Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Jeepers Creepers (United Artists, 2001)

“Jeepers Creepers,” is a horror flick from writer/director Victor Salva, and it’s two-thirds classy thrills and one-third example of how not to make a horror movie. The fact that both these sections occur in the same picture is a fairly remarkable feat of filmmaking. In class, you can show the first part as an example of the tricks of the fear-inducing trade and then show the second part to display how horror directors go wrong.

As the movie begins, Trish and Darry (Gina Philips and Justin Long), brother and sister, are driving the back roads on their way home for a visit from college. Trish likes to look at the countryside. They are briefly pursued by an enclosed truck, the unseen driver of which seems determined to scare them spitless. Finally, the truck passes them.

Sometime later, they see the truck parked beside an abandoned wood frame church, surrounded by trees, its yard overgrown. The siblings see the driver of the truck carry a bundle that looks suspiciously like a dead body wrapped in a crimson-stained sheet. “The Creeper” deposits the bundle into a large pipe sticking out of the ground. They slow down and he dumps another one.

The Creeper spots them and the chase begins again. Darry drives off the road into a field, and the truck continues on its way.

The kids go back to the pipe to make sure of what they saw and to convince themselves that if bodies there are, they are all dead.

Darry thinks he hears someone down in the hole, and, of course, is determined to climb down for a closer look.

“You know that place in horror movies where someone does something really stupid and everybody hates him?” Trish asks. “Well, this is it.”

Of course, Darry falls into the hole and, of course, we think The Creeper is coming back at any moment and, of course, the hole is more full of corpses than a cheesecake is full of calories. From this point on, the film becomes a conventional killer chases kids thriller.

It holds up well up to the point Darry and Trish bring the cops into the picture. It’s at this point our understanding of what The Creeper is begins to change. The more we know about him, the less frightening he is.

Do you remember watching monster movies as a kid and feeling less scared when the monster was already on the screen because you knew that if you could see it, it couldn’t jump out and yell “Boo!”

Salva has forgotten that basic point. John Carpenter, in “Halloween,” reminded us that you can’t kill the bogeyman, but you shouldn’t take too much time trying to explain him, either. That kills him more effectively than blades or guns.

As long as The Creeper remains unseen, or seen in shadow, he represents that potent, visceral force of the Unknown. When he hunts, does he do it for fun or is there a solid reason for all the corpses he’s dumped down the pipe? Why all the incisions? Why is the catch phrase for this picture “What’s eating you?”

And what’s the significance of the number “23”? You’ll know what I’m talking about if you ever see the flick. And there’s a legend that ties into the plot. Is it a real legend or one manufactured for the movie? If we’re going to be offered some degree of explanation, let’s have enough to make sense.

The movie is left open for a sequel—what kind of horror movie would it be if it couldn’t develop into a franchise for United Artists—but that’s not the main reason many viewers will find the ending unsatisfactory. I can’t go into that, but I will say that a soap opera on Friday leaves you with much the same feeling.

But when Salva is clicking during the movie’s first 50 minutes or so, he runs the thing like an expensive watch. Sure, a lot of the shocks come from pop-ups and loud noises, but these work so well because the director has set them up so nicely. First he attaches the electrodes, then he pushes all the right buttons.

The two leads are just fine. When they talk and argue as siblings, they sound real. The screenplay gets across a lot of background information via the humdrum talk of any long car trip. These kids are more than potential monster-fodder.

“Jeepers Creepers” is creepy and horrid without being gratuitously gory, but it never really moves from average to being worthy of a solid recommendation. It’s worth seeing, but I’m not sure it’s worth a special trip to the video store to rent. Maybe if you pick it up when you go to get something else. Or the next time it runs on cable. Or you could forget I mentioned it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Ed Gein (Tartan Films, 2000)

If black humor refuses to capitulate to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it also refuses to take them seriously. We can only contemplate death soberly if there is some means of avoiding it. When faced with the inevitable, laugh, clown, laugh. And the more spectacular the death, whether in total numbers or intensity of the individual event, the darker the laughter.

Consider the films that are based to a greater or lesser degree on the ghoulish career of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin part-time handyman and full-time psycho. Everyone needs something to do to fill the hours of the day. It’s just that Gein’s choices were eccentric, to say the least. They were also such stuff as cinematic nightmares are made on.

But the oddest thing about the films that draw on the Gein story for their plots is that so many of them are comedies. Dark comedies, to be sure—comedies that may make you choke on your own laughter—but comedies just the same.

The most faithful to fact of them all is “Ed Gein.”

The picture opens with snippets of newsreel footage of Gein’s neighbors in the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. The consensus of opinion is that he was a nice guy, maybe a little eccentric but certainly harmless.

Next we’re taken to the Plainfield Cemetery after dark. We see a teen couple, the boy eager to begin what he came here for. The girl hears noises, and then the boy does, too. They get spooked and leave quickly. The shot changes and we see Ed’s head emerge over the rim of a grave he’s opened.

At home, Ed has a disinterred corpse stretched out on a table. His head tipped back, he speaks a few words over it. He is inviting the body to return to life, but we don’t know if he expects a literal resurrection.

It’s a moment in the film, like many others, that doesn’t seem to go anywhere because it doesn’t link seamlessly with the scene that follows, but we will be introduced to his mounting madness through flashbacks and vignettes like this one.

Next up is a scene in which two young boys visit Ed at home. Later we will learn that some parents trust Ed to baby-sit. The youngest of the boys slips away from Ed and goes upstairs, just to snoop around out of idle curiosity. He finds heads hanging from the bedroom door. Ed will later explain that they are shrunken heads sent to him by a relative during the World War, but we can see what the boys, perhaps, don’t notice—they are too large to be shrunken. The room also contains a lamp made from a spine, and masks made from human skin.

The boys appear frightened, but no more so than Ed himself. He tells them to leave and not come back.

We then see him at a roadside bar, essentially off to himself but chatting sporadically with his twentysomething friend Pete Anderson (Craig Zimmerman). Most of the talking takes place between two bar regulars and Mary Hogan (Sally Champlin). Mary is a large woman, middle-aged and full of racy innuendos. Ed is clearly both attracted to and repulsed by her behavior and language.

As he listens to the goings-on in the bar, he flashes back to his mother Augusta (Carrie Snodgress) and her warnings about the whorishness of most women. We have seen earlier examples of her religious zeal as she read from The Book of Revelation to Ed and his brother as they grew up.

We also see Ed’s reluctance to assist his parents as they slaughter a hog. The animal is hanging by its back feet from a rafter and the sight terrifies young Ed. His father accuses him of being a sissy and then smacks Augusta for bringing him up badly. She then turns on her son and berates him for being a panty-waist. The poor kid, approximately ten years old, is visibly upset at being accosted by both parents.

Back to the present, and Ed is having dinner with his friends, the Andersons. Ed decides that nothing goes better with country cooking than a discussion of the changes the human body endures as it rots. Even his friend Pete wants him to drop the subject.

We see him taking a woman through his house, avoiding certain rooms. He has apparently approached her about exchanging houses with him since he lives alone and has no use for a two-story farm house. His evasive manner and the house’s general creepiness result in her turning down his offer and asking to leave as quickly as possible.

His behavior with people doesn’t change so much from beginning to end, but his interior madness is beginning to run away with him. He presents the same dead, half vacant smile throughout, but the visits from Augusta become more frequent. We realize that his moonlit trips to the cemetery have resulted in several corpses disinterred and brought home.

Finally he snaps and returns to Mary’s bar after closing. He shoots her, drags her out to his truck, and drives her home. Doing nothing to mend her wound, he ties the woman to the bed and allows her to die.

At this point in the film, we see Ed at his craziest. He emerges from the house one night wearing his woman suit. His face is covered by a mask made from the skin of one of the disinterred corpses. He wears a vest made from skin on which he has attached two breasts which dangle from the front. A vulva hangs from his crotch. Topped by a wig, he dances in the moonlight, yammering in falsetto.

Steve Railsback, who first jolted audiences as Charles Manson in the 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter,” delivers a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performance as Gein. I mean that in a good way. It’s the character who clog dances on our nerve ends, not the actor.

Railsback’s is also a gutsy performance. This is a man about whom the audience is hard-pressed to think anything positive. The nicest thought the average viewer would have said is, “Well, they guy is certainly messed up, but it isn’t his fault.”

We will see Gein trying on noses—real noses—like the world’s most deranged circus clown. He will murder one more woman who reminds him of Augusta after inviting her to go to a movie with him and being rejected. He is now seeing his mother, and she rides in his truck with him and encourages him to “do the Lord’s work.”

His insanity doesn’t make him fearless. He’s afraid of getting caught although his attempts at jokes almost trip him up. When Pete Anderson talks about Mary’s odd disappearance Ed tells him that the woman isn’t missing. “I’ve got her up at my place. Mary’s hanging out there right now.” Pete is startled for a beat, then laughs and tells Ed he has a mighty strange sense of humor.

The murder of his second victim, a storekeeper, results in his downfall. The film ends with newsreel footage of the real Ed Gein being put into the back of a police car. The end credits are interspersed with Railsback, as Gein in the asylum, smiling the smile and telling the camera that he doesn’t remember everything that happened.

So what was Edward Gein really like? This is the movie that stays closest to the facts and does a good job of presenting the man’s madness. He was born in 1906 and died in 1984. Mary Hogan was killed in 1954, Bernice Worden (called Collette in the film) was murdered in 1957.

What fascinated the first person to translate Gein’s life into fiction—novelist Robert Bloch, who immortalized Gein as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” was the fact that he lived so long in a small community and no one noticed his mania. If he never quite fit in with the common fold of Plainfield, he never stood out, either. For his trips to the cemetery, he enlisted the aid of a man named Gus, a peculiar loner who ended up in an asylum before Gein did. (Gus is omitted from every one of the Gein films.) Even with this association, no one saw through Ed’s smile.

The joke about the murdered barmaid is real. A few weeks after her disappearance, Ed told a sawmill owner with the unlikely name of Elmo Ueeck, “She isn’t missing. She’s at the farm right now.”

