Spider Planet

Misnomers aren’t uncommon when it comes to click-bait.  I’ve fallen victim more than a few times.  But such misdirection is probably as old as humanity, and is perhaps part of consciousness itself.  (Some birds are known to practice deception, as are some other primates.)  Earth Vs. the Spider is drive-in-bait as a title.  In the 1958 horror-sci fi movie (also titled The Spider), the danger isn’t really to the earth but to one small town.  There is, however, a giant spider and somehow it’s not as scary as the real thing can be, writ small.  Occasionally, such as when a spider comes out into the open in the house, I ponder why this is such a deep-seated human fear.  I know spiders are beneficial to the ecosystem and that they pose very little danger, at least in places where I’ve lived.  So why are they so scary?

Scientists, including those of the mind, have proposed looking to our primate cousins for an answer.  They too are afraid of spiders, and it’s posited that since primates climb trees to escape danger and that spiders also climb, the phobia is hardwired.  For me it’s only certain body-plans that are scary.  I don’t mind the cute little jumping spiders that get in around the windows.  They don’t seem out to hurt anybody.  It’s the kind with long, grasping legs that bother me.  As a child I used to try to identify spiders with a picture book identification guide, but soon the guide started to scare me and I had to put it down.  I wasn’t cut out to be an arachnidologist, I guess.  The movie could’ve used one, however.  They kept calling the spider an insect.

The unblinking advocacy of DDT was the scariest part of the film.  Got a problem?  Spray chemicals all over it!  It gives me the same fear as when I see all those pallets of RoundUp every time I go to Lowes.  That stuff is deadly to the environment, and I’m kind of attached to the environment.  Spring arrived around here late this year, but it was spider season by the time I watched Earth Vs. the Spider as part of my minor quest to see the “so bad they’re good” movies.  They’re also part of the history of horror.  Apart from Psycho in 1960, horror was kind of on vacation for the fifties and into the late sixties.  Of course, movies kept being made.  It’s just that they couldn’t be taken seriously.  And even though drive-ins seem to be extinct, I still fall for drive-in bait from time to time. Even when watching alone.

Cat Nipped

Holy Horror began with movies from 1960 on.  You see, I had watched the 1982 remake of Cat People without ever watching the original from 1942.  The remake has Paul Gallier, the brother of Irena, as a religious leader.  He doesn’t cite the Bible, so the movie fell outside the limits I set for that particular book.  I recently watched the 40-year older original version and was surprised to find not only the religion intact, but also the Bible as part of the story.  Both versions integrate religion and horror and some of the scenes are very close between the two.  The original centers around Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant.  In addition to originating the The Lewton Bus technique, the film also introduced a religious origin for the horror.  When Irena meets Oliver Reed, she explains to him that in Serbia, in her home village, some witches were driven out into the woods of the surrounding mountains by the Christians.  There they formulated a curse leading to becoming cat people when aroused.

Irena, fearing sexual arousal, spends time apart from Oliver after they marry, mainly watching the black leopard at the zoo.  One of the custodians warns her it’s an evil animal, a monster as described in the book of Revelation, which he quotes.  Of course, this leopard is an ordinary big cat, and the woman to whom he quotes Scripture is a cat woman.  Irena knows inside that she’s one of the cat people, but nobody will believe her.  The film also makes use of a quote from John Donne regarding sin.  Indeed, the film makes it clear, even after Irena dies, that she had never lied.  While she’s stalking Oliver and Alice in their office one night, Oliver pulls down a T-square, the shadow of which forms a cross on the wall, and he abjures her, in the name of God, to leave them alone.  Religion, the clash of religions, makes the monster.

Cat People, despite having had a mixed reception, was an influential movie.  Like much of early horror, it’s tame by today’s standards.  And yet it’s aged well.  I didn’t expect to be drawn in as much as I ended up being.  After all, I’d seen the remake first.  America at the time had a fear of the Balkan region, where mysterious eastern Europeans still had tales of vampires, werewolves, and cat people.  Of course, the last of these was invented for the film.  The director, writer, and producer wanted to create an intelligent horror film, which they did.  Moody, atmospheric, and based on religious tension, it is worthy of a Holy Horror sequel.

