The 1980s were an incredible time for practical effects, and a great time for horror films. The unique and terrifying cinematic experiences made during this era — from The Thing to Hellraiser — owe much to masterful animatronics and other practical effects. But there’s one film that seldom gets brought up in the horror special effects conversation: The Company of Wolves.
Brattle Theatre Film Notes Posts
When Jennifer’s Body came out in 2009, I thought it was the coolest movie I had seen since Mean Girls. The film followed Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried), two BFFs as they navigated boys and high school. If that wasn’t stressful enough, Jennifer gets sacrificed to a satanic cult and becomes a boy-eating demon. To quote from the film, hell is a teenage girl. Or rather, is the teenage girl just a victim of the hellish patriarchy?
Like the sweet stray dogs that run and play during the opening scenes of Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot lives a free, unstructured life in an older section of Paris. He chats with neighbors, stops in the local pub, and takes things slowly. His only appointment is to pick up his 9-year-old nephew, Gérard after school. Hulot loves Gérard and the feeling is clearly mutual. With his uncle, Gérard can be a kid. He plays with other boys, gets his clothes dirty, and eats too many sweets. He has fun.
At the end of Army of Darkness, the final film the Evil Dead trilogy, we see our hero, Ash (Bruce Campbell) back at his workaday job as a clerk at S-Mart department store. Having just survived a barrage of challenges after being transported back to the Middle Ages (everything from dangerously skeptical knights to monstrous Deadites), Ash looks comfortable and assured in his familiar, modern-day surroundings. Ever the show-off, Ash brags that the people he encountered in the 1300’s – from commoners to royalty – offered him the chance “to lead them, to teach them, to…be king.” Ash’s cockiness is soon disrupted by the shocking appearance of a female customer-turned-Deadite. Despite her promises to swallow Ash’s soul, the Deadite is quickly defeated by our hero’s wily sarcasm and rapid-fire shotgun blasts.
During the first few seconds of John Wick: Chapter 2, the motorcycle sequence from Buster Keaton’s 1924 film, Sherlock Jr. is projected on the side of a building in New York City. This is no accident: The influence Keaton has on the John Wick franchise and action movies is immense. Technological advances aside, the influence is easy to discern: the stunt work, the cinematography, even the fundamental use of physical action as a form of storytelling. But while action movies have long exuded a serious, no-funny-business demeanor, John Wick: Chapter 2 honors another enduring element of Keaton’s work: slapstick.
What do we need to procure a powerful imagination? A childhood steeped in traumatic events, emotionally supportive family members, being exposed to various quirky people, enriching early experiences, long hours of solitude…. Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, his ode to the origins of imagination, suggests that all of the above is true. Bergman’s semi-autobiographical farewell gift to cinema is a reflection on what nourished his imagination to create decades of outstanding cinematic work.
Allen Baron’s lonely, murky, Christmas-set noir Blast of Silence is notable for a number of things – its barely existent budget, stark city photography done without permits, and a rare second person narration track (read by veteran character actor Lionel Stander). The latter suitably sets the mood of the film and includes passages like, “When the Better Business Bureau rings the Christmas bell, the suckers forget there’s such a business as murder, and businessmen who make it their exclusive line,” which blur the usual holiday spirit with something a lot colder, and a lot more sinister.
Like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life has its own redemption story. Released in 1946, the film received tepid reviews from critics and was famously a box office flop, failing to earn enough revenue to break even with the budget, contributing to the bankruptcy of the production company Liberty Films and its eventual sale to Paramount. Twenty-eight years later, a clerical error allowed the movie to enter the public domain, at which point television stations started airing it solely because they could do so without paying royalties. Just as Uncle Billy’s clerical error was the catalyst that pushed George Bailey to find new appreciation for his life in Bedford Falls, that mistake at Paramount allowed a new American audience to find and embrace Bailey’s story, turning the forgotten film into the perennial classic it is today.
Horror films, even a comedic kids creature flick like Gremlins 2, need to have a monster. Sometimes the monsters are human, as in Psycho and Cannibal Holocaust. Sometimes it is an animal, as in Cujo and Jaws. Or it could be aliens, a ghost, vampires, a haunted snowman, or even the devil himself. The point is that the tension and conflict at the heart of every horror film comes from some version of the monstrous. In 1984’s Gremlins, the monsters were the gremlins themselves. The same is true of Gremlins 2. However, the film also sprinkles in a few bad guys who initially seem like they could emerge as monsters in their own right. But, none of these human bad guys are given the full commitment and power of a true monster.
Cinematic language – the grammar of perspective shifts, cuts, and editing that underpins movie storytelling – is immediately understood by audiences. This instantaneous comprehension is most likely because our film language has developed around the stories and plot devices that filmmakers like to use and moviegoers engage in. This explains how the use of the flashback is universally understood, and why it is taken for granted. In Spider-Man 3 when Peter looks at a photograph of his uncle’s killer, followed by a cross dissolve transition into a new scene featuring his uncle, the audience already assumes and comprehends that this new scene is set in the past. Because this convention is so established, it also means that filmmakers can play with audience expectations, as the 2016 science fiction film Arrival does. The film the subverts audience expectations of how a flashback works, and how a story is generally told, expressing an unusual use of film language in both its form and its themes.