I've lately spent time considering the groundbreaking motion picture 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I've not only been reading the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, but I've read his notebooks about the creation of the script and novel titled “The Lost Worlds Of 2001” (and the evolution and initial drafts of the work from short story to final film is as fascinating as the finished product) as well as Jerome Engel's comprehensive “The Making Of Kubrick's 2001”. (And for good measure, I've read “The Odyssey Files”, which detail the production of the sequel 2010: ODYSSEY TWO.)
2001 was, and remains, a truly visionary project; told almost entirely in visual terms, with the technology created anew as the movie went along, Mr. Kubrick's vision is as awe-inspiring today as when it was first released, this despite the huge leaps taken in special effects since its creation. We've seen everything from STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND to STAR TREK and ALIEN and all their offspring, legitimate and otherwise, right up to the summer's biggest blockbuster GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; all of these are equally worthy efforts, yet none can quite compare to the fierce intelligence and adult presentation that 2001 represents.
Part of that is due to the clarity of purpose of the creative forces behind it. Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest film directors of modern times, and Arthur C. Clarke a giant in the genre of serious SF. The two wanted to make a truly 'adult' Science Fiction film, confronting the larger issues of man's place in the universe, the repercussions and implications of alien contact, and the deep emotional and philosophical questions of space travel.
Granted, there had been many excellent SF films previous to 2001; FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and PLANET OF THE APES come immediately to mind. Yet none addressed the deeper questions and conflicts that 2001 raised. (Probably the one that came closest was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, although it was still far less probing and complex.)
The reaction to the film was hardly universal acclaim, particularly within the genre itself. Although it was enthusiastically received for the most part, it was equally vilified by many influential voices in both the mainstream and SF circles (The highly regarded Science Fiction magazines “Analog” and “Galaxy” both hated the film and published scathing reviews.) The controversy surrounding it was part of its legacy; individuals who had no interest in the least in SF went to see what all the fuss was about, and either emerged enchanted, confused or dismayed.
But it was talked about, it was fought over, it was rewarded, and in the end history had its final say: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is considered the pinnacle of what can be achieved in the field of Science Fiction filmmaking, and it is a yardstick by which all others that followed it to this day are compared.
I am a great fan of Science Fiction, or Speculative Fiction, as the genre has come to be considered. (The difference, I suppose, is that Speculative Fiction more accurately embraces the fantastic and incorporates pure Fantasy into its framework and is not as heavily reliant on scientific accuracy. This also allows for future speculations that don't necessarily rely on ‘hard' science by can explore sociological or psychological issues, such as “Animal Farm”, “1984”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and “Fahrenheit 451”.) And I consider 2001 to be a masterwork. (One of many from Mr. Kubrick, whom I admire as no other filmmaker.)
But I also am a great fan or Horror and Dark Fantasy, and consider that genre as potentially awesome and adult as SF. Yet more than one critic has noted in passing that Horror (a category I'm becoming less enchanted with considering the current market and the ambitions of the best artists in the field; I much prefer Dark Fantasy, or 'Weird Fiction', as both Misters Lovecraft and Poe referred to their efforts) has never truly received the respect due to a field that contains artists as vast and varied as Mark twain, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ira Levin, Stephen King, Ambrose Bierce, Clive Barker, Nigel Kneale, Harlan Ellison, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Edward Gorey, Joyce Carol Oates and so many, many others.
Part of that is simply because a work of great artistry is rare, rarer than in SF. The late author and critic Thomas Disch opined that may simply be due to the limitations of the form; even the most elaborate and carefully conceived work of the Dark Fantastic has, at its bottom line, the scary monster jumping out and screaming “Boo!” In other words, it's a restrictive discipline. I see Mr. Disch's point, and agree to some extent; still, the haiku or iambic pentameter are an equally restrictive disciplines, and they haven't suffered from a lack of serious consideration.
