Category Archives: 1960s

The Terror (1963)

*. The Terror is a movie that fell into the public domain because the copyright notice was left out of the credits. I doubt at the time that anyone would even have considered that an oversight, but today it has a certain cachet primarily because of those credits and the story of its making, leading it to enjoy a second life on DVD. When I first saw it, however, it was on a really awful print that was almost unwatchable. Did this impact my reaction to it? Probably.
*. Still, going back over my notes from that earlier viewing I seem to have liked The Terror better back then. I just recently saw it again in a restored version that looked much improved but I came away thinking it wasn’t as good as I remembered. Maybe, I thought, it’s like one of those albums that you needed to listen to on vinyl to get all the hiss and pop as part of the experience. Or maybe I was in a grumpier mood the second time. Or maybe it really isn’t a very good movie.
*. Well, it certainly isn’t a very good movie, even though it is kind of interesting. Basically it’s a movie that Roger Corman pulled out of his ass trying to make use of the sets from The Raven before they were torn down. He apparently shot most of it in four days, with a script that he seems to have been partly making up as he went along. Some scenes had to be added later just to try to make sense of what was going on.
*. As far as the interesting credits go, there’s Jack Nicholson looking all of 18 years old and hopelessly miscast as a French cavalry officer. And rumour has it that both Nicholson and credited producer Francis Coppola spent some time behind the camera, along with “half the young filmmakers in Hollywood” in Corman’s own remembering.
*. The story opens with a couple of scenes involving Nicholson’s character falling asleep or passing out, which adds to the dream-like sense of whimsy the whole thing has. There’s also a bit of a literary air to it in the stilted dramatic dialogue, making it feel like it should be an adaptation of Poe (which is what it is usually lumped in with among the other vaguely Poe-derived productions Corman was busy with at the time).
*. Ultimately though the whole thing swallows its own tail. There’s something about it that I don’t think makes sense, but I can’t muster the strength now to unwind the plot to the point where I think it falls apart. Is Ilsa mad at Eric? Is she working together with Katrina, or at cross-purposes? I can’t figure it out.
*. I’ll grant it’s a bit of fun. Say what you will about Corman but he was a competent filmmaker even under the most extreme conditions. I just don’t think he had any upper range. So, sure, this is all kind of silly but at least it’s a decently told joke.

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Diary of a Madman (1963)

*. After the titles play we get a quote from the story by Guy de Maupassant that this film was inspired by, “The Horla.” The Horla was actually the movie’s original title, but they probably figured that would confuse people. As it is, the story is changed so completely that if they didn’t actually name the demonic spirit the Horla then I doubt anyone would have got the connection.
*. You might think that with such a literary forebear the script might be pretty good. It isn’t. The dialogue is stiff and expository, to the point of humour. An early example has the police chief angrily saying “Murderers. They’re all the same. Humanity would be much better off without them.” Then there is plot, which is the usual Vincent Price material. Yes, once again he is a man left mooning over the memory of his dead wife. And once again he finds himself trapped in a burning building. Talk about formula.
*. What all this adds up to is a film with a really simple little idea: a man is possessed by some kind of evil spirit that forces him to kill. You might take something like that and make it into one of the entries in a horror anthology, running around 20 minutes. To blow it up into a feature invites a lot of dead air.
*. If it had been a little tighter it might have been scarier as well. As it is, how many times do we have to see Simon Cordier’s French windows blow open? Couldn’t he try fastening them shut?
*. Then there is the voice of the Horla. Director Reginald Le Borg was disappointed by this. He wanted something that sounded more distorted but the studio had trouble understanding what it was saying so they gave it what the New York Times reviewer called “a voice like a toothpaste commercial and a disconcerting giggle.”
*. Actually, you could defend the voice (which was provided by Joseph Ruskin, who went on to have a very long and productive career in Hollywood as both an actor and a producer). If you take the point of view that the Horla is just a figment of Cordier’s imagination then it does have the same kind of smoothness as Price’s own inimitable voice.
*. Did Ozzy Osbourne get the title of his debut album from this film? It’s not a totally idle question. Somewhat idle, I’ll grant you, but not totally. Apparently Black Sabbath (Osbourne’s earlier band) took their name from the Bava film, which was released the same year as Diary of a Madman. So . . . it’s possible.
*. I really didn’t understand the business with the mirror. Cordier looks in a full-length mirror and doesn’t see his reflection. As the invisible Horla puts it, “common sense tells you that the reason you can’t see yourself is that someone stands between you and the mirror.” But if that were the case wouldn’t Cordier notice something else wrong with the image in the mirror? He shouldn’t be able to see anything past the Horla, which is still invisble. Or actually he wouldn’t be able to see the mirror at all because the Horla would be standing in the way.
*. Let’s end with what stuck with me. Nancy Kovack looks gorgeous. The one (yes, there’s really only one) big kill scene is pretty extreme, at least for the time. Vincent really has to stick Kovack with the knife quite a lot. And what he does with her head is pretty darn gruesome. I don’t understand why he does it, but it’s gruesome.
*. And that’s about it. It’s a very typical production of its time, with a story that’s hard to pay attention to once you realize that it’s not going anywhere interesting.

