Sunday, June 19, 2022

MAD LOVE (Karl Freund, 1935)

 

Dr. Gogol is obsessed with “Grand Dame Guignol” Madame Orlac, who is branded every evening in a sadistic display of cathartic revelry; a man who falls victim to his own power of suggestion. Karl Freund directs this classic tale of transplanted hands and murderous obsession with the help of legendary Cinematographer Greg Toland, whose low-key lighting and slightly askew compositions help visualize this powerful parable of vengeance and poetic justice. The acting is first rate too, as Peter Lorre, in his first American film, imbues his villain with both Pathos and Thanatos, a man whose own wax-like features and soft monotone voice rarely display the cruel intent scheming in his brain. His bland visage doesn’t give away his innermost impulses except in the widening of his huge eyes, or a slight smirk at the corner of his lips. In one scene, he and his assistant are bent over a crippled child who is about to undergo an experimental surgery; Dr. Gogol warmly pats the child on the hand and comforts her, yet his attention is quickly torn away and we see, for a moment, beneath the thin veneer of compassion and witness the monster under the mask. It’s to Lorre’s credit that we both hate his character and feel pity for him too. I can’t say enough for his performance! It’s one of the best in this early cycle of Horror films. Colin Clive as Stephen Orlac (in a reverse Frankenstein role) is solid as the concert pianist and husband whose hands are mangled and replaced with the hands of a knife-throwing killer; his weathered face and hunched shoulders are both kind and sad and it’s easy to commiserate with his plight. Frances Drake is the beautiful and faithful wife Yvonne Orlac whose fierce spirit fuels the film. Though her character is stuck in the patriarchal tempo of the period, she quits acting to further his career, after all, she is intelligent and independent, making decisions and taking control of the relationship in a supporting way. I suppose that’s one of the key choices I like about this horror film: we have a husband and wife who are mutually supportive of each other instead of an entitled and emotionally domineering husband. It’s not Stephen Orlac who is cruel to be kind! And last but not least, May Beatty as the bad Dr’s good housekeeper practically steals the film with her drunken shenanigans and flighty cockatoo! She is the comic relief valve for the horrific narrative that must have surprised audiences of the time: damn, the film even warns the audience to leave the theatre before the opening credits begin!

The plot is pure (almost) Pre-Code craziness: Dr. Gogol grafts a murderer’s hands upon concert pianist Stephen Orlac who then becomes a better knife-thrower than musician. Of course, Gogol suffers mad love for Mrs. Orlac and even buys her wax statue which was displayed at the theatre where she performed. Like the sea-nymph Galatea, he imbues her static figure with his own displaced imagination and wishes her to life; he gets his wish in a way that even he can’t comprehend! But even that isn’t the craziest plot element: Gogol disguises himself in a leather and steel neck brace with mechanical appendages and convinces Stephen that he (Gogol) is the beheaded murderer whose hands have been removed and are now attached to Stephan. This suggestive mind-fuck spirals the pianist into despair and convinces him he must have killed his father (which is a frame-up by the Dr.) Director Karl Freund was recognized as one of the great DPs at the time and his direction combined with Toland’s skill make the looming close-ups veer towards insanity. Watch closely as focus is pulled while Gogol leans ever so slightly towards the camera in an extreme close-up. It’s unsettling on a large screen! Or the dolly to extreme close-up. MAD LOVE is one of the great horror films of the New Deal decade and it should rightfully be recognized as such beyond its cult status.

Final Grade: (A)

Sunday, June 5, 2022

NIGHT OF TERROR (Benjamin Stoloff, 1933)

 


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-)

Monday, May 23, 2022

CRASH! (Charles Band, 1976)

 

A crippled and bitter husband schemes to murder his much younger wife because she likes to go shopping without him, or something, so he trains their pet Doberman to run miles and miles to ambush her while driving on a back country road: luckily, the top was down on her ’67 Camaro! That strange sentence makes more sense than the rest of the film which includes a demonically possessed amnesiac wife with glowing red eyes whose Id manipulates her driverless Camaro to exact revenge upon her husband (and murder many innocents too), control his motorized wheelchair as a blunt weapon, become a victim of a rather unbelievable coincidence and then gets locked in a sauna.

Now, I won’t rehash the absurd plot as it makes no linear sense. It’s like Director Charles Band wanted to crash cars (hence the title) and had to write a script around some inane spousal melodrama…with demons. As the ’67 Camaro races and crashes everything off the road that explode into fireballs, we’re supposed to believe that it’s the same car that Kim (the wife, played by Sue Lyon) owns, yet we see the car begin its brutal rampage before Kim crashes it herself! When she’s laid up in the hospital and the car continues its random murder spree for the entire second act, we’re supposed to believe it hasn’t been impounded. Yet we get a scene in the final act where the Camaro is impounded and once the keys (with demon attached to key-ring) are inserted into the ignition it races off and we see nearly every crash replayed through a cinematic filter. WTF? Were all of the crashes foreshadowing this event and shown out-of-narrative context?  Some of the crashes are quite strident and darkly humorous such as the elderly couple that gets squashed by a racing police car! I suppose the Demon makes the cars explode too, even upon the most minute impact. And damn, this possessed Camaro truly hates cops for some reason, as it’s the husband who it races towards which we see in various signposts as it gets closer to town. Which is another WTF moment: how was this car so far away. I mean, she crashed in town (or just outside) yet the Camaro speeds through hundreds of miles of blacktop! Oh, and the crippled husband can walk just fine though he’s a bit lame. We see him walk out of his car and grab his wheelchair: is he just fucking with us? Note: this is the first film where I’ve witnessed a dog murdered by being bludgeoned with a motorized wheelchair.

The husband seems to think he has the perfect murder plan by locking Kim in the sauna and cranking up the heat. This from a guy who thought a trained dog racing through miles of empty desert to murder his wife was also a good idea. Ha! Now the great coincidence is that Kim has lost her memory so when her Doctor is researching the strange idol he brings her directly to her husband, the expert of demonic anthropological stuff! Both are clueless of the relationship except the husband, of course, who schemes her second demise by sauna. For some inexplicable reason that defies editing, when the ’67 Camaro reaches the house and confronts the husband, he motors back towards the house but ends up in the desert. As in, the wide-open spaces where a possessed car can run you over. Which it does. I thought it would crash into the house and kill him which probably would have put the film over-budget. Anyway, a 70’s action film full of car crashes and painful contact lenses gets my recommendation no matter how silly and confusing the story. And this ’67 Camaro is a Demon on wheels.

Final Grade: C

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

THE APE (William Nigh, 1940)

 

The good Doctor does some bad stuff transforming his Hippocratic Oath into hypocritical acts. This mediocre monstrosity makes no logical sense and becomes unintentionally hilarious which obscures some relevant metaphors concerning the ethics of small-town folk and the morality of modern medical science. Dr. Adrian wants to cure a young woman of her paralysis in order to redeem himself for his failure to cure his own wife and daughter of the dreaded unnamed disease of Polio. He’s a social pariah in this small town, an outsider more concerned with science than “fitting in” with locals, burdened by rumors of inhuman experiments that led to his own daughter’s death.  Then a Gorilla escapes from the local circus and becomes part of his curative equation. 

So, I have many questions concerning the plot. Dr. Adrian lives alone with an elderly woman housekeeper. He obviously kills the Gorilla when it crashes into his laboratory. How did Karloff and his elderly maid move the corpse of this 800-pound beast? Did they dismember it piece by piece? Then how in the fuck did Karloff just happen to have a Gorilla suite in order to cast blame on the escaped animal when local townsfolk go missing? Or did he somehow skin the Gorilla and make the costume out of its hide? And why dress as the Gorilla? He could just secretly kill people and leave Gorilla hair at each scene! Then how did Karloff, not being young himself, carry each corpse back to his lab especially in such a heavy costume? Or did he carry his needle with him and remove the spinal fluid of each victim? He kills some dreadful townsfolk to get their spinal juice to cure the innocent young woman: this is the ethical dilemma that is somewhat obscured by the horror trappings and logical inconsistencies. Get rid of the ape and there is an interesting story! A nice touch that creates suspense is that the Gorilla is seen walking upright, so it’s a clue that it’s not reanimated but actually a person. The final scene when Karloff is killed shows the sheriff removing the ape-head then a moment later Karloff is sans the costume entirely! Seen from the crippled woman’s perspective who actually begins to walk, this might reveal her own love for the Doctor that obscures his horrible deeds for her benefit.  

Final Grade: (D+)

Thursday, December 23, 2021

BLACK CHRISTMAS (Bob Clark, 1974, Canada)

 

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

DOCTOR X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

 

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

THE SHOW (Tod Browning, 1927)

 

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

FREAKS (Tod Browning, 1932)

 

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)