Evolution of Character – The Devil


Halloween’s iconic band of monsters and ghoulish rogues consists of many different types.  From ghosts, to vampires, to abnormal beasts, and more commonly nowadays the rising dead, there are plenty of creatures that inspire everything from costumes to movies found around this time of year.  But, while most of these monsters are diabolical in their own right, there is no greater monster spread throughout pop culture and literature than the “man in black” himself; The Devil.  Whatever name he goes by (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub), the Devil is certainly an iconic monster without rival.  He is the antithesis to everything good, and the source of all evil in the world, which would make him the commander of all the other icons of Halloween given that description.  Though the origins of the Devil are varied in many different cultures over several millennia, the image we most commonly associate him with today comes from the Christian conception of the demon.  The Biblical devil would go on to influence the creation of Dante’s Inferno in the 13th Century; an epic poem that helped to build our modern day conception of Hell, the devil’s domain.  These two sources are what Hollywood usually draws their image of the devil from, though his purpose in many of his screen appearances is surprisingly varied.  Unlike other characters from the Bible, and from other cultural conceptions of the Devil, there is no set rules for the right or wrong way to depict him.  For the most part, he shows up in movies, books, and other forms of entertainment, purely to represent evil in it’s purest form.

Because of the open-endedness of how best to bring the Devil into one’s story, there are so many different and varied depictions of “old Nick” in movies throughout the years.  And it’s interesting how versatile a character he can be.  He can serve as an impartial judge of your sins in Ernest Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943); a granter of wishes in Bedazzled (1967); a client for a private eye in Angel Heart  (1987); a lovelorn cartoon character in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999); on the search for a mate in End of Days (1999); a seedy gangster in Constantine (2005); or even the source of a super hero’s power in Ghost Rider (2007).  And yet, even in all these different purposes in a variety of different movies, they all mostly fall back on the traditional image of the devil that we are all familiar with; clothed in black or red (or both), dark beard (usually pointy), and usually with horns on his head.  But, in rare occasions, movies will deviate from this image and hide the identity of the devil into someone or something unexpected.  In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), they even went as far as to depict the Devil as a compassionate little girl, leading that film’s Jesus Christ into the titular temptation, while he’s being crucified on the cross.  For this article, I have picked out some of the most notable versions of the Devil on film, both to show how his use on film has changed or not changed over the years, and to show the many variances we have seen of the character on the big screen.  So, delve down into the depths of Hollywood’s Hell and see the Devil in his most dastardly forms.



Funny how one of the most vivid and compelling depictions ever of the Devil on the big screen comes from a film by Disney.  Found in the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Disney’s Fantasia, this Devil is as close to a traditional, Dante-esque version of the character you’ll ever see in any movie.  But, why does Disney give him the name Chernabog.  It’s not an attempt by the animation powerhouse to distance their character from a biblical source.  The credit for naming the creature was Disney animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, the man responsible for animating the character in the film.  Tytla drew from his Ukrainian heritage to produce what he needed for this segment, and in the folklore of his native country, there is a demon spirit known as the Chernabog, which is very equivalent to the Christian concept of the Devil, so he married the two into one unforgettable creation.  Tytla’s final animation of Chernabog is nothing short of amazing (something that animation experts still hold in high regard today).  Gargantuan and all powerful, you really get a sense that Chernabog is the master of all evil in the world from this sequence.  Though the segment has him do nothing more than rise ghosts and ghouls from their graves and make them perform dances in front of him, his menace is still palpable.  Whether he is the truest sense of the Devil or not, he certainly fits the bill alright.  He’s still to this day a favorite Disney villain to many, and why shouldn’t he be?  The winged beast has gone on to be a standard representation of how the Devil should commonly look visually, and many other movies have taken Disney’s lead on that.  Chernabog, over all others, brought the Devil his most epic of screen presences.



Here we have a classic old Hollywood take on the Devil.  A contemporary retelling of the Faust legend, the movie tells the tale of a farmer who promises his soul to the devil in return for economic success.  After gaining a lot of wealth due to the wish granted by the Devil but little personal happiness, the farmer seeks to cut himself free of the contract and he enlists a lawyer named Daniel Webster to argue his case for him; although Webster himself is also under contract with the Devil.  Going by the name, Mr. Scratch, this cinematic version of the devil is fine example of how to convey his image without making it obvious.  Mr. Scratch, played in a wonderfully hammy way by Walter Huston (father of director John Huston), looks ordinary to anyone within the film, but the pointy, dark eyebrows, mangy goatee, and devilish grin make it clear to us who he really is.  I especially like the touch of the brim on his hat, turned up on the sides to give the impression of horns on his head.  What’s interesting about this version of the devil is that he’s not actively a force of evil, but instead one who capitalizes on the evil deeds of us mortals, merely supplying the means for our own destructive ends.  He’s manipulative to be sure, but this movie also states that it’s our own vices and greedy ambitions that give him his power.  It’s very different from the Biblical version of the Devil, who is a more active sower of discord.  Here, he’s just waiting for us to slip up so that he can collect what’s left of our souls, a reminder of which the movie leaves on, with Huston breaking the fourth wall and pointing directly at his audience in the movie’s haunting final shot.


TIM CURRY from LEGEND (1986)

While the previous example I shared only suggested the image of the Devil, this version leaves nothing out.  When anyone asks what the Devil should look like, this is probably going to be the first image that comes to mind.  So, it’s interesting that this particular character has nothing to do with the traditional Devil found in scripture.  The character here, known simply as Darkness, merely adopts the look of Satan, though he might as well be him, given his place within the story.  Ridley Scott’s quintessentially 80’s fairy tale adventure features the character of Darkness as the master of all evil in the realm, so the Satanic persona fits very well.  The movie is mostly hit or miss; the 80’s cheese has nostalgic value, but Tom Cruise in the role of an elfish forest child is a little odd.  But, Tim Curry’s performance as Darkness is nothing short of amazing.  For one thing, you have to respect the time he put into getting all that makeup applied to his face, and then acting through it all.  Curry is without a doubt the highlight of the movie and the demonic vision that he and the makeup team has created is nightmare inducing.  The sharp, grotesque features of his face are enough, but the over the top gigantic horns and burning yellow eyes make him all the more frightening.  This is a very romanticized version of the Devil put on screen; beauty in the twisted and profane.  He’s also a very sexualized version of the devil, preying on the heroine in a predatory way, and yet persuasive in his deception.  While re-purposed for a different kind of fairy tale, this version of the Devil is probably cinema’s most dynamic recreation to date, giving us the iconic image in all it’s glory with an actor and design team inspired enough to pull it off.



Let’s face it; it was going to be inevitable that an actor like Jack Nicholson was going to play the Devil some day in a film.  No stranger to playing the bad guy in movies (the Joker in Batman) nor a stranger to horror films either (The Shining), Jack Nicholson just seems tailor made to play the Master of everything evil in the movies.  So, naturally the chance finally came along to play the Devil in George Miller’s dark comedy, The Witches of Eastwick.  The film centers on three women in a small New England town (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher) who encounter a mysterious newcomer named Daryl Van Horne (Nicholson).  Daryl buys the mansion on the outskirt of town and invites each of the women there, and through their encounters, each discovers their own powers and become witches.  But, gaining the powers only isolates them from the rest of the town, and soon they devise a way to turn their powers against him.  This is a very different take on the Devil that we’ve seen to this point, and one that’s suited more towards the persona of the actor playing him.  In this film, the Devil is a suave, playboy manipulator; ensnaring beautiful women through gifts and empowerment while at the same time, collecting their souls.  Jack’s performance as Daryl is naturally within his wheelhouse, easily slippng into the charismatic playboy that the character must be.  His performance stays strong even after that polished veneer is lifted once the witches turn their magic against him.  Nicholson becoming unhinged towards the end, revealing more of the demon inside, is definitely one of the film’s highlights, especially the now famous “Women” monologue speech he delivers.  The Devil himself couldn’t have made that moment any better.



Just as inevitable as Jack Nicholson playing the Devil in a movie, we have also seen Al Pacino fill the role on the big screen.  His version comes in a considerably darker film, co-starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron.  In The Devil’s Advocate, the Devil fills a very different role than we’ve seen before, which is that of a litigator.  The souls he collects are not random victims, but rather clients, all of whom wish for the best defense that money can buy.  But, it’s not them that this version of the Devil seeks the most; it’s Keanu Reeve’s hot shot lawyer that he wants under his power.  Al Pacino is an actor with two different modes; either he’s very reserved and collected, or he’s wildly over the top insane, and by God he uses both modes here.  The movie itself is a bit too dour and bleak at times, but Al steals every scene he is in, giving it the manic energy it needs.  The climax of the movie, where Pacino’s Devil reveals his true nature and ambitions, gives the actor the free reign to do whatever he wants and it is a gloriously unhinged scene.  His “I’m a fan of man” speech is ridiculously over the top, but it feels appropriate given who this is.  What I like about this version of the character is that, like Mr. Scratch from The Devil and Daniel Webster, he’s a Devil that preys on man’s own misbehavior, and that his power is only possible by misdeeds of our own sins.  As he states in the movie, vanity is his favorite sin, because serving solely in one’s self interest leads to every other bad deed in the book.  It’s no mistake that this Devil goes by the name of John Milton, the same moniker of the author of Paradise Lost, another parable about ambition gone wrong.  It was a masterstroke getting Al Pacino on board for this movie, and while the movie is sometimes boring, Al never disappoints.



Here we return to the more biblical version of the Devil, with Satan present in this retelling of Christ’s crucifixion.  While Mel Gibson’s hyper violent film is polarizing to this day, I think that one thing that does earn universal praise is it’s very vivid portrayal of Satan.  Though Satan’s role in the story has it’s roots in biblical text, with the spirit hovering around in Jesus’ mind as he is tempted to give up his sacrificial plans, the visual representation of the character is somewhat unique.  Instead of following the traditional image of the character popular in pop culture, with the horns and goatee, Gibson instead cast a female model in the role.  There could be many different factors related to this.  One, Gibson wanted to cast against type, thinking that the audience would expect someone who obviously looked liked the Devil we all know, and instead surprise us with this evil spirit in the form of something beautiful.  Though she is beautiful, there is still something off about her, with missing eyebrows and cold stare; it’s still clear that there is menace behind the beauty.  Secondly, and this is my own interpretation, I believe that Satan appears in this form in the movie to represent a twisted perversion of the purest thing in Jesus’ life, which is the love of his mother, Mary.  Gibson seems to back up this idea at one point in the movie when we see Satan holding in one scene what looks like a child, but it turns out to be a grotesque looking demon; done as if to taunt Jesus during his suffering.  Rosalinda Celentano fills the role perfectly and gives the Devil a very unsettling portrayal here, cold and unforgiving, and yet magnetic at the same time.  Of all the evil acts that Christ suffers in this movie, none feels more potent than the sinister voice over his shoulder telling him that all his suffering is futile.



Considerably lighter in tone than The Passion’s version of the Devil, here we have Satan imagined in a different type of persona; that of a gambler.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is notable mostly for being the film that actor Heath Ledger was in the middle of shooting before his untimely death, leaving his performance unfinished.  Director Terry Gilliam managed to finish the film with all of Ledger’s footage intact, thanks to the help of some A-List actors filling out the remaining scenes.  But, apart from the off screen dilemma with the film’s lead, the movie has one standout supporting performance from singer Tom Waits as the Devil.  His version of the Devil is much less malicious in his actions and is more interested in stirring the pot to work things in his favor.  In particular, he has an invested interest in besting the mystical Doctor Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer), and claiming the soul of his daughter.  For him, the misdeeds of mankind are all a game, and he’s solely interested in seeing more lost souls coming his way.  He strangely allows Parnassus a shot at determining his own fate, and when the Devil ultimately wins in the movie, it leaves him strangely unsatisfied, as if he actually feels bad about seeing the Doctor lose everything.  A rare case of sympathy from the devil.  Waits is an ideal choice for the part, keeping the character foreboding when he needs to be, but quirky at the same time.  With the bowler hat and ratty looking tuxedo, his costume definitely supports that gambler aspect of his character perfectly; making him the underworld’s top mafioso.  Considering Waits own fascination with the Dark One in his music (a common theme) he delivers enough credibility to the character to make him far more interesting and likable than he normally would.

Hollywood certainly has gotten their mileage out of this character over the years and he will most certainly be around for a long time still.  Horror remains a potent genre in film-making and to present the highest form of evil incarnate on screen, the Devil will have to be involved in some shape or form.  But, even beyond the Horror genre, there are still surprising ways to work the presence of the Devil into your stories.  As shown above, the Devil can be a part of fantasy (Legend), in a comedy (The Witches of Eastwick), in a religious film (The Passion), a psychological thriller (The Devil’s Advocate) and even be a part of an animated musical (Fantasia).  Whether he’s a trickster, a manipulator, or the harbinger of the world’s end, there are countless possibilities with how to use him.  I think that the Devil works best as a character in movies when the film moves away from the traditional image of the horned demon and portrays him as something different, although Tim Curry’s Darkness from Legend pulls off the traditional look to utter perfection.  Other versions like Jack Nicholson’s Daryl and Al Pacino’s John Milton are able to convey the embodiment of the Devil, without ever having to resort to the pitchfork and horns.  These along with the memorable portrayal of Satan in The Passion show that the Devil doesn’t have to look scary in order to be scary.  Just the idea that this is a being that has power and influence over us mortals is a scary enough idea alone, and that’s what gives the character such a strong presence in any big screen appearance he makes.  As far as Halloween icons go, few can generate a sense of terror the same way as the Devil does.

Top Ten Ghosts in Movies


Horror has long been popular in the world of cinema, and with it, all the many horrific monsters that come along with it.  Movie monsters like the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, as well as vampires like Dracula are always reliable icons of the genre to fall back on year after year.  But, if there was one reliable source for tales of the horrific and macabre, it would be ghost stories.  Ghosts are probably the most widely used supernatural entity used in movies today, and that’s largely because they are so varied and they lend themselves so well to the medium of film.  Ever since filmmakers of the silent era learned how to transpose one image onto another through cross processing of their films, creating a transparent ghostly effect, spirits and specters have remained continually a part of cinematic history.  Even though they are largely associated with the horror genre, you can still find ghost characters in a variety of different types of films. There are ghosts found in romantic films (Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply), comedies (Ghost Town), and even in Science Fiction (Event Horizon).  For the most part, their presence means a variety of things; either to haunt our protagonists if they have hostile intentions, or to reach out and deliver important guidance to the main character if they’ve lost their way.  Not all movie ghosts are the same, and yet having one in your film nevertheless brings a spooky, unworldly element to the story.  Some movie ghosts even become stars in their own right, outside of their place in the film’s story, and because of this, I decided to spotlight some of the more notable.

What follows is my list of the top ten movie ghosts.  As you will see, not all of them come from what you will call “scary movies.”  In fact, the majority of them are benevolent in their intentions; only a couple here will haunt your nightmares.  My choices are based on how well they stand out in their selected movies, how well they represent the embodiment (so to speak) of a ghostly image, and their overall effectiveness as characters.  Some of these choices are noteworthy in film history, and I should pre-warn you, there will be some plot spoilers ahead; including one particular one that i’m sure some of you will see coming.  I’m also excluding any ghost that’s come out of urban legends after a movie’s release, so no Three Men and a Baby ghost boy on this list.  Not all of these may be your own favorites, and some of them might be surprises.  Overall, I just wanted to show all of you just how varied ghosts can be on the big screen.  Whether scary or not, there are more than you’d think.  And so, let’s spook up our top ten happy haunts.




