Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Spoken Word Christmas Poem

It's Christmas. So I look in windows to see symbols of the season; lights and a reason for people to keep believing in their fellow man. But the hand of God seems to have abandoned the homes left in shambles, ample room for our scandals to be snuffed like the light of a candle if only we'd take up our mantles, the montra of Handel's messiah. We are the pariah, waiting to expire, letting the fire die despite being in dire need of escaping the mire. The muck and the mud that weighs, an inescapable maze, it's the haze that causes malaise and dismay by stripping us of our right to be amazed. Thine own self be praised! Our selfish ways distract us from this Saint's day, led astray by naivete that wears away and causes decay.

It's a good world with a good word that deserves to be heard. It's pearls of wisdom scattered by birds, out in the open, absurd that none will carry them to term. Even the virgin Mary finds reason to be merry and bright, the scenario is clear; do not be wary, wait not for actuaries whose calculations say "tarry rash wanton!" Don't be brash, rather passionate. Christmas is gone in a flash so act unabashedly. Let your spirit be done up with such panache that none can help but stop as they pass to offer tidings of good cheer. This time of year is one to hold dear, we're in this life together so have no fear. Adhere not to the jeers of others but cheer that your cavalier heart may persevere in times of severity. Your sincerity will go far. It's a rarity you know, days like these lack the clarity of an era gone by.

We are each odd, our parity the same, the eternal verity is simply the similarities between us. Red blood is our familiarity, a filial trait passed on to our posterity. So choose your words carefully, act for the prosperity of your brothers and sisters. Let your charity flow without fear of heresy, even the child born this morn grew to face disparity. Merrily double down on your irregularities in opposition to the barbarity of those whom cast the first stone. Austerity will get you nowhere so let it be. Voluntarily submit to the therapy this season can provide. Abide your neighbor. Push aside the faults that divide, silence the mouth that derides and step outside your comfort zone to preside over a joyous heart that guides your cousins to feel pride for one another. Worldwide the tides of faith are bona fide. This day we cry out that none should be astride from their kin, not to be beside themselves but tied to the love of Christmas. What shall betide those whom have died is no mystery, let the pain subside, they are with the Herald angels.

This year we will shut out nothing, be trusting. It is the season of immortal hope, not smoke and mirrors. It is the birthday of immortal mercy so trade earthly pleasures for heavenly courtesies to prevent the persecution of others who may be different than you. See your love through, act outside the confines of the pew, substitute honor in lieu of greed, let your needs be to do good deeds. Work hard to be a leader, to feed with food kneaded by thine own hands. You are asked to accede to the throne of divinity, concede that you don't know everything while accepting the decree that people are to be given love from sea to shining sea and treated equally despite looking differently or speaking in a foreign tongue. Unsung heroes unite! Be young at heart and drink the joyous light of the sun, you'll never find a spirit more potent. Present a cogent way of life. Foment in glad tidings and good omens, make them a component of every day. Like a poet writing prose, pen a sonnet to those who have little more than the clothes on their backs. Don't presuppose the throes of those less fortunate have been eliminated until the two of you are juxtaposed.

On this day none shall be discriminated. Let the pain of suffering be mitigated and inundate others with warmth. Go, Christmas henceforth is about the birth of love and the myriad mirth found under a tree. So it is written, so let it be; Peace on earth, good will toward thee.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

10 Classic Christmas Films You (Probably) Haven't Seen But Should

Who doesn't love their yearly Christmas classics? The Santa Clause, Elf, A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, It's a Wonderful Life, and all the staples of what really fill out your holiday season? And back in October I listed 13 Classic Horror films you (probably) hadn't seen. So I felt it only appropriate to do the same for the greatest Holiday there is, and also because, let's face it, I'm doing you a huge favor by turning you on to these wonderful films. So, you know, you're welcome.

Kidding. (No I'm not.) What's important is that you watch these pieces of art. If you're in the minority of people living in the year 2013 who has seen them, God bless you, share them with your friends. Because I think it's hard to argue, there's something extra comforting about that classic black and white Christmas feel. I love my modern classics, don't get me wrong, but cozying up next to your hunny to watch an old movie, ESPECIALLY at Christmastime, is one of the most valuable experiences on this earth. And if you don't have a hunny this Holiday season, then these films will teach you game. Let's face it fellas, no gal likes a saggy pants schlup. It's a scientific fact that women love charming, kind, good humored fellas. (I'm pretty sure that actually is a scientific fact...) These films will teach you how to be that man. Also it will bring you great joy and help teach you about the true meaning of Christmas, in case you'd forgotten what it is.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good movie watching night!


10. A Christmas Carol (1938)

You've already seen this. Probably thirteen different versions of it. And I can guarantee your favorite is the version starring the Muppets. And that's perfectly alright...because that's my favorite version as well. But there's something to be said for this original version of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic.

Plot wise what can I say? Old miser Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas. He's a rich curmudgeon who cares for no one but himself, even the poor and the suffering because, most of all, they're bad for his business. But when Scrooge is visited by 3 Christmas spirits, he just may have a change of heart like his good friend the Grinch.

Though it's certainly not reinventing the wheel, this version, filmically, is the wheel. There were iterations that came before it, but until this version it was mostly very low budget, often short adaptations of the story. In a way, this is the first classic Hollywood production of the classic story and was not to be remade again until 1951's Scrooge.

It's worth checking out because it still brings tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I've read the story or how many different versions I've seen on both the stage and the screen. I think there's something incredibly valuable in a film that can evoke such wonderful emotion despite how many times it seems to be shown or played or done to death. This is living proof that, honestly, A Christmas Carol cannot be done to death. In my opinion, though it may not be my favorite Christmas film (as that is reserved for It's a Wonderful Life) I think it is easily the greatest Christmas story that has ever been told second only to the birth of Jesus Christ. It's inspired countless other tales, films, plays, books, on and on until the end of time. It is the truest, most pure telling of such a simple story yet it can and has changed lives for, as of this year, 170 years.

Some nice touches in this version, I think, are a little more focus on Scrooge's nephew Fred, who helps balance the story in nearly three equal parts Scrooge, himself, and the Cratchit family. The acting is wonderful and the film clocks in at only 69 minutes, making it precise and perfect. You'd be hard pressed to find a version of this story that isn't at least palatable, and this version is easily, for me, in the top three of the myriad adaptions this story has seen.

9. Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Three wealthy, but lonely, millionaires, George, Allan, and Michael are spending Christmas alone this year. Well, they weren't supposed to. Originally they were planning on company for a lovely Christmas eve dinner, but when they're expected company can't make it and cancels, the three are left with a potential feast that may go unappreciated. So, on a whim, Michael decides they should each throw their wallets out onto the street and see who returns them. Whomever does so will be invited to share a wonderful dinner with them and get out of the cold. Of the three wallets, only two are returned, the first by Texan James Houston, a good old fashioned country boy with the voice of an angel, and the second by schoolteacher Jean Lawrence. The millionaires get to play host to some very needy folks as well as matchmaker as James and Jean both inevitably fall in love. But when the three rich men are killed in a plane accident and James and Jean begin to drift apart, it's up to the spirits of George, Allan, and Michael to reunite the distant lovers.

It's a very simple, cute film with a lot of heart warming laughs. Michael O'Brien (George Melton) steals the show as the most benevolent of the wealthy men. He's portly and jolly and more important than his money are his friends, which he goes to great lengths to ensure their happiness.

The story serves as a great reminder of what those less fortunate than us could benefit from if we just opened our doors,and hearts, to the outside world and invited strangers in. That may sound a little too good to be true, but, being a person who believes people are generally good and kind, I think we'd all be very pleased to find that if we did the same as these three men, we may just end up changing some lives.

8. The Bishop's Wife (1947)

You may have seen the, kind of, recent The Preacher's Wife (1996) starring Denzel Washington. Same movie. But The Bishop's Wife is the original, and although I love Denzel, Cary Grant plays the lead character Dudley in this film. I think The Preacher's Wife is actually not a terrible remake and stars Whitney Houston opposite Denzel, who is nice to see especially if you're a fan of hers and miss her terribly.

But we're living in a day and age where I think people don't realize they've seen the films that are remakes to older, classic films, and this is a key example.

Dudley is a guardian angel sent to aid Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham as he hopes to build a new cathedral for his congregation. Yes, Dudley is sent to help, but not quite in the way Bishop Brougham would like. Over time, Brougham has lost sight of what's more important than a fancy new building, the love of his wife and the reasons he took up his cross in the first place. But because everyone else but the Bishop falls for Dudley, he begins to think the angel is out to take everything he holds dear, especially the love of his wife. But the angel's intentions couldn't be further from that suspicion and, in the process, some wonderful comedy and drama follow suit to a sweet ending that could help even the Grinch's heart grow three sizes.

What's really wonderful about this film, for me, is the utilization of the church setting and the profession of Brougham. I think, very often, we're over inundated at Christmas time with two things that couldn't be more opposite if they tried; BUY, BUY, BUY! ME, ME, ME! and "Christmas is about the baby Jesus, magic, and church rules."

