Thursday, March 16, 2023

INFERNO (Dario Argento, 1980, Italy)

A mysterious tome shines the light of revelation upon a maternal shadow, leading to a conflagration that eclipses a diabolical darkness. Dario Argento’s sequel to SUSPIRIA is style over substance, a patchwork of events that operates outside the confines of traditional narrative but are woven together to create an enigma, ripe with anxiety and desperation.

Rose is strangely gifted a book, detailing an architecture of superstition and fear, the building blocks of a metaphysical reality that transcends and transforms rationality. She follows the clues until she descends into the subterranean sepulcher buried in the very foundation of her home, a threat under her very feet. Rose discovers a key but forfeits her life, a long-distance connection that beckons her brother to her eerie domicile that is now her tomb. This first act is brilliant as Argento makes this fluid world burst with surface tension, as Rose dives into a watery hole to retrieve her keychain, molested by a rotting corpse, an inverted world of elemental mystery. Unfortunately, Argento fails to revisit (or explain) this set piece and the remainder of the narrative becomes mere flotsam and jetsam.

The film's structure becomes tangential vignettes drenched in primary colors and surrealistic fury, an atmosphere of confounding narrative but extraordinary design. The characters are merely beings who stumble through the story as Argento doesn't care to forge an empathetic link to the viewer, fodder for the visual hijinks.

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, February 11, 2023

SUPERNATURAL (Victor Halperin, 1933)


Dr. Houston, we have a problem. And the problem is the abeyance of reason, logic and critical thinking skills as leaden hypothesis is transmuted into golden theory without application of the scientific method...or any method! Here, a medical doctor proclaims ultraviolet radiation (RE: soul) transfers personality after death and can possess another person, like a virus from a host’s infection. Though the premise is absurd, we can suspend our disbelief if the thesis remains consistent, yet the final act contains a brief contradiction. However, Victor Halperin’s solid direction sustains the suspense and DP Arthur Martinelli raises the spook-factor with subtle low-key lighting and wonderful compositions. 

Serial killer Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) is sentenced to death and Dr. Houston (H. B. Warner) is allowed to experiment on the corpse in his art deco high-rise apartment. Unfortunately, his friend Roma (Carol Lombard) stumbles by his place one evening while the experiment is reaching its electrifying climax and Rogen’s ultraviolent spirit enters Roma’s body. Seems Roma and her fiancé Grant (Randolph Scott) are being hoodwinked by Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), a fraud spiritualist (is there any other kind?) and were seeking the good doctor for advice. Now Roma is the vessel for vengeance against Bavian, the man who scorned Rogen and somehow led to her arrest for her three brutal murders by strangulation. Cool! 

Some thoughts of the film: the film begins with quotes from the Koran, the Bible and Confucius while lightning flashes, ancient text superimposed over the modern New York City skyline, as if to proclaim the mysteries of the past still remain embedded in our modernity, the industrial age advancing our knowledge of matter but not the spirit. Then a montage of Rogen’s murder trial revealing her laughing, scornful face while being sentenced to death. In Tod Browning fashion, we get insight into the parlor tricks of the circus-like profession of spiritualist, see the inner mechanism of the fraud even though some are rather obtuse. How in the world does Bavian make a plaster death mask without being caught? He just mixes some plaster while the body lies in repose and no one notices? And Bavian is a cold-blooded murderer himself, killing his blackmailing landlady and Roma’s cohort by a poison needle hidden in his ring. We also get a wonderful performance from Carol Lombard who must play the good rich girl, mourning the loss of her brother and also the killer possessed by Rogen, and she does so with subtlety of expression and body language. And lighting. When she lures Bavian to Rogen’s repo’d apartment, we see a life size portrait of Ruth Rogen holding an apple. WTF? It’s fucking awesome, I guess serial killers have always been extremely narcissistic. Poison apple or fruit of forbidden knowledge? When the climax comes, the nexus of circumstances instigated from the netherworld, we see the spirit of Rogen finally leave her host while Bavian escapes. Here’s the contradiction: it is clearly evident by the editing that Rogen manipulates the rope that wraps around Bavian’s neck and leads to his strangulation. Poetic Justice. But she didn’t need a host to do that, so why all this possession stuff to complicate things? Why didn’t her spirit just manipulate things, like make his ring malfunction or his razor slip while shaving? I mean, her spirit obviously didn’t need another person's hands to complete its final task. Very good ending though, reminiscent of the EC Comics (Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt) much later in the early 1950s. Until censorship took that away too, sadly. 

