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In Memory of Bela Lugosi

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A nice looking colorized photo from Dracula, and a video tribute in memory of Bela Lugosi who passed away August 16, 1956.

Conference on ‘Folk Horror’ at Queen’s University in Belfast

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A Friend in the Furrows: Perspectives on ‘Folk Horror’ in Literature, Film and Music
19-21 September, 2014
Queen’s University Belfast

‘A Fiend in the Furrows’ is a three-day conference in association with the School of English and the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring ‘folk horror’ in British and Irish literature, film, television, and music. The event will include academic papers, film screenings, musical performances, and readings.

Through the writing of Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner, among others, the tradition has influenced British and Irish horror cinema and television, being revived and reimagined in films such as Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Wicker Man (1973), and more recently in Wake Wood (2010) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013). The conference will examine ‘folk horror’ texts, films and music in their period context and the implications for British and Irish culture’s understanding of their own unsettled pasts.

It will feature papers examining topics such as:

  • Late 19th century Gothic literature
  • Early 20th century weird fiction
  • Modernism and weird fiction
  • The ghost story
  • Contemporary horror and fantasy fiction
  • Children’s literature
  • Folklore collectors and redactors
  • Folklore and the supernatural
  • Primitivism, atavism, degeneration
  • Rural and urban folklore
  • Horror cinema and television
  • Folkmusic

More on the conference here.

My thanks to Heather Greene for letting me know about this conference.

Titles of Interest – “Guillermo del Toro: Film as Alchemic Art”

9781441184023Guillermo del Toro: Film as Alchemic Art, Keith McDonald and Roger Clark (Bloomsbury, 2014)

A critical exploration of one of the most exciting, original and influential figures to emerge in contemporary film, Guillermo del Toro: Film as Alchemic Art is a major contribution to the analysis of Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic output. It offers an in-depth discussion of del Toro’s oeuvre and investigates key ideas, recurrent motifs and subtle links between his movies. The book explores the sources that del Toro draws upon and transforms in the creation of his rich and complex body of work. These include the literary, artistic and cinematic influences on films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos and Mimic, and the director’s engagement with comic book culture in his two Hellboy films, Blade II and Pacific Rim. As well as offering extensive close textual analysis, the authors also consider del Toro’s considerable impact on wider popular culture, including a discussion of his role as producer, ambassador for ‘geek’ culture and figurehead in new international cinema.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Part 1: Contexts and Audiences
Chapter 1. Influences and Intertexts
Chapter 2. Accented Fantasy and the Gothic Perverse
Chapter 3. Fan as Filmmaker

Part 2: Texts and Thematics
Chapter 4. Twisted Genres: Cronos and Mimic
Chapter 5. Trauma – Childhood –History: The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth
Chapter 6. Gothic Superheroes: Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Chapter 7. From Development Hell to the Pacific Depths: The Strain and Pacific Rim

Bibliography
Filmography and Comicography
Index

“Nova Religio” Focus on the Paranormal

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Joseph Laycock has announced the publication of a special edition of a journal that focuses on the paranormal where he served as guest editor.

 

 

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 18, No. 1, August 2014
www.jstor.org

Table of Contents

Approaching the Paranormal
JOSEPH P. LAYCOCK
Abstract: This issue of Nova Religio is devoted to “the paranormal,” focusing specifically on discourses rejected by mainstream religion and traditional science. The author explains the historic and cultural significance of such topics as hauntings, seances, alien abductions, and more generally the concept of “paranormal” as a category of religious beliefs. These articles contribute to what what may be a new focus area in the study of new and emerging religions.

Radiant Healing: Gender, Belief and Alternative Medicine in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada 1927–1935
BETH A. ROBERTSON

Heirs through Fear: Indian Curses,A ccursed Indian Lands, and White Christian Sovereignty in America
DARRYL V. CATERINE

Transformation: Whitley Strieber’s Paranormal Gnosis
DAVID G. ROBERTSON

When the Veilis Thin: The Simpsons’ Treehouses of Horror Popular and Academic Comparisons of Paranormal and Religious Phenomena
DAVID FELTMATE

 

Be sure to check out the “paranormal” category here at TheoFantastique for past explorations of this topic.

Fandom and Religion Conference at University of Leicester

FandomFandom and Religion:
An international, inter-disciplinary conference
University of Leicester (UK) · 28th – 30th July 2015

A conference exploring interactions between religion and popular culture.