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

*. I believe this is the first of what would be many films inspired by the H. P. Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space.” It’s usually considered to be a very free interpretation, but as far as Lovecraft movies go I think it’s par for the course. Most Lovecraft movies have only the slightest connection to their source, and basically pretend they’re doing Poe, as here. But there would be other adaptations of “The Colour Out of Space” that would go far further afield than this.
*. Of course there had to be some changes. The hardscrabble Massachusetts farm nobody would want to visit is transplanted to a more cinematic Arkham in England, where it has become a ginormous manor house. They kept the meteorite with its curious radioactive properties that lead to mutation, madness, and degeneration, but introduced a pair of young lovers of the kind that the rather repressed H. P. would never countenance.
*. The young male lead is played by Nick Adams. I thought this name had to be a nod to Hemingway but it’s actually derived from his birth name of Nicholas Aloysius Adamschock. He was a friend of James Dean, and starred as Johnny Yuma in the television series The Rebel (a show I never saw and I’m certain I never will). He died of a drug overdose only a few years after this film was made. I don’t know what he was like as Johnny Yuma but he’s awful here.
*. It was given a lot of titles both generic and silly (at the same time). One working title was The House at the End of the World (or even The Monster in the House at the End of the World). In the UK it was released as, drum roll . . . Monster of Terror.
*. As far as Die, Monster, Die! goes, I love the punctuation but it carries a sense of urgency the film itself never rises to, while leaving it unclear who or what the monster is. I suppose they mean the transformed Nahum Witley, but he doesn’t have much screen time and the title suggests to me a greater level of exasperation than is experienced by anyone.
*. The proceedings are even more generic than the title. It was an AIP release, shot at Shepperton, and looks it. Andrew Migliore and John Strysik, in their guide to the cinema of Lovecraft Lurker in the Lobby, call the movie a “textbook example of the walking-around-endlessly-in-a-big-house school of filmmaking.” That just about sums it up for me as well.
*. It’s hard to overstate just how familiar all this is. When our hero gets off the train in Arkham and asks around town to see if he can get a ride to the Witley place everyone cuts him dead. Once he arrives and begins walking around the big house he sees scary portraits of Witley ancestors, encounters decaying women hiding behind veils, spies creepy figures peering into windows, is surprised by skeletons swinging out of closets, and survives killers smashing through locked doors. The monster in the end crashes through a banister and falls to his death, leaving the heroes to barely escape from the burning house. How many times have you seen this movie?
*. There’s just nothing here that’s interesting. Yes, there’s Boris Karloff, but he’s a bore stuck in a wheelchair. The effects are terrible. Lovecraft is scarcely a presence. The only part I enjoyed was the zoo of mutated creatures kept in the (huge) storage closet in the greenhouse. They were amusing. And seeing as they weren’t in the house when it burned down, maybe they survived. That’s all I was left with at the end.

The Trial (1962)

*. Franz Kafka is usually held, I think fairly, as being one of the great mythographers and prophets of the twentieth century. His work is also characterized most often as having the quality of a nightmare vision of bureaucratic hell. This too strikes me as fair.
*. I don’t mean to be perverse then when I say that I also find his novels strangely comforting. There’s something not modern but old-fashioned in his vision of a world dominated by creaky and opaque hierachies, with influence channeled through the mysterious influence of solicitous women. Of course no one would want to actually be Joseph K., but the lawyer Huld (named Hastler here) seems to lead quite the life, lying in bed all day while being tended to by Romy Schneider. It’s not necessarily a bad world, at least if you can find your place in it.
*. I think something of this ambiguity can be seen in the decor and setting of this version of The Trial. One expects to see the curtains rise on an envrionment not unlike the post-WW2 streets of Vienna in The Third Man but we instead find ourselves in a thoroughly modern apartment block, and then a giant open-concept office space filled with clacking typewriters that makes one think Terry Gilliam must have been taking notes for Brazil.
*. Later, however, we will step back into the past, with many of the interiors being shot in the vast and cluttered spaces of the Gare d’Orsay. These locations do have a bombed-out and antique feel to them and they help give the sense of a world so old it’s falling apart.

