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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mephisto from Missouri: THE RAVEN, COMEDY OF TERRORS, TOMB OF LIGEIA, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL... etc. (Blu-ray review)

Eyes and voice a purr of delight at his own ghoulishness, Vincent Price made the grim stare into the Poe-Lovecraftian void as cozy as a fireside flanked with sleeping wolfhounds, and last week the Shout Blu-ray set Vincent Price Collection II dropped... like the gallows' floor, like the guillotine blade, the axe on the neck of the turkey. Hear his legion of eternal fans gobble it up!

Forgive my gauche similes, for part of what makes Price such a treasure is his contagious sense of macabre humor, the obvious fun he has in playing evil rather merely just trying to appall. His luxuriant delight in every syllable spoken finds worthy material in the classy but sensationalist Poe-Matheson-Towne scripts for Roger Corman, for whom Price would become like what De Niro would become to Scorsese, or Monica Vitti to Antonioni, i.e. the alchemical miracle when an actor and director merge into one mind to form some magic third element, a form of lightning that could zap a film into life around a star like the earth around its molten core, building up a head of mood with little but candles, camera, and cobwebs.

This second Shout Factory volume of Price Blu-rays only has two examples of this lightning planet-building: The Raven and Tomb of Ligeia, add in the near-classic Jacques Tourneur-directed Comedy of Terrors, and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill  and the set is still an instant essential. Extras include Corman commentaries, interviews with screenwriter Richard Matheson, and--as with the first set--those lovely lyrical Price on a staircase introductions made by Iowa Public Television for a series of weekly Gothics from the 70s.

Shout's remastering of the AIP films for Blu-ray lengthens and deepens the image, saturating the palette with deep dark reds and greens, glowing amber and inky opaque blacks; firelight reflections glisten on maroon velvet drapery; every gossamer strand of the cobwebbed covered gates, every brush stroke of Bud Shonberg's twisted portraits, every shade of the psychedelic paint swirl credits, is now alive with new fire. Maybe it all adds up to little else but horror fan crack, but no matter how threadbare the situation, Price's aesthete air of mephistophelean delight never wavers. Pounce! Thy prey is here!

1963 - dir. Roger Corman
 **** (Transfer: A+)

A personal October perennial, this loose comedic 'adaptation' of Poe's poem has reluctant sorceress Vincent Price longing for his Lenore on a dark and stormy night, reading forgotten lore until Peter Lorre (bloated but hilarious) as the raven interrupts his moody brooding with a request for wizarding aid. A drunken sorcerer of lesser skill, Lorre tells Price he was turned into a raven by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff)--whose castle is right down the coast (Big Sur, naturally). It just so happens Scarabus killed Price's master sorcerer father in a duel years earlier. Price lost Lenore (Hazel Court) to him as well (a bit like Karloff stole Lugosi's wife in the 1934 Black Cat --another Poe "adaptation") but doesn't know she's still alive. Soon they're all packed away in a carriage, along with a young Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son Rexford and Olive Sturgess as Price's cute daughter.

The Blu-ray remastering is jaw dropping --as different from the old MGM DVD as beautiful soothing night is from shitty gray-ass day. Corman's vast and impressive sets now shine and breath in their vastness (apparently he kept all the castle walls and furnishings from past Poe films and just built more as he went, so by the time of The Raven the castle is a vast sprawling Gothic maze). On the old MGM Midnight DVD, the distance between walls made the dark look always looked kind of brownish and washed out, but now every flicker of the big fire pit glows in a new hauntingly lovely greenish gold reflective light and the blacks are oceans deep. The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of Disney cartoonish (I'd love to be able to re-score these films, the way Corman re-scored his old Bava imports, only taking Baxter out instead of putting him in) but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so you might as well bring the kids, by which I mean depressed lovelorn sophomores reeling from too much bad acid, as I was, catching this at the Student Union while a sophomore, and needing desperately at the time to return to the Gothic chambers and forgotten lore of childhood, wherein every fairy tale was grim. Coming to it in a riled state merely allows Price's melodiously evil purr to be all the more comforting.

