Friday, April 20, 2007

"Psycho" (1960)

Note: This piece was written for Halloween, 2006.

Here’s the thing about what you’re about to read, assuming that you don’t hate pieces that begin “Here’s the thing about what you’re about to read” and go on to something else instead. This is where I tell you that something you know about PSYCHO is dead wrong. I’m writing it, but I don’t know if I believe it or not.

Well, hell, it’s Halloween and if you can’t make a complete fool of yourself at Halloween, when can you? Oh yeah, St. Patrick’s Day. Okay, if you can’t make a complete fool of yourself at Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, when can you?

Here’s the bit of revealed wisdom about PSYCHO, and I mean revealed repeatedly, in just about every critical essay ever written about the film: the least involving, most boring, most unnecessary scene in the entire movie is the penultimate one in which Simon Oakland, as psychiatrist Dr. Fred Richmond (you never knew the character had a name, did you?) tells the cops, Lila, and Sam that all is not well with Norman’s inner child.

Wait a minute—you have seen the film, haven’t you? If not, don’t read further, even if you can’t resist pieces in which the fourth paragraph admonishes you “don’t read further.” Beyond this point are spoilers. And I promise that I won’t use that gag again, the one in which I repeat at the end of the sentence what I wrote at the beginning, even if you tell me that you love it when I repeat at the end of the sentence what I wrote at the beginning.

Anyway, that scene in the movie is universally reviled as being unnecessary because it spells out in agonizing detail what the audience has already figured out, i.e., that Norman is a member-for-life of the Ed Gein Fan Club.

But I would like to suggest that in 1960, when the film was new and the world was still able to keep the mask of sanity in place, audiences may not have known as much about what ailed the kid as we do now, and that we know more about it today because Norman introduced us on a pop culture level to this type and degree of mental aberration. Putting oneself into the mind set of obviously historical characters is hard enough and yet still easier, in some ways, than recapturing the thinking of characters who were contemporary when the film was made but have retreated into history since. Norman looks, talks, and acts enough like us now that we see him as a 21st. century man, but he is far from that.

Okay, now we come to my particular hobby horse, the theory that appeals to me greatly while at the same time lacking in rational believability. For this it’s best that you watch the scene, but I’ll try to describe the relevant action.

Richmond enters the room in which his audience is gathered. He comes in from the left and crosses to a central position in the room. Over his right shoulder we see a picture on the wall and, above that, a light fixture. The fixture has two prongs for the light bulbs, reaching out to left and right from a sort of metal centerpiece.

Oakland doesn’t move around much because Richmond wants to remain in the center of our, and his listeners’ attention. He occasionally takes a step or two toward the camera to speak directly to Lila (Vera Miles) or to react to something Sam (John Gavin) says, but before he returns to his original spot in the room, he moves a little closer to the light, allowing us to see more of it. Then he will take a step toward us and resume talking.

His explanation of Norman’s peculiarities is loaded with psychobabble, but whenever he has a point to make that he thinks is particularly telling—“So he began to think and speak for her,” “After the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep,” “These were crimes of passion, not profit”—the lamp on the wall appears directly over his head, sometimes even forming glowing horns.

Here’s what I see: a cartoon in which someone is expounding an idea he thinks explains the ways of the world, with a light bulb coming on over his head to let us know how bright he thinks he is.

It’s as if Hitchcock, whose earliest job in films was providing illustrations to adorn the dialogue title cards in silent movies, is winking at us, letting us know that he thinks all this psychiatric gobble-de-gook is just whistling in the graveyard to hide our fear of the boogie man.

As Richmond snaps a cigarette out of a pack to light up and take a bow, Hitch cuts to the outside of the room and follows a policeman carrying down the hall a blanket for the chilled Norman. We cut to the inside of the room where Norman, as Mother, sits before a blank wall. As Richmond delivered his monologue in front of a wall with a couple of items on it—one of which served to ridicule everything he had to say—Mother delivers her monologue in front of a wall that is blank, as empty as a serial killer’s conscience, as spotless as a freshly cleaned bath tub.

There it is. Do I really believe Hitchcock intended the scene with the doctor to be read this way? I wish, but no. I think it’s there to explain to the unworldly what the hell has been going on. But do I think Hitch was aware of the cartoon cliché regarding the light bulb over the head? Sure I do. Maybe he set and blocked the scene the way he did because unconsciously he wanted to suggest that Dr. Richmond was just too content living in his jargon of earthly delights.

You can’t have too many ways of looking at a film as rich as PSYCHO. And it is Halloween. Trick or treat.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Spicy Mystery Stories, May 1936

“Spicy Mystery Stories” was one of the Culture Publications pulps, and you just can’t get more ironic than that. The Spicies sold for a quarter and in most cities they resided under the counter. The cover art gave the game away. Sex, violence, and death all in one nifty semi-surrealist H.J. Ward painting. Dali should have been working for the pulps.

This issue, reprinted by Adventure House, is from May, 1936, and provides a terrific introduction to the world of weird menace storytelling. “Weird menace” is a particular subgenre of the horror story in which, generally, a gothic atmosphere is established, usually in a paragraph or two, and some sort of incredible danger is introduced. This danger will more than likely come in the form of a human monster, a zombie, a ghost, a being returned from the past, or just an all-round, slavering, lecherous, humanoid BEM. The kicker is that, as in the gothic novels that came before them and Scooby-Doo who came after, weird menace villains always turn out to be some demented-murderous-greedy yahoo who wants the mansion-fortune-beautiful gal all for himself.