*. The Trial is a work that has always invited a wide variety of interpretations. Combined with Welles’s belief that film should never be an illustration of a book but an original creation, and that a director has not only the right but the obligation to turn a literary source into something different from what the author intended, we should expect something a bit different from a literal adaptation. And this is what we get.
*. What are the essential elements of Welles’s version? I’ll just mention a few of what I think are the most characteristic.
*. In the first place, it’s a comic Trial. Welles told Anthony Perkins that black comedy was what he was going for and I think that’s clearly what he achieved in several places. Just look at Welles’s own first appearance with a wet towel over his face. Nor is this a particularly revisionist reading of the text, since apparently Kafka himself thought The Trial to be very funny and would laugh out loud while reading the manuscript to friends (it was only published after his death).
*. Does the lightheartedness go too far? I think it does in one instance. What I’m referring to is the ending, which has a laughing and defiant K. blown up with a stick of dynamite instead of being ritually sacrificed with a knife.
*. Now Welles had a serious reason for doing this. He thought it a response to the Holocaust, in that he didn’t want to show K. as masochistically submitting to his death. He thought that that sort of thing “stank of the old Prague ghetto” and wanted instead to show K. making a final defiant gesture, even if it was fruitless. That’s fair enough, but the explosion at the end here — which some have seen as invoking the spectre of nuclear war, though this was not intended — strikes me as being light and cartoonish. One almost expects to see Perkins crawling out of the hole with his face blackened and clothes in tatters, still laughing away.
*. The second interpretive angle taken is to present K. as a social climber. Welles saw him a man on the rise, a pusher trying to make it in the bureaucracy rather than someone fighting against it. Explaining this point of view to some film students, he said K. was not in conflict with society but society was in conflict with him.
*. I like this point of view and think it’s successfully put forward. (I also think it’s something there in the text as well.) One of the interesting ways Welles shows it is by making elevation into a visual motif. Authority is always presented as being on high. K.’s “office” in the typewriter hall, for example, is just a raised platform at one end. The judge in the courtroom/hall is also on an elevated stage, and K. is shown having difficulty climbing onto it. The preacher’s pulpit forces K. to look up at him and even Hastler’s bed is on a kind of dais. These are the kinds of commanding heights that K. wants to climb. Instead, he descends into an open pit.

*. Finally, there is a sexual angle given to the proceedings. Some of this is in Kafka, like the way K. attempts to recruit women to help him in his cause. But there’s also the fact that Welles knew Perkins was homosexual and used that as a way of suggesting another layer of anxiety — the fear of exposure.
*. As a result, the film becomes what David Thomson calls “a homosexual horror story,” with a gay man afraid of being exposed finding himself at the mercy of a gang of “ravenous women.” Well, when you’re paranoid then the whole world is a threat, and I think all of this works really well. And I never really understood Joseph K.’s relation to women in the novel anyway.
*. A big scene (almost nine minutes) involving the computer was cut at the last minute. This would, according to Welles, have said something about man’s slavish relationship to something that was only a tool, a rather prophetic statement in 1962. This is another interpolation that was, of course, not in the book but which still would have fit well with it.

*. I have to say I’m not that happy with Welles’s own appearance as Hastler. Especially his strangely boyish haircut. The lawyer in the novel is an old man and unwell. Here he just seems odd. Welles had originally wanted Jackie Gleason (more comedy) but Gleason turned him down. I think with Welles in the part it’s definitely something different, but I still think it’s a case of miscasting.
*. All the usual comments one has to make about the bravura aspects of a Welles film — the use of space, the lighting, the editing, the long takes — apply here. It’s a visual treat from beginning to end. And the script is one of the most original things about it, full of well-timed diversions and clever bits of Pinteresque dark humour. I don’t think it adds up to one of Welles’s greatest films, but that’s a tough hill to climb. It’s still a truly great movie, and a landmark work of art in its own right.

