Posted by: s. night screening | November 1, 2011

snights of the round table #1

 


from saturday night screening:

first of all let me welcome you to the demo trial beta version of what will hopefully be a regular feature on our site.

since none of us are horror fans maybe you guys can shed some lights on the topic. it is mostly inspired by the slate movie club, the recent av club column and our own conversations about directors from “the golden age of hollywood.”

Why do horror filmmakers lose their edge as they age?

that piece focuses mostly on wes craven, george romero, and john carpenter. though i think it applies to non horror directors too (coppola, frankenheimer, friedkin and the prime example george lucas). but we’ll leave those non horror ones for another time for the sake of time and space.

one common thing between all three is that they seem to have made their most “classic” canon status films early in their career. craven got kind of a revival filming screenplays by the dawson’s creek guy in the 90s but i doubt anyone would remember or want to talk about cursed or my soul to take. though i like land of the dead quite a bit, it was more of a feeling of “i am surprised that was actually pretty entertaining” instead of the wow feeling i got after seeing the original night of the living dead 40+ years later. and he fails pretty miserably when trying to incorporate the newer generation element in diary of the dead. john carpenter is a bit different than craven and romero though since he never seems to be simply a horror director. would love to hear from those of you who have seen scream 4, my soul to take, survival of the dead, escape from l.a. and the ward.

though it doesn’t necessarily mean that the can’t make good movies. red eye is rather entertaining, and quite a few of carpenter’s non-horror movies are classics. and there are defenders of vampires and ghosts of mars out there, which i will see someday, along with romero’s knightriders.

but the question seems to be whether horror as a genre is a young men’s game. most of the horror movies labeled as “the best” or “classic” in the last twenty years are mostly the first few films by their respective directors. and i personally think it’s pretty iffy that they would have much a career twenty years from now if they stay within the horror genre. is that my own prejudice and me being condescending?

i also think it speaks more about horror as a genre than specific filmmakers. when i read that av club piece, what it reminds me of is rap/hip hop in music. in that they both seem like a very narrow genre to stay in to sustain a career that would last more than 1 or maybe 2 decades. the essentials like n.w.a., public enemy, dr dre…etc has 3 to maybe 4 crucial albums during a whole career, others keep at it and create products at a regular pace with less and less relevancy (do people talk about the last few ice cube albums?), may get lucky every once in a while with a hit (snoop dogg), while others try to expand their career by doing something else (ice t on law and order, david cronenberg’s award winning movies). like hip hop, the horror genre also seems more prone to one hit wonder vanilla ice syndrome where the sophomore slump is more frequent than any other genres.

the splatt pack

is horror the ghetto of movie genres? it seems to be limiting the career of those who are known as horror directors. kubrick or polanski can do a horror movie in their decade long career and some filmmakers seem to be able to stay relevant late into their career (clint eastwood, altman, kubrick, polanski; hell, this year’s midnight in paris is woody allen’s highest grossing movie in his entire career). it’s almost as if horror as a genre is cursed.

 

from sir phobos of green people soup:
Holy shit, that was a mouthful. I’m about to go to bed, but I’ll spout random shit before I pass out.

I think Carpenter is quite the enigmatic figure. Forget horror specifically…he pretty much owned the ’80s in general. Before I write anything meaningful on this topic, I’m going to watch The Ward. I owe it to…someone…to at least do that. But you have The Fog, The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and Halloween. That’s a career’s worth of awesome right there. The man is a living legend of horror, and he still found time to do Big Trouble in Little China and They Live. He could never make another movie and it wouldn’t matter.

I really don’t think horror is the ghetto of movie genres. Just start looking through shit on Netflix. Action movies get HORRIBLE entries every single day. So do thrillers. I’m more interested in why specific movies sail or fail, not whether or not the genre as a whole sucks. Literally anything can be done well.

I really like the question/thought about horror being a young man’s game. On the surface, it seems that’s the case. I’ll start thinking about it and get back to you. Hey, what the fuck has Clive Barker been up to lately? At least he didn’t direct Hellraiser in Space. Or did he? Someone did, and that’s tragic enough.

 

from a fistful of cult:
I’ll play devil’s advocate here. I don’t necessarily disagree with the notion that most of the truly groundbreaking horror flicks are helmed by younger men still in their creative prime, but there can be exceptions to the rule. Sam Raimi, director of the legendary Evil Dead series, is the most obvious exception. Not only did he break out of the ‘horror ghetto’, but when he went back to the genre in 2009 with Drag Me to Hell, he earned quite a bit of critical acclaim for it. Personally, I believe the film to be one of the best horror flicks of the last decade, although yes, I will concede it was a somewhat lean decade for the genre.

