GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS

December 22, 2015

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There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.” – Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)

Late in the night on Christmas Eve from 1971 to 1978, the BBC would air an adaptation of a classic ghost story, dark tales of cursed crowns, spider babies, and heart-eaters preceding the broadcast of midnight mass. It is a tradition that goes back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the dean of English ghost stories, M.R. James, would gather friends and colleagues to debut his latest chilling yarn after Christmas Eve revelries. The first five BBC productions adapt James’ work, and do justice to his clammy atmospheres. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark shot on location and on 16mm, able to conjure the fog-choked isolation of James’ doomed protagonists. All eight of BBC’s original Ghost Stories For Christmas, as well four from the series’ 2005 revival, are available in a haunting six-DVD set from the BFI (for those with Region 2 capable players).

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The English tradition of Christmas Ghosts emerged due to the boom in periodical publishing in the mid-19th century, after the repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855. The holidays were the best-selling season, so publishers would release year-end round-ups with the year’s most popular stories, many of which were supernatural. Charles Dickens was pivotal in pushing the ghostly, from his Christmas Carol in 1843 to his publishing scads of scary stories in the Christmas edition of his All the Year Round magazine. M.R. James would continue the tradition at Cambridge, where the scholar would debut one ghost story a year at his Christmas Eve party.

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The idea for the BBC series was conceived following the success of Whistle And I’ll Come to You (’68), an M.R. James adaptation filmed for BBC’s Omnibus. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark and DP John McGlashan were plucked from the BFI’s stable of talent and assigned to the new ghostly initiative. The first “Ghost Story for Christmas” was of M.R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester in 1971, concerning a cursed rural cathedral, and followed by A Warning to the Curious in ’72. The latter is a particularly haunting bit of antiquarian superstition come to life. James was once an assistant in archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and he used this background to concoct a bit of flim flammery surrounding the three Saxon crowns of East Anglia. James proposes that the crowns were buried along the coastline, and held powers that kept the country from harm. One neurasthenic  stumbles upon the remaining crown, and is stalked by the spirit of its protector. The story is a mournful piece, first published in 1925, that yearns for the age before WWI. James saw many of his students depart and die in that conflagration, and the story reads as something of a lament for the loss of an entire culture.

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The BBC adaptation streamlines the story, dropping the nested flashback framework and also adds motivation to the man who finds the crown. Instead of stumbling upon it, he seeks it out, having just been laid off from his clerking position. This makes for an easier to follow narrative, but also robs the story of much of its allegorical power. Instead of standing in for a nation, in the TV episode the treasure hunting crown-stealer is only in it for himself. McGlashan’s cinematography of the Norfolk coastline still finds an analogue to James’ text, capturing the malevolent glow of an emptied out beach in the off-season.

A Ghost Story For Christmas: Lost Hearts

The 1973 entry, Lost Hearts, is one of my favorites, anchored by the jubilant sadism of  Joseph O’Conor as aspirant warlock Mr. Abney. Mr. Abney is a solitary “researcher” who lives with his maid (Susan Richards) and butler (James Mellor) on an isolated villa. With his shock of white hair and wide eyes he looks like Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from the ’51 Christmas Carol. But instead of parsimony, Abney has a penchant for eating children’s hearts to attain immortality. His first two victims, a carefree young girl and a wispy Italian hurdy-gurdy player, begin to haunt his home, scarring the walls with their elongated nails. Using nothing but practical effects: some makeup, fake nails and an elegiac hurdy-gurdy tune, Lost Hearts slow-burns Abney to a crisp.

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Sound is used smartly throughout the series. There are no insistent scores informing the viewers what to feel, but instead snippets of music are introduced that gain meaning in context. In A Warning to the Curious it is a breathy laugh that jumps out of the quiet soundtrack, shaking the treasure hunter to his core. In The Ash Tree (’75) Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) channels scenes from the life of his murdered cousin Sir Matthew (also Petherbridge), his voice a doomed chorus pushing Richard to his inevitable fate. See, Richard makes the mistake of moving the grave of an executed witch, and pays the price in an attack of grotesque monster-spiders with baby heads.

