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Feb 23, 2011
LET ME IN:  The Return of Hammer and The Spirit of Val Lewton

Wasn’t it spine tingling to watch the beginning of LET ME IN and see that gigantic Hammer logo with many of the classic images from its heyday drawn inside the letters!  And then we observed the beginning title credit sequence, “A Hammer Films Production,” one more time after its decades absence.

The new reborn-from-the-ashes Hammer has nothing to do with the old company, except its sense of commitment to quality horror movie cinema. Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish horror oddity LET THE RIGHT ONE IN from a few years ago demonstrates that in rare instances the remake can equal or perhaps even surpass the original.  At least for me the Hammer remake resonates more.  I respected the original but was held at an emotional distance; here, I feel the angst and growing pains of the two young characters that hook me emotionally.

And when I watch LET ME IN I see both the integrity of the better Hammer productions alongside the spirit of Val Lewton.  I know, I know, Val Lewton is revered for his understatement and subtlety.  Why show the gruesomeness of horror when shadows, loud sounds and psychological inner dread say it best.

I maintain the Lewton spirit is just as much about a malevolent tone, an ambiguity of morality where innocent victims do not actually understand the rightness or wrongness of the situation in which they find themselves.  We have Irena, from CAT PEOPLE, who keeps herself chaste and abstinent as to not arouse the monster inside, so she can both protect and love her newlywed husband.  Yet her inability to consummate her relationship only drives her husband into the arms of another woman.  In THE SEVENTH VICTIM we have heroine Jacqueline Gibson try to protect her younger sister Mary (Kim Hunter) from the urban horrors of Satanism.  Mary, who comes from a sequestered private school, is a lamb in the lion’s den (or panther’s cage?), no match for the obscenities to be found in the shadowy streets of Greenwich Village.  So at the end of the story, the cult closing in, Jacqueline takes the only way out she can, suicide by hanging, which ends this bleak emotional roller coaster ride.  In CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, young child Amy Reed, daughter of Irena, must cope with the horrors of growing up.  Her fantasy world protects her from the harsh realities of life, something her father Ollie fears, believing insanity and fantasy killed his former wife.  Amy gravitates to the eccentric actress Julia Farren, her neighbor, whose daughter Barbara (the excellent Elizabeth Russell) is as alienated from her own mother (who seems lost in the clouds of dementia) as Amy is from her own father.  The heartbreak of waking up and discovering that none of her school chums are attending her birthday party is pretty devastating.  Of course the fact that the invitations were never properly mailed explains the reality of the situation, but not its emotional reverberations as Amy’s “friends” continue to taunt and ridicule the child.  To me these themes constitute the Lewton aesthete as much as subtlety of vision.

let me in

Yes, the Lewton films, existing 70 years ago, were tame and subtle and generally did not show monsters, fiends or the undead.  LET ME IN does that in spades.  But the intense aura of dread and psychological horror that appeared in the Lewton oeuvre 70 years ago is channeled loud and clear in the Hammer remake.  Kudos to young director Matt Reeves, the same director who made CLOVERFIELD a few years back employing a shaky hand held video camera to record the action.  Here, doing a 180 degree turn, Reeves is the master of old school cinema, using a stationary camera and close-ups held long to compose his world of snowy vampirism in New Mexico.

Just like with THE SEVENTH VICTIM, we experience a world of ambivalent morality where it is difficult to tell right from wrong.  Just as author John Gardner reworked, in 1972, the classic Anglo-Saxon epic poem BEOWULF, rewriting the story from the monster Grendel’s point of view, reminding us that Grendel, a child, ate human beings as food, much the same as humans lived off the “flesh” of fish.  In LET ME IN 12-year-old Abby (yes, she is much older but is trapped inside the body of a child victim) sadly confesses to her new friend Owen that she needs fresh blood to live.  Yes, her feral transformations into an ultra-strong and fast demonic being are horrifying.  When she attacks her victims, she is ferocious, ending up totally covered in the blood of her victims.  But wise-in-years but young-in-appearance Abby seems more the victim of involuntary mortality.  The appearance of the child walking barefoot in the snow only heightens her vulnerability.  Abby kills to survive and, unfortunately, she feeds on humans.  But just as Grendel elicited different points of view (monster or sad victim?), so does Abby.

