A Modern Gothic

No one ever warned me that studying at a bona fide English castle could have downsides; being miles away from civilization can make you a bit stir-crazy, and I didn’t think cafeteria food could be worse until I tried Quorn, a meat substitute so artificial it is banned in North America. However, the worst part about studying at this castle was the possibility of being alone there at night.

The Castle is supposed to be haunted by the wife of a previous owner, usually called the Grey Lady, and a poor soul known as the Headless Drummer. Reportedly the Grey Lady was spotted in the Castle’s conference room a year or two before my stay there. I’m not exactly a believer in the supernatural, but it’s harder to remind myself that ghosts probably don’t exist when I’m alone in the dark. That castle is spooky enough without ghosts, and legend has it that Horace Walpole had it in mind when he wrote The Castle of Otranto.

Late one night I was studying in the small meeting room on the second floor of the Castle, when a custodian came by informing me that he was shutting off the lights, asking me to do the same when I left. I packed up a short time later, around 1:00 am. At this point I remembered the recent ghost sighting – which had happened in the adjoining conference room (not to mention that I was a floor above the entrance to the castle’s small dungeon). I decided to exit into the Elizabethan room, so named for a giant fireplace and old decorations meant to evoke that era. The stone and high ceilings in the Elizabethan room evoke the Gothic even in daylight, so in near-darkness it was simple to imagine Walpole’s Manfred or poor Matilda on the floor below. I took out my £9 phone, hoping its meagre light would help me get down the old wooden staircase. There was no way I was crossing the second storey platform to the enigmatically named Drummer’s Room; if any room in the Castle was haunted, it was that one. I descended the stairs and crossed the floor as quietly as possible, thinking the whole time of the passageways beneath the Castle of Otranto, casting myself as Isabella as I all but ran through the windowless passage that connects the Elizabethan room to the courtyard in the middle of the Castle.

The courtyard possessed an eerie quality, somehow cut off from time. Inside the Castle, one is surrounded by modern updates; electric lights, modern desks and chairs, placards labelling rooms. Outside, aside from some modern wooden benches, I imagine that little had changed since the last occupants of the castle had left or Walpole had perhaps visited. The paltry moonlight was obscured by the looming castle walls, and I could all but see a giant helmet before me, perhaps with Conrad’s body still beneath it.

I passed back into the interior of the Castle, where thankfully the reception lights are always on, and was greeted outside again by a thick English ground fog. “Stick to the road. Keep clear o’ th’ moors,” I snickered to myself. At least the moon wasn’t full – although that meant that there was almost no light aside from sparse streetlamps, reduced to halos in the fog. I walked (or more accurately, stumbled) through a grove of ancient and gnarled chestnut trees, the light on my phone being no help. I probably could have mused on the mood brought on by the trees, but I was too busy trying to find my footing to scare myself much. The brief paved path proved a respite, until I came to a dark wooded section of the walk. To make matters worse, the darkest part was also up a hill. I walked as fast as I dared, surrounded by night rustlings of various bunnies, badgers, birds, and who knows what else. Until I heard a sound not unlike a person feebly yelping. I quickened my pace, fleeing like Isabella from Manfred’s dread embrace, although my pursuer was most likely a screech owl.

At the top of the hill, the road was paved, streetlamps were numerous, and residence was in sight. I glanced back at the Castle once more. In the fog, it looked ethereal, stuck in time. During the day, it was a gorgeous place to learn; at night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something walked there, and it walked alone.

This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 499, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 12, 2012.

