Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mr. Sandman (Slight Return): HALLOWEEN II (1981)


Hurricane Sandy's signification as a pre-apocalypse harbinger recalls 1982, as does Shout's new blu-ray of HALLOWEEN II. 1982 was the year this sad sequel made it to cable, where it hung around like the smell of a flooded cellar. It gets a bad rap even before people see it since it can't possibly match the original but like JAWS 2, HALLOWEEN II ain't bad on its own. After all, in each case the original had an advantage: it didn't have to match anything. There was no pressure to be a masterpiece of horror. If the sequel took as many liberties as the original it might have been better but it wouldn't have been a sequel. It would be HALLOWEEN III, which confounded expectations with a title granted it for no apparent reason except the loose attachment of Carpenter's name and its chosen diegetic holiday.


The best sequels such as GODFATHER 2 transcend expectations, disappointing on an existential level at first, until its own different (darker, broader) brilliance shines through. HALLOWEEN 2 goes the reverse and delivers "a-too-a much-a." Imitating the imitators of John Carpenter's original (such as Friday the 13th) instead of zeroing in on the method rather than just the madness. Director Rick Rosenthal brings in a cross section of stock characters more or less set up to be slaughtered, some of whom are, alas, rather gross (the goomba EMT) but some of whom we come--in the short time we have before their slaughtered--to like, which just makes their clumsy offing sad rather than terrifying. The two holdovers from the original, Jamie Lee and Donald Pleasance struggle to transcend this stale nightmare they're locked into; they're like the only awake people in one of those feverish afternoon dreams where you spend the whole time trying to find the bathroom and everyone ignores you. Feverishly, you navigate mazes of institutional gray halls.... slowly bursting from within. And on reflection, the idea that a mass murder would go on and the hospital not be stocked with cops and press seems ridiculous.


But on some levels H2 is a success, for the only thing really required of a sequel is to capture how the original is remembered, not how it actually was. The first HALLOWEEN came out before VHS, before cable, even; you would 'tell' a movie to kids who hadn't seen it, embellishing as you went. Maybe you even got the story secondhand, from a badass older brother, then you took over for a new audience, spreading it around like one of those games of 'telephone.' And what we talked about more than anything where the details of the murders. But after HALLOWEEN things changed. I still remember being shocked when my Christian Science Sunday school teacher put aside the bible to describe each of the dozen or so murders in the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, which he'd taken his six kids to see the night before. I was shocked at his callous disregard for promiscuous teens, my pre-PC feminist burbling inside me even at that young age (13). I came to the realization I was seeing the true Christianity in action: boiling a nutritious, fiery harvest myth down into a cold phallic stab of gynocidal venom, ad infinitum.


I mention all this to point out that the elements that survive in a sequel aren't what made the original successful as a film but what made it successful as a playground oration, i.e. a myth. In the pre-VHS era, only the myth survived. Carpenter's original is nearly all build-up--long POV shots of teens walking around the neighborhood, long conversations with Annie about Laurie's sexual anxiety, constantly ringing phones-- and the minutiae of Halloween babysitting, overheard as if from across the block. By the time the killings actually start there's only twenty minutes or so left in the movie! Carpenter knows that once the knife actually goes in and the light in the eye goes out, the suspense ceases. It's almost a relief, in fact, since we suddenly remember the person is just an actor. The original was a long, hot date that ends in great petting on the couch that we remember with a delirious swoon; the sequel is one-night-stand sex, exactly what we thought we wanted, but we're soon subsumed by hungover emptiness and self-loathing.


But as kids don't know what kind of work it took to make the original killings so keenly 'felt' in their retellings, hack directors can only mirror the remembered myth, which is diluted by the 'telephone': the score's eerie piano theme is revamped to less effect as an Emerson Lake-style synthesizer; the William Shatner mask is given a tacky blonde hair paint job; the eerie jack-o-lantern behind the opening credits is now somehow less scary with rounder edges on the eyes; the Steadicam POV shots go nowhere; Jamie Lee Curtis hobbling around on a bad foot and Carpenter's creepy atonal piano music are the only worthwhile elements. Additions from FRIDAY THE 13TH are brought in: the hospital staff includes the aforementioned foulmouthed Italian American douchebag paramedic and his cute shy college boy paramedical partner; the bossy but concerned African American nurse and her assistant, a candy stripe hottie, and the fat security guard (the same one from TERMINATOR 2!)... all set up just to get knocked down before the ball even comes back up the chute. 


There are some great little new touches: an angry mob pelting the Myers' house with rocks as Dr. Loomis and the sheriff drive slowly past; the confusion when the security guard is watching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on a hospital's black and white security monitor, which switches to the hospital exterior with Myers walking around the rear so smoothly you don't realize  which is which; there's an unspoken but creepy idea that the kid in the blonde mask might have been somehow brainwashed or lobotomized by Myers into dressing like him. There's a break-in to the local elementary school with the name SAMHAIN scrawled in blood on the blackboard, hinting at some excuse for Myers' indestructibility.


The opening, which includes the last few minutes of the end of the first film, starts strong with elaborate tracking shots through the neighborhood night. The wounded Myers steals a knife out of a kitchen while an old lady's back is turned, but he doesn't kill her... she's not young or on the phone with her boyfriend, unlike her neighbor. But Myers' killing for the rest of the film is more focused. He just wants to kill everyone at a public hospital night shift. We see a kid come in to the hospital with his mom, a razor-blade stuck in his mouth, reminding one of the time when anyone would accept anything, even unwrapped, from any Mansonesque hippie in their neighborhood on Halloween, as long as they cut it into wedges first to make sure it was un-razored, rather than instantly calling the cops like they would today, if the kids are even allowed to go out at all.


The new Shout blu-ray gives these corridors of the hospital a 3-D clarity: the gleaming wax of the institutional floors and overhead florescent lights make a subtextual commentary on the aesthetic barrenness of cash-in sequels like this one (until that is, Michael cuts the power). So there are some great tracking shots as the night crew of the hospital come into work, walking through the long corridors like they've done a hundred times before, to sign in and deal with their mundane tasks. The wounded Laurie Strode is admitted; the killer moseys over; Donald Pleasance does his quivering voiced 'this isn't a man, it's a demon!" business but never thinks to hang out at the hospital.