More Water Monsters

Monster from the Ocean Floor, one gets the sense, wouldn’t have merited a Wikipedia article were it not for the fact that it was the first film Roger Corman produced.  Despite its B-movie quality, there’s quite a lot to like about it.  First of all it has a strong female lead.  Julie Blair is the only gringo in Mexico to believe the locals that there’s a monster just off shore.  Steve Dunning, the scientist, is an avowed skeptic.  The plot is cheesy—the monster is an overgrown amoeba irradiated by the Bikini Island underwater nuclear tests, and it’s killed by getting a submarine in the eye—but there are some very effective cinematographic moments.  When the young boy talking to Julie in the opening turns to stare at the ocean where his father disappeared, the framing and emotion are perfect.

The theme music for the approach of the shark, and then the amoeba, anticipate Jaws by a couple of decades, and I have to wonder if John Williams hadn’t watched Monster from the Ocean Floor.  (I’m sure even cultured people watch the occasional B-movie.)  There’s also an unexpected religion angle.  A series of episodes in the film have a couple of locals trying to kill Julie as a sacrifice to the monster.  Despite the holes in the plot, it’s remarkable that in 1954 there could be dialogue suggesting that the Christian God (“the other god” according to a local woman) isn’t the God that Quetzalcoatl is.  All the same, the sacrifice is based on the folklore that the sacrifice of the “fairest” (Julie is, naturally, blonde) will appease the monster.  Maybe not the most solid theological basis, but still, not bad for a bad movie.

I’ve recently published a piece on Horror Homeroom about women and water monsters.  Having a strong woman in a 1954 film is especially remarkable.  Julie, despite the skepticism of the scientists, takes the initiative to dive right down and see the monster for herself.  It’s only when she comes up with physical proof that the men consider that she may be right (and in danger).  Of course, the men do have to rescue her—you can’t have it all.  Yes, it’s a cheaply made movie with a paper-thin plot but it was beginning to show that a woman could take the reins and with good motives (if nobody else will do something about the monster, she will).  Although she’s the love object of the movie, she’s so much more.  And a submarine in the eye—that’s gotta smart.

Wicker Proofing

I’m currently reading the first proofs of The Wicker Man (due out in August).  While necessary, proofreading is a pain (and I work in publishing!).  You have to put everything else aside and concentrate on what you’ve already written, and if you’re like me, moved on from, to get your earlier work out.  I’m extremely time conscious.  I have many things that I would like to accomplish in the time I have left.  Right now one of my priorities is book six.  It’s already written, but I’m revising it for the umpteenth time.  Then the proofs come.  This is one of the issues a graphomaniac faces.  It’s part of trying to make a life from words.  And it distorts time.  I submitted my Wicker manuscript back in December.  Since then my mind has largely been elsewhere.

Proofreading—or is it proof reading?  I’m not a proofreader—isn’t the same as it used to be.  These days you proofread a PDF and use the markup tools for changes.  I had developed a kind of nostalgia for the old-fashioned proof markings.  Now you highlight the offending text and add a note to explain what you would like changed.  This makes me worry about time too, since I’m probably among the last generation who will even known what proof markings are, apart from historians of publishing (and yes, there are historians of publishing).  I am fortunate in having had a good copyeditor for The Wicker Man.  S/he didn’t change much but pointed out where my wording was ambiguous.  Those of you who’ve read me for a while know that some of that ambiguity is intentional, no?

A quick turnaround time on proofs is necessary.  Of course, mine would arrive on a Wednesday.  That very same day I was asked to be a reader-responder to a journal article, also with a brief turnaround time.  I wanted to say “No,” but as an editor I know how difficult it is to find reviewers.  Anyone who publishes should consider it a moral obligation to review when asked.  Just like jury duty.  Thursday and Friday mornings were spent reviewing the article (which I hope will be published, whoever wrote it).  All of this was done without picking up a pen (as much as I wanted to) or leaving my laptop.  As much as I enjoy those proof markings, nobody has the time for them anymore.  Even now I’m playing hooky from proofreading to write this blog post.  I’d better get back before someone notices that I’m gone.

Entitled Titles

Movies have a tremendous impact.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in movie titles moving into standard vocabulary.  “McGuffin” (which autocorrect thinks is “McMuffin”) and the Wilhelm scream may not be household terms, but many people know what they are without being movie experts.  Even more impressive is when a movie title becomes its own noun.  I learned about the Rashomon effect not from movies, but from history.  When a story is told from more than one point of view, often with contradictory accounts, this is known as “the Rashomon effect.”  It’s named after a movie, Rashomon, that I’ve never seen.  I suspect I’m not the only one to use the phrase who hasn’t.  Movies can become points of reference.  We’re quite often visual creatures and movies can reach large audiences. The title plays a crucial role.

