Blog Directory CineVerse: October 2023

Punk rock horror

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

In 1985, The Return of the Living Dead, directed by Dan O'Bannon and written by John A. Russo—co-collaborator with George Romero on the original Night of the Living Dead—emerged as a cult classic in the horror-comedy genre.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

What sets this film apart from other zombie fare and makes Return of the Living Dead memorable? Unlike the lumbering, slow-moving zombies popularized by Romero in his zombie movies, this work introduced a few fresh twists: Here, zombies are fast, talkative, and retain their intelligence and personalities, driven by an insatiable craving for brains, which became a hallmark of the film and a reference point in pop culture. These living dead also cannot be killed simply by a gunshot to the head; they need to be dismembered and burned.

Also, this is possibly the first and one of the only instances of a zombie film in which viewers can sympathize with the living dead. The capture and questioning of the half-zombie woman reveal that eating brains helps take away the visceral pain they feel from being dead yet alive.

Additionally, this picture effectively blends horror and gore with dark humor, delivering a unique and engaging experience for its audience. Noted for its witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and absurd scenarios, the comedy it injects sets it apart from more solemn and grave horror films of its time. Reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “George Romero uses zombies to make sweeping social metaphors; Dan O’Bannon takes his approach with a sense of caustic humor that only becomes more hilarious the darker he makes it – everything anybody in the film tries to do about the situation only ends up making it worse.”

Return of the Living Dead boasts a memorable punk rock soundtrack, as well, further contributing to its cult status. Songs by The Cramps, Roky Erickson, The Damned, and 45 Grave stand out, offering music that humorously punctuates the action and frights.

The movie helped influence future zombie films, including Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and it triggered four sequels, which speaks to its pop culture reach. The appearance of the zombies in the film drew inspiration from sources such as the mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico, and the Bog People of Wales, along with artwork from EC Comics.

The existential threat suggested by earlier zombie films takes a darker, ironic turn here. In nearly all zombie-apocalypse movies, mankind becomes outnumbered by zombies who populate exponentially as more people die or are bitten and infected; in Return of the Living Dead, the irony is that the only way to kill the undead completely is to burn them, but the ashes and vapors of the incinerated zombies get recirculated through the environment, ultimately rejuvenating more buried bodies and humans infected by these remnants. Unleashing a nuclear bomb to nullify the threat posed by an outbreak in a small urban area actually widens the crisis.

This work also expands upon zombie mythology by introducing the notion of the military, the government, and a big chemical company being responsible for creating and using a fictional chemical that inadvertently creates zombies and then trying to cover up the evidence—adding a conspiratorial element to the mythos.

While this isn’t a film replete with juicy themes, the main takeaway is clear: Human error can easily lead to inhuman catastrophe. DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “The cynical Army subplot wraps up with the brass making the same dumb mistakes as did Frank and Freddy.”

Similar works

  • George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and subsequent sequels
  • The zombie comedies Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and The Dead Don’t Die
  • The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead TV shows
  • Other reanimated dead films in the immediate years after Return of the Living Dead, including Reanimator, The Video Dead, and Braindead (Dead Alive)
  • Other 1980s horror films that cleverly blended comedy and scares, including Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Fright Night, The Blob remake, and Night of the Creeps


The devil is in the details

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Exorcist, released in late December 1973, came out of the gate like a thunderbolt and immediately established itself as a modern fright classic, becoming the second-highest-grossing film ever at that time and setting a new benchmark for quality in the horror genre—garnering 10 Academy Award nominations and winning two Oscars. Directed by William Friedkin and produced by William Peter Blatty, who penned the 1971 novel of the same name, The Exorcist depicts the possession of a young girl named Regan, portrayed by Linda Blair, and the determined efforts of Father Damien Karras and Father Merrin, played, respectively, by Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow, to expel the demon inhabiting her. Ellen Burstyn also stars as Regan's mother Chris.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Exorcist, conducted last week; to hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode spotlighting The Exorcist, click here.