Getting back to Halloween razor blade side bit, let us use it as a segue back into discussing the year of 1982 when--fueled by an alarmist press and helped in no small part by the tide of slasher movies imitating HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, now available also on video and premium cable as well as theaters--parents and small children began to feel really spooked by imagining that everyone but them were getting off on seeing teenage girls butchered. Suddenly the papers were alive with tales of suburban Satanic pedophiles rings! Your whole town could be one Satanic cult and you the only one left out! We kids trembled in our beds and kept butcher knives by our sides at night, and the freedom my generation enjoyed in the 70s-- when we were expected to go roaming unsupervised throughout the neighborhood once we turned the ripe age of seven --was gradually, through media bandwagon hysteria, eliminated, in favor of the helicopter play date supervision we have now. Of course the worries about things like pedophile rings turned out to be false recovered memories, and the razors in the apples was a downright myth perpetrated by Ann Landers:
Despite the falsity of these claims (the razor apple bit - EK) the news media promoted the story continuously throughout the 1980s, with local news stations featuring frequent coverage. During this time cases of poisoning were repeatedly reported based on unsubstantiated claims or before a full investigation could be completed and often never followed up on. This one sided coverage contributed to the overall panic and caused rival media outlets to issue reports of candy tampering as well.

By 1985, the media had driven the hysteria about candy poisonings to such a point that an ABC News/Washington Post poll that found 60% of parents feared that their children would be injured or killed because of Halloween candy sabotage.

Advice columnists entered the fray during the 1980s and 1990s with both Ann Landers and Dear Abby warning parents of the horrors of candy tampering
 "In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy. It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers." –Ann Landers 

 "Somebody's child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade." –Dear Abby

 This collective fear also served as the impetus for the "safe" trick-or-treating offered by many local malls --- (Wiki)

As someone who loved trick-or-treating but had by 1982 grown too old for it, I would drive around the neighborhood on Halloween, bored and restless, noticing with horror how the amount of trick or treaters by 1983 had trickled off to a few scattered throngs--and everyone was finished before dark. Just a few years earlier my crew and I would race around unsupervised until all hours and even our parents would tell us it wasn't kosher to start out until after dinner and it had gotten dark.

But one door never closes without another opens. We may have lost our freedom to go outside but it was concurrent with the arrival of VHS and cable, which acted as the partial cause of --and cure for --this Halloween depression. I sulked through the rest of my tweenage life with only the VCR as a life preserver and though I never liked it, HALLOWEEN II was just on HBO all the time, over and over. Whenever I hear "Mr. Sandman / build me a dream" I see Michael's mask burning in the exploded hospital room. But until this blog I had no one to tell my horror to. The cable / VCR double threat made most any film available to see anytime, at home; the need and/or desire to 'tell' a film to someone else vanished accordingly. And just like the sequel only reproduces the remembered killings and loses all the unique aspects Carpenter brought to bear to make the film truly scary, so too we don't think we're losing anything by scrapping telling scary stories to each other by firelight, since we don't need imagination to see the killings now. But hearing them from our friends just fueled our imagination and made them both scarier and less traumatizing than seing the films, for the imagined unknown that is never traumatic. Once we actually saw the films, they never measured up to our envisioning, and yet left us feeling that stale, wretched one-night-stand loss of faith in humanity

Now, the big climax of HALLOWEEN 2 should have been a moment of triumph for Laurie Strode, crawling across cement expanses protected by only hair, hospital gown, and gumption. But her Annie Oakleyistic monkey-in-the-middle with nitrous and outer shell game at the climax was more silly than scary, and pointless. Though we don't get any indication Myers is still alive at the end of this one, of course he would be back. Twenty years later and Curtis returned to finally and forever kill him--until he came back, of course. Today the eyes are gone but the blonde hair remains, super long, and Michael slashes to the latest Zombie beatz, but in the early 1980s, the tangy smell of my little (blonde) brother's garage mechanic grime and cold oil from the garage and mom's at-home perms despoiling my nose, watching HALLOWEEN II (the only film my brother Fred ever taped) over and over, the sheer hopelessness of ever truly killing the evils of suburbia evaporating; that terrifying Chordettes song echoing through the house; all dissolving into a lurching day glo spandex headband aerobics and Betamax decade; the 70s iron-straight blonde hair gone perm-pouffy; the hope of a Beatles reunion gone to Yoko's national moment of silence; friendly human contact gone to media crucifixion over a single lewd wink; a hundred thousand flamboyant dancing devils gone to sobering AIDS angels; mischief night and trick-or-treating gone to the video tape. Rewind all you want, but you'll never see the like again.

Monday, October 29, 2012

CinemArchetype 17: The Devil


As the water levels rise and the wind blows the cranes, Pirate Sandy is coming for us like the floods called in by disillusioned church lady Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky. I wanted to quick post this which I've been working on for so very long, just in case it's the last one I get to post, before the power goes out or I'm blown clear to Oz. The atmospheric pressure --"and power is just going out everywhere across the area"-- is melting me in my chair. I got Jesus in my bones and heart and I'm all right, but I need to tell you first about the Devil.

Of course. The Devil. In any discussion of cinematic archetypes He sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb, and that's his whole raison d'etre, an anthropomorphized swelling of sin jammed Jack Horner-deep into the plum pie-heart of man. One can argue theology: is old Scratch just working for God, challenging mortals like a mean but fair swim coach? Did God set him loose upon the world the way, say, the predators releases the aliens in ALIENS VS. PREDATOR, or British aristocrats release a fox before their hunt? Or, as some CIA agents in the know have claimed, is our world owned by the devil, and God an illusion and the light at the end of the tunnel just a lure, so the angler devil can haul us up into suffocating realm above (beyond gravity there is no sense of up or down, or oxygen - so hell being below and heaven being above makes no logical sense, forget I said that!), the poor damned souls who have broken the golden rule are stuck in a lake stocked with sinners for the devil's weekend fishing pleasure!