I'm a Christian myself, but I have my problems with both of these Holiday mentalities. The Bishop's Wife looks to make a similar critique, that even the most "pious" of men, in this case a Bishop, can end up using the church as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the other things in his life. I wish we'd focus less on consumerism and more on love. I also wish we'd focus less on shoving the nativity story down people's throats to get them to believe in magic and focus more on spreading peace on earth and good will toward men, which is the true theme of the nativity story. Christmas is not, despite what many would lead you to believe, about the toys or about the fact that you should be celebrating the birth of a magic baby, but rather that you should be going out into the world to help those, much like Dudley, with the things they don't know they need help with because they've lost sight of what's important in life. And this is accomplished through peace, love, and good will, which are all the things that little magic baby grew up to represent.

Few films get the message as right on as The Bishop's Wife. Because of it's effectiveness, it makes the list without a hiccup.

7. We're No Angels (1955)

Did you know Humphrey Bogart starred in a Christmas movie? Bet you didn't. And I'll bet you've never seen a Christmas movie that took place in French Guiana have you? Exactly.

We're No Angels is one of Bogey's rare comedies and a great one. The story is simple, three convicts who have escaped from Devil's Island (Bogey, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov) find themselves at a small supplies store owned by a husband and wife. They offer to fix the leaky roof with the ulterior motive of robbing the store that night while the family sleeps and continue on their escape from prison. Of course, they end up falling for the family and don't quite manage to get away as they'd planned.

The film is wonderfully funny and a nice change of pace for the Christmas movie season. Since it takes place in South America the feeling of the season is very different. Of course nothing beats a good ol' fashioned white Christmas, but a South American Christmas can be fun too, especially when these crooks are involved.

The standout for me, however, is Peter Ustinov. It's really bizarre how, despite the film being made in 1955 and possessing a lot of classic comedy sensibilities, Ustinov gives an incredibly modern, subtle, funny performance. It's really quite amazing how he underplays everything rather than, typical for that era, over playing the gags. The result is something you don't see often in classic films period, which is an unconscious foreshadowing to the comedic styles that will become more relevant in the 70's and then again in the modern age. I imagine people, at the time, thought he was acting very strange. As his character he really possessed his body and the space and lived in it the way a lot of these classic actors didn't. Because of this, it elevates the film to a higher standard, in my opinion. If for no other reason, Ustinov is what makes the film worth watching. Of course everyone else is great and the film is funny, but for the sake of film study, watch and observe Ustinov.

6. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Have you seen the play or the film You Can't Take it With You? This film is an adaptation from a successful Broadway hit by the same authors and of the same name. The Man Who Came to Dinner in many ways is the same basic premise as You Can't Take it With You. One of the central characters is the location itself which acts as a swinging door to the wonderful cast of diverse and quirky characters that reside there. Though where they differ is that You Can't Take it With You is the tale of two families coming together despite their differences. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a bit of a screwball comedy about radio host Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley reprising his original Broadway role) who is, let's not beat around the bush, a selfish, nasty, old curmudgeon who really doesn't mind imposing on the family whose home he's invading.

When Sheridan arrives for dinner at the Stanley's home and slips and falls on their icy steps and breaks his hip, he's holed up in their house to recover. Indefinitely. And what is initially meant to be a short recovery period turns into a permanent residency to the delight of some and to the great dismay of the Stanley's. Sheridan turns their home into a zoo populated with his own guests, including an Octopus and several Penguins (yes), as well as high society types and convicts. And only his right hand woman Maggie Cutler (played wonderfully by Bette Davis in one of her few comedic roles) seems able to keep him in check until she starts falling in love with newspaperman Bert Jefferson and threatens to leave Sheridan's employment. Sheridan begins to show his even truer colors, that he will do anything to get his way, regardless of the feelings and circumstances of those around him.

It's a delightful comedy with a lot of heart, and though Sheridan Whiteside is a wonderfully written, very witty character, you don't feel bad about hating him. He's terribly selfish and careless and manipulative and you'd be glad he broke his hip so long as it didn't mean potentially destroying the lives of those around him.

But as things often turn out, lessons are learned, relationships cracked and mended, and the true meaning of Christmas is discovered. Or is it? The film is not as outright Christmas themed as, say, Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life but the majority of it takes place on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Given that the decorum is Christmas trees, lights, and decorations, the setting greatly affects the mood and the theme of the film, which is, treat people as you'd like to be treated. Abuse your relationships long enough and you'll soon come to realize you've got no one left in your life.

The film is wonderfully light with fast dialogue and great performances all around, with a fun cameo by Jimmy Durante and, one of my favorite characters in the film, Sheridan's fearful nurse Miss Preen (Mary Wickes also reprising her original Broadway role). It offers a great example of the kinds of people we all know who show up during the Holidays with the seeming intent to only make the season a living hell.

5. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)

It Happened on 5th Avenue is a film that you could probably catch at any point in time during the year on TCM and not feel as if you'd forsaken the 11th Commandment of "Thou Shalt Not Enjoyeth Christmas Movies Out of Season!" However, that could apply to a few of these as well. There's only really ever a handful of classics and modern masterpieces that fit the mold of, "If you put it in your DVD player between the months of January through October your house will burn down."

But the entire film takes place during the winter and culminates in a wonderful Christmas moment and into the new year, so it's appropriate. And given the warmth of the interiors and the cold of the exteriors, it's a great snuggle up and lock yourself in from the frigid air outside movie.

Aloyisius T. McKeever (the impossibly adorable Victor Moore) is a charming and loving man. He believes in helping the helpless, giving back to others, and always keeping an open heart. The only snag in the way for him is that he's homeless. He spends his days living in the homes of the wealthy whom are away for months at a time staying at their vacation homes. Currently he's living in the 5th Avenue New York mansion of the second richest man in the world, Michael J. O'Connor, spends his winter in Florida.

When Mac meets down on his luck G.I. Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) he invites him in to stay. But the two are put in a tough position when O'Connor's daughter Trudy comes home. Though Mac and Jim never drop their facade of the home being theirs, Trudy is privy to their secret and decides to play along as she begins to fall for Jim. She even coaxes both her parents to move back into the home and pretend to be homeless in order to show them just how wonderful Mac and the others are.

Needless to say, there's a lot of heart in this film. It's hard to deny the themes that jump out of the screen and tug at your heartstrings; that everyone deserves a chance, that we should keep our hearts and spirits open to all those around us because you never know who you're going to meet and how they may change your life. It's a film about love, friendship, and family, and one that seeks to show its audience that wealth and good fortune is not represented in monetary possessions, but in the overabundance of love and good will we show to others, especially at Christmastime.

4. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

I'm a huge Bob Hope fan. It's kind of hard not to be. To this day there has never been, and I don't think ever will be, a comedian with his sensibilities, wit, timing, and acting chops. Maybe he wasn't necessarily known for some gut wrenching Oscar worthy drama, but comically he is yet to be matched.

Sidney Milburn, aka The Lemon Drop Kid, is a sneaky little swindler. He's a gambler and a cheat. He might not always come out on top, but he's always got a way around having to put in any real work in favor of cheating someone out of the money he needs to get by. But when he makes the mistake of costing mob boss Moose Moran $10,000, he's going to have to pay up. Luckily it's Christmas time, when people's hearts are most open and happy to give to charity. Little do they know The Kid's real intentions with their dough.

Of course it's a comedy and it's got a lot of heart. In fact I think the recent Fred Claus took several plays from the Kid's book. But whereas Fred Claus is a mess, The Lemon Drop kid is one of my all time favorites. It's a simple screwball type comedy where Hope stars opposite Marliyn Maxwell as the beautiful Brainey Baxter. (Love that old school alliteration naming.) Together, the two find the true meaning of giving, not taking, in the spirit of Christmas as they help an "old folks home for old dolls". Hope even dresses up in drag (because why not) in part of the films final antics and it's quite hysterical.


Fun fact, the Christmas song Silver Bells originated in this film. It's very first version is the duet sung by Hope and Maxwell as they stroll the city streets collecting donations for their charity.

Those who love Christmas Vacation for all its Holiday antics will love The Lemon Drop Kid for all the same reasons.

3. Holiday Affair (1949)

Though the following two films take the cake as personal favorites, I will say that I think Holiday Affair is easily the sweetest of these twelve titles.

Connie (Janet Leigh) is a busy widow who's been raising her son on her own since her husband passed not long ago. Though she's being courted by the gentlemanly Carl (Wendall Corey) she isn't truly happy. Not, at least, until she manages to get an unassuming sales clerk at a nearby department store fired. That's Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a toy salesman who falls prey to her secret shopper schemes. But as time goes on, Connie realizes she's likely done a more terrible thing than just get Steve fired...she's falling in love with him.

Like I said, the sweetest of the sweet. What's really great about this film is it's not even remotely one sided. It's so perfectly cast that every single character is likable. That may seem like a shaky path to walk down when you're trying to set stakes for the characters, but rather than make them in true conflict with one another they make the conflict internal to the characters, that they must fight against what's holding them back from being with one another.