Here we have an example of ghosts in a movie whose appearance is miraculous rather than frightening.  In the movie, Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella hears a disembodied voice telling him in the middle of a cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  After clearing his cornfield to build a baseball field, which his family and neighbors see as a sign of insanity, Ray is soon greeted by the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson, a real life baseball player.  And not only that, but the entire 1918 Chicago White Sox team, all of whom were banned from baseball for purposely throwing games in the World Series for mafia backed gamblers.  And, of course, they begin playing ball again, on the field that Ray has built for them.  Shoeless Joe in this movie represents the most common kind of benevolent ghost that you’ll see in movies, and that’s the messenger spirit, or as some might interpret, the guardian angel.  Whether he was the voice Ray heard in the field is unclear, but Shoeless Joe’s place in the story is to show Ray why his good deeds are important.  The movie is about redemption, and it’s fitting that a talented ball player like Jackson, whose career was clouded by one terrible mistake, would return from beyond the grave to reach out and deliver this message to others in need of guidance.  Ray Liotta does a fine job playing Jackson, and the other ghosts in the story are just as fascinating.  In this unlikely ghost story, it’s interesting how the movie can make the supernatural more hopeful than scary.




Though ghosts who deliver messages to our protagonists tend to be for the most part pleasant in nature, there are a few that do appear in grotesque forms.  That is definitely the case with Santi, the ghost boy from Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.  Set during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, the movie revolves around the life of a boy named Carlos, who is haunted by Santi in a remote Orphanage in Spain, which is about to be in the cross-hairs of Republican and Fascist forces in one final battle.  Santi is not a hostile ghost, but he is nevertheless a frightening presence.  Del Toro is one of those rare directors who can delicately walk that fine line between the ethereal and the horrific, and this dichotomy is perfectly embodied in Santi.  His design is beautiful in it’s grotesqueness, pale white with sallow, rotten eyes and a eggshell like crack on his forehead with blood not dripping out of his head, but instead flowing upwards like a cloud of smoke.  All these features present in the person-hood of a little boy makes the imagery all the more unsettling.  And yet, Santi is there to be a spiritual guide rather than a nightmare for our main character Carlos, warning him of the coming danger as well as helping him discover what really led to his untimely end; making his story all the more tragic.  Santi would prove to be a monumental character for Del Toro, as he would return to the same techniques of portraying ghostly characters in Crimson Peak (2015).  Though the ghosts in that movie were memorable too, Santi still remains one of the macabre director’s more standout creations.




Now for a ghost child of a different kind, we turn to Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter franchise.  The ghosts of Hogwarts play a minor but still important factor in the series as a whole, whether it is Nearly Headless Nick (played by John Cleese) adding humor and playfulness to the character of the wizarding school, or the White Lady (played by Kelly MacDonald) giving an important clue to Harry in the final showdown of the series.  But, it’s Myrtle that stands out the most for a variety of reasons.  First, she’s a scene-stealing character with wild mood swings that generates a few laughs out of the audience.  And secondly, she’s notable for being the first ever victim of the murderous rampage of the series’ main villain, Voldemort.  Killed by Voldemort’s obedient servant Basilisk during his years as a student at Hogwarts, Myrtle is forever doomed to haunting the girls bathroom, lamenting the fact that no one liked her up until her death, and beyond.  Myrtle could have come across as obnoxious easily, and it’s a testament to actress Shirley Henderson for finding the humanity in the character and making her sympathetic while also ridiculously pathetic.  Amazingly, Henderson was 35 years old at the time she played the character, showing just how talented she could be at embodying the persona of an angsty teenager from beyond the grave.  She would show up again in the fourth Harry Potter film, only this time less dreary and more affectionate to Harry, in a hilariously uncomfortable way.  Though physically and purposely a haunting spirit in every way, Myrtle is a ghost that’s easy to love, if you can get her to stop crying.




Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the perfect example of a modern ghost story; with a hotel literally infested with malevolent spirits.  Kubrick does a brilliant job of portraying the ghosts in a different way than most other movies would.  Unlike other films, where ghosts would appear transparent and be able to float or pass through walls, Kubrick’s ghosts appear out of nowhere and appear as lifelike as any normal human being.  The ghosts appear around the corner or reveal themselves through a revere shot edit; simple cinematic tricks that are done to an unnerving effect.  Audiences will never forget the first time they saw the two little girl ghost appear at the end of a hallway in the memorable Steadicam tracking shot; an iconic moment that doesn’t use or need a special effect to convey a moment of terror.  And while the girls are terrifying, it is actually their father that ends up being the more memorable, and terrifying ghost in the movie.  Delbert Grady, who we learn was the previous caretaker of the hotel, appears to Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance during a ghostly ballroom scene.  After spilling wine on Jack’s shirt, the two men clean up in the bathroom, leading to one of the most brilliant moments in the movie.  Played magnificently by Phillip Stone, Delbert Grady embodies the evil nature of the Hotel perfectly; pleasant on the outside, dark and foreboding on the inside.  He appeals to Jack’s darker instincts and convinces him to murder his own family, a fate he himself succumbed to.  It’s a subtle performance by Stone, but one that is memorably creepy.  Grady proves that the scariest kinds of ghosts don’t always have to be hidden in the shadows, or appear as decayed like a corpse.  Sometimes the worst kinds of haunts can be soft spoken and well-dressed.




Death is strangely all too common in Disney movies, especially those of a loved one to our main heroes.  From Bambi’s mom to Anna and Elsa’s parents in Frozen, parental deaths are a particularly repeated trope used in Disney films.  However, only one of these departed parents has ever reached out from the great beyond to help their child out on their journey and that was Mufasa in The Lion King.  After being blamed by his uncle Scar for the untimely death of his father in a Wildebeest Stampede, Simba the lion cub retreats into exile.  But after many years, Simba is confronted with the fact that he must take his rightful place as king, and the message is made all the more clear when the spirit of his father Mufasa appears to him.  In a spectacular sequence, Mufasa appears larger than life out of the clouds and sets Simba straight, telling him to “Remember who you are.”  Shakespearean in it’s tone and epic in scale, Mufasa’s appearance is a memorable one.  The way he forms out of the negative space between the nighttime clouds is a particularly interesting way to represent his ghostly presence, and is unlike most other ghosts we’ve seen in films, animated or not.  Along with the booming voice of James Earl Jones, Mufasa’s spirit’s appearance is one of the most iconic moments in animation history.  And it’s interesting that it happens in a story that up until then contained no supernatural elements (unless you count the fact that you’re watching animals speak).  But at the same time, it feels thematically right, and it makes sense that such a life-force as Mufasa would return in such a way.




I warned you about spoilers before and this is why.  For those who have yet to see this movie, or know about it’s twist ending (are there really any of you left), I am about to spoil it right now.  For most of The Sixth Sense’s running time, we are led to believe that Dr. Crowe (played by Bruce Willis) is helping to provide psychiatric care to a troubled little boy (played by Haley Joel Osment in a breakout role) who says he can see ghosts.  We follow the two as they form a growing bond throughout the movie, and after the boy Cole accepts his gifts and is able to open up to friends and family, Crowe feels it’s time to return to his home and rebuild his marriage with his estranged wife, only to learn “SPOILERS” that he’s been dead this whole time.  The reason why Dr. Crowe stands out as one of cinemas most notable ghosts is because of that huge plot swerve at the end.  Now, when looking back on the movie, it doesn’t seem like that huge a shock, but the reason it worked so well is because of how well built up it is, thanks to both director M. Night Shaymalan’s expert storytelling and Willis’ performance (probably the best of his career).  We see Crowe’s murder in the opening scene, at the hands of a deranged former patient, and yet by shifting focus to Osment’s Cole afterwards, we forget about that incident, believing that Crowe had somehow managed to recover.  By playing things subtly throughout, we believe that Crowe is indeed still alive, which makes the revelation all the more shocking.  Clever clues throughout present the truth for us, but it is only in retrospect that we end up knowing that they’re there.  Malcolm Crowe is that rare movie ghost who doesn’t realize he was dead all along and it’s a miracle how well this movie made us all believe he was really there too.




