Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Devil-Doll (1936)

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*. Why is the title hyphenated? And why is it singular? There are two devil dolls.
*. On the plus side, it helps to distinguish this film from Devil Doll (1964), an even stranger movie.
*. Tod Browning may have been a great American original and a master of the macabre, but there’s something unpleasant — not unsettling, or spooky, or uncanny exactly, but unpleasant — about his imagination.
*. Listen to how Marcel introduces his miniaturized dogs: “Toy? Forgive me, Lavond. Have you been locked away from life so long you don’t recognize a prisoner of life itself?” And later we’ll hear of how the paralyzed Coulvet is “imprisoned in his body.”
*. Browning’s victims are representative of the malady that is the human condition: not just fallen but deformed, crippled, imprisoned by life itself. It’s less scary than it is depressing.
*. The story here is weak, in large part because of hasty and significant changes demanded by the censors. Originally the dolls were to be created by witchcraft, and introducing the idea of a mad-if-not-bad scientist (Marcel sees himself as a humanitarian) made a mess of things. Where, we are left to wonder, does the power of mind control come from? Why does it attach to one person and not another? Voodoo might explain this, but science can’t.
*. I guess the censors also had some say in the resolution of the plot. The ending is dull, anti-climactic, and improbable. But Lavond had to be punished in some way for his transgressions, even if the exact nature of his punishment is left up in the air. He says that death is his plan, but we may wonder. Meanwhile, Maureen O’Sullivan and her faithful Toto are about as uninteresting as supporting characters can get.

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*. Here is Marcel explaining his scheme: “Lavond, my friend, millions of years ago the creatures that roamed this world were gigantic. As they multiplied, the earth could no longer produce enough food. Think of it, Lavond: every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size. One-sixth of its physical need. Food for six times all of us!” Do the math!
*. More weird science: if you take an in-bred peasant half-wit found in a Berlin slum and shrink her one-sixth the size, does that make her a full-wit? Not that it makes much difference, seeing as the dolls are totally under the power of their creators anyway.
*. There are little nods to The Bride of Frankenstein, a movie which came out the year before. The white streak in Malita’s hair for one, and the dolls who look like the little people Dr. Pretorious keeps in his jars. But the stripe of the skunk actually has an even longer pedigree as a mark of Cain. Peter Lorre had one as the psychopathic Abbott in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Bogart would sport a similar look a few years later in The Return of Doctor X.

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*. The cross-dressed villain wasn’t new either. Browning had Chaney in drag years earlier in The Unholy Three (1925).
*. This isn’t much of a movie. It was an attempt by Browning to try and recapture some of his quickly fading glory, and it failed. Aside from that, it seems mainly to have been devised as a way of showcasing the special effects, which are actually quite well done. The scene that has Lachna climbing the dresser to steal the jewels is particularly good. Otherwise, it’s all a terrible mess.

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The Haunted Castle (1896)

*. That’s Mephistopheles, or the Devil, as the Master of the castle. The original French title was Le Manoir du diable, which made things a bit clearer, as it’s really hard to see his horns on the surviving print. He is not Dracula, though you can be forgiven for thinking so what with his transformation from an oversized, floppy bat, his cape, what appear to be his brides, and his fear of the cross.
*. Why would the Devil have a cross in his castle anyway?
*. What he really is, however, is a proxy for Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-filmmaker. For Méliès the point of film was to do things that you couldn’t do on a stage, a different set of magic tricks.
*. Chief among these was a simple edit known as the “stop trick”: stopping the film and then changing what is being shot before starting it up again, making it seem as though objects are disappearing, or reappearing in different places. The story (perhaps apocryphal) has it that Méliès discovered the effect by accident when his camera jammed and then started again while filming a street scene, turning an omnibus into a hearse. It was, however, apparently first used in an Edison short a year earlier, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), substituting the actress playing Mary with a mannequin so we can see her head being chopped off. That’s still a shocking bit of film 120 years later.
*. The technique was new, and is crudely employed here. In particular the timing is off on the business of the imp poking the cavaliers from behind. By the time of A Trip to the Moon (1902) it would be better handled, resulting in a far more fluid effect.
*. What is it the Devil wants? To scare the cavaliers away? No! He wants to put on a show!
*. This is what magicians do. Obviously the trick is the most important part, but it is concealed behind a web of distractions made up of the usual glimmer and tinsel: the pretty girls and smoke bombs, the props and costumes. For Méliès, such distraction and showmanship would take two main forms: frantic movement and visual clutter. The latter would have to wait but the former is on full display here.
*. The other part of the magic show, which is less enjoyable, at least to me, consists of all the practical jokes. We may think of the spirit of the imp taking over from the magician here. The chair trick is a favourite one (man goes to sit down on a chair and it then disappears, so he falls on his ass). This is a prank as old as Puck. I doubt it was very funny then.
*. The survival of this film is an interesting story in itself. It was thought lost until it was disccovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 1988. Why New Zealand? Because back in the day — and here I mean way back in the day — films were shipped around the world according to a “distribution line.” New Zealand was, quite often, the end of the line. But because it cost a lot to ship film and the film stock was highly flammable, most of these early films were never sent back to the U.S. on the final leg of their journey and were instead either destroyed or stored in government archives. In the early twenty-first century a trove of early silent films were discovered in these vaults.
*. This is sometimes said to be the first horror movie. It’s obviously too short to build much in the way of suspense, or for that matter even tell a story. It also seems as though the effects are meant to startle more than frighten. Nevertheless, the transformations of the young lady into a crone and the brides into a gang of ghosts make for creepy viewing. The haunted castle of horror has many mansions and this is one.