Becket (1964)

*. I recently found myself watching Becket at the same time as I was preparing notes on Cleopatra, a movie that had been released just the year before. Of course both movies are historical costume dramas made in the grand style, both won Academy Awards (Becket was nominated for twelve!), and both star Richard Burton, but I found another parallel more significant.
*. Despite being widely celebrated (Cleopatra was, among its other benchmarks, surely the most famous, or notorious, movie of its time), both films are almost entirely forgotten today.
*. Time was when even popular history books dealing with either figure would have to address their screen versions, pointing out signifcant inaccuracies or liberties taken with the historical record. Today that’s no longer necessary, as nobody comes to a book about Cleopatra or Thomas Beckett with preconceptions based on their memories of Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton needing to be overcome. Indeed, the films aren’t even mentioned in some recent studies.
*. Well, this is one case where I can’t fault the fickle taste of the public. I found Becket to be nearly unwatchable this time out, which was the first time I’d seen it in twenty years. It’s so heavy-handed, so ponderous, so pious, that it makes you feel like you’re visiting a different planet. Did we really think this was great filmmaking sixty years ago?
*. The script gives us lines like “Where honour should be, in me there is only a void.” Such lines are then underscored by musical notations that put the words into bold relief. And they are delivered by Burton in a manner that suggests either (or both) extreme boredom and/or someone already turning to stone. How many movies did Richard Burton ever smile in anyway?
*. I’ve heard that Burton actually wanted to play King Henry. I think that would have worked. He has that air of humourless cruelty I think the real Henry, and the part here, call for. O’Toole as Becket, however, would have been a dicier proposition.
*. Peter O’Toole does try his best to liven things up, but he’s stuck in a ridiculous part that barely makes any sense. Did you not know that he loves Thomas? Then he’ll tell you. Again. And again. But in what sense does he love him? How can such a long, overwritten film dealing with only two characters fail to give us any real sense of who they are, or of their motivations? They’re just voices and costumes.
*. About the only amusing thing is all the homoerotic stuff. I can’t call this a subtext because there’s nothing secondary or hidden about it. It’s so pervasive and explicit it starts to be funny after a while. I think there are even three scenes where Burton and O’Toole are lying or sitting in bed together (a couple of times after throwing a woman out).
*. It’s hard to overstate how blatant this is. The two men are more than just boon companions. As noted, Henry is constantly crying about his love for Thomas. His mother upbraids him for his “unhealthy and unnatural” attachment and his wife complains of his neglecting her.
*. On the DVD commentary O’Toole addresses this by saying that “to put it in terms of homosexual and heterosexual is to miss the point. It was love.” What he means is nothing platonic, but more a laddish, locker-room kind of thing. But then O’Toole says how, in a locker-room, “blokes often give each other a rub, if you follow me.” Then he breaks into laughter. So yes, we get it. We can’t miss it.
*. I wonder where this comes from. I don’t think Jean Anouilh, who wrote the play the film was based on, or screenwriter Edward Anhalt were gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in England at the time, and yet it’s not like they were hiding anything here. Is there a political point being made? I’m not sure what it could be.
*. But, as I say, this is the only thing that I found interesting in the film. A few years later O’Toole would return as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) which at least had a bitchy, soap-opera charm to it I still enjoy. Come to think of it,even Cleopatra is more fun. Becket is only a turgid and fusty historical drama of the kind I’m relieved they don’t make any more.

Children of the Damned (1964)

*. Sequels often disappoint by being just a rehash of the original. Producers can’t be blamed for that, since what audiences usually want is more of the same. It’s a bold move to break with a successful formula.
*. So I’ll give Children of the Damned credit, a lot of credit even, for trying to do something different. This isn’t Village of the Damned 2: The New Batch. Unfortunately, that just makes me feel even more disappointed at how bad it is.
*. The storylines in the two films are so different that it’s sometimes said that this isn’t a sequel. To some extent I agree, but the children are still supernatural offspring (virgin births), still have the same powers (mind reading and mind control, a shared group consciousness), and they did make use of the “Damned” again in the title, so a sequel of sorts it is.
*. I assume they’re the same alien hybrids as in the first movie, though even in Village of the Damned the business of their mothers’ impregnation was left murky, for obvious reasons, and we never really knew who their daddy was. In this film it’s often said that the explanation offered of a sudden evolutionary jump through parthenogenesis means that there is no alien impregnation, but accelerated evolution, a “biological sport,” is just presented as a hypothesis and wouldn’t rule out an alien breeding program anyway.
*. On the DVD commentary track writer John Briley says he thought of the film as essentially “a moral fable about the Cold War” and not a psychological thriller. That seems right to me. The basic idea is that the children represent the best and the brightest of the scientific community being co-opted by the military-industrial complex to create more advanced weapons system. Given what they’re able to put together in the church out of scraps and spare parts one can see the potential.
*. So basically this is an anti-war movie piggy-backing on the premise from Village of the Damned. Even the end is meant to make a point about how easy it would be to accidentally turn a cold war hot. And I credit Briley (who would later win an Academy Award for writing Gandhi) for his political stand. But at the end of the day I don’t think it works.
*. I don’t know if it’s possible to make such a movie without seeming preachy. Children of the Damned is preachy, and was apparently meant to be even preachier. The kids even hole up in a church for heaven’s sake!

