The Case of Poltergeist

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So far, we have released two full episodes on the history of horror films! But, for now we are taking a break from all that research and study, to bring you an extra special episode about one scary movie in particular. If you listen to our show, you know that our co-host Adam is not exactly the biggest fan of horror. But, Adam graciously agreed to watch some movies that were a little scarier than what he’s used to. The first movie we showed Adam is the one we’re covering today: Poltergeist (1982). 

Poltergeist is the kind of movie that scaredy cats (like us) like to stay away from. Why? Well probably because of iconic lines like, “they’re hereeeee” and images like the young Carol Anne with her hands pressed against the white noise of a TV set. Even to us nearly forty years later, it still seems pretty terrifying. 

But like we’ve said before, horror movies seldom turn out to be as scary as we imagine, and Poltergeist was no exception. We thought this film would be a great step into horror for Adam, as it focuses less on ghosts, and more on the human characters (plus there isn’t a lot of gore or a high body count). So this week, we’re heading into Cuesta Verde to investigate the strange happenings at the Freeling house, and learn all about what scares us. 

WHERE DO POLTERGEISTS COME FROM?

  • The word Poltergeist is a combination of two German words. Poltern, which according to Merrium Webster, means “knocking,” and geist, which is the german word for ghost. The first known use of it as an English word was in 1848, which is a relatively short time ago. 
  • Strictly speaking, a poltergeist is any mischievous spirit that makes noise or moves objects. Poltergeists are not necessarily malicious, but they can be. According to legend, they have the ability to manipulate the physical world, and often use that to torment the living. On rare occasions, the ghosts are violent, and can have repetitive destructive behavior. 
  • Poltergeists are often said to be connected to one member of the family in particular. Usually they appear in households where adolescents are present, for whatever reason.

BASED ON TRUE STORIES?

  • Isn’t it the worst when you go to the movies and see a trailer for a scary movie, only to find the words, “based on a true story”? Scary movies are fun and all, but let’s keep the scares in the movies, please!
  • Well, usually this is a bit of an exaggeration. “Based” is such a vague word, and it could mean any small part of the movie, like character names or locations that could be pulled from reality. There have been claims that Poltergeist was based on real events, whether it was a story about people building on cemeteries or hauntings. Throughout research, we found a few different stories that people swear were the basis of the film. We’re going to tell you one of them. 
  • In FEBRUARY of 1958 (Frightening February is real, guys!!) The Hermann family in Long Island, NY (7 miles from the Amityville Horror house) noticed some strange popping noises in their house. When they went to check, they found bottles throughout the home without their caps. One was a bottle of Holy Water that had been opened and spilled. At first, James Hermann thought it was a prank. But when similar instances occurred again and again, he got concerned. Eventually, he witnessed the objects moving on their own, and he called the police. 
  • As word got out about the strange disturbances, people everywhere were at a loss for what it could be. The police theorized that it was electrical disturbances, but it seemed unlikely. The strangest part was that the house was new, and the Hermanns were the first family to live there. Usually a haunted house is several decades old at least, with many different owners and a questionable history. Ghosts aren’t supposed to show up in shiny new homes built for young, happy families. 
  • Two weeks after the hauntings started, a priest came to bless the house. The disturbances continued, and the house got national attention. Eventually, a group of parapsychologists from Duke University visited the house to record the disturbances and interview the family. Their leader, Dr. JB Rhine, believed that it was the adolescents in the home that attracted the spirits. Shortly after, the hauntings ceased. Overall, there were about 70 documented disturbances over a month-long period. 
  • If you’re familiar with Poltergeist, then you can see how this story inspired the film. So let’s talk about it!

SYNOPSIS

  • The Freelings are your average family in search of the American Dream. They have just moved into the brand new subdivision of Cuesta Verde: Where Dreams Come True. But just as the family settles in, they start to notice some strange disturbances, most notably through their TV. Though the family seems to accept the spirits at first (except for the father, Steve) things take a turn when a malevolent force pulls their youngest daughter into the spirit realm. Reeling from fear and frustration, the Freelings hire a group of parapsychologists and a medium to find a way to bring their baby girl home. 
    • It’s horror in the 1980’s, so this film really fits well with the popular concepts of the time. What dangers hide beneath a seemingly perfect life? And what price will we pay for neglecting others to achieve what we want? 

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • In horror terms, Poltergeist is a classic. It was the highest grossing horror film of 1982, a year that was VERY good for movies. Although Steven Spielberg didn’t direct the film, he was a major influence as its producer. He was already a household name with Jaws, and having his name on the project likely incentivised people to see it. 
  • Steven Spielberg created the story for Poltergeist, and wrote the screenplay along with Michael Gras and Mark Victor.
    • Apparently Stephen King was approached about writing the screenplay, but no agreement was reached.
  • The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, the incredible director that brought us the harrowing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and several sequels..
  • Poltergeist was produced by Frank Marshall and Stephen Spielberg who was also directing ET at the time (talk about a legend). Although he stepped back and let Tobe Hooper take the helm, many people that were on set of the production described Spielberg’s involvement as being like a shadow director because of all the input and control he would have over scenes.
    • Despite this, Spielberg has always credited Tobe Hooper as the film’s solo director. He even wrote a letter to Tobe, apologizing for the way others misinterpreted their working relationship.
  • Music
    • Celebrated film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Check out our Knowing The Scores Episode HERE where we talk about him and other great composers!) gave Poltergeist it’s chilling score. He used string and wind instruments throughout the soundtrack, along with music boxes to bring in that creepy haunting vibe.
      • One of the best film composers of the 20th century, Goldsmith was great at creating a mood.
    • The film begins with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” which further pushes the strained relationship between a fancy new suburban neighborhood and the (spoiler) underlying graves of those that came before.

MOVIE MAGIC

  • If you want to take a break from the CGI of today, Poltergeist is a breath of fresh air. The film is filled with a charming mix of practical and digital effects, with some hand-drawn animation as well (something we’ll likely never see in movies today). 
    • Poltergeist impressively utilized practical effects in almost every scene. This helped define the look of the horror film, as many scary films today still use practical effects in their aesthetic. 
  • The effects were done with Industrial Light and Magic, the VFX company founded by George Lucas, and used heavily by major film studios. We’re gonna talk about some of the biggest effects made for the movie! 
    • The outside of the Freeling house was a new build in California. But, scenes inside the house took place on a soundstage. The crew built entire rooms that rotated, along with practical horrors like the monstrous tree that attacks Robbie Freeling. 
    • The light in Poltergeist is a character in and of itself. Effects artists wanted it to feel like it was living and breathing, and that it had its own personality. They used tricks like little squares of mirrors, strobes, fish tanks of water, and 4 large wind machines to direct and choreograph the light in major scenes. One such scene is when the mother is about to enter the “closet” to try to save her youngest, Carol Anne.
    • One of the most iconic scenes in the film is the encounter with the stacked chairs in the kitchen. The camera follows Diane (JoBeth Williams) for seven seconds, as she steps away from the table and back again, only to find all the chairs stacked. It’s a creepy scene, and sets a wonderful tone for the rest of the movie. 
      • The crew built another set of chairs to look like they were stacked, and when the camera was focused on Diane, they ran in and just swapped the chairs around the table with the stacked chairs. It was a continuous shot, and done in one take! It’s amazing what you don’t see beyond the camera in a movie
    • There’s a scene in Carol Anne’s bedroom, where objects are flying around and making noise. It took ILM nine months to perfect. The team used an optical printer which has a projector on it that will project previous footage while filming new. The tricky part was that if one of the shots projected was not perfect, the team would have to begin all over again. It had dozens of items flying through and the head of the visual effects, Richard Edlund, described it as the most difficult sequence that he had ever contributed to.
    • Another classic scene (and one of our favorites) involves one of the paranormal investigators as he encounters some spiritual activity in the kitchen. After he places a steak on the counter, it comes to life, being ripped apart and inching along the counter like a worm. There was actually a puppeteer with his hand under the steak, and wires pulling it along. He then runs to the mirror over a sink, and we watch his reflection as he pulls apart his own face! This was done with prosthetics, and the hands pulling his face were actually Steven Spielberg’s hands! 
      • This scene is heavily referenced in Casper, another Spielberg production over a decade later.
    • After the family retrieves Carol Anne from the spirit realm, the poltergeist comes back for one final huge scare, trying to pull her back in. This final attempt manifests as an enormous esophagus that begins to try to consume the family into it. This esophagus did not exist in the bedroom space but was instead constructed as a miniature that was composited into the scene!
    • At the very end of the film, the Poltergeist implodes the house. ILM had this to say about the making of that scene.
      • “Eventually, a number of techniques operating in unison were devised to achieve the effect. This included rigging the detailed model with steel cables that extended into a funnel-like construction and setting up a vacuum system to capture any dust and fragments not pulled through by the cables. It was all shot with a high-speed camera and done in one take. The actors shot their part on a blue screen set and the optical department worked on rotoscoping the shot and putting it all together using the Anderson Optical Printer.”
  • Among all the effects in Poltergeist, there’s one that gets the most scrutiny: the use of real skeletons. In the final act, Diane Freeling falls into the unfinished swimming pool in the backyard of their home. Suddenly, a corpse surfaces, providing one of the biggest jump scares in the film. Over the course of the scene, several other corpses rise from the graves below the home, leading to the classic realization: “You moved the headstones but you left the bodies!” 
    • JoBeth Williams was hesitant to shoot the scene, because she didn’t want to be in a pool of water while there was so much electrical equipment on the set. To make her feel more comfortable, Steven Spielberg reportedly jumped in the pool and stayed in during the scene, to show her that he was willing to put himself in the same situation. (Good directors don’t ask actors to do things they themselves wouldn’t do.) 
    • Williams later said she did not know that the skeletons were real, which made the scene much more terrifying to think about, and many have speculated that the use of the skeletons led to the so-called “Poltergeist curse” which we will talk about here shortly.
      • One idea behind the curse is that the film’s message seems to contradict the use of the skeletons. The Freelings are being tormented by souls of those they have disrespected by living on their graves. Some think that point came back to haunt the actors.
    • The truth is, using a real human skeleton is cheaper than building a fake one, at least in 1982. Films have been using real human remains since the beginning, in classic films like “Frankenstein,” and “House on Haunted Hill.” So, using them in this film did not set any kind of precedent. Does it raise moral questions? Of course. 
      • In the Shudder series, “Cursed Films,” Craig Reardon, who was the special effects and make-up supervisor on the film, expressed how common the practice was. When explaining why they did it, he said, “wake up and smell the budget.”

