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8 Movies That Changed Movies

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While most forms of storytelling have remained unchanged over the years—painters still use oil, writers still use words—motion pictures have undergone frequent and radical transformations. Bit by bit, we went from static camera shots of canoodling couples to Avatar, a film that likely would’ve driven 1920s audiences into a mental institution.

Milestones like the introduction of sound, color, and CGI characters have been well-documented; here are eight lesser-known but equally significant evolutions in the art and business of movies.

1. Close Encounters—the Director’s Cut

Though not explicitly labeled “his” version, Steven Spielberg agreed to shoot new footage and restore excised content for a “Special Edition” re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1980. In on-the-nose ad campaigns typical of the era, posters promised “there is more” and that Spielberg “has filmed additional scenes,” marking the first time a film was promoted based on the fact that it was a revised work.

Columbia Pictures squeezed another $15 million out of Close Encounters with minimal effort: By the 1990s, home video consumers were flooded with “Director’s Cut” versions of popular films (Blade Runner, Aliens) that allowed filmmakers more leeway—and studios the opportunity to charge cinephiles for the same movie twice.

2. Marathon Man Runs—and the Camera Follows

Prior to Garrett Brown’s invention of the Steadicam—a handheld camera that could move as quickly and fluidly as the person operating it—roaming shots were accomplished using clunky dolly tracks or cranes. Brown wanted more mobility. One of the first films to use his device, Marathon Man, allowed Dustin Hoffman to sprint through city streets while the camera followed, adding a new sense of intimacy and realism to scenes. By the time the Steadicam chased a jogging Sylvester Stallone through Philadelphia in Rocky that same year, filmmakers knew they could take their audiences anywhere.

3. Billy Jack Goes National

Movies today open on thousands of screens simultaneously, but film distribution used to be markedly different: Even large “event” offerings would debut in major cities before slowly rolling out to other parts of the country. It might be months before a family in San Francisco saw what New Yorkers had already experienced.

That strategy annoyed Tom Laughlin, director and star of a series of independent features about a pacifist named Billy Jack who occasionally finds it necessary to kick people in the sternum. For 1974’s Trial of Billy Jack, Laughlin leveraged the popularity of the earlier installments and insisted the film open in 1500 theaters in a single day.

Despite poor reviews, the film raked in millions and major studios took notice. Jaws, opening the following year, rolled out wide and ushered in the concept of the summer blockbuster. Though it’s often credited with instituting the practice, it’s Laughlin who should get the credit—or blame—for vacuuming up revenue on opening weekend.

4. The Addams Family Merges the Small and Big Screens

The 1954 film Dragnet, a big-screen adaptation of the television series starring Jack Webb as stoic Sergeant Joe Friday, was a curiosity: Why should audiences pay for a premise they could see for free on television?

Star Trek had a profitable time in the ‘80s due to pent-up fan demand, but television adaptations were still few and far between until 1991’s The Addams Family, a kitschy homage to the 1960s series about a brood of eccentrics, made a tidy $113 million. In short order, movies based on The Fugitive, Twin Peaks, The Brady Bunch, and dozens of others hit multiplexes, ready to cash in on nostalgia and brand recognition. (Trek, however, remains the king: the 2009 reboot is the highest-grossing TV-to-movie adaptation to date.)

5. Taking Independent Film Out of the Shadows

Forget Kickstarter: Television actor John Cassavetes had to round up improvisational actors and use checks culled from series guest spots to mount Shadows, an independent feature released in 1959 that explored taboo topics like race and sexuality. What he lacked in polish he gained in complete autonomy from the studio system. That do-it-yourself mentality later fed the 1990s emergence of filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee—knowingly or not, all of them informed by Cassavetes and his urge to express himself without a filter.

6. Snow White’s Creative License

The 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is mostly remembered for being both the first animated feature and the birth of Walt Disney as an entertainment powerhouse. Lost in the shuffle was the film’s foreshadowing of Hollywood’s savvy approach to merchandising tie-ins. A coordinated push was timed to the release for a series of Snow-centric goods like hats (modeled by a young Lucille Ball), bath powders, and even a soundtrack. If you get a kick out of your Darth Vader coin bank, you have Sneezy, Grumpy and the rest to thank for it.

7. Seeing More in The Robe

Movie theater attendance declined sharply beginning in the 1950s. Taking a bite out of the box office was the advent of television, which had grown from being virtually non-existent during the late 1940s to being in 33 percent of homes by 1952.

In order to maintain their business, Hollywood decided to expand horizontally. Though widescreen—a filmed image appearing approximately twice as wide as it is tall in various aspect ratios—had been invented decades prior, it wasn’t until 1953’s biblical epic The Robe was released that filmgoers noticed how a screen that filled their peripheral vision could be more immersive.

Fox marketed it as CinemaScope; unlike earlier, more expensive attempts, only an anamorphic lens was needed to film the effect. Viewers reacted positively and widescreen is now the industry standard. (Fox wasn’t so confident, though: They also filmed the movie in a standard ratio, just in case.)

8. Indiana Jones and the Target Demographic

When Jack Valenti took over the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968, he recognized an emerging maturity in film, with sex, language, and violence no longer prohibited by the puritanical Hays Code created in the 1930s. By 1984, the MPAA’s system had morphed to include G, PG, R, and X—a spectrum that deemed movies suitable for children, general audiences or people in trenchcoats.

There was a considerable gulf, however, between the innocuous PG (Parental Guidance) label and the violence and sexual content of an R film. That middle ground was on gory display in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg’s sequel to his blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Temple, Harrison Ford contends with monkey brain appetizers, whipped children, and a voodoo priest ripping the still-beating heart from a hapless human sacrifice. It received a PG rating. So did that year’s Footloose. Something was very wrong.

Spielberg suggested to Valenti that a new advisory be created to bridge the gap between family fare and ultraviolence. The result was PG-13, which gave parents a clue to reconsider how appropriate a movie may be for their teenagers. It was too late for Jones, though: 1984’s Russian invasion flick Red Dawn became the first movie to sport the rating.

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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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