Monday, December 24, 2018

A Friendly Guide to Some of My Favorite Horror Movie Podcasts

A rare behind-the-scenes photo from a recording session of The Projection Booth podcast in which host Mike White (center) is flanked by guest co-hosts Heather Drain (L) and Samm Deighan (R)

As I take humble stock of the ways in which I and my fellow university media studies professors try to deepen our collective understanding of popular culture, I am obliged to remind students, readers, and fans that academic writers are never the first group of critics to appreciate, analyze, and understand the subtlety, artistry, and complexity of the lower-prestige (and often lower-budget) films belonging to the “body genres” of the tearjerker melodrama, the sci-fi anime feature, the martial arts movie, the horror picture, and the sex film. 

Instead, this task has fallen to obsessive members of media subcultures, viewers and critics comprised of autodidactic fans and collectors who provide an initial appraisal and categorization of entire groups of films that most “respectable” critics and moviegoers mistakenly assume are stale, formulaic, and interchangeable.  The initial curation and canonization of key works by these intrepid enthusiasts provide a roadmap that successive generations of both fans and academic critics rely upon in their exploration, appreciation, and elucidation.

In the U.S., there is a direct and unbroken line of brilliant commentary on popular movies stretching from urban gay male audiences of the 1940s-1960s who flocked to Hollywood melodramas and women’s pictures, often shouting comments back at the screen to deconstruct the movies’ presentation of gender and power, to hippie underground newspapers publishing mocking and/or celebratory political analyses of movies shown at drive-ins and grind houses.  In the 1980s, this continued in the “zine” phenomenon in which fans and collectors would send Xeroxed, stapled copies of their essays on films through the mail to their compatriot obsessives, and these DIY "publications" often carried ads for post office box-based sources of grainy, wavy, multiple-generation VHS dupes of the films under discussion.  

The brilliance of the zines continues in the current internet-based culture of fandom and criticism found online in discussion boards, blogs, and podcasts.  While some media academics have entered the horror / cult movie podcast field, we have done so late, and our work can never match the groundbreaking and continuing excellence of work done by non-academic, self-taught fan critics from zines, blogs, and now, podcasts.

The approaches of these critics in the podcast form usually fall into one or more of the following categories:  (1) The hosts and guests take on the imagined personae of the movies’ intended audience, namely barely-literate, sexist, voyeuristic, “NEET” (look it up) young adult white males.  They praise films based on their body count, bloodletting, and undraped female bodies on display, and they seem to mock efforts of other critics to find anything of value in the films apart from their salacious spectacle.  In my experience, this anti-intellectual and philistine perspective is almost always a completely artificial construction.  (2) The dominant tone is one of nostalgia in which a viewer’s initial response to movies seen years before at an earlier stage of their psychosocial development is fetishized and preserved in amber.  Some of these critics can get quite defensive when new, “revisionist” approaches to their favorite movies are proffered by younger critics or when films are remade.  Others in this group find the new responses of successive generations of fans and viewers a source of endless fascination and amusement.  (3)  The hosts interview stars and filmmakers who are either currently active orwho played a major role in making acknowledged “classics” or “turkeys” of the past.  (4)  Discussions of the films focus on long-range developments of key motifs in the genre over different periods and cycles of popularity.  (5) Movies are discussed in terms of their engagement with social issues of their time and over time.  In these last two modes, there is often an overlap with issues of great interest to academic critics.  The very best horror movie podcasts often shift seamlessly in and out of three or more of these registers, often with remarkable wit and verve. 

So here is a list of my favorite podcasts likely to be a source of insight and delight to those studying horror movies and seeking deeper sources of engagement with them.

The Projection Booth 
Not exclusively devoted to horror, this is nevertheless far and away, by leaps and bounds, the very best English-language podcast on movies.  Host Mike White covers the entire history of world cinema, both high and low, and his co-hosts and guest interviewees on each episode treat the movie in question in great depth and breadth from its conception and production through its reception and the place that it has assumed in movie history.  Some of the episodes can run over two hours and are packed with wit, insight, and the stories of people who were there.  It’s been my pleasure to be Mike’s guest on a few episodes and offer my thoughts on 1960s Czech cinema, low-budget horror, American film comedy, film noir, and porn.

Writer, producer, and host Karina Longworth has put together a stellar movie podcast devoted to “exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century,” and this Panoply program has won almost every major award for which a podcast treating media and the arts is eligible.  Previous seasons have focused on “Star Wars,” the careers of Hollywood performers and filmmakers in times of war, The Hollywood Blacklist, “Dead Blondes,” and the many-faceted career of iconic star Joan Crawford.  The podcast website is full of rare photos and links to online resources, and Longworth also maintains a very discussion forum and book club.  This season, horror fans will be delighted on Karina’s six-part series Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and their crucial role in the history of the American horror film.  

Daughters of Darkness
Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, co-editors of the great horror magazine Diabolique, explore the sweet spot of international genre cinema where horror, exploitation, and erotic movies intersect with literary adaptations and works by art-cinema auteurs.   Daughters of Darkness episodes often cluster into multi-part discussions of broad trends in international genre cinema, such as the lesbian vampire in movies and literature, or they treat a series of movies and directors drawn from key book-length studies of genre film criticism such as Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 or Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA:  The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents.