In the land of the damned he is as the soothing balm of Ativan.

1964 Dir Roger Corman
*** 1/2 (Transfer - B)

Definitely one of the better and more unnerving in the cycle, this capstone to the Poe-Price-Corman series, and that's thanks largely to a ripping script by Robert Chinatown Towne, who captures Poe's horrified eloquence via elaborate double-blind metaphors, which Price then rolls through like a velvet serpent, waxing--for example--about how he wishes his rotting mind could be wrest open as easily as the cabbage thrown at Ligeia's trickster spirit animal cat. "What else is madness but belief that inwards does not exist?" Now don't get me wrong, I love Richard Matheson, who wrote many of the earlier Poes for Corman--but over repeat viewings his dialogue tended towards repetitive arguments between a young man refusing to leave the castle until he gets the truth and Price withholding it as long as possible, as if waiting for the censor to go to bed before the torture devices and elaborate Poe musing might be brought forth. Towne, on the other hand lets the rich existential musing flow freely, with lots of off-camera dialogue flowing over dream-like images (Rowena climbing the abbey stairs while Price talks of madness to his barrister; tales of his father told to Rowena over long shots of their honeymoon wanderings), trusting the audience to get the metaphors even as they triple and quadruple back on themselves to obscure their tracks. The result is that Price's natural eloquence is finally unchained, which is good, because he's also sans mustache, as he was in the first in the series (Usher) which I find as unnerving as the dreary English countryside daytime exteriors. I do like his steampunk wraparound shades but Poe should never see natural light--especially not England's wretched gray skies. I prefer the setbound Poes, which never approach reality whatsoever. Proving my point, this is one of the worst color-graded HD transfers - with many scenes still uncorrected / bleached out and very light grey blacks, unusual for the deep deep dark the better transfers offer (like the gorgeous liquid blacks of Pit and the Pendulum in the first set). Maybe it's the cinematographer going for a kind of wan, washed look ala Huston's Moby Dick but I think the color restorers on the disc just ran out of energy when they saw those skies. Who wouldn't?

Meanwhile Price decides to go a different route too, and plays his mournful Heathcliff de Winter-Rochester without any of his usual velvet flourishes. But as a result we can't fathom why the piercingly self-confident English Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) would want to marry such a sullen, naked-lipped poseur. Rowena is such an awesome fully-awake British heroine that it's hard not to be mad at Price for treating her so evasively.

All that said, Price still runs the Poe gamut and has a great time despite his possessed air. Dig his excitement during the hypnosis scene, convincing Rowena she almost caught a butterfly! The old hamminess really comes through then. Shepherd also does a great audio commentary, though it's with scholar Constantin Nazir, who irks me in daring to suggest Poe wasn't as big an opium addict as legend says. (Nazir, I think, hasn't really either soaked up Poe's druggiest work OR done opiates, let alone read Poe ON opiates, which is to truly understand just how laudanum-soaked all Poe's most memorable work is, and I mean that as the highest of compliments). Meanwhile, Nazir interrupts Shepherd's inimitable on-the-moment observations by lumbering through some Price letter gushing over her. Dude, who cares? We can read it later. Oh if only she was with erudite raconteur David Del Valle instead! Instead the great DDV gets the FLY and LAST MAN ON EARTH films, and folks like Nazir and Stephen Haberman take the Poe films (perhaps to not overlap with the DDV interview with Price?).

Either way, Shepherd knows her shit- able to rattle off a vast list of Corman proteges, and to describe in detail her method, in that great resonant deep purr of lordly confidence only British women seem to have.