Why and how does The Exorcist remain one of the all-time great horror movies five decades onward? This film deserves praise for its authenticity, high production values, and quality craftsmanship. The phenomenal special effects aren’t shlocky or budget-constrained: The outstanding makeup work by Dick Smith and the carefully orchestrated practical effects—from Regan’s rotating head and levitated body to the simulated projectile vomiting—look and feel realistic. While his tactics may have been abusive, selfish, and extreme, Friedkin pushed his cast and crew hard to achieve these horrific visuals and lend the film a verisimilitude that places The Exorcist many notches higher than standard horror fare for this era. It also helps that he and Blatty imbue the picture with authentic details, basing the narrative on a true account of exorcism, consulting with religious experts to accurately depict the exorcism rite, placing his actors within a refrigerated bedroom set to produce visible breath vapor, and taking advice from medical experts to make the hospital testing scenes so unnerving yet also faithful to what was involved with an actual angiography at that time. The collaborators deserve kudos for giving The Exorcist an utterly plausible sheen of realism by paying attention to the fine details and making Regan’s physical transformation disturbingly graphic.

Much of what makes The Exorcist so great is that it wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and risk extreme controversy. Audiences had never before seen a demonic possession so convincingly portrayed or a young female character so graphically vulgar or sexually expressive in this context. Add in the blasphemous and profane words Regan utters, the grotesque physical manifestations of the demon inhabiting her body, the brief but completely upsetting subliminal images like flashes of the face of Pazuzu, and the gross-out hospital testing sequences and you’ve got a potently distressing film whose content consistently upset audiences—creating a perfect formula for word-of-mouth buzz and high ticket demand. No one had ever viewed a film like this before, one that reportedly caused viewers to faint, vomit, suffer miscarriages, believe they were possessed, seek medical and psychiatric care, and flee theaters in abject terror. This movie was so alarming it was banned in the UK and other countries and received negative reviews from several prominent critics at the time, although many others gave it positive notices.

The Exorcist isn’t a simplistic exploitation film going for gore, easy jump scares, and cheap shocks. While the supernatural elements are front and center in the second half, it also explores psychological horror elements by examining the personal torments and inner turmoil of Chris, a terrified mother desperate to help her child, and Karras, a priest experiencing a crisis of faith and guilt about his dead mother.

The sound design proved exceptional; consider the many abrupt loud, percussive noises meant to startle us (such as the attic din, the horse cart in Iraq, the unexpected rings of the phone, and the noisy medical equipment) as well as the fantastic amalgamation created to conjure up the demonic voice, which includes haunting words by a gravely-voiced actress mixed with animal noises and electronic sound distortions.

This is a slow-burn film that demands great patience from viewers who are eagerly awaiting the scares; the possession doesn’t kick in until at least 40 minutes have passed, and the famous exorcism sequence arrives in the final 26 minutes. For that matter, several key actions occur offscreen, preventing the viewer from seeing the killing of Burke, the death of Karras’ mother, and Merrin’s demise, for example.

Slant Magazine critic Wes Greene wrote that the film prefers “tone and theme over story: The horror is mostly dictated through its masterful atmosphere and ellipses, which carefully eliminates exposition and character detail to subconsciously put the viewer in a state of unease and preparing us for the overt frights that occur later on.”

The success of The Exorcist also owes much to the outstanding performances, especially by the 12-year-old Linda Blair, who had to endure extreme physical and psychological discomfort to inhabit this role, as well as Ellen Burstyn as her mother and Jason Miller as Karras; all three earned Oscar nominations despite being relatively unknown newcomers. The fine cast further includes Max Von Sydow, who distinguished himself years earlier as a stellar thespian for Ingmar Bergman (often playing faith-challenged characters), Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman, and Mercedes McCambridge as the unholy voice of Pazuzu, the demon possessing Regan.

All of these aforementioned aspects coalesced to make The Exorcist a groundbreaking picture—one that added legitimacy to the horror genre and cleared the path for other prestige horror films to come that benefitted from bigger budgets, acclaimed filmmakers attached to them, and more extensive marketing, including Jaws, The Omen, Carrie, and Alien in the 1970s. It’s no small feat that The Exorcist won two Academy Awards (for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay) after 10 nominations and was the first horror film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, one of only six movies in this genre to earn that distinction—and one of only 19 horror films to have won an Oscar in any category. The Exorcist proved that horror movies could be incredibly frightening, artistically constructed, and well-made and should be taken seriously as an art form and work of entertainment.

The box-office triumph of The Exorcist prompted Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel—a rarity for the horror genre at this time; in fact, this film spawned three sequels, one prequel, a TV series, and innumerable imitators and copycats in its wake, especially in the immediate years that followed. For proof, consider Abby (1974), Beyond the Door (1974), Seytan (1974), The Antichrist (1974), The House of Exorcism (1975), The Sentinel (1977), The Manitou (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979). More recent examples include The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), The Devil Inside (2012), The Possession (2012), The Conjuring (2012) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), The Devil's Doorway (2018), The Cleansing Hour (2019), and The Exorcism of God (2021). The sheer number of films within the possession horror subgenre speaks to the lasting influence and pop culture pervasiveness of the original from 1973. And The Exorcist’s extremely graphic scenes depicting mutilation, vomiting, urination, and bloody self-harm likely inspired future films in the body horror subgenre, too.