Frankenblog Part Two: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO

Hi again. I meant to post this last night, but there were obviously more important things going on. I’m hoping to have a more regular posting schedule in the coming weeks, rather than week long breaks between posts. Stupid school. Anyway, before we begin, look at this picture my friend Naomi made for me!
BFFs ❤
I love this picture, because it looks like it would be taken in one of those photo booths at the mall. The inspiration for it was my “Frankenfest” a few weeks ago, when I watched 4 films with “Frankenstein” in the title in 24 hours. This marathon also inspired today’s post, about those movies.
Now, countless movies, books, comics, plays, and songs have been based on or inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic tale, but the dominant image of Frankenstein’s Monster will always be Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film.
I have now (proudly?) seen all 6 of the movies Universal Studios made prominently featuring the Monster, and the sequels are hilarious and fun, but today I’ll mainly be looking at Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This post will be taking a different approach than the last, and will be more of a comparison. Many, maybe even most film critics and connoisseurs believe that Bride surpasses its predecessor. Now, I know a little bit about film – I took an “Intro to” course in first year, and I’ve read a bit about the subject, but I don’t pretend to be an expert. Perhaps Bride is the superior film, but I prefer the original, and that’s what I plan to talk about today. Unfortunately, by nature a comparison like this could sound like I have something against the sequel, but let me assure you that I don’t. I could explain why I’ll generally choose pie over cake, but I still love cake. Cake rocks, I just enjoy pie a little more.
I dressed as the Bride for Halloween because I love her. I think it turned out well.
Frankenstein (1931)
For those of you who haven’t seen this (and are seriously missing out, my friend), the basics are probably pretty clear: mad scientist makes a man from dead tissue, Monster goes on rampage, villagers give chase with torches and pitchforks, it all ends in the windmill. I’m going to assume that even if you haven’t seen the film, you know enough about the plot that I probably can’t spoil anything, so I’ll proceed with that assumption.
The mood for the whole film is fantastic, and is set right away with the creepy graveyard with the statue of death – into whose face Frankenstein lobs dirt. This is the perfect example of why black and white filming just works better sometimes, especially in horror. Hitchcock chose to make Psycho in B&W because it makes everything seem shadowy, and real shadows seem more tangible. Add to that the graininess you’ll get just from age and the whole world of the film seems to be under some kind of menacing cloud. The lack of score is also effective for mood, I think, although some prefer Bride because it has a score, but I’ll talk more about that later. The famous “It’s alive!” scene is orchestrated only by thunder, and to tremendous effect. The audience’s proper introduction to the Monster is also eerily silent – I can only imagine it with a big, kitschy, ‘30s orchestrated score when he turns around, going DUUH-DUUUUUUHNNNNNN! That would be hilarious. But what we do get is Karloff’s creepy shuffle followed by a great reveal of Jack Pierce’s superb make up. With dull, lifeless eyes, he seems terrifying initially, but the following scene makes it more than clear that he should be pitied rather than feared. The scene where he tries to capture the rays of light is just tragic. He gets scarier once he starts killing people, but they’re all either self defence or accidental. His make-up, sounds, and general physique are frightening, which is why he is such an iconic monster even today, but there’s a reason that his name is frequently associated with the term “misunderstood.” 