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, February 10, 2023

SVENGALI (Archie Mayo, 1931)


Trilby is a victim of patriarchy, indebted to two men: one has taken her soul and the other her heart. Director Archie Mayo deftly balances on the tightrope between comedy and horror, a precarious stunt as one-misstep transforms shock and suspense into unintentional laughter.

John Barrymore is excellent in his characterization as he is able to imbue Svengali with human pathos while never minimizing his abusive pathology. It’s not often a villain is depicted as wholly human, a self-deprecating beggar who can own-up to his shortcomings and laugh at his dire circumstances. His sidekick and servant Gecko is even treated more fairly than most, benefiting from Svengali’s circumstances as opposed to obeying from fear: cruel overlords never seem to learn this! Gecko remains loyal until the end. Bramwell Fletcher is Billee, the opposing love interest but he remains sketchily portrayed (literally, he’s an Artist). That is, he’s rather undefined and just expected to be the forthright knight in shining armor. He does little but proclaim his love and stalks the pair through the second and third Act. But it’s Marion Marsh as Trilby who shines in every scene, her exuberant laughter, bright eyes and uncommon beauty in such a humble girl make it so easy to accept that these two men would fall instantly in love (or lust) with her.

If the eyes are the mirror to the soul, then Svengali sees the world through a glass darkly. His gaze hypnotizes women into compliance whether it be suicide or unconditional devotion. His first interaction is with a woman who leaves her husband for him but doesn’t accept a financial settlement. His apoplectic stare leads to her deluged demise and a slab in the morgue. When coincidence leads him to cross paths with Trilby, he is smitten with her beauty and angelic voice. With Demonic dominance, eyes circled in black, and irises bled of color, he purges her migraine and secretly invokes her spirit into complete compliance with his wishes. This leads to her apparent suicide and his disappearance: in actuality they run off together to tour Europe as Mr. & Mrs. Svengali a dynamic duo of operetta and symphony performance. Another chance encounter has Billee identifying his lost love after a show and then stalks them to the ends of the earth (or end of the film).

The film is wonderfully photographed by Barney McGill with set designs that reflect German Expressionism such as the work of DP Karl Freund or Director Robert Wiene. From the apartments house of the first act to the rooftops of the supposedly French city, our perspectives are skewed just a bit, the camera often titled slightly or placed at a very low angle, that this vertiginous effect is psychologically unsettling. We end up feeling somewhat disjointed without being aware, much like poor Trilby throughout most of the film. There is one superlative camera movement as the film transitions from comedy (of sorts) to a much darker palette: McGill pulls his camera slowly away from an extreme closeup of Svengali’s eyes as he summons Trilby on that virgin night, and the shot tracks backwards through the window to the outside second story of the house. But now we’re above a model city! The camera then creeps towards another window and dissolves into Trilby’s room where she awakens disorganized and confused. Wow.

The finale is tragic, unbelievably bleak yet elevates the film another notch in its brutal intensity. As Svengali’s psychological grip tightens his body weakens until, stalked by Billee from Opera Houses in Europe to a dive bar in Cairo, he and Trilby close their final act. Svengali’s parting gift to Billee is not admitting defeat but embracing it by destroying his hope and desire with one last gasp of breath: as he collapses and dies, his stranglehold on Trilby chokes out her last sputtering words: Svengali. Even in death he wins as Billee holds her now lifeless corpse in his frantic grip.

Final Grade: (A)

Thursday, February 9, 2023

THE VAMPIRE BAT (Frank R. Strayer, 1933)


Even in this Age of Reason and scientific enlightenment our modern world is haunted by its demons, who dwell in the dark corners of our psyche and superstitions. This Poverty Row picture is competently directed by Frank Strayer and together with journeyman DP Ira H. Morgan, they create an enjoyable 63 minutes of mystery, suspense, humor and outright horror. Morgan’s low-key lighting and low-angle compositions create a feeling of unease, and in one sequence the use of hand-colored tints to the mob’s torches adds a chilling effect. Strayer allows the film to get too talky at times and the hypochondriac maid’s humor gets annoying, but the film has three key elements that elevate it above the mundane: Fay Wray (though she doesn’t scream once), Dwight Fry (with a pocketful of soft bats), and the distinguished Lionel Atwill. 