This issue contains nine tales, all of which are fun. Each seems placed where it is in order to top the previous one in whacko plotting.

The first is “Death’s Diary” by Arthur Wallace, and it’s about a mad scientist who has developed a means of transferring a soul from one body to another. In a similar vein, Clint Morgan’s “Blood of a Dog” features another less than sane man of science, this one creating a fluid made from the essence of beast. Inject it into a human and the result is . . . what? In “She Who Was Dead” (nice title) by Jerome Severs Perry a beautiful, mad girl rises from the dead—or does she? Jerome Severs Perry was a popular penname for Robert Leslie Bellem, about whom more later.

Now we get to Mort Lansing’s “Green Eyes” and the plotting takes a turn toward the seriously bizarre. In this one, a mad painter (to give us a break from mad scientists) kidnaps people to contort their bodies into tableaux of torture of pain. Prospective patrons of the bloody arts wander through his gallery looking at these living mannequins of death and when they see a pose they like, they pay the artist to paint it for them. Eli Roth, I have a story you might want to take a look at.

In “Death Shows the Way,” by Tay Philips, a man escapes from an asylum to return to the place of his wife’s death only to find her three-year old corpse waiting in bed for him.
With “Cord of Cowardice,” by Cary Moran, we return to the relative normalcy of a man dressed as a medieval Viking who puts his wife’s death mask on a young woman so he can consummate his nuptials. Seems his virgin bride died before he had the chance three years ago.

In the brief “The Crowded Coffin,” by Dennis Craig, lovers pass along a disease that makes hair grow five feet a night and drains males of strength until they die. It’s Samson in reverse.

Finally we come to Robert Leslie Bellem under his real name, creator of Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, and one of the bedrock writers of the Spicy line. In “Cavern of the Faceless,” a woman who has been scarred hideously in a beauty parlor accident (!) kills herself. Her husband then buys the place where her injury occurred despite the fact that four of the employees have disappeared. It appears that he is a mad revenger, but not only is this a weird menace story, but it’s a weird menace story by Robert Leslie Bellem. I can’t give too much away but trust me; wilder plots than this one, they just don’t write.

This issue concludes with John Bard’s “The Second Mummy,” a story about an American detective who is called by an old friend to Mexico to find a missing object d’art. This one has a nice punch in the ending.

Oh, and as for the “spicy” bits, here’s a typical passage from the Bellem story:

“With infinite tenderness, Kendrick Westfall pressed his mouth upon her parted lips. His hand stole upward along her side; his arm crept about her slim waist. As he drew her close, he could feel, through the thinness of her summery frock, that firm half-globe of sweet flesh, the ripple and play of her muscles—the tremor of her soft breast against him. His whole being ached with ecstasy at her response . . . “

We all know what those three dots at the end represent, and that’s about a titillating as it gets. The Spicies indulged in a little kinkiness, but it tended to be more underplayed than that appearing in such hard-cored weird menace titles as “Horror Stories” and “Terror Tales.”

I can’t dismiss this issue of “Spicy Mystery” by saying that the stories are silly. Of course they’re silly. Anyone over the age of 12 in 1936 knew they were silly. And the objection to that is . . . ?

"Tourist Trap" (1979)

I once heard on the radio a couple of guys chatting about classical music. One of them said that people frequently ask him to name his favorite composer, and he replies “Do you mean just real music or can I include Elgar?”

In the world of film-lovers this kind of thing is covered by the term “guilty pleasure,” by which is understood to mean those movies which have little if any recognizable artistic merit, but we love them anyway. Not just watch with pleasure—love.

Personally, I’m not big into the concept of guilty pleasure because I hate having to offer explanations or, even worse, make excuses for spending time at the bottom of the “B” movie barrel. That stuff is not all I watch, but I do find myself down there with more frequency as I age. I think that’s because a) my taste has widened—and I hope deepened, but I’m not making any bets, b) I like looking for the wee bits of gold among the dross, and c) many of these films can be connected to my childhood years, when I first discovered the joys of watching movies and everything was grist for the mill.

Which brings me, finally, to a throw-away horror picture from 1979—well past the years of my childhood, alas—called “Tourist Trap.” It began life as a 30-minute student film by director David Schmoeller (“Crawlspace,” 1986; “Puppet Master,” 1989) at the University of Texas. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was only five years old then and my guess is that many film students at UT hoped to strike another vein of Lone Star horror gold.

The feature version of the film stars Chuck Connors, an actor born to work in TV and “B” pictures, as Mr. Slausen, proprietor of a wax museum that has been bypassed by the new highway. His younger brother, Davy, was the sculptor, but Slausen tells us that he lives alone and that the large house behind the museum is now empty.

Who’s he talking to? A carload of young adults who have taken a wrong turn, had a flat, and are now looking for help. Woody (Keith McDermott), whose face opens the film, is seen rolling the flat down the road—you could be forgiven for thinking that Woody is returning to his car with the tire repaired as it appears to be all aired up—to Slausen’s combo museum/gas station/café.

But no one is there.Woody enters the café and, looking for help, enters the back room. The door slams shut behind him. It’s locked. He crosses to an open window only to have it slam down and lock. A mannequin crashes through the other window. What appears to be someone asleep on a cot turns out to be another mannequin, this one rising up to laugh at him. Things start flying around the room. This cacophony of action and noise ends when a piece of pipe hits Woody, inserting itself into his back. Suddenly, the only sound we hear is the blood running through the pipe and dripping onto the floor.