STARRING:

  • Craig T. Nelson as the father figure Steve Freeling
    • Craig is known for the tv show Coach, and the movies The Incredibles and The Family Stone.
  • JoBeth Williams as Dianne Freeling
    • JoBeth has had many small roles on tv shows and has also been in movies like The Big Chill and Kramer vs. Kramer.
  • Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, the leader of the Paranormal investigators that arrive
    • Beatrice was mostly a skilled Broadway actress but also appeared in some television shows and some movies. A few movies were Network(1976), Power(1986), and Two of a Kind(1983.)
  • Dominique Dunne  as Dana Freeling the eldest daughter of the three children
    • Dominique had small parts in a few things, most notably the tv shows Hart to Hart, Breaking Away, and Hill Street Blues.
  • Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling, the middle child
    • Oliver only appeared as an actor in a few things before moving behind the camera. He was in Airplane II: The Sequel and Man Overboard. 
  • Heather O’Rourke as the angelic Carol Anne Freeling, the youngest daughter who ends up being taken by the spiritual forces
    • Heather was not in very many things but she did appear in all three Poltergeist movies and the show Happy Days.
    • Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, but was cast in ET instead. Spielberg discovered Heather O’Rourke while she was visiting the MGM set one day, and brought her in for some screen tests before offering her the role. 
  • Michael McManus as the neighbor Ben Tuthill
    • Michael was in some shows like Night Court and the 1989 Baywatch. He was also in movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux and The Kentucky Fried Movie.
  • Virginia Kiser as Mrs. Tuthill
    • Virginia has been in tv shows like Days of Our Lives, Dallas, and Max Headroom. She has been in movies such as Dreamscape, Space Raiders, and Death Play.
  • Martin Casella as Marty, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
    • His character has the famous scene where he pulls his face off in the Bathroom mirror. He has been in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop 2, and Heart Like a Wheel.
  • Richard Lawson as Ryan, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
    • Richard has had parts in many things, most notably in the movies How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Streets of Fire, and For Colored Girls.
  • Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina, the medium
    • Zelda was a character actress that was in things like Southland Tales, Guilty as Charged, and Teen Witch.
    • She landed the role after auditioning several times, and did her scenes over the course of a few days. She claimed to be psychic in real life, which also helped her win the role.
    • One of her most important lines was “Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.”
      • This concept appeared in other horror, notably Ghostbusters just a few years later, and also a very special episode of AYAOTD.
  • James Karen as Mr. Teague who was responsible for moving the cemetery.
    • James has been in several things including The Return of the Living Dead, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Mulholland Drive.
  • And Dirk Blocker as Jeff Shaw, the unfortunate guy who while riding a bike carrying a big case of beer drops probably about half of it. You may recognize him now as Hitchcock in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
    • Obviously a pivotal scene that we needed to mention.

FUN FACTS

  • ET and Poltergeist both came out in June of 1982, and it was dubbed, “the summer of Spielberg.” Spielberg originally offered ET to Tobe Hooper, and he turned it down for the unwritten Poltergeist script instead (obviously more his speed). 
  • In 1982, PG-13 didn’t exist. So Poltergeist was almost an R-rated film, but the filmmakers were able to make a case for a PG rating, since there are no fatalities (except Tweetie the bird) and because the film lacks excessive gore or bad language. This way, the movie could run alongside ET. Imagine going to the theatre and seeing these two classics at once! 
  • Craig T Nelson isn’t the only Pixar connection with Poltergeist. The Toy Story films make many pop culture references, and one of them is directly from Poltergeist! In the beginning of the film, Craig T Nelson’s character is watching TV, as the broadcast ends with the national anthem. He has fallen asleep eating snacks, and the dog licks his fingers. In Toy Story 2, Al falls asleep watching TV and eating snacks as well, and Woody’s horse Bullseye licks his fingers while he sleeps! Both scenes use the star-spangled banner.
  • Around 34 minutes in, there’s a weird cut in the film that’s impossible to miss. It goes from Diane speaking in mid-sentence to the couple standing on the porch of their neighbor’s house. What is a horrible, crude cut like that doing in this movie? 
    • Well, Carol Anne is promised Pizza Hut earlier in the movie, and a stressed Steve (Craig T Nelson) says, “I hate Pizza Hut!” likely because he would prefer to focus on the unseen force moving his family around the kitchen, than dinner plans. Pizza Hut was not happy with the line, but they found out late in the game. So the solution was that cut.
    • The cut is frankly jarring, and a splotch on an otherwise great film. We wish they could release the original and just cut the word “Hut” from the audio, or ADR a different line. Anything would be better than several minutes cut from the film, that likely contributed to it in an artistic way. 
    • Here is the cut scene dialog.
      • DIANE You can’t believe the feeling.
      • STEVE What’s the gag? There a magnet back there? He looks behind the door in the dining room. Nothing. Steve just stands for a long moment in hapless silence, then… I hate Pizza Hut! Where’s supper? I don’ t understand, Diane. What the hell’s going on around here? Steve sidesteps the chalk marks, removing himself from the active area.
      • DIANE I figured I’d never explain it to you. So I showed you instead, but don’t ask me how or what. Just help me figure out what to do.
      • STEVE You mean there’s no gimmick?
      • DIANE Not from inside the house. Maybe Tuthill got himself a super remote from the Radio Shack. Carol Anne adjusts her helmet and sits inside her launch circle. Diane and Steve are having the discussion across the room and aren’t aware of her.
      • STEVE Maybe the shakeup and this thing…relate.
      • DIANE No shit.
      • CAROL ANNE Daddy, look at me!! They turn but it’s too late. Carol Anne shoots across the room faster than before, and with no one to catch her.
      • ANGLE-KITCHEN WALL At a sickening speed her helmet smashes into the wall. Diane SCREAMS Steve runs over. An eight-inch hole in the wall and the cracked plastic on the helmet testify to the force of impact. Carol Anne is dazed but unhurt.
      • CAROL ANNE You promised pizza.

THE POLTERGEIST CURSE

  • If we’re gonna talk about Poltergeist, we have to talk about the mythology of the Poltergeist curse. Although this episode only focuses on the first Poltergeist film, the curse is something that covered all three Poltergeist movies.
  • On the set of the first film, there was a malfunction with one of the practical effects. In the scene where Robbie (Oliver Robbins) was strangled by the creepy toy clown, he called out that he couldn’t breathe. Filmmakers thought he was improvising until they noticed his face change colors, and Spielberg sprinted to him to stop it. Robbins was ultimately okay, but the incident is one of the first that people mention when they consider if the film is cursed.  
  • In October of 1982, only a few months after the release of the first Poltergeist film, Dominique Dunne, who played Dana, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, and placed on life support. The 22-year-old actress never recovered. 
  • Over the course of the second and third films, there were the deaths of actors Will Sampson and Julian Beck, both of which had known conditions that contributed to their deaths.
  • But what really solidified the myth in movie-lovers’ imaginations, was the untimely death of Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne. Before the release of the third film, the 12-year-old died suddenly of an undetected bowel defect, which caused her body to go into septic shock. 
    • Gary Sherman, director of the third film, did not want to finish the movie after Heather’s death. Unfortunately, he was contractually obligated to finish the movie, and they used a body double for Heather. He said it was the creepiest thing he had ever done, and he felt like releasing the film was disrespectful to Heather and her family.

Poltergeist is an iconic member of the 80’s horror family. It terrified a generation of kids, as it tapped into the fears they knew best: creepy clowns, terrifying trees, and closet monsters. The film showed audiences that anyone, even a non-believing happy family in a new home, could become the victims of a horror film. It played on the ideas that horror films had been building for decades: forces from beyond the grave, and hidden dangers lurking in seemingly idyllic places. 

How did Poltergeist become an instant classic? It’s simple: it knew what scared us


Sources:

The Historical Case of The Horror Film: Part 2

So last week, we started Frightening February with a horrifyingly historical episode on Horror Film History. Well, this week, we’re continuing to look at how the genre evolved through the decades. 

Art often imitates life, and vice versa. If there’s anything we learned from last week, Horror art is no exception. Follow these films, and you will find the history of our fears, and how we responded to them. This week, we’re starting in the 1950’s, when the fears of communism, war, and radiation poison were ruling the lives of the American public. This week’s discussion will stop at the end of the 1980’s. But don’t worry, after this month, we won’t be closing the book on Horror history forever. 

So snuggle up with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. And just so you don’t forget: 

It’s only a podcast. 

Last week we ended our discussion in the 1940’s, when vampires and werewolves were the least of the world’s concerns. A great depression ended in a world war, bringing old fears from The Great War back into the light. Hollywood took notes, and instead of trying to compete with the real-world horror of the atomic bomb and The Holocaust, they lightened up on horror films. But, as the decade went on, new fears guided the pens of screenwriters and the lens’ of directors; and the horror films of the 1950’s were on the horizon. 

