Tag Archives: insanity

An Invisible Man Could Rule the World!

[Note: This is just a whiff of the horror awesomeness that’s going to consume this blog as Halloween gets closer. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you!]

I recently revisited a less-appreciated member of the Universal horror canon: James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). Based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, the film tracks the invisible exploits of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who slowly turns from disgruntled scientist to rampaging, psychotic mass murderer. That’s basically all there is to the story, too, and it’s pretty much a one-man show – or should I say, a one-voice show, since Rains’ snarling, cackling, bodyless performance steals the whole movie. His intensity, coupled with Whale’s very British brand of black comedy, make this a damn enjoyable 70 minutes.

This movie’s first act takes place at the Lion’s Head, a small inn located in the wintry countryside. There, a gauze-wrapped Griffin tries to set up an improvised laboratory and develop an antidote for his condition. But alas, he must reckon with small-minded townsfolk… including the shrillest of all small-minded townsfolk, the innkeeper’s wife as played by Una O’Connor. O’Connor would later star in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and in both films, she’s a hyperactive, thick-brogued scream queen. She’s bitchy, nosy, gossipy, inane, infuriating, and gives a great performance. You’d have to be a great actress to play such a deeply intolerable character.

With her as their matriarch, the denizens of the Lion’s Head form a tight-knit community of fools – usually inebriated, easily frightened, and suspicious of strangers. When Griffin becomes physically abusive toward the innkeeper and his wife, a gang of the pub’s patrons and a local constable charge up to his room, only for him to remove his goggles and bandages and reveal his true face. This prompts one of the film’s great lines, from the incredulous constable: ” ‘E’s all eaten away!

The movie’s big joke is that we’re solidly on Griffin’s side. He’s the lone, rugged intellectual face to face with a mob of drunken yokels; of course we want him to win out. But then he moves in with his old coworker Dr. Kemp and starts going on long, megalomaniacal rants, and it becomes clear that Whale is playing with us (in the best possible sense). Just as in Bride of Frankenstein, where the gloriously evil Dr. Pretorious is the most compelling character, Griffin attracts our interest through just through his abundant charisma. Whale’s horror movies are gleefully amoral, and this is a great example: even if Griffin is a monstrous, deranged psychopath, that’s no reason he can’t also be our favorite character.

Speaking of “gleefully amoral,” one of the reasons we enjoy Griffin’s reign of terror is because he’s having so much fun. While tricking dozens of police officers, he manages to steal a pair of pants and skips off down the road (pictured above), singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May…” (Later, he robs a bank to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”) This is leagues away from film noir images of scowling, pessimistic career criminals; in Whale’s world, crime does pay, at least in terms of raw joy.

In the end, sure, Griffin insists that he “meddled in things which man must leave alone,” but this moral is savagely undercut by all of the film’s delightfully perverse moments earlier on. Sure, The Invisible Man has a token love story between Griffin and Flora, played by a none-too-convincing Gloria Stuart, but it stays mostly in the background. The real story here is the passionate affair between Griffin and his own limitless power. These two lovers are separated by death in the end, but we get plenty of steamy love scenes in the meantime – like when Griffin convinces Kemp that he’s always watching. This is genuinely terrifying: Griffin is more or less a one-man panopticon.

Overall, The Invisible Man is a somewhat weaker film than Bride of Frankenstein or The Old Dark House; it lacks Bride‘s ultra-snappy script or House‘s unbeatable ensemble. What it does have, however, is Rains’ voiceover, which reminds me of Lionel Stander’s in Blast of Silence with its relentless aggression. His words are like daggers, and when he threatens violence – against the townsfolk, Kemp, or the entire world – he means it. Even while he’s sleeping, he maintains his single-handed grip of terror on the whole countryside.

That’s what makes this a horror classic: Rains’ performance as Griffin is fierce, alive, and overflowing with energy, yet also dangerous and truly frightening. In short, he’s exactly what a monster should be. Consumed by obsession and madness, he’s exactly the kind of extraordinary man who could alter the course of history. Final note: The Invisible Man was released in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany…

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Batman rides a horse and Joker gets away

It sucks to only have Internet access at the library, it sucks more to have to drive around a lot, and it sucks most when those two factors together prevent me from blogging for a week. So, to make up for the suckiness, I am finally here blogging again. So, where to start with what’s happened lately? I saw It Happened One Night and Bride of Frankenstein at the Edina Theater’s 75th birthday celebration, and won a $10 iTunes gift card for correctly identifying Ernest Thesiger as the actor who plays the ghoulishly immoral Dr. Pretorious in Bride. Of course, that gift card is next to worthless, since what am I going to buy through iTunes that I couldn’t just illegally download with the press of a button? Oh well.