This occurs at the five-minute mark. Schmoeller and screenwriter J. Larry Carroll waste no time with set-up or exposition. They want to grab you by the hair, pull your head back, and put the blade to your throat before you’re comfortably in your seat. We have no idea who these kids are nor where they’re going, and we never come to care. We have the attachment to them we naturally have for attractive actors playing screen characters we know are victims, but as far as true empathy is concerned, forget it.

Soon Eileen (Robin Sherwood), the gal traveling with Woody, gets a ride with three friends in another car and they all end up at Slausen’s where they meet the man himself. He’s a big fella (Connors was 6’5”), he packs a shotgun and he’s a little on the eccentric side, but his speech and actions seem harmless. He invites them into the museum and promises to get his tools to help them when their Jeep stalls out.

Someone—either Slausen or an unknown person—appears to have telekinetic powers. The first clue that Davy may still be alive comes when Slausen tells his guests that his brother was a whiz with anything electrical and we assume that a clue to the “telekinesis” has been given to us.

Could all the mysterious movement by inanimate objects be due to electronic jiggery-pokery? Or will it all turn out to be part of a shared insanity?

Not that it hasn’t already, but from here the plot follows a well-trod path. Slausen’s wife was a beauty and the joy of his life, but she died young. He has a wax figure of her that, when touched, feels as if it were covered by skin. Someone crazy is running around killing off the kids. It’s a tall man, say around 6’5”. He wears a plaster mask. Slausen says that it’s Davy. It all finally turns into a monster mash of “Psycho,” “House of Wax,” and the aforementioned TCSM.

The movie shows its influences clearly, but it’s just as obvious that it has inspired others as well. Spotting elements that will later turn up in the “House of Wax” remake and “House of 1,000 Corpses” is fairly easy. Schmoeller carried his animated mannequins over into “Puppet Master.” According to Henri Bergson, mechanical movement is supposed to be funny. I guess he was never stalked by a killer doll. Freud came closer when he wrote that children want dolls to come to life but adults are terrified of the idea.

Personally, I find signs of life in inanimate objects to be pretty damn creepy, if not overdone to the point of Bergsonian chuckles. Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist dummy in “Dead of Night” and the clown doll in “Poltergeist” are scary; Chucky is a hoot. This film is full of, and perhaps too full of, mannequins with moving eyes and whispering mouths. This surreal element is far creepier than the physical imperilment with which the lunatic threatens his victims.

The cast wanders back and forth across the line that divides competent performance from overwrought hackery. Connors, despite his stated desire to become the Boris Karloff of the 1980s, seems frequently to want to drop character and say “Come on, how can anyone take stuff like this seriously?”

Among the potential victims, Jocelyn Jones, daughter of character actor Henry Jones (he was the nasty maintenance man in “The Bad Seed” in 1956) is the best of the group as the mousy good girl. Jon Van Ness is Jerry, the guy who isn’t Woody, and Tanya Roberts, just barely pre-“Charley’s Angels,” is relatively convincing as Becky. Or maybe it’s just the shorts and tank top. Whatever, it works.”

Tourist Trap” is the creepiest—not scariest, but creepy is good, too—movie to come from producer Charles Band’s slush pile. Schmoeller knows what he’s doing and if this had been his third or fourth picture instead of his first, it would be a solid “B” classic. He has a good eye for the details that make a moment, as you’ll see in the last shot. Take a good look at the face of the person driving the jeep.

When you’re in the mood for schlocky “B” horror, you could do worse.

Friday, April 13, 2007

"Bambi" (1942)

No, it doesn’t make me cry and yes, I would admit it if it did. “Dumbo” still gets to me and “Pinocchio” turns me into a quivering mass of reconstituted childhood trauma every damn time, but “Bambi” is just too obviously manipulative to work on a big, tough bruiser like me. Besides, venison is delicious.

Okay, we had to get the deer hunting joke out of the way, but honestly I don’t remember ever becoming misty-eyed over “Bambi.” How can that be? Disney used to re-release the animated films every seven years or so on the theory that that time span allowed a new generation of kids to crop up. “Bambi” was released originally in 1942, which means I could have seen it around 1956, when I was seven. Since the movie is a checklist of childhood horrors—random violence, separation from the mother, death of a parent, a distant and aloof father, being cooked and eaten—not being affected by it seems unlikely. Maybe it was just too frightening.

The picture opens with a moving multiplane shot that takes us into the forest, where all is lush, damp, and deeply verdant. You can feel this place in your bones. It’s nature stunningly realized until Friend Owl flies into the frame and suddenly we’re in the midst of a cartoon.

The animals of the forest—the nice ones, anyway (no bears or wolves; just cute bunnies and birds and moles)—gather to see the new young prince, the fawn that will turn out to be the title character. Special interest is taken in him by Thumper a young rabbit who was modeled, they say, after the child actor who supplied the voice, Peter Behn (no other credits). Behn’s over-done voice acting is one of the reasons the movie is considered by many to be too precious. It’s a cutesy performance that, to give the young fella credit, is exactly what Disney wanted, but every time Thumper opens his mouth you can sense the glee with which the certifiable cynics at Termite Terrace—the shack in which the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes were concocted—rubbed their hands together and dreamed of parody.

The script is by Larry Morey, who had already written the lyrics for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Morey’s observation of the behavior of children is very sharp as portrayed in Thumper. Always offering advice and making politically incorrect observations about Bambi’s clumsiness, Thumper is every slightly older know-it-all.

Bambi ages and the seasons change. There is no real narrative to the movie, again at Disney’s behest. We see a series of vignettes of life in the forest and on the meadow, places that are Paradise for the animals until the arrival of man, who brings his fall from grace with him.

