Friday, October 30, 2009

Freaks (1932)

Freaks is probably the quintessential Pre-code horror film. Such a movie could never be made today, unless make-up effects were used in place of real-life people with deformities. Even cut back to 64 minutes from 90 or so, the film was too intense for post-code Hollywood. The fascination with the daily lives of people with deformities mirrors the period's fascination with the prostitute film. Browning had been a circus performer and was able to present the tale that was still horrifying and yet showed the "freaks" mostly sympathetically. During the Depression self- exploitation film, be it exploitation of circus performers or prostitutes, was considered more justifiable. People have to make a living and studios certainly didn't mind profiting from the fact that people wanted to see exploitation movies. MGM tasked Browning with giving them something unique that would compete with Univerisal's tremendously profitable horror franchises. While Freaks was certainly unique, it wasn't profitable. The film was just too strange and the studio backed away from casting major stars or doing much publicity for it. It was more or less forgotten until the 1970s when it was revived and appreciated for the first time..

A great deal of plot actually revolves around the so-called "normals" in the circus the good couple, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phrenso (Wallace Ford) and the bad couple Cleo (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor). There is a third couple, little people, Hans and Freida (played by brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles), who become involved making Freaks a six-sided love polygon. Cleo who is having an affair with Hercules, marries Hans for his inheritance. At the wedding banquet, the freaks, generously, but perhaps optimistically move to accept Cleo into their group by chanting "one of us" and drinking from a huge goblet. Cleo flips out and offends them. After that they are suspicious and soon figure out her plan to murder Hans and steal his money.

The side-show performers and their routines are strung onto this relatively straight-forward skeleton of a plot. Many of the cuts came from these areas of the film, which may have detracted focus from the central story. These are parts of the film that are the most compulsively watchable. While the love drama wears out quite quickly, it is impossible to be bored while a guy (Prince Randian) with no arms and legs smokes a cigarette. Also, after watching Freaks, I really want an old-school circus house wagon. They are awesome.

The ending of Freaks is where it changes into a true horror movie. I think that cut back as it is, the ending is a bit confusing. I thought that Cleo was changed into the chicken woman through some sort of magic since none of her mutilation is shown. Apparently there were intensely brutal scenes of Cleo and Hercules being attacked with knives. Hercules is castrated and Cleo winds up loosing her legs, an eye and use of her voice. The studio insisted that a happy ending be filmed that resolves the relationship between Freida and Hans and has a carnival barker explaining about Cleo's transformation into the human chicken. Part of me is glad that those scenes were lost to posterity, even though the integrity of the film was compromised by the "softer" ending. It is a lot easier to sympathize with the freaks if you don't have to watch them mutilate people.

Note: Well it turns out having a three year old during Halloween week is not the optimal situation for maintaining a blog about pre-code horror movies. Between parties, costume contests, pumpkin carving contests and actual trick or treating, I'm not getting a whole lot of spare time to flap my gums about pre-code horror. I have a backlog of movies I didn't get to. I may just extend Halloween week through the 7th of November. Yeah, that makes sense!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Frankenstein (1931)

Literary critics have said for some time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a reaction to the horrors of child birth. In a time when one out of three women died giving birth, that is really not such an irrational idea. However, I'd like to get more specific. I think she wrote Frankenstein in reaction to the horrors of raising a toddler. For what is Frankenstein's monster but an 18-month old with the strength of twenty men. Despite his criminal brain, he reacts mostly as a child would react to many situations--a child that had the power to kill people who annoyed him. Developmental psychologists tell us that children don't understand right or wrong until around three or four years old. To understand metaphysical cause and effect, one must first grasp physical cause and effect. In other words, throw an object, be it a rock, a flower or a small child into a lake and that object will either float or sink to the bottom. And these are the sort of real life experiments that the monster goes about making. If only someone would have given him a nap and juice box instead of a firey torch in the face maybe the whole thing wouldn't have ended so badly. As the parent of a toddler I can totally relate to the doctor's reaction to his creation's first murder which is essentially, "yeah, but, to be fair, dude totally had it coming to him."

Watching James Whale's Frankenstein for the first time, I also realized that growing up with Mel Brooks' version will completely ruin all the other Frankenstein movies for you. It really is such an uncanny parody, at times its not even a parody. The assistant really does drop the normal brain and replace it with a criminal one. Less the scene where the assistant explains, "I brought you the brain of Abby someone..." it's pretty much the same sequence of events and they have a low comedy in the original as well. And Peter Boyle totally nailed Boris Karloff's monosyllabic, yet expressive mode of communication.

