Obviously this report was supposed to be filed in a more "festive" scheduling time, but your faithful editor had to work on a movie in the woods of New Hampshire during the entire "festive" time and shuttered the site. So now, without further adieu, is a lovely piece on how art is received critically against the artist's vision set against a spoooooooooky backdrop.
A bona fide perk of the Halloween season is the showcase of so many horror classics on television. Why, just this week I treated myself to a viewing of Hallweens I-IV. Yes, even Season of the Witch. It struck me while watching the original 1978 version directed by John Carpenter how artfully executed it is as a film. Guided by AMC’s ubiquitous, if slightly inane, footnotes, I appreciated not simply the tight use of cinematography and music to influence pacing and suspense, but also the apparent subtext within the film.
For those in the dark, Halloween follows a truly evil man (Michael Myers) as he escapes from prison and begins a rampage back in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Time and time again, we are reminded by Michael’s doctor, Dr. Sam Loomis (aka Blofeld) about the unrestrained and uncomplicated evil of this man. Even as a child growing up in a seemingly normal suburban town, he coldly murders his own sister. A wonderful touch by Carpenter is the way we never see grown Michael’s face, except for a brief moment during his final confrontation with Loomis. The rest of the time, he hides behind William Shatner. Surely this depiction of Michael as relentless and utterly dehumanized is the filmmaker’s vision of evil in this world.
Likewise, much has been written about the good-natured decency of the heroine Laurie Strode, played by a decidedly un-hermaphrodite Jamie Lee Curtis. She isn’t a slut, or a lush, or stupid. She is an average American teenage girl. Her tenacity and survival instinct, especially when viewed against the fate that befalls an equally delicious PJ Soles, is some sort of statement on virtue and modesty in American society. Or, at least, some kind of conservative allegory about the dangers of sexual liberation and drug use, right?
Wrong. By reading what comes from Carpenter (or Wikipedia, at least), interpretations of Halloween as a kind of morality play "completely missed the point.” As a master of genre, and one of the greatest horror filmmakers of all time, Carpenter sees Halloween as merely a great horror film.
Which it is. But Carpenter’s break with the critics on the message behind Halloween highlights the division that sometimes arises between an artist and the critical establishment over the meaning of a work. Or, moreover, with an audience. Could it be that sometimes an artist does not even understand their own work? Or is it easier for people to divorce their interpretation of a film from the intentions of its maker? (As a side note: I’d like to submit this amusing anecdote about Ray Bradbury)
The final judgment of a movie ultimately may lie with a film’s audience (meaning: critical, or as in the general viewing public). As we are so often told, movie watching is a subjective game to play. So it may be possible for accidental themes to leak into a film (guided by broader cultural or what have you forces influencing the actors, writers and directors). Those themes might be detected by people not affiliated with the production, leaving someone like Carpenter determined to say folks are just missing the point.
Maybe they are. There certainly are some outlandish theories out there. Let’s explore one, shall we?
For those people looking for another reason to despise Roberto Benigni, I happily recommend watching Ian McKellen’s hilariously wry portrayal of Frankenstein director James Whale in 1998’s Gods and Monsters. Benigni may have beat McKellen in the battle for the Oscar that year, but there is no question that McKellen won the war.
One of my favorite sequences of the film is when both Whale and his gardener, Clay Boone, are both watching Whale’s best film, Bride of Frankenstein. Boone (played by a surprisingly compelling, if slightly miscast, Brendan Fraser) is at a bar, where his roughneck pals deride the film as not being scary. Meanwhile, Whale is at home, quietly reminiscing on the production of his finest picture. Both men are sad, connected in a distant, intangible way, and watch the film from two entirely different vantage points in life.
Later, Boone asks Whale about the film not being scary. As it turns out, Bride of Frankenstein was conceived entirely tongue in cheek. According to Gods and Monsters, Whale was once again flexing his creative muscle and extraordinary wit. In one batch of dialogue, Whale hits a bulls eye on the difficult challenge of making one film for several audiences:
Whale: [Bride of Frankenstein] was supposed to be funny... I had to make it interesting for myself you see, so it's a comedy about death. The trick is not to spoil it for anyone who's not in on the joke. But the monster never receives any of my jibes. He's noble; noble and misunderstood.
A recent viewing of Bride of Frankenstein confirms this. Upon watching the film with the above dialogue in mind, Whale is right (assuming he actually said this; I’ll give credit to Bill Condon if necessary), it is indeed a truly black comedy.
Pretorius is dripping in camp, on full display, especially during a scene where he shows Henry Frankenstein his collection of miniature people. Whale is also right where the plight of the Monster actually anchors the film with seriousness, whereas many of the other subplots are used humorously or underscore the hubris of man. Bride of Frankenstein is so widely accepted for its iconic moments and reputation as a horror classic, it is easy to forget there may be other things hidden in the crevices. It may not be a homosexual allegory as some have claimed, but to be sure this film was directed with the care and nuance of an absolute master.
Assuming Gods and Monsters provides us any real insight into the real James Whale, it is intriguing to consider that a filmmaker offers an alternative, if not definitive, view of a film. It is as if they are a premier scholar of one particular film, making their opinions wholly valid, if not truly the final say on anything. Bride of Frankenstein still works as a horror film, as does Halloween. Yet both films are viewable with the optional lens of being pure camp or, in the case of Halloween, a meditation on feminism and strength in society. Or something.
I’ve seen Pink Floyd synched to The Wizard of Oz and damn it’s cool. The likelihood that this was ever intended is slim, but that does not make it any less amazing to people when they first watch it. Sometimes the magic of film trumps intent, and a finished product becomes wholly transcendental.