While Karloff is undoubtedly fantastic, he is not the only one in the movie. Colin Clive, as Frankenstein is most impressive when he is playing crazy. He seems wooden and apprehensive when he is playing the romantic scenes with Elizabeth, but in his earlier scenes, there’s something of a Norman Bates about him. I am quite enthusiastic about his performance in the scene where he finally gives his creature life, as evidenced by several quotes typed out in all caps, the most famous of which is the controversial “By God, now I know what it feels like to God!” In the ‘30s, this line unsurprisingly caused a stir, and Clive delivers it perfectly. His “IT’S ALIVE!” passed into cliché, but seeing it now, it is just as convincing and chilling as it was when it first played. Bride has no moments of crazed intensity, he just mopes and whines a lot, which is far less fun.
As Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz, Dwight Frye puts his famous stage whisper to good use in a small but memorable role. Frye was in a number of other Universal films, including Bride of Frankenstein, but his best role was indisputably that of Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula. He had played the role on Broadway along with Lugosi, and I would argue that his unnerving performance is as large a reason as Lugosi’s for the film’s success. In Frankenstein he plays the hunchback, not called Igor, who provides most of the film’s comic relief. He gets spooked by thunder and classroom skeletons and rambles as much as he speaks. The rest of the comedy in the film comes from Henry’s father, the Baron Frankenstein, played by Frederick Kerr. He’s basically just a stuffy old man, but when isn’t that funny? Edward Van Sloan, as Dr Waldman, essentially reprises his role as Dr Van Helsing, but he does a good job as the “voice of reason” for Frankenstein – until he is killed, of course. Mae Clarke’s Elizabeth is unimpressive by today’s standards, but she is serviceable when compared to Valerie Hobson in the sequel.
One of the more general things I love about this movie is the sense of the characters having off-screen lives. The first time we see Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, she is talking to his best friend, bafflingly named Victor (in the book, Frankenstein’s first name is Victor, his best friend is Henry Clerval, and his family’s servant is called Justine Moritz. In the movie we get Henry Frankenstein and Victor Moritz. I don’t know why). Victor proclaims that he would “go to the end of the Earth” for Elizabeth, when she says “I wish you wouldn’t.” Intimations of a past (or hell, present) affair are further enforced when we see Frankenstein’s reactions to both of them when they go to see him. As he is preparing to do his final experiment, he commands Victor to sit down several times, then gently asks Elizabeth to do the same. Watching it for my 5th or so time, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching some kind of dick measuring contest. It seemed to me that Frankenstein is aware that there is something between his friend and his lover and wants to remind Victor that he won’t put up with it. In addition to this slice of life, we get glimpses of the villagers and the servants. There is even a sampling of their class structure, when Baron Frankenstein won’t let his servants drink his nicest wine. All of this combined makes a world which feels much more real and vibrant.
Now, many prefer Bride because it had a bigger budget, more lavish sets, better filmic quality, great special effects, and a score, not to mention Dr Pretorius, Minnie the maid, and the Bride herself. It’s also got more funny scenes and the plot is a little… more than the first. More happens, is what I’m saying. These are all good things, and perhaps it is the better film, but I just enjoy the original more. Let’s start with the positives, shall we? For starters, I just love Dr Pretorius. He is flamboyant and hilarious, and very creepy when he’s lit from below. His gaunt features make him an odd looking guy to begin with, add his pomposity and dandy-esque mannerisms, you get a wonderfully fun villain, a precursor to Jeremy Irons’ Scar in The Lion King. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, although even he can’t compete with his tiny creatures. The effects are absolutely phenomenal, and the personalities given to each of the people in the jars make the whole scene just delightful.

On the subject of effects, the “it’s alive” scene in this film is even bigger and louder than the first time around, a tendency with sequels that continues to this day. It looks like they amped up the electrical/sciencey looking machines, and the sound of a beating heart provides the background noise, underneath the machines. However, add to those a love theme score, and you get something rather… inappropriate. Another Monster is about to be created, and the melody that plays in the same one used at the end when Henry and Elizabeth escape. The music for the Bride should be much more ominous, I feel – even if we had seen the Monster waiting expectantly for his mate, the love theme would have made sense, but I found it so distracting. However, the score in other places (particularly when the villagers chase the Monster through the forest, and the use of the “Ave Maria” in the hermit scenes) is very effective. The Monster’s make-up though, while still impressive is less frightening in the sequel. His eyes are more aware, and his cheeks less gaunt. He is still unmistakably the Monster we know and love, but he is not nearly as unnerving.