  • A TRAUMATIZED AMERICA
    • Although the second world war appeared to be over, it left some nasty scars. 
      • After America caused devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of the atom bomb and the effects of radiation started to manifest at the local cinema. 
        • This led to films about giant monsters, huge insects, large people, and even gelatinous blobs!
          • The truth was, audiences were no longer interested in horror that took place in far-off and non-existant lands. They wanted to be shown the dangers of their own society. 
          • So, the movies of the 1950’s delivered. But, instead of giving audiences terrifying realism, they comically exaggerated the common fears of the American people.
          • This was the time period where horror fell further out of the mainstream and into B-movie territory. The plots seemed silly, but the scares were real. The stars of these films weren’t considered for the A-list, and you wouldn’t see a movie like, “The Blob” on the Oscar shortlist either.
            • Also in the 1950’s, theaters started employing gimmicks to get people to pay the price of admission. One of these was 3D viewing, which was really popular with horror audiences.
          • But no matter how popular (or unpopular) the genre was, it always served its most loyal fanbase: the outcasts. It was the people that didn’t fit in that flocked to the theaters to watch the lives of on-screen conformists get ripped apart by hideous monsters.
        • Monster movies didn’t just come from fears of radiation poisoning. In 1952, courts ruled that films were free speech, and censorship from local and state committees ceased (Seriously, please listen to our MPAA episode if you haven’t). This was incredible news for horror, as monsters could run amok on-screen once more.  
        • In Japan, filmmakers harnessed the destructive power of radiation and created the king of 1950’s monster movies: Godzilla (Go listen to that episode, please.) 
      • The atom bomb also forced Americans to consider the possibility of the end of days, and what kind of world humans would leave behind. The 1955 film “The Day the World Ended” was the first to address this existential question, and stories concerning the end of man-kind would carry over into the next decade.
      • Americans (and the world for that matter) had been trained to watch the skies for signs of attack. A current arms race and Cold War with the Soviet Union only heightened the fear that something would be coming from above.
        • In 1947, there was a mysterious crash in Roswell, NM. A local rancher gathered the debris from the site, which was then seized by the government. A press release referred to the downed object as a flying saucer, and a later press release corrected that statement to say it was a weather balloon. 
        • It’s well known that humans fear the unfamiliar, and nothing was more alien than…well aliens from outer space. Of course the fear of an alien invasion was not new in the 1950’s (hence the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in the 1930’s) but it was clear that this fear had returned and wasn’t going anywhere. So, spacemen were a popular subject matter in many 1950’s Sci-fi/horror films.
      • In the early 1950’s, aliens were depicted as a terrifying threat. The Thing From Another World (1951) was an example. John Carpenter, who would remake the film in 1982, was drawn to the ending and how they destroyed the creature with flame. Another example came in 1953, when aliens appeared on-screen in HG Wells’ sci-fi classic, War of the Worlds.
        • These films enhanced the mentality that we should destroy that which is different. It was much more popular for film aliens to be invaders, not lost species’ looking for a way home.
    • Sure, a great big monster with several eyes and sharp teeth seems pretty scary. But, do you know what’s even scarier? The monsters that we can’t see. After a depression and a war, America seemed to be on the mend (if you were white). Americans were desperately afraid of losing the picturesque ideals they had been promised. They were terrified of losing the American Dream. And in that sense, nothing was a greater threat than communism. 
      • The Red Scare instilled the fear of invaders, posing as regular folks, living in the same pink houses as they did, sitting ticky-tacky all in a row.
      • By the mid and late 1950’s, films started utilizing this concept. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” (1956) masterfully combined the dangers of mob mentality with the fear of alien takeover–all while serving as a metaphor for the red scare. They look like us, they talk like us, they could BE us.
    • These fears penetrated the perfect society that Americans wanted to believe in, exposing the darkness that lay beneath the apple pie and lemonade.
  • 1960’S 
    • Bob Dylan said it best when he sang, “The Times, they are a-changin’.” And boy, was there a lot of change in the 1960’s. Every decade brought about its own shifts in technology or world events, but the 1960’s were all about reform. Of course, this meant the movies changed as well.
    • The 1960’s were marked by the civil rights movement, sexual revolution, violence, and anti-war protests (especially against Vietnam.) 
    • We mentioned that the death of the Hollywood Production code meant less censorship in the 1950’s, but the effects really started to show in the 1960’s. In the Supreme Court Case of Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson in 1952, it was found that a movie could not be banned because it is deemed sacrilegious. It was declared that, “Expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guarantee of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” By 1968 the Hollywood Production Code was completely abandoned, which allowed filmmakers to really explore taboo topics like sex and violence. Horror started by challenging social norms, and it could finally return to its roots.
    • Much like the 3D of the 1950’s, early 1960’s horror also featured the gimmicks of Williams Castle. He issued special glasses to viewers of his film “13 Ghosts,” which he called, “Illusion-O,” in 1960. In 1959, he installed something called, “Percept-O” in his theater for the showing of a film called “The Tingler.” Random theater seats were set up to charge with electricity to simulate audience panic during the film.
  • Back in the 1940’s, noir thrillers were quite popular. One filmmaker, Val Lewton, created films that walked the line between a noir thriller and a horror film–supernatural creatures with human situations. Psychological thrillers didn’t make it into the 1950’s, against the creature features and gimmicks. But in the 1960’s, a filmmaker emerged that brought this type of scare back to the cinema, and changed modern horror forever.
  • It’s impossible to talk about 1960’s film, without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock. While movie restrictions faded, film-makers became bolder and began seeing how far they could push the limits, and Hitchcock was no exception. His movie Psycho (1960) would change the genre (and film) forever. The film was based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. After Hitchcock bought the film rights, he famously bought as many copies of the book as possible, to prevent people from reading it and learning the ending. This ensured his film was be as shocking as possible.
  • Before Psycho, the majority of horror focused on Gothic Romances. Psycho would bring in ideas that are closer to the horror that we have today. It displayed sexuality, depicting a woman in her undergarments, implying that she had sex outside of marriage (TV shows were still showing married couples sleeping in separate beds at this time). Although there is some debate about whether it was the first American film to show a flushing toilet, it was still groundbreaking for doing so. The shower scene showed that nobody was safe, even someone who had more screen time at that point in the film than any other character. It also played on audience expectations with a twist, showing that even the most ordinary of people could be diabolical. 
    • We can even thank Hitchcock for having set movie times. Since Psycho was so dependent on being seen from beginning to end, Hitchcock was insistent that nobody be permitted into the theater after it began. At the time it was common practice that the movies would be on a sort of loop and you could walk in whenever, finish the movie, and then stay to watch what you had missed in the beginning. If Psycho had been seen that way, the ending would ruin the affect of the beginning. 
      • Three years later, Hitchcock continued to push the boundaries of what audiences were willing to watch with The Birds. This film was also psychological, but it shook audiences with a new kind of movie villain that they would never be able to control: nature. The most disturbing part of the film is that there’s no explanation for the attacks, showing that the characters live at the complete mercy of the beasts.
        • Copycat Movies
          • Since these two movies were such big hits and pushed the limits on what crowds were willing to see, many other film-makers tried to upstage them by creating bigger shocks or more violence. One director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, took this direction so far that he is responsible for a horror subgenre known as “splatter.” These films focus on graphic portrayals of blood, as the name suggests.
  • In the 1960’s, ghost stories were another form of horror on the big screen. Another monster that falls into the psychological category, some films never explicitly state whether the journeys of the protagonists are “real” or not. But, their survival usually hinges on their recognition of what’s happening, and their mental state. These films often featured female protagonists. At this point, it was popular to show a beautiful woman in terror or agony in horror films. You could argue this was popular as early as the 1920’s, but Alfred Hitchcock is credited with making this a prominent trope. 
  • Another product of the psychological thriller era, was Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone. Many episodes of the classic show preyed on abstract fears of its audience; like loneliness, and the capability of men turning on each other. 
  • Due to its B-movie-status in the 1950’s, there weren’t a lot of well-known actors that were considered horror stars. In the 1960’s, Vincent Price was possibly the most popular horror actor.
    • Vincent Price has been known and remembered for his work in horror films even though this made up a small portion of the films he starred in.
      • Some of his most well-known are, “The Last Man on Earth” and “The Tingler,” which we mentioned earlier! His distinctive voice and ability to bring an unsettling presence to the screen left a mark on horror fans everywhere.
  • The late 1960’s is still known as one of the most tumultuous times in American history. It was filled with violence and fear, along with a rise in counterculture. Now that films could show blood, filmmakers didn’t hold back. They used the medium to spread messages to their audiences. Looking through the horror films of each decade, you can see the warnings that filmmakers desperately wanted to express; from environmentalism to racism to xenophobia to war. 
    • George Romero was one of the most influential horror filmmakers of all time, and is fondly known as the Father of the Zombie Film. Although his 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was not technically the first zombie movie, it is the most influential in what would become a zombie trend and set most of the lore that is held behind them.
      • George Romero was a big fan of making statements within his works. However, one that he didn’t mean to tackle was the problem of Racism in America. In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” he says, “Why do you do horror? Well you do it to upset the uppercut. But in the end it kind of gets set back up again. We kill the monster, and I didn’t wanna do that.” In order to accomplish not killing the monster, Romero (spoilers) instead kills the main character who happens to be a black man.
  • 1970’S
    • It’s safe to say, the horror genre only got bloodier as it ventured into the 1970’s. Filmmakers built on the fundamentals of horror that had already been created, mixing psychology with gore, using horror to send a message or to express themselves. In terms of history, the 1970’s seemed to be a more mature 1960’s. Building on the pain and turmoil of the previous decade, the violence in Vietnam continued on–as did the sexual politics of the time.
      • Some films still focused on the topical issue of war, like Deathdream (1974). This film follows a soldier that was presumed dead, as he returns home from the war and starts to exhibit strange behaviors. 
    • George Romero sure did start a trend with his flesh-eaters. Audiences gobbled up zombie films, as more and more were produced. 
      • Copycat zombie movies took over an entire section of horror. Over the years many more continue to be added with many of the same “rules” that began with “Night of the Living Dead.” The major contributing factor in this is surprisingly a lapse of copyright! Originally the movie was to be called “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” When the title was changed, the distributor failed to put the copyright on the final print and it entered into the public domain. This unfortunate accident would be in the end a happy one, for it has grown the zombie horror genre exponentially. 
    • As the war in Vietnam raged on, Americans felt divided. It was a type of class warfare in the states: Rich vs Poor, Young vs Old, Us vs Them mentality. 
      • Larry Cohen’s film, “It’s Alive” focused on the alienation that parents felt from their children. What happens when you’re afraid of the thing you love most? 
      • This also perpetuated the “keep it in the family” concept of horror films, where the family’s secrets are best kept as secrets.
    • As horror films included more sex and violence, they became known as Savage Cinema. Films like “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes” used graphic violence in a meaningful way. They depicted horrific acts that should insult viewers, to great effect. 
      • In The Last House on the Left, we see a naked kind of violence. Films often justify revenge violence, but this film promoted the message that violence is always ugly. The protagonists act just as violently as the antagonists, and it does not undo the harm that the antagonists caused to begin with.
    • One of the most iconic of these films is the Texas Chainsaw massacre from 1974. Many horror films begin with a sense of calm to lure in the viewer and make them feel comfortable before traumatizing them. Texas Chainsaw Massacre did no such thing. This film told audiences what it was from the very beginning, by bringing them into a world unafraid of gore. This film gave audiences the sense that there was something wrong with America.
    • Much like the 1950’s, 1970’s horror still had roots in the American Dream. Films like The Stepford Wives created a reality where that dream was manufactured, turning something that Americans strived toward, into a nightmare.
      • The Exorcist was a film that traumatized audiences by letting them connect with the lives of the classic American family. Nothing is more precious than a young child, and watching a demon destroy the dreams of a law-abiding American family, filled audiences with dread.
    • Since sex was previously a taboo subject, the 1970’s tackled it with reckless abandon. The proposal of The Equal Rights Amendment ignited conversations about sex, and women were becoming more powerful on screen. Just 10 years before, women were often the victims, and now they could be the heroes or the antagonists–they could be anyone.
      • Sexual liberation was a prominent theme in the film Shivers (1975) where a group of people spread parasites through sexual contact. The parasites make them essentially sex zombies, definitely something new for major motion pictures.
      • Among other horror themes, sex is prominent in 1979’s Alien as well. The aliens hijacked the human reproductive cycle, with graphic imagery that mimics that of giving birth, and seems to show the violation of the human body.
    • In 1975, film changed forever when Steven Spielberg debuted the first summer blockbuster: Jaws! Spielberg tapped into the sentiment that Hitchcock attempted with The Birds a little over 10 years before. Against man, nature is an unstoppable monster. He utilized the uneasiness and suspense, paired with John Williams’ iconic score–just as Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” theme helped make that film a masterpiece.
      • Jaws was an important moment for horror, because it brought it back to the mainstream. The film was high budget, and showed that the genre was growing in popularity.
      • It was another instance of American middle class life getting shredded. 
    • The horror of the 70’s was a beautiful culmination of fears and concepts from the years before. Movie-goers were still dealing with The Cold War, with Vietnam, with the shock of Charles Manson and the still-developing concept of the serial killer (they weren’t called that yet, though). So John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Halloween, built on the films of the past while also forging ahead where no film had gone before.
      • In an homage to Psycho, Carpenter cast Janet Leigh’s daughter as the lead in his low-budget slasher film. It ended up being a break-out role for Jamie Lee Curtis, as she plays the timid virgin that fights her way to the end of the film. 
        • Halloween took the concepts of Psycho (pre-marital sex, unmasked killer, and even a similar score) and applied them to teenagers. Horror stories had been used to dissuade teens from having sex for generations, and here was an updated example. 
        • Carpenter later said that he was “punished for killing sexually promiscuous girls” in the film. 
        • Producer Debra Hill pointed out that the character who isn’t promiscuous ends up being the one to “penetrate” the killer with the knife. She has no sexual release, and this is her character’s outlet.
      • Filmmaker John Carpenter said of the horror movie process: “Audiences don’t want something too horrible. That’s not entertaining for them, they wanna be entertained. They wanna have a good time. They don’t mind some of the characters on the screen getting bumped off even if in terrible ways but you can cross a line and the audience will turn against you. And if you’re a filmmaker you can sometimes use that to your benefit by teasing the audience. The audience will be like God are they gonna show me something I don’t want to see? It’s great because then the audience provides most of the action for you in their heads.”
    • By the end of the 1970’s, Zombie movies were still going strong. They were like the tofu of the horror film world, sending any message and holding any meaning necessary. George Romero is often remembered for using his zombie to parody consumer culture. In 1978, he brought us Dawn of the Dead, a continuation in his Zombie series that he would make several installments in throughout his career. 
      • And as we know, Zombies would never die.
  • 1980’S
    • The 1980’s were a call back to traditional values. A new President, Reagan came into office and while many felt that his new policies would help the country, others felt like they were restrictions on freedoms. The horror movies of the 80’s would address this by bringing horror into the normal everyday suburban American life.
    • Film-makers would even be able to do this more convincingly as technology, animatronics, and liquid latex were improving SFX and VFX. It would be a decade of excess. Excess of consumerism, horror, and Stephen King (lol).
    • Building off John Carpenter’s Halloween, films like Friday the 13th continued to place teenagers in murderous situations. This film followed some of the same tropes that had been built and perpetuated in the 60’s and 70’s in regards to sex and horror.
    • To further bring home the American ideal, it was quite popular to go after the Soviets, as the Cold War neared its end after forty years. Americans still clung to their dream of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, striving for the picturesque moments captured in Norman Rockwell paintings. 
      • The concept of something sinister lurking in the most unexpected of places certainly hearkened back to the 1950’s and 60’s, and would explain why films like “Little Shop of Horrors” got remade at this time.
      • This concept was also promoted in the film Poltergeist, even in its trailer.
      • Because history repeats itself, there were plenty of horror remakes in the 1980’s. But one of the most prominent was John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. Carpenter said that the film was a bleak look into the future. He was inspired by communism and the fact that no one seemed to trust each other. This was true in the 50’s, and it was true in the 80’s.
    • Stephen King
      • Stephen King’s novels and short stories lended themselves well to the cinema. In the 1980’s, many filmmakers took advantage of these stories and brought them to the screen. Some of the most notable of course being The Shining, Creepshow, Cujo, Pet Cemetery, and Firestarter. 
      • In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White and Blue,” Mick Garris says, “Stephen King is the horror version of Norman Rockwell. His characters live in your neighborhood.”
      • It’s impossible to cover the amount that Stephen King has contributed to horror cinema, and we will talk about him more later. But it’s important to note that these stories are still influencing movies and shows today. (Stranger Things?) 
    • If it feels like we’re repeating ourselves when we draw parallels from the 50’s to the 80’s, it’s because we are. Just like in the 1950’s, Horror became a spectacle again, with horror camp films becoming cult classics and fun spectacles to enjoy with friends. It became clear that filmmakers could have fun with these films, and that horror could be lighthearted. 
      • Some films walked the line of camp and horror, like “Nightmare on Elm Street.” One of the most iconic characters of the decade was Freddy Kruger, with his striped sweater, fedora, disfigured face, and hand with razors. He would often have funny one-liners that would bring a little lightheartedness to the horrors that he was committing. In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” Freddy is compared to FDR. Freddy kills the children of those that murdered him, bringing the punishment of the parents’ sin down on the children. FDR during the arms race brought debt onto the children of America.
      • The Evil Dead was meant to be a serious delve into the horror genre. It was edgy and excessive and ended up being cut by 49 seconds in the UK version for its obscene visuals. When it was released into the public, the over the top scenes, blood, etc made the film comical even though this was not the intent.
        • Since the first Evil Dead had become seen as comical, Sam Ramey leaned into this and created Evil Dead 2. He went all out with shaky moving cameras and over the top effects. If a normal amount of blood in a scene would call for one gallon, Ramey would insist on 10 gallons. 
      • These films receive a lot of recognition, but a lot of horror camp stayed out of the mainstream. These were the movies that garnered cult followings, and explains why the 1980’s is synonymous with campy horror films. One of these was Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It’s one that we (Robin and Marci) remember seeing as kids.

