What Shakespeare Means To Me

Four hundred years ago tomorrow Shakespeare took his last breath in Stratford.  He took with him all of the great mysteries of his life which four hundred years of biographical scholarship can still only speculate on.  What was his relationship with his wife?  What was his relationship with the church?  Did his sonnets point to tempestuous love affairs in London, or were they strictly imaginative and allegorical?  When he died did he realize just how influential and universal his writing would come to be? 

Everything biographical with Shakespeare is elusive.  But when we read him we feel that we know him as well as any modern author.  He is Will and we know Will because he has told us so much about ourselves.  It was only fitting that when Prince died one of the most moving tributes was Shakespeare Twitter posting simply, “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” 

Like most people I knew nothing about Shakespeare until high school.  I knew that my mom taught him, and he loomed large in our household.  But he was a foreign language.  I first read him in Mrs. Sautter’s class freshman year.  As I remember we listened to a BBC production as we read the text of Romeo and Juliet.  Judi Dench was the voice of Juliet, and I remember the dudes joking at how James Bond’s boss was playing a teenage girl.  But Romeo and Juliet was my first real exposure to Shakespeare and the moment when I first saw what was great about him.  On the surface, teenage dudes resent the play because we’re conditioned to see romance as sappy.  But it’s just as much a gangster play and we relate to it in that way.  It’s about the tribes in your society at war and how you are forced into a fight which existed before you were born, over which you never had a say.  Mrs. Sautter showed us the Zeffirelli version and the Leonardo DiCaprio version.  Aesthetically I prefer the Zeffirelli version.  But DiCaprio’s has its strengths too, especially in how creatively it transfers the gangster violence into a modern setting. 

I read Shakespeare with Mrs. Canuette, Mrs. Grady, and Dr. Rigsbee in a class at Mt. Olive my senior year.  Through such exposure to his writing I became a literary nerd and he became more than a school assignment for me.  As I jumped into literature for its own sake I recognized that Shakespeare was the master through which it all flows.

I confess I have never read all of Shakespeare’s plays and am in awe of those who have.  Certain plays reach out to you as an individual and demand your attention in ways that others don’t.  The plays which meant the most to me at 17 still do:  The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV Part One.  In Merchant there’s this intoxicating sense of melancholy combined with good humor and stoicism.  Antonio’s opening, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” sets the mood for the whole play, which is really about happiness and tragedy being intermixed.  Much Ado is a happier play and probably the funniest play ever written.  It’s a romance but it’s just as much about friendship.  I think often of the scene where Don Pedro asks Beatrice, part serious, part jesting, “Will you have me, lady?” and she gently responds, “No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day.”  Amidst all of the dignified pathos in that exchange it’s also a touching example of how genuine friends talk to one another.  

Henry IV matters for me and all other fans because it has Falstaff.  There is nothing else like him in all of literature.  He is an appetite, a villain, a hero, a romantic, a sexist boor, a principled glutton all rolled into one giant package.  How can you not love him?  And Orson Welles gave the definitive interoperation of his character in Chimes at Midnight.  Welles, lover of sex and food, exile of Hollywood for offending its commercial backers, could relate to Falstaff on a deeply personal level.  Memorably, when Barack Obama distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright, Andrew Sullivan posted the scene in which Prince Hal disowns Falstaff.  Shakespeare dramatized so many situations which echo in the daily lives of both the powerful and the obscure. 

I love the great tragedies of course, if not on the same level as the three plays above.  Hamlet is about life’s basic struggle: the anxiety over how to fight tragedy when it is thrown at us.  I love Mel Gibson’s Hamlet because you can see how Gibson channeled all of his own inner rage and confusion into the character.  Othello is about jealousy and madness, while also foreshadowing the tragic struggle of the nonwhite male to navigate a West which views him with suspicion and hostility.  King Lear is about the inevitable loss of power that comes with growing older.  And Macbeth is my favorite of the tragedies because it is most like a horror film. 