The Ring (2002)

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*. What more natural way to begin than by comparing this film with Ringu?
*. Two numbers stand out: (1) the remake is almost twenty minutes longer (115 minutes versus 96 minutes) and (2) the original had a budget of $1.2 million and the remake $48 million.
*. In short, the remake gives us more. But more is not always a good thing.
*. The inflated run time is the result of throwing in a lot of extra stuff that not only adds nothing to the story but actually makes it more incoherent and clunky. The cursed videotape itself seems to run for twice as long, filled with a bunch of extra images that appear vaguely avant-garde and totally random. Then did we need all the stuff about the horses? The necklace Rachel pulls out of her mouth? The unexplained bleeding? The back story about the Morgans’ infertility? I’m still not sure what Anna Morgan’s problem was, or why she was driven to such drastic and ineffective measures.

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*. The screenwriters obviously had some awareness of how silly all this was. When Dr. Grasnik tries to explain the bad effects of Samara’s presence to Rachel by way of folksy profundities, Rachel responds with an exasperated “No offense, ma’am, but what the hell does that mean?” I was about to say the same thing.
*. Ringu had none of this, but what it did have was a tidy little story about a woman with ESP who gives birth to an even more powerfully gifted child. The Ring jettisons all of this for a bunch of nonsense that adds up to nothing. The twenty minutes subtracts by addition.
*. This culminates in the final montage of flashbacks as Rachel figures out what she has to do to lift the curse. The problem is that it doesn’t represent any kind of a thought process that I could follow. In the original, just sticking a towel on one of the victims’ heads and having them point to the clue, as ridiculous as it seems, was more effective. Less was more. Or at least made more sense. I mean, did we really need to see the TV attack Rachel in the well at the end? That was just silly.

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*. Then there’s all the extra money they spent. You expect Hollywood to come up with top-notch production values. But even here I had to question a lot of the thinking. Verbinski clearly wanted the whole movie to look like it was shot underwater, giving everything a blue-green tinge. Even the buildings are covered in mold! Does this work? Or does it get tiring? It seems overdone to me.

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*. And what about the appearance of Samara? It’s neat that even in her translated form she still flickers in black and white, but wouldn’t it have been scarier if she’d been more realistically portrayed? Does it help that we see her face (looking a bit like the possessed Regan from The Exorcist) instead of just her droopy eyeball? I’m not sure what we’re getting is an improvement. Though I do like the grotesque melting of the faces of Samara’s victims.
*. Is it acceptable now for a child as young as Aidan to call his parents by their first names? Is that normal? I have to say that bugged me, but maybe just because I’m old.
*. Martin Henderson as Noah looks like what we all think a Seattle A/V dude should look like. Somehow, killing a guy wearing sandals doesn’t seem fair.

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*. In Ringu, Reiko passes the cursed tape off to her father. In this film it was originally planned to have Rachel give it to a child murderer she’d met earlier, but after that character was dropped they just left things hanging. Which is morally as well as dramatically ambiguous. Obviously someone is going to have to get tagged as “it.”
*. This isn’t to say The Ring is a bad movie, or even a bad remake. I can’t say they blew it, but at the same time I think they missed an opportunity to make a good film better.
*. That’s not surprising though. Ringu was one of those movies where I think everything just fell into place, a happy and improbable accident. They weren’t going to be able to duplicate that.

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Ringu (1998)

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*. OK here’s the set-up: You’re the head of a film studio and some guy comes in with a pitch about a videotape that has a curse on it. As the story (or urban legend) goes, after you watch the videotape you get a phone call telling you that you’ll die in seven days. And that’s what happens! Because seven days after watching the video . . .
*. I think the natural response would be to assume that the person who came up with this idea was bonkers. But if you’d invested in it, you’d have backed what turned into Japan’s top-grossing horror film, a movie that went on to spawn a mini-franchise of its own, and which became the flagship of the J-horror wave.
*. Of course that’s not quite the way it happened. Koji Suzuki’s novel had been a hit. But the screenplay here takes Suzuki’s already bizarre premise and runs with it, making it even stranger (and, in my opinion, less coherent).
*. Still, it’s a point worth emphasizing: this is a stupid, an incredibly stupid, premise for a movie. That it manages to pull it off is all the more amazing.

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*. What was (or is) J-horror? A cross-breeding of traditional, folkloric elements from Japanese culture with contemporary urban life and high-tech modernity. Hollywood loved it, perhaps because they’d lost the ability to tell a ghost story of their own and had grown tired of imitating their own imitations of played out genres like the slasher pic. J-horror plots came to America like Eastern European stoneworkers imported to restore old buildings in the New World, that particular talent having been long lost and forgotten here.
*. Re-watching this movie for the purposes of re-evaluating it is difficult for a number of reasons. In the first place, as Peter Bradshaw puts it, “Enough time has passed now for me to realise that Ring is less a film and more packaging for a single scene.” It’s comparable in this regard to movies like Les Diaboliques or The Sixth Sense: once you’ve had the climactic experience, how much of the movie remains?
*. Then there is the matter of the remake, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, which came out only four years later. On balance, I prefer this version, mainly for its more compact storyline, but Verbrinski’s film does some things better. Whenever I’ve been asked by someone who hasn’t seen it which version they should watch I honestly have a hard time deciding.
*. So you’ve seen this movie. You’ve seen the remake. Maybe you’ve read the novel it’s based on, and seen all the sequels as well. It’s lost its shock value. How well does it hold up?
*. What’s going on with the woman in the white shoes who stops in front of Ryuji when he’s sitting on the bench? It’s a moment that’s not in the book, and I think it’s the result of just trying to cram too much extra stuff in. I mean, all the psychokinetic powers are odd enough, but why make Ryuji psychic as well?

