American Vampire

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I haven’t been the first nor will I be the last to point out how Kathryn Bigelow, famed action filmmaker turned political filmmaker notable for being the very first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, got her in at the industry by focusing almost exclusively on the masculinity of genre action films and proving herself just as capable of working with that machismo as any other man behind the camera at the time. Indeed, given despite the fact that one could reasonably claim she only really made one pure action film (Point Break which might also be her best film), her ability to provide incredibly ambitious setpieces that matched or even outdid whatever Renny Harlin or John McTiernan was going around at that time sure as hell proved her to be top of the “Boys’ Club” and know how to bring testosterone to the screen in an unconscious way that ought to make other genre filmmakers really insecure about themselves.

And yet, her 1987 film Near Dark is possibly the only film that feels… aware of that masculinity – for is there any genre more manly man as the Western – existing in a very outwardly dangerous way. After all, her script co-written by Eric Red starts in an extremely libidinous way for its young Oklahoma cowpoke Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who spots attractive pale drifter Mae (Jenny Wright) and pursues her in an uncomfortably aggressive manner. After a night of wrangling her in a very uncomfortable manner, especially in her fear of getting “home” before dawn, Caleb tries to coax her into kissing him and in frustration and attraction, she responds by biting Caleb’s neck and running off.

That bite is apparently enough to make it so hard for Caleb to walk down the morning horizon, his child sister (Marcie Leeds) and father (Tim Thomerson) witness in horror as he begins smoking and crisping black in the bright Oklahoma sun until he’s forcibly yanked into an RV inhabited by Mae and her fellow vampire drifter gang – sadistic psycho Severin (Bill Paxton), maturely sinister child Homer (Joshua John Miller), burly beauty Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and cold leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) – ready to slice his neck wide open until Mae points out he turned Caleb, saving his life and beginning their relationship with Caleb’s family racing to his rescue.

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Certainly both Point Break and The Hurt Locker are both self-aware of their masculinity, but both of them seem to be in sheer intoxication of the adrenaline rush that comes from asserting their manly selves and The Hurt Locker is an introspective study of how it’s kind of bad for the individual. Near Dark thinks that masculinity leaves nothing but a vile bloodbath and corpses in its wake. Hooker and company are essentially trying to push the reluctant young Caleb into killing alongside them, out of necessity for their survival and also frankly out of enjoyment for the bloodletting. It’s essentially a companion piece to The Lost Boys from the same year.

While The Lost Boys is a lot more light (being a semi-comedy) and the energy of the film is homoerotic between Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, Near Dark is extremely harsh and unforgiving, ominous thanks to the tonal soundscape provided by Tangerine Dream, and very heterosexual in nature. Caleb’s young lust for Mae is what got him in the situation in the first place after all and it’s established very clearly that Homer is the character that hates Caleb most (his first move is to grab Caleb’s scrotum and threaten him if Homer’s name is mispronounced) and that hatred is established by Homer originally laying claim to Mae as a mate*. The juxtaposition between a child trying to claim a grown woman as his prize is unsettling enough, the knowledge that Homer’s much much older than the 11 year old body he’s in becomes more alarming when his new prey is on Caleb’s little sister. And Mae is the only source of Caleb’s relief from trying to kill others, letting him drink from her wrists rather than the truck drivers and street punks the rest of the gang find.

It’s not Miike Takeshi here, but it’s the bloodiest and most violent movie in Kathryn Bigelow’s entire corpus. And the casual manner in which bloodletting occurs in the movie only refuses to aestheticize or romanticize the chest-puffing attitude that brings an unglamorous body count with it. The blood’s dark and dirty, like nasty spit erupting that you feel like you have to wash off your screen. Adam Greenberg as cinematographer provides an unrefined duskiness to every shot that accentuates the grunginess of the gang’s attire and the darkness surrounding them – my favorite shot being an ominous backlit high-angle silhouette of the group against a wispy smoke screen – while the Oklahoma daylight horizon is at times given such a blown brightness to make it as hard to look at as it is for Caleb to walk within it. It doesn’t even need to get bloody for things to get alpha-male, for a throwaway moment of Severin and Hooker aiming pistols at each other cards feels like a joke that’s hard to laugh at in context.