How does fandom work? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion? This event will provide opportunity for participants to explore these and other questions about popular culture and religion. A main plenary strand will focus on fandom and religion. Short paper sessions will enable a wide variety of other topics to be explored.

Speakers will include:

Matt Hills (Aberystwyth, author of Fan Cultures)

Kathryn Lofton (Yale, author of Oprah)

John Maltby (Leicester, co-author of Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence)

Chris Partridge (Lancaster, author of The Lyre of Orpheus) with John Lyden and Eric Mazur (co-editors of The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture)

Register interest in the conference at www2.le.ac.uk/departments/lifelong-learning/ events/fandomconference/fandom or by sending an email to ijw3@le.ac.uk. The Call for Papers will be issued in September 2014.

Titles of Interest – “The Vampire in Science Fiction Film and Literature”

51YFU1stCfL._SL500_AA300_Paul Meehan is a friend of TheoFantastique who has been interviewed and contributed guest essays here previously. I am currently reading his latest book for a review in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. The book is The Vampire in Science Fiction Film and Literature (McFarland, 2014).

Vampires have been a popular subject for writers since their inception in 19th century Gothic literature and, later, became popular with filmmakers. Now the classical vampire is extinct, and in its place are new vampires who embrace the hi-tech worlds of science fiction.

This book is the first to examine the history of vampires in science fiction. The first part considers the role of science and pseudo-science, from late Victorian to modern times, in the creation of the vampire, as well as the “sensation fiction” of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. The second part focuses on the history of the science fiction vampire in the cinema, from the silent era to the present. More than sixty films are discussed, including films from such acclaimed directors as Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg, among others.

Contagious Vampires and Impotent Religion in “The Strain”

Abraham-Setrakian-Wallpaper-the-strain-fx-37168408-1280-800I finally had a chance to watch the first three episodes of The Strain after recording them. I am a big fan of Guillermo del Toro, including the material he produces. The television series is, of course, based on the 2009 novel by del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It incorporates  some of the vampire conceptions that del Toro included in Blade II, and combines them with other facets of the long history of vampire lore.

I noted while watching the series that it presents a secularized vampire that reproduces more like a contagion than as a supernatural entity, although it does retain the vestiges of the magical vampire of a previous generation. While the vampire has long been connected to disease, The Strain incorporates a disconnection of the supernatural from contagion. This shift from the supernatural to the natural vampire has been discussed previously in my interview with Titus Hjelm on “From Demonic to Genetic: The Rise and Fall of Religion in Vampire Film.”

This brings me to my second point, and that is how religion is featured in The Strain. It reflects both the skepticism of secularism, as well as that which comes from del Toro’s negative experiences with his grandmother’s Catholicism as a boy. One of the characters in The Strain is Abraham Setrakian, an Abraham Van Helsing-like character that connects present day conceptions of the vampire and their religious worldview with the present secular context. He has faced the rise of the vampires in the past, and is prepared to do so now, even if no one believes his ideas about the cause of the strange “infection.” In one scene, while Abraham is in jail for disturbing the peace, he is visited by Thomas Eichorst, a vampire who serves The Master vampire that Abraham has battled before. With a plate of glass between them in the visitor’s area, Eichorst taunts Setrakian and asks him where his God is, and why he isn’t intervening to stop this spread of The Master’s strain of vampirism.

Religion is also featured  in the series through two other characters. Ephraim Goodweather is a recovering alcoholic, and he attends a support group meeting at a church. Guadalupe Elizade is a mother with two grown and criminally troubled sons, who is depicted as a faithful Roman Catholic. In the depictions of religion through these characters the picture is one of impotence, or at least unimportance to the serious challenges of life. Goodweather attends the support group meetings only out of necessity in an attempt to gain joint custody of his son, but there is no evidence he finds any spiritual value in it. Elizade is a woman who attends church regularly, but it is of no interest to her sons, and it presents little value to anyone other than the elderly who may attend more out of tradition than anything else.