Another name I’d like to put forward is Dario Argento. I realize I’m completely in the minority on this one, but I feel like so many are completely hung up on Suspiria that they’re not willing to give some of his later works a chance. Yes, his more recent films are somewhat inconsistent, but I defy you to find a more fucked up movie of his than The Stendhal Syndrome. It’s a bleak psychological thriller with so many nasty images it makes Ichi the Killer seem tame by comparison. The fact that the man has absolutely no qualms about filming scenes of his daughter Asia Argento being violently, brutally raped speaks volumes about the fearlessness he’s carried with him deep into his directing career.

 

from the video vacuum:
Another name I’m going to throw out there is David Cronenberg. His films in the 70’s were fucked up and visionary (in that order? maybe.) and even the ones that are sort of a misfire (like say, Rabid) are interesting thematically when you look at his career as a whole. In the 80’s he honed his craft and made two of the greatest horror films ever with Videodrome and The Fly. They were mature looks at lurid themes and disgusting special effects. By the time the 90’s rolled around, he had started to slowly take baby steps away from the genre and made Existenz almost as a farewell to his former self before concentrating on exclusively Viggo Mortensen dramas.

I guess that figures into the whole “young man’s game” theory.

 

from exploding helicopter:
We largely seem to be considering horror directors from the last 30 years. What about considering some horror directors from further back?

What about someone like Terence Fisher who directed Dracula and many other Hammer Horror productions. He made many films before arriving at the horror genre in his 50s. William Castle would be another similar example.

I’m going to move to a general point. I don’t think that any genre is a young man’s game. Under the old studio system directors had less autonomy with their material. Producers were much more influential. Directors had to take the films that were given them and only after becoming to some degree successful could they influence the material or films that they made.

These days people seem to move into directing via advertising or music videos. They seem to have more autonomy to pick and choose projects. The point I’m trying to make is that they are free, earlier in their careers, to give full reign to what creative ideas they have. Whereas in years gone by, directors would have to wait until they’d earned enough success to gain that type of control. Similarly, the ability to make films on smaller budgets has again allowed people to express their ideas at a younger age.

Having said that there are figures from the Hollywood ‘golden age’ who are inconvenient to the points I’m making above. James Whale who made Frankenstein among others being one such example.

 

from direct to video connoisseur:
I agree on the one hand that saying horror is a young man’s genre is a spurious conclusion. There are multiple reasons why directors seem to have more hits when they’re young, then trail off when they get older. The biggest is that a younger director won’t have the complete creative freedom that he or she will get when they’re older. With fewer dissenting voices and a greater access to money and having projects greenlighted based on name recognition alone, there’s less vetting out in the early stages. Any big name director in any genre can, for a good amount of time after a few successful films, get anything funded and in the theater, because they want that name on the marquee. Sometimes they bounce back, and sometimes they stay away from major production houses in order to keep that control, even if maybe they shouldn’t exactly have it, which leads to more duds.

The other thing is, how does one stay fresh in a single genre? Wes Craven did a great job of reinventing himself between Nightmare on Elm Street, and then later Scream. Obviously, with each successive sequel, the original creativity grows stale, but I’m not so sure that’s age as opposed to trying to pump out more sequels as quickly as possible to strike while the iron’s hot. When you’re someone like Scorsese, and you’re not bound by a single genre, there’s more room for reinvention. In that sense, maybe it is a young man’s genre, because it’s good to get new blood in there. I think though, if we go back to my earlier point about directors getting comfortable after success, that maybe these older directors will be pushed by their younger colleagues. Could Drag me to Hell be an example of that?

 

from sir phobos of green people soup:
I think Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is a really good example of age not having anything to do with it. The guy went off and made Spider-Man movies for like a decade, then basically showed his fans from way back that he still knows how to make an awesome horror flick. As far as Cronenberg is concerned, his body of work is so good that it’s pretty clear he can do whatever he wants and do it well. If anything, maybe he got bored doing horror so well, so he decided, as you said, Mitch, to start making Viggo Mortensen dramas. That’s fine by me, though. In fact, the small but intense bursts of violence in both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises proves he still knows how to shock. The diner scene in A History of Violence comes to mind, as does the shower fight in Eastern Promises. It seems the only difference between stuff like that and what he did with, say, The Fly, is that his focus is on evoking different emotions from the viewer. But, man, when he decides it’s time to make your eyes widen, he doesn’t disappoint.

