Thursday, December 2, 2010

Five Star Final (1931)

The newspaper business took a beating on stage and screen during the late 1920s and early '30s in plays and films like Ink, Man Bites Dog, Front Page Woman, Chicago (remade in 1942 as Roxie Hart), and most famously The Front Page. The height of the press' infamy was epitomized by the ghastly snapshot of murderess Ruth Snyder dying in the Sing Sing electric chair on January 12, 1928. Working for The New York Daily News, reporter Tom Howard strapped a cheap camera to his leg. Just before the juice hit Snyder, Howard bent forward, pulled his pant leg up and clicked the pic of the husband-murdering 33-year old sighing "Goodbye, cruel world." James Cagney's Danny Kean pulls the same stunt in Picture Snatcher (1933).

One of the angriest of the yellow-journalism productions was Louis Weitzenkorn's play Five Star Final. Time reviewed its opening on Broadway like this, in an unsigned piece dated January 12, 1931—interestingly, three years to the day after Ruth Snyder's execution: "Five Star Final is this season's newspaper play. But, unlike its more cynical predecessors, it is an earnest paean of hate directed against tabloid journalism. The play has undeniable vitality and provides a good deal of technical information on the inner workings of a gum-chewer sheetlet."

The play and film should be technically accurate. Author Weitzenkorn was at one time editor of the New York Evening Graphic (nicknamed by more responsible journalists the Porno Graphic). The Graphic was the most sensational of all the tabloids during its brief existence between 1924 and 1932. It went out of business because an editor tried to clean up its image and New Yorkers quit buying it. Weitzenkorn began his career as a reporter for the New York Times in 1919. He died in 1943 when he managed to set himself on fire while making a pot of coffee—a tab story if there ever was one.

Five Star Final was adapted for the screen by Robert Lord and written by Byron Morgan. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, it was nominated as Best Picture of 1931 (losing to Grand Hotel).

In the movie, the Evening Graphic has become the Evening Gazette. The picture opens as a pair of goons on the paper's staff trash news kiosk because the owner refuses to put the Gazette on the top of the newspaper stack. These guys are not aiming to help win a Pulitzer. In the Gazette offices, the paper's owner Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel, who appeared in 163 films from 1929 to his death in 1938) complains about Editor-in-chief Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson) printing cables from the League of Nations instead of featuring photos of girls in their underwear. "We're losing the bubble gum trade," Hinchecliffe snaps, and Randal responds by calling his publisher the "Sultan of Slop." The argument is ongoing and seemingly without end.

"There's some guys who furnish the manure and some guys that grow the flowers."

Soon a reporter-hopeful comes to Randall. She's Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson, Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind), a sexy little trick from out of town. "He knows I've had a lot of experience in Chicago," she boasts to Randall's secretary. Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon ) glares back "Yeah, you look it."

The next time editorial meets to plot out where they want the paper to go in the days ahead, the subject of a recent love nest murder comes up, which reminds someone of the 20-year old Nancy Voorhees case, in which a cute young stenographer fell in love with her boss and ended up pregnant. When he refused to marry her, she killed him. Randall agrees to run a serial rehash of the case as a cautionary tale. If a girl gets into trouble, it's decided, the paper should interview her mother. If the mother had told daughter the facts of life, this will be a warning to daughters. If she hadn't, it's a warning to mothers. Either way, the paper has performed a good deed for society.

Randall wants to introduce every installment of the story with a few paragraphs from a clergyman, so he calls on the Rev. T. Vernon Isopod, and this is where Boris Karloff enters the picture.

Isopod is one of Karloff's most unusual characters. He now works for the paper but was once a divinity student who got kicked out the seminary for sexual misconduct similar to that of Nancy Voorhees' old boss. He wears a black suit and hides behind empty eyes. "You're the most blasphemous looking thing I've ever seen," Randall tells him. "It's a miracle you're not struck dead." He's oily and unctuous, as sincere as a cut-rate mortician, but can hardly keep his eyes off of Kitty Carmody's legs. (Later, the two of them will share a ride and Kitty tells Randall, "I rode in a taxi with him and I darn near don't have any skin on my knees." Randall asks sarcastically if the two were praying together.)

