Wednesday, January 5, 2022
Thursday, December 23, 2021
A penumbra of evil descends upon a sorority house, the joyous silent night broken by violent jagged sounds of madness. Director Bob Clark transforms a Holy Day into an Unholy Night: the revelry of a savior’s birth aborted by a faceless murderer and his sadistic squeals, a killer who haunts the tired old house like a ghost, unseen and nameless, without history or reason, existing as a tenebrous shadow given substance, imbued with the blood of innocents.
BLACK CHRISTMAS spawned the Teen Slasher Genre, but it is so much more, a horror film whose trauma inflicts a heavy psychological impact that shatters the psyche and reverberates deep to the soul. Clark smartly decided to show very little on-screen violence, filming in extreme close-up or grim darkness, letting our imagination fuel the imagery during the murders. He creates suspense from anticipation: the phone calls are more than disturbing; they reek of some vile corporealness like an archaic communion with some dark elder host. As women disappear and a child is found murdered, the fear becomes a claustrophobic shroud, smothering all reason and logic: we become trapped in the house with Jess, unfortunately we know the secret which is denied her until the very end.
The film begins from the killer’s point-of-view as he sneaks into the house, a conspiracy of perspective that joins the audience with this sadist. Clark moves his camera in tight awkward places, drowning the images in the gloom, shedding glimpses of crimson gore or a sharp glass spike as it pierces supple flesh. He lets the mystery power the narrative: the killer, his motives, his identity are never explained, and this adds an element of chaotic realism, frustrating our expectations and not allowing the safety of closure. Clark pulls the old bait-and-switch routine, but we aren't fooled; we know the real killer’s insatiable lust remains unsatisfied.
The final crane shot pulls back from the attic window where a dead woman is wrapped like a Christmas surprise, and travels across the street revealing the entire house decorated and blinking its holiday prayers: inside, Jess slips not-so-gently into that good night…as a phone begins to ring. And ring. And ring.
Final Grade: (A)
Wednesday, November 3, 2021
The Full Moon Killer strikes again, his diabolical lunacy and cannibalistic urges unleashed upon a frightened and desperate city. Police narrow their search to the local Medical College: headmaster Doctor Xavier utilizes his latest invention, a rather nightmarish Art Deco “Lie Detector” machine with giant glass tubes and transformers haloed by arcs of electricity. Dr. X is given 48 hours to unmask the killer out of the five suspects (inclusive), each of whom are conducting research into strange tangents of science. And each suspect is obviously foreign and non-conformist to good old-fashioned ideals especially when compared to the hard working and All-American ace reporter who is hot on their trail.
Michael Curtiz and his DP Ray Rennahan tell this pulp parable with lurid use of two-strip Technicolor which imbues the film with a dream-like reality; low-key lighting, skewed and looming monolithic close-ups and taught editing add to the fiendish enjoyment! Curtiz doesn’t cut-away (so to speak) from the final revelation and the gooey lunatic and his synthetic apparel is truly horrifying and must have given quite a shock to contemporary audiences like Karloff’s reveal in Whale’s legendary film! Lionel Atwill is excellent as the titular character and though his daughter Joanne is merely window-dressing and doesn’t contribute much to the plot, Fay Wray is beautiful in her Technicolor close-ups with full red lips and bright blue eyes. We do however get a trifecta of shrieks from the future scream queen! The quick talking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracey) develops his own physical obsession with Joanne and offers comic relief for balance: he actually gets locked-up in a closet full of skeletons.
The final test includes all of the suspects attached to the strange machine as Doctor X (whom we expect to be the murderer since the film is titled after him) manipulates the controls like a demented concert pianist. He creates a reenactment of the most recent murder to stimulate their emotional responses. When one Doctor is strangled during a power-outage another test is completed with the titular doctor and the remaining suspects handcuffed to their chairs. The denouement reveals that the one-handed amputee Dr. Wells is indeed the killer even though the murders were done by manual strangulation which, of course, requires two hands! But his secret experiments with synthetic flesh have given him the power to grow a second hand in order to further his nefarious hypothesis.