Plot: in a rural German village, citizens are being murdered and drained of blood through their jugular (pronounced joogular). Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) believes a human monster is responsible but must fight against centuries of tradition and superstition as the townsfolk believe they are being hunted by a vampire, which could be in human form. The Inspector teams up with the local scientist Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill) and his beautiful research assistant Ruth Bertin (Fay Wray) to discover the truth before a mob kills Hermann (Dwight Fry), the intellectually disabled homeless man who has a fondness for bats: he even keeps one in his jacket pocket! When he innocently offers one to the “sickly” maid Gussie (Maude Eburne) in return for an apple, it’s both shocking and fucking hilarious! Soon, fear spreads like an infection among the villagers and they chase poor Hermann until he leaps to his death (then stake his heart). 

The story contrasts the power of magical thinking and rumor in the age of scientific discovery, as fear of the unknown propels the townsfolk into an absolute belief that an undead creature can transform into a giant bat and also take human form, instead of applying Occam’s Razor. Why not a human agent pretending to be a vampire? But this truth never occurs to anyone including the Inspector until the final act, after an innocent is murdered by mob rule. Seems Dr. von Niemann has a hypnotized henchman whom he communicates with telepathically, who brings bodies to his laboratory where their blood is drained using a two-pronged instrument to simulate bite marks, then the corpse is carried back to their domicile, so it appears as if they were attacked in their sleep. That’s a lot of work! And how in the world was his roof crawling cohort never seen or heard? And why go through all of this work, you may ask? To feed his fleshy potato creation that bubbles in a watery fish tank. Maybe you shouldn’t have asked. 

Final Grade: (C+)

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

WHITE ZOMBIE (Victor Halperin, 1933)


Once again, the proverb from the Gospel of Matthew is proven correct: “He who lives by the zombie, dies by the zombie”. Victor Halperin directs with an economy of style and budget with long takes and minimal coverage while DP Arthur Martinelli’s low angle and low-key lighting allow Bela Lugosi to dominate every scene, towering over his victims with his mesmerizing eyes and menacing demeanor. Martinelli’s use of extreme close-ups of Lugosi’s dark disembodied eyes is powerful, while he often dollies the camera in for another extreme close-up of his leering face, slowly pulling focus until we are consumed by his presence. Imagine this magnified to 36 feet tall in a packed theatre circa 1933. Wow. 

Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) rules Haiti with a cadre of the walking undead, and once he becomes obsessed with visiting socialite Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) he schemes his way into her life, which now has an expectancy to match her last name. But Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) a white plantation owner has nefarious ideas of his own concerning Ms. Short, and he unknowingly utilizes the services of the one man who seeks to undermine his plans! Hint, when planning a crime, it’s best not to include a conspirator with the first name of Murder. So, after some voodoo alchemy the fight for Madeleine's body and soul begins between the triumvirate of Legendre, Beaumont and her fiancée Neil Parker (John Harron). 

As one would expect in an early horror film, the woman is marginalized to nothing more than victim, an object that must be saved by her stalwart fiancée and his pipe smoking cohort Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who plays an incidental “Dr. Van Helsing” role to Parker’s “Jonathan Harker” persona. However, in Stoker’s novel Mina is an active participant and helps defeat the supernatural threat while here, Madeleine is nothing more than window dressing for male entitlement, a prize to be won. It’s still a creepy and disturbing film! In one scene, when Beaumont visits Legendre in his Mill to purchase the prenuptial alchemy, he sees a worker fall into the machine and the zombified servants continue to grind away without pause or emotion. Maybe the zombies should unionize! 