As new spring grass pops up, Bambi and his mother venture out into the meadow. All seems well, but then Edward Plumb’s music darkens and the camera creeps closer to mother and son in what may be one of the earliest uses of the stalking camera technique later used so effectively by Bob Clarke in “Black Christmas” and then popularized by John Carpenter in “Halloween.” Shots ring out. Bambi runs back to the woods but his mother doesn’t make it. We don’t see her bloodied body, although that was originally included in the planning stages, but we know she is dead.

Then, with a sprightliness that seems almost callous, a perky little song springs up and all is joy again, as if grief passes in the blink of an eye. Certainly the death scene is powerful and for many viewers it’s the only one they remember, but it passes quickly and isn’t referenced again.

But now Bambi is a young adult and he meets again Faline, the doe he knew as a child but developed into a Cervidae Rita Hayworth. He battles for her with another lusty young buck and then the hunters come back, this time with dogs. Disney began working on the film in 1936 so it’s unlikely he had Nazi collaborators in mind, but if he did they would be hunting dogs. If Bambi lost his mother to a lone shooter, this hunt is like Custer sweeping through an Indian village. And then, when the dogs are evaded, a fire begins in the hunters’ camp.

But we’ve had all the death we’re going to get and the forest will emerge from the conflagration for an spell of rebirth.

As is usual with Disney animated features from this period, the actors are given no screen credit. Donnie Dunagan, who played Peter von Frankenstein in “Son of Frankenstein,” voices young Bambi. Ann Gillis, who was Becky Thatcher in 1938’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and whose last role would be as Poole’s mother in “2001,” is the mature Faline.

David D. Hand was the supervising director, each sequence being directed by a different animator, and the source novel was written by Hungarian Felix Salten, who would also contribute the books Disney later filmed as “Perri,” a live action movie about a squirrel, and “The Hound of Florence,” which would later emerge as “The Shaggy Dog.”

“Bambi” was and remains a miracle of 2-D animation. It was intended to be Disney’s second animated feature but its creators took such care with the details it was beaten into theaters by “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo,” and that perfectionism shows in every cell.

Its lack of a strong narrative structure hurts it, leaving sentimentality to do the work usually performed by story, but taken purely as a year in the life of the forest and its denizens it’s still hard to beat. See it as a child and when the memory of it ceases to haunt you, see it again.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"The Screaming Skull" (1958)

You can tell which schlockfest “B” horror movies manipulate the basic accoutrements of the genre best by the degree to which they scare the bejeezus out of small children, and one of the things that have great power to create a seat-wetting problem is the human skull. You don’t even have to give the ridges over the eyes that Harryhausen touch to make them look more sinister, but it can’t hurt.

I had just turned nine when I saw “The Screaming Skull” (1958) for the first time, and it scared the breath out of me. Almost 50 years later I can still remember being so frightened I couldn’t yell. Ah, those were great times . . . “Macabre” came along later that same year, with “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler” (both 1959) soon to follow. We adolescent horror hounds, readers of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” all, were convinced that William Castle was the greatest filmmaker of all time. Even “Psycho” (1960) couldn’t pull us away as it was a little too adult—but we still read everything by Robert Bloch we could get our sweaty little hands on.

I don’t know if journeyman actor Alex Nicol, who directed “The Screaming Skull” in an effort to expand his career possibilities, could have beaten Castle into our hearts had he continued to make shockers. (Can you imagine a grown man still considering such a question? Neither can I.)

I’ve re-visited TSS several times over the decades. It used to show up on late night TV with some regularity, until even the tube outgrew such hack work, and more than one DVD distributor carries it in the catalogue. No, the original fear is long gone—I wish I knew a nine-year old I could convince to watch it in a dark room just to check out the reaction—but the memory is intact.

In the film, a newly wed couple come to the house the groom lived in with his former wife, the haunting Marion, who died in a sudden thunderstorm when she slipped on a wet leaf and stumbled by the lily pond, cracking her head open on a stone wall and then drowning. I’d think that this plot construct was an accidental reference to Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm” except for the fact that composer Ernest Gold—yes, the same man who would win an Oscar for scoring “Exodus” in 1960—borrows the same brooding Sabbat theme from Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” Stanley Kubrick used in “The Shining” (1980).

Maybe this movie is smarter than it has any right to be. John Kneubuhl, who would later write the “Pigeons From Hell” episode of Boris Karloff’s TV program “Thriller,” wrote the script based on the legend of the screaming skull of Bettiscomb Manor, in England.

But setting references to classier stuff aside, Eric and Jenni Whitlock attempt to settle into the house. As he introduces her to the grounds, Jenni spots a small outbuilding and asks what it is.

“That’s where Mickey keeps his gardening things,” Eric replies.

“Who’s Mickey?"

“The gardener.”

Or maybe the movie isn’t any smarter than it has to be. But you know that feeling you sometimes get, the feeling that the filmmakers are playing around a little because they know the kids that make up their audience aren’t going to get it, anyway? TSS engenders that feeling often.

Soon, Marion’s great friends, Reverend and Mrs. Snow, drop by for dinner and via some pretty unsubtle dialogue we learn that a) Mickey is still devoted to Marion and thinks her ghost haunts the house and grounds, b) Jenni had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a sanitarium when her parents were killed in an automobile accident, c) she is wealthy, and d) John Hudson, as Eric, is either the most ham-handed actor of the 1950s or he has been directed to make it clear to even the most naïve members of the audience that he wants to gain control of his new wife’s fortune.