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Greenberg’s texture to the visuals also grants Near Dark an tired and weary attitude that reminds us how badly it would love to be a great manly Western, but reminds us that demands blood. Henriksen’s Hooker is exactly the sort of wandering cowboy we’d expect to be full of wisdom and practicality except there’s also the clear indication that he likes killing and especially making those who he kills suffer horribly. In Near Dark‘s central bar massacre, he tries to toy and lure the server’s company signaling his sinister intentions immediately before Diamondback glibly slits her throat and Hooker fills a beer mug with her blood in excitement and informs everybody in that room they are going to die. When Hooker also charismatically declares that he was a Confederate soldier and his pride that they lost, it’s just another in a long line of chaotic evil expressions from an apparently collected individual.

Meanwhile, Severin’s the “life” of the massacre. He asserts his toxicity from the moment he steps foot into the bar, insulting everybody in the room, deliberately spilling drinks, causing fights (and goading Caleb to get into his own), and stalking the bartender on the very bar into a desperate corner (again a wonderful moment of Greenberg’s framing). It’s the most accomplished scene in the late Paxton’s life. He gives the sort of shitheel turn that feels full of danger and apathy that it’s impossible not to hate him at first appearance but it’s also just as impossible to tell him how much you hate him out of fear.

Unfortunately, as a result of Bigelow and editor Howard E. Smith’s no-nonsense action thriller pacing (which is mostly a strength), the nihilistic dive of Near Dark is cut short at the 3/4 mark when part of Caleb’s predicament is resolved, it feels like a shortcut to the climax than anything organic. Bigelow still has the sense to mostly soften the blow by using her sensibility of spectacle and newfound studio involvement to craft a great big dark Western streets showdown involving the heavy momentum and explosive outcome of a truck and preclude that with one more cowboy image of Caleb riding off tall to save the day on horseback, so Near Dark can stay on its feet until the final minutes. A couple of scenes of resolution doesn’t easily shake off the visceral nightmare that Caleb had to go through earlier.

*Funny enough, Miller – 11 years old at the time of filming – has grown up to be a successful screenwriter/show runner and is in an openly gay relationship with his writing partner, M.A. Fortin. Also coincidentally, he’s half-brothers with Jason Patric, the lead of The Lost Boys.
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Bad Blood

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This is it. I’m done.

Like for real. No more Underworld movies. I don’t give a fuck what Len Wiseman says to fix his ex-marriage to Kate Beckinsale. I don’t care that the final note of this films happens to scarily imply a sixth Underworld film. It makes no sense to continue it anyway.

It makes no sense for Underworld: Blood Wars to exist!

On a narrative schema, Underworld: Blood Wars has now ignored – once again – the concept of humans having a stake in this fight after Underworld: Awakening was all “now the humans know bout the monsters!” Much more severely than any of the other films, since while all the other movies at least have human characters popping their heads in to say “hey! we exist in this universe!”, Underworld: Blood Wars does not feature ONE human character for the first time in the franchise.

No sirree, it’s all on its vampire/werewolf Lycan war now since it’s trying to figure out a worthy final note for it to end on. And my problem with that is that we’ve had not one but TWO movies that insisted vampires vs. werewolves didn’t become a thing here until Viktor (Bill Nighy who appears in archive footage) and Lucian (Michael Sheen who I don’t think even appears in that capacity) had beef. Not only are Viktor and Lucian long dead by the time of this movie, all three of the vampire elders are out of it and yet this war still keeps raging on and on because… the producers thought 13 years was long enough for the characters to forget about that. I don’t even think Lucian gets mentioned by name in any of the sequels.

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I know it doesn’t do to linger on the mythology of the Underworld universe for logic or reason, but any excuse for the movie not to continue is a good one. Still it rolls on, this time all the way into the Eastern Europe covens of vampires and some mega-intelligent werewolf guerrilla leader by the name of Marius (Tobias Menzies) who is so good at his job he has the vampires scared. The Eastern coven is convinced by Semira (Lara Pulver playing the resident Eva Green femme fatale role) and Thomas (Charles Dance returning) to forgive Selene’s murder of Viktor so she can train them to fight werewolves, but this turns out to be a diversion for Semira to actually massacre several vampires (amongst them Thomas) and frame Selene and Thomas’ son and Selene’s buddy David (Theo James) for the betrayal.