As the writer of a small blog with a small readership, and of books with small circulation, I often think of how movies manage to reach so many people.  I’m constantly discovering movies from before when I was born, or from countries far away.  They ask, like this blog, for only a little bit of time and yet they provide so many things to think about.  In many ways they are the mythology of our age, and no matter whether you watch on your phone or the big screen, you’re joining the ranks of believers.  Sometimes a movie becomes a cultural reference, such as is the case of “the Rashomon effect.”  But this can lead to its own set of problems.  Movies, like some bestselling books, often have one-word titles.  Sometimes that word fits many movies (as in Entity/The Entity).  Or sometimes it has a wider meaning, such as Avatar.  Or it refers to another well-known reference, such as Titanic.  I’m not picking on James Cameron here, but making a point that movies may make meaning, but they also bear the weight of their titles.

Titles are often sticking points with authors.  Many academic writers like the draw of the clever or pithy title, but such titles often hurt the sales of their book.  Using a quote as a title, apart from making confusion, also runs into duplicates.  Titles can’t be copyrighted, so multiple books (or movies) can use the same one. Quotes have long been favorites, so using them for titles is not a good idea.  I was distressed (mildly) when I realized that my fifth book, The Wicker Man, would bear the same title as the movie.  (That’s the way the series rolls.)  I’m now reading the proofs and thinking about titles.  My next book may not have a one-word title, but I hope I’m getting close.  And maybe it will have a little impact?

Wrong Entity

In one of those weird synchronicities the universe likes to play, the very next day after I watched The Entity (2015) and wrote a blog post on it, this happened.  In yesterday’s post I noted that I couldn’t remember where I’d read about the movie, or who had recommended it to me.  I couldn’t even be sure which The Entity it was, since I didn’t write down the movie’s date.  The next morning I had the privilege of watching Claire Donner, of the Miskatonic Institute, talking about The Entity and it immediately came to mind that it was she who’d suggested I might like it (or might not).  Also, that I got the wrong one.  I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the one actually recommended yet, but it brings back to mind just how the Miskatonic Institute contributes to understanding horror.

The Institute has asked me to present a course this coming October and I will be posting more on that closer to the time.  It got me to thinking about a couple of things.  One is that I missed some major horror films growing up.  When I “got religion” in high school (I always had it, of course, and saw no problem with enjoying monsters too) I began to steer away from horror.  In college I had a dating occasion or two to watch horror, but it really only started again in earnest after being booted out of academia.  I was interviewed in seminary by a sociology grad student interested in why people watch horror, but my watching was (and still is) circumscribed by lack of cash flow.  The Entity made quite a splash in the early eighties, but it took someone in the 2020s telling me about it before I realized I probably should watch it.

The other thing Donner’s talk brought to mind is how religion and horror relate.  Such films are scary because of an existential threat—THE existential threat.  There’s nothing more powerful than God, but in such movies God can do nothing.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I suspect that’s true.  It’s certainly true of The Exorcist, with which it’s sometimes compared.  God doesn’t deliver Regan McNeil, no, Fr. Karras does.  And only by sacrificing himself to do so.  The existential threat has to involve a universe entirely out of kilter.  What is a God that’s powerless (it’s implied) to drive out evil?  The exorcism in The Exorcist doesn’t work, does it?  Yet there’s some benevolent force in the universe that gives us synchronicities and, it seems, is looking out for goodness in an often cruel world.


When you’re a regular scholar, you take notes.  I’m not a regular anything, I guess, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of noting who makes movie recommendations to me.  Many of these come from books, but I don’t always remember which book made what suggestion.  In my list of movies to watch is The Entity.  The thing is, there are at least five movies by that title.  One of them was free on Freevee, so that was the one I watched.  I’m not sure it was the right one, but since it featured something like a demon it represents my interests in Nightmares with the Bible.  This one was, for the record, from 2016, or 2015, and directed by Eduardo Schuldt.  Like Paranormal Activity, it’s “found footage” from hand-held cameras and it made me more woozy than scared.