Another part of this lack of serious artistic merit is, alas brought on by the genre enthusiasts themselves. This is in many ways a low point in the genre's history, with its plethora of Torture Porn offerings, endless zombie and vampire reiterations, useless and unnecessary remakes of established classic simply for the benefit of an additional dollar, and mind-numbing examples of idiocy embraced by individuals apparently so starved for entertainment and unable to stand from their sofas long enough to seek out worthy diversions that they drink the mediocrity as though it were vintage claret. (Yes, that's a thinly veiled reference to SHARKNADO or whatever imagination-deprived flotsam being produced by The Asylum.)
(End of unfortunate venting; my apologies.)
The question begs: where is the 2001 of the Dark Fantastic? Where is the film so astonishingly original and mesmerizing, so powerfully compelling and controversial, so overwhelmingly adult that the genre is forever changed from that time forward?
Well…I believe they exist. We have a great deal to be proud of in our beloved niche, and with this Halloween recently past, I want to draw your attention to some efforts that I think rightfully deserve a place on the shelf of honor beside Mr. Kubrick's.
A note about my criteria: I wanted to select films that echoed the pedigree of 2001; preferably those written and produced by name directors and writers and produced by a major studio and distributed in a wide general release. Of those I wanted films that had a profound effect on the general public at large, not merely dedicated fans of the genre.
Under this many amazing films are excluded; these would include small art films such as LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, MARTIN, and others that are considered exemplary efforts, on the basis that the general public is largely ignorant of them. Under these guidelines I'm also excluding many foreign films that have come to be recognized as groundbreaking, such as SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED, BLACK SUNDAY and THE BEYOND.
I'm eliminating films such as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HALLOWEEN, and the Hammer efforts, again because they are the province of the fans of Horror and did not generally draw the attention of the curious outside the genre. We have a great many wonderful adult films that we can proudly display with the very best of the Western, Mystery, Comedy and Romance variety, but I wanted movies that cut across all demographics of interest.
And so, acknowledging this imperfect and arbitrary selection process, I offer the following that caused innocents and seasoned moviegoers alike to explore the Dark Fantastic...thirteen of the greatest moments of cinema macabre for your pleasure...
DRACULA/FRANKENSTEIN – I place these together side by side, fitting because they hand-in-hand ushered in the golden age of the Universal Horror films. But more than that, they truly created the genre in ways no one expected. Of course there had been Horror films and movies of the Dark Fantastic before during the Silent Film era, quite often among the German Expressionistic period. But once sound was introduced, many looked upon those earlier films as quaint, childlike and almost embarrassing, simple tricks ala George Melies.
It's astonishing to believe, but Universal had no faith in DRACULA while ti was being produced. (They had snapped up the rights to play based upon its theatrical box office, which despite some very bad reviews was phenomenal.) They never thought sophisticated, modern audiences would accept the premise of an immortal supernatural creature preying on society.
This is why much of Tod Browning's film does away with any special effects or magical archetypes, and Bela Lugosi's Dracula is a solid, more human manifestation of evil. We do not see him change into a bat or a wolf (although we do see a bat; a terrible moth-eaten one on a very visible wire flapping forlornly); we never see Dracula drinking blood, nor does he even sport fangs. His one otherworldly attribute is the highlighted lighting effect on his eyes during his malevolent stare. When the film was finished there was no mention in press releases or advertizements about the supernatural or vampires. Indeed, the poster of the film simply proclaimed it “The Strangest Love Story Ever Filmed!”
Unsurprisingly, the public had no difficulty suspending their disbelief, and the film was hugely successful, this despite the fact that it isn't terribly distinguished, and aside from the production design (which is beautifully Edward Goreyesque) is slow and often uninvolving. (In fact, recent rumors have suggested that Mr. Browning, whose Silent Film work with Lon Chaney included the renowned THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN and LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, didn't have a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject and spent the filming in a state of inebriated apathy, with the actual directing being done by cinematographer Karl Freund. Giving Mr. Freund's slow, moody directorial work on THE MUMMY, I have no difficulty believing this.)
