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.