And horror camp of the 1980’s is probably a good place to stop for now, you know, before things get too scary. We will get to the 1990’s and beyond someday soon…

Remember, history often repeats itself, as does horror. It’s incredible to think that we can be afraid of the same things that people feared many years ago. Horror can transcend generations if it taps into the fears that make us human. Sometimes we don’t find something as scary as we once did, and that type of horror will dip out of the mainstream, only to find its way back years later when old fear reignites. 

Our journey through Horror Film History will be stopping here for now, at the end of the 1980’s. Sure, there is a lot more to talk about, and a lot more to go back and dive into. In terms of the genre, we’ve just grazed the surface. The best way to learn about horror films is to watch them. So get out that remote, friends, and come back and see us soon! 


SOURCES:

The Historical Case of the Horror Film: Part 1

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We often find February to be frightfully boring. It’s cold, dark, and lacking in fun holidays (I’m looking at you, Valentine’s Day). So, we’re jazzing this February up with some episodes on Horror! 

Ever since there has been life, there has been fear. It’s a constant, a truth, something that unites us all. And when humans gathered together to share their fears, those horrors became stories. Eventually, those stories made their way onto film. 

Horror is tricky. It’s a genre that many people love or hate–with no in-between. Some people write off many films belonging in the genre as low-budget and lacking in worthwhile stories or development. Others will simply say that they prefer not to be scared, and leave horror unexplored. Although scary movies are popular, they still sit on the fringe of mainstream filmmaking. Horror films rarely win prestigious awards. It’s a genre built for the masses; born in counterculture, and thriving in social deviance. 

So today, we’re exploring the history of this fascinating film genre. Things might get a little hairy…or slimy…or just downright grotesque. If you are faint of heart, gather close, and remember: it’s only a podcast…it’s only a podcast.

THE BEGINNING OF A NIGHTMARE

  • Horror is everywhere, and it has existed as long as humans began telling stories. You will find it in ballads, folklore, and mythology. Some of our favorite stories today were once horror stories, but time and technology have dulled the fears of the past. Horror is ever-evolving, and it’s shaped by whatever is the prevailing fear of the day. 
  • Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where it started, it is easy to see who refined the genre and shaped it for the coming generations.

HORROR’S FOUNDING FATHERS

  • Edgar Allen Poe is considered by many to be the father of Horror. He used literary techniques that enhanced the anxiety of the reader. One of these was first-person narration, which added a layer of realism by drawing the reader into the character’s account of the story. These situations are far scarier when we feel like they are happening to us.
    • Poe shaped horror literature with stories like, “The Tell-tale Heart,” a first-person account of a man going mad with guilt. The common themes of guilt and madness give the story a lasting appeal, and it is still adapted today (Spongebob being a notable example.)
    • Because the themes of Poe’s works were so universal, he has been adapted more than any other horror author.
  • But other authors around the same time also made an impact on the horror we know today. Horror writer Stephen King has cited three novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the foundation of horror. These stories are perfect examples of the three types of monster: man-made, self-made, and back-from-the-dead. 