The whole film itself, in fact, even more than the story, makes a a grand metaphor for drug addiction and alcoholism. I relate to the whole 'having a will beyond death' with Lady Whiskey as my Ligeia, feeling her call every time I walk past a liquor store window display, or the beer aisle at the grocery store. No mention is made of drugs in Ligeia, but the resemblance to Price's big breakthrough film, Dragonwyck, is as clear as the resemblance to Jane Eyre. The whole last act is like being a wife shut out of her husband's addiction, his weird nocturnal dalliances. When she finally breaks into his secret chamber and learns the vile truth, we see the cool pad we've been missing, and then all that's left is ye olde collection of Corman fire shots - that old familiar roof caving in and her agog horror.

Meanwhile, Towne and Corman leave it deliberately open-ended as to whether there really is a spirit of a willful real life woman floating around, or if he's just a paranoid opium addict trapped in his late wife's post-hypnotic suggestion--and then they take it to the logical conclusion, which so few other writers do--of getting us to the point where we understand finally that there is no difference, that reality is subjective, that Satanic panic, dreams, hypnosis, and reality are all just membranes away.

If the tree falls in the woods, but we hear it like a tolling bell, it's our alarm clock. A fitting final thought perhaps for this series that plays like one bizarre extended dream.

1963 - Dir Jacques Tourneur 
*** (Transfer: A)

People aren't dying fast enough for poor Price to keep his Victorian era funeral parlor 'afloat' and he's nothing if not a man of enterprise, i.e. a true American, so he does what needs to be done: thin the herd of rich idiots clogging the streets, boosting his rep for prompt arrival time at their chamber door.

This film used to give me a massive headache with all the nasty bickering between Price and his buxom wife, her off-key caterwauling and his vicious drinking,  assistant Lorre's baggy eyes and bloated body, father-in-law Karloff's funeral-ashen pallor. Here was the the unnerving sight of three of my favorite stars decaying into elderly humans: Karloff can't even stand up--though he does give a great and memorable eulogy; Price, still relatively young, is stuck in his most unlikable role outside of the Witchfinder General (it would have been great if he was nice to at least one person); luckily Basil Rathbone--firing on all five of his ancient steam-punk Holmes-y pistons--is so over the top in his crazy semi-dead vengeance that even Les Baxter's hammy overbearing score has to catch up, and Price seems at last impressed.

Luckily this new Blu-ray compensates for the shrill farce aspects by making every image gorgeous--the deep maroons throb and the blacks now creep darker than any Stygian shore.  Price's evil funeral director now seems to have more of a right to be luxuriating in his own evil. I've changed too, and now I've been married and divorced and I've had girlfriends who fancied themselves good singers, and many a pained look did I get from their audiences, as if it was my responsibility to stop them, yet I dared not, and when they glanced my way in a loving look I made every effort to smile in support, feeling my ire and shame swell up in a terrible Poe-like maelstrom, so I now get Price's pained revulsion towards his ever-wailing wife. And sure, Lorre's a mess but his drunken leering is just the surface of a real affection and sympathy he has for the buxom Jameson. And now I notice that despite his drunken bloat, Lorre is still as nimble as if he was Peter Kurtin-ing around Weimar Berlin. And since Price is killing people to support the lot of them, after all, they could be a little grateful! They do get drunk together, but that only worsens Price's mood.

For a comedy, then, it's odd there so many bad vibes. There's nary a bad vibe to be had in all The Raven, Spider Baby, or The Boogieman Will Get You! This isn't nearly as good as any of those, but it is better than The Trouble with Harry and, unless I'm in just the right mood, Arsenic and Old Lace. As they proved in The Raven, Price and Lorre make a great team, somewhere between Burke and Hare and Abbot and Costello and better than both put together. All that stops it from greatness in my regard now is director Tourneur's rigid slapstick regimen (he didn't go in for improvising, which Corman encouraged for The Raven and which led to its light wry air) and Les Baxter's overly jaunty score, which hovers over everything like a helicopter parent at the circus worried his son's not laughing enough at the clowns. Corman's last minute decision not to direct probably cost us a true horror-comedy classic.

