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Friday, 27 November 2009

Does Truth Matter Anymore? - A Review of Voodoo Histories

Marilyn MonroeMarilyn Monroe via

Voodoo Histories is a long overdue scholarly yet entertaining rational study on the history of the 20th and 21st century's rising interest in conspiracy theory. He looks at its uses in propaganda and its emergence as pop history phenomenon. A common myth among conspiricists is that conspiracy theories are often anti-right wing, but as David Aaronovitch points out, they have no political preference. There have been very popular left and right wing conspiracy theories propagated over time.

Beginning with the fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Aaronovitch shows how a proven piece of 19th century anti-Semitic propaganda, undeniably plagiarized from a French satire on Napoleon III, wove its way into global consciousness. It was endorsed by people such as Henry Ford, then used by Adolph Hitler and finally found its way into the 9/11 conspiracy theories and the Middle East. Even when it was satisfactorily debunked a type of post-modernist argument began that its authenticity was irrelevant, what it revealed was the reality of today. This time of irrational disregard for evidence and truth became closely associated with many conspiracy theories that followed. As real government-level conspiracies were revealed with the Freedom of Information Act, matters only got worse as paranoia and mistrust grew. For example, the discovery that a suggestion was made to the US government by their agents to hijack and crash planes in order to blame the Cubans and justify a war gathered little press before 21st century, despite being in the public domain and commented on in various media. After 9/11, of course, it became a type of proof that this is what had actually happened with the Twin Towers.

After the Protocols there was Stalin’s use of conspiracy theory to back up the infamous show trials that saw the extermination of his last rival for power in Soviet Russia. Aaronovitch carefully argues the model of paranoia found in totalitarian despots like Stalin and his Chinese counterpart Mao or Cambodian one, Pol Pot, would be replicated by many individuals who bought into conspiracy theory then and buy into it today.

Next there was the persistent belief that Pearl Harbour was not a surprise attack at all, but yet another set-up by Roosevelt to wage the war he was arguing for prior to the event. The ‘50s saw matters go back to right wing conspiracy theories with Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts whilst pop interest grew around the death of Marilyn Monroe. It was back to the left during the liberal ‘60s with the JFK assassination and the moon landings. Nixon’s very real conspiracy really fired paranoia up in the 1970s and the cult of interest grew to ridiculous proportions taking us through the next three decades with the growth of a whole pseudohistory business, which was best illustrated by the huge success of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and the “factual” book that inspired it. Interestingly “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, can also be easily traced back to a single hoax.

Aaronovitch is a thorough author who has far from a pro-establishment background and acknowledges its equally destructive other extreme, contingency theory. His work here not shows us that although often thought as fun as other forms of urban legend, there are real dangers in unfounded conspiracy theory. This danger is indicated in the growing trust in unsupported claims and ideas by many people in the media eye, including prominent politicians. He nicely defines what is meant by a conspiracy theory, as a type of reverse Occam’s Razor. Rather than opting for the solution that requires the least number of assumptions, the conspiricist goes for the solution that has the least amount of probability and requires faith over evidence.

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Monday, 23 November 2009

More than a sequel

"Bride of Frankenstein"Image by Père Ubu via Flickr

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I present to you a fine example that not only puts forward the argument that sequels can be great, but also that there were good sequels before Godfather Part II. The Bride of Frankenstein actually surpasses the original film and is perhaps one of the greatest horror movies made.

I say all this in spite of its glaring flaws as a sequel. It commits all the cardinal sins that a sequel should never do. It changes the tone of the original by introducing comedy, it retcons the ending of the original (if you have read or seen "Misery" this is an absolute no-no with die-hard fans) and unforgivably it brings in a new actress to play a leading role. If that weren't bad enough the titular character barely makes a cameo appearance. So what makes it so good?

The truth is 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein is James Whale's masterpiece. Despite exhibiting some of the first flashback sequences in a feature film during its opening prologue and some direct links via minor characters early on, the film stands alone as a great movie. Whale recognized how humour can be a valuable tool when dealing with horror. The comedy from the amazingly campish villaint Dr "It's my only weakness" Pretorious (played by Ernest Thesiger and apparently personally directed with relish by the openly gay Whale) , the black humour of Dwight Fray (once more playing a wicked assistant) and the hilarious hyserical moments on offer from the newly introduced Minnie the Frankenstein housekeeper (played by another Whale favourite, Una O'Connor) would have provided the relief required for the movie's darker aspects. This would be used again and again across the horror genre.
There is still the air of menace with Karloff putting in another great performance as the monster, but this time we get see more of his pathos - "We belong dead!"

Despite straying wildly off Mary Shelly's original novel, the film references much of its source material. It even begins with the trio who conceived the novel - Mary Shelly (the actual writer) and her two sources of influence and inspiration, Percy Shelly (her husband) and Lord Byron. Having been excited by Byron's insistance on recounting the events of the previouos film and the storm bellowing outside, Mary decides to tell them both what happened after the monster's apparent demise. Other references include a blind hermit (actually the blind elder member of the De Lacey family in the novel) and, of course, the plan to build a mate for the monster.

The Bride of Frankenstein stands out from all the other Universal classics for its sheer audacity (as well as the coded homeosexual element in Pretorious there are also plenty of references to Christ in the monster, despite having plenty taken out by the strict censors of its time), executed in true style.

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