Stephen King’s Horror Films

The talented and prolific Stephen King is 65 years old today! Now we can celebrate with an excerpt from Horror Films FAQ, written by John Kenneth Muir.

Although the horror film has frequently adapted literary material in its long history, from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to Thomas Harris and Dean Koontz, perhaps no writer has seen his work translated to the silver screen more often the oft-named “master of horror,” Stephen King (1947– ). King is a longtime resident of Maine and sets most of his stories in that region. And as a young man, the author was reportedly inspired to become a horror writer by the works of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937).

The writer of more than 50 novels and 200 short stories, King has written books selling more than 350 million copies worldwide. He has earned multiple honors, including the Bram Stoker Award and, controversially, the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Suffering an identical fate to many authors who choose horror as the avenue for their storytelling, King’s work is often dismissed out of hand as lowbrow when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. King’s work often deals directly with the American blue-collar experience and the interfacing of that experience with the supernatural or paranormal. His protagonists are often a circle of friends reckoning with something outside the human experience but using their bond of friendship to defeat it.

Since 1976 and Brian De Palma’s cinematic adaptation of King’s novel Carrie, several dozen of King’s works have been adapted to film, television, and even the stage. “The simple fact is that King’s stories and novels have provided a wealth of materials for filmmakers,” writes King biographer Michael R. Collings. “Almost every novel published under King’s name has been produced as a film, is in production, or has been optioned.”

Furthermore, writes another King scholar, Tony Magistrale, “Between box office receipts and film rental distribution around the world, the Stephen King movie business is now worth well in excess of a billion dollars.” Tellingly, King’s most critically acclaimed film adaptations have emerged from outside the horror genre. Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and Green Mile (1999) have all been met with kudos and award nominations, whereas the horror films have achieved far less acceptance. In the eyes of judgmental, “elitist critics,” writes Mark Browning, “the films are associated with a cinematic subgenre with historically low status [horror] and secondly, the films are adapting overtly popular, best-selling writer who is commonly associated with this particular genre in literature.”

Clearly, however, the horror-film adaptations of Stephen King’s literary works have created a dilemma of “authorship” for many who admire the books. Audiences familiar with King’s novels bring high expectations to the theater that often can’t be met since film is a different art form than literature, and settings, events, and characters are sometimes eliminated, combined, or changed to so as to vet the cleanest, most concise narrative.

Secondly, many of the directors who have crafted films based on King’s work are of an unusually high caliber. As auteurs, they inevitably bring their own creative aesthetic to any filming of a King story. Thus King’s vision is changed or sublimated to accommodate the vision of the director in question. The result is that the images onscreen abundantly represent a hybrid vision: Stephen King through the lens of Brian De Palma (Carrie), Stephen King through the lens of Kubrick (The Shining), or Stephen King through the lens of John Carpenter (Christine).

Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

 

The Birds

The following is an excerpt posted by Bookgasm of Horror Films FAQ, written by John Kenneth Muir. Check out the rest of the excerpt here.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds opens on a seemingly normal day in the early 1960s with attractive Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) visiting a bird shop in scenic San Francisco. As she enters, a flock of birds is seen in the distance among the skyscrapers: circling and cawing but otherwise nonthreatening. This view is a deliberate foreshadowing of what is to come, a simmering before the inevitable boil.

Once Melanie is in the store, however, things do heat up. She attempts to pull a prank on a handsome man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), by pretending to be a bird-shop employee. But Mitch, who claims to be there to purchase two “love birds,” is actually pulling a prank of his own and soon gets the better of Melanie.

This game of cat and mouse spurs a veritable obsession in Melanie, and she soon tracks Mitch to his home, sixty miles up the coast in scenic Bodega Bay, a little hamlet described as a “a collection of shacks on a hillside.” Her not-so covert mission is to initiate a sexual relationship with Mitch. Melanie does so under the guise of delivering him his love birds.

Once in town, Melanie also meets the town’s schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), another woman who once shared an intimate relationship with the apparently promiscuous Mitch. There is a quick rivalry between Annie and Melanie, and some jealousy, too. Meanwhile, as Melanie grows closer to Mitch, she is looked upon with stern disapproval by Mitch’s shrewish, controlling mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Lydia is a cold, emotionally closed off woman, still despondent over the death of her husband years earlier.

While all these tumultuous personal relationships shift and grow, the inexplicable suddenly occurs. Birds of all varieties launch a coordinated attack on Bodega Bay, ambushing the local school, killing Annie, dive-bombing the local diner, and laying merciless siege to Mitch’s family farmhouse, a location reachable primarily by motor boat and therefore isolated…

Today, The Birds has lost little of the searing dramatic punch that captivated audiences four decades ago. The lack of a scientific or rational explanation behind the avian attack lends the film a powerful and undeniably sexual subtext. The bird attacks, one can detect upon close viewing, occur because of turbulent human emotions. In short, this film is all about not just the birds, but the bees.