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The Signalman (1976) is the most attentive to sound, as it follows a train track operator whose job is to respond to the bells and rings that inform him of the status up and down the line. When a specter appears at the tunnel and gestures wildly for danger, the signalman is at a loss. This is beyond the proscribed routine of his day, and the dangers beyond his ability to convey. Adapted from the Charles Dickens story, one he wrote after a near-death experience in a train crash, it’s a diabolical chamber piece whose tone of quiet dread is perfectly captured in the BBC film. The film stars Denholm Elliott as the lonely signalman, his monotony interrupted by a curious traveler (Bernard Lloyd) who takes breaks from his vacation to hear the train worker’s troubles.

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The specter has appeared three times – after the first there was a horrific crash in the tunnel, following the second a bride fell off and was killed upon landing. Now the signalman patiently awaits the third tragedy. Elliott plays him with quiet paranoia, seething beneath his professional surface. Everything on the screen becomes part of the orchestrated tension, each bell and innocent gesture a mark of death. The traveller’s first introduction, a hearty “Hello, down there!”, is revealed to be part of the final goodbye.

What better way to prepare for the joys of Christmas morning than to contemplate your own mortality on Christmas Eve? These are stories of vanity, loneliness, and death after which no present will disappoint you. Socks will seem like a gift from God. So this Christmas Eve put on BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, it has enough fear for the whole family.

PAST LIVES: THE SHE-CREATURE (1956)

September 1, 2015

she_creature_poster_02In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).”  Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.

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Wanting to profit while past life regression was still all the rage, AIP president Jim Nicholson assigned Lou Rusoff to put together a treatment for a film with hypnotism as its theme. The project didn’t have a clear shape until Nicholson and producer Alex Gordon were at a party where local exhibitor Jerry Zigmond mentioned The She-Creature as a possible title that could sell the Bridey Murphy hook. With the title in place, Rusoff then built the story around a prehistoric female monster, the endpoint of a past-life regression that goes back to the beginning of time. Andrea (Marla English) is the suggestive woman under the power of carny mesmerist Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris), who is able to take her back through all of her past lives back into a primordial creature. The power of this hypnotic trance is so strong that the monster gains physical form,  killing socialites on the California beaches with its thudding she-claws before disappearing back into the ocean. Lombardi builds his psychic reputation by predicting these murders, and starts to make millions with his business patron Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway). The one skeptic is Dr. Ted Erickson (Lance Fuller), a strait-laced academic who studies psychic phenomena. He is out to debunk Lombardi and free Andrea from his thrall.

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The budget was $104,000 and the shoot was set for nine days. Director Edward L. Cahn had just completed Girls in Prison (1956) for AIP, and rolled right into The She-Creature, on which he wrings a lot out of abandoned beaches and double exposures – representing all the souls of Andrea’s past.  Gordon wanted to get Peter Lorre for the Carlo Lombardi part, and Edward Arnold for Chappel. Both actors had worked together before in Josef Von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935). But Lorre backed out after reading the script, and Arnold died soon before shooting was set to begin. So they scrambled and hired Chester Morris and Tom Conway. Morris, best known for his starring role in the Columbia Boston Blackie series, was an experienced amateur magician, and brought an enthusiasm for prestidigitation to the role. His wide-set eyes and rumbling voice made for convincing hypnotics, even when he’s trying to mesmerize a dog. Tom Conway had his own series, as The Falcon for RKO, and looks to be having fun in deploying his plummy British accent in service of a scummy exploitation entrepreneur making a fortune off of Lombardi’s morally dubious act – not unlike how AIP was cashing in on the whole Bridey Murphy affair. This might have been an in-joke on Rusoff’s part (he was executive producer Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law). Lance Fuller (This Island Earth) was another last-minute addition to the cast, and he looks jet-lagged and morose throughout, the dead space in an otherwise well-acted film.vOsaE