*. Briley also wrote a creepy little movie called The Medusa Touch that, when you think about it, is very similar to Children of the Damned. I hadn’t thought about the connection until I found out he wrote The Medusa Touch when researching these notes. (Yes, I do research. Not much, but a bit.)
*. When Doctors Llewellyn and Neville go knocking on Paul’s door and they are greeted by the lovely Barbara Ferris (playing Paul’s aunt) she asks them if she can help them. A leering Doctor Neville chortles “Rather!”
*. This seemed a bit out of character but I didn’t think much of it. Then, listening to Briley’s commentary, I was surprised to hear him say that he had to work hard to keep the audience from thinking of the two doctors as homosexuals. To be honest, I had never thought of this. Then, re-watching it, I guess I could see where people might get that idea. They never seem to hook up with Ferris. On the other hand, they are shown as sleeping in separate bedrooms.
*. I wonder if Black Sabbath were inspired by this movie when they wrote the song “Children of the Grave.” That was released in 1971 and the lyrics talk about children rising up to protest against war. There are lines like “Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear? Can they win the fight for peace or will they disappear?” It’s not too much of a stretch to think there was some influence. I mean, they got the name of the band from the marquee outside a theatre playing Bava’s Black Sabbath.
*. Well, to sum up, it’s all quite earnest but I didn’t find it very interesting. I like the junior Anacharsis Cloots congress marching about London but they just don’t have the same edge that the cuckoos from the first film had. John Wyndham’s main theme about a competition between incompatible species never gets much of a hearing. These kids are the good guys, not damned at all but sent from above to redeem fallen humanity, and ending up much like that other fellow. This be the verse.

Village of the Damned (1960)

*. What’s in a name? A lot. You sure as hell weren’t goint to call the movie The Midwich Cuckoos, which was the title of the John Wyndham novel it was based on. Steve Haberman actually begins his DVD commentary by telling us what a cuckoo is and how it relates to the story, which is a bit of information that’s probably even more necessary to explain today than it was in 1960. Plus any title with “cuckoo” in it just sounds funny.
*. What’s in a name? Pauline Kael thought the moniker of Wolf Rilla “a terrific name for the director of this particular film.” Remarkably, it was his real name. Habermas calls Village of the Damned “by far his most important film” so despite having a long career in the business, and writing a couple of well-regarded books on filmmaking, he never had a breakthrough. He later remarked “I’ve made 27 films and this is the only one that people remember.” That’s a bit odd, as I think he does a good turn here. But it does happen.
*. Martin Stephens was another disappearing act. At the time he was Britain’s best known child actor, and just the next year would appear in the remarkable horror gem The Innocents. But he didn’t continue with acting and went on to become an architect.

*. Wyndham thought the novel would be unfilmable, and I can understand why. It has an odd structure that doesn’t lend itself to a dramatic adaptation, with a gap of quite a few years between the first part of the story and when we pick it up later on, with the children all of school age. It’s also the case that the children have mental powers that are difficult to show. Only their effects can be seen.
*. Another problem had to do with the subject matter. This was pretty risky stuff for 1960. You’ll note they don’t even say the word “pregnant” out loud. They only refer to the women’s “condition.” And at first the script was rejected because it was thought to represent an anti-Catholic mocking of the virgin birth (which Haberman confuses with the doctrine of the immaculate conception). [Note: A helpful reader provides some more information on this in the comments below.]

*. Overall, I think the script does a good job. The number of children is cut by quite a bit (there are around sixty of them in the novel). The use of their mental powers is signaled by the effect of their glowing eyes, which was a good idea (insisted on by MGM to liven things up a bit) but is undercut by the fact that they have to use what are obvious freeze frames to show it, except for one scene.
*. In the novel the children don’t have the ability to read minds. They can control other people, but can’t see what they’re thinking. This is a pretty major change, and leads to the film’s climax (which John Carpenter would follow in his remake), of Zellaby hiding the presence of the bomb in his satchel behind a mental brick wall. it’s another example of a change that made things more dramatic.
*. Barbara Shelley thought the script mistakenly marginalized the mothers. Carpenter’s remake would try to correct this, though I’m not sure if this was an improvement. For what it’s worth, Wyndham’s novel doesn’t play up this angle at all.
*. I don’t think this is necessarily sexism. Is there anything so depressing as that line-up of gloomy cuckolds at the pub? Nobody has to say anything.

