Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's Witchcraft!*

When one thinks of Horror, whether in books or the movies, one imagines being scared. One wants to be scared or at least mildly spooked. This may amount to momentary shocks and jumpscares, provided by most slasher films, or creeping menace and lasting fear provided by stories that rely on fears of the supernatural, from vampires to demons to the devil himself. And of course, there are endless variations in between. But one character seen every Halloween in great numbers; on television, in ads, as costumes and as a general symbol of the holiday just behind jack-o-lanterns and black cats; the witch, is not particularly scary to most people at all, once past childhood. Horror has barely ever scratched the surface of using the witch as a central horrifying character, leaving the character of the witch to be exploited by fairy tales and children's stories, from the Hansel and Gretal to The Wizard of Oz. It doesn't take much to figure out why.

Witches were given the blame for crop failures, broken marriages, unexpected storms - and any other variety of ills that could be imagined - for centuries. As a result, innocent women were executed. Women that today might be regarded as intelligent and confident were then seen as evil and demonically possessed and burned at the stake. Here's the opening passage from A Treatise of Witchcraft** by Alexander Roberts, B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) written in 1620:

With a true Narration of the Witch-crafts which Mary Smith, wife of Henry Smith Glover, did practise: Of her contract vocally made between the Devill and her, in solemne termes, by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied: Which is confirmed by her owne confession, and also from the publique Records of the Examination of diverse upon their oathes: And lastly, of her death and execution, for the same; which was on the twelfth day of Ianuarie last past.

Later, Roberts lays down the six reasons why witches should be punished, from deals with the devil and recruiting others into their fold to worshiping false idols and consecrating their children to Satan. But the sixth reason is where the modern reader understands what was really bothering Roberts. He says "they deserve death as inhumane and barbarous tyrants" because they "oftentimes by the helpe of their grandteacher, sowe discord betweene husband and wife, sollicite maydens, yea enforce both them, and married women to uncleane, and unlawfull lusts,and heerein implore the helpe of the devill, to accomplish their malicious designes, which trangression is capitall."

Yes, they made men lustful, broke up marriages and even made women, women(!), enjoy sex too by marrying them to unclean and unlawful lusts. Those poor men, made to suffer by having sex through no choice of their own by such demonically powerful women.

And we all know there are still people in the world today who believe women are "unclean" products of the devil. So with that kind of baggage, who would want to make witches the villain? It feels dated and out of place. Add on to that the fact that the practice of Wicca in the real world is benign and witches start to seem like your next door neighbor, your co-worker or your wife. Certainly not a horror villain.

The movies use them almost exclusively in the non-horror sense from comedy (I Married a Witch), fairy tale (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and fantasy (The Wizard of Oz, Clash of the Titans) to period use (Sleepy Hollow) and historical exploration of fanaticism (The Crucible). At this point it seems unlikely that the witch will ever be a central figure in horror. When it is a central figure it is portrayed as a girl or woman who learns the dark arts (The Craft, The Witches of Eastwick) rather than a supernatural figure along the lines of Angelica Huston in The Witches. The Blair Witch Project is one of the few to actually make the witch (although unseen and undefined as the classical witch of fiction) the central horror figure where high school jealousy or sexual adventure doesn't come into play. Although it could be said that the real horror in the film is what is present in the three protagonists minds as their tent is attacked and they find strange crafted stick figures in the surrounding woods.

It's funny. For a character so closely associated with Halloween, the witch is conspicuously absent from the horror canon. Is there any chance at this point of making the witch a fearful antagonist outside of fairy tales, a terrifying villain in the realm of horror? One that represents pure evil in such a way that the audience can successfully divorce the character from the history and hysteria that surround it in the real world? Probably not. Still, I'd like to see someone try. For now I'll have to settle for Margaret Hamilton, Veronica Lake and Agnes Moorehead, and that's not a bad group to settle on. Given the history surrounding the character, I guess I'll have to take them any witch way I can.


*Were this Jeopardy and the title of the post the answer, the question would be, "What is 'That sly come hither stare, that strips my conscience bare.'"

**spellcheck had a field day with the passages from this book.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Queen of Spades holds all the cards

The 1949 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award for Best British Film went to Queen of Spades, directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook. The two had worked together previously on the first film version of Gaslight, made in 1940 and released in the United States as Angel Street. Queen of Spades was a critical and commercial success in Britain but never enjoyed the same success across the pond. I recently watched it for the first time on a newly purchased DVD twofer, Dead of Night/Queen of Spades, a DVD set I can highly recommend, and found it to be an absorbing and expertly made film from start to finish. I can only assume someone somewhere dropped the ball in the marketing department because it should have been a hit here, and it should be more widely known everywhere.