Much of the power of the production can be attributed to Mr. Lugosi; his performance is indeed iconic, despite not being completely faithful to his literary counterpart. Others have assayed the role, but he made it his own, even to this day, by his uncompromising portrayal. In Carlos Clarens's classic tome “An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films”, he praises the actor most precisely: “It is useless to debate whether he was a good actor or not; Lugosi was Dracula...Lugosi appeared totally evil. As Count Dracula, he neither asked for nor needed the audience's sympathy.”
With clear evidence that the supernatural wasn't box office poison, Universal threw its full compliment of publicity and production into its next film FRANKENSTEIN. Here, in acclaimed director James Whale (known for JOURNEY'S END and WATERLOO BRIDGE, and later for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and SHOWBOAT, in addition to his macabre masterpieces THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE) they had the antidote to DRACULA's slow, static camerawork; his images were deliriously imaginative and he pulled intense, grim performances from Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Edward Sloan and Dwight Frye.
But his finest inspiration was in casting a little-known character actor as the Monster. Boris Karloff's portrayal was and remains astounding; menacing and childlike in tandem, and overnight audiences responded and made him a star. It's easily one of the greatest cinematic portrayals in our genre if not in film itself.
Like 2001 both films were hugely popular with audiences while critics were divided on their merits, particularly in the field of the Dark Fantastic. Purists who enjoyed the novels were quite often horrified by the liberties taken when translating them to the screen. The great H. P. Lovecraft, groundbreaking master in the field of Weird Fiction, was a great admirer of Mary Shelly's novel, and supposedly stormed out in the middle of FRANKENSTEIN during its initial release in a blind fury. The movie-going public proved much more sympathetic, and clamored for more, and the age of Cinematic Horror came into its own.
DIABOLIQUE - Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was already considered a French master of terror and suspense with his previous films LE CORBEAU (The Crow) about a vile and malicious blackmailer terrorizing a small town, and LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR (The Wages of Fear) concerning a group of criminals hired to drive a truck filled with nitroglycerin into the Amazon jungle. But with LE DIABOLIQUE (The Fiends) or simply DIABOLIQUE, he added the patina of the supernatural to his repertoire.
The film tells of two women, a sickly, abused wife of a cruel headmaster of an isolated and decaying boys school, and the husband's mistress, also abused by the sadist. To escape his brutalities they plot to murder him, and one dark night succeed in the ghastly, clumsy deed, drowning him in the bathtub and, after various near-encounters threatening disclosure, disposing of his body in the overgrown, filthy and unused school swimming pool. All is well, until...
The twists and turns are shared by authors Boileau and Narcejac, masters of the Grand Guignol thriller, who wrote the novel on which the film was based. But this is a director's movie, with the camera prowling the empty school to create a sense of menace that is near unbearable. The performances by Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret and especially Vera Clouzot (the director's wife) are flawless, and the film builds to an utterly horrifying conclusion that has been often imitated but never surpassed.
For a foreign film with subtitles, the reception in America was astonishing. The public flocked to it, particularly young people who'd never experienced the classic Universal years. They screamed in absolute fear, and came eagerly back for more, the word of mouth spreading; professionals in the industry accounted for some of the most loyal fans, including William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock, who was inspired to create his own black & white exercise in terror.
Naturally, some critics were horrified in a different way, with some calling it a masterly thriller and one of the director's best to others who found the story absurd and one who labeled it vulgar and nasty. Still its reputation flourishes, justly so, and even the tepid remakes haven't detracted from its nightmarish supremacy. As critic Dilys Powell observed, “ Grand Guignol sets out merely to horrify. I don't think one should take moral exception if it succeeds.
PSYCHO - For years Alfred Hitchcock had been known as the Master of Suspense with his quality thrillers NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and TO CATCH A THIEF, all of them critical and commercial successes. But when he wanted to film Robert Bloch's novel, he met nothing but resistance from the studios. No one wanted to make such a lurid drama about a transvestite killer. Undeterred, Mr. Hitchcock bought the rights and financed the film himself, using the small crew from his hit television series and filming in black & white.