The she-creature herself is doubled as Marla English in the human present, and Paul Blaisdell in the foam rubber suit as her prehistoric avatar. English was a San Diego beauty queen, whose career, at the age of 21, was already over. Previously signed to Paramount Pictures, they dropped her contract after she refused a lead role in The Mountain alongside Spencer Tracy, either due to falling ill from a smallpox vaccine, orbecause they would not cast her boyfriend Larry Pennell, causing her to quit in protest. She would retire from acting soon after shooting The She-Creature, and she looks ready to leave Hollywood for good, dazed but distantly beautiful — appropriate for a character in a hypnotic trance for most of the film’s running time. There is something elemental about English’s connection to the creature, depicted in double exposures as a foggy excrescence on the ocean until it takes physical form, her thoughts taking shape. It is an embodiment of the rage she has suppressed, her loss of power diverted into the creature’s superpower. And though Lombardi guides Andrea to call this being to life, it is not his creation – so he cannot control it. The most affecting moment in the film occurs when the monster, after scaring off one of Chappel’s rich regression parties, kneels worshipfully next to Andrea, as if in some kind of  mind meld, sharing each other’s pain.

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The monster itself is another remarkable creation by Paul Blaisdell, the unsung hero of 1950s science fiction (read Randy Palmer’s Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker for the full story – it is the main source of information for this post). Blaisdell was a creature designer and builder for AIP who made something out of next-to-nothing, working in close concert with his wife, Jackie. They designed monsters for The Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It The Terror From Beyond Space and many more. The She-Creature was “the best one I’ve ever done”, Blaisdell said. He built the creature on a pair of old long-johns, with the body a jigsaw puzzle of foam rubber made to look like the seabed floor. Its chest was made of “sea hooks” which could be used for disemboweling, its arms were clubbing crab-like claws built around a pair of welding gloves, while the face is a cat-lizard-insect combo with stringy blonde hair made for man-devouring. The compressed time schedule kept Cahn from utilizing all of the creature’s capabilities (swinging tail, chewing sea hooks), but it is a striking, unearthly creature that somehow has a spark of humanity in it. Blaisdell built the costume to fit his own body, he literally knew it inside and out, so there was no better person to give the She-Creature life.

THE HUNTED: RITUALS (1977)

November 4, 2014

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Though Halloween has passed, it is still possible to watch horror movies. It’s quite pleasant, too, not being harangued about the best one  “you’ve never seen” every other mouse click. I celebrated this freedom from list fascism by attending a twelve hour horror movie marathon at Anthology Film Archives on November 1st. It was an eclectic selection that ranged through low-budget Mexican vampires, classy British omnibus films, and schlocky AIP giant rat attacks. The title that stuck in my cranium and asked to be dispatched in this space is the 1977 Canadian survival horror obscurity Rituals (aka The Creeper). A post-Deliverance male bonding death march starring Hal Holbrook, it pits a group of alcoholic doctors against a psychically damaged ex-soldier in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The film relentlessly strips away the men’s defenses until they are physically and emotionally bare, live nerve endings that become easy targets for the almost entirely unseen soldier. In their profession the doctors have made mistakes, often tragic ones, and their medical ethics loom large when they are forced to deal with their own mortality. The only decent home video version is an out-of-print DVD from Code Red, but it’s well worth tracking down.

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England-born director Peter Carter made his career in Canadian television, but first broke through with the independent feature The Rowdyman (1972), about an aging womanizer in Newfoundland. It’s a scruffy comedy that makes extensive use of location shooting, so you get a rich sense of the town, from the loser’s matchbox sized apartment, to the local paper mill, to “Lucky’s Chop Suey House” on the main drag. Writer and star Gordon Pinsent won the best actor at the Canadian Film Awards for his efforts, though I could understand maybe one out of every ten words through his thick Newfie accent. Rituals is Carter’s second feature, and he retains the specific sense of place. Locations are key to the film’s movement, from the lush, fecund greenery of their initial hike to the parched desert land around a man made dam. Whether Carter’s third feature, the Peter Fonda/Jerry Reed AIP trucker adventure High Ballin’ continues this specificity, I leave to my more intrepid readers to discover. Carter died in 1983, soon after making the Christopher Plummer action comedy Highpoint.