And of course there are the sonnets.  What can one even say about them to do them justice?  They reflect our deepest feelings back to us in gorgeous language.  Who has not felt “in disgrace with fortune” at some time or another?  In the “my mistress’ eyes are raven black” sonnet and the “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” sonnet Shakespeare captured the two sides of romantic love.  There’s the dark enchantment and fascination on the one hand, and the comfortable humor and detachment on the other.

You can find a Shakespeare quote to line up with most anything in life.  The question has always been, what were his own beliefs and feelings?  I think Shakespeare put a part of himself into all of his characters.  But I think the one who probably meant the most to him was Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.  It is easy to imagine “a plague on both your houses!” as Shakespeare’s own cry at the Protestant/Catholic divide which tore both his country and Europe apart for his lifetime.  Mercutio stands within the action of the play and is martyr to it; but also stands at a certain distance.  He is his own individual.  When I picture Shakespeare, I picture a good-natured writer enjoying a pint at the bar who, after growing comfortable with you, might turn and speak to you in this way, as he spoke to all the world:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone

On the fore-finger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomies

Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;

Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,

The traces of the smallest spider’s web,

The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,

Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,

Not so big as a round little worm

Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;

O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,

O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,

O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,

Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,

Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:

Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,

And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;

And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail

Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,

Then dreams, he of another benefice:

Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,

And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,

Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,

Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon

Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,

And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

And sleeps again. This is that very Mab

That plats the manes of horses in the night,

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

That presses them and learns them first to bear,

Making them women of good carriage.


Will John Bel Edwards Change Southern Politics?

For a variety of reasons, the idea of the moderate Southern Democrat has become an anachronism.  The separation of Democrats and the South that began in the late 1960’s seems to have finally become an amicable divorce.  This might seem like the natural way of things.  But Louisiana gives us reason to believe it will not be the case indefinitely.      

Most pundits would chalk up the election of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to a lucky set of circumstances.  David Vitter had a sex scandal that he just couldn’t overcome.  Edwards’ pro-life and pro-gun stances created the only scenario for a Democratic red state upset in the Obama era.  But Edwards wasn’t just lucky and sex wasn’t the only issue.   Louisiana turned hard on Bobby Jindal’s trickle-down economics and Vitter suffered from guilt by association.  Rod Dreher observed of Edwards’ victory, “after eight years of Jindal, and with the state in such bad fiscal shape, people were open to change — even if that meant voting Democratic.”

Bobby Jindal’s fiscal malpractice all but turned Louisiana into the Greece of the United States.  Louisiana might be a conservative state, but Jindal has forced a number of people to reconsider their beliefs about the role and place of government.  Edwards seized this opening to put together perhaps the most awkward but remarkable winning electoral coalition in modern US politics.  He held his liberal base and ran up turnout among white progressives and African Americans in blue areas like New Orleans.  But he added to them just enough white moderate and conservative voters alienated by Jindal’s economics and ready to try something different.

As Governor, Edwards has had to confront what Jindal’s policies wrought.  His focus will be on keeping the economy from total implosion while maintaining basic social services.  This will necessitate an unpleasant mixture of tax increases and budget cuts that will please neither Republicans nor Democrats.  But it’s what has to be done.  And if Edwards succeeds in righting Louisiana’s fiscal ship it will send a clear message to Louisiana voters that their economy is in good and safe hands with a Democrat at the helm.   A successful Edwards Administration could turn Democrats from a party in regional retreat to a viable governing party in one of the most conservative states in the country. 

And Edwards has already given the progressive parts of his coalition tangible reasons to be glad they voted for him.  He opted in on Obamacare and reversed a Jindal order which denied SNAP access to thousands of low income residents in the state.  He is pushing the GOP legislature hard for a minimum wage increase and equal pay protection for women.  He is rescinding an anti-LGBT executive order by Jindal, and will pursue expanding non discrimination protections to LGBT government workers.  To be sure a bold set of progressive stances for a Deep South politician.