It would be unthinkable to not include on of the many iconic spirits from this comedy classic.  Gozer doesn’t really count since she is a deity that can neither be living nor dead, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is the earthly form taken by an inter-dimensional demon, so you can’t really call him a ghost either.  There is however one standout ghost in Ghostbusters, and that is Slimer.  While more of a nuisance than any real threat, Slimer stands out as the first ghost captured by the titular team of ghost exterminators.  He certainly makes an impression right off the bat, being the glutton that he is, he haunts a swanky New York hotel and consumes all the room service carts.  When confronted by Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, he immediately rushes towards him and slimes Peter head to toe, hence giving him the name.  Out of all ghosts that appear in the movie, Slimer is definitely the breakout star.  An animated series based on the movie shortly afterwards even featured him as a major character; as a Scooby-Doo like mascot no less.  But it’s easy to see the appeal.  With the grotesque, obese build and the bright green skin, Slimer was no doubt destined to be a stand out.  He was particularly popular toy for most kids of that era (of which I was one).  It’s also interesting that he was a favorite among the filmmakers too.  Dan Aykroyd even joked on the set that Slimer was the ghost of his beloved and collaborator John Belushi, who had died only a couple years before.  That in of itself only adds to Slimer iconic status as one of cinema’s greatest ghosts.




When beloved Jedi and Mentor Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi sacrificed himself to save Luke Skywalker from Darth Vader in the original Star Wars (1977), we thought we saw the last of the old man.  But, then we learned in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, that there was a thing called “Force Ghosting” and as it turns out, Obi-Wan was still capable of carrying out his mission in the afterlife.  While not a ghost in the traditional sense, Obi-Wan’s force ghost is still one of cinema’s most famous ghostly characters.  His mortal body was destroyed in his sacrifice, but his life force became one with the Force itself, allowing his consciousness to prosper.  As we see, Obi-Wan is able to still follow Luke and guide him, even though he has no physical form, although he can create a projection of himself, which fans of the series have dubbed his “force ghost.”  It’s a clever way to allow the series to still use actor Alec Guinness in the role, but it doesn’t feel out of place either.  It’s an interesting concept as well, which gives some merit to the idea of what an afterlife may be.  Science tells us that when we die, the energy within us also leaves us as our bodies decay and is reclaimed into the universe at large.  That cycle of life is part of the basis behind George Lucas’ concept of the Force, so it seems natural that life, death, and afterlife could all fall under that same idea of transferring energy throughout the cosmos.  Now, of course they still use the cinematic shortcut of making Obi-Wan’s Force Ghost appear like any other movie ghost, but the idea behind it is still an interesting one to contemplate.  And it only shows how powerful a Jedi he is when Obi-Wan can master the Force so well that he can appear to us again out of pure energy.




Some of the ghosts on this list are friendly, and others just want to scare you for a little fun.  But here we have a ghost quite literally out of our nightmares.  Freddy Kruger is a ghost serial killer, committing his murders on victims while they sleep comfortably in their own homes by invading their dreams.  He’s frightening, but also delightfully over the top and campy too.  You can tell that actor Robert Englund is having a blast playing the part, even under the layers of make-up that I’m sure took hours to apply.  But, don’t let the one-liners and hammy acting fool you.  Kruger is a monster in every shape and form, and some of his sadistic tortures are hard to watch at times.  But, it’s the invasion of privacy that makes this particular ghoul so frightening.  It’s the fear of everyone whose afraid of ghost that some unseen presence is around you and watching your every move.  Now add the idea of not being safe within your own mind while you sleep and you can see what makes Freddy such a terrifying character.  Director Wes Craven plays up this aspect quite well in his film, with his characters being driven into madness as they attempt to avoid the killer spook by keeping themselves awake to extreme ends.  Since his debut, Freddy has been an icon of the horror genre.  With the inhuman mask of burned skin and those menacing blade fingers of his, he is as nightmarish as they come.  If you have to pick out the scariest of big screen ghosts, Kruger would certainly be among the top picks.  And he is quite literally the kind of ghost that will keep you awake at night.




All of the spirits on this list are memorable in some way, but how could I possibly not give the top spot to the “Ghost with the Most.”  Betelgeuse, or Beetlejuice depending on who you ask (both spellings are used in the movie), is every ghost rolled into one.  He’s a monster, a clown, a friend, a nuisance, a cartoon character, everything.  The brainchild of filmmaker Tim Burton, Betelgeuse is the quintessential Burton character.  Grotesque and yet ridiculous, you can tell he was a culmination of dreams from someone who grew up watching cartoons and horror movies and loving them both equally.  The visual design of the character is also inspired, with his striped suit, green hair and cadaver like face, Betelgeuse is the quintessential demon clown.  Ironic, given this performance, that Tim Burton would tap actor Michael Keaton to play Batman instead of the Joker, since this character seems like a test run for the later.  But, even still, Keaton is a wonder in this role.  Vulgar, obnoxious, and endlessly hilarious, it’s a thoroughly entertaining performance that indeed turned Keaton into a star.  Though he’s primarily a funny character, the movie still gives him a menacing side too.  His transformation into a serpent halfway through the film (animated in some impressive stop motion) is a particularly scary scene, even if it still contains some campy humor in it.  Even many years later, Betelgeuse still stands as an iconic cinematic ghost, and one of my personal favorites.  He’s still a hallmark in the careers of Keaton and Burton, and one of the greatest ghouls we’ll probably ever see on the big screen.  Just don’t say his name three times, or else there will be trouble.

So, there you have it; my choices for the greatest ghosts to ever appear in the movies.  Some are more traditional than others, and only a handful are particularly dangerous.  It’s just my way of showing the variety of types of ghosts that you can see used in so many different genres.  Whether it’s someones as benign as Shoeless Joe, or as menacing as Freddy Kruger, or a combination of all types like Betelgeuse, ghosts have some surprising roles to play in movies.  More often than not, you’re more likely to find the traditional horror movie representation of ghosts, with the transparent appearance and ethereal glow in dark corridors, most of the time and that’s understandable.  With Halloween around the corner, ghosts become a popular icon for the season and one of the best traditions around this time is sharing ghost stories with one another.  Ghosts are as common to storytelling as anything else, and they have a long proud tradition in our culture dating back centuries.  Whether you believe in their existence or not, you are bound to find ghosts in just about any storytelling medium you can think of.  Cinema has contributed some of the best to the world, and this Halloween season is made the better for it.  Let’s just hope that the haunting stays on the screen where it belongs, although depending on how memorable and potent the ghosts and ghouls are in the movie and also the type of movie you watch, you may also find your dreams and nightmare haunted by them as well.

Off the Page – Frankenstein


With Halloween once again around the corner, it’s time again that we look at some of the season’s most notable icons.  Monsters and ghouls are just as much associated with the Halloween holiday as Santa Claus is with Christmas.  They are the easy go to ideas for costumes every year, and any visit to your local grocery store or mall at this time will almost always feature some kind of holiday branding featuring one or two of these characters.  But, the interesting thing about the most famous of these iconic characters is that most of them were established out of the same unlikely source.  Unlike Santa Claus, whose origins begin as a real life saint who has been re-imagined into the mythical figure we know today, or the Easter Bunny whose origins come out of folklore, Halloween’s gallery of rogues originated from the world of 19th century literature.  Not only that, but many of them were created during the same literary movement; a pre-Victorian style emphasizing tales of the grim and unnatural known as Gothic.  Some of the most notable authors of the era all contributed to this movement, and created some of the most memorable monsters that continue to remain popular to this day.  Bram Stoker revolutionized the concept of vampirism with his now iconic villain Count Dracula; Robert Louis Stevenson gave us the psychological horror story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; H.G. Wells explored the spectral threat of the unseen with his Invisible Man; and even more earthbound authors like Charles Dickens would delve now and again into Gothic themes and characters.  But, perhaps the most unlikely source of one of the Halloween season’s most iconic characters was young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who brought the brutish Frankenstein monster to the world.