Oh ho! Betrayal is the name of the plot game here, for this movie is devoted to acting like an extended episode of Game of Thrones where everybody betrays everyone and the choice of having a director of Outlander episodes, Anna Foerster, take the helm seems to promise that especially in its tone. Every single character is playing a game of Risk. Badly. In any case, what isn’t promised is the lack of color processing to blues, although it changes it up by adding a lot more angelic whites and greys when we meet the peaceful Nordic vampire cult and witness their special “resurrection” ritual that only adds more to the inevitability of Selene becoming the angriest Vampire Jesus around, what with her “can walk in the sunlight” blood and the blood of her non-present vampire-Lycan daughter Eve being the MacGuffin for every character.

The action is what any sane person comes for and this is a lot more sanitized than is necessary (although there is an interesting point where it almost turns into a feminist screed with Selene out-sparring the assassin trainer Varga, but that goes down the drain before the scene is over with his actions). It’s largely bloodless for a movie more dedicated to swordplay than the other Underworlds except for the final battle between Selene and Marius and that is the punchline to a battle too short to even realize it happened. It’s just as visually boring to look at as the other films and it doesn’t compliment the film that it all just happens to stop with a “whelp, we’re done fighting” for the whole franchise.

Just like me with this review now that I reached my minimum word count. I’m out.

It’s gonna take a long-ass while (and a lot of Whit Stillman) before looking at Kate Beckinsale doesn’t trigger me, but I did it. I’m done with this franchise.

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I’m So Woke, Dog

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I just want to get this over with, so if you find these next two reviews of the Underworld franchise on the short side of things then I apologize, but there are just so many more movies to talk about. In any case, it’s not like the next two directors up in the chairs, Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, made any huge effort to make Underworld: Awakening anymore watchable. Nor did the single weirdest slate of co-writers for the film – made up of franchise executive producer Len Wiseman, John Hlavin, Allison Burnett, and most unforgivable of all… the sci-fi legend J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI. They dragged the creator of Babylon-5 into this mess now.

But, of course, Straczynski is very good at what we might call “social sci-fi” and this story happens to do something a lot more interesting than one would think with a franchise about vampires and werewolves fighting… it begins to wonder how would humans really start to fray into the mix themselves. The obvious answer of which is “fear for their lives and begin hunting down both sides of the animals” and we get the most uninspired Matrix-ripping dystopian future tale around right down to the opening being an extended version of Trinity’s famous police battle.

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But anyway there’s a story tethered to this movie AND poor much better than this Kate Beckinsale tethered to the franchise once more as she returns as the scowling vampire without most of its vampire weaknesses Selene (maybe garlic, but, like… garlic doesn’t even get used at any point in this franchise). Now that every single human being hates her, she’s in a rush to escape the city with werewolf boytoy Michael Corvin who is played by NOT Scott Speedman, which is where the franchise has turned to Syfy production moment. They really are dedicated to implying Michael’s presence with every trick you could possibly use in the book, but it’s clearly not Speedman and they’re very quick to get him out of the picture before you can admonish the makers for it.

Getting him out of the picture meaning getting Selene captured and held by an evil scientist Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea, making another entry in the “better actor than this” hat trick) who intends to experiment on her because we’ve reached the point in the franchise where Selene has become the angriest vampire Jesus ever. When she escapes, the movie suddenly wants to be so much more of a mystery/survey of how people were affected by the vampires, but 89 minutes of runtime is not enough to explore what that demands and GOD I DO NOT WANT THIS MOVIE TO BE A SECOND LONGER THAN THAT.

In any case, it means that any mysteries – including who the young girl Eve (India Eisley) is that Selene and her sudden compatriot David (Theo James) runs into – are all wrapped up quicker than we can realize the movie wants to muse upon these developments. And the only worthwhile presence beyond the slowly waning persuasion of Beckinsale’s glare is Charles Dance playing his usual “authoritarian patriarch of high standing in society having trouble with his son (David being the son” act that he sleepwalks through (and frankly nothing about his performance here implies he’s not sleepwalking). Other than the underground vampire society Dance’s character and David live amongst, the movie just feels content to pick up and drop plots until it finally ends.

