Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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

Hurricane Sandy's signification as a pre-apocalypse harbinger recalls the apocalyptic film glut of 1982, as does Shout's new Blu-ray of HALLOWEEN II (from 1981, but 1982 was the year this sad sequel made it to TV and 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 isn't that bad on its own. After all, in each case the original had an advantage over its sequels: it didn't have to match anything. There was no pressure to be equal to some past 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 Carpenter's name (as co-writer/producer) and chosen diegetic holiday.

The best sequels such as GODFATHER 2 transcend expectations, disappointing on an existential level at first, until their own different brilliance shines through. HALLOWEEN 2 goes the reverse and delivers, in the vernacular of Chico Marx "ah-too-a much,"pleasing audiences at first but leaving them sick of the whole business by the end.

In HALLOWEEN II's case, it's in the imitation of the imitators of John Carpenter's original (such as Friday the 13th) that if falters. Instead of zeroing in on the method rather than just the madness, director Rick Rosenthal tries to compensate for lack of know-how vis-a-vis suspenseful build-up, by heaping on the corpses and coincidence. A whole cross section of stock characters are set up to be slaughtered and then slaughtered. Some of them are so gross (the goomba EMT) we cheer their deaths, but some of whom we come to like--in the short time we have with them-- which just makes their clumsy offing dispiriting rather than terrifying.

The two holdovers from the original, Jamie Lee and Donald Pleasance, struggle to transcend this stale nightmare they've inadvertently found themselves 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 until you find it, but the whole thing is flooded. Feverishly, you navigate mazes of institutional gray halls.... slowly bursting from within. And on reflection, the idea that a mass murder would go on in a small town and the hospital not be overloaded with firemen, cops and press, seems ridiculous, even in the era before CNN.

But on other 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 who saw it on a date --then you took over for a new audience, maybe via flashlight at a sleepover, telephone gaming it like some embellishing tribal orator. And what we talked about more than anything were the details of the murders. But after the sea change success of FRIDAY THE 13TH, 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, which he'd taken his six kids to see the night before. Even as a 13 year-old, I was shocked at his callous disregard for promiscuous teens, my pre-PC feminist ire gaining ground inside me. I came to the realization I was seeing the true Christianity in action: boiling a nutritious, fiery harvest myth, boiled down into a cold phallic stab of gynocidal stake-burnt venom, ad infinitum.

settin' em up, knockin' 'em down
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 the stuff of future memory 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 --we suddenly remember the victim is just an actor. Death is never 'real' in a horror film (in JC's carpentry we trust). The original was a long, hot date that ends in great petting on the couch that we remember with a delirious swoon but nothing to boast of with the boys; the sequel is cheap one-night-stand sex, i.e. what we thought we wanted, and we get the high-fives, 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 surfaces, every attempt at 'difference' diluting their strength: 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 now go nowhere, except up and down marble halls. Additions from FRIDAY THE 13TH are even brought in: the hospital staff includes the aforementioned foulmouthed Italian American douchebag paramedic and his cute shy college boy paramedical partner; the bossy-but-compassionate African American nurse; a candy stripe hottie (passive enough to shag the douche), and the cliche'd fat oaf security guard (the same guard from Sarah's psych ward in TERMINATOR 2!)... all set up just to get knocked down before the ball even comes back up the chute. 

what a speller!
There are some great little new touches: an angry mob pelts the Myers' house with rocks as Dr. Loomis and the sheriff drive slowly past; there's some meta-confusion when the security guard is watching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on one of the hospital's black and white security monitor, then cuts to the hospital exterior, with Myers walking around the rear of the building, 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. Jamie Lee Curtis hobbles around on the parking lot on a bad foot, pleading softly for help but no one can hear. 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.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.

But it's all pretty absurd that, with all the murders going on, anyone would even waste time at the school, combing blackboards for obscure messages. Why on Earth don't they post some cops outside Laurie's room in the hospital instead of weaving through grade schools?

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. Period.

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.

In case you are wondering, these screenshots were all taken from the theatrical version - an alternate TV cut with added scenes and presented full screen.

Getting back to Halloween razor blade side bit, let us use it as a segue back into discussing the years of 1979-1983 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 newspapers 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 in my NJ neighborhood had, 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 appropriate to start out until after dinner and it had gotten dark.

