Tag Archives: bela lugosi

Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation

sexmadness1

[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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Tricks and Treats

It’s Halloween! The one day of the year when everyone concedes that candy and horror movies are the best things in life. Therefore, I give you some thoughts on what I’ve been watching lately…

The Paranormal Activity movies (2009-) fascinate me. They’re yet another annual horror franchise, low on ideas and high on jump scares. But since they’re shot in the “found footage” style that’s been so in vogue lately (blame 2007’s one-two punch of [REC] and Cloverfield), the PA movies actually look and sound a lot like austere art cinema. The long takes, the static camera, the ongoing obsession with documenting the mundane, the lack of non-diegetic music… they’re like Michael Haneke if he fast-forwarded through all the “boring parts.” They’re formalist horror, fixated on mise-en-scène but devoid of any real acting or dialogue. Does that make them perversely experimental, or just cynical and hollow? Maybe both.

Universal’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is catnip for a Bela Lugosi aficionado like me. You’ve got the “man of science” angst that afflicts Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle; the vanilla hero (Poe’s detective Dupin) who hunts the mad doctor; and of course the hero’s girlfriend, with whom Lugosi develops an intense erotic obsession. All the typical tropes that crop up in Our Favorite Hungarian’s movies. As usual, Lugosi—hamming it up with a unibrow and jack o’ lantern smile—steals the show, although he does have competition from Karl Freund’s silken cinematography and some surprisingly florid dialogue. (Sample line: “Think of what all those walls are hiding! Broken hopes, bodies, hearts. Absent dreams, starvation, madness. Crimes of the streets; tragedies of the river.”)

The titular landmass in Isle of the Dead (1945) is a liminal space, constructed from shadow and illusion. There, modernity wrestles with superstition for the soul of General Pherides, played with brittle gravitas by Boris Karloff. Although directed by Mark Robson, Isle of the Dead was produced and co-written by Val Lewton, meaning it’s one of his wartime horror movies—and as such, it shares much with his earlier films, like Cat People and The Ghost Ship (the latter also Robson-directed). Evil is again represented as nebulous and invisible; fear as the genesis of fascism; and statues as omnipresent totems. Furthermore, all three are suffused with noir atmosphere and homoeroticism. Perhaps my favorite technique specific to Isle of the Dead is its repetition: of the words “No one may leave” and “vorvolaka”; of water drip-drip-dripping on a prematurely sealed coffin. Such a stark and haunting film.

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White Shadows

By Andreas

Directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward, White Zombie (1932) is such an oddity. An early independent production, it lacked the prestige or budget of a Universal monster movie, yet has lingered in the public imagination thanks to public domain video sets and a renewed interest in all things “zombie.” With the exception of Bela Lugosi in his prime, the main cast consists of once-prominent silent film thespians who had a hard time adjusting to talkies—Madge Bellamy, for example, acts like a zombie even before Bela hypnotizes her, while John Harron (playing her fiancé) is agonizingly hammy and almost incapable of a convincing line delivery.

To be honest, the film would probably work better silent, only then we’d be deprived of Bela’s rich, heavily accented voice. The dialogue is certainly nothing to write home about; apart from a few passages imbued with Bela’s dark poetry, it’s mostly perfunctory and dull. White Zombie’s saving grace, however, is its visuals: the film’s a maze of interlocking motifs, occult imagery, and resourceful camera tricks that grab hold of the viewer. The actors don’t so much “act” as contribute different patterns to White Zombie’s monochrome textures. Vultures, shadows, staircases, the fleurs-de-lis on Madge Bellamy’s dress—each piece adds to the film’s dreamy, tragic power.

Presiding over this nightmare is Bela’s voodoo master Murder Legendre. (With a name like “Murder,” did he really the option of not being evil?) At first he’s just an ominous background figure, a magician-for-hire contracted by a jealous suitor to enchant away the affections of the bride-to-be. But over the course of the film, he comes to dominate the lives and free will of every major character. If he’s Dr. Caligari, then everyone else is Cesare. Especially chilling is the scene wherein he explains the origins of his zombie slaves: each one, it turns out, was one of Legendre’s enemies in life. Each one used to be an active, opinionated individual… and now they serve the man they hated.

The ghastly thoroughness of Legendre’s revenge infects the whole film. Haiti’s geography is reduced to a plantation, a cobwebbed castle, and a craggy countryside inhabited by souls in Legendre’s thrall, whether they’re explicitly zombies or not. It’s a metaphysically bleak film, but also a very romantic one; Harron and Bellamy’s relationship—in all its passion and voodoo-induced tragedy—manifests itself repeatedly onscreen through subjective camera techniques like this:

This is just after Legendre has snatched the young bride from her whiny lover’s arms. Distraught over his loss, Harron wanders through a local saloon and is struck by this apparition on booze-soaked table. This technique is especially impressive because it predates Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), with its famous (and very similar) swimming scene, by a good two years. Surprisingly innovative for a cheap horror movie that’s barely feature length!

