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, like 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 voice finds worthy dialogue 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 wondrous 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 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 aliight with new fire. Maybe it all adds up to little else but classic horror fan crack, but no matter how threadbare the situation, Price's aesthete air of mephistophelean delight never wavers. Price fans I bid thee: Pounce! Thy prey has alighted. 

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

A personal October perennial, this loose comedic 'adaptation' of Poe's poem has reluctant sorcerer 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 aid. A brother 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!). Scarabus killed Price's master sorcerer father in a duel years earlier; what he doesn't know is that the lost Lenore (Hazel Court) is alive and shcaked up with Scarabus as well. Soon Price and Lorre are dressed and headed off to Scarabus in Price's carriage, along with a young Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son Rexford and Olive Sturgess as Price's cute daughter. Hilarity and sorcery ensues!

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 (all the castle walls and furnishings from past Poe films are here; Corman 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 Baxter re-scored AIPs Bava imports, only taking him out instead of putting him in) but this is still pure uncut Halloween delight, so you might as well bring the kids, by which I mean depressed lovelorn college 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 but comforting, especially when goosed up by Price's melodious purr.

In the land of the damned Price 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 Corman's soundstage-bound Poes, which eschew reality in any form. 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 Price 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 role, as a drug addicted lord in Dragonwyck, is as clear as the story's 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 burning and collapsing wall 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 necrophiliac 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 slight neurochemical adjustments away.

If the tree falls in the woods, but we hear it like a tolling bell, it's probably 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 pay both his wine bill and 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, 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 unable to even stand up), and Price 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--baggy-eyed but unbowed, firing on all five of his ancient steam-punk Holmes-y pistons--is so over the top in the crazy semi-dead vengeance climax that even Les Baxter's terminally bouncy 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 a girlfriend who fancied herself a good light opera singer, and many a pained look did I get from her audiences, as if it was my responsibility to stop her, yet I dared not. When she 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 now Price's pained revulsion towards his ever-wailing wife hit deeper than they did. And sure, Lorre's a mess but his drunken leering is just the surface of a real affection 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. It might have been fun to act but--unless your favorite childhood memories include long nights of parental bickering--isn't that fun to watch.

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 that it looks so spiffy 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 you're laughing enough at the clowns. Look at the clowns, Caitlin! Oooh, that one fell down! Corman's last minute decision not to direct probably cost us a true horror-comedy classic. I'm pretty sure he'd have pinpointed both the bad vibes of the prolonged verbal abuse and the cloyingness of the score, whereas Tourneur was probably more concerned with delivering what was in the script rather than delivering a well-rounded good time at ye olde drive-in.

But hey, it's still cool - with sparkling Matheson dialogue that's a sublime blend of Shakespeare and beat poet, 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 shuffling themselves 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 alas, don't necessarily do the spare empty sets any favors, but do add an overall feeling of late-50s murk. 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. Was this noticeable to audiences back in the day? Does HD show us too much?

We classic horror fans who were too young to have seen it in the theater (with 'Emergo!') first fell in love with Haunted Hill on TV, when it appeared in a haze of local UHF TV antenna static on some lost Saturday afternoon or late night/early morning. It's built for such ghostly arial 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 being squeakily wheeled over their heads. Without such interference, the film can seem cautious and empty, but that passes, it's just too sturdy to let any obstacle get it down. The Robb White script is full of bitchy marital vitriol which of course the kiddies love as much as the heads in the suitcase, and blind caretaker being reeled along 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, this long-held in public domain adaptation of Matheson's I am Legend now has its creamy/gritty black-and-white widescreen photography restored, and with its post-apocalyptic/futurist Rome mise-en-scene it 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 futurism. 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 the last 3/4 get pretty fun and intense (with finally some dialogue + an almost Wellesian chase through and around a vast apartment complex and ruined church). There's also 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 high-contrast 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. The lead zombie talks, though (in an echo-drenched slur), and is played Italian star Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Kill Baby, Kill!; War Between Planets). 

Alas, even with the spiffy upgrade, I find the bulk of this film dispiriting. Like the next film in the set, 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. Luckily, the classic horror archivist and raconteur 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 poesy-ridden monologues that seem like something Criswell would read for an Ed Wood movie.  For the sequel it's even more pronounced. At first director Fuest's mix of campy TV show style over-the-top poetry, a mix of bible, babble and decadence, is fun in the way where you can imagine Austin Powers watching this and thinking "Groovy, man! Horror is my bag". But after half an hour or so, one longs for structure, some kind of situational cohesion, or--as in the case of the 60s English cult TV show The Avengers--a deadpan center, i.e. the laid back cool of Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee. And since Price has to do most of his acting with his eyes it's lucky they have a great red ring around them that glows in the pink light. It's a nice look, especially in the new Blu-ray upgrade, where the light perfectly accentuates his heavily powdered cheeks. Yet there's just something strange about Price essentially pantomiming a recording of himself reading floridly poetic monologues that makes it all seem almost too ridiculous, too campy even for the late-60s. It's like he's listening to one of his old LPs he made during the classic monster heyday--the ones wherein he reads Poe and spells from Macbeth and Midsummer Night's Dream and old witch yarns--and vamping around to it while he folds laundry. Luckily he has Vali Kemp as the silent but beautiful Vulvania, his deadpan cool sexy automaton assistant. They make a cool pair. And Kemp is perfectly still and on-point. Running through a list fey little props and rituals with nimble grace, Kemp can match his stare with a delicious conspiratorial knowingness. 

