Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Boo! The Right Thing


     As we sit on the eve of another October, it is undeniable that this season of the shadows is different. We are all in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, with a new normal designed to keep us all as healthy and safe as we can be. Even now, as we face the COVID-19 pandemic and go into October, many don't know exactly what or how or if Halloween will look like in their communities. 

    The Ghost haunts upstate New York, and we have had a year. While our state was faced astronomical loss and infection earlier this year, our cases are, thankfully, not what they were, and trending down. Masks are mandatory, and so is social distancing. 

      And our hometown mega success of a haunted attraction, Steve Szortyka's Frightworld, has made the difficult decision to do the right thing and cancel their 2020 season. The structure of a haunted attraction-- a haunted house-- is by its nature a risk. You are entering closed quarters with people who jump out at you and do other things to scare you-- and make you scream. Being scared from a careful distance, even with masks, does not seem worth the effort-- or the risk to patrons, actors and other workers. We here at the Ghost commend Steven and his team for making the right call-- and we look forward to joining them again-- in safer times-- next year. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Universal Monsters Movie Binge: "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925)

    The Ghost has made the decision to watch-- in the order they were released-- the original Universal Studios Monster movies. The iconic films that set the tone for horror films as we have come to know them. I have-- I believe-- seen all of these films in the entireties before, but I thought something fun and spooky could be gained by taking them all in as we open the book on a new October season of the dim light and shadows. 

     We started with "The Phantom of the Opera," starring Lon Chaney. Released in 1925, this is a fully silent film, and stands on its own, years before the rest of what Universal would create were released. Based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel that would gain superstardom as a stage musical nearly a century later, Universal's take on the Opera Ghost is every candlelit bit a monster movie. Lon Chaney, who famously did his own makeup for the Phantom (some of which involved actual fish parts), did so in secret and revealed his look to many on set for the first time during filming. Universal's publicity about the film was also similarly tight-lipped; hiding the Phantom's look from all promotion and saving his unmasking for the film. 

     This end result, shot almost 100 years ago, is dreamlike and hypnotic for many reasons, the least of which is that this film was made so long ago. These actors donned costumes and performed across great sets, of the Paris theater and the Phantom's underground lair, almost one hundred years ago. The prints that exist of this film are grainy, but we should be thankful they exist at all, as this film was very nearly lost to the obscurity of history. The set pieces herein are gorgeous; whether it's the opera and ballet being performed, or the Phantom's taking of Christine Daae down to his musical lair. The horror is also ramped up; the Phantom's famous unmasking scene is the horror the film hinges on, and the Phantom's terrorizing the opera, its guests and Christine is played up to great camp and creepy effect-- the Phantom at points using an air tube to travel under his underwater lake to Raul's boat, at the end taking Christine into a carriage ride filled with shots of a manic and maskless Phantom at the reins.

     Of note watching the film again, I was struck by how much of the imagery popularly associated with the Phantom of the Opera, especially in Andrew Lloyd Weber's stage musical, appears to have originated in this film. From the caped Phantom atop a statue watching Christine and lover Raul on the rooftop, to the Phantom's dressed Skeleton masquerade costume. These happenings may have been described in the book, but it is interesting that the exact look of them seem not to have changed in popular adaptation in close to 100 years. Unique to this film-- spoilers ahead for the remainder of the next two paragraphs only-- is the ending, which was changed. Originally filmed more faithfully to the original novel, with the Phantom dying at his organ after letting Christine go, test audiences did not respond well, and the striking chase scene through the scenes of Paris-- passing Notre Dame and arriving at the Seine where the Phantom is beaten by the mob and thrown into the river-- was filmed and added to appease audiences. 

    Two things stood out, very starkly, about the ending. One is how brutally and ultimately they deal with killing the Phantom, the horror, at the end; beating him to what appears to be death and throwing him in the river. And second, how even with that finality, while we are not shown a body, the possibility of his surviving and emerging from the Seine to terrorize another day is very present. In what appears to have been an effort to avoid showing the violence of what befalls the Phantom, the door was left open for generations of horror film endings that appear to triumph over the monster (or do they?) only to leave the door open for future sequels. 

     The evolution of the Phantom named Erik's mask is also interesting. In the present day, the most commonly associated mask is that popularized by the Lloyd Weber musical, with the simple white mask covering half of Erik's face. The mask in the Chaney film covers the entire face, and is a simple, almost theatrical likeness of a human face that changes to loose cloth (curtainlike?) under the eyes. The understated nature of this mask, with the antique look is uniquely unsettling. 

Lon Chaney in full makeup

     One doesn't have to go far to see how the success of the this film spurred the next installments in the Universal series, and would forever shape horror in film. With the introduction of sound, the film was reworked and rereleased in 1930 with segments of sound and music. While Chaney was unable to be in reshoots as he was by then under contract with MGM, other actors in the film reprised their roles in the reworked film which was released to great success. This reissued film has sadly and apparently been lost to history, but there are clips online of a home video reworking that put pieces of the soundtrack (the soundtrack, which alone has survived) and it does appear that the Phantom-- even while silent in a talking film-- is even more affective, juxtaposed with the sound and music around him. Grossing over a million dollars in 1930, it's clear that this film and its rereleases proved that there was big business in horror. For the purposes of our Universal Monsters Movie Binge, I have decided to only watch the original films; no sequels, remakes or reimaginings (those will come later.) 

