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Terror Ahoy!

Between 1942 and 1946, Val Lewton’s production unit at RKO made nine of the sharpest, most influential horror movies of all time. His films never cease to amaze me in how literate they are, how much weirdness they pack into their short running times, and how much they anticipate the next 30-40 years of horror cinema. They’re so modern, in every sense of the world. Tonight, I finished The Ghost Ship (1943), directed by Mark Robson. Icons of Grief, a book about Lewton’s films in relation to World War II, quotes Village Voice film critic Michael Feingold as calling it “one of the most homoerotic films Hollywood ever made.” So of course I had to see it.

Well, the homoeroticism isn’t very overt, but it’s satisfyingly there – and so is much, much more. The ship in question (the Altair) doesn’t actually contain ghosts, but it is ruled over by the obsessive, quietly megalomaniacal Captain Stone (Oscar nominee Richard Dix). Stone’s men trust him, because he’s very careful to cover his tracks, but then the new third mate, Merriam (Russell Wade), comes aboard. Having no prior history with Stone, Merriam can’t help but see his pathological and scary behavior for what it is: pathological and scary. When Stone starts murdering his men for disobedience, Merriam takes action and calls for Stone to be investigated.

Disastrously for Merriam, however, he has no real evidence and no other witnesses. He tries to stay on land, but then an accident traps him aboard the ship… and a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse unfolds. The lack of ghosts may sound like a bait-and-switch, but Captain Stone haunts the ship so much better than any paranormal entity could. The stately, deep-voiced Dix plays him as an experienced, well-mannered leader of men, but one whose deep-seated psychological problems constantly threaten to surface. He’s a man with a single, all-consuming passion: his own authority. He has to erase any and all challenges to it with unflinching thoroughness.

Stone’s dangerous nature is suggested during any early scene where he orders a giant, heavy hook to be left untethered on the deck. After it endangers the lives of several men, he calmly explains his philosophy to Merriam: “I have the right to do what I want with the crew, because their safety does depend on me.” In short, he’s severely mentally ill, but he’s also in a position of power and able to rationalize his own violent actions until he’s satisfied. On one level, then, The Ghost Ship is a dark, poetic attack on the exercise of power for its own sake. But as with other Lewton films, its morals are ambiguous, offbeat, and sometimes self-contradictory.

In under 70 minutes, The Ghost Ship also manages to establish and flesh out a full supporting cast, including the classically educated radio operator Sparks (Edmund Glover), the calypso-singing Billy (I Walked with a Zombie‘s Sir Lancelot), and most memorably of all, the mute, unsmiling Finn (Skelton Knaggs), who speaks to the viewer in a raspy voiceover as he observes the film’s events (and eventually intercedes in them). The Finn’s portentous monologues add considerably to the film’s eerie atmosphere; they expose us to an enigmatic character’s rich internal life, as when he hisses, “I know this man’s trouble. I see the captain’s hatred. I know, and I will watch. I will watch.”

Disturbing touches like this make The Ghost Ship an extraordinary horror movie, despite the absence of any supernatural elements. In the film’s last act, the Altair becomes – for Merriam, at least – an ocean-bound haunted house. Even though he holes up in his cabin, Captain Stone’s power still threatens him, with the potential to strike at any moment. Nowhere is safe and no one can be trusted – the Captain’s seen to that. With photography by the great Nicholas Musuraca, The Ghost Ship turns the Altair‘s every window, corner, and corridor into a harbinger of greater evil.

And that homoeroticism? Yeah, it’s there, hidden under layers of Production Code-era repression. This is a film about power relationships between unfulfilled men, and it’s tinged with thick sexual tension – especially, as you might guess, in relation to Stone and Merriam. The bloody climax abounds with bondage and undeniably phallic imagery, and although the film tries to recoup some sense of normality by having an insistently heterosexual ending, it feels tacked on. Ellen (Edith Barrett), who appears briefly while the ship is docked, isn’t really the one on Stone or Merriam’s minds. She’s associated with land-bound life. These are sea-going men.

If there’s anything I need now, it’s more viewings of The Ghost Ship. Lewton’s films are so compact, so dense with iconography and symbolism, building up motifs with swaths of meaning. One viewing is never enough. But these are my first impressions: The Ghost Ship shares in the best aspects of the Lewton tradition, with its deep, well-written characters, its disconcerting political and sexual overtones, and its profoundly scary environment. Stone’s final breakdown illustrates all of these, as he wanders the ship in a monomaniacal daze, hearing whispers in his head: “If the boy is right… the boy is right… maybe the boy is right…”

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Who you gonna call?