Later that night, Jenni awakens to discover that Eric is missing, a window is banging in the wind, and Marion’s self-portrait looks creepy in the moonlight. The next night, this scenario is replayed, only this time Jenni finds a skull in a cabinet. She tosses it out the window, but on her way back to bed she hears a knocking on the door and, yes, it turns out to be the skull.

It’s not much of a spoiler to admit that Eric is behind all the, uh, skullduggery, but whether or not there is a real ghost on his trail I will leave to you to discover for yourself. If you’ve ever read a pulp magazine weird menace story, or watched an episode of “Scooby-Doo,” you’ll have no trouble figuring out the late night mumbo-jumbo.

Hudson, who was Capt. Hobart in “G.I. Blues” (1960) and Virgil Earp in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957) was certainly a better actor than this script calls for, and I suspect he was playing the evil genius with deadpan irony. Peggy Webber, as Jenni, looks a bit too robust to make a convincing Mrs. de Winter clone. Like almost every other actor in the film, she found her greatest success on TV. Leading roles in movies were out of the question—bless her, she looks like Nicholas Cage in drag, but with heftier boobs.

Russ Conway, who had unremarkable roles in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) and “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (1967) gives Rev. Snow a quiet, patient demeanor even though he looks fit enough to beat the crap out of Eric. Tony Johnson, as his wife, has no other credits on IMDB.

Director Alex Nicol, who plays Mickey, will be better remembered from his small roles in movies, including “The Man from Laramie” (1955). He later went to Europe to take part in the spaghetti western boom, coming home for a turn as George Barker in Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama” in 1970.

In TSS he shows a nice camera eye for the clichés of the genre. His camera roams the empty halls of the house, creeping up on certain doors and importing to them a sense of dread that makes us both want to enter and run screaming away. I suspect that the movie would still work its dark magic on young kids, but many of them would be repelled by the questionable acting and black and white photography.

The film exists as a link between gothic chapbooks, dime novels, spooky radio shows, the pulp horror magazines and EC comics, and TV horror shows like “Thriller” and “The Twilight Zone.” Moments in it seem to have influenced Freddie Francis’ “The Skull” (1965), which, since it was based on a story by Robert Bloch, takes us back to where we started.

“The Screaming Skull” can’t possibly scare adults, and unless you saw it when you were young it won’t have any nostalgia appeal. But honestly, I’ve known several grown-ups who did see it back in the day, and they all remember it fondly as one of the scariest movies they’ve ever seen. Maybe we should let it go at that.

Monday, April 9, 2007

"The Locket" 1946

Laraine Day sheds her goody two-shoes image with her surprisingly effective performance as a kleptomaniac with murder as a sideline, and Robert Mitchum plays the argumentative and difficult painter who first falls in love with her. It’s a far better movie than its status as an unknown would indicate.

Day is Nancy, secretary to the wealthy Mr. Bonner (Ricardo Cortez). He encourages her to take drawing lessons and she meets Norman Clyde (Mitchum), a portrait painter down on his luck. They fall in love but Norman begins to doubt her character when he discovers that’s she glommed onto another woman’s diamond bracelet at a party.

Nancy speeds through Clyde, who suspects that she may have committed a murder in order to appropriate more jewels, and when they separate she meets psychiatrist Harry Blair (Brian Aherne). They stay together for the duration of WW II, but her old habit of carrying off the jewelry of other women leads to divorce.

These stories, as well as one Nancy tells about her childhood and the reason she’s become addicted to diamond theft, are presented by way of flashbacks. Willis tells one to Nancy’s latest conquest on the day of their wedding. Imbedded in his tale is Clyde’s story, and that one includes Nancy’s relating of her youthful adventure. In other words, it’s a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback.

Following the thread of the narratives is never difficult, but the feeling that somebody along the line must be lying just can’t be shaken off. It’s an odd narrative structure to say the least, but it works. The original script is by Sheridan Gibney and the picture is directed by one of the many minor league Hitchcocks that proliferated during the 1940s, John Brahm—but Brahm is one of the most notable ones. “The Locket” comes at the end of his most fertile period, having just completed “The Lodger” in 1944 and “Hangover Square” a year later.

Gibney, who contributed to the screenplays of films as varied as “The Story of Louis Pasteur” and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” comes up with some nice dialogue, the kind of sharp cynicism Mitchum was so good at selling, although in this film much of it is given to Day. I especially liked the moment when Clyde is pestering Nancy to send back the bracelet she stole. When she indicates that she’s willing, he says questioningly, “Your conscience is bothering you?” and she flashes back, “No, your conscience is bothering me.

”Seeing Mitchum play the good guy, a fella so tormented by his love for a psychotic woman that he can’t adjust to living without her, is a little odd. He was fine in the white hat but when we see him so completely the victim of someone else’s evil, it comes as a shock.

The biggest shock of all is Laraine Day. It’s not that what she does is so terribly different than her usual girl next door characterizations, it’s that she is so convincing when Nancy slides from cheerful lying to angry plotting. At times it is impossible to tell whether or not Nancy believes what she’s saying. As she walks down the aisle with her new husband to be, and her past life comes rushing to meet her, it seems that she must have been deceiving herself as completely as she had been the victimized men in her life.

The supporting cast, including Gene Raymond, Henry Stephenson, Reginald Denny and Lillian Fontaine, mother of Olivia DeHaviland and Joan Fontaine, is just fine.