THE FIRST HORROR FILMS

  • Moving pictures changed the world. Early filmmakers astounded audiences with the concept. But as time went on, audiences got used to the marvel of the moving image. Not long after viewers were famously cowering at the footage of an oncoming train, they were happily spending time in picture houses, handing over money to see the latest creations from artists like George Méliès, Thomas Edison, and the Lumiere Brothers. 
  • The shock had worn off, and creators could no longer rely on the sheer novelty of movies. So, they started using it to tell stories; and some of the most popular stories were the scary ones. Film was remarkable in that it could simulate life. And once audiences got used to that, it was only natural to simulate things beyond life–the fantastic, the unbelievable, and the horrific. 
    • Horror made its way into movies during the very early days of film history. You see, for many people, just the idea of moving pictures was horrifying. For the first time they saw real people that were moving and living their lives…but that weren’t actually there. They were stuck in some sort of black and white realm, without sound or escape. In this sense, every early film was terrifying; and it meant film and horror were a perfect match.
  • The Lumiere Brothers, two of the most influential film pioneers, made several short “spook tales” (they weren’t called horror movies back then) in the 1890’s. Spook tales were often created with the same techniques that spirit photographers had been using for a couple decades, and also drew influences from expressionist painters. Remember the word expressionist, because it has a strong tie to the horror genre. 
  • George Méliès, the stage-magician-turned-filmmaker who was renowned for his pioneering visual effects (listen to that episode please) is credited with the first narrative horror film! It was three minutes long and has a few titles, but we know it as, “The Haunted Castle.” 
    • Méliès continued to shock audiences with his incredible advances in special effects, making the impossible a reality for movie-goers. He created his pieces of art in his special glass studio, employing groundbreaking techniques like stop-motion and coloring his film.
  • Do you remember Stephen King’s trilogy of horror novels, mentioned earlier? Well, those stories were also some of the first narratives to make it to film as well. In 1908, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde got its first film adaptation, though like many early films, it has been lost. 
  • Thomas Edison also got in on the fun, and is also credited with some early horror as well, even if not intentional. Some will point to his infamous film depicting the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant as another example of early horror. The film was intended to show the dangers of Alternating Current. This is an example of someone using graphic imagery to instill real world fears into an audience. It’s important to note that Edison also electrocuted other animals for this purpose, though Topsy is the most famous. 
    • In 1910, Edison created the first adaptation of Frankenstein. At this time, there started to be resistance to horror, an unfortunate and ultimately predictable response from those that felt it insulted their delicate sensibilities. Because of this, Edison cut the story to fit a 14 minute runtime, and published a press release stating that changes to the story were made so the film wouldn’t offend audiences. The movie was a commercial failure.
  • Horror, as a genre, responds to the times. It’s ever-evolving, changing to meet the fears of its audience. The history of horror films is a history of the world, but more than that, it’s a history of human response to the events of the world. 
    • Much like early horror stories, the earliest films focused on the themes of religion and good vs evil. The word monster even has the latin root “Monstrum” which translates to “divine warning.” These movies harnessed the fear of eternal damnation, with monsters committing sins on screen, and the heroes using religious talismans to defeat them.
      • For example, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows the consequences of interfering with God’s design. 
    • Another prominent fear of the time was science, especially since science seemed to interfere with religious ideals. A mad scientist creating a man from the mutilated corpses of other men? That doesn’t seem to be in God’s plan. 
    • By the mid-1910’s, the world was engaged in a terrible war that wiped out an entire generation of young men. Suddenly, reality became more terrible than anything that a screen magician could create. The so-called “War to end all Wars” was so instrumental in the development of Horror films, the aftermath of the conflict is still affecting movies today. 
    • In an article for Vice, Seth Ferranti interviews historian W. Scott Poole about the effect the war had on the genre. Veranti writes: “A whole conceptual world died. Certain ideas about the nature of the human being, and optimism about the human future became impossible in a world of poison gas, machine guns, and shells that could tear a human being in half.” 
    • When asked why he believes that the war was responsible for modern horror, Poole explains: “What I have seen in the writings of veterans, including those who became some of the first horror auteurs, is a desire to compulsively relive the trauma over and over again. Horror is a language of trauma.”
      • The war introduced new kinds of fear: Mutilation, dismemberment, and the ghosts of those that died in horribly tragic ways. Film monsters would have missing limbs, reflecting injuries that many sustained in the war. 
  • Due to a ban on foreign films, the German film industry boomed during and directly after the war. The horror films that came from this period were heavily influenced by German expressionist arts. The sets were abstract, representing emotional themes and the mental state of the characters.
    • This concept has lasted throughout horror. Have you ever noticed the scenery change in a horror movie based on the mood of a character? Sometimes it even happens when we’re afraid in real life, when our senses are heightened. 
  • The German expressionist films of the 1920’s featured prominent fears of the time. Mental illness and losing control over your mind or body were more fears caused by the war, and the PTSD that soldiers now dealt with.
    • “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” dealt heavily with mental illness, as it deals with a protagonist wrongfully imprisoned in a mental hospital, facing an evil doctor. However, the film is framed in such a way that the audience doesn’t know who is sane. This kind of uncertainty gives the audience a feeling of unease, and is a technique still used today as well. Does everyone remember the Leonardo D’Caprio movie Shutter Island?
      • Roger Ebert in his review of Caligari: ”A case can be made that ‘Caligari’ was the first true horror film. There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial ‘Fantomas’ made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. ‘Caligari’ creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”
    • Building on mental illness, the screenwriter for Dr Caligari famously plagiarised Bram Stoker’s Dracula and created the horror classic: Nosferatu. 
      • Although the story was completely lifted from Dracula, director F.W. Murnau essentially created the movie vampire archetype, and his features have been famously used again and again.
      • This particular film had a heavy dose of realism with some of its scenes, and it reflected fears relating to sex and women. Of course, the nature of Dracula is sexual, and we will talk about that more later. But Nosferatu also showcased the fear of women in power, of women not being under control (sleep walking), and also explored disease, since the Spanish Flu epidemic was still fresh in everyone’s mind. 
    • Because the sensation of going to the movies felt so much like sleeping (dark room, strange images) sleep was a common topic as well. Monsters in these movies often strangled people in their sleep, which was effective to an audience seated in the dark.
    • Many of these films also reflected sexual politics. Like the issues of promiscuity, especially from women. The German film “Warning Shadows” is about a woman being stalked by shadows, warning her of the consequences of flirting with party guests (sheesh.) 
  • As German filmmakers immigrated to the US, Expressionism followed, influencing horror films for decades to come.AMERICAN FILMS OF THE 1920’S
    • The films of the 1920’s showed the truths of the time. These truths showed the doubt that the film-makers felt towards the sentiment that all men were created equal. The KKK and war were two of the most forthright examples of this inequality.
    • Lon Chaney
      • We’ve talked about The Man of a Thousand Voices, Mel Blanc, but now we can talk about someone many refer to as The Man of a Thousand Faces, Leonidas “Lon” Chaney. At this time looks were everything because it was still the time of silent film. Lon mastered disappearing into roles, with the help of make-up and physical performance. Since his parents were deaf, he had learned to amplify his emotions through facial expressions and movement. 
      • Lon is known as America’s first horror movie star and the monsters that he often played on screen were ordinary men turned outwardly monstrous by cruel fate and inwardly monstrous by the cruel actions of humankind. 
      • Loss was a fear among this time. It was the loss of family members from the war and the loss of limbs (and the loss of alcohol due to Prohibition.) American life was tough at this time and Lon Chaney’s outsider personas represented the dark side of life.
      • Two of Lon’s movies that survived and are excellent examples of this are: the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1925 Phantom of the Opera.
        • These movies also gave rise to the romantic love viewed as what we would call today… a Beauty and her Beast. 
      • Towards the middle and late 1920’s silent films would begin to become a thing of the past and “talkies” the new form of cinema. 
    • After facing the horrors of war just before the 1930’s America would be hit hard again but this time by the Stock Market crash of 1929. It was then that Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
    1930’S
    • In the 1930’s, horror got a new voice when Tod Browning’s Dracula took America by storm. This was the first of the Universal movie monsters, and it is a perfect example of the types of film audiences were yearning for. It was quickly followed by Frankenstein, an incredibly successful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s work, starring a fairly unknown Boris Karloff. American horror in the 1930’s took place in far off lands, and featured supernatural elements. While the horror of the 1920’s expressed how people were feeling, the horror of the 1930’s served as escapism for depression-era audiences. 
    • The first four years of the 1930’s is considered the Golden Age of Horror, as films produced villains that viewers identified with, and created stories that sparked imaginations.
    • A combination of that escapism and the novelty of the talking picture skyrocketed horror into the mainstream. Audiences’ mental health had been ravaged by the depression, so this type of horror seemed “safer,” lacking the grotesque and uneasy sensibilities of the 1920’s silent horror. The ability to hear a monster changed everything about how audiences would perceive them, and the advent of sound forced filmmakers to reinvent horror.
    • On her site, Horrorhistory.com, Karina Wilson says about this time: “Filmmakers of the time were drawn to the Genre That Didn’t Have A Name Yet because of the opportunities these dark tales offered to break taboos, exploring the lurid and sensational as well as probing deep into the sexual and criminal elements of the human psyche. The characters in these movies lived in out-of-the-way and out-of-time-places, outside the usual boundaries set by moral conventions or even the laws of physics. On screen, they had the freedom to run amok, flirt (even with the same sex), consume all manner of illicit potions, use violence to get their way, kill and — most blasphemously — create new life. It was inevitable someone would come along to spoil the fun.”
    • In 1934, all film changed forever with the introduction of the Hayes Code. The code unsurprisingly focused some rules at the horror genre, specifically stating that all movie monsters must die by the end of the film. (This explains why every disney villain got got.) 
      • Moral leaders of America (that we talked about in our MPAA episode please listen) were outraged by this type of entertainment, and argued against characters committing heinous acts in an entertaining way.
      • Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein showcased the concept of sympathetic monsters. Although audiences may have grown to love the characters, the film killed them off due to the Hayes Code.
    • Increasing censorship and lack of new ideas caused the American horror film to grow stale as the 1930’s marched on. Increased anxiety about turmoil in Europe hearkened back to the ghosts of WWI, and the fears of real life began to creep onto the screen. At this time, film’s most horrible monsters were human.
    1940’S
    • By the end of the 1930’s, horror had declined drastically, a long fall from the golden age of Dracula and Frankenstein. The production code even removed lines from previous movies that it deemed too offensive. The early 1940’s was a rough time for horror. This shows how detrimental censorship can be to art. When horror wasn’t allowed to reflect the times, the art suffered.
    • The 1940’s horror started with the mad scientists, villains that seemed just vanilla enough to not be too upsetting. In these types of films, the villain was science, not the scientist. They often seemed like victims of pride, a lesson audiences grew tired of learning. 
      • These films also introduced more romantic plots in horror movies, which was very different from the loveless depictions of sex and promiscuity of the 1920’s.
    • Screenwriter Curt Siomak had a Jewish background and fled Germany. He penned the screenplay for The Wolf Man, creating a story about someone who feels unwanted and outcast. The story was heavily influenced by his feelings of the war.
    • By 1941, the fear of the looming war was completely realized for Americans, and the memory of the not-so-distant Great War sat at the forefront of viewers’ minds. For this reason, the monsters of the past were given a little bit of a make-over to seem more campy and less horrific. 
      • Most of the time when war happened horror would try to keep up in shock value, but this time was different. Some Film-makers realized the immense real fear and horror at the images and video of the holocaust. Not only could they not compete with that but they knew their audience had changed. In order to accommodate this they jived the genre up by releasing more light hearted horror where old monsters were made to be just a bit sillier. An example of this would be that the Invisible Man became the Invisible Agent(1942.)
      • The most upsetting imagery to come from the 1940’s was from the aftermath of the Holocaust. There was absolutely nothing that movies could show audiences that would be nearly as terrifying. Hitler’s rise and his atrocities rocked the world. 
    • Since WWII was costly, many studios had to approach film with a minimalistic style. This would not only save them money but also be an artful approach to how films would be made. In the darkest imagery Americans could imagine their own worst fears coming to life.
    • Horror in children’s films
      • Due to the change in audience for horror, especially with some being toned down, horror began to be thought of as something for children. It began to trickle into animation. Walt Disney would even dabble in its use with smaller scares. An example of this would be in Pinocchio when the children are being turned into donkeys. This scene is actually quite harrowing for some children, but for those that enjoyed this scene it was clear that they would be prone to enjoying more horror.