But one door never closes but that another opens. Kids may have lost their freedom to go outside unchaperoned, 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 ever-present, it was just on HBO all the time, over and over. So even now, whenever I hear "Mr. Sandman / build me a dream" I see Michael's mask burning in the exploded hospital room.

So that was 1982: 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 which Carpenter brought to bear to make the original 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, told by fires at camp or candles and flashlights at home, once fueled our imagination and made them both scarier and less traumatizing than seeing the films would prove. None ever measured up to our lurid envisioning when we finally were old enough to see them. But, still, seeing them did something to us: it left us feeling that stale, wretched one-night-stand loss of faith in humanity instead of the swooning no-release all-night make-out session of the campfire narrative.

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, again and again, each time the last. Today, those uneasy eyes are gone but the blonde hair remains, super long now, like Rob Zombie likes it, and the final girl chase and battle drags on until both parties are cut to ribbons and beyond, 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 evil suburbia hid in its basements, that terrifying Chordettes song echoing through the house --all of it dissolving into a lurching pastel 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 drunk devils gone to a sobering silent still AIDS angel; mischief night and trick-or-treating gone to the video tape. Rewind all you want, but we'll never bite into its razorblade core 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.

In any discussion of cinematic archetypes, Old Scratch 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 Satan just working for God, challenging mortals like a mean but fair swim coach, or an insecure rich girl worrying the faithful only like her for miracles (PS)? Did God release him into the world like British aristocrats releasing a fox before the hunt? Or--as some CIA agents and conspiracy theorists have claimed--is our world owned by the devil? Is God just a huckster's ruse? Is the light at the end of the tunnel just a lure, so the angler devil can haul us up (down) into suffocating realm above (below)? Any astro- or psycho-naut knows that beyond gravity there is no sense of up or down, or oxygen - so Hell being below and Heaven being above makes no logical sense. But the poor damned souls who have broken the golden rule may wind up/down there anyway --stuck in a lake stocked with sinners for the devil's weekend fishing pleasure.


In the movies and in the literature it all kind of begins and ends with old Faust and his bargain: there's a million variations and we know them all. Robert Johnson met Satan at the crossroads, and his guitar was tuned to the devil's key, but, 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 trans-dimensional brokerage to Jimi Page. He had to sacrifice his drummer and Robert Plant's son, but Page survived and ended up doing the soundtrack to Death Wish 2. 

I once had a visit from God, I thought, during a profound enhanced meditation, but after awhile He changed. It turned out he was trickster spirit if not a devil outright, just wearing a holy radiance. 

"There ain't no devil / there's just God when he's drunk." - Tom Waits 
He's never far away from a drink either. Every time you curse-- which is constantly-- he collects a bit of your soul. Try saying bless you and may the lord watch over you and praise Jesus a lot instead of goddamn it and  taking the lord's name in vain and you'll see the devil flair up all around in indignant outrage all around in the faces of your friends. "Dude, we thought you were cool?!"Dude, you just cut off the devil's tap!

Little Nicky
Then again,  the horns and hooves are proof Old Scratch is really a representation of old world supernatural pantheism. He's Pan, the god of nature and fornication, the satyr, the initiator into carnal abandon. And now more than ever, we need him.  Not the version hailed in meth-y suburban metalhead attics but the version of natural succumbing to the forces of chthonic nature, Let us sing hymns to Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld. He is not the devil, nor is Pan. But Christians can't tell the difference. That's OK. We still love them despite their inquisitive ways. And if we don't, how are we better than them?

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 immensely powerful effect if one is willing to look Pan in the face” (64-65).  - Richard Strommer - On Satan, Demons, and Daimons:An Archetypal Exploration
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'll confess I'm fairly agog over Pinal's "innocent" 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 but fitting in perfectly in their new beatnik attire. It's amazing to think of Pinal's level of sacrilegious and profane relish here, when in Viridiana only a few years earlier, she was so pious and naive you couldn't imagine her any other way. Here she's a gleeeful serpent, but in the corrupt future she whisks them to, full of planes and rock-and-roll, prophets and devils may are 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 crap out of us all, like a waking dream/nightmare. In a plot that would be loosely borrowed by Sam Raimi for Evil Dead, (he must have been just as freaked by it) some dopey/square college kids visiting a national park stumble onto a crazy hermit in a dark cave with a secret book full of devilish symbols which could trigger end the world. A friendly park ranger comes along, and would really... really like that book, kids. They don't want to give it to him, so he's less friendly. 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. He's the stuff of kid nightmares and his name was burned into my memory, Asmodeus. Later, he transforms into a crudely startling claymation devil with wings (below), and summons a big Lovecraftian tentacled beastie, a purple Giant, and other things. Funny I remember the devil as much more elaborate (like the demon in Jeepers Creepers) showing just how much extra detail a child's imagination can add.