This is one of Bela Lugosi’s most cruel roles and he delivers almost to the point of parody. The other actors deliver their lines and are blocked accordingly, mere caricatures in a genre film. Joseph Cawthorn, in a lengthy conversation in the Second Act which slows the story considerably, even flubs a line, but Halperin prints it! Low budget indeed. We also get a raven, hawk, buzzard kinda thing that screams every so often. But we are blessed with a small role from the always wonderful Clarence Muse! There is another interesting story buried in this living dead melodrama, as Legendre brags about turning his mentor and enemies into his servants: that’s the film I’d rather watch! 

Final Grade: (C+) 

THE BLACK CAT (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)


Hjalmar Poelzig builds his temple upon the corpses of those he betrayed in the Great War, and chance brings a sacrificial maiden to his doorstep on the eve of his Satanic Ritual on the dark of the moon. But Dr. Vitus, a survivor of his wartime perfidy, hopes to balance the scales of Justice and Honor and seeks vengeance upon Poelzig, the man who also stole his wife and daughter. Director Edgar Ulmer directs with economy and style, utilizing the talents of DP John J. Mescall to their fullest extent! 

I’ve seen this film labeled as a “Post-Code” creation but it was released in May of 1934, two months before the rigid enforcement of the Hays Code, and the First Act alone will convince you of its Pre-Code status! The vulgar description of the wartime atrocities upon which Poelzig’s (Poe, get it?) modern abode was constructed will be the first clue, but they soon increase in intensity. We are soon introduced to scantily clad women, some of which are dead and preserved in glass coffins for display(!), drug use and their amorous side effects, and our antagonist and his wife (the young daughter of his first wife, mind you) sleeping in the same bed (gasp!). Poelzig also reads the book of Satanic Rights for bedtime enjoyment. We also get flaying and torture, a Satanic black mass, and a suicide for good measure. Holy shit, this film is great! 

Poelzig (Boris Karloff) is an irredeemably evil beast, a man whose treachery kills tens of thousands of his own soldiers during the Great War then builds his home atop their corpses. Yet Karloff infuses him with a momentary humanity when he and Dr. Vitus (Bela Lugosi) gaze upon the preserved corpse of their shared adoration. Lugosi summons a deep despair and grief, tears streaming down his face as he stares at his lover’s corpse, but Karloff simply bows his head and mutter, “She was my true love too”. Fucking beautiful. Both Karloff and Lugosi hit a “home run” with their performances, but here Lugosi is the good guy though still a tortured soul. He and his henchman are the ultimate saviors of the young naïve couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop) who are merely victims in the battle between the two stars. However, Manners plays the milquetoast husband quite well, while Bishop has a bit more range, veering into a drugged sensuality that is quite unsettling. She also gets to scream a lot. 

The story does raise some questions. Why does Poelzig not disarm the self-destruct system on the fort that he built his house upon? What does a black cat have to do with the story? Though Dr. Vitus suffers from Ailurophobia, and he faints from anxiety, it actually plays no part in the denouement. However, these questions may occur to you, but the film is so well-paced that it doesn’t matter. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)


Edward Parker is rescued at sea by the Covena, but soon falls victim to a coven of bestiality. This is one of the great Pre-Code horror films and possibly the most visually and psychologically disturbing. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau steals the fire of scientific enlightenment and brings it to humanity and forgets he is merely playing god, not becoming one. Director Erle C. Kenton learned much from writing for Mack Sennett’s early comedies because this film is paced and edited extremely well, as one scene careens into the next. It’s also photographed by the great DP Karl Struss, whose disturbing compositions are fuel for nightmares. The set designs and makeup are also top-notch, as are the actors especially Charles Laughton. 

Our protagonist Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is catapulted into the surreal, quite literally too, as he’s sucker punched and thrown overboard upon Moreau’s boat. Once isolated in the Dr’s island abode, he’s quickly manipulated into a sexual relationship with the exotic “Polynesian” Lota (Kathleen Burke). Moreau’s plan is to mate his creation Lota, a panther given human physique, with Parker and birth his own homo superior. But Parker’s beau Ruth (Leila Hyams) answers the summons and comes to his rescue with a Captain and crew in tow! But soon, Ruth is attacked by a beast-man at Moreau's request, so if Lota doesn’t birth his progeny, then a human shall!  That’s the plot’s skeleton upon which the bestial flesh and fur is attached, and the film is primal in its depiction of vivisection, torture, and moral corruption. One great scene in the First Act foreshadows this, as Parker is being rehabbed aboard the Covena, he asks his English benefactor if he is a doctor. The man responds, “I was, once” and opens the cabin door. A cacophony of guttural animal roars floods the room which is unsettling and out of place on a ship! 