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The screenplay for Rituals was written by first timer Ian Sutherland, and produced by character actor Lawrence Dane (who co-stars as the whiny Mitzi). It was Dane’s second and final producing credit. This was, for the most part, a film made by newcomers under difficult circumstances. For much of the film the actors are trudging through fly-choked forests or swirling rapids. I found one headline about the production, from the Montreal Star, that reads “Flies major hazard in tough ‘Rituals” shooting.” It must have been miserable for the actors and the crew. But it is a film of great control, though also one of understandable sadism. The effects build slowly, and the payoffs are oblique.

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A group of five friends take their yearly vacation in the remote Northern Ontario wilderness. They are all current or ex-doctors, and the trade off who gets to pick the destination. This year it’s DJ (Gary Reineke), who wears a fetching Montreal Expos hat and is rather cavalier with how he discusses the health of his patients. He explains away a botched surgery that he’s just trying to make a living. On the other spectrum is Harry (Hal Holbrook), a by-the-book doctor who extends life spans as long as he can, done with the discipline of his army training (he fought in Korea). Others seem to float in between these two poles, including Mitzi (Dane), who seems to go along to get along, and is more accepting of death as a possibility. At their first night of base camp, there is a sense of hetero male bonding check boxes having to be ticked off. There’s an inflatable sex doll, but she’s mere decoration, as these upper class adventurers pose as partiers but strain to keep their mask of civility as long as possible.

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Martin (Robin Gammell), a barely functional alcoholic, quotes the last lines of Yeats’ The Second Coming as they discuss the Native American legend about how the valley was made by the Moon impressing itself on the land: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Martin explains the connection:  “-The moon is magic, right? And Yeats was into magic. Yeats was into the moon.” Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization dedicated to studying the occult. As Martin is explaining, the camera takes a roaming POV, lurking in the background as if from the perspective of an onlooker. Martin desires the occult and supernatural as a way to escape his own being – and immediately the camera obliges, providing a seemingly mystical presence to watch them. As the film progresses, this presence becomes more and more violent. It begins by stealing their boots, and ends in unrepentant slaughter. Each man’s beliefs are tested and failed by their attacker. The most damning test is reserved for Harry, who is forced to carry an incapacitated Martin throughout the barren landscape. Martin is close to death, and draining Harry’s strength. But his moral code forces him to soldier on with this burden. Harry sets himself up to be a martyr, but in the end he is denied even that. He is granted survival as his final punishment.

DEATH’S DESIGN: FINAL DESTINATION (2000)

September 16, 2014

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John Waters wishes he directed Final Destination. At the recently completed John Waters retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, there was a sidebar of films Waters was “Jealous I Didn’t Make”. One of them was Final Destination, the 2000 horror film about five teens who cheat death – for which Death itself wants bloody recompense. It spawned four sequels (the most recent was Final Destination 5, released in 2011), having created the ideal  machinery for the mid-budget franchise. The main character was non-corporeal, with Death’s presence represented as a light breeze or a trickle of water, so there was no worry of escalating salary demands. Then they could replace each iteration of the cast with unknowns, as Death plucked them off one by one in “accidents” of savage everydayness (a slip in the bathtub, a mug springing a leak). In his introduction to the screening (in blessed 35mm), Waters reminisced about his time in Baltimore grindhouses, bonding with the brood of rats that scrambled under his feet while marvelling at the depravity on-screen. He considered Final Destination worthy of that heritage, a resourceful exploitation film with shades of Ingmar Bergman. These are teenagers who are grappling with their morality for ninety-eight minutes, though on the genre level. So instead of playing chess with Death, they try to outsmart it as various pointy things hurtle towards their fleshy areas. Waters repeatedly stated that he was not being ironic, that the film is not camp, but a well-crafted fright film. I agree with the distinguished Mr. Waters.