I just had this thought. Lucio Fulci made Cat in the Brain six years before his death, and that one has a great concept that was well-executed. I really dig that one.

 

from joey:
i think the problem is a that these guys have marginalized themselves. there’s only so many times you can reinvent the wheel. then you need to go on and invent something else. take a look at any “top ten horror movies” list on the web or a critics top horror list and most likely you’re going to see The Exorcist, Alien, and Jaws. i think these movies are pertinent to this discussion because they’re examples of directors being attracted to projects because the stories where interesting, not because Friedkin, Scott or Spielberg sat down and said “well i think i’m gonna do horror movies.”

i don’t mean to infer that Romero or Craven ever had a definitive moment where they decided to exclusively make horror films but let’s face it – that’s essentially what they’ve done with their careers. take a look at another creative medium: painting. Pablo Picasso is heralded by many as the greatest artist of the 20th century largely because he found ways to reinvent himself over and over. the same goes for musicians like David Bowie or Bob Dylan, and in the film industry directors like the Coen Brothers who have a signature style but leap from genre to genre and put their own stamp on it.

i guess my point is it’s the story that matters. Craven and Romero in particular have cannibalized their own ideas and picked them apart until it’s gotten stale as opposed to finding a point of satisfaction with their genre or subgenres and then branching out to explore new ideas.

i saw Scream 4 and i felt it was fairly clever but it only went so far in deconstructing itself and modern horror movies in general. there were moments when it took digs at itself or was being obviously self referential but for no real purpose, a la every lame Kevin Smith movie since Mallrats (with the exception of maybe Red State).

as for Romero i really liked Land of the Dead but Diary and Survival were both total shit.

 

from a fistful of cult
The Connoisseur brings up some good points in regard to the lack of a vetting out process with older directors who have already made a name for themselves. In conjunction to this, I wonder how much added stress it puts on an older director in the genre if he’s doing double duty as both the director AND screenwriter? Think of it – you’re studying the dailies one minute, the next you’re arguing with your DOP over what kind of lighting you want during a particular moment of the film, and the next minute you’re coaching that difficult young actor whose only prior experience was in a Levi Jeans commercial. On top of all that, you’re expected to come out with a stellar script too? A story that will both horrify and simultaneously delight your tough to please fans? No wonder Sam Raimi had his brother Ivan pen most of the Drag Me to Hell screenplay.

You can do this sort of thing when you’re a young man and you have vim and energy and coffee to get you through the day. When you get to the age where the thing you look forward to most is your afternoon nap (which is where I’m rapidly getting to), then it’s probably going to be a lot tougher for you.

Let’s use poor old Wes Craven as an example again. Both writer and director of The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street – all highly acclaimed flicks from earlier in his career. The Wes Craven of today writes and directs something like My Soul to Take and it’s nowhere near as good as the output in his heyday. The critics took a dump on it and even many of his diehard fans had a pretty lukewarm reaction to the film.

However, if you free the man up from doing the screenplay, he can still show audiences why he’s considered one of the luminaries of the genre by focusing solely on putting his style and brio into the film. Somebody mentioned Red Eye earlier. That’s a perfect example. It’s a popcorn thriller for sure, but it’s still one heck of an entertaining flick, and it has all the right scares in all the right places for me.

Then again, somebody who really hates the Scream series could probably quite easily refute this. I do find it interesting that Wes didn’t do the screenplay for any of the Scream movies, but I reckon he already wrote them all in 1994 with New Nightmare.

 

from direct to video connoisseur
And to further that point about managing a crew, usually when a director starts out, he or she starts out with crew members, especially a DP, that have been with that person for a while, and are people that person trusts. Then, when the director gets big, those crew members get big too, and usually move onto greener pastures. Now you have a situation where a director is working with, say, a new DP, and either this person doesn’t get the director and the two butt heads, or maybe this DP is trying to make a name for him or herself, and working with someone like a Wes Craven is a big feather in their cap, so they don’t make waves or interject their opinion too much. Now it becomes less of a collaborative effort, and more of one person driving something without knowing he or she is driving it in the wrong direction. All the while, a young group of film makers led by an ambitious and creative director are out there making something as a unit, and it looks fresh and exciting, said director is the new toast of the town, and then the cycle repeats.