Now I'm more intrigued by the memory of being scared by it kid than I am about the movie itself, but Asmodeus is still the guy we imagined trying to lure us into cars with candy, looking all official--those bushy eyebrows, deep voice, that Sterling Hayden x Robert Ryan-style terse, manly delivery. As a representative of paternal security, the figure you run to find when someone needs help in the woods, you want to trust him, and Woods--one of the director/producers--radiates adult knowingness. But then next time you look his eyes are darkening, those brows casting way too much shade over his eyes, and he's leering, his tongue out, and hypnotizing with that flashy ring--leading to all sorts of overlays and flash cuts.

That's the kind of shit 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 right outside mowing the grass, catching it on TV could put the chill in a room full of kids. And even watching it now I marvel at the quality of the acting (terrible in all the right ways) and the knowing deftness of the editing. There's not a single dull moment, even if it all occurs in broad daylight, on a clear day outdoors, in a beautiful park picnic atmosphere, and the claymation may be crude, but it's still really good.

4. Green ooze
Prince of Darkness (1987)

This movie got some confused reviews over the years and has a dull ugly aesthetic (a 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 trans-dimensional 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. So see it again in a year and maybe it will be better, regardless.

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

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 (maybe you're scoffing now) but it's partly that we're as afraid of being considered flaky as we are of being proved correct. It's a no-win situation, 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 a cult of upper crust young jet setters, 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 yellow eyes contrasting with his ebony blackness and huge smile paint some image of Voodoo to the jet setter Satan set, as if two branches of the same happy family, like at this moment he's also standing in the center of a Haitian fire circle.

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)

 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. Alison Hayes is the va-va-Voom-level hot 'real bad' witch with eyes on Pamela Duncan's dimwitted man, and no one is too amazed by a time-traveling hypnotist, especially not the devil, played with the perfect mix of beatnik sardonicism and mellifluent calm by Richard Devon, who transcends time itself. He shows up only in the last third, 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 with "so you've managed to slip the bonds of time at last" as if he's been expecting him sooner.

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 wanted to see: faces melting, horns, and robes, and William Shatner. The other Satan film I most wanted to see 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, aka The Chosen, aka 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 - clearly the prophet from millennia ago foresaw his reactor triggering armageddon. Good luck stopping the project though, when your son's the devil 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 you know what guts and gonzo guts it took to include a scene where a Catholic priest facilitates an involuntary abortion!

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 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

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 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, 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 Karras 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.

Lost Highway

Saturday, October 27, 2012

You're Eatin' Hearts: Universal Cult Horror (TCM DVD Set review)

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 WWII, back when we weren't yet sure we'd win. Universal, in its lack of wisdom, didn't believe horror movies were what the wartime public wanted (they thought they wanted wartime jingoism, and/or bourgeois fluff operetta). Son of Frankenstein proved 'em wrong. But by '43 they were issuing half-awake surplus like this.

Censors are flighty folks. Despite the horror overseas, they won't allow us to learn what the "Mad Ghoul" (David Bruce) does with dead bodies he exhumes. We guess he eats the hearts, since the hearts are missing from the coffins and dug up graves. But then the cops change the subject, perhaps realizing some half-dead sod rifling through the contents of dead men's chests for food is pretty low to nil, all things considered. Rather than evil, he's like a poor hippie, funeral home dumpster diving while following his former true love on tour (instead of Phish or the Dead) doing (what else?), bourgeois fluff operetta, lip-synced by Evelyn Ankers and conducted by urbane composer-pianist Turhan Bey. With his Egyptian charm he easily sweeps Evelyn off of her feet while Bruce is out eating people's hearts. How symbolic! Turned ghoulish via an ancient zombie gas formula created by yet another romantic rival (his chemistry thesis advisor George Zucco), Bruce is outclassed from the get-go. 

