Monday, May 30, 2011
Decades of Horror: The Allure, The Danger & The Cycle of Fear & Fantasy In Film & The Media Part 3 Chapter 2
***WARNING! This article contains some images of a sensitive and violent nature***
"Let me show you how I can make you a real He-Man from head to toe in-just 15 minutes a day!"--Charles Atlas
Bodybuilding had long been a popular competitive sport that attracted a lot of attention in America over the years going from its early days as a spectator show demonstrating feats of strength and wrestling matches to competitions where those with the most impressive physiques were awarded cash prizes and trophies. The sport became so popular, that bodybuilders began muscling in on television shows and movies virtually everywhere. Soon, there were ads cropping up on the backs of comic books beckoning kids, "Are you tired of getting sand kicked in your face?" This was a method by which to lure young people into getting into exercise and fitness. This desire for physical fitness would grow steadily over the coming years exploding into an incredibly lucrative industry whereby people were becoming more and more obsessed about how they looked. This apply's to young and old alike.
"Are you tired of getting sand kicked in your face? I promise you new muscles in days!"--Charles Atlas
In Italy, bodybuilding wasn't quite the level of popularity it was in the US, but with the surge in big screen biblical and gladiator movies in America, Italy was quick to follow through with their own financially prosperous series of musclebound heroics flexing and sword slashing their way across the silver screen. Most of these actors that portrayed the mythological heroes were Americans such as the two most popular, Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott. Other bodybuilders, particularly those belonging to the Mae West Revue followed Reeves and Scott to Italy. Guys like Gordon Mitchell, Dan Vadis, Reg Park, Reg Lewis and Mark Forest found fame and a road paved to other business ventures from their participation in these movies playing a diverse catalog of characters like Hercules, Maciste, Samson and Ursus.
Ray Harryhausen, famous for his stop motion animated monsters featured in numerous fantasy and science fiction programmers entered the arena with one of the signature entries of the mythological genre--JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963). This same story had already been told in Riccardo Freda's THE GIANTS OF THESSALY (1960), but without the aid of stop motion animated monstrosities. Harryhausen was a key component to the success of several 50s creature features and his 60s productions were of a more fantasy nature that extended throughout the 1970s. He was an integral part of the thirty year period between the 50s through the 70s and amassed an impressive slate of future filmmakers and special effects technicians who were influenced by him; himself heavily indebted to the purveyor of the art, Willis O'brien.
Even Bert I. Gordon, known mostly for his science fiction flicks about gigantism (or shrinkage) got in on the fantasy act with his ST. GEORGE & THE SEVEN CURSES, which later became known as THE MAGIC SWORD (1962).
While most mythological movies were headlined by American bodybuilders of varying charisma and acting ability, the Italians soon had their own stable of muscle stars such as Sergio Ciani (Alan Steel), Kirk Morris (Adriano Bellini), Howard Ross (Renato Rossini) and Pietro Torrisi. So popular were these movies in America, that a syndicated television series premiered called THE SONS OF HERCULES. These were re-packaged and re-edited Sword and Sandal movies split up to fit into two one hour segments. After the genre deflated later in the 60s, the films found a home for nostalgic fans and monster kids looking for a hero on TV in the late 70s and early 80s.
"Bond...James Bond."--DR. NO (1962)
James Bond was an integral part of 1960s pop culture and a movie icon that has survived to this day. The Ian Fleming characters book to big screen theatrics have been essayed by six actors; seven if you count David Niven in the unrelated 1967 spy comedy CASINO ROYALE. Sean Connery made possessing a license to kill both fashionable and charismatic. The popularity of DR. NO in 1962 permeated the small screen as a large number of spies blew their cover for the people watching at home in such programs as THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., I SPY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the British import, THE AVENGERS and even a comedy version from Mel Brooks entitled GET SMART. One of the most enjoyable and action packed was the ingenious spy-fantasy-western hybrid, THE WILD, WILD WEST.