What do we make of this emotionally retarded man, in life and in this film? He’s not a guy most of us would have to fear because his interest was in older women only. The main sources for our fear are his psychology and the way it manifests itself. We can deal with the extremes of his oddness only through dark laughter. How else can you react to his woman suit? The horrible fact of the matter is that when he minces out the front door, his pot belly poking out under the vest, there is enough of the humor of an awkward man in drag to generate a laugh. But when we see what it is he’s really wearing, the laughter gets stuck in our throat.

“Ed Gein” is not designed to generate laughter, but the only sane reaction we can have to some levels of real-life horror is black humor. After his arrest, sick jokes known as “Geiners” began to circulate throughout the Midwest, some of which I suspect were used by Robert Bloch in his novel and later by screenwriter Joseph Stefano in his script for “Psycho.” “Mother is, how do you say it, not quite herself tonight.”

But black humor isn’t just a distancing device that allows us to contemplate the world’s horrors without collapsing into a morass of despair and inertia. It’s also a means for saying that the world can be as horrible as it wants to be—or as our fellow humans make it—but we have moved beyond caring. It’s either a perfectly rational response to an irrational universe, or a perfectly insane response to a sane universe when sanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Monday, October 1, 2007

“The Empty House” (Algernon Blackwood, 1906)

Despite the fact that this tale was first published in 1906, it’s a wonderfully cinematic examination of a notoriously haunted house. Blackwood wastes no time, jumping in immediately with a paragraph that defines what a haunted house is and describes the effect it has on anyone brave, ignorant, or foolish enough to enter it.

“And, perhaps, with houses the same principle is operative, and it is the aroma of evil deeds committed under a particular roof, long after the actual doers have passed away, that makes the gooseflesh come and the hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of the horror felt by his victim, enters the heart of the innocent watcher, and he becomes suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin, and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent cause.”

That, to coin a phrase, says it all.

In the story, Jim Shorthouse receives what appears to be a semi-urgent request from his Aunt Julia that he come to visit her at once. She’s acquired the keys to an infamously haunted house on the other side of town and she wants Shorthouse to accompany her while she goes exploring. She makes him promise that he will not leave her side even for a minute because “persons who had spent some time in the house, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared positively that certain rooms were so disagreeable they would rather die than enter them again.”

As the two ghosthunters enter the old house, Aunt Julia relates a brief history of the brutal crime that initiated the haunting.“’It has to do with a murder committed by a jealous stableman who had some affair with a servant in the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants' quarters, chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below.’"

’And the stableman—?’

"’Was caught, I believe, and hanged for murder.’”

Blackwood then takes us on a regulated tour of the house, first downstairs and then up. He is an absolute master at describing everyday items in such a way that they assume personalities, and none too pleasant ones at that. He evokes that feeling that things change as soon as you look away from them—“There was the inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again.”

The tension continues to build as Shorthouse and Julia are certain they hear a man sneeze next to them. Shadows are cast when there is nothing there to cast a shadow. Every time they turn a corner or move from one room to another, you wonder what they are about to encounter. Shorthouse “felt as if his spine had suddenly become hollow and someone had filled it with particles of ice.” The aptness of the simile is dazzling.

Then it happens, with a sudden jolt as powerful as the one that accompanies the first appearance of the old woman in “House on Haunted Hill,” a movie moment which may very well have been inspired by this story.“Facing them, directly in their way between the doorposts, stood the figure of a woman. She had dishevelled hair and wildly staring eyes, and her face was terrified and white as death.

“She stood there motionless for the space of a single second. Then the candle flickered and she was gone—gone utterly— and the door framed nothing but empty darkness.”

This is one of the most effective old school haunted house stories you will ever read. Take a look at it here -- -- and you’ll know why Algernon Blackwood was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite writers.

The Haunting Hour Volume One: Don’t Think About It (Universal, 2007)

Lots of people, i.e. adults, are still trying to figure out the appeal of R.L. Stine’s ubiquitous creepfests for the younger set, the Goosebumps books particularly. (Stine also produces some other series, including Rotten School, Mostly Ghostly, The Nightmare Room, and Fear Street, which actually predates the emergence of Goosebumps. We’re talking something like 300 million books sold worldwide.)

The made-for-DVD movie “The Haunting Hour Volume One: Don’t Think About It” may or may not have drawn its plot from a tale in one of Stine’s Haunting Hour books, which are apparently a series of short story collections. I’ve not read anything from this series. Dan Angel and Billy Brown are the credited screenwriters.

Emily Osment (15-year old younger sister of Haley Joel Osment) stars as Cassie Keller, gothy new girl in school. She doesn’t get along with her parents or her kid brother, and as soon as she strikes up a conversation with the boyfriend of Priscilla (Brittany Curran), Female Big Cheese on Campus, she finds herself on the outs with this “Mean Girls” wannabe as well. In a scene purloined from “Carrie,” Cassie humiliates Priscilla at the Halloween dance.

Curious about a place called The Halloween Store, Cassie enters to find the kind of set decoration any kid in thrall to the icons of horror movies would love. It’s dark. It’s cobwebby. The walls are covered with masks, skulls, skeletons wearing wispy shrouds. And it’s owned by a long-haired creep with a soft voice (Tobin Bell, of the “Saw” franchise).

He sells her a book called “The Evil Thing.” That night at home, she unlocks the clasp that holds the covers together and reads the doggerel incantation that would cause The Evil Thing to come to life if the jingle were to be read aloud.

Halloween night, stuck with sitting her annoying little brother, Cassie does read the verse out loud. The Thing appears so she and Sean, Priscilla’s disgruntled boyfriend (Cody Linley) spend the next few hours rescuing little brother Max (Alex Winzenread), Priscilla, and an unlucky pizza delivery guy from the beastie and its horde of ravenous offspring.

Directed by Alex Zamm, this surprisingly entertaining little picture is clearly aimed at the upper elementary/lower junior high set. The first half contains some nicely suspenseful moments, but after the monster makes its appearance the movie gallops towards comedy. Perhaps that’s so as to not really frighten its audience, or it may be because the budget didn’t call for anything like realistic monster effects so Zamm decided to ramp up the camp.

The acting is decent in that overdo-it-just-a-little-for-the-chillun style that is de rigueur for kiddie TV. Osment is the main attraction and she could go on to an adult TV or film career. It’s hard to tell how these young actresses will age.

This is a pretty good little movie for kids who want to see “something scary” that isn’t really scary at all, but adult fans of R.L. Stine’s work, assuming there are any, may be a bit disappointed. After all, some of the Goosebumps books, especially the ones about ghosts, can generate a true frisson that is totally lacking here.

“The Monkey’s Paw” (W.W. Jacobs, 1902)

I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve read “The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs’ brilliant and chilling short story, but I can tell you how often it’s cast a dark spell over me—every time.

Originally published in 1902 (and available now online at, among other places), TMP is the essence of the classic horror story—unhappy people bring more misery upon themselves, and their attempts to escape their fate opens the way for things best left alone.

Mr. and Mrs. White live with their adult son Herbert in Laburnam Villa on a quiet and deserted road. The old couple apparently does no work, leaving the breadwinning to Herbert, who is employed at a mill.One night they are visited by an old friend of Mr. White’s, Sergeant-Major Morris, who is coaxed into telling them the story behind an odd talisman he carries in his pocket, “what you might call magic, perhaps,” “an ordinary little [monkey’s] paw, dried to a mummy."

The weird object had had a spell put on it by an Indian fakir. For three owners, the paw would grant three wishes each. Morris admits to having made three wishes himself, but he grows nervous and doesn’t tell what he wished for. When asked how the first owner used the charm, the sergeant-major replies, "The first man had his three wishes. . . I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw."

Morris tosses the thing into the fireplace but it is retrieved by White who asks if he can retain it as an odd keepsake. Mrs. White playfully wishes she had four arms so her house work would be easier for her, and Morris hastily warns her that if the Whites are going to do any wishing, they better be sensible about it.

After Morris leaves, the Whites wish for 200 pounds to pay off their mortgage, and everything begins going downhill from there.

Jacobs’ yarn is a variation of the old tale story about trying to outsmart the devil with your wishes, but his take on the basic story has become the dominant one for over 100 years. “The Monkey’s Paw” has been dramatized for stage and screen, radio and comic books—you name the medium and it’s a good bet some version of TMP can be found there.

So familiar has the story become, even if you’ve never read it before you’re likely to get a feeling of literary déjà vu. Ignore it and read to the end. You’ll never find a better evocation of unseen horror than you will from “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Dead Silence (Universal, 2007)

My original review of this picture began like this: “This movie is going to break my heart. I like it. A lot. And it’s going to bomb. A lot.” It took in less than 18 million at the worldwide box office, a.k.a., me being right.

What’s worst was that its weaknesses, and there are two—maybe three--big ones, didn’t sink it. Its strengths did.When you see that the Universal Pictures logo that opens this movie is the version that was used in the early 1930s, you’ll know that this isn’t going to be another torture porn hunk of splatterpunk.

On a dark and stormy evening, young James Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) find outside their apartment door a large package with no return address. It contains an old ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. Lisa thinks it’s a hoot; James is creeped out.

While he’s gone to retrieve some take out, weird stuff starts happening in the apartment—a disembodied voice whispers to Lisa and then something we can’t see attacks her. James comes home to find her dead with her tongue cut out.

He becomes the only suspect in the case. Homicide cop Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), with no solid evidence, lets him go and James takes off to his home town of Ravens Fair because he’s remembered the legend of Mary Shaw, a local ventriloquist from the 1950s who had been accused of kidnapping a child and was killed by the missing kid’s relatives. She was buried with her dolls, all 100 of them.

James interviews an old man named Henry, the town undertaker (Michael Fairman), who has a crazy wife. She hides in the cellar with her stuffed raven. James talks with his own father, Edward (Bob Gunton), with whom he has been angry for years. Ella, Edward’s new young wife (Amber Valletta) is right by the old man’s side.