Based in Lima, it’s in Spanish and claims to be from the dark web.  I don’t have any desire to go there (the dark web, that is.  Lima would be okay), but the movie wasn’t that frightening.  It was like Sinister and Ringu’s unholy offspring.  With a bit of Blair Witch Project as a sibling.  A curse from the Inquisition brings this into the realm of religion and horror.  Film students working on a class project learn that those who see a certain film are going to die.  Being modern people, they’re skeptical so, of course they watch it.  The thing about religion is that it’s unrelenting.  It doesn’t give up just because people stop believing.  Movies like this underscore how we keep turning back to religion to frighten ourselves.  You can guess what happens to the students.

The thing is, I’m not sure that I watched the correct one.  Film scholars now make a habit of citing movies by not only title and year, but also director’s name.  There are a lot of “Entities” out there, and if you take the article off there are even more.  I’ll probably end up watching a few of them, but since I didn’t write down which book, or which friend, made the recommendation, I’ll never know if I got the right one.  I keep a list to try to prevent myself from just going for whatever’s free on the weekend because you generally get what you pay for when you do that.  Even though I ended up a bit nauseous (from the camera movement) I was glad to have seen this.  There were some good moments in it.  And I can tick one off my Entity list. 

Mutant Madness

I’ve never seen Freaks, nor have I ever wanted to.  It’s an exploitation film of carnival actors that  Tod Browning, for some reason, thought might make a good follow-up to Dracula.  Most of us are aware that it’s bad enough exploiting  those with unfortunate deformities for money, and making a movie out of it doesn’t help.  I have to confess that I stumbled onto Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations thinking it was a creature feature, without realizing it was a seventies version of Freaks.  With a mad scientist thrown in for good measure.  Honestly, though, the carnies are the characters with the highest moral standards of anyone in the movie, so at least it has that going for it.  You’d have thought that by 1974, however, that people would’ve known better than to reprise a movie that wasn’t well accepted forty years before.

Professor Nolter, the mad scientist, is a university professor trying to force evolution’s hand by blending animals and plants.  So far, so good.  He uses his students as victims, which makes you wonder why their wealthy families don’t start any investigations when they go missing.  The professor is assisted in his experiments by one of the co-owners of the carnival, which allows for a presentation of the carnies in a most awkward piece of cinematography.  Two of his students are successfully made into plant hybrids, but one dies shortly afterward.  The other escapes, so he decides to replace him with yet another student.  Meanwhile, the carnies tire of their exploitation—rightfully so—and turn on the henchman/co-owner of the show.

The only real payoff here is the successful hybrid that turns into a student into a human Venus flytrap.  If he hugs you in his rubber-suited arms, you’re a goner.  And the film starts off with several minutes of time-lapse photography of plants growing, which is pretty cool, even amid the strangeness that’s to follow.  When I saw that the movie starred Donald Pleasence, and having Halloween on my mind,  I figured, “How bad can it be?”  It was, after all, free on Amazon Prime.  As with many exploitation movies, it’s poorly written and the props aren’t believable.  Some of the giant plant-animal hybrids are worth looking at, even though they’re never explained.  In the end the mad scientist’s creations kill him, as expected.  I would normally consider such information as a spoiler, however, considering that the movie spoils itself, I won’t worry too much about it.

Connecting Many Leagues

Much of movie viewing life is about making connections.  Many, many films have been made and I’m not the first to suggest that cinema is a form of modern mythology.  But those connections!  Pressed for time one busy weekend, I found the brief, low-budget The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues.  It was included with Amazon Prime and I had an obligation in about 90 minutes.  I could just squeeze it in.  As I’d anticipated, it was another of those poorly written, cheeky teen-magnets from the fifties.  The monster created by radiation, the threat to the world that the government sends only two guys to handle, and lots of lingering shots of men in business suits walking on the beach, it’s about what you’d expect.  It did well at the 1955 box office, though.

My first thought was that it was an attempted marriage between The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Indeed, Black Lagoon had been released the year before, opening the realm of underwater filming for monster movies.  It, however, had a believable monster that wasn’t so monstrous.  The “phantom”—the name is never explained—is obviously a person in a cheap monster suit that can barely open its mouth.  It kills by holding people under water, or getting them into a radioactive beam, or preventing them from getting away from dynamite.  Oops, that last one’s a spoiler, I guess.  The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms came out a year before Black Lagoon.  The title of The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues title was obviously ripped off from it, and the atomic connection and undersea beast are common to both.  Connections.