Very much ahead of its time, this four season series packed in numerous super villains, deadly gadgets, beautiful girls and amazingly choreographed and highly dangerous stunts. One of the major attributes that made the show so memorable was the duo of Robert Conrad as James West and Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon. Conrad did all of his own dangerous stunt work and Martin essayed so many hilarious characters as a master of disguise. Like the changing audience trends at the close of the decade as well as worries about increased violence on network television, such brutality, as fantasy as it may be, mirrored the all too real violence of the concrete jungle and the sweltering heat of the foreign jungles where thousands of American soldiers were risking their lives.
"I do not believe that the men who served in uniform in Vietnam have been given the credit they deserve. It was a difficult war against an unorthodox enemy"--William Westmoreland, soldier
The war in Vietnam is generally frowned upon by the majority of those who lived through it, whether through participation, or protest. One of the darkest periods in not only American history, but world history, the Vietnam War is one of the most controversial and widely discussed conflicts even to this day. The US involvement began during the 50s, but actual combat troops weren't dispatched till 1965. By that point, America was already in civil unrest. Civil Rights campaigns were a hot topic at this time and America's intervention in a war purported to prevent the spread of communism only intensified back home with the Anti-War Movement. Hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in the streets and even at the nations capital voicing their displeasure in what had popularly become known as a deceptive and immoral war.
"We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first--rock and roll or Christianity."--John Lennon
The hippie movement prospered during this time period giving birth to a new subculture that helped and hindered the shape of the human race over the course of the sin-sational 60s. This nomadic social order were opposed to the Vietnam War instead spreading the gospel of peace and love all the while fully embracing the sexual revolution and partaking in the usage of various recreational drugs with marijuana being one of the most popular. This counterculture soon invaded television and movies and seemingly every hit show had an episode or two that revolved around a group of "hipsters". Interestingly enough, despite the negative connotations between hippies and the US military, an episode from season five of GOMER PYLE USMC featured a trio of hippies inadvertently causing trouble for Gomer after they paint a military truck in a collage of psychedelic colors.
In cinema, filmmakers were quick to jump on the drug bandwagon exploring the "highs" and lows of recreational drug use made popular by the hippie communities which soon seeped into everyday life. Soon, it seemed like everybody was doin' the dope. Some of these movies that experimented with drug use on screen merely exploited the topic while others used drugs in a more leisurely manner more as a historical reference.
"I got my head bashed in at a demonstration against the Vietnam War. Police were losing control because they were up against a world they really didn't understand"--Terry Gilliam, filmmaker
The dislike of America's involvement in Vietnam led to a long list of reasons for angry voices to protest items such as conscription (the draft). Numerous people evaded and dodged being drafted into the military. Fearful of being led to the slaughter of the green hell of the Vietnam jungle, those opposed to participating became teachers, took on fatherhood, or fled the country becoming what was "popularly" referred to as a "draft dodger". Many hippies and concerned citizens alike began protesting en mass their displeasure of the United States sending their people to die and a virtual cornucopia of signs with famous slogans such as 'Make Love, Not War' became iconic for decades to come.
"We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas"--Ronald Reagan, politician/former President
The longest military conflict in American history reached an all new level of controversy and increased level of hatred in 1969 when reports of the unmitigated cruelty of the My Lai Massacre became public knowledge. One of the most damning facets of this reprehensible occurrence was that it had taken place over a year earlier. An American military unit entered a village in My Lai on the morning of March 16th, 1968. Orders were given to kill any Viet Cong, or those suspected of being North Vietnamese guerrillas. Instead, what they found were a large group of elders, women and children. Once the killing began, the level of sadism increased with each passing minute as hundreds of innocents fell from machine gun fire, grenades, or met their death from bayonet strikes. Over the course of the next two days, victims were raped, tortured and mutilated beyond recognition. The village was then burned and over 500 corpses along with it. This incident was arguably the fuel for the fire of so many angry and incredibly violent movies that hit theaters like a tidal wave in the 1970s.