So hopefully I have made it clear that I do love this film and have huge respect for it – I dressed as the Bride for Halloween, after all – but I do have some issues. One of the biggest is the decision to give the Monster speaking abilities. Obviously, everyone realized that was a problem, since he loses that ability after Bride and never regains it. It does make him seem pathetic and childlike, since he can only speak in simplistic sentences, and I admit that his cries of “Friend?” and “She hate me!” do get sympathetic noises out of me, but I realize how much more I am being manipulated this time around. In the original, it’s up to Karloff to make the Monster sympathetic through gesture and expression, but now he sounds like a five year old, and it’s practically being shoved down our throats that we’re supposed to sympathize with him. I find it harder to sympathize though, since the death toll in this movie is higher and more senseless than in Frankenstein. The Monster kills Fritz and Waldman in self defence, and a little girl by accident, thinking she will float. He scares Elizabeth, but does her no real harm. He starts Bride by killing the dead girl’s parents for no reason, and later throws Karl off the roof. The audience knows that Karl killed someone, but the Monster, presumably doesn’t, and he just chucks him off the roof for – what? Getting in his way? He ends the movie by killing himself, Pretorius (okay, bad guy), the Bride, and presumably the other criminal working for Pretorius who was still on the roof. So why did the Bride need to die? She has been harmless, she got scared and looked to Frankenstein for help, showing no signs of aggression. She has a non-criminal brain, and looks human for the most part – she probably could have gotten away with faking humanity. You could argue that she is an abomination, I guess, but she didn’t really need to die.
Now, I would be remiss not to mention the other Universal sequels at this point. They become increasingly silly and reliant on having the Monster fight one of the other monsters, usually the Wolf Man. They’re ridiculous movies, but fun nonetheless, and prove that making endless sequels for money is no new thing in Hollywood. Henry Frankenstein does not return after Bride and the rest usually involve someone searching for his journal or records, which make me hope that the Monster in the book burned the diary along with himself. One of the highlights of the sequels is the addition of a character called Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but he’s actually not the “Igor” in the public consciousness. Lugosi’s Ygor is a murdering blacksmith who befriends the creature and uses him to get revenge on the men who condemned him to hang. Ygor survived a hanging, so his neck is broken, but he is not a hunchback. His first appearance is in the third film, Son of Frankenstein, and he is the highlight of the film, as he is both menacing and funny, while the Monster (the final time Karloff played the role) is sort of periphery and less threatening.
I’ve actually tried to figure out where the Igor stereotype originated, but the earliest example of a hunchbacked lab assistant by that name that I can find is in Mel Brooks’ brilliant Young Frankenstein. The first hunchback in a lab seems to be a brief glimpse in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Fritz, in the first Frankenstein fits the bill, but the name is wrong. It seems like Young Frankenstein would have been spoofing an existing stereotype though, so who knows where it started. Either way, that film is absolutely brilliant, whether or not you’ve seen the source material. It is obviously funnier when you get the joke, but there is enough absurdist humour to make it funny on its own. If I haven’t convinced you to see the Whale films, check out the parody, it’s just as good.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings about Frankenstein, I bet many of you are surprised that anyone could think about it this much. But I am good at overanalyzing stuff like this. Here’s one more picture of my costume so you can see my hair better (also I just love this picture), this time I am joined by Lieutenant Uhura and Party Cat.

Frankenblog, Or, My Blog Post on Frankenstein Part ONE

THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS: If you haven’t yet read Frankenstein and you’d like to remain spoiler-free, you should stop reading here.
As you’ve noticed if you’ve read much of this blog, I’m a bit of a nerd. I’m a fanboy for a few conventionally “nerdy” things, like Lord of the Rings and the works of Joss Whedon, but I am also a fangirl for all things Frankenstein. (Side bar: I just got back my third essay on the novel, and I got 85% on it. BAM). I have 3 pages of barely comprehensible notes on the subject in Microsoft Word. For your sakes, gentle readers, I will abridge my notes, but know that I could have written FAR more, but restrained for you. Yes, this is restraint when it comes to an AllisonRant(tm) – to give you an idea of what my rants sound like, here are some of my notes, unedited:
Upon being shunned by the De Laceys, rather than like sulk or something, he BURNS DOWN THEIR HOUSE. One botched attempt to join society, and I WILL KILL EVERYVUN IN ZE VORLD. Then he kills a kid. I can understand why he’s upset, and he deserves some vengeance, but jeez dude. He also learns blackmail remarkably quickly […] So really, who is good and who sucks!?!? I DON’T EVEN KNOW.

Bride has some good score moments (the forest where he is Jesus is really good) but the love theme when the bride comes down is just inappropes. It should be much more ominous, they’re making a monster and it’s SCIENCE.

Pity my housemates, they have to deal with me on a regular basis. Anyway, now for our feature presentation:
Oh wait, another interlude: I was planning on writing about all things Frankenstein but I had too much to say, so this is just about the book. Check back in a few days for another rant post about the Universal movies.

Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, but it was initially equal parts Gothic novel and social commentary. Its author, Mary Shelley, who was 18 years old when she published the novel, was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two important philosophers. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that this novel is about more than a dude testing the limits of science. I love it for all of the questions it raises, both obviously and in subtext.