Still, I think I know why it wasn't a success here. It is billed as a macabre ghost story and yet the supernatural does not make an appearance until late in the film. The vast majority of the film plays as straight drama and this may have thrown off viewers expecting a chiller. It may still disappoint today for the same reasons but it shouldn't. As straight drama it works exceedingly well and Anton Walbrook, a personal favorite, gives a cold, chilling performance as Capt. Herman Suvorin, an officer in the Russian Army obsessed with discovering the secret of Faro, a card game he hopes will make him rich. He wants to know how to win, and he's willing to kill to find out.

Early in the movie he visits a bookshop to discover what he can and is given a book that will reveal to him the one person who knows the secret of the cards, the 102 year old Countess Ranevskaya, played by Edith Evans in an absolutely stunning performance. Long ago the Countess sold her soul for the secret of the cards and now the Captain is willing to do the same. But first he must get to her and to do so he must string along her attendant, Lizaveta, played by Yvonne Mitchell.

As straight drama this story is unnerving enough, watching the bitter and spiteful Captain lie to Lizaveta, making her believe he is madly in love with her, but by the time he finally gets to the Countess it's downright riveting. Walbrook's only scene with Evans is intense, captivating and, forgive the movie review cliche, electrifying. The two actors are at the top of their form here and watching Walbrook's now desperate and insane Captain plead with the Countess who cannot reveal the secret before she dies is an amazing viewing experience.

And if that's not enough, when the Captain finally receives his ghostly visitation late in the movie, it's mesmerizing. Most ghost entrances make use of light wind swirling about, blowing through the actor's hair as we the audience understand a supernatural entity has entered the room. Not Queen of Spades. My God, it's like a hurricane has descended upon the Captain's rented room. When the ghost makes its entrance, it really makes its entrance! And all of this leads the story to its end. Is the end a twist, a surprise or a foregone conclusion? It's hard to say. In many ways it is all three. It is certainly satisfying.

There are only two problems with the film that stand out. One, the opening gypsy dance sequences in the beer hall which go on far too long and feel as if they're being stretched out to get the film past the 90 minute mark. Two, the epilogue feels all wrong, as if tacked on by the studio in an effort to bring happiness and joy to Lizaveta whose life has been destroyed by the Captain. In fact, reading up on the film and Dickinson after watching it, I discovered that's exactly what happened. Not only does it feel phony, but displays her happiness as a result of incredible wealth she has married into. This coming at the tail end of a movie that has just presented two of the most miserable characters imaginable (the Captain and the Countess) suffering due to greed and wealth. Not only is it phony, it's contradictory. Sometimes the mind boggles at the ideas of Producers and Studio Heads. As Dickinson himself wrote about producers, ""It is the incomprehension of these men, who hold us all enmeshed in their bank balances, which inhibits and imprisons the artists and strangles ideas at birth." And did I mention the forehead slapping eye-rolling symbolism? She buys all the birds in the marketplace and sets them free. Oh brother. God I hate Studio Heads. But the film is great enough to survive even this dreary epilogue, and that's saying something.

The British recognized the film for the great work it is when they saw it but it was never heavily promoted outside the country. Thorold Dickenson made only nine films but many directors believe, from Martin Scorsese to John Boorman, that he should be considered among the greatest British filmmakers nonetheless. Boorman said Dickinson had "Michael Powell's daring, David Lean's taut editing and Carol Reed's emotional tension." All of those come into play in Queen of Spades, available on the new DVD twofer with Dead of Night. Both are terrific films to take in but I recommend the Queen of Spades more highly, if only because it is not as widely known and because of the great work of Walbrook and Evans that is splendid to behold. As is the movie. Queen of Spades, pardon the pun, comes up aces.


Here is a short video clip I uploaded from the film where the Captain first obtains the book. I just love this scene because of the sinister shop owner and his little cackle at the end.



* The quotes used in this piece come from The Guardian article on Thorold Dickinson, Something Happened, found here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Isn't this where we came in?

... deja vu all over again. Any fan of Pink Floyd's The Wall knows that the album loops itself. As the album begins the listener hears the quiet strains of a concertina, mandolin and clarinet and as soon as it starts one also hears the spoken words "we came in." This makes little sense at first until one reaches the end of the album and that same music is present again. Just before it abruptly cuts off in mid-note, the listener hears, "Isn't this where..." And now the loop, the cyclical nature of the story, is clear. It's a nightmare that keeps repeating itself in the mind of its lead character, Pink. I can't remember if I heard The Wall first or saw Dead of Night first, it's been so many years since both of those firsts occurred, I just know that one always makes me think of the other.

I watched Dead of Night again recently and was surprised by my reactions. I've seen it several times but the last time I saw it was years and years ago. And what I liked about it changed. Funny how that happens. But first a little background.

