The anthology format has never fit with any other film genre the way in which it has been embraced by horror. I haven’t really explored many anthologies during my previous Horrorfests. Frankly, anthology films are all too often sub par. But this year, I seem to have started a bit of a new tradition for anthologies with the inclusion of the anthology series “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” (to be discussed in a future report). Also, just released to DVD for the first time is the feature-length film of the classic horror anthology television show “Twilight Zone: The Movie”.
In past Horrorfests I have looked at some older B-movies and even Z-movies from AMC’s horror anthology DVD releases “AMC Monsterfest”. I looked at another film from the series this year. And I’ve never quite been able to figure out just how to deal with television episodes that I may have watched during the month of Horrorfest which might relate.
I’m including all these highlights from this year’s festival, plus a look at the wonderful IFC documentary on horror films of the late 60’s and 70’s “The American Nightmare”, in a unique collection of odds and ends in this very essay.
I have been a fan of the television series “The X-Files” ever since I used to go home from college on the weekends and find myself at my friend Jud’s sister’s house for a younger version of family holidays. We offspring would gather at those times that generally were meant for family gatherings to inject a little bit of pier sanity into the holidays. Emily and Osian were hardcore X-Fanatics who recorded every episode of the then fledgling series. Long before DVDs and the current television DVD phenomenon, it was something to see people so devoted to a series they would stack their walls with VHS tapes dedicated to capturing every airing.
I started watching the sci-fi series soon after I was introduced to it by Em and Os. And I cursed their names after I had dropped some seven hundred dollars or so collecting the entire series on DVD as they were released. Being one of the first TV series to grace DVD, the industry hadn’t yet learned to price them as affordably as you can find TV DVD today. But the success of TV DVD certainly can be attributed in part to the success of that particular series on DVD.
Most recently I watched a 7th season episode titled “The Goldberg Variation”, which refers to a case of a man graced with extremely good luck. The man in this episode of “X-Files”, however, does not look at his good luck as a gift, but rather a curse. He’s trying to get a sum of cash for a reason I will not disclose here, but seems to be going about it in a very roundabout way for someone who could just walk into the local cigarette shop and buy himself a winning lottery ticket by way of his extremely good luck. This guy’s problem is that for every bit of good luck he receives, the people around him seem to pay with bouts of extremely bad luck. A mobster has a contract out on his life, but his goons can’t seem to get the job done because they cannot survive their own attacks on the guy.
“X-Files” became known most for its “mythology” episodes, which told the ongoing story of Agent Mulder’s and Agent Scully’s struggle within the FBI to learn the truth behind a supposed alien invasion in which high members of the FBI were duplicitous. But it is the quirky one-off episodes, like this one, that really make this television series an enjoyable entertainment and emphasize the elements of sci-fi and horror upon which the series is based. There is a great deal of humor incorporated into the series and the relationship of the two leads make it a television landmark deserving a look from horror enthusiasts.
The 1962 Z-movie horror flick “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” is not good cinema. With its terrible acting, sets that look as if they were cobbled together in someone’s basement, and a less than compelling storyline about a surgeon who has developed a method to keep the brain alive even when the body has died, this film is an unfortunate representation of the quality of many a horror flick. Even today, the reason studios produce so many horror films each year is that they are easy to make cheaply and can appeal to an audience without much promotion or favorable reviews.
It has become a fairly common practice for studios not to screen films they suspect will not be well received for critics. In 2006, major Hollywood studios more than doubled the amount of films not screened for critics from any previous year. This year that number of films was matched by mid-summer. In most cases, these films not screened for critics are of the horror genre, although the studios are now beginning to follow suit with other genre films, like gross-out comedies and spoofs. It is a bit frightening to think that studios can have so little confidence in the quality of their products yet no fear that it will make any difference with audiences.
Now, I’m sure back in 1962 “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” was not pre-screened for critics. But many promotional practices were different back then and the film was hardly the product of a major studio. It was one of a plethora of releases from the widely popular independent distributor American International Pictures (AIP), which released a wide variety of cult favorites, ranging widely in quality. AIP brought classic film adaptations of such literary classics as “Julius Caesar” and “Wuthering Heights” to American audiences as well as distributing Martin Scorsese’s first film “Boxcar Bertha”, but titles like “The Thing with Two Heads” and “Black Mama, White Mama” were the studio’s staple. Certainly they had little confidence in “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, since that isn’t even the title of the film in its own credits. Its real title was “The Head That Wouldn’t Die”. “Brain” does sound the slightest bit more interesting. Don’t you think?
