Favorite Horror Films: Part Two: The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

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In this post, I will continue my series on favorite horror films, now focusing specifically on movies of the 1920s.

Another  brilliant horror movie of the 1920s is Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — The German title is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari — (1920). The plot of the film centers on a mad scientist, Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist, played by Werner Krauss, who exploits a sleepwalker, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, to commit murder. It is one of the earliest horror movies and ushers in a decade of greatness in film-making, especially in German cinema.

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The true power of the film is in its cinematic style, that of German Expressionism, which is based on the artistic movement of the same name. German Expressionism uses sharp angles, deep shadows, heavy use of darks and lights, and distorted forms to explore the psychological impact of visual images. In this art, the world is often not as it seems to be, and the artists explore distortions that lurk under the surface of apparent normalcy. What is perceived is often deeply disturbing and challenging.

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“The Prophet” Woodcut by Emil Nolde: 1912

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Weine employs these revolutionary cinematic techniques to disorient, frighten, and interrogate the audience. Cesare is a common man, forced by an arrogant authority to become a murderer, which is clearly a commentary on the dark forces at play in Europe in the early parts of the 20th Century, some suggested by contemporary writers. As Weine suggests, the mass of people in Europe would, in the coming decades, be manipulated into creating the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust. I am not claiming that Weine somehow could see into the future, but that he perceived the traumas occurring in Europe, and those distortions appear in his film. Like Weine, other writers, such as Franz Kafka, also saw such coming disturbances.

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While only some of Franz Kafka’s brilliant and disturbing literary works had been published at this point–“Metamorphosis” (1915)– is the best example, Kafka’s treatment of the darkness and alienation in society could be an influence on this movie. While it is not certain, I believe it is the case. Regardless of if this is true or not, Weine creates a deeply disturbing movie, one that maintains its power to this day, one that I recommend for all lovers of film.

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Favorite Horror Films: Part 9 — The Wolfman

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“Even a man who is pure at heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.” (The Wolfman)

This is the well-known saying that is at the heart of the 1941 Universal Studios film The Wolfman. This film completes the quartet of monsters that are at the heart of the Universal horror franchise: the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, and the Wolfman. While there were certainly other creatures and monsters in the films in this time period, these are the four most prominent.

While we see science run out of control and ancient evils in the other films, in The Wolfman, we view a story of tragedy that is focused on an ordinary man, Larry Talbot, who is swept up in unfortunate events beyond his control. Because he is bitten by a werewolf while trying to save a girl and lives, Larry Talbot is fated to become such a beast himself.

The director and producer was George Waggner, and the writer was Kurt Siodmak. Most of our contemporary views about werewolf behavior do not come from ancient traditions or medieval European beliefs but from the mythology that Siodmak created for this movie. Siodmak created the idea that the time of the full moon is when a werewolf takes it form and that to become one, a person must be bitten by a werewolf and survive.

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More importantly, he included elements of tragedy, of a man fated to murder and to be destroyed, despite his desire to be a good person. The incantation the gypsy woman Maleva intones over Larry Talbot after his death illustrates this theme:

“The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.” (The Wolfman)

Siodmak also addressed contemporary issues, specifically the idea of a star marking the next victim of a werewolf, much like a star marking the Jewish people of Europe by the Nazis. Siodmak was a German Jew who had been successful as a writer but had to flee Germany with the take over by the Nazis. While the reference is not direct, it is still a clear metaphor for the horrors of the Nazis. The film demonstrates that evil is both natural and human created.

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In addition to excellent writing, the cast was also of the very best. Along side the star Lon Chaney Jr. were Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Evelyn Ankers. Jack Pierce, as in the other main Universal horror films, created the unforgettable makeup that is the foundation for all other filmic and literary werewolves.

 

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It was a film that was excellent in every level of production, and it maintains its excellence today.

If you have never seen this film, I recommend it highly!

 

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Quotations by Rod Serling–Revisited

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“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes -all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the earth into a graveyard, into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance. Then we become the grave diggers.”

 

“It has forever been thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms – all of them – may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.”

 

“The writer’s role is to menace the public’s conscience. He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus on the issues of his time.”