The history of horror is as long as the history of film. Today, we talked about how it went from the outskirts of popularity to the mainstream, and then how it suffered from censorship and lack of ideas. But as years went on, past the 1940’s and beyond, horror continued to evolve. Sure, you could say there are mainstream horror films, but horror isn’t made for the mainstream. Horror is a genre of outcasts, and appeals to the outcast in all of us. As Horror evolves still today, it is quite possibly the most studied of all genres because it’s such a clear picture of the human experience. 

This was just part one of our exploration into the realm of the Macabre. Don’t fear, we have more frightening history on the way…


SOURCES:

The Case of Light

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Hey Cassettes and welcome back to another episode of the BCD!

This week, we’re doing something a little different. Marci and Robin are stepping out of their comfort zone, and allowing Adam to teach them about something completely new (to them)! 

In the time before time, the Great Spirit descended from the heavens carrying Alastair Swinnerton, Bob Thompson, Martin Andersen, and Christian Faber. Together they illuminated us with the three virtues; Unity, Duty and Destiny, and in 2001, Bionicle hit store shelves. It was a smash hit, connecting with kids around the world and taking LEGO out of the red by 2004. A place the company hasn’t returned to since, despite more recent struggles. 

Set in a universe filled with biomechanical beings, the world of Bionicle was unique, intriguing, and mysterious. Harnessing the power of the elements on their island home, the six Toa heroes are destined to save the world from the evil Makuta. LEGO dove deep into this world which spawned hundreds of toys that sold by the millions. Coupled with dozens of characters and a complex lore that would take a whole year of college classes to fully understand. But it worked. It was such a success that talks of a feature length movie started in the same year.

So, gathered friends, listen again to our legend, of Bionicle: Mask of Light.

HISTORY OF BIONICLE

IN NEED OF AN IDEA

  • Before the LEGO company became the largest toy company in the world, they were on a downward spiral that was nearly their end. The 90’s saw absolutely horrid sales and in 1997 the company posted a loss for the first time since their beginning in 1932. Not even securing the Star Wars brand was enough to save them from the brink.
    • Star Wars at the time was a franchise based solely on the movies. The interest in Star Wars toys would dip drastically if there wasn’t a new movie that year. LEGO knew that this was not sustainable.
  • LEGO needed something original that they could produce and sell year-round. Something to appeal to a new generation of builders. They realized that kids in this quickly growing modern world wanted something to play with that would encompass more than simple building blocks. Kids wanted a story behind those blocks, and to go with it, new pieces they could use to create their own characters and fantasies.
  • LEGO hired various staff from the broadcasting world to come up with story-based ideas, to counter the all-conquering franchise Pokemon. At the time, Pokemon was largely credited with Lego suffering their first loss. Many ideas were brainstormed and pitched to Erik Kramer, then Technical Director at LEGO, including one called ‘Bone Heads of Voodoo Island’, or Voodoo Heads for short. Secrecy was so tight around Bionicle that this original title was known only to the insiders for many years.

CREATORS

  • The key Lego creators of ‘Voodoo Heads’ were Bob Thompson, who had become Head of Story, and Martin Andersen, then a ‘mere’ toy designer. The third of the four ‘official’ co-creators was Christian Faber, Creative Director of the Danish advertising agency Advance, who created the amazing graphic look of the whole project.
  • It was not until Alastair Swinnerton got a hold of the project shortly after, that Bionicle began to take its final form. 
    • According to an recount written by Swinnerton on his personal website, “Voodoo Heads,” along with other brief concepts were sent to outside writers at a company called Skryptonite. 
    • He said, “Something about ‘Voodoo Heads’ caught my eye, so I decided to work on that one. It had a kind of Easter Island vibe to it I felt, and I’d always been fascinated with that subject. The basic story was there – a bunch of characters on an island, not knowing why. But that was about it. So I pretty much started again with the concept.”
    • The rewrite of the concept was sent back to Bob Thompson, and he liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that come February 2000, Swinnerton was on a plane to Lego HQ in Denmark.

MOVIE SUMMARY

  • The movie picks up in the second story arc after the Toa have already been around for a while. So in order to get the best comprehension out of the story, you should at least know this: It takes place on the mysterious island of Mata Nui. The spirit protecting the island, also called Mata Nui, has been put into a deep sleep. Six Toa heroes fall from the sky and discover that it is their duty to find the masks of power, defeat Makuta and reawaken the great spirit. 
  • Everything seems fine and dandy on the island and the matoran are safe and happy. They are in the midst of peace and prosperity! The different tribes are getting along and they even built a new stadium to play the sport of Kohlii. It is not until one curious matoran, Takua, makes a very important discovery: that Makuta again rears his ugly head. 
  • The mask of light has been found! The Turaga tell that it is a sign of the coming of a seventh Toa! Now the reluctant hero Takua and his friend Jalla, are sent on a quest across the island in search of their destiny. 
  • Meanwhile, Makuta must not let this happen. So he sends his evil sons, the Rahkshi, to find Takua and take the mask of light.

Making of the movie

  • From the beginning the creators envisioned that there would be a Bionicle movie. Thanks to the toy’s unprecedented success, Miramax and Lego made a partnership in 2002 to develop and distribute three direct to DVD movies with budgets estimated at around $5 million each. 
  • While most projects of its type took 18 to 24 months to complete, the development team completed the film in 13 months. This was due to a convenient arrangement with the Taiwanese animation studio CGCG that created most of the animation. As the US based team was done with work, the team in Taiwan was just getting started. So work was being done on the film almost 24/7.
    • CGCG Inc. has also done animation work for Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and even the more recent Jurassic World: Camp Cretaious! (This fact has made Adam very happy haha!)
  • The film was co-directed by Terry Shakespeare and David Molina.
    • Shakespeare and Molina both started as animators working with Don Bluth and would later go on to work at Disney. (Reverse exodus?) They worked on films such as An American Tail, Secret of NIMH, Beauty and the Beast, and more. 
    • They both began their paths to directing as animation directors for video games. Their first project was a game called Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse (1994.) They both did many video games for years until they were both given a shot at a film in 2002, with Bionicle: Mask of Light! They would both also go on to direct the two soon-after sequels. 
  • You could say that Mask of Light had many writers, because the story came from many places and went through many hands. We mentioned the big influence Alastair Swinnerton had on the Bionicle story, and he had a part in writing for this movie as well. But the biggest credit for the film itself goes to Henry Gilroy for the screenplay. 
    • Gilroy has many TV writing credits we’re sure you’ve heard of. For example, the 90’s Batman animated series, the Timon & Pumbaa tv series, Star War: The Clone Wars, and Avengers Assemble. 
  • Unlike previous Lego themes, Bionicle was accompanied by an original story told across a wide array of media. From comics, games, and commercials, to books, and web animations. This meant that many fans had their favorite version of the story so far, and it was important to keep that in mind. 
    • According to the behind the scenes extras of the DVD, one of the biggest considerations was being honest with the loyal fan base and being true to the source material. Bob Thompson said in an interview, “People often talk about, when they make a film from a book, everyone that has read the book has a slightly different take on it. Well this is even more extreme because everyone that’s played with the toy has a belief about what Bionicle is.” 
      • When choosing a style, directors Shakespeare and Molina noted that there were several already existing interpretations of the Bionicle look. They would go through it all during the early design phase, including flash webcomics, comic books, and CGI commercials; they eventually decided upon the more commercial look. (Perhaps we could have gotten a great 2D animated movie in another life!)
      • The characters were changed as little as possible, while still adding enough new detail in order for the characters to act and move as we would expect. Including the addition of hands and masks that can move as they talk.
      • The look is loved by many fans and disliked by others and is now referred to as the Miramax style. The same look would continue for the next two movies. 
    • While writing, Henry Gilroy made sure to stick with what had come before. This was the first Bionicle movie, but it was picking up on what was then, the second major story arc. So he had to be mindful of how characters think and behave. 
      • The team developed new expressions that would fit in the world. For example, Takua says, “hold your rahi” instead of the “hold your horses” and Jalla says “You could have been lava bones” in place of “You could have been killed.”
    • There were many discussions about this with the casting director Kris Zimmerman. Henry said also on the DVD, “I think everybody has a certain expectation for the voice they want to hear coming out of their favorite Toa. Every Bionicle fan has their favorite Toa, so we really wanted to be true to them, to somehow instil in them a voice that would be believable to the hardcore fans. So they didn’t sound like they lived in the United States or in Europe, but that they came from their own world.”

STARRING

  • Jason Michas as our main character Takua. 
    • He has had other voice roles such as Ernest Goes to School, and the show Dragon Tales.
  • Andrew Francis as Jalla, the Captain of Ta-Koro’s Guard
    • He has made his way more recently in tv shows and doing english dubs for anime, such as the localization of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
    • According to Kris Zimmerman, the two leads came in to audition for the opposite roles they would eventually get. Andrew came in very well dressed and professional, while Jason dressed in a hawian shirt and cracked jokes the whole time. Kris eventually had them try and switch their lines, and the characters just clicked. 
  • Scott McNeil would voice both Tahu, Toa of Fire and Onua, Toa of Earth
    • He is know for doing many english dubs for anime such as the extremely popular Dragon Ball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing.
  • Dale Wilson as Lewa, Toa of Air
    • He has made an appearance in Psych and has provided voices for things like, Transformers, Stargate, and X-Man: Evolution. 
  • Kathleen Barr as Gali, Toa of Water
    • She has over 300 voice credits on IMDB including My Little Pony, Ninjago (another LEGO property), Ed Edd n Eddy, and Veggietales.
  • Michael Dobson as Kopaka, the Toa of Ice
    • He has done many voices as well, including The Hulk, Sausage Party, and Norm of the North.
  • Trevor Devall as Pohatu, Toa of Stone
    • He has many cartoon and gaming voice roles such as Halo 5, Regular Show and the new ThunderCats Roar.
  • Lee Tockar as the Makuta, the main antagonist.
    • He is also in many cartoon roles such as in Bob the Builder, Johnny Test, and even the Ratchet and Clank movie!