Karloff's acting here is definitely to be admired. He communicates without words and with little mobility in his face and body. Like Lugosi with Dracula, we probably remember all the copies more than the original and yet, I felt karloff's monster was certainly the best and most scary as well as the template for say, Herman Munster. The effects are pretty seamless as well which always makes for an enjoyable horror movie and once again, I really dug the sets and costumes. Frankenstein's tower filled with old science stuff is just awesome.

The best thing about Frankentstein (1931), besides the monster of course, was Colin Clive as as the mad doctor. He did a good job of conveying obsession while still remaining reasonable on many levels. I think that is the key to getting the whole mad scientist persona. Mae Clark and John Boles are both remarkably wooden in comparison. This isn't the first movie Mae Clark has failed to impress me. I'm starting to think she really couldn't act and that she just got a lot of big parts in the early thirties because of her looks.

Bonus Eye Candy: Boris Karloff in the monster making chair

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Mummy 1932

The Mummy (1932) has a lot of similarities to Dracula (1931): same producer (Carl Laemmle), same actor (David Manners) plays a hero caught in a love triangle with a monster and D.P. Karl Freund was upgraded to director. Freund's film seems tighter than Dracula and the script corrects many of the problems that I had with the earlier movie. For one thing, the Mummy is a straight-forward love story and that makes it a simpler and more enjoyable movie. Boris Karloff's Imhotep is a lover from Ancient Egypt who is buried alive for the crime of trying to raise his girlfriend from the dead. He is scary to look at in his make-up and his transformation from inanimate corpse to stiffly moving mummy is one of the best effects sequences of the decade, but he's also sympathetic. He assists a team of British tomb hunters in locating his girlfriend's grave so that he can have her close to him, even if it as a corpse in the museum. People sometimes die of fright when he reveals his undead status, but that's not really his fault. He only becomes a bad guy when he discovers that his love has been reincarnated in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and that she is involved with the very same Egyptologist who uncovered her tomb. He is motivated by jealousy and a sense that after all he's been through, he has some happiness coming to him. We can completely empathize with that and yet we can also see why even though Imhotep has a mystical connection to Helen, she prefers the company of a guy who doesn't look like he's 3700 years old. (Well, to be fair to Karloff, he doesn't look a day over 900.) After Frank (Manners) tells Helen how he fell in love with a mummified corpse she goes ahead and starts making out with him even though they've only known each other about five minutes. What girl could resist a line like that?

One of my problems with Dracula was not caring so much for the damsel in distress. Zita Johann fares far-better. She seems to be purpose-built to be a horror movie heroine. With her slight body, pale face and enormous eyes, she looks like she stepped out of an Edward Gorey illustration. She also really works her skimpy Egyptian inspired costumes and outrageous head dresses. I confess that half of my delight in this film was the art deco take on Egyptian clothes and furnishings.

The flashback to Ancient Egypt is one of the most famous sequences in the movie. Freund has Imhotep able to spy on his lover and his enemies by means of a pool in his apartment, that functions a bit like a crystal ball. Each frame is edged the same as the distinctive shape of the pool. At one point he shows Helen her past life in his magic pool TV, which somewhat comically, doesn't have sound. Freund even uses some of the conventions of silent film to convey an older time in filming this sequence. We are reminded that the discovery of the mummy Tutankhamen was only a decade earlier and perhaps that is why ancient Egypt and silent film seem to go so well together.

The Mummy is spooky, particularly when we are focused in on Karloff's eyes. Freund uses the lighting set up that was so effective in Dracula but wisely uses a much tighter framing, so that Karloff's evil, pain-filled stare fills the entire screen. Imagine seeing that in an old-school movie palace? That would have sent me scrambling under my seat, I'm sure. The Mummy is also a good time. Manners is a lot less insipid parading around in an open shirt with the sleeves rolled up high, Clark Gable style. He is an astonishingly poor Egyptologist, not only needing help locating the tomb, but also in identifying the Goddess Isis and her place in mythology. (With my limited of Egyptian history, comprised of mummy episodes of cartoons in the 1970s, I think I could have managed that without an explanation. ) Though much about the movie is derivative of earlier Universal horror films, I found the Mummy to be just the right combination of horror, romance and fun.

Bonus Eye Candy: Zita Johann

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dracula (1931)

When I was a kid I was terrified of Dracula. The widow's peak, the medallion, the cape, the way he pronounced "good evenink--" the whole bag was scary to me. This Dracula came to me via pop-culture through cartoons, breakfast cereal and after-school tv shows. This wasn't so much Dracula as Grandpa Munster. And yet, this version of Dracula was a caricature of the one created by Bela Legosi in the 1931 film. And here's the wacky thing. I'm not scared of the REAL Dracula at all.