Kat and Samm are funny, irreverent, and possess an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and literature which would put many tenured university professors to shame.

Castle of Horror
This podcast has a completely unique perspective because it is hosted not by seemingly detached fans or critics but by a group of creative artists active in music, graphic novels, illustration, and game design who integrate elements of horror film history into their current artistic work.  Host Jason Henderson and co-hosts Drew Edwards and Tony Salvaggio understand not only the repetition and variation of horror motifs throughout film history but, as creative artists themselves, have a deep insight into the successful (and sometimes not-so-successful) logic of their selection, recombination, and transformation.  “Color commentary” is provided by brilliant civil-rights attorney Julia Guzman, who is married to host Henderson and often serves as the witty and hilarious contrarian voice of the recent convert to horror fandom who patiently endures the manic, testosterone-fueled fanboy geekery into which she has married and in which she is being asked to participate.

Folks interested in the Universal and RKO / Lewton horror films will be delighted to jump in with both feet to the richly detailed, dramatic, and informative podcast The Secret History of Hollywood.   The podcast is written, produced, and narrated by Adam Roche, an obsessive and passionate fan of studio-era Hollywood films who has no formal education in film history and in fact, earns his living as -- get this -- a professional chef. 

Shadows, Adam's most recent season, is a six-part (so far) series devoted to the life and career of Val Lewton. 

In a previous series, Adam takes us through Universal's invention of the horror genre in the 1930s and recounts the huge impact monsters had on the fortunes of both that studio and rivals who attempted to copy their success with horror movies throughout that decade and into the mid-1940s.   

Although this and other early episodes of Secret History of Hollywood are not widely available for download or listening, Adam was so excited to hear about our interest in Hollywood horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s that he shared this download link to his (SEVEN-hour long, richly-detailed and captivating) episode:  
This guy is "one of us" and completely on fire.  Check it out!

Cinema Psyops
This is one of my very favorite “smart movie fans pretending to be sleaze movie dolts” podcasts.  Hosts Matt and Cort have a great repartee with Matt as the genre movie obsessive and Cort as the seemingly-coerced co-participant in his obsessions, and each of them tell stories about their supposed basic life ineptitude outside of the media room where they watch horror movies and exploitation films.  Their ability to turn a movie discussion on a dime from how a movie character is like this guy they once knew to a detailed and informed insight into a film’s aesthetic or social engagement is very deft and entertaining, and they really know how to plum the depths of cinematic gore, sex, and tawdriness. 

The Faculty of Horror
Okay, here’s a great horror movie podcast hosted by two university academics, feminist media scholars Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati.  Their multiple award-winning podcast treats everything from current trends in horror and movies currently in release to classics and forgotten / neglected gems, and their discussions shift entertainingly in tone from their own personal responses to films, often expressed in salty and euphemism-free Canadian style, to highly nuanced interpretation and analysis of movies in their historical context.  They are particularly adept at discussing how their experience and perceptions of particularly movies have changed over the years through rethinking and repeat viewings.  Every fan of extreme gore or anyone who takes horror seriously will not want to miss Alexandra’s essential, recently-published book, Films of the New French Extremity:  Visceral Horror and National Identity

Host Rod Barnett is in many respects the finest exemplar of the Baby Boomer-era horror fan / scholar.  He has spent decades watching and re-watching key films and TV programs from the post-World War II era, and he has explored in great depth the literary sources, contemporary reception, fan cultures, and influence the horror genre of the 1930s to the 1960s continues to exert on all aspects of popular culture.  His own analyses of films as well as his discussions with guests talk about his (and their) initial encounter with these movies and his response to them - great information for historians to have documented - but his ideas are always changing, and there’s never a sense of pining nostalgia for older or discontinued trends in the genre.  Rod can move with clarity and purpose from a Hollywood studio-era film made under the strictures of the Production Code one episode to an insightful and appreciative discussion of a “gag-a-rabid-dog-off-a-gut-wagon” Italian zombie splatter fest and back again. 

Monster Kid Radio
As you would guess, another Boomer-era focused podcast, and host Derek M. Koch has won numerous awards for his superlative retrospective view of the multi-media culture of horror and monster fandom that exploded in the U.S. after the 1957 release of Universal’s 1930s horror movies to television.   He and his guests discuss movies, monster-related ephemera, theater promotions of horror movie premieres, and the careers of both stellar and lesser-known horror personalities.  The show notes for each episode at the Monster Kid Radio website are particularly rich with online links to novelty songs, digital scans of vintage newspaper ads and magazine articles, and theatrical trailers for horror movies of several decades’ duration.  Derek and his guests are particularly generous and open-minded as they integrate younger fans’ perceptions and responses to “canonic” or “classic” movies into their discussions of how horror films speak in different ways to succeeding generations of viewers.