Two telling sequences summarize what is outstanding about this coming-of-age vampire movie. Even though Irena and Ollie were adults in CAT PEOPLE, I see the relationship between the two 12 year olds very similar in LET ME IN.  We have Abby terrified to be aroused in front of the boy she befriends, just as Irena denied sex to her husband in CAT PEOPLE because she feared harming him. The first sequence is when Owen and Abby go down to their cellar hiding place and he slices his thumb with a knife before Abby, undergoing the childhood ritual of becoming blood brothers/sisters with a close friend.  When Abby sees the blood oozing from his thumb, flowing onto the floor, she looses control and reverts to her demonic self.  However, even when aroused, she will not harm Owen.  Running full throttle out of the cellar, she climbs a tree and sees an apartment resident and her cat walk past underneath.  With silent determination she pounces below and devours both human and cat, satisfying her newly aroused blood lust.  However the telling moment is her ability to distinguish between her chosen victims, demonstrating her loyalty to Owen.  She is indeed a blood-sucking monster, but she is also a human being with a heart.  She is both predator and victim.

The second pivotal sequence involves the second time that Abby appears at Owen’s apartment, where she again reminds him that he must ask her in so she can enter, according to vampire lore.  For a moment he is horrified by what Abby has done and does not invite her in, but she enters the room anyway.  Within seconds her body begins to quiver and blood begins to erupt from her scalp and cover her face.  In shock Owen grabs and hugs his friend and states out loud that she invites her in.  Within seconds Abby returns to normal and states that she knew Owen wouldn’t allow her to be harmed.  She trusted in his good heart. In an earlier similar test of friendship, Owen offers Abby candy that she first refuses.  However, for friendship’s sake she eats some, vomiting as soon as the two of them go outside the store.  Abby knew eating the candy would make her deadly sick, but for the sake of her friend she consumes some.

Just like little Amy from CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, Owen is an outcast with his peers at school, but while the nasty actions of Amy’s school mates was minor in the Lewton film, here in LET ME IN Owen is tortured and tormented and almost killed by his bullies.  He is bullied in the bathroom, given an almost castrating "wedgie," held under water in the school pool by a tormentor and carried almost naked by a gang of his peers and thrown into the pool.  He is called a girl (he does have almost feminine features) and his tormentors want to see his penis as proof that he is indeed a male.  And remember Owen is only 12 years old.  In the climatic sequence, Abby returns to slaughter a poolful of his tormentors while Owen is held underwater, glancing underwater to his side to see the decapitated head of one of the bullies float past.  In the Lewton style, the carnage and bloodshed occurs above the water with screams and splashing bodies dragged to and fro as seen from below, but other than the floating head, the carnage is more suggested than shown.

When was the last time you saw a modern horror movie that truly got under your skin and made you think and feel about the characters who occupied that world?  Owen and Abby are similar outcasts who fight back in order to survive.  Abby tells Owen you must fight back and hit them hard, and when Kenny, the chief tormentor, threatens Owen one time too many, Owen uses a metal pole to whack Kenny hard in the side of the head, taking part of his ear off.  He too must resort to violence in order to survive.  But the evil that Kenny and the bullies evoke seems far more insidious than the survival killings of Abby.  Ambivalent morality, deep questions about truly right and wrong acts seem watered down to simple blacks and whites in most horror movies (vampires are evil and vampire slayers are good, with no middle ground in between).  LET ME IN features a quietly intense musical score, almost classical in sections, composed by Michael Giacchino, that truly benefits the movie’s atmosphere.  Director Reeves allows long stretches of close-ups on faces and eyes. The camera studies the intensity of the eyes of Abby’s adult companion, who pretends to be her father, and who stalks victims and drains their blood into plastic jars. During such killings he wears a trash bag over his head and the camera focuses on his eyes as he lies in wait.  The movie features long stretches of conversation, accented by stark visual backgrounds of malaise and despondency.  Even Owen’s sexual awakening is illustrated as he sneaks a look, through a telescope, at other couples who live in his run-down apartment complex, one such couple preparing to make love, the woman’s one breast fully exposed.  When the puberty-bound Owen befriends Abby, he probably has more than friendship on his mind.   And it is this intense childhood relationship that propels the Hammer remake above and beyond the Swedish original.