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The original conception for Final Destination came from Jeffrey Reddick, a budding horror aficionado who sent New Line Cinema a treatment for a Nightmare on Elm Street prequel when he was fourteen years old. In 1997 he wrote a spec script for The X-Files where Scully’s brother has a premonition about his own death, and escapes it. The spec was never submitted to the show, but it got Reddick an agent, and encouragement to turn the idea into a feature. Reddick got the idea while flying home to Kentucky. He read an article about how a mother called her daughter the night before she was to fly home from vacation in Hawaii, warning her not to fly home the next day, that she has a “bad feeling about it.” The daughter postponed her flight, and the one she was originally booked on crashed. Glen Morgan and James Wong were long-time writers and producers on The X-Files, and took on Reddick’s story for their first theatrical project. Morgan would write and produce, and Wong would write and direct.

Their version of Reddick’s story concerned the survivors of a plane crash headed for Paris. A high-school class boarded the plane for their class trip, but Alex (Devon Sawa) began suffering terrible visions of an impending explosion, and demanded to be let off. Six others were hustled off the plane as well in the commotion. There was the Henry Miller-reading, iron-sculpture welding goth Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), Alex’s motor mouthed best friend Tod (Chad Donella), the roided up jock Carter (Kerr Smith), his perky blonde girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer), the slackjawed doofus Billy Hitchcock (the Seann William Scott) and one of the teacher advisors Valerie Lewton (Kristin Cloke). They are the lone survivors of the original passengers, but they start dying off in elaborate accidents. Alex begins to suspect that their survival undermined death’s design, and that Death is now trying to wrench things back in place, to restore the proper order. Which means they all have to die.

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As you can tell from the Hitchcock and Val Lewton name drops, Wong, Morgan and Reddick were eager to flaunt their horror knowledge. The two FBI Agents who are investigating the crash (and which seem transposed Mulder and Scullys from the spec script) are named Weine [sic] (Robert Wiene directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Schreck (the actor who played Nosferatu). There’s also a “Murnau” and a “Dreyer” listed in the credits. It warms a film obsessive’s heart to see all these great artists name-checked in a mainstream movie, but spot-the-reference games only go so far. Luckily the movie is more concerned with logical mechanics of its scenario, and presenting each Rube Goldberg-esque death with blunt clarity. The plane crash itself, highlighted by John Waters as one of his favorites, is built up by an accumulation of ominous detail picked out through Alex’s POV. There is a spot of rust in the entrance doorway, and then he looks down to see a large gap between the ramp and the entry to the plane itself, a baggage truck seen cruising down below. All the connections are slightly off – even the seat tray lock snaps off in his hand. The coming inferno has strong practical effects work making the destruction look truly hellish, the passengers attacked not just by fire but the blunt force of their own suitcases. It’s the largest set-piece in the film, one that probably used up half of the budget.

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The other deaths are less grandiose. The whole series is built on the banal ways in which the human body can expire. Death is vaguely embodied as a liquid that slips up Tod, as he entangles himself in a threaded steel wire that holds up the shower head. There is a distant echo of the Lewton style here, of hiding the menace instead of showing. The line of blood trickling under the door frame in the Lewton-produced, Tourneur-directed The Leopard Man as an analogue in the slowly advancing liquid advancing on the tile floor. In both cases they indicate death – only in Final Destination the end is depicted in explicit mechanical detail instead of poetic abstraction.  In the Final Destination series the tension of the films arise in the how of the deaths, not in the why.  It rids itself of the lugubrious backstories and motivations of traditional slasher films, and cuts to the chase (or the evisceration, or what have you). The series works because of this pared down simplicity, which was almost ruined from the beginning. According to Reddick, New Line wanted to give Death human form at the end of Final Destination, to have that “big bad” to peg a marketing campaign around. But Morgan and Wong defended the concept, and lent the series its exploitation integrity.

DEATH GRIP: THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1947)

October 29, 2013

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Society prefers death to be hidden.  Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive,  released just in time for Halloween.

