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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/27/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 43, Whole Number 1438
Table of Contents
Raiders Revisited (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Apparently there was trouble at the International Conference on Global Warming, but for once it was not about Global Warming itself. It seems for evening recreation they showed the film RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The film had to be interrupted when an argument broke out in the audience as to whether the temple that turns into a death trap did so because Indiana Jones stole the idol. There was a contingent who claimed that we did not see enough to know if the temple was really different before and after Indy took the idol. Perhaps it was a trick of the camera. And even if it was different, it is not clear that the activating of the death traps was actually caused in any way by Indy's action. There was a delay of at least two seconds before any apparent activation took place. There is, they say, obviously a politically correct contingent who would like to blame Indiana Jones's problems in the deathtraps of the temple on Jones himself, but there is no proof in the film that this is the case or that he needs to change his behavior. [-mrl]
Anniversary of the Hammer Horror Cycle (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It should be noted that May 3 of this year is the 50th anniversary of a major milestone in the horror film. That was the date of the rebirth of what was mistakenly thought to be moribund, the gothic horror film. Universal Studios had built a gothic horror cycle in large part out of the ruins of the German film industry and the tradition of the popular films of Lon Chaney. They had made a cycle of horror films starting with DRACULA in 1930 and FRANKENSTEIN the following year. This they developed into a whole series of horror films whose whole was worth a lot more than the sum of its parts. The first Universal Dracula and Frankenstein films were hobbled by the filmmakers not yet having mastered sound film. Each series peaked with its second film (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and went rapidly down with each successive film. They finished the series off--the two then merged together--with three monster rallies that brought together as many of their classic monsters as they could fit on the screen. The first of these was HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then HOUSE OF DRACULA, and finally they really put a bullet into the series with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. After that in the 1940s and early 1950s the most they did with their horror cycle was have Abbott and Costello meet their old monsters in films with hack scripts that sold on the titles and probably not word of mouth. Gothic horror was dead. In the first half of the 1950s Universal almost abandoned traditional horror altogether for science fiction.
Meanwhile in a Britain only slowly getting back on its feet after the war, Hammer Films was in the dubious market of making low- budget films, frequently taking popular television and radio plays, and reworking them for the screen. They did comedies and dramas. Mostly these were films that were forgettable and were churned out because by law half the films released in Britain had to be British films and if the exhibitors wanted to show American films they had to show an equal number of British films. These were the "quota quickies." Actually, there were some very good films made by studios like Ealing at this time since there was little pressure on them to make the films profitable. The American film each allowed into Britain was where the real profit was expected.
Like Universal was now doing in America, Hammer dabbled in science fiction. They made THE FOUR-SIDED TRIANGLE, SPACEWAYS, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, QUATERMASS II, and X THE UNKNOWN. They found that the macabre and fantasy often were their most successful films. Then they had the idea. Nobody had yet made a gothic horror film in color. (There was one color sequence in THE RETURN OF DRACULA. Universal had made three horror films set at the Paris Opera house and each used color in all or part.) Universal had very much driven gothic horror into the ground.
Nobody really knew if color might not ruin the mood of a horror film. Hammer experimented to see what would happen if they made a Frankenstein film in color. They could make it sensational by showing flashes of body parts and blood and they would show up well because it was color.
Originally the film was to be similar to the Universal film of 1931, but Universal threatened to sue if it was at all reminiscent of their film. Well, so much for the script they had written and for having Boris Karloff play Dr. Frankenstein. The film was cast with stock players. Peter Cushing played Victor Frankenstein. They needed somebody imposing for the monster and Christopher Lee was chosen because he was 6'5" tall. The title was THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. May 3, 1957, was the release date.
The critics for the most part thought that the imagery was too visceral. They did not think that visual horror would or should have much of a future. In fact, almost everything is implied even in this film. We also see some red stains on clothing, and some organs hidden mostly by cloth or fluid. Much of what would be disgusting is kept just offscreen. Most of the rest is red smeared on clothing. It is more the color that creates the effect than actually being graphic.
Word of mouth spread more quickly than critical reviews. For better or worse suddenly the film was a giant hit. This was a new experience for Hammer films. They were used to making films for filling out the bottom halves of double bills. Now theaters had queues around the blocks of people wanting to see their film. Warner Brothers executives had a New York screening and within two hours had sent a print to Jack Warner himself, effectively saying, "Look what we found! Nail this one down quickly." Jack Warner himself screened the film and immediately bought it. Warners released it with saturation booking and in many cities around-the-clock showings.
Eventually the film brought back its production costs something between twenty and seventy times (depending on who is telling the story). While not all the effects of this film were positive, this was really the advent of explicit rather than implied horror in cinema.
Horror, science fiction, and fantasy had been a very small part of British film output to this point. Suddenly it became a major factor. Hammer's next gothic film was DRACULA (United States title: HORROR OF DRACULA), an even bigger success. This was a real jumpstart for the British film industry. In America, for once Alfred Hitchcock found himself following somebody else's lead. There is far more graphic in Hitchcock's PSYCHO than in any of his previous films. What probably set this film apart was the use of color and British filmmaking craftsmanship.
Terence Fisher, who had directed, did not have much of a budget at all, but the British accents and sets gave the film a feeling that it was a quality product. There was demand for more British horror. For fifteen years at least, British horror had a certain cachet. Many of the horror film fans of the boomer generation saw the Universal horror films on television Saturday late night, but they saw British horror films and particularly Hammer films on the wide screen and later on prime time movies of the week. The actual quality of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN may not stand up to objective scrutiny, but its influence on the horror film is inestimable and continues today in virtually every science fiction and horror film. Like STAR WARS, it would be easy to blame CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN for the excesses of its imitators. But there are many find horror films that would never have been made without its lead. It spawned an entire cycle of British horror films and can be considered the first modern horror film.
