Hammer Films produced many of the very best gothic horror films in the 1950s and 1960s. After its resurrection just a few years ago, Hammer now seems set to continue its tradition onward if The Woman in Black is any indicator. Hammer returns to its glory days of supernatural storytelling, invoking the Victorian-type ghost story in superb style. Easily one of the most stylish, most chilling horror films of the last couple of decades, this one also has a heart (as the best always do).The story plays on both the cards of the heartbroken young widower in grief over his wife’s death as well as the both sad and frightening vengeful ghost whose mystery plays out and creating a truly terrifying build-up. Continue reading
It was announced this week that Mel Gibson is set to produce and possibly direct a film based on the story of the apocryphal books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees. Despite some of his remarks and personal problems in recent years, Gibson remains one of the few directors I would trust to maintain the epic and moving atmosphere of the original, as is his violent but emotion-driven style. Having particularly loved the chronicles of Maccabees for some time, I thought I might share a favorite sequence that would make for an interesting scene on film: the bungled suicide of Razis. Continue reading
The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is an interesting piece of work. Originating as a a two-disc rock album in 1970 written by the then very young composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, featuring the lead singer of the band Deep Purple as Jesus Christ, the work was controversial even before reaching the stage a year later and the silver screen in 1973. The composer was raised mainline Methodist, the lyricist an agnostic; the work neither endorsed nor denied Christ’s divinity, problematic for many Christians already, and further complicated by being told largely from the viewpoint of one generally considered an antagonist in the Passion narrative, Judas Iscariot. This, mixed with the theologically problematic lyrics resulting from the former circumstances, makes the piece generally unacceptable to Christian viewers and hearers. How is it, then, that a secular rock opera about Jesus Christ played a monumentally pivotal role in my spiritual life?
When I was fourteen, I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous musical The Phantom of the Opera at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with my grandparents after becoming fond of its score when a teacher played the original cast recording in class. I was curious what else the composer had written. My mother recalled a rock opera that her brother had listened to on LP growing up, Jesus Christ Superstar. I managed to procure a copy and listened. I was enraptured by the classic rock songs telling the story of the Passion of Christ. The late 60s guitar mixed with a full orchestra in the Overture captured my imagination. The raspy, blue-eyed soul voice of Murray Head as Judas straining in his opening soliloque “Heaven on Their Minds” was mind-blowing (and every bit as much all the way to Judas’ posthumous commentary “Superstar” before the crucifixion), and then came along Ian Gillan’s Jesus in the third number with what one might be tempted to call “the voice of a god” were it not a bit too cliché for the circumstance. His stratospheric screams were something I never thought I’d find in a musical, culminating in his powerful lament to God in “Gethsemane.” Aside from Phantom, I didn’t even like musicals… but I loved this!
As I listened to this high-fidelity retelling of the Passion Week, however, there was much I didn’t understand. Having not been regularly to church in about four years or so at that point, my Bible knowledge was more than a bit rusty. The last track on the album was titled “John 19:41,” but I had no clue what that passage was. I managed to dig out the King James Bible I had been given as a young child and looked up the passage, which read:
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
The piece ended with Christ being laid in the tomb. Interesting. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I was certainly unsettled by the feeling that this wasn’t the end, and had the conviction for the first time in years that this was an important story. The question of the mystery verse answered, I found myself continuing to read in John and then Luke, trying to figure out what in the bizarre rock opera was actually in scripture and what was, as we might say, dramatic license. I finished both of those gospels in a month’s time, eventually going through Matthew and Mark as well. Meanwhile, I watched the film version of the rock opera starring Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas. The humanity the lead actors lent to the roles broke down ideas of a stiff, unfeeling Christ and company that many previous films and perhaps too many flannel graphs had instilled in my mind.
In a year’s time, as I began to sign up for classes going into tenth grade, my interest in the story of the gospel narrative and the historicity behind it had grown to such an extent that I signed up for a released-time program at the Gilmer Christian Learning Center. My relationship with Jesus Christ Superstar never truly ended, whatever theological objections I could think to raise about some of its lyrics. I eventually saw a stage production starring Carl Anderson shortly before his death, and the original double album still finds its way into my car’s disc changer from time to time. I can’t loose myself of it. It was simply a life-changing work of art that raised all the right questions at the right times and was used by God to make a difference in my life. What else can we ask a piece of art to do?
Murray Head, the original concept album Judas, in a concert performance of “Superstar”:
Ted Neeley, Jesus in the 1973 film, in “Gethsemane”:
(Illustration: the original cover art for the American release of Jesus Christ Superstar: A Rock Opera, the concept album.)
A few days ago, in our premiere Question of the Week, I asked “What are your favorite horror films (and, optionally, why)? After some thoughtful and diverse responses, now it is time for my own answer. In all honesty, I could probably make a list of twenty of my top horror films (how have I left out more Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Hammer pictures?), but here we go for starters.
In very non-static order (because I have named all of these my “favorite” horror film at some point or another):
- The Innocents. 1961. Director: Jack Clayton. Starring Deborah Kerr. Screenplay by Truman Capote and William Archibald, based on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. This movie is a perfect adaptation of a classic ghost story with a psychological bent. From the chilling settings to James’ macabre story (moodily adapted by Capote), the haunting score, to the spot-on performances, this may be the quintessentially perfect ghost story film. Beautifully shot in black and white with amazing effects, and with an ending that leaves the audience guessing, this may be the epitome of a gothic chiller.