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*. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just lower Reiko down the well in the first place and let Ryuji pull the water up? That’s hard work! Or better yet, since they did stop in a hardware store before going to the site, why not buy a small pump and some hose? They could have emptied the well in no time.
*. I do love how Sadako walks in such a jerky way. It’s a combination of two effects: the film being played backward and the actress using exaggerated, stylized movements inspired by traditional Japanese theatre.
*. Why should Sadako seem so threatening though? Shouldn’t she be ridiculous, what with all that Cousin It hair covering her face? How does she even see where she’s going? This is sort of like the whole silly premise of a haunted videotape. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
*. I guess by hiding her face Sadako just seems more mysterious and thus dangerous. Whatever’s behind that veil of hair, we’re sure it can’t be good. In the absence of any visual cues we imagine all sorts of horrors.

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*. Ryuji asks why this is happening. It’s a good question, and one that gets at the heart of a lot of our fascination with J-horror. There is no good explanation. If there was a curse, it should have been lifted. But Sadako is just bad, and the innocent must be made to suffer the consequences. Morally, she’s on a par with Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, and she’s only a little girl!
*. It’s a nice score. The jangling strings at high impact moments and submerged gurglings to go with the daily countdowns really stand out.
*. I wish I knew more about the regional angle, if the places mentioned have any special cultural meaning. Are Reiko and Ryuji going to the Japanese equivalent of redneck or hillbilly territory? Are they city people forced out of their comfort zone?

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*. The best horror movies usually are “about” something more than their scary story. Here there’s the viral technology angle (technology that doesn’t work is sociopathic: an evil force beyond our comprehension that doesn’t care about the lives it ruins), but even more than that there’s the story of Reiko and Ryuji and their son Yoichi. They’re just a normal divorced couple on a quest for closure in more ways than one. And of course they’re never going to get closure because there’s a kid involved, and kids always make things messy.
*. Isn’t it a shitty trick to play on your old man, tagging him with the cursed tape and making him pass it along to save his ass. I mean, I’m sure he’d do it to help out, but it’s a bit irresponsible.
*. Videodrome, Poltergeist, Ringu . . . If you stare too long into the abyss of the tube, you shouldn’t be surprised if you see it staring back, and getting angry.
*. If all this movie had was a shock ending I don’t think it would have had the kind of impact it did. But it’s a genuinely effective suspense thriller, has a couple of great performances from the two leads, and manages to give an old story a wicked new twist.

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The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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*. It’s fun to compare this film with the versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” that came out at the same time (Jean Epstein’s and the one by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber). For starters, they are all haunted house stories set in weird “grotesque” mansions (each of which prominently features a long hallway with curtains blowing into it for effect).

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*. The Usher films are based on Poe’s classic tale while The Cat and the Canary comes from John Willard’s 1922 stage play of that name. Those different sources give an indication of where the similarities end. Both Usher movies are thick with atmosphere, the spirit of experiment, and a sense of unexplained dread. They are also lyrically silent, with sound effects (rendered visually) but no dialogue. The Cat and the Canary, on the other hand, is one of the talkiest silent films you’ll ever see.
*. I’ve heard people who have seen this movie express surprise when it’s described as a silent film. They remember it as being so full of chatter. Which, of course, it is. And it’s the kind of chatter that’s normally cut from a silent film: often repetitive verbal sparring without any direct bearing on the plot.

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*. Paul Leni is usually tagged with the label of an expressionist filmmaker, but he really dialed that back for this one. Despite all the opportunity for exaggerated and distorted visuals (our heroine is, after all, on the edge of being driven mad) it turns out there’s a perfectly good explanation for what’s going on, and all of the strange happenings are shown to be the result of ingenious but practical contraptions. A very American film, in that way.
*. Film historian Bernard F. Dick says that the style of this film was seen as a popular vulgarization of expressionism, but that this was necessary for the film to appeal to a mass American audience. Caligari didn’t play in Peoria.
*. It was a transition film for Universal: from the days of silent horror films produced by Carl Laemmle, often starring Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera), to the early sound classics produced by his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., like Dracula and Frankenstein.

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*. It was the qualities associated with subsequent Universal films that we notice more today, in particular the way it mixes humour in with the thrills and displays a more German sensibility in the direction and design. The comic touches make us think of what James Whale would later do with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, and the settings (designed by Leni and made by Charles D. Hall, who also did the sets for Dracula and Frankenstein) soon became familiar to followers of the genre.
*. This, and the fact that Willard’s play was often revisited (the most notable other version being released in 1939 and starring Bob Hope), combine to give it a contemporary feel. We recognize the fast wisecracking script even reading title cards, and the bit of voyeurism as Paul watches the ladies undress from under the bed would go on to have a long future in horror films.