Keep reading at Bookgasm!

Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

After an introduction positioning the horror film as an important and moral voice in the national dialogue, the book explores the history of horror decade by decade, remembering the women’s liberation horrors of the 1970s, the rubber reality films of the late 1980s, the serial killers of the 1990s, and the xenophobic terrors of the 9/11 age. Horror Films FAQ also asks what it means when animals attack in such films as The Birds (1963) or Jaws (1975), and considers the moral underpinnings of rape-and-revenge movies, such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Irreversible (2002). The book features numerous photographs from the author’s extensive personal archive, and also catalogs the genre’s most prominent directors.

Splice

The following is an excerpt from Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More by John Kenneth Muir.

Splice reaches all the way back to an obscure 1976 “science run amok” horror flick starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Carrera, titled Embryo. In that effort from director Ralph Nelson, a scientist named Paul Holliston (Hudson) reshaped a fourteen-week-old human fetus with “placental lactagen,” a special growth hormone.

What he created, in a matter of days, was a fully formed twenty-five-year-old woman, Carrera’s Victoria, who knew nothing of the world and therefore was never appropriately socialized. Holliston taught his creation to read the Bible, to play chess, and to otherwise entertain him, before eventually becoming his “daughter’s” lover, too. In Embryo, the amoral Victoria was driven to commit murder over a hormonal imbalance that caused her to age and wither at a highly accelerated rate.

Splice boasts remarkable similarities. Vincenzo Natali’s film involves two incredibly arrogant twenty-first-century genetic engineers, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody), who decide to introduce human DNA into their revolutionary experiments involving chimeras. And yes indeed, Elsa and Clive are named after the great actors who played the lead roles in the landmark 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein: Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive.

Working in secret for a big pharmaceutical corporation, Elsa and Clive create a not-quite-human creature called Dren (first Abigail Chu and then Delphine Chaneau), a female being that is part amphibious. Dren also boasts an accelerated life span, which means she will live, age, and die while Elsa and Clive can watch and take notes. She’s their living petri dish.

Like Embryo’s Victoria before her, Dren is lonely, confused, and unsocialized, and Elsa, especially at first, treats the creature has her own biological child. There are good reasons for this, as the film makes clear in the later sequences set on Elsa’s wintry and foreboding family farm. Specifically, Elsa used her own DNA to create the “human” part of Dren.

But unfortunately, this family faces a crisis. As an adolescent, Dren turns her burgeoning physical affections unexpectedly toward her “father,” Clive, much in the same fashion as occurred in Embryo.

Yet what makes Splice more than just a variation on an old tale like Embryo is its laserlike focus on the concept of Elsa and Clive not just as bad, mad scientists, necessarily, but as bad parents. Together, Elsa, Clive, and Dren form a family unit, yet the parents here don’t seem to take their familial responsibilities seriously. Dren wants to bond with the adults, and still they just consider her a “mistake” they made after, on a whim, noting, “What’s the worst that could happen?” when they decided to make a life.

Splice concerns those things that occur when irresponsibility conceiving a life is followed by a deeper moral wrong: irresponsibility in rearing that life. Elsa quickly proves to be a psychologically troubled, capricious mother figure, playing out her own personal family drama on this new and innocent creation. One scene finds Elsa cruelly and vindictively strapping Dren to a surgical table and slicing off a portion of her “alien” anatomy. It’s a genuinely disturbing moment from an emotional standpoint.. The first thing Elsa does is take off Dren’s clothes, an indication that the girl is not human to her, no more than a specimen. A mother’s “love” can be taken away just like that, apparently, when the maternal figure feels displeasure.

Then weak-willed Clive makes the ultimate physical and emotional betrayal and has sexual intercourse with Dren, an adolescent who considers him a father figure. At best, he’s weak. At worst, he’s monstrous. And that’s the key to understanding Splice and its modus operandi. The “monsters” here are Elsa and Clive, two arrogant, flippant, self-involved scientists/parents who, through their ill-considered actions, irreparably harm another individual, an innocent individual. Dren may be genetically different from her parents, but she is nonetheless a result of her biological nature, which they created, and her terrible upbringing, which they are also responsible for. Dren might be inhuman, but Elsa and Clive are inhumane.

Like Karloff’s monster in the 1930s, audiences feel tremendous sympathy for the Dren character. When she commits the equivalent of a rape at film’s end, when she is no longer quite the Dren we know and recognize, the horrid act may be all about instinct and the biological imperative of all living things to reproduce. Or it may be about the fact that she was emotionally and sexually violated by a man she trusted and loved. What did she learn from this act? And from Elsa’s cruel, heartless domination? Like parent, like child? Dren was abused, and now she is the abuser.