- Vampyr. 1931. Director: Carl Th. Dreyer. Starring Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz. Screenplay by Carl Th. Dreyer, based on the story In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu. A dreamlike, spectral piece of European filmmaking, Vampyr is notable for its iconic chilling imagery, whether you can follow its strange tale or not amidst the intentionally disorienting style. Easily the most creepily macabre imagery in the first half-century of filmmaking. Also notable is the film’s extended special effects sequence using disembodied shadows.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 2005. Director: Scott Derrickson. Starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter. Screenplay by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman. This is the most interesting film about demonic possession I have seen. This one is particularly significant because of the questions it raises. Equally effective as a courtroom drama and a horror film, the story has a large focus on both faith and on possible explanations for possession symptoms. The thought provoking film leaves the audience contemplating that either these things exist or they don’t… and both conclusions have repercussions.
- Nosferatu. 1921. Director: F.W. Murnau. Starring: Max Schrek, Greta Schroeder. Screenplay by Henrik Galeen, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. One really can’t address the horror genre without naming Dracula, and no adaptation has ever been as completely macabre as Nosferatu. Count Orlock (this film’s verion of Dracula) is a ratlike, grotesque vampire without the charm of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. He spreads the plague throughout the German community he invades. Ghastly, iconic imagery and a sinister ambiance pervade the whole film. Brilliance.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes. 1983. Director: Jack Clayton. Starring Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce. Screenplay by Ray Bradbury, based on his novel. This was the very first movie that ever scared me and now, almost twenty years after I first viewed it, I still find it creepily enjoyable. Produced by Disney (suprisingly), Bradbury’s classic tale of two boys coming of age in a small town as an evil carnival feasts on people’s regrets and unhappiness still packs a chill thanks to stellar performances and the subtle but perfect direction by The Innocents‘ Jack Clayton. This film is a perfect introduction to the horror genre for kids, a great film to watch around Halloween, as well as a great talking piece in regard to sin, desire, and evil.
And just because I’m the proprietor of this here establishment, here are my honorable mentions:
- The Phantom of the Opera. 1925. Director: Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick (uncredited). Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry. Based upon the novel by Gaston Leroux. A flawed but compelling telling of Gaston Leroux’s famous mystery/horror novel. Easily the most faithful to the book, this film’s strengths rest in Ben Carre’s opera house sets, the stunning early Technicolor masked ball sequence, and the compelling performance of Lon Chaney as the Phantom (featuring his incredible death’s head makeup and shocking unmasking scene).
- The Exorcist. 1973. Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow. Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. The pioneer exorcism film. Filled with shocking moments and great atmosphere, it is no longer as scary as it once was, but it still leaves quite the impression.
- Night of the Living Dead. 1969. Director: George Romero. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea. Screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. I actually think this is one of the scariest movies of all time. I own it, yet I almost never watch it. Its rural, earthy realism actually bothers me like few other movies, and so I hardly ever watch it… but only because it fully succeeds in what it intended to do.
- The Wolf Man. 1941. Director: George Waggner. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers. Screenplay by Curt Siodmak. Full of foggy moors, this sympathetic werewolf story may no longer be frightening, but it has the perfect atmosphere for a gothic tale and created much of the werewolf legend that we take as granted today.
- The Orphanage. 2007. Director: Juan A. Bayona. Starring Belén Rueda, Geraldine Chaplin. Screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez. Almost making it into my top five, this Spanish film is both creepy and moving at once. Great performances and just the right atmosphere lend to the almost fairy-tale story, highlighted by parallels to Peter Pan.
(Illustration: a still from Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr)
I am treading new ground with this. I am actually asking for your participation with this new feature of the site, in hopes of sparking some stimulating conversation. So here goes,
What are your top five “horror” films and, optionally, why?
I will post my own answer toward the end of the week.
(Note: this is not a discussion to share why you don’t like horror films… the topic of horror as a legitimate genre will be addressed in an upcoming article.)
“One of Hamlet’s most famous lines in Shakespeare’s play addresses this three-way confrontation between skepticism, uncertainty, and belief: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ In fact, I believe there is much more. I also believe that part of the fallen human condition is that this knowledge is strongly suppressed, and in turn the suppression itself is suppressed. As a result of the conservation of truth principle, however, we enforce a double movement that overturns this very suppression: first, we make fiction, including movies, featuring supernatural elements; second, we often find these fictions terrifying, even though we believe they are fiction. It has long been said that art imitates life even as life imitates art. I would add to that. We do not believe our not believing. Our fiction imitates and undermines the fiction of our unbelief.”
– Grant Horner, Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer
“In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think the more compelling question is, why do so many Christians find it odd that a Christian would be working in this genre? To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it’s unpleasant. Continue reading
I just want to take this moment at the start of the new year to show a bit of appreciation for a pastor I enjoy from afar. Douglas Wilson is the notably pithy pastor of Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho and is a senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College, a classical Christian college which he helped found and which has been turning heads in academic circles for some time now. Continue reading