Favorite Science-Fiction Films of the 1920s: Metropolis

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Metropolisposter

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Metropolis is a brilliant science-fiction film (1927) directed by Fritz Lang. This movie, recently restored to its entirety, is a disturbing look at the world of the future through  the eyes of visionaries in the 1920s. It is based on the novel of the same name by Thea von Harbou (1925). The book deals with a city created on the backs of exploited workers and run by the capitalist upper-class. It is also a love story, and it is set in the year 2026.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Metropolis offers a powerful and damning social commentary on the effects of the ruling class, the capitalist industrialists who rule the world by using and crushing the ordinary people who build and fuel their wonderland. While the workers live underground in squalor and destitution, the upper-class live literally in palaces high above the ground. There they explore and indulge in numerous amusements including those sexual and athletic. This film is not a simple polemic but drives its message through a compelling story that shows the love between the Master of Metropolis’ son Freder and Maria, who lives in the underworld and serves as a kind of saint to the oppressed.

Frankenstein, 1931, owes a cinematic debt to the mad scientist in Metropolis, Rotwang, and his equipment. There he creates a robot woman, using the life force of Maria. Clearly the novelist, Mary Shelley and her book, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, first influenced this movie.

Lang’s cinematic vision is exquisite and deeply influential to filmmakers who followed him in exploring the idea of future cites. His soaring towers and buildings, high bridges with fast cars, and aircraft flying near the buildings are based on the designs of the modernists and futurists, and this concept is a clear model for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Certainly an argument can be made that Metropolis is a foundation for many other science-fiction movies.

This film is extraordinary, and the full version is now available on DVD. It is an important piece of cinematic history, and I give it my highest recommendation.

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(https://commons.wikimedia.org)

Favorite Science-Fiction Films: A Trip to the Moon (1902)

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

I teach a course for the Wescoe School at Muhlenberg College: English 255 Literature & Film, which makes me very happy, because I am able to look at both literature and film, both media which I love. In one of the lectures for the class on film history, I speak to the earliest examples of cinema.

One of the first movies is also a science-fiction film: A Trip to the Moon (La Voyage Dans La Lune). Georges Méliès, one of the innovators of cinema, was the director, and he based the film, at least loosely, on Jules Verne’s novel From The Earth To The Moon (1865).

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

This movie is revolutionary not only in its being an early example of cinema but also in the treatment of science-fiction. Human beings have been explorers for the entirety of our existence, and this movie suggests that it was possible to move our journeys from the Earth to other worlds, a concept that informs our science-fiction cinema from the beginnings to our current films.

The plot shows scientists explaining how to get to the moon, the trip there, including a spaceship being shot out of a cannon, landing on the moon, being chased by inhabitants of the moon, and finally escaping back to Earth. This film explores adventure, imagination, advances in technology, and human potential.

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(https://commons.wikimedia.org)

This movie is usually considered by critics to be one of the most important in film history. It can be seen at https://archive.org/details/ATripToTheMoon1902 . If you are interested in the history of film and science-fiction, you should see this important historic and artistic film artifact.

The film runs, depending on the print from about 10-15 minutes.

Voyage_dans_la_lune_title_card

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

 

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1940s: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

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A&cfrank

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

This film might seem like an unusual choice for my series on horror films, especially since it is primarily a comedy, but I do have a fond place for this movie in my heart for several reasons.

As a youngster, I loved the hosted horror films shows that often appeared on Saturday afternoon, and I saw most of the Universal Studios horror films on those shows.  Also, I heard several times from my parents that they saw this movie when they were on their honeymoon in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, it is an extremely funny movie.

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(https://commons.wikimedia.org)

This film, made in 1948, was the completion of the Universal classic horror movie cycle, and it included the big three monsters of the Universal pantheon: The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman.  One of the signals of the end of a film genre cycle is when it reaches parody, and this film qualifies.  Horror very often is a reflection of the concerns of the larger world, and with World War Two completed, the fears of the world had changed and would be seen more in new science fiction films. (I examine some of these movies in my series on Science-Fiction films.)

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The premise is silly and features Dracula attempting to revive the Frankenstein Creature, and Larry Talbot, the wolfman, trying to find a cure for his lycanthropic infection. I should add that this is one of the finest performances by Lon Chaney Jr. despite the comedic tone of the movie.  Of course, Abbott and Costello are brilliant in their comedic routines. This movie never fails to make me laugh, no matter how many times I have seen it. Bela Lugosi plays Dracula for the last time, and Glenn Strange takes his turn as the Creature.

wolfman

(https://ils.unc.edu/dpr/path/horrorfilms)

If you have not seen this movie and you enjoy the classic Universal Studios horror films and you love slapstick 1940s comedy, then you should watch it! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

 

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1940s: Cat People

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In 1942, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Torneur, advanced the making of horror films by expanding the possible topics and boundaries. This extraordinary film is not one that relies on a standard “monster”; instead, Torneur employs psychological suspense and subtle development of terror.

This film offers a sophisticated and understated treatment of sexuality and its impact on people. The main character, Irena, a fashion designer, born in Serbia, and played by Simone Simon combines the modern world of high fashion in New York City with the old world beliefs that she is descended from people who are shape-shifters and who turn into big cats when sexually enticed and aroused. Torneur builds a new variation on the established theme of lycanthropy, in which a male changes into a wolf. Additionally, the film demonstrates the tension between science and superstition, the modern era versus the medieval times, and religion versus secularism.