Also, several days ago, my portable DVD player stopped working. I bid farewell to my ol’ Nextplay 7″ after 1 1/2 years of good service, and have since ordered a $92 Audiovox 9″ portable DVD player. Will it work better? Will it work at all? For the answer, I must wait till it arrives in the next 2-10 days. I really, really like using portable DVD players. They’re intimate, cozy, personal, and generally functional. I’ve watched several hundred movies on them since I received one, miraculously, in a raffle at our high school graduation party. I just wish they had longer life spans. Hopefully Audiovox (a somewhat more reputable electronics purveyor than “Nextplay,” whoever the fuck that is) can go some length toward restoring my faith in portable DVD players’ longevities. If not, maybe I’ll just buy a cheap, non-portable player and start using a TV for the screen. Either way.

Also in the past week, I read two Batman graphic novels: Frank Miller’s landmark The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison’s phantasmagorical, best-selling Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Both were interesting in their own ways. With Dark Knight Returns, well, I liked the boldly noncontinuity stance of the book: none of this really happened, but it could; the Joker really dies (and has a laugh doing it); nuclear war shuts down non-Batman law and order in the USA (?!?); oh, and Superman fights Batman, for real. Superman kind of wins.

A beautifully iconic cover for an icon-shattering graphic novel

I guess it kind of reminds me of another “what if?”-type story I read years ago: 1963’s totally ridiculous Superman Red/Superman Blue, where some weird Kryptonite experiment leads Superman to split into two people, who then, um, erase all evil or disease anywhere on earth, restore Krypton, marry both Lois Lane and Lana Lang, and live happily ever after. The word “absurd” doesn’t quite cover it. And so, even though Dark Knight Returns may make a lot more sense, it still shares a little of that “continuity be damned, we’re plowing forward” spirit; this is one of many possible futures. And it’s a dark, gloomy future, too, which helped, with Watchmen, to create this new conception of superheroes as often unhappy, deeply imperfect people. We find Bruce Wayne, 10 years after retiring his cowl, watching a Gotham City on the brink, or even the verge. Jim Gordon’s retiring, a gang called the Mutants are raping and mutilating civilians, and Harvey Dent’s supposedly been “cured.” Naturally, the situation has only one answer: the despondent Bruce, increasingly alcoholic, must return to the streets as an old man and remind everyone that crime doesn’t pay.

It’s a damn well-told story; constant news coverage is superimposed over battle sequences where Batman often remarks that he’s not as young as he used to be. Questions of vigilantism, terrorism, and constitutional rights are brought up; we get a new Robin and a new police commissioner, both female; and politics messes up everything – Superman alludes to events preceding the novel akin to Watchmen‘s Keene Act, and an unnamed, folksy, Reagan-like president plays an important role in negotiating with the Soviets and refusing to comment on the Batman situation. Ultimately, the book says, this is a new, hypothetical world that doesn’t really have room for superheroes. It’s harder to manage with a cape in the middle of the Cold War. I don’t think it works as well as Watchmen when it comes to being a self-contained work of art, but its greatest accomplishment is as one more reworking of a big, dark, winged myth. Also: the indubitable Crowning Moment of Awesome in a book that even has Oliver Queen shooting a Kryptonite arrow at Superman’s heart? Batman rides a horse.

Batman rides a horse.

On the less-awesome side, I didn’t really see the need for the younger characters’ Nadsat-like, unexplained slang – shiv, billy, etc. All it really did for me was make half of girl Robin’s dialogue incoherent. But who am I to talk? I’m not Frank Miller.

On a radically different side of Batman, we have Arkham Asylum, which I found even better than Dark Knight Returns. It’s illustrated by Dave McKean, which means it’s pretty much unlike any comic book you’ve ever read (unless you’ve read something illustrated by Dave McKean). It fluctuates between photorealistic faces and hands and maddening meshes of prose and picture, and Batman’s costume becomes an impressionistic blur in this most serious of houses. McKean’s labyrinthine art works works well with Morrison’s arcane writing, drawing on Jung, Crowley (both of whom are met by Amadeus Arkham in the book), tarot, mythology, and more. Like Miller’s Batman, Morrison’s is flawed and vulnerable, but whereas Miller concentrates on the long-term effects of crimefighting, Morrison zooms in on Batman’s perceived psychosexual hang-ups: he’s terrified of physical and sexual contact (he reacts violently to Joker’s playful gay-baiting and fears Clayface’s infection); he’s emotionally frozen and unable to sustain a relationship. He’s also petrified by the idea that, like the homicidal maniacs he’s put away in Arkham, he might also be crazy.

A phobic, paralyzed Batman rejects the Joker's suggestion to "loosen up, tight ass!"