Mary Shelley was an unlikely Gothic author for her time, and one that no one could believe had a monster like Frankenstein within her imagination.  The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley seemed destined to always be an author in her own right.  Her early writing primarily focused on recounting her travels across Europe, with her travelogues becoming valuable guides for her readers.  But, on a trip to Switzerland in 1814, she heard stories from some of the locals of peculiar scientific experiments being conducted by some of the local lords; mostly harmless, but nevertheless mysterious.  From this, Mary conceived the story of an experiment gone horribly wrong, creating a monster that would go on to haunt it’s creator.  Over the next few years, she wrote out what would become the novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818).  It was one of the earliest works of the Gothic movement to become an immediate success, and many argue that it was one that was largely responsible for defining the genre as a whole.  In fact, it’s often seen as a precursor to all the other monster characters that I mentioned before.  So shocking it was when first published, that Mary Shelley had to remain anonymous as the author for quite some time.  But, since then she has become a much celebrated figure in Gothic literature.  Though her work was largely a product of it’s time, it has since captured the imagination of the world for nearly two centuries now, with it’s underlying themes of creation, identity, and male hubris.  And these themes, along with the iconic image of the monster himself, naturally was too good to pass up once it reached Hollywood.  In 1931, Universal Pictures delivered what is now one of the most celebrated adaptations of Shelley’s novel, as well as establishing the modern visual interpretation of the monster.  In many ways, the movie Frankenstein is a whole different creature from the novel it’s based on, and yet it stays true to it’s Gothic origins and presents a whole new set of sub-textual meaning behind it.  By comparing the novel and the movie, we can see some interesting results of how the myth has evolved over time.


“Think of it.  The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands.”

Universal’s Frankenstein, like the novel that inspired it, redefined it’s genre and influenced it for many years to come.  Directed by James Whale, the movie took inspiration from  German Expressionism that became popular during the late Silent Era of cinema, using shadows and light and off-kilter art direction to convey psychological terror to the audience.  In addition, the movie also added a definite Hollywood spin on the story.  Instead of the conflicted Victor Frankenstein of the novel, we get Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a traditional Hollywood protagonist (played by Colin Clive), seeking to resolve the problem he’s created in the most humane way possible.  Hollywood’s Dr. Frankenstein is far different in that respect than the more weaselly Victor of the novel, who spends the entire story running away from his folly as opposed to resolving it.  It’s a big difference between the two versions, but not necessarily one that ruins the story.  The movie is attempting to do something different with the characters, giving the plot a much more rounded, good versus evil confrontation.  Mary Shelley’s take on the characters delivers a much more socially conscious message, which is the to explore the arrogance of a male dominated society.  Delivering on her own feminist ideals, some of which were quite radical for her time, Shelley points out that Victor’s own arrogance manifested itself in the creation of the monster and that his weakness is defined by the way that way he denies his own folly.  Shelley was very critical of the Romantics of the Enlightenment movement, whom she believed carried this same kind of chauvinistic arrogance as Victor, believing that power through revolutionary thoughts and ideas could lead to a more utopian world.  Shelley believed that such a notion was careless, because revolutionary concepts could also lead to disastrous results if reason and caution were left out.  She saw this as a primarily male-centric shortcoming, and she used the misguided Victor as a representation of this.


“It’s moving.  It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s ALIVE.  Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

But the movie is less concerned with Victor/ Henry’s story and instead focuses much more on the monster itself.  It’s easy to see why.  Universal Pictures wanted to define it’s studios with a definitive horror icon, and Frankenstein fit that bill perfectly.  Released at the same time as Dracula (1931), Hollywood finally defined the style of horror that would become a staple of the industry with these two iconic films.  And like Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance as the Count, the portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster would become the standard for years to come.  Boris Karloff portrayed the titular monster in a magnificent and surprisingly nuanced way.  Instead of being just the lumbering giant that most other actors would’ve portrayed him as, Karloff brings a surprising amount of humanity to the creature, showing him to have childlike wonder about the world around him in addition to the carnal instincts that make him a menace.  There’s a fantastic scene midway through the film where the monster encounters a little girl playing along the shore of a lake.  Instinct tells him that the child is not a threat and the two play innocently for a moment, throwing flowers into the water.  Of course, the uneducated monster doesn’t understand the difference between flowers and children yet, and he tosses the little girl into the water as part of this game, not knowing that he in fact killed her in the process.  It’s a scene like that which shows the depths of the character perfectly; a monster guided by emotion rather than reason, doomed to be a monster because of the lack of humanity that his creator has shown to him.  At the same time, Karloff does make the monster frightening on screen.  When he strangles his victims, you really get a sense of the power of this creature and how it can be a menace.

The image of the creature is definitely something that the movie contributed to the character.  In many ways, it’s true to Mary Shelley’s image, and yet very different.  Shelley’s monster is indeed larger than the average man like the film version, but her creation is in many ways more grotesque.  Her monster is made up of stitched up skin; yellow and translucent, and barely concealing the blood vessels and muscle tissue underneath.  He also has yellow and red eyes, as well as long pitch black hair and black lips.  It’s an image that immediately frightens away Victor after he brings the creature to life and makes him instantly regret his actions.  The movie’s creature is obviously more refined due to Hollywood standards, but nevertheless distinctive.  Huge and lumbering, he also is defined by his flat topped cranium as well as bolts sticking out of his neck.  This particular image of the creature, as Boris Karloff portrayed him, has since become the definitive look of the creature, through all subsequent interpretations.  Anytime you see Frankenstein represented today, it’s based off of this version, and not the yellow skinned monster of the novel.  The green tinged skin color has also been given to the creature over the years, which may date back to behind the scenes documentation of Karloff’s make-up for the black and white film, or it could have come from one of the pop culture spin-offs that took inspiration from the character; the TV series The Munsters for example.  Regardless, the image of the monster is the movie’s biggest contribution to the legacy of the story, but that in itself remains true to the theme of the story.  The movie and the book are about the foolish attempts of human beings to take control of their own destinies and command nature itself, and the unexpected ways that the monster has changed over the years is proof that there is no certainty with regards to how our creations in life will withstand the test of time.  Time has even given the name of Frankenstein over to the creature itself, and not to his misguided creator, something that I don’t think Shelley could’ve foreseen.


“Crazy am I?  We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not.”

But, where the novel and the movie offer the most interesting contrast is in the different ways they deliver on the themes of identity and where one’s place is in the world.  Shelley’s main emphasis with her story was looking at the role that man’s relationship with nature plays in the error of their ways.  Her novel begins with a passage from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which says, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man?  Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?”  Along with the subtitle of The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley emphasizes that her story is all about asking why life exists with the creation not  knowing the intentions of it’s creator.  Victor, like Prometheus in Greek Mythology, defies the intended order of things just to see how his experiments will take hold, but never looks to what those consequences might be.  The creature, on the other hand, embodies the chaotic results of creation with a will all it’s own.  In the novel, the creature tries to find his own way in the world, separated from his absent creator.  He learns to speak and read all on his own, observing other humans from afar, and yet cannot make use of any of it because of his unnatural existence that makes him a monster to everyone else.  When he confronts Victor in the novel, he says that he’s the “Adam of you design,” referring back to the biblical first man, whose life is also recounted in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  It’s a critical examination of the conflict between man and God, with the creature not understanding why Victor gave him nothing but life.  Every useful thing he has is wasted because there was nothing to guide him towards a human existence.  As a result, the creature seeks nothing more than to destroy his creator, unless he gives him more of a natural existence, namely, to repeat the experiment again so that he can have a mate.  By refusing to repeat his past folly, the monster than haunts Victor, chasing him across multiple borders and even far North into the Arctic.  Like his literary predecessors, Victor attempts to play the role of God, and is undone by his own creation.

The movie on the other hand deals with identity in a different way.  The creature never quite grows out of his instinctual brutality, but this too is indicative of the neglect of his creator.  But, what James Whale emphasizes in his movie is a sense of the creature becoming a victim of his own status of an outsider.  Though it’s hard to say if Whale purposefully changed the story to suit this theme, but I feel like there was more than a little personal investment that the filmmaker put into the portrayal of the character in his story.  James Whale was one of the first openly homosexual filmmakers working in Hollywood, and it was something he struggled with for most of his life, professionally and personally.  His final tortuous years led to his untimely suicide, which were both dramatized in the film Gods and Monsters (1998), featuring Ian McKellan as Whale.  Though still closeted at the time, I believe that some of Whale’s own struggles manifested their way onto the screen with the way that the creature is hunted down in the movie.  Here you have a character who is shunned, condemned, and ultimately hunted down for merely being who he is.  It’s only the innocent and un-corrupted that give him any bit of compassion, like the girl playing with her flowers.  Albeit, it’s a bit harsh for someone to equate their own sexuality with the manifestation of a monster, but what I think Whale wanted to emphasize with his movie was how reacting to the monster also created a monstrous effect in society as a whole.  The movie concludes with the creature cornered in a decrepit old windmill, torched alive by angry villagers seeking to destroy him.  This plays into a fear that I’m sure James Whale probably had himself; being cornered by angry mobs of people who saw what he was as monstrous too.  The only reason that the monster acts the way he does is because of the mistreatment that’s been directed his own way; a misfit whose only crime is living.  I think that’s why the role of the creature is much more emphasized in Whale’s film, because it the character appealed far more to the issues that were important to him.  In Whale’s world, a lack of identity makes you just as much of a victim as it does a monster, and sometimes society as a whole can be the true monster.