"The US military still blames the media for stories and images that turned the American public against the war in Vietnam"--Bruce Jackson, public servant
Amazingly, despite the widespread outrage the My Lai Massacre bred, the few who attempted to halt, or prevent the killings received disparaging treatment from their fellow Americans that also included death threats. This senseless conflict brought about derision towards the men of the armed forces. The media was their to present the violence as it happened capturing the deplorable actions in all their gory glory. Americans fighting in Vietnam had garnered a negative reputation from those watching at home and upon their return to America, there was no welcoming party, no friendly faces--the soldiers came home to anger and resentment. Hippies and other protesters even resorted to burning the flag to show their detestable feelings for what has become known as an unnecessary and immoral war.
"Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope."--Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
The hippie movement also had its angrier biker brethren that flourished and thrived in the 1960s as well, only these two wheeled travelers lived by a different code of ethics. The biker aesthetic likewise found favor with the curious movie going public anxious for a new thrill. Biker films were spotty during the late 1960s with such pictures as Roger Corman's THE WILD ANGELS (1966) and Herschell Gordon Lewis's SHE-DEVIL'S ON WHEELS (1968). The genre didn't gain critical notoriety till the release of Dennis Hopper's EASY RIDER in 1969. Some of these were Anti-War Movies and most others were merely exploitation pictures. One of the best and most profitable was a low budget biker road movie entitled RUN,ANGEL, RUN (1969) from underrated director, Jack Starrett. Quite different from other biker pictures, famed screen tough guy, William Smith leads the proverbial pack, or more accurately, the pack is pursuing him after he leaves the gang and sells their story for a large sum of money. Wishing to lead a normal life with his girlfriend, his former gang members go after him. Smith quickly became the King of the Biker Movies after this meager budgeted movie gross millions at the box office which led to a continued series of similar movies into the early part of the 1970s.
"I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you."--2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
As both America and the world became angrier, so did the movies. By the end of the 1960s, cinema in the United States would reach an increasing maturity, a raw power that would only grow by the approaching decade of the 70s. Soon, all genres would drastically change. By the end of the decade, mythological and larger than life heroes were on the wane, losing their strength while more realistic and gritty interpretations took precedence. Science Fiction films also abandoned alien invasions and tales dealing with the supplantation of the human race reverting to far more serious fare.
In other countries, though, science fiction remained a family affair especially in Japan where television began snatching away theater patrons left and right. Tokusatsu shows took control of the airwaves featuring brightly colored superheroes battling threats from outer and inner Earth. The most popular of which was ULTRAMAN (1966) and his numerous spin off shows. There were other Japanese series' that were more serious sci fi mixed with horror overtones such as ULTRA Q (1966), the series that spawned the aforementioned ULTRAMAN. ULTRA Q was a 28 episode series that was a Japanese version of THE OUTER LIMITS. The series dealt with a group of paranormal researchers that investigated strange and bizarre phenomenon that frequently involved monsters of some kind. There was another series around this time that was also very similar entitled OPERATION: MYSTERY (1968); an obscure TV program that opted for a darker, more horror tinted slant.
During the late 60s, Japan's Godzilla pictures (and other Japanese fantasy pictures), once popular theatrical attractions, were now sold straight to television (but returned to theatrical distribution in the 70s, but to a lesser extent and through small time distribution outfits). Slowly these light-hearted, less serious kiddie fare lost audience interest and far more serious, thought provoking material was taking its place.
"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission..."--THE OUTER LIMITS
Outside of the influential, provocative and thought provoking TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS was a lesser success, but no less influential with its off kilter science fiction and horror tales of monsters and aliens from other galaxies. It lasted barely two seasons, but its cult of followers grew extensively over the years and is spoken about with reverence from those who caught the show during its initial run. Although this serious program failed to catch on, its adult themed episodes would shape the face of science fiction later in the decade and into the next.