At the end of the movie, Owen has left home and is aboard a train, a trunk with Abby hiding inside by his feet.  The two communicate by Morse code, Owen tapping on the trunk and Abby responding.  Whether Owen is bound to grow up and become the new “father” who acquires blood for Abby is never made clear.  Right now we see two eccentric, lonely and alienated people bounding together to help one another survive.  And at this point the morality meter is pointing toward the positive and not the negative, as the movie ends at the perfect moment.

While this new incarnation of Hammer horror forges new ground, it proudly remembers its proud legacy.  What an outstanding movie to inaugurate the new rebirth of Hammer!  And Matt Reeves plays homage, whether knowingly or not, to the best RKO Val Lewton productions of the 1940s.  Stephen King calls LET ME IN the best horror movie of the past 20 years, and compared to all the others, he very well might be right.  After too many years of Hollywood-produced horror movie product, catering to date night adolescents who only want a non-thinking roller coaster ride with plenty of horrific special effects, it is refreshing to experience an artistic horror movie geared to adults that wants us to think and feel.  Isn’t it about time!


December 24, 2010
Prices Escalating: 
What Does RE-MASTERED mean?

The Warner Archive Collection has been thriving for one year now and the controversy continues.  Collectors should note that before the Archive Collection started, classic movies were often sold in box sets (such as the Gangster and Film Noir Collections that Warner Bros. released) that hit the streets for around $40 to $50, or about $5-$7 per movie.  Now, the Archive Collection offers something similar to home spun DVD-R’s for $20 (or more) a pop.  Many voice concern that DVD-R’s that play well today might not track so well in future ever-evolving DVD player technology.

Me, I’ve always been and continue to be a huge supporter of the Warner Archive concept, the idea of providing manufactured-on-demand movies much in the same way as Midnight Marquee Press caters to print-on-demand books.  Yes, when a limited number of books or movies are produced to order, the per unit cost will naturally be much higher, as these titles are limited release niche titles and hundreds, not thousands, of consumers might be purchasing them.  Let’s face it, fans will buy a film noir collection featuring OUT OF THE PAST or other classic titles, or even lesser titles featuring major stars.  But once the prime film noir titles have been released, will collectors support all the rest?  The true film noir fan would want the lesser titles as well.  But instead of selling to a mainstream clientele, such limited interest titles would only appeal to a smaller die-hard crowd.    That is where the so-called Archive Collection titles are so essential.  For me a film such as STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is pretty mainstream, starring Peter Lorre in one of his essential movies, and STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is considered by many to be either the first film noir or an important precursor to the noir canon.  Even though the title has never been released on DVD, the Warner Archive Collection is selling the title as a “re-mastered” title, and that means it sells for five dollars more. 

Humm.  Re-mastered implies that the title had been released beforehand in a less desirable format.  It implies that Warner Archive went back and either found superior source material or paid to digitally restore a less than desirable digital print.  While some of the re-mastered titles had appeared early on in the selection of titles the Warner Archive Collection initially released, most of the re-mastered titles, such as STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, have only been released in their so-called re-mastered format.  Most of the Archive Collection titles appear to be generally superior looking and sounding, quite comparable to the quality of classic titles released in mainstream versions for the past several years.  So what exactly makes a re-mastered title a re-mastered title, and what necessitates a list price of $25, five dollars more than regular Archive Collection titles?  Is this simply a sneaky way for Warner Archive to slip a price increase by the consumer, all in the name of the so-called desirable “re-mastered” quality movie?  Hopefully, Warner Archive won’t be selling all of its new titles in re-mastered $25 versions.  Not for a bare bones DVD-R version of the movie with perhaps, at most, a trailer included.  No additional extras ever appear, not even audio commentaries.  When considering what the market will bear, charging $25 for these limited release old chestnuts is pushing the classic movie collector to the limit.

