Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie.  And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is.  Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster.  In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.”  The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters.  What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door.  Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path.  So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac.  And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.

Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories.  It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.

But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie.  Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time.  The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted.  The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening.  For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.

But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest.  The movie is a complete story.  Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen.  And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman get several good lines including the closing soliloquy.

And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie.  The monster gets to tell his side of the story.  In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too.  Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape.  And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him.  And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable.  Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.

Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder.  When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”

And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster.  Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood.  But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing.  And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).

What do I like about this movie?  Everything.  The actors are excellent.  The dialog is perfect.  Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen.  I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out.  But it’s the perfect adult horror movie.  The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs.  I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster.  Man.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 1

A friend of mine at work is a movie fan.  But being a Gen X aged guy he hasn’t been exposed to the full gamut of classic Hollywood films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Recently he’s begun a systematic review of these films.  For instance, he just finished up an exhaustive viewing of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films in chronological order.  He even watched the early silent films Hitchcock made.  Now that is dedication.  On the whole he seemed impressed by Hitchcock’s body of work.  While he recognized weaker efforts he also felt that Hitchcock was an extremely competent craftsman who produced quality work.  And he noted that Hitchcock innovated over the course of his career and broke new ground in several ways.  He did chide him for birthing the slasher films with Psycho.  But all in all he was a great director.

This month he started on a smaller project.  He’s watching the Universal Classic Monster films.  He just finished up on Dracula, Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein.  When I spoke to him he was surprised and disappointed at what he judged a lack of quality.  I told him I predicted he’d really be shocked once he’d watched the Wolfman.  He is soldiering on but I could see he was let down.

After my comment, my friend questioned whether I disliked the Universal series.  I told him I have a fondness for them but have no illusions about the artistry they represent.  My exact words were, “Peter, they were made to scare children and simple people.  They were wildly successful at doing this.  And if you watch them in the right frame of mind they still can entertain.”  I’m not sure if I convinced him but it got me thinking about what those movies could say to an audience today.

First off, let’s see how they do with today’s kids.  I have a 13-year-old grandson who has been fed a steady dose of these films from about the time he was five.  Now, they may have become tame fare for him now but he still likes watching them.  He probably recognizes the relation to such modern fixtures as the Count on Sesame Street and Hotel Transylvania.  And basically kids are still kids and monsters are great fun for kids.  So, one audience still exists for these movies.

For those of us who grew up watching these movies their charm although thinned by use still survives.  They’re like old relations who diminish in importance as we grow up but still are fondly regarded and maintain an association in our minds with the happiness of childhood (if your childhood was happy).  This audience is shrinking but is still a large population.

And finally, there are those who are fans of all things fantastic.  If you are a SF&F fan then how can you not, at least, have a curiosity about the origin of all those First Blood and Underworld stories?  Sure, the 1930’s models were vastly less cool, what with their crosses and holy water, but even if just from an historical perspective, they should be viewed and discussed.

Being solidly in the second and third camps I feel entitled to give my opinion.  And that’s what I’ll do.  I’ll plow through the canon and give the pluses and minuses as honestly and objectively as I can.  It should be fun.  Stay tuned.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 3 – Conclusion

Whispers from The Abyss – Part 2

 

So, I’ll sum it all up.

Are you an H. P. Lovecraft fan?  Then for you, “Whispers from the Abyss” is a no-brainer.  It’s a cornucopia of Lovecraftian themes and inhuman doom.  You are bound to enjoy the majority of the stories and probably find some writers whose work you’ll want to check out.  And for those of you who buy books made of paper instead of electrons, I’ll say that the paperback book was a high-quality item with very nice cover art and excellent readability.

For you Lovecraft agnostics it’s a judgement call.  There is a mixture of styles and as a fellow agnostic I was happy to find a few stories that I thought were very good.  And there were a number that didn’t work for me.  And that make sense.  Without the Lovecraft bias the authors are fighting an uphill battle to get my sympathy.  And I would say there is a generational thing going on.  Any time the author includes even the smallest left-wing jibe, whether it’s an anti-religion or anti-male remark it jars me right out of the story.  So, I’m probably not the target audience for several of these stories.  So that needs to be taken into consideration if you have similar inhibitions.  But if not then you’ll probably be fine with the material in all these tales.

I’ll close by saying if you’re a horror fan and especially if you’re a Lovecraft fan I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 2

Whispers from The Abyss – Part 1

Taking up where I left off, I’ll discuss some of the longer works in the anthology.  I arbitrarily divided the works as those eight or more pages long and those shorter.  First up, “Secrets in Storage” by Tim Pratt and Greg Van Eekhout.  It’s a straightforward tale of a man who looks in a mysterious box.  The set-up is up to the minute Americana.  A man spends his whole nest egg on the contents of a storage locker.  He goes with a hunch and of course exhibits more guts than brains when he reacts to an impossible scenario by literally climbing into the paradox.  I like the ending.  It reminds me of the ending of Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.  Only instead of no mirrors, no boxes or pools.  It’s a refreshing change of pace.