Speaking of eyes, what about the bugged-out (like his head's about to explode), intense, round ones of Robert Quarry (i.e. Count Yorga)? He plays the odious and eternally young Darius Beiderbecke (great name). Price's first supernatural opponent Darius needs the same eternal amulet, or whatever, hidden at a lost Egyptian tomb, that Price is trying to find to reanimate his dead wife. Quarry's bug-eyed peepers have a sweaty intensity that cuts through the frivolity and suggest genuine depths and make a fine contrast with Price's wide, sad, Irish wolfhound kind of eyes. They'll stop at nothing to get to the secret tomb first. For Darius that means subjecting his men to verbal lashings and Phibes' to murderous traps (he almost drowns between the paws of the sphinx) For Phibes, it means wafting around with Vulvania in various campu disguises, and murderous trap-setting galore!

Reality and any sense of geographical space are tossed to the side. Phibes and Vulvania can seemingly show up at the ruins of the Egyptian tomb-standing by a giant half-destroyed foot- only to celebrate their arrival by stepping up some marble stairs to his Crowley-meets-music hall art deco organ to play a few tunes. Did he bring his lair with him across the channel? The next scene is some over-the-top comedy at Scotland Yard as they prepare to go to Egypt to track down the killer. And so it goes. Fuest makes sure we come to loathe the oppressive and egotistical Beiderbecke, trying to reign in his rebellious and hip fellow expedition members to his iron will, and that we marvel at Phibes' and Vulvania's ability to somehow set up pointlessly elaborate traps way out in the middle of the desert, all by themselves, unseen, in the dead of night, and then whoosh- celebrate with champagne and music back in the groovy lair. Repeating as needed.

Perhaps the most stunningly transferred film on this Blu-ray set, 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 drifting like a Tennessee Williams diva through half-torn down Fellini movie sets in the middle of the night while the crew is home asleep. Don't think I'm quibbling. I don't mind the near total absence of exteriors or connecting or establishing shots. I dislike British exterior shots in general--they're often weighed down by murky grey skies and eerie stillness. But here the lack thereof makes for confusion, to a West Village off-off Broadway pantomime play degree. 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. I do especially love the giant stone feet entrance to the Tomb (shout out to Ozymandias!), but with the Blu-ray clarity you can practically see the stress creases on the sky backdrop, and 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 only type I dislike. Their relentless perfection and disregard for the laws of reality (i.e. that you can bring your entire secret lair with you while you visit in Egyptian tomb. And shame on the credits for saying it co-stars Peter Cushing as he has but the teensiest cameo. On the other hand, the mechanical jazz band is cool, as is Phibes' Phantom of the Cinecatta disco organ. You can see why Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have their eye on this character for a remake. 

(PS - rewatching this now on Svengoolie, and like it a lot better. The framing seems more cropped, but in a good way so it makes sense, and the relative lack of close detail gives everything an aura of magic. Yeah, baby! I think I was a bit harsh in the above review, but hey, - 5/23/22)

1959 - Dir Edward Bernds 
Released in 1959 to capitalizing on its predecessor’s runaway success, this should really be called Son of the Fly. Price reprises his supporting role from the original; he finally gets to help restore a human headed fly back to normal, undoing the damage wrought by the teleportation chamber, 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--involving 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--goes on without him. As 'monster on a vengeance-based killing spree' films go, it's okay (his habit of bumping his giant head on chandeliers is a nice touch) but aside from abundant gay subtext and nice lighting, it's pretty familiar stuff. There's the same confluence of attractive and concerned upstairs maid, the same basement whirligigs, the same lofty scientific rationale, the same untrustworthy assistants, that kept Karloff in lab smocks and gangster burial clothes all through the lean 40s. It's all been done better, and worse. 

Not to spoil the end (spoilers!), but when Price restores Phillipe (Brett Halsey) to his former peevish self, we're left with the odd feeling that he's going to get off scott free for his two murders since that was the fly head and not his that orchestrated the deaths (why the fly head didn't spend its time pursuing sugary snacks instead of vengeance makes no sense of course, either - shhhzzzz). And what about the detective left with guinea pig hands? Also, 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! No mess. Non habes corpus, non crimen. 


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. (a Del Valle commentary = 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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