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)

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

MAY (Lucky McKee, 2002)


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

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-)

Saturday, October 23, 2021

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (Michael Curtiz, 1933)


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+)

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

THE MONSTER WALKS (Frank R. Strayer, 1932)

An apple a day may keep the Doctor away but you need will-power (as in last Will and Testament) to survive the night in this old dark house. Ruth returns to her childhood haunt for the parsing of her father’s estate but fears his mad ape may throw a monkey wrench into the legal proceedings. The story walks quaintly through horror tropes of secret passages, clutching claws and a caged creature that may roam freely through the dark night of their soul. But it’s really a mundane murder mystery whose outcome is easily guessed from the first act. The static compositions and stagey dialogue aren’t helped by the poor sound recording. The actors haven’t much to work with or much to do and one feels a lack of creative fire that fuels classic Pre-Code horror films such as MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE or ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Mischa Auer is the bright spot to this dismal affair yet he practically sleepwalks through the story like a somnambulist Karloff. When the original poster advertises a giant raging simian we expect a stuntman in an ape suit yet we only get a traumatized chimpanzee in a tiny cage. Damn, I have more compassion for that angry chimp than the characters in the story: I’d be shrieking and rattling my cage too! Now, it gets even worse with its casual racism as the Chauffeur Exodus (played by Willie Best but billed as the demeaning Sleep’n Eat) is portrayed as the buffoonish laugh-track and eventually avers his descendance from the raging primate. The film is slow, boring, often unintentionally hilarious, lacks suspense and is condescending towards Ruth (the protagonist) and its one minority character. 

Final Grade: (D)

Saturday, October 16, 2021

THE MUMMY (Karl Freund, 1932)


The Archaeological curiosity Imhotep walks the modern age as Ardeth Bey, an Egyptian Historian who plans to disinter his lover’s reincarnated soul from its contemporary residence: the beautiful Helen Grosvenor. Legendary Cinematographer Karl Freund helms this fantastic Pre-Code horror focusing his intentions upon the dread and fear of the unknown and not violent action or exaggerated heroics. Actually, Helen’s current admirer, the rather wimpish Frank Whemple and his cohort fail to rescue her; it’s her devotion to the dead god Isis that saves her immortal soul! Freund’s use of low-key lighting upon Karloff’s withered visage combined with Jack Pierce’s makeup are the stars of this drama, making the Mummy and its resuscitation creepy and somehow believable in context. It helps that we never see the titular corpse shamble about as Freund cuts away leaving our imagination to haunt the film!

The opening First Act is spectacular as Freund shows us two Archaeologists disagreeing about opening a treasured box of pure gold as it is protected by a curse. Behind them in repose against the wall is the recently discovered Imhotep, seemingly mummified while still alive without his vital organs expelled and holy words, which would usher his soul to the Afterlife, purposely obliterated at the time of his burial. We get a nice close-up of the centuries old corpse and it seems more catatonic than deceased (it is). The elder Dr. Muller speaks with another cohort under the “Egyptian Stars” leaving the young and eager Sir Joseph Whemple alone with his ambitions. He opens the box which reveals the sacred Scroll of Thoth and as he begins to translate and read the words softly a withered hand reaches into the shot and takes the scroll. It’s a fucking brilliant composition as Freund gives us a deep focus shot of Whemple sitting at the desk working, mummy in shadowy background, which foreshadows what we know is about to happen. He then gives us another close-up of the mummy’s eyes slowly opening. What he doesn’t show us is the ambulatory corpse: we only witness the eyes, its hand grasping and then a ragged shred of its wrappings as it leaves the chamber. Whemple’s screams quickly turn to maniacal laughter as his scientific method is reduced to insanity. Brilliant.

The story then jumps to ten years later with Whemple’s son Frank, the aforementioned Dr. Muller and the lovely Helen Grosvenor in conjunction with the very strange character Ardeth Bey. After a murder and the discover of the lost Scroll of Thoth, they deduce that Bey is after both the magical papyrus and Helen! The story is reminiscent of Browning’s DRACULA where Mina is forced against her will to answer her Master’s call and it takes her lover Jonathan Harker and polymathic Dr. Van Helsing to save her. As Helen is forced to sleepwalk through the narrative and towards her resurrection, Bey shows Helen her past-tense and now the two worlds conjoin and her mind subsumed: she is becoming more Princess Anck-su-namun and less Helen Grosvenor. We also learn that Bast kills her pet German Shepard though this is only heard off-screen. Now the race is on to save her body and her soul! The editing is once again perfect as the cross-cutting creates suspense and anxiety until the very final scene where our protagonists, helpless against the these omniscient powers, watch as the statue of Isis, its godly powers called forth by Helen (Or the Princess?) raises its Ankh and disintegrates Ardeth Bey in a lightening flash. Freund ends the film with no coda, a powerful finish like a stone knife in the thorax.