From the movie’s very first shot, in which the audiences gaze out of the birth canal at parents Clive and Elsa, Splice asks viewers to contextualize the film as a story about what it means to be a parent. It asks the viewer to weigh this couple’s behavior and ask some important moral questions about it. Is this another life, or is this just an experiment? Is this about another being’s sovereignty and rights, or is it about “what we can learn”? As parents, what are our responsibilities to new life? Although Clive and Elsa possess special talents vis-à-vis their creation of life, they aren’t out of the norm in how they see child rearing.

In Splice, the film mirrors the life of a parent, from a child’s conception through adolescence, but with two “bad” parents as surrogates and negative examples. When Dren is first born, Elsa and Clive lose a lot of sleep, have no time for intimacy, and worry about things like messy feeding times. And while taking care of their child around the clock, their work at the office suffers.

Anyone who has raised a baby knows how authentic these moments feel. Sleep deprivation. Frustration. Loneliness. But there is also great joy as your infant starts to become an individual with a real personality and takes amazing first steps into the larger world: speaking, relating, learning. These passages involving Dren’s growth and development in Splice are simply stellar, and deeply affecting in a very human, very intimate way.

But this is a horror film, of course, and something goes wrong. At some point, Elsa and Clive forsake their roles as parents, and when threatened by Dren’s rebellion in adolescence, they try to write her off as an “experiment.” They try to control her; rein her in, make her act in the fashion they desire.

At some point, children stop being cuddly and fun and start to become demanding, rebellious, and self-directed. A good parent allows that growth to happen responsibly, and a bad parent begins to act antagonistically and imperiously. Bad parents fail to recognize their children as individuals and not as extensions of their own desires. That’s what happens to Clive and Elsa. When they don’t like what Dren has done, they shout, “This experiment is over.” Like that’s the end of it. Like the life they created just never existed, never flourished, never interacted with them.

So while Splice is a view of arrogant, out-of-control, cutting-edge science and its practitioners, it is also a bracing view of arrogant, out-of-control bad parenting.

 

Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

Visit the author’s blog.

Shaun of the Dead

Today is the U.S. release of The World’s End, the third in the Cornetto Trilogy by director Edgar Wright. To celebrate, we thought that we would have a look at the first movie in the trilogy, Shaun of the Dead. And don’t forget to check out Wright’s Shaun of the Dead interactive screenplay. The following is an excerpt from Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More by John Kenneth Muir (Applause Books), which will be in stores in two weeks.

If the latter Evil Dead films found comedy in horror through the art of exaggeration and gory overkill, the 2004 film from director Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead, locates another route to genuine laughter. In particular, the film carefully observes life for a series of young, aimless, directionless characters both before and during the zombie apocalypse. Through this careful observation, the film concludes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least at first.

In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is upset when his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), breaks up with him on their three-year anniversary because he has no plans for his life. Although Shaun’s best buddy, Ed (Nick Frost), assures Shaun that losing Liz is no big deal, Shaun feels he’s got to make things right. Unfortunately, a zombie apocalypse occurs on the very day he chooses to make that happen, and he must save not only Liz, but his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), from hordes of flesh-eating ghouls. In the increasingly tense and difficult battle for survival, Shaun ultimately finds his voice and his spine, and reunites with Liz.

The opening sequence in Shaun of the Dead showcases average people quietly getting up to go work, but in emotionally and mentally checked-out terms. Hardly anyone makes eye contact with anyone else. And Shaun’s long yawn of boredom could easily be mistaken for a zombie’s grimace.

After the zombie apocalypse commences, Wright restages the film’s inaugural tracking shot—this time featuring actual zombies, not just bored, checked-out humans—and Shaun doesn’t even notice the difference. In the Romero living-dead films, the sometimes not-too-subtle point is that the zombies are “us.” In Shaun of the Dead, the point is that many humans live their daily lives as if already zombies.

Accordingly, the film’s running verbal gag—“you’ve got red on you”—expresses the idea that things tend to stay the same, no matter what changes in Shaun’s life. At first, he’s got red ink on his white shirt. Later, it’s spilled blood. The zombie apocalypse has changed less about his life than one might suspect.

Beyond the observational humor, horror fans will find Shaun of the Dead amusing because it continually references other horror films in funny yet situation-appropriate ways. For instance, when tasked with rescuing Shaun’s Mum, Ed notes, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara,” a recitation (and reparsing) of Johnny’s famous line in the 1968 Night of the Living Dead (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”). At another point, a character implores another to “Join us,” adopting the refrain of the Deadites in the Evil Dead cycle.

Before the film is done, it also features verbal name checks of Ken Foree (a lead actor in Dawn of the Dead) and Ash (the lead character of The Evil Dead). These moments may qualify as throwaway ones, but they affirm to horror fans that Shaun of the Dead’s makers know their stuff, even while subverting their genre material to comic ends.