Passing himself off as a real minister, Isopod talks his way into the apartment of Nancy Voorhees, who is now Nancy Townsend (Frances Starr). When he enters the flat, his eyes dart around as if he's trying to memorize every detail. He's not sure why Nancy and her husband Michael (H.B. Warner, who played Jesus in the silent King of Kings) agreed to see him, but soon figures out that they think he's connected to the wedding of their daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh, Trilby in Svengali) to the socially elite Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell, Ralph Morlant in The Ghoul) the next day.

Isopod solicits information from the Townsends they would never willingly give a reporter, and even makes off with a photo of Jenny. As soon as he leaves, the parents realize what they've done. They know that if Nancy's past is publically dredged up, it will ruin Jenny's chances for marriage and happiness. No one, not even Jenny, knows Nancy's story.

When Isopod returns to the office drunk, his eyes are heavy and deader than ever. His lisp is slurred. "This murderess," he manages to get out, "is marrying her daughter to an innocent boy. I was shocked!"

Pleading on behalf of the two newly-weds-to-be is of no avail and Nancy and Michael can't face the future. Isopod, who is corrupt to his core, comes up with the idea that the Gazette can pay Jenny for permission to turn her mother's tragedy into a faked "My Story by Nancy Voorhees" 1st person narrative.

The film's final shot is of a copy of the paper, bemucked in a gutter.

Karloff is in the opening credits as the eighth lead, but his significance to the plot and general atmosphere of newspaper hypocrisy and sleaze is invaluable. His patented gauntness and Uriah Heepish servility—repeated 15 years later as Master George Sims in Bedlam—add a touch of genuine creepiness to an essentially realistic story. You come away from the film not only despising the paper for what it's done to the Townsends, but for hiring people like Isopod to make certain it gets done. This is one of, incredibly enough, 16 movies Karloff made in 1931, including a 12-part serial, a Wheeler and Woolsey farce, and that little monster flick over at Universal. And to think that some folks don't even watch 16 films in a year.

"My wife has good taste," Karloff once told the press. "She has seen very few of my movies." Hopefully, Five Star Final is one of the exceptions.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960)

This may be the creepiest movie you've never seen. Made by Hammer Film Productions, it isn't one of their gothic romps. Those pictures are a lot of fun and you can enjoy yourself immensely either pretending to be scared or just wallowing in their nostalgic glow, but this one is a different manner of ick entirely.

Based on a play by Roger Garis called The Pony Cart, and with a screenplay by John Hunter and direction from Cyril Frankel, Never Take Candy From a Stranger (aka Never Takes Sweets From a Stranger), the film is the story of Peter and Sally Carter, with their pre-adolescent daughter Jean (Patrick Allen, Gwen Watford, Janina Faye) who have moved to Canada so Peter can take up the post of headmaster at the local high school.

One night, Jean tells her parents that she and her friend Lucille (Frances Green) had visited the Olderberry mansion because Lucille knew there was an elderly man there who would give them candy. Clarence Olderberry, Sr. (Felix Aylmer) promised to give the girls sweets if they would remove all their clothing and dance for him. The girls do (all this is offscreen) but now Jean is worried because she knows they shouldn't have done it.

When the Carters complain to the police they are told that the Overberry family owns the town and it's best to just forget about the old man's little problem and warn Jean never to visit him again. The Carters want more, for the sake of all the town's children, and force the police to bring Overberry to trial, where the defense counsel (Niall MacGinnis) twists everything Jean says on the stand and makes her look unreliable, at best.