But again, the threat angle is dubious. The worst the cops and press can do is concern themselves with his effect on the bereaved ("He always chooses a new corpse"). Though the ghoul doesn't kill, merely raids the funeral home larder like an unscrupulous med student or mad wax museum sculptor, he's still a menace... for some reason! Catching him "may be the means of saving the deceased from a horrible mutilation!" (I'm sure the deceased would be grateful). It all seems especially gross, since the censor won't let us learn \ why Bruce would need to eat hearts in the first place, as opposed to normal meals (is he getting high on embalming fluid?), or why we should care if an already dead person is used for something other than feeding worms or crematory ovens. Is it really so important these recently deceased hearts stay un-pilfered? Corpse eating shouldn't be further demonized, considering civilians were probably doing the same thing in besieged Leningrad the same year this came out, just to survive the winter. Calling it monstrous is shaming to our temporary allies!

Zucco has fun with all this grisly business, as much as he can, but the plot is the same as all the Universal monster B-pics of the time: an exploited killer and his evil mastermind handler take their frustrations out bitchy critics and romantic rivals while a snappy reporter goes undercover to catch them. In this case, it's Armstrong posing as a funeral home cadaver to catch his "man." "Whatever you do, don't mar this coffin!" exclaims the undertaker. 

Anyway, the make-up is interesting, the shambling effective, the suspense music fine, the heart-eating uncanny chiefly for its glaring elephant-in-the-room vagueness. The lighting is competent but needs more shadows and darkness. Hasn't anyone ever heard of expressionism? Where are all the German immigrants? A dark set could save on electricity! I guess the censors wanted to make sure no phantoms were having sex in the corners or eating things they shouldn't.
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. Hang in there, boys!


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 to kill for, especially. when her hair and make-up are reigned in. It's the old familiar tale of maniacal jealousy between an older, domineering man and his younger, lothario-magnet wife but with one welcome addition: this is pre-code so the animal-related murders and lurid come-ons of cuckolded husband Eric (Lionel Atwill)--the big game hunter / zoo owner-- are truly perverse. "Yes, Eric, I know," Burke says, voice trilling with anticipatory sexual panic, after he kills her latest lover with a mamba bite, "now you're going to make love to me." Cutaways from the human actors to pent-up animals in cages, all the better to symbolize a panorama of human emotions. Atwill sits with a chimp in his lap and looks quite comfortable and is clearly the sort who wants to be master of the flora and fauna. I've been the delusional boyfriend of the hot girl every man in town feels obliged to hit on, and it's very nerve-wracking. It's not like you can do much about it without making the situation worse, and you know you do the same thing all the time--beauty like Burke's enchants men to the point they don't even know where or who they are. That West Side Story 'love at first sight at the dance' effect where all the rest of the world blurs/fades away.

Unfortunately, there's too much comic relief in Charlie Ruggles as the zoo's dipsomaniac PR agent. He hems and haws for whole bathroom break-long stretches at the thought of l-l-lions and t-t-t-igers! and there's boring straight man stuff from Randolph Scott as a straight arrow herpetologist so smart he accuses the killer to his face, while they're alone in a room filled with venomous snakes, and then turns his back on him, and all before bothering to phone the cops or tell anyone else of his suspicions! Hahaha! Eric is not one to squander such an opportunity. 

Luckily Scott's toxicologically-savvy assistant (Gail Patrick) isn't as much of an idiot, and saves the day. Her black oil slick hair doesn't make a good contrast with her pale face. Other bummers are the subtextual animal cruelty, such as turning a lot of big cats loose in a cramped room or keeping them in their tiny cells is heart-wrenching. reminding me of bummer Philly zoo trips in the 70s. But hey, Burke is so lovely, alien-looking and haunted that her terror leaves a queasier taste than it might otherwise. Her misery being married to Eric has put her in a state of somnambulistic terror so irresistible you may want to risk having your mouth sewn shut in Malaysia just to 'save' her. Don't do it! Even if you succeed, some other banal handsome white cipher will be waiting to turn you into just another jealous Eric.

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 in this unofficial BRUTE MAN sequel. Real-life German political refugee Martin Kolseck plays a poverty-stricken mad sculptor and his model, the (real life) acromelagy-ridden Creeper, Rondo Hatton is his muse and friend. Rondo was in a string of Bs (including the Sherlock Holmes film PEARL OF DEATH). He died and his career is very sad, but his name lives on in the Rondo awards. I was once nominated for one once! I didin't win but I'm still feeling honored about it. Your image will outlive us all, fair and lovely Rondo.