Morality in regards to scientific experimentation is the most obvious theme, I think. The subtitle mentions Prometheus, immediately bringing to mind the dangers of scientific overreaching. The name “Frankenstein” frequently applied to any sketchy scientific endeavours, so it is obviously part of the public consciousness. The most interesting themes in the novel are the less talked-about, though. One of the major themes is that “monstrosity” is something created, not something innate or that can be the result of an “Abby Normal” brain. Unfortunately, this idea was more or less abandoned in the films, his aggression being the result of receiving a criminal brain. The book’s Monster becomes more humanized as the novel progresses, while his creator becomes less so. Granted, the Monster continues murdering people, but his motivations, gaining a friend or a mate, are distinctly human.
Fears related to parenthood, another theme of the novel, were very real to Mary Shelley, as both of her children born before the writing of Frankenstein died very young. Motherhood is incredibly important to the characters in the novel, since Victor and his Monster are lacking mothers, which seems to lead partially to their going astray. Victor is both parents to his Creation, and abandons him, essentially creating an orphan. The Monster is then effectively raised by the (admittedly unknowing) De Lacey family, who too are lacking a mother. The death of Victor’s mother seems one of the inciting actions of the novel, and he was apparently closer to his mother than he admits. The night of the Creature’s birth, Victor has a quasi-incestuous dream involving his mother, revealing that he may have had some serious mommy-issues.
One of my favourite questions in the book, and not one that is ever conclusively answered, is the status or “species” of the Monster. Victor initially claims to create “a human being” and “a new race,” so his opinion on the matter is unclear before he’s even begun. This Creature is clearly larger, stronger, and faster than humans are, so he should logically be superhuman. However, all of the characters in the novel, including the Monster himself, view him as something below humanity which can be killed with impunity. But it’s hard to see him as something whose death would be murder, as he is basically death incarnate. He is not created new; he is made of dead body parts, a life from death. Before his animation, this collection of limbs could be considered beautiful, but those illusions are dispelled when he looks at Victor with dead, watery, yellow eyes – eyes which have possibly seen beyond the grave. This Monster is a blending of birth and death, and his death seems necessary at certain points – but would that be murder? Obviously this isn’t the sort of situation I would encounter, but I love pondering the question, because I genuinely don’t know what’s right here. It’s stuff like this that makes me love supernatural fiction – what makes a monster or a man?
I find new things to think about and be interested in each time I read it (and I’ve read it three times now), so I could really write pages and pages about this, but I’ll spare you and stop here.
It saddens me, however, that many of my fellow students don’t share my love. While it’s fair for you to have a different opinion than I have, I feel obligated to defend the novel against some of the common criticism I have encountered.
Some really hate the language, and I can’t really help you there. It is Romantic, that is how novels were written – at least it isn’t long, and is pretty straightforward. You don’t get pages and pages of description or digression. I should also mention that Mary Shelley was 18 when she wrote this, so it’s pretty damn impressive.
It’s also possible that you read the 1831 version. The novel was initially published in 1818, but was revised to be much less radical for its re-release. It also puts more of the blame on fate than on the characters, which is partially why it’s interesting. So if you’re going to read it, MAKE SURE that you get the 1818 edition.
Okay so some people think that the Monster is a tad verbose, which I also can’t really deny. However, the story is told from his perspective, and his elevated diction gives him his own unique voice. It explains that he has read Paradise Lost and other novels from which he could learn his “thee/thou/thine” style of speaking. Since he never gets a name, his identity is forever hinged on his creator’s, and giving him distinct speech patterns is one of the ways he is able to distinguish himself as a separate entity. I suppose it is unbelievable that someone who has just learned to read would be able to read something as complex as Milton, but hey, this is science fiction – a certain degree of suspension of disbelief is required. That said, I can’t help but wonder how a giant cloak just happened to be in the forest when the Monster left Victor’s laboratory, and why Victor’s diary was inside, especially since he apparently wrote in it after he fainted…  And no one has ever satisfactorily explained what happens to Victor’s brother Ernest (in the 1818 version, at least).
This is the version I have…
It’s hard to find images for the book
Now, the biggest problem anyone seems to have is with Victor himself. Now, I agree with everyone – he is a ponce. However, I think he deserves some slack. The image most people have of Frankenstein is the Colin Clive model from the ‘30s films, a 30-something (or older) mad doctor, with the experience to know that what he is doing is very wrong – but he is 19 years old when he started, and no more than 20/21 when he finishes. He gets carried away by passion, and encouraged to test limits by his professor. He should know better, this is true, but he isn’t a wizened old scientist, he’s a student. It’s amazing, actually, how many professional literary theorists refer to him as “Doctor Frankenstein” when studying the work – he wasn’t even studying medicine! Personality-wise, he is wildly inconsistent, this is true, but the book could not happen any other way. He creates the Monster in a fit of wild passion, and the other major events of the book occur in the same way. He then grows up somewhat, but still stuck in this rut, and it slowly drives him mad.
His fits of passion frequently end when he faints and becomes sick – after the Monster’s birth, and after Clerval’s death, for example – much like the female victims of the Gothic novels that the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and co had been reading the summer the book was written. The largest female part in the book is Elizabeth, the love interest, but Victor essentially takes the role of the woman, according to the gender stereotypes of the time, especially since he is technically the “mother” of his progeny. Shelley is following in her feminist mother’s footsteps, subverting gender norms by conflating the distressed damsel and victim in her story.
In terms of the rest of the characters, okay, they aren’t terribly interesting or developed either – which is odd for me, since that’s normally an issue. I guess I’ll weaken my argument here and admit that I’m not sure why  it doesn’t bother me. Maybe the story is enough? Or the questions raised? I guess the relationships between the characters – at least between the Monster, Victor, and Walton, the sea captain – are interesting, since they all reflect each other in interesting ways. I have a whole spiel here on that topic, but I’ll skip it, since I’m getting quite verbose.  
Finally, people have called the story too didactic and black-and-white. Really? Some people (who I’d call boring) will say that Victor is clearly the bad guy in the story, but that’s too simple, I think. I mean, he does bad things, and he’s not a “good guy,” but I don’t think that the Monster gets that title either, based on his death toll. He is shunned by the De Laceys, and he gets upset, so he burns down their house. His one attempt to join society goes poorly, so he swears vengeance on the entire human race. He then proceeds to murder several more people, including a child, after which he frames another for the murder. He is a tragic character, but I can’t exactly call him the victim of the story. Victor’s family and friends are killed because he is an idiot – he is certainly partially responsible for their deaths (especially Justine’s), but it isn’t as though he created a robot or machine which killed people. The monster has options and agency, and he chooses murder, so he must take responsibility too. So the story doesn’t have a good or a bad guy, and no happy ending – no one, not even Walton, comes out of it satisfied. But I love that about it, there are so many gray areas. If you like your stories wrapped up in a neat package though, this isn’t for you.