“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

Both the novel and the movie are very different creatures, but both are exceptional in their own right.  Mary Shelley’s novel defined the Gothic style and would go on to inspire all sorts of classics in the genre.  It could even be said that Frankenstein invented science fiction, because it was the first popular story written during the age of scientific discovery during the early 19th Enlightenment period.  All the wonders of the pre-Victorian and late-Victorian age were developed within the shadow of Frankenstein, and her novel proved to be an effective cautionary tale of taking experimentation too far and not dealing with the consequences of unchecked industrialization.  The movie, likewise, would go on to influence it’s own genre, becoming the definitive Hollywood monster movie.  Both also offer interesting insights into human behavior and how man’s relationship to nature is a volatile one.  Shelley’s novel gives an interesting insight into man’s own arrogance leads to self-destructive ends, while Whale’s movie establishes the interesting idea that intolerance itself creates an endless circle of violence, some of which leads to own own self-destruction.  Regardless of the different interpretations that each made, they have nevertheless made an unexpected icon out of it’s unforgettable monster.  Boris Karloff’s performance as the monster is especially a great one, and it’s because of him that I think the story continues to remain popular to this day.  It’s interesting to think that the oldest of these Halloween season icons is also the one who feels the most modern.  It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Mary Shelley’s imagination, where she was able to dream up a monster who would withstand the test of time and in a way, become timeless.  Whether he’s meeting his bride for the first time, or scaring off Abbot and Costello and Scooby Doo, or even being the mascot of a breakfast cereal, Frankenstein is an indispensable icon of the Halloween season, and one one whose resurrection will continue again and again.


“Whose life was one of brutality, violence, and murder.”

The Birth of a Nation – Review


Timing is an important thing for film releases.  Whenever a studio stakes a claim on a date, their hope is that the conditions are just right for the best possible exposure for their films.  Sometimes a movie has the disadvantage of being released at the wrong time, with outside influences clouding it’s exposure, such as a national tragedy or inclement weather.  But, for the most part, many films are given the right amount of exposure and it largely has to do with the types of movies they are.  Action movies and high concept fantasies typically release in the summer while prestige dramas are given the fall and winter, in anticipation of awards season the following year.  But even with these conditions, studios still want to avoid things that can sometimes be out of their control, such as controversies related to the movie or the people involved.  This is especially true when there’s a movie that Hollywood has high hopes for and yet still are aware that it can turn into a lightning rod for some people.  That seems to have been the recent case with the long road to the big screen for director and star Nate Parker’s new film The Birth of a Nation (2016).  The story of a slave revolt in the South during the pre-Civil War years became the most talked about film coming out of the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered.  It soon turned into a major story when it broke the record for the biggest sale ever made at the festival for one film, with Fox Searchlight paying $17 million for distribution rights.  In the wake of the “Oscar’s So White” controversy, The Birth of a Nation looked like the right film for Hollywood to have the socially aware, African-American centered awards front-runner they needed, but as we’ve seen, a lot can happen in a few months.

Since it’s Sundance premiere, The Birth of a Nation has enjoyed a good amount of exposure even before rolling out into wide release.  The film received a warm reception at the Toronto Film Festival where it also played, and it appeared that it was well on it’s way to being an early front runner for the upcoming awards season.  However, real life events have cast a cloud over the movie, affecting it’s reception just as the larger public is now able to watch it themselves.  Both are unfortunately negative factors.  The first, of course, are revelations of Nate Parker’s possible rape case from his days back in college.  He’s never been convicted, but his accuser took her life some years ago and the charges have been floating around ever since, only now becoming public, just as his career is beginning to take off.  Whether he’s guilty of the crime or not, it still is overshadowing the release of the movie, and may audience members are now confronted with having to try to separate the art from the audience, which is harder to do for some who take this issue very seriously.  The other thing that is affecting the release of this movie is the straight from the headlines stories of African-American men being killed by police officers who are using excessive force across the country.  This is affecting the movie differently from Nate Parker’s own controversies and makes it sadly prescient.  A lot will be talked about this movie in the weeks ahead, and more than likely, both narratives surrounding it’s release will either make or break this film at the box office.  But, now that it’s here for all of us to see, does it hold up to the hype surrounding it, or is it a whole lot of noise for something not all that extraordinary.

The Birth of a Nation tells the true story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave who has been raised to become a preacher for other slaves in the Antebellum South.  His Master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) sees Nat’s elegant sermonizing as useful for helping to keep the other slaves on his plantation cooperative and obedient.  When Samuel’s associate, Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr.), suggests that he should take Nat to other plantations to “spread his word,” Samuel sees a prime opportunity to bring extra income into his cash-strapped plantation.  Soon, he and Nat travel across the county to every nearby plantation, with Nat witnessing more and more horrific sights committed against the slaves by their masters.  Nat becomes increasingly torn, trying to reconcile what he’s learned all his life from the Turner family, and how it goes against everything his faith stands for.  He reaches a breaking point when his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is brutally raped and beaten by a group of slave hunting mercenaries, led by the ruthless Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley).  This, in addition to Samuel’s increasingly demanding orders to exploit Nat for his cause, as well as all the other slaves, and Nat resolves once and for all to finally fight for his right to be a free man.  Along with his fellow rebellious slaves Will (Chike Okonwo) and Hark (Colman Domingo), and many dozens more, Nat’s small, bloody revolution begins to unfold and as a result, sends shock waves through the South and through history.  Many Southerners at the time have tried to silence the legacy of Nat Turner’s revolt, but thankfully now it’s coming back to light at a time when it needs to be remembered.

So, with a story this fascinating, and a message more timely than ever, this would appear to be a sure fire awards season favorite heading into the fall.  Unfortunately, this is also a movie where it’s ambition and it’s heart far exceed it’s execution.  Having finally seen it for myself, I can tell you that it is a fairly good movie, but only just that.  It’s not, for lack of a better word, revolutionary, nor is a failure either.  I think the main problem that I have with this movie is the uneven way it is presented.  What should have been stirring and visceral feels instead very muted and conventional.  It’s very clear that this is a movie made from a first time director.  The film is not poorly made, but you can feel the amateurishness of a storyteller who wants to tell a grand story, but is not quite comfortable with all the storytelling tools that are at his disposal.  But, even still, Nate Parker does show a lot of talent behind the camera, and there are several moments in the movie that do stand out.  However, any moment that does land is then undermined only scenes later with what I would call cinematic short-cuts.  There is a lot of heavy handed symbolism in this movie, and some of it is so on the nose that it will drive you crazy.  I think it would have served Parker better if he held off making this his first feature, and instead return to this story after having sharpened his skills on another feature, or maybe entrust his script to another director who has more experience.  This is a story that deserves the most assured kind of execution, and the fact that it falls short of it’s own ambition is an unfortunate result for such a noble effort.