Saying that “The Locket” plays out as if it could have been written by Robert Bloch is about the finest compliment one can pay to any film in the psycho-noir subgenre. You’ll have to be in the right place at the right time to see it, but if it’s running on TV at three o’clock some morning, it’s well worth setting the VCR to catch.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

"Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn" (1935)

“Murder in the Red Barn” was the perfect vehicle for Tod Slaughter’s introduction to movie-goers. It was one of the Victorian melodramas in which he had been barnstorming the provincial theaters for years, the play having been based on an actual 1828 murder case. Since he had been portraying the villainous Squire Corder so long on the stage, Slaughter had made the hypocritical landowner his own.

The film is introduced as if it were a play. A host walks on stage from the wings and offers to introduce the characters. Each is greeted with applause. Even Corder takes a bow under the proscenium to the approbation of the theater audience. This literal stage-setting, which will never be referred to again, only adds to the film’s time-machine feel. Just as the movie’s creaky plot and characterizations take us back to British neighborhood cinemas of 1935, the faux theatrical introduction would have removed audiences of 1935 back 70 years to the days of mid-Victorian melodrama.

At the village dance, Squire Corder appears to be the very soul of amiable generosity. Surely then as now audiences knew not to trust any man in a melodrama who seems to be that pleasant and courtly. He will certainly prove to be Up to No Good. Actually, you can see it in Slaughter’s body language. He stands stiff-backed, head erect, arms held oddly in front of his torso looking for all the world as if he were a praying mantis.

All goes well for Corder at the dance until he makes the mistake of allowing a gypsy woman—where would these pictures be without gypsy women—to read his palm, in which she sees death and the Squire hanging from the end of a rope. Talk about your mood killers . . .

Next we cut to a humble cottage and see the lovely village maiden Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart)—where would these pictures be without village maidens—telling her mother that she is off to choir practice. But—cue the organ—she is really sneaking off to Corder’s manor house because the cad has been promising her a life of luxury and respectability in London after he weds her, which he has absolutely no intention of doing after he gets what he wants from her. Have some Madeira, m’dear.

When Maria’s father (D.J. Williams) finds out that there was no choir practice that night, they gypsy lad Carlos (Eric Portman), who is smitten with our heroine, lies to Farmer Marten and says that he was with Maria. He’s trying to protect her but it isn’t made clear why spending night time hours with him is better than anything else she could have been doing.

Livid, Farmer Marten calls on the Squire and asks him to run the gypsies out of town.

This scene is a grand one for Slaughter as he gets to scale the heights of justified hypocrisy. He paces back and forth in his parlor, his steps stiff and forced as if he were counting “one, two, three, stop, turn, speak, pace back, one, two, three.” He dabs gently at his nose with his handkerchief, then paces to the bell cord, tugs on it manfully, and deliberately paces back. It’s stage movement of the most mechanical sort but it is oddly mesmerizing.

Slaughter is like the modern computer generated Scooby-Doo at the heart of the drama. He’s too large for the other actors. He stands out because he doesn’t seem to be quite real, and yet all the other characters in the movie accept his presence. His hand-wringing and eye-rolling, his way of underlining every laugh and condescending lip-curl are the most unsubtle ways of virtually commanding center stage. This is a Tod Slaughter film the way John Wayne’s later pictures belonged entirely to the Duke. He exists on his own plane, and the spotlight follows him wherever he goes.

Now we cut to a gaming room in London where Corder is experiencing a terrible run of bad luck at the dice table, losing toss after toss to a dandified Dennis Hoey (later Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes). So busted does Corder become, he determines to marry a wealthy, plain, psalm-singing old maid for her money. When the winner of his fortune gives him but one month to pay up, it becomes clear that poor Maria is old news.

Of course all sexual action has taken place off screen but we can tell by Maria’s shamed demeanor that she and the Squire have been involved with some slap and tickle, and soon it will become obvious to the entire village. Her father, declaring her a “wanton,” throws her out of his house. She hastens to the manor to claim what is her due by former promise, but Corder dismisses her distress with a delicious “I meant what I said at the time.”“

You shan’t kick me into the gutter,” she cries, thinking her despair will melt his cold heart. So certain is she that Corder will do the right thing, she drives away the love-struck Carlos, who offers to marry her.

The Squire tells Maria to meet him that night at the red barn and they will slip away to London. When they meet, a storm is raging. Where would these pictures be without raging storms? Maria senses that all is not well with Corder. Slaughter allows his shoulders to hunch as he hisses, “Didn’t I promise to make you a bride? You shall be a bride, Maria. A bride of death!”

She screams. He shoots her with a dueling pistol. He digs a hole in the barn and buries her as thunder and lightning crash and flash. Director Milton Rosmer even places his camera in the grave so we can watch Corder as he shovels dirt onto our faces.

From this point on the movie hastens to its close. Maria is missed by her grieving parents. Carlos is tracked down and accused of causing her disappearance. He remembers seeing her with the Squire on the last night anyone saw her. The town officials take Corder and Carlos to the barn where Corder’s dog Tiger begins to sniff around a patch of disturbed earth. Corder offers to dig around to prove that there is nothing amiss and he digs up the pistol he had inadvertently dropped in the grave.

When the corpse is exposed—not to us but to the characters on screen—Slaughter give us a nicely overwrought mad scene right out of Edgar Allan Poe. “Don’t stare at me like that, Maria,” he gibbers. He is finally led away, barking mad, by the authorities.