It’s all just gothic as hell—old house, crumbling theater, ghosts, dead bodies that come to life, cemeteries, dolls that, whenever we stop looking at them, seem to move, and lots and lots of rain. Director James Wan (“Saw”) handles these traditional elements as if he’s seen every horror movie made in the 1930s, which I’m sure he has. His writing partner and “Saw” co-creator Leigh Whannell has snatched up as many pieces of these old movies as he can and stitched them together.

If you like those creepy old flicks, which, surprise, I do, you can have a lot of fun with “Dead Silence.” What you might not appreciate is Wan’s determination to make a film that is stylistically as unlike “Saw” as he can. Instead of the hyper kinetic camera work of that earlier film, this time everything is rock steady and framed perfectly. The camera is always in the most effective place and when it moves, it moves for a cinematic reason rather than just because jolting the camera is a post-“Blair Witch Project” horror movie cliché.


Kwantan is bland in the lead and Whalberg, who was convincingly intense in “Saw II,” is miscast here as a ‘40s style smart mouth cop. Also, the film builds to a double-whammy ending and the first whammy is ham-handedly introduced. Maybe Wan and Whannell did that on purpose to misdirect the audience into thinking that there would be only one jolt in the last reel. Whatever. It’s weak.

Inanimate objects in movies that start moving around creep me out. If that works for you, and you have a taste for gothic horror that is heavy on atmosphere and light on gore, give this one a try. But if your appetite for contemporary horror has been sharpened by “Saw” and you expect more of the same from Wan and Whannell, leave “Dead Silence” for those of us who still like that little chill that all too rarely runs down our spines.

Friday, September 14, 2007

“Uncle Silas” by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1865)

We forget sometimes that writers were producing popular literature hundreds of years ago, especially when a novel that’s been around for a century or two is still in print. Longevity makes it a “classic,” but readability and a thumping good narrative are what give it longevity.

Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s “Uncle Silas” was one of the last significant attempts at a full-blooded gothic novel after Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer” in 1820 and before the phenomenal revival of the form with Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897.

As the story opens, young Maud Ruthyn is living a blandly idyllic life (you figure it out) with her wealthy father. When he dies suddenly, she is told by his odd Swedenborgian friend Dr. Bryerly that she must go to live at the run-down estate Bartram-Haugh, the home of her paternal Uncle Silas. Silas will care for her until she reaches her majority, at which time she will inherit her father’s money. In the intervening years, Silas will be paid out of the estate for her upkeep.

One problem: if her own father was eccentric, Maud’s uncle is nuttier than a rest stop at Stuckey’s. In fact, most of his neighbors think that, years before, he slaughtered a Mr. Clark, to whom he owed money, as Clark slept in one of Bartram’s guest rooms.

Two problem: if Maud dies before she gets her inheritance, Silas gets it all. If she marries Silas’ repulsive son Dudley, Silas gets it all by taking it away from Dudley.

The novel is an interesting blend of the gothic—detailed landscape description, characters who wear evil the way Paris Hilton wears stupid, and a crumbling, near-ruin of a country house—and the more popular for the time sensation novel—a domestic setting, mysteries to be solved, and a sinister servant in the person of the French tutor Madame de la Rougierre. LeFanu plays with the supernatural—he is the author of the wonderful vampire story “Carmilla,” so he could play with the best of ‘em—but the book is really a study in psychological suspense.

Yes, the dialogue can get pretty stilted in that patented second-tier mid-Victorian author sort of way, and the three-volume stretching is all too obvious when Maud and Silas have confrontation after confrontation that are all cut from the same pattern: Maud accuses someone in the house of tormenting her, Silas listens and then dismisses her complaint as coming from just a silly little girl, she becomes angry, he becomes sullen and insulting, she rushes from the room. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory, but it is more than made up for in the parts that LeFanu could really get into to—those subtle hints that the mold and rot of the house and grounds have infested the souls of Silas and his household.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the corruption and madness that have been growing in Silas all his life have tainted his physical surroundings.

Every fan of modern horror owes it to him/herself to look backward now and again to see where the contemporary genre came from. Many of the original gothic novels are deadly slow and about as chilling as a midday hike across Death Valley, but “Uncle Silas” isn’t one of them. Many of today’s go-for-the-jugular grossout-a-paloozas aren’t near as creepy.

“Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem, and Minivans” by Sam Stall (2007)

One of the surprise movie hits of early 2007 is a teen variation on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window called Disturbia. The title is a hybrid of “disturb” and “suburbia,” and the picture’s tagline is: “Every killer lives next door to someone.”

According to Sam Stall’s Suburban Legends, it’s not just killers that put the “br-r-r-r” in “suburban.” To hear him tell it, America’s small towns and bedroom communities are jam-packed with ghosts, disguised aliens, poltergeists, cryptozoological monsters, gardens/basements/walls hiding rotting corpses, and enough sickening depravity to make Eli Roth reach for a barf bag. Imagine Wally and the Beaver chopping Ward into manageable chucks and feeding them into a wood chipper, and then keeping June locked in the basement, only letting her out to be used as the sacrifice in a Black Mass. And then blaming their actions on the suspicion that their house was built on the site of an Indian burial ground.

And we escaped from the inner city for this?

Stall, who is a solid, amusing if not overwhelming professional writer, divides this collection of petit guignol anecdotes into seven sections, each one emphasizing a particular horror to suburban homeownership—“Inhumanly Bad Houseguests” (spooks), “The Ghoul Next Door” (murder), “Hellish Commutes” (haunted highways), “Backyard Beasts” (non-human spooks), “Really Desperate Housewives” (mad mamas), “Lawn of the Dead” (buried bodies), and “Sundry Cul-de-Sacrileges (everything else).

All of these stories are “true” and many of them are overly familiar from Travel Channel spookshows and A&E’s true crime lineup. In fact, some of Stall’s short chapters are so brief I suspect all the research he did was watch “Weird America” and “City Confidential.” That said, if you like this kind of thing, you may appreciate having these tales collected into one easily and quickly read volume. In the grand ol’ American way, there is far more violence here than sex so this is a pretty safe buy for kids who are passing through that love-the-macabre stage.

The biggest pleasure I got from the book was finding the source stories for some stuff that has been sold as fiction. For instance, there’s a tale here of a haunted windbreaker that was sold on eBay for $31.50, the obvious inspiration for Joe Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box. There are also several what-the-hell-is-going-on-here stories that appear to have been fed into Tobe Hooper’s movie Poltergeist. And the adventures of a man named John List, who murdered his entire family and then just moved on to wed and start another one, look like they may have had an influence on Donald E. Westlake’s screenplay for that terrific, underappreciated thriller The Stepfather.

My favorite, though, has to be the tale of poor, sad Philip Schuth, who lived a Geinishly lonely existence with his home-bound mother. When she died, he put her corpse in the freezer and kept it there for four-and-a-half years. She was discovered after Philip got in trouble with the neighbors for smacking a kid who was trespassing on his property. Schuth went to prison, where he acquired the nickname “Frosty.” He was immortalized when an entrepreneur began selling refrigerator magnets with the catch line “My Mom is Cooler Than Yours.”

The book is fun and Stall’s ironic narration lets you know that he doesn’t take all this stuff too seriously, nor does he buy every ghost story at face value. Reading the book is like sitting around the backyard grill when the sun is going down and Uncle Doug starts telling the kids why the old DeFeo house two streets over is said to be haunted. Everyone has a chuckle until Aunt Alice finds a fingernail in her burger.

"I Walked With a Zombie" (1943)

“Actually, it's very difficult for a reviewer to give something called ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ a good review.” So wrote producer Val Lewton in a letter to his sister. It’s one of the few times his instincts about film failed him. Nothing could be easier than writing positive things about any of the nine horror films he produced—and frequently wrote under one of his several pseudonyms—for RKO between “Cat People” in 1942 and “Bedlam” in 1946.

“I Walked With a Zombie,” admittedly a title that only a pulp magazine editor could love, was the second of Lewton’s films as producer of RKO’s newly formed horror movie unit. The idea then as now was to make chillers on the cheap that would return healthy profits. To keep costs down, Lewton relied more on lighting and sound to create an atmosphere of dread and unease.

The film begins with lush, romantic theme music more appropriate to a woman’s picture than a tale of voodoo. “Zombie” is what might be called now a “re-imagining” of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” Frances Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a Canadian nurse who takes a job caring for the wife of a sugar plantation owner in the West Indies. On the boat taking her to her new home, she meets Paul Holland (Tom Conway, who appeared in two other Lewton thrillers). Holland is suffering from acute weltschmertz and tells Betsy that the beauty of nature only serves to disguise “death and decay.” She has no idea that he is her employer or she might have been tempted to return to Canada.

Just about the time the audience begins to think of Paul as Byronic, someone in the film describes him with just that word.

During her first night at the plantation, Betsy is told that she will meet the wife for whom she is to care the next day. Paul tells her nothing of Jessica’s condition, which just adds to the atmosphere of disquiet. Later that night, Betsy awakens to the sound of a woman weeping. Looking out her window, she sees a thin, blond woman in white wandering in what appears to be a trance around the garden. She follows the woman into an old tower. Inside, the woman begins to stalk her, completely without reaction as Betsy screams. Paul and some servants show up and the woman is led away. Betsy explains about trying to find out who was weeping and why, and Paul tells her that she must have been dreaming.

The next night, Paul’s brother Wes (James Ellison) and his mother (Edith Barrett) join the dinner party. The brothers get into an argument about what’s best to do for Jessica, who was the woman Betsy followed into the tower, and it becomes clear that Wes is in love with his brother’s wife. The subject of voodoo comes up and Paul dismisses it by saying that “superstition is a contagious thing.” He is repressed and soulfully unhappy, but Betsy is falling under his sway.

Betsy finds companionship with the servants, who are all happy and content. What at first seems to be a sad period stereotype is soon seen to be a disguise adopted by the house crew to hide their involvement with voodoo. Alma, the maid (Teresa Harris), suggests that a voodoo priest might be able to help the non-communicative Jessica (Christine Gordon). Betsy, knowing that Paul would never approve but thinking that it couldn’t hurt, decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony that night.