All the re-mastered titles thus far are not necessarily high interest or essential (Lon Chaney, Jr. starring as THE CYCLOPS???).  Selling the Archive titles for $20 is fair but fair at the high end of consideration.  I think these titles deserve to sell for something closer to $15.  But seeing the recent $25 re-mastered titles emerge has angered me.  Warner Archive hit pay dirt with this novel idea of limited release titles and customers have supported the concept with their wallets and enthusiasm.  But instead of rewarding the collector, Warner Archive is now thinking of new ways to charge even more money for single titles and this is very off-putting.  Complain as I may, I will continue to support Warner Archive by buying titles that I want.  If Warner Bros. closes its vault, many of these titles will never see release.

Sure, Warner Archive does have occasional sales where a specific genre titles are 25 to 30% off, and this really makes purchases more affordable and signals it is time to load up on the more expensive ones.  That makes STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR a gotta-have-it when sale priced at around $18.  And the majority of the titles that normally sell for $20 are even more appealing at 30% off.  True, when Warner Archive sells box sets the cost is always a bargain.  I bought the entire Gordon Scott Tarzan collection, six films, for $60.  Ten bucks a title is truly a bargain.  And recently Warner Archive came out with a wonderful Horror-Mystery Double Features Collection that sold for $18.  In this package were six rare titles including FIND THE BLACKMAILER, THE SMILING GHOST, SH!  THE OCTOPUS, THE HIDDEN HAND, MYSTERY HOUSE and THE PATIENT IN ROOM 18.  None of these titles are classics, but most of them are rarely seen B mystery-horror programmers, titles that fans have clamored for ages to own.  And to own all six movies for less than $20 is a real deal.  So Warner Archive sometimes offers the fan a bargain.  Even though they are priced at a list price of $25, it was nice to see the Archive Collection offer THE CYCLOPS, Allison Hayes in THE DISEMBODIED, William Castle’s MACABRE and the cult classic THE HYPNOTIC EYE for Halloween. Too bad Warner Archives did not release all four titles in a box set lower-priced package.  Think about it, these four schlock titles for $100 is a tad steep.  However, Warner Archives did offer a Halloween sale that brought the titles down 30%.  But paying full price, $25, for THE CYCLOPS is asking the horror fan to dig pretty deeply into his pockets for a cheapjack production.  I mean, I purchased a Blu-ray disc of THE EXORCIST for less than that (and the Blu-ray for PSYCHO went for under $20 when released).  But a DVD-R of Bert I. Gordon goes for $25!

The bottom line is that many titles that had mainstream release (think of the box set that featured FRANKENSTEIN 1970) a year ago will only receive Archive made-to-order release today, since the niche genre collector is willing to pay more for those limited-interest titles.  Unfortunately Warner Archives realizes what a good thing they have going, and if they can charge $25 for a title that they formerly could only charge $7 in a bundled collection, well, they aren’t going to miss the opportunity to profit from the consumer.

The success of the Warner Archive Collection only led to Columbia Pictures offering their own Archive Collection series, called Columbia Classics—Screen Classics by Request.  Besides offering many rare film noir titles, such as 711 OCEAN DRIVE and THE LONG HAUL, Columbia also made available some horror/sci-fi gems such as A STUDY IN SCARLET, THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE, 12 TO THE MOON and THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED.  Most of the Jungle Jim features are also available.  And these titles sell for just under $20.  So the success of such Archive made-to-order studio collections seems to be on the upswing.  Complain if you will, but finally being able to buy movies such as THE 27TH DAY and 30-FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK is an exciting moment for many fans.  Now 20th Century Fox is offering a small sampling of classic MGM movies as “made-on-demand” releases that sell for $20 each.  So the trend is spreading to most of the major studios (remember even Universal released a few made-to-order titles last Christmas).

As they say, it’s only money!  But keeping the cost to $20 or under is to me essential.  What fans flock to today in the heat of initial enthusiasm may not linger two years down the road.  Both Warner Bros., Fox, Universal and Columbia need to continue to unearth rare titles, keep releasing films at a regular pace and sell such titles at a price that the market not only can bear but that the collector can embrace as being fair.  Warner and Columbia have a good thing going and the fan base, though complaining, is very supportive of rare titles being released.  Studios must offer the consumer a fair market price, and the collector must continue to support their efforts to open up their vaults to the movie public.  Handled fairly, it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. 