Connie's six year old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) is probably the most adorable child that has ever been in film. And thanks to his smart little kid brain, he manages to set things in motion to ensure everyone's happiness. Even Carl, Connie's fiance, is likable. He's in opposition, technically, to Steve who's supposed to be the film's hero. But the writers handle it so beautifully that they give us a perfect example of what it means to be honorable men, which is no easy feat especially when the love of a beautiful woman is at stake.

I think these top three films are perfect for your classic Christmas date night, and this is the one to start with.

2. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

My body fights with who I love more, Myrna Loy or Barbara Stanwyck. As far as classic actresses go, you could throw the book at me with who you find more attractive than Loy and Stanwyck. We know. Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, yeah, yeah. But it's the way these two behave that makes me get all warm and tingly inside. There's something about their voices and screen presence.

That being said, Christmas in Connecticut stars Barbara Stanwyck as food writer Elizabeth Lane. On paper she presents herself to her audience as the perfect country house wife, living on a farm with kids, a loving hubby, and a wonderful kitchen. In reality she's none of those things. She gets all her recipes from Felix, her friend. But when the owner of her paper decides to organize the stay of a sailor, Jefferson Jones (played by Dennis Morgan), at her perfect farm and with her perfect family, she realizes she's got a lot of work to do to keep up appearances in order to please the powers that be.

Of course, a delightful comedy of errors ensues with Liz' faux family and her inevitable attraction to Jones. But she's a married woman! Except not really. I'm sure you know how it ends, but that's not what matters, Christmas flicks tend to all end the same. This is the most prime example of classic Christmas films you probably haven't seen. It's always on Television at some point during the Holiday season, and you've probably even left it on in the background, but it's time to sit and finally enjoy it.

A lot of the romance between Stanwyck and Morgan is both funny and sweet and feels very genuine and it's hard not to fall for both of them. The farm house the film takes place in is a beautiful set and a lot of the backdrops are gorgeous as well. The scene in which the two take a little romantic sleigh ride is particularly memorable. And it would have taken the cake for the #1 spot, except for the fact that it doesn't star...

1. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)

Jimmy Stewart!

Considering he's my all time favorite actor, what did you expect to take the cake? If you've seen You've Got Mail, then you know the premise, which has been told and retold many times over the years. Shop Around the Corner is, in fact, an adaption of the original Hungarian play Illatszertár (Or Parfumerie) by Miklós László.

Alfred Kralik (Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) are pen pals in love with one another despite not knowing who they really are outside of their anonymous relationship, and they'd probably take issue because in reality the two, both working as sales clerks at Matuschek's gift shop, can't stand one another.

They're surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast of cute co-workers, like fellow clerk Mr. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) and errand boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy). But the unsung hero of the story is Mr. Matuschek himself (Frank Morgan) who ties everyone together and, though he faces some tough times, is the face of the Christmas spirit within the film.

It's the films I love the most that I don't like to say the most about primarily because I want you to watch it for yourself. It's very accessible, so there's no excuse. I got the disc from Netflix. But it's a really nice, refreshing example of how such a simple story can touch your heart without the frills and fervor of typical seasonal flicks and especially of all the Oscar fare in the theaters that can either be too heavy handed, or just too heavy in general.

Stewart and Sullivan are a great pairing, plus it doesn't hurt that he's the most charming man the movies ever knew and very relateable to the modern man. And if you want to have a good, little happy cry this Holiday season that restores your faith in love, relationships, and mankind, then this is the film to watch.


So that's all folks! Now go grab a blanket, a few mugs of cocoa, a little peppermint schnapps, and get cozy with your sweetheart. It's Christmas after all, so why not spend some time together watching some great films. If you feel like I missed your favorite, leave it in the comments below!

Friday, October 25, 2013

You Are Worthy and God Doesn't Hate You

When people try to tell you that you are unworthy of God's love, don't be offended.

Know that you are worthy. Let that be enough.

Now think, where is this person in their own life that they must tell others of their unworthiness? Often times we want to bite back at comments like this, get snarky and smart and throw it in their face. We want to march in protest against the Westboro Baptist Church, against those who try to disallow things like gay marriage, and we want to trample the ones who seek to trample us. But remember, not long ago, all of these people were once children. And their innocence was ruined by the very same behavior they are now showing you. And if we allow ourselves to perpetuate this type of behavior then we are digging not only our own graves but also the graves of our brothers and sisters.

Now stop saying you are unworthy because that's what you've been taught. Stop it right now. Cut out all this original sin nonsense and this self inflicted emotional trauma because your Religion dictates you should feel as such. If you obey and listen to the words of another human who interprets God's word for you simply because they say they are your pastor or preacher, then why not do the same for mine? Why not do the same for your own instincts? They tell you God loves you but that you are unworthy. But I tell you that God loves you and they you ARE worthy. We are being born and bred into a society in which we are supposed to understand and believe that, from that day we are born, we are sinners. We are to believe that our souls are inherently impure and imperfect. But what is more perfect than an infant? More perfect than the innocence of a child? Nothing.

I grew up in a church. I still go whenever I visit home. And every once in a while I find myself at a new one in a new place. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don't. And despite my letting go of the dogmatic specifics that surround a lot of these different places I still consider myself a Christian because I believe the words of Jesus are still relevant and true and purposefully non-specific. Any time someone quotes the Bible in order to justify hatred or exclusion, it never comes from the mouth of Christ. It's always a passage written by a man from thousands of years ago from the perspective of what it was like to be a man living thousands of years ago. And people cling to these strands of "logic" steadfastly in order to rule their fellow man. But no one group holds firm to all of them. It's always a mish-mash of picking and choosing that which services your man made organization. Some people think homosexuality is an abomination. Some think women have no place speaking out in the church. Some think you shouldn't get tattoos. Some think you shouldn't eat pork. And these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Flash facts! Here are some things Jesus never talked about:

  • Homosexuality
  • Women not speaking in church
  • Tattoos
  • Eating Bacon
  • Playing too much Call of Duty
That last one was a joke. But to most of you, all of this is a big joke. It's silly that so many people live under the rule of an age old book seemingly irrelevant in a modern age. And to be perfectly honest, a lot of it is. A lot of that "rule" stuff seems wildly inappropriate today. So much so that if Jesus were to come back and take issue with any church today it'd likely be with Christian churches. For starters, Jesus was devoutly Jewish and didn't plan on starting a Religion in the way we think of it. He was not "the first Christian". He was a Jew who wanted to change the world and bring people closer to God and to one another through Love. He didn't want to establish a hierarchy of rulers and leaders who lord over servants and congregants. He didn't want people being forced into giving up their money, in fact the only giving worth doing is that which comes from the heart. He didn't want people being excluded or cast out or turned away because they didn't fit the make and model of a WASP society. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't look like this. In fact he likely looked more like this. 

He spent his time with prostitutes and tax collectors, the homeless, the sinners, and what most Church goers today would consider "the wretched". He spent his time with the people who were not allowed in church because of how society perceived them. It's a shame how nothing changes. He wanted everyone to know what it was like to be loved, not hated; to be accepted, not cast out. He was a man with a simple plan, not a complicated one. If you wanted to eat milk and meat together, God bless you. But if you wanted to refuse someone their ability to love and be loved, then his problem was with you, not with the "sinners" that you labeled as such.

A lot of people would take issue with my ease at which I feel I can "speak for Jesus". I'm certainly not him. But neither has been any other human being since nor ever will be. So what makes this Christian's ability to speak for him any more or less valid than those who do the same by swearing "God hates fags"? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Pope, though a good man, is still just a man. Pastors and preachers and elders and deacons, the crazy and the sane, they are all men. (And too often none of them are women.) And though many are spiritual and well read and deserving of praise, they are still human beings. They are not God. They are not Christ. Therefore any interpretation presented to you by ANY Religion should always be taken with a grain of salt. And I think that was something Jesus wanted us to understand. 

"People honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching the precepts and principles of men." - Matthew 5:9

Your relationship with God is unique and special and it should always be that way. People will try to cull you to their herd in order to utilize a mob mentality to exclude the ones they dislike and/or disagree with. That's what people do. It's what animals do. But if you believe you are worth more than being merely an animal, then you stand apart from these savages. You rise up above Religion because Religion is something created by animals, not by the divine. The divine has created one thing and one thing alone for you to follow and obey; Love.

We are not born into sin. But that is what men would like you to believe. This is how they train and indoctrinate you into their group mentality. This is how they control you. That because you are born a sinner, born unworthy, that you must live the rest of your life in constant confession, that salvation is something you should seek every time you open your eyes in the morning.

Though it is not wrong to seek to right your wrongs in life and to find forgiveness for your transgressions, it is wrong to be taught your entire life that your very existence itself is wrong, that your soul has been flawed since the day you were born. I reject that belief and I urge everyone to do the same because God wants you to know just how perfect you really are. You are worthy of his love. You are special and unique and talented and real and capable of so much more than blind submission to the laws of mankind. You are a fighter and a dreamer and a child at heart because you are a child of God. Toss specifics out the window because God is, in his essence, the very idea of what is non-specific. There is no one way in which to find God's love. I think a lot of misinterpreted Jesus' words when he says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me." - John 14:6

Jesus calls himself the way, the truth, and the life. But remember that he does not represent the specific laws of man, that as a man Jesus is different. When he speaks as "the way, the truth, and the life" he is speaking for God, he is directly telling us what God believes and from the place in which his intentions come from. The way, the truth, and the life has nothing to do with church dogma and everything to do with love.