The journey of the two women through the fields of sugar cane constitutes the film’s most celebrated sequence. Betsy is dressed sensibly and Jessica is wearing her standard loose fitting and flowing white gown, her blond hair whipped by the breeze. Director Jacques Tourneur puts no music behind this dark walk. We hear the wind as it moves through the cane. The camera moves with it, showing us the women as they progress along a path through the stalks.

The wind picks up as Betsy and Jessica move along from the safety of the plantation deeper into the heart of darkness. They pass the corpse of a goat, hanging from a tree, swaying across their path. They see an animal skull, and then a human one. Betsy’s pace increases as does the sound of the wind. Perhaps the sequence’s greatest shock comes with the sudden appearance of a skeletal male zombie blocking the trail. Given the proper signal supplied to Betsy by Alma, he allows the women to pass.

At the ceremony, the true nature of Jessica’s ailment is revealed.

Later, at the plantation house, Wes admits that he believes Jessica to be one of the walking dead. Paul denies this, believing just as fervently that the loneliness of living on the island has driven her mad. Since he has now fallen in love with Betsy, he demands that she leave so the same fate won’t befall her.

From this point, final secrets are revealed, the inevitable occurs, and the film hastens to its romantically gothic conclusion.

There are no sudden shock moments in “I Walked With a Zombie,” but that wasn’t Lewton’s idea of how a horror movie should be constructed. He believed in building tension from the opening scene, and everything in the movie is one more brick in the final structure. Cues to upcoming scares are not given on the soundtrack. The unexpected appearance of the thin zombie on the path to the voodoo ceremony is not underscored by an orchestral bang any more than turning around in a dark house to suddenly be confronted by a walking dead man would be emphasized by any sound other than your own gasp in real life. The wind and the steady drone of the surf are enough.

Lewton wasn’t interested in scourging the skin from your bones—he just wanted to get under it. Fans of the modern no-holds-barred horror movie may find his films slow and too quiet to be effective, but connoisseurs of psychological chillers will find much to admire in his approach.

This is definitely not Romero or Fulci, but Lewton wasn’t interested in making audiences scream and then forget their phony movie fears on their way across the parking lot to their cars. He wanted to make the experience of walking in the dark as terrifying outside the theater as it had been inside. The bleak, melancholy dread of “I Walked With a Zombie” stays with you for a very long time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"White Heat" (1949)

Although he considered it just another throw-away gangster movie, James Cagney put everything he’d learned about acting into his performance in “White Heat.” If you’ve ever seen anything else like it in an American film, you must have been watching a movie made after 1949. “White Heat” is a black comedy for the ages.

By the time he made “White Heat,” James Cagney (1899-1986) was fifty years old and was sicker than ever of gangster and tough guy roles. He’d begged his home studio, Warner Brothers, for a greater variety of characters to play (they gave him a few—Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” zany screenwriter Robert Law in “Boy Meets Girl,” and hoofer Chester Kent in “Footlight Parade), but he’d washed his hands of Warners and walked away from his contract twice, the latest time being in 1943.

Working as an independent producer, he made four films between ’43 and ’48. None of them are spectacular, but three of them are worth watching. Avoid “The Time of Your Life.” It won’t be.

So by 1949, Cagney was back at Warners with a new contract in hand and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie.He liked to hang out with the writers and the story is that he dropped by the office of scripters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, stretched out on the couch and asked, “Okay fellas, what’s it gonna be this time?”

Goff and Roberts, working from an original screen story by Virginia Kellogg and borrowing mobster lore from the careers of Ma Barker and her brood, fashioned Cody Jarrett, easily the most brutal gang leader in Cagney’s repertoire since Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” (1931). And Cagney, thinking that the entire enterprise was nothing but a pumped up “B” movie, added some touches of his own to the character. The result is the most stunning performance of Cagney’s career and a screen villain that still has the power to make jaws drop open over 50 years later.

Note: There are spoilers galore from this point on.

The opening sequence gives us the Jarrett gang holding up a train. Cody is not a big city gangster, but an outlaw of the open road. Criminal gangs had moved to the Heartland during the Depression. Think John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. During the robbery, a member of the gang slips up and calls Cody by name, necessitating the cold blooded murder of the engineer and fireman. No time is wasted in letting us know that Jarrett is no decent guy forced into a life of crime, a la Eddie Bartlett in “The Roaring Twenties.” Jarrett has “thug” written all over him.

Cody travels with his “Ma” (Margaret Wycherly) and his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). Big Ed (Steve Cochran) is the most vocal member of the gang and the only one Ma and Cody suspect wants to take over—and that includes taking over with Verna.

To avoid going to prison on the train robbery and murder raps, Cody confesses to a hotel robbery in another state that occurred at the same time as the train caper went down. The authorities know he’s guilty of the more serious offenses, but they can’t prove anything.

Hoping that Jarrett will let some self-incriminating word slip, they plant an undercover agent named Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in his cell. Fallon insinuates himself into Cody’s good graces, and when Jarrett breaks out he takes the spy with him.

On the outside, Big Ed has killed Ma Jarrett and taken up with Verna. Cody returns to settle the score and during the climactic robbery of an oil refinery Fallon is recognized by a hood he once arrested. In a fruitless bid to escape, Cody climbs a gasoline storage tank. As flames shoot up around him, Cody, wounded and hopelessly insane, shouts the Jarrett family motto to the ghost of his mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”

I know. Just looking at the plot synopsis it’s hard to see just how different the character of Cody Jarrett is from Cagney’s earlier mobsters. He’s more savage, and we get the feeling that even if he were not involved in crime, he’d still be a sadistic brute.

The surprises on screen come from a post-war atmosphere of despair—“White Heat” isn’t purely film noir but it’s frequently cited with films noir—from Cagney’s disgust at being given what he saw as the same old same old, and from director Raoul Walsh’s willingness to go along with his star’s crazy ideas for character development.

Cagney decided that if Jarrett was supposed to be crazy, by God, let’s make him crazy. He snarls, he growls, he pounds his forehead with his palms as he drops down with debilitating headaches. (To gain Ma’s attention when he was young, he pretended to have skull-splitting migraines, and as an adult the fantasy has become real.)

One of the film’s four unforgettable moments comes with the first headache. Out of reach of the law in a mountain hideout, Cody’s head begins to throb. He goes into the bedroom so the rest of the gang won’t see him in his weakened condition (Ma’s suggestion). As the pain recedes, Jarrett sits on Ma’s lap as she rests in a rocking chair. It’s momentarily difficult for the audience to accept what it’s seeing. A 50-year old man, beginning to grow stout, sitting on his mother’s lap with his arm around her shoulders. What’s the reaction? Do you wince at the infantile pitifulness of the character or celebrate at the audacity of the actor?

Cagney later wrote that he didn’t tell Margaret Wycherly what he intended to do. Cinematographer Sid Hickox knew, as did Walsh, who approved. I don’t know what audiences in 1949 thought they were seeing, but I think it was a definite step on the road to Norman Bates.

Another of the great moments comes in the prison mess hall when Cody first learns that Ma Jarrett is dead. Again, Cagney didn’t tell anyone but Walsh what he intended to do. He just asked that the biggest extras be dressed as prison guards and situated at the end of the dining table. Then, on having the bad news whispered in his ear, Cody emits an agonized, feral wail. He grabs the shirts of the men near him. He crawls up on the table and rushes toward the guards, kicking plates and bowels onto the floor. He leaps onto the guards and begins thrashing around like a starving coyote in a hen house. They carry him out of the room as he howls, “I gotta get outa here!” over and over again.

Sometimes when I watch this scene, I laugh. Sometimes I’m scared shitless.

My favorite Cagney moment comes after the prison break when the gang is leaving its hideout. A prison rat who tried to kill Cody at Big Ed’s behest has been brought along in the trunk of Jarrett’s car. The script called for Cody to shoot the man through the trunk lid, but that wasn’t macabre enough for the star.On the day the scene was shot, Cagney had seen one of the crew members gnoshing some fried chicken for lunch. Cagney asked the man if he had a drumstick and, if so, could he have it. The fella was willing to oblige one of the nicest and most decent actors in the business, so Cagney got his drumstick. He saved it for the cameras and is seen nonchalantly gnawing away on the meat as he blasts a man’s life away.

The final scene, with Jarrett atop the gasoline storage tank, is the film’s most celebrated. It’s the culmination of the lead character’s rampaging insanity. There’s hardly anything human left in Cody Jarrett as he laughs hysterically and rushes doom so he can be with Ma once again.But behind Cagney’s last bravura moment in the picture is Walsh’s genius in setting the scene on top of the tank—one that is round, like a globe. A murderous madman stands “on top of the world” as it is engulfed in an inferno of apocalyptic proportions. The atomic bomb imagery couldn’t have been lost on the post-war audience.

Do I sound like a fan of “White Heat”? Uh, yeah. It’s my favorite film and I never tire of it. Cagney’s performance provides the greatest delight for me. I know I haven’t mentioned those of any of the rest of the cast, and I don’t mean to disparage them, but if they are solid and believable, that of the star is astonishing. If you want to see a brilliant example of what can happen when script, direction and acting merge perfectly, this is it, Ma. Top of the world!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

“Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl”

Everybody’s a critic. No, I’m not complaining--just stating what seems to me to be an obvious fact. Everybody has an opinion and most of us have friends or family to whom we can express it. Having an opinion makes you a critic. Telling others what it is makes you--well, I guess that depends on how vociferously you do the telling.

Having said all that, I know you’ve, at some time or other, suffered the frustration of hearing someone tell you that he or she has never seen/read/heard the thing you’re recommending, but “I know I wouldn’t like it.”

Grrr . . . I hate that.

But I have heard it many times because one of my passions when it comes to watching films is silent movies.

Watch out now. Some of you were tempted to click that Favorites icon and move along just on seeing the words “silent movies.” I know the acting style is very different to the naturalistic one developed for sound films--emotions and thoughts that couldn’t be expressed through words had to be made clear through gestures and facial expressions, and when it wasn’t done with a degree of subtly that stuff can be hard to take.

But if you never experience at least the best the silent screen has to offer, you’re going to miss films and performances that would touch you dearly. Trust me on this. You really are.