Recently I did a post on Rod Serling's landmark television show, The Twilight Zone, and if any one movie can be seen as its precursor it's this one. Dead of Night tells several tales, all given just a few minutes with the longest being around twenty. Several different directors were assigned to the stories and each has a twist ending, just like Serling's later television series. Some of its stories were even given their own variations years later on that very show. Holding the stories together is the central story, in which a group of guests at an old English Mansion are swapping tales of the supernatural, the paranormal. They've been inspired to do this by a guest, architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), who insists all of this has happened before. He tells them he's dreamt of this afternoon many times over and by the end of the night, someone will be dead. They entertain his notions by recounting experiences they have had that couldn't be explained away with logic and reason. The only doubter is a psychiatrist, who tells his story last.

If you've seen it, this is all academic and if you haven't seen it you know from my introduction that the story loops in on itself but that doesn't give anything away to be honest. It's how it loops that provides the twist, not the loop itself. After all, Craig alerts us from the beginning that he has foreseen these events in his dreams so the idea of a loop is planted early on. The question is, can he get out of it and if he tells everyone everything that will happen, can he prevent a murder from taking place? That you will have to see for yourself. All I will say to those who have not seen it is this: The last seven minute montage that propels the movie to its ultimate conclusion is one of the best representations of a nightmare ever put on film, and the filmmaking of the sequence is downright electric. It's most definitely worth the wait to get to that ending.

So what surprised me this time around? Which stories I liked best, that's what. Everyone, even those who have not seen it, is probably aware of the story the psychiatrist tells. That story stars Michael Redgrave, who is excellent, as a ventriloquist whose dummy has, possibly, developed a mind of its own. This is the story I remembered being the best but watching it again I took a different view. I still like the story, but of all the stories told, this is the one in which it is fairly clear that nothing supernatural is happening and, therefore, kind of halts the pace of the film. For a little over an hour we have been watching short supernatural vignettes and then suddenly, at the end, we're presented with what feels more like a character study than a tale of the paranormal. And it's almost twice the length of the other stories. Of course, it works well within the story because it is told by the doubter and makes sense that this story would be of questionable supernatural origin. Nevertheless, it didn't work nearly as well for me as I remembered all those years ago. Partly because it was only another story and felt like it should have been its own movie. Excellently shot, acted and written but a little too fully developed as a story compared to everything around it. But this is a minor quibble for Redgrave and his dummy make for an engaging tale nonetheless.

There is in fact only one story I didn't care for at all, a comedic golfing tale that I didn't like the first time I saw it and was unsurprised to discover I still didn't like. It's silly and doesn't fit, as if the producers felt the audience would become unhinged by all the spookiness if they weren't given some levity right in the middle of the film. It breaks the mood and the viewer has to re-adjust for it, an unfortunate mistake on the part of the movie.

But aside from that I can't think of anything to stop me from wholeheartedly recommending this film. It's an enjoyable and spooky two hours to spend with a group of likable characters sharing tales of the unexplained. And like The Wall it gives one that feeling of...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wolfman Monty

Kill Fest is winding down, coming into its final week but be cool, like the Wolfman. There's always next October. And just a warning about Monty: Better stay away from him, he'll rip your lungs out Jim. And maybe it's just me, but I'd like to meet his tailor.

Click pic to enlarge and see all the hairy details. And let the Red River (of blood) jokes commence.

Friday, October 24, 2008

To Haunt or Not To Haunt

Horror fans love a good ghost story but the movies don't care for them much at all. Great ghost or haunting movies come out at a far lower rate than slasher, vampire or zombie movies and half the time they're not even real. What do I mean by that? Basically, there are the true haunted movies where the ghosts really exist (The Others, The Uninvited) and what I call the Scooby-Do genre where it's all just a ploy because someone wants someone dead, wants money or wants to scare everyone off their property and would have succeeded if only those meddling kids hadn't gotten involved (The Cat and Canary, The House on Haunted Hill). If the story is well told I can go either way, but in a pinch, I prefer when the ghosts are real.

I do find the Scooby-Do phenomenon odd at times though, I must admit. No other sub-genre of horror fools its audience into believing that Dracula really is a vampire, only to be revealed at the end that he really wasn't a vampire but a land developer trying to finagle a shady deal on Carfax Abbey until that meddling Jonathan Harker got involved. That just doesn't happen. Or a fake werewolf? Or a fake serial killer? Nope. But fake ghosts, yeah, they've got their own sub-genre.

They are also the only characters that truly reach across all literary boundaries. William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens never once wrote a play or story that contained a werewolf or a vampire. And no flying monsters or re-animated corpses. But ghosts? Shakespeare used them more than once and Dickens wrote one of the best ghost stories ever in A Christmas Carol. Ghosts are an accepted part of the culture and unlike horror monsters like vampires, many people really do believe in their existence, which makes a good haunting movie that much more effective, whether real or of the Scooby-Do variety.