The rest is cinematic history, as well as a turning point in films of the Dark Fantastic.
PSYCHO broke every conventional rule, both of film storytelling and social mores. The opening scene features a torrid afternoon encounter between a young woman and her lover in a hotel room; the infamous shower scene featured nudity (and the sound of a toilet shown flushing onscreen for the first time ever), the lead character is gruesomely murdered at the halfway point of the story, and the handsome, likable but troubled young man who befriended her is the madman who knifed her to death. There were overtones of incest and dark sexuality throughout the narrative, and the sudden violence came shockingly and without warning or motivation.
To say critics were divided was understatement. Astonishing as it may be today with its universal acclaim, the film was denounced by many as immoral and a sad decline for Mr. Hitchcock's talents; a seedy, tasteless examination of rural madness and terror. Many put it on the list of the year's worst films, and only in hindsight (and through the highly vocal defense from its ardent admirers) did opinion slowly sway to the positive. None of this mattered to the moviegoing public; they loved the film, rushing into theaters to be absolutely terrified.
The biggest influence the film had may have been on the reputation of Mr. Hitchcock. No longer was he the “Master of Suspense”; he was now the “Master of Terror”, and several of his remaining films – THE BIRDS and FRENZY in particular – solidified this title with the moviegoing public. Even more so, the murder was now no longer the strange and threatening figure cloaked in black; he was handsome, shyly charming, unsuspected and completely harmless – most of the time. Michael Myers and Hannibal Lector both owe their personages – and familial ties – to Norman Bates.
THE INNOCENTS – The pedigree for this couldn't be more outstanding; based upon what many consider to be the greatest ghost story in the English language (Henry James's “The Turn Of The Screw”), directed by Jack Clayton (whose previous film was the award-winning ROOM AT THE TOP, and who went on to direct the wonderfully macabre OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE, THE GREAT GATSBY and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES), co-authored by Truman Capote (IN COLD BLOOD) and John Mortimer (creator and author of the classic RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY stories and television series) and starring Academy award-winning actress Deborah Kerr (of TEA & SYMPATHY, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER and THE KING & I).
One must also credit the sterling black & white cinematography of director of photography (and later director), the legendary Freddie Francis (who would photograph THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE and many of the Hammer classics). A finer example of truly adult subject matter and presentation, THE INNOCENTS captures all the complexity and subtlety of the James novel. Audiences were genuinely terrified and disturbed by what might have just been a standard (thought well-executed) thriller, and the movie holds up extremely well even by today's more permissive and progressive standards. This was (and remains) a true milestone in the Dark Fantastic, often referenced and imitated (and remade several times) but unequaled.
THE HAUNTING - From 1942 to 1946, Val Lewton produced a remarkable number of adult, imaginative and classic films celebrating the Dark Fantastic. Saddled with small budgets, handed lurid titles from which to create his projects and forced to hire character actors instead of studio-locked stars, Mr. Lewton substituted talent for money, subtlety for extravaganza, and with a sure hand produced works that are still considered some of the best fare in our beloved genre. CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE BODY SNATCHERS, ISLE OF THE DEAD…these are the mantras invoked by true admirers of Horror.
Robert Wise had tutored under Orson Welles on CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS when he came into Mr. Lewton's fold. He directed two films for the producer, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHERS and created two memorable works of terror and mystery. He was an apt pupil, and took what he learned to heart, using suggestion and an adult viewpoint to create a number of classic movies, including THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WEST SIDE STORY, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, among others.
Perhaps no other film put his experience with Mr. Lewton to better use than THE HAUNTING, widely considered by many to be the greatest ghost story ever put on film. It is frightening and powerfully evocative in its portrayal of a group of psychic investigators who come to Hill House, reportedly one of the most haunted places ever discovered, and find a miasmic, untouchable evil that threatens to consume them. Among them is Eleanor Vance, whom the house seems to regard with special favor.
Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that the source material for this extraordinary film is Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House”, a universally lauded classic not only of supernatural fiction but of 20 th century literature itself. And it helps immensely that screenwriter Nelson Giddings carefully adapted the work with respect and professionalism, resisting the urge to create a big, empty Hollywood special effects mediocrity (as the remake by Jan de Bont definitely was).
Perhaps the greatest stroke of fortune came in the casting: Russ Tamblyn, Richard Johnson and Claire Bloom are wonderful individually and as an ensemble. But the movie belongs squarely to Julie Harris, a stage actress who brought all her skill, talent and sensitivity to bringing Eleanor Vance to life. It is truly the artist filling the role, and an iconic one at that, as one of the finest, deepest characterizations in American literature. Ms. Harris is Eleanor, and I doubt anyone else could have portrayed her better. Along with Mr. Wise's cool, calm, matter-of-fact direction, where all is suggestion and there is little-to-no shock (with one brief, startling and superb exception), this is a disturbing and uncompromising work of Art at its highest level.
ROSEMARY'S BABY - Before young Regan became possessed by a demon, there was sweet housewife Rosemary Woodhouse, who had her own encounter with evil...
If THE EXORCIST raised the ire of the religiously devout in the 1970s, ROSEMARY'S BABY had the same effect in the 60s. Coming in with expert timing hot on the heels of the entire “Is God Dead?” discussions that ran through the later part of the decade, Ira Levin's novel was controversial long before the film was conceived. It was banned in many places and denounced in several more, with the Catholic Church being the most vocal critic. None of that stopped the book from being an enormous success (it probably contributed to it, in fact).
Filmmaker William Castle bought the rights to the book, planning to produce and direct it himself in association with Paramount. At the urging of studio executive Charles Bluhdorn, he made the canny decision to hire Roman Polanski, following on the heels of his successful features KNIFE IN THE WATER and REPULSION. It proved to be a fortuitous paring. Mr. Polanski himself adapted the book into a screenplay, creating one of the most faithful adaptations in movie history. All the paranoia, suspense and dark humor made its way from the pages to the big screen, and with a flawless ensemble including John Cassavetes, Sidney Blackmer, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Patsy Kelly, and a superb leading performance by Mia Farrow, the movie became a box office sensation as well.
The controversy continued during the release, with hate mail pouring in to Mr. Castle and the studio. Tragedy seemed to dog all associated with the production, not the least of which was Mr. Polanski's lovely wife Sharon Tate being murdered by followers of Charles Manson. There was talk of a 'curse', similar to rumors concerning the movie POLTERGEIST. In the end it was a commercial and critical landmark, with audiences swearing that they actually saw the baby birthed from a demonic father. They didn't. It was all due to the artistry of Mr. Polanski, who knew, inverse to Mr. Friedkin, that sometimes subtlety can plumb the greatest depths of fear.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/DAWN OF THE DEAD - I thought long and hard before putting these on my list. In hindsight, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was certainly a groundbreaking and landmark film; a copy now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. But at the time of its release, it was seen as just another low-budget drive-in exploitation feature, undistinguished and forgettable. Few of the legitimate film critics even bothered to review it, and those who did were appalled by the graphic violence of the cannibalism scenes.
(The most famous of these being Roger Ebert, who review, reprinted nationwide in “Reader's Digest” magazine, is required reading on how perceptions of Art change with time. Mr. Ebert would become one of this film's, along with DAWN OF THE DEAD, critical champions – but that came much, much later…)
But these belong here for the same reason PSYCHO and THE WICKER MAN do; after its release the genre of Horror would never be the same again. There was nothing like it before, and its influence has shaken the foundations of modern Dark Fantasy. The word 'zombie', previously associated only with voodoo rites and the South Pacific, now has an entirely different archetype, and it seems every inspiring filmmaker who wants to break into the Horror field buys some cheap cuts of leftover meat, practices his latex applications, gathers his friends to stumble and moan, listless and slackjawed, and makes a Living Dead film. Simply put, without Mr. Romero's work, everything from 28 DAYS LATER to THE WALKING DEAD would cease to exist.