Some silent film buffs recommend that newcomers to the art begin with the great comedians. That’s not a bad entry point for people who know they want to give the silents a try.

But if you’re still a little hesitant about it all, dip your toe in the water by watching some short documentary films about the star performers of the early cinema. You’ll not only see what they looked like, but you’ll get a notion of what their styles were like and the kind of movies they made. You know, if you get the giggles when you watch a modern heavy-panting, romantic melodrama, you don’t want to start with Rudolf Valentino.

Someone asked me not long ago if I’d seen “Bridget Jones’s Diary” ( I saw the sequel and reached my limit on the spot) and I was reminded of one the silents’ biggest stars. In fact, for much of the later 1920s, she was the most popular star of them all.

Her name was Clara Bow, and she was never less than adorable. She made 58 films between her debut at age 17 in 1922 and her retirement from the screen in 1933. Ten of those films were talkies, and Bow’s voice was just fine despite the “mike fright” which led her to a nervous breakdown in 1931. She even sang.

But Bow will forever be linked to one movie, 1927’s “It.” No, it’s not a horror story. “It” is often defined as sex appeal, but that’s only part of what “It” is. There’s a casualness about that sex appeal, as if it’s not anything to be concerned with. Bow’s character doesn’t vamp by design--she’s too real for that Theda Bara foolishness.

I think “It” can best be thought of as are some Asian philosophies--if you don’t recognize it when you see it, there’s no way anyone can explain it to you.

But whatever “It” is, Bow had it.

Her life was never a pleasant one, from the agonizing poverty and abuse of her childhood in Brooklyn through her years of stardom to the eventual fear that she might end up like her mother and grandmother, who both spent years in the same mental asylum. “This is a funny game,” she once said about Hollywood. “Here and today and gone tomorrow. Let’s have a drink.”

Spend an hour with Clara Bow by watching the documentary “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl.” I think you’ll find both the film and its subject fascinating.

If not, please keep your opinion to yourself.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Ab-normal Beauty" (2004)

“Ab-normal Beauty” (Sei mong se jun), written by Oxide Pang and his twin brother Pak Sing Pang, and directed by Oxide alone, explores ground already investigated by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and, almost concurrently with “Ab-normal Beauty,” Takashi Shimizu (whose “Marebito” was released a few weeks before Pang’s film). “Rear Window” and “Peeping Tom” both present metaphors for our fascination with seeing on film things too awful to see in person. The camera, like a murder weapon, is neutral until a use is found for it.

Jiney is an art student living with her mother. Her best friend—and we come to suspect more than best friend—is Jas. They are both photographers and the roam about the city of Hong Kong snapping pix of whatever catches their attention. A young man named Anson (Anson Leung) has a crush on Jin. She rebuffs him gently; Jas tells him to bugger off.

Jin’s mother leaves town on a business trip, planning to be gone about a month, and left alone at home Jin allows her boredom with life to show. One day she happens upon a fatal car crash. The appearance of corpses on the street overwhelms her and she begins to take pictures furiously. Jas helps her develop them and is repulsed by the images of blood and injury. “Death,” Jin says, “is the ideal photo—scary and exciting.”

She starts to unravle. She makes a skin-tight mask—when worn, it is death’s face. She begins to see blood where these isn’t any blood. Visiting an outdoor market, Jin pays a butcher to kill chicken after chicken so she can photograph them as they die. Her darkroom becomes cluttered with shots of dead birds, dogs and fish. Her excuse to Jas is that she just wants to add a new element to her work.

She buys a collection of death photos gathered together in a book. She thinks the pictures are beautiful. “Pressing the shutter is like death in that it stops the subject.” Her greatest thrill comes from seeing a potential suicide atop a tall building. When the girl jumps, Jin follows her descent, snapping pictures all the way to the sidewalk.

Why, suddenly, has this passion for death seeped to the surface of Jin’s psyche? She tells Jas about the time when, as a young girl, she was molested by three boys and her own mother’s failure to believe her story. But is that enough to make the change we see in her believable? Is it just the sight of bloody death by traffic accident that sets this terrible change in motion?

When we hear, and see in flashback, the story of her youthful rape, we expect the film will move along with that new plot element to explain what is happening with this lovely and talented young woman, but suddenly the picture takes a sharp turn into more standard thriller country.

Jin finds on her doorstep a video tape. “Take a look” is scratched on the box, and when she does she sees a moment right out of “feardotcom”—a young woman is chained to a chair, begging for release, when a masked man (we assume) beats her to death with a length of lead pipe.

We’ve been jolted as severly as Jin has. What has this movie become? Are we to think, as the girls do, that Anson is responsible for some kind of sick joke? Is Jas secretly a sadistic killer? Is Jin, or is the masked man on the tape a reflection of her own madness? Jin has already expressed the fear that she might lose control and really kill someone for the sake of taking pictures of the body. The sudden shift in plot emphasis is jolting, but perhaps the Pangs are telling us that it takes a change from art to reality to shake us out of our routine existence.

The Pang Brothers insinuate themselves into the film by casting sisters in the roles of best friends/possible lesbian lovers. Race Wong, as Jiney, and Rosanne Wong, as Jas, are the two halves of the Cantopop music duo “2R.” As their characters become involved in reproducing life in photography and painting instead of living it, so have the Pangs made a similar choice.

Strictly on the level of thriller, the film has nice moments during the first story line as we watch Jin’s descent to madness and wonder what will happen to her, and others during the last third or so as the gore level increases considerably and the intellectual pondering of the first part give way to a more visceral reaction.

And the Wong sisters are superb as Jin and Jas. Apparently, Jin (the younger of the two) is having a more successful film career, although they have made films as co-stars. One made a year before “Ab-normal Beauty” is a parody of the international hit cop thriller “Infernal Affairs,” recently remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed.” The Hong Kong comedy is entitled, sublimely, “Love is a Many Stupid Thing.”

But here in “Ab-normal Beauty” the sisters are terrific. They are both quite lovely, but neither of them relies on looks to win our affection. More often than not, they appear just like students, attractive but not made-up or dressed to kill. They sell the friendship and, on another level of unease, the more-than-friendship convincingly. Jas is not just the disposable friend of the protagonist about whom we really don’t care too much. She works her way into our affection as completely as does the character with the interesting problem.

So many American horror films are concerned almost exclusively with dying and dying badly. “Ab-normal Beauty” is about preferring a bad death to an even worse life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Putting Pants on Philip" (1927)

The first dialogue card in “Putting Pants on Philip” (1927) informs us that we are about to see “The story of a Scotch lad who came to America to hunt for a Columbian half-dollar -- his grandfather lost it in 1893,” but that’s not what the film is really about.

Yes, Stan Laurel is Philip, fresh off the ship from Scotland, but the printed narration is a diversion. The real joke is Philip’s kilt. You’ll be relieved to know that he does sport underwear beneath. We know because at one point, he loses them.

This two-reel farce has frequently been billed as the first Laurel and Hardy picture, but that’s misleading, too. They’d appeared in over a dozen shorts together by the time this one was shot. If anything, PPOP is the first time they were beginning to develop the characters we know as The Boys. We see the famous nitwit duo here only in flashes. There are times when we can actually see them thinking.

Stanley is much more aggressive in the film, and Ollie is more dapper and capable of living in the real world. But is this the real world? The street scenes, of which there are plenty, look like a mid-sized, middle class area of Los Angeles or one of its near neighbors, but if Philip has just arrived by ocean liner from Scotland, he wouldn’t be docking on the west coast.

Of course, no subliminal message was intended by the filmmakers--it’s just the usual marriage of convenience and economics—but it presages the moments of mini-surrealism for which Laurel’s gags would become famous.

We open on the Hon. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Hardy), who is waiting on the docks to meet his sister’s son, Philip, arriving from Scotland. We see that sis has sent a letter by way of introduction and she warns her brother (hereafter called Hardy because if I have to type Mumblethunder too many times I may just forget the whole thing) that Philip (Laurel) has but one weakness—women.

Philip disembarks with another Scotsman, and the ship's doctor (an uncredited Sam Lufkin) insists on giving him a quick physical. As the doc probes and gropes him and tries to search his hair for lice or worms, the crowd on the pier begins giggling. This crowd includes Hardy who, despite the fact that he knows he’s meeting a Scot and Laurel is wearing a kilt, pities the poor sucker who's stuck with meeting his nitwit. Ollie's slow realization who the sucker is, is vintage Oliver Hardy.

Other than the kilt, there is no joke in their appearance. Hardy is in a natty sports coat and boater. Laurel is wearing a tam, but both of them have clothes that are clean and well-fitted, unlike the tight suits that Hardy will later adopt.

Pulling his nephew away from the chortling crowd, Hardy asks Laurel what he wants to do, when SHE (Dorothy Coburn, uncredited) walks by—and She is a leggy flapper with bobbed hair and a pert attitude. Laurel, instantly smitten, delivers the first of many scissor-jumps and Hardy has to grab him to keep him from pursuing her.

Walking down the street, Hardy insists that Laurel stays several steps behind him as he is an influential citizen and he doesn't want anyone to see him strolling along with a man in what looks like a dress. Every time Laurel catches up to him, he links arms with his uncle and the following crowd erupts in laughter. When Hardy asks a cop for help in keeping the crowd from ridiculing them, the cop laughs, too.

Then She passes by again, up jumps Laurel, and the chase is on. This time it ends with a slightly larger crowd gathered in the middle of the street. Hardy drags Philip away again, and as Laurel walks over an air vent in the sidewalk, his kilt flies up (a la Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch”). This happens a couple of times before Hardy moves him away from the vent. Laurel then decides to take a sniff of snuff and when he sneezes, his drawers, unnoticed by anyone, fall down.

Cut to the crowd. We can't see what happens to Laurel and his kilt, but several women pass out or move away in horror. Note that this action takes place in front of what I assume is a pub called "The Pink Pup." The boys could be risqué when it suited them. And it suited them more often than you may remember.

A passing stranger retrieves Laurel’s underwear—how times have changed—She returns, another scissor jump, more pursuit.