The Uninvited is one of the best I have ever seen and I've mentioned it here before. It brilliantly combines humor with suspense and detective story with chilling tale of revenge beyond the grave. It is a favorite of mine and I've probably seen it three times, if memory serves, in the last two years alone. I also like The Changeling and The Others as far as more recent works go (well, if you consider the late seventies to the present to be recent - I do). Works from the sixties such as The Haunting and The Innocents are also favorites. And yes, The Cat and the Canary and The House on Haunted Hill as well. I don't care much for Poltergeist though I know it's a favorite of many. It's ending is too filled with special effects and big loud setpieces to work effectively for me. It feels more like a big-budget summer action movie than a ghost story. And despite today's banner I find The Amityville Horror rather forgettable.

And the reason I'm talking about ghost stories at all is because in the last month I viewed two others that are favorites of mine that I shall review here on Monday. Both hold up extremely well but my reaction to one, a revered classic, quite surprised me. I hadn't seen it in fifteen or twenty years and my reactions to it were completely different then I thought they would be. More on that Sunday and Monday. For now I leave you with the apologetic Christopher Lee and his quest for the truth behind ghosts: Are they real or not? Happy Hauntings.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

That is One Old Dark House

Allow me, for a moment, to heap unbridled praise upon Ernest Thesiger. He made dozens of movies in his career, often playing small bit parts but he is most famous for his role as Dr. Pretorious in The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale in 1935, and justly so. He is, to put it mildly, magnificent in this role, providing further proof that a great ham actor is not the same thing as a hammy actor. A hammy actor forces everything, overacts by design and allows you to see the wheels turning every step of the way. A great ham on the other hand is completely a product of nature. That's simply how they are. Playing a role to the hilt comes naturally, feels effortless and doesn't bother the audience. Ernest Thesiger did that in The Bride of Frankenstein to be sure, but before The Bride there was The Old Dark House, also directed by Whale and also containing a magnificent performance by Thesiger.

The Old Dark House was made in 1932, coming on the heels of Whale's success with Frankenstein, made the previous year. To exploit this success, the director was once again teamed with Boris Karloff who plays the role of the lumbering, drunken and violent butler Morgan. And Thesiger is there as the owner of that old dark house, Horace Femm. But the movie also includes Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton (another great ham), Lilian Bond and Gloria Stuart. Stuart is the least impressive of the bunch, or more accurately, the only unimpressive one. Douglas and Massey are as reliable as ever while Laughton bursts onto the scene in expected over the top fashion. Karloff is perfectly menacing as the dangerous butler and Lilian Bond delightful as the free spirited Gladys. But three other standout performances from virtual unknowns come from Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm, Horace's God-fearing, belligerent, cranky sister; Brember Wills as crazed lunatic brother Saul Femms and Elspeth Dudgeon, an actress playing the male role of the 102 year old patriarch of the family, Sir Roderick Femm. The scenes of Dudgeon in bed speaking in a scratchy old voice and laughing the laugh of a too far gone old man who knows they're all doomed is too creepy, funny and effective to put into words.

In fact, this whole movie is too creepy and funny to effectively put into words. Normally, this would be the part of the review where a basic plot synopsis would usually reveal itself but what's the point? Here's all you need to know: Travellers in a storm need a place to stay. Five of them (Douglas, Massey, Stuart, Laugton and Bond) end up at the Femm house for the night. And the Femms, every last one of them including the butler, are nuts. Absolutely, completely and one hundred percent nuts. How can you not make that premise work?

It's a personal favorite of mine and I admit I am biased towards thirties productions anyway. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend The Old Dark House to anyone looking for an early sound production devoid of the usual ill-paced creakiness that accompanies many of the movies made in the first five years of sound film and instead filled with humor, horror and more than a couple of twists and turns. And it's got Ernest Thesiger playing the whole thing for laughs from start to finish. What more could you want?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Gone of the Dead

"No, I don't think I will eat your brain, although you need your brain eaten, badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should have your brain eaten and often, and by someone who knows how."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"It's a cookbook! It's a COOKBOOK!!!"

In the previous post on Night of the Living Dead the subject arose in the comment section as to whether or not injecting social commentary or allegory into horror was a good thing. I'm not sure if there was a consensus or not, but I do not one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows of all time, The Twilight Zone, injecting allegory and social commentary into at least 50 percent of all episodes that ever aired. And I loved it anyway.

Rod Serling wrote what he thought would be the pilot episode for The Twilight Zone in 1957 and sold it to CBS Studios. It was titled The Time Element and told the story of a man who keeps waking up in Honolulu on the morning of December 7th, 1941. He tries to warn everyone but it never works. CBS didn't like it and shelved it. A year later it was discovered by producer Bert Granet who put it on his show, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (too many "houses" in that title) and it was a hit. A year after that, The Twilight Zone began in earnest.