But he has one last horrible indignity awaiting him as he is led to the gallows. He doesn’t see it coming—if people in old-fashioned melodramas like this had an ounce of imagination or self-restraint, there wouldn’t be any old-fashioned melodramas like this—but you’ll spot it as soon as you hear that the hangman is too sick to attend to his duties and so a “volunteer hangman” has been procured for the day.

As it is with other of Slaughter’s lead roles, in the end there’s a grandeur in Squire Corder’s evil. He covers all the bases: snobbishness, vanity, lechery, violence, greed, hypocrisy—he’s the complete villains of Charles Dickens all rolled into one. Slaughter is sui generis, and you wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

"Red Riding Hood" (2003)

If ever a movie was easy to hate, this is it . . . and yet there’s something about it. Determining whether or not “Red Riding Hood” is successful on some level—any level—may require more time than most people would be willing to devote to the task, but that’s why film reviewers are allowed to exist.

The film opens all over the place. First we hear voice over from a talking head news reader. Then a man who is being interviewed on the steps of some official-looking building gets shot in the head at point blank range. Then a man who is a thief gets hit and killed by a van. Then the V.O. changes to that of a young girl.

At this point, it would be hard to blame any viewer for throwing the DVD box across the room while mumbling “What the hell . . ?” And it isn’t going to get any easier for awhile.

We meet 12-year old Jennifer McKenzie (Susan Satta), who lives by herself in a plushy flat in Rome. She has no use for her mother and she holds it against her dad (David McKinney) that he has left her on her own. She is very odd.

Before we go any deeper into this, I need to warn you that this is a movie about which writing is difficult without giving away some plot points. The fact that it falls neatly into the giallo genre pretty much reveals who the villain will turn out to be, especially given the paucity of suspects when the killing starts, but if you’re not familiar with the conventions of giallo, or if you couldn’t tell by looking at Clark Kent that he was really Superman with glasses on, you might want to skip reading the rest of this review.

Jenny seems happy enough living alone, although she does have abandonment issues. She has a hot twentysomething tutor named Tom (Robert Purvis) who drops by every so often to discuss “Don Quixote” with her, and she chats with her imaginary friend, George.

But trouble arises when her grandmother Rose (Kathleen Archebald), an actress from New York, flies to Rome to take her home to the states. This possibility makes Jenny very nervous. So nervous, in fact, that she and George follow a young woman they see shoplift a bottle of wine and George, at Jenny’s command, stabs the woman and cuts off one of her hands.

Later, Jenny will realize that her friendly dentist is swapping saliva with his hygienist. She and George will pay the couple a visit in their hotel room and dispatch the pair of them with a nail gun. By this time, we’re all getting the point. Transgress Jenny’s personal moral code and wham!, right in the eyeball.

Director Giacoma Cimini (using the pseudonym James K. Cimini) begins by playing cat and mouse with what he allows us to see of Jenny and George together. We know that Jenny has an interest in the Red Riding Hood story, but only as it is told from the wolf’s point of view. George is a tall fella wearing a black cape and hood, like hers, and a stylized wolf’s face mask. They both ride their bicycles to the scenes of their crimes.

Early in the film we may see both of them in the same shot, but never in the same frame. She rides across the screen from left to right, and when she exits the frame, he rides across. Later we see both of their hoods at the same time, and later still we see all four of their feet. Most viewers will assume that the child is a little psycho and will be watching to see when Cimini gives that fact away with his camera.

Genre conventions demand that Jenny will do something to keep Rose from carting her back to New York (she binds the older woman to the bed and invites George to drill her kneecaps), and she will have to tell us that she is falling in love with Tom so she can catch him on a date with a woman his own age and vengeance can be plotted.

As a giallo, “Red Riding Hood” has little to offer. The gore exists at about the level of a clever high school production and Cimini’s gift for creating and maintaining suspense is nil. There are touches of black humor from the screenplay by Ovidio G. Assonitis (using the name Oliver Hellman) and Andrew Benker. After all, how many films have you seen in which a grandmother has severe peanut allergies and her granddaughter attempts to kill her by spreading crunchy peanut butter on her face?

The acting is marginal at best. Young Satta appears to have been cast merely on the basis that her eyebrows are wolfishly thick and dark, and Archebald doesn’t do much to convince us that, hey, having your kneecaps drilled by your granddaughter’s imaginary friend kind of hurts.

So viewed merely as a genre film, the picture is mediocre at best. But at this point, the “ . . . and yet . . . “ kicks in.

The movie’s last reel knocks the props out from under everything that’s gone before. The identity of George isn’t difficult to figure out, but the nature of Jenny’s madness is. Jenny and Tom had discussed a central question in “Don Quixote”—is the old man mad from page one, or does he begin the book acting crazy as a rational life style choice, only to genuinely crack up later?

It’s a question that can be asked about Jenny as the movie wraps up. Did any of it really happen or have we spent 90 minutes in Dr. Caligari’s cabinet with an adolescent lunatic?

Whether or not the last five minutes of a movie can salvage the whole thing is a matter of individual choice. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. How’s that for critical guidance? The goofy ending of “Red Riding Hood” supplied a light that, for me, made the experience worth the candle. It might not work for you. In fact, if you’re in any doubt, watching the movie would probably be a waste of your time.

"The Penalty" (1920)

Lon Chaney’s breakout performance in “The Miracle Man” came in 1919, a year in which he made seven pictures, including his first one with Tod Browning, “The Wicked Darling.” He followed that up with six films in 1920, the first in which he was the top-billed star being “The Penalty.” The mutilated villain Blizzard would set the stage for a long line of deformed and defaced bad men to follow.