RECEPTION/AWARDS

  • Obviously this movie is a freaking masterpiece of the highest quality! Just kidding! Or am !?
    • Among fans of Bionicle, it is a well loved movie and the majority favorite of all four films. With an existing knowledge of characters and the world, the film really shines for what it is. 
    • The main criticism from many is that it relies heavily on knowledge of earlier Bionicle storylines. It could be said  that it was almost “too respectful” in this aspect. 
  • Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+”, calling it a “well-constructed CGI adventure” and saying that even those who did not understand the story would at least enjoy the effects and action sequences. 
  • And Don Houston of DVDTalk, also was generally positive about the film. He called the direction and visuals “exceptionally crisp and clear” when compared to other films of its type, and gave high praise to the voice acting and noting darker themes within the film. 
  • The movie has actually won two awards! 
    • In 2003, Mask of Light won a Golden Reel Award for Best Visual Effects in a DVD Premiere Movie, also it won the Best DVD release award at the 2004 Saturn Awards.

Bionicle: Mask of Light’s success prompted later Lego themes to utilize similar story-telling methods. Ninjago, Hero Factory, and Legends of Chima to name a few. But Bionicle was special. It was a deep and fascinating franchise loved by many. Bringing in the fans of fantasy, and sci-fi, as well as Lego builders all together. From the beginning, it had an element of mystery—what are these robots doing on an island? Wait, are they even robots? Where did the Toa come from? How powerful is Makuta? But somehow you knew that there was even more beneath the surface. Movies like Mask of Light brought a new light, pun intended, to that mystery. 

After a long ten year run, the story is kept alive today by the undying love of its fans. More and more new builds, games, art, and stories are shared everyday. And there is even more still creeping just past the horizon. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Bionicle! So, happy anniversary! We look forward to the next time, when we will all listen again to the legend of the Bionicle. 


SOURCES:

The Case of Robin Williams

A man in a funny red suit stands in contrast to an all-black screen. He has a young face, with a wild head of hair and sparkling blue eyes. A booming voice calls down to him, asking for an update from the planet Earth. The voice is Orson, and the man is Mork, an alien sent from his home planet Ork to study Earth’s inhabitants. In this episode of “Mork and Mindy,” Mork transformed himself into an old man, to provide company to Mindy’s grandmother after the loss of her best friend. Mork delivers his usual silliness and improvisation, until it’s time to look up at the invisible Orson, and recite the moral of the episode, “Everything else here gets more valuable as it gets older: wine, cheese, furniture, coins…everything except people.” 

It was moments like this that turned Robin Williams into a superstar. There was no doubt the man was comically talented, having made a name for himself on stand-up stages across southern California, but mainstream audiences fell in love with the quirky–yet sentimental–Mork.

Over the next few decades, Robin Williams entertained and inspired generations of fans. Not only was he one of the greatest comedic minds of all time, he proved to be a remarkable actor as well. He entertained in a way that no one ever has, or likely ever will. He was a shining light despite the darkness lurking in his own world, a chaotic beacon that millions looked to for warmth and a good laugh. 

So today, we’re spending our first biography episode of the year on the incomparable Robin Williams. 

FAMILY/ YOUNG LIFE

  • Born on July 21st, 1951 in Chicago, Illinois, Robin Williams was the only child of Robert and Laurie Williams. Robert held a high-ranking role in the Ford Motor Company, and Laurie was a former model and part-time actress. The two of them traveled often, leaving Robin alone for his formative years. To cope with the loneliness, Robin would create characters and voices, and bring to life a vast collection of toy soldiers.
  • Since both Robert and Laurie had a child from previous marriages, Robin also had two half siblings that he didn’t meet until he was about 10 years-old.
  • Both of Robin’s parents played a major role in his love of comedy, but he would credit his mother for being the one to show him the joy of making others laugh. She had a sight gag that she would often use at parties, that involved her placing a broken rubber band up her nose and pretending to sneeze. She would then let the rubber string dangle to great comic affect.
  • Robin would later describe his father as a good man, but a tough laugh. The two didn’t have a lot in common, but sometimes Robert would let his son stay up with him to watch Tonight starring Jack Paar. Robin remembered one time specifically when comedian Jonathan Winters appeared on the show, and made his father burst out laughing. This made Robin take notice of Winters, who would become one of his biggest influences. 
    • Winters was famous for his improvisational skills. Robin loved to recount the time he called Jonathan Winters his mentor and Jonathan said, “Please, I prefer idol.”

Clip of Jonathan Winters on Tonight with Jack Paar

  • Robin attended an all-boys school, and was on the football team. Any rebellious nature he had, he kept from his parents, showing good grades and manners.
  • But when he was 17, the Williams family moved to San Francisco. The new environment changed everything for Robin. It was here that he performed for the first time, doing an impression of a particularly animated teacher at his public high school. This quiet, nervous kid now made a remarkable discovery: when he was performing, he could be someone else, and the inhibitions of his normal personality faded away.
  • After attending an all-boys college to study political science, Robin dropped out and received a scholarship to Juilliard, where he met his long-time friend and roommate, Christopher Reeve
    • Juilliard gave Robin skills that he would use for the rest of his career. He was a skilled actor with a remarkable memory and ability to project without a microphone. He could form a connection with audiences, and he fell in love with improvisation.
  • After college, Williams moved back to California, and would perform on the street as well as in comedy clubs like The Holy City Zoo, where he started as a bartender. This would also be where he met his first wife, Valerie Velardi. The two were married for 10 years, and Robin remarried Marsha Garces in 1989. Him and Marsha were together for 21 years, and had two children: Zelda and Cody. In 2011, Robin married his third wife, Susan. 
    • Robin Williams burst onto the comedy scene, forging lasting relationships with other up-and-coming comedic acts like David Letterman and Billy Crystal. 
    • In the documentary, “Come Inside My Mind,” Letterman recounted seeing Williams’ wildly funny and energetic performances, wondering if his own comedy career would soon be over. “All I could do was hold on to a microphone for dear life,” Letterman said, “and he was levitating.”
  • Williams thrived as a performer in front of live audiences, and it was these performances that got him cast in his first TV appearance. 

FIRST PROJECTS

  • When producer George Schlatter saw one of Williams’ shows in the late 1970’s, he cast him in a special called , “The Great American Laugh Off.” Robin was a hit, and was later added as a cast member in the revival of “Laugh In.” 
  • In the mid 1970’s, Happy Days was the number one show on ABC. But, producer Gary Marshall’s son remarked that he was no longer watching it. When Marshall asked his son what would make him want to watch the show again, his son said that he wished there would be “space men” in the show. So, Marshall decided to write one in.
    •  When it was time to hold auditions for Mork, a quirky alien from the planet Ork, someone who had seen Robin Williams as a street performer suggested him for the role. Gary Marshall asked if he should really “hire a kid that stands on the sidewalk with a hat” to be on his major TV show, and the person replied, “it’s a pretty full hat.” 
    • So Robin came in to audition, and did so well, he was cast on the spot.
      • The showrunners knew immediately that Williams was perfect for the role, when they asked him to sit down and he sat on his head (a gag used in Happy Days and later Mork and Mindy). Marshall reportedly said that he was the only alien to show up for the part. 
      • The episode tested well with audiences, and Happy Days brought back Mork for another episode later on. 
    • It seemed to be a no-brainer that Mork should get his own show, so Marshall brought on actress Pam Dawber to play opposite Robin Williams, in a show about an alien that lives with a woman in present day Boulder, Colorado. The show gave Mork a new mission: he was to investigate the strange customs of the inhabitants of Earth, and report back to his superior, a faceless voice named Orson.
      • The show turned Robin Williams into a household name. He was making more money than ever, and he found a home in front of a live studio audience. 
      • Sometime during the second season was when Robin started using drugs more heavily than he had before. He was friends with John Belushi, who had visited the set of Mork and Mindy on a day when Robin’s idol Jonathan Winters was a special guest.
        • Robin visited with Belushi on the same night that he passed away from a drug overdose. The absolute shock and devastation of losing a close friend to drugs prompted Robin to get sober.
        • This is an excerpt from the biography, “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff, recounting the moment that Pam Dawber had to tell Robin about Belushi’s death.
          • Dawber waited for a discreet moment when she and Robin were walking back from the Paramount commissary: “I said, ‘I’ve got something really terrible to tell you, Robin. He went, ‘What? What?’ And I said that John Belushi was found dead last night.” Robin found it incomprehensible to hear this about someone he had seen only a few hours earlier. “He went, ‘What? I was with him last night! I was with him last night!’” Dawber said. She could see that Robin was in pain but wanted to make sure he did not ignore the larger lesson in all of this. “I said, ‘Robin, if that ever happens to you, I will find you and kill you first.’”
        • Around this time, Robin’s oldest son Zach was born. This was another incentive for Williams to stay sober.
      • After four seasons, Mork and Mindy ended. Robin closed the book on the show that made him a star, and set his sights on bigger things. He continued to perform stand-up shows, proving himself as the king of improvisation. He would perform sets that he hadn’t written or rehearsed beforehand, and he felt free to perform without the rules of a Network holding him back. 
      • The end of the show also freed Robin to focus on a newer chapter of his career: movies! Although he didn’t become a movie star right out of the gate, film would be the medium by which many would know him by in years to come. Once he found his footing as a film actor, he didn’t look back. In fact, he didn’t return to TV for nearly 3 decades.