In J.A. Bayona’s El Orfanato (2007), the main character is sure her house is haunted. The husband, like so many horror movie husbands before (and after) him, refuses to believe in all this illogical ghost nonsense. And of course he disapproves when she recruits a wizened, matronly medium to talk to the spirits of her childhood friends. To him (and a police detective in cahoots with him), it’s all just spiritual mumbo jumbo intended to somehow bilk the couple out of their money by preying on their grief. But Aurora the medium is trustworthy, and you know how you can tell? Because Geraldine Chaplin plays her that way.

I love the younger Chaplin almost as much as I love her father. She starred in two of my favorite 1970s films – Nashville and Cría Cuervos – and guess what? In the latter film, the masterpiece of her husband Carlos Saura, she played a friendly ghost! (Kind of.) She was also heavy-hearted mentor figure in Almodóvar’s Hable Con Ella. So who better to play the one-scene role of a medium who steps into an emotionally fraught situation, and struggles (through supernatural means) to make it just a little better? Just look at her up there: so intelligent, so fragile, so careful with her client’s feelings. Look at the subtle, expressive parting of her lips. She’s not a Chaplin for nothing.

Plus, I just found the best picture ever of her, and now I love her even more. Behold.

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Short Film Showcase: The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

When I reviewed Perfect Blue recently, I bemoaned the lack of animated horror films. Well, here’s a great example of just how scary animation can be when it gets the chance. Let’s run down the list of why this is awesome…

1) The unusual animation by Paul Julian, Pat Matthews, et al. I love all these expressionist touches, fluid transitions, and jagged angles. The tight narrative doesn’t constrain their evocative imagery, which bounces from the gleaming eye to the moon to a broken vase. The story’s perspective is constantly shifting, so it’s never clear exactly how the narrator sees these events transpire; instead, we’re given a very loose, subjective series of emotional impressions. This excellently matches Poe’s simulation of a deranged, homicidal mind.

2) Well, it’s Poe! You can’t have Halloween without Poe. He’s the original American master of horror and the macabre. He was also a master of the short story, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of his simplest and most streamlined: it tells very clearly and tersely about madness, obsession, murder, paranoia, and confession. In doing so, it makes effective use of a single, unremarkable room as a psychological torture chamber – and an imagined heartbeat as the instrument of torture.

3) James Mason’s voice. (For what it’s worth, this is also one of the great assets of world cinema.) Mason got plenty of chances to be pathetic and even occasionally paranoid (see Humbert, H.), but rarely was he so shrieking and hysterical in his film roles. And sadly, he only acted a couple times in straight horror (like Salem’s Lot [1979]), so this is a great chance to see hear Mason at his peak – just before making A Star Is Born and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – as he anchors the animation with his faultless diction. I would gladly listen to him read from the phonebook; reading great Poe narration is significantly better.

[Housekeeping note: This could be the inaugural post in a potential series called “Short Film Showcase.” It may return in the near future. We’ll see.]


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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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Playing a Game

So, I finally caught up with that era-defining horror film, Saw (2004). I wasn’t expecting much, and I didn’t get too much out of it. It’s relentlessly bleak and grimy, its performances and writing were inconsistent to say the least, and it all amounted to very little pay-off (i.e., nothing but a sequel-baiting cliffhanger). I’ll grant that the filmmakers were crafty and occasionally innovative, effectively using their low budget in a resourcefully Roger Corman-like way. The film was entertaining to follow, and its two leads – Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon and Tobin Bell as Jigsaw – did great work with what they were given.

So I can understand why the film spawned an exponentially expanding franchise. Its characters and premise may be pretty dumb, but they’re also cheap to produce and somewhat rewarding in an icky, debased way. If I had more time on my hands, I could imagine stopping by Saw II. But not with any great excitement. Overall, I’ll admit that Saw was better – morally and cinematically – than the original Friday the 13th, barring Betsy Palmer’s performance, which finds no equal in either film. But my, oh my, this film does have an uplifting bone in its about-to-be-torn-apart body. I love depressing movies, they’re my bread and butter, but Saw‘s atmosphere is oppressively dank. Not a ray of sunshine gets into this movie.

In this and other ways, Saw‘s greatest influence is obviously David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). Let’s see what they have in common: a very limited color palette; unnamed urban areas as their settings; a moralizing, identity-less mass murderer who specializes in nauseating, ironic punishments; and a pair of investigating detectives, one of whom is either Danny Glover or Morgan Freeman. One key difference: at the end of Se7en, Freeman quotes Hemingway in saying that “the world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” then adds that he agrees with the second part. I’m not so sure that the creators of Saw agree with the second part.