A few questions: how does this synthetic flesh grow bone and nerve endings? He slathers this gooey substance on his head and face to hide his identity (I guess) yet doesn’t change his clothes. Why reveal himself now? Maybe his crazed obsession has taken control of his reason and senses. This story takes place over approximately three days which is the time that the moon seems full to the naked human eye. A full moon is technically instantaneous as it reaches apogee for that specific moment. But why ask questions? Let us just enjoy this horrific Pre-Code tale that happily ends with Lee and Joanne tying their own knot in holy matrimony.
Final Grade: (B+)
Sunday, October 31, 2021
Cock Robin is a misogynist dick, using women for their sex and money and trying not to lose his head. Tod Browning’s horrorshow of jealousy and grand illusions is wonderfully acted by the three stars John Gilbert (Cock Robin), Renee Adoree (Salome) and Lionel Barrymore (The Greek). DP John Arnold utilizes some extreme angles and a few tracking shots, visually skewing the compositions for dramatic effect. Errol Taggart’s editing is taught and revelatory which creates suspense: he abides by the Rule of Chekhov's Iguana: if you’re going to divulge the appearance of a deadly venomous Iguana in the First Act, be prepared to utilize it in the denouement!
Cock Robin’s good looks (but bad manners) brings the women (and the dough!) into the sideshow, but his co-performer Salome is hopelessly in love with him. It’s twice as unfortunate for her because Cock Robin is such an asshole and she’s also under the thumb of the psychopathic Greek, who wants sole possession. This triptych of terminal jealousy must also get along well enough to perform their illusion every night for the hollow masses: Cock gets his head chopped off (no, not THAT head) by the Greek who presents it to Salome after her gyroscopic performance before a faux King Herod. Browning reveals the trick from behind-the scenes POV which foreshadows the oncoming murder! We just know that some stage of the trick will be subverted by the third act. Browning also lingers upon the sensational illusions such as the disembodied hand, spider-woman, mermaid and of course the venomous lizard and its sideshow act. He makes sure we understand there is nothing supernatural or extraordinary, no magic or haunting apparitions, just mundane deceptions performed for profit to dupe the gape-mouthed masses. A fool and his money, so to speak. When one of the customers is attacked and killed by the leaping lizard it’s interesting that the reptile isn’t destroyed by the police: they just shut down that performance.
Of course, Cock Robin seduces Lena, a young lady whose hills have sheep, after her father is murdered for his huge wad of cash, received from selling his flock. Lena has possession of the cash, so the murderer didn’t get the fortune. Unbeknownst to either, the Greek is the gunman who eventually learns that Cock has stolen the cash from this waif. The third act focuses upon Salome’s obstruction of justice as she hides her lover from the police. As events clash and coincide and poor Salome truly has a bad evening, browning allows his antagonist to reform. Gilbert’s visual mis-en-scene is wonderful as he portrays shock, revulsion and eventually compassion, like a food whose aftertaste is expected to be sour but isn’t. And of course, the Greek gets his poetic justice by iguana.
Final Grade: (B)
Friday, October 29, 2021
Cleopatra is the peacock of the air who is transmogrified into the duck of the pit! This may be Tod Browning’s masterpiece, a moral tale that humanizes the “inhuman” and punishes the superficially “normal”, a tragic cuckquean romance amid the horror of bodily mutations and abnormalities. Browning walks the fine line between exploitation and humane presentation of his disabled actors, allowing each a modicum of screen time to be regarded as individual human beings and not mere sideshow caricatures, which may shock yet allows an empathetic connection to a judgmental and ignorant audience. Watching in the 21st century, one feels uncomfortable witnessing the intellectually disabled paraded before the camera in medium shot, which seems exploitative of their physical and mental condition meaning to shock the audience with their child-like mannerisms. Yet they are treated kindly by their caregivers and those who laugh and mock them get their comeuppance by the denouement!