Rather than ten commandments, than the strict rules and laws of the land created by men in order to rule their fellow man, Jesus gives only two commandments. And they couldn't be simpler. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." - Matthew 22:37-40

ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS HANG ON THESE TWO COMMANDMENTS! In case you missed it the first time. 

Jesus says, essentially, anything you read or see or do or interpret from the Bible means absolutely nothing unless you are doing them from a place of love. Any words of law or commandment, or the words of any prophet or teacher, politician or master are utterly worthless if they are not following the most important commandment. Love. And you are no fool, you know what love feels like. It is not dark or sinister, it does not seek to segregate or shame or put down or ruin, it seeks to accept and welcome, to save, to hold, and to cherish. If, for a second, you think that what someone is telling you from a place of "authority" is not coming from this perfect place, then smile and nod and tell them, "Thank you" and take their "laws" with a grain of sand. 

Look what has happened to these people who have been raised to believe that they are not worthy of God's love. They are treating others not with love with with judgment and, often, with hatred. Hate is not in God's vocabulary and neither is it in Jesus'. Most things people try to tell you God stands for are things that break his heart. God is love. And if he is love then by his very own nature he stands against all things that seek to dim that light. 

We are taught from birth that we ought to believe in God, but one thing we are never taught, that is so much more appropriate, is that God believes in us. Before you can put your faith in someone else, someone must have put their faith in you. Before you can believe in God, he must have believed in you; in all that you can do, all that you are capable of and worthy of. Because you are capable. You are worthy. And you should feel joy in your belief in God, not fear, because he believes in you. I promise you, he does. But don't just take my word for it, look around you. He is showing you at every moment of every day how much he does. He already believes in you, all you've got to do is open your eyes and believe in yourself.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

13 Horror Films You (Probably) Haven't Seen But Should (Pre-1983)

I love Horror films. A lot. A lot, a lot. More than anything I like being scared. Don't ask me why. I'll go to a scary movie by myself, then go out of my way to walk around at night listening to scary music in order to feel that adrenaline. It's fun.

I can get on board with all types of Horror films. Monster movies, psychological, gore fest, campy fun, etc. etc. forever and ever. My favorite sub-genre, because you didn't ask, is the "Slasher" genre. Though arguments are made for its origin as far back as Thirteen Women (1932), which we'll get into, Halloween takes the cake, for me, as being the mother of all Slashers, at least as we've come to define them today.

That being said, I think Horror film fans get a bad rap for being weirdies and closeted psychopaths. As if having a penchant for terror, blood, and screams translates into the real world. I think the same argument is and can be made for video games. But the most important thing about Horror films is, thematically, they seek to capture the part of our psyche we're too afraid to let be exposed. I love suspense most of all. And although I love, respect, and honor special effects makeup artists and some of the things people figure out how to do to make us go "Eeeewwwww!!!", for me what separates a good Horror film from a GREAT one is one simple thing; if you take it home with you.

If I watch The Human Centipede, which I haven't as of yet (and am a little nervous about attempting), I can almost guarantee that I will be disgusted. The gore effects may be solid, but when the credits roll and the film is finished, I don't have a new found fear that a psychotic German surgeon is going to break into my home and sew me, ass to mouth, with a couple of other folks. That's irrational. Which is why it's hard to legitimately scare me. But if I see a great slasher flick, about a normal man who breaks into homes and starts racking up a body count, that becomes more real to me. Something like that could actually happen. And that's pretty terrifying. That's something you take home with you.

My love for classic cinema stretches into all genres, and I think early (even through the 80's) horror was doing new and inventive things with the genre that, hopefully some day, we'll be able to come back to. Many of you (if you're a Horror fan) may not consider these films as strictly "Horror", but I use that term here in a broad sense to encompass all of its sub-genres, suspense, thriller, slasher, monster, psychological, gore, etc.

So, if you've ever wondered why I love them so much, and which I would most recommend (that I can almost guarantee most other people haven't already), here they be. These are some terrifying films that you will most definitely take home with you.

13. Thirteen Women (1932)

Have you seen any of The Thin Man pictures? Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy? That babe who plays Nora Charles is Myrna Loy. With such a unique and distinct look, she spent a lot of her early career playing ethnic women. (Remember this was an era in which white people often donned makeup to look like foreigners.) And Thirteen Women is no different. Here she plays a half Asian women who, after being mistreated in her college years by a group of sorority girls, sets out to take her revenge. One by one they start to disappear...

As I mentioned at the top, some people consider Thirteen Women the first to kickstart what would become the Slasher genre. To sum that up without getting to film-y; a crazy person who goes on a murder spree.

The film is very brief, with a run time of only 60 minutes, but uses every moment precisely. It wastes no time and delivers on some solid, chilling moments as Loy gives a great performance as the crazy Ursula Georgi. Driven to a madness that goes beyond reason, she even attempts to take the life of a young child (the son of one of the women), it's exactly this beyond the norm craziness that drives the film to a greatly entertaining place. It takes a special kind of crazy to decide that, because you experienced racism as a college student, all the girls who wronged you deserve to die. A little overblown? Sure. But Loy's performance gives thematic resonance in communicating the films core message; don't be a racist. What goes around comes around, and sometimes in a big way.

What's really wonderful is that the film is pre-code, meaning pre-The Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) which was enforced starting in 1934. Because of this, the film is allowed to get away with themes and scenes that a film post-Hays likely couldn't. For a true study in the birth of psychological horror, Thirteen Women is easily the best jumping off point.

12. Peeping Tom (1960)

Released the same year as Psycho, this psuedo-slasher/psychological thriller is about a man with a penchant for capturing the death of his victims through the lens of his movie camera. Much the same as in Psycho, voyeurism plays a big, big role. It was so controversial upon its release in fact that it essentially ruined the career of its director, Michael Powell.

But what makes Peeing Tom so great is its ability to remain relevant. Sure we may have cell phone cameras these days, but voyeurism is a terrifying thing that will exist forever. There will always be peeping Toms and they will always, always, always be creepy.

I think most effectively communicated in Peeping Tom however is a message often lacking from Horror films in general. Campy fun aside, what dictates not just a good Horror film but a good film in general, is theme. The message the story is trying to convey to its audience. Here in Peeping Tom, that message is influence. We do unto others as has been done unto us. Because the film's central character, Mark Lewis, was exposed to awful things from his father when he was a child, he is doomed to repeat them, to live in the shadow of his already dark and sinister parent.

What's more is that Peeping Tom does what I think the Slasher genre has been longing for in recent years, a different perspective in which to tell the narrative. As opposed to a group of girls or young people being used as our prism in which to view a mad man, the mad man himself is the prism here. For once, the antagonist is our central character and we are asked to watch him travel down the path of madness without reprieve.

11. The Lodger (1944)

Actor Laird Cregar is a creepy dude. And in The Lodger he plays Jack the Ripper. Oh joy. You may be familiar with George Sanders, playing Inspector John Warwick, who has also been in famous films like All About Eve and Hichcock's Rebecca. (Which we'll discuss shortly.) But those two leads really deliver solid performances throughout, and Cregar's depiction of the Ripper is so strong that, without him and Sanders together, I think the movie wouldn't be worth much of anything.

Part of what drives the film so well, and drives most all films based on the notorious Ripper, is that not much is known about who he was. There are so many theories that to this day I think it's all still such a mystery and will remain one for the rest of time. And that makes the notion of who he was still very frightening.

Cregar's version is an, obviously, very troubled psychopath. He becomes the new lodger (a tennant) at a home near the famous Whitechapel, where the Ripper murders took place. As he moves in, landlady Mrs. Burton begins to have her suspicions about him as he is behaving very strangely. He's out late at night, is always performing his scientific experiments alone in their attic and, as time continues to pass, begins baring strong similarities to the description of the Ripper.

It's a film based on suspense and identity. What's a very moving and equally disturbing scene, is one in which some of the Ripper's (Mr. Slade), motivations are revealed to be his strong fondness for his brother. And when I saw fondness for, I mean love for. And when I say love for, I mean...like "that" kind of love for.

Though love amongst siblings is forbidden, Cregar gives a powerful performance of suggestion. That's something that, because of censors, couldn't be said outright, but is so strongly implied in the scene that, because of a film's requirement of compliance to the code, forced it to be a beautifully written one based entirely in subtext and emotion.

Slade's brother was driven to drink and susequent madness because of his love for a woman. It was a woman who ruined his brother, his perfect, beautiful, wonderful brother, and because of that, it is women who must pay the price. Slade develops a strong fascination for another lodger at the house, dancer and singer Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon) who becomes the object of his desire and the reason for his eventual downfall.

The film finds ways to still play into the Ripper lore while defining and justifying their own version of the madman. And though it is not the first film based on the famous killer and was obviously not the last, I think it will go down as being remembered as one of the best.