Even if Edwards is an anomaly, the circumstances in Louisiana are a sign that even Southern Republicans will have to reorient themselves.  Trickle-down policies just aren’t working for the region and will likely become less and less of a selling point to blue collar voters hungry for a government that will respond to their economic needs.  The economic aspects of Trump’s demagoguery speak to a hunger for economic populism among blue collar conservatives.  This part of the conservative coalition has learned that corporate tax cuts aren’t in themselves a magic wand that will lead to their economic prosperity.  Even if Louisiana’s next Governor is a Republican, they’ll talk and govern on economic matters more like John Bel Edwards and less like Bobby Jindal.    

Pundits shouldn’t underestimate what Edwards achieved in putting together his unique voting coalition.  African American, Hispanic, and urban liberal voters are a growing block in the South.  It doesn’t take many white moderates to create a governing majority, and Democrats in neighboring Southern states will look to Edwards’ campaign as a blueprint for victory.  Southern progressives longing for a change agent for their region like Pope Francis or Justin Trudeau might well have found one in John Bel Edwards.


Adventures In Forgotten Movies: The Seventh Sign (1988)

Sometimes I enjoy going to Wikipedia and scrolling through lists of movies released in past decades to see which have been almost completely forgotten.  Auden famously wrote of books, “some are unjustly forgotten, none are unjustly remembered.”  The same applies to movies.  Most films which are forgotten are forgotten for a reason.  They weren’t very original.  They just didn’t work on a number of levels.  But this doesn’t mean that some of them don’t retain something of interest. 

A forgotten movie that caught my eye in the 1988 list was The Seventh Sign starring Demi Moore.  It’s in the same genre of horror as Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen and probably didn’t make much of an impact because those themes had already been done.  Generally speaking, horror went in three different directions in the twentieth century.  There was the Lovecraftian direction of cosmic horror, in which humans are helpless against malevolent forces which exist in the universe.  There was the Psycho and Friday The 13th slasher direction, in which protagonists are victims of deranged, weapon-wielding psychopaths.  And there was the apocalyptic-religious direction of The Exorcist and The Omen.

The Seventh Sign is obviously the apocalyptic-religious direction.  In a typically on point review Roger Ebert admitted, “I am not even sure I completely understood all of the details.”  Basically Demi Moore plays a pregnant woman whose pregnancy seems to ominously fit in with portentous events happening around the world that mimic the apocalyptic signs discussed in Revelation.  It’s a concept that had been done before and more effectively. 

But the film has several elements that make it interesting even if, as Ebert said, it’s rather confusing.  The portentous events, like dead fish washing ashore in Haiti, all happen in parts of the developing world.  You can’t help but link this kind of storytelling with a subconscious Western anxiety about the effects of resource imperialism.  Why, in a West that has moved away from strict Biblical adherence, should the book of Revelation continue to hold such fascination?  Why has there been such a market for movies that speculate on a divine judgement and wrath which the “enlightened” West had supposedly evolved beyond? 

The “signs” are all overseen by a mysterious figure played by Jürgen Prochnow, who moves into the garage Moore and her husband are renting out.  I guess he is supposed to be Jesus, as the connection is made explicit in a flashback.  But he comes across more as a creepy cult member, not a messiah.  A priest played by Peter Friedman wanders around investigating these events as a representative of the Church.  The interesting storytelling device here is that the role of the Wandering Jew has been transferred to a Catholic priest, who in turn is associated with a first century Roman mocker of Christ.  A young Jewish man played by Manny Jacobs helps Moore’s character translate a key Hebrew manuscript.  At the end of the film the kid is told, “write down what you have seen,” thus presenting him as a kind of 20th century Matthew.  Whatever the film was trying to say, it certainly went to pains to undercut anti-Semitic traditions.