There’s also a very funny “self-recognition” factor in Shaun of the Dead. Shaun allows his mom and stepfather and his obnoxious friend Ed to dictate his life and future. He lives in a world of petty grievances, fart jokes, junk food, constant video games, and unending movie references. This is indeed the life of modern geekdom for many. But by navigating Z-Day (the Zombie Day), Shaun finally establishes his independence from parents and juvenile best buddy. He has put Ed, now a zombie, in an appropriate compartment of his life (in the shed, to be precise) rather than let that aspect of his life dominate his grown-up relationship with Liz.

Shaun of the Dead is utterly brilliant in execution. Whether choreographing a battle with the zombies to a song from Queen, or making half-noticed asides about zombies being perfect employees in the service industry, the film impresses with its sense of pace and nimble humor. The important thing, however, is that no matter how hard one laughs with the film’s joke, the filmmakers also get right the scary, gory sequences. The horror scenes, with zombies invading the Winchester Pub, for instance, are still chilling, and in the end, there are life-and-death consequences for Shaun and his friends. The laughs, while ubiquitous, manage not to undercut the sense of danger to Ed, Barbara, Shaun, Liz, and the others, and that’s what makes the film a horror-comedy instead of a comedy-horror film.

Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

Visit the author’s blog.

Happy Birthday to Prince!

Prince is 52 years old today. To celebrate his birthday, enjoy an excerpt from Purple Rain by John Kenneth Muir. The passage deals with Albert Magnoli’s first encounter with Prince before agreeing to direct the rock musical drama film Purple Rain.

Then Magnoli was taken to actually meet with Prince. In a hotel lobby, Magnoli first met Chick, Prince’s legendary, Nordic bodyguard, whom Magnoli described as a very “tall, Viking-looking person,” and then went off to a corner to observe the dynamics of the situation.

“To my right were the elevator doors,” Magnoli explains. “To my left, across the lobby, was the front door of the building, where Steve [Fargnoli] and Chick were positioned. Then the doors opened at the crack of midnight sharp and out walks Prince by himself.

“Because he didn’t know who I was, he didn’t see me. He saw Chick and Steve at the end of the hall and walked to them, which allowed me to do a right-to-left pan with Prince, unencumbered by him knowing I was looking at him. As a result, I ended up filling [in] the whole story based on him walking across the lobby. Because what I saw was extreme vulnerability, in spite all of the bluster and the costume and the music. This was a vulnerable young man. I saw all the heart and soul. I saw all the emotional stuff. I saw the tragedy of his upbringing. I just saw stuff and felt stuff that filled in the three-act story.”

Together, Prince, Magnoli, Cavallo, Farnoli, and Chick went to a working dinner. “I was looking at Prince and I could tell he didn’t like being looked at,” Magnoli says. “He’s very shy. Everybody ordered food, and as soon as the waitress left, Prince looked at me sand said, ‘Okay, how did you like my script?’

“I realized a few things there. One, he said, ‘my script,’ which meant he had personally invested himself in whatever it was that William Blinn had written. And two, he hadn’t been told anything that I felt about it.”

“The words that came out of my mouth were the following: ‘Well, I think it sucked.’”

Magnoli pauses for dramatic effect. “At that moment, Steve dropped his head, Chick leaned closer to me, and Prince looked startled. Then I could see him thinking and what he was thinking was: ‘I wasn’t told this before this meeting was to take place. Why wasn’t I told? Then he looked toward Steve, because obviously Steve had told him nothing. That look to Steve took about three seconds, but it was telling to me, because I saw now how the operation worked. He had been kept in the dark about this.”

“So then Prince looked back to me and said, ‘Why does it suck?’ And I said, ‘You know what, it’s not important why, but here’s what we can do about it. Let me tell you the story.’ So now, with even more passion, because I have more information now that I’m looking at this kid, I told this story.

“There was five seconds of silence. Then he looked at Steve and said, ‘Why don’t you take Chick and go home.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ ‘I’m just going to take Al for a ride.’”

Not knowing exactly what was going to happen, Magnoli remembers feeling a little uncertain. Had he offended Prince? Had he made him angry?

“We got in his car; he got behind the wheel, I got into the passenger’s seat, and he took off fast,” Magnoli notes. “The next thing I knew, we were driving in pitch-black darkness, [with] not a light in sight. I had no idea where we were. It looked like we were driving in a black tube. A day later I realized we were in horizon-to-horizon farmland, but there were no lights. So I was thinking, he didn’t like the story…and now I’m dead. I can die right now. And no one will know…”

This nighttime ride was not the beginning of a murder plot, however, but the start of a very fruitful working relationship for Magnoli and Prince. Even though the story Magnoli had recounted involved the lead character (Prince himself, hereafter called “The Kid”) being at odds with his parents, his bandmates, and even his girlfriend, Prince never once flinched from a warts-and-all, three-dimensional presentation.