I also love the impassioned gesture that follows the tabletop ghost: the heartbroken young man watches the shadows of dancers and drinkers along the saloon wall and, envisioning his would-be wife in them, embraces the shadows. It’s a pretty powerful metaphor for the pain of lost love and just one of White Zombie’s strange, touching visual details. Recycled sets and uneven cast notwithstanding, the Halperin brothers created something hazily special in White Zombie, more in the tradition of Jean Cocteau than that of Tod Browning. Hidden in bargain bins for decades, it’s an oneiric gem waiting to be rediscovered.

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The Gift That Keeps on Giving

By Andreas

If you’re like us, then Halloween is your Christmas. And under that analogy, Paracinema Magazine’s Issue #13 is the ultimate stocking stuffer. If you or someone you know loves weird, obscure, or scary movies, this is the film magazine to order. Not 100% convinced? Let me give you some reasons…

1)You get to read our articles. Well, OK, this one’s a little self-serving, but still: you get to reread the same things we’ve published on Pussy Goes Grrr, except more and better. Both Ashley and I took ideas we’d first voiced here (her in a terrific essay on Inside; me in my “Many Faces of Bela Lugosi” and “More Faces” posts), then refined both the ideas and the writing over a few long summer days. The end result? A pair of articles on “Maternal Madness in Horror Cinema” and “Bela Lugosi on Poverty Row” that we’re extremely proud of.

We’d like you to share in the pleasure we received from writing these articles. I.e., buy the magazine.

2) You might learn a thing or two. Paracinema’s articles are informative. Consider one of the issue’s best articles, “Allan Carr and the Making of Where the Boys Are ’84” by Paul Talbot. I never would’ve expected that topic to fascinate me, but fascinate it did! It’s the bizarre, layered tale of extravagant producer Carr and his battle to make a spring break sex comedy. It’s well-researched, well-written, and it’s all true.

Or how about “Censoring the Centipede: How the BBFC Are Sewing Our Eyes Shut” by Liam Underwood? He covers the history of British censorship from the 1980s dispute over “video nasties” to recent problems with A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II. If you want writers who’ve done their homework, they’re in Paracinema. You can also read the histories of Turkish rip-offs, unmade spoofs, sword-and-sandal films, late-night horror hosts, and more.

3) The graphic design will blow your mind. Dylan knows what he’s doing. Paracinema’s a small-but-growing indie venture, yet it still looks better than most of the giant movie magazines out there. Leave a copy of Issue #13 lying open on your coffee table, and guests will know you’ve got taste.

Look: Issue #13 costs just $7, with free Shipping & Handling within the United States. Buy a copy, and you’ll be supporting a ragtag team of writers and editors who are doing this out of passion. You’ll be feeding our dreams, receiving a magazine that doubles as an objet d’art, and getting dozens of little-known movies to add to your “must-see” list.

This Halloween, you can’t afford not to buy a copy of Paracinema.

Have I convinced you yet?

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Addicted to Fear, or Why I Am a Horror Junkie

It’s Halloween. The best holiday of the year. So I’d like to wax autobiographical for a minute here, and talk about my own personal relationship with the horror genre. If you’ve spent any time peeking around Pussy Goes Grrr, you know that Ashley and I are horror junkies. We crave all the neurochemical releases that accompany a good scary movie; few experiences thrill us more than discovering an new, bold horror masterpiece that scares our socks off. But, you may ask, where did this cinematic bloodlust come from? What childhood disease did we acquire that made us seek out things that scare us? If Andreas is so terrified of insects (it’s true!), why the hell would he intentionally watch any iteration of The Fly?

The answers, of course, are long and complex. I don’t even know all of them. Where do any artistic preferences come from? How do you account for any taste? But I would like to talk about a few childhood experiences that probably contributed to my critical idiosyncrasies. You see, a lot of my cinephilia stems from the kind of family I grew up in. When I was in elementary school, a common family activity was indulging in a VHS of some Universal horror, or a 1950s Vincent Price vehicle, or something bad like Plan 9. (My childhood arrived at the tail end of the VHS-and-video-store era, so despite being born in 1990, I still get to be nostalgic for their distinctively analog delights.)

As you can probably tell, my family’s viewing choices hewed to older fare, so I was inculcated into a very specific kind of old-fashioned horror fandom. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and even George Romero didn’t mean much to me until after I started college; instead, as I grew to really appreciate scary movies, it was all about Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and other such pioneers. But before my understanding of film became that sophisticated or auteur-centric, it was all about the images. That’s what I’m really here to address. Iconic horror movie images became displaced in time, space, and authorship. They become universal possessions of the collective unconscious. It’s a beautiful, mysterious process.