El Diabolik’s World of Psychotronic Soundtracks
But really, do we even need to watch the movies at all?  What if we spent two hours just listening to the music from genre cinema from all over the world?  Lyrical Italian romantic themes from soft-core sex films, jangly synth scores from 80s slasher flicks, Bollywood psychedelia, and driving jazz funk from violent 70s Eurocrime dramas all get a great treatment from hosts El Diabolik and Lord Thames, who lead us through the sonic landscape of cinema scares and sleaze.  Put this on at a party and you’ll find out fast who your real friends are.

Golden Age Horror Classic Horror Movie Podcast
Hosts Andrew Lynford and Matt Belvilacqua, inveterate lifelong gamers and horror movie fans, explore decades of film masterpieces in the horror genre from all over the world with wit, irreverence, insight, and passion.  One of my absolute favorite horror podcasts, and episode for episode, they seem to treat more of the films that I have come to value over the years than most other folks talking about horror movies on the web.  They are also masters of the “fake gamer slacker” personae and can pivot effortlessly from discussing what seem like outdated elements of the movies they are discussing to zero in on moments of timeless brilliance in horror movies from virtually anytime and anywhere.  They seem to have a particular sensitivity and fondness for East Asian horror cinema in both its excessive and understated modes.  Matt is also author of the decidedly non-academic but completely nuts and brilliant book All Godless Here: The Golden Age of Horror, 1930-1939, available on Amazon Kindle.

1951 Down Place
Part of the same family of horror podcasts that includes Derek Koch’s Monster Kid Radio, 1951 Down Place is the epicenter of Hammer Films fandom and discussion in the podcast world.  Hosts Derek, Casey Criswell, and Scott Morris provide exhaustive analysis, commentary and background on movies from the British film studio that revolutionized horror cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

B-Movie Cast
Hours and hours of commentary and analysis on horror, exploitation, sleaze, Poverty Row programmers from Hollywood’s studio era, fifties sci-fi programmers from the 1950s, and other lowbrow goodies.  The podcast's originator and host Vince Rotolo passed away in 2016, but long-running co-host Nic Brown has kept the show going strong for the last two years.  B-Movie Cast also has a great discussion board, links page, and swag available at their amazing website.  This is pretty much a one-stop shopping run to examine the cultural detritus that prevented your film professor from every being able to hold down a legitimate job.  It’s really that great.

The Cult Classic Horror Show
Mostly focused on post-1980s franchise / sequel-based horror with a relatively high gore content, but our hosts, “Blood Brothers” Danny and Scotty Bohnen, never lose a sense of historical perspective and includes classics from masters of the genre such as William Castle, Wes Craven, and George Romero.  This is by far the best horror podcast which discusses the repetition and variation of motifs and mythos over the course of a horror franchise’s many installments. 

So when you tear into those Blu-Rays brought to you under the tree, in your stocking, or by a spin of the dreidel, have a listen to what some of these smart, witty, and perceptive critics have to say about both your new acquisitions and the full range of horror movies already in your collection!


Sunday, May 29, 2016

“Without X Films, What Are Exhibitors Going to Show?” Reconsidering Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960)

“Take me to your cinema.”
Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley) to Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom (1960)

“Well, let’s get the wrong people in as well as the right ones.”
Michael Powell on marketing Peeping Tom

One of the most famous scandals in the history of British cinema is the 1960 release of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom by British distributor Anglo-Amalgamated, a company then enjoying box-office success with the "saucy" (i.e., puerile) Carry On comedy series and violent, pulpy horror films such as Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  Peeping Tom tells the story of Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a voyeur and psychotic, whose now-deceased scientist father had subjected him to sadistic experiments as a child, including filming and taping his grimaces and cries of fear while torturing him with reptiles and sudden noises in the middle of the night.  As an adult, Mark works as a focus puller in a film studio by day, moonlights taking pornographic pictures, and prowls the street at night with a hidden camera, murdering women with a bayonet affixed to his tripod while he films their faces in final agony.  We later discover that the women are forced to watch their own dying faces in a mirror attached to the camera.  His first two victims are Dora (Brenda Bruce) a street-based sex worker, and Vivian (Moira Shearer), an extra at the film studio.

Mark struggles against his compulsion and takes the first, halting steps toward friendship and romance with his downstairs tenant, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), in spite of the objections of her sightless mother (Maxine Audley), who finds Mark secretive and stealthy.  After murdering pin-up model Milly (Pamela Green) during a photo shoot, Mark returns home to find that Helen has discovered his secret home theater and his homemade murder movies.  As the police frantically attempt to break down the door to his studio, Mark commits suicide in front of Helen with his own weapon as pre-set still cameras record his death throes.  The film ends with a shot of Mark’s now-dark movie screen, while on the soundtrack we hear a taped exchange between the child Mark and his father which ends with the child’s tremulous, “Good night, Daddy.  Hold my hand.”

Powell (left) with Emeric Pressburger
Histories of this greatest of cursed films have emphasized its supposed career-ending effect on director Michael Powell who, two years prior to signing on with Anglo had broken with his longtime Archers collaborator Emeric Pressburger and was no longer supported by the powerful Rank Organization, under whose auspices the team had produced international box-office hits such as The Thief of Baghdad (1940), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Tales of Hoffman (1951).  

The hallucinatory masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947)
Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)