The trapeze artist Cleopatra and strong-man Hercules may be “normal” by physical standards but are the true “freaks” of the story: beautiful on the outside but rotten and morally deformed to the core. Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams) are the typical couple who contrast this undynamic duo, friends of the sideshow performers who may seem different on the outside but are warm, gentle and trusting, until one of their own is betrayed. Their blossoming love story helps ground the narrative and they become ciphers for a squeamish audience who witness actors Ford and Hyams interact quite normally with the titular outcasts. After all, these misfits are people too! As the diminutive Hans crushes on the swinging Cleopatra, she takes full advantage of his miniature manhood and large inheritance. Once married, she slowly poisons him so she and Hercules can escape the circus for a life of luxury with Hans’ estate. It’s agonizing to watch Cleopatra emasculate Hans, patronize him and diminish his adult needs and desires. The wedding party is the apex of his disgrace as she and Hercules shame Hans with a child’s game of piggyback in drunken revelry while verbally abasing his friends and cohorts, who slink away not in embarrassment...but full of wrathful condemnation. Cleopatra can’t hide her disgust when she won’t drink from the “loving cup” offered by his family and soon offers her own loving concoction to her new husband. She pays the price, not with her life but her looks!
The third act may be one of the most harrowing of any Hollywood film as the physically disabled characters slither, crawl and stalk through the mud and rain drenched night towards their prey. DP Merritt Gerstad gets his camera grounded in the muck with exceptional low-key lighting and sinister shadows, filming eye-level with the prone protagonists as they hunt their prey. Amid the crashed carriages and pouring rain, these vengeful angels haunt the dark night and seek retributive punishment for their fallen comrade. In a world whose Laws, both divine and man-made, seem to ignore their plight, they stitch together their own poetic Justice. And who wants Justice? Just-Us. Gooble Gobble.
Final Grade: (A)
Wednesday, October 27, 2021
May becomes a modern day Prometheus, living by the adage that if she can’t find friends, why not make them? Writer/Director Lucky McKee stitches this tale of loneliness and despair from a feminist perspective but it’s Angela Bettis as the titular femme fatale that breathes life into the film. The editing is first-rate utilizing foreshadowing as one particular scene makes sense only upon the film’s final act, yet it lingers during May’s character arc and we wonder if it is merely a sadistic fantasy. Interestingly enough, Rion Johnson, who would go on to direct BRICK, LOOPER, KNIVES OUT and a tepid chapter of Disney’s Star Wars, is one of the editors and his creative force is evident in the tapestry-like quality of this sewn-together narrative.
The First Act reveals May’s lonely childhood and her disability: a lazy eye that keeps her at the bottom of the social hierarchy. She develops a bond with a special doll whose large blue eyes witness her life from within a glass cabinet, a supportive friend (or fiend?) who whispers at the edge of her reason. Now an adult and working at an animal hospital, May crushes on Adam, a local Artist with beautiful hands and is also seduced by her feminine cohort Polly, a flirtatious girl with a beautiful neck. Soon, all goes to Hell as May is subsumed by the fiendish figurine and begins to construct her only true friend from the parts of others around her! The Final Act is brutal and unflinching yet, because of the previous insight into May’s character, becomes quite sad and touching too. The brilliance of the film is in Angela Bettis’ performance as May, in portraying her uncomfortable shyness and naivete in a believable and pure fashion. May is quite pretty, yet doesn’t see herself that way, stuck in the skewed perspective of her own self-worth. Fuck, can’t we all relate? As she tries to express her feelings and connect with relationships, she is spurned and further isolated. To the film’s credit it doesn’t sell-out it’s male characters as toxically masculine, they are three-dimensional and complex like May. Adam gets the most screen time and he isn’t a bad dude, he breaks-up with May for good reason and isn’t unkind to her even after she practically bites his lip off! Both he and May could better communicate but the film doesn’t judge either one which makes the denouement both poetic and sad.
MAY walks the thin bloody line between horror and camp as the final act is over-the-top bloodshed and gore as body parts are excised and sutured. May even plucks out her own eye so her grisly creation can see. Ultimately, all May wants is to be seen and recognized, to be part of the world from which she has been exorcised. And her desires are met with a gentle loving touch.
Final Grade: (B+)
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
A psychopath stalks the Rinehart Estate, an inhuman monster who preys upon the beneficiaries of the family (mis)fortune. Oh, and there’s also a stabby maniac who randomly kills people and pins his newspaper headlines upon the corpses. This “Old Dark House” horror film makes little sense but has some wonderful compositions and the use of low-key lighting by DP Joseph Valentine creates a sinister atmosphere amid the camp and hijinks.