Where it puts all of its effort is on its look and that’s admittedly a little bit more interesting in concept based on the science fiction future aspects than gunmetal blue of all the other films. In execution… it’s a disaster. It’s the most expensive Underworld film to date and I would have put my hand to God that this was the cheapest of the bunch. CGI that feels a few f-stops away from the actual content of the screen, the wolves have little weight within the framing even when the dialogue is just short of begging us that “these are the biggest Wolves yet, please be scared”, dark laboratory boilerplate, and the silliest visual concept is how Selene and Eve can see through each other’s eyes in broken continuity cuts and color shades.

Underworld: Awakening is essentially a film franchise trying desperately to stand on its last legs because its creators don’t have the heart to put it down after so many creative misfires. Somebody ought to put this franchise out of its misery.

Or at least me.

Please.

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Feed to the Wolves

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Almost every single one of the Underworld movies, save for the first film and the current subject Underworld: Rise of Lycans, begin in a manner similar to a television series: the exact same montage of the exact same clips with the exact same voiceover given by our icy vampire protagonist Selene (Kate Beckinsale). I’ve witnessed the same damn shot of Bill Nighy’s head getting sliced off more times than I can count. This could be Underworld assuming that anybody would be interested in watching those movies without dealing with the previous films, but that just seems like cruelly leading moths to flames and so I want to pretend the fault is entirely in the filmmakers not trusting its audience to simply get it. We get it. We know the story.

Rise of the Lycans is a prequel film set before the first film (yet after the prelude to Evolution) that provides ample evidence that yes, the writers and producers of the Underworld series are not above regurgitating information we already know and that they know we know. The very basis of the film’s existence – other than continuing the successful franchise’s brand in spite of Beckinsale’s wise decision not to return to the franchise and taking her then-husband and director of the first two films Len Wiseman with her (though he still stayed on as producer and story writer) – is to tell us about a matter WE KNOW already happened, not because the characters in the first Underworld already discussed, but because we already SAW IT – including the pivotal moment that led to the central conflict in the ongoing between vampires and werewolf Lycans.

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Evidently, the contract the producers had on Michael Sheen and Nighy from the first film was probably running and they wanted to use them up all the way, hence that moment is stretched to 90 odd minutes as we witness the vampires, led by Viktor (Nighty), enslave the werewolf race back in the 5th Century.Viktor particularly takes a liking to Lucian (Sheen) as his personal pet and Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) shares that very liking. So it’s almost no surprise when Rise of the Lycans retreads the good ol’ forbidden love trope to throw the races into eternal battle and here’s where I learned something very interesting. Kevin Grevioux, owner of one of the coolest voices I’ve ever heard on an actor, appears in both this and the first installment as Lucian’s right-hand werewolf Raze. That is not Grevioux’s only role – he actually developed this franchise and co-wrote the film based on his own experiences with interracial dating and the backlash and bigotry he suffered with it (Grevioux being black). Now, the emotional stakes and mythology within any of the films have never been more clear in all five movies as it has been here in Rise of the Lycans, where Lucian basically embodies a werewolf Spartacus. But it also means the only source of true personality in the film comes from an off-screen trivia item and it also doesn’t help its case that Grevioux is sidelined while the lead werewolf SLAVE is played by a white man, which means any racial commentary the Underworld franchise is interested in (and I think it’s oblivious given that the only two non-white actors I can recall in it are Grevioux and Robbie Gee off the top of my head and they’re both disposable characters) is dismissed outright.

Anyway, it’s not such a crime that Sheen has to lead the show because he’s easily the best performance in the film, although it’s clear he may not having as much fun as he did in here as he did with the first film. He sucked out all the scenery chewing he pulled off as the rock star performance he gave prior to becoming instead a scowling and angry figure full of obvious anger, matching Mitra because they’re the most facially pissed-off figures in the film and that’s their chemistry in a nutshell. Nighy, in the meantime, also clearly is not having much fun away and so his acting is the type that wants to burn the whole place down, trying to make himself as big and unwieldily theatrical as he can do it. Snarling and spitting and yelling, Nighy does it all. And these performances all clash with each other so that’s just another good thing that goes hella wrong.