10. Nightmare (1964)

Famous Horror studio "Hammer Pictures" produced, and continues to do so after their recent revival, countless films. It's where actor Christopher Lee got his first big breaks (playing all three iconic monsters Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein's monster) in the studio's monster movie revivals. Often times they featured a rotating cast of character actors and often were headlined by amazing actor Peter Cushing. (You probably know him as this guy from Star Wars.) The studio produced countless works of art as well as a big pile of duds, which is inevitable for a company that churns out as many pictures as they did.

Though I really enjoy their monster movies, their psychological thrillers were the ones that stuck with me the most. Both Nightmare and the soon to be discussed Paranoiac are brilliant mind melting psychological horror and drama. In Nightmare, the young Janet is having, you guessed it, nightmares. After witnessing her mother murder her father on her birthday she spends much of her young life in a boarding school. But as the nightmares escalate she is released to stay at home under the care of her guardian and a nurse. But the nightmares don't go away, in fact, they're only just beginning.

There's a lot of fun twists and turns in this one. Just as you assume the film takes one direction, they take you in another. It keeps you on the edge of your seat guessing the whole time and I think serves as one of the better examples of what suspense and psychological horror can do and for untapped inspiration for the genre as a whole.

9. Mad Love (1935)


You guys know who Peter Lorre is, right? Right? RIGHT!? Even if you don't recognize his name, Google him. I better hear you say, "Oh yeah, I know that guy." If, instead, that reaction is, "I have no idea who this is." Then what have you been doing with your life?

I'm a huge Peter Lorre fan. Granted, not as big a fan as what I call my trinity of inspiration (Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda), but everything Lorre is in is usually a fun time. And Mad Love is no different.

In short, the film is about a mad doctor who helps a well known piano player, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), whom has just lost his hands in a terrible accident. Part of his desire to help the man is also because Doctor Gogol (Lorre) is in love with his wife, Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). But unbeknownst to the happy couple, Gogol has used the hands of a now executed murderer to replace Orlac's destroyed ones. Soon, as Orlac begins to recover, he starts to notice his hands behaving in a very strange and dangerous manner...

I'm a sucker for simple, sometimes even silly, setups like this. Originally the film was to be titled The Hands of Orlac, but was later changed to reflect the real horror of the story, not Orlac's dangerous hands, but Gogol's psychotic ambition and desire for the man's wife. I love the title The Hands of Orlac, and I hope one day I can make a movie and just steal that, but it definitely reflects the idea of a monster movie, of a man who's hands are possessed by evil and cause him to commit terrible deeds. This isn't really the case in Mad Love. What is, however, is Gogol's obsession and unrequited love which drive him into, you guessed it, madness.

I think what's really wonderful about this film is it's attention to detail and mise-en-scene. (Never thought I'd use that term again after film school. Alas...) There are a lot of really great visual references and foreshadowing of things to come which help communicate the films story and themes non-verbally. And I think, in more unconscious ways than any, the film reflects the stories of both Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast. It's unintentional I think, but impossible to miss. Unfortunately the "beast" here is not one to be redeemed, as Gogol's undying love for Yvonne is rebuked, but it doesn't change the fact that what makes this movie truly great, in my opinion, is Lorre's commitment to his character.

Peter Lorre was a short and, to be frank, a weird looking dude. When he met Frances Drake he wanted to make sure she knew what he looked like before he shaved his head for the role, just so she knew he wasn't truly the character he was about to become. I think he didn't want to dissuade anyone from liking him, and I think growing up and spending a career as the creepy little weird dude (let's be honest, that's how most people describe him) really hurt him. But regardless, he was committed to his characters completely and because of that always gave really great performances. As Doctor Gogol it's no different, and though he goes mad in his obsession for his unrequited love, he does it convincingly and in a way that you begin to feel sorry for him.

Lorre creates and I think inspired for decades to come (and to this day even) the sympathetic villain. Horror villains can be tough to do. Often times they get out of hand because people believe that all they want to portray is evil and terror and gore and "scary". But what gets lost is the villain's humanity. I think what makes a villain the most memorable and effective is that small shred of humanity left that just barely tethers them to reality, and as the story progresses we watch their descent into madness a little regrettably, only because, at one point in time, we sympathized with them and actually wanted them to succeed or triumph over evil. When they don't, and they become evil itself, it's hard to watch and is effectively more terrifying because we used to care for that person. And now there is nothing left of them but madness and horror. Mad Love communicates those things brilliantly and, though the supporting cast lends important helping hands, it's Lorre that really carries this film into legendary status.

8. Rebecca (1940)

Having just discussed George Sanders, here he is again, this time in a lesser seen Hitchcock thriller. Lesser know? Maybe not. But if I say Hitchcock, you think Psycho, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. So if you're thinking, "Hitchcock made a movie about some gal named Rebecca?" You need to check this film out.

Laurence Olivier's title character Maximilian de Winter marries Joan Fontaine's character (who goes unnamed in the film aside from being Mrs. de Winter) after they meet in Monte Carlo. Come to find out, Maxim has been married once before, to a woman named Rebecca, whom the house keeper Mrs. Danvers is still crazy (literally) about, and whom has a cousin (George Sanders again) that she, much like Laird Cregar's lodger, shares a special "fondness" for. Over time the young Mrs. de Winter is slowly driven toward madness by the ever present memory of the former; Rebecca.

It's a classic Hitchcockian masterpiece with too many wonderful twists and turns to be spoiled in a summary. But it's precisely all these moments that make the film such a wonderful work of art. It's a bit of a glimpse into the minds of madness and the circles that the rich and powerful find themselves in. Whereas many psychological films can find themselves up a creek without a paddle when dealing with the revelations that Rebecca does, Hitchcock, like the master he is, navigates his way around them perfectly. The motivations revealed, the family secrets, lies, and deceit all build to a wonderful peak, ending with the films iconic scene that ties it all back around to its beginning.

Again, I think it's a film that is really so wonderful that not too much should be said about it because, like most Hitchcock, it must be seen to be fully appreciated.

7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

I don't really like alien movies. They're always kind of silly to me. I always find them implausible and impossible. Because logic invading my ability to suspend disbelief, it's difficult for alien based films to truly scare me. Case in point, Ridley Scott's Alien. Great film, great suspense, but I don't take it home with me as something that "scares" me.

That being said, I can easily say that the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, hands down, next to M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (gasp!) my favorite alien themed film ever and probably the greatest alien invasion film I've ever seen.

What makes it so scary is it's realism. We're not dealing with War of the Worlds or Independence Day sized monsters in giant robot suits turning people into dust with lasers. Slowly, one by one, the people of Earth are beginning to behave strangely, robotic almost, without emotion or care. And the only people who know the truth are labeled heretics. But when biologist Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland, starts to believe the heretics, that's when you know something is wrong. And a lot of wonderful performances by now mega-famous actors also help round the film out, specifically Leonard Nimoy and a very young Jeff Goldblum.

Again, it's the theme that makes this film so scary. That, when you break if down and think logically, these aliens have a point. They take over the bodies of humans in order to destroy them and re-grow them in a pod. When they are reborn, these people are more efficient, better human beings. There is no emotion, nothing to get in the way of securing a successful homeworld. The only way to have world peace, to have Universal success, is to make everyone just like everybody else. Uniqueness is obsolete. Free will is obliterated.

A key scene (without spoiling anything) that gripped me the most is one in which the alien leaders are preparing to take over the bodies of our protagonists. Brooke Adams' character says to them, "I hate you." To which the leader responds, "We don't hate you. There's no need for hate now. Or love." And in blatant defiance of living a meaningless life, she turns to Donald Sutherland and immediately says, "I love you Matthew."

Just absolutely gorgeous storytelling here, showing us that the message of the story is most important. That, though logically it may be a "better, more perfect world" if we were devoid of emotion, no matter how successful or proficient it is, it would still be a meaningless one.

6. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If you'r familiar with this film, you probably wouldn't normally put it in a top 10 (or 13) horror films list...ever. A lot of people have pegged horror as something more about blood and death than about suspense, mood, and tone, but I, for one, believe the best horror is that which you can't get out of your mind.

Growing up in church my Dad led, and still leads, songs for the congregation to sing. One of those, which I remember very well and still am quite fond of is "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms". I can still let it be a beautiful hymn that inspires me, but now, because I've seen Night of the Hunter, I'll never get the low, eerie tone of Robert Mitchum's voice out of my head. I saw this film on a recommendation from a friend and because he both introduced me to a masterpiece and helped destroy one of the most important songs of my childhood, I say thanks. Jerk.

Mitchum's character is a man, Henry Powell, who marries and murders widows for their money. But after spending a small stint in prison he learns that his cell mate has hidden away $10k. But only his children know of its whereabouts. So upon his release, and the execution of his cell mate, Powell marries the widow in an attempt to get at her money. But to pose as a seemingly harmless, kind man, he assumes the profession of a preacher. Unfortunately for him, and the children, getting at the money is harder than it should be, and the children spend much of the film on the run from a murdering psychopath.