So: when I was little, we had all these books about horror movies sitting around. My father had accumulated them over the years, maybe from bookstores or thrift stores or book sales or forever. I still have the cover of John Stanley’s Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide burnt somewhere inside my brain. The books’ titles consisted of every possible permutation of the words “scary,” “horror,” “movie,”  and “guide.” Maybe, on occasion, “flicks” or “encyclopedia” would worm their ways into the titling algorithm. For the most part, they were generic compilations of short reviews, cast listings, and black-and-white stills. These stills were really the selling points: they were one-frame money shots, showing off the most hypnotic, gruesome artistry the movie had to offer.

They were also one of my first exposures to horror’s perverse, forbidden, slightly erotic pleasures. Horror movies showed me deformed faces, exaggerated bodies, and every other conceivable mutilation of the human form – all with a strangely sexualized twist. Even though all of pre-1968 cinema was supposed to be clean and safe for kids’ enjoyment, it actually contained festering, potent traces of sensual yearning and sinful desire. And, in its own illicit way, this unspoken aspect of horror was also very educational. I’m an outspoken advocate for the (usually) secret-but-pervasive sexual side of horror, and it’s partially because as I reflect on my childhood, I realize how profoundly it influenced me as a person.

Here are a few of those images. They’ve all taken on curious, shadowy lives of their own in the mind of pop culture. They’ve all acquired a set of meanings and associations in the years since they were created. And they all have strange and powerful significances to me as an individual.

There is so much I could say about Bela Lugosi in Dracula. It’s the role that defined his career, and the film set the stage for every horror talkie that followed it. It also codified the image of an aristocratic, caped vampire. It has enormous resonance for me – in fact, resonance above and beyond almost all other horror movies. I can’t help it. It’s not because of how well it’s made; that’s a nonissue with Tod Browning films, and there have been far better adaptations of the source novel. (Like, say, both versions of Nosferatu.) Maybe it’s some combination of the dilapidated castle, the Karl Freund camerawork, and Lugosi’s body language that drilled this movie into my brain. Despite his classical training, Lugosi always looked like such an outsider in American movies. Maybe the inherent pathos and tragedy of the Lugosi persona struck me through this movie. I couldn’t say.

This remains, I think, one of the most inexplicably compelling, mystifying, and disgusting images in all of film. Even going beyond Freaks‘ moralizing showmanship, just trying to look at it rationally… all logic fails when applied to this image. It appeals to something deeper than logic. This might be what draws me so forcefully to Tod Browning: even though his films are often nonsensical, amateurish, and tawdry, they nonetheless get to something in the bestial recesses of the human mind. Cleopatra’s incomprehensible, dehumanizing fate is so psychosexually loaded, because a “beautiful” woman has been forcibly and maliciously transformed into a voiceless, ambiguous being. It’s all intensified by the real question: how did the freaks do this?

I saw Janet Leigh’s screaming face years before I ever saw Psycho. Like the image of Freaks, it depicts a woman’s body being mutilated; it’s explicitly sexualized violence. But it’s also laden with intertwining threads of meaning. It’s not just an expression of unadulterated misogyny. (Those who pelt the horror genre with tired accusations of unadulterated misogyny are really underestimating the depth of these films. Although, of course, some horror movies are full of straightforward misogyny.) Consider part of Carol Clover’s argument in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: in a slasher film, the viewer is constantly shifted in identification between the attacker and the victim. It’s not just that we see ourselves in Mrs. Bates as she hacks into Marion, because we also see ourselves in the dying, shrieking Marion. It’s about fear and vulnerability. It’s about gender anxieties and sexual curiosity.

This is just a little hint of why I love horror so much, but the main reason is that I love to be scared. Yes, it’s perverse (in the truest sense of the word) and yes, it’s very counterintuitive. But fear is important and it can be useful. By watching something that scares you, you can learn more about yourself and your relationship to the world around you. I believe that for several reasons – industrial, aesthetic, and otherwise – horror is also sometimes capable of saying more than other genres. In short, I love horror movies. Happy Halloween.

