Sunday, January 29, 2012

Playing with Acromegaly

This will be the last reminder about the contest (see rules) before it ends on Tuesday, January 31. Become a public follower of this blog by then, and you have a chance to win my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. Welcome to those who have joined this month.

I am always looking for good horror movies I have not already seen, and I found one this week: a little known PRC quickie from 1944 called The Monster Maker. It stars veteran character actor J. Carrol Naish, who is best known to horror fans as mad scientist Boris Karloff's hunchbacked assistant in House of Frankenstein, released the same year. Here Naish is himself a mad scientist, Dr. Igor Markoff (good name). He is playing around with an actual disease, acromegaly, a glandular disorder that causes distortion of the face and hands, and that afflicted real-life B-movie player Rondo Hatton, who used it to look menacing on film. Markoff has a more sinister use for the disease.

It seems that Markoff has fallen in love with the beautiful daughter of a famous concert pianist, Anthony Lawrence (Ralph Morgan). To make things more twisted, Markoff desires the daughter because she reminds him of his dead wife, whom he drove to suicide by injecting her with acromegaly in a jealous rage (he made her hideous so no other man would look at her). Markoff injects Lawrence with acromegaly, turning him into a hideous monster and ruining his piano career. Markoff promises to cure Lawrence if he will get his daughter to marry the mad scientist--presumably so he can inject her with acromegaly too.

All this and I haven't even gotten to the gorilla. That's right, there's a fierce gorilla locked up in a cage for some reason, and when it gets loose...

The Monster Maker is 62 minutes long, and it moves right along at a nice pace. Naish's performance is typically good, the support is competent, the agromegaly makeup is well done, and though the sets are few, the maximum is made of them. From the point of view of deformed destructive being (DDB) theory, The Monster Maker is interesting because this mad scientist has dedicated his life to generating deformity that results in destructiveness. Markoff is himself a DDB (his mind is deformed and destructive) whose madness is precisely in wanting to make more DDBs (these acromegalics are not only deformed but, it turns out, destructive). Even when he gets a hold of beauty, he wants to turn her into one of his beasts. This is a low-budget film that is both entertaining and philosophically suggestive.

George Ochoa

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Mad Scientist

A staple of the horror movie is the mad scientist, and with good reason. The purpose of the horror film is to present a deformed destructive being (DDB), and the mad scientist, through his demented experiments, produces just that: a monster that is new, unnatural, and terrifying. In so doing, he is almost an avatar of the filmmaker, doing within the movie what the filmmaker tries to do through the movie.

The granddaddy of mad scientists is Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein. With his intense, neurotic look, his tendency toward screeching, his desire to play God, he set the pattern for mad scientists throughout horror film history. The DDB he created from dead flesh, the Frankenstein monster, was the pattern for later experimental monstrosities.

An ethical rule of horror films that Frankenstein violated is the rule prohibiting tampering with nature, often set in a religious context (God is the ruler of nature; therefore, altering nature is forbidden). This rule continued to be violated in future films. In The Invisible Man, the title character confesses on his deathbed, "I meddled in things that man must leave alone." Invisibility might not seem like such a sacrilegious thing to aim for, but in the horror film any monkeying around with nature can be disastrous.

The mad scientist is always trying some new alteration of nature: teleportation in The Fly; turning animals into people in The Island of Lost Souls; reviving the dead in Re-Animator; separating out the good and evil components of man in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; creating a twelve-limbed humanoid in The Human Centipede; reconstructing alien DNA in Species. The plan is always to create something that can be controlled, but the experiment always turns on the creator; the DDB breaks its bounds. This is true whether the DDB is, respectively, a fly-human hybrid, animal-men, crazed zombies, Mr. Hyde, the human centipede, or a deadly Natasha Henstridge.

The mad scientist is sometimes remorseful for what he has done, but sometimes he doesn't care. Peter Cushing's Frankenstein in the Hammer Frankenstein series never seemed repentant for his monstrosities. In any case, we can expect more mad scientists in horror movies, because they are so successful in creating DDBs.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

P.S. Don't forget to enter the contest.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"The 4th Floor"

Reminder: You have until January 31, 2012, to enter the drawing to win a free copy of my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, just by following this blog publicly. See this post for  details.