A FEW OF HIS MOST INFLUENTIAL ROLES

  • POPEYE
    • Popeye was Robin Williams’ first feature film, and ultimately one that he would consider a disappointment. It wasn’t necessarily a critical darling, and although it didn’t flop, it never reached number one at the box office. 
    • For the next few years, Williams would star in films like, “The World According to Garp” and “Moscow on the Hudson,” but he still felt that he wasn’t winning film audiences over. However the World According to Garp gave him the chance to be in a more serious role where he had to commit to the lines. He was able to build on this and show that he had a wider range than just comedy.  
  • GOOD MORNING VIETNAM
    • It may seem crazy but there was a time when there were doubts about Robin’s abilities. The movies that he had been in before Good Morning Vietnam had not done well, and so the industry and Touchstone Pictures had their doubts. Barry Levinson, the movie’s director and fellow Comedy Stores Player member, knew that Robin would be perfect for the role. 
    • This was Robin’s first film to do well and be the number one movie at the box office. It was his big break into the movie scene and to move beyond just stand-up and television.
    • Thirty Three years ago this month Good Morning, Vietnam came to theatres. Hours of material were ad-libbed for the radio scenes.
  • DEAD POETS SOCIETY
    • The first director, Jeff Kanew, actually wanted Liam Neeson as the role of Keating but Touchstone Pictures(AKA Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg) wanted Robin Williams. Robin never said yes or no to taking the part of Keating but his deafening silence towards working with Kanew on the project was noticed. Touchstone gambled and had everything set for the first day of shooting with hopes that Robin would show up. He did not. Luckily after a few changes, especially to a new director, he accepted the part and things got rolling.
    • Director Peter Weir when talking about whether or not Robin could pull this role off said that although he was known as a “funny man,” he had met Robin and the role he wanted him to play would be a mixture of the “real Robin” and a little of his character from “The World According to Garp.”
    • At first it was hard for him to get into the role, but once he was given a little free reign for improvisation on teaching the boys it all clicked.
  • HOOK
    • Dante Basco who plays the role of Rufio would often discuss The Dead Poets Society and poems with Robin. He was an aspiring poet and so at the end of shooting, Robin gifted him with a limited edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As a result he ended up opening a very successful venue in America called The Poetry Lounge.
    • On the set of Hook Robin had some funny antics and Thomas Tulak recounts one of the times that Steven Spielberg was trying to address the people on set, “He’s just about got every one calmed down and starts to give instructions, when Robin climbs to the top of the pirate ship, behind Steven, and moons everyone!” Tulak wrote, adding, “Needless to say, Steven lost control of the situation.”
    • The hardest part for Robin to play in this movie was Peter Banning. Spielberg said that it was the antithesis of who Robin was.
genie inspiration.jpg
  • ALADDIN
    • At this time Robin Williams had become a well known star and Ron Clements and John Musker specifically wrote the role of Genie for Robin. They were incredibly inspired by a short called Back to Neverland, where Robin is taken around the world of DIsney Animation by Walter Cronkite and is taken to the animated world of Peter Pan specifically. In order to pay respect and recall back to this short, Musker and Clements had animators draw Genie at the end of the movie wearing the same yellow wild shirt and Goofy hat that he does in the beginning of Back to Neverland.
    • Robin at first did not want the part because he felt that the Disney contract was too strict. He finally agreed to do the film because Katzenberg convinced him to do it for his young kids so they could see their dad in something. He did however have some stipulations that he gave Disney. Some of these include: Genie could not be in more than 25% of the poster image, they couldn’t use his name or voice for marketing the movie, and that no happy meal toys be made of Genie. One of his goals was to not overshadow the movie that he had committed to first with Barry Levinson called “Toys.” Sadly “Toys” would bomb at the box office and Disney would break their promises of using his celebrity to promote Aladdin. This would lead to his anger at the studio and reason for not appearing in The Return of Jafar.
    • Fortunately for us however Robin had free reign in this feature and reportedly recorded 16 hours of riffing which the film cut down and brilliantly animated for the film.
  • MRS. DOUBTFIRE
    • When Joe Roth took over for Disney he gave a formal apology from Disney to Robin. This allowed Mrs. Doubtfire to be greenlit. 
    • Anne Fine the author of the book (Alias Madame Doubtfire) that the film is based on, pictured Warren Beatty as the lead. How different the movie would have been!
    • True to form 2-3 cameras had to be kept on Robin as he moved about freely during filming!
    • Robin wanted to make sure that his costume for Mrs. Doubtfire worked and so therefore he tested it in a few different ways. One way he did this was to wear it to an adult store to buy intimate objects. It worked and it took the clerk quite a while to finally figure out that it was actually Robin! The other test came when they were casting Matthew Lawrence and Mara Wilson as the children. They wanted to get the kids’ true reactions.
      • Lisa Jakub who played the eldest daughter said about the movie that “I have had so many people come up to me and want to talk about this because it was so meaningful to them and really helped them get through their parents’ divorce,” said Jakub. “This idea that this might not be the way that you thought your life was going to be, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or wrong. You’re going to be okay. That’s a really powerful message.”
    • There were reports that multiple cuts of the movie were made, one for PG, PG-13, R, and even NC-17 depending on what Robin ad-libbed. The final cut they chose was the PG-13, yet I know that lots of kids were still allowed to watch it!
      • There were two scenes that were also cut from the film for being “too heartbreaking.” We watched them and…yeah, we agree.  You can find them HERE.
  • JUMANJI
    • The director Joe Johnston said that TriStar pictures told them that they would make the movie if they could get Robin to be in it. The first script was passed by Robin and so the team spent an entire night revising the script. Luckily this next screenplay was accepted and he said yes!
    • Young 12 year old Bradley Pierce had to have make-up put on for 3 hours a day to become the monkey boy. Since Robin had to go through a similar time, recently being made up as Mrs. Doubtfire, he kindly kept Bradley company and gave advice as he sat in the chair.
    • Bonnie Hunt said of the movie “Kids always remember the first movie that makes their hearts pound. Then that feeling becomes nostalgic, and you want to revisit it and share it with a new generation.”
      • And boy was it a hit, winning $262.8 million worldwide.
  • GOOD WILL HUNTING
    • Good Will Hunting gave Robin Williams his only Academy Award, for the role of Sean McGuire. Although Williams had proved he was a strong dramatic actor (hence Juilliard) this role really proved his range. 
    • It is now one of his best-known performances, and fans of the movie often take trips to the public bench in Boston, where one of the film’s most iconic scenes takes place.
    • In one scene, Williams improvised a line about his late wife farting in her sleep. The story made Matt Damon and Williams both break into laughter, and if you look closely, you can see the camera shaking because the cameraman was laughing as well!
    • Robin says that the quietest person in the room is the one to look out for. The line in Good Will Hunting where his character grabs Damon by the throat and says I will end you came from when Robin saw a large guy at a bar picking on a smaller dude and the smaller dude was quiet until he had enough. He pointed and said “I will end you” and the larger guy walked away. 
  • PATCH ADAMS
    • Patch Adams was a way to show Robin’s care for children, especially those fighting cancer or other ailments. It was a way to show that laughter really can be the best medicine. 
    • Cameron Brooke Stanley was only 7 year old, undergoing treatment for her kidney in real life, and cast with a speaking role. She remembers Robin fondly as he cared for the children’s comfort and well-being first and foremost. As of 2014 she was 22 and living in San Jose free of cancer.
    • Patch Adams, after hearing of Robin’s passing, had this to say to Time Magazine, “I’m enormously grateful for his wonderful performance of my early life, which has allowed the Gesundheit Institute to continue and expand our work. We extend our blessings to his family and friends in this moment of sadness. Thank you for all you’ve given this world, Robin. Thank you my friend.”
  • His last roles were; “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” and a voice part in “Absolutely Anything.”

CONTRIBUTIONS TO AMERICAN CULTURE

  • When performing, Robin had a lot of energy and would move freely about in the space that he was given. He was very unpredictable. Due to this, he is the reason that a fourth camera was brought into the sitcom format during Mork and Mindy. They brought it in specifically to capture Robin, because he was not hitting his marks!
  • Robin Williams did lots of charity work, he helped where he could. Here are just a few organizations that he put his time, money, and talents towards.
    • You may remember him doing ads for St. Jude’s Hospital. We would often see them at the theatre before they played the trailers! He was a big supporter and would spend whatever time he could to visit with the children and families.
    • Since he was a close and personal friend with Christopher Reeve he committed 4 years of his life on the Board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He went to several of the fundraising events and made sure to talk to as many people as he could. The foundation raises money for research towards spinal cord injuries. Robin would financially support this foundation as much as he could.
    • Comic Relief was a special telethon organized by Bob Zmuda that had Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams as the hosts. It’s purpose was to raise money and awareness to homelessness and health care services. The three of them would host a total of 8 of the telethons starting in 1986.
    • He was always willing to go and visit the soldiers overseas with many performances over his 12 years of involvement with the USO. He would pose for so many pictures with troops that he would often have to be practically dragged away from them. 

AWARDS

Here is a list of some of the awards that Robin Williams won throughout his career

  • Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2005
  • Golden Globe winner for his roles in: Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and Mork and Mindy
  • Emmy Winner for roles in: 
    • ABC Presents: A Royal Gala
    • Carol, Carol, Whoopi and Robin
  • Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for his roles in One Hour Photo and Aladdin
  • American Comedy Awards: Mrs. Doubtfire, Comic Relief III, Comic Relief ‘87, Good Morning Vietnam, Robin Williams Live at the Met
    • In 1988 and ‘89 he won Funniest Male Stand-Up Comic and in 89 he also won Funniest Male Performer of the Year
  • He won these along with several others and many more nominations! He even won a few Grammy’s like one for the soundtrack for Good Morning Vietnam.

HIS DEATH AND LEWY BODY DEMENTIA 

  • Robin Williams had an unparalleled mind. He relied on his ability to think on his feet, as well as his extraordinary memory that he inherited from his dad. Near the end of his career, Robin was still getting steady work. He starred in a sitcom called “The Crazy Ones,” and made appearances in all three of the “Night at the Museum” films.
  • But despite outward appearance, Robin and his wife Susan noticed something was wrong. In October of 2013, around the time of their two year anniversary, Williams started experiencing what his wife would call, “a firestorm of symptoms.” Among these were paranoia and memory loss. For months there were no answers on what could be causing these issues. Susan Schnieder Williams remembers her husband calling her while he filmed the final “Night at the Museum” movie. He was having a panic attack because he couldn’t remember his lines. A month later, he was given the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Symptoms would change and worsen as time went on. Robin was confused and distraught. He seemed to be losing his ability to judge depth, and at times he would get caught in a frozen stance, unable to break out of it.
  • On August 11, 2014, Williams’ assistant found the comedian unresponsive in his home. He had died of an apparent suicide. 
    • The news of Robin Williams’ death shook his fans from all over the world. It was an unbelievable loss. Robin Williams was the kind of person that seemed untouchable, invincible.
    • President Obama said of his death: “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
    • His manner of death sparked many discussions on mental illness, more specifically depression. The incident seemed to highlight the importance of seeking help, and destigmatizing mental illness. 
  • In the fall of 2016, a neurology journal published an essay by Susan Schneider Williams called, “The Terrorist Inside my Husband’s Brain.” Which we will link to in the blog. https://n.neurology.org/content/87/13/1308
  • It was revealed that after Williams’ autopsy, medical professionals discovered Lewey Bodies on his brain. These are lumps of protein known to cause dementia. Robin Williams had a unique and advanced case of Lewey Body Syndrome (LBD) that was likely a major factor in his suicide.
    • In the essay she wrote: “I will never know the true depth of his suffering, nor just how hard he was fighting. But from where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life.”
    • Susan Schneider has continued to educate the public about the little known brain disease that affects about 1.4 million Americans.

In her essay, Robin Williams’ wife wrote, “Robin is and will always be a larger-than-life spirit who was inside the body of a normal man with a human brain.”

Robin Williams was truly remarkable. There was something in him that we all see in ourselves, yet he was utterly unique. He spoke to us, made us laugh, made us cry, and made us laugh again. On stage, he was lightning personified, striking in unpredictably amusing ways. In life, he was quiet, loving, and at times, lonely. He shared with the world, the magic of his inextinguishable spark. And although he may be gone, his light will never leave us. 


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