See you in a few days when we’ll be discussing the film versions, particularly James Whale’s classics, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

"A naked American man stole my balloons" An American Werewolf in London

No matter how many times I see this movie, I will never grow tired of it. I’m going to write this with only a few minor spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe I can convince you to do so.

If you are a fan of horror or comedy, especially that of the late ’70s/early ’80s, this movie is necessary viewing. The film was written and directed by John Landis, the man behind The Blues BrothersAnimal House, Coming to America, and others. As such, while it is most assuredly a horror movie, it is hilarious. I can’t think of any other horror film which so successfully blends horror and comedy. I guess Shaun of the Dead does, but I’d say it is more comedy than horror.

Let’s start out with the technical stuff. The soundtrack is great, and swings more toward the comedy aspects. Landis chose only songs with the word “moon” in the title, leading to some great, appropriate music (the scene with “Moondance” is particularly effective), as well as moments of juxtaposition (like the transformation scene and the ending). The camera work has its moments of glory, such as David’s dream sequences (which I like to call “naked running montages”), when the camera takes on the POV of the wolf running through the forest. The camera often subs in for the werewolf, so that the audience sees the characters’ reactions to the monster, and the audience must fill in the horror with their imaginations. The low shots are particularly effective in the scene in the tube station, making the hallways look too long and claustrophobic.The script gets a bit melodramatic at times, as does the acting; however, the comedy scenes are fabulously written and acted, and make up for the few slips in the dramatic bits. There are, however, some effective dramatic scenes as well, and there is a particularly sweet scene in a phone booth, which I won’t spoil.

