Horror on the Lens: The Screaming Woman (dir by Jack Smight)

Today’s horror on the lens is The Screaming Woman, a 1972 made-for-TV movie that’s based on a Ray Bradbury short story.

Olivia de Havilland plays Laura Wynant, who has just returned home from a stay at a mental institution.  Soon after her arrival, Laura starts to hear a woman crying for help.  Laura becomes convinced that the woman has been buried alive on her property but, because of her debilitating arthritis, she can’t dig the woman up on her own.  And, because of her own mental history, no one believes her when she tries to tell them about what she’s hearing!

The Screaming Woman features screen legend Olivia De Havilland giving a sympathetic performance as Laura.  It also features two other luminaries of the golden age of Hollywood — Joseph Cotten and Walter Pidgeon — in supporting roles.  It’s a good little thriller so watch and enjoy!

(And of course, I should mention that the great Olivia De Havilland is still with us, 103 years old and living in France.)

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Tonight, HBO will be premiering a new film version of Fahrenheit 451, one that stars Michael B. Jordan as “fireman” Guy Monag and Michael Shannon as his boss, Captain Beatty.  If one may forgive the expression, it’s a hotly awaited production.

That said, regardless of whether the HBO film lives up to the hype or not, don’t forget to read the book that inspired it!

Written by Ray Bradbury and originally published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 takes place in, what was then, the near future.  It’s a world where the citizens are too shallow to realize that they’re living under an authoritarian regime.  Everyone is kept docile through the use of pharmaceuticals and there is no culture beyond what’s televised on the “parlor walls.”  (Actually, Bradbury’s near future doesn’t sound that different from our present.)

It’s a world where books are forbidden.  Of course, some citizens still insist on trying to hide books in their attics and their basements but, fortunately for the government, there’s always somebody willing to inform.  Whenever it’s discovered that’s someone’s been hoarding books, the firemen are deployed.  Of course, these fireman aren’t used to put out fires.  Instead, they burn books.  Fahrenheit 451, we learn early on, is the temperature at which paper will burn.

Guy Montag is one of the firemen.  Though he can’t always explain why, he doesn’t feel satisfied with his “perfect” life.  Even when his wife Mildred survives an overdose of sleeping pills, Montag can hardly be bothered to react.  Guy has started to have doubts.  When he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse, he’s stunned when she says that she doesn’t care about “how.”  Instead, she cares about “why.”  Guy finds himself intrigued by Clarisse, even if he still finds himself wondering if she’s going to inform on him.

And then there’s Captain Beatty!  Beatty is Montag’s boss but at times, he almost seems to be encouraging Montag to doubt the system.  Beatty even reveals that he used to be an avid reader himself.  Is he sincere when he encourages Montag to read or does he have ulterior motives of his own?

Fahrenheit 451 holds up remarkably well.  True, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and things slow down a bit whenever Montag interacts with Faber, a former English professor.  But, much like Orwell’s 1984, the book’s central theme remains relevant today.  Right now, there are people on both the Right and the Left who would happily burn books if it meant doing away with ideas and opinions with which they disagree.  (I imagine even some of our self-righteous centrists would be more than willing to burn a book or two in the name of bipartisanship.)  Democracy dies not in darkness but in ignorance and the best way to keep a population ignorant is to not only burn anything that challenges the state but to also ridicule the very idea of thinking for one’s self.  That is the society that Bradbury portrays in Fahrenheit 451 and it’s one that feels very much like our own.

One final note: I found my copy of this book at Half-Price Books last December.  The copy that I found once belonged to a student named Ashley and she filled the margins with notes about her friends Taylor and Sidney.  At the start of the book, they were best friends.  About halfway through, she suddenly hated both of them but, by the end of the book, they were friends again.  Yay!

A Movie A Day #296: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)

Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my favorite films.

The place is Green Town, Illinois.  The time is the 1920s.  The carnival has come to town but this is no normal carnival.  Led by the sinister, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), this carnival promises to fulfill everyone’s dreams but at what cost?  Double amputee Ed (James Stacy) gets his arm and his leg back.  The lonely teacher, Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), is young and beautiful once again.  Mr. Dark may bring people what they want but he gives nothing away for free.  Only two young boys, Will (Vidal Peterson) and Jim (Shawn Carson), realize the truth about the carnival but no one in town will listen to them.  Mr. Dark wants Jim to be his successor and Will’s only ally is his elderly father, the town librarian (Jason Robards).