Next is “The Substance in the Sound” by W. B. Stickel.”  This is also a simple tale but well told and the details of the characters and the harbor environment is interesting.  The tie-in to the mythos is not the conventional one and allows some added surprise.  As a New England resident it’s always interesting when the stories return to Lovecraft’s old stomping grounds.

My favorite long story is The Jar of Aten-Hor. By Kat Rocha.  It is a story linking back to the Egyptian religious customs surrounding death.  The description of the funerary artifact around which the story revolves is very vividly described. As with some of Lovecraft’s best imagery it calls out for a visual representation.  But the description is detailed enough to bring it to the mind’s eye.  The protagonist at each turn is provided an avenue of escape and each time she believes that she is deciding her own fate but by the end of the story it is evident that she was the one being manipulated.  Although Egypt wasn’t the most frequent focus of Lovecraft’s mythic sources he did borrow from it for some of his Old Ones names.  I remember reading a description of the pyramids that Lovecraft wrote for some event of Harry Houdini’s.  It was entitled “Under the Pyramids.”  It was one of the better things Lovecraft ever wrote.  It’s nice to see a story that links Lovecraft back to a rich source of highly relevant mythic material.  The inexplicable changing images on the jar provide the link to show the change going on in the protagonist.  Her fascination with the jar grows past a professional interest until finally it becomes an obsession.  The story is well crafted and full of interesting details.  If only Lovecraft himself had been as careful with his writing.  Then I wouldn’t have to make so much fun of him.

In my final post I’ll sum up my thoughts on Whispers from the Abyss and I’ll even throw in some more abuse of Lovecraft at no extra charge.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 1

 

Anyone with a comprehensive knowledge of this blog knows that I have a love/hate relationship with the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Why No Love for the Craft of Howard Phillips? – Part 1- The Whisperer in the Darkness

Space Opera (High and Low)

On the one hand, some of his stories are, in my opinion, terribly written.  The action and narration are painful to read and sometimes seem like parody.  On the other hand, some of the images he presents possess the potency of an archetypal nightmare.  I feel that he had an extremely powerful imagination but for whatever reason lacked or neglected to use the writing techniques needed for good story-telling.  For this reason, I continue to circle around Lovecraft’s works.  Aggravated by the reality but fascinated by the potential.

So, I just finished the stories in this anthology.  I read them over the course of yesterday and today.  That’s twenty-eight stories inspired by the writings of Lovecraft.  By any protocol currently in place that is dangerously north of the recommended median safe dosage.  And what I found is consistent with both what I know about Lovecraft and what I know about anthologies.  Let’s look at the categories.

Case 1:  Assume you are a rabid Lovecraft fanatic.  Then by definition you’ll love this anthology.  It’s chock full of Lovecraftian bug juice.  You’re not gonna find a stronger dose of the real thing.  But even you, the grand master of the Lovecraft Day Parade will enjoy certain stories more than others.  Stands to reason.  Because even though the stories have the main attraction it’s there in different dosages and also it is flavored with the other ingredients.  Suppose you are a rabid right wing Lovecraftian and you hit upon a story that includes some feminist story elements or sentiments.  Then that would decrease your enjoyment.  Or suppose you’re a Cthulhu Mythos purist and a story contains some element that you see as heretical, say humor or some science that disagrees with your vision of the saga.  This also would be a negative.

Case 2:  You’re a Lovecraft agnostic.  You don’t hate or love him.  Then each story is taken on its merits.  And so, even more powerfully than in Case 1 your own spectrum of preferences come into play and by definition you will have a much lower average score for each story since it won’t start out on the Lovecraftian plateau.

Case 3:  You despise Lovecraft.  Well, in that case you’d have to be reading this collection out of some kind of masochistic impulse.  Because even if the story characteristics agreed with your other requirements for good fiction, the Lovecraftian elements would be a constant irritant.  Chances are a much smaller subset would be acceptable.  These would be stories that have all the other personal qualifications going for them to offset the anti-Lovecraft bias.

As previously stated, I fall into the second category.  The story will work or not based on how well the elements resonate with my tastes.  And since I’m an old geezer brought up in the paleolithic era I respond well to regressive, patriarchal, hetero-cis-normative, Europhilic, western pro-American themes extremely well.  All other influences lower the enjoyment quotient to some degree.  By definition, anything written after 1957 is going to suffer from a certain deviation from this baseline point of view.  End of truth in advertising disclaimer.

So let’s get started.  The story that best represents the nightmare quality that I think is the most powerful part of the Lovecraft experience is also one of the shortest pieces in the anthology.  I’ve always thought that parents’ emotional bond to their children is the strongest point of attack for horror writers.  In his story “When We Change,” Mason Ian Bundschuh identifies what can be truly horrific about humans being forced into a meat grinder.  Forcing people to make unthinkable choices is the very essence of tragedy and horror.

Interestingly, another of my favorites is a parody, a Lovecraftian farce.  James Brogden’s “The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread” was very good.  It falls into the British tradition of Wodehouse, Fawlty Towers, The Office and anything else that juxtaposes the English desire for propriety and normalcy against the actual absurdity of real life. I definitely was smiling during my read of this story.  It aligns very nicely with my own sense of humor.

In the next installment of this article I’ll give my ideas on some of the larger stories.