Some years ago there was an excellent American Masters episode on Rod Serling, shot in black and white, and bookended by Twilight Zone motifs in which Serling is rushed to the hospital on that fateful day of June 28, 1975, when his four pack a day smoking habit finally did him in. It revealed that Serling started The Twilight Zone because he was tired of every political or social statement he injected into his dramas being censored out. He knew if he made the same points with monsters, aliens and time travellers, no one would care enough at the network to censor them. He was right.

The funny thing is, most people's favorite episodes, including mine, having nothing whatsoever to do with social commentary, and everything to do with extremely cool twist endings. For instance, in that American Masters episode they break down Eye of the Beholder, the famous episode (aren't they all) where a woman is having her bandages removed after plastic surgery. No one, not even the doctors and nurses, is seen until the bandages come off. Now, after this happens, and she is revealed to look "normal" to us, and the hospital staff bizarre pig-face people, she runs down the hall and we see monitors with a pig-man version of Hitler yelling and screaming about conformity. American Masters goes on about how the episode is an indictment of conformity and Fascism and makes a bold statement and blah, blah, blah. No disrespect to Serling or The Twilight Zone but does anyone care? I sure don't. I just want to see those pig-doctors at the end. And condemning Fascism in a post World War II universe isn't exactly going out on a ledge or anything.

So The Twilight Zone never appealed to me as a Great Educator on all that was right and wrong in the world. But as a fan of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, it appealed to me greatly. Surprisingly, given the fact that most all of the episodes have a twist ending, they're still enjoyable to watch the second or third time around. There's usually a marathon every year on the Sci-Fi Channel and all the seasons are readily available on DVD. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Boris Karloff's Thriller, but that's another story. I'll leave you with some of my favorite episodes:

Time Enough at Last: That would be the one in my banner up above. Burgess Meredith survives a nuclear explosion and with everyone dead can now spend all his time reading. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

The Man in the Bottle: A pawnbroker gets free wishes from a Genie. Nothing ever goes wrong with wishes from Genie. Ever.

The Howling Man: A man hiking across Europe takes shelter in a monastery where a man is imprisoned. The man tells the hiker that the monks are crazy. The monks tell him he's the Devil. Nah, couldn't be.

The Invaders: Agnes Moorehead taking on little doll size aliens at her farmhouse. They are aliens right?

The Odyssey of Flight 33: A plane keeps going through time portals taking in and out of history. Will it ever get back home?

The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank: A man rises from his coffin at his funeral. Did a demon take control of his corpse? Nah, he was probably just sleeping.

To Serve Man: Uh, the title of this post.

Little Girl Lost: Poltergeist doesn't exist without this episode.

The Little People: Astronauts land on a planet of tiny little people and one of them decides to become their "God." I can't imagine anything going wrong with that plan.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: How could I not include this one?

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Originally produced as a short film it was sold to and used by The Twilight Zone.

Stopover in a Quiet Town: A hungover couple wake up in a strange town. And they're the only ones there. I'm sure there's just a picnic going on somewhere that they're missing.

And there are loads more because I love so many of them. Now if only Boris Karloff's Thriller would get released on DVD I'd be happy. Momentarily at least.

Monday, October 20, 2008

They Know We're in Here Now

Ben (Duane Jones) delivers that line in Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero and released in 1968. He's referring to the zombies outside of course who will continue to move forward, never stopping, unrelenting. When Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) argues for everyone moving to the cellar Ben assures him the house is boarded up and "those things have no strength." Ah, but Cooper argues, having had his car turned over, individual strength doesn't matter when faced with overwhelming numbers. If they're enough of them, they will have strength.

So what's more frightening? The single inhumanly strong force (Vampire, Werewolf, Monster) or the weak in strength but strong in numbers pack (Zombies, Pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Borg from Star Trek)?

I vote for the pack. A single panther on the hunt is scary, like the hunter of the Predator movies, but can be defeated with a plan. A wolf pack however must be outlasted. There is no plan other than destroy, destroy some more, and keep destroying. Hopefully, before you die of exhaustion you will have destroyed them all. If not, you're dead. And that's your plan. That's one of the many reasons I believe Night of the Living Dead touched on such a nerve upon its release in 1968 (and no I'm not going to get into zeitgeist baloney about Vietnam): Because horror had for so long been based around a superhuman beast like Dracula or a mad killer like Norman Bates. But Living Dead gave us unthinking, unblinking multitudes. The fear was in the numbers. And isn't that what most of us fear the most? Do you fear a demagogic leader, or the unthinking, unblinking multitudes that will follow that demagogue and give him power? Unthinking multitudes with no plan, no strategy, just instinct. Relentless, driving instinct. It's always been a fear. It's always been a dread, deep down in those places we don't like to visit very often. And Romero was among the first to tap into it for all its horror was worth. Dracula as a character interests me and fascinates me but the living dead touch on something real. Something you can't think your way out of. You simply must outlast it. And endure.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Terrifying Trio of Black and White Classics

First there's Babs, so bloodthirsty in Double Indemnity, here showing her true nature.