Hardy has had enough and he takes Laurel to a tailor to get him fitted for trousers. There is some foolery with measuring the inseam, with Laurel's reactions becoming more exaggerated each time. As the tailor (Harvey Clark, uncredited) becomes more and more frustrated, Hardy offers to help. Eventually, all three of them wind up rolling around on the floor.

Getting serious, Hardy removes his coat and follows Laurel through some curtains hanging in a doorway. He chases Laurel back and forth, the doorway being used as a frame for their action. Finally, Hardy emerges disheveled. His vest is pulled up and he has to straighten it. Then Laurel emerges, also mussed up. His tie is loosened. Here Laurel indulges in some superb silent face acting.

You can see his despair as his uncle has "undone" him. He has been seduced and betrayed. Laurel sits on a chair screen left, and Hardy stands beside him on his left. Their attitudes and expressions superbly parody melodrama of the she-is-more-to-be-pitied-than-censored variety.

The tailor brings them the pants, and Laurel goes into a dressing room to put them on. He sees HER legs pass by (he can see out a basement window at eye level), and he goes after her, still in kilt.

Once more, uncle, nephew and She end up together on the sidewalk. She has tried to slip unnoticed past the two men. She does get by them and when Laurel attempts pursuit once more, Hardy grabs him and, in an attempt to sooth his nephew's passion, asks him if he wants to meet the girl. Yes. Hardy strolls over to her as only he can stroll, and in that overly polite manner with which we will become familiar, is chatting her up when she thumps his nose and walks away.

She marches to the place where the sidewalk meets the street at an intersection. There is a large puddle in the street. Laurel rushes over to her, takes off his kilt and spreads it over the puddle. "An old Scottish custom," he tells her. She makes a quick leap over the kilt and puddle and we cut to her on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She performs a scissor-jump, and walks away laughing.

Hardy comes up to Laurel, chortling. When Laurel bends to pick up his kilt, Hardy stops him with one of his grandiose gestures and indicates that he will go first. "An old American custom," he says. When he steps on the kilt, we see that it covered a waist-deep pit and Hardy goes completely under before re-emerging, soaked to the skin top to bottom. As he stands in the pit, chastened, a crowd comes running over, this time to laugh at him.

He has become what he least wanted to become.

The film’s pace is brisk and the jokes run the gamut from the expected to the oddball. Clyde Bruckman directs with a sure hand. Now remembered only by aficionados of early comedy, Bruckman was once at the forefront of screen farce. He worked again with Laurel and Hardy on “Battle of the Century,” and with W.C. Fields on “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” He’s the credited co-director with Buster Keaton of “The General,” and he made three talkies with Harold Lloyd.

The end was not kind. In 1955, after eating a meal in a restaurant that he could not pay for, he shot himself with a gun he’d borrowed from Keaton.

This film’s supervising director was Leo McCarey, who would win two directing Oscars. It was photographed by George Stevens, who would also go on to claim two Oscars for directing, and the intertitles were written by H.M. (Harley M. “Beany”) Walker, who wrote stories, titles and dialogue for 309 pictures.

Film historian William K. Everson once listed what each of the great movie clowns was best at, and he wrote that what The Boys did best was deliver more laughs per reel than anyone else. No sentimentalizing, no intellectualizing—just funny.

This is where it started, folks. This one’ll kilt ya.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"Tarzan of the Apes" (1918)

I was right there for the big Edgar Rice Burroughs boom of the early 1960s. When I was 13 years old, no one could have convinced me that ERB wasn’t America’s greatest writer. And when the movies were in their adolescence, Burroughs first came to the screen in “Tarzan of the Apes,” directed by Scott Sidney, who directed 69 films before his death in 1928. No, you’ve never heard of any of the others.

The fact that you have heard of #33 on the list owes everything to its source novel and little to Sidney’s skill. If ever a director made a negligible contribution to a finished product, this is that director and this is that product. The film’s only memorable visuals are several shots in silhouette, presenting the central images as it they were interior illustrations from one of the pulp fiction magazines in which the Tarzan stories were first published. Other than that, the pictures are mostly dull, static medium shots, the acting is bombastic, and the plot has been stripped of any psychological interest it might have contained.

John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (True Boardman) sails to Africa to put a stop to the Arab slave trade there. Accompanying him is his wife Alice (Kathleen Kirkham). A mutiny occurs on their ship and the two passengers are set ashore on a jungle coast. One of the sailors, Binns (George B. French) argues with the mutineers for their safety, but he is ignored and later returns to England.

Lord and Lady Greystoke build a small cabin but they soon succumb to the rigors of their castaway status. Alice dies in childbirth and John soon follows her. In death, not childbirth.

In a cross story, Kala, the great ape, loses her child. She hears the young Greystoke heir crying for food. Curious, Kala enters the hut and, seeing the helpless human baby, exchanges the corpse of her own infant for the human. Named Tarzan by his adopted family of apes, the boy has no idea that he is any different from his primate clan until as a boy he sees his reflection in a pool of water.

Here it’s time to pause and point something out to the movie trivia buffs. Elmo Lincoln, who plays the adult Tarzan in this picture, is not the first actor to essay the role. The boy actor who portrays the young ape man is Gordon Griffith and he is actually the first screen Tarzan. He’s also more energetic and convincing than Lincoln. Keep his name in mind and you can win some bar bets with it.

So Tarzan finds the ruined hut of his parents, with its picture books and, more importantly, a knife. He discovers the use this tool has and suddenly he is as dangerous as any of his primate fellows.

Back in England, the guilt-heavy Binns convinces a group of Greystoke’s relatives and a party of scientists to travel to Africa on a rescue mission. Remarkably enough, they land on the coast just where John and Alice had been abandoned and find the cabin. One of the group, Greystoke’s nephew (Colin Kenny) proposes to the young woman Jane Porter (Enid Markey), but she rejects his affections. In a rage, he makes to attack her. The adult Tarzan reaches through the cabin’s window, grabs the young man, and shakes him.

As if the tale up to this point hasn’t been melodramatic enough, the movie explodes from here like a bombshell packed with implausibilities. They are all pure Burroughs, but reading them doesn’t create the same urge to head-scratch and grin stupidly as the seeing them enacted by third-rate thespians. Binns is captured by Arab slave traders, and escapes, and teaches Tarzan the basics of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. Jane is captured by the local native tribe, the leader of which smiles like Gene Simmons and has to be taught his place by the White Lord of the Jungle. Jane is rescued but then is just as terrified by the hulking Tarzan as she has been by everything else that crawls, growls, flies, swims, bites, or has rape on its mind.

She will come to appreciate Tarzan’s manly and noble qualities, of course. “His great love’s courage shielded her from all harm,” a title card reads. Yeah, that and his knife. Lincoln actually killed a lion when it got a little too rambunctious during one of the wrestling scenes. The producers had it stuffed and it made the publicity tour.

All this jungle jive comes from Burroughs’ novel, there’s no denying that. ERB’s imagination always operated at the most elementary level. Hell, the man died in 1950 while reading a comic book in bed. But one approaches a Burroughs book—at least, one does the second time—with an expectation of the wildest kind of escape-and-capture pop fiction. The author’s magic lay in the fact that he could make the most absurd fantasy seem possible for the length of time it takes to read the book.

Movies can do the very same thing, but this “Tarzan of the Apes” doesn’t pull it off. Everything about it is pedestrian at best. If it had been made 20 years later, you’d swear it had been cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies. There is no cohesion.

You can overlook the guys from the New Orleans Athletic Club who donned grotesquely inadequate ape costumes to play the tribe of Kala, knowing that nothing else could have been done in 1918. But Lincoln doesn’t look right. Hell, he’s not even tanned. (Truly frightening is the report that Clark Gable was considered for the part for the 1932 version that eventually starred Johnny Weissmuller. Gable was deemed too unknown. Whew. Hollywood.)

“Tarzan of the Apes” should be seen by fans of the character and lovers of silent movies, but be warned that it is impossible to take it seriously. One always hopes that a silent film can be approached in the spirit of its times and enjoyed as more modern pictures are, but this one, unfortunately, will only generate condescending laughter. Too bad. That magnificent pop genius Edgar Rice Burroughs deserves a better adaptation. Thank goodness he later received it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932)

Ravening hordes of (gasp, choke) ORIENTALS are amassing in Asia with but one goal—to take over the world. Wait, make that two goals: take over the world and despoil white women while they do it.

Yes, it’s the pulp-infected world of Sax Rohmer brought to the screen for the 27th time by 1932, when “The Mask of Fu Manchu” was unleashed by MGM. Rohmer’s trashy but surprisingly readable novels and stories have provided the basis for over three dozen films, serials, and TV programs (Stephen King has him beat by over 50 titles, but King may not have the staying power.).

There are powerful stirrings in the East and British authorities fear that if a potent symbol of Oriental unity is discovered—say, oh, the legendary lost mask of Genghis Khan—unstoppable waves of the Yellow Peril will flow over the West and Civilization As We Know It will be submerged for generations to come.

Note right off the bat that the mask of Fu Manchu is really the mask of Genghis Khan, but we can’t let little things like that stand in the way of a good time.

Anyway, Scotland Yard worries that the mask could fall into the hands of the arch fiend, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Devil Doctor, Chinese genius, doctor of philosophy, medicine, theology, and just about every other damn thing you could be a doctor of, so top cop of the Empire, Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) is sent to find the mask first.

That last sentence was long enough so I didn’t add the parenthetical thought “before James Bond” to the idea of the top cop, but the relationship isn’t that far off base. Watch Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu try to outwit each other and then think about Bond and Dr. No. You’ll see what I mean.

Okay, so Nayland Smith sets out with a team from the British Museum to find the mask and bring it back to London while Fu Manchu and his “insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) want to use it to encourage their followers to take over the western world.

To this end, they lie, cheat, steal, murder, kidnap and torture (she’s especially fond of this as the pain of men brings her at least to the point of orgasm).