The Beast had the benefit of a monster by the master, Ray Harryhausen.  And it was based on a story by Ray Bradbury.  That was a winning combination.  The Phantom claims to be based on a story by Dorys Lukather.  This movie is all she’s known for writing, God rest her soul.  Produced by the subtly named American Releasing Corporation, the production company would go on to become the respectable American International Pictures.  Interestingly, given the sexism of the era—reflected fairly clearly in the writing—the monster was played by a woman.  Norma Hanson, like Milicent Patrick, brought a monster to life only to be largely forgotten.  Patrick was rediscovered by Mallory O’Meara, but Hanson—one time a diving world-record holder—seems to have faded.  Had I but more time, I would enjoy diving those 10,000 leagues to bring another forgotten Hollywood monster woman to life.  And if I had the connections.

People of Slime

An old saying advises not to speak ill of the dead.  And I suspect this also applies to the living dead.  Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a classic horror film that represents the maturing of the genre.  Of course, it’s not the only horror film of the sixties, and I don’t mean to speak ill of it by suggesting that George Romero—who was used to working with a small budget—had seen The Slime People.  But I wonder if he had.  Directed by and starring Robert Hutton, The Slime People was released in 1963 and although it’s really bad, some of the scenes from this black-and-white groaner seem to have been borrowed five years later by the more able director.  The interviews by the newscasters and the driving country roads, and even the chasing of the angry mob could’ve served as direct inspirations.

The slime people are from subterranean earth, forced into action by underground nuclear testing.  Building a solid fog wall around Los Angeles, they take over the city while a pilot, a scientist and his two lovely daughters, and a marine, save the day.  Although the military had been fighting the monsters, they just couldn’t win.  The scientist really doesn’t help solve the issue but the pilot (Hutton) finds the creatures’ wall machine and the scientist is able to blow it up with a spear, saving the day.  This is one of those films so bad that it’s good.  The writing is poor and the plot makes little sense overall.  It doesn’t quite have the style of an Ed Wood film, but it participates in the aesthetic of watching bad movies.

Hutton isn’t a bad actor.  Hampered by a too-low budget (one of the signs that a movie might be one of the good bad ones), he couldn’t film the story he envisioned.  Much of the budget was reputedly spent on the slime people costumes, ensuring that Hutton drew no salary for his own role in his movie.  A couple of the other stars were veteran actors, and this prevents the movie from being a mere hack job.  I take some hope from the fact that many films like this eventually become cult classics.  Yes, sometimes it’s so that we can laugh at them, but I think there may be something deeper involved.  Those of us who watch bad movies might recognize something of ourselves in them.  We too struggle to tell our story, without big budgets and without studio support.  And yet we persist.

Wicker Wondering

Why The Wicker Man?  It’s a fair question.  My book is now starting to appear on Amazon and other venues (it’s on Goodreads!), so it’s time to try to get the word out.  The BBC ran a recent story, “Why The Wicker Man has divided opinion for 50 years,” and that offers a springboard into the “why” question.  I’m not Scottish, but my wife and I lived in Scotland for a little over three years.  That’s one reason.  While there I did some research into Scottish folklore—historians of religion are curious people—and traveled widely, and that’s another.  As one of those writers who’s never been able to break out of the academic market, the third and most direct reason is that I’d begun a book on holiday horror.  A friend pointed the series Devil’s Advocates out to me.  Back then the series books were priced in the twenty-dollar range, but the pandemic put an end to that!

I’ve always thought The Wicker Man derived its fear from the strangeness of the holiday.  I’ve also often wondered why Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy didn’t make more use of “Beltane” in the dialogue.  Maybe the unfamiliar was too unfamiliar?  I suggest a different reason in my book, but I won’t reveal that here.  Writing a book on The Wicker Man would allow me the opportunity to share my thoughts about holiday horror without trying to convince an agent that people actually do like to read about horror as well as reading horror itself.  Come on, agents!  It’s called pop culture because it’s popular!

