phenomenon is that the people who don't like that particular reboot series stopped watching them. Thus the only comments you're reading are those of their cult. The grand over-arching rule here is that contemporary cinema is judged by all the lousy movies that come out, while historic cinema is judged by all the good movies that came out, because people stopped watching the lousy ones.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"I took a chastise, around when Van Helsing came out, for using 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire at a university show, had promoting stunts, even contacted a showman in Arkansas after seeing a ’63 trade article about how he sold Kiss. Drew a crowd alright, but boy did they flay the movie. Learned that night how what raised me happy was never going to do so for millennials."

I introduce my programs. That sets the tone. KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is a weird film. It never seems to gel. All the more reason to introduce it. I had the teachers at a packed University screening tell me not to get upset at how the hundreds of students who had come out were going to behave. Those teachers were astonished when the students behaved like a real audience. One teacher said, "They have never done that before." I see I'm registered as UNKNOWN.--Reg Hartt

2:08 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The thing about "VAN HELSING" is that you and I an everyone familiar with the original films sees it with those great films in mind. For us it misses the mark by a country mile with a city mile thrown in for good measure.

Those who do not know those films (which, I guess, is quite a few) see it with different eyes.

It's like the two part original STAR TREK episode where aliens put together Captain Pike not knowing where the parts fit although, quite frankly, if they were that advanced they should have.

I'm going to have to re-watch VAN HELSING.

Hammer's EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN promised the classic monster in the ads. What we got was everything but.

I have a hard time with KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.--Reg Hartt

9:24 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

The Van Helsing Mysteries
The '70s occult cop series that never was.

7:18 PM  

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