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Children of the Nitrate

For this year’s Halloween video round-up in the New York Times, a few more words of appreciation for Universal’s significantly upgraded “Classic Monsters” collection on Blu-ray, as well as drive-bys of Shout! Factory’s new editions of a pair of vintage splatter favorites, Roger Spottiswoode’s “Terror Train” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse,” and not very much at all about Roman Polanski’s precise and impassive “Rosemary’s Baby” — one of the last major American horror movies to rely on Val Lewton’s strategies of suggestion — which has just returned in a fine hi-def edition from the Criterion Collection.

I’ve also got an interview with the eternally underappreciated Robert Zemeckis, on the occasion of his return to live-action filmmaking with the superb “Flight” — opening Friday, November 2 at a theater near you.

79 comments to Children of the Nitrate

  • “In the Spanish version, I believe Renfield reaches the body but instead of being able to prey on it, he snatches an insect from the air over it and compulsively gobbles that.”

    Exactly what happens in the shooting script for the Browning version.

  • jbryant

    Wonderful stuff, Jaime. I hope to make time for those episodes soon. I actually remember seeing some of BROTHERS back in the day, though I don’t think I caught Lewis’ episode.

  • Shawn Stone

    More Tod Browning on DVD(-R) today, as Warner Archive issue THE SHOW. It’s another tale of jealousy and sleaze in a carnival setting, and also a silent, starring John Gilbert.

  • One can think of a few post Rosemary’s Baby films that are more suggestive than explicit when it comes to the supernatural:

    The Cat Creature (Curtis Harrington, 1973)
    Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
    The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1979)
    Kiss Me Goodbye (Robert Mulligan, 1982)
    Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983)
    The Little Match Girl (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1987)
    Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989)
    Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)
    Switch (Blake Edwards, 1991)
    Rag and Bone (James D. Parriott, 1998)
    Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin, 2002)
    Madame Tutli-Putli (Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, 2007)

    Not all of these can be considered “horror films”. Many use the supernatural for storytelling, rather than to scare people.

    The Cat Creature (Curtis Harrington) and Rag and Bone (James D. Parriott) are two films that should especially be better known. Both have very rich atmosphere and visual style.

  • Johan Andreasson

    With all this talk about Dracula: Happy birthday, Bram Stoker!

  • Alex

    Nice list, Mike Grost.

    Besides those films that are “more suggestive than explicit” Re the supernatural, there are at least a few films in which the “explict” may be delusional –or simply “all in the head”– like Clayton’s THE INNOCENT, Lyne’s JACOB’S LADDER and Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW.

  • Alex

    Suppose for a second that a lot of horrow films (like much noir) can be broadly classified as paranoia films.

    The queastion arises, are there any “pronoia” films? (Pronoia is the opposite state of mind from paranoia: having the sense that there is a conspiracy that exists to help one. It is also used to describe a philosophy –mocked in by Voltaire via Candide’s Dr. Pangloss– that the world is set up to secretly benefit people.)

    The upbeat early Bildungsromanen like Tom Jones and Oliver Twist in which good will and inheritance sets all right are possible pronoia novels, but the great example has got to be Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister in which the loose and risky strands of the protagonist’s life are resolved gloriously by nothing less than the machinations of (Goethe’s beloved) Freemasons!

    I guess, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is, like number of other Capra films, a pronoia fanatasy (and Meet John Doe a near Paranoia fantasy).

    If no big initial threats are needed, most popular narraive is Pronoiac. (Horrors!)

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, what you seem to be lurching towards is the basic assumption of human civilization is that the natural moral order is that what is “right” should prevail and what is “wrong” should be defeated. You can see that reflected in the “happy endings” in popular cluture, but also in the need to find somebody or something to blame when the “wrong” prevails in what we call real life.

  • Barry Lane

    Barry Putterman

    Yes, of course.

  • Alex Hicks

    I can see how your right/wrong distinction might reinterpret my “pronoid” films, films like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

    But I dont see how that distinction has to do with most good noir, where the generally is with sympathy is with the victim (as much for law violators like Lancaster in Criss Cross and the killers as for such essential innocents as, say, Mitchum in Out of the Past and Welles in Lady from Shagnhai. (That noir negative ending were consistent with The Code strikes me as more relevant to the ganster film than noir.)

