Like you all, I’ve missed seeing movies with an audience, and as a fan of all things Halloween and horror, I’m particularly thrilled that this week we have the chance to watch some classic movies together again.
Horror as a genre plays with some of our most primal, innate fears, and has the ability to produce stress, panic, dismay and empathy all at once. A good horror film knows how to balance these effects equally, and it’s why the genre relies on the communal experience so much. These emotions are amplified in a theater, with an audience, and create experiences you can’t get in a living room on your own. So, in these final days of October, as “Spooky Season” comes to a close, here’s a bit about each film playing at the theater this week, and why I am excited to see it with you.
This Friday, a Michigan Theater tradition lives on as we screen NOSFERATU with live accompaniment from our Head Organist Andrew Rogers on the historic Barton Organ. Of all the annual traditions we run at the Michigan, this is perhaps my favorite because it is both an exciting, unique experience to see a silent film with live music, and it is also a real treat to see a film that has been around for almost a century and yet can still provoke vocal emotion from a crowd.
When NOSFERATU was first released in Germany in 1922, it was actually somewhat panned by audiences and critics for not being scary enough. Bitter critics thought that the villainous Count Orlock was too well lit to induce the intended horror, but today I would say you’re not really paying attention if you don’t get a chill up your spine when you witness his shadow creep up the stairs. And in the film’s conclusion, it’s always extremely satisfying to hear an audience burst into applause as we witness the fate of our villain.
And for a film that angered the Bram Stoker estate so much for its similarities to the Dracula story, and had a court order for all prints to be burned, it’s amazing that this piece of cinema has survived as long as it has. Though they tried to erase it from history, what they couldn’t prevent was it being copied, as it was distributed and shipped around the world. And in this controversy notoriety grew, and thus it became one of the first “cult” films in cinematic history.
Now, if we’re going to talk cult films, we need to discuss John Carpenter and his 1978 classic HALLOWEEN, one of the first slashers of its kind. Today I think you’d be insulting its significance in film history to simply label it a “cult” title, but at the time of its release that’s how it was predicted to land, before it became attributed to a new wave of up-and-coming horror filmmakers.
But you can see why the film was immediately pigeonholed as an immediate “cult classic”. Though it was well reviewed, it received very little advertising and simply earned its reputation by word of mouth, and it remains a perfect blend of shock and camp with the capacity to delight and terrify audiences all at once. But Carpenter’s anxiety-inducing score is what perhaps made the film most memorable and cemented its place in history. Complemented by its association with the iconic new villain Michael Myers, Carpenter unintentionally launched a massive, multi-media franchise that continues to this day.
We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that HALLOWEEN became a massive success, because it quite literally had the DNA to be a major hit. After all, Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, seemed to inherit her ability to scream from her mother, the original “Scream Queen”, who earned this notoriety in the famous “shower scene” of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.
Released in 1960, PSYCHO lured unsuspecting audiences with the director’s reputation for mystery and suspense, a plot with very little details available, and Janet Leigh on all major advertising. What they would experience in the theater, however, would forever change the genre altogether.
In fact, Hitchcock was so famously strict with the film’s details that he instructed theaters to refuse entry to anyone who arrived after the screening had already begun. Inside, audiences witnessed disturbing violence, brief nudity, explicit sexuality and deviancy, and a wild plot twist that sent the film on a path that none could predict. And with the final image of Norman Bates devilishly smiling into the camera’s lens, they would be haunted and enthralled by the experience forever.
Now, a movie that would take the world by storm in a completely different manner would be Disney’s HOCUS POCUS. Released in 1993 and set 300 years after the Salem Witch Trials (albeit a fictional/alternate version of the actual events), the plot centers on teenager Max Dennison (Omri Katz), along with his sister Dani (Thora Birch) and their new friend Allison (Vinessa Shaw), who accidently resurrect a coven of evil witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy), and must steal a book of spells to stop them from becoming immortal.
You might be scratching your head to understand why this film is the massive hit we know today, and how its re-release landed at #2 at the U.S. Box Office earlier this month, just behind TENET. Essentially, it can all be simply correlated back to the power of television. Though the film had earned a considerable Box Office success, despite being released in July of that year, it earned its real fame in the growing popularity of Disney Channel and ABC Family (now Freeform) in the late 1990s and early 2000s to become its most popular title in October programming. Now, 30 years later, it holds a special place in the hearts of Millennials and Gen Z’ers, who grew up watching the film on repeat every year.
With the film’s maturity mixed with your typical adolescent values, it’s not hard to understand why audiences still run to it today. It’s a near perfect film for parents to watch with their kids this time of year, with a bit to offer for everyone involved.
Tim Burton has seen a long career and has reached audiences of all ages, but the last two films to mention in our Halloween series are also great examples of the “family-friendly” variety. Though BEETLEJUICE does come with a few more warnings, especially for those sensitive to language (see the IMDB parent’s guide if you are concerned), the 1988 comedy starring Michael Keaton as a cartoon-like poltergeist conveys a certain style of gothic fantasy that doesn’t come up often.
Using practical effects and stop motion animation, Burton calls back to classic animators like Ray Harryhausen and Rankin/Bass and, complemented by Danny Elfman’s whimsical score, produces a delightful quality of gothic humor that will leave everyone in stitches (pun 100% intended).
And then in 1993, Burton doubled down on everything that made Beetlejuice fantastic by producing NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a movie that comfortably exists between a children’s horror and holiday film, making it the perfect classic title to ease us into the oncoming jubilant season.
Although not directed by Burton, the film stems from a poem he wrote in 1982 while working for Walt Disney Productions. Combining the animation techniques we saw in BEETLEJUICE with the music and singing talents of Danny Elfman, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS calls back not only to classic stop-motion animators but also to German Expressionism and, to bring it full circle, NOSFERATU.
The real beauty of the film is certainly Elfman’s music, which is catchy enough to sing along to, but also mature enough to avoid redundancy. His compositions instead take on operatic qualities to push the story forward, and somehow remain bouncy and delightful all at once. It’s a film that you just don’t see anymore (if there was anything like it to begin with) so I can’t think of a better activity than to introduce the family to it on November 1st.
So, I hope to see around this week (be sure to say “hi” if you do) and you can also check out our Mount Scaremore and Fright Nights at the State series still available from our Virtual Movie Palace, now at a discounted rate.
Enjoy the rest of your week!
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