And speaking of nature, that Simone Simon shows what a cat person really looks like.


Finally, who can forget Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Bat for Hire?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Beautiful Monsters

I love Universal horror movies of the early thirties. Absolutely love them. And my wife and I (who also loves them - and me) have passed that love on to the youngest in our family, my wife's daughter of seven, who adores The Bride of Frankenstein. She loves horror and mystery overall but her favorites are The Bride and Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple movies from the sixties. My God, I must've seen each one of those ten times by now, in their entirety or just in parts here and there. The youngest wishes they had made more than four, and given how much I love Margeret Rutherford myself, despite the mediocrity of the films, I wish they had made more too. But Universal did make more horror movies, one after another, in the thirties and forties, and it was their early forays into the genre that have become personal favorites over the years.

Even though I don't particularly care for the play version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which the 1931 movie was based on, and Tod Browning's static direction leaves much to be desired, I do love Bela Lugosi in the lead. It gives me great pleasure to watch him in those early scenes in the castle with Renfield, played by the wonderfully over the top Dwight Frye. And I enjoy his famous scene with Van Helsing later ("For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing."). The movie's a bit on the creaky side but still a pleasure to sit down to and watch Lugosi work his magic.

Then there's James Whale. Now that man could direct. His movies are beautiful to behold and the two Frankenstein films for which he is most famous are masterpieces of Gothic mood and design. His camera flows through the landscape and settles itself into perfectly framed paintings of light and shadow. I could watch them over and over and have, especially The Bride of Frankenstein if only because the youngest won't let me avoid it. But he also did The Old Dark House, another personal favorite to be written up a little later this month, and The Invisible Man, a movie of a madman scientist played by Claude Rains that stands as one of my favorite movies ever.

Then there's Boris Karloff, one of the great English actors, who should have several Oscar nominations listed on his bio but does not. Richard Dix received a nomination for Cimarron in the same year that Frankenstein was eligible, and it's unfortunate that the voting members of the Academy couldn't recognize how masterly Karloff was in his portrayal of the monster, and how ham-fisted Dix was in Cimarron. But playing a murmuring monster wasn't something the Academy was ready to notice. Karloff was magnificent as the monster but also terrific in his portrayal of Ardath Bey in The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund, in 1932. The Mummy is another personal favorite of mine that I watch every October.

Finally, there is Elsa Lanchester, responsible for so many wonderful and eccentric performances in the movies for decades (my personal favorite of hers is in The Big Clock) but forever branded onto the minds of the movie going public as the re-animated, iconic Bride. Her performance occupies but minutes of screen time and yet I can't imagine anyone else ever properly tackling the role like she did. In just a few minutes she covers an amazing array of facial expressions that convey fear, disgust, confusion and even satisfaction as in those last moments when the monster decides everyone but the good doctor Frankenstein and his wife will die and Elsa gives a delightfully and demonically satisfied sneer.

In tribute to those early Universal favorites, here is a short and sweet montage of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in their four most famous roles (Dracula, the monster, the bride of the monster and Ardath Bey/Im-ho-tep). This is the last montage until the Kill Fest finale on the 31st. Enjoy.


Available on YouTube here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Joy of Demonic Discovery

Anyone who's seen The Exorcist has probably at one point or another looked up, or asked someone who knows, what Regan and Father Karras are saying to each other in the bedroom when she speaks Latin and French. I know I did. And when I did I found it not only interesting, but invaluable in assessing the character of Regan and/or Pazuzu, the demononic spirit that possesses her. Here's the dialogue:

Regan: Mirabile dictu, don’t you agree? Here she's saying that it's "miraculous to speak of" or "talk about" or "discuss," having an exorcism that is.

Karras is curious about her speaking Latin, asks if she does speak it and she says, "Ego te absolvo" which you could probably easily figure out on your own means "I absolve you" (duh) or more roughly, "I forgive you," that is, you're absolved of your sins.

Karras then asks, "Quod nomen mihi est?” or basically "tell me what my name is?"

Regan responds, "Bon Jour" which we all know means "Good Day" in French. Karras repeats his question in Latin and then Regan says, again in French, "La plume de ma tante,” which means, "The quill of my aunt." The quill there referring to the kind of pen dipped in an ink well.

When I looked up that phrase many moons ago, I discovered it is a common phrase in basic French textbooks. It is usually written as "la plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle" or "the quill of my aunt in on the desk of my uncle."