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Want another good thing Rise of the Lycans does right? No guns. It’s the 5th Century, so that means swordfights entirely. And while y’know, it’s still hella boring to make your werewolves and vampires just go at each other with swords rather than use their monstrous bodies, there it is and it at least lets the movie feel more gothic than nu-metal. Want to know how Rise ruins that shit anyway? Director Patrick Tatopoulos and cinematographer Ross Emery underlit that shit all to hell and still can’t spare any color beyond the most obnoxious blues. So, that’s a complete hell.

And it can’t be said enough: this is a story we already knew (especially its climactic moment), finished off with a fanservice Windows Movie Maker-looking epilogue that separates entirely from this individual film’s plot and makes NO SENSE to anybody who didn’t see the original films (as well as implying that Selene should not have been surprised by the revelation of Viktor in the first movie). Nobody needed to make Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, nor should anybody suffer it. We should all just go home. I just want to get this over with.

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It Bites

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It’s embarrassing to know that if I had seen Underworld at the age of 11 when it came out and I overheard some of the classmates I was desperately trying to be friends with say how cool it was, I would have loved it and thought “so awesome, man.” Instead, I am at the age of 24 when I have seen it for the first time in my life and know better than to fall for whatever faux-gothic slick leather cool wire-fu action flick comes out on the spurs of The Matrix‘s own slick leather cool wire-fu action flick success.

That’s not hyperbole. Underworld is exactly the type of movie that could only exist how it is in 2003, dated to the dot by its presence of Kate Beckinsale whuppin’ ass in tight black leather, its fascination with vampires and werewolves without real interest in using their mythology except insofar as a vehicle for bullet time sequences. It is a movie that wears its influence from Matrix and Blade on its sleeve while preceding so many women kicks ass in tight clothing movies such as Aeon Flux and basically Milla Jovovich’s entire career. The effects are that dated, with flat blood splatters, shiny and rubbery CGI, or static body prosthetics for practical werewolves. And director Len Wiseman giving the soundtrack it’s unrestrained indulgence with industrial metal and color correcting every single shoot to the steeliest of blue (which is at the least more visually pleasant than the greens of The Matrix) is part of what dates the film most. I’m serious about the industrial metal element, the score by Paul Haslinger thuds accordingly with echoes and, my hand to god, the movie shoves in a remix to A Perfect Circle’s “Judith” so eagerly it keeps certain lyrics audible, including “fuck your god”, for no other reason than it’s what the cool kids were into.

Looking cool in that early 2000s manner is exactly what Underworld is concerned with. No room for logic in a movie where the premise is as simple as an ongoing war between vampires and the werewolf Lycans rages on around vampire assassin Selene (the too-talented-for-this Kate Beckinsale in her unfortunately best-known performance). She discovers two things that must not be: that the Lycans’ leader Lucian (a never-more-hammy Michael Sheen relishing the scenery in his mouth) is alive despite the claims by vampire de facto leader Kraven (Shane Brolly) and Lucian is weirdly fixated on a medic Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). With the alarming addition that the Lycans have weaponized UV rays into a bullet, Selene is getting close to appealing over Kraven’s obstruction to the dormant vampire superior Viktor (Bill Nighy) during her own investigation of the matter.

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It barely makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for vampires and werewolves to shoot each other in subways rather than fight like monsters. It doesn’t make sense for them to be shooting at each other when they knew it wouldn’t work until they weaponize light and silver. It doesn’t make sense that the sets look European (the international production was shot in Hungary) but half of the cast – including local police and medical – speak in American accents. Selene literally has a scene talking into a mirror and it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary to break vampire mythology so.

Beckinsale and Nighy both treat this scenario with more gravity than necessary (which is why the best scenes are when they’re confronting each other), Beckinsale with a confused yet compelling icy visage in every moment, giving focus to anything that crosses her and Nighy by upping the authoritative logos (even when Viktor is clearly wrong) that he heightens like he’s in Shakespeare. Nighy’s ability to be big is aided by Sheen using the pathos of Lucian’s tragic backstory to be the loudest figure in every shot and selling it because Sheen is every bit as qualified an actor as Nighy and Beckinsale. This trilogy is what drives a ridiculous premise and bootleg goth Matrix aesthetic a good half hour than it needs to be (the film is a little under two hours).