Overberry is acquitted, as the Carters were warned he would be, and before they can move out of town Jean and Lucille go walking in the woods, and guess who they meet? His pursuit of the girls through the woods is chilling, mainly because Alymer, as Overberry, never speaks a word throughout the film. His aging pervert is not so much evil as he is stuck mentally in an evil place. He could easily be in the throes of early dementia. He shakes, he dribbles, he smiles vacantly, and when he sees little girls, he desires one thing only.

If the film were merely the story of a sexual predator on the prowl for children ("merely"?) it could easily be dismissed as exploitation of the worst kind—what a lot of viewers would expect from Hammer. But it's a true horror movie, the horror enhanced by the town's willingness to take chances with the lives of children if it can keep the factory open and the citizens working. This is a plot device that has become familiar in scary movies—think of the mayor insisting on the beaches staying open in Jaws—but, somehow, adults getting eaten by a fish is less upsetting, and a lot more playfully entertaining, than an elderly child abuser terrorizing young girls.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lunacy (2005)

If you're looking for a pleasant night out to help your mom celebrate her birthday, unless she's Irma Grese, the Bitch of Belsen, you better look elsewhere.

On the surface, Jan Svankmajer's surrealist black comedy is about a man who may or may not be insane and his adventures with a Marquis who may or may not be insane as they tour a madhouse run by a staff that may or may not be insane. Odds are that they're all lunatics, but that's just my opinion and, according to this movie's underlying point of view, I may or may not be insane, too.

We tend these days to use some variation of the word "surreal" in place of "it was weird and I don't have a clue what it meant." You know, like an off-the-cuff joke from George W. Bush.

But sometimes "surreal" still refers to an avant-garde art movement, and that is the surreal that describes writer/director Jan Svankmajer's 2005 film SileniLunacy, to you non-Czech speakers.

The film opens with a brief prologue in which Svankmajer addresses us directly, telling us that we are about to see a horror movie, with all of that genre's attendant degeneracy. He warns us that he has borrowed motifs from Poe—he calls his movie an "infantile" tribute to the American gothicist—and adopted the blasphemy and subversion from the Marquis de Sade.

We join the film as a young man named Jean is having a nightmare in which two bald and burly sanitarium attendants are smilingly attempting to put him into a strait-jacket. This dream incorporates some stop motion animation of a shirt crawling across the floor. Many of the film's most intense moments are interrupted by this animation, usually consisting of tongues and eyeballs cavorting on their own to the accompaniment of carousel music.

Jean soon meets the Marquis, an 18th. Century man in the 21st. Century world. Jean is invited to stay a few nights at the Marquis' castle. He accepts, but when he spies the older man conducting a blasphemous parody of the Mass one night, complete with naked altar servers, he decides to take the innocent village maid the Marquis seems determined to corrupt and run away with her.

Instead, he is talked into accompanying the ignobleman on a tour of the local insane asylum where he finds out that the innocent maid is in fact the head nurse. She tells him that the chief doctor and the Marquis are actually inmates who led a mutiny. Now the real hospital staff is locked in the underground dungeon and the loonies are in charge.

By the time the story ends, if it does, telling who's insane and who's lying is impossible so we settle for believing that, as in Alice in Wonderland—a story Svankmajer filmed in 1988—we're all mad here.

It's clear that Svankmajer sees the madhouse as a suitable symbol for modern life. One of the doctors believes in severe corporal punishment and one believes in letting the patients do whatever they want to do. Conservatism and Liberalism, anyone? But since nothing works, who cares?

There is much black humor at work here, and despite the claim that it's a horror movie, Lunacy is never scary on a visceral level. If it creeps you out, it'll probably be due to self-recognition. This observation does not apply to me, of course.

White tie is optional. Strait-jackets are required.

Friday, September 10, 2010

In This Our Life (1942)

Few things in nature are more wonderful and terrifying than a Bette Davis character in the throes of pure petulance and malice. That being the case, you can't do better than spend an evening with In This Our Life.