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No one WB assigned to the project had interest in making it. Director Robert Florey took a three-month suspension for rejecting the job, before finally acceding for a paycheck. Lorre was exhausted of playing shifty eyed weirdos, but did his contractually obligated duty. After reading the script Lorre told Florey, “Don’t worry. Since you are in trouble I’ll keep two Pernod bottles in my dressing room.” WB purchased the rights to the short story by W.F. Harvey in 1942, though a satisfactory script wasn’t completed until Curt Siodmak submitted his draft in ’46. Siodmak shifted the scenario from straight creature feature to a psychological thriller. In Harvey’s story the hand is a menace seen by all, but in the movie it’s a terror that may or may not be a figment of Lorre’s imagination. Lorre plays Hilary, the long-time secretary to ailing concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), who lives in a crumbling mansion in the Italian village of San Stefano. Half of Ingram’s body is paralyzed, so he plays Bach’s Chaconne with only his left hand. The arrangement for this Bach one-hander is put together by Conrad (Robert Alda), an out of work composer who makes his money swindling tourists. After Ingram’s death, his family gathers at the mansion for the reading of the will – in which his entire inheritance is bequeathed to his lovely nurse Julie (Andrea King). Family members turn up strangled to death, and Hilary is convinced it is Ingram’s good hand, seeking vengeance on his money grubbing relatives.

Siodmak wanted Paul Henreid for the role of Hilary, but Henreid told the screenwriter he, “wouldn’t play opposite a bloody hand.” It was not a desirable project for cast or crew, although when Florey resigned himself to making it, he thought he struck on an exciting stylistic choice – to shoot the film entirely from Hilary’s point of view. Florey, who was the original choice to direct Frankenstein before James Whale took over, had a keen visual sense, and wanted to use the film as a late experiment in German Expressionism, using warped sets and POV shots to express Hilary’s deteriorating mind. It was likely during this period that Florey asked Luis Bunuel for some ideas on the project. Bunuel was in the U.S. for the third time, looking for work. Warner Brothers hired him to do some dubbing work. In his autobiography My Last Sigh, he recalls that he, “thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it.” Producer William Jacobs swiftly shot their  ideas down as “commercially unthinkable.” A version of the library scene does exist in the film, and Bunuel thought of suing WB because of it. Instead he stored the image of “the beast” away, which appears in The Exterminating Angel.

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Florey and Lorre had worked together before in 1941, in the disturbing gangster melodrama The Face Behind the Mask. In that more personal film, Lorre plays an impoverished immigrant who resorts to a life of crime to stay alive – a violent allegory of both men’s experiences hustling and debasing themselves in Hollywood. Florey was born in France, and came to Hollywood’s attention with his scathing experimental short with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. Reportedly made for $97, it mixes cut-out silhouettes and live action to depict two small town dreamers get crushed in the Hollywood machine. Now Florey was part of that same machinery. Saddled with an unsympathetic producer and a script he didn’t approve, he still manages to carve out scenes of disorienting menace.

Forget the love subplot between Conrad and Julie, or the bumbling Inspector (J. Caroll Naish) who camps his way through the movie – it is the scenes with Lorre where Florey’s original conception pokes through. Lorre is dressed all in black, his hair clipped short, and is always lit from below, with his head so isolated by the composition it looks decapitated. Florey presents him as an incomplete man who lives inside his own head. Hilary’s cause is astrology, he believes he has found the key that will unlock all its secrets, “the law that can predict unknown fate into predictable fact.” He skulks in the library with his occult books, clutching them like sacred runes. Then the murders begin, and the hand gropes its way closer into his consciousness. While an inveterate prankster on the set (he would hide the bloody prop hand all over Andrea King’s person), he was locked in once the camera started rolling. He gives one of his most moving performances as the beatific Hilary, lending him an air of saint-like calm despite his increasingly paranoiac actions. He plays things quiet and tentative, almost sleepy, as if he is the somnambulist from Caligari. 