What happens will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever sniffed the pungent aroma of decaying pulp magazines, and whether or not you enjoy the journey to film’s conclusion will depend greatly on your appreciation of or tolerance for 1930s melodrama that is more camp than a field full of tents.

“The Mask of Fu Manchu” was one of nine pictures Boris Karloff made in 1932, and the evil genius was his first horror movie role after “Frankenstein” the previous year. He and Loy, 18 years his junior, are famously on record as saying that neither of them could take anything about the film seriously, and many’s the take that was ruined when one of the other of them got a fit a giggles over the script’s ludicrous dialogue.

As a general rule, that kind of insistent corpsing (theatrical slang for laughing on stage during serious moments) is amusing for about five minutes and then becomes a pain in the ass, but none of Karloff’s and Loy’s incredulous amusement wound up on the screen.

Which is not to say that you can’t see any of it. Both of them try so hard to sell their characters’ villainy it must be because they know that if they can’t make themselves believe in their own decadence, no one else will, either. They snarl, they leer, they open their eyes as wide as Cecil Holland’s slant-eyed makeup will let them. Karloff waves his opulent fingernails gracefully and Loy quivers with the expectation of torturing white men before turning them into sexual playthings.

The film is an acquired taste, but once acquired it becomes a cornucopia of period movie delights. Truly is it said that some pictures you come to love not in spite of their weaknesses, but because of them.

Most films that have aged this badly have disappeared. This one survives because it has Karloff in it. Loy is always a plus, and it’s a treat to see her in one of her pre-“Thin Man” exotic vamp roles, but most of the movies in which she played the wicked seductress have gone to that great celluloid recycling dump in the sky.

Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books have managed, just barely, to stay in print, but the interest of readers alone wouldn’t have kept a movie this dated alive and on television for over 70 years.
No, I suspect it’s Karloff’s presence combined with Cedric Gibbons’ simple but evocative art direction—and the repeated reproduction of curiosity-inducing stills from the film in early 1960s issues of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”—that have kept this one’s pulse thumping.
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” is still entertaining, even if, for most viewers, it’s entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, it remains today what it always was: a pretty lousy movie.

But if you still get a kick, or even a small thrill, from “Doctor. X,” “The Mystery of the Wax Museum,” or “The Vampire Bat,” and you can overlook the painful stereotypes and clichés that make up the Yellow Peril subgenre, Rohmer’s criminal genius may be able to cast his spell on you.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"Freaks" (1932)

“Freaks” is a movie that has to be seen more than once. It generates a kaleidoscope of reactions when seen for the first time, and it’s impossible to sort them all out. A single viewing will overwhelm you emotionally, but it takes repeated visits to this surreal masterpiece to determine an intellectual response.

It’s a movie that's rich with anecdotes. One has Irving Thalberg, the film’s uncredited producer, telling director Tod Browning that he wanted to make the horror movie to end all horror movies, and then saying, when he saw the finished product, “Well, I asked for it and I got it.”

One story has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was under contract as a writer at MGM when the picture was made, bolted from the studio commissary and threw-up when the unusual cast came in for lunch. Another version has it that Fitzgerald felt more at ease with the cast of “Freaks” than he did with the studio big shots and so sat with them and lunched at their table.

Some say that Tod Browning exploited the cast (only Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady, went on record later as saying she regretted her participation in the production) while others claim that Browning, a former circus and sideshow man himself, befriended the performers and set them up for life by turning them into international celebrities.

One thing is certain: no other Hollywood movie has ever generated legends like these.

As the story opens, we are moving slowly through a sideshow. The indoor talker, who bears a striking resemblance to Tod Browning, begins to tell his audience the back story of the show’s most unusual attraction. He and his audience gather around to top of a walled pit from the interior of which a light is shining up. Then we slip into the past . . .

A well-tailored dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles, who had worked with Browning in the silent version of “The Unholy Three”) is engaged to Frieda, another dwarf (Daisy Earles, Harry’s sister in real life). Despite his betrothal to Frieda, Hans is smitten by Cleopatra, the circus’ star aerialist (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra encourages the little man’s attentions because he is willing to loan her money and buy her presents.

Cleo’s casual cruelty is the talk of the circus. Everyone knows that she is playing Hans for a sucker except Hans, who continues to harbor the delusion that she likes him.

Unknown to Hans, Cleo is actually romantically involved with Hercules, the strong man (Henry Victor). We first see Hercules as he wrestles a bull, the animal’s horns representing both the phallus and the traditional crown of the cuckold.

Finally, Frieda confronts Cleopatra and begs the big woman to leave Hans alone. She lets slip that Hans has inherited a fortune and we can see on Cleo’s face that she decides to change her amused encouragement of the little man to a determined attempt to woo him. She soon maneuvers Hans into a proposal, which she accepts with a plan to poison him and steal his money.

The wedding feast provides the background for the film’s most celebrated and quoted scene. Cleopatra, Hercules, the freaks and the other normals with the circus who have befriended them are gathered around a large table under the big top. Cleo and Hercules think the event is one huge joke, knowing as they do what they intend for Hans.

But then another dwarf stands on the table and brings a loving cup to everyone gathered. They each take a sip while chanting the words that make Cleopatra a member of their community--“Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us.” When the loving cup is thrust toward Cleopatra she rises, the full horror of what they’re saying dawning on her. “You. Dirty. Slimy. Freaks!” she screams, stilling the crowd.

Obviously, the party is over and soon the only ones left at the table are Hercules, Cleopatra and Hans. The drunken strong man lifts Hans from his bench and puts him on Cleo’s shoulders telling the woman to give her new husband a horsey ride back to his wagon.

Hans soon falls ill, but the freaks have overheard the plotting of Hercules and Cleopatra. Off screen they tell Hans what his wife and her lover are up to and one dark stormy night the freaks take their revenge.

The film ends back at the indoor sideshow. A woman looks down into the pit and screams. Then Browning shows us the nature of the freak’s revenge. Cleopatra is now a freak herself, the Human Duck Woman. Legless and covered with feathers, she stands on her hands and emits quacking sounds.

Absurd? Oh yeah. Effective? You better believe it.

An overview of the plot, which is a standard morality/revenge tale, does nothing to prepare you for viewing the film. The cadre of freaks is made up of dwarfs, microcephalics (referred to in the movie as “pinheads”), Siamese twins, people who are armless and legless—and in one case, both—a bearded lady, an hermaphrodite, and persons the description of whom are beyond my vocabulary.

The characters play their reaction to the sideshow performers several ways. Some of the normals abuse them. Some are casually cruel and some are deliberately so. Other normals befriend the freaks. Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams are Phroso the clown (a name used by Lon Chaney in Browning’s silent “West of Zanzibar,” also with a circus background) and Venus, the bareback rider, who, while sometimes a bit patronizing, are intended to represent acceptance.

More problematic is Browning’s attitude as evidenced in the film. We first see the freaks, described as “children” although several of them are anything but, frolicking on a picnic. As they skip around in a circle they look all the world as if Browning wanted to parody the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Of course, Max Reinhardt’s film of that play wouldn’t be made for another three years, but the suggestion of Arcadian fantasy turned into a sick joke is inescapable.

In fact, any joke involving the freaks must come across as black humor. One of the Siamese twins, Daisy Hilton, is married to a clown (Roscoe Ates) and the second twin, Violet, becomes engaged. The two men ask each other to bring their wives over for a visit.

But sometimes the joke is used to suggest that there isn’t much difference between one world and another. We first meet the half-man/half-woman Joseph Josephine as s/he strolls between the wagons and Roscoe is changing out of the costume of a Roman lady. The male/female combination is emphasized.

And occasionally the humor is just as bizarre as the visuals. When Phroso comforts Venus, who has just broken up with her boyfriend, she tells him, “Say, you’re a pretty good kid.” “You’re darn right,” he responds. “You should have caught me before my operation.” Whatever that may mean.

There really isn’t much of horror in this horror movie, although there is a lot of unease beginning when the freaks figure out that Hercules and Cleopatra intend to murder Hans. Everywhere the big woman turns, there are two or three of her unusual enemies watching from the shadows.

Things turn more grotesque during the climactic storm when the wagons carrying Cleopatra and Hercules tip over in the mud. One of the little men throws a knife at the strong man, dropping him and allowing several more freaks to attack him. Cleopatra rushes off into the woods before she is brought down.

Originally, Browning intended a tree to fall on Cleo, thereby giving the freaks the opportunity they need to carve her up. Hercules was supposed to be seen in the epilog singing like a counter-tenor, having been emasculated. As the film now stands, Hercules is last seen being swarmed under. Only Cleopatra survives to become truly, “one of us.”

But perhaps as shocking and horrifying as the appearance of the freaks to audiences of 1932 is the film’s sexual innuendo. Cleopatra is blatantly sexual. When Hercules comes to her wagon, she offers to cook some eggs for him. She turns to him, puts her hands on her hips, thrusts her breasts toward him and asks, theoretically about the eggs, “How do you like them?”

Pre-code audiences were used to stuff like that, but they hadn’t been exposed, in mainstream films at least, to the necessity of public sex when Siamese twins cohabitate with their husbands. The idea of a dwarf and a “big woman” having a sexual relationship can still generate some ribald snickering, but there’s undeniably off-putting in the mental image as well.

Part of this problem springs from the tragic gut-feeling that the freaks are somehow less than human, a delusion that the movie tries so hard to correct. But the question is: can it? Can any film move audiences completely beyond the unwanted and unwarranted notion that there is something unnaturally wrong with people who look so different?

Browning’s camera jumps in and out, and tracks with the movement of the characters with a freedom he had rarely allowed himself previously. But during those last moments, when the freaks wreak their vengeance, the camera stands still, their faces lunging at us in close-up, and even the most sensitive ones among us are likely to push backward in our seats to put as much distance as possible between us and the grotesque image on the screen.

Monday, July 30, 2007

“The Boogie Man Will Get You” (1942)

There is one comic bit of surreal silliness in TBMWGY that endears it to my heart. Peter Lorre stars as Dr. Lorentz, who is town coroner, sheriff, mayor, justice of the peace, and just about everything else. He is the grandest of grand Pooh-Bahs. He wears a black frock coat and stiff hat with a short crown and wide, circular brim. And he never goes anywhere without putting a Siamese kitten in his inside coat pocket.