I Stand With The Jewish Community

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Today we have seen the commission of a horrible act of terrorism and murder committed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A shooter opened fire inside a synagogue and killed 11 and injured 6 others. I am not sure if those horrific numbers will increase–I hope they do not.

It must be said without any doubt that this was an anti-Semitic, racist, bigoted, and fascist act, that also is chillingly reminiscent of acts in Germany during the 1930s. In our current political climate, in which hatred is growing, and in which guns are easily available to anyone, including some people who have no business having them, such horrors occur far too frequently. This was an act of hatred by a racist, an extreme right winger.

People of all political views, at least those who are sane, must oppose these increases in hate. There are no excuses, no justifications, and no political spins that can reduce the culpability of a political culture that has lead to the massive increase of both shootings and attacks on places of worship, especially of people in the minority in the United States. These actions indicate a growing and disturbing trend towards fascism, and it must be opposed. My parents were of the generation that fought against totalitarianism by Japan and Germany and Italy. They did not sacrifice so much so that our country can slide into fascist attitudes. We must never forget the lessons of the horrors of the 20th Century, especially the Holocaust and World War Two.

Freedom and democracy demand that reasonable people, who can certainly disagree with how to fix problems in the United States of America, unite to oppose this disturbing trend.

Again, I am horrified by this shooting, and I feel great sadness for the Jewish people who suffered from this attack–the dead, the wounded, and their families and friends.

It is not enough to offer thoughts and prayers.

This must never happen again.

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Quotations by Rod Serling

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“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes -all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the earth into a graveyard, into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance. Then we become the grave diggers.”

 

“It has forever been thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms – all of them – may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.”

 

“The writer’s role is to menace the public’s conscience. He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus on the issues of his time.”

 

 

R.I.P. Elie Wiesel

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Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, and author of Night, his memoir of being a prisoner in the Holocaust, died this weekend.  Mr. Wiesel, besides being an extraordinary writer, whose work brought the experience of the evil of the Holocaust to the forefront of many readers, was also one of the most powerful moral voices of our time.

I read Mr. Wiesel’s book Night as a teenager, and I was deeply struck by the power and the messages it contains.  I made a connection with the horror of the Holocaust and the hope of humanity through this text.  I will keep the discussion of my personal impact of this book short, because it is so deep and so complex that I could write forever on it.  But, it was another lesson that we are all connected and must remember this joint humanity–always.

Mr. Wiesel argued powerfully that it is not enough to simply not do evil, but that it is the moral responsibility of people to oppose it wherever it exists. He said, “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, we must always take sides.” and “As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. (From his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.)

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President Obama, in speaking of him, said of Mr. Wiesel, “Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world.”

We should honor his work and commitment to justice, and we should remember, especially in our turbulent times, often filled with hatred and bigotry, that we are morally compelled to oppose injustice and bigotry.

Rest In Peace, Elie Wiesel.  The world will miss you.

Favorite TV Shows: the 1950s: The Twilight Zone

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I had engaged recently in a conversation in which TV shows were discussed. Afterwards, I was thinking that I consider the 1950s and the 1960s to have been the era which produced the best television shows.

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I am not claiming that the special effects were good or that the shows were slick in any way.  In some cases that I will mention, the acting was not the finest, but, and this is my point, the writing was extraordinary.

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I will mention one show per post and will cover more in the not too distant future.  In all cases, I am referring primarily to the writing, the story-telling, and the themes of the shows. First is The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959-1964 and dealt with the moral, ethical, and social problems of the time.  Certainly, this show is memorable for the famous actors who appeared at different times, but it is still the writing with which I am the most interested.

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The one episode, in particular, that I argue is among the best writing of all time for TV is “Death’s-Head Revisited.”  In this episode, a former concentration camp captain visits Dachau after the war.  There the ghosts of his victims take vengeance on him.  Serling wrote a riveting epilogue in which he says, “All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth” (The Twilight Zone.) This is one of Serling’s best moments in writing.

This is one of the most powerful moments ever shown on Television, and it is one of the most extraordinary statements on the worst evil ever committed by human beings to other human beings.  We must never forget  the horror of the Holocaust.

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Citations:

Serling, Rod. The Twilight Zone. “Death’s-Head Revisited” 1961.