The music is quite enjoyable.  A throaty and eerie chant often intersperses with fun eighties beats.  The ending is a disappointment in that it seems both awfully contrived and makes little sense.  At one point Jacobs’ character seeks advice from a priest played by John Heard(best known as Kevin’s Dad from Home Alone).  Heard gives him the good mainstream Christian answer that the Revelation stories are symbolic and not to be taken literally.  That’s good theology in the real world, but isn’t helpful in a horror film where apocalyptic forces are all too real and imminent.  Sometimes people find God’s wrath easier to believe in than God’s grace.  Given the events of the 20th century, that’s an understandable feeling.  No wonder so many films reflect it.


The Force Awakens And The Challenge Of The Post-Epic (Spoilers)

The basic challenge in making a film like The Force Awakens is this: how do you continue a story after the epic has happened?  At the end of ROTJ, evil has been defeated, the Republic is victorious, good is triumphant.  The original trilogy followed a perfect story arc to its satisfying conclusion.  And yet, people must have more stories, and people must have more Star Wars films. 

I thought The Force Awakens was an exceptionally good film.   Ta-Nehisi Coates was right that the low bar set by the prequels made for a critical environment favorable to the new film.  But the filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for making a good film when hopes and expectations couldn’t possibly have been higher.  The Force Awakens isn’t a great film because it is too similar to what came before it.  But that limitation is part of the challenge in making a post-epic, and the film soars because it manages to be what the prequels were not:  well-written, well-acted, and interesting. 

Consider the character of Kylo Ren.  When he first appears, he seems almost a carbon copy of Darth Vader.  Yet his voice and demeanor are riveting; and he conveys the epic sense of a villain.  His emo nature was an interesting direction for a villain, and his struggle to transcend Vader’s legacy mirrors the very struggle of his film.

The film stumbles in having a weapon so similar to the Death Star as its main set piece.  And yet the First Order are highly believable, as are the struggles of the Republic to hold together 30 years after their great victory.  Kylo’s decision to embrace evil speaks to the mystery of evil itself.  The Emperor has been defeated.  Goodness triumphed.  Why would someone who should be better choose evil?  It’s the same mystery that leads a young man in Charleston to murder innocent people in a church.  The climactic scene with Kylo and Han is sickening and powerful.  The essence of evil is always the desire to hurt others and gain power.  The world of The Force Awakens is much like our own.  Instead of hurtling inevitably towards progress and utopia, it’s a world where evil still has a persistent foothold. 

And yet, goodness exists as well, and it’s ultimately goodness which is the root of hope in a fallen world.  Finn is the reverse image of Kylo.  He is called away from evil to goodness.  Note that Kylo feels the same goodness calling to him, but chooses to repress it.  Finn chooses to embrace it.  Why one man chooses to follow goodness and another chooses evil is a mystery as old as time itself; it’s the basis of all drama and conflict. 

Rey is the anchor of the film and its great creation.  Where she and Finn go will determine how good this series can be.  As with the original trilogy, we want to see good triumphant and evil defeated, but we want to see the necessary amount of drama in getting there.  If the next two films are as interesting as Force Awakens, they will have admirably served their purpose.  If Rey and Finn can take the series in new and unexpected directions, then we will have something truly special on our hands.  The world needs epic stories.  The conclusion of every great story is an open challenge to create new ones.


On Staring Into Lope de Vega

Here is empire and cheerful resignation

Unroll the lines and they would stretch past the stars

I feel the dry sun and cool breeze

I listen to the afternoon laughter and songs of the mujeres

I see the angry thrust of a lover’s sword cut the moon

This world has not vanished, but mutated

It aches inside the speckled books that shut it up

In climate controlled rooms

There are lost universes in Lope

So full of life but distant

Like the stories of ancestors that are no longer told

Their ghostly whispers float around and haunt us

In Spain, Mexico, Peru, Columbia…

There are Lope’s words glittering in the morning dew


America’s Uncomfortable Kindred

Octavia Butler’s Kindred has to at least be in the running for greatest novel ever written about US slavery.  Butler writes through a minefield of difficult subject matter and pulls off a riveting narrative with style and grace.  The novel’s core is suggested in the title.  It’s the idea that American slavery created a system that inextricably linked whites and blacks in the US; an intimate blood relationship existing beneath a terrible legacy of societal injustice.  Butler documents unflinchingly the brutalities and evils of the slave system.  And, without apologizing in the slightest for these evils, she shows the perpetrators as flesh and blood human beings.

