Tuesday, February 28, 2023

'The Lost World' (1925): Silent sci-fi


The Lost World

Dir: Harry O. Hoyt

Scr: Marion Fairfax

Pho: Arthur Edeson

Ed: George McGuire

Premiere: Feb. 2, 1925

92 min.

The fantasy film took a while to develop. Initial technological limitations meant that not everything that the imagination could conceive could be placed convincingly on film (except for, seemingly, Georges Melies). The fantasy film took a major step forward with this outing, which married innovative animation techniques to a successful adaptation of an early science fiction novel.

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but he was a writer of catholic tastes and surprisingly broad range, who created work in multiple genres. His most prominent work of science fiction, inspired by writers such as Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, is the novel The Lost World. In it, he postulates an isolated escarpment that holds dinosaurs, and other ancient flora and fauna, in abundance. There an expedition led by the irascible and vigorous Professor Challenger meets up with, thanks to stop-motion miniatures and a split screen, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and more.

As in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), the mission is to save a previous explorer lost there. The film adds a love interest; appropriately Bessie Love, a popular actress of the day. A couple of comic servant are shown, one unfortunately in blackface. The travelers manage to escape the plateau, and capture a live Brontosaurus as well. They bring it back to London, where it breaks free and causes a bit of havoc (a narrative strategy to be pursued in King Kong eight years later).

The stop-motion photography is a bit clunky, but no one had tried to execute the painstaking craft of moving small models frame by advancing frame to create the illusion of life before, and everyone who saw the film was astonished. This was the work of pioneer Willis O’Brien, who began by working with clay models, and moved onto rubber figures crafted over metal armatures. In its day, this kind of movie magic was as mind-bending as certain CGI accomplishments a century later.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Phantom of the Opera.



Thursday, February 16, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Lady Windermere's Fan' - the Lubitsch touch


Lady Windermere’s Fan

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Scr: Julien Josephson, Maude Fulton

Pho: Charles van Enger

Ed: Ernst Lubitsch

Premiere: Dec. 26, 1925

89 min.

Ernst Lubitsch was famous long before he came to America. The legendary king of film’s sophisticated comedies of manners got his start in movies in Berlin as an actor in 1913. He was drawn to working behind the camera, and by 1920 had transitioned to directing duties alone. Varying his output between frothy comedies and weighty historical dramas, Lubitsch soon found his work noticed by Hollywood. By 1922, he had relocated to America.

Soon he was churning out romantic comedies based on popular stage plays. Lady Windermere’s Fan comes between two other stellar Lubitsch features, The Marriage Circle and So This Is Paris, and is of a piece with them – a tale of middle-to-upper-class relationship angst, rife with mistaken identities and false assumptions, a blend of farce and melodrama.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s successful and well-made 1892 play. In it, the lady of the title suspects her husband of having an affair with a Mrs. Erlynne, to whom he has given large sums of money. In fact, it turns out that Mrs. Erlynne is the disgraced mother of Lady Windermere, long thought dead.

Lady’s Windermere’s suspicions drive her into the arms of Lord Darlington, who seeks an assignation with her. It is up to Mrs. Erlynne to protect her unknowing daughter from scandal, without revealing her true identity.

Lubitsch’s directing style is elegant and smooth, light and witty, deliberately paced. He doesn’t do any flashy camera moves – his focus is on the human face and gesture. As social niceties play out on the surface, the turmoil of emotions roils beneath. In a time of melodramatic action and overstated acting in film, Lubitsch’s restraint, wit, and careful and compassionate powers of observation make for an urbane and humanistic kind of filmmaking that has yet to be equaled.

It is of particular note that none of Wilde’s famous quips or aphorisms are referred to here. Fortunately, the skeleton of the play’s plot is strong, and Lubitsch and his scenarist Julien Josephson wisely lean into the familiar mechanics of the story’s melodramatic underpinnings, relieving them of the obligation to drop in Wilde’s bon mots.

Lubitsch had an extraordinary amount of creative control over his output, leading to his admirers referring to his unique sensibility as “the Lubitsch touch.” Billy Wilder famously had a sign on his office wall that said, “What would Lubitsch have done?”

Lubitsch would be remembered for his silent films of this period if for nothing else. Yet he had much more to come – the codifying of the movie musical, for one, and his increasingly wily and wise meditations on human frailties, including Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time:  ‘The Lost World’.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

New book, 'Horror Unmasked,' comes out in September!