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The biggest sign of Wiseman’s poor craftsmanship of Underworld lies in two voices. Brolly is clearly attempting an American accent for his Kraven and yet there is not a second of this where he’s not obviously Irish and his laboring swallows the life out of any line readings. In the meantime, there is also the fact that Robbie Gee wears prosthetic fangs in his makeup and you hear it impede his speech in every scene he’s in and yet clearly they either didn’t bother doing ADR work on him or he was still wearing fangs during it. Why? Beats me.

Underworld‘s not trying to be a work of art. A man dies in it because his chain whip gets stuck under a rock. So I can see why people might find it trashy fun in all of the Victorian carts and overlit sewer action, but I’d be lying to say I don’t get tired of it before the halfway point and the work it goes through to complicate its plot – including how many times Michael slips between Vampire custody and Lycan custody – is alienating. It is what it is in the end and I still know kid me would have rewatched it. But kid me also had Van Helsing as a favorite movie.

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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 5 – Shadowplays

AUTHOR’S NOTE, December 2018: I’m going to be re-reviewing Nosferatu at some point in the future. I have been unfairly harsh to the film based on my previous exposure to it being the many lesser public domain copies running around. It has risen significantly in my esteem and I expect there is much of this review I no longer agree with.

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Tonight, we’re going to really take our examinations of sources back in time to the very beginnings of film. In fact, we would have to daresay claim that this is not going to examine the very origins of horror cinema, but in an origin of cinema in general. And it’s all thanks to those crazy Germans…

Cinema is a medium of expression, just like any other. There is very little that separates it from another medium, but one of the major distinctions is how it is a visual medium, making it kin alongside the likes of Fine Art and Theatre, but certainly separating it from, say, music or literature. In fact, as everybody knows – even children who were raised by wolves, even fucking wolves know – cinema was a strictly visual medium until The Jazz Singer shouted out “mammy!” and changed that all around.

But there is that era still of the “strictly visual” and through adversity and limitations, we ended up with some of the most stunning visuals made yet in the history of film. We got the visual aspect pulled to the edge so that a story could be told in the one thousand words of pictures, rather than the one word of… a word…

Ok, let’s get my midnight lack of eloquence back in the bushes for a moment while I finally state my thesis: One of the reasons movies are half as effective as they get to be is because of the German Expressionism movement. Prior to the introduction to sound and color, Germany knew damn well how create an engulfing experience and that was by upping the shadows and heightening the drama, through very artistic stylizations of sets in fine art manner that implies artificiality without becoming fake and having the actors overact with their faces and gestures and movements so much that modern audiences would probably go “Ok, ok, we fucking get it, I’m starting to miss Kristen Stewart’s stone face.” Sure it is melodramatic, but you can’t look at a scene in The Last Laugh and tell me you missed what you were meant to be feeling. Make it as highly symbolic and stylized as to be hardened upon the mind’s of the viewer and burned in their eyes well after the movie finishes. Try to design absurdity in a communicative manner, that was the goal of German Expressionism. Don’t make it real, just make it feel.

And it works. Not only does it work, but it is the basis of emotive filmmaking and began to seep into the manner of expression for most films well after we were accommodated to sound and color – most notably with film noir (but that is a story for another day… or more specifically the next Motorbreath video) – and every filmmaker who tries to communicate an idea or theme or just a really emotional story, from Carl Dreyer to Charles Chaplin to Michel Gondry to David Fincher have some thanks to give to the German film industry in the early 20s for providing the answer to how we can make audiences become moved by pictures deliberately.