IFC has produced a number of documentaries over the past few years chronicling independent filmmaking in a variety of genres and time periods, including “Baadasssss Cinema”, “Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema”, “The Spaghetti West”, “A Decade Under the Influence” and “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession”. While these docs make for great montages and good chronicles of their respective subjects, “The American Nightmare” is by for the most in depth investigation into the motivations behind the films studied in any of these docs.
In my previous Horrorfest report “Nothing is What It Seems”, I discussed how the horror genre is often used as a vehicle for directors to comment on matters other than the literal horror depicted. “The American Nightmare” is a testament to that fact. Although, as director Tobe Hooper observes, it is often decades later before it becomes apparent just what is being reflected about the world in which these films were made.
“The American Nightmare” shows interviews with the ‘70’s greatest independent horror maestros, including Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, John Landis, and creature designer Tom Savini. The doc takes focus on one film from each of the directors, except for Landis whose “An American Werewolf in London” did not release until 1981. Romero is the only director with two films featured, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), but they are perhaps the most important of the lot. Other films featured include “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Hooper, 1974), “The Last House on the Left” (Craven, 1972), “Shivers” (Cronenberg, 1975), and “Halloween” (Carpenter, 1978).
Writer/director Adam Simon isn’t interested in the making of these horror classics or even the scares contained within them. Simon focuses more on the events that were going on in the world at the time these films were made. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, American consumerism, and the sexual revolution dominate the stories these directors have to tell about the times their films reflected. These underlying subjects are what have turned these films into enduring classics.
It is surprising to see filmmakers speaking so intelligently about their projects and the world that birthed them when compared to the vapid DVD making of documentaries you see accompanying movies today. John Carpenter even apologizes for ruining everything with “Halloween”. That movie’s amazing success spurred the copycat filmmaking and slew of dead teenager plotlines that still dominate the genre more than twenty years later.
My only regret about this doc is that Simon didn’t study more of these directors’ outputs from that era. It would have been nice to see more about the inspiration for such films as Cronenberg’s “The Brood” (1979), “Scanners” (1981), and “Videodrome” (1983); Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) and “Deadly Blessing” (1981); Hooper’s “Eaten Alive” (1977) and “Poltergeist” (1982); Carpenter’s “The Fog” (1980) and “The Thing” (1982); and Landis’s aforementioned “An American Werewolf in London”. Of course, by the time many of these films came along, these independent directors were working for the major studios.
Speaking of John Landis, Warner Bros. has finally released the Landis produced anthology project “Twilight Zone: The Movie”. As a Steven Spielberg fan, I have been waiting for a long time for this release, since he directed one of the four segments. Landis helmed the first segment and the fun prologue (which can be viewed below). The final two segments were helmed by Joe Dante (“The Howling”) and George Miller (“The Road Warrior”).
This feature film based on the classic sci-fi/horror anthology television series had a shadow cast over it when an on set helicopter crash took the lives of star Vic Morrow and two child actors. Although Warner Bros. went ahead with the theatrical release of the film, the production company was bogged down for some six years afterward in court trails to determine who, if anyone, was at fault for the accident. Landis was the primary target of the legal process, and the suit went a ways toward derailing this talented director’s career.
Because of the anthology format, the tragedy had little effect on the film itself. Landis’s segment about a bigot who relives integral time periods of his prejudiced views does seem cut short, not having each prejudice fully played out, but ends in a way typical of an anthology entry with the existing film footage. Surprisingly, Spielberg’s entry is the weakest of the bunch, telling an upbeat story about folks in a nursing home reliving their youth. The final two segments are the best of the bunch, with Dante telling the story of a kid with the power to make anything he imagines a reality and Miller retelling the classic “Twilight Zone” story “Nightmare at 20,000 ft.” starring John Lithgow in the William Shatner role of a paranoid airline passenger who spots a gremlin tearing apart the wing of the plane.
Despite the amazing talent involved in the film, from directors to actors, Warner Bros. has been very cautious with it throughout the years because of the accident. The DVD release is bare bones, only including the original theatrical teaser along with the film. It seems a production like this would have a treasure trove of material for bonus features even without touching upon its tragic history, although a feature on that would certainly be more interesting than most DVD extras. Landis directed several films for Universal that were packed with extras for the DVD releases. Spielberg regularly produces two-disc sets for his films. And Dante and Miller have recently produced films for Warner Bros. filled DVD extras. It’s too bad “Twilight Zone: The Movie” has such a frightening history that the studio feels it is better to deny it to its audience.