    In noir literature we see the same patterns without the distraction of Code prohibition on criminals ending well. We In literature, we see pronoid extremes of the happy ending (such as that provided by the Deux ex machina of the Freemasons in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister) as just as delusional a device as the negative presence of the Freemasons novels by George Sand or Dumas –e.g., The Countess of Charny).

  • Alex Hicks

    Nice paranoid and pronoid films, respectively, are The Invasion of the Body Snatchersand The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    Nice parallel examples in everyday life are Joe McCarthy’s list-waving rants and the last, anti-Silver days of the Romney-Ryan campaign.

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, if I have successfully gotten past your grammatical incoherence; I can’t see where either noir or horror challanges the assumption that the natural moral order is that what is “right” should prevail and what is “wrong” should be defeated. They simply posit that something internal (noir) or external (horror) has perverted civilization and produced unfair outcomes. Indeed, the stylistics of both genres emphasize the depiction of a world gone off its axis.

  • Alex


    Its not at all clear why, or in what way, you think noir is particularly descriptive of a moral order gone bad that should be defeated. (For example, are you saying it’s the protagonists sorry fate or its prerpetuators that’s bad bad and should be defeated?)

    Neither can I understand why you’re scuh a chllnged raeder?

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, I am simply saying that noir presents a world which has become morally corrupted. There is nothing shocking or original in that notion. It is commonly accepted in just about every description of the genre. And corruption is, by definition, a fracturing of the normal.

  • Mike, added to your list of suggestive supernatural horror (also known as quiet horror by genre aficionados)is Curtis Harrington’s “Night Tide” (1963)and Cyril Frankel’s “The Witches” (1966) from Nigel Kneale’s screenplay, although the supernatural element is called into question here.

    By the way, the occult artist Cameron appears in “Night Tide.”

  • “I can’t see where either noir or horror challanges the assumption that the natural moral order is that what is “right” should prevail and what is “wrong” should be defeated. They simply posit that something internal (noir) or external (horror) has perverted civilization and produced unfair outcomes. Indeed, the stylistics of both genres emphasize the depiction of a world gone off its axis.”

    Nicely put Barry. As for horror, there are at least a few sub-genres such as psychological horror (“Psycho,” “Repulsion,) supernatural horror (the previously mentioned “Dracula” and “Rosemary’s Baby”) and cosmic horror (found more in literature than in films, but “Prometheus” fits the bill.) The latter posits that humanity co-habits the universe with other life forms that are indifferent to its existence or regard humanity as a nuisance to be eradicated like ants in your kitchen.)

  • Rick K.

    DRACULA ‘31 first entered my consciousness at a very young age via a somewhat fuzzy channel 13 (it was also, as I recall, a somewhat clandestine viewing, long past my normal bedtime), much later on 16mm, still later dvd and now blu-ray. Certain moments of it remain permanently etched, including the Renfield/maid scene, tho I wonder if it might have been reinforced by that still in an issue of Famous Monsters, which also contributed to my vivid memories of it … too, there’s a similar scene in VAMPIRE BAT ‘33 in which Dwight Frye as a Renfield clone called Herman causes Maude Eburne to faint (“you give me apple, Herman give you nice soft bat”).

    Yes, since the Spanish version is some 25 min. longer, it would certainly provide clues to what was trimmed from the American release. Though I also agree with the consensus that the tempo of Spanish DRACULA tends toward lethargy. I was VERY glad to finally be able to see the Spanish version when it finally resurfaced, but unlike those who consider it cinematically superior, I feel the Browning version remains the definitive one.

    I still have a handful of old Famous Monsters issues, and have just pulled out the one which has been tugging at my memory while writing this … Lugosi is on the cover (issue #22) and the Renfield/maid still is in there. It’s actually a pretty good issue … very often this magazine gets brushed off as simply a remnant of nostalgia for that rarified but uncommonly devoted species known as the “monster kid”. And while kids may have indeed been its primary audience, I doubt if there were many other film mags of the 60’s which consigned some ten pages to the memory of Tod Browning (who had then recently passed away), with a similar spread lamenting the passing of Willis O’Brien (special effects pioneer, KING KONG etc.), along with its cover story/pictorial (17 pages!) on Browning’s DRACULA. Not as scholarly perhaps as Cahiers du cinema, though its dedication to film history is equally clear, albeit more prone to fang and claw.