This work had an immediate cultural impact, as evidenced by all the press and media coverage it received in the months following its release and the extent to which it was parodied and emulated in pop culture. Additionally, The Exorcist sparked spiritual and existential conversations, including renewed debate about the existence of God and the devil, the endless struggle of good versus evil, and the relevance and value of Christianity and Catholic doctrine.

The Exorcist also proved that you don’t necessarily need a traditional score to musically punctuate a horror film; the choice to add atmospheric music instead, including Mike Oldfield’s song Tubular Bells, was an inspired one, as was Friedkin’s decision to feature the avant-garde music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, which uses unsettling tones, loud chords, sound clusters, and non-melodic instrumentation to evoke a frightening mood. The Shining took a cue from this latter musical choice, and countless horror films in the decades since The Exorcist have copied this approach to discordant, disquieting musical accompaniment.

Furthermore, the movie illustrated that challenging the norms of what was deemed acceptable in filmmaking could spark significant interest and discussion—prompting the development of inventive marketing approaches for future horror movies—and backlash; several communities, cities, and even countries banned or tried to ban the film.

Friedkin often pushed his actors and crew to extreme lengths to achieve his vision. He slapped one actor to elicit an alarmed reaction just before turning on the camera, for key scenes he fired gunshot blanks in the air to unsettle his thespians, and both Burstyn and Blair were injured during the filming of violent scenes. Friedkin often employs a slow zoom-in or zoom-out on characters or objects in The Exorcist to produce a disconcerting visual effect; this style was copied somewhat in two subsequent classics of 1970s horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien.

The director further deserves applause for allowing himself to be inspired by earlier artists, including painters like Rembrandt, Monet, and Magritte, and filmmakers Sidney Lumet and Alain Resnais (who each had films that also effectively utilized subliminal images) and Hitchcock (he borrows at least two shots from Psycho).

At its heart, this tale is about the timeless conflict of good versus evil and faith versus doubt. What Regan suffers can’t be explained or cured by science or psychology. This film purports that truly evil and demonic forces exist that can be supernaturally embodied within us against our will—even within the form of an innocent young girl. When Karras essentially asks “Why her?” (in the director’s cut, not the original theatrical version), we hear Merrin tell Karras: “I think the point is to make us despair, Damien—to see ourselves as animal, and ugly—to reject our own humanity—to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.”

Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert wrote: “The suggestion is that Satan has chosen Regan not because she is vulnerable, but because those around her are vulnerable. The demon’s goal is to drive the family apart and antagonize Karras, while also inciting a re-match of sorts against Merrin, whom Satan has battled before. Regan’s imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, tells her lies about Chris’ friend Dennings to drive them apart; the demon attacks Karras where it hurts, with his mother. The real victim is not Regan, but those who must bear witness helplessly as the demon tears down the girl.”

Filmmaker Mark Judge agrees, writing: “The point of the demonic in The Exorcist is not to levitate bodies, vomit on priests, and telepathically toss furniture around the room…The demon refers to Regan’s mother, a famous actress named Chris, as “Pig,” and to Regan as “Piglet.” Part of this is carried over to the film, where the demon calls Regan “the sow.” This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about—the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God’s love. This theme is effective in the story because Fr. Karras is having a crisis of faith—he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, ‘knows where to strike’… Amidst the drugs, scandal, rock and roll, and moral collapse of the 1970s, The Exorcist announced that there are some evils that are timeless and don’t change.”

Selflessness and sacrifice are also front and center in The Exorcist. This is more a story about Karras rising to the occasion than a tale about Regan or Chris. Suffering a crisis of spiritual faith and racked with guilt over his mother’s suffering and death, Karras has to summon inner strength and conviction to battle Pazuzu, especially after Merrin dies. The exorcism rite has been thwarted or failed, and he must take matters into his own hands and attempt to pull the demon out of Regan and into himself; Pazuzu helps matters by yanking the St. Joseph medallion off Karras’ neck, which enables the entity to possess the priest. Karras then throws himself from the window to prevent full possession and protect Regan.