The other negative that’s working against the movie is the inevitable comparison it’s going to have with the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013).  The Steve McQueen directed film touches upon many of the same issues and explores many of the same horrific moments that defined this dark era in American history.  But, where the comparison ends between the two is in their distinctive executions.  12 Years a Slave, also based on a true story, for the most part is a far more visceral and impactful film, mainly because it puts you the viewer into the middle of the horror, witnessing the events through the point of view of it’s subject Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), and it was unrelenting too.  The Birth of a Nation has its eye-opening moments of horror too (even something as quietly unsettling as a little white girl playing with a slave girl who is dragged along with a rope leash around her neck), but it restrains itself by sticking to a biopic convention when telling it’s story.  Where 12 Years a Slave was an experience, Nation just feels like a history lesson, albeit a very valuable one.  But for something that was meant to be incendiary and thought provoking, Birth of a Nation almost seems to hold it’s audience off at a distance.  It’s only until the finale where the revolt actually happens that we see signs of the kind of the kind of rage that Nate Parker wanted his movie to emulate, but to get there, the movie certainly takes it’s time.  That being said, it does do a lot right, even in some better ways than 12 Years a Slave.  The character development in this film is certainly stronger, albeit with a few stereotypical redneck-y bad guys thrown in there.  One can not fault Nate Parker for making this kind of movie so soon in the wake of the similarly themed 12 Years, but some of the shortcomings in his film only feel more pronounced when the comparison is made.

But there is still plenty to admire about this film.  First of all, Nate Parker does get strong performances across the board from all of his cast, and he himself manages to carry the film as well with his role.  I would say that Nate makes a better actor at this point in his career than a director, though he is not without skill there as well.  The character of Nat Turner is a challenging one to pull off, given the often grandiose sermons that he has deliver.  In most other actors hands, I believe the role could have slipped too heavily into pomposity, but thankfully Nate takes a more reserved approach that still feels right whenever he goes for those grandiose moments.  Some of the other performances are also strong.  Though her character is a little underwritten, Aja Naomi King’s performance as Nat’s long tortured wife is still a strong one that really earns your sympathy throughout.  Armie Hammer is also very strong in what ends up being the film’s most complicated role.  What interested me about this movie was how it depicted the slave owners who were masters over Nat and his family.  They are not the worst people in the world and at times they can even be sympathetic; until of course you remember the horrible institution that they are a part of.  Hammer conveys this perfectly in his performance; showing that even decent human beings could be a part of something evil just because it was so ingrained into society at the time.  I like that Nate Parker allowed for that kind of complexity with his characters, although there are some characters like Jackie Earle Haley’s Cobb that are a little too cartoonishly evil and rotten.  Despite some of the problems with how the characters are written, it is good to see the actors making the most of their roles; even those in minor roles like Mark Boone Jr. and Colman Domingo.  If there is anything that’s the movie’s saving grace, it’s definitely the cast.

What I’m sure most people are wondering about this movie is whether or not it’s message is going to resonate with audiences, and for some, spark them into action.  The timing for this movie couldn’t be more perfect as African-American populations are growing more frustrated with the lack of justice given to them after the increasing number of fatal police shootings have dominated the headlines.  A segment of our population being treated like second class citizens is going to find a lot of parallels in some of themes presented in The Birth of a Nation.  Of course, slavery and police brutality are two different issues, but what will resonate for audiences is the way that contemporary society takes a blind eye to their issues, which is reflected in the way that slavery was treated as an institution during the setting of the movie.  Nate Parker’s screenplay does not give a pass to compassionate, patronizing whites in his movie, as some of them are condemned heavily for perpetuating an institution that they know is unjust, and for saying that they know what is best for the slaves time and time again.  Parker’s most incendiary statement made in the movie is showing how scripture was used by many in those days to perpetuate the practice of slavery, with Nat Turner becoming a literal tool in that practice.  Though Turner himself was a man of faith, he sees the malice of his master’s plan and calls them out for it.  By spotlighting this, Nate helps to show the way religion can be mishandled to promote something diabolical, and that the same practices are used today to subjugate and oppress other disenfranchised groups; all making it the film’s most potent message.

One wishes that Nate Parker’s skills as a director could’ve been a little stronger in order to help make the message at it’s center resonate better.  Instead, we get a historical biopic about an important lost figure in American history that is certainly good, but could have been a lot better.  As it stands, it’s a very strong first film for a director with a lot of promise.  I certainly am interested in seeing what Nate will direct next; it might turn out much better, given that I’m sure he’s learned a few new things during the making of this film.  I also do have to admire the passion behind this movie.  You can tell this was a labor of love for him and for the most part it does succeed on shedding light on a piece of history that shouldn’t be a footnote.  But, even still, I can’t overlook the faults that this movie has too.  It’s awkwardly paced, thinly written, and doesn’t quite reach the heights that it’s trying to aim for.  Perhaps with more of a body of work behind him, Nate Parker could have made something truly groundbreaking with this movie, but you can’t fault him for wanting to quickly realize something that he believed in.  All this said, I don’t think you’ll find many people who will outright dislike this movie.  It’s conventional in a way that will please most audiences, though I’m sure there will be a few who don’t think that it went far enough with it’s message.  I for one admire that Nate took the risk to make this in the first place.  It only remains to be seen if the movie can stand outside the shadow of his own past misdeeds.  I believe that it did, but each other audience member will probably feel different.  I think this will fall short of awards season favorite that all the pre-release hype made it out to be, but it still is an honorable film-making effort that’s intent on sparking a conversation this nation desperately needs to have.

Rating: 7.5/10

Found Footage – The Blair Witch Project’s Legacy and the Start of a New Genre in Filmmaking


Every generation of filmmaker seems to want to make their mark on the horror genre.  Since the German Expressionists revolutionized the use of contrasting shadows and light in films like Nosferatu (1922) and off-kilter production design like those in The Cabinet of Dr. Kaligari (1926) as a means of conveying terror in the audience, horror has been a dominant genre in the medium.  Universal Pictures popularized the genre with their monster features in the 30’s and 40’s, and the post-war era gave way to the B-picture brand of kitsch horror.  Then came the slasher films, which took advantage of the end of the Hollywood Production code in order to increase the level of gore on screen. Though the styles have changed, the genre has managed to remain resilient through the years, and that’s mainly because of it’s exceptional ability to adapt to the changing times and values, more than any other genre.  I think that it’s mostly because the Horror genre targets a younger audience; albeit an audience on the cusp of adulthood.  Because Horror movies are targeted at a young adult audience, they are intended to be more in tune with what younger people value; though it doesn’t always work that way.  That’s why you always see clearly defined lines between different eras in the Horror genre; because every era’s audience is different.  Usually you’ll find a defining film that helped to guide each era’s character in the Horror genre; whether it was Friday the 13th (1980) for the slasher 80’s or Scream (1996) for the self aware 90’s.  But, if there was ever a horror film that had the unlikeliest legacy, it would be the unexpected hit, The Blair Witch Project (1999).

The Blair Witch Project was the horror movie blockbuster that no one saw coming.  Made on a shoestring budget, Blair Witch brought a new concept to the genre, and that was the use of “found footage.”  The film proposed that it was pieced together from real footage shot by student filmmakers on the search for a fabled witch who had been haunting the woods around a small Maryland town for centuries.  With their gear in tow, the three documentarians set out to find out if the local legends are true, and the deeper they travel, the weirder things get.  Their cameras pick up strange phenomena and eventually they start to become harassed by someone or something out in the wilderness.  Madness and frustration begins to take hold of the filmmakers and they begin to suspect each other.  When one of them goes missing, then it turns into a life or death situation for the remaining duo.  And soon, they learn that there is indeed no way out for them and all they can do is to continue to record their experience in the hope that their story may be told.  Of course, none of the footage is found at all.  The three filmmakers are really just actors following a script (Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams and Heather Donahue respectively) and the legendary “Blair Witch” was a complete fabrication made for the movie.  But, even still, the movie is genuinely terrifying and it’s primarily due to the way that it is presented.  Using hand-held cameras gives the film a stunning you are there feel, and the scares are generated more from the things unseen rather than what is seen.  The “Blair Witch” herself is never actually shown, and it’s really up for debate if the movie concretely says if she’s real at all.  But, it doesn’t matter in the end, because it’s the paranoia of not knowing everything that truly gives this movie it’s power.