  • Alex


    I was “simply saying” that noir centers on the psychological anxieties of it principal protagonists and places them in narratives and states of mind that consitute, and evoke form us, soemthing like the paranoid.

    (Krutick’s stress on noir as a type of film that is focussed on male anxieties strikes me as more cogent than a stress on sociualcrtique,f misanthopy or pessimism.)
    I quess your more social focus and my more psychological one are not unlikely to be mutually compatible.

    I think that awareness of “pronoid” raises the possiblity of a synptomatic perspective on films with affirmative views of society and happy endings as well as films that films withnegative views of society that have unhappy endings.

  • Robert Garrick

    Rick K., it wouldn’t be completely churlish to say that FM was comparable to “Cahiers du Cinema” in influence here in America. Few here actually read Cahiers in realtime; its influence came through indirection, via sources like Sarris’s “The American Cinema.” (And there was a ten-year delay, too.)

    But starting around 1957, “we” (American males born between 1945 and 1955) all read FM, and while our intentions might not have been scholarly, we picked up a lot of information and history by doing so. I have all of the early issues (roughly, issues 1-35) and, like several of the correspondents on this site (who may or may not wish to identify themselves) I visited the Ackermansion on Glendower.

    My interest in film began with horror (specifically, I’d say, with Disney’s “Snow White,” and later with the “Shock” packages on Los Angeles television), and that interest was greatly amplified by FJA’s writing and “rare fotos” and serial “best issues ever.”

    Joe Dante will be showing “The Hole” here in St. Louis tonight in 3-D, at my neighborhood single-screen theatre the Hi-Pointe (built in 1922). I imagine he’d have something to say about the influence of “Famous Monsters.”

  • ” starting around 1957, ‘we’ (American males born between 1945 and 1955) all read FM, and while our intentions might not have been scholarly, we picked up a lot of information and history by doing so…I visited the Ackermansion on Glendower.”

    All true Robert. I joined the Famous Monsters Fan Club and my name was printed in the issue with Vincent Price from “The Pit and the Pendulum” on the cover. I visited two out three Ackermansions, the first one on South Sherbourne Drive in 1964 and the second one on Glendower 30 years later.

    “My interest in film began with horror (specifically, I’d say, with Disney’s ‘Snow White,’ and later with the ‘Shock’ packages on Los Angeles television), and that interest was greatly amplified by FJA’s writing and ;rare fotos’ and serial ‘best issues ever.'”

    For me, it was watching “King Kong” on Million Dollar Movie. The following week “The Adventures of Captain Blood” was broadcast, and the week after “The Lost Patrol.” Million Dollar Movie alternated between Warner Bros. movies and RKO movies.

    Famous Monsters occasionally printed a few somewhat sophisticated articles by Robert Bloch and Ackerman’s wife Wendayne Wahrman and Joe Dante.

    I happened upon the auterist magazine “Cinema” (the US magazine published in Beverly Hills)because there was a pictorial appreciation of Karl Freund’s “The Mummy. ” I read the rest of the magazine and started buying it on a regular basis after that. Later I bought my first issue of “Film Culture” because of a frame enlargement from “Un Chien Andalou.”

    The great thing about Famous Monsters and the other magazines mentioned above was the intriguing descriptions of movies I hadn’t seen accompanied by wonderful stills. I made a point of searching those movies out in the following years and decades.

  • Barry Lane

    I think you mean The Fortunes of Caaptain Blood…or, do you?