Certain cultural icons are sometimes lacking when you discover that the sum of the whole cultural snowball is greater than the grain which started it rolling. Never in the 1931 Dracula does Bela Legosi say "I vant to suck your blood." He doesn't even say "Good evenink," he says "We sail tomorrow evenink." Somehow not as bone-chilling. He only once throws his cape over one of his victims, but it is a quick scene at the beginning meant to show a change of place from Transylvania to London. Indeed, the scariest thing in Dracula is Renfield!

Dwight Frye plays Dracula's hapless slave with an eerie glee and pathos that is truly haunting. His creepiness is heightened by the almost expressionistic way his character is filmed. In the film's scariest scene, a rescue team discovers a boat adrift and all passenger's dead, save one, Renfield who has been locked in the hold with his master's coffin. Director Tod Browning films Renfield from above with his pale mad face poking out from the gloom and the only noise on the soundtrack the man's hideous laugh.

Part of what excited me about re-watching Dracula '31 was seeing David Manners again as Jonathan Harker. That turned out to be the biggest disappointment. In the many adaptations I've seen, Harker comes off as somewhat insipid. He is the protagonist of the novel but most of his heroic deeds involve skillful clerical work. That doesn't exactly make for scintillating cinema, and to make matters worse, in the screenplay all of Harker's trials in Transylvania are transferred to Renfield leaving David Manners with nothing to do but sit on a lot of sofas and fuss about the mysterious interloper who is putting the moves on his chic. He reminds me of a less-funny Nick Townsend with Count Dracula being the scum-of-the-Earth titled aristocracy. I actually prefer Trevor Eve in Dracula '79 who played Harker as an impatient and brash young man. Part of the problem is a lack of chemistry between Manners and Helen Chandler, who plays Mina. Chandler recreates the chaste Victorian etiquette teacher as a free-spirited heiress whose fascination with the European villian is just another episode in presumably long list of head-strong experiments. But the spoiled heiress is a tricky beast for an actress. Do it right and you have Irene Bullock in Her Man Godfrey and do it wrong and you have Barbara Vance, Irene Dunne's forgettable and unpleasant rival in The Awful Truth. Helen's Mina definitely falls into the Vance camp as far as I'm concerned and after about the twentieth instance of refuting Van Helsing's advice, I was ready to give up her immortal soul. She's that annoying.

In the novel Mina represents the Victorian ideal woman, chaste, caring and sacrificial. Dracula's brides represent all the sins of low, worldly women. In the same way that the romance films of the late 20s and early 30s transformed the Vamp from a Victorian harlot to a wanton flapper, Dracula neatly transforms a flapper into a literal monster or at least a near-monster.

Dracula of the novel goes after Mina for revenge but in the movie, he does it more or less for sport. Dracula is a playa. Lugosi just doesn't have the magnetism to pull off this aspect of the character, though I'm sure generations of horror fans will disagree with me. Lugosi's characterization relies purely on his ability to make you believe he is a supernatural being with magical mojo. One of his most believable moments is the one in which Dracula spots a mirror. His reaction is wild and animalistic --completely at odds with his drawing room Count. Lugosi is assisted by clever lighting and make-up, which highlight his deep set eyes and menacing stare. The still I've posted shows the effectiveness of his make-up, I think. His fingernails alone are the stuff of nightmares. Yet on screen, Dracula is too often represented by a hilariously fakey rubber bat, which in one scene is fought off by Manners in a way that is reminiscent of C3po in the mynocks.

Perhaps it is the aggregate weight of the sequels and knock-offs that have immortalized Lugosi
as the ultimate image of a vampire in our culture rather than any one scene in Tod Browning's film.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Doctor Jekykll and Mister Hyde (1931)

If this still doesn't get you to watch this movie, nothing will!

I was really looking forward to this version after reading about it in Mick LaSalle's books. I knew it was pre-code and that it dealt with the sexual part of the story in a frank way. The main villain here is sexual repression with Dr. Jekyll's repressed fiancee and her ultra-Victorian father trapping him into a long engagement. Unable to repress his natural impulses, he discovers while taking a potion that he can transmute into an ogreous version of himself, one unable and unwilling to control his darker instincts. After meeting a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins) in a medical emergency, he decides to drink his potion, become Hyde and take her as his lover.

Though March won the Oscar, Hopkins is really the reason to watch this movie. She is amazingly seductive in the beginning, and slowly fleshes out the character as she struggles to maintain her dignity and humanity. Frederic March is wonderful at portraying the Hyde side and even the gentle part of Jeckyll. The problem is that March's acting is really over-wrought (and not in a good way) when he realizes that he can't control the monster inside him. The scenes of him begging his fiancee to marry him as soon as possible are painful, not just because it's painful to watch a man who Miriam Hopkins in love with him begging another woman, but because March just really over-does it. It's obvious to a modern viewer, and probably was so in the thirties as well, that the good doctor's fiancee is all wrong for him. At least Hyde, for all his faults, has the good sense to be unabashedly smitten with Hopkins' character.