*. The political reading is kind of interesting. On the one hand the kids may be the advance guard of a Nazi master race: little Aryans with a ruthless social Darwinist agenda. Or they may be communist cells, unfeeling apparatchiks with no individual identity looking to disperse and submerge themselves in their host society’s bloodstream.
*. The problem with either of these interpretations is that the children aren’t monsters. Sure they kill people, but they are being threatened with extermination and when they lash out it’s usually because of poor impulse control. I mean, they could behave a lot worse. They’re not as sympathetically drawn as the kids in the sequel, Children of the Damned, but if we were in their shoes would we behave any different?

*. This is a point that could never be resolved. As noted, in the sequel the case is made that the children are potentially forces for good who are destroyed by accident only because they’re misunderstood. In the Carpenter remake one of the children is saved, having learned to achieve a certain level of empathy. Both films pull back from the harsh law of survival advanced by Wyndham’s book: that this world isn’t big enough for our two species and that one of us must be destroyed. Is that a political point though, or a more philosophical one? I guess it depends on how alien you see the children as being.
*. I think it’s this ambiguity that keeps Village of the Damned relevant. It’s also an interesting looking film, and the little blonde kids have become iconic But the suggestion that mankind is something to be surpassed, quickly and violently, is one that still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable. We could probably make our own genetically-engineered cuckoos now, and there may be some people who want to. Are they the enemy? I’m not drinking their Kool-Aid.

Torture Garden (1967)

*. So if you come to this knowing it has nothing to do with the novel by Octave Mirbeau but that it’s one of the horror anthologies put out by Amicus the first thing you’re likely wondering at is the presence of Burgess Meredith and Jack Palance.
*. Well, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were originally slated to star but since Columbia was supplying the money they wanted a couple of American names, hence Meredith and Palance. I don’t know if Palance took Cushing’s part or if he just jumped up to star billing. It’s not that it’s a big role anyway, though I think Palance is effectively countercast as a raspy connoisseur of Poe.
*. Aside from that quirk in the casting, this is a very typical Amicus product. Direction by Freddie Francis. Script by Robert Bloch (based on stories he had written). Four brief spooky tales bound up in a supernatural frame story.
*. I didn’t find this one very interesting. The main problem, I think, is Bloch’s script. The stories are pretty stupid, the frame is silly, and there’s a real lack of energy to drive things along.
*. That frame consists of Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, a fairground sinister who curates an exhibit of macabre waxworks. One of these is introduced as Atropos the Goddess of Destiny who holds the hypnotic shears of fate. When one of Diabolo’s guests looks at the shears they are offered a vision of their future doom in the form of a dark fantasy vignette.
*. This all seems a stretch to me, even beyond the usual. Here is Dr. Diabolo’s spiel: “There is a theory: the past, the present, and the future are merely different aspects of the same moment in time and space. You understand that theory? Then perhaps you can understand that since a drowning man can view his entire past in a few seconds, he can also view his future by the same rule.” How can you argue with that? After all, he is a doctor.
*. Stretching credulity further is Dr. Diabolo’s commentary that the visions of Atropos are warnings about “things that can be.” But these are not visions about things that anyone could believe actually happening, however far-fetched they may seem. They aren’t like the premonitions of disaster served up in the Final Destination movies. Instead they are weird tales of supernatural occurrences. And why would anyone be frightened by predictions of evil cats or killer pianos?
*. The same concept of prophecy was used in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which I believe was the first of the anthology horrors Amicus did and which was also directed by Francis. To be honest, I think the idea of having the fates of the characters revealed after the fact, though it leads to some other problems, makes more sense. This was the route Amicus later took with Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
*. The first story, “Enoch,” is very dull and predictable. Just another case of the grasping heir getting more than he bargained for with his inheritance.
*. “Terror Over Hollywood” struck me as the best of the bunch, and even stole a march on The Stepford Wives by five years (though the basic idea is nothing new). Beverly Adams is also great as the rising star Carla Hayes.
*. This segment also illuminates an interesting cultural shift. I think a lot of us might ask today what the big tragedy is about Carla’s fate. Hasn’t she wound up with everything she always dreamed of, and more? Success, fame, money, beauty . . . forever? Today, of course, the idea of transplanting (or uploading) one’s consciousness is something a lot of money is being spent researching. If only we knew the secret of Dr. Heim!
*. “Mr. Steinway” is about a haunted piano. At the end of the story it pushes the heroine out of a window. Really. The piano. It was going to take something special to make that work.
*. “The Man Who Collected Poe” is a somewhat interesting idea but it gets a very pedestrian treatment without any real twist. A lot of people like this episode the best but I think they’re just deferring to the leads. There’s nothing special about it.
*. It’s odd that Palance seems to have an almost orgasmic look on his face at the end. Was such a climax not frightening to him, but a consummation to be wished?
*. In sum, the individual stories, though weird in terms of content, are all pretty basic. Greed and ambition are punished (even the girl in the third story is an obnoxious climber, with her “Leo belongs to me now”). The frame ends on a bizarre note, not because of the silly revelation of Dr. Diabolo’s identity but because of his final interaction with Palance. What happens there? What deal have they struck?