Would that they all had Mr. Romero's artistry, for he wasn't making a 'Horror' film; in his mind, he was making a statement of sociological change during a time of crisis, the turbulent 1960s. Inspired by Richard Matheson's “I Am Legend”, he wanted to detail the fall and rise of an entirely new society in the ashes and carnage of the previous one, and document the reactions of those who survived to tell of it. From his stark black & white documentary-like photography to his naturalistic dialogue and characters, Mr. Romero took what could have been a ridiculous premise – the dead have risen and are feasting on the living – and made it a gripping tale of survival and class warfare.
The commentary continued with DAWN OF THE DEAD, this time painted in full garish pop color. The critics had ten years to examine the previous work and those that came after, and now they were paying attention. The detail of survivors making their stand inside a barricaded shopping mall and recreating the dying culture they knew while the dead milled outside was a strong parable, and no one failed to comment on the hoards of the risen dead riding the escalators past outlet stores, muzak playing over the loudspeakers.
The field had moved on from dark European castles and monsters with thick foreign accents, thunder and lightning punctuating each crescendo of the orchestra. Horror was now dirty, realistic, squarely in suburbia, neighbor against neighbor, and no place, not even the bastion of capitalism, was safe. Others followed on Mr. Romero's heels: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, DEEP RED, THE EVIL DEAD, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and more. There were no limits, no taboos that couldn't be explored for the sake of fear; all the walls had been kicked down.
And when the Motion Picture Association wanted to release DAWN with an 'X' rating because of the violence, Mr. Romero broke through one final ceiling, releasing it instead unrated (with a written warning about the movie not being recommended for anyone under 17) strictly to independent theaters and drive-ins, cleaning up and becoming the most successful unrated film in cinema history.
Mr. Romero had made a Horror movie because he knew it would be commercially viable, but what he really wanted to do was make the great American film. Most agree he did just that.
THE EXORCIST - This is the one. The big one. The one that can be argued changed everything. It's pedigree couldn't be any greater. Based on a bestselling novel, directed by an Oscar-winning director, with an all-star cast of veteran thespians, many Tony-award winning theatrical performers.
But what made the movie infamous was its graphic nature. This was not a low-budget exploitation movie like BLOOD FEAST, I EAT YOUR SKIN or even NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; this was a major studio production that featured vomiting green bile, public urination and sexual depravity, blasphemy, child abuse, and more foul language than could usually be found on a city street corner. It was a sort of endurance test; would audience members be able to sit through the entire film without leaving? Almost like a dare, crowds ran around the blocks of major theaters across the country.
Religious leaders weighed in on the theme and storyline (which I shouldn't really have to recap, should I? If you're reading these words the odds are great that you've either seen the movie, read the novel, or both.) Many denounced the film for glorifying evil and demonic activity; others saw it as a statement of faith that proved there were supernatural elements in the world. Almost no one had a neutral opinion.
Professionals in the genre, such as William K. Everson, Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”), Robert Bloch (“Psycho”) and Jeff Rovin ("The Fabulous Fantasy Films") castigated the film as going too far past the line of decency. It was equally praised by individuals such as Forrest J. Ackerman (“Famous Monsters of Filmland”), Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese (RAGING BULL, MEAN STREETS) and William Castle. Billy Graham had an opinion, as did the Catholic Church. And despite some attention to the storyline of both the novel and the film, most focused their criticisms on the graphic nature of the movie.