Bedazzled
It all kind of begins and ends with old Faust and his bargains: there's a million variations and we know them all. We make them every day. Robert Johnson met Satan at the crossroads, and his guitar was tuned to the devil's key and after his premature death ("I said hello, Satan / I believe it's time to go") that guitar mojo was loaned out via Aleistar Crowley's interdimensional brokerage to Jimi Page, who maybe still has it. I once had a visit from God but somehow over the course of three months he turned out to be, at the very least, a trickster spirit if not a devil outright. There ain't no devil / there's just God when he's drunk. That's what Tom Waits sang. Satan's got a river / so big and so wide, that's what Porter Wagoner sang. And so it goes.

Little Nicky
There's the Christian idea of the devil, a distinct entity banished from God's eye, and then there's the Screwtape variation, where he's in God's employ under the table, providing the much-needed patchouli-and-tobacco yang to Christendom's musty bible smell yin. But the horns and hooves are proof Old Scratch's really a representation of old world supernatural pantheism. He's Pan, in other words, the God of nature and fornication--the satyr, the initiator into carnal abandon--and more than ever we need him.  Not the version hailed in methed-up suburban metal attics but the version of Hades, of Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld. We need him to rule over us lost souls, to provide a pool table and a warm bed for all of us not down to receive the latest issue of the Watchtower. 

1. Jack Nicholson
Witches of Eastwick (1987) 
"One of those magical practices, divination using the Tarot deck, still contains a paradoxical reminder of an older, more polytheistic vision of Satan, in the form of the eighteenth card of the major arcana of the Tarot, the card called “The Devil.” Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene, for example, link the tarot card of the Devil with the Greek god Pan. “Because the god was worshipped in caves and grottoes, attended by fear,” they write, “his image within us suggests something that we both fear and are fascinated by – the raw, goatish, uncivilized sexual impulses which we experience as evil because of their compulsive nature” (64).
 This image of Pan as god of dark impulses is one which James Hillman as also written on at length. “Pan is the goat-God and this configuration of animal-nature distinguishes nature by personifying it as something hairy, phallic, roaming and goatish” (“Pan” xx). Ever since the beginning of the Christian era, note Sharman-Burke and Greene, Pan has been subsumed into the image of the Devil, “complete with horns and leering grin.” The notion that Pan died, in keeping with Plutarch’s famous story, is psychologically untrue both they and Hillman contend. “Rather,” Sharman-Burke and Greene observe, “he has been relegated to the nethermost recesses of the unconscious, representing that which we fear, loathe, and despise in ourselves, yet which holds us in bondage through our very fear and disgust.” These two writers further observe that “although he is ugly, he is the Great All—the raw life of the body itself, amoral an crude, but nevertheless a god.” Moreover, they conclude, “the energy which is expended in keeping the Devil in his cave, shameful and hidden, is energy which is lost to the personality, but which can be released with imensely powerful effect if one is willing to look Pan in the face” (64-65).  - Richard Strommer
2. Sylvia Pinal - Satana
Simon of the Desert (1965)
"For Simon, this apocalypse of course comes in a very worldly form, specifically in the form of the luscious, womanly Silvia Pinal, a recurring Buñuel player most famous for her lead role in Viridiana. She is a seductive, strangely appealing Devil, appearing beneath Simon's pillar or even on it with him to offer him various temptations — not least of which is her own disrobed body. She appears first as a hip-swaying local woman who catches the eye of one of the priests but not of Simon, who uses her only as an example of the evil lure of women. She appears next as a faux-schoolgirl with sexy garters and stockings beneath her innocent uniform, singing a shrill and sing-songy mockery of Simon's religious devotion while trying to seduce him with her long, serpentine tongue or bare breasts. Most cleverly (and hilariously), she briefly tricks Simon by appearing to him as an embodiment of God himself, a young shepherd in a tunic with an unconvincing blonde beard and curls obscuring her femininity. Pinal is, in fact, not Buñuel's vision of the Devil but the vision of the Devil that Simon himself might concoct: the man who turns his back on the world is of course tempted by a Devil who offers nothing but worldly, fleshy pleasures. Simon, though, is stoic, and Pinal's Satan seduces the audience long before she is able to hold any sway over her faithful target." -- Ed Howard (Only the Cinema)

Ed Howard is always spot-on with his observations, and I'm the first to confess I'm fairly agog over Pinal's heavenly legs. And I especially like the end which finds Simon and the devil sitting at a modern swinging dance cafe, both feeling outgunned and irrelevant. In the age of Cocoa-Cola and Marx, prophets and devils may as well be just two more revelers at a mass masquerade.

3. Jack Woods as Asmodeus
Equinox (1967/70)
This movie used to show up once in awhile on UHF TV when I was a kid and it scared the living double toothpicks out of me. In a plot that would be loosely borrowed by Sam Raimi for Evil Dead, some teens visiting the great outdoors stumble onto a secret book full of devilish symbols which could end the world. A friendly park ranger comes along, and would really like that book, kids. When he gets one of the girls alone he advances on her, his eye make-up darkens, and he begins sticking his face in the camera and twisting his mouth around in an obscene pucker. That's the stuff of kid nightmares, and his name was burned into my memory, Asmodeus. Later he transforms into a crude but brilliantly claymation devil with wings (below), and summons a big Lovecraftian tentacled beastie, a purple Giant, and other things.


That stuff is more cool than scary now that I'm older, but Asmodeus is still the guy we imagined trying to lure us into cars with candy, looking all official as a representative authorized of patriarchal security one minute, then next time you look his eyes are darkening and he's leering, and that's just one of the reasons this movie gave me nightmares--a scary effect few horror movies have ever capitalized on (until The Shining and then The Oregonian) The idea of being way out lost in the park and the only adult authority present is trying to kill you -- that's scary shit for a kid... even in the broad daylight at home alone on a Saturday afternoon while your dad is golfing and your mom's out mowing the grass.

4. Green ooze
Prince of Darkness (1987)
This movie got some confused reviews over the years and has a dull ugly aesthetic (a condemned Catholic church basement is not the most inspiring place to set a metaphysical movie, though it is the place most of us in AA have our spiritual awakenings), but it grows on you, like moss. Sure it's a bit odd that the devil turns out to be an interdimensional glowing green slime that climbs walls and shoots into people's mouths like jets of Scope mouthwash to possess them. Sure it's odd that a very pale Alice Cooper lingers outside with an army of schizophrenic homeless, being lured there by their mental illness(i.e. schizophrenia is really just Satan's alpha wave transmissions which most 'sane' inner radios aren't turned to). Sure, a mysterious figure broadcasts a warning from the future into the dreams of anyone crazy enough to fall asleep, but that's just John Carpenter.