The way the film plays out is so slow and even in its progression that I lose my mind about how beautiful and truly haunting it is. Mitchum's singing of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" ruins that song in a good way. It's chilling and creepy and the entire film you find yourself praying and fearing for these poor kids who have to escape the clutches of the man who not only wants to kill their mother but also kill them.

I think what the film does for me that classifies it under the broad horror genre is it shows how dangerous "Religion" can be. A film being critical of religion in 1955 is rare but I think when it happened it was truthful and spot on. Hunter is the gold standard of that. A Preacher is someone who, even if you yourself are not religious, you should be able to trust. He is a man of God who believes in love, peace, and is out to serve others. But we all know that often times this couldn't be further from the truth. Many church leaders are greedy, selfish, careless, and dangerous. And Hunter proves how easy it is to fool an entire town full of people into believe you're a good, kind man simply by telling them that you're a "preacher". It carries a weight with it automatically and because of that weight is terribly easy to manipulate.

Hunter tells us that though preachers encourage us to be trustful of our fellow man, how do we know they can be trusted when the person encouraging that trust is a psychopathic killer? It brings into question humanity and Religion and God's place in it all, and is successfully critical of the notion that organized Religion is more valuable than simple faith alone. But the heroes of the story are two innocent children, the only people in the story you feel you can trust and often times in life the only people you feel aren't out to get you. And even then sometimes it feels not even they can be trusted.

I don't necessarily agree that we should be wary of all our neighbors and scared to trust, I like to have faith that mankind is good and just, but simply because the film brings all of those hopes and dreams into question and leaves you with a hollow, empty, unsure feeling of all those around you, to me it is effectively one of the scariest movies that could ever be.



5. Cat People (1942)

Producer Val Lewton is known, more than anything, for his low budget, high profit Horror films. He was notorious for cranking out suspenseful films with very little money. And as a result of the studios being so cheap, it forced him to think critically about the films he was going to make. Another difficult factor for him was that the studios would audience test titles, and then make movies based off the titles that audiences responded positively to. When they tested the title of the, as of yet, non-existent Cat People, it tested very well. And so they decided to make it. So often times Lewton was forced to make and deliver good films around strict budgets and silly titles. But he did. Over and over.

Because there was no money for effects, the films relied heavily on the fear of the unseen. To this day, I still attest that this is the best type of horror, and why Halloween (my all time favorite horror film) is so wonderful. Rather than show non-stop, over the top violent kills, the films focused on building tension and suspense, with an eventual payoff.

Director Don Sharp (who directed both Nightmare and the soon to be discussed Paranoiac) quoted Robert Louis Stevenson on how he liked to tell the story of his horror films, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." And I think it's true to this day. To experience Horror on a subconscious level with a gradual, eventual payoff is more terrifying than to show severed heads and intestines for ninety minutes.

Cat People is the perfect example of this. Irena, played by French actress Simone Simon, is afraid that, if she becomes intimate with a man, she may turn into a large cat, which is the folklore of her home country.

The film, not so obviously, isn't really about a lady who turns into a cat. In fact, spoiler alert but you should've already known, you never see her "become" the cat. You may see it in the shadows, but never up front and it's never clear. Why? Because that didn't (and still doesn't) matter. Without any money and dated special effects, the transformation would've looked God awful. It wouldn't ruined the entire film. So they never show it. And that is why it's brilliant. Rather than cater to what they knew people wanted, they found a way to make their audience cater to them.

Instead the movie is about repressed sexuality and gender issues. It's nature versus nurture. If Irena marries and becomes intimate, will she turn into a savage beast? Or is her real love enough to keep her safe? Or will all of it drive her to madness?

It may seem terribly sexist on the surface, considering the film was made in 1942, but I think the film is a great early example of the power of women in film. Because of Irena's conflict and her eventual terror, she creates in her co-star (along with Irene Dunn's character in Thirteen Women) the start of the survivor girl, that of course being the only character capable of escaping and surviving a maniacal killer.

4. Paranoiac (1963)

Paranoiac landed on me fairly late in the film. To be honest I had put it on in the background a bit and started to work on some writing projects. About 45 minutes into the film, there's a scene that stopped me in my tracks. Out loud I said, I believe, "What the f*#$", then I rewound the film and re-watched it from the beginning to make up for what I'd lost. What resulted was the film making it into the top 5.

It's another Hammer studios psychological horror picture, much like Nightmare, but where it differs is in it's, let's not lie, piracy of Hitchcock's Psycho. I say piracy because it's hard not to see how Hitchcock's masterpiece inspired psychological horror for the remainder of forever. But Paranoiac covers some ground Psycho did not, and that's the psychological problems of an entire family and how that dynamic affects those around them.

Without giving away too much, the Ashby's are a wealthy family that have been dealing with trauma and death since the youngest sibling Tony committed suicide years ago. But when "Tony" shows up claiming to be alive and well and reveals many of the family's terrible secrets, his identity is doubted and it would seem a plot against his life, and his sister's, is hatched.

Like Nightmare, Paranoiac took turns in directions I never expected. Part of what I love about it, that built upon Psycho's foundation, is the introduction of a masked killer. That mask is terrifying and I'm going to steal that design for a film in the future. But the specter who wears the mask and wields the hook is meant to represent the dead ghost of Tony. But if Tony is back, and he is who he says he is, who's under the mask and why?

Again, it's another film I don't want to get too involved in because I want you to see it for yourself. Though thematically I can say it paints a terribly unsympathetic picture of a family full of crazy people who are willing to go to great lengths in order to maintain their lavish lifestyles. But unsympathetic in a good way. Tony is the hero, and as he investigates his own family's secrets, we're praying he gets out alive. It's a really wonderful depiction of the horror that often accompanies the greed, envy, jealousy, and spite that can motivate family members into, not just backstabbing and betrayal, but even murder.

3. The Body Snatcher (1945)

Don't be confused, this film has nothing to do with the previously mentioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers, nor it's original, and it has nothing to do with aliens.

Famous creature feature actor Boris Karloff credited producer Val Lewton for helping to revive his career and be one of the few who saw in him his acting potential, giving him roles in horror films that allowed him to perform as he was meant to, rather than simply wear Frankenstein prosthetics. And it's a great service to us that he did.

The Body Snatcher is one of the most chilling classic Horror films I have ever seen. It's overall tone is utterly breathtaking. And I know the precise moment that it hit, when the reality of the situation they presented became a very real one.

Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (which made me wonder if this is where comic book writer/artist Todd MacFarlane's parents got the inspiration for his name. Though I doubt it. Sorry, nerd distraction! Anyway -) runs a medical school. One of his primary students, Donald Fettes has the hope of helping a wheelchair bound young girl to walk again. But Dr. MacFarlane's research is not complete, in order to fully understand the biology, he must experiment on human cadavers, despite it being outlawed. So the good Dr. enlists the help of a Cabbie, John Gray (Karloff) to provide him with already deceased corpses from the local graveyard. And the deal seems fairly straightforward, albeit dark, until Gray begins taking lives...

There's a scene that I'd love to spoil but won't because I want you to see this film. It's the moment that when, for me, as I said, the film became very real. When enlisting a man to act as a grave robber, you're not exactly doing something legal, but technically no one is getting hurt. But what if that grave robber is a psychopath? What if you've only brought out a penchant for blood that has since been dormant? And are you prepared to deal with the consequences?

The film is a bit of a period piece, but the second Gray takes his first victim, there's a moment where the sound (which is key to this character) just cuts out abruptly. The crime is committed brilliantly off screen. And I think that's what makes it all the more chilling. If we'd seen the horrific murders Gray commits, it wouldn't be special, we've seen that done a million times. But when we're allowed to build our characters and give them real motivation and a need for something which becomes the cause for their terror, the tension and the results are much more impactful.

It also features a fun cameo by fellow monster man Bela Lugosi. Seeing those two on screen again together is pretty special, and though Lugosi's role is small, it's still very significant, as he allows for Karloff's true decent into madness. And when Dr. MacFarlane is forced to confront the monster he's created, he too begins to suffer from his own psychosis. In a way, it presents a thematically alternate version to Frankenstein. Though Karloff was desperate to escape that legacy, in a way, it seems it would never leave him. Though, in my opinion, The Body Snatcher delivers more chills than Frankenstein ever could.

2. Rope (1948)

A Hitchcock masterpiece, and the first of four pairings with he and (my all time favorite) actor James Stewart. If you're a Hitchcock fan or a film buff, of course you know about Rope, but I'm always shocked at how many people haven't even heard of it.

It's reputation in what accomplishes in its run time is probably more well known than what the film is even about. But, being the master of suspense, Hitchcock uses Rope as a medium for trying to tell a complete thriller in real time without cutting. In total there are only 9 cuts in the film, and it runs from beginning to end in real time without a change of scenery, establishing, pursuing, and resolving the story all from beginning to end. It's really a work of art in that, more than anything, the actors are allowed to breathe as actors should, in the moment.

Because of it's often nearly ten minute cuts, the performances here are much like they would be in a play. (The film is also based on a play of the same name.) I'm a huge proponent of long takes because I think a lot of value comes from an actor living in the moment, meaning emotionally they get to begin in one place and live realistically in the environment despite the content being, technically, unreal. Jimmy Stewart is the best at this. His "Aww shucks" demeanor, which he never can seem to shake, makes him the greatest of sleuths here.