Charles Laughton imbues Moreau with a diabolical childish glee, like he’s just killed a kitten and gotten away with it. His charm and effeminate demeanor are a mask that hides his debased intentions, the master of the House of Pain and the creatures he himself has produced. He’s cruel but doesn’t consider himself cruel, which is a dangerous moral conundrum. To him, his cruelty is a kindness, and he must teach his children, whom he has made into caricatures of homo sapiens, to not only look human but to think and act human. He shall burn away the beast in them! The queer subtext between Moreau and his cohort Montgomery, an exile from London who flees a “professional indiscretion” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), is typical of its time, equating homosexuality with swinishness. However, Montgomery sacrifices his life to save our protagonists in the final act, thus redeeming himself (by the film’s standards). But Moreau makes a fatal mistake when he allows one beast-man to break the Law, specifically to spill the blood of the interlopers. Are we not men? The beasts revolt, his whip-smart intelligence and leather whip no match for their brutish strength, and he is carried into the House of Pain...and cut to fucking pieces with scalpels! Holy Shit. 

DP Karl Struss has lensed one of the most disturbing horror films in the Pre-Code era. He foregrounds characters and uses low-key lighting to great effect and allows a danse macabre in the background of inhuman shadows and leering eyes with pinpoint reflections. Instead of deep focus, he often has the creatures move quickly towards the camera, so their monstrous visage only comes into perspective at the last moment. It’s quite unsettling! His camera often pans and moves over the cabal and never quite stops for a lengthy close-up. The makeup must have been extraordinary, but we don’t get a chance to examine it. This creates frisson, the anxiety that the characters feel as they violently interact with these brutes.

Fire does indeed burn away the beast, Dr. Moreau, as his screams while being cut apart are consumed by flames. The poor animals, victims who didn’t ask to become men (or woman), at least perish with a very human emotion: vengeance. 

Final Grade: (A)

Friday, December 30, 2022

KWAIDAN (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964, Japan)


An addendum of apparitions, a tetralogy of terror separating the physical world from the spiritual realm where frozen promises and dark desires create a nebulous boundary of self-destruction. Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost stories evoke an eerie sense of expressionist reality, utilizing unsettling colors and surreal imagery that sets the stage for four disparate morality plays.

The Black Hair: A tale of love divorced from social standing, when a samurai leaves his poor wife to pursue a better life only to become servant to a pampered Princess. He discovers that wealth is more than the sum of gold. Haunted by dreams of her simple beauty and purity, he returns to their dilapidated home to reconcile and discovers a dark reality clinging like spider webs…and strands of long black hair. 

The Woman of the Snow: Two men trapped in a raging snowstorm meet a frigid queen whose breath brings cold silence of eternity. Spared because of his innocent charm, one man must promise never to speak of his mystical savior. But some men eventually share all secrets with their wives, and doom descends like a blizzard upon sleeping children. 

Hoichi, the Earless: A blind musician plays his song of an ancient battle for a ghostly court, slowly fading into an incorporeal existence. He is spared by the Holy Text painted upon his body, concealing Hoichi from the desperate spirits…but two parts remain unprotected. 

In a Cup of Tea: An incomplete story of a samurai who drinks the spirit of another warrior and suffers the consequences of madness, like an artist finally subsumed by his work.  

Kobayashi stages each story like a play, focusing upon static sets painted with vibrancy or concealed in deranged shadows, faces painted with the thick Noh makeup. He creates an atmosphere of etherealness, where logic falls prey to myth and legend, a spooky transition like faces peering through the thin veil of the afterlife or the depths of a watery tomb. Kobayashi tells the epic battle of Dan-no-ura with a creative flourish, his camera panning over traditional paintings spliced with savage violence; a tale told with respect and dignity, but nonetheless tragic in its finality. He elevates the horror genre into the realm of high Art. 

Final Grade: (A)