I pitched the idea and the series editor liked it.  So did the reviewers.  They were tired of hearing/reading about The Wicker Man as folk horror, as if there was nothing more to the movie.  Like most films that grow an afterlife, this one is complex and can be approached from many angles.  In fact, there’s another book, one by John Walsh, coming out on the movie just weeks after mine.  I wasn’t the only one who knew the fiftieth anniversary was on the horizon like a Beltane sunset on Summerisle.  For those who prefer a more television-like explanation, I’ve posted a video on The Wicker Man on my YouTube channel.  This blog, I realize, doesn’t get enough hits to drive traffic that way, but it’s nevertheless part of the package.  Why The Wicker Man?  The answers likely lie in several posts on this blog, a few years in Scotland, and a love of strange movies.

Spiritual Alterations

I’d been meaning to watch Altered States for quite a few years.  I suspect the reason (it’s been long enough that I can’t recall for sure) is that I knew it had a story line tied in with religion.  The tale follows Edward Jessup, a psychopathologist, who is attempting to understand schizophrenia.  He’s particularly taken by the religious nature of some schizophrenic delusions, and he uses sensory deprivation on himself to trigger something similar.  A trip among tribal Mexicans leads him to a psychoactive substance that he decides to combine with sensory deprivation to enhance the effects.  Along the way he explains to his girlfriend, and eventual wife, that his father was religious but died a horrible death.  He therefore became irreligious but his altered states of consciousness are often full of images from Revelation.

While the Bible theme eventually gives way to biological regression to pre-Homo sapiens, one of Jessup’s experiences has him coming to his dying father again and dropping a Bible on him which turns into the veil of St. Veronica on his face, which he then rips off and throws, flaming, to the floor.  Another instance of the Bible in horror, the film also uses crucifixes and hellish images to demonstrate the religious nature of these alternative states.  Jessup’s goal is to regress to the original thought, to encounter, as he puts it “God.”  This desire, combined with the potent Mexican drug, transforms him physically, and, in the end, emotionally.  Instead of being dissociated from his wife (whom he is planning to divorce), he realizes that love is the only thing that can save him from the terror of his experiences.

This is some profound stuff.  Paced like a movie from 1980, it has a quality not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The message seems to be sound—the need for encountering the “divine” ends up convincing Jessup (that may autocorrect keeps changing to “Jesus”) that love is really what it’s all about.  The transformation scenes, while not shown in the detail of An American Werewolf in London, are nevertheless convincing enough.  It’s a rare movie that treats religion respectfully.  Here Ivy-League scientists are motivated to understand it.  In real life, alternative states of consciousness are quite real, if poorly understood.  They’ve been part of religious practice from the beginning and are a far cry from sitting in the pew and singing anodyne hymns week after week.  The more movies I see, the more it seems that a sequel to Holy Horror will be necessary some day.  

50 Years Ago on May Day

Word is starting to get out about The Wicker Man.  One of the most intelligent of horror movies, it turns fifty this year.  Aware of the coming anniversary, I pitched a volume in the series Devil’s Advocates on the movie a few years back.  I was delighted that my take on the film was unique enough to qualify and my volume has now appeared on Liverpool University Press’ website.  And, as an added bonus, a blog post I guest wrote on the book will also appear shortly.  And it’s May Day.  The Wicker Man is the third person of the unholy trinity of folk horror.  The other two films are Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, both of which I’ve reviewed here.  But 1973 was also the year another person of another unholy trinity, The Exorcist, was released.  This other trinity began with Rosemary’s Baby and concluded with The Omen.  If you’re curious about it, I wrote quite a bit about it in Holy Horror.

Fiftieth-year anniversaries are significant, given how young the film industry is.  Depending on the publisher, it may be difficult to get advance notice out.  My colleague Joseph Laycock, along with Eric Harrelson, wrote The Exorcist Effect.  This is a book I’m very excited for, although it’s not yet on its publisher’s website.  Academic publishing can be slow that way.  Another fiftieth anniversary Wicker Man book is coming out in October—John Walsh’s The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film.  The publisher, Titan books, not hampered by university press processes, had the book well advertised a couple of months back.  I’m looking forward to reading that one as well.  These fiftieth anniversary books are a boon for those who watch intelligent horror.

Academic publishers, you see, classify books in different ways than trade publishers do.  If you’re not sure what a trade publisher is, it is essentially anyone whose books you see in actual bookstores.  Academic publishers tend to focus on library sales and sales to academics who are willing to shell out fifty, a hundred, or sometimes more, bucks for a book.  (In my teaching days, although we had no expense budgets at Nashotah House, I would occasionally (very rarely), after careful family consultation, shell out the academic press price for a book I needed for research and the library wouldn’t buy.)  My last three books have been written for wider readerships, but have been published by academic presses.  On this fiftieth anniversary year, I’m planning on reading a couple of good books.  And thinking about May Day fifty years ago.