Carpenter wrote the script under the pseudonym Richard Quatermass, which is apt since the metaphysical triangulation of demonic myth, physics, and human evolution in the story recalls QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and very few others... so

4.5 - Grasshopper -Five Million Years to Earth 
(AKA Quatermass and the Pit) (1967)
I dig that truth and belief have nothing to do with each other and yet create each other. I dig that the human ego is extraordinarily narrow-minded when it comes to consensual reality and maybe for good reason. Few of us want to connect the dots that lead us to the unpleasant possible truths such as the possibility that our difference from other life on earth is the result of some long-dead biotechnically advanced alien's dabbling, especially since it's hard to prove it in any 'scientific' manner and it's scary to think about. We scoff but it's partly that we don't want to be considered 'nuts.' But those who hear the horrible truth can't help but go nuts, unless it's told to us as fiction. (more)

5. John Brown as the Black guy with glowing eyes
and Eddie Powell as the Goat of Mendes - Ride with the Devil (1968)
AKA Bride of the Devil
Here in Hammer's tight little adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's novel we have everything that makes British devil films great: Christopher Lee, some intelligent older women, Charles Gray as a sophisticated, witty villain, and upper crust Jet setters cult worshipping Satan through black magic, peppered with a few older eccentrics who look like any minute they're flying to Manhattan for Rosemary's baby shower. There's two devils here, including a smiling black guy with yellow eyes who appears in the center of a big room with a pentagram. With his cocky, frozen grin he's pretty terrifying --his ebony blackness and the chicken in a basket connect voodoo to the jet setter devil cult, as if two branches of the same happy pagan family. Hahaha!

6. Angela Featherstone as Veronica Iscariot in
Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994)
Directed by a woman (Linda Hassani) who is seemingly from another planet, DARK ANGEL (no relation to the TV series starring Jessica Alba) has a bit of a space cadet glow, kind of like MY SO-CALLED LIFE if Angela Chase was a demon looking to find herself in the world above her so-called-hellish home, etc. What's cool is the relative lack of CGI or misogyny as Veronica finds her way through the city, romancing a dumb doctor, wandering around the park ripping spinal columns out of rapists, and feeding the meat of her slain sinners to her dog Hellraiser. Whenever she's about to do a number on someone Veronica's eyes glow green or red. And we learn from the opening act that Hell is owned and operated by God and that the Devil is just a grunt who still bows and scrapes when angels come along to drop off memos. Most of all we learn that if acting is really really bad it becomes almost like innocence.

Sure she's not the devil devil, but Veronica Iscariot is damned close and I love Featherstone's low-key performance and the dreamlike grungy fairytale threadbare quality is endearing in a Guy Maddin-meets-Silk Stalkings kind of way. It's thus the perfect film to pass out to after ten whisky sours. And if you're one of those horror fans who has to really search his collection to find a suitable date movie, here it is. Once you see Veronica offer the rapist's spinal column to his intended victim (for a trophy!) then you know there is a God, after all.

7. Richard Devon as Satan
The Undead (1957)
Pamela Duncan is hypnotized to travel through the sea of time to visit her past lives, but she ends up derailing the scheme of things when she's able to whisper advice to her about-to-be-beheaded for witchcraft Middle Ages incarnation. Her prior self escapes the axe with her help, so she's fucked her future selves up! While her loyal suitor and the palace guards give chase, the hypnotist has no choice but to join her in the past to try and correct the matter. It's there he runs into Satan, who recognizes him right away! Oh hey, it's the time-traveling hypnotist! It doesn't get more awesome.  I saw this when very young on TV and the scene were Duncan seeks shelter at the witch's house is to me the eternally definitive Halloween moment, Neumann the definitive witch. She's a good one despite her crooked nose (putting to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in OZ that "only bad witches are ugly") and I love the casual way she asks the stranger at her door "Are you from this era or from a time yet to be?" as if nothing there is uncommon, which it never is to a young child. Alison Hayes is awesome as the va-va-Voom-level hot 'real bad' witch with eyes on Pamela's man. But as the devil, Richard Devon steals the show-- incorporating modern traits and ancient evil as a good-humored beatnik trickster who transcends time itself.

8. Earnest Borgnine
The Devil's Rain (1975)
There was a deluge of devils in the 1970s but I picked Earnest because this is the movie all us kids from the 70s remember: faces melting, horns, and robes, and William Shatner. The other Satan film I most wanted to see the end of as a kid in the 70s was WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY? I even had a wild dream about it, where I was the baby, and then later the mother, and then a girl... weird man, but it left me feeling a bizarre Satanic kinship with this film. I see it now and it's just okay... but whatever. It's iconic. That feeling of these films having some supernatural power is gone, but as a kid growing up in the Satanic 70s just seeing the TV commercial for THE DEVIL'S RAIN was enough to give you sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange polymorphously perverse magic.


9. The Nuclear Reactor in the Middle East (and Simon Ward)
Rain of Fire (1977) aka  Holocaust 2000, The Chosen, and Hex Massacre 
 With an Italian director and Ennio Morricone score, this film would have to pretty bad to go wrong, and it's not bad, so why isn't it better? It's still watchable thanks to Kirk's hammy but committed performance. Notes Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70: 
"I don't think Kirk Douglas would know how to merely go slumming in exploitation cinema. He earned stardom in a series of apoplectic performances (Champion, Detective Story, Ace in the Hole) in which his characters drove themselves into early graves by force of pure will, it seemed, and at moments here he taps into that early fury. He throws himself into the show with Bela-like commitment, putting himself through more than Lugosi ever had to endure in a picture. Two scenes stand out: a feverish dream sequence that requires him to run naked through a desert and martyr himself (sort of) in a crowd of demonstrators; and a furious insane asylum visit that comes off less like Douglas's dream project of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and more like Shock Corridor, albeit with more color and violence."
The highlights are the various hallucinations where Kirk sees an ancient drawing of a devil-ish hydra rising from the Red Sea on a cave wall near where he plans to build a giant nuclear reactor, and it looks way much too much like the proposed nuclear plant for comfort. Good luck stopping the project though, when your son's the devil and he's got all your money already, and he's going for the long con.