While to a contemporary audience, this movie might seem dated and subdued, I believe it still carries great impact in its study of horror that is felt rather than seen, slowly created rather than visceral, and suggestive rather overt.

Cat People did very well at the box office, but it received a mixed range of reviews at the time. Since the 1940s, it has come to be seen as one of the more important horror films of the 20th Century.  If you have the opportunity, I recommend watching Cat People.

Jaguar

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

 

What Is One Of Your Favorite Movies?

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I have posted before about favorite books.  I will come back to that idea again in the not too distant future, but I was thinking about movies, because I am going to teach a hybrid online/traditional in-class course on Literature and Film at Muhlenberg College for The Wescoe School (the adult program) this summer. This will be an early question I will ask my students, so it is only fair that I think about it.

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(https://pixabay.com)

My answer would be the same as if this question were for books: The Lord of the Rings by director Peter Jackson (all 3 movies considered to be one–the same as with the books.) I think this adaptation is one of the best adaptations of a book to movie that has ever been accomplished. I love the depth of the story, the issues raised of political power and corruption, war and peace, good and evil, life and death, love and hatred, industrialization and the decimation of the natural world, heroes, both large and small, and the connection of all people. I recommend this filmic adaptation to all.   Please also read the books!

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So, I ask everyone: what is one of your favorite films?

Favorite Horror Films of the 1930s: A Series Revisited: Dracula

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When I first considered doing an examination of my favorite horror movies, I thought that going decade by decade would be sufficient, but I realized that some periods have far more excellent films than others.  A simple examination of 2-4 movies from the 1930s will not work, so I am going to look at one film at a time for that decade. I will begin with Dracula, a film I love, and which I have taught in college classes such as Literature and Film and Gothic and Horror.  I also hold the novel to be an excellent and very important book.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Dracula, made in 1931, and released for Valentine’s Day–a nice touch–was a huge success and established Bela Lugosi as a top box office star. This production was itself based on the very successful theatrical play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and James Balderston. Stoker’s novel did not see great success during his life, but after his death and the success of the play, it became one of the best selling novels of the 20th Century–worldwide.

Carl Laemmle Jr, capitalized on the story’s growing popularity and produced the movie.  Tod Browning, who had directed Lon Chaney Sr. in several movies, directed this piece. This film is highly atmospheric with a Gothic set and influenced by German Expressionism. Lugosi was brilliant with his authentic Hungarian accent and menacing presence. His performance and voice set the standard for the image of Dracula and vampires for decades to come. Dracula was a sensation and terrified people; today’s audience would probably find it slow and not at all frightening, but that reflects our jaded views that have been glutted with gore as the staple ingredient of contemporary horror.  This film depended on story telling, atmosphere, and acting. The film’s success created an era of classic horror films through the 1930s and part of the 1940s with Universal studios leading the way.

Additionally, Dracula is generally accepted by most film critics as one of the best horror films made.  I certainly consider it to be one of the best and most important.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

It is an interesting and little known detail of film history that in addition to the English language version, Universal also made a Spanish language film at the same time.  The  two films shared the same sets, and the same basic scripts, but with different actors and a different director: George Melford directed, and Carlos Villarías stared as Dracula.  While not as well known, an argument can be made that this is a better film than the more established English language version.  If you ever have the opportunity to see it, I recommend that you do.

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1920s Continued: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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In this post, I will continue my series on favorite horror films, specifically of the 1920s.

Another  brilliant horror movie of the 1920s is Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — The German title is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari — (1920). The plot of the film centers on a mad scientist, Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist, played by Werner Krauss, who exploits a sleepwalker, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, to commit murder. It is one of the earliest horror movies and ushers in a decade of greatness in film-making, especially in German cinema.

nightmare

(http://cinewiki.wikispaces.com)

The true power of the film is in its cinematic style, that of German Expressionism, which is based on the artistic movement of the same name. German Expressionism uses sharp angles, deep shadows, heavy use of darks and lights, and distorted forms to explore the psychological impact of visual images. In this art, the world is often not as it seems to be, and the artists explore distortions that lurk under the surface of apparent normalcy. What is perceived is often deeply disturbing and challenging.

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“The Prophet” Woodcut by Emil Nolde: 1912

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

Weine employs these revolutionary cinematic techniques to disorient, frighten, and interrogate the audience. Cesare is a common man, forced by an arrogant authority to become a murderer, which is clearly a commentary on the dark forces at play in Europe in the early parts of the 20th Century, some suggested by contemporary writers. As Weine suggests, the mass of people in Europe would, in the coming decades, be manipulated into creating the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust. I am not claiming that Weine somehow could see into the future, but that he perceived the traumas occurring in Europe, and those distortions appear in his film. Like Weine, other writers, such as Franz Kafka, also saw such coming disturbances.

franz-kafka

(https://en.wikipedia.org)

While only some of Franz Kafka’s brilliant and disturbing literary works had been published at this point–“Metamorphosis” (1915)– is the best example, Kafka’s treatment of the darkness and alienation in society could be an influence on this movie. While it is not certain, I believe it is the case. Regardless of if this is true or not, Weine creates a deeply disturbing movie, one that maintains its power to this day, one that I recommend for all lovers of film.

 

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