Though revolutionary, The Blair Witch Project is not without it’s problems either.  There’s little to no character development, and the dialogue can be groan inducing at times.  And the quality of the film-making is not for everyone’s taste (hope you can get used to a lot of grainy shots of nothing but darkness).   But The Blair Witch Project is less fascinating as a film and more interesting for what it actually affected within the industry.  As a horror movie, it was something very new and original.  In an era that was becoming increasingly dominated by Scream knock-offs, Blair Witch was a breath of fresh air.  Here was a movie that didn’t need buckets of blood or music crescendos to drive the scary moments.  All it needed was a sense of confusion and a bleak atmosphere.  But, it’s legacy wasn’t just limited to the horror genre.  What was also groundbreaking about The Blair Witch Project was the way it was marketed.  The movie only cost $60,000 to make, but it ended up grossing $240 million worldwide, and that is because of how well it generated buzz before hand and how it spread by word of mouth.  This happened in the then underground world of the internet, and it became the first ever viral marketing used to promote a movie.  More than anything, this is the biggest legacy that Blair Witch has left, because every film now has followed it’s lead with marketing films through websites and online forums.  In addition, the movie also launched a genre of it’s own that even extends outside of the Horror genre where it started; the found footage film.

Of all the things that would define the “digital era” of horror film-making, it would be “found footage.”  In the wake of The Blair Witch Project, there were dozens of copycat films that would also try to capitalize on it’s success.  Movies like Quarantine (2008), The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), and REC (2007), emerged in this time; some good, but mostly bad.  For the most part, few movies could ever achieve the same novelty that Blair Witch had when it first released, but a couple of them still stood out.  Paranormal Activity (2007) took the Blair Witch style and updated it with modern technology, giving the found footage sub-genre a more refined look.  And then there were movies like Cloverfield (2008) and Chronicle (2012), which took “found footage” into other genres, showing the format’s versatility.  More often than not, the success of these “found footage” movies hinged more on whether or not the films were actually good and entertaining enough, and less about how well they look, which is something that boded well for the format.  “Found Footage” is better able to get away with a less polished look, which in turn made it a valuable genre to work within for the budget-minded filmmaker.  Many up and coming filmmakers across the world find the “found footage” sub-genre as a great place to flex their film-making muscles, because it allows for more flexibility with the storytelling, as you are not tied to conventional Hollywood conventions.  This was also the era when reality television was dominating the airways, with shows like Survivor and American Idol generating huge ratings, so “found footage” was perfectly reflective of it’s audiences’ new found fascination with documented reality, or the illusion of one.  Whether or not Blair Witch is responsible for launching all of that, it nevertheless marked a big push forward for a film-making technique whose time had come.

But, “found footage” is not without its fault as a technique either.  Too many young filmmakers tend to mistake the format as a film-making shortcut.  It’s so easy to create a sense that you’ve made a Hollywood level film by just emulating the “found footage” movies that are released in theaters.  But, more often than not, most “found footage” movies fail because they don’t have a compelling story behind them.  Horror “found footage” films in particular have churned out some truly horrendous movies in recent years; so much so that there seems to have been a backlash by audiences, who are now demanding a different direction for the genre.  This is largely due to the fact that for a while, “found footage” became a crutch for a genre that was lacking ideas, so Hollywood filmmakers used it to cover up the fact that they were just rehashing the same cliched elements over and over again.  One particular sub-Horror genre that was done to death with “found footage” was the Exorcism and Demonic Possession films.  These types of movies, such as The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Devil Inside (2012), especially squandered their potential by taking way too many film-making shortcuts that actually ended up insulting their audience.  The Devil Inside was even documented to have elicited boos from multiple audiences because of it’s audacity to end with resolving a thing in it’s story and conclude with a plug for it’s website.  It was at that point where audiences were seeing that there was no innovation in the genre with this kind of technique; it was just a way for hack horror filmmakers to quickly churn out a cheap product.  And for a fan-base that was starved for something fresh in the Horror genre, this became a terrible blight on the ever evolving genre.  If Horror movies were to reinvent itself, it would have to escape the shadow of the Blair Witches and the Paranormal Activities.

In recent years, we’ve seen this new tug-of-war in the Horror genre between the cheap “found footage” style, and the sleeker, more ambitious Horror.  Nostalgia is something that has actually moved the Horror genre in a different direction, as many new filmmakers in the genre are looking more to slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s for inspiration, and less to The Blair Witch Project.  Recent critically acclaimed horror movies like The Conjuring  (2013) and It Follows (2014), have brought back a more refined look to the genre, with thematic lighting, practical effects, and a grounded camera all making old fashioned techniques feel like new again.  They are far more emblematic of the techniques of it’s 70’s and 80’s cousins, and in some cases, they even borrow the era’s aesthetic right down to the smallest details.  It’s a clear sign of an audience coming of age and recognizing the value of something other than what the Hollywood machine has been churning out.  What seems to be happening more now is that audiences have grown tired of the cheap amateurishness of “found footage” horror, and are instead looking for better scares from filmmakers who continually challenges their audience and makes the visual presentation just as important as the scares.  Filmmakers like James Wan (The Conjuring) bring a lot to the genre because they know what they’re doing and they are not trying to hide their filmmaker shortcomings through gimmicks.  And as we’ve seen not just in the movie theaters but also on television with the success of the Duffer Brothers’ series Stranger Things, this shift in the Horror genre is not just a little one, but a bigger mainstream move that will probably change the face of Horror for years to come, and mark the end of the “found footage” era.

But, that’s not to say that The Blair Witch Project‘s legacy will disappear entirely.  “Found footage” is a technique that is actually finding it’s footing outside of the horror genre at the moment, and I believe that’s where it’s future will be.  As we’ve seen before, “found footage” can be used for all sorts of different types of stories and depending on the subject, it actually becomes a refreshing and unexpected exercise in narrative.  Cloverfield proved that visual effects and CGI would not look out of place with handheld photography, and Chronicle showed that the format could even tell a compelling story with a surprising amount of depth and tragedy.  Comedies have even found a way to use the “found footage” technique to tell their story, with movies like Project X (2012) letting the POV perspective catch audiences with unexpected visual gags in a new way.  And with better cameras out today, hand held photography can hold it’s own in cinemas just as well as other movies.  Take for instance David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012), a movie that could have been filmed the conventional way, depicting the day to day lives of inner city cops (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena), but instead is shot documentary style with hand-held cameras, which gives it a distinctive look.  Ayer’s stylistic choice turns out to have been a better one for the story he wanted to tell, putting us right in the middle of the action and in the process, within the mindset of his characters.  It also calls to mind the kind of footage that you would normally see on a real police dash cam, or on shows like COPS, which is a direction you rarely see mined for dramatic purposes on film.  So it shows that like the Horror genre that it was spawned from that the “found footage” sub-genre is evolving too, finding itself becoming a handy technique for unconventional storytelling.

That as it turns out is what The Blair Witch Project‘s lasting legacy will be over time.  It didn’t invent the “found footage” technique, but it popularized it in a way that it became a genre on it’s own, one that doesn’t need to stick solely within the realm of Horror.  Not only that, but it truly modernized the industry in ways that no one expected, including using the internet for film marketing.  It’s hard to believe that this little micro-budget horror movie has had such a ripple effect on the industry, but it shows how valuable it can be to take steps steps outside of the normal ways of business in film-making and try something different.  As a movie itself, it holds up as more of an oddity than anything else.  Perhaps it’s the audacity of the project that we find so fascinating about it and how well it succeeded.  I for one admire how effectively it used it’s little gimmick and created scary moments without having to resort to gore and violence for shock value.  It’s also unmatched as a gimmick as well.  Few others have managed to emulate the the visceral experience of watching this for the first time, although others like Paranormal Activity have successfully done their own thing with the same techniques.  And the indie spirit of it is something that also keeps it appealing.  We all saw how disastrous Hollywood’s version of it could be with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000); a clear example of a bigger budget producing lesser results.  Within the Horror genre, Blair Witch still looms large, even as the genre changes again.  Heather Donahue’s teary flashlight lit close-up is still on of Horror’s most iconic images.  Overall, The Blair Witch Project proves that even small movies can have huge impacts on film-making, and be rewarded with a new genre that owes it’s whole existence to it.