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*. Noting all this, it’s also interesting to observe the subtle differences with all that came after. The police coming to the rescue as motorized cavalry are remarkable not because of the odd way Susan is carried in front of the officer on his bike (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that done before), but because of the fact that they actually arrive in time to do something. We are used to hearing the sound of sirens in the distance after all of the main action of a thriller is over. Perhaps the police were just more efficient in the 1920s, or moviemakers today are too rigid in conforming to a creaky convention.
*. Another subtle difference is the way the proto-nerd Paul actually proves himself to be a somewhat capable hero at the end. Annabelle is almost a proto-“last girl,” but she’s not ready yet to go it alone. She still needs a man, and she gets one.

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*. I really like the shot when, after the family has begun to turn on her, we see Annabelle isolated in a room that now seems so much bigger and emptier. What happened to all the furniture? The dark spot on the wall where the portrait had fallen down from earlier underlines that same sense of abandonment.
*. Despite its place in film history, and the fact that it’s still quite an enjoyable entertainment, this is a movie that is not very well known today. Perhaps it’s just another case of countless imitations having overwhelmed the impact of the original. If so, it’s time for another visit to the old dark house. I think it stands up pretty well.

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The Act of Killing (2012)

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*. A documentary doesn’t present the truth but rather a shaping, interpretation, selection, and perspective on the truth. In the best postmodern fashion, The Act of Killing is more about this process than about the product.
*. It isn’t quite a meta-documentary since it’s not about its own construction but rather presents dramatic re-enactments of real events. On the DVD commentary director Joshua Oppenheimer and executive producer Werner Herzog compare it to reality television but an even closer analog might be the mockumentary. The cast are a bunch of deluded clowns we can barely take seriously. But we have to because they’re killers.
*. On one level there’s nothing terribly profound or revealing about what’s happening. “Morality is relative” and, as is also pointed out, it’s the winners who get to write history (“When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. . . . . ‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner so I can make my own definition.”). In their political culture the “gangsters” we meet here were heroes. Of course we think it’s outrageous that they should happily re-enact scenes of torture and mass murder, but we are outsiders to that culture and cultural moment. Within their own frame of reference they have nothing to be ashamed of.

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*. Being against killing people, the act of killing, is not a cultural universal, and never has been. As Dirty Harry once remarked, there’s nothing wrong with killing people as long as the right people get killed. The cinema gangsters thought they were killing the right people. Why would they care what somebody on the other side of the world thinks of what they’ve done? It’s unlikely they’ll ever even visit the U.S., or the Hague.
*. At least that’s one way of looking at it. I was confused, however, to hear Oppenheimer say that the television show where the killers are interviewed struck Indonesian audiences as shocking. There’s nothing in the film itself to suggest this. The studio crew watching on monitors make some cynical comments on the proceedings but that’s it. This seems to me to be a major mistake on Oppenheimer’s part, as the impression he creates is quite the opposite of what he says the real reaction was.
*. The basic conceit, and there’s a long tradition behind it, is that through the use of masks the actors would feel free to be more themselves, that through the creation of fictions we get closer to the truth. Do you buy it? Or do you feel lost in a performance, a (quite literal in this case) mise en abyme?

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*. This question is starkly presented in the final trip to the rooftop with Anwar. Do you believe that he is feeling remorse for his sins? That he has become partially self-aware? Oppenheimer, I think, does, but he was somewhat invested in Anwar by then. It’s notable that Herzog and Errol Morris both seem to take a more cynical view, seeing Anwar as still acting for the camera. Personally, I take this view as well. I think he’s faking it. I don’t think he’s learned anything. So the performance is just another layer of deception.
*. Then there is Siregar, the journalist who tries to distinguish cruelty from sadism and then goes on to deny knowing anything about the killings. This is actually the part of the film I found the most fascinating. Here’s someone who clearly is acting: pretending that he had no idea what was going on when Anwar and Adi were torturing and killing prisoners. No one is buying his performance though, and he is ridiculed and exposed as a lying worm.
*. It’s a male world, with the women we meet all being viewed by the gangsters as whores. Perhaps this explains Herman’s bizarre turn as Divine. Is he funny? Yes, but Divine was both funny and threatening too.

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*. The political angle is devastating. There’s a juxtaposition of high and low throughout, with Anwar just a bag man doing “grunt work” for a political and economic elite who “need gangsters to get things done.” But what an elite! This is what a gangster state looks like: the thugs at the top just the same as the ones at the bottom only they have more money to buy trashier bling. You have to wonder how much of the rot in such a state begins at the top and trickles down and how much of it has grass roots.

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*. Their philosophical justifications trickle down anyway. The gangsters are “free men,” libertarians, the opposite of government bureaucrats. Except they are bureaucrats. They are the men of action who “get things done.” There’s something about the sound of that that should concern us in the West. And am I the only one who thinks the higher-ups appear to be scared of Congo when he comes to visit?
*. Does media violence breed violence? Anwar explains “When I was young I always watched American films and imitated them.” But he sees himself as Sidney Poitier, and the genre reenactments take the form of lavish musicals as well as gangster films. So I don’t really think what we’re seeing here is an example of life imitating art. Though there are moments when my corollary to Wilde’s dictum, that life mainly imitates bad art, seems in play.