*. The production is what you’d expect, and the same goes for Francis’s direction. He shows off his usual affection for depth of field, foregrounding or backgrounding key elements like the shears, a glass of medicine, a trapdoor, the tines of the pitchfork, the mother’s portrait, or the set of keys. But that’s really his only flash of style here.
*. As with all of the Amicus anthologies, it’s not a great movie but you do get something mildly entertaining. If you’ve seen enough of these, you’ll have a pretty good idea why the format never really took off. That’s a shame, as it always had potential (see Dead of Night or Kwaidan). But for various reasons it remained stuck in a rut of inexpensive and formulaic quickies.

Kwaidan (1965)

*. Kwaidan is a movie that vibrates on a string of tension plucked between opposing elements in its design. I know that sounds kind of fluffy, but I’ll try and explain.
*. Most obvious, at least at a first glance (and a first glance is all it takes), is the opposition of nature and art. Kwaidan flaunts its artificiality in nearly every shot. There are only a few scenes that were filmed on location, the rest being shot inside what was a converted airplane hangar (that was being used as an auto warehouse at the time) because there weren’t any studios in Japan big enough for the sets.
*. What gives rise to the tension is that this isn’t a movie of notable interiors but one largely set out of doors, filled with forests and rivers and lakes and dazzling skyscapes. I’ve even heard it suggested that the stories are meant to represent the different seasons, though I have trouble seeing it. In any event, it’s a movie that constantly evokes the natural world, but in outlandishly unnnatural ways. The skyscapes are operatic backdrops (Coppola was obviously a student, borrowing those floating eyes for Dracula), and even the sound of the blowing wind is played on flutes.
*. Another opposition, much commented on by Stephen Prince in his DVD commentary, is between surface and depth. On the one hand there’s what Prince identifies as the imitation of traditional Japanese painting and its “flat, 2-D pictorial space” that mitigates any sense of volume. On the other, there is the frequent use of foreground items, often with a thematic intent (for example, a post or other vertical barrier dividing a pair of characters), or the tunnels of trees, or gates and doorways seeming to open unto endlessly receding vistas.

*. I also think of the use of colour to create a sense of depth and space, which is something Welles did in The Immortal Story (1968). Is it a coincidence that both films were their respective director’s first feature work in colour?
*. Then there is the opposition of sound and silence. Welles too thought that music in film allowed silence afterward, and even suggested that this silence was music’s most important role. As Prince notes, that’s also the function it has here, as the odd score by Toru Takamitsu deliberately loads up calculated intervals of silence. Assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara remarks that the point was to show how “silence is also sound.” The one creates the other.
*. Here’s another pair to consider: unity and diversity. Kwaidan is an anthology-horror film, a genre not usually identified with the art house or high production values. Such films are often only loosely held together by a frame narrative, but there is little attempt at that here (or none at all, depending on how you read the ending). This makes the audience wonder what it is that connects them, or if there is any connection aside from their all being adapted from the stories of Lafcadio Hearn.

*. In his Criterion essay, Geoffrey O’Brien writes that “the first three stories Kobayashi chose to include all involve broken vows, broken not through conscious malevolence but through what seem like unavoidable circumstances.” Well, yeah. Sort of. This seems awfully loose to me though. Sort of like “angry ghosts.”
*. Personally, I don’t see much in the way of a unifying theme aside from the fact that all the stories deal with the supernatural. But because they’re all collected here together we instinctively look for ways to combine them, to see what they have in common in less obvious ways. The alternation of horror and sadness mentioned by Ogasawara strikes me as a good insight, but again it’s rather vague, describing a general tone adopted toward the material rather than a guiding principle.

*. Finally, I’d point to the opposition of big and small. On the one hand it’s an epic, the most expensive Japanese film ever made to date, filmed in the vernacular of the historical costume drama and even incorporating a giant naval battle scene. But it’s also a movie that was shot on what I think were just a couple of studio sets, however elaborately designed. In short, it’s a movie that feels cramped and expansive at the same time.
*. These are some of the ways I look at Kwaidan. There are others, like the tension between the Kubrickian exactness and control of the film, its flatness and precision, with its subject matter of heightened emotional states, but you get what I’m saying. It’s a movie that rides a balance between all of these opposites and remains hard to pin down.