But hey, it's still cool - with sparkling Matheson dialogue that's a sublime blend of Shakespeare and hipster, with the undead Rathbone thinking he's Macbeth brought back to life to sleep no more, and all sorts of wry lines from Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream deftly shuffled in amidst macabre humor dark enough to get a smile from even the sourest of marital demons.

1959 - Dir William Castle
***1/2 (Transfer: A)

A perennial public domain Halloween favorite, Shout's HD remastering has infused William Castle's first big ballyhoo masterpiece with a dark rich sense of inner space that don't really do the spare empty sets any favors. Deep shadows now go way back into the depths, evoking an eerie sense of cavernous modernism, like a carnival spook show moved into a vast, empty, unlit museum. Instead of looking like heavy oak paneling on the walls, the walls now look like wallpaper painted to look like wood by rushed studio craftsmen.

We classic horror fans too young to have seen it in the theater (with 'Emergo!') first fell in love with it likely when it appeared in a haze of local UHF antenna static on some afternoon Dr. Shock double feature. It's built for such ghostly travel, strong and sparse enough to blast its way through blurry dupes and fuzzy reception like a shot from a cathode ray gun out of a tiny party favor coffin, and to maintain its ghoulish gleeful spookiness even in a theater full of kids throwing popcorn at the screen and the skeleton on the string. The Robb White script is full of bitchy marital vitriol which of course the kiddies love as much as the blind caretaker being reeled through the hall and back like a 'scare' pop-up on a five-cent carnival ride.  Even if Castle's full empty ersatz fly-by-the-seat reckless effrontery is all the more apparent in the merciless clarity of HD, It's still the perfect Halloween party all-ages show and Price is on full throttle, riffing off a sly Carol Ohmart and a doomsaying Elisha Cook Jr. while rolling his eyes at progressively hysterical Carolyn Craig.

1963 - Dir Ubaldo B. Ragona

Price's neo-realist Italian film, the long public domain adaptation of Matheson's I am Legend now has its black-and-white widescreen photography restored, and its depiction of a post-apocalyptic Rome would make a great double feature with Antonioni's L'Ecilisse which came out the previous year, which uses some of the same juxtaposition of ancient ruins, post-war ruins, modern architecture and post-modern futuristic locales. The script is intelligent and faithful to Richard Matheson's novel, even though it's mostly just read as a voiceover, a trick that gets real old real fast. If the film has any real lasting power it's mainly because of the (admitted by Romero) clear debt owed this film by the first Night of the Living Dead: masses of pale dead hands come grabbing through the boarded windows; shambling figures are illuminated in the glare of headlights; one guy even looks like the mangy Italian cousin of the very first zombie we see in Night, the one who palms Barbara's car. Romero wisely got rid of the zombie's monotone echo-drenched drunken slur, though: "Vargas, come out, Vargas..." Having the zombies be mute is a much scarier tactic.

Alas, I find a lot of this film dispiriting. Like the next film it's just isn't the same Price when he's not moving his lips to his own voice. Price seems to feel it, too. The weight of the world seems on not just his character but himself as well, though the climax--once we get free of "the monster's" house--is pretty exciting, camera whipping all around a big deserted church and then office building. And David Del Valle provides a great commentary track.

1972 - Dir Robert Quarry

One thing I never understood about the Dr. Phibes films is why they waste Price's beautiful voice with pre-recorded monologues that seem like something Criswell would read for an Ed Wood movie, a cheap way to patch up loose ends and shoot silently without having to worry about dubbing later. Here its more of the same, i.e. one campy tableaux after another, peppered with English character actors dying in weird ways followed by Phibes and Vulnavia (Vali Kemp) wafting around the sets in breezy solemnity, pantomiming to Price's pre-recorded monologue like they're doing interpretive dancing at a beatnik poetry reading.

