April 25, 2012
This Friday marks the release of The Raven, a Relativity Media thriller directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, who learns to his dismay that a serial killer is re-enacting murders from his stories.
With his mysterious death in Baltimore never fully explained, Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect cautionary tale of genius gone wrong. The poet’s demise haunts 19th century melodrama—and by extension, the works of early filmmakers like D.W. Griffith.
Poe’s ignominious end was not his fault, of course—it was drink, or his broken childhood, or the death of his consumptive love Virginia Clemm, that drove Poe to his doom. Today we summon different demons to explain his failings, schizophrenia perhaps, or chemical dependency, some form of Tourette’s, a bi-polar tendency, all of which he wrote about convincingly in his stories and poems.
Our image of Poe changes through the years, as does our interpretation of his work. For most he is a guilty pleasure of adolescence. His gruesome horror stories are like fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, peopled by tricksters and shape-shifters who betray the innocent with elaborate, deadly, and pointless booby traps. Who but a madman would go to the trouble to use a razor-sharp pendulum as a murder weapon? Poems like “The Bells” and “The Raven” have an unnerving, sing-song lyricism that once learned are never forgotten.
Many readers skim Poe’s work and then outgrow him. Even his contemporaries had their doubts. “Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” was how poet James Russell Lowell put it. But behind all the insanity and gore Poe was capable of extraordinary writing. “To Helen,” for example, or this example of an Alexandrine couplet unearthed after his passing:
Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone.
It’s no surprise that early filmmakers turned to Poe. They were after all desperate for material, and ransacked everything from the Bible to the daily newspapers for material. The author’s influence can be seen in the scores of trick films that dazzled early 20th century moviegoers. With his own carefully nurtured martyr complex, Griffith saw many affinities with Poe. In 1909, he directed Edgar Allan Poe, in which actor Herbert Yost tries to write “The Raven” while his wife dies beside him. One of Griffith’s first features was The Avenging Conscience (1914), like The Raven a mash-up of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Annabel Lee,” and other Poe works.
With stories like “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter,” Poe is often given credit for inventing the detective genre. His C. Auguste Dupin inspired generations of private eyes, as well as scores of pulp novels and films whose narratives depend on solving codes. This is an angle The Raven hopes to exploit, although the film looks like it will dwell on the author’s use of horror elements as well.
And here’s where Poe deserves some of the blame for the cycle of horror films sometimes called “torture porn.” In stories like “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he latched onto primal fears with sadistic relish, acting out what society seeks to repress. Poe offered a moral framework for his depictions of torture, something often jettisoned by later writers and filmmakers. “The Premature Burial” evolved into the 1984 novel The Golden Egg and then into The Vanishing, a ghastly 1988 Dutch film directed by George Sluizer (who also directed a 1993 American remake). From The Vanishing it’s a short step to Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds is buried alive in a coffin, or Brake (2012), in which Stephen Dorff is buried alive in the trunk of a car.
Universal Studios made a fortune in the 1930s with horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. Director Robert Florey was pulled from Frankenstein at the last minute and assigned to The Murders in the Rue Morgue instead. Based very loosely on the Poe short story, the film portrayed torture as graphically as any movie of its time. Along with The Island of Lost Souls, The Murders in the Rue Morgue helped bring about stricter censorship regulations. When the Production Code lost power in the 1960s, producers could be more explicit about their intentions. “The Pit and the Pendulum” was adapted into the 1967 German film The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.
Poe has attracted peculiar filmmakers: independents like James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, working in a stable in Rochester; or the cartoonists at UPA, who were busy in the 1950s undermining the animation industry. Experimental filmmakers like Jean Epstein, iconoclasts like Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, and Roger Corman. Filmmakers responsible for what critic Manny Farber referred to as “termite art.”
Sibley and Watson made a 13-minute version of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928; that same year, Epstein directed the feature-length La Chute de la maison Usher. Both relied heavily on an expressionistic filmmaking style developed in Germany, in which foreshortened sets and angled compositions made up for a lack of narrative clarity.
The 1930s saw an Art Deco The Black Cat, with almost no relation to the Poe story but with one of the few pairings of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Shepperd Strudwick starred in 1942′s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, an amusing bit of hogwash, and Joseph Cotten in 1951′s Man with a Cloak.