"The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago."--PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Science fiction movies grew up, so to speak, with the release of such productions as FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), PLANET OF THE APES (1968), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and the kitschy, sexually charged comical fantasy of BARBARELLA (1968). Gone were the days of playfully orchestrated sci fi that would take the average filmgoer away to a fantasy land escaping the trials of world weary events. Now science fiction had "matured"--it had taken another form going from escapist entertainment to thought provoking allegories and sometimes frightening views of man's folly and the results of his ignorance. And in some cases, science fiction mixed a heavy dose of sex into the mix creating a tongue in cheek kaleidoscopic mind trip that both titillated and teased its audience.
Action films changed as well adopting a huge surge in violent content. This was felt around the world, but most noticeably in America. In Hong Kong, Chang Cheh showed his penchant for bloody brutality in his film THE BUTTERFLY CHALICE (1963). It was a hint at what was to come of a breakthrough cinematic style that would grow and nurture over the course of the next few years. In 1966, Cheh introduced slow motion shots in action films such as THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO and a documentary style by removing the camera from the tripod. By 1967, he splattered blood and viscera across the screen in the groundbreaking ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN. Later that same year, the biographical BONNIE & CLYDE took a vastly similar approach in terms of its violence displaying Depression Era rural America as a lawless land overrun by a duo of bloodthirsty bank robbers who happened to be lovers.
"When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said the man with a pistol's a dead man. Let's see if that's true. Go ahead, load up and shoot."--A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)
Earlier in the decade, westerns had all but rode off into the sunset to settle a homestead on the small screen. Then, Italian director, Sergio Leone, had a new innovative approach to the genre. The result was the barren wasteland of anti heroes and savage desperadoes found in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). In this saloon, there was no room for the John Wayne type, or the singing cowboy that was a popular American genre convention. Reflecting their own heated political climate, the Italian western advanced in a new and decidedly sadistic direction that would soon make its way to American shores. With this increased brutality being taken to further extremes in films like DJANGO (1966), the American westerns took notice and adopted this gritty landscape no doubt helped along by the changes in the societal climate. One western in particular took this violence and avoided blatantly signifying Italian genre conventions creating a vicious epic the likes of which hadn't been produced by an American filmmaker.
"If they move, kill'em."--THE WILD BUNCH
Sam Peckinpah took onscreen violence in an action setting to all new levels of brutality with the release of THE WILD BUNCH (1969), a movie that showcased an increased level of violence and bloodshed, that expanded on the merciless anti hero theatrics of the Italian pictures. This kind of onscreen savagery led to the revision of the MPAA rating system at the close of 1968. Throughout the 1960s, American movies had seen a slow, but steady increase in nudity and foul language in film. By the mid 60s, violence, too, had began erupting with profound rapidity. In America, all three of these frequently censored elements were displaying an incredible amount of freedom of expression. The non trademarked 'X' rating was introduced in 1968 and applied to movies (whether by the MPAA, or self applied by the filmmakers) that were of questionable content considered unsuitable for children. De Palma's GREETINGS (1968) was the first to bear the rating and MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) became the first American film to be rated 'X' to win an Academy Award. At that time, an 'X' meant 'Adults Only', but later this self applied rating became more popularly associated with pornographic pictures which sometimes branded their films 'XXX' to further hype the extreme content to be found within. Interestingly enough, THE WILD BUNCH reportedly had to be trimmed to avoid an 'X' rating for its violent content.
"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"--NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Horror, too, eventually transmogrified from musty old castles and creaky coffins to a more visceral, gut wrenching form, often straight from the headlines with real life horrors masked as flesh eating zombies or chainsaw wielding maniacs. The coming of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) was a forerunner in a new period in horror. It was a guerrilla style approach that made you feel as if you were their with this menagerie of individuals pent up in an isolated farmhouse to fend off the flesh eating dead trying to get in from outside. Gone were the mythical Nuclear Family unit, the Ward and June Cleavers of the 50s, now replaced by various personas most could identify with. These characters were nothing like the 'clean and wholesome' template that was programmed into households across America during the more conservatively fashioned Fabulous 50s. Race relations were also apparent and in a startlingly unparalleled move, the black character was the central figure of authority and the sole participant who manages to maintain his cool from start to finish. The downbeat coda is a still image showcase of stark and depressingly gloomy imagery that presents hunters seemingly oblivious to the carnage around them, blankly and casually placing the dead among an ever growing pyre of corpses. This end credits sequence manages to sum up the decades turbulent societal problems within the span of a couple minutes.