I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if religion will surface again in the series, or if it does whether it will play a slightly more positive role in Abraham Setrakian’s character given his connection to a vampiric worldview from the past. At any rate, it will be fun to watch as ever-changing monstrous concepts in connection with religion are played out on the small screen.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – Second Installment Surpasses First Film: Apes Serve as Mirror on Human Violence

Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes1DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES appeared in theaters recently and the odds were against it. More generally, the summer months have seen poor box office returns and DAWN might have continued in this vein. Specifically, the second installment in the PLANET OF THE APES series had to demonstrate that lightning could strike twice as 20th Century Fox built on the success of the previous RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Given these challenges this reviewer was skeptical, but doubts were unmerited as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a great film, justifying the $73 million it took in box office receipts over the opening weekend, and keeping the rebooted Apes franchise alive.

Summary

The conclusion of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES saw the development of fatal side effects in humans through the virus that was part of ALZ-112, a drug created by Gen-Sys for the treatment of various neurological disorders. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES takes place ten years after the conclusion of RISE, and a montage of news footage sets the stage for this time period as it tells of the results of a worldwide simian flu pandemic that has destroyed most human life on earth.

While humanity fought for its life, the small group of intelligent apes under the leadership of Caesar (played in motion capture by Andy Serkis) multiplied, and created their own tribal civilization. Caesar has a family, including a wife, a young adult son and a newborn son.  Together the apes have manufactured hut-like shelter, organized hunts, domesticated horses, and communicate in a form of sign language and limited speech. But they wonder after ten winters whether all of humanity is truly gone.

While walking through the forest two young adult apes come into contact with a small group of humans. One human panics and shoots one of the apes, but not fatally. After hearing the shot, the woods are quickly filled with hundreds of apes, which surround the small group of humans. Caesar sends then on their way, but they are followed so that the apes may know more about the potential threat. Paralleling the ape civilization, a large number of humans have survived, immune to the simian flu, and they are carving out an existence in the city of San Francisco. But they are running out of fuel, and they live with the mounting fear that the violence that came with the lawlessness during the initial flu outbreak will return once again. In order to avoid this scenario, Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke), along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend (Keri Russell), volunteer to return to the forest in ape territory in the hopes of convincing them to allow them to restore electricity by repairing a dilapidated dam.

Malcom is able to convince a reluctant Caesar to move forward with work on the dam, but some of Caesar’s community are suspicious of the humans, particularly Koba, an ape with a history of abuse in the past at the hands of his human captors. Some in the human camp are suspicious as well giving the simian flu pandemic and its connection to the apes, particularly Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who co-founded the human group with Malcom. This sets the stage for an uneasy co-existence between apes and humans, with some in both camps desiring peace, while others yearn for violence and war. Those wanting violence create the conditions that bring it about, and Caesar must fight Koba for leadership of the apes and the direction the simian civilization will take for the future in an ape and human world.

Analysis

 For any number of reasons DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES could have been a failure. In order to be successful it had to be at least as good as its predecessor RISE, it had to navigate a change in directors from the first film, and it had to present a compelling storyline that kept the rebooted version moving along its own trajectory while still being respectful of the Apes mythology from previous films. There was also the possibility that as the number of apes increased and ran across the screen as an army, at times on horseback firing automatic weapons, that good storytelling would get lost in a big budget, action sequences, and visual effects. Thankfully the various challenges faced by the creators of DAWN were met successfully and with satisfying results.

In terms of its visuals, DAWN is impressive. Unlike RISE, which for the most part takes place in various indoor locations until the climax, DAWN is largely set in the woods of the San Francisco Bay Area. This put new pressures on WETA Studios and their motion capture technology, which designed new equipment that would not only be able to record the movements and facial expressions of the actors playing apes, but also horses, and the forest landscapes that made up the ape territory. The result is impressive, as the computer-generated apes and other special effects are extremely detailed and realistic, aiding in the suspension of disbelief and facilitating the plausibility of the story, just as John Chambers’ makeup did for the original films of the franchise in the 1960s and 1970s.

dawn-planet-apesIn terms of narrative, while DAWN incorporates action sequences, these do not overshadow good and serious storytelling. This film draws upon an element in one of the original five films in the franchise, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, in addition to many parallel elements it incorporates from the film. In BATTLE, a small group of humans live almost as slaves for the apes, and are responsible for doing various things for ape civilization, including teaching literacy. During one of the educational sessions, a human teacher imparts one of the most important ethical teachings from the ape Lawgiver’s Sacred Scrolls: “Ape shall never kill ape.” This is featured in DAWN early on as the audience sees it scrawled on the walls of the apes’ village, perhaps a teaching area led by Maurice the orangutan. This then serves as the major ethical thread for the film, not only for ape civilization, but for human as well, as both wrestle with conflicting desires in their midst, some with distrust fueling desires for violence and war, and others willing to extend trust in hope supporting desires for co-existence and peace.