The idea that a power plant being built has been misread as a hydra by the psychedelic prophet envisioning it in the ancient epochs is pretty brilliant (and ties in with the transmissions in Carpenter's Prince of Darkness). Annoying hippie protestors tie in the anti-nuke environmentalist factor to the other popular subjects of the day, like Satanic offspring (The first Omen had been a hit the year before) and let's face it, no one does devil movies like the Italians! With their centuries of deep Catholic guilt putting the horns back in horniness you know they had some serious anxiety and its a secret pleasure to see a Catholic priest facilitating an involuntary abortion here! Only in Italia! Vivo El Ennio!

10. Joe Turkel as Lloyd the Bartender
The Shining (1981)
Note that the ghost bartender Lloyd appears at Jack's big moment of crisis - when Shelly Duvall accuses him of hurting his son. Here he's wasted five months not having a single drink and it's all for nothing as he's accused of hurting Danny anyway, and he didn't do it, to his knowledge. His language finally breaks up a bit from the mantras and he mutters he'd sell his soul for a drink. Suddenly he lightens up, "Hi Lloyd!" If there's no booze in this dimension, just step into the next one, where momentary salvation and permanent destruction are all tied up in a Jack on the rocks. (more)
11.   Walter Huston as Old Scratch
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
(looking over the contract)
Daniel Webster: This appears - mind you, I say appears - to be properly drawn. But you shan't have this man. A man isn't a piece of property. Mr. Stone is an American citizen... and an American citizen cannot be forced into the service of a foreign prince.
Mr. Scratch: Foreign? Who calls me a foreigner?
Daniel Webster: Well, I never heard of the de... I never heard of you claiming American citizenship.
Mr. Scratch: And who has a better right? When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on the deck. Am I not still spoken of in every church in New England? It's true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I'm neither. Tell the truth, Mr. Webster - though I don't like to boast of it - my name is older in this country than yours.


12. Charles Laughton
Don Juan in Hell (1951)
This isn't a film (that I know of) but I'm a huge George Bernard Shaw fan, and love this most of all - it was done as a record, I think, with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Agnes Moorhead as the Old Woman. Here's a sample of the scintillating irreverent dialogue:

THE STATUE: ... In future, excellent Son of the Morning, I am yours. I have left heaven for ever.
THE DEVIL: [again touching the marble hand] Ah, what an honor! what a triumph for our cause! Thank you, thank you. And now, my friend - I may call you so at last - could you not persuade him to take the place you have left vacant above?
THE STATUE: [shaking his head] I cannot conscientiously recommend anybody with whom I am on friendly terms to deliberately make himself dull and uncomfortable. (full show above)


13. Pazuzu
The Exorcist, The Exorcist II: The Heretic
 The hardcore Christian or Catholic idea of the devil is rooted in a purely Freudian subconscious wherein he acts as a catch-all basket of repressed desires and speech, possessing Regan for no other reason apparently than to curse like a rabid sailor, even using 'cunt' as a verb! Regan is also subjected to several cruel medical procedures (including two brutal spinal taps) as science becomes a nouveau inquisition, torturing the 'truth' out of her as if science's own unconscious is itself possessed, with the idea of slowly torturing what it cannot understand, until the devil falls in line with the parameters of mental illness as they know it. Just as the toes of schizophrenia were mutilated to fit the shoe of Satanic possession in the Middle Ages, so Satanic possession is mutilated to fit the shoe of schizophrenia today. Like the angels, Pazuzu knows your sins before you do, and calls them and you by name and for that must be destroyed, or assimilated. We never learn where he goes once his new host Father Merrill is killed. Perhaps he goes back into the ether, awaiting his sequels. Perhaps he was never there at all. You can't kill a sitcom by smashing the TV.


I would personally like to apologize to all the dark lord incarnations brevity prevents including - Peter Cook in Bedazzled, Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Peter Stormare in Constantine, Gabriel Byrne in End of Days... they are legion, and God bless them.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Universal Cult Horror (TCM DVD Set) Analysis: The Mad Ghoul, Murders in the Zoo, House of Horrors, Strange Case of Dr. Rx, The Mad Doctor of Market Street

THE MAD GHOUL
1943 - **1/2
"With me it's ghoul trouble baby," laments Carl Denham, i.e. Robert Armstrong, to a little honey of a fellow reporter who appears and exeunts with little fuss in one of the few horror movies made in 1943, THE MAD GHOUL. Excuse its impoverished gloss as half the studio workforce was busy fighting in WW2, back when we weren't entirely sure we'd win.

But despite the horror overseas, here at Universal the censors won't allow us to learn what the ghoul (David Bruce) does with the body that makes him so evil.  Presumably he eats the heart; they mention the heart is removed and graves are dug up, but then they change the subject. Meanwhile Evelyn Ankers lip syncs light opera on a tour of the midwest, lovesick ghoul trailing after (he got that way cuz of romantic rival and thesis advisor George Zucco's ancient zombie gas formula) like a semi-dead groupie, unearthing stale hearts to keep himself from becoming too decomposed to pitch woo. Zucco and the ghoul have yet another rival: Turhan Bey as the urbane composer-pianist who sweeps Evelyn away while the ghoul is off eating other people's heart out.  "He always chooses a new corpse" the critics say. Catching the culprit "may be the means of saving the deceased from a horrible mutilation!"

That's what you call a low stakes game, certainly not worth risking your life for.  It's not like he's killing people, just grazing. Relative to what the Nazis were doing to Poland, and the Japanese to China, corpse eating is hardly even a ticketable offense.

