“A certain leeway with probability has to be allowed to science fiction but making monsters out of rabbits is a little too much,” wrote one reviewer to his colleagues in the USCCB Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB) regarding the 1972 giant-bunnies-run-amok film, Night of the Lepus.
The OFB – known until 1966 as the Legion of Decency – has all the makings of a Hollywood story. Big names, tales of morality, and the rise and fall of an organization. (Feel free to credit me in your script treatment.) As demonstrated in an earlier post, the OFB records contain correspondence between the organization and studios, directors, and Church hierarchy. However, if we are to fully envision the drama that is the OFB story, we need to further round out its primary characters, the reviewers themselves.
Now, since it is the month of Halloween, and I have a weak spot for classic and campy horror, I want to share some insights into the OFB’s reviewers based on their internal conversations regarding horror films. These individuals sat through a variety of scary movies from horror parodies to slasher flicks and were often quite frank about their impressions. As one of the most controversial film genres, one may expect to see frequent condemnations across the board. Instead, I found that the reviewers, like most of us encountering the terrifying and surreal on the silver screen, reacted with a mix of repulsion, humor, and – surprise! – delight.
This is not to say that the reviewers found every horror film enjoyable; there were plenty they found to be wholly repugnant. There are thick files on films such as The Exorcist and Nightmare on Elm Street, after all. However, in most cases, the internal reviews circulated amongst themselves are often brief, candid, and balanced. Many of the reviewers would send in typed or handwritten notes expressing their opinions on the films watched. These initial reviews would help shape the official comments the OFB would put to the public. In these short notes, one can sense them groaning and rolling their eyes over stock horror conventions. I can even picture the reviewers throwing popcorn at their screens and yelling, “Don’t go into that room!”
In the case of Mel Brooks’ 1974 Young Frankenstein, for example, three reviewers sent in notes all praising the film’s humor and acting. While they varied in how much they enjoyed this film – focusing on topics from its use of double-entendres to its homages to James Whale’s classic adaptation – one reviewer simply wrote, “I didn’t think anyone made movies this funny anymore! Terrific! I smell Oscar nominations just around the corner!”
So while the reviewers did not ignore the OFB’s mandate to review films for moral or theological faults – becoming annoyed with the theological underpinnings of werewolves, for example – the internal conversations that occurred reveal that they did share a love for cinema, in all its forms. Whether critiquing cinematography or reveling in references to classic horror, these internal notes humanize the reviewers who we might otherwise assume are adversaries to all such movies that go bump in the night.