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Florey is allowed a few experiments in POV shots when Hilary encounters the hand in the library, as it pokes its way out of a cigar box and onto the table. Through super-imposition, motorized models and old-school illusionism (it’s Florey’s hand poking out of the box), the hand becomes legitmately menacing, a physical remnant of Ingram clinging to his home and possessions. Hilary chases it into the stacks, tossing down leather-bound editions until he finds it creeping behind a row, seemingly wanted to page through one of its (his?) favorites. Then, in a gruesome example of Hilary’s deteroriating psyche, he nails the hand to a board. The sequence is punctuated by jarring inserts, to a mandolin strink breaking and distorted angles of Lorre’s face, that approximate what Florey had intended for the entire feature. It’s a totalizing vision of horror, that plucked string one of Hilary’s last nerves snapping, the world a clattering whorl of his inner and outer lives collapsing in on each other. The hand then performs a haunting solo version of the Bach Chaconne, its rotting stump more in tune with human frailty than the supposed heroes of the tale.Later, when he throws the hand in the fire – only for the ember-hot appendage to crawl up and curl its digits around his neck – it’s become clear that this severed limb murder is much self-inflicted as an act of supernatural outrage.

All of the tantalizing enigmas in the plot are cheerily resolved in the studio-shot ending, which replaces Florey and Lorre’s self-annihilating horror with glib irony. It ends with J. Carroll Naish laughing into the camera about the gullibility of the audience, attempting to brush all those thoughts about mortality away. But the images that Florey constructs aren’t so easily dispatched. The bloody stump that plays Bach in an abandoned mansion is both rotting flesh and emotive spirit, expressing in one uncanny scene our damned impermanence and dream of immortality through art.

THE FEMININE IN YOUR MIND: LIFEFORCE (1985)

June 18, 2013

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The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The GooniesCocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket.  It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budgetIt comes out in a loaded Blu-ray today from Scream Factory.

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Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were Cannon Films, and they signed Tobe Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract Hooper dropped out of Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) took over as director.  In their first meeting Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they “bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through.” One of those “development things” they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began.The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by Dykstra, who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work (read more about his analog techniques in the film here).

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If Golan and Globus expected the Spielbergized Hooper of Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper recalled his own attitude as, “I’ll go back to my roots, and I’ll make a 70mm Hammer film.” Recognizing Colin Wilson’s novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment, he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. Frank Finlay, for example, in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing. The title was changed to Lifeforce and the producers cut down the film for US release by 15 minutes and replaced Mancini’s score, but it didn’t help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake, that everyone then, “expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”

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The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley’s Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds worthy of Forbidden Planet, they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as “Space Girl”, Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.

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Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint, ignorant of Madonna/Whore complexes or slut shaming. She knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered.” If this were a male character, he would be a raffish romantic lead (Gerard Butler maybe?), but as a woman she could only be a (nude) world-devouring hell beast. It’s a thankless role for Mathilda May, who is tasked with striding naked with a zombified gaze for two hours, but she does get to cow the men and their toys.

The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of an unprepossessing nude woman.  Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end he’s sweating and flinching so much he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that’s only when she’s taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart’s  mouth, ““I am the feminine in your mind, Carlson”. Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Railsback is, very literally, embracing his feminine side.

THE HORROR BLUS: TERRORVISION AND THE MONSTER SQUAD

March 12, 2013

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27 years after its theatrical release, TerrorVision (1986) was released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time by Shout! Factory last month. An outrageously garish horror-satire of 1980s consumer culture in the guise of a low-budget creature feature, it was savaged by critics and disappeared from public view.  The Monster Squad (1987) came out in a new Blu-ray from Olive Films on the same day in February, and that nostlagic ode to the classic Universal monster movies had been difficult to see before a DVD release in 2007. Both are steeped in horror film history and iconography, but while TerrorVision adopts old styles to investigate its present, The Monster Squad is only concerned with burnishing the past.

TerrorVision was a rushed production for schlockmeister producer Charles Band, head of the short-lived Empire Pictures (Trancers, Re-Animator). Based in Rome, he cranked out cheap horror and sci-flicks at the old Dino de Laurentiis studio that drafted off the success of Hollywood hits, releasing Ghoulies  a year after Gremlins (’84). He sold the studio in 1988, but went on to form the similarly Corman-minded Full Moon Features in 1989, which produced the Puppet Master series. Ted Nicolaou was an editor for Band in the Empire days, and was eager for an opportunity to direct.  Band didn’t have a backlog of scripts – instead he collected ideas for titles and poster images that he thought would someday make a sellable movie. So he showed Nicolaou the poster art (an eye poking out of a satellite), and assigned him to write and direct.