The plot this time has to do with recovering some strange amulet and/or getting to Egypt to find some tomb, with the result that a few matinee serial cliffhanger traps are set on both sides, and Phibes almost drowns between the paws of the sphinx. Lots of elaborate, pointless murders make it hard to know who set what trap and if it worked as one's attention inevitably drifts.

Strangely, the Blu-ray quality of this titles is perhaps the most stunning of the lot, with an eerie array of purple and pink hies, all a-glowing in a 3D depth of space. The problem is that this that this lovely clarity reveals clapboard TV-show-style sets that were made with the not-unreasonable assumption most people would be seeing this cropped on TV or at a drive-in through a dense English fog. I'm sure we were never meant to see so so clearly we can almost touch the grains flaking up on Price's whiteface make-up and powdery Beatle wig. Now he seems like some sad gay diva wafting through half-torn down sets of a 70s Fellini movie in the middle of the night while the crew is home asleep. I don't mind the near total absence of exteriors or connecting or establishing shots, in fact I dislike British exteriors immensely (see my above condemnation of the British sky), but this is almost like a West Village off-off-off-off Broadway pantomime play. Even when the whole shebang allegedly moves onto a yacht or then onto the deserts of Egypt, there's never any doubt they're on sets, which I love, usually, and I like the giant stone feet entrance to the Tomb of Whatever, but with the Blu-ray clarity you can practically see the stress creases on the sky backdrop, can trace the brush strokes on every gold pillar.

That said, composition and blocking are sublime, like Kubrick on poppers at a gay ball. It would be great with the sound off at a party or projected behind my old acid rock band if we played Abba covers and had a bubble machine. As a narrative, though, it's infuriating. Phibes and his Vulnavia's self-congratulatory champagne toasting and dancing seems the height of self-aware camp, which is the worst kind. And don't believe the poster or credits, which suggest Peter Cushing has anything more than the teensiest cameo as a yacht captain, as if he's there just so they could add his name to the bill. The mechanical jazz band is cool, as is Phibes' Phantom of the Cinecatta disco organ, but then again, why? You can see why Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have their eye on this character, though. Like Burton, as a director Robert Fuest is a great set designer. It's in narrative pacing and sense of audience connection that he falters.

1959 - Dir Edward Bernds 
Released in 1959 and capitalizing on its predecessor’s runaway success, Price reprises his role from the original, and finally gets to help restore a human headed fly back to normal, undoing the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber, this time on Andre's on Phillipe, rather than just looking askance with blanched horror and then tossing a rock. But, otherwise, he has little to sink his teeth into and the whole middle stretch involves grown-up Phillipe (just a boy in the first film) with a giant bulbous fly head tracking and killing a pair of industrial spies who've made off with his patents. As 'monster on a vengeance-based killing spree' films go, it's okay (he's bumping his giant head on chandeliers a lot, which is a nice touch) but aside from abundant gay subtext and nice lighting, it's pretty familiar stuff, the same concerned upstairs maid or wife, the same basement whirligigs that kept Karloff in mad scientist smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s.

Not to spoil the end, but when Price restores Phillipe to his former peevish self, we're left with the odd feeling that he's going to get off scot free for his two murders since that was the fly head and not his (why the fly head didn't spend its time pursuing sugary snacks instead of vengeance makes no sense of course, either - shhh). And what about the detective left with guinea pig hands? I don't know why you would kill an enemy by teleporting him and then re-teleporting him back to the world. Leave him in the ether - along with that poor cat from the first film! What a way to dispose of bodies! Zzzzitt!


FINAL (TOTAL) GRADE: A - It would have been nice to see The Tingler and/or Tales of Terror instead of some of these last three lesser works, but it hardly matters when the films look this good and the extras are abundant. (even if the film isn't that great, if it has a Del Valle commentary, it's gold). Even at the set's high cost, it's worth getting just for The Raven!! Sorry to be such a fan! Price rulez!

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