Monday, October 9, 2017

Horror in an Age After Imagination

   This October, in a month of candy, costumes, and commemorative rock music, take a minute to ponder the fates of our original cinematic horror icons.  Vampires have become identified more as the stars of trashy YA romance lit such as the Twilight series than as the classic Lugosi inspired figure.  Frankenstein's Creature is rarely seen onscreen anymore, and succesful films featuring it are even rarer.  Mummies are perhaps the rarest of all, and the last major film featuring a mummy, a poorly reviewed Tom Cruise starring vehicle, inspires little confidence. What's happened to these creatures that once haunted our dreams?

   When these creatures first appeared onscreen, there was still an element of surprise and awe in seeing a legendary horror made flesh. Films about legendary horror creatures date to the very dawn of commercial cinema; the first Frankenstein film dates all the way back to 1910!  During the silent era, the cinematography, makeup, and stylistics of monster films rapidly became more sophisticated, particularly in 1922's Nosferatu, an unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel.  Early sound films such as 1931's Frankenstein, the beginning of the classic Universal Monsters series, could not match the wondrous cinematography of Nosferatu, but featured amazing acting from horror stars such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  These films, relatively short (especially by modern standards), and far from the most expensive of Universal releases, were among the most resonant in an America racked by the poverty wrought by the Great Depression and racked by the racial cruelty of Jim Crow laws.  This was a transitional phase in America, a country where people still rarely left the state of their birth and could be awed by Karloff as a mysterious, Egyptian stranger who just may have powers from beyond the grave.  It was a nation that could only see its injustices mirrored in the horrors endured by Frankenstein's creature because the Code and other censorship of the time prevented the honest depiction of racial and other injustices endured by millions of Americans.  In a darkened theatre, in an imaginary realm of shadows and darkness, Americans confronted the strange and the mysterious in the only environment that felt safe to them in a changing, foreboding world.

   Then the worst thing that ever happened to the American horror genre occured--the victory of the Allies in World War II.  America enjoyed a burst of postwar prosperity as the only nation involved in WWII that had not seen its manufacturing centers bombed into a ruin.  In the period of success and equality that followed the war, class equality and incomes grew, racial injustices were slowly rectified through the efforts of civil rights leaders, and the once-formidable Universal Monsters became little more than a punchline in a joke.  It's quite telling that their last collective appearance, in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, was a solely comedic one; the "classic" Universal Mummy would also make a last apperance in a comedy, the 1955 film Abbott and Costello Meet the MummyThe Abbott and Costello Mummy film represented the end of Universal's interest in its classic monster films and the death of mainstream Hollywood's interest in horror themes, as the studio's only remaining use for its old creatures was as matinee rereleases and fodder for local TV horror hosts.  The banner of memorable horror releases during the 1950s fell to those nations that were far more devastated than America by WWII, ranging from Japan's Godzilla to Britain's Horror of DraculaProducts of anguished and wounded nations, these films were more graphic and brutal than the American horror that had preceded them, and those foreign studios that had created them, Japan's Toho and Britain's Hammer, frequently had superior production budgets and better directon than the remaining low budget American horror fare.

   Only as America's involvement in Vietnam lingered on and as storm of societal unrest gathered, did major Hollywood studios finally regain their interest in horror films.  Even as releases like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist gathered critical acclaim, the classic monsters (no longer were they Universal-made) were typically relegated to poorly made schlock like Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Castle of FreaksEven during the 1980s, a decade full of sexual trauma over the AIDS crisis and the end of the "free love" era, the old creatures were mostly displaced by newer slasher film villains like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.  The legendary creatures would receive one last loving homage, the memorable 1987 release The Monster SquadA sort of "horror Goonies", this movie managed to make its creatures both funny and scary at the same time, and featured great monster design and makeup which resembled that of the Universal creatures while retaining enough imagination to not being totally derivative of them. Sadly, the aim of horror had already moved past the age of matinees and and films that could still be seen by children; The Monster Squad did not fit the appetite of an audience that had come to value gore and lurid thrills above all else, and the film bombed as a result.

   Now, in the late 2010s, Universal has finally taken interest in its back catalogue of horror films once more. However, the early results are...not optimistic.  Universal's interest in its legendary creatures is no longer a thing of mists and shadowy castles but the stuff of massive franchise crossovers; the studio wants to invest hundreds of millions into creating a "Dark Universe" to rival the imaginary worlds of Marvel and DC, and fling boatloads of expensive CGI at its viewers while doing so. The Dark Universe's first release, the 2017 remake of The Mummy, is emblamatic of this; much of the film isn't even about the mummy itself so much as it is about Tom Cruise's hero character interacting with a pseudo-SHIELD organization that fights monsters around the world.  The mummy wanders around and does stuff, draining the life force of men to sustain herself (conceptually, she's more a vampire than mummy, although I don't know if the screenwriters considered this too heavily) and sets boldly get exploded, but this is a film entirely devoid of imagination, of the striving for the mythic darkness that the old Universal films and even older silent films evoked.  This is the product of an age beyond suggestion, beyond subtlety, beyond thought itself, and in its cynical attempts to rip off the "Marvel model", it evokes another poorly regarded entry in a long-running series, Godzilla: Final Wars, which also pilfered Marvel's SHIELD model of a secret organization and featured CGI-laden fights that were perfunctory and unsatisfying.  There has been no further movement on the Dark Universe following The Mummy's disappointing summer release, suggesting Universal has put its legendary menagerie to rest once more.  Could Universal regain the old vital spirit of madness, that spark that once animated its creature in 1931 while Dr. Frankenstein yelled "It's Alive!"?  Such a thing would mean that our own cinematic dark age, the Age After Imagination, would finally be coming to an end.     

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