Sorry if I’m giving short shrift to one of the most influential horror movies one of the past decade, but it just didn’t do much for me. I didn’t get the sense that the filmmakers were investing in or caring about their characters – so why should I? Dr. Gordon’s progress was gratifying to follow, and I would’ve loved to see him in another movie, but Saw is just too sunk into its ignoble torture chamber roots to be anything like great horror cinema. It’s plainly not “torture porn,” since it doesn’t really relish the quasi-orgasmic moments of torture themselves, but it does get off to its own cleverness. Call me crazy, but I prefer it when writers spend less time playing Rube Goldberg, and more time writing about people.

So… what did I miss? Or am I dead-on? Kindly comment and let me know.

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Om Nom Blood Feast!

I don’t have too much to say about Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963). It’s not a very deep movie. The plot is as rudimentary as could be, following an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who stalks, abducts, and murders women in the Miami area as he prepares the titular feast, in honor of his goddess Ishtar. (Never mind that Ishtar wasn’t an Egyptian goddess, and no such bloody ritual existed.) An incompetent detective slowly, slowly hunts him down; meanwhile, the detective’s girlfriend’s mother engages Ramses to cater the girlfriend’s birthday party. Eventually the party happens, then the detective corners Ramses, who is crushed in a garbage truck. The end.

The only real reason we’re still talking about Blood Feast over forty years later is that it’s a fucking gory movie. Whenever possible, we’re treated to close-ups of the victims’ entrails, severed limbs, and wounds, all gushing copious amounts of bright blood. Thus, Wikipedia dubs it “the first ‘splatter film’,” and to an extent they’re right. Blood Feast signaled a pivotal moment in horror history, as the Production Code’s decline and the rise of independent production made over-the-top gore a very real aesthetic option. Unfortunately, despite its historic significance, it’s also barely watchable.

In fact, Blood Feast is so poorly made that if it had a little less excessive gore, I suspect it would’ve received the MST3K treatment. Every single cast member delivers their lines in a stilted, uncertain manner, with the exception of Arnold, who hams it up so much he might as well have an apple in his mouth. The camerawork is equally miserable; I’m being charitable when I say this movie reminds me of early John Waters, or the Kuchar Bros. It has that naïve quality to it, as if Lewis had seen one or two Hollywood movies and was trying carefully, but futilely, to imitate them, although the film also has a few moments of clear, intentional humor, especially as Ramses tries to get the detective’s giggling, inane girlfriend to sacrifice herself. (If you can’t tell, the film also has an unsurprising undercurrent of misogyny.)

So there is plenty of so-bad-it’s-good enjoyment to be had from Blood Feast. The bad acting, awkward dialogue, organ-and-drums soundtrack, and oversimplified color scheme (Lewis has a Godard-like obsession with primary colors), when added to the sanguine set-pieces, yield a mildly silly good time. The film occasionally teeters over in unbearably bad territory, though, during a few monologues that drone on for several minutes (in a 67-minute movie); if you can persevere through those, then Blood Feast is worth a gander. Ultimately, its historical significance is its greatest asset. Even more than Psycho, it marks the transitional period between ’50s monster movies and ’70s slashers. Ramses is the perfect segue from Vincent Price’s vengeful mass murderers and the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Black Christmas‘s Bobby and Michael Myers. Now remember the magic words: “Oh Ishtar, take me unto yourself!”

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“Let her try it…”

Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.

Wife: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out!

This is one of the many scenes in Freaks (1932) that shows the quiet, workaday existence of its sideshow performers. Here, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) pours out a drink for his wife (Martha Morris) as they discuss Cleopatra’s treatment of their lovestruck compatriot Hans. I’ve always been struck by this scene’s very subtle intimations of underlying horror. What are they threatening? Do they suspect, or know, the gruesome fate that’s in store for Cleo? They seem so innocuous and cozy, going about their normal lives, but their dialogue implies that, hidden in the collective mind of the “freak” community, is something that Cleo will only “find out” when it’s already too late.

Rossitto, incidentally, is one of my favorite character actors. Less than three feet tall, he appeared in over 80 films and TV series across seven decades. Highlights of his amazing career include weird Bela Lugosi vehicles like The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Scared to Death (1947); Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona (1950) starring Vincent Price; the bizarre, no-dialogue Daughter of Horror aka Dementia (1955); and of course Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He rarely got to do much acting, but was always a magnetic presence. Morris, meanwhile, had no film career outside of this scene in Freaks, and little is known of her beyond a few pictures.

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