The movie opens with a traffic accident. A young is carried to his family’s tenement apartment and a rising young doctor named Ferris is called to attend him. Ferris is certain that the only way to save the boy’s life is to amputate both legs just above the knees. This he does quickly, with the best intentions, before an older and more experienced physician shows up to advise. The older man realizes that the amputations were unnecessary but tells Ferris that he will lie to support the younger man’s diagnosis. The now-legless boy overhears their conversation but when he tries to tell his parents that Ferris admitted to making a mistake, the older doctor says that due to the operation and a possible contusion, the boy merely imagines that he heard Ferris’ confession.

Twenty-seven years later.

The boy has grown into San Francisco’s master criminal, Blizzard. He moves around with the help of crutches, the stubs at the end of his legs covered by thick leather patches. Chaney strapped his legs up behind him, an excruciating contortion that allowed him to film just a few minutes at a time. He also wore an extra-long coat to cover his bent legs.

Law officials have been on Blizzard’s trail for years, but they’ve never been able to pin anything on him. They finally decide to send a female undercover agent named Rose (Ethel Gray Terry) to work for the criminal who, for some reason, has dozens of dance hall girls making straw hats. Rose, seated comfortably and smoking a cigarette in her superior’s office, agrees to accept the assignment.

We see Blizzard in his lair next to the hat-making shop. His current favorite girl is with him. He hops over to the piano to play. Having no legs, the young woman sits on the floor and manipulates the pedals with her hands. Director Wallace Worsley (“Ace of Hearts,” “A Blind Bargain,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” all with Chaney) gives us the perfect portrait of domestic sado-masochism.

Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) is now a successful and high-priced surgeon with a daughter named Barbara (Claire Adams) who is a sculptress. Barbara’s boy friend Wilmot (Kenneth Harlan) wants her to abandon her artistic leanings and marry him. She wants to create a bust of Satan and promises Wilmot that if she cannot pull it off, she will quit.

Blizzard sees an ad in the newspaper inviting men who look satanic to drop by Barbara’s studio. Blizzard, plotting revenge against Ferris through his daughter, shows up and gets the modeling gig.

The idea of avenging an old wrong by visiting some form of torture on the daughter of the offending party will reappear in Chaney’s 1928 collaboration with Tod Browning, “West of Zanzibar.” Perhaps a nation that had recently emerged from The Great War—all wars being a form of taking vengeance on the younger generation for the sins of the older—felt a particular affinity for this plot device. Certainly undamaged survivors of the war could see in Chaney’s multiple prosthetic deformities mirror images of soldiers butchered in Europe before returning home to lives of bitterness and loss.

To complicate Blizzard’s woman problem, Rose, pretending to be a girl of the streets, moves in with him and becomes his new pedal pusher. It doesn’t take her long to discover a hidden basement to Blizzard’s house, one that contains well-stocked operating and recovery rooms.

As Blizzard poses for Barbara he tries to ingratiate himself into her affections. His naturally sardonic appearance and Wilmot’s instinctive distrust of him don’t help, but he finally works himself up to proposing to the young beauty. She recoils in repugnance, rushing to Wilmot for support, and Blizzard leaves the studio more determined than ever to seek revenge.

While this main part of the plot is unfolding, we cut to the police officials who are still trying to figure out what Blizzard is up to with the hat-making. They await a message from Rose, not knowing that one of the gang chief’s henchmen has intercepted it and taken it to his boss.

In a rage, Blizzard informs an underling that he has assembled 10,000 foreign agitators who are prepared to commit a rash of terrorist acts at his command. They will each be wearing identical straw hats so they can recognize each other. They will rampage through the outer streets of the city, breaking and entering, assaulting citizens and shooting policemen. Then, when the authorities have sent every available officer to the suburbs to quell the rioting, the central city will be deserted and Blizzard can loot it.

It is one of the most implausible ideas in the entire history of sinister plots, kin to Goldfinger’s plan to contaminate the gold in Fort Knox, but even goofier. Obviously, this mainstream criminal part of the story isn’t what made the film a success.

No, it was the strength of Chaney’s acting combined with the even more extravagant revenge plot. Blizzard now phones Wilmot and tells him to hurry to a certain address—Blizzard’s lair—if he wants to save Barbara from an evil fate. He then summons Dr. Ferris, telling him that Barbara needs his help as a physician.

His plan is to have Ferris amputate Wilmot’s legs and graft them on to his own stumps.

With this revelation, we are finally in Lon Chaney country, that place where psychological horror, physical deformity, elaborate revenge plots, and black humor meet. Nothing like this had been seen in the fledgling motion picture business before, and never has it been presented so consistently by one auteur performer since.

At this distance in time the real reason Chaney gave us so many of these twisted characters may remain a mystery. Was he drawn to these human monsters because he had the talent to represent them so well? Was he merely giving the audience what it wanted? (If so, it’s the audience we should be studying.) Or was he illuminating a part of his own being, creating a psychological autobiography in grease paint and prosthetics?

Incredibly enough, “The Penalty” works itself out to a relatively happy ending. The film’s conclusion is certainly its weakest link, but the commanding presence of Chaney more than makes up for it. As competent and/or attractive as the other players in the movie are, one’s eyes are glued to Chaney every second he is on screen. He is nothing short of magnificent.

“The Penalty” gives us Chaney’s first overwhelming lead character. For all the crudities of its overly-melodramatic plot and the implausibility of its romantic ending, it remains a strong film well worth seeking out. For fans of Lon Chaney, it is a must. For prospective fans, it’s a good place to start.