Okay, so what? Why do I consider this invaluable? Because early on in the movie there is an open question as to whether Regan is truly possessed by a demonic spirit or simply schizophrenic. And this adds to those early layers of ambiguity. The spirit possessing Regan claims to be the Devil and yet can only muster up "good day" and "the quill of my aunt" in conversation because that's all Regan has studied, or remembered, in French class. It gives the viewer early on two possibilities: Either she really is schizophrenic or this is some minor pissant demon. And Karras doesn't appear to be buying it for a second. His question is perfectly constructed. He's saying, "Okay smartass, if you speak Latin, you'll say 'Karras' in response to this question." But Regan doesn't. She says "Bon Jour" because chances are, she doesn't know what Karras just asked her. It's brilliant and reveals an amateur in Regan, facing a superior opponent in Karras. She's fooled everyone else, but not our man Karras. And this adds another level of ambiguity and doubt for Karras himself, now believing even less that she is truly possessed.

Unfortunately, for me (though I know it's not with many fans of the movie), once she's levitated and twisted her head around the argument is settled, it's Pazuzu. A part of me has always wished William Blatty and William Friedkin hadn't put in the levitation, the head turn or the backwards talking because it removes all ambiguity. Even Karras seeing his mother on the bed, feeling Pazuzu enter into him at the end and hearing the homeless man from the subway in Regan's bedroom could arguably all be Karras. He's under emotional duress and none of that would be out of the question. But the physical act of levitation removes all doubt.

I'm not saying I don't want there to be demonic possession, just that I sometimes wish Blatty and Friedkin had offered nothing solid in the way of evidence, right up to the closing credits. Because honestly, I don't care if she's actually possessed. Whether she is or not does not diminish any of the anguish of Karras, especially given that he believes by the end. His belief in her possession is what matters, not the viewers. But that's a minor "what if" quibble for this classic and emotionally painful tale. And the bedroom scene adds another layer to the Regan/Karras confrontation near the end, knowing where they started and how Karras initially had the upper hand.

And now I bid you adieu to ponder their relationship further while I seek out the quill of my aunt, which, if I am not mistaken, is on the desk of my uncle. Bon jour.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Unlikely Source

I grew up loving the old school horror classics of yesteryear, when make-up was painful to the actor, castles were models and you could see the strings on the bats. Universal, Hammer and Roger Corman were the obvious favorites but I'd watch anything from those periods, no matter who made them. Once my cinephilia took hold in my early teens I temporarily put them aside for the classics of Hollywood and the French New Wave. Italian Neo-Realism and the New German Cinema weren't far behind. As a result, I can say I've seen many of the foreign language pillars of the pantheon but sadly, I honestly can't remember most of them now. I almost hate having to engage in a conversation on Ozu or Fellini or Fassbinder because it's been so damn long since I took them all in I can barely remember basic plot points now. I feel that if someone asks, "Have you seen Ali: Fear Eats the Soul?" I should just say "No" even though I have, but so much has fled the inner recesses of my memory banks that saying "Yes" feels like the real lie. I'm slowly re-acquainting myself with them one DVD or AFI theatre trip at a time. It's a slow process but ultimately rewarding.

But that's neither here nor there, just an example of how one of my favorite genres (the other being Sci-Fi) got pushed aside for a period while I immersed myself in self-education on film history. When I returned to Horror movies, I found I didn't like them anymore. Not the classics I grew up with but the new product. This was at a time when horror meant slasher flicks and nothing else. I had to satisfy myself with meager offerings like The Lady in White or Ghost Story because they were the only movies that even made an attempt to get past the mad killer routine and offer a haunting tale for their viewers to take in. Horror made its way back into my fold once the obsession with psycho-killers died down but what kept me going until then came from a very unlikely source: Computer games.

Now I'm not a PC Game kind of a guy. I've never had any interest in them and the thought of spending hours in front of a pc or television screen shooting things makes me want run screaming for my life. But in the early nineties when CD-Roms were just starting up (before the internet made them virtually obsolete) most of the games released were under the category now described as Adventure Games. If you talk to someone who is into PC games you will find Adventure Games derided in every way possible. Adventure Games take a story and the player, using clues and inventory items (a schemata adopted by most other games now) works his or her way through it. And for whatever reason, in the early to mid-nineties, most of those games were in the Horror genre. And of the kind they just don't make anymore.

Back then, they actually filmed actors in front of a bluescreen performing multiple line-readings and scenes that would then be inserted over a computer generated backdrop for the user to manipulate throughout the game. The games I bought were The Seventh Guest, Phantasmagoria, The Beast Within, Sanitarium and Ghosts.

The acting in these games range from bad to outright atrocious but I lay no blame on the actors. The dialogue they are given is horrendous and I assume the rehearsal times were somewhere in the area of about three minutes prior to filming. Still, I played them. I didn't care about the game part, I just wanted to "watch" the interactive movie, as some of them were called, and see how it played out because all of them took an old-fashioned approach to horror: Haunted houses, possession by evil spirits, and werewolves. Something I wasn't getting from the movies.