Final Grade: (A)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

THE INVISIBLE MAN (James Whale, 1933)


Jack Griffin’s monomania with his addiction to injectable monocane leads to the disintegration of his psyche and overwhelming megalomania. James Whale’s brutal film sports the highest body count of any Pre-Code horror film (120+) yet is infused with humor and pathos as Griffin makes sport of his newly acquired powers one moment before becoming a cold blooded killer the next. This dichotomy is absolutely chilling as we see an entire town thrown into chaos by one unseen assailant. Imagine what an army could do? 

James Whale and his DP Arthur Edeson capture the “appearance” of our titular character in dramatic form in the first scenes as we see a cloaked man slogging through a snowstorm only to seek refuge in a village tavern The Lion’s Head. The crowd of working class men are laughing, drinking, playing darts and gossiping (the women are in another room) when the door opens to reveal a man wrapped head to foot in stout clothes and bandages and wearing goggles. We get an extreme low-angle medium shot that immediately cuts to close-up. That one cinematic pulse makes our heart stop and all we hear is the wind whistling through the door as the men have been provoked into silence as id f they’ve just seen a ghost. Perhaps they have. As this masked figure is shown to his room he is quick to agitate and become violent, scaring the always hysterical Innkeeper’s wife. When his antics become too much, he is asked to leave which incites him to retributive wrath. As the story progresses, we learn a bit more about Griffin from his former colleague Dr. Kemp (a real turd), his employer Dr. Cranley and his beautiful daughter Flora who is smitten with our protagonist. We learn through them that Jack Griffin wasn’t some maniacal mad scientist but a hard working chemist trying to earn enough money to marry Flora. Its important to note that we never experience Griffin as a good and sympathetic man; we are witness only to his cruelty and deceit. It’s only through others that we learn of his previous personality and disposition. I believe this makes his ending all the more tragic. His discovery with monocane could lead to riches but the side effects are psychologically damaging and he has become monstrous. Unable to “find his way back” Griffin is trapped in his invisibility and chemically altered brain. It’s not until his final breath that the human is revealed in repose. 

The special effects are outstanding even when seen today and help add verisimilitude to the story. The matte work and composite printing while not flawless is extraordinary for its time. From the first unraveling of his visage to the pantomime of a ghostly shirt, to the trousers skipping joyously down a county lane while chasing a screaming woman (and singing a rhyme too) to the fade back to solid reality where we see bone and muscle appear before Griffin’s boyish face, the camerawork is pure artistry. Claude Rains only “appears” in the very last shot but he is in character throughout: watch his body language (when swathed in bandages and gloves) and listen to his sinister voice! Great fucking performance. 

Finally, trapped in a barn fire on a snowy night he is forced to flee towards the barricade of officers who, seeing his footprints, shoot him dead. While laying in the hospital a doctor says he was shot through both lungs and the end is near. I suppose he could diagnose that by touch but operating would be impossible, obviously. He takes his last breath to reveal, not a deformed freak of nature but a young handsome man. The most terrifying monster of all hides behind its mask, not of bandages and gauze but flesh and bone. 

Final Grade: (A) 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (Mitchell Leisen, 1934)


Like Prince Prospero, Duke Lambert lives comfortably within the walls of his extravagant villa, keeping the dangers of the world at bay until a masked stranger brings unsettling reality to his guests. Director Mitchell Leisen and DP Charles Lang are synchronous in their talent as this story almost becomes mired in philosophical speeches and desires yet Land utilizes the cavernous villa and its wonderful set-design to frame the dialogues. This allows the story to transcend the mundane and become ethereal as if the villa itself exists in a bubble, lost amid the starry vacuum of space and existing outside of time.

