Fear… The Good Kind

I avoid things that scare me. I don’t go into small spaces for extended periods of time. I don’t go places where I know there will be clowns or spiders. I watch carefully when I walk in the grass to keep clear of snakes. I shake my shoes out before putting them on, because I don’t like to share with spiders or scorpions. If you walk into a room and see me standing on a chair, you can bet I saw a mouse. I’m old-fashioned that way.

So why is it that every year around this time I look for ways to scare myself? I have a theory that a little measure of fear is good for people—especially if it’s absolutely safe.

Now, I’m not brave by any stretch of the imagination. My sons are working a haunted house this month, and I took a quick walk through. All the lights were on, and I got to see all the technical, behind-the-scenes works. Was I scared? YEP! Am I going through it at night, with all the black lights and bloodied characters? NOPE!

I like my frights on the silver screen. I grew up watching Jaws, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, Carrie, and The Omen. I watched the black and white classics like The Wolfman, The Mummy, and Frankenstein. Most of these films have been remade, speaking to their timeless appeal.

One of the first movies ever made was a silent Frankenstein. The motion picture industry was new, but the story of a man’s creation becoming the incarnation of his darkest fear is part of human nature. Watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s still as frightening as any slasher film out there.

We all enjoy—to one extent or another—the thrill of fear, when we know the consequences of the experience are minimal. Maybe a nightmare follows, but usually an elevated heart rate is the only result of a fright.

This is the time of year when a scary movie is only a click of the remote control away. Enjoy the good ones. Just to be safe, invite your friends to share some popcorn and screams at your side.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.

Special Effects are Real!

This month the movies are all about the monsters, the creatures, and the special effects. Since man first invented the motion picture, he used it to create a world of fantasy. Even the earliest films took a leap just beyond the realm of the possible.

The 1902 feature, A Trip to the Moon, which was loosely based on both Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, incorporated extensive make-up, camera effects, and pyrotechnics. The black and white masterpiece of brothers George and Gaston Melies runs 14 minutes, and can be seen on YouTube in its entirety. Village Voice honored the film by naming it #84 in the “100 Greatest Films of the 20th Century.”

To see this film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYRemE9Oeso&ob=av1n

The first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s horror story, Frankenstein, was made in 1910 as a Thomas Edison Production. The special effects in this movie also included make-up, mirror effects, and fire.

The truth is that movies and special effects—in all their forms—go together like peanut butter and jelly. I love watching the monster movies from the ‘40’s and 50’s, because I love to see how far technology progresses each decade.

A few months ago, my family watched the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, starring Laurence Olivier, Harry Hamlin, and Burgess Meredith. I loved that the movie used the stop-motion animation (for creatures like Medusa, Pegasus, and Calibos) pioneered by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. His techniques brought to life Mighty Joe Young as well as armies of warrior skeletons.

As I watched Clash of the Titans with my guys, I adopted a new slogan. When Poseidon issued the order to “Release the kraken!”, my sons began to giggle. The water effects with the Olympian and his beast, while impressive for 1981, were decidedly weak for today’s audience.

I responded to their scoffing with my most insuppressible declaration, “That’s real!” They laughed. I was a little hurt.

Imagine what a terrific task it is for these special effects artists and their teams of magicians to keep up with the demands of the times. Technology changes hourly, and what was mind-boggling in Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, must be re-mastered and CGI-ed frame by frame just to not look silly next to the sequels and prequels.

I feel for these technicians. When I think about how freaked out everybody gets when Facebook updates its format, I can hardly imagine what fury must rush through the rendering studios whenever there is a new process. “This has to look real, people!”

One of my favorite monster movies is the horror-comedy, also from 1981, An American Werewolf in London. This was the first movie to win an Oscar for Best Make-Up Effects, and when you see artist Rick Baker’s werewolf creation (after his own dog, Bosko) you understand why. I know there are many werewolf movies all over the place now, but for a good twenty years, nobody could compete with the monsters in this flick. Baker was a man way ahead of his time.

When I watch creature features, I figure I’m living in denial anyway, so why not suspend reality just a bit further. If the effects are a little cheesy, who cares? If I can see the wires or zippers on the costumes, what’s the difference?

I know that Hugh Jackman isn’t really a quadruped. I don’t actually believe in zombies or krakens or vampires. But for an hour or two, it’s real!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

October is Scary Fun!

For the month of October, my family reviews and re-orders our movie queue to include some good fun scares. We don’t do the slasher films—plenty of those on late night TV already.

We like to compose a Halloween medley of cinematic masterpieces that include both horror classics and contemporary frights. We invite our friends over, make a little popcorn, and then enjoy the fear fest. Last year we watched our Friday Night Frights on TCM, with a sampling of aliens, vampires, werewolves, and other creature features.

We enjoyed these 50’s and 60’s movies so much, that this year I’ve included Earth Vs. Flying Saucers (1956) and Rocketship X-M (1950). Also on board is the original 1951 film, The Thing From Another World. I loved the 1982 version of The Thing, which starred Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley. With a new version coming out, I like to get a refresher for comparison.

What other movies made my short list?

Of course we have the monsters—The Mummy, both classic and recent. We included a variety of Frankenstein flicks, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein, and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. That should cover just about every way to look at the quilted beast. And we can’t have October without Van Helsing to meet our werewolf and vampire quota.

In case you wonder, last year’s The Wolfman impressed me. If you can, rent the edition that includes the original 1941 The Wolf Man, and watch them both. (You’re welcome!)

We want to keep the classic thrillers in the mix, so we added Hitchcock’s Life Boat, and Orson Welles’ 1944 version of Jane Eyre. We maintain a family tradition of enjoying the Halloween treat of Arsenic and Old Lace. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I still giggle all the way through.

For some new classic tongue-in-cheek fun, rent The Lost Skeleton of Cadavara, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, and Dark and Stormy Night, all by comic genius Larry Blamire and his crew.

My guys and I will enjoy a date night or two at the movie theatre as well. I want to see Dream House, which opens this first weekend, and The Thing, which has a mid-month release.

I could recommend many other suspense films. Hitch has dozens, with varying degrees of fright factor. M. Night Shyamalan created a few good ones, too. I loved The Sixth Sense and Signs, and while I enjoyed The Village, it is not scary.

There are plenty of monster movies to enjoy. If you need some crazy blasts from the past, you might like Once Bitten, Earth Girls Are Easy, Weird Science, or Teen Wolf, all from the 80’s. For the scarier side of the 80’s, catch American Werewolf in London, Poltergeist, and The Howling. The 70’s brought us creepy films like The Stepford Wives and Dracula.

What’s on your October list? Please share!

That’s a wrap for this toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!