DAWN director, Matt Reeves, has said in interviews that there is no overt attempts at engaging in social commentary through this film, a facet found in some of the first films in the original five of the franchise, and somewhat in RISE. Even so, filmmakers are embedded in their social and cultural contexts, and this can’t help but connect to the works they create. While some have speculated that DAWN incorporates an anti-gun message, a more probable interpretation is one opposed to human violence which guns symbolize. Not only does DAWN reflect the constant human struggle with the tendencies toward dehumanizing “the other” and seeing them as universally evil thus justifying acts of violence and war, more specific application can be made to current events in the Middle East. As this review is written, the nation of Israel continues to engage in military actions and the bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza in response to Palestinian missile firings into Israel and the kidnapping and execution of three Israeli youth. At the time of writing, the death toll among the Palestinians is now over 200, many civilians, while Israeli casualties are presently less than twenty. There is a long and unfortunate tendency in this region for Israelis and Palestinians to view each other as sub-human, as animals, and for the voices of those who cry out with distrust and calls for violence to find success as they mobilize others to realize these desires.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-trailer-00In DAWN, Caesar and Malcolm pursued a path of co-existence, live and let live. But in the end this was not enough. A more fruitful path would have been for them to move beyond the low bar of tolerance and co-existence, seeking instead peaceful tension over irreconcilable differences as relationships transform enemies into trusted rivals. Perhaps a similar pathway is needed in the Middle East and elsewhere. DAWN reminds us in a world ruled by humans that we have not come very far from our animal past, and that we must constantly battle the desires of our inner beast that wishes to destroy outsiders (sometimes insiders when they challenge our authority and agenda too).

Conclusion

 Plans are already underway for the next film to follow DAWN. Matt Reeves has agreed to direct, and he will write co-author the script. This is a good thing because we continue to be fascinated with these apes and their ability to help us reflect on ourselves through good science fiction storytelling.

Titles of Interest – Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life

WorldofWarcraftRPGVirtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life by Robert M. Geraci (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Millions of users have taken up residence in virtual worlds, and in those worlds they find opportunities to revisit and rewrite their religious lives. Robert M. Geraci argues that virtual worlds and video games have become a locus for the satisfaction of religious needs, providing many users with devoted communities, opportunities for ethical reflection, a meaningful experience of history and human activity, and a sense of transcendence. Using interviews, surveys, and his own first-hand experience within the virtual worlds, Geraci shows how World of Warcraft and Second Life provide participants with the opportunity to rethink what it means to be religious in the contemporary world. Not all participants use virtual worlds for religious purposes, but many online residents use them to rearrange or replace religious practice as designers and users collaborate in the production of a new spiritual marketplace.

Using World of Warcraft and Second Life as case studies, this book shows that many residents now use virtual worlds to re-imagine their traditions and work to restore them to “authentic” sanctity, or else replace religious institutions with virtual communities that provide meaning and purpose to human life. For some online residents, virtual worlds are even keys to a post-human future where technology can help us transcend mortal life. Geraci argues that World of Warcraft and Second Life are “virtually sacred” because they do religious work. They often do such work without regard for-and frequently in conflict with-traditional religious institutions and practices; ultimately they participate in our sacred landscape as outsiders, competitors, and collaborators.

Guest post – Westworld: Robotic Cowboys Wreak Havoc in Michael Crichton’s Directorial Debut

westworld-tv-poster-jj-abrams-westworld-feature-imageFrom time to time a select few are given the opportunity to contribute guest posts here at TheoFantastique. This essay is by Brandon Engel, who looks back at one of the classic 1970s science fiction films.

There’s something incredibly unnerving (uncanny, if you must) about non-human entities that are similar to humans in either form or function. Freud wrote extensively on the subject, as did Ernst Jentsch. Both felt that dolls, robots, and other automata induce a sort of miniature-existential crisis in viewers, who are inclined to project human emotions and motivations unto the objects, and perhaps even wonder about whether or not the dolls are secretly alive. There is something especially unsettling about a plastic facial expression, frozen in time.

