Classic Horror Film Commentaries Give Insight
by Phil Boatwright

R. Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart.  Fox.  Horror.  Written by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur.  Directed by Alexandre Aja.

FILM SYNOPSIS:  A troubled ex-cop must save his family from an unspeakable evil that is using mirrors as a gateway into their home.

BOATWRIGHT COMMENT:  Dear Readers, you know I see most everything that comes out, even horror films, even many R-rated films.  But the trailer to Mirrors bothered my spirit.  It wasn’t just spooky, it seemed a bit demonic.  Now, this is not a review.  I haven’t seen the film.  So I’m not suggesting you avoid it.  I’m just telling you why I’m staying away.  I simply do not wish to put something demonic in my head.  I know we have become so desensitized to today’s take on horror films, with filmmakers having to come up with new ways of frightening moviegoers, but there are just certain subject matters I do not wish to subject myself to.  Now if one of my colleagues ventures into the theater to see it and says it’s not demonic and there’s a moral to the story, then I may attend.  But the commercial bothered my spirit.  That’s the reason I’m not seeing it.

The enduring roller coaster proves that people of all ages like to be scared – so long as there’s nothing really to fear.  Well, the horror genre has lasted throughout the history of movies, with just that agenda – to scare the Sweet Tarts out of us.  The horror film has, however, undergone more transformations than Madonna’s musical career.  In the ‘30s and ‘40s, horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Cat People were actually morality plays, where good was triumphant over evil.  And because of “restrictive” decency codes, studios mandated that their filmmakers not offend the church-going public.  So, when you view The Bride of Frankenstein or The Cat People or even Dracula, you can detect a morality tale amid the spooks and jolts.

In the ‘50s, most horror films were, well, goofy, the Saturday matinee screen being proliferated by giant lizards, ants and even a 50-foot woman.  The ‘60s saw classic fright flicks resurrected by Hammer Studios (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave).  That studio was known for using vivid color to captivate, especially with the use of a thick red liquid that looked more like candy apple syrup than the gushing blood it was supposed to represent.  But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, horror films became gruesome showcases for studio special effects departments, and malevolent and apparently indestructible ghouls such as Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddie Kruger, Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th’s Jason returned sequel after sequel to kill as many randied teenagers as possible in 96 minutes.

The ‘90s once again unearthed the classic monsters – with a twist.  In Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his monster was an omnipresent creature who contemptuously burned a crucifix with a stare, rather than turning away from the significance of the cross – something the vampire had done ever since Bela Lugosi first put on a set of fangs.  This new spin changed the entire theme of the Dracula legend.  No longer was God the conqueror of the devil; now man alone was in control of his fate.

In recent years, Universal Studios has remastered the original Dracula, the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi, as well as his buddy, Frankenstein.  And most recently, Boris Karloff’s The Mummy has been dug up and given the brush-up.  Added to these classic spook fests are commentary tracts and documentaries that not only spotlight the ingenuity of those bringing the then new genre to movie theaters, but also giving a perspective on the culture of the time.

The most terrifying moment in 1932’s The Mummy came when we saw a man being mummified – then buried alive!  It remains a scary visual because that can actually be done.  That’s what makes it scarier than a CGI flying dragon.  As for eeriness, the original Mummy had that pyramid cornered, as well.  There’s a moment in that movie when an archeologist examines a scroll unaware that just behind him the unearthed ancient mummy slowly opens his eyes.  Then it moves.  And since one doesn’t see a 2,000-year-old stiff suddenly come to life all that often, it has a deleterious effect upon the excavator.  He goes, well, a little funny in the head. 

With the incredible makeup done by the innovative makeup artist Jack Pierce, who also created the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman and other Universal classic ghouls, plus the macabre presence of Boris Karloff, that version of The Mummy was both hypnotic and spine tingling.  All the spookiness that made hairs rise on the back of our necks is missing in the recent The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.  More like a Saturday morning action serial (with tomb-to tomb action sequences) than reminiscent of the creepy Karloff chiller, the new incarnation of the Mummy is more Indiana Jones derring-do than chiller thriller.

If you are interested in why Karloff’s The Mummy is far superior to the new version despite the slow pacing and the fact that 76 years ago films were made in black & white, there are two commentary tracks on the remastered special edition, plus several extra features that point out why this film remains a legendary signpost of the horror genre.  Dracula and Frankenstein have just undergone the same treatment.  Mind you, a Universal Horror Legacy Collection has been available for a few years.  But I’m referring to The Legacy Series Special Editions.  This newest packaging of the oldest monster movies each contain two incisive commentary tracks.

What’s this?  Phil Boatwright is suggesting we get horror movies!  Use your own discernment, of course, but I feel folks can learn much from the commentary tracks of these and other films.  They give insight concerning the social behavior of that era, and reveal how movie-going sensibilities have changed throughout the years.

That said, I have my limits as to what I will support.  Although undeniably well written, directed and acted, my problem with the Oscar-winner Silence of the Lambs was its demonic aura.  Silence is one of the few films I, as a reviewer, have walked out on.  I missed the final twenty minutes and to this day refuse to view that film’s conclusion.  Why?  I truly believe the Holy Spirit was nudging me, as if saying, “That’s enough, get out.”  I realize it’s scary and well made, and maybe okay for others, but I’m not going to argue with the Holy Ghost.