So, a deformed maniac is being pursued by the police and coincidentally ends up at the Rinehart Estate where Dr. Hornsby (George Meeker) is experimenting with suspended animation. Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane) is engaged to the Dr. but must defend herself from the intimate advances of another suitor, reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford), who commits at least one felony and a handful of misdemeanors in his amorous assaults! These disparate plots crash together into a murder-mystery of pseudo-science, rogue police, fatal fortune-telling, Avunculicide, and betrayed betrothals that becomes not only a whodunit but a howdunit. It’s not totally satisfying but it doesn’t overstay its welcome at 61 minutes! The film also takes liberties in its final act to depict the murderer’s technique which diminishes the impact, like a joke that needs explained. Bela Lugosi is top-billed and he’s in it a great deal as the turban-topped servant Degar, whose strange actions and reactions allow us to assume he’s a killer. Director Benjamin Stoloff plays with the editing and two-shot compositions to give us just enough information to realize that, upon reflection, one or more people may be responsible for the mayhem. But the reveal in the final act is done without foreshadowing and feels too contrived. There may be a better film buried in this maniacal morass! Overall, an immemorable hour of Pre-Code antics that unfortunately belittles and degrades its lone minority, the stuttering Chauffeur, Martin (Oscar Smith) who cowers and screams at every gag. It’s enough to make me gag.
Final Grade: (C-)
Saturday, October 23, 2021
A crippled sculptor with a Marie Antoinette fixation preserves corpses in wax, his inflammable historicity displaying the everyday life of a distant and perhaps better past tense. Director Michael Curtiz’s celluloid alchemy transforms a simple murder melodrama into pure horror! DP Ray Rennahan films in striking two-strip technicolor and utilizes off-kilter and low/high angle compositions to create a nightmarish reality, as if a psychopath’s Id were projected onto the silver screen.
Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a talented sculptor who is on the verge of recognition and fame in London. Yet his museum is a financial ruin because he will not prostitute his Art to the lowest common denominator like his rival whose wax displays focus primarily upon the grotesque and sadistic (which is a fantastic meta-joke because this very film is antithetical to his core belief, of which he is eventually subsumed). His partner sets fire to the museum and leaves Igor for dead in order to collect the insurance money. But the artist survives, hands burned and crippled, and 12 years later appears in NYC with cohorts he’s trained to mold sculptures vicariously through his instruction. But maybe more than just his hands were damaged. Igor’s masterpiece was Marie Antoinette so when he is introduced to Charlotte (Fay Wray), the girlfriend of one of his employees, he sees her as the very image of his obsession. Lacking the digital dexterity and his employees the skill, Igor steals corpses who resemble historical figures and embalms them in wax to display in his new museum. Meanwhile, gritty and garrulous reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell, who really steals the film!) is tracking down the truth about the death of Joan Gale, a Millionaire's concubine, which soon turns into a missing corpse expose. Unresolved plot point: was Joan murdered or did she commit suicide? The doctor tells police that he can determine the manner of death by determining whether raw or refined laudanum is in her bloodstream, but he never gets the chance as her body was stolen. This is important because the Millionaire becomes a love-interest for Florence as the story progresses and we are asked to develop some sympathy for him. However, Curtiz makes sure to show his reactive cowardice in the final act just before the police arrive and save the day (or specifically, save the Wray!) This heightens the final scene when Florence and her combative and verbal sparing partner, her Editor in Chief, shake hands amid a surprising marriage declaration while the wealthy dolt waits for her, tiny and insignificant twenty stories below. Murderer? Possibly.
Pre-Code conventions adorn the film from the very first act! Like Mamoulian's SONG OF SONGS, we get sculptures detailing the naked female form, framed in medium close-up. We get a gruesome creature with deformed face which is eventually revealed in one terrific close-up. And we get Fay Wray’s legendary scream at least half-a-dozen times. Bootlegging (fuck prohibition), morphine addiction, bondage, and a brutal police interrogation are just a few more story convolutions that would never pass the Hays Code in a year. But all of these elements come together for an exciting and suspenseful film that still titillates today.
Final Grade: (B+)