Another salient theme is symbiosis and the intersecting of disparate lives. Gradually, the film brings together four key characters who seem drawn together by fate: Merrin, Karras, Chris/Regan, and, to a lesser extent, Kinderman. Bad omens, foreshadowing elements, and premonitions proliferate through the first two acts—such as Merrin’s unsettling experiences in Iraq (and the sudden stopping of a clock that suggests his ticker will eventually expire), a framed photo of Regan clasping her hands in a prayer-like pose, the declining health of Karras’ mother (recall her convalescing in a mental hospital amid patients who look possessed), and the falling St. Joseph medallion in Karras’ dream that later becomes reality. By the final act, all these prime characters coalesce inside Chris’ home and the ultimate battle between good and evil transpires.

Another takeaway? Conservative values matter. The Exorcist suggests that age-old forces of good and evil are at work shaping the world and that science, technology, and secularism are no match for belief in a higher power. It’s no surprise that Friedkin described this as a film “about the mystery of faith.” For Karras to defeat Pazuzu and save Regan, his faith in God and belief in the existence and power of the devil had to be restored. Because Chris is a liberal-minded, divorced single mother working in the Hollywood system who proves powerless against the demonic possession of her daughter, the message, for those who subscribe to this disputed theory, is that feminism lacks agency and children need a traditional family paradigm with a more dedicated mom: That’s why it takes two patriarchal priestly figures to rescue Regan and restore her body, soul, and innocence.

Per film reviewer Richard Scheib, The Exorcist “seems to imply that innocence is a natural state of childhood and that for children to be obscene, use sexual references, masturbate, even to pee on the carpet is something evil (i.e., it is behaviourally alien to them, therefore it must come from The Devil). It is a type of thinking that sits atop the mood of conservative parental thinking of the 1970s – that of parents suddenly unable to understand how come their children were no longer innocent and cherubic and were instead dropping out of society, taking drugs, having sex before marriage and rioting against established authority. The 1960s youth revolt was something so far removed from some traditional parents’ views that children should be good and innocent that the temptation to see The Devil as the cause must have been strong.”

This is a film with some plot ambiguities. Several unanswered questions that arise after watching The Exorcist include:
  • What is Merrin specifically searching for in Iraq before he discovers the Pazuzu relic, how did he never notice the massive Pazuzu statue before, and why does he suddenly depart for America?
  • Who defiles the Virgin Mary statue?
  • Why is Dennings the only person Pazuzu kills before the priests arrive?
  • Did Pazuzu kill Merrin directly, or did Merrin suffer a heart attack?
  • Why does Karras so violently attack Regan’s body in the climactic scene (this is a 12-year-old girl’s body, after all)?
  • How could Regan have lived after twisting her neck 180 degrees? And how did all those gouges, cuts, and scars disappear so quickly?
  • What happens to Dennings’ murder investigation, and how and why is the family cleared from responsibility in the wake of three dead men?
The Exorcist may not be as traumatizing and radical as it was on first release—a time when Americans’ faith in their country, its leaders, and the future was shaken by the Vietnam War, Watergate, the sexual revolution, and a growing sociocultural pessimism—but it’s still got plenty of venom in its sharp fangs. And I expect that it continues to serve as an alarming sensory and psychological experience for so many different types of watchers. If you’re a parent, this tale is your worst nightmare. If you’re a teenager, you put yourself in Regan’s position and perhaps worry if you’re a candidate for possession. Perhaps most vulnerable to its spiritual scares are religious types, who can find affirmation of their faith in a higher power after screening The Exorcist, while secular viewers and lapsed Christians, on the other end of the spectrum, could end up asking themselves, “what if?” and shuddering at the inexplicable. Older fans can find inspiration in the tried-and-tested Merrin yet be horrified by the reality that age eventually catches up with you and, if the devil doesn’t get you, a heart attack might.

The Exorcist’s greatest gift could be that it’s an equal opportunity terrifier—a film with a deserved shock reputation that precedes every rewatch and reminds you that, for the past 50 years, this has been regarded by the masses and the media as the most frightening film of them all. It’s no surprise that Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, Time Out, AMC, Vudu, Study Finds, Meerkat Movies, and other reputable sources, pollsters, and publishers have ranked The Exorcist #1 on their lists of the scariest film ever made. The ability to terrify so many generations after half a century is one helluva superpower.