And just what are the implications of an animate object coming to life, and being endowed with the ability to make conscious decisions? What sort of moral compass would inform its decision making (if any), and would it be capable of acting compassionately? In the 21st century these types of questions are especially pressing with concerns over our technology in the form of artificial intelligence, robotics, and drones, particularly as they are used in military and law enforcement settings.

This is a recurring theme in science fiction: technology endowed with too much autonomy (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey), and, inversely, human beings who are relegated to perfunctory roles like cogs in a larger mechanism (a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).

A film that handled the subject in a distinctly seventies genre pulp way is Michael Crichton’s Westworld. Crichton, who gets a lot of recognition for his work as a novelist, contributed a tremendous amount to the world of fantasy filmmaking. Along with make-up artist Stan Winston and director Steven Spielberg, he brought Jurassic Park to the world, and forever changed the way that children from the nineties look at theme parks. Crichton had done the same thing to children in the seventies with Westworld, his feature film directorial debut.

Westworld fuses multiple genres, including elements of western, science fiction, and horror films. The film tells the story of the Delos resort, comprised of three different theme parks (one based on ancient Rome, another based on 13th Century Europe, and a third park representing the “wild west” complete with saloons, old-timey prostitutes, horses, and shoot-outs. The “townsfolk” of Westworld are all animatronic puppets (much like the ones you’d see on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland) supplied to give pleasure to the vacationer who is there to live out their wild west fantasy. The whole vacation package costs $1,000 per day. The robots are engineered so that they can’t harm human guests, but something goes grievously wrong…

westworld_gunslingerThe film stars screen-legend Yul Brynner, warmly remembered by many fans for his roles in The King and I and The Man Who Would Be King. In Westworld, Brynner plays a mechanical cowboy — an amusement park attraction that instigates supposedly safe gun-fights with park guests. His character is based on the Chris Adams character that Brynner himself portrayed in The Magnificent Seven. Visitors are given firearms that are harmless on other humans but kill androids. People can shoot and kill the robot. Normally, the robot is taken to a repair shop in order to be put in working order for the next day. The robots malfunction, though, and end up shooting people. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is in the saloon with Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin, from television’s “He and She”) and John Blane (James Brolin, best known as “Marcus Welby’s” Dr. Steven Kiley.) The two are friends who decide to vacation at Westworld.

The biggest similarity between Jurassic Park and Westworld is, obviously, that both deal with amusement parks attractions that have gone haywire and start killing people. In Jurassic Park, the problems are started initially by the geneticists’ oversight (the dinosaurs are constructed partially from the DNA of gender-switching amphibians, which means that the dinosaurs begin mating autonomously). In Westworld, there is a sort of computer virus that begins to infiltrate all of the robots.

The Seventies was an interesting time for imaginative (if not slightly paranoid) intellectuals like Crichton. On the one hand, the economy was still quite strong, and as a natural consequence of that, the well to do we’re living extravagantly. The consumer culture was thriving, and privileged sects of society sought after new excesses. At the same time, the horrors of World War II, and grim musings about the potential misapplications of technology (or notions of technology as a liability to humanity) permeated pop culture. Westworld is at once a sort of sardonic joke about post-World War II consumerism and the grandiosity of something like Disneyland, but it also poses a lot of poignant “what if’s” regarding the inherent risk factors with man essentially “playing God” by constructing these alternate realities inhabited by human-like objects (presumably devoid of any kind of conscience).

Harvard graduate Michael Crichton had an illustrious career across several disciplines, and he achieved monumental success by an early age. Crichton’s first novel, “Odds On”, was published in 1966. His directorial debut film was Westworld, a project that Crichton had originally envisioned as a novel, but ultimately decided to pursue as a film. The script was turned down by every major studio except MGM.

Of all of his early cinematic efforts, Westworld has the  largest cult following. The film has been enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity and even shows regularly at art houses and on TV it’s been appearing regularly on El Rey Network, which has increased visibility of the film because it reaches Direct TV, Comcast and some Netflix subscribers.  After the success of Westworld, Crichton would go on to direct 6 more films including Looker with Albert Finney, and Coma with Michael Douglas. He would go on to achieve much as a novelist and screenwriter, but Westworld was his crowning achievement as a film director.

Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based blogger with a keen interest in genre pulp literature and vintage cult films. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2

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