Lilith Be Gone?

One of those questions it isn’t politic to ask is “Are you Jewish?”  I get asked that once in a while but mainly by Jews.  I’m not Jewish but some people tell me I look like I am.  In any case, as a Bible editor at an academic press, the question of someone’s ethnic affiliation sometimes comes up.  The dilemma is that we can’t ask that.  And it is very difficult to know the answer if someone doesn’t tell you.  The reason that this is on my mind is that I recently watched John R. Leonetti’s horror film Lullaby.  The film was one of at least two that came out with that title in 2022.  And since it deals with Jewish themes, that question naturally comes to mind: is the director, or are the writers, Jewish?  I suspect, from the way all of this plays out that the answer is “No.” Or, if they are, they didn’t do their homework.

Lullaby is a Lilith story.  A young couple—she’s Jewish, he’s a convert for her—have a newborn.  The woman’s sister has sent to them, among other things, a book in Hebrew that contains a Lilith-summoning lullaby.  Lilith shows up and steals the baby but a tattooed rabbi gives the husband some Jewish rituals to combat Lilith.  Apart from the spurious etymology of “lullaby” as “Lilith be gone,” this rabbi doesn’t seem convincing.  His Hebrew handwriting looks as if he might be a first-year student.  And keeping a menorah lit all night is supposed to keep a demon at bay?  Not only that, his assistant can be bribed to regain the cursed book.  All of this begins to look like a gentile trying to direct a horror film in a religion he doesn’t understand.

Religion and horror go naturally together.  I’ve written several posts about Jewish horror that really works.  In those instances, it’s clear that the writers and directors understand what Judaism is.  The solution here is that the convert husband must “really believe” in order to conquer Lilith.  The rabbi tells him to have faith.  The thing is, Judaism isn’t a religion based on having faith—Christianity is.  And taking that aspect of Christianity and using it to try to make other religions faith-based is one of the most common mistakes of those who don’t study religions professionally.  Horror works well with religion when those doing it actually understand the religion they’re trying to portray.  When they don’t, it can end up looking like appropriation of the worst kind.  I watched the movie because it was about Lilith.  What I found was a basic misunderstanding of how religions work.

Monsters of Mystery

Sunn Classic Pictures was responsible for much of my young movie viewing.  Or at least a reasonable portion of it.  As I predicted, I ended up watching The Mysterious Monsters in the wake of Boggy Creek, and that got me curious about this unusual production company.  As a film distributor, the company began in 1971.  One of its early films was the aforesaid Mysterious Monsters.  Unlike other film distributors, their practice was to rent out a theater (this was before multiplexes) and take all the profits for the run of their film.  This was no risk to a theater owner and apparently it worked for Sunn.  They sponsored documentaries on unusual topics, likely because of the tastes of one of the founders, Charles Edward Sellier Jr.  

In addition to cryptids, the company also made films of the Bermuda Triangle and Noah’s Ark.  They even had a hand in a television version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Ever since my college days, I’ve tried to figure out whether they had a religious motivation.  I suppose it was In Search of Noah’s Ark that made me wonder.  They even distributed work by Alan Landsburg, who would go on to initiate the series In Search of…, which claimed many of my childhood viewing hours.  Sunn lasted only a decade before being bought out by Taft International Pictures, but what a formative decade it was!  As I’ve noted in a couple of my books, the bestselling nonfiction book of the seventies was Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth.  That level of interest firmly fixed the Apocalypse in the American imagination.  I even saw the 1978 film (not Sunn Pictures)  in the same theater that’d housed Mysterious Monsters.

Come to think of it, the Drake Theater in Oil City had an outsized influence on my thinking.  The Drake is now gone.  It served the Oil City area for many years.  I saw Star Wars there for the first time, as well as Clash of the Titans.  We didn’t have much money, which may be why the escapism of movies was so important to my young self.  Now that I’ve finished my third book about movies it seems that perhaps I missed my calling.  Life is all about finding something someone will pay you to do.  The most fortunate find meaning in it as well.  The rest of us generally have to wait for the weekend to have the time to watch movies.  But like the Drake, Sunn Classic Pictures is gone, leaving memories of formative ideas behind.