 

from exploding helicopter:
I don’t agree with this last point.

There are just as many examples of directors establishing relationships with people in key creative roles during their careers, and who then work on project after project with a director.

I’d agree though that these relationships must free up the director to concentrate on actors, script, set design, staging or wherever they need or want to put their energies.

 

from direct to video connoisseur:
Right, but if there are “just as many examples”, it means there are just as many examples of it working in the other direction, and that that is another reason why younger directors might seem to have an edge, when they really don’t. I wasn’t saying that every time a director makes it big, he or she loses their crew, but it does happen, and while it can be a good thing, it can also contribute to a movie being a dud, which then leads us as an audience to think the director has lost it.

The point could be made in the other direction too though, saying that a director gets too used to the same DP or something, and after a few pictures they’ve become too comfortable, and maybe need to part to bring in new blood, but don’t, so the quality dips. There are just so many reasons why a director’s career falters.

 

from the video vacuum:
Also, a lot of these guys from Craven to Romero to Cronenberg to Carpenter started out as independent filmmakers whose films often dealt with young men’s ideals, namely revolution. Craven dealt with the revolt of youth against their parent’s ideals (Last House on the Left), Romero had zombies disrupting the status quo (Night of the Living Dead), Cronenberg focused on the body revolting against itself (It Came from Within), and Carpenter used nameless punks going against The Establishment (Assault on Precinct 13). As these filmmakers grew older, their subject matter matured with them. Craven did that Kids With Violins flick, Romero did Land of the Dead (which I thought was a thoughtful take on the zombie menace), Cronenberg’s Viggo Trilogy, etc. When said filmmakers try to second guess their films or give the audience “what they want”, they usually stumble… badly. See Scream 4, Diary of the Dead, The Ward.

 

from joey:
one thing i forgot to bring up that may not be directly related to this discussion but it’s worth thinking about for the future is Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien… prequel? the original Alien film is a masterpiece. Scott has shown that he can pump out mediocre cash-grab type films with the best (or worst) of them, but if that’s what he was doing why would he title the film Prometheus and not include “Alien” in the title at all? i suppose that could change but so far it’s been promoted as Prometheus. it seems as if he feels this story is interesting enough to stand on it’s own and it’s been a while since his last sci-fi film. just something to be on the lookout for.

 

from saturday night screening:
i guess one key point i should make is that it’s kind of selfish in the first place for me to pick this topic. i have never felt such relief of a theme ending. i would have love to do more die hard ripoffs and video game movies but i’m very happy that i don’t have to watch any more horror movies anymore.

and i don’t think i agree that it’s the same case in other genre. sure, there are likely bad action movies or comedies from once great directors, but i’m more willing to give these a chance than a horror movie by the names mentioned. for one, i’m pretty excited about the walter hill/stallone movie coming out next year, as opposed to say, scream 5. speaking of which, romero’s next movie is apparently remaking argento’s deep red, in 3D.

another thing i forgot to mention is that in addition to the works themselves, horror, like action or comedy, seems to be looked down upon (even more so) in the industry. quite a few of you mentioned raimi and cronenberg, who seem to have to go out of the horror genre to be accepted. raimi got the script for drag me to hell after army of darkness, but the film wasn’t made until after his spiderman trilogy. as mitch said, cronenberg’s last somewhat horror movie farewell was existenz from 99. there is almost a sense of “guilty until proven innocent” when it comes to acknowledging horror directors, where they have to prove that they can make great movies outside the horror genre before being accepted.

i’m not familiar with the works of fulci, dario argento (though i love his daughter), james whale, or Terence Fisher, anyone else want to comment on them?

the connoisseur’s vetting out theory may be true in the old days of the studio system but i don’t think it’s necessarily true anymore, with so many more film festivals and media outlets to get your work out. how else do you explain things like the blair witch project or paranormal activity. and at the same time, filmmakers like soderbergh or spielberg, and other non horror specific filmmakers, certainly use the bigger names and bigger budget to adapt into more interesting works. i may be in the minority here but funny that you mentioned scorsese, who i don’t think has made a very scorsese movie since bringing out the dead, again, from 1999.

maybe the difference is doing variations on the same formula you’re familiar with or changing with time and society and adapting said formula to different stages in your life.

and joey, as much as i like earthling, i don’t think anyone will put it up there along with ziggy stardust. and isn’t army of darkness pretty much sam raimi’s scream, picking apart his own earlier works?

i’ll end on mitch’s point which i think is universal, in any art form: the young ideals. a major factor in what they call the sophomore slump. there’s the saying that you have 20 or so years of life experience to create your first major work. and when the second piece of work is due, there’s may a few years of life experience to utilized, if that. which results in remakes and adaptations and cultural references instead of the own life experiences in their debut. some adapts, some survives, but most simply reiterate.

p.s. this turns out way longer than i thought. next month i’ll pick a narrower topic or just do a simpler q&a.