Howdy! I just wanted to let you know that my new book, Horror Unmasked: A History of Terror from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘Nope’, will be published on Sept. 5.You can pre-order it here. It’s derived from my earlier Lost in the Dark: A World History of Horror Film, but it is revised, expanded, and richly illustrated. It was a treat to get to update the text and make it current for a new set of readers.

First, I had the great pleasure of publishing Lost in the Dark through the University of Mississippi Press. In matters of getting published, I can only state that persistence is everything. It took 100 queries on my part, 100 individual and detailed pitches, before I succeeded. Since then, it’s been markedly easier.

The nice folks at Quarto Group read my book, and proposed a revision/expansion, and the addition of dozens of photographs and illustrations. Sold! I got to work on it right away, and the the result you see here. My thanks to the editors and proofreaders – they caught a number of tiny details, imperfections that our now expunged and will provide as definitive a text as is possible.

Here’s their very excellent summation of the work: “From the silent-film era to the blockbusters of today, Horror Unmasked is a fun-filled, highly illustrated dive into the past influences and present popularity of the horror film genre.

“The horror film’s pop-culture importance is undeniable, from its early influences to today’s most significant and exciting developments in the genre. Since 1990, the production of horror films has risen exponentially worldwide, and in 2021, horror films earned an estimated $580 million in ticket sales, not to mention how the genre has expanded into books, fashion, music, and other media throughout the world.

“Horror has long been the most popular film genre, and more horror movies have been made than any other kind. We need them. We need to be scared, to test ourselves, laugh inappropriately, scream, and flinch. We need to get through them and come out, blinking, still in one piece.

“This comprehensive guide features:

·         A thorough discussion on monster movies and B-movies (The Thing; It Came from Outer Space; The Blob)

·         The destruction of the American censorship system (Blood Feast; The Night of the Living Dead; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

·         International horror, zombies, horror comedies, and horror in the new millennium (Matango; Suspiria; Ghostbusters)

·         A dissection of the critical reception of modern horror (Neon Demon; Pan’s Labyrinth; Funny Games)

·         Stunning movie posters and film stills, plus fan-made tributes to some of the most lauded horror franchises in the world (Aliens; The Evil Dead; The Hills Have Eyes; Scream)

“A perfect reference and informational book for horror fans and those interested in its cultural influence worldwide, Horror Unmasked provides a general introduction to the genre, serves as a guidebook to its film highlights, and celebrates its practitioners, trends, and stories.”


Wednesday, February 1, 2023

'M3gan': Devil doll



Dir: Gerard Johnstone

Scr: Akela Cooper, James Wan

Pho: Peter McCaffrey, Simon Raby

Ed: Jeff McEvoy

Premiere: Jan. 6, 2023

102 min.

In the movies, dolls are inherently creepy, and robots are usually threatening. How much fun it is to slap the two film memes together and see what happens!

In this “post-horror” age, when the genre is plagued with slow places and myriad ambiguities, it’s refreshing to find a good old-fashioned horror movie that’s brisk, focused, and to the point, with a relishable villain. M3gan is a darkly comic disquisition on the dangers of technology that’s immensely entertaining.

The story: little Cady (Violet McGraw) loses both her parents in an auto accident, and goes to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), an eccentric inventor. Gemma creates interactive, robotic toys, and is tasked by her abusive, pushy boss to create the Next Big Thing. The result is M3gan, a robotic doll that is self-aware and can evolve on its own.

She is created as a companion for Cady, and tasked with protecting her from physical and emotional harm. Gemma is pretty hopeless as a parent, and M3gan fills in as a companion and support system. Unfortunately for everyone, M3gan takes her duties very seriously. She has the mind of a supercomputer, and very little tolerance for moral parameters.

To tell more is to spoil the fun, but be assured that M3gan’s responses to threat rachet slowly higher and higher to and past the point of absurdity. The film’s premise comes in part from horror maven James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), and his sure horror hand is in evidence here. Director Johnstone tells the story with a minimum of fuss, and keeps the humor understated and steady throughout. The action is toned down to PG-13 level, with no graphic shocks and only the occasional jump scare.

The real appeal is watching M3gan become self-aware, and the bad choices that follow. In moviedom, M3gan has laready become an icon of sorts, perfect on the outside and completely messed up within. She’s not only a killer, she’s a killer app.