Zucco has fun but the plot is the same as all the Universal pics of the time: a killer and his handler taking out their critics while a snappy reporter (Armstrong) goes undercover as a funeral home cadaver. "Whatever you do, don't mar this coffin!" exclaims the undertaker. It's all good, brozo; the make-up is interesting, the shambling effective, the suspense music fine; the heart-eating thing is uncanny chiefly for its glaring elephant in the room mums the wordedness. The lighting is competent but needs more shadows and darkness. Hasn't anyone ever heard of expressionism? A dark set could save on electricity! I guess the censors wanted to make sure no phantoms were having sex in the corners.
I''ll say it again: THE MAD GHOUL is the best PRC horror movie that Universal ever made. It's every bit as strange and oddly engaging as any Poverty Row monster movie of the 1940s that you can name, but it's got all the brand-name (B-unit) trappings of Universal Studios to give it that little bit extra and deliver a lasting, satisfying, and fun film. Although it was probably pretty forgettable as the second-banana feature in the cinemas in 1943 to SON OF DRACULA --- Shock Cinema
Rose Hobart is in it, somewhere. I didn't see her though. There's not even eight people in the whole cast, aside from some disheartened gravediggers.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO
1933 - ***1/2
Somehow this Paramount film wound up in the Universal Cult Horror collection, to all our benefit. The beautiful Kathleen Burke (the Panther Woman from Paramount's same year ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) is something to kill over in the familiar cycle of betrayal, love, revenge, and maniacal jealousy. But this is pre-code so the lurid come-ons of Eric (Lionel Atwill) are truly perverse, like few lechers ever got to be after 1934. "Yes, Eric, I know, now you're going to make love to me," Burke says, voice trilling with panic, after he kills her latest lover with a mamba bite. Lots of cutaways to pent-up animals in cages the better to symbolize a panorama of human emotions with, dearie. Atwill sits with a chimp in his lap and looks quite comfortable.


Unfortunately there's some comic relief in Charlie Ruggles as the zoo's dipsomaniac PR agent who hems and cowardly haws for whole stretches at the thought of l-l-lions and t-t-t-igers! and there's boring straight man stuff from Randolph Scott, but hey Burke is so lovely and haunted it leaves a queasy taste; her misery with Eric has put her in a state of somnambulistic terror so irresistible you too will want to risk having your mouth sewn shut and being left to die in the jungles of Malaysia or wherever just to save her. Too bad for you, then! 

HOUSE OF HORRORS
1944 - ***
Two disparate artists - one of murder, one of sculpture -- are brought together by fate to rage against the bile of snooty art critics determined to rob them of revenue. As the acromelagy-ridden Creeper, Rondo Hatton (a real-life victim of Japanese nerve gas) was in a string of Creeper Bs (including the Sherlock Holmes film PEARL OF DEATH), then died, but his name lives on in the Rondo awards. I was once nominated for one! It all fits together.

There's a great dissolve between the hero's hot vacant bikini model and Kolseck's Rondo.  Beautiful Rondo vs. bland blonde!  Kolseck rants "now I have a feeling of power! Limitless power..."

As someone who labors greatly for this little site, I'm always having mental dialogues where grandiosity is soon tempered with rage at a lack of public recognition, followed by dejection, humility, redemption, artistic inspiration fueled by grace, which quickly becomes overstuffed with grandiosity once again, and the cycle clicks a spoke anew. Sometimes I take this journey in a single breath. So I appreciate the Napoleanic frustrations of Martin Kosleck, an anti-Nazi German who fled his homeland one jump ahead of the Gestapo who spent a career in Hollywood playing Nazis, relishing a chance to embody a more tragic and less political type of figure (ala Conrad Veidt in A WOMAN'S FACE -my 2008 Bright Lights appreciation here)

The Rondo award prototype is complete!
I like this from Memphis gadabout John Beifuss: "Those who do not appreciate true art will probably call it ugly," rationalizes the film's mad sculptor about his work -- a useful comment that could function as an inadvertent slogan for all the undervalued directors laboring in the sometimes disreputable horror genre." I like that Burns and Allen's regular third wheel and announcer, Bill Goodwin, is a cop. And there's a great existential sadness that hangs over it all, which Beifuss again nails:
"House of Horrors" is little more than efficient in terms of its staging and camerawork. But it's utterly absorbing in its alternately dismissive and sympathetic attitudes toward art and abnormality; as the story volleys between the healthy Steven and the weird Marcel, between the vibrant Joan and the grotesque Creeper, it functions almost as a dialogue. On the surface, Yarbrough seems to encourage the conflicted viewer to embrace the film's rote 1940s endorsement of wholesomeness; yet it's the almost Steinbeckian duo of Marcel and the Creeper that engages our identification.
The clarity of the DVD image bears this out, exposing the relative poverty of the bland sets, and the attention to moody shadows and alive flickerings in Marcel's studio, and Rondo's reputation as the Creeper is well established by his supernatural ability to slip silently around brightly lit empty corridors; and sneak up right behind people before strangling them and breaking their spines with only his tall twisted shadow to give him away. The film is a sort-of sequel to THE BRUTE MAN, which ends, presumably (I can't remember) with the Creeper being shot and disappearing into the river, which is where our sculptor fishes him out. Word to the wise: if you want to kill a bunch of enemies, rescue a monster!

STRANGE CASE OF DR. Rx
1942 - *
This is the one where the guy kills all the people who were exonerated for crimes with which they were clearly guilty. I say, good work, Dr. Rx! Mantan Moreland is 'great' as a sassy butler, jiving with delivery folks and generally deserving to be fired. He does have one good moment when he's supposed to pick up the blandsome hero from the airport in the morning, but then he wakes in the afternoon to said hero strangling him. "Why didn't we meet me at the airport?" the hero snaps. "Boss, I'm on my way right now!" Mantan says.

Similarly there's only one tiny little dark patch of horror in the film (pictured above) when we see Dr. Rx pulling a mindfuck freak-out gaslight routine, a heavy metal oasis in a desert of tedious post-code banality. It gets worse with the arrival of a feminism-sabotaging first amendment-violating hack reporter who tries to rope her detective husband out of the crime solving racket and into a straitjacket of domestic suffocation. Yeesh, you'll want to suffocate the lot of them. 


MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET
1942 - *
I started watching this in good faith but its tale of a mad scientist working on early forms of cyrogenics--and leaving a trail of bodies wherever he goes--is so dull and flat it makes one long for the comparatively ingenious touch of PRC or Monogram. El Mad Doctore (Lionel Atwill) is marooned with some dislikeable specimens on a tropical island where he saves the chief's wife with an adrenalin shot (not into the heart, I guess to not shock those heart-phobic censors). So from then on he's got the tribe in his hand, which means experimenting on the natives and then, when he wants to work on 'higher' forms of life (censors don't mind racism), the white castaways. Now he's gone too far! 
The Mad Doctor of Market Street presents us with such lousy specimens of the human animal, I am tempted to think that Martin's script was trying to sneak in an existentialist subtext. Certainly, life couldn't seem more absurd or meaningless than it does at the end of The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Only Martin's colossal incompetence at every other facet of screenwriting keep me from taking such an idea seriously. - Horror Inc.
I actually stopped watching about halfway through in disgust. I paid real money for this set, after eyeing it now for a few years on TCM's site, thinking the price would go down or I could get them to send me a review copy. For $44 or whatever the list is they should endeavor to give us at least four decent films instead of only three. The last two 'doctor' films are appallingly bad. We all know 1942 was a grim period for the horror film but jeeeze.

Maybe it was the war. Nothing could compare with the Nazis and Japanese as far as horrors. (By 1944 it was okay since we realized we would win). At any rate it does make one wonder if anyone at TCM even saw these last two films, or just figured that since they had doctor with the words strange or mad they must fit in the box. A pox on them, but not too bad a one, don't want to spook the censor. In closing, if you're wondering whether this set is worth the money, here's my breakdown:


Mad Doctor of Market Street - value - $0.00
Strange Case of Dr. Rx - value $0.50
The Mad Ghoul - value: $3.00
House of Horrors - value: $10.00
Murders at the Zoo - value: $30.59

It's worth it, just barely...

In the future, TCM, here's my recommendation for a great five film horror set, PRE-CODE JUNGLE HORRORS:

KONGO - 1931
EAST OF BORNEO - 1933
WHITE WOMAN - 1933
BLACK MOON - 1934
THE INTRUDER - 1933

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Old Dark Capsules 2: Phantom of Crestwood, The Black Cat (1941), Horror Island, The Rogue's Tavern, One Frightened Night

THE BLACK CAT
1941 - Universal **1/2
 It's confusingly titled since the Ulmer 1934 is the Black Cat as far as every horror fan in the world is concerned, but this name-only version has charms of its own, hampered (unless you've a benign tolerance for idiots) by insurance salesman Broderick Crawford's spazz and bluster and the endless tut-tutting of Hugh Herbert. The climax exemplifies Griffith's dictum re: you don't crosscut from the heroine about to be grilled in a cat crematorium, Perils of Pauline-style, to old Hugh Herbert fiddling around with old lamps and screwdrivers laughing to himself like a simpleton, since it creates a feeling of rage rather than suspense in the viewer (his exact words, I swear!) Another rule: never turn your back on someone after you've accused them of murder, especially when you're alone with them inside a secret, soundproof chamber. Luckily there's Basil Rathbone (as a greedy heir) and the dialogue's so rattattat one gets the whiff of amphetamines in the air. However, unlike Howard Hawk's ingenious use of overlapping dialogue, here they have to wait for the other person to finish their lines, if you'll forgive the expression, so there's a weird disconnect, as it takes longer to go a shorter distance even while moving  twice as fast. As a result, more stuff happens in the first half hour of this film than in six ordinary old dark house films, yet it never really goes.


In addition to Basil Rathbone ("who does he think he is, Sherlock Holmes?" quips Brod), the package of greedy heirs include a young and very surly Alan Ladd; would that Veronica Lake was around to chill Crawford's kinetic spazzing, although even the spazzing has some worth, like when he jumps off a second floor balcony and lands in the mud in a single wacky take. After flying through the air and tackling an empty suit of armor or the wrong guy five times in a row, though, you'd think he might hesitate the smallest bit with his wild accusations the next time a single whiff of red herring catches his dopey blue collar nose. But not unlike the Ritz Brothers' Gorilla movie, if your  mood is undiscriminating there are worse things: this Cat has even more secret passages and panels than usual, the cat sculpture and its surrounding marble mausoleum are gorgeous, and there's two indoor hangings! Interesting since one couldn't show anyone hanging in 1941, and they weave around that issue by showing dangling legs reflected in the mirror... for a surprisingly long take.


As far as red herrings (or are they?) Gale Sondergaard is good as always as the sinister catkeeper (the old rich dead lady wants to keep her house a cat sanctuary after she dies), but poor Bela is literally stuck out in the cold as the shaggy groundskeeper. Clearly they wanted his name in the credits but didn't want to deal with him except through a second unit. Was it the morphine or just his infamous temperament that regaled him to these wasted parts at Universal all through the 40s?  I would like to see one movie, just one, where Bela has a girlfriend. Why couldn't he be married to Sondergaard or something? Actually there is one film where a girl likes Bela, Monogram's otherwise unwatchable BLACK DRAGONS... Bela, you shall be... avenged! (Rattle metal thunder sheet and flicker the lights)

HORROR ISLAND
1941 - Universal - *1/2
There are a lot of things wrong from the start with Horror Island: squeaky clean Dick Foran in a Popeye-style sailor man suit struggling to pay for his boat; As Dick's dimwit first mate, Fuzzy Knight makes Andy Devine seem like like Errol Flynn, but even worse is Leo Carrillo's shameless overplaying as a Spanish pirate. The three are bound to seek some gold on a remote island, but need money for the expedition so they market it as an adventure expedition  ("twenty million in Spanish gold!"). Signing up is wiseacre heiress Peggy Moran, her drowsy playboy companion, and some other tourists. After some on-deck skullduggery they land on a rocky coasted island and an old mansion and then 'yawn' finally murder, ghostly howls, and the dusty suits of armor that m-m-ma-move by themselves. Simmer for 30 more minutes of tepid candle-lit corridor creeping and, Mister, you got yourself a bland comedy-mystery cliche stew. Worse even, a lot of the spook happenings turn out to be fake, and we never really know which are the real scares until the sound guy gets killed and the scares keep coming. Needless to say, all concerned seek the hidden treasure, and a sinister shadow in a slouch hat add to the studio enforced and censor-scrubbed 'fun.'


Some like this film though, probably because they saw it as very young kids... it has a chapter in the Guilty Pleasures (Vol. 1 - Midnight Marquee)which I think is out of print. It should be enough to know that it's there, in the book, and that some writer likes it. I say if you just relax into the film and take it as a bunch of vaguely connected shots of young men and women in dreary wartime fashions and homogenized pirate costumes skeedaddling in and out of secret panels and conking each other on the back of the head, maybe you can muddle through.

There is one bright spot: Moran's effete rich pal, Thurston Coldwater (Lewis Howard), who lounges around and makes droll wry comments like an anesthetized Waldo Lydecker. He can do wonders with a line like "Listen, my impetuous young friend," and he has the last joke. Why didn't he star?!?!

PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD
1932 - RKO  ***1/2
Where has this gem been all my life? Now it's on WB's Archive Collection where the image seems ever-so slightly squeezed so everyone looks super thin but who cares? So glad to have it around. Karen Morley (the moll from another 1932 gem, Scarface) shows why she deserves to be on the cover of the best film criticism book ever written (Manny at the Movies) with her scene-swipingly slithery performance as no-bones gold digger Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex and present lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them at a remote mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any, her own shrewd maid, a colorful drunk, and bearable comic relief. Jenny's retirement is prompted, we learn, via groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks, to some naive rich kid college boy leaping from a cliff after she dumped him (she learned he'd been cut off financially because of her). Then his ghostly face appears unto her on the balcony, and then she's dead.


On hand is Ricardo Cortez as a slickster hired by an unseen party to retrieve some incriminating love letters from her suitcase. He knows the coppers will pin her murder on him so he sets out to solve the mystery before the law can fix the ubiquitous washed-out bridge. The ending, on a foggy cliff with a single engine police plane coming in overhead, and the two guys walking off into the fog, foreshadows the similar end of Casablanca!! Was Curtiz a Karen Morley fan?  I sure am, after this movie. The pre-code era is full of B-list actresses who almost all pattern their gold diggers after Jean Harlow or Peggy Hopkins Joyce, but Morley is herself, with that uniquely flat, nasal, slightly sing-song voice that immortalized such lines as "you work fast, don't you Tony?" and "I don't like cigar smoke in my room-duya-mind?" in Scarface.

The photography should also be noted for being supremely shadowy, nearly to Von Sternbergian levels, but with (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house acoutrements -- secret passage, clues, complex motive crosswork -- instead of masochism and feathers. We learn in the beginning that the ending was chosen via a contest over the radio (after a serial of six chapters), but that hardly seems relevant today, or even likely in reality. Either way it's my new favorite. And I didn't even mention Hilda Vaughn as Morely's awesome, slightly Sapphic maid. She may be the coolest maid in all pre-code, almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator rather than a mere servant.

THE ROGUE'S TAVERN
1936 - Puritan Pictures - **
Detective Wallace Ford wants to marry Babara Pepper quickly so they head to a remote lodge the next state over (where its presumably easier) to meet a preacher. A gaggle of suspicious types mill in the lobby of this remote lodge, and then a dog bares his fangs on cue at certain windows and soon, sans preacher, they're all locked in by a mysterious killer. Suspects include a cabal of diamond smugglers, an old coot in a wheelchair and, I forget who elsezzz but there are worse ways to doze off than in front of an old dark house mystery, as long as you wake up in time to marvel at the sustained crazy killer monologue finale. 

Please note also the big fireplace in the lobby / lounge / tavern, which apparently is a mainstay of RKO-Pathe, the soundstage chosen 2-1 by fly-by-nite indie outfits like our film's releasing company, 'Puritan Pictures.' When at RKO-Pathe, make sure to build your set around the big fireplace, if it's available. You won't regret it.



Unfortunately when the fireplace is the film's best asset, you're headed nowhere fast; Pepper's character has that post-code nag problem where instead of just telling Ford what she's seen out the window, i.e. fangs, murders, she hems and haws and stammers like Lou Costello while Ford's busy cross-examining the rogues, and he's reluctant to listen to her, thinking she's just making some excuse to monopolize his time. Why doesn't she just tell him right off instead of saying "c-c-c-can you come here a m-m-minute?" Of course he brushes her off and since it's post-code she lingers and whines and schemes to get his mind back on the preacher and the marriage. The DVD is on Alpha and is pretty blurred. But I don't think clarity would help. The fog of booze on the other hand, just might. 


ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT
1935 - Mascot Pictures - **1/2
A dark and stormy night, a crotchety old man (Charley Grapewin) gathering his greedy heirs to read the will, secret passages, a spooky mask, and a long lost blonde granddaughter who shows up last minute to inherit everything, down to the last measly million. What a dumb clause if you want your granddaughter to survive the night!! Luckily an imposter dies first, not unlike what happens in THE MONSTER WALKS (1932 - see Old Dark Capsules 1). 

But ONE DARK NIGHT is a little more lively and ape-free than MONSTER WALKS, better even without Mischa Auer but saddled instead with the inescapable Wallace Ford. He plays a Vaudeville magician named 'the Great Lavalle,' whose car conveniently breaks down near the old mansion during the storm. His assistant (Mary Carlisle) just so happens to be the real granddaughter heiress. The old man believes her because she refuses to have anything to do with him or his filthy money. Meanwhile there are poison darts, Hindi sculptures, and a line-up of suspects who all must sooner or later tangle with the usual carload of clueless, gun-jumping cops. Rafaela Ottiano (the human trafficker in SHE DONE HIM WRONG) is the maid; Arthur Hohl and Hedda Hopper (you heard me) are suspects. Ford has no interest in Carlisle except as a pal and assistant, which is unusual, so she upgrades to Regis Toomey, despite the fact he may be the killer.

FRIGHTENED has been a fall-asleep C-level favorite of mine for years in a more truncated version than the somewhat blurry Alpha DVD (I had taped it in the early 80s off the old PBS show Matinee at the Bijou).  I even used footage from it in my cynically unclaimed 2009 smashed hit, CURSE OF THE MALE GAZE (Carlisle stands in for Laura Mulvey). What better way, perhaps, to close this capsule collection than to present it now? 




See Old Dark Capsules 1 here (with OLD DARK HOUSE, CAT AND THE CANARY, THE GHOUL, THE MONSTER WALKS, THE GHOUL)