Kolseck's tortured, shadow-dwelling expressionist sculptor--a genius but unknown and scorned by the critics--has an interesting shadow in an All-American bland boy hack photographer (he takes pretty girl's pictures for ads). There's a great dissolve between the hero's subject--a hot vacant bikini model-- and Kolseck's subject--the magnificently disfigured Rondo.  Beautiful and complicated Rondo vs. bland blonde!  

"Now I have a feeling of power!" Kolseck rants, inspired. "Limitless power!"

As someone who labors greatly for this little site, I'm always having mental dialogues where my innate grandiosity is tempered with rage at a relative lack of public recognition compared with some of my mainstream hack fellows. These thoughts fuel a whole cycle of dejection, bitterness, anger, humility, redemption, and finally artistic inspiration fueled by grace, which quickly becomes overstuffed with grandiosity, followed by bitterness my magnificence isn't more fully appreciated, and the cycle clicks a spoke anew. Sometimes I take this journey in a single breath! Limitless power and unbridled creative flow, and its twin flip-side, blocked insecurity. Thus I appreciate the frustrations of Martin Kosleck as the moody sculptor. An anti-Nazi German who fled his homeland one jump ahead of the Gestapo, Martin would, ironically, spend most of his years in Hollywood playing the very Nazis he fled from. Here he's clearly relishing a chance to embody a more tragic, three-dimensional 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 cast as a cop, for no earthly reason. 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 'good guy' sets vs. the attention to moody shadows and alive flickering in Marcel's studio. 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. Rondo's earlier Creeper engry, THE BRUTE MAN ends (I dimly remember) with the Creeper, shot and falling into the East River, which is where our sculptor finds him and fishes him out and brings him home to his studio like a lost puppy. It's touching, not unlike a similar scene early on in 1941 Peter Lorre classic FACE BEHIND THE MASK. The film eventually ends on a note of unsatisfying predictability, but for awhile it really soars in satisfying directions with a great moral: if you want to kill a bunch of your enemies, just be kind to a half-drowned hulking monster! The war was in fullest flower in 1944, and it's to the film's credit that it understands the need for being kind to that which horrifies us for ultimately higher ends, i.e. allying with the thuggish Stalin against a certain Austrian hack painter. 

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 of course the best part as a a lazy butler, jiving with delivery folks and generally deserving to be fired despite being the best thing about the movie. My favorite moment is when he's supposed to pick up his blandsome hero boss from the airport in the morning, but sleeps through his alarm instead. Finally in the afternoon, Mantan wakes up to find his boss--having had to come home in a cab--now at his bedside, strangling him: "Why didn't we meet me at the airport?" the hero snaps.

"Boss!" blurts startled Manton, "I'm on my way right now!"

That's the only good line. Similarly there's only one tiny little dark patch of horror in the film (pictured above), a kind of a cheat (like using an arresting image from a dream sequence montage for your movie poster) wherein we see Dr. Rx pulling a MAGIC CHRISTIAN-esque freak-out on the captured hero with the help of a gorilla suit, but it's just one small heavy metal oasis in a desert of tedious lite muzak. Things only gets worse with the arrival of a feminism-sabotaging, first amendment-violating hack reporter who tries to gaslight her detective husband out of the crime-solving racket. Yecchh. 

1942 - *

I started watching this in good faith but its tale of a mad scientist working on early forms of cryogenics-- leaving a trail of bodies wherever he goes--is so dull and flat it only made me mad I'd ever even bought this set. I began to long for the comparatively ingenious touch of PRC or Monogram. This one stars Lionel Atwill as the titular doctor, marooned with some dislikable specimens on a tropical island. One night he saves the chief's wife with an adrenalin shot (not into the heart, I guess to not shock those heart-phobic censors) and from then on he's got the tribe's witch doctor gig, which means experimenting on the natives and then, when he wants to work on 'higher' forms of life, the white castaways. Now he's gone too far!  They'd have probably loved this film in Germany or the Jim Crow south. 
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 for 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. These last two 'doctor' films are appallingly bad. We all know 1942 was a grim period for the horror film thanks to evil censors (in both senses of the term) but Jeeze! I don't mind ineptitude but I hate anemic triteness and soul-killing racist boredom.