Purple Rain

In the summer of 1984, a small, low-budget film came out of nowhere and unexpectedly debuted at the number one slot at the box office, unseating reigning champion Ghostbusters and making its star, Prince, a household name. By the end of the year, the film was a multiple-award winner, a trend setter in terms of fashion, and recognized on many prominent critical “top ten” lists. Purple Rain: Music on Film explores in detail the behind-the-scenes struggles and triumphs of the film’s making, from the trouble casting a female lead to star opposite Prince, to concerns that the movie’s urban vibe and sound wouldn’t play in Peoria. Featuring extensive new interviews with the film’s director, producer, and assistant editor, Purple Rain reveals a 1980s cult-classic as you’ve never seen, heard or experienced it before. Let’s go crazy…

Q&A with John Kenneth Muir

Cinema Sentries interviewed John Kenneth Muir about his new book An Askew View 2: The Films of Kevin Smith. Here is a taste of the interview. Visit their website to read the whole thing.

 

What do you not like about what is going on with film criticism in this day and age?

To talk about the status of film criticism today, some people cannot thread that needle so they make it personal. They decide they don’t like Ben Affleck because he dated Jennifer Lopez and they review his movie based on the fact that they don’t like him rather than what the quality of the movie was. It’s a lot of personal grudge criticism that I don’t like.

I really like that you brought that up in An Askew View 2. You talked about the personal issues that Kevin Smith had been going through and reviewers glomming on to those issues instead of really reviewing his films. It seems like we are in a time where many journalists don’t know where the line is between gossip and real facts.

I agree with you. There are two points in Kevin Smith’s career where that happened. It happened with Jersey Girl and the Bennifer thing. Then it happened with Cop Out with the Southwest thing. Any critic can respond to either of those films positively or negatively. But whether Kevin Smith was booted off a plane for his weight doesn’t play into the quality of Cop Out. If you don’t like buddy-cop movies, say you don’t like buddy-cop movies and this doesn’t work for A,B, and C. But you don’t go after a guy for his weight and make that the headline…focus on the work. I think the fact that we pass judgement on actors or directors based on the flow of information through gossip sites and gossip tv shows is very problematic.

Do you feel a connection to Kevin Smith since you are both from New Jersey?

The thing that appeals to me about Kevin Smith is, yes I’m from New Jersey, but beyond that the generational thing is important to me. As a director, he speaks to the issues that interest me in a way that interests me. Like wow, he’s talking about these things as I’m going through them. As he’s faling in love and getting married, I’m falling in love and getting married. As he is contemplating his religion and faith, that’s what I’m doing. As he has a child, now I have a child. It’s like wow he’s going through it right there with me. That’s why I don’t want him to quit. Because when he’s going into the nursing home and I’m going into the nursing home, I want that movie.

There is a kinship I feel with Kevin Smith. The examples he uses in his films, the films he alludes to, just his whole manner of being. The way the men and women in his films talk is the way that me and my buddies and my wife talk. Hopefully not as foulmouthed, but that’s what makes it funny. This is a guy from my generation who made it and who is making the movies about us and our lives and what we are going through. That is the thing about Kevin Smith for me. He creates these universal stories but gives them touchstones that we can recognize being from that generation.

Read the rest of this interview on Cinema Sentries.

In the year 2002, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith was the first book to gaze at the cinema of one of New Jersey’s favorite sons, the independent and controversial auteur ofClerks (1994), Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). Now, a full decade after that successful original edition, award-winning author John Kenneth Muir returns to the View Askewniverse to consider Kevin Smith’s second controversial decade as a film director, social gadfly, and beloved media “talker.” From Jersey Girl (2004) to the controversial Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), from the critically deridedCop-Out (2010) to the incendiary and provocative horror film Red State (2011), An Askew View 2 studies the Kevin Smith movie equation as it exists today, almost two full decades after Smith maxed out his credit card, made Clerks with his friends, shopped it at Sundance, and commenced his Hollywood journey. In addition to Kevin Smith’s films, An Askew View 2 remembers the short-lived Clerks cartoon (2000) and diagrams the colorful Smith Lexicon.

Kevin Smith’s Top Five Independent–or Outrageous–Moves

Guest Blogger: John Kenneth Muir is the author of An Askew View 2: The Films of Kevin Smith (Applause Books)

New Jersey-ite and Generation X role model, Kevin Smith commenced his film career with the low-budget Clerks in 1993, a “slacker” comedy that is now synonymous with the independent film movement of the 1990s.  Although Clerks is nearly two-decades back in our rear-view mirrors at this point, Smith’s essential nature as an independent — and occasionally outrageous — filmmaker and social gadfly has remained consistent.

Enumerated below are Smith’s five most independent and/or outrageous career moves:

1. Smith bankrolled his own first feature film, the aforementioned Clerks by maxxing out his credit cards to pay for the film’s budget.