The audience can immediately feel the bromance between the protagonists, and their conversations are always fun to watch because they seem so natural. The Brits are well represented too, with a capable love interest, and a stiff doctor as the skeptic trying to get to the bottom of the werewolf nonsense. The supporting cast is full of memorable smaller parts – the guys in the pub, the detectives (especially the incompetent one), Frank Oz’s cameo as an American ambassador – and they all add to the film.

The humour is one of the things that separates this from other horror films, because the movie never loses it; there are constant jokes and gags against the dark and gruesome scenes. Don’t judge me if you haven’t seen it yet, but there are a few scenes with a porno film that are just hilarious. Those scenes also feature some of the best dark humour in the film, from situation and dialogue. This is the only horror movie that makes me laugh as much as it raises my heart rate, and all of the humour is intentional, unlike some cheesy-thus-hilarious horror movies.

Not just hilarious, as we would expect from John Landis, this movie is scary – it is a horror movie at heart. This movie understands how to use gore. It uses blood pretty liberally at times, but always for a purpose. With a few notable exceptions, we just get snippets of gore – a bloody severed hand on the ground, and that only for an instant. When it does get gory, it isn’t always just to be frightening. The scene in the hospital room (you know which one I’m talking about if you’ve seen it) uses gore liberally to evoke a sense of the uncanny. Everything is nearly normal – the characters act like their normal selves – but there’s something a bit off, and the gore is there to keep you feeling that eeriness. You can’t get used to it, because you can’t take your eyes off of that little flap of skin… I’ll stop here lest I spoil any more, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene in the tube station, which is one of the most intense chase scenes I have ever seen.

On top of all of that, you’ve got basically the best werewolf transformation scenes in cinema history. The Oscars invented a category for make up effects that year to award Rick Baker, the make up genius behind the movie. He just won his seventh Oscar for that godawful Wolfman  remake, wherein his talents were underused, and he worked on the Cantina scene in Star Wars. So a pretty accomplished guy. He used puppet and make up to make this excruciatingly long and painful transformation which is still impressive today. You actually get that feeling of “how did they do that” which is so rare now, unless you can understand the computer programs used to create CG effects. You know how nerds (like me) complain about CGI these days? It’s because of movies like this. (Here is an example of his effects, but it’s pretty gory, I don’t want to scare anyone who’s squeamish).

I guess I should admit now that I have a soft spot for werewolf movies, mainly because they tend to consolidate antagonist and protagonist. What’s more frightening than realizing that you are the villain, in a not-split-personality kind of way? These days, you’ll see many tortured vampires with guilty pasts as protagonists, but those movies tend to have evil vamps as well, and the broody vampire is the good guy who has to fight them. Werewolf movies like this one are a bit more ambiguous, I guess. He’s a sort of Jekyll/Hyde figure, where you know that the werewolf isn’t technically the “human” character you see the rest of the time, but that character is still violently killing people at some point in the movie. So what do you do about that? If evil is the nice guy next door, that’s scary – you find yourself questioning or not trusting other people. But if evil is YOU… How do you deal with that? It all becomes very morally ambiguous, and I love that.

I love good werewolf movies, and I’d say that this is the best one I’ve ever seen. Check it out.

"A boy’s best friend is his mother" A Love-Letter to Psycho

Last night my housemates and I watched Psycho together, providing me another reminder of why that movie rocks. It is especially fun/scary watching it in our house, since from our couch, you can see our neighbour’s creepy window:
“As if I could do anything but just sit and stare”
When Te and I watched the movie on Halloween, the lights were all out, we were huddled together under a blanket because it was freezing, and suddenly the light in that window went on – and someone was standing there, terrifying both of us. We have referred to it as “the Psycho window” ever since.
Since I have nothing else to write about at the moment, I will write a love letter to Psycho.
 If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, stop reading here. And go watch it now.
First of all, Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of the greatest, most recognizable in film history. From the opening credits, you get this immense sense of foreboding – even though it doesn’t seem much like a horror movie for about half an hour. The violent violins, paired with the choppy, fractured opening sequence, foreshadow the fragmented villain’s mind, and create tension right from the beginning.