Because time travel is inherently supernatural, Kindred is a work of supernatural fiction.  It’s one of those books that demolishes the idea that a work of “serious” fiction must eschew supernatural elements, or vice versa.  In fact Kindred is a blending of the speculative, fantastic, and realist traditions of American lit.  Butler was one of the early authors who realized that writers need not choose between arbitrary categories of what fiction has to be.  And it is only now that the literary community is beginning to catch up with her. 

It was a deft touch for Butler to situate her antebellum plantation in Maryland.  It’s a border state whose strong ties to the institution of slavery tends to be forgotten.  To set the action in Maryland rather than say, Georgia, reinforces the truth that slavery was ultimately a national problem for the US rather than merely a regional one.   Slavery was instrumental to the development of the US.  It shouldn’t have been, but it was.  In the plantation master Tom Weylin you see clearly how it was Europe’s rejects who made up the bulk of white America in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (“When Europe sends its people, they’re not sending their best.  They’re sending people that have lots of problems, their criminals, their rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”) 

Weylin is an uneducated, hardscrabble man who has used slavery to move into what constituted the upper middle class at the time.  From Thomas Jefferson’s condemnations of slavery we have inherited the idea that American slavery was a tragic accident inflicted upon the US by King George and British elites.  In fact, side by side with the cotton gin, the reason for slavery’s explosion in the US from 1800 to 1850 was the opportunity it offered to poor white farmers to raise their social and financial standing.  Perhaps the most extreme but true historical example of this was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Steve Jobs of American slavery.  Born into a poor white family in Tennessee, the slave trade became Forrest’s entrepreneurial path out of poverty.  By the time of the Civil War he was one of the richest men in the country. 

Butler’s time traveling protagonist Dana offers a particular challenge to Tom Weylin.  It’s an uncomfortable paradox for a white man in his time and place to encounter a black woman better educated and more knowledgeable than himself.  The entire concept of race-based slavery was the idea that blacks were naturally inferior to whites.  Men like Tom Weylin saw their status as naturally won and earned; blessed by nature and nature’s God.  Tom Weylin feels highly threatened by Dana’s very presence and demeanor.  He clearly doesn’t like her and would hardly tolerate her around if not for his realization that she is saving his son’s life, and his general fear at the supernatural circumstances of her time travel.  He shows little hesitation in brutalizing her, and Butler’s description of Dana’s whipping is a visceral reminder to modern audiences of what slavery involved.  Yet through it all we are forced to remember that Dana is Weylin’s great great great great granddaughter. 

But, of course, it’s the relationship between Rufus and Dana that anchors the book.  Rufus is an extraordinary creation; an uncomfortable heap of contradictions and desires.  When he is a child, Dana essentially supplants his mother in his estimation.  His constant need for her grows both more poignant and more pathetic as he grows older.  As Rufus adopts more and more of the attitudes and characteristics of his father, Butler shows how thoroughly the institution of slavery corrupted the morality of the white men born into it.  Butler does something radical in her portrayal of the relationship between Rufus and the enslaved Alice.  It’s clear that Rufus harbors a deep, romantic longing for Alice.  It’s a longing that Alice most clearly doesn’t feel for him.  This destroys him internally, and he has an evil institution behind him to inflict his will on her, though Butler shows how pathetic and unsatisfied he remains. 

