"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

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 cocoa and a fireplace, and last week the Shout Blu-ray set Vincent Price Collection II dropped... like the gallows' floor, the guillotine blade, the axe on the neck of the turkey.


Forgive my gauche similes in the spirit of the times, for part of what makes Price such a treasure is his sense of macabre humor, his rare ability to convey the fun he has in playing evil rather than just trying to appall, his luxuriant delight in every syllable spoken, not just in the classy Poe-Matheson-Towne scripts for Roger Corman, for whom Price had 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 great 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.

This second Shout Factory volume of Price Blu-rays only has two examples of this lightning planet-building: The Raven and Tomb of Ligeia, but along with the Jacques Tourneur-directed Comedy of Terrors, and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill 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 (and great closing statements, so make sure you watch past the credits) made by Iowa Public Television for a series of weekly Gothics from the 70s.

Shout's remastering for Blu-ray lengthens and deepens the image, saturating with deep dark reds and greens, glowing amber and inky opaque blacks; firelight reflections on maroon drapery; the image is so good we can see every gossamer strand of the cobwebbed covered gates, every brush stroke of Bud Shonberg's twisted portraits, every shade of the moody-psychedelic paint swirl credits. It all adds up to horror fan crack, and no matter how threadbare the situation, Price's aesthete air of mephistophelean delight never wavers.

THE RAVEN
1963 - dir. Roger Corman
 ****

A personal favorite, this loose comedic 'adaptation' of Poe's poem has reluctant sorceress Vincent Price longing for his Lenore and Peter Lorre (old and bloated but still hilarious) as the raven who interrupts his Lenore longing, demanding some sorcerer aid. A drunken sorcerer of lesser skill, he tells Price he was turned into a raven by a rival sorcerer, Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff)--ho it just so happens killed Price's father and has, as it turns out, stolen the not-dead Lenore (Hazel Court) a bit like he stole Lugosi's wife in the 1934 Black Cat, (another Poe "adaptation"). Soon they're all packed away in a carriage, along with a super young Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son Rexford and Price's cute daughter (Olive Sturgess). It all culminates in a memorable sorcerer duel that's fun for all ages.

The Blu-ray remastering is jaw dropping --as different from the old MGM DVD as beautiful soothing night from shitty gray-ass day. Its vast and impressive sets (Corman kept all the sets from past Poe films and by the time of The Raven he'd assembled them all into a vast sprawling Gothic maze) always looked kind of brownish and washed out but now every flicker of the big fire pit is a poem; once the gang enter Scarabus's castle the HD transfer begins to shimmer and glow in a new hauntingly lovely greenish gold reflective light and inward depth. The Les Baxter score at times errs on the side of the smugness and helicopter overbearance but this is pure uncut Halloween delight, so might as well bring the kids  by which I mean depressed lovelorn sophomores reeling from too much bad acid too soon in life, catching this at the Student Union as I did, and needing to return to the Gothic chambers of childhood, wherein every fairy tale was grim...  and all the more comforting for it.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA
1964 Dir Roger Corman
***

Definitely one of the better and more unnerving (and last) in the cycle, thanks largely to a ripping script by Robert Towne that captures Poe's horrified eloquence, which Price then rolls through like a velvet serpent, waxing 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, 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. Towne, on the other hand lets the rich existential musing flow freely, trusting the audience to get the metaphors even as they triple and quadruple back on themselves like Russian Doll Shakespearean whirligig poetry. The result is Price's natural eloquence unchained, which is good, because he's also sans mustache, which I find as unnerving as the English countryside dyatime exteriors. Poe should never see daylight--especially not England's sickly pale blue skies. It was the first Corman Poe film to go outside; fitting Price wears wraparound shades and sulks in the shadows. To me, it doesn't work; the overgrown grass in and around the ruins makes it seem no one really lives there, just ruins occasionally tromped through by tourists. I prefer the setbound Poes, which never approach reality whatsoever.

Maybe I'm still angry that Hammer sunk half the running time of their Dracula movies with scenes of old ugly middle-aged Brit character actors with awful monk haircuts shuffling through dreary peasant girl funerals in the flat ugly afternoon, wasting valuable time that could be spent indoors at the castle at nighttime, with atmospheric lighting and sexy birds with their hair down and collars unbuttoned. Corman has every right to want to find some real castle ruins to shoot in, and Price wanted to play it completely straight, as a mournful Heathcliff de Winter-Rochester, but instead, eloquence or no, he comes off as hostile and aloof far more than the presumably hoped-for Byronic and enigmatic. We can't fathom why the piercingly self-confident English Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) would want to marry such a sullen, naked-lipped poseur.