"One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it's worth watching."
As the 60s came to a close, the rise in violence and sex at the movies was burgeoning--building to a crescendo in lieu of all the tumultuous events that had encompassed the first several years of the decade. It was a fairly ugly time period in America that wasn't kind to its sex symbols both established and the up and coming pretty faces. This ominous dark cloud reached its zenith in 1969. In 1962 major sex bomb, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her hotel room of an alleged overdose while shooting the movie, SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE. On June 29th, 1967 Jayne Mansfield was killed in an automobile accident that became the subject of a decades long urban legend that she had been decapitated in this crash, which wasn't too far from the truth--her scalp had been cleaved from her skull accompanied by severe head trauma. Judy Garland, the WIZARD's Dorothy, apparently tired of the notion of "There's no place like home", moved on after a drug overdose took her life in 1969. Reportedly an accidental death, Garland's life had been plagued by numerous problems both professional and financial. While these deaths were anything but nominal, one of the worst, most heinous massacres closed out the decade and shocked the world in the process leaving seven people dead including one of Hollywood's most promising starlets.
"These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn't teach them. I just tried to help them stand up."--Charles Manson
During the early morning hours of August 9th, 1969, Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel, under orders of Charles Manson, were sent to the former residence of musician and record producer Terry Melcher--a Los Angeles home then occupied by film director Roman Polanski and his wife, up and coming starlet, Sharon Tate (who was pregnant at the time). Orders were given to slaughter everyone in the house in the most gruesome way possible. Among those inside were Abigail Folger, a pregnant Sharon Tate and her former boyfriend, hair stylist, Jay Sebring. Knowing that Melcher no longer lived their, Manson decided this senseless massacre was necessary to instill fear in Melcher for rejecting Manson's work and failure to fulfill purported promises made by the record producer. The Manson Family of executioners then proceeded to viciously and cold-heartedly murder five people during the night leaving a gore filled scene that was described as a ritualistic killing by police at the time.
"I can't dislike you, but I will say this to you: you haven't got long before you are all going to kill yourselves, because you are all crazy. And you can project it back at me. But I am only what lives inside each and every one of you"--Charles Manson
The following night, Manson issued a similar decree of death this time against the residents of a home that Manson and his clan had attended a party a year before. Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were sadistically butchered in much the same fashion as the Tate murders the night before. For the Tate killings, weapons used were guns, knives and rope. For the double murder the following evening, bayonets were selected and pillow cases and cord from lamps were used to keep the victims stationary. In both cases, the victims were shown absolutely no remorse and were further savaged even after they had expired. Part of Manson's reasoning for this onslaught of vile cruelty was his obsession with THE BEATLES 'White' album which, according to this insane man, signaled in code a race war between blacks and whites. Manson was merely perpetuating this proposed and imaginary race war. In an astoundingly perversion of irony, Manson and members of his Family were arrested as suspects in a string of auto thefts, but due to a mis-dated warrant, they were released! Amazing still that it was several months later before a concrete connection was made between both murder scenes and the Manson Family.
"We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once?"--John Lennon
Beginning on a note that solidified a growing interest in the human body and the pleasures of the flesh, the 1960s grew more controversial with each passing year of its gradual evolution. This progression was a mostly natural one, but one that was stamped with a violent struggle for acceptance and understanding as well as hatred and a sense of confusion for America's involvement in the affairs of other countries. Throughout all the societal convulsion, changes were made even if they weren't always for the better. Despite Woodstock's landmark "Three Days of Peace & Music", the decade ended on a terminally sour note that rocked and shocked the nation spilling its blood over into the coming decade of the 1970s, yet another ten years of controversy, calamity and change.