Cineversary podcast throws 50th and 75th birthday party for The Exorcist and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Alexandre Philippe and Gregory Mank
In Cineversary podcast episode #63, host Erik Martin honors big birthdays of 2 great horror films. First, he’s joined by Alexandre O. Philippe, director of Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, to honor the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin; and then he partners with classic horror historian and author Gregory Mank to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Erik and his guests indulge in some Halloween frights and fun, exploring why these two films remain masterworks, how they’ve stood the test of time, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


Cinematic sleight of hand

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Magic, a psychological horror film directed by Richard Attenborough and adapted from William Goldman's novel of the same name, rolled into theaters roughly 45 years ago, in autumn 1978. Its famous ad campaign, including a TV spot featuring a tense close-up of a ventriloquist dummy, proved a terrifying tease of what to expect. The narrative revolves around Corky Withers, a failed magician portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, who achieves fame as a ventriloquist with the assistance of his profane wooden companion Fats. Nevertheless, as Corky's stardom grows and an affair blossoms with his high school crush, the eerie personality of Fats begins to erode Corky’s sanity.

Magic is renowned for its profound exploration of psychological horror, specifically the disquieting dynamic between the protagonist and his dummy. It delves into themes of fixation, insanity, and the elusive boundary between reality and illusion.

Click here for a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

The film captures our attention thanks to its emphasis on psychological horror rather than the conventional elements of slashers or the supernatural. It delves into the inner workings of the protagonist's mind as he descends into madness and the blurring of the line between reality and illusion, making for a distinctive and thought-provoking contribution to the horror genre.

Anthony Hopkins delivers a remarkably offbeat, quirky, and intense performance as Corky, and as Fats (yes, that’s Hopkins’ voice as the dummy), highlighting his versatility as an actor. After accepting the role, the actor carefully studied ventriloquism, and his commitment to this art clearly shows. Hopkins’ portrayal of an unhinged man seeking love and success wasn’t much appreciated when the film was released but has been reappraised in the decades since.

Director Richard Attenborough (also famous for being a notable actor in films like The Great Escape, Jurassic Park, and Miracle on 34th Street) shines as the guiding hand of Magic. Fittingly, considering the magician misdirection theme at work, he often uses clever camera angles and carefully composed shots to amplify suspense, throw the audience off guard, and create psychologically claustrophobic environments.

Recall the sequence where Ben asks Corky to refrain from talking to Fats for five minutes and the camera alternates queasily between Corky and Ben, often without showing Fats; or the scene when Corky asks Peggy to intensely concentrate on a card. critic Eric Miller wrote: “At first, it almost seems like a cute little game, and it is shot from a relatively high angle adding levity to the situation. However, when Corky fails in his attempt to discover Peggy’s card, he becomes very aggressive. The camera begins to film things from below, accenting both Corky’s anger and Peggy’s fear. Attenborough then mixes in some intense close-ups of Corky’s and Peggy’s eyes, making the scene intensely personal. When Corky finally divines Peggy’s card, the camera backs off, and returns to its elevated position. Using nothing but camera work, Attenborough poignantly illustrates that Corky is both very sweet and very dangerous, all the while leaving us on the edge of our seats.”

In fact, Fats’ location and presence or absence within any given shot as the story progresses proves increasingly important, causing the viewer to pay more attention to the dummy and look for him when he’s not there. The insinuation by the filmmakers is clear: Fats could be a supernatural character, in which case the audience needs to look for any clues or proof that he’s more than an inanimate wooden object.

It’s fairly clear by the movie’s conclusion that Fats has never come to life—Corky suffers from a severe split personality syndrome (today commonly referred to as dissociative identity disorder) and has himself committed all the violence we’ve seen. But Attenborough’s directorial choices coupled with Hopkins’ depiction of an extremely disturbed character make many of us doubt the plausible explanation, at least through much of the film’s runtime.

DVD Talk reviewer Stuart Galbraith wrote: “Since Fats is really all in Corky's mind, the dummy isn't supposed to move on its own, yet the skill of the filmmaking is such that audiences watching the film have their eyes glued on Fats, waiting for an eyelid to twitch, an arm to raise itself up.”

Thematically, Magic traffics in the classic trope of fantasy versus reality, exploring in Corky the dangers of blending between the real world and the world of illusion. His professional success relies on creating illusions and making audiences believe that magic is real, but the tragedy is that—unlike his audiences who can suspend their disbelief and temporarily believe the illusion—Corky is a true believer. He increasingly thinks Fats is real and in control when the truth is that Corky suffers from a deranged mental state.