The image on the Blu-ray isn't as resonantly color-touched as I was hoping either -- it still looks pale and thrift shoppish around the gills, which I blame more on the 'realistic' settings rather than the digital color restorers, though when indoors and color does come traipsing in, such as with the fire pit or the revolving hypnosis light (a cool prop that also turns up in The Terror and Dunwich Horror). it's still disappointing: the blacks aren't black enough, they have that glowing gray fadedness to them that HD sets and Blu-rays from Shout usually escape. But Ligeia is a great metaphor for drug addiction and alcoholism, so the dourness works. 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 Knobb Creek liquor store window display. No mention is made of drugs, but the resemblance to Price's big breakthrough film, Dragonwyck, is as clear as the resemblance to Jane Eyre. Leaving us trapped with a bored, frustrated wife shut out of her husband's 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 it's over usually with fire.

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--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. 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.

COMEDY OF TERRORS
1963 - Dir Jacques Tourneur 
***

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 and boost 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--and Lorre's baggy eyes and 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 to--ah, what's his name); Price, still relatively young, 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 is firing on all five of his ancient steam-punk Poe pistons, so over the top in his crazy vengeance that even Les Baxter's hammy score has to catch up, and Price seems at last impressed.

Luckily this new Blu-ray makes every image gorgeous--the deep maroons throb and the blacks creep darker than any Stygian shore--so Price's evil funeral director now seems to have more of a right to be luxuriating in his own evil; I've been married and divorced and I've had two 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 could 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. In sum, time and experience have helped me sympathize with 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, once they've offed their landlord (Rathbone) and get paid in full --but that only worsens Price's mood--which creates some bad vibes not found in say The Raven, or even Spider Baby, or The Boogieman Will Get You! and this isn't 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 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 at times hovers over everything like a helicopter parent at the circus. 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 derangedly 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 amidst the macabre humor, which is dark enough to get a smile from even the sourest of marital demons.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
1959 - Dir William Castle
***1/2

A perennial public domain Halloween favorite, the HD remastering of William Castle's first big ballyhoo masterpiece creates a dark rich sense of inner space, which the spare empty sets don't necessarily require. Deep shadows now go way back, creating 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 fans wouldn't have it any other way--we know it's meant to be seen through UHF static, built to blast its way through blurry dupes and fuzzy reception like a shot from a gun in a tiny party favor coffin, to maintain its ghoulish gleeful spookiness even in a theater full of kids throwing popcorn around. Robb White's 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. Now in crystalline Blu-ray, Castle's full empty ersatz fly-by-the-seat reckless effrontery is all the more apparent. 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. and rolling his eyes at progressively shriller and more hysterical Carolyn Craig.



LAST MAN ON EARTH
1963 - Dir Ubaldo B. Ragona
**1/2

The widescreen photography captures black and white neo-realist Rome, a city with no problem seeming ageless, futuristic, and post-apocalyptic all at once, as Antonioni well knew in the same time period (this would make a great double feature with his L'ECLISSE, which came out the previous year, which uses some of the same 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: hands come 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 backwards down the hill. 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 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 him, and while he never loses our sympathy, the flashback-heavy structure seems alternately rushed and tedious. Say what you will about THE OMEGA MAN, it at least had synced sound and a liberal agenda rather than no real message. The image is outstanding, of course.

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN
1972 - Dir Robert Quarry
*1/2

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 never have to sync sound. 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 mock solemnity, pantomiming to his pre-recorded monologue like they're doing interpretive dancing at a beatnik poetry reading. The plot has to do with recovering some strange amulet and/or getting to Egypt to find some tomb, or something, 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, if I remember rightly. Lots of elaborate, pointless murders. Strangely, the Blu-ray quality of this titles is perhaps the most stunning of the lot, with eerie array of purple and pink 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 on TV or at a drive-in through a dense English fog. I'm sure we were never meant to see so much grain and flaking 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. 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.


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, the kind with zero so-bad-it's-good value. And don't believe the poster or credits which suggest Peter Cushing has 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.

RETURN OF THE FLY
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 catch a human headed fly instead of throwing a rock at it, and so he undoes the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber rather than just looking askance and blanched horror. But otherwise he has little to sink his teeth into and the whole middle stretch involves 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 (the best parts: bumping his giant head on chandeliers) but aside from the abundant gay subtext it's pretty familiar stuff, the same basement whirligigs that kept Karloff in mad scientist smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s, and 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. Must be nice to be rich, handsome, and gay as a housefly.

FINAL (TOTAL) GRADE: A - It would have been nice to see The Tingler and 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. It's worth getting just for The Raven!! Maybe a Vol. III is in the works? 

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