Setter’s ‘Spectives: They’re Mumbling at You, Barbra!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613You know, you don’t have to wait for Halloween to watch a scary movie.

I did it last night, turning out the lights to savor George Romero’s 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead on TCM.

All right, I didn’t exactly savor it. It ain’t a cinema masterpiece. In fact, much of it is pretty silly—especially the eponymous undeadsters, whose knock-kneed, reach-out-and-grasp-someone attacks and circle-eyed makeup are barely more frightening than the jocular denizens of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

So why, then, do I still find this movie effective?

Well, the script’s tight, the camerawork’s claustrophobic, and the direction’s economical. But last night, I noticed a huge asset that hadn’t been clear to me before.

Its sound. Its muffled, low-tech sound.

Those hungry zombies chomping so zestfully on the purported pieces of people make a lot of subdued noise. And when they try to grab folks through the doors and the windows, you hardly hear any crashing. You do, however, hear a lot of natural-esque sound, of bumping, scratching, brushing and rustling.

And that’s what’s so effective. It’s rarely loud, with minimal (though requisite for the genre) screaming—making its impact all the more powerful. It feels real, despite the ludicrous premise and sometimes-amateurish acting. The sound makes the difference.

Few other horror movies take sound so seriously. Kwaidan is one, with its minimalist, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu. If horror these days is to remain fresh, it should take a frame out of these fearful reels. Loud smashes and bangs don’t always spark cinematic fright. But a softer, more judiciously used soundscape can—and, in turn, create an eerie atmosphere worthy of pre-Halloween watching.

In that light, I’m happy I turned up the volume on Night of the Living Dead.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Musings on Herzog, ‘Aguirre’ and General Zaniness

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I don’t love all of Werner Herzog’s movies, but I have to tell ya: He’s cut in a truly original mold.

A recent viewing of Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe on Turner Classic Movies got me thinking about the oft-brilliant, sometimes-obsessive and frequently zany director and his oeuvre, which includes one of my favorite films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It’s a movie that defines him in a sense–a superbly shot, hauntingly scored (the dreamlike, pulsating music was crafted by Popul Vuh) picture about megalomania and how it can carry, and ultimately destroy, human endeavors. The megalomaniac in question is Aguirre himself, a crazed, based-on-a-real-person conquistador played with frightening abandon by Klaus Kinski, who teeters, glowers and broods throughout the flick as he carries out a mutiny of a 16th-century Spanish expedition to find gold amid the Amazonian jungle. As I remembered the great moments that characterized this adventure, I wondered if only a person as mad as Aguirre himself could make it, capturing hallucinogenic images such as a line of soldiers and their retinue struggling to climb down a verdant, mist-covered mountain, a head continuing to count numbers even after its owner has been decapitated, and the final scenes in which Aguirre, his doomed raft overrun by monkeys, talks to no one about his plans for global domination…no one, because everyone in his party is dead, a fact revealed memorably by the famous, swooping shot at the end.

But Herzog isn’t mad. I think he’s quite sane, though I wonder if he likes the thought that people may think he’s mad. Really, he’s an old-fashioned showman with magnificent obsessions and a talent for promoting idea-rich films made on low budgets. And I value this image he’s cultivated, because we don’t see a lot of it. It’s a mix of Hitchcock’s talent for marketing with Kurosawa’s quest for perfection, and the stories Herzog tells about his exploits rival the great ones in the cinematic lexicon–including the one about Kurosawa ordering the set of Throne of Blood to be rebuilt because he saw a nail that wouldn’t have been there during the period in which the movie takes place.

That’s not madness, folks. It’s art, and it suggests a commitment to its creation that only the most dedicated craftsmen have.

I wish there were more filmmakers like Herzog around these days, filmmakers who take risks and know how to advertise themselves. Yet there’s only one Herzog, and I think we have to be content with that. I’m certainly pleased that he gave us Aguirre, though I realize that if there’s anything that defines its creator, it’s not madness but determination and a need to produce art.

Thank you, then, Werner Herzog.

Skip’s Quips: Making Cheap Movies Look Expensive

Blog Sketch 082813Fans of Pearl S. Buck’s classic set-in-China novel The Good Earth might remember a scene early on during which the farmer protagonist, Wang Lung, secretly admires a fabulous meal prepared by his wife, who brings out the best in the relatively unassuming ingredients provided. Such is my feeling about films that transcend their tight budgets–movies shot so brilliantly that you’d think they were bolstered by gold mines.

Oftentimes I wonder if these films are more satisfying than expensive ones, however good the latter may be. True, not all flicks made on a shoestring are successful, but those that work give me naches–especially if they’re photographed well.

Here’s a short list of some well-made low-budget movies that are also gorgeously shot. Bon appétit.

Chimes at Midnight

The Seventh Seal

El Mariachi

Simon of the Desert


Easy Rider


Night of the Living Dead

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The 400 Blows