 


Responses

  1. I like this, and wish you’d gone on longer with maybe some more interaction.

    I think the issue comes from more that Craven, Carpenter, and Romero never really moved out of the horror genre, whereas Cronenburg, Raimi, etc. did.

    Horror films, like action movies, go through cycles, from slasher to postmodern slasher to torture porn to J-horror to whatever, and I think the issue isn’t that the directors stay in too long, it’s just their styles stay in passed what’s expected of their films; they’re not totally inflexible, but they can’t predict the next trend any better than those of us in the theater can.

    Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is a good example where he’d taken a decade and a half between horror films and released something with his trademark goofiness that flopped horribly. Those of us who appreciate the goofiness can cherish it, but that film’s sell by date was gone before it was released.

    All in all, I respect Carpenter etc for staying in horror and doing what they love. Craven had the Scream series to redeem him, and Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” for the Masters of Horror series is one of the creepiest things put to film. Romero’s an old guy who gets to do what he wants now, too; there are worse fates than being the guy who defined the zombie picture, even if it is irrelevancy.

    • maybe it’s my aversion to the genre but i’ve always think of carpenter in terms of big trouble in little china, they live, and escape from new york, none of which are horror.

      drag me to hell wasn’t exactly a flop but i am curious what you meant by its sell by date.

      one thing that kind of bothers me about romero is that zombie movies are still being made and good ones even, but for a pioneer of the genre, it kind of makes me feel bad for him that his last two feel more like the work of a director for hire. kind of like a new rolling stones or the who album.

  2. i like it too. i think i’d like to see a topic go on longer but with each person’s response posted separately and the opportunity to post responses to them. i’m not sure if that’s feasible but i think it would make the thing more interactive. plus everyone could make their own individual point without having to address another person’s comment in their own “opening statement.”

  3. i tried to make it more interactive and wished that it had gone on longer but i waited and there weren’t any more responses. i figured the conversation ended on its own natural momentum since i didn’t get any more emails. plus, there needs to be a time frame and there’s also the comment section here for additional thoughts.

    but this is the first one so hopefully in the future it’ll run more smoothly with various different topics.

    one thing i would do next time is to have each entry has its own page instead of everything in one post.

    i understand the desire to have each response posted separately and that’s something i’ll do next time. as far as the opportunity to post main entries and responses separately, the comment section is tailor made for that.

  4. I think this worked well, especially for a first go round. The thing with a virtual roundtable discussion is people need the time to craft their responses, especially with all of us having our names and our blogs attached to it, we want to make sure what we say is well thought out. Also, I know for myself I wanted to take a step back and let more comments roll in after i said mine, read what other people say and then try to add more input. It’s harder in a system like this, though, unlike a real roundtable, because we don’t have that instant back-and-forth. I don’t know though that there is a better way to do it than the way you did, we’ll see what happens on the next one. I definitely think the time frame you used was a good one though, any longer and it might have gotten stale.

  5. excellent choice with the Nighthawks painting by the way.

  6. yeah the time frame is definitely an issue. i knew i wanted to wait until after the first wave of responses came in before i reply but they came in such a succession that unless i’m up 24 hours a day it would be difficult for me to respond. i don’t know how other sites do it, other than posing a simpler question and do it as a simple q&a.

    and i kind of did it in one night, so i don’t know if the picture and blog link was the right thing to do, please let me know if you want a different picture or a picture at all or a link to your blog. i did it mostly so there would be a bigger separator in between.

    the nighthawks was the image that came to mind. i was also hoping for a variation of the reservoir dogs, ocean’s 11 or expendables type team as an image. but i couldn’t find an image that fits. the perfect image i had in mind would be a more crowded/interactive nighthawks but i couldn’t find one. if any of you are good at doing picture editing, feel free to let me know.

    for me, the nighthawks kind of capture the feeling of a late night (for me anyway, i know most of you responded in the middle of the day or when you wake up) chat about movies amongst friends, or people you may not know that well but just happen to be together at the right place at the right time. which is always the most interesting part of a screening to me.


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