As much a coming of age story as a horror film, Something Wicked This Way Comes takes the time to establish Green Town and to make it feel like a real place and its inhabitants seem like real people.  When Mr. Dark shows up, he is not just a supernatural trickster.  He is not just stealing the souls of Green Town.  He is also destroying the innocence of childhood.  Jonathan Pryce is both charismatic and menacing as Mr. Dark while Jason Robards matches him as the infirm librarian who must find the strength to save his son.  The confrontation between Pryce and Robards, where Pryce tears flaming pages out of a book, is the best part of the movie.  Along with Robards and Pryce, the entire cast is excellent.  Be sure to keep an eye out for familiar faces like Royal Dano, Jack Dodson, Angelo Rossitto, and especially Pam Grier, playing the “Dust Witch,” the most beautiful woman in the world.

Based on a classic novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of the only Bradbury adaptations to do justice to its source material.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Happy birthday, Ray Bradbury.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Fahrenheit 451 (1966, directed by Francois Truffaut)

Fahrenheit 451 (1966, directed by Francois Truffaut)

The Illustrated Man (1968, directed by Jack Smight)

The Illustrated Man (1968, directed by Jack Smight)

The Martian Chronicles (1980, directed by Michael Anderson)

The Martian Chronicles (1980, directed by Michael Anderson)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)


Appreciating Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles

the-martian-chroniclesFirst published in 1950, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a collection of 28 short stories about humans exploring and colonizing Mars while those left behind on Earth destroy each other in a never-ending atomic war.  When I first read it back in middle school, it blew my mind.  When I reread it this weekend, I discovered that it still holds up.  65 years after first being published, The Martian Chronicles is still a classic of American literature.

When Ray Bradbury died in 2012, many obituaries called him a “science fiction writer.”  Bradbury always resisted that label, saying in one interview, “First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time – because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”  There is very little science to be found in The Martian Chronicles.  Humans travel between Earth and Mars via rockets and the trip only takes a matter of days.  Characters frequently ride boats down the water-filled Martian canals.  Humans have little trouble breathing on Mars and only occasionally complain about the thin atmosphere.  Bradbury is not interested in Mars as a real place.  Instead, he uses Mars as a way to explore what humanity would do if given a second chance.

The humans who come to Bradbury’s Mars all have one thing in common.  All of them are fleeing an imperfect Earth.  Some, like the members of the first three expeditions, come to Mars as explorers.  Some, like the troubled Jeff Spender, seek to learn from Martian civilization.  Others, like Sam Parkhill, come to Mars to make money.  Fathers Peregrine and Stone come to Mars in search of a new world in which to spread the word of God.  Mr. Stendahl comes to Mars to escape government oppression.  Others come to escape the wars of Earth.  Throughout The Martian Chronicles, characters deal with issues that are just as relevant today as they were in 1950.  Bradbury’s vision of human society is not a positive one, especially when compared to his Martians.

martianchronicles2All of the short stories are linked by the human characters’ struggle to come to terms with Martian society.  After killing the members of the first three expeditions, the Martian race is wiped out by chicken pox, a disease that did not exist on Mars until the arrival of the humans.  Only a few survive and go into hiding, watching as human move into their old cities and set up their own civilization.  Ghost-like, the Martians and their dead society haunt every story in The Martian Chronicles.

There are a few stories in The Martian Chronicles that have not aged well.   The Silent Towns, in which a man named Walter Gripp is horrified to discover that one of the last women left on Mars is overweight, is a mean-spirited and unpleasant story to read.  But the collection’s best stories — And The Moon Be Still As Bright, The Third Expedition,  Usher II, The Off Season, The Million-Year Picnic, Night Meeting, and especially There Will Come Soft Rains — still hold up as entertaining and thought-provoking works of speculative fiction.

In 1980, The Martian Chronicles was turned into a miniseries.  I will be watching and reviewing it later this week.