When two students believe they're wits are sharp enough to commit the perfect murder, they take the life of a former classmate prior to hosting a dinner party. They hide his body somewhere it could easily be found, knowing full well that their house guests will never be too far from where it's hidden...in the chest being used as the buffet table.

One of these guests is the two students prep-school housemaster and publisher, Rupert Cadell (Stewart), who is soon on to the boys' schemes.

Rope is a masterpiece all around, and being told in real time builds such unbelievable tension that it's hard not to feel antsy and uncomfortable. Because it does not let up from beginning to end, it's impossible to pause the film, even if you've got to get up to use the bathroom. It's hard for a film to hold a modern audiences attention without rapid fire cutting, action, and booming sound effects, but Rope proves that some masterpieces will remain as such, regardless of the passage of time.

1. Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (1982)

I know what you're thinking. "That's the one without Michael Meyers, isn't it?"

Do you know what I'm thinking? "Yeah, but I bet you've never seen it."

And you've probably never seen it because of that reason. What kind of Halloween movie DOESN'T have Michael Meyers as its central killer? Well I'll tell you, the kind that John Carpenter originally intended. Sort of. And because it's #1 on the countdown here, I ask you to bear with my preface to the film itself. I think the world owes it to a movie most of them regard as bad without even having seen.

Carpenter's first Halloween, which featured Meyers as the killer was so successful on such a low budget that a sequel was inevitable. (Though he's gone on record saying he would've liked it to conclude after the first.) Because of the original film's cliffhanger ending, with Meyers escaping in the end, alive, its sequel Halloween II sought to conclude his story. And it did. He died.

So Carpenter and co-producer/co-writer, on the first three Halloween films, Debra Hill sought to make the third installment simply about the Holiday itself. Their thinking was that they would release a new Halloween themed film each year, telling a brand new story with brand new characters, the only one of which that would make a constant reprisal would be the Holiday itself.

Carpenter, of course, directed the first, Rick Rosenthal would direct the second, and Tommy Lee Wallace (who was also production designer on the first, as well as one of the film's editors) would tackle the third. Because of that, what is nice is, for the most part, coherent visions that fit into Carpenter's larger plan. As a result Halloween III is often considered a silly franchise breaking movie, but in my opinion is a brilliant and unappreciated vision which was unpopular with audiences. They wanted Michael Meyers. And because of its non success, eventually the franchise continued with Meyers returning as the maniac slasher, though Carpenter and Hill would step down from story and producing duties.

Don't get me wrong, the Halloween franchise is my favorite Horror franchise of all time. Excluding Halloween Resurrection (shamefully directed by Halloween II director Rick Rosenthal) and Rob Zombie's remakes (his second installment is so incoherent I personally consider it one of the worst movies ever made), I re-watch the franchise annually. I love all 7, that's right 7, of those first films (ending with H2O), but hold a special place in my heart for part III because it's considered the ugly duckling.

Alllllllll that preface being given, Halloween III is about on-call Doctor Daniel Challis' discovery of something awful going on in the peaceful town of Santa Mira, which houses a now down on its luck toy manufacturing company called Silver Shamrock. But the head of Silver Shamrock still has one trick left up his sleeve and it's hidden inside the Halloween masks his company has been selling to children like wildfire.

Many times I think people don't focus on what's being communicated sub-textually and through a story's theme as opposed to what they can simply see on screen. If people aren't being murdered in cold blood and ghosts aren't possessing people and chapping their lips, people say something isn't "scary". But, to me, an idea can often be more horrific than an act, especially if that idea is carried out and even more so when you see the method behind the madness. The madness of Conal Chochran's (the toy manufacturer) plan in Halloween III is that his masks are to be worn by millions upon millions of children on Halloween night. These aren't masks made for parents or adults, they're for innocent kids who simply want to have a few laughs and get some candy. And ultimately we discover that his real plot is about his desire to commit mass murder on children.

That isn't just terrifying or horrific, but disgusting, sadistic, and evil. Here is a man going after the lives of innocents simply to perpetuate the necessary sacrifices of some Satanic ritual. I'd say that's scarier than the ideas behind all the plots of all the films listed above combined. And because of this, if you can allow yourself to let go of the issue that Michael Meyers isn't in the film and of the fact that it was made in 1982 (and feels very much like 1982) you'll find a really nice gem of a horror film here that communicates a terrifying notion and leaves you feeling very uneasy and unsettled when the credits roll. Tom Atkins' last moments on screen always leave me with chills, more so than most horror films I've ever seen, simply because we are hanging on his every word in the hopes that this terrible deed can be stopped.



If you've seen any of these films, you're awesome. You're probably in the minority of the rest of the world these days because often times really great films are forgotten for the wrong reasons (like Halloween III). But if you haven't, and somehow you managed to read through this entire self gratification essay on horror films I've written for you like a film school essay, then I highly recommend all of them. If you've always wondered why I love horror films so much, hopefully this gives some insight as to why and some insight into the films that truly inspire and frighten me which, as I'm finding out more and more lately, is very hard to do.

Much thanks to the friends who helped me discover some of these films, you know who you are.

Did I miss your favorite lesser (or unknown) horror picture? Post it in the comments below!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Shoelaces - A Short Story

I wrote this short story about five years ago in College. I just rediscovered it. It was greatly inspired by my love of Charlie Brown's self deprecating attitude, my sometimes overly analytical personality, and the short story "A Telephone Call" by Dorothy Parker. It's fairly profane, so if swear words offend you I apologize. What do you want from me? I was writing an angsty story and thought I was the breeze.


Shoelaces

            I forgot to tie my shoes. Shit. I spent all this time getting ready and I’ve forgotten to tie my shoes. She could be here any minute, and she’d walk through that door and see me standing in the entryway like a well dressed moron with his shoes untied. Fuck. I need to tie my shoes.
            I bent down to grab the laces. The doorbell rang. No! What should I do? Should I try and tie my shoes really fast, I could tuck the laces inside the shoes, give them the loafer appeal. Yeah! Loafers are what men wear when they get older. They’re not lazy, they’re sophisticated. You get that right to wear shoes that need no tying when you become a gentleman. Gentlemen need not waste their time on tying shoes, but rather spend it crooning women. Is that the word? Crooning? Fuck. Was it crooning or swooning? Shit I need to tie my shoes. The doorbells ringing and I’m standing here like an asshole.
            No, no time to tie my shoes. I need to answer the door. It’s her. It’s her. She’ll be all beautiful like she always is and wearing those high heeled boots she always wears, the ones with the really long laces. Fuck! If she’s wearing those boots, she’ll no doubt have tied the laces! Damn it I didn’t take that into account when I was getting ready. Those are her favorite footwear. She’ll look me up and down and notice my untied shoes and start to think, Well if I had the time to tie my world’s longest fucking boot laces, he should at least have had time to tie his small little dress shoes. What will I say? “Let me tie my shoes and then we can go…” Yeah, that’s good. She’ll understand, I’m just a little flustered by her beauty. She’ll think, How cute, he’s so caught up in me he forgot to tie his shoes. He must think I’m beautiful. And we know that’s the fucking truth. She is beautiful. She’ll be smitten with me simply because I forgot to tie my shoes. I’m golden.
            Here I go toward the door. No! No, what if I’m wrong? What if she thinks I forgot to tie my shoes on purpose, she thinks I’m trying too hard to be cute and I look like an asshole. Fuck! I look like an asshole.
            Can she see me through the window? If she could she would just see me standing here, doing nothing, and wonder what the matter with me was. What is the matter with me? Just bend over, tie your shoes and answer the door. She can wait another thirty seconds while I tie my shoes into those perfect little bows. That would turn her on. She seems like a perfectionist. She’ll look down, see my shoes and notice the perfectly tied bows, created for ease in untying which might suggest I’m a gentleman but I’m not scared to get a little dirty under the sheets. Yeah! Oh my God I’m going to get laid because my shoes will be tied so well! Ask any guy if he got laid because of his ability to tie his shoes. He’ll say no. But ask me and I’ll say yes. I will nod my head and shake your hand and teach you how to do it too. I’ll write a fucking book about tying your shoes and then getting action. It’ll be called, “Shoe laces in action.” Oh my God that’s brilliant, like a play on words. Shoe laces, the subject, me, and action, the sex, the object, the goal! I am going to have sex with a beautiful woman tonight simply because I tied my fucking shoes.
            She keeps ringing the doorbell. Is she huffing outside? It is cold. I suppose she’s probably trying to keep herself warm. Oh fuck…she doesn’t have a coat. Of course she doesn’t have a coat; she’s going to come coatless so when we go out, she can wear my coat. She’s testing my ability to be a gentleman. If I offer her my coat, I’m a gentleman, if I don’t I’m a fuck up. Shit, she’s freezing her ass off out there.
            Maybe I should try to boil some water real quick. We’ll have some tea and then go out. I’ll kick off my shoes, put on my slippers, and welcome her inside for a moment because I’m a gentleman. She’ll see my slippers, think I look comfy and cozy, and want to stay in and snuggle all night. She’ll love me. She will fall in love with me because I’ll be wearing slippers and because I didn’t worry about wearing shoes that needed tying. Women love a man who’s comfortable in his appearance and demeanor. That’ll be me; the attractive yet comfortable male figure. I’ll appear fatherly to her almost, chicks dig their Dads right, Freud and his Elektra complex or whatever? She’ll see my slippers, think I look comfy, and think of her father who she loves so much, and want to lay me in the fucking entryway.
            Okay, let’s do that. Put on my slippers.
            Wait. What if she hates her father? Oh God. What if her father wears slippers and he used to beat her and she’s like an old abused dog that seems one hundred percent fine when you pet it but if it sees a slipper it pisses and shits itself? Fuck. I don’t want to make her piss and shit herself. Okay I’ll just tie my shoes so I look prepared.
            She keeps ringing that fucking doorbell!
            I’m walking to the door, I’m going to open it and she’s going to smile. I’ll welcome her in for a moment, tie my shoes, and then we’ll go out. Just like two adults. I can’t wait for this. She’s going to love me. I know I already love her. That time she touched my shoulder at the café when we had pie together. What did she say to me? It was something about…oh fuck. She complimented me on my shoes. They were loafers. They were my Dad’s. I’d borrowed them for a presentation. Oh God no. She’s going to expect me to wear the loafers on our date. She saw me wear them; she told me they looked professional. If I don’t wear those on our date, on this special occasion, I’ll look like an asshole. It’ll be awkward. But I don’t have the loafers anymore; I gave them back to my dad. Oh no. I’m fucked. She’s going to hate me. She’s going to think I disrespect her opinion and that her words of kindness and tenderness mean nothing to me. It’ll be like the biggest slap in the face to her.
            No. I’ve got no other option. I’ve got to tie my shoes and face this situation like a man. She’ll have to like me for who I am, because I’m me. She won’t care about my shoes, laces tied or untied. I’m going to open that door and just hug her and then we’ll see where it goes from there.
            What’s that noise? What is that? Oh no. Oh God no. She’s getting into her car. She’s going to leave. Fuck! She thinks I’m not home. Oh shit what do I do? Do I try to stop her? Do I call her later and make an excuse. Shit she’ll think I’m an asshole. She already does. I stood her up. I’m in my fucking house, she was here, and I stood her up by just standing here doing nothing. I have to stop her. I need to stop here. Here it goes.
            I’m opening the front door, I’m chasing after her car, and it’s leaving the driveway. Can she see me? I probably look like an asshole, chasing a car. I’m waving to her, stop, please stop! I don’t think she sees me.
            Oh shit. I’m falling. Why am I falling? I was just running and, there’s no ice on the ground. It is cold but there’s no ice. I should have raked the leaves for her this afternoon. She’s still driving. She didn’t see me. Why did I fall?