The Duke’s family and friends race to his villa through a dangerous mountain road nearly killing an innocent flower vendor on the way. Chased by a cold dark shadow (or their own imagination) they arrive unharmed (even the vendor and his donkey are uninjured). Grazia, the Duke’s daughter is engaged to a seemingly caring man yet is haunted by the shadow on the road and her own doubts concerning the future. The lively party soon parts for the dream-realm yet Grazia remains alone in the courtyard, her mind and soul full of restless unfocused energy. She screams, bringing the others to her aid as she describes the cold shadowy form that stalked her in her contemplation. The Duke sends everyone to bed and has the servants secure the villa against intruders...but this intruder cannot be kept out: it is omnipresent. The shadow is Death and it soon takes physical form as Prince Sirki to experience the human fear of its touch, to understand why mortals fear the Reaper. After all, it is much simpler to die than to live (but not quite as enjoyable). The Duke’s reluctant agreement enjoins him to keep this dark secret from his family and guests or suffer the fatal consequences. But the fabled Prince courts physical desire and begins to learn to enjoy wine and the company of an admirer until he once again encounters Grazia, and discovers his need for love can transcend even our mortal coil. Yet for the time Death spends on holiday, no other deaths occur around the world: we see headlines concerning a fir in a Children’s Home (they miraculously survive), a race car driver survive a tremendous crash (the stock footage sure looks like the real driver may not have been so fortunate) and even Wars are without victim as weapons malfunction (like the Duke’s pistol). What remains unstated is the millions whose suffering is prolonged since Death is off the job!

The film is suffused with double-entendres as the guests speak of their fleeting desires while Death looks on impassively knowing the final illimitable Truth. Fredric March with his absurd accent is perfect as the personification of Death in its flawed human form, his mannered and reserved speaking seem as if he must concentrate to form words with his fleshy-mask. He’s naïve yet dangerously sincere and strangely compelling. Evelyn Venable as Grazia doesn’t need much range for her part but she commands it well as a dreamer, lost alone in the galaxies of her own mind. Charles Lang’s use of composition and space is astounding as he creates a vast ethereal environment totally within Academy ratio: no Cinemascope invention yet in Pre-Code! Lang detaches the characters from their surroundings in deep-focus shots, high-angles and uses an otherworldly on-set technique to capture Death’s shadow on film so its interactive and not an effect added post-production. This adds to the surreal reality and substance of the performances. Two great shots: when Prince Sirki meets Grazia and he walks up the winding staircase, Lang’s low-angle static shot keeps him in focus as he walks slowly away from the camera and upwards, his eyes never leaving hers! The second shot occurs when they meet in the courtyard and the camera only focuses upon their reflections in the fountain’s placid water, like ghosts captured in a mirrored insubstantial world. This film really deserves to be enjoyed on film or Blu-ray and a large screen to truly appreciate the use of Form. A small screen with lesser resolution may not diminish the powerful story but it does minimize the desired projection.

Prince Sirki and her make love in the final act (or, as the final act, so to speak), she states that she sees behind his charade and walks with him not through the valley of Death but into it! It’s a wonderful and sincere ending as Grazia choose Death to life alone. And Death has now experienced mortal fear; not that of the physical act of death but of losing the joy of our temporary existence. For ever and ever.

Final Grade: (B+)

Friday, October 1, 2021

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Robert Florey, 1932)


Dr. Mirakle attempts a miracle by combing the blood of his intelligent great ape with that of a woman to create a bride to host his hominid. I actually can’t believe I just typed that. But that’s the bizarre plot of Robert Florey’s loosely adapted Pre-Code Poe story concerning fatally flawed mad medicine conjoining with unnatural selection. Though Mirakle’s grasp of evolution is tenuous at best by modern standards, his hypothesis isn’t to be discounted by the fiction’s contemporaneous ideology since this takes place years before Darwin published his famous treatise. However, Mirakle’s thesis of mating a Gorilla and a human is just plain fucking crazy by any criteria either past or present!