Magic is also a cautionary tale of ambition and obsession. The story follows Corky on his path to becoming a famous ventriloquist and magician. He’s worked hard at his craft and chosen a schtick (a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy) that has catapulted him to the next level; he’s poised to make it big on television, too. But despite his drive to thrive, he fears being exposed as an unbalanced personality and refuses to submit to a health exam. The film's second half focuses on different forms of fixation: a desire to escape fame and scrutiny, a yearning to bond with Peggy Ann, and an obsession to hide his crimes and escape punishment.

Duality and dichotomy are front and center, too. Magic examines the two sides of Corky, with one side dominated by Fats, who represents his id-like inner thoughts, jealousies, anger, and negative emotions. The film artfully smudges the boundaries between these two personas, generating internal conflict and turmoil. The sometimes uncanny and unexplainable nature of reality is another juicy subtext, as Magic delves into ways and things that can cause us to question what is real and what isn’t. Fats the dummy embodies this uncanny quality, appearing at times to be more than a lifeless puppet. And Corky’s skills at ventriloquism and guessing cards can also feel a bit magical and mysterious.

Similar works

  • Other movies and TV programs featuring frightening ventriloquist dummies and eerie dolls, including Dead of Night, Dead Silence, Goosebumps, Devil Doll, The Twilight Zone episodes The Dummy, and Caesar and Me, and the Child’s Play and Annabelle films
  • Horror films about split personalities, including Psycho, Raising Cain, Secret Window, Black Swan, and Identity

Other films directed by Richard Attenborough

  • Gandhi
  • Chaplin
  • A Bridge Too Far
  • Shadowlands
  • Cry Freedom


A monster mash masterwork reaches diamond status

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

In 1948, audiences were treated to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton, the first of several pictures pairing the comedy duo with various Universal classic monsters and macabre characters. This venerable horror-comedy served as a swan song for the studio’s terror-ific triumvirate of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein monster, but has also served as a crucial introduction, over the decades, to these timeless monsters among younger viewers and new generations of classic horror fans. Significantly, two of these iconic roles were reprised by their original actors, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., imbuing the film with authenticity.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, conducted last week, click here.

This film remains one of the all-time great horror comedies and is certainly worthy of 75th birthday kudos. After all, it’s a brilliant pairing of two disparate yet adjacent elements: comedy and horror, laughs and gasps, and humorous heavyweights Abbott and Costello alongside the all-time greatest old-school monsters in Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman. For the same reason sweet and salty blends so well together—like chocolate-covered pretzels, for example—Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein proved that silly and scary complement each other quite well. This isn’t the first ever horror comedy—that distinction belongs to the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks from 1920, or to D.W. Griffith’s feature One Exciting Night from 1922. But it’s the granddaddy that everyone remembers with the most fondness, long before Young Frankenstein, Shawn of the Dead, or What We Do in the Shadows.

The tone is set right from the start, as the picture opens in London and introduces Larry Talbot, who undergoes a lycanthropic transformation within the first five minutes after a few jokes from Costello. Over its 82-minute runtime, there’s a nice seesaw balance between funny and fearful. When you’re a child and more easily spooked, the jokes serve as a nice pressure release valve from the scary segments they alternate with.

Any 75-year-old film is going to have some creakiness, certainly. But many of the one-liners and amusing bits in this picture still land, like Costello’s “You and twenty million other guys” after Chaney says “in a half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf”; the moving candle gag (first seen in Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost seven years earlier); and many fans’ favorite funnybone moment when the monster recoils in revulsion after seeing Costello’s face. Likewise, shots when the Wolfman is ready to pounce on Costello, oblivious to the danger, take many of us back to our first watch as children when the hairs on the back of our necks stood up during these scenes.

The art direction and set decoration for this film are among its secret weapons. The look and atmosphere of McDougal’s House of Horrors—which could be the best sequence—as well as the design of the island castle, especially its unexpectedly bright laboratory and shadowy secret passages, are still impressive. No, the monster isn’t played by Boris Karloff and genius makeup man Jack Pierce is no longer applying the cotton and collodion or other facial prosthetics, but the Frankenstein monster and the Wolfman still look badass in their swan song cinematic outing for Universal.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is recognized as an early exemplar of crossover cinema, wherein characters from disparate film series or genres converge. This pioneering concept would later become a prevalent and influential motif in various forms of media.

It’s also deserving of respect from fans of the Universal classic monsters because, while it places them in a comedic context, the Wolfman, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster are allowed to be frightening without being disrespected or humiliated. Their appearances here don’t denigrate their legacies, reputations, or impact as supernatural, fiendish antagonists.