The camera work is also stunning. The infamous shower scene has been written about a hundred times, but with good reason. It may not seem as frightening by today’s standards, but for its time, it was horrific. The rapid cuts and Herrmann’s score gives it a sense of crazed urgency, and it’s still tense to watch, even though we all know it’s coming before we see the movie. My favourite scene for camera work – actually, my favourite scene period – is the parlour scene, where we really get to see Norman’s crazy side. The room is full of birds, which are framed differently, reflecting the conversation. When Norman begins talking about his mother, an owl hovers over his shoulder, and doesn’t leave until the conversation changes again. By the end of the scene, a crow looks over Marion’s shoulder, and birds of prey frame Norman’s face. After Marion’s death, Norman knocks over the picture of a small bird in her motel room, and he uses tentative, bird-like motions at many crucial points in the film. If you haven’t already, watch the film again, and watch out for any references to birds, whether visually, like stuffed birds and suggestive gestures, or audibly – Marion “eats like a bird”, and her last name is Crane.

The script has some flaws (notably the exposition scene at the end, but more on that later), but over-all it is wonderfully quotable, and perfectly paced. The aforementioned parlour scene is a perfect example: through dialogue, Norman goes slowly from awkward but sweet boy-next-door too insane dude with serious mommy issues.  There is a lot of subtext, both in the dialogue and in the camera work, but the incestuous implications really keep this movie disturbing. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think that Norman and his mother (or her corpse) ever engaged in actual sexual acts, but there was undoubtedly sexual jealousy there.  He was still “all Norman” when he murdered his mother and her lover – while they were in bed together – and I severely doubt that he was just jealous of the attention/time she was giving this guy. Unfortunately though, “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”.

The Macguffin and its usage in this film is one of Hitchcock’s best, in my opinion. The $40 000 dollars (about $2 million today, or so I’m told) drive the plot for the first half of the movie. The assumption is that it will continue to do so. However, the main antagonist doesn’t only ignore the cash, he doesn’t even know about it – and it goes down in the swamp with his victim’s car. Hitchcock just takes all of the viewers’ assumptions and expectations about where the film is going, and chucks them out the window. You’ve watched this mostly sympathetic everywoman as the protagonist, and she’s suddenly dead – so what happens now? We don’t notice on a conscious level, but that is upsetting for movie viewers. The twist ending (even though most of us know it now, whether we’ve seen the movie or not) is respectable, and hadn’t been done to death when the movie came out. The skeleton spinning around in the chair is still effectively chilling, even if you know it is coming.

The acting is mostly quite good. John Gavin is pretty wooden, but Sam isn’t a particularly interesting character anyway. Janet Leigh makes Marion sympathetic, but not weak or helpless – despite the fact that she’s a thief, you’re rooting for her. She’s wonderful in the shower scene too, especially the final shot where it zooms out from her eye – so unsettling. Vera Miles and Martin Balsam do their jobs as Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective investigating her case. But this movie is really all about Tony Perkins, who carries it beautifully. I don’t think I need to say much about why – if you’ve seen it you know how he is scary and crazy and sympathetic and kind of cute the entire time.

I also like both of the Crane sisters – they’re feminine, but without being the helpless damsel-in-distress types. They make their own decisions, and contribute to the plot beyond being love interests/murder victims.

My only complaint about the film is the awful expository monologue by the detective at the end. It’s poorly written, poorly delivered, and mostly unnecessary. I can understand wanting to explain some of the psychology to viewers, but I feel like most of it was pretty obvious. Not to mention, it’s written like a bad detective movie from the 40’s, and is delivered in the same manner, which feels hugely out of place. However, apparently some disagree with me, and feel that it is helpful in summing up the movie, so maybe it is useful. Either way, the scene is followed by the “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene, with Perkins staring psychotically into the camera – and the superimposition of Mother’s skull over his face leaves you feeling chilled, negating the effects of that crap detective scene.

The final shot of the car being pulled from the swamp means that Marion’s family can recover her body, the money can be returned, and the status quo essentially resumed. But Norman Bates is still out there, so who’s to say something like this couldn’t happen again? With no ghosts or evil birds, this is one of Hitchcock’s scariest but also most plausible films, and certainly a classic in his oeuvre and in all of horror film.