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 probably win, eventually). At any rate it does make one wonder if anyone at TCM even saw these films, or were just scrolling the available titles in the Universal roster and picked anything with 'Mad', 'Strange' or 'Horror' in the title. A pox on them (but not too bad a one, don't want to spook the censor), when there are so many other worthy titles they could have included whose names may not have stuck out. 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 $0.00
The Mad Ghoul - value: $3.50
House of Horrors - value: $15.00
Murders at the Zoo - value: $19.99

Maybe you can find the last two separately? (POST-SCRIPT: Now you can!)

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

KONGO - 1932

Yr welcome! 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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

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 the triple threat treat of Basil Rathbone (as a greedy heir), Bela Lugosi (as an enigmatic groundskeeper), and Gayle Sondergaard (as a suspicious housekeeper); and dialogue so rattattat one gets the whiff of amphetamines in the air. However, unlike Howard Hawk's ingenious use of overlapping dialogue, here they 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... anywhere... at all...  'til the fiery furnace finish.

In addition to Basil Rathbone ("who does he think he is," quips the Brod, Sherlock Holmes?") there's a young, surly Alan Ladd in his film debut (would that Veronica Lake was around to chill him). And while Brod's schtick grows wearisome fast, there's some satisfaction to be had when he jumps off a second floor balcony and lands face down in the mud in a single wacky take. After flying through the air and tackling an empty suit of armor or the wrong guy over and over 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. Nope. Still, like that Ritz Brothers' Gorilla movie, if your mood is undiscriminating enough, there are worse variations on the theme, and it certainly ladles on the atmosphere. This Cat has even more secret passages and panels than most; the cat sculpture and its surrounding marble mausoleum are gorgeous; and there's two deaths by hanging (they weave around the censors by showing dangling legs reflected in the mirror).

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--though featured prominently in the credits--is literally stuck out in the cold as the shaggy groundskeeper. Clearly they wanted his name on the marquee but didn't want to deal with him at all, except maybe through a second unit. Was the morphine or just his infamous Hungarian temperament that reduced him to these wasted household servant parts at Universal all through the 40s? While we're on the subject, 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 BLACK DRAGONS. (Rattle metal thunder sheet and flicker the lights)

1941 - Universal - *1/2

There are a lot of things wrong from the start with Horror Island but none more so than the three lead males: squeaky clean Dick Foran in a Popeye-style sailor man suit as a dope struggling to pay off his boat; Fuzzy Knight, making Andy Devine seem like like Errol Flynn as his cornpone first mate; and Leo Carrillo, shameless hamming it up as a Spanish pirate, replete with earring. They're seeking some buried pirate gold on a remote island, but need money for the expedition so they market it as an adventure expedition. Signing up is wiseacre heiress Peggy Moran, her drowsy playboy companion, Thurston Coldwater (Lewis Howard), and some other tourists. After some on-deck skullduggery they land on a rocky coasted island and an old mansion and then commences the ghostly howls, and the dusty suits of armor that m-m-m-move by themselves. Simmer for 30 more minutes of tepid candle-lit corridor creeping and you got yourself a bland comedy-mystery cliche stew. Worse even, a lot of the spook happenings turn out to be fake. A sinister shadow in a slouch hat tries to add to the studio enforced and censor-scrubbed 'fun' but whether he succeeds probably depends on what age you were when you first saw this. 

People who caught on TV in their youth do love it. It even has a chapter in the Guilty Pleasures (Vol. 1 - Midnight Marquee) which I think is out of print so you'll have to take my word for it (I can't find my copy or I'd quote it. For you, it should be enough to know that it's there, in the book, and that some writer likes it. I will say this: 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 pasteurized 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, played with great ennui by 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 even has the last joke. Why didn't he star?!?!

1932 - RKO  ****

It's got everything I love: it occurs over one afternoon and night, ends at dawn, it's got fog, a washed-out road, a wind-blown house, murder suspects, death masks, and two of my favorite actresses: Anita Louise (Titania in the 1935 Reinhardt Midsummer Night's Dream) and Karen Morley (Poppy in Scarface). The latter delivers a scene-swipingly slithery performance as wry gold digger 'party girl' Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex-lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them for a party at a remote Southern California mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any. The scandal! If this got out I'd be ruined (x3). Jenny's retirement is prompted--we learn via then-groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks--bysome naive rich baby-faced college boy's leaping off cliff to his death after she dumps him (papa cut him off because he wants to marry her). Then his ghostly face appears on the balcony, and then she's dead, too, from a thrown dart (?). Ricardo Cortez and his group of gangsters arrive, initially to steal some of Jenny's incriminating love letters, but when they see the corpse, decide to hold the whole party hostage, and need quick solve the murder before the landslide is cleared and cops arrive. 