James Mason narrated 1953′s animated The Tell-Tale Heart, a cunning cartoon from United Productions of America (UPA) that delved into the mind of a killer just as it began to unravel. (A set of UPA cartoons, including The Tell-Tale Heart and Gerald McBoing Boing, has just been released by Turner Classic Movies and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment under the title The Jolly Frolics Collection.) Director Ted Parmelee would later go on to Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Producer and director Roger Corman finished House of Usher, the first of his eight Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, in 1960. “The film was about decay and madness,” Corman wrote in his autobiography. “I told my cast and crew: I never wanted to see ‘reality’ in any of these scenes.” His largely teen audience saw a lot of premature burials and implied incest instead, as well as a curious mix of new stars like Jack Nicholson and veteran actors like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
That blend of showmanship and exploitation continues to this day. A whiff of the forbidden clings to Poe adaptations. Then as now they were marketed to horror fans, to adolescents, to those with a taste for depravity and pain. A different audience than for, say, Pollyanna or The King of Kings. We know snatches of the writer’s work now, bits and pieces like black cats and manacles, ghosts carrying candelabras, images that as likely as not come from movie posters and trailers. The upcoming months will see several more Poe adaptations, including Terroir with Keith Carradine and The Tell-Tale Heart with Rose McGowan.
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November 2, 2011
Industry expectations were not high for the first Paranormal Activity, released back in 2009, in part because it was filmed for $10,000 in director Oren Peli’s home. (The premise behind the film is simple: a video camera records what happens when a troubled couple goes to sleep at night.) When the independent production was purchased by Paramount Pictures, it had been screened a handful of times. Paramount ordered a new ending before giving the film a limited opening in 13 cities in September, 2009.
Paramount tied the film’s national release to hits on eventful.com, one of the early instances of using social media to promote a motion picture. Even so, executives were surprised when Paranormal Activity outperformed such established horror entries as Saw IV at the box office. Two additional Paranormal Activity films have been released, one in 2010, the other this past October. Each has garnered better reviews and high box-office returns, guaranteeing further episodes. Imitators have popped up as well, like Cloverfield, which documents an alien monster attacking Manhattan, and the critically reviled Apollo 18, which used fake video surveillance footage to explain what happened to a doomed spaceflight.
The immediate inspiration behind Paranormal Activity was The Blair Witch Project (1999), a horror movie built around “recovered footage” shot by student filmmakers who were subsequently murdered. The genius behind Blair Witch was the filmmakers’ decision to make their lack of funding and experience part of the narrative, and not an obstacle to overcome. Blair Witch pretended that its out-of-focus shots, uneven lighting, shaky camera, ugly framing, and distorted sound were unedited, unembellished “reality,” and not Hollywood artifice. In the film’s logic, the footage in Blair Witch had to be “real” precisely because it was such poor quality.
That’s actually a trick filmmakers learned decades ago. When journalists are investigating Charles Foster Kane’s life in Citizen Kane, for example, they screen newsreels about the newspaper magnate. Director Orson Welles and his crew based this fake newsreel footage on The March of Time, using different film stock and cameras to capture its look. Stanley Kubrick did the same thing in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, using a hand-held camera to imitate combat footage for scenes in which a military base is attacked. In Peeping Tom, the film that destroyed director Michael Powell’s career, the camera itself is a murder weapon, and the footage we see from it documents the filmmaker’s crimes.
The term “recovered footage” works better with these films than “found footage.” To my mind, “found footage” should refer to titles like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) or Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), in which artists have repurposed material taken from other movies. It’s an interesting genre that deserves its own posting.
Some historians used to refer to “film within a film,” but this term became unwieldy once it became clear how frequently movies showed people watching other movies. Take Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), for example, cited as the first feature-length comedy. In it, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand attend a screening of A Thief’s Fate, where they learn what to expect from a crime they committed earlier. Buster Keaton may have come up with the most creative example of a film within a film: in Sherlock Jr. (1924), he plays a projectionist who enters into the film he is showing. Woody Allen “borrowed” this idea for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but it was a frequent ploy of animators as well. Both Bugs Bunny and Popeye on occasion would appeal to their audience for help during difficult situations. And in the delightful Porky’s Preview (1941), Porky screens his own cartoon to a barnyard audience. Primitive stick figures, bare landscapes, mistimed music, scratched-out drawings, wretched animation: it’s the same narrative strategy as Blair Witch, only funnier.
Closer to the theme of Paranormal Activity, in The Evidence of the Film (1913) an editor examines dailies from a movie shoot to solve a crime. A similar ploy is used by Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up (1966) and Brian De Palma in Blow Out (1981)—and, for that matter, seemingly every other episode from television forensics series, from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Bones. The modern thriller could barely exist without surveillance monitors. The Bourne trilogy, Enemy of the State, Vantage Point, all resort to video footage for plot twists. Oren Peli’s smartest decision in Paranormal Activity may have been to strip away all the elements other filmmakers feel are so important: stars, special effects, production values, and plot.
August 24, 2011
Eighteen years ago filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were alerted to a murder case in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three youths – James Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelly – were accused of raping, murdering and mutilating three 8-year-old boys. All three were convicted, and one, Echols, was sentenced to death. The film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), made a convincing case that the suspects known as the “West Memphis Three” were in fact innocent.
Berlinger and Sinofksy continued to document the West Memphis Three, releasing Paradise Lost: Revelations in 2000 and completing Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory just this summer, which is scheduled to air on HBO in January 2012. When the Memphis Three were released from prison last week, the Paradise Lost trilogy joined an honored genre of advocacy films that helped right injustices.
“When we set out to make Paradise Lost, I don’t think we ever envisioned an epic journey,” director Joe Berlinger said recently. “The goal was not to right a wrong, just the opposite.” He and Sinofsky were tipped off to the story by Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. The story “seemed like an open-and-shut case of guilty, Devil-worshipping teens who had done this rotten Satanic ritual killing of these three 8-year-old boys. We thought, ‘Let’s go make a film about rotten kids,’ kind of like a real-life River’s Edge,” a reference to the 1986 movie about a teen murder.
The case presented by the prosecution was flawed – lost confessions, debunked experts, no physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime – enough that Berlinger and Sinofsky were soon convinced of their innocence. But Berlinger also knew that they would be found guilty. “We experienced a real-life Salem witch trial,” he said.
Berlinger credits thousands of acts, small and large, for helping bring about the release of the West Memphis Three. Lawyers who worked for free, donations that paid for DNA tests and other legal costs, and the support of people like Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp all contributed to the cause. But there’s no question that Paradise Lost played a significant role in bringing the case to the public.
Just as there’s no question that The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 film by Errol Morris, helped free Randall Adams from prison. Adams was convicted of murdering police officer Robert W. Wood, and sentenced to death. Morris, a former private investigator, reconstructed the case on film, in effect conducting his own investigation into the crime. Adams was exonerated the following year when, after twelve years on Death Row, prosecutors dropped charges against him.
“Interestingly, I was very much influenced by Errol’s The Thin Blue Line,” Berlinger said. “Not by the advocacy standpoint—it didn’t inspire in me the feeling that ‘I want to fight for social justice.’ It inspired me to become a filmmaker of a particular type of movie. It made me want to make non-fiction theatrical films for moviegoing audiences, because in the late 1980s you could point to very few documentaries that ever made it to movie theaters.”
The “theatricality” of The Thin Blue Line inspired Berlinger and Sinofsky to make their first documentary feature, Brother’s Keeper. And the success of that film drew the attention of Nevins at HBO.
Berlinger notes, “Stylistically Paradise Lost was very different from The Thin Blue Line – no recreations, pure cinema verite – but I think both films do something many filmmakers are afraid to do: treat the audience like jury members. Viewers are actively engaged, instead of being passively lectured to. You come to your own conclusions.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky came to the case through a particular set of circumstances. In a sense, the Memphis Three were lucky; how many other defendants have film crews following their cases?
“Every time the Paradise Lost movies air on TV, we get inundated with letters from either convicts or relatives declaring their innocence,” Berlinger said. “With the help of The Innocence Project and other organizations, there have been hundreds and hundreds of DNA exonerations, which points to the fact that a lot of innocent people are in prison.”
In September 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court decided that the West Memphis Three deserved an evidentiary hearing that could have led to a new trial. Berlinger believes this is why Arkansas prosecutors suddenly offered the Three the opportunity to accept an “Alford plea.”
“This deal got hammered out in less than two weeks when it became politically and financially important to the state of Arkansas,” Berlinger complained. “Financially because the state worked out an agreement that it couldn’t be sued for wrongful conviction. Politically expedient because an evidentiary hearing scheduled for December was going to be embarrassing for a lot of people.”
The West Memphis Three will no longer be in prison, but in the eyes of the law they are still convicted child killers. “You know Jason Baldwin was very much against doing the Alford plea,” Berlinger said. “Unfortunately the state made it an all or nothing deal. Jason agreed to take it because he was basically saving Damien’s life. The idea of spending another two, three, four years on death row for Damien was untenable. His health had deteriorated, he hasn’t had sunlight on his body in ten years, his eyesight is damaged, he’s physically weak. It was time for him to accept a plea bargain.”
Berlinger understands the choices the West Memphis Three made. “God knows I couldn’t have survived death row under such brutal conditions. But I am extremely disappointed that the state of Arkansas didn’t have the courage to admit what we all know, there were major mistakes made in this case.”
Randall Adams’ exoneration and release from prison after the release of The Thin Blue Line was also bittersweet, as detailed in his New York Times obituary. In Texas, wrongly convicted prisoners receive a lump sum payment of $80,000 for each year of their confinement. But Adams was ineligible for any money, even the $200 traditionally handed out to prisoners who have served their sentences, because his case had been dismissed.