Legendary Cinematographer Karl Freund supports the film’s structure with beautiful and eerie compositions from fog clouded streets to the low-key lighting and low-angle shots that infuse Mirakle with sinister intentions. The editing and quick-cut to multiple close-ups are startling as we experience the fractured perceptions of trauma like the victims. Freund actually attaches his cumbersome camera to a swing in order to film the heroine Camille sway to and fro as she converses with her lover Pierre. It’s such a striking composition that draws our attention to the dreamlike quality of her idealized devotion to her beau as she enjoys a picnic with friends. Later that evening her world will be torn asunder by her mother’s murder and her capture by an enraged and possessive Gorilla. In another scene he shoots directly down upon Pierre as he frantically races up a staircase to create a maze-like disorienting visual queue. The city of Paris with skewed walls and jagged skylines is evocative of Caligari’s nightmare and adds a surreal dimension to the film which helps us suspend disbelief at a Gorilla who is a Chimpanzee is close-ups and a man in a furry suit in long shots. I mean, nightmares don’t need to make sense and are often even more enjoyable when they don’t!

Bela Lugosi is as evil and creepy as ever and his strange command of the English language (even though it’s set in France) adds to our stilted disposition. When he forces himself upon the hapless Camille moments before the ape assault he looks more inhuman than the Gorilla. Though the story pulses along at a frenetic pace there are a few moments of WTF: how in the world does Pierre discover the strange hemoglobin from the murdered women specifically belongs to a Gorilla? The story doesn’t make him suspicious of Mirakle or Erik (yes, the Gorilla’s name believe it or not) which could spur him to research this point: it’s this revelation that makes him suspicious! The “comedic” scenes with Pierre and his roommate fall flat and go on too long. Ditto with the police inquest when bystanders argue over what language they heard before the murder. And why does the roommate announce he’s making macaroni when it’s clearly spaghetti? But the scene with Camille’s mother stuffed up the chimney with fur clutched in her death-grip when Pierre exclaims “See, it’s Gorilla fur!” more than makes up for these momentary dull patches.

The finale of a Gorilla racing across skewed rooftops carrying a mannequin is both unintentionally funny yet strangely compelling. Pierre is close behind with a pistol and delivers the fatal shot as Erik plunges to his doom and Camille is saved. Just make Erik larger and we have King Kong. I suppose even on the Rue Morgue, ‘twas beauty killed the beast.

Final Grade: (B)

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

OLD (M. Night Shyamalan, 2021)


If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will understand that my first sentence encapsulates the film’s theme or some interesting plot-point in an oblique way usually involving a pun or other perceived witticism: it’s quite fun to write! But this film doesn’t deserve such attention as it fails on every creative and technical level of film making; in straight terms…it stinks! Luis Bunuel did it much better in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL using an absurd premise as biting social commentary. Shyamalan’s intent seems to be in utilizing the germ of this hypothesis to allow us to consider the big question of ethics in scientific research and its utilitarian principles of the “greater good for the greatest number” by dehumanizing “Big Pharma”. But it’s a non-starter as the story isn’t tightly conceived to ponder such intricate ideals: I find my disbelief unsuspended as young PHD level researchers and medical doctors would murder hundreds of innocent people by sacrificing their Hippocratic Oath in such as fashion. A better script would have examined this moral conflict by focusing upon the researchers themselves, burdened with the moral conundrum of mass murder versus saving masses instead of fixating upon exploiting the victim’s suffering. However, the Nuremberg Code has already answered this medical moral question with finality.

The premise: a group of poorly sketched characters are trapped on a secluded beach and cannot leave. They begin to grow older by the minute and quickly age and physical and mentally deteriorate in 24 hours. Turns out, the mystical beach is used as a research laboratory to test the efficacy of drugs using these sickly human guinea pigs without consent. Time trials for experimental drugs which would normally takes years can be reduced to a few hours. But the inane script changes the rules as it goes so the magical aging effects aren’t consistent and terrifying. For example, they age approximately a year for every half-hour, but their hair and fingernails refuse to grow, fall out or turn gray. A character excuses this with exposition saying it must be because dead cells don’t age…but the biological process still does! It’s a purposeful fallacy perpetuated by such a dumb screenplay because if their hair grew quickly, it would be a dead giveaway and ‘spoil” the reveal. Script-writing at its manipulative worst. Also, I suggest that rapid growth of the children would require inordinate amounts of calories and we barely see them eating at all. Come to think of it, if all their biological processes are hyper-accelerated, they would all starve to death very quickly. Another WTF! inanity is the mention that this is the 73rd Test Group: so, we must believe that over the past few years hundreds of wealthy families disappeared from their environments and not a single one was traced back to this “resort”? There’s a nearly throwaway line of dialogue in the final act when a Tech says that all of the victim’s computers and phones were recovered and scrubbed…as if people didn’t tell friends and family about their vacation before leaving! It’s stupid at face value and becomes more so the longer one thinks about it. I won’t mention the tumor removal surgery which is so foolish it should be quickly forgotten. And the Deus Ex Machina in the form of a notebook in the film’s final moments is a shoddy and lazy plot device that is embarrassing.