This was John Huston's second directorial assignment and while he doesn't seem as close to this material as he was to the hardboiled milieu of Dashiell Hammett's mean streets in The Maltese Falcon, he's having one helluva good time with Ellen Glasgow's southern gothic lite as scripted by Howard Koch.

The story takes place deep in the heart of The Land of Sociopathic Women. Davis is Stanley Timberlake, one of old Asa Timberlake's (Frank Craven) two daughters. Olivia de Havilland is the other one, Roy. The male names are not explained in the film and I haven't read the source novel. As the film opens, Stanley is about to be wed to a champion-of-the-oppressed local lawyer, Craig Fleming (George Brent). At the last minute, and for no apparent reason, Stanley abandons Craig almost at the altar and runs off with Roy's husband, young Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan, who acquits himself nicely and may come as a surprise to viewers who know him only from his musical roles).

Stanley and Peter leave town and Peter gets an intern's position at a hospital. His salary is meager and his new wife is quickly and easily bored. Her constant nagging leads Peter to take Drastic Action, and soon Stanley is back home, where by now Roy and Craig have become an item. These southern girls don't let the grits grow under their feet, by cracky.

Of course, Stanley sets out to re-capture Craig and there is some chance that she may be able to do it. She makes an appointment with him to meet at a bar that night at 7:00. While waiting, she tosses back a few and when he hasn't shown up by 7:30, Stanley speeds off in her roadster. We've been told that she drives too fast and now we find out that with a few drinks in her she's capable of hit and run driving. When the cops find out that the car involved was hers, she tries to put the blame on Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), the son of the Timberlake's black maid Minerva (Hattie McDaniel).

The other major player is the Timberlake girls' grating Uncle William (Charles Coburn). William is their maternal uncle and it's well known that he partnered in his brother-in-law's tobacco company, then forced Asa out. Now he enjoys calling on the Timberlakes in their modest house and rubbing everyone's nose in his dishonorable success. His only fan appears to be Stanley, who flirts with him because he's the rich relative.

Coburn was 65 when he made this picture and Davis was 34, and still the characters play the "I've got a surprise for you in one of my pockets and if you find it you can keep it" game. It's creepy, no doubt about it.

The picture is a hoot, with everyone playing just one notch above where people actually exist—not close enough to reality to turn this into drama but not so far up the wall that the whole thing becomes more camp than a field full of tents. Every time I watch this one, I'm wearing a huge grin on my face.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Screaming Skull (1958)

Recent DVD and theatrical releases of movies by Dario Argento have started me thinking about that oddball breed of cinema we know as "cult movies," or "guilty pleasures." I'm one of those people who don't usually use the latter term because if I enjoy a movie I don't see any reason I should feel guilty about it. Hell, if I felt the need to apologize every time I enjoyed The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, I'd be more weighed down by guilt than Judas Iscariot wearing an SS uniform while clubbing baby seals with a burning cross.

Actually, not all guilty pleasures are cult movies. To be a cult movie, a picture has to be appreciated by a number of people and is generally thought to be "so bad it's good," making cult movies at least a subset of camp. Guilty pleasures—or as I like to call them, "what I watch on Friday nights"—may be totally unrecognized by others and don't have to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever beyond the perhaps perverse pleasure they provide for me personally.

I've thought many times that I'd like to write a series of pieces—part reviews, part criticisms, part appreciations, part apologetics—on these movies from closer to the bottom of the cinematic barrel in hopes of scamming, uh, encouraging you to cultivate your inner movie slob. No, seeing every new Adam Sandler movie on its first weekend of release doesn't count. That's just conformist bad taste and I know you can do better than that.

Let's begin 50 years ago, at childhood, that time in life when a person's tastes—good and bad—are formed. The theater is The State, on the square of the small Texas town in which I grew up. The State played "B" movies and, on Saturday mornings, pictures in Spanish for the farm workers who came into the city for a few hours. But what I loved there best were horror movies like …

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 has 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 for the first time, and it scared the breath out of me. Fifty 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.