Oct 15, 2010
Blu-ray and the Home Theater Ideal —The Deception of Perception

First of all, I am sorry for the lapse in my blogging. During the summer vacation Sue kept me busy with many Midnight Marquee projects and my time to blog was minimal. Then the beginning of the new school year began and I was once again inundated. But things have settled down to normalcy and I hope to return to my blogging of twice per month. Also I am nearing completion on the latest issue of MAD ABOUT MOVIES and hope to have it available by the end of the year. Today’s issue at hand… When home theater enthusiasts convert to Blu-ray, they do so in hopes to bring the theatrical movie experience back to their home, so that they can recreate the grandeur of how that movie looked and sounded when first seen. Blu-ray might not be as effective as 35mm projection or as high resolution as 4k digital projection in state-of-the-art theaters. But for the home, Blu comes darn close. One controversy that has divided home theater enthusiasts has been the decision by many studios and distribution companies to remove the 35mm photographic grain from Blu-ray releases of movies digitally. Or at least remove most of the grain, leaving the finished product looking as though it had been filmed with digital cameras and not film. Perhaps, in the future, as more and more movies are photographed digitally, grain might not be an issue. But the controversy came to a head when PREDATOR was released recently on Blu-ray with most, if not all, of the grain removed, leaving the tropical setting and the faces of its cast resembling CGI human beings (approximating the look of video games) and digitized versions of real life locations. Other classic movies released with grain reduction include THE LONGEST DAY and PATTON. In my immediate movie crowd, all of whom are people who saw Cinerama, CinemaScope, Todd AO and 70mm projection in its golden exhibition heyday, the opinion is divided. In other words, people who study and love the look of film projected properly in movie palaces of the past do not always agree on how films should look when released to Blu-ray. And this crowd raved over the pours seen in the faces, the tweed pattern of the material in coats and the sharpness and depth of field that left spectaculars breathless in such grain-erased releases such as PATTON and THE LONGEST DAY. Yet, the same sort of film fan has screamed that grain removal is a sin of the most severe sort when it comes to 35mm film projection vs. Blu-ray digital projection at home. These enthusiasts remind us that film is grain and that when companies digitally remove the grain they are removing the very essence of what film is. Film is grain, and some directors tend to over-emphasize it (such as can be seen in the recent release of THE EXORCIST on Blu-ray), especially in many classic movies of the 1970s where gritty realism and muted color became the rage. Many home theater audiences complain that the grain seems to draw too much attention and tends to undermine the advantages of high definition presentation. When audiences expect sharp definition and crisp color, the over-abundance of film grain tends to make movies less colorful, less sharp and generally smeary. Yet, go back and watch these movies in revival house theaters and remember just how much grain is apparent in many of these classic movies. On one hand audiences want the movie theater experience recreated verbatim, yet, on the other hand, sometimes we remember movies differently in our minds today than how we thought they looked in the theaters way back when. And this deception of perception might be at the very heart of the problem. It harkens back to the controversy—just think how heated this discussion was at one point—between releasing movies panned-and-scanned or letterboxed in the actual aspect ratio they were released theatrically. Of course it took high definition TV and its conversion from a square 4:3 ratio screen to the new standard of the widescreen 16:9 ratio to convince people that a director framed a movie to look a certain way and that letterboxing is the only accurate way of watching a movie. Today we have those who want a pristine unblemished presentation of a movie instead of the filmic look it had theatrically. Perhaps the best solution is to meet somewhere in the middle. Even when grain is included in home video releases, we must remember that we are not watching 35mm projection at home, we are experiencing digital projection. While today’s home televisions and projectors come damn close to 35mm projection quality, it is not film that is being projected. So perhaps the inclusion of grain without overdoing its effect might be the way to go. Most of us don’t want grain to be a cinematic blemish that draws attention to itself, but at the same time we want to be reminded that what we are watching was shot on film (today’s digitally photographed films are of course the exception) and that even if we watch a movie projected digitally, we still need to be reminded that film stock has a different look than video. Thus the big bugaboo with archival restoration and re-mastering of classic movies involves how much grit should remain and how much of a digital sheen is necessary. Among people who know these movies and know the look of good 35mm projection vs. digital projection, the decision is not always an easy choice. And where artists struggle to recreate the truth, the truth for one man may not be the truth for another. Truly, the art of the motion picture is in the eye of the beholder. And some tolerance and compromise is needed whenever restoration decisions are made.