Yet another great instance of pre-code casting genius: Hilda Vaughn is Morely's awesome deadpan maid, a kind almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator and/or sewing circle "companion: rather than a mere servant. And if the lesbian currents don't run deep enough for you, there's the butch old aunt played by Pauline Frederick who--like Mercedes McCambridge in Giant--is fond of using horse breeding terminology when scrutinizing potential in-laws (i.e. Anita's innocent sister home from college). They're all great but it's really Morley's show - though she's in the role of the rotten blackmailer everyone wants to kill, she's so honest about her machinations, so amused at the way her suckers fear scandal, yet so winning in her "chalk it up to experience, youngster" worldliness, we want to write her incriminating love letters ourselves.

 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 Casablanca!!  The only difference, the plane is going the opposite direction! The End! The photography is shadowy and intoxicating almost to Von Sternbergian levels, but with all its (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house accoutrements -- secret passages, clues, washed-out bridge keeping the cops away, complex motives and sophisticated pre-code banter, it doesn't even need to look good to be great.

(1936) Dir. Bob Hill / Puritan Pictures - **

Detective Wallace Ford wants to marry Babara Pepper (a former department store detective)--and quickly-- so they head to a remote lodge the next state over (where its presumably easier to wed impulsively), there to meet a preacher at a tavern for a quickie service. But man, did Ford ever pick the wrong place! They haven't any vacancies. And the justice hasn't shown up. A gaggle of suspicious types mill in the lobby,  the wind howls softly outside in the night, and then a dog (Silver Wolf) 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 a sexy, strange fortune teller lady (the colossal Joan Woodbury) with a habit of staring straight into the camera during moody close-ups! And Silver Wolf! I've seen this movie a dozen times and fallen asleep every time, but there are worse films to doze off to than this one--the photography, framing, performances, and foggy, dog-howl atmosphere (we hear people scream alongside growls in another room and people run in just in time to see Silver Wolf jump through a broken window and the victim fall down dead) lifts it two steps above the average comparable Monogram picture--and long as you wake up in time to marvel at the sustained crazy killer monologue finale. Seriously, you'll love who the killer turns out to be - it becomes almost a giallo. 

Please note also the big fireplace in the lobby / lounge / tavern, which apparently was a mainstay of RKO-Pathe soundstage, chosen 2-1 by fly-by-nite indie outfits like our 'Mercury Pictures.' When at RKO-Pathe, make sure to build your set around the big fireplace, if it's available (too big to move off the soundstage). You won't regret it. "Have you got a fireplace?" asks Wallace Ford. "Have we got a fireplace!" 

Unfortunately, when the fireplace is the film's best artistic asset, it's gonna be a long night. Splotchy sound (sometimes there's none at all, when something like music, or wind noise, or even footsteps, would be nice; other spots people are talking but there ain't no sound to that either). 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 (a detective in his day job) is busy cross-examining the rogues, and he's reluctant to listen to her, thinking she's just making some excuse to monopolize his time or make some dumb faux-Ann Sheridan wisecrack. One longs for the relative tactlessness of Jimmy Chan! Luckily the jewel thieves get some good knowing lines ("the preacher must be busy with something awfully important," notes one of them), the mystery keeps moving forward, and all three of the women in the cast are all fully-formed characters (for all my grousing, Pepper is a pretty on-key sleuth, silently trailing after suspects, searching everyone's room, etc.) The DVD version on Alpha and is pretty blurred (the Prime print is better). But I don't think clarity would help. The fog of booze, on the other hand, just might. 

1935 - Mascot Pictures - **1/2

A dark and stormy night, a crotchety old man (Charley Grapewin) gathers his greedy heirs and promises them each a million dollars, but then some blonde shows up claiming to be his long lost granddaughter, so he changes his mind and leaves it all to her. If you want your granddaughter to survive the night!! Secret panels, passages. grisly masks, and a house full of strange blow guns and other indigenous tribal weaponry... you get the picture. 

ONE DARK NIGHT is a little more lively and ape-free than most old dark house pics, but finds itse;f  saddled 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. What better way, perhaps, to close this capsule collection than to present it now? 

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