In the end, Clerks personally cost Smith more than $30,000 dollars, but the film sold at Sundance for over $200,000 dollars and effectively became Smith’s calling card to Hollywood.  In this same span, Smith also quit film school and used the last tuition bill to jump-start his film budget.

2. Smith has perpetually questioned the “dogma” of both the left and right political spectrum in his film career, clashing with William Donohue’s Catholic League over his religious comedy Dogma (1999) and with GLAAD over the colorful humor in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).

Smith doesn’t necessarily court these social controversies, but he is not shy, either, about contending with them.  Smith’s much-publicized battles with the left and right have made him not only an extremely keen observer of human nature, but one who – surprisingly in Hollywood – is not widely viewed as an overt partisan.  In essence, Smith remains an equal opportunity offender, a fact which makes the artist, in many instances, an “honest broker.”

3. The director in 2011 questioned the status quo in Hollywood between critics and studio marketing departments, and then formulated a positive response: a program called “Spoilers” on Hulu that democratizes film criticism.

Sure, Smith is wrong about film criticism being a useless profession.  At Comic-Con in 2012 he railed against film critics writing about “other people’s shit instead of making their own shit, a rich contradiction for a filmmaker who constructed his fan base, in part, by commenting humorously on other people’s shit, namely Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975).  It’s also abundantly plain that Smith’s talent has been held up, affirmed, transmitted and defended by many great film critics, from Amy Taubin to the late Andrew Sarris (who compared the filmmaker to Martin Scorsese).

At its best, film criticism can be a high-minded form of art appreciation, and surely Smith — who has never been shy in sounding off, himself, about other films (from Spider-Man [2003] to Lord of the Rings [2001] and The Transformers [2007])) — must understand that.  Yet Spoilersundeniably continues the national conversation about film, and provides an alternative to those (mostly online) critics who constantly spew bile and seem to have personal axes to grind against filmmakers, actors, and even franchises.  In other words, Smith has provided us another venue to continue talking about our love of movies.

4. Smith self-distributed his own film, Red State in 2011, thus creating for budding filmmakers a new commercial paradigm. 

In 1993, Smith seized control of the actual process of filmmaking by bankrolling Clerks.  At Sundance in 2011, he launched another experiment, this one involving artist control over how films are seen, an eschewing of huge marketing campaigns and saturation advertising.  The bottom line is that insanity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different result.  By taking control of Red State’s distribution himself, Smith at the very least attempted something new.  Hollywood’s blistering, indignant response is proof positive that Smith’s independence struck a nerve.

5. He confounded career expectations and made a balls-to-the-wall horror movie.

By 2011, Kevin Smith was known widely as a director of raunchy comedies. He turned that perception upside down by creating the visceral, brutal Red State, a horror film of accomplished technique and blistering social critique.  He has now successfully expanded the term “a Kevin Smith film” considerably, revealing that his tell-tale Generation X wit and humor also boasts a dark side.

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An Askew View 2: The Films of Kevin Smith by John Kenneth Muir

In the year 2002, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith was the first book to gaze at the cinema of one of New Jersey’s favorite sons, the independent and controversial auteur ofClerks (1994), Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). Now, a full decade after that successful original edition, award-winning author John Kenneth Muir returns to the View Askewniverse to consider Kevin Smith’s second controversial decade as a film director, social gadfly, and beloved media “talker.” From Jersey Girl (2004) to the controversial Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), from the critically deridedCop-Out (2010) to the incendiary and provocative horror film Red State (2011), An Askew View 2 studies the Kevin Smith movie equation as it exists today, almost two full decades after Smith maxed out his credit card, made Clerks with his friends, shopped it at Sundance, and commenced his Hollywood journey. In addition to Kevin Smith’s films, An Askew View 2remembers the short-lived Clerks cartoon (2000) and diagrams the colorful Smith Lexicon.

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Prince’s Birthday: A Celebration of Purple Rain

John Kenneth Muir is the author of Purple Rain: Music on Film. Below is an excerpt as posted on Movieline.com.

Meeting His Majesty, Prince

The next task at hand was to introduce Magnoli to Prince, and simultaneously, for Magnoli to further familiarize himself with the artist, his background, and his works. Magnoli knew and had liked the 1982 Prince hit singles “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” He held a powerful image of the artist as “a loner” and “iconoclastic,” but more research was still necessary to get an authentic feel for the man and the performer.

So, while he finished an editing job on a Wednesday and Thursday and prepared for a flight to Minneapolis on Friday to meet his movie’s star, Magnoli wanted to learn everything he could about the musician. “I didn’t know his early career,” Magnoli acknowledged.