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More Faces of Bela Lugosi

Long ago, I started a movie-by-movie tribute to Bela Lugosi. Now, as we conclude what would’ve been his 128th birthday, I’d finally like to continue this series with a few more roles. (For what it’s worth, I learned that The Vault of Horror had a post with the exact same name as mine, four months earlier. Great minds think alike…?) Tracing the path of Lugosi’s career through his landmark roles is really revelatory, since it not only shows the highs and lows of his professional life, but also maps out the anatomy of studio-era Hollywood. He moved from dizzying stardom at Universal in the 1930s to decades of typecasting, painkillers, and undignified appearances in Poverty Row garbage, followed by a brief resurrection with Ed Wood. It’s a strange story worthy of a horror movie itself. So, on to the faces…

White Zombie (1932)

This is less a film than an hour-long fever dream; it observes a pair of newlyweds in Haiti who fall under the sway of Murder Legendre, an enigmatic spellbinder who creates zombies to slave in the local sugar mill. At the behest of the couple’s rich host, Legendre reduces the bride (Madge Bellamy) to a pliant, mindless body, triggering a series of angry confrontations in a seaside castle. White Zombie is slow-paced and impressionistic, giving Bela enough room to work his spell on the bride and the audience. As Legendre, he’s malevolent but also cryptic, going methodically about his dark business without any wasted words. Although he’s neither the film’s prime mover nor its hero, he’s still its main focus – the deep, foreign presence at its center. It was in White Zombie that Bela originated the hypnotic hand gesture of which he later said, according to Ed Wood, “you must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.”

The Black Cat (1934)

In the first of his many pairings with fellow legend Boris Karloff, Bela played a Hungarian veteran bent on revenge. Although he initially seems normal enough to the American couple he travels with, Bela’s Dr. Werdegast is actually a little mad – understandable given that Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig stole away his wife and daughter while he was stuck in a prison camp. Bela’s eccentric, erratic performance fits right into this truly oneiric film, as scenes of relative quiet gives way to Black Masses and cat mutilations, and Karloff matches him tic for tic. When Vitus finally exacts his grisly revenge, it’s both satisfying and terrifying, a worthy culmination of a bizarre 65 minutes and a subtle but white-hot performance.

The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Easily one of Bela’s most compelling Poverty Row vehicles (in this case, for Monogram), The Corpse Vanishes is defined by its eruptions of weirdness. For example: although they’re not vampires, Bela and his insane wife (the “sister” from Cat People, Elizabeth Russell) still sleep in coffins. The film pads its one-hour running time with a subplot about a plucky investigative reporter and the doctor she loves, but at its core is Bela as a mass-murdering flower expert who dwells in a house of horrors – including secret passageways, corpses, and a family of henchmen whose matriarch eventually turns on him. As usual, Bela’s character has a tragic wrinkle: he has been forced into his bizarre, deadly racket in order to scientifically preserve his wife’s beauty. Oh, Bela, always the gentleman.

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Generations of Ed Wood cultists have tried and failed to figure out what, exactly, Bela is doing in Glen or Glenda. The film is already a no-budget, quasi-documentary dream narrative about transvestites in the ultra-conservative 1950s. But Bela’s narration – if “narration” is the appropriate word – adds the extra, unquantifiable ingredient that throws the film into another territory altogether. Inexplicably surrounded by skeletons, bookshelves, and liquid-filled beakers that summon up a horror film milieu, Bela comments vaguely on the follies of mankind: “One is wrong, because he does right; one is right, because he does wrong. Pull the string!” He delivers these lines with such emphasis that you assume there must be rich, philosophical meaning behind them. And, well, maybe there is.

In each of his performances, Bela elevated the film he was in with his mystical, alien persona. With his thick accent, the fierce look in his eyes, and the subtle curve of his eyebrows, Bela could turn the most routine, cheap mad scientist movie into a vortex of mounting weirdness. And in a film like The Black Cat or Glen or Glenda, where the weirdness was implicit in the director’s vision, Bela could eradicate what little sanity was left and transform the film into a sublime if confusing experience. His beautiful Hungarian voice took Ed Wood’s out-of-this-world screenplay for Glen or Glenda and turned its hallucinogenic dialogue into cult film scripture. Happy birthday, Bela.

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The Sounds of Violence

I’ve been writing an awful lot about horror movies this month, and all my emphasis on cinematic frights makes it easy to forget that horror permeates all media. So, to diversify our coverage, here’s a list of about 10 very scary, Halloween-appropriate songs. Plus, they’re interspersed with bonus songs so you can dig deeper and make the ultimate Halloween party playlist! What’s not to love? (For more Halloweeny songs, check out the spookylicious Kindertrauma Jukebox! Also: YouTube videos come and go. If any of the links below are dead ends, please comment so I can update them.)

10. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

Back when “goth” meant something more than a high school fashion statement, Bauhaus released this tribute to Lugosi, who reached the title state in 1956. Long and atmospheric, the song was featured in the opening scene of The Hunger (1983), where it helped set the mood better most of the confusingly edited, noisy scenes to follow. Its eerie simplicity was an example that director Tony Scott would’ve been wise to follow. Sample lyrics: “The virginal brides file past his tomb / Strewn with time’s dead flowers…”

Also… “Late Night Creature Feature” by The Bewitched is an ode to watching scary movies late at night. The Bewitched is a very cool Minneapolis dark cabaret outfit, and they have my highest recommendation. [Like them on Facebook!]

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