            I hit the ground. I feel pain in my knee. I must have landed on it wrong. Why did I fall? I look back for a moment to see. Oh shit. I tripped on my fucking shoelaces.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Look Up And Believe, We Can All Be Superman - Superman Turns 75

Press play.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Man of Steel.

He wasn't always my favorite Superhero. In fact, I never really liked Superman. He was too perfect. There wasn't a lot of conflict there. He seemingly had every power under the sun. He was indestructible, handsome, built like a tank, and a bit of a boy scout. His hair always twirled perfectly and he always seem to look down his nose at people, at the struggles of the other, more troubled, heroes like Batman. He never appeared to deal with any demons nor harbor any hate, fear, or darkness. He was perfect. And how could anyone relate to that?

But as I got older, and I realized the world wasn't such the shiny new penny my childhood self always thought it was, I became more familiar with the character, and more importantly his character. And I owe all of that to the performance of Christopher Reeve. I think the general consensus is that everyone who has ever played the role can only ever be second place to Reeve. There was something about him on screen. He just was Superman. But what was so endearing about his performance (in the Donner films) was that he felt real. He felt relatable. Because underneath his shiny, perfect exterior was pain. A pain he never addressed or shared with anyone simply because he didn't want them to be burdened with it. It was his responsibility to save the people of earth, not to whine or weigh them down with his emotions. So he hid them.

And he continues to do so. A lot of people think Superman is a boring, overdone, waste of character space because of his perfection. But as we approach his new film and look back at his 75 years in pop culture history, I think it's the complete opposite. Superman is a gold mine of fresh, new material. But we've been too afraid to tap into it. Why? Because the idea of a savior being human terrifies us. And that's where it clicked for me. That's the reason I decided any other Superhero could only ever be, in my book, second best to the Man of Steel. Because he isn't any of those things. He's an alien. And not in the typical sense. He is, literally, alienated from the rest of the world. He is the lone survivor of an entire race of people. No matter how hard he may try to fit in and feel like he belongs, deep down he will always be alone. Because he is the only one there is. And to be burdened with the weight of the powers he possesses on top of that makes him obligated to do something about all the terror we see on this earth. Because if he didn't, he would be useless. He isn't perfect and he isn't condescending. He isn't unstoppable and most importantly, he is not a God.

Despite being an alien, his emotions are human. His upbringing and his influences are human. And so his nature, because of these things, is human. Superman, though a lot of people would probably roll their eyes at the comparison, is the Messiah. He is an else-worldly being sent to earth to be its savior. He is perfect and flawless and, for the most part, without sin. He is about as super as a man can be. But that perspective comes from the old world, when character development did not reign supreme. Spectacle and show were all that mattered. People only wanted to see the miracles. Much of the old Superhero comics, serials, cartoons, and television shows reflected only story and never theme. Because who cares what these characters are like on the inside, just show them punch some bad guys in the face.

But as time went on we grew tired of meaningless action and audiences desired to take the ticking clocks apart and see how they worked. Why are they the way they are?

And as time wears on Superman becomes less of a Messiah and more of a man. A very special man, but a man nonetheless. Despite being fictional, this is something much of us deal with every single day. Trying to be perfect, to live up to the example set by Christ or any other holy figure we're told and taught we should. And we get burned out on that. Much as audiences, until recently, have with Superman. We get tired of trying to be perfect because it isn't just difficult, it's impossible.

But the thing about Superman that endeared me to him forever is his unwavering resolution to keep fighting. Underneath his perfect shell is a troubled man who is compared to being God day in and day out. And when terrible things happen and he's not present, people cry out, "Where was Superman?" or more accurately, when terror strikes in our world, "Where was God?" If he isn't "present" then he's partly to blame. Because we rely on him to save us when times are tough and the odds are stacked against us. When we're not capable of digging ourselves out of the pit we expect Superman, God, to swoop in and save us. Because that's his "job".

But the only thing that separates Superman apart from you and I are his fictional powers. Super strength, ice breath, heat vision, flight, we'll never be capable of any of these things. But, in today's world, none of these things are what make Superman special. What makes him special is his will. And that is the most human trait of all. His abilities are merely a product of his genetics, just like athletes or mathematicians or physicists or bodybuilders. We humans are are also different depending on our genes, some of us are capable of great feats of strength and some of us are capable of using our brain to solve complex equations, but all of us are capable of getting in touch with our will power and putting it to the test. All of us are capable of setting our sights on goals and achieving them. All of us are capable of imagining world peace, of a world without hatred or violence or bigotry or discrimination, and all of us are capable of fighting for that world.

Perfection may be impossible, Superman is a testament to that. Even he is imperfect. Despite all his powers and abilities, at his core, he is human. Just like all of us. He is tried and tempted, tested and tortured, and at many times he fails. Superman has failed on countless occasions. Because he isn't God. He isn't omnipotent and can't be everywhere at once, just like us. We can only be in one place at any one point in time. Wherever that is and whatever is happening, our only duty, just like Superman's, is to do the best we can with the gifts we've been given. That's all we or anyone else can ask for, to do your best.

Free will, and its incredible bi-product of will power, is a right bestowed unto us all. We're all babies at birth, only time and our choices will determine who we become. But never forget what we're capable of. Nothing defines who you are except for you. Superman burdens himself with the troubles of others because he can and because he can take it. When we think about life we realize it's made up of nothing but sacrifices. No matter how big or small they are, significant or trivial, we're always sacrificing something for something else, sacrificing something with the hope that, in the long run, it'll pay off.

You're going to lose a lot of sleep, get a lot of bruises, and pour out a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to succeed in life. That's inevitable. But you're fighting. And the more you fight, the more you soldier on and never give up, the more you become the Hero of your own story. And you are far from fiction.

Superman is not just a myth or a legend, he's not a paper champion, a fantasy, a hope, or merely a prayer. He is you. He is me. He is in all of us. Deep down, on the level that is our human nature, each of us are capable of being Supermen or women. The only thing standing in your way is your refusal to get out there and try.

Superman may only be turning 75 years old today, but supermen and women have endured forever. Peace on earth and good will toward men will always be a possibility so long as there are humans alive to fight for it. So lift your spirit, set your sights on saving the world, and take flight. All you've got to do is look up and believe a man can fly. Because we can all be Superman.