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*. Oppenheimer interviewed dozens of gangsters but you can tell right away why he settled on building the film around Congo (despite the fact that individuals like Congo were, according to the publisher we meet, dime a dozen at the time). The camera loves Congo, he has the charisma of a Poitier or Mandela (who he resembles), authority and charm, and can even break into a few dance moves. And yet like many Hollywood stars he can’t act at all. in the film within a film he repeatedly fails to get a simple line right. Herman is much better, though he has no personal magnetism and is hilariously inept as a politician (the one role in which he can’t remember his lines).
*. In the end, it’s a movie that leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s wonderfully shot and edited, and filled with indelible moments and lines (“I believe even God has secrets”). It paints a terrifying portrait of state corruption and violence, in a way that helps remind us of just how bad things can get when the wheels come off completely.
*. At the same time, the bizarre concept and some of the more outlandish (or, as Herzog would have it, “surreal”) moments feel like a distraction to me. Does such an approach conceal more than it reveals? Oppenhemier makes a nice observation on the commentary track about how Anwar holds his grandchildren up in front of him as a way of screening himself from the re-enactments of his crimes. But I wonder if the whole exercise became that for him: a way of safely mediating his memories and bad dreams. Postmodernism is a defence against the real.

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The Return of Doctor X (1939)

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*. This needs some sorting out.
*. In the first place, this isn’t a sequel to Doctor X. It doesn’t have any of the same characters, though it does have a couple of the same character types, like the mad scientist and the wisecracking reporter. It doesn’t make use of “synthetic flesh” (opting insted for “synthetic blood”). It doesn’t follow up any of the events of the earlier film.
*. In Doctor X it’s not clear who the title is referring to: Doctor Xavier (never referred to as Doctor X), or just a generic suspect in the murder plot. In this movie there is a completely different Doctor Xavier (Humphrey Bogart’s character, whose first name is Maurice in the film but Marshall in the credits). Bogart’s Doctor Xavier is identified as Quesne (rhymes with “Cain,” get it?), and since he clearly isn’t Lionel Atwil’s Doctor Xavier, the title must be referring to Bogart’s “return” from the dead.
*. Bogart’s Dr. Xavier was executed for conducting an experiment to see how long he could starve a child before it died. Which, leaving aside any ethical questions, doesn’t sound like a very brilliant experiment. Nevertheless, Doctor Flegg thinks he was a genius and that his execution made him a “martyr to science.”

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*. For all his grotesque appearance and evil history, Bogart makes Quesne somewhat sympathetic. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he didn’t ask to be brought back to life, and he seems at times genuinely down about what he has to do to stay alive. Note his pained expression in the window as he listens to Flegg give him up. How can you not feel sorry for him?
*. Originally it was planned as a sequel: in Technicolor, directed by Michael Curtiz again, and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (as Quesne and Flegg respectively). Then it was downgraded, considerably.
*. Today we have a system of four blood types (A, B, AB, and O). In 1939 was there a system of four blood types that were just given numbers? I haven’t been able to find out. Were the producers here just making this part up?

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*. When asked on the commentary if he researched any of the scientific details for the film, director Vincent Sherman laughs and says the prop man who dressed the lab set took care of that.
*. Sherman was 99 when he did the commentary, but sounds decades younger. He refers to the film as a “cornball” story that was made “for kids.”
*. Medical vampires are always a little more unnerving than the fanged variety. Having teeth in your neck is one thing, but a needle in your arm and some tubing draining your blood away is something else. And this is a trope with a long history in horror films. The mad doctor in Dreyer’s Vampyr, for example, has his own creepy transfusion kit.
*. That’s an awfully obliging cab driver Quesne has for the final chase. Is he a confederate? It’s not clear, but then the whole ending seems awkwardly jammed on.
*. This is a very minor, and very clunky, B-picture from Warner Brothers. Its only interest today is in Bogart’s one-off appearance in a horror film. It’s not a film that’s necessary to see once, and you’ll probably not want to see it again.

Doctor X (1932)

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*. That most famous of all scream queens, Fay Wray, introduces herself with a scream, her first in a horror film (King Kong was a year away). But why does she scream?
*. She immediately tells her father that she came into the library “just to say good night to you.” Then the very next thing she does, just a few seconds later, is to ask him why he’s in the library. Huh? Why would she be frightened by finding him there, even if he was in the semi-dark (obviously it wasn’t fully dark because he was looking for something) when she went there to find him?
*. Strangely enough, this scene is repeated nearer the end when Joanne (Wray’s character) again goes looking for her father, finds him inspecting Rowitz’s body, and . . . screams. Perhaps there’s just something about her father that frightens her.
*. Yes, that’s beautiful two-colour Technicolor washing the screen in a diseased-looking hue dominated by browns and greens. I love it. I love looking at all the early colour films. There’s something both authentic and otherworldly about them, even in films (like this one) where not a lot is made of it.

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*. The story, however, is a spectacular mess, which is a bit surprising given that it’s based on a stage play (something that usually suggests a minimal level of coherence).
*. Things just don’t hold together well. This was a romantic comedy-thriller, with the three elements failing to gel. In particular, the romance and comedy come courtesy of the unbelievable attraction between Joanne and reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy, in what was a recurring role). There’s never a hint of chemistry between these two, and Tracy’s snappy newsman patter isn’t funny or smart at all. His hand buzzer is juvenile, and if they played the gag where he backs into something and scares himself one more time I was going to yell at the screen. He does it two or three times in the same room!

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*. The horror-mystery part, however, is pretty interesting. Cannibalism! Well, not quite. The Moon Killer isn’t someone who accidentally acquired a taste for human flesh, but rather seems to be partially motivated by altruistic reasons. “I’ll make a crippled world whole again,” he declares. We may doubt him, but then when he says this he has no reason to lie. Of course, he is considering the ends and not the means.