Dana’s journey is deeply moving on a number of levels.  There are clear feminist elements in the text, as well as wrestling with black American female identity.  As a white male, what both interested and haunted me is Butler’s illustration of the unbreakable ties between the races.  It’s no neat and happy family.  The ties were initiated under a system of brutality and subjugation.  And yet the book shows how the intimacy between slave masters and their slaves ultimately sowed the seeds for white supremacy’s destruction.  Because it was the norm rather than the exception for slave masters to force themselves sexually on female slaves, the bloodlines of white and black Americans are deeply mixed with one another.  There are numerous African Americans who have traces of European ancestry.  Because of the phenomenon of “passing” in the 19th century, there are numerous American whites with traces of African ancestry.  These ties undermine any notion or belief of racial supremacy.  It is difficult to imagine the absurdity of white fathers who believed themselves inherently superior and more deserving of rights than their own children.  And yet that is the legacy that slavery gave us.  Kindred is documentary testament to the awful things in the past, and echoes Baldwin in suggesting that we as Americans must face the truth of our history together or perish together.  In Kindred we see that truth that plays itself out time and again over human history:  a house divided against itself cannot stand.


My Top 12 Horror Films

This is a totally subjective list of what I think are the 12 greatest horror films:

12) Pumpkinhead -My favorite of the teen slasher genre. The real selling points here are Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley and Florence Schauffer as Haggis, the old witch. Haggis is quite simply the greatest and scariest “old hag” in any horror film. The Appalachian setting is great. And the dynamic between the hipster kids and the locals is well done. The film does a great job balancing our disdain at the teenager’s elitism with our growing sympathy for them as one by one they start to get knocked off. The monster is really cool, but Haggis is where the show is and the ultimate reason for watching. Once you’ve seen her you never forget her. Especially if, like me, you saw this on late night cable as a kid.

11) Exorcist II: The Heretic – “This movie sucks.” That’s the near universal opinion. But perhaps owing to my own eccentricities I see a beautiful, thought-provoking horror film where others see suck. And that Morricone score though! The director, John Boorman, was uncomfortable with the first Exorcist for the same reason I am: it’s too focused on the torture of a young girl. In this film he takes a different approach. The Catholic existential struggle with evil is still there. But this time it is less visceral, more philosophical. And this film portrays the attempt of goodness to wrestle with evil much more powerfully than the first film, which descended into simplistic fundamentalism and nihilism. That isn’t to say that Exorcist II isn’t eerie. The scenes in Ethiopia are especially evocative and well done. The film builds powerfully on the theology of Teilhard De Chardin. It dramatizes the collective nature of good and evil in human societies. And by bringing in Ethiopia it gives these themes a global perspective. Martin Scorsese, one of the only people besides me who likes the film, says, “The picture asks: Does great goodness bring upon itself great evil? This goes back to the Book of Job; it’s God testing the good…I like the first Exorcist, because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but The Heretic surpasses it.” The film’s complex appreciation of faith and doubt, good and evil, is most evident in the scene where James Earl Jones asks Father Lamont to prove his faith in Christ by stepping on a bed of nails. Lamont does so but falls, not into hell, but into the mysteries of nature and life, good and evil. I will grant that the ending of the film is a total mess, but the power of that scene alone warrants its inclusion in my list.

10) Batman Returns -This isn’t labeled a horror film, but it should be. The best description of it I ever read compared it to a child’s nightmare. Everything in it is cute, distorted, and a little disturbing in some fantastic way. Every scene has an atmosphere of wintry gloom and gothic nightmare. De Vito and Pfeiffer are fittingly tragic and grotesque in their roles. And that amazing scene where Catwoman keeps getting shot and getting back up – Needless to say this might not be a good children’s movie, but it’s a great horror movie.