*. One of the things that makes it hard to pin down is that it’s hard to connect to what came before or after. I think in particular of how bizarre and extreme Japanese fantasy and horror films were soon to become, from Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) and Obayashi’s House (1977) to today’s J-horror, but those movies don’t feel anything like Kwaidan despite some surface similarities. If there’s a link to Kwaidan it’s in the anti-mimetic or anti-realistic rendering: the highly artificial sets and nervy music. But still, they seem very different.
*. At three hours, does it go on too long? Of course purists will howl no, but it’s a question worth considering. It was cut in order to be shown at Cannes, and an entire story (“The Woman of the Snow”) dropped for the American release. Only recently was it restored to its original length.
*. I find that the slow, deliberate camera work and pacing does work against the film somewhat, but in ways that I can’t really put my finger on. Obviously Kobayashi isn’t in a rush, and that’s his style, but for all the loveliness of the film to look at I do think that it’s missing something.

*. I mentioned already that’s it’s not a movie that inspires much in the way of a larger interpretation. I don’t see a unifying theme to it. The same could be said of the symbolism. Most obviously there is the all-seeing eye in the sky. What is the meaning of this bit of design? Prince’s commentary takes a stab at it, referring to it as the eye of God and the surveillance state, the “cosmic celestial eye” and the “nightmarish translation of this ideal of imperial divinity and slavish service to it.”

*. Perhaps, but I don’t see what that has to do with the action. My hunch is that the eye is like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s billboard of the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. These eyes became the novel’s most famous iconic image, but Fitzgerald may have just thrown them in because he was struck by the original cover art for the novel. I have a hunch the eyes in the sky here might be the same: evocative but perhaps merely whimsical.
*. As for the final image of the man in the urn, that may be meant to be Hearn but I think it’s really Kobayashi himself, waving at us like the image of God that scientists saw in the photographs of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. I think it’s a perfect touch to place at the end of such a heavy film. Heavy, and light.

Twice-Told Tales (1963)

*. From the TCM website: “After completing Tales of Terror (1962), Vincent Price took a break from Roger Corman’s low-budget but atmospheric adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories and tried something different with another studio. The result was the United Artists production, Twice-Told Tales.” Wait a second . . . did they say “something different”?
*. This is an obvious sequel to Tales of Terror, from a not-so-obvious source. I mean, The House of Seven Gables? Really? As was done with the stories of Poe in the earlier film, we are talking very, very free interpretations of the source material. Only “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” by the way, was included in Hawthorne’s volume of Twice-Told Tales.
*. Aside from the different sources, there are two other big differences. First: No Roger Corman. Sidney Salkow does a decent job, but you can feel the lack of imagination. Second: No Richard Matheson. There’s no humour or wit in the script, which makes it all seem stuffy and heavy. Is that a distinction we could also make between Poe and Hawthorne? Maybe. But Hawthorne could have a light touch.
*. You’ll tell from this that I didn’t like this one as much as Tales of Terror. I’m not sure moving to United Artists even led to having more money to play with. No one could make a movie for less than Corman, but I haven’t been able to find a budget for either movie reported. This certainly doesn’t look like a movie that cost any more to make. Not that it looks bad — the collapsing house at the end is respectable — but it doesn’t look any better.
*. I wonder what the first house to drip blood was. There would be a lot of them later, but were there any before this? I’m sure there were but I can’t think of them.
*. Is the poison plant acidic or radioactive? Or both? At one point Rappaccini refers to being burned by “radiation from the acid’s heat.” Does this make sense?
*. Poor Vincent. He just kept playing this jealous or bitter loser at love. Three times here. In the first story his mistress marries his friend (so he kills her). In the second his wife leaves him and his daughter despises him. In the third his new bride can’t wait to run into the arms of a rival. I wonder if this thematic consistency was intentional.
*. The first two stories in particular are downers. And the first is rather odd. Price is (sort of) the villain of the piece, but he’s also the sole survivor. Are we meant to feel sympathy for him at the end?
*. I don’t see this as being of much interest to anyone other than a fan of the horror films of this particular period or of Vincent Price. I think more might have been made out of the stories, but it wasn’t. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in particular really drags (despite Joyce Taylor looking lovely), and it doesn’t have the sort of shocking climax that anthology-horror specializes in. But then nothing about this movie stands out very much, for good or ill.