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*. Pauline Kael: “The director, Michael Curtiz, plays things too straight; he doesn’t have the perverse comic sense of a James Whale.” Well, few directors at the time did. But point taken. Curtiz is known as the source of many funny anecdotes but doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour himself. And this was a comedy. Not a good match.
*. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Xavier pronounced Ecks-ah-vee-yay before. Is that supposed to be French? It’s not consistently pronounced any one particular way in the film, which may have been intentional but was more likely the result of the different actors not being on the same page (as hard as that may be to believe). Even Scott MacQueen pronounces it different ways on the commentary.
*. Unlike Professor X from the X-Men, whose name is also Xavier, I’m not sure if Doctor Xavier here is meant to be the Doctor X of the title. Doctor X may just mean the mystery doctor who is committing the crimes. But then calling the lead Xavier just confuses things needlessly, doesn’t it?
*. The rest of the cast are a well-introduced set of weirdos. I’m particularly fond of Dr. Haines. He’s such a perv with his naughty magazines and his understandable desire to see a threatened and underdressed Fay Wray perform as the victim.

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*. I wonder what the first film was to do a series of quick cuts of close-ups of a gallery of reaction shots from possibly guilty faces. It’s a cliché now, but it’s still quite effective here, and even humorous the third or fourth time around.

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*. The plot is jaw-dropping nonsense. I guess Dr. Xavier has seen Hamlet a few too many times, as he wants to borrow the idea of the play-within-a-play being used to catch the conscience of the killer with an elaborate re-staging of his crime (complete with waxwork displays of all his victims). Only this time the guilty heart will reveal itself through science.
*. And what science! MacQueen notes the “embarrassing pseudoscientific gobbledygook” Lionel Atwill has to spout and it really is so good I’ll give it you in full here: “Gentlemen, I am now turning on the 100-milliampere, high-frequency coil. Your pulses are connected with the magnetic rotators, and each variation of your heartbeat reaction is amplified 4,000 times. The rotor of the electrostatic machine is connected in multiple series with a bank of glass-plate condensers, and the discharge causes irradiations to the thermal tubes, which, in turn, indicate your increased pulse rate and nerve reactions.” A killer may be able to pass as normal, but he can’t conceal his insanity “from the eyes of the radio sensitivity”!
*. Alas, even a plan as well-thought-out as this fails in spectacular fashion as the killer just turns out the lights and murders one of the innocent doctors (rather needlessly, since the experiment had just demonstrated that the victim was in fact the killer!).
*. But if at first you don’t succeed, try again! Why waste such a wonderful set? Next time we’ll handcuff the suspects to their chairs. Except for Wells. Isn’t that perhaps dangerous, trusting Wells? Not at all, since he couldn’t be the murderer as he only has one hand! Dr. Duke may be a much older man, in a wheelchair, but he’s more suspicious.
*. And anyway, Dr. Xavier has made provision for Dr. Wells being the killer. Otto will lock the manor doors when the experiment starts so no one can get in. That will stop Wells from trying anything!
*. This leads to what may be one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in any horror film. Though I’m still not sure how unintentional the humour was. Fay Wray is presented as the sacrificial victim and the killer comes out to dispatch her while the assembled audience of scientists can only hop about yelling at her to “fight back!” and “run!”
*. Now here’s a question: why doesn’t Wray run or fight back? She isn’t drugged, or tied down. But she does absolutely nothing!
*. The finale is pretty impressive, what with the killer being turned into a human torch and then being thrown out the window and falling to his death. But when Tracy says he got his throwing skill from his time spent as a first baseman tossing “that old peg over to third,” the screenwriters must be confused. A first baseman rarely throws all the way over to third. The old peg would be a third baseman throwing over to first, a far more common throw.

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*. The Moon Killer’s transformation into a fish-lipped conehead by way of “synthetic flesh” is creepy and all, but as MacQueen asks, why is he doing it? Does he like wearing such an elaborate mask? And what is it about the moon that inspires him?
*. For some reason I couldn’t help thinking of the scene where the guy turns himself into a jellyfish monster in Sting of Death. But I’m sure there was no question of influence there.
*. So the love story and comic elements don’t work at all, the mystery is contrived and the science ridiculous. The horror is just over-the-top enough to be both grotesque and funny, and the colour is a delight. It may not be a movie to come back to much, but it is a novelty item worth experiencing.

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Maniac (1980)

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*. I have the two-disc special edition of this movie on DVD. That’s worth thinking about. Not that I have the special edition, but that a special edition even exists of such a film.
*. You may respond that the director, William Lustig, is also the CEO of Blue Underground, which is the label the special edition was put out under. I give Blue Underground a lot of credit for putting together some great special editions, but this is also Lustig’s baby.
*. But is this film that special? Perhaps not much, but a bit.
*. In the first place, it’s a totally derivative slasher film. Lustig’s initial idea was to make “Jaws on land.” Which sort of explains the opening scene on the beach. Frank Zito is a killing machine like Bruce the great white.
*. Oddly (or not) enough, Jaws was also the inspiration Sean Cunningham had for Friday the 13th. The killer in that film was imagined as a force of nature, a land shark destroying his victims.
*. Cunningham’s other main inspiration was Carpenter’s Halloween. Or, more properly, the success of Carpenter’s Halloween. Everyone wanted a piece of that action, hence the spate of films like this. Lustig, naturally, was no different, even taking co-star Caroline Munro out to see Carpenter’s movie to give her some idea of what he was after.
*. Another borrowing shared by Cunningham and Lustig (their movies were released the same year, but Friday the 13th was made first, as Tom Savini went from working on Friday to this film), comes at the end. Both movies wanted a Carrie rip-off, no matter how far-fetched it would be. You could be damn sure you were going to see hands exploding out of the ground (or the water, as the case may be).