This in particular worked out best with the two genres of film that were most defined by the reactions of an audience – Comedy on how the audience could be cajoled to laugh and Horror on how the audience could be frightened to their wits. But this series is not the 31 Nights of April Fools (because that wouldn’t work out, since April Fool’s is like… on the first?), so let’s jump into two of the most definitive silent horror films of the era, the movies people most associate into the idea of how to scare people without making a sound. And we’ll get two because I don’t think I have too much to say in the end for either film that has not already been said by film historians and critics best-spoken and more intelligent than I.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated from German to “A Symphony of Terror”, but I really just love how it sounds in German that I rarely refer to the translated title) is a movie forever immortalized by Spongebob that kind of deserves to get a chance to stand on its own for this generation. I mean, it did inspire more than the hash-slinging slasher. How about Tobe Hooper’s look for Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot? Or the Master – my favorite villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer got? What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said simply by looking as the ghastly ugly makeup work transforming Max Shreck into a heinous creature of the night? That fucking rat face that would provoke disgust if it weren’t on the same body as those wide fixated eyes suggesting a one-track mind straight for the throat. That tall rigid stance with fingers that extend like the branches of the trees that terrorize Snow White, the tip of the nails so pointed as to suggest your heart is pierced just from looking at them? Don’t you just want to duck your head under the covers like poor Thomas having to sleep right next to that thing? The atmosphere around this figure, this inhuman monstrosity that stuns me to see on the screen, is rich with dread and darkness. For how absolute is the screen evil that is Count Orlock (Shreck) that it seems to parallel the stature of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s masterful make-up work? How powerful is Orlock’s essence on the film?

Quite frankly, so powerful that every time I watch the movie I get bored for the 72 minutes he’s not on-screen. Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier it is an essential I’d recommend to anyone, anywhere. And I’d certainly call it a great movie. I mean, for one, it has some pretty solid compositions for even simple moments as Thomas (Gustav von Wagenheim) leaving Ellen (Greta Schroder) and it’s not a more that really lulls one to sleep, but I’d more waiting for the good stuff with Shreck creeping inch by inch in front of my eyes than anything else the movie has to offer.

For one, F.W. Murnau… let’s get down to brass tacks, Murnau is a fucking genius. He was a master storyteller who brought tears in your eyes within one minute of a masterpiece like Sunrise or Tabu. But, I feel like this is the most amateur and uninspired work I have seen yet in his career. And again, it looks great. Not a single shot seems unnecessary nor does he absolutely lack flair or personality with moments, though it’s very obvious in the end that the night scenes were shot in the day and given a blue tint. But it’s his least expressionist film. The shots are straightforward and more feel like a D.W. Griffith work than a Murnau (and not knocking Griffith’s pictures, again, that man could shot competently). The movie is a brisk 81 minutes, it is not long nor boring by definition. But the movie’s lack of heightened shadow and atmosphere, except in moments where Shreck is either on-screen or providing several dark and threatening scenes like the famous crawl up the stairs or the tragic ending, both makes me kind of watching my clock waiting for Orlock to come back than get into the story too much. It’s just that Shreck outshines everything.

Well, that and the plot is not… very inspired or original. I barely mentioned it, so I’ll sum it up. Thomas Hutter gets a chance to go to Transylvania to sell land to the mysterious Count Orlock. When he gets there, Orlock takes a fancy to Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and leaves Hutter trapped within his walls. It is obvious at this point that Orlock is a vampyre and it is a race against time for Hutter to make it back to save his wife!

Sounds familiar? Yeah, I thought so. It’s because it’s Dracula. It is the first screen adaptation of Dracula and it pretty much is a beat-by-beat account of Bram Stoker’s novel. And, given that it is one of my favorite books and an annual read, I am a stickler for how it is presented, so this uninspired fashion of adapting the movie, causes me to consider Nosferatu the second most sterilized adaptation of the book I have ever seen. And if that shocks you, wait till later this month when you find out what I think IS the most sterilized.

It apparently didn’t amuse Stoker’s estate either, who took immediately to a lawsuit on Murnau and left his studio, Prana, bankrupt. As a result, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed shortly after release and for a long while, it seemed they all were. It is by some miracle that we still have a chance to look at the glory of Nosferatu. Even if I am spoiled by Shreck, there are some wonderful moments coming out of von Wagenheim and Schroder that herald expressionist acting, bringing out the most terror on your face when Orlock approaches you or the joy when you receive a letter from your love, calculating your movements on screen so as to entrap the audience in what you are doing.