9) Salem’s Lot -Originally a TV miniseries, but it works best when viewed as a 3 hour film. This is one of the best dramatic adaptations of a horror novel ever. It preserves most of the characterization and plot of the book while shifting a couple of things around to make it flow better. The strength of Stephen King is his ability to throw real characters into horrific situations. Salem’s Lot is the original attempt to portray a small American town grappling with vampirism, and it’s still the best. David Soul is great as novelist and protagonist Ben Mears. So is Bonnie Bedelia as Susan Norton, the art teacher he falls for. Their romance is touching and believable and provides the necessary backdrop for the arrival of the bloodsuckers. The supporting cast is great as well; especially Lew Ayres as aging English Teacher Jason Burke. Throughout the film we feel that these are real people reacting to these things as would the people down the street from us. A couple of scenes stand out for their raw power: The scene in which Ralphie Glick floats through the air and scratches on the window demanding to be let in(which inspired the film “Let The Right One In”). And the scene where Father Callahan barters with the vampire Barlow for the life of his young parishioner Mark Petrie. I doubt that was in the job description when the Father took Holy Orders.

8) The Pit And The Pendulum -This is my favorite of Roger Corman’s 1960’s Poe adaptations, all of which are quite good. A Poe story presents a particular challenge for a filmmaker. While they work brilliantly as stories, they often involve a single narrator and lack the kind of broad canvas of characters and events which a film requires. And the most important things in a Poe story are usually the horror set pieces. Screenwriter Richard Matheson did a really inventive job of imagining a broad character-driven story behind the Pendulum set piece. So our protagonist becomes an Englishman searching a castle in Spain for the truth about his sister’s mysterious death. The shadow of the Inquisition is everywhere. Some have complained about Poe’s use of the Pendulum by saying it didn’t portray the Inquisition realistically. In fact these gothic devices are a way of processing through fiction the very real horrors and legacy of the Inquisition, which still casts its shadow across Western culture. Vincent Price is the brother-in-law whom we can guess from the beginning is into some pretty twisted sh#t. Price’s voice is the key to his creepiness. He always sounds so refined, delicate, and genteel. When he inevitably turns into something perverse the effect is intensified because of the gentility. The Pit And The Pendulum is a textbook case of how to build a gothic castle story around the idea of shocking revelation. Stephen King cites seeing the film as a kid as a major reason he wanted to write horror. It’s hard to think of a greater testimonial to pay to it than that.

7) The Omen -Atticus Finch vs. The Antichrist was a pretty ambitious concept. Thankfully this had the literary script and high production values to deliver. The real power of this movie is it can frighten you even if you don’t believe in the apocalyptic theology. Of special note in the supporting cast are David Warner as the photographer who slowly uncovers the truth about Damien, Billie Whitelaw as Damien’s creepy nurse, and Leo McKern as Bugenhagen, the Israeli sage who prophesies against Damien’s evil. Some interpret this film as a story of a father going crazy from ridiculous suggestions about his son. But where’s the fun in that? Of special note, this film has the single greatest decapitation scene ever.

6) Nosferatu -I love the 1920’s version too, but Herzog’s remake is just extraordinary. Has there ever been a more beautifully shot horror film? It’s also terrifying; I genuinely don’t suggest watching it alone. Herzog shot it in German and English. I prefer the German because it adds to the strangeness and authenticity. But both versions are interesting. I also can’t resist saying Isabelle Adjani is the most gorgeous actress ever to appear in a horror film.

5) Candyman -THE great film masterpiece of urban horror. Directed by Bernard Rose from a story by Clive Barker, it’s a slasher movie with a social depth and literary sensibility unusual to the genre. Set in Chicago during the time when a young Barack Obama would have been working as a community organizer, it shows the bleakness of poverty and urban decay. It uses a horrific story to subtly address many of the taboos in US history around white and black relations. The curiosity and impending doom of the protagonist strikes me as a metaphor for the inadequate white response to issues such as the poverty of urban Chicago. This also has a score by the avant-garde composer Philip Glass. I once won a bet against a friend who insisted that Philip Glass would never write music for a horror movie. In fact, Glass recognized the genius of this film, which still holds up as among the most powerful examples of the genre.

4) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – This 1931 version was one of the first movies with sound and hugely influential on subsequent film history, including and far beyond the horror genre. Fredric March actually won the Oscar for Best Actor, which I believe is the only case of a horror film receiving such an honor. This story is now so ingrained in our culture that we forget how original it was. We all recognize it because it tells a basic psychological truth about the human condition. We all have a Mr. Hyde to some degree, but thankfully most of us restrain it a little better than Jekyll. In Stevenson’s novel Hyde is clearly a murderer, but the sexual and misogynistic aspects of his predations are only hinted at, owing to the censorship laws of the time. The 1931 film was made right before Hollywood enacted its own strict censorship codes, thus allowing the filmmakers to address sexual themes more clearly than in Stevenson’s novel. It’s not just a great horror film, but one of the great film treatments of the human conscience at war with itself.

3) The Shining -I love this movie, but I distance myself from those who believe that Kubrick transformed King’s novel into a greater work of art. That simply isn’t true, and I credit my mom’s colleague Dr. Linda Holland Toll for helping me to see that. What happened is that Kubrick and King have fundamentally different worldviews. Kubrick took the raw materials of King’s novel and made a film that fit in with his bleaker worldview. King is a believer in God, moral responsibility, and free will. Kubrick sees human beings as subject to larger mechanistic and manipulative forces. Morally my sympathies are with King, but Kubrick made a magnificent film nonetheless. Every shot is haunted by potential menace and wrongness. The moment where Scatman Crothers begins talking to Danny telepathically is my favorite eerie scene in a movie ever. It comes out of nowhere and disturbs you in the best possible way. Crothers should have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. There’s a great moment later in the film where Crothers is in bed with a poster of a naked woman above him. That’s important because it helps show him as a sexually-alive, rounded human being whereas so often this type of African American male character was stripped of sexual vitality. This character is in the awkward role of being a father-figure for a white boy who is losing his. In fact this is where the the novel and film come together; both are about a father’s breakdown and inability to care for his family, though King and Kubrick have differing views of why those situations come about. Where the film works best is as a series of horrific images. The twin girls. The woman getting out of the bathtub. That weird thing with the people in animal costumes. Those images never leave you. I don’t buy many of the silly speculations about the layers of hidden meaning in the film. But the way it ends is certainly one of the great mysterious finishes in any movie and defies easy categorization or interpretation.

2) Psycho -What can be said about this film that hasn’t been said already? It’s pretty much perfect. I’ve often dreamed about having a room in my house with walls containing nothing but the individual shots of the film. Looking back, I think this was the film that paved the way for Hollywood to break loose of the censorship codes. It still feels like a movie made for adults. A couple is in bed at the beginning(scandalous!) A toilet gets flushed. And the shower scene, which remains the single most influential scene in Hollywood history. Ironically, this movie birthed the slasher genre, but there’s only one shockingly violent scene. The rest is all atmosphere and narrative structure. Directors who think that the best way to shock is to have death scene after death scene would be wise to go back and see how effective Psycho is with only one.

1) Bram Stoker’s Dracula -Why is it my favorite horror film? It’s always had a mixed critical reputation. It deviates significantly from the novel for a film that by its very title tried to insist it was most faithful. But it’s Gary Oldman’s performance that does it. There’s nothing else like it in any other movie. He’s repellent and fascinating. His voice sounds like the guttural notes of a Romanian organ left out in a storm. He’s unquestionably an inhuman monster. And yet the “beauty and the beast” subtext between Dracula and Mina has a certain power to it. Oldman makes you fear and hate the character at some points, and feel sorry for him at others. That’s no easy feat for an actor to pull off. Overall I think the supporting cast is quite good. Yes, Keanu’s accent is silly. But what depth is there really to the Harker character? He exists as straight man to Dracula. In this aspect Keanu is perfect. The same can be said for Ryder as Mina. Tom Waits plays Renfield as gloriously insane and tragically aware of what Dracula has taken from him. Hopkins infuses Van Helsing with a Shakespearean voice and an awareness that in fighting Dracula, “we’ve all become God’s madmen.” Dracula is Europe’s dark fairy tale. Coppola and Oldman brought it to life in spectacular fashion.