Chaney's Phantom at the masquerade. 

     It is clear, watching this 1925 horror smash hit, why it struck such a note with audiences, and why they wanted more. And why Universal readily gave it to the world, and made history. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Scary Book Club: "Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula" by David J. Skal


 A number of years ago, I read "Death Makes a Holiday" by David J. Skal. A cultural historian, critic and writer, Skal has made something of a career writing in an academic but immensely readable way about the horror genre, and the holiday and real life people that surround the world of the macabre. I loved and devoured "Death Makes a Holiday," a gripping history of the holiday we now know and celebrate as Halloween, and I always wanted to go back to his writing sooner. I finally did this summer, and I so regret not doing so sooner. 

"Dracula The Definitive Edition" with illustrations by Edward Gorey 

 I have loved "Dracula" since before I read the novel. Horror, the macabre, and scary stories that bump in the night have intrigued me from my earliest memories, and I was always drawn to the blood sucking count from Transylvania. I first read Bram Stoker's 1897 novel in the seventh grade, for a book report assignment in which we had total freedom to read any (approved, though not held to rigorous standards) book. I remember laying in my bed reading through the words and happenings and Jonathan Harker's travels and the Count holding him captive and the vampire brides and the nighttime sea voyages and the graveyard by the sea and Carfax Abbey and Mine and Lucy and Dr. Van Helsing. I knew I was not understanding everything I read, but what I read I loved. Count Dracula has become a cultural legend, eternally living in countless books, films, television programs and beyond, at a level few other fictional characters have. I've always been interested in Bram Stoker, the monster's creator, but knew precious little of his life. I picked up David J. Skal's massive "Something in the Blood" this summer, and instantly fell into its mesmeric, almost vampiric spell. And it is absolutely one of the best biographies I've ever read.

Whitby, North Yorkshire, England; inspiration for "Dracula" 

 This book is many things. A biography of Bram Stoker. A meticulously researched study of the writer's life, giving full social, political and cultural context of his time. And a studied look at how the novel lived on after Stoker's death, and it's journey into stage and screen adaptations-- and beyond. From the early chapters were Skal details the upbringing of his parents and the birth and childhood of Stoker-- as he recounts amaizng histories of plagues and burial practices and the literature young Bram would have had access to and read-- I knew this was something special. 

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Universal Studio's 1931 film 

     As someone who considered themselves a student of history, who works often in the field of genealogy, I as greatly sympathetic to the historian's dilemma; how to tell history, what is known, by accurately retelling the facts and responsibly presenting informed hypotheses when appropriate, and when details are lacking. This is not an easy task, but it is one that Skal balances beautifully. In this book, we are told the facts of Bram's life; his family, his mother, Florence the woman he would later marry, and a nearly unbelievable cast of characters that include the major artists of his time such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Many times of his years, facts are scarce, but Skal presents them, and the possibilities, probabilities and the fact that we often may never know the truth for certain in a masterful way. 

Frances Balcombe, as drawn by Oscar Wilde

 This is very much the case when it comes to Stoker's wife, Florence, and his reported sexuality. Much of the correspondence between Florence and her former suitor, Oscar Wilde, is lost to history, but what remains offers endlessly interesting possibilities about the nature of their relationship. Likewise, when it comes to Stoker's much rumored sexuality, there is a plethora of lines to read between. The letters young Bram writes to Walt Whitman after reading his work, on male love, reads, even with the most conservative of caution to consider the time they were written in, like someone coming out of the closet. One can only wonder what Whitman and Stoker discussed when the met at multiple points during the American tours of the Lyceum theater Stoker; though, of course, we'll never know. 

County Dracula and Jonathan Harker in BBC One and Netflix's "Dracula" (2020)

 We will also never know the true nature of Stoker's decades long friendship with the writer Hall Caine. Many of Stoker's letters to Caine appear to have been lost (perhaps even discarded by Florence), but it begs thought exactly how deep the two men's relationship was (and the man who Stoker famously dedicated "Dracula" to.) This is especially interesting when the homosexual subtext in the novel is examined; the lusting Count Dracula has for Jonathan Harker, and the fear of that forbidden. Gender and sexual variance is a theme explored by Stoker not just in "Dracula," but in numerous others of his fiction works, and the examination of these issues, as well as race and culture, are discussed at length in the book and never fail to be anything but engrossing. 

Hall Caine

 Stoker's novel, as Skal points out at length, has endured because "Dracula" plays out many of humanity's most enduring issues and fears; life and death and triumphing over death, religion, the Other and fears of what is not us; the fear behind romance and seduction. Bram Stoker wrote a novel, well over 100 years ago, that masterfully explores these themes-- all while being a tremendously entertaining, satisfying and frightening read. 

Henry Irving and Bram Stoker

     While much of Stoker's life will likely forever be lost to history, the story of the sickly boy who loved stories, and grew up into athletic intellectual who found himself in the work and friendship of writers like Walt Whitman, appears, the stuff itself of great fiction. Stoker, this man who made a living working his life for actor Henry Irving and his theater (a man who Stoker idolized, but often treated him like little more than a servant beneath his celebrity; a servant who was, in the spare time he had, writing work that make him and his work immortal) lived an uncanny and endlessly interesting life, and Skal's brilliant book is a-- while a commitment-- a must read for any serious fan of "Dracula" and the all the novel and character have spawned in popular culture.  


Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker