June 20, 2012
With the release this Friday of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this week’s most overhyped buzz word will be “mash-up.” In music, a mash-up combines two separate songs into a new work. On an episode of TV’s “Glee,” for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” merges with Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” I cherish the 1961 single “Like Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which turns a theme from Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude into a raunchy rock instrumental. Frank Zappa was expert at finding unexpected connections. At a Mothers of Invention concert he once promised, “We’re going to butcher two of your favorite songs,” then had his musicians play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Them’s “Gloria” at the same time.
The most famous video mash-up may be Robocop vs Terminator by AMDS Films, which has been seen millions of times around the world. YouTube is the repository of choice for fan mash-ups, like the many Buffy vs. Twilight entries. (Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed has been seen over 3 million times.) There you can also find examples of re-cut trailers like a version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by Robert Ryang that makes the horror film look like an upbeat family comedy.
Seth Grahame-Smith, a screenwriter and producer who grew up on Long Island and Connecticut, gets credit for initiating a cycle of mash-up novels with his 2009 work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the first of his novels to reach the screen, and it follows what has become the formula with the genre.
First, the all-important title. Like a “Wheel of Fortune” answer, it must combine two elements that are thought of as unrelated. Jane Austen and zombies, for example, or Lincoln and vampires. Tim Burton, director of Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows as well as a producer on this project, wanted to option the novel before Grahame-Smith had even finished it. “It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see,” Burton said in the film’s press notes.
Second, capitalize on popular trends, notably vampires. In fact almost all of the current crop of mash-up novels rely on horror elements, because who wants to read Abraham Lincoln: Geneticist or Abraham Lincoln: Financial Advisor?
Third, go downscale rather than highbrow. Reviewing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, New York critic Sam Anderson noted that “the sea-monster subplots, considered independently, rarely rise above pulp clichés,” and that reading the original in tandem “sadly diminished” the mash-up.
This formula isn’t limited to mash-up adaptations. Snakes on a Plane relied on the same principles, and was even sent back for reshoots when executives determined the first cut wasn’t vulgar enough.
“Lincoln’s life story is an archetypal superhero origin story,” Grahame-Smith said in the film’s press notes. “He’s as close to an actual superhero as this country’s ever seen.” It’s hard to argue with the author’s approach, at least from a financial standpoint. Grahame-Smith is currently adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and his 2012 novel about the Three Wise Men, Unholy Night, for the screen, and contributed to the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Bekmambetov made educational films and commercials before turning to features and television miniseries. His Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), based on a fantasy novel by Sergey Lukyanenko and released here by Fox Searchlight, depicted a battle between supernatural forces that took place in a contemporary version of Russia. In them Bekmambetov perfected a style of hyperkinetic action as illogical and pointless as it was exciting. (Production has not yet started on Twilight Watch, the third part of the trilogy.)
Mash-up films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—with a hero already known to virtually every United States citizen merged with consumer-approved horror elements—are a marketing department’s dream. So much so that you’d think someone would have tried it before. Which is why Fox publicists desperately hope no one mentions Cowboys and Aliens.
Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t even the first film to use bloodsuckers in the Civil War. In 1993′s Ghost Brigade, aka The Killing Box, aka Grey Knight, the North and South have to join forces to defeat zombies who are massacring the troops.
Here are some earlier films we might call mash-ups today:
Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Victorian-era sleuth Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the corridors of power searching for missing microfilm in this 1943 mystery. Universal released three Holmes films set in World War II, all starring Basil Rathbone and featuring anti-Nazi story lines. Would Abraham Lincoln have as much success fighting the Axis as he did with the undead?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A mash-up for the ages, this film came about because Universal had both the vaudeville comedians and a stable of monsters under contract. Costello reportedly said, “My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that” when he first saw the script, but he has some priceless jokes in a story about two baggage clerks who accidentally help Dracula revive the Frankenstein monster. When the lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot warns Costello that he will turn into a wolf when the moon rises, the comedian replies, “You and twenty million other guys.” The film was successful enough to lead to four more monster teamings.
Forbidden Planet. Filmmakers have always turned to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about repurposing older material, for inspiration. Anthony Mann’s Western The Man From Laramie used plot elements from King Lear, for example. The Oscar-winning West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet on New York streets. The Boys From Syracuse reworked The Comedy of Errors, while Kiss Me Kate is a musical updating of The Taming of the Shrew. The MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet was a pretty clever adaptation of The Tempest, a play that author Tony Howard argues is also the basis for the excellent 1948 Western Yellow Sky.
The Valley of the Gwangi. This 1969 Western with special effects by stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen pits cowboys against dinosaurs some 40 years before Cowboys and Aliens. The film may not have the most credible plot line, but for a while it was an underground favorite on college campuses. Not to be confused with lower-budget efforts like Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
“Second City TV” I know, not a film per se, but the writers and performers on SCTV masterminded a series of brilliant mash-ups during their sketch comedy series. Among my favorites: “Play It Again, Bob,” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to persuade Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to appear in his next film; “Bowery Boys in the Band,” in which Robin Williams tries to hide his alternative lifestyle from his fellow gang members; and a scene in which Floyd (Eugene Levy) from “The Andy Griffith Show” asks a favor from The Godfather (Joe Flaherty).
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
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.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
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.
October 28, 2011
Vampires thrive in many cultures, from ancient Persia to modern suburbia. They seem especially prevalent now: HBO announced a fifth season of True Blood; entering its third season, The Vampire Diaries has been one of the more successful series on The CW; and November 18 marks the release of part one of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, the fourth entry in the film series adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s books.
Our interest in vampires stems largely from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which the author tried to mount as a stage production soon after its publication. Stoker’s widow Florence fought to prevent bootleg adaptations, almost succeeding in destroying F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1921), in which the German actor Max Schreck made a very convincing bloodsucker.
Mrs. Stoker authorized Hamilton Deane’s London stage version of Dracula in 1924, which opened in New York in 1927 and later in a road company production starring Bela Lugosi. The play set down many of the “rules” of the vampire genre, from Dracula’s motives and weaknesses down to his clothes. (His cape, for example, helped disguise the trapdoors necessary for stage disappearances.) Universal adapted the play for the screen in 1931, paying Lugosi $3500 for seven weeks’ work as the lead. His performance—the halting speech, icy expressions, and sinister hair—set the standard for future screen vampires (and forever typecast him). Remnants of Lugosi’s work can be seen in everything from the series of Dracula films Christopher Lee made for Hammer Studios to “The Count” from Sesame Street and Count Chocula cereal.
Vampires took on different forms in Asian cultures. In Yuewei Caotang Biji, the Qing Dynasty author Ji Xiaolan described a “jiangshi virus” that could turn victims into hopping vampires. Jiangshi bloodsuckers operate much like Caucasian ones, only they are afflicted with rigor mortis that causes them to hop with arms outstretched after their victims.
In 1985, producer Sammo Hung (a major screen star in his own right) initiated a phenomenally successful series of hopping vampire films starring Lam Ching-ying as a Taoist exorcist. Mixing comedy and martial arts, movies like Mr. Vampire and its sequels are broad, easygoing fun, full of lighthearted chills and intricate slapstick. They inspired numerous imitators through the years, even as filmmakers grabbed ideas from Hollywood. The Twins Effect (also known as Vampire Effect in the US), for example, used themes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to become Hong Kong’s number one box-office title of 2003.
1987 saw the release of two films that tried to rejuvenate the vampire myth, The Lost Boys and Near Dark. The former, featuring a passel of Brat Pack wannabes and directed by Joel Schumacher, found kid vampires running amok in a California beach town. The latter, featuring much of the cast of Aliens and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, took a darker approach: vampires as bikers terrorizing small towns in a desolate West. Although a commercial failure, Near Dark developed an extensive following over the years. Gruesome, funny, and morbid, it has some of the most vicious action scenes of its time. (Both directors are still working. Schumacher’s Trespass, starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, just opened; Bigelow won a Best Directing Oscar for The Hurt Locker, and is currently prepping a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.)
Vampyr (1931) was also a commercial failure on its release, but no other film has as nightmarish a vision of the undead. Directed by Carl Dreyer as a follow-up to his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr was produced independently on the cusp of the transition from silent to sound movies. Dreyer planned French, German, and English versions; only the first two were apparently finished. It was the director’s first sound film, and he shot on location with a largely untrained cast. The negative and sound elements have been lost; prints today have been pieced together from incomplete copies. All of these factors help contribute to the movie’s sense of unease.
The plot, adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly, finds amateur occult specialist Allan Grey (played by the film’s producer Baron Nicolas de Gunszburg) investigating a mysterious illness in the village of Courtempierre. What he uncovers has become the building blocks of today’s horror genre. Consciously or not, filmmakers around the globe have plundered scenes and special effects from Vampyr, but no one has quite captured its spectral tones. Combined with Dreyer’s extraordinary use of screen space, the disorienting cinematography by Rudolph Maté and the deliberately fleeting soundtrack make watching Vampyr the equivalent of being trapped in an inexplicable and deeply menacing dream.
Perhaps vampires affect us so deeply because they fit so many metaphors. Bram Stoker may have been influenced by the rise in immigration rates in London, or the spread of venereal diseases like syphilis. Or he may have been writing about his boss, actor Henry Irving, a tyrant who sucked away the author’s ambitions. Vampires have been portrayed as foreigners, neighbors, villains, clowns, lovers. They are misunderstood, demonic, lonely, noble, evil, both killer and prey. Preserved on film, they have truly become undead.