But is the film scary? Well, if you suffer from petraphobia and/or aquaphobia you may find this terrifying. Otherwise, lingering shots of jagged rocks and crashing waves will leave you drowsy. Shyamalan confuses fear with violence and when the story slows down, he ramps up the action with a murderous and racist doctor who likes to stab everyone or a woman whose calcium deficiency leads to a laughably pretzelled demise. The tension should be in the buildup and the execution the shock: here he suffers to do either competently. I am now sufficiently convinced (as if THE HAPPENING didn’t already!) that Shyamalan is not a modern-day Hitchcock but more akin to the 21st century Ed Wood.

The actors seem to wrestle with their poorly written dialogue which is more exposition than conversation and fail to reflect the rapid and complex worsening of their mental, spiritual and emotional conditions. The cinematography is awful with bad CGI landscapes where the camera focuses upon rocks for much too long in order to create suspense or dread, I suppose. The CGI aging is also cringe-worthy and the plot points ridiculous. When the 6 year old children age to teenage years in the matter of a few hours and have sex resulting in a quick pregnancy and stillbirth, it was more hilarious than dreadful. The film is also amateurishly framed in 2:39:1 as medium-long shots occasionally cut-off the top of a speaker’s head or only capture someone’s nose at the edge of a composition. This may have been the fault of the projectionist which would make more sense as I can’t believe such inept camerawork could pass through undetected (or uncared for) by the DP.

One thing is certain, you will grow 148 minutes older while watching this film but it will feel like 148 years.

Final Grade: (F)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

DEAD AND BURIED (Gary Sherman, 1981)


Sheriff Gillis seems a stranger in an unstrange town, his childhood haunt now full of a nihilistic dread of murdered tourists and the walking dead. Potter’s Bluff is an interesting name as the very town is a “Potter’s Field” for the intransigent and the Bluff is not a cliff but a rude deception! Gary Sherman’s deft direction and narrative structure reveals little clues one at a time, relying on foreshadowing events and not just talky exposition. Combined with Steven Poster’s languid cinematography and Stan Winston’s gruesome effects (needle in the fucking eye, holy shit) their talent elevates this from mere exploitation to classic horror.

The film begins with a photographer being seduced by a lovely woman who then participates in burning him to death while a ghastly group appears to watch and capture his torturous demise on super 8. As the film progresses more out-of-towners are gruesomely murdered by this barbarous bunch who appear at each scene like apparitions, materializing from the night and fog. Meanwhile Sheriff Gillis is trying to solve this murder mystery in which everyone seems tangentially implicated to included even his wife and co-workers. Director Gary Sherman allows this feeling of panic to develop slowly as the Sheriff discovers the identity of the unknown photographer (ID was burned) and sees him pumping gas in town or the results of the scientific analysis of decaying flesh left by a severed arm on his rusted Ford Bronco. Dobbs, the local Coroner/Mortician is a strange beast who seems a bit mad-scientist but could be just a grumpy old man obsessed with his handy-work. Everything is slightly off-kilter until the big reveal as the story crashes towards its EC Comics climax! The entire town seems aged and decomposing (like its inhabitants) such as Gillis’ rusted police 4×4 or the houses that seem empty and in disrepair: this subtly adds to the onerous anxiousness. One scene in the final act is horrifying: when Gillis’ wife realizes she’s one of the walking dead, she wanders to an open grave and begs her husband to bury her, to put an end to her un-life. It’s reminiscent of another 70’s horror classic Bob Clark’s DEATH DREAM when the young undead protagonist urges his mother to bury him, to allow him to finally find peace.

The acting is first-rate as everyone plays their part perfectly straight though Jack Albertson as Dobbs goes a bit campy in the final scenes. As he lays dying he is able to inject himself with the serum that will prolong his un-life yet why didn’t he do that years ago? I mean, he would never age and just have to touch himself up once in a while. Why wait until he has a heart attack or some other natural catastrophe or gets shot in the torso when he could have done it at his leisure? And how does Gillis not know he’s an undead? Does he shit and have normal bodily functions? You may ask yourself these questions and a few more (Did Dobb’s really wire his lab with a dozen projectors?) but the film is composed so well it makes sense within the confines of the narrative. Just go with it.