Phantasmagoria tells the story of a young couple purchasing an old mansion in New England at the start of their marriage. She writes horror fiction and he's a photographer. She starts exploring the house (which has four stories, multiple hidden passages, a hidden crypt and, from what I could tell, one bathroom), asking townspeople about former residents (one of the townspeople played by Stella Stevens) and learning the history of its murderous first owner, a magician whose five wives all died under mysterious circumstances. She unknowingly releases a demon spirit (I'll spare you the details) that inhabits her husband and soon he begins acting like that crazy magician from days gone by. A not too bad movie could be made from it I'm sure.

The Beast Within told a tale of lycanthropy in modern day Germany, The Seventh Guest a kind of House on Haunted Hill take-off, and Sanitarium a tale of a scientist nearly killed then locked away in a mental hospital because he discovered that a medicine his company was profiting from was actually killing children. The last one in the collection, Ghosts, isn't a game at all but an informational CD-Rom, hosted by Christopher Lee, and yes, that's where all those ridiculous Christopher Lee video clips are coming from. Lee takes you through an old mansion where you get to click on paintings and cabinets and diaries to hear stories or read haunted tales or see "experts", aka paranormal nutjobs or skeptics like Susan Blackmore who gets about 90 percent less "screen time" than the nutjobs (it's not exactly fair and balanced) , talk about one spooky experience after another. And of course, you get six ghost stories told by Lee, one of which, The Silent Pool, went up here this past Saturday.

All of these hold a special place in my heart because they brought back the old-school horror to me at a time when I desperately needed it. And before the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy came along, they gave actors like Christopher Lee work, and I am thankful to them for that too. And I still have all of them today. Occasionally I pull them out for nostalgia sake just to take a look at some the treats inside or marvel at how bad the acting is. And to be honest, I wouldn't mind seeing more movies made in the same spirit of old time horror that these now antiquated PC games picked up when the Hollywood slash machine dropped the ball.


And while we're on the subject, let's have Old Chris give us some more fascinating advice, although as far as these things go, this one seems pretty lazy ( a bad omen? That's the best you can give me?):


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

She's Got Bette Davis Sockets

... and Robert Stitchum always knows how to cut up a crowd. He leaves 'em in stitches every time.

Bad Date

You catch her eye...


She looks longingly into yours...


You coax her into the bedroom...


She stands waiting; beautiful and still...


Her eyes say, "Disrobe me."


And just when you think the night will be perfect...




She gets all religious on you.


Don't you hate when that happens?

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Haunted Screen

If I took the many film books I have, from the general movie history books to biographies to those dealing with specific genres, and ranked them according to what I learned from them, The Haunted Screen, by Lotte Eisner would easily be in the top three. I've had almost as long as I've had movie books and read it in bits and pieces on a regular basis. What you'll find here is not a review, exploration or analysis, simply a recommendation. If you want to learn more about German film from the early 20th Century there is no other book to have. And if you love German film from this period and do not have this book, your studies are incomplete.

The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt was written by Lotte Eisner and published in France in 1952 (L'Ecran Demoniaque). The copy I have was printed in 1977 and by then it had long become a revered classic. It covers practically every film made in Germany from 1919 through the early thirties and offers rich, detailed analysis as well as multiple offerings of scene by scene breakdowns. Eisner even analyzes and explains her own title in the forward for the English language edition explaining, "The word demoniac (German damonisch) is used in its Greek sense - as it was understood by Goethe ... 'pertaining to the nature of supernatural power'; it is not used in the usual English sense of 'diabolical.'" She wanted to make sure nothing was lost in the translation.

And nothing was. I own few film books that could match The Haunted Screen for its thorough and more than capable analysis. And I still use it as a guide for the films I want to see from that period, even though many are still unavailable outside of the biggest works from Lang, Pabst and Murnau. But aside from this it offers a dizzying array of stills from the period, many from behind the scenes such as the construction of the set for Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon - Lang, 1929) below.

Like I said, this isn't a review, more of a gushing recommendation. Werner Herzog was also a huge fan of both the book and the writer. He walked 425 miles from Munich to Paris in 1974 when he heard news that she might die soon due to illness. The idea he had was that somehow she would recover in the time it took him to walk it, that she would not die before he could complete his journey, and in fact she did not. She died in 1983 at the age of 87.

You can read her all too short biography on Wikipedia here, which mentions her fleeing Germany in 1933 to avoid Jewish persecution but then being sent to concentration camp in France before the war ended. I don't know a lot about this period of her life but would love to learn more. Wikipedia offers little more than the details I just gave.

The Haunted Screen will always occupy a favored place on my bookshelves and in my heart. It opened up the world of German Expressionist Cinema to me long before VCRs, Cable and later DVDs and Netflix came on the scene to lend a hand. It's a great work and a must have for any serious student of film. As the Times Literary Supplement wrote, "... arguably the best book on the cinema yet written." That was in the fifties and for me, it's a case that can still be argued.