Fortunately, no explanation is ever offered for this nuttiness, nor is the kitten ever to put to any use—not even as a paperweight, as is the one in “You Can’t Take It With You.”

Boris Karloff is Lorre’s co-star. King Karloff plays Prof. Nathaniel Billings, a crazed but amiable scientist who works in a “B” movie lab in the cellar of a rapidly fading colonial inn. He uses traveling salesmen in his experiments, attempting to—it’s been a week since I last saw this movie and damned if I can remember what it is Prof. Billings is trying to do. Doesn’t matter. It’s just silly.

His money running short, Billings sells the inn to perky Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell), who wants to turn the place into a working hotel. She is followed by her ex-husband Bill Layden (Larry Parks) who wants to talk her out of the deal but then decides to stick around, Nancy Drew style, to uncover The Secret of the Old Inn.

Assisting the professor as house and groundskeepers are Amelia and Ebenezer (Maude Eburn and George McKay), she obsessed with the chickens she doesn’t have and he with being mysterious.

When Bill stumbles over what he takes to be a corpse in the basement, he calls the local police and Lorentz shows up. By the time the official gets to the inn, the body is missing.

From this point on, the action is farcical, nothing makes much sense and it doesn’t matter.

Karloff and Lorre seem to be having a good time spoofing the kinds of films they were better known for, although my teeth starting grinding every time Karloff had to stoop and pick up a corpse—he had severe back problems from “Frankenstein” on. Parks, who later became one of the actors most damaged by HUAC when he admitted to having belonged to a Communist cell from 1941 to 1945, is boyish and was undoubtedly held in adoring awe by junior high girls. Donnell, whose second film this was, continued as a “B” movie queen until she moved to TV in the mid-1950s. And “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom adds his trademark air of punchdrunk je ne sais quoi.

The movie was directed by Lew Landers, who followed Donnell’s career path and ended up directing over 150 “B” films and TV shows. He’d partnered with Karloff on “The Raven” in 1935. Landers (who worked under his birth name--Louis Friedlander—for his first 9 pictures, 1934-36) is one of the few guys in Hollywood who turned out so much product with so little inspiration. Only Bela Lugosi’s over-the-top raving and Karloff’s understated masochism in “The Raven” give that sole Landers’ effort a chance at immortality.

As for TBMWGY, well, this one is for old school horroristas on holiday and small children who want to see “a scary movie” that isn’t really scary at all.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"The Raven" (1935)

At the pinnacle of his insanity in “The Raven” Bela Lugosi, as the mad surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin, screams out, “Poe, you are avenged!” But who will avenge Poe for the misuse of his name in this monster mish-mash of mad scientist, torture chamber, haunted house, and ugly-faced butler clichés?

When the first pairing of Karloff and Lugosi in “The Black Cat” (1934) turned out to be a hit, Universal concocted a story “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal classic” “The Raven.” Unfortunately, the new script, credited onscreen to David Boehm alone, although there were seven other contributors, including Dore Schary and Guy Endore, was one of the most insipid from Universal’s golden age of horror.

Lugosi is Dr. Vollin, whose reputation as a brilliant surgeon proves to be more a curse than a blessing. When Jean (Irene Ware), the daughter of Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) crashes her car and her life is in the balance, the young woman’s doctors tell her father that Vollin is the only man who can save her life. Vollin has given up his practice to devote himself to research and at first refuses to help. Thatcher plays on his vanity and Vollin agrees to operate.

Within a matter of weeks, Jean is up and perfectly well again. Vollin misreads her gratitude as passion and determines to wed her. Thatcher, at first thinking like Vollin that Jean loves him, tries to dissuade the older physician from encouraging her attentions. When he realizes that it’s Vollin who is doing the chasing, he become horrified and warns the doctor to keep away.

The good-natured Jean, who is a ballerina, choreographs a dance called “The Spirit of Poe”—dressed in a costume that makes her look like a Margaret Brundage “Weird Tales” cover girl--to show her appreciation to Vollin, who is such a admirer of the writer’s that he has created life-sized replicas of the torture devices mentioned in Poe’s tales.

Discovering the extent of Vollin’s fanboyism is one of those hold-the-phone moments. This is a man who boasts about building and owning working torture devices and no one appears to find it in the least peculiar. Books, okay. Miniatures, okay. But a full-sized pit and pendulum set-up? “Death is my talisman,” he says. He first saw Jean lying still as death on the operating table, as good a stand-in for a morgue slab as the wealthy necrophile can find.

Paging Dr. Krafft-Ebing—call for Dr. Krafft-Ebing.

Now it’s time for Karloff to make his entrance into the story. He is Edmond Bateman, on the lam from the law after shooting his way out of prison and killing two policemen in the process. He’s also shoved a burning acetylene torch in some fella’s face, pretty much on a whim. Yes, he’s the one we end up feeling sorry for, which just goes to show what a fiend Vollin is.

Bateman is in some kind of dive or speakeasy. We can’t hear what’s being told to him, but we find out later that he is in search of a doctor who can alter his face enough to avoid recapture. He goes calling on Vollin.

Why? When a killer needs a crooked doctor, why does Vollin’s name enter the conversation? Vollin agrees to help Bateman when he gets the idea that if he makes the escaped con look ugly, he will be more apt to perform ugly acts. Vollin takes Bateman to his hidden operating room and reassures the con that a simple operation on the nerve endings of his face will alter his appearance, and it will take only ten minutes. The desperate Bateman agrees.

When the bandages are removed we see that the right side of Bateman’s face has been altered, but not for the better. Thanks to an uncredited Jack Pierce, Karloff’s face seems to have been melted. The actor completes the image by tipping his head slightly to the right, as if the neck muscles could no longer hold it upright. He hunches his shoulders forwards to create a stooped, hunched look.

Bateman first sees his new face in a series of mirrors that have been installed around the walls of the circular room. Each is behind a curtain, and the curtains are drawn one by one revealing a curved line of reflections. The moment is effective, but the question arises, why would Vollin have such a place in his house unless he’s made a hobby of distorting people’s faces and then forcing them to stare at repeated images of their new ugliness.

From this point on the film becomes more and more a reflection of Vollin’s mind, and as such it becomes less and less sane. The doctor lures Jean, her father, and her fiancé to the house for a weekend party—along with two other couples of such lesser importance it is difficult to fathom why they invited along unless they represent a plot development that was cut from the final film.

But now the house, with its secret doorways, hidden torture chamber, steel shutters, and traps in the floor, becomes huge. There is no end to the torture chamber, which goes on forever into the shadows.

Vollin straps Judge Thatcher—named as he is for a representative of solid American respectability and sanity in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”—onto a slab under the swinging pendulum, and he locks Jean and her fiancé (Lester Matthews) into a steel-walled chamber that will crush them to death.

Vollin and Bateman have the inevitable falling out over the girl’s fate and only those who deserve a horrible death receive one.

There are two attractions to “The Raven.” One is the pairing of its two stars, both of whom are credited at the film’s opening by their last names only. They are still working well together although Lugosi’s over the top hysterical mania is less convincing than Karloff’s soft-spoken, hesitant, almost reluctant murderousness and masochism.

The film’s second pleasure is its heedless rush to barking madness. Director Louis Friedlander’s (later billed as Lew Landers) lack of restraint stands out in a field that has since given us “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as the benchmark of cinematic no-holds-barred lunacy.

“The Raven” is a 12-year old boy’s interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe, all they-think-I’m-crazy-but-I’ll-show-them-how-sane-I-am-heh-heh-heh screeching and posturing. It’s not possible to take it seriously, nor is it in the least frightening at the visceral level. But it is fun and, taken with “The Black Cat,” it makes a nice showcase for its two leads.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Dodsworth" (1936)

Adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel by playwright Sidney Howard (“Gone With the Wind”) and directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben-Hur”),” Dodsworth” is one of the forgotten treasures of American film. Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton star as Sam Dodsworth and his wife Fran, two middle-aged Americans vacationing in Europe. Sam, a recently retired auto parts manufacturer, is the man he’s always been, but Fran is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and is terrified of growing old. As old world gigolos start following her around, her capacity for self-deception becomes boundless and Sam drifts into the orbit of Mrs. Cortwright (a luminous Mary Astor), an American ex-patriot living in Italy.

Chatterton’s performance is particularly gripping as Fran is foolish, vain, and delusional. The actress was 43 when she took on the role and her film career was almost finished, but she made of the self-destructive pseudo-sophisticate the kind of woman whose sad, lonely future is pitiable but her own fault just the same.

Astor, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Great Lie” in 1942, is probably best remembered for her role as the duplicitous, creepy Bridget O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon,” but if Bridget exists in a middle-earth between camp over-acting and a total contempt for the intelligence of Bogart’s Sam Spade, Edith Cortright is the nearly perfect woman for a man like Sam Dodsworth. She says she’s living in Italy because it’s less expensive than living in the states, and yet she appears to have enough money to cross the Atlantic in style whenever she wants to. There seems to be something sad in her background, and yet she’s getting over it. Cortright/Astor’s face in the film’s last shot is radiant and nearly as memorable as Chaplin’s at the conclusion of “City Lights.”

When you see enough of Walter Huston’s movies—“The Virginian,” “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—you’ll lament again over the way Hollywood takes its great character actors for granted. He won the National Board of Review’s Best Actor award for “Dodsworth,” copped the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and supplied a nifty in-joke, uncredited cameo to “The Maltese Falcon.” In this picture, he brings an underplayed seriousness and melancholy to Sam Dodsworth, matching Chatterton’s edgy tension with a quiet understanding that is heartbreaking.

When the 70-year old “Dodsworth” was showcased at the Telluride Film Festival in 2006, the festival program planners called it “a redemptive tale of American self-revulsion and the quest for eternal youth,” and said of it that it is “a high point of Wyler’s fruitful, 20-year-long partnership with producer Samuel Goldwyn. “Dodsworth” proves that sharp-witted, literate films never go out of style.”