The psychological horror films produced at RKO by Val Lewton, in the brief but fertile span from 1942 to 1946, are really something special. They stand apart from the more flamboyant, monster-dominated thrillers that came out of Universal Studios in the 1930s. Lewton was a highly-educated, sensitive man who brought a subtlety and finely-tuned artistic sensibility to what was considered by many in the industry as a crass, "lowest common denominator" genre. He was far more interested in the horrors of the mind, and the kinds of psychological violence that man perpetuates on to others and torments himself with, than in any outright presence of the supernatural. There are plenty who might prefer the grab-you-by-the-throat monster menaces of Universal over the ambiguous, "is it real or imagined?" horrors that populate Lewton's works, but few can dispute the skill with which Lewton and his crew of talented collaborators made such powerful films out of such low means.
Starting with Cat People in 1942, Lewton created 9 short, polished little gems of unease and quiet, slowly-escalating terror, several of which are minor masterpieces of mood and atmosphere. Lewton and his directors (Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson), managed to eke out maximum production value from low budgets, through a combination of carefully-composed shots, inventive cinematography and a deliberate, thoughtful blending of the poetic and the macabre. Lewton's films are revered by fans of classic horror, who love to argue over the relative merits of his output. I happen to be partial to I Walked with a Zombie (a classy update of Jane Eyre set in Haiti, more melodrama than horror but gripping nonetheless) and Isle of the Dead (a somber meditation on war, disease, death and madness). All nine - even the comparatively unloved The Ghost Ship - remain fascinating works, and offer many rewards for the patient viewer.
"One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from, in the dark...alone, outnumbered hundreds to one, nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, gimmicks..."
The end-of-the-world thriller is a common one in science fiction, and it's proven a popular one in film. The current obsession with zombies is just the latest phase of this fascination with this “what if” scenario. The post-apocalyptic genre offers immediate dramatic impact; the viewer can't help but get caught up in the game of “what would I do in such a drastic situation?”
As early as 1959's The World, the Flesh and the Devil and 1962's Panic in Year Zero, filmmakers have been inspired by the dramatic and visual possibilities inherent in the genre. We humans seem endlessly intrigued by the idea of the eventual decline of civilization and the decimation and eradication of our species from an indifferent planet.
There have been all manner of post-apocalyptic movies, some straight-up adventures (The Road Warrior), some philosophical character studies (The Quiet Earth), bleak horror (Dawn / Day of the Dead), poignant ruminations on the end of all things (The Road) or man's descent into animalistic savagery (No Blade of Grass). I like nearly all of these films, and love many. I'm guess I'm just predisposed to enjoy a good end-of-the-world yarn. The Omega Man may not be the best example of its genre, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining.
Charlton Heston stars as Robert Neville, military scientist and, seemingly, the last man on Earth. As a virulent plague begins wiping out humanity, Neville engineers a possible vaccine. Surviving a helicopter crash, but beginning to feel the effects of the plague, he injects himself with the last intact vial of serum. As a result, he becomes immune to the disease. As civilization crumbles around him, he holes up in his penthouse apartment and barricades himself in with the paintings, books, and other last remnants of a dying culture.
"I guess if the earth were made of gold, men would die for a handful of dirt."
When I was a young movie fan, back before I knew better, I thought Gary Cooper was a stiff. Sure, he was big, stoic and capable, but to me he seemed a wooden, inexpressive performer. I knew he was famous, for stuff like High Noon and Sergeant York, but I didn't get the hype. He didn't seem to bring the big, bold, authoritative flourishes I immediately noticed and responded to with stars like John Wayne, Lee Marvin, or Humphrey Bogart. Cooper seemed noble, yes, but also...well, also a little bit dulI.
I've since learned the error of my ways.
The older I get, and the more of Cooper's movies I see, the more I realize that there's a lot of depth there, lurking beneath the strong, silent surface. He's a much more interesting, complex actor than I first gave him credit for, and in his own quiet way, he commands the screen. He comes across as more amiable and contemplative than the likes of the Duke or Clint Eastwood, yet he's able to subtly convey a wily intelligence and sardonic wit. And, of course, there's that innate nobility thing, perhaps rivaled only by Gregory Peck in the ease with which it's displayed.
He's also surprisingly funny, when given half a chance. Whether playing off his image as the innocent professor who falls for brassy showgirl Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, fending off the advances of matriarch Marjorie Main in Friendly Persuasion or showing a facility for slapstick when trying to care for a baby in Casanova Brown.
Cooper's no muss, no fuss authority, shrewd thinking and easy way with short, pointed retorts are on full display in Henry Hathaway's Garden of Evil. He easily anchors this "tropical" western - though Richard Widmark tries his best to steal it out from under him.
2012 was an interesting year for me in many ways. I started this blog at the end of last March, and so far have managed 48 posts on the main page, and a half dozen or so others on additional pages. The main page has had over 7,000 visitors since I started tracking things in early May (a lot of traffic was due to my handful of James Bond posts...thank you, 50th Anniversary!). Not too shabby of a start...though a mere drop in the pond compared to some of the other excellent (and very prolific) blogs I follow. I'll try my best to double the number of posts in 2013...though as a new father, I'd better make no guarantees.
Yes, this past year was also the year when I became a first-time dad, at the tender age of 45. My son Kenji was born on September 28th, and has been a source of real joy for my wife and I (as well as multiplying my stress levels exponentially). I'm a lot busier now than I was in those comparatively carefree days when I first began this blog, but I hope that, over time, as I adjust and find a way to balance the demands of parenthood with my sundry hobbies, I'll be able to stick to a more controlled and regular posting schedule here - time and personal sanity permitting.
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema
Out of the Past -
A Classic Film Blog
Pretty Sinister Books
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
My Love of Old Hollywood
Tales of the Easily Distracted
Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
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