Here in Potter’s Bluff they let the dead bury the dead. Literally.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (Reginald Le Borg, 1944, USA)


Amina’s body houses the ghost of Kharis’ lost love Ananka, a centuries old Egyptian taboo that is reincarnated into 20th century middle-class America where modern society has devolved into misogynistic social mores. It’s interesting to note that Ancient Egypt considered men and women as equal under the law yet here 4,000 years later in Mapleton, Massachusetts circa 1944 our heroine Amina is treated as nothing more than a victim, her Rights diminished and domestic choices preordained. Director Reginald Le Borg toys with the tropes of the horror genre but more importantly calls attention directly to the misogyny and hypocrisy of 20th century American male in the process.

The plot is fairly silly and routine for a B movie: an Egyptian High priest must call the mummy Kharis forth by burning nine tana leaves on the full moon then reunite him with his lost love Ananka whose mummified body is held in a museum in Mapleton. The twist comes when the physical body of Ananka crumbles when touched by Kharis and it’s revealed that her spirit must haunt some other fleshy abode nearby. Death and destruction ensue.

Amina is a college girl of Egyptian descent (though she has no physical characteristics that would ever lead one to believe it!) who is trying to finish her courses at the local college. She is dating the local hunk with the good old American name on Tom Hervey. Tom treats his intelligent and sometimes traumatized girlfriend (soon to be fiancé) as a child by diminishing her needs by asserting his typical male bigotry. There is not a scintilla of chemistry between the two of them and she looks more distrustful of him than lovelorn. This may be the fault of the actors (Actress Ramsey Ames was a last minute replacement) but it fits the theme of the film very well. If you break down our heroine’s name Amina to its enunciated parts, a Mina is an ancient unit of weight and value equal to 1/60th of a Talent. So our protagonist is only 1/60th of a person…and she’s treated as such by the men in the story. Her fears and desires aren’t realistically considered by Tom and she’s often chided for being silly and superstitious.

As the story progresses and the mummy wreaks havoc upon small town USA, the townsfolk set up night watches and patrol the streets at all hours. But it begs the question: how far can a slow walking, limping foot-dragging mummy really go? But there are some nice flourishes. The local sheriff actually recruits the help of a college professor and they attempt to lure the mummy by secretly burning tana leaves (like the priest and another victim earlier). The posse digs a pit and camouflages it in an attempt to trap the mummy since it has superhuman strength. I suppose no one thought to just trip the creature and chop a leg off! But a rather good plan all things considered. Another scene has the museum’s night watchman listening to a murder program on the radio (“Someone will die tonight!”) and reading a lurid pulp.  It’s a bit of self-referential trope since we know the mummy is nearby and the guard is about to become one more victim.

But it’s the finale that really propels this B movie to a Grade A film! As Kharis kidnaps Amina whom he now realizes to be the reincarnated Ananka, Director Le Borg cross cuts with the confused posse, the forlorn lover Tom, the rascally dog Peanut who was given to her as protection, and the limping Mummy with his armful of flesh stumbling towards his hideout. It’s Peanut that is competent, the dog leading Tom to his mistress while all of the men of the town practically run around in circles carrying, not pitchforks and torches but lanterns and shotguns. Tom is decked by Kharis and tumbles unconscious into the bushes while Kharis gets away. Amina is slowly transforming into the spirit of Ananka: her hair which earlier had a white-streak (ala bride of Frankenstein?) is now snow white. Then we get close-ups of her hand growing veiny and decrepit as Kharis slowly approaches a swamp. Tom even regains consciousness and during the chase trips in the mud thus subverting the classic horror trope! The impotent men can do nothing to help Tom or Amina as we get one final look at her visage, now aged and mummified like Kharis, just before they are submerged in the brackish waters. The men pat Tom on the back in despair and walk away from the swamp but it’s only Peanut who sits faithfully by the water’s edge, waiting, watching, and hoping his mistress will come back to the shore.
The men have failed. Kharis has taken back his property. Amina is dead. The music swells and the End credits roll. This nihilistic ending must have shocked audiences at the time and, I suppose, can still shock audiences today.

Final Grade (A)