“‘Send to the editing room every video and any foot¬age you have on Prince, so I can see the visuals,’” Magnoli remembers saying to Cavallo on the phone. “So he sent me all of this video of Prince in concert in Minneapolis, and it was during his bikini-wearing, high-heel wearing, long coat days. This was prior to the 1999 album, where I think he had his self-titled album Prince . . . I think that’s what it was called. He was wearing a jacket on the cover [of the album] with a bikini bottom, with his chest sticking out, looking very androgynous.

Keep reading on Movieline.com

Purple Rain: Music on Film

In the summer of 1984, a small, low-budget film came out of nowhere and unexpectedly debuted at the number one slot at the box office, unseating reigning champion Ghostbusters and making its star, Prince, a household name. By the end of the year, the film was a multiple-award winner, a trend setter in terms of fashion, and recognized on many prominent critical “top ten” lists. Purple Rain: Music on Film explores in detail the behind-the-scenes struggles and triumphs of the film’s making, from the trouble casting a female lead to star opposite Prince, to concerns that the movie’s urban vibe and sound wouldn’t play in Peoria. Featuring extensive new interviews with the film’s director, producer, and assistant editor, Purple Rain reveals a 1980s cult-classic as you’ve never seen, heard or experienced it before. Let’s go crazy…

Purple Rain Excerpt

The following is an excerpt posted by Bookgasm from Purple Rain: Music on Film by John Kenneth Muir.

“I saw a movie called Reckless (1984), in a screening room, which was done by Jamie Foley,” Robert Cavallo explains. That cult film was a rebellious rock ’n’ roll anthem featuring Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah as star-crossed lovers in an American steel town, and it featured a pulsing, hard-rock soundtrack from the likes of INXS, Bob Seger, and Romeo Void.

“I was alone in the screening room, other than a young man sitting in the back,” Cavallo says. “As I walked out, the young man said to me, ‘Well, what did you think?’ And I said, ‘It was pretty good … but I especially enjoyed the editing.’ I wasn’t kidding. It was good. I thought it was really well edited,” Cavallo emphasizes. “And he said, ‘Oh, I did that. Jamie’s my friend; he made the movie, and I was the editor. We went to USC film school.’”

That young man was Albert Magnoli, a native of Connecticut and a recent graduate of USC School of Cinematic Arts (until 2006 named the School of Cinema-Television). He had discovered his interest in film during undergraduate school, and almost unexpectedly.

“I grew up in New England, in Connecticut, and in undergraduate school, I took a course—I was a literature major—that pretty much changed my life,” Mr. Magnoli remembered. “It was a course that dealt with the films of Ingmar Bergman and how they related to literature; Bergman in relation to stories and novels. The professor was extremely good at finding comparisons between Ingmar Bergman’s philosophies and the philosophies of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, etc.

“We tracked Ingmar Bergman from the 1950s all the way to, at that time, the 1970s, and that was an extremely rich time for Ingmar Bergman,” Magnoli reminisces. “He started off doing romantic comedies and then concentrated on films that dealt with his background and religious philosophy. We watched The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), Shame (1968), and Cries and Whispers (1972) and they just had an enormous impact on me.

“What ended up happening was, there was a film course being offered in the school. I wasn’t part of it, but someone in the course came to me and asked if I had any short stories that could be turned into a short film,” the director says. “At the time I was writing short stories, and said I had one, and gave it to him. The location of that story needed a factory, and I had worked in a factory during the summer months, so I said, ‘I have a factory, and it’s down in Newington. I’ll talk to the manager and see if he’ll let us film in there.’ And sure enough, he did. He let us film from midnight till six a.m.

“We had one night to do it,” Magnoli details. “So I brought my friend and his crew to this factory. We were all juniors in college at the time. And when we got there, he looked at me and said, ‘Where should the camera go?’”

“I said, ‘I thought this was your film class!’ And he said, ‘I’m just the choreographer, not the director. You know the factory—just tell me where to put the camera.’ I said, ‘Well, let me see what the camera looks like.’ It was a little Super 8 camera on a tripod. I looked through the viewfinder, and at that point I knew where the camera should go. And then I started setting up shots. Essentially, we filmed for the next five or six hours. We had our actors, we finished, and as I was riding back to college, I said to my friend, ‘This is very interesting.’”

Keep reading this excerpt on Bookgasm

Purple Rain: Music on Film

In the summer of 1984, a small, low-budget film came out of nowhere and unexpectedly debuted at the number one slot at the box office, unseating reigning champion Ghostbusters and making its star, Prince, a household name. By the end of the year, the film was a multiple-award winner, a trend setter in terms of fashion, and recognized on many prominent critical “top ten” lists. Purple Rain: Music on Film explores in detail the behind-the-scenes struggles and triumphs of the film’s making, from the trouble casting a female lead to star opposite Prince, to concerns that the movie’s urban vibe and sound wouldn’t play in Peoria. Featuring extensive new interviews with the film’s director, producer, and assistant editor, Purple Rain reveals a 1980s cult-classic as you’ve never seen, heard or experienced it before. Let’s go crazy…

Four Reasons Why Purple Rain (1984) Endures

Guest Blogger: John Kenneth Muir, author of Purple Rain: Music on Film

Just past the quarter-century mark, director Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain (1984) continues to fascinate and intrigue global audiences.  An MTV-era update of the classic back-stage musical format, Purple Rain introduced a wide audience to Prince and his world in the Minneapolis music scene.

