Forbidden Planet (1956) is playing now on TCM, and I've left it on while I work (which has involved making notes for all I must try and tend to with some celerity, rereading a book about the discovery of DNA, and going through some of Baudelaire's letters, in part because I don't wish to have my life go as his did, nor my life end like the writer he admired so much, Edgar Allan Poe). The film is based, somewhat, on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Stanley Kubrick, when getting ready to make 2001: A Space Odyssey, helped get Arthur C. Clarke aboard his project by saying, essentially, that he didn't wish to make a sci-fi film that sucked, as all of the previous ones had.
They hadn't. I find Kubrick laughably overrated, but he put it together for 2001. But this has made me thinking about how labels get applied, and they stick. For instance, Forbidden Planet has vestiges of the horror film. But it's not an outright horror film. (Or a terror film, as Boris Karloff might have said. There's a difference between a horror film and a terror film, something I'll be exploring soon in a big essay on The Night of the Living Dead for The American Interest). So do The Thing From Another World (1951) and Them! (1954).
I like films that are not horror that frighten you. Orson Welles was awfully good at this. Next time you watch Citizen Kane, note how frightened the camera makes you feel with how it searches, probes, passes through windows, goes down corridors. Welles and Gregg Toland needed those tracking and crane shots. Camera movement in that film is analogous with approaching truth. Truth often frightens us. Truth frightens us more than ever as each day fades and the next rises with the morning. No filmmaker in the history of the medium has aged better than Welles. Smarter than Plato, with a movie camera.
Then there are the so-called horror classics that make me cackle with laughter. The Shining is awful filmmaking. Overripe, fruity garbage. I don't understand how The Exorcist scares anybody. Conversely, I will not watch Carnival of Souls (1962) at night. Rosemary's Baby is another film that's as scary to me as a sun shower. People are writing puff pieces about how you're supposed to hate it now because of Polanski, but these people know nothing about almost any artist, because if they did--that is, if they ever cracked a biography--they'd have to avoid all works of art, near about, if they're doing the whole "watch, I'm virtue-signaling that I don't like this musician because a piece from some hack-y site passed in front of my face." You better hate the Beatles, then. Better never read Melville. Stay clear of Mozart. Beethoven? Beethoven was a dick a lot. Art is separate. That is part of the reason it can live forever. Whereas, we rot.
Whenever I see Rosemary's Baby, though, I think two things: Polanski's Macbeth is such a better, and scarier, film; he was channeling what had happened to him, clearly, with the Manson murders. And, secondly, that the 1943 Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim is the far superior treatment of the same plot material. Hugh Beaumont--Ward Cleaver--has a nice turn in it, in the only notable film appearance he'd make.
It's not my favorite Lewton. I guess most people would pick Cat People, which I wrote on a little while ago. For someone. I don't even know who. I should know who. Let me check. O, my bad--I talked about it on the radio. That's the picture full of Lewton tropes that were mesmeric. All of his signposts in one work. The Lewton walk, for instance. (Wait. I did write about it. Barnes and Noble Review. These things can get confusing.) The Lewton walk involves someone strolling around at night, maybe on their way to a bus stop. You need no budget to shoot this. (A version of the Lewton walk famously takes place in a pool. It occurs to me that someone could write a dissertation on the transformative role of pools in films. Cheever-related works are an emetic to me, but there's The Swimmer, and think about the pool in It's a Wonderful Life. Think about water in general with It's a Wonderful Life. And the pool scene in Let the Right One In--damn that is good and a triumph of editing.) Then there's some element of dread, foreboding; a curious rustling of a branch, an odd bird sound, what may be someone else's tread, a stray snatch of music even though the city is far away. The walk is punctuated by something that at once serves as both a terror orgasm--in the Karloffian sense of climax (pinnacle of sensation)--and a release of tension. In order to "go again," in the parlance of lovers, a certain refractory period is now required. But the Lewton I like best is The Curse of the Cat People. It's not really a sequel, but it kind of is. It's a Christmas film. Well, it's set at Christmas. I will watch, by the way, any single show that comes on at any single time of the year if it's Christmas related. Hell, I watched a Last Man Standing Christmas episode the other day. I am a Christmas fiend.
The Curse of the Cat People is a film to nudge evanescent memories and the faded sensations of an undiminished capacity for wonder back to life for those--which is to say, almost everyone--who needs that reminder, that help. Or just the contrast with where they are now in life, where the tendency is to install ceilings, so to speak--to cap--when in childhood we are all about knocking down walls and roaming freely, starting with the heart, and the mind following-up.