There was an article recently in the New Yorker about the Great Depression and its effect on art and popular culture. There was an off-handed comment in it, that said that marriages became less common because people couldn't afford to marry. This was a common problem in the 19th Century as well, so it's interesting that this early 30s horror movie is doing a modern take on an old problem: what to do, if you can't get married and you are a grown-up with normal needs? Apparently Dr Jekyll was too hung up on being a savior to mankind to just go out and hire a prostitute like every other male in the Victorian era, so we have the potion and the mess that involves. Of course that left me wondering about the ladies? I mean, poor March's fiancee. She might like to get laid too!

Another context for this is the end of prohibition. If you look at the potion as a metaphor for alcohol, this would seem a strangely anti-booze movie for the time. Usually in the pre-code era people are either drinking illegally or saying "wooohooo! At least booze is legal!"

I will just randomly end this by saying that one of the main things I learned from this film is that you supposedly pronounce Jekyll as GEE-kill, not JEK-il, as I'd done for most of my life. So bonus points for that I guess.

Friday, October 2, 2009

District Nine

Summer is over and, sadly, so is drive-in movie season. Our final trip to the ex-urbs to car camp in front of a big screen was one of the most cinematically rewarding we've ever taken. We're used to seeing bad movies at drive-ins and more frequently, mediocre ones. Occasionally a movie is married so perfectly to the setting that we remember it more fondly than it perhaps deserved (the first Fast and the Furious and Pirates of the Caribbean movies comes to mind). Low expectations usually help as does the low gate fee and total willingness on the part of drive-in employees to overlook take-out pizza boxes and coolers full of cold beer. But seeing District Nine at the drive-in recently was probably a once in a life time experience. Not only was this late-summer alien invasion movie perfectly placed on a drive-in screen, but it was also a remarkably good film and far away the best science fiction movie I've seen in years.

Though it's been marketed simply as an edgy escapist effects picture produced by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), it's a far darker and more disturbing film than has yet been seen in the genre of "sci-fi horror." While the summer started with Watchmen and its downbeat, angst-ridden and blood spattered antics, it ends with this deeply critical science fiction allegory that does a far more effective job of exposing the rotting underbelly of "human nature" then Watchmen managed, despite that blockbuster's faithfulness to its source material. Skewering racism, corporate contract military operations, greed, opportunism and even office politics, District Nine finds little worth redeeming in our species and its treatment of an Apartheid era ghetto full of aliens. It's hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a South African Michael Scott, an ineffectual middle-manager who has married out of his league and landed the bosses daughter. Wikus' obsessive devotion to his wife is probably his only likeable characteristic, though as the film progresses and he mutates into one of the creatures he's spent his professional life bullying, degrading, murdering and I would say dehumanizing, but that's not quite right--he does become, ironically more humane. He is paired with one of aliens, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and together they work together to break into the headquarters of the multinational that is running the operations against the aliens.

While Battlestar Galactica has taken on some of these themes and has done so by making villains less cardboard than the white racists and black gangsters in District Nine, it had years of screen time to do so. District Nine borrows Battlestar Galactica's cinema verite style, adding some texture with mockumentary interviews of fake experts and talking heads. Sometimes these textures slow down the pace of the plot and one becomes relieved when they eventually disappear about mid-way through the movie. The other sci-fi sources for District Nine are The Fly and it's Kafkaesque metapmorphisis; the first Alien film with it's under-current of anti-corporate sentiment; the orignal Battlestar Galactica which had an episode about one of the show's heroes being stranded with a cylon whom he was forced to work with to escape from the planet, a plot which was borrowed for several Star Trek episodes and a feature film (Enemy Mine) as well as an episode in the re-imagined series which literally fused the alien technology with biology as District Nine does. The X-files and ET first imagined that if we found aliens the government would seize them for medical experiments as District Nine asserts as well.

The deepest source for this deeply distopic vision of mankind is probably our cable news culture which can expose the systematic cruelty and destruction of a race and seemingly do nothing to prevent it. This camera-awareness permeates the film. Wikus is constantly asking that some embarrassing or potentially libelous moment be edited out from the final cut. I've seen several reviews that imply that film is merely critical of Apartheid, which of course it is. It is also critical of present day South Africa and really the entire way in which refugees are handled in the world and the way war is now prosecuted with an insincere smiles accompanying jack-booted thuggery. This could be Iraq or any other place where a powerful military presence is on the honor system in dealing with a large civilian population.