Yet many seemed to miss the point (as some do today.) William Friedkin, the director, was known for his gritty, realistic urban dramas such as THE BOYS IN THE BAND and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He made a conscious decision to film the story as realistically and naturalistic as possible. There were no Horror movie shots of fog rolling across the ground, no huge organ sounds or crashing music, no chuckling, hand-rubbing villainy (at least until the final act, when, in my opinion, the movie loses some of its immediacy). It was filmed in an almost documentary manner, and that was why the movie disturbed so strongly. The level of believability was high as per Mr. Friedkin's demands (one of the most famous, as an example, was building Regan's bedroom set inside a working freezer so that the actor's breath could be seen). Many who denounced its graphic nature missed that this was all presented matter-of-factually, adding to the verisimilitude of the events.
And that may be the final legacy of THE EXORCIST. From that point on, total believability was demanded of the fantastic. Audiences were perfectly willing to suspend their disbelief, but as with Mr. Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE they now wanted a strong level of real-world mundane to offset the Dark Fantastic. In this way the film is a triumph that still holds up very well. The filmmaking community seemed to agree; despite the controversy it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
THE WICKER MAN - Some would argue that this doesn't belong on the list because it wasn't a huge box office success when it was first released. They have a point; in fact, the initial release was a disaster, with a heavily edited print being sent out as the bottom half of a drive-in double feature, so superior to whatever received top billing that audiences didn't know what to make of it.
Critics were divided as well; while many praised the thoughtful, intelligent script by Anthony Shaffer (author of the astonishing SLEUTH and Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY and brother to Peter Shaffer, author of EQUUS and AMADEUS) the direction of Robin Hardy and the performances lead by Christopher Lee (in his favorite role), Edward Woodward, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland, many were puzzled by the underlying message of the film, put off by the downbeat conclusion and scandalized by the frank representation of Pagan fertility rites in all their sexual excess.
But the film gathered word of mouth; nobody who ever saw it forgot it, and it became one of those cult classics that even fans who've never seen it discuss with reverence and awe. And for good reason: quality shines forth from every frame, and the mood of dark forces encroaching in daylight surroundings has rarely been better evoked. The tale of a moralistic and repressed police officer who comes to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl maintains a sense of menace through the most innocuous incidents, drawing the threads of the web tighter until the stark finale, when it's revealed that nothing is innocuous in this place.
The film has become a touchstone of iconic imagery and themes that has spread throughout our genre and beyond. The Burning Man celebration owes much to this film, and no other movie or story that tells of civilization encountering an isolated religious culture has escaped comparison. (As in “Stephen King's “Children Of The Corn” contains echoes of “Wicker Man” sensibilities.")
In the end it belongs here simply because it's sui generis; there is literally nothing else like it, and not even the abysmal remake could dampen its power. If you've not seen it, you're simply poorer for it.
JAWS - In 1974 a young director was hired by Universal Studios to helm the film adaptation of a phenomenally best-selling novel. Although he'd only made one feature film, the director had done some notable work in television. He decided to film on location instead of in the studio, and thereafter was subjected to a maddening series of catastrophes that caused the movie to go seriously over budget, that had the studio considering canceling the fiasco, and that had to be rethought on the spot when the promised special effects refused to work properly. The cast and crew thought the final film would be a box office disaster, and the director feared he'd never work again.
Of course, the movie was JAWS, and its incredibly difficult filming and final triumphant release is a well-documented Hollywood legend. All involved went on to wildly successful careers, especially Steven Spielberg, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. In addition, the movie literally recreated the way studios released movies to the general public, and the summer blockbuster was born.
Looking at it in retrospect, with all the frustrations and calamities behind it, hindsight shows clearly why the movie is considered a classic. The Hitchcockian method of suggesting the menace without seeing it clearly, put in place because of the limits to functions the mechanical shark, fill each pan of the ocean with a sense of imminent doom and dread. The engaging performances of the leads give a human perspective and element to the proceedings, making the characters more than simply cardboard figures to be eaten. The story, harsh and bleak, is as basic as the basic elements of great drama: man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus self. All of this under the sure, confident hand of a young man determined to exceed his reach and grasp.