What Nicolaou created was not the usual straightforward Empire Pictures material, though, but a day-glo satire of an acquisitive yuppie family in Malibu, thrust into the maw of a blob-monster straight from a 50s Sci-Fi B. Working with the Italian set designer Giovanni Natalucci, Nicolaou emphasized the artificiality of their lives, from the cardboard sky down to the rainbow colored tower of hair on the Putterman daughter, Suzy (Diane Franklin). He then encouraged his actors to perform with as much artifice as the setting, leading to a hilariously grotesque film in form and content. Even the theme song is a head-spinner, a chirruping synth chant from art-rockers The Fibonaccis. Needing content no matter the style, Band let him go ahead with it.

Stanley (Gerrit Graham) and Raquel (Mary Woronov) Putterman are your normal everyday Americans living the dream, parents of Suzy and Sherman (Chad Allen), and owners of an ornate mansion decorated with cartoon erotica and classical statuary with water-spitting nipples. They are swingers, after all, and whose dress consists of an explosion of pleather, spandex and leisure suits. Concerned only with their libidos, they leave their kids to be raised by the new Satellite TV being installed. Suzy is a Cyndi Lauper clone whose aforementioned hair is sprayed into a conical totem, while Sherman plays at GI Joe, indulged by his survivalist ex-serviceman grandfather (Bert Remsen), keen on selling jerky lizard tails and sleeping in a reinforced bunker. The most tactile and real-seeming thing in the movie is the deformed alien Jabba the Hut that  is accidentally beamed into their dish. And as hungry as the Puttermans are for kitschy art, orgy technology (including a gigantic jacuzzi pool) and fast food, this monster is equally eager for the taste of human flesh. The consumers become the consumed, but they certainly enjoy themselves before they get masticated. Graham and Woronov go full camp, stretching their rubber faces into parodies of pleasure before they too get sucked down the hole of over-indulgence.

The Monster Squad (1987) is an entirely different animal, presenting a cheery Spielbergian suburb filled with harried but loving parents. The force threatening to undermine this all-American burg is not aliens but monsters awakening from hibernation: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon (Universal wouldn’t allow the use of they copyrighted makeup designs to Tri-Star, but they are passable approximations constructed by Stan Winston). Kind of a horror Avengers, they come back to life in order to destroy a magical amulet that would return them to the netherworld from whence they came.It’s up to the scrappy movie-obsessed horror kids to squelch their plans.

Director Fred Dekker wrote the script with Shane Black (whose Lethal Weapon was filmed the same year), and it has the usual array of coming-of-age cliches, from the self-deprecating fat kid (Brent Chalem) to the mettle-testing old dark house at the end of the block. There is nothing surprising here, except maybe one kid’s “Stephen King Rules” t-shirt, but Dekker clearly loves the material, and gets some Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein bumptiousness from the cast of young newcomers. Chalem steals the movie with a swift kick to the groin of the Werewolf (Jon Gries, also in TerrorVision), sealed by the immortal line, “Wolfman has nards!”. It’s the one scene I remembered from my childhood, a still-juvenile joke that also happens to neatly encapsulate how these kids are mastering their fears. It was inspiring stuff at the time, and as fondly as Monster Squad looks back at the Universal monsters, so do 80s kids like myself look back at the movie, creating a nostalgia-feedback loop.  Sadly Chalem didn’t go on to have much of a career, playing rote “fat kid” roles on TV with names like “Spud” (Punky Brewster, 1987) and  “Tubby” (Dance ‘Til Dawn1988). He moved on from acting to become a legal assistant, but died at the age of 22 from pneumonia: “Brent was one of those kids everybody knew,” said family friend Marsha Rosenblum. “He made friends with everybody he met.”