It’s certainly again amateur green-behind-the-ears Murnau before he actually got to be Murnau and shelled out his true brilliantly expressionist works like FaustThe Last Laugh and Sunrise, but it’s truly a moment of involved storytelling, if not inspired, and worthy of its place among the firsts in cinema… the first to make a character so scary as to make us pray he doesn’t pop out of the screen.

Now, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… That’s inspired. It’s a mind-bender of a film. It is to the silent era what The Usual Suspects must have felt to the audience of 1995 (my feelings about The Usual Suspects being overrated and a distractedly entertaining film with one of the stupidest endings of all time notwithstanding). But it’s certainly coming from a place that means something to the filmmakers…

At least meaning something to the writers of the film. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz knew that they wanted to make a horror film, so they decided that they would touch upon the things about their lives that make them shiver the most. For Mayer, it was all the psychological problems he felt he still suffered as a result of his excruciating service in World War I and the military psychiatrist that terrorized them. For Janowitz, it was his suspicion about a recent incident where he associates a man he saw exiting bushes near a fair and a bit of news the next morning that a woman was found dead in that same spot. For both, it was definitely the affrontive atmosphere of fairs, somewhat imposing in their happiness to extremes. Certainly something that would call for an expressionistic approach.

And an expressionistic approach of course meant something to the producer Erich Pommel, who didn’t have much light to use and was all for a movie made out of shadows. And to designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann & Walter Rohrig, who finally got a chance to use their artistic intuitions to create an angular world that would have fit better in a nightmare than any haunted house or “school in your underwear” moment ever dreamt up. And to director Robert Wiene to prove anybody can do “Fritz Lang” and work well with designers who have an eye for lines. In fact, this is a movie that it is very hard to establish authorship for. Everybody on the visual side of things seemed to have a hefty hand in making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari what it is.

And what it is happens to be the story of a couple Francis and Jane (Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover, respectively) who visit the local fair to witness a somnambulist named Cesare (The uncanny Conrad Veidt) controlled by the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Cesare insists that a friend of the couple’s will be dead by dawn and sure enough, Cesare proves to be right. But said death causes Francis’ suspicions and he begins to investigate what truly is the story behind Cesare and Caligari, finding himself sucked into a world of kidnapping, murder and madness.

And madness is just what the doctor prescribed. All this world is is haunting and artistic, the shadows mattering just as much as the strokes of paint of the crooked buildings, and there is nothing like this movie, not at all. It may not at all be an accurate representation of the social or medical results of psychopathy, but man oh man, does it feel like it and in the end, that is what most matters with Expressionism. Making your audience feel like they’re in the madhouse itself, with walls and rooms that just aren’t really there, even in the world of the film.

And the performances all sell themselves. At the forefront is a restrained and measured Veidt showcasing an outstanding expertise in pantomime and facial lock so as to make his very pale made-up face a beacon of terrors to come. Nevermind right behind him being von Twardowski becoming the stereotype of a mad doctor and making right due by it for how the movie calls for that deranged mad look all over, a pretentious bastard who wants to world to recognize and hearken just how brilliant this catastrophe he built is. Feher is an able leading man and Dagover is kind of loopy in her presence, but hell, that’s just exactly what the story needs out of their characters and the two of them are not nearly as uninvolved as von Wagenheim and Schroeder kind of were in Nosferatu.

Don’t ask me about the ending, though. I won’t say a damn word about it except that I love it and it really hammers the theme and main mood of the film right home while establishing it in a more grounded form for the audience to leave thinking about the social effects this movie might have had. That’s it. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Johnny Tightlips is what I am.

These movies aren’t the only horror films in the German Expressionism (I like to think of Paul Wegener’s Der Golem and Murnau’s later Faust – the latter of which I prefer to both of these films by far), but they are the cornerstones of the movement and how it affected cinema in the many decades afterward. Becoming the emotion, more than just telling you what the emotion is. Less realism, more feeling. The world can be just as much painted with shadow as it is with light and sometimes it’s just as black and white as you think. You just need to see for yourself…

Gaze into the abyss. And find the darkness gazing back at you.