Although the Reagan decade is long since over – as is the Prince fashion craze of ruffled collars – Purple Rain continues to gain enthusiastic new fans the world around. Here are four reasons why:

1. Purple Rain is as close to getting “to know” the real Prince as we’re likely to get.

The artist who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and declared the Internet “dead” in 2010 is an enigmatic, mysterious fellow.  What makes him tick?  From what inner turmoil does his creative genius derive?

Although featuring a heavily fictionalized account of his life, Purple Rain remains the closest we are likely to get to an authentic Prince screen biography.  The film reveals the turmoil in his home life among his parents, and the relationships roiling Prince’s band mates in the Revolution.

At the start of Purple Rain, Prince emerges from smog and fog in silhouette and finally becomes visible…at least for the duration of the movie. This is as clearly as we have ever viewed the man, and his later films, including Under the Cherry Moon (1985) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) assiduously steered away from offering any further biographical detail.

2. The film is multi-faceted in its depiction of an icon. 

We’ve all seen big-screen musical biographies, and most often, they gloss over warts to forge a heroic, larger-than-life portrait of a talent we’ve come to love.  Consider Cool as Ice (1990), or even 8 Mile (2002), both of which failed to capture the real life experience or apparent rage driving performers such as Vanilla Ice or Eminem.

Or consider the superficial, bubble gum Rick Springfield vehicle, Hard to Hold (1984).  By contrast, Purple Rain reveals Prince in all his flawed and human dimensions.  He’s a genius, but he’s difficult.  He’s talented, but he’s demanding.  He’s an iconoclast and a perfectionist, and he’s anchored by nagging self-doubt.

In one of the film’s most famous scene, Prince sits back-stage – sulking in his tent as it were – making funny voices with a hand-puppet.  He comes off as angst-ridden, self-centered, and isolated.  Purple Rain is willing to reveal Prince in all his human shades, even the unflattering ones, and that’s why some critics (including Roger Ebert) listed it as one of the top ten films of 1984.

3. Purple Rain is the perfect fusion of music and meaning.

While prepping Purple Rain, director Magnoli had the opportunity to choose a wide array of tunes from Prince’s (largely) unpublished music catalog.  Selecting from over a hundred such pieces, Magnoli was able to tailor the music directly to the film’s biographical content.

“Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening anthem, played as an introduction to Prince’s world.

“Take me with U” concerns the open road, and the burgeoning of a romance between Prince and Apollonia.

The song’s opposite, “Darling Nikki” is about betrayal and rage in a romantic relationship…a humiliating song for Apollonia to endure.

The climactic tune “Purple Rain” concerns forgiveness and love, and has been called a celebration of women, or what critic David Denby termed “both an apology for bad behavior and a promise of sexual ecstasy.”

Finally, “Baby I’m a Star” is valediction, heroic triumph after challenges external and internal are beaten back.

Even the song written expressly for the film, “When Doves Cry,” reflects beautifully the film’s thematic content.  It’s re-states the film’s central conflict: that Prince may be “just like his father,” a failure in love and in music.

4. Morris Day and Jerome.

How many back-stage or biographical musicals expend the time and energy to create competitors for their heroes, especially competitors that serve so adroitly as comic relief?

Morris Day and Jerome Benton lighten up Purple Rain tremendously, and give the film a jaunty, humorous bent.

Morris Day and Jerome proved so intensely popular as foils for Prince that Purple Rain producer Robert Cavallo wanted to make a sequel to Purple Rain…about the duo making further mischief in Las Vegas.

Purple Rain: Music on Film

In the summer of 1984, a small, low-budget film came out of nowhere and unexpectedly debuted at the number one slot at the box office, unseating reigning champion Ghostbusters and making its star, Prince, a household name. By the end of the year, the film was a multiple-award winner, a trend setter in terms of fashion, and recognized on many prominent critical “top ten” lists. Purple Rain: Music on Film explores in detail the behind-the-scenes struggles and triumphs of the film’s making, from the trouble casting a female lead to star opposite Prince, to concerns that the movie’s urban vibe and sound wouldn’t play in Peoria. Featuring extensive new interviews with the film’s director, producer, and assistant editor, Purple Rain reveals a 1980s cult-classic as you’ve never seen, heard or experienced it before. Let’s go crazy…

Visit John Kenneth Muir’s blog, Reflections on Film/TV