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*. Fans of the film usually point to things like the “guerilla” film style, the special effects by Savini, and the lead performance by Joe Spinell. Let’s look at these in order.
*. The ultra low-budget guerilla style wasn’t an aesthetic decision. Lustig had no money. The film’s “look” isn’t that distinctive. It looks like what every movie shot in 16 mm and blown up looks like: muddy and dark.
*. The gore effects are pretty good. I would single out the first scalping scene as the best. The shotgun blast is usually considered the highlight, but in fact this was pretty easy to do. It’s shot from behind so you’re just seeing a dummy head filled with goop being blown apart. The final decapitation is weak because Spinell’s head is obviously fake. They needed to cut that scene better to sell it.
*. I like Spinell, and think he’s great here. That is, however, a relative judgment. Spinell is one of the very few “real” actors to appear in one of these slasher films, where the killer usually wears a mask or is presented point-of-view giallo-style throughout most of the movie.
*. Spinell’s Frank Zito is also one of the few slashers to have much of a back story. I don’t think it matches up that well (where did the mannequin fetish come from?), and settles for a rather conventional mother fixation, but at least Spinell came by this honestly. The documentary on Spinell’s life included in the two-disc set shows him living at home with his mother, casting their relationship in a rather awkward light. His room actually looks more than a bit like Zito’s apartment, and apparently he was even known to have dressed up in his mother’s clothes in public. Weird guy.
*. As an aside, it still seems to me that Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t get the credit it deserves for presenting a slasher killer with a well developed and somewhat credible psychology. That’s not to say Silent Night, Deadly Night is a good movie, because it isn’t, but Billy’s madness is at least somewhat grounded.
*. There is, however, one big problem with Spinell in this role. He was not a handsome man. He’s entirely persuasive as a scary serial killer, especially when his slack and sweaty face fills the screen in a tortured rictus, but can we really believe he’d have a chance with Bond-girl Caroline Munro?

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*. This is a huge credibility gap. A beautiful young professional woman immediately falls for a (let’s be frank) ugly, overweight, middle-aged man with no job. On one of the commentaries Lustig explains that the keys inside Zito’s apartment door were meant to indicate that he was the building superintendent, but that’s not going to get you far with a girl like Munro.
*. Kim Newman calls Zito one of “the most repulsive human beings imaginable . . . slobbish, sweaty, ugly and prone to horrible overacting.” He’s also emotionally stunted, plays with dolls and toy ray guns, and seems more interested in that teddy bear he gives to Munro than she is. And yet Munro can’t wait to go out with him!

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*. In the featurette interview with Tom Savini he remarks on this disjunction and explains it by saying that even a complete troll can get any woman he wants if he makes her laugh. Which may be true, but Frank doesn’t evidence any sense of humour either. The mystery remains.
*. Lustig himself seems to recognize that the chemistry didn’t work, saying he disliked their scenes together. There’s even a long embarrassing silence on the commentary track throughout the dinner at the Italian restaurant. You can tell no one likes it. Was it Spinell’s fault? He did write the script and was the star. It was natural for him to want to have a beautiful female lead.
*. Real life is, of course, stranger than fiction. Caroline Munro did find Spinell a charismatic and attractive figure on their first meeting. But of course there was a lot more to Joe Spinell than there was to Frank Zito.
*. I like the subway scene, even if it is a bit of a stretch. There’s a big continuity error when the train pulls away and we see that the platform is full of people milling about. Then after the next cut it’s shown as being empty again. Admittedly, filming in the subway really was “guerilla” filmmaking. They didn’t have permission and had to shoot it when and how they could. But still, the effect is undermined.
*. Lustig goes off on a tear on one of the commentaries when he starts talking about how today’s horror movies are slicker but more generic than their predecessors in the ’70s. Say what you will about those early exploitation films, he tells us, they at least had a sense of style. I think this is generally true (Lustig singles out the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th for criticism), and it’s interesting to speculate on how that ’70s style might be best defined. Lustig specifically drops the names of Leone, Argento, and Bava as examples. All Italians. And Maniac is very much an Italian-American film. A coincidence?
*. I love Frank’s apartment, but unfortunately Lustig forgot the name of the artist who designed it. I wonder what the first serial killer apartment was that we saw decorated in all those pictures cut out of magazines (pictures that we see again on the wall of Spinell’s room in the documentary on his life). The art work is also bizarre, with the doll in the birdcage and the Born Without a Mother statue being particularly creepy.