I had a chance recently to see a movie I'd never heard of, The 4th Floor (1999), starring Juliette Lewis and William Hurt. I was glad I did, not because the movie was good but because it was weird. Here was Hurt, the Oscar-winning star of Kiss of the Spider Woman, appearing as support in a grade B horror movie. Here was Lewis, whining and getting hysterical in her usual Lewis way--which is to say, a weird way. Here was Tobin Bell doing his creepy potential serial killer thing as if preparing for Saw, which he would make five years later.

The plot of The 4th Floor hinges on an apartment that Lewis inherits and doesn't want to give up, even though a mysterious downstairs neighbor (on the fourth floor) is sending her menacing notes about making too much noise. The dispute escalates, and soon the neighbor is sending her maggots and mice, and otherwise making her life unpleasant. Lewis has never seen this neighbor, and the movie is built like an old-fashioned mystery, where you have several suspects to choose from, including Bell, who lives across the street and peeps in at Lewis, and Hurt, a TV weatherman who is Lewis's boyfriend. Neighbors Shelley Duvall and Austin Pendleton are possibilities too.

It doesn't really matter who the maniac is, and in fact the movie is a little muddy about it, finally implicating at least two individuals. The point seems to be to build tension and generate scares, and here the movie falls short. The pace is leaden and the plot twists unbelievable. In one episode, Lewis is facing off against her adversary, and decides to deck the person with an artsy plaque she has mounted on her wall. So she starts pounding her feet into broken glass in an effort to make the plaque fall. And it falls. Now, I have had objects around the house that tend to fall at inopportune times, and the whole point is that you can't control when they fall--they just do, sometimes. Lewis seems to be violating the law of entropy by controlling disorder in an orderly way.

Despite these problems, The 4th Floor was kind of entertaining. It was offbeat and mildly wacky. And it had the worst fake commercial for a TV weatherman I have ever seen.

George Ochoa

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Collecting Movie Stills

Reminder: You have until January 31, 2012, to enter the drawing to win a free copy of my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, just by following this blog publicly. See this post for  details.

One reason you might like this book is because it contains forty-seven movie stills (like the one from The Others, above) hand-picked by me and handsomely reproduced in black-and-white by the publisher, McFarland. Putting together these pictures was a labor of love that reminded me of my earliest encounters with movie still collecting, back in the 1970s. In those days, when I was a high school student in Queens, my friends and I would take the subway to Manhattan to attend fan conventions, like the Star Trek Con, Creation, and the Nostalgia Con. We would spend hours rifling through boxes of movie stills, lobby cards, and posters, mostly from horror, science fiction, and fantasy films. We bought as much as a teenager could afford and took it all home.

At one point my room was decorated with posters from The Exorcist, The Omen, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange. Some lobby cards went on the walls too. But the stills stayed in a file drawer, in clear plastic protectors in a green binder, and whenever I took them out I handled them carefully. These were pieces of movies to be treated with respect, glossy fragments that epitomized films I loved--Rosemary's Baby, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Planet of the Apes.

A few years later, I outgrew the whole movie fan thing and gave away much of my collection. No more posters, no more lobby cards. Don't ask me what I was thinking; I guess I wanted a simpler life. I did keep the green binder of stills, but I didn't know why. I never looked at them.

Later, I became a born-again movie fan. I guess I was ready for a more complex life. I got so interested in horror films I wrote this book about them, Deformed and Destructive Beings, and now I knew why I had kept the green binder. It was to provide art for the book. I picked out a few of the best stills, and there they are now--including, though it is not a horror film, a great shot of Sinbad's fight with the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

I needed a lot more stills, so I went on eBay and trolled the movie merchandise markets there. I also stopped off at Jerry Ohlinger's physical store in Manhattan, which I hadn't visited since I was much younger. Among my finds was that shot of Nicole Kidman looking beautiful and ethereal with her two children from The Others, an image of the monster in The Fly II attacking a victim (terrible movie, nice shot), and a picture of Ash being strangled by his own dismembered hand in Evil Dead II.

It's all in the book. And it's nice to be back among the movie fans.

George Ochoa