Thursday, May 3, will be the 50th anniversary of the release of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[I realize that my Borgesian column usually runs in August or September, but it is early this year.]
As I was looking for a book at the library, I came across A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY by Rhys Hughes (ISBN-10 1-892389-83-5, ISBN-13 978-1-892-38983-1) in the science fiction section. I have two possible explanations for what it was doing in the science fiction section, neither of them very convincing. One is that it is an homage to a work by Jorge Luis Borges (A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY by Jorge Luis Borges (ISBN-10 0-525-47546-X, ISBN-13 978-0-525-47546-0)), and everyone knows that what Borges writes is science fiction, or fantasy, or something like that. The problem with this theory is that Borges is not shelved in the science fiction section. The second theory is that it is alternate history, because while Hughes is writing about real people, his accounts do not match up with the people's real histories. The problem with this is the same--Borges's book did the same, and it is not treated as alternate history. (Actually, I have a third theory: anything published by Ministry of Whimsy Press is considered fantasy.)
Before I talk about the Hughes book, let me discuss the Borges. Borges gives the "histories" of such infamous people as Billy the Kid and Monk Eastman, but while a lot of the what he writes is true, there is enough that is false to cause real problems to anyone who trusts the accounts enough to try to pass an examination on the subjects. For example, Billy the Kid's mother was Irish, but he was not "brought up among Negros." He was shot by Pat Garrett, but not in Sumner and not in the manner Borges describes.
(Allen B. Ruch has pointed out that "Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities" has come to have a very Borgesian history: Borges wrote it using Herbert Asbury's GANGS OF NEW YORK (1928) as a source, and the recent movie tie-in edition of Asbury's book uses parts of Borges's article as an introduction!)
There are also several small pieces in a section titled "Et cetera" which Borges credits to other sources, such as Sir Richard Burton's translation of A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS or Burton's LAKE REGIONS OF CENTRAL AFRICA. Of course, these references are completely bogus, which is probably why Borges chose very long works that would be difficult to read through to verify them.
One sees the same recurring themes in A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY that I commented on in my review of LABYRINTHS. The most common recurring reference in Borges's work is to mirrors. They are mentioned in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and eight other stories in LABYRINTHS. In A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, they are mentioned in "The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv" (1934): "The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations." [tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni] This is almost precisely the quote from the article on Uqbar cited in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940): "For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or, more precisely, a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and extend it." [tr. Andrew Kerrigan]
And switching now to Rhys Hughes:
This echoing of other works shows up in A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY. Compare these two passages:
Borges: "I should define as baroque that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all possibilities and which borders on its own parody. ... The very title of these pages flaunts their baroque character. To curb them would amount to destroying them.... ["Preface to the 1954 Edition"]
Hughes: "I might describe as Borgesian that excessive interest in possibilities which never (or rarely) succeeds in exhausting itself with awe, terror, or time. ... The very title of this little book flaunts its Borgesian character. To apologize for it wiuld be tantamount to admitting I am incapable of paying the great man tribute." ["Preface to the Unpublished Edition"]
(In this and in other echoes, Hughes seems to favor the di Giovanni translation over the later Hurley one as published in Borges's COLLECTED FICTIONS.)
This echoing, in fact, is Borgesian on a meta-level; Hughes seems to be following, at least in part, the lead of Pierre Menard. He is "Rhys Hughes, Author of a Universal History of Infamy."
Hughes borrows some Borgesian themes. In "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Borges describes the various stages of "hronir" ("copies" of a sort) has the notion that copies get less and less accurate. Hughes also references Borges. In "Trader of Doom, Basil Zaharoff", Hughes talks about Zaharoff wrote "Realms of the Lost", in which Zaharoff says that lost objects have slipped into another dimension, which is necessarily populated with fewer objects than ours. When objects in *that* dimension are lost, they slip into yet another dimension, with yet fewer objects, and so on. The tenth dimension "contains nothing but a bare landscape, a road, a tree and two men with the appearance of tramps." (This is, of course, yet another literary reference.)
Hughes also references Borges. In "Basil Zaharoff", Hughes refers in passing to how "the Widow Ching could afford to buy her way into expertly researched histories of infamy as a 'lady pirate' despite her mild manners and timid nature." "The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate" is one of the stories in the Borges volume. He also mentions Herbert Quain (Borges's "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain"). And in "The Maddest King, Henri Christophe", Hughes changes the date of the actual Haitian slave revolt by two days (August 22, 1791) so that he can have it occur on August 24--Borges's birthday.
Hughes has some non-Borgesian inside jokes as well. In the same story, he mentions the Vicar of Splott, Lionel Fanthorpe. Lionel Fanthorpe was a prolific science fiction writer of the pulp era.
Hughes does falter in his pastiche with such stories as "The Worst Hero, Dick Turpin" and "The Maddest King, Henri Christophe", which are full of such absurdities that one cannot even begin to believe them. But the ability to be believable is a key component of why the rest--and all of Borges's stories-- work so well.
It may be reading too much into this to say that both Borges and Hughes were writing in countries whose literary culture has been dominated by that of a conquering foreign country: for Borges Argentina and Spain, for Hughes, Wales and England. In both cases, the home country had no written literary tradition before their conquest, and created their literature in the foreign tongue. (This is not quite as true for Wales, I realize--one cannot stretch the analogy too much.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important. (The Conquest of Happiness) -- Bertrand Russell
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