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*. Do you think Frank might have glued the scalps to the mannequins rather than hammering them on with plastic tacks? The tacks sort of spoil the effect.
*. The coda is awful. Of course they had to have the clichéd “he’s not dead yet!” moment in case they wanted to make a sequel. But actually the entire ending is silly. The cops break in and see the evidence of what appears to be an act of hari-kari, but then they just tuck their guns back in their belts and . . . go away. No need to look around. Let’s just leave.
*. I guess the cops were tipped off by Anna to go check out Frank, but if so they took their sweet time. Otherwise I don’t see why they’d be breaking into his apartment at all.
*. So . . . is it a special movie? It was interesting listening to composer Jay Chattaway talk about the independence he had working on such a film, especially as compared to working on bigger productions. But it’s an odd thing: while in theory a low budget should give producers more creative freedom, more of a license to indulge a personal vision, most of these films were even more focused on the bottom line and more genre-specific and conventional than the movies being made by the big studios. Like Cunningham in Friday the 13th, Ludwig basically just wanted to ride on the coattails of the incredible success of Halloween. But he got lucky by teaming up with Spinell and Savini, and then enjoyed a bit of the success scandal brings when the backlash against slasher films made him a target. I’d call it better than average for the genre, with just enough that’s quirky and, yes, special about it to be worth seeing. If only once.

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The Seventh Victim (1943)

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*. An epigraph from . . . “Jonne Donne”? When was his name ever spelled “Jonne”? Is it meant as a joke? We know Lewton wasn’t above goofing around with these literary quotes.
*. The return of psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd. Another joke? An in-joke? Tim Conway played the same character in Cat People, and was killed at the end of that movie. But I have trouble seeing this as a prequel.
*. If you were watching this movie in 1943 and seeing Kim Hunter on the big screen for the first time, what would make you think she had any kind of a future ahead of her as an actress? She’s terrible here, wooden and awkward and without any kind of presence. Admittedly, the crazy story doesn’t help, and some of her lines are deadly.
*. Why do I say it’s a crazy story? It seems to me to be Lewton’s most Hitchcockian film in the sense of having a few key sequences tossed off by way of a ridiculous plot without any regard to plausibility. Example: Everyone loves the subway scene, but think about it: why the hell would you transport a dead body by subway to get rid of it? Do none of the Palladists have a car? Even the wealthy Mrs. Redi? Here are a few other examples.

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*. First off: Why does Mary take Mrs. Redi’s word for it that Jacqueline killed Irving August? There’s no evidence for this whatsoever. In fact, it seems highly unlikely. Was Jacqueline being kept in the locked room? When did she become so violent? Nothing adds up, but everyone just accepts that she’s a murderess. Which, apparently, she is.
*. Second: So Gregory Ward is married to Jacqueline but immediately falls in love with her much younger sister: a girl who is still in boarding school and who everyone treats like a child. Huh? Even though he’s married (which is news to Mary), he seems totally uninterested in Jacqueline even when they’re together. Even strangers is the fact that Mary finds it quite acceptable that he feels the way he does.
*. Third: I find the scene where the coven of Palladists are trying to get Jacqueline to drink her hemlock to be creepy, giving off a bit of the same vibe as the end of White Zombie. But its effectiveness is undercut by the sheer silliness of the proceedings. In the first place, they don’t want to actually kill her, so they just sit around waiting for her to kill herself. Which is silly enough. Then, when she doesn’t take the poisoned chalice, they send a hitman into the streets after her. I guess they didn’t want to waste another whole afternoon watching her stare at a glass.
*. Then, after escaping from the hitman, Jacqueline decides to kill herself anyway! Which is hilarious, when you think of it.
*. Fourth: It’s very handy that in all this time no one has taken the noose down from Jacqueline’s apartment, isn’t it?
*. Enough of that. It’s a ridiculous movie. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments, like the subway scene, the shower scene, and a couple of Lewton’s patented “scary walks.” And there are also some interesting themes being developed.

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*. The most interesting of these is the feminist angle. Mary Gibson is a young lady forced to quickly come of age in the Big City. She resents being called a child, or “little Miss Gibson,” and tells Gregory “I don’t like to be ordered to do anything.” And it’s interesting how so much of the film revolves around female-dominated worlds: the Palladists are mostly women, the boarding school is all female, the perfume company has had two consecutive women as CEO . . . and where is Mr. Redi? Was he a human sacrifice?
*. On the DVD commentary Steve Haberman adds to this by mentioning the various lesbian undertones that are hinted at. I’m not sure Frances’s relationship with Jacqueline can be read as “subtextually lesbian” (it seems more like a case of dog-like devotion to me), but the woman at the party who tells Mary she “knew” Jacqueline is another story. What does she mean when she says they “were intimate,” but she can’t tell Mary about it because she’s “too young”? Is this why Gregory has turned so cold toward his wife?
*. Reading something into lines like these is fair game. In the same snatch of dialogue the woman also says that Jacqueline “took up” with Dr. Judd. This sparks a round of suspicious looks. We are meant to be curious as to what this means. If this is the same Dr. Judd from Cat People then we know he has little respect for doctor-patient boundaries.

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*. Another interesting angle is the devil worship business. A foreshadowing of Rosemary’s Baby? I think there’s a bit of that. These are such normal-seeming New Yorkers. Sadly, but perhaps understandably given censorship issues, we don’t go very far down this road. And the finale, which has the entire coven chastised and humiliated by a simple recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is absolutely ridiculous. What, they hadn’t heard that before?

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*. As always, shadows are an important part of nearly every shot. Notice in particular how a shadow of the triangular coven symbol is thrown on Mary’s back in the hallway scene. In fact, it appears several times in that shot, which seems totally unrealistic. They must have had multiple light sources aiming through a bunch of different stencils to throw the symbol on her back and on the walls.
*. This isn’t one of Lewton’s best films, though it has its champions. There are limits on how much can be done with a script this bad. However, like all of Lewton’s work it has a special curiosity value.

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