Moreover, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remains a crucial text because, for many kids, it has served and will continue to serve as a gateway to vintage horror, a first path that leads to eventual viewings of the Universal classic monster series as well as other black-and-white films of any genre. This work is a fantastic way to introduce youngsters to the merits of classic movies. Interestingly, TV horror host Svengoolie, who carries the mantle as a spokesperson of sorts for classic horror movies and continues to be watched by millions across the country, recently noted in his October newsletter that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein could be the movie his fans most request him to schedule.

This work represents the final screen appearance of Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolfman in this era and the last of the studio’s monster mashups that began in 1943 in which two or more of this trio of characters got paired up. This marked the end of an era that launched in 1931 when its Dracula and Frankenstein pictures were first released. Universal abandoned its classic monsters and European-inspired gothic horrors for atomic-age creatures it rolled out in the 1950s, including the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mole People, and aliens like the Metaluna mutants in This Island Earth.

Also significant is that this is only the second, and final, casting of Lugosi as Count Dracula in any film—17 years since he initially played the character. It lends the film a sheen of gravitas and authenticity that the man we most associate with this role has returned, even if he gets fourth billing after Bud, Lou, and Lon Chaney Jr. Lugosi benefits from a career comeback and a fitting return to form.

Indeed, this movie has a seemingly bottomless purse of horror film riches, boasting Lugosi as well as Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange (arguably the second-best performer to play Frankenstein’s monster for Universal), and even Vincent Price, whose voice makes a cameo as the Invisible Man at the conclusion.

While it was the denouement for the big three monsters, it kicked off a series of films pairing Bud and Lou with other household name horror entities; next came Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff, followed by Meet the Invisible Man, Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Meet the Mummy.

Undoubtedly Meet Frankenstein and its follow-ups would have appealed to a wider general audience, especially children and their accompanying parents. Universal horror films had become less frightening as the 1940s progressed and monster mash movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula were released. It became harder for critics and filmgoers to take these pictures seriously, and the studio’s sheen of scariness suffered. The next logical step commercially was to embrace and market to a younger audience; matching the monsters with a widely popular comedic attraction like Abbott and Costello proved a win-win-win for Universal, Bud and Lou, and the classic monsters who got to say goodbye on a high note.

Many maintain that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is not only the funniest horror comedy of them all but among the very best comedies period. But Meet Frankenstein holds a special place in the hearts of monster kids everywhere for being a timeless treasure from our childhoods, one that we can watch with our children and grandchildren without having to worry about any jokes or material that’s too adult.

Lastly, a few rhetorical/inconsequential questions that arise after a Meet Frankenstein rewatch:
  • Why and how does Dracula want to use the Frankenstein monster, and why is Larry Talbot determined to destroy both of them?
  • Why in blazes is this film set in Florida, a place you don’t exactly associate with gothic or classic horror? Isn’t the Sunshine State a bit silly of a setting for a monster mash?
  • In the scene where Dracula presumably bites Sandra’s neck, why does he cast a reflection in the mirror? Was the vampire continuity person asleep at the switch here?
  • Did men really go by the name or moniker “Chick” in 1948? What’s up with that?
  • For a film primarily aimed at kids and families, isn’t it a bit violent that the Frankenstein monster throws Sandra out the window?
  • And is a thrown flower pot the best that the king of the vampires can do to fend off the Wolfman?
Note: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein will be co-featured in the October episode of the Cineversary podcast, posting later this month.


A Japanese helping of carpe diem

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Ikiru, a revered Japanese cinematic masterwork crafted by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa, was released in 1952 at the zenith of Kurosawa's illustrious career. The film delves into profound themes, from existentialism to selflessness to the importance of living in the moment, in telling the tale of Kanji Watanabe (played by the captivating Takashi Shimura), a government pen pusher who learns he has terminal cancer. Faced with his impending mortality, Watanabe embarks on a quest to discover purpose and leave a more lasting legacy before his death. Ikiru (Japanese for “to live”) astutely critiques the dehumanizing nature of bureaucracy while providing a poignant commentary on the human condition.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Ikiru, conducted last week, click here.

Several qualities elevate Ikiru to the highest ranks of world cinema. This work is distinguished by Kurosawa's exceptional direction and the superlative cinematography by Asakazu Nakai. Ikiru is cherished the world over for its visually striking aesthetics, featuring memorable scenes and images—especially the iconic shot of Watanabe on a swing in a snow-covered landscape.