  • Peter Henne

    Barry P, I agree that noir delivers morally corrupt worlds, compared to what the audience broadly regards as a fulfilling world, but I wonder if adding that there is a causal source, by saying that they “have become corrupted,” is warranted. Isn’t it equally legitimate to say that noir means to show the “dark underside” of reality that has always been there, but has been neglected or else depicted in different forms for different times? The introduction of noir might be explained as a new genre appropriate for a new, urban stage in society. Are noirs insinuating things have sunk to a new low, or that things have actually always been this way but with our “modern” eyes we can see them more acutely? I’d say each backing has its advantages. I’m not favoring one account or the other, just asking if noir stories take stands on the origins of their decrepitude, or need to?

  • Robert, if you did indeed attend the screening you should have come up to say hello. We Kehrites should stick together!
    I did talk a bit about Famous Monsters, which will forever be credited with alerting a generation of film geeks that there were others out there like ourselves, sort of a ’50s coming-out thing.

    Btw, the impressively slick high-end “Cinema” magazine was produced by no less a future auteur than Curtis Harrington.

  • “I think you mean The Fortunes of Caaptain Blood…”

    I was combing “Captain Blood” with “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” My bad.

    “the impressively slick high-end “Cinema” magazine was produced by no less a future auteur than Curtis Harrington.”

    Jack Hanson was the publisher of “Cinema” which always featured adds for his Beverly Hills night club “The Daisy.” Jack Hanson was editor of the first couple of issues before turning that position over to Curtis Lee Hanson (as he was known then.) I always assumed that he was Jack Hanson’s younger brother. Near the end of its life Paul Schrader edited “Cinema.”

    During Curtis Hanson’s editorship there were frequent career retrospectives and interviews with directors like Sam Fuller, William Wellman and George Stevens, all lavishly illustrated.

    In the review department at the back of the magazine they listed the film’s title with the director, i.e, “‘7 Women’ by John Ford.” The Screenwriters Guild sent a letter of protest and was answered with a description of the auteur theory as articulated by Sarris. That’s probably where I first read about auterism.

    Peter Bogdanovich and Harlan Ellison wrote for the magazine, and “Cinema” had international correspondents who provided good coverage of foreign films including Japanese films. Under Scherder’s editorship there were retrospectives of Ozu and Mizoguchi written by Leonard Schrader.

  • Barry Putterman

    Peter, there is certainly the artistic and philosophic view that the world is “inherently” corrupt; which is not confined either to a particular era or genre. Indeed, as our incoming thread regards good old Fritz Lang, we could spend time on the root and branch of that view in film history.

    But again, my central point is that the corruption, in whatever form or level of intensity it takes, is as a distortion of human civilization’s central principal that what is “right” should succeed and what is “wrong” should fail., and the stylistics of corruption’s depiction is the proof of that pudding.

  • Robert Garrick

    “Cinema” magazine was important. It didn’t drive the critical conversation in America like “Film Culture” in the early ’60s or “Film Comment” starting with Richard Corliss’s editorship, but it was an excellent satellite. The first extended piece I ever saw on Joseph H. Lewis, for example, was in “Cinema,” written by Paul Schrader.

    Other small magazines from that era (the early-to-mid 1970s) that helped to drive the auteur case: “The Velvet Light Trap” and “Bright Lights.” And there was “Focus!” out of the University of Chicago’s Doc Films, which published a number of good articles for a couple of years in the mid-1970s. Just try to find those issues now.

    Overseas, “Movie” was still publishing, but on a reduced schedule. The great French magazines were branching out in different directions by then.

    Auteurism, in general, was starting to fragment by 1975–its great work had been done. The big push was over, though the ideas have never gone away.

  • Robert Garrick

    My wife is not a big horror fan, though she did grow up in 1950s Connecticut watching Zacherle on New York television. I talked her into seeing “The Hole” on Saturday night, and she loved it as a film about preteens confronting their fears. She also said that Joe Dante (who appeared after the film to answer questions) was “dashing,” “youthful,” and “energetic.”

    Spielberg has spent a good part of his career chronicling the inner lives of preteens. Joe Dante has done the same thing, far more movingly as far as I’m concerned, in “The Hole” and also in “Matinee” (1993), in his segment from the “Twilight Zone” movie (1983), and elsewhere.

  • David Cohen

    On a different topic …
    one of our lead stories on POLITICO today commences with a Pauline Kael anecdote: