Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Behold with awe, and weep: THE UNDEAD (1957)

"Do you see my hand? There is no end to my hand, is there?" 
My favorite Corman movie, this loopy black and white tale of reincarnation, hypnotism, knights, witches both good and bad, devils and Satanic graveyard dancers zips by in an hour and leaves my jaw agape every time. I love Charles B. Griffith's and Marc Hana's droll script, and Corman's speedball econo direction, the array of sexy, over-the-top, or otherwise awesome performances, the feeling of flowing poetic weirdness that it can only come from being shot in sequence over one long night in an empty supermarket full of black toxic mist to disguise the lack of backgrounds. Starting in some Edgar G. Ulmer fog with Pamela Duncan as a 'weak-minded', bombshell-shaped streetwalker, recruited with gallons of money (for a 48 hour or more stint on a psychiatric couch going deeper and deeper, into her unconscious's unconscious's unconscious's, by Val Dufor's bug-eyed "trustworthy" past-life hypnotist Quintas. And then, weirder still, a medical doctor cautioning him against it every step of the way, regularly taking Lorna's blood pressure to make sure she doesn't die from the excitement of lying on a couch. Like Charles Haid in Altered States, he seems to exist to provide a kind of antithetical validation.


Meant to tie in to the then-craze for reincarnation (set in motion by the popularity of the Bridey Murphy story) the story quickly throws logic and even metaphysics to the wind, and ends up derailing the 'Grand Scheme of Things' when Lorna Love is able to whisper advice to her about-to-be-beheaded for witchcraft Middle Ages incarnation, Helene. Whoa! That's not how hypnosis works, but hey -- go for it! We don't (or shouldn't) really care about logic in a Corman movie, when there are so many more cool things going on. And here, it's clear, he just saw THE SEVENTH SEAL, newly arrived from Sweden and blowing his open Californian mind wide open. The idea that archetypes like Death, the Devil, the Kinght and the Witch could be directly represented as if straight out of a woodcut, this redefined 'so old it's new' and it fit Corman's loose ballsy style like a glove. Besides, what else is intuition and spirt guidance if not hypnotized selves of the future shooting us tips and cautions from their future psychiatrist's space couch? And what else are the voices one hears in one's head that-- if you answer --either means your schizophrenic or a witch depending on the century. Only in this case, her past self is able to act on the counsel, and soon her loyal suitor and the palace guards are giving chase through the gnarled trees, and the hypnotist has no choice but to get hypnotized himself and join her in the past to try and correct the matter. Whoa! You will be either outraged at the total disregard for logic or jumping for joy for the same reason. It's the kind of looney premise we wouldn't see repeated until EXORCIST II.

I saw UNDEAD 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, Dorothy Neumann the definitive good witch. Her crooked nose, clearly made by cheap putty that seems always about to dry and fall off (you can see the line between Neumann's real nose and the false one), bubbling cauldron, and other trappings, puts to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in OZ that "only bad witches are ugly" (the bad witch is sexy Alison Hayes, flying around with her cackling mute imp played by Billy Barty) 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 hypnotists from the future were not uncommon. Or her explanation of how she got her powers from the same evil place Livia did, but managed to keep her soul, and how Livia and Meg Maud size each other up and admiringly realize "you will make a good opponent" in a wager for the life of Helene and love of Pendragon (Richard Garland), Helene's super-boring handsome (and dimwitted lover).


I could go on and on, but just a final word, about Satan himself, played with the perfect mix of beatnik sardonicism and mellifluent delight by Richard Devon. He shows up only in the last quarter of the film, when midnight, the hour of the Witches' Sabbath begins, bringing along his autograph book to give out gifts (and pitchfork tattoos like hand stamps at a rock club) and take signatures. Before he shows up the film is just a great weird and well-written mix of basement Shakespeare and black fog graveyard impishness but after he begins his meeting with the dancing graveyard witches it enters a sublime mania all its own. Recognizing the hypnotist with bemused calm, Satan greets him by name: "so, Quintas, you've managed to slip the bonds of time at last!" as if he's been expecting him sooner.

Once the rubes leave, the site of the black mass becomes a point of contact between the by-now-insane hypnotist, Duncan, the devil, and both witches as they all argue for and against Duncan going back to the executioner in the morning. Ingeniously, Corman finally moves his camera outside, making the sun and sky seem suddenly more unreal and dreamlike than the black fog supermarket-bound night that came before. Gather ye pleasures while ye may, cautions the Devil, to Quintas. And I have lived by that code. To me there is no finer pleasure to be gathered than this sweet hour of dark weirdness, THE UNDEAD. Slide it into a night of Halloween pleasures with SPIDER BABY and HORROR HOTEL/ CITY OF THE DEAD, and gather the pleasures like graveyard shivers spilling out of a graverobber's trick-or-treat bag!

2 comments:

  1. When Corman was on and really cared about a script, he delivered amazing cinema. "Masque of the Red Death" being the best example, and a personal favorite. Even his worst director-for-hire clunkers have moments of awkward poetic brilliance. I haven't had the chance to see this one yet. But definitely will now. Thanks for posting the link!

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