Moreover, the movie is universally resonant. Despite depicting post-war Japan and being a foreign language film, Ikiru transcends cultural boundaries by telling a morality tale anyone can understand. It strikes a chord with global audiences by grappling with fundamental inquiries about life, purpose, and one's capacity to impact society. It’s continually lauded for its evergreen ideas and ageless societal relevance, emotional depth, and artistic excellence.

Ikiru is also a non-traditional narrative, playing like a pair of films in one, with two distinct parts. The first part focuses on Watanabe’s remaining days, from diagnosis through death, although we never see him die. Part two concentrates on the wake and the survivors’ memories and opinions of Watanabe, some of which are misguided and ironically incorrect, depending on your interpretation and point of view. Part one is concerned with reality: the truth of this man’s existence amid contemporary Tokyo, a setting showcasing consistent activity and movement. By contrast, part two is more static, illusory, and reflective. The camera and the characters are less kinetic as we focus more on a single setting, with flashback scenes interspersed. Part one emphasizes Watanabe’s actions and his corporeal self; tellingly, the first image we see is Watanabe’s X-ray, which suggests that his body and physical fallibility will be top of mind. The second part showcases Watanabe’s soul: his legacy and how he has become a catalyst for change and improvement in others.

It’s essential that the second half occurs after Watanabe’s death because we need to see that many of his colleagues are wrong in their assessments of him. These mourners have rejected the truth and missed the greater message: that it doesn’t matter what other people think, although it’s always nice when one person’s life positively impacts another life.

Interestingly, we aren’t shown Watanabe’s death, which one could argue would have made for a fitting ending to part one. Perhaps Kurosawa’s message here is that death is unimportant. We’re also not shown any specific moment where Watanabe is granted his wish of having the playground built. In fact, none of the flashbacks emphasize accomplishment—they all underscore persistence and commitment. You can take this to mean that Kurosawa is stressing that the act of trying to accomplish your ambition is at least as important as being successful.

Ikiru differs in significant ways from many of Kurosawa’s other pictures. It’s not a samurai period piece concerned with action, combat, plot, and multiple characters. It’s quiet, intellectual, contemplative, and deeply existential, as was Rashomon, his breakout film. Ikiru can also be interpreted as a comment on Japan’s reconstruction following World War II, and how it may be important to break traditional bonds to family, companies, and other social groups and pursue personal achievement instead. Ikiru’s aim might be to prepare its audience for the spiritual journey of personal transformation within Japanese society by promoting a perspective that incorporates Western notions of self, according to essayist Aryeh Kaufman.

Multiple meanings can be extracted from Ikiru. One of the most important messages imparted to viewers is that salvation, redemption, and meaning are achieved by doing. It’s a person’s actions, not their thoughts, intentions, or hopes, that truly matter. Furthermore, true happiness and meaning are not achieved through the pursuit of pleasure, materialistic gains, or creature comforts. Instead, fulfillment and joy can be found in work that is meaningful and enriching, and in personal creation—the drive to create something new and maximize the power of the individual. Catalysts that help transform Watanabe’s character include the discovery that chasing sensory gratification is empty and meaningless; the singing of “Happy Birthday,” which, in a way, is calling for his rebirth; and the rabbit toy, which inspires him to act—to get moving before time runs out.

The real tragedy, Watanabe’s story teaches us, is not death—it’s not living your life to the fullest and realizing your potential for making a positive difference in the lives of others. Ikiru, it can be argued, is more than a treatise on the virtues of being altruistic or selfless. It’s also a rumination on the importance of pursuing and accomplishing personal goals that can have beneficial repercussions for others.

Ikiru also stands as a testament to the inefficient and impersonal nature of bureaucracy, offering a critical examination of the bureaucratic machinery and governmental ineffectiveness during the post-war era in Japan. Watanabe's role as a civil servant in a city office exposes him to the frustrating complexities of red tape obstacles and indifference. The film vividly depicts the Kafkaesque nature of the bureaucratic system and the formidable challenges in effecting change within it.

Additionally, we are reminded of the importance of human connection after watching this movie. Watanabe's encounters with different personalities, such as a young woman he meets at a nightclub and a group of parents yearning for a playground for their children, serve as profound lessons in the significance of human connection and empathy. The film emphasizes how these meaningful relationships can offer a profound sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Similar films

  • Rashomon
  • 12 Angry Men
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Drive My Car
  • Living (the 2022 remake)

Other major works by Kurosawa

  • Rashomon
  • Seven Samurai
  • Throne of Blood
  • The Hidden Fortress
  • The Bad Sleep Well
  • Yojimbo
  • Sanjuro
  • High and Low
  • Red Beard
  • Ran


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