That the film still holds up is a testament to the talents of Mr. Spielberg, Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, Screenwriter Carl Gottileib, novelist and creator Peter Benchley, the Misters Scheider, Drefuss and Robert Shaw, composer John Williams and all others involved in the creation of this masterpiece. In many ways Mr. Spielberg has never been better or equaled this first effort, and it proves the dictum that great adversity can produce great art, as long as there is a steady hand on the rudder.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - It was, and remains extremely controversial, with an equal number of genre aficionados proclaiming it “boring” or “not frightening” while others find it “gripping” and “absolutely terrifying”. It's been accused of being plagiarized from other works, most notably THE LAST BROADCAST (which I've seen; I find BLAIR WITCH superior) and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. (All this I find nonsensical; if we want to trace the true ancestry of this ‘mockumentary' style of storytelling, let's go back and begin with Orson Welles's classic 1939 radio drama WAR OF THE WORLDS.) Some people still believe it was a true story, and many descended on the small community of Burkittsville, MD to find the fabled source of the legend.
It's been copied and parodied countless times, both cleverly and weakly. It used the Internet brilliantly; perhaps it may be the first and best use of online resources to expand the mythology of a narrative. Some critics claim that it was only successful because of the hype and extraneous material; I disagree on this strongly. I remember seeing footage and learning of the film a good year before its release and publicity push. Watching just the snippets as they were being assembled, it was clear something special was happening…something original and extremely unnerving.
It created a new subgenre in Horror filmmaking, the “found footage” movie. There have been many since, some quite good, but most abysmal. (Probably the best, and a great success in its own right, was PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.) But the greatest achievement of this film, in my opinion, is what it did for the gene: it made it serious again. The post-SCREAM teenagers-in-danger-with-an-ironic-wink-to-the-audience had taken hold of the field of Horror. There was none of that in BLAIR WITCH; there was only an increasing sense of dread as it became very clear that no one we'd been getting to know for the past hour-and-a-half was coming home alive. Roger Ebert reports that the first viewing shook hardened, professional studio executives to the bone, and audiences soon followed.
Although the filmmakers have made other interesting, well-made movies, they have yet to equal the impact of this film. Sadly, the three performers have disappeared, a victim of the movie's success and Hollywood typecasting. Yet the movie itself remains, a huge success on home DVD (which, interestingly, it's probably more effective, considering the framework of the film). I still contend it to be a landmark and a masterpiece, the greatest Lovecraftian movie ever made that wasn't written by Lovecraft. (I'll expand on that another time, if you wish.) I believe the Dark Master of Providence would have responded enthusiastically.
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These are the best of the best, in my humble opinion, but of course there are many, many exemplary works in our particular field, films even the most discerning critic will find worthy of their time and attention. (And I'm always amused when a mainstream critic is confronted with a work of Dark Fantasy so immediate and outstanding that it simply can't be ignored, no matter what their inclination. Their tongues seem to tie themselves in knots at the ignominy of it all, and they almost seem to shake with a kind of indignant artistic palsy.)
Add to the list above PAN'S LABRYNTH; THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE; MARTIN; DON'T LOOK NOW; THEY CAME FROM WITHIN; THE BROOD; THE SHINING; LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE; THE REFLECTING SKIN; SECONDS; THE TENANT; THE MANSON FAMILY; JACOB'S LADDER; CURSE OF THE DEMON; BURN, WITCH, BURN; FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY; THE DAMNNED; THE SERVANT; DEEP RED; DELIVERENCE; THE BIRDS; THE CONJURING; LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH; THE STEPFORD WIVES; THE CHANGELING; CARNIVAL OF SOULS; MALPERTUIS; all films challenging and filled with artistic vision and discipline. You can no doubt supply many of your own.
Our genre, sadly, doesn't always strive for the very best it can be, let alone achieve it. Yet as the lists above clearly demonstrate, when it is at its best, it can create works that can stand beside anything the ‘serious' critical establishment can bring forward. Because of the work and dedication of these creators, we have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for.