This is the basic premise of Arkham Asylum, and it’s carried out more like visual poetry than a straightforward superhero comic book. While Dark Knight Returns sees Batman flying, driving, and riding all over the place, becoming a force of law and order in the face of Armageddon, Arkham Asylum involves more battle with inner demons like the loss of his parents than with the reconceived rogues gallery that surrounds him. It’s impressive how effectively Morrison’s psychoanalytic approach to Batman, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and others fits with McKean’s abstract, oneiric, mixed-media artwork: we get a demonic, wide-eyed Joker celebrating April Fools’ Day for all its worth, a burnt-out pedophilic Mad Hatter, and the father of the serious house, Amadeus Arkham, who succumbs to its mentally degenerative atmosphere after the death of his wife and daughter. It’s a multifaceted exploration of madness in its many incarnations, and the tale of one (Bat)man’s arguably successful battle with a world gone mad.

Two-Face lets fate make his decisions in Arkham Asylum

Overall, it’s a somewhat difficult book – much understanding of the plot and themes has to come from intuitive impressions, since between McKean’s vague style and Morrison’s grounding in esoteric mysteries, every panel has a number of meanings. Perhaps ironically, it’s also the best-selling graphic novel of all time, a fact which Morrison attributes to the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. It’s a very interesting book which you can certainly read over and over, seeking new clues and new signs of madness.

That’s all the Batman graphic novel reviewing I have for the moment, but I hope to return to the library to blog maybe tomorrow or the day after. Potential topics: outsider art and music, more Jack Chick, another favorite movie. We shall see.

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Madness and rebellion

Today, I think, was a well-spent day. It should feel more satisfying, but alas, it feels strangely disappointing in a way that many days feel, and what can I do about that? Human emotions are strange things. Oh, are they ever. We sacks of meat, bone, and nerve tissue go around having feelings, and these feelings mean so much to us. They determine how we view the world – if we’re sad, the world becomes sad, and if we’re happy, well, the world laughs with us. No one is objective; no one really has an unbiased view of their environment. Hell, even though lobotomies do severe damage to higher brain functions, they still don’t take away all emotions, or anything that people will little leucotomical knowledge would tell you. I recently watched a documentary with my family about Walter Freeman, the innovator of the lobotomy, who spent years touring the U.S. giving icepick lobotomies, where he’d just stick it up someone’s tear ducts, hammer away, and BANG, problem solved. With new ones created. Psychosurgery? It has a bad rap these days, and for a reason. The documentary, based on Jack El-Hai’s book of the same name, was called The Lobotomist and is available for viewing here. I highly recommend it as examining a piece of America’s medical and social history. I should watch more documentaries. They provide easy access to a variety of subjects. In time, it’ll happen.

Lobotomies have always intrigued me. Look at the word itself: lobotomy. (And if you’re like me, you automatically hear the Ramones chanting it.) Basically, it comes from the Greek (I believe; take my every nugget of wisdom with a grain of salt): lobe, as in frontal lobe, plus -otomy, which means “cutting.” Like the atom? That means “uncuttable.” Which is ironic in retrospect, but dammit, they didn’t know that then! Lobotomy, taking out a part-o’-me… one of the interesting nuances I learned back when I obsessively studied Greek word origins around age 13 was the difference between “otomy” and “ectomy.” Appendectomy, hysterectomy? An -ectomy is a removal; an -otomy is a cutting.  However, I don’t know the medical details well enough to say if the lobe is entirely removed or just has its link to the rest of the brain severed. In any event, the rise (and fall) of the lobotomy is an interesting case of interactions between general public attitudes and changing medical technology. If there’s anything advertising can tell you, it’s that people crave a quick fix. Years of therapy, coupled with medication? Fuck that. Let’s go in through his eyes, hack out part of his brain, and make him safe to take home again. Psychiatric trends affect us all, dammit. Whether or not they’re willing to admit it, everyone has a mental health, just as everyone has a physical health. Worth noting: I’m fairly certain that “insanity” is a meaningless word, both medically and legally. Is someone “crazy”? Are they “insane” or “nuts”? Some people suffer from clinical depression; others are schizophrenic (although what does that mean? Another source of immense controversy which was brought to my attention by Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s My Mom Was a Schizophrenic; I definitely recommend reading it). Psychiatry is still, more or less, in its infancy. Maybe its teen years? My point is that the study of mental health, as we know it, pretty much took off only around the turn of the 20th century. There’s a lot humanity as a whole still has to figure out about how the brain works. Dear reader, take a moment to consider what a bizarre, high-tech piece of equiment you have stashed between your ears. It’s so well-designed it’s even capable of contemplating its own mechanical workings. Unfortunately, there are still some bugs to work out, so occasionally the wiring short-circuits, and sometimes we can get it fired up again, but other cases are not so lucky. Whole lotta trial and error involved, as with every human pursuit. Happiness does not come easy without the sacrifice of many, many painful and difficult lives obstructed by bad chemicals fucking up the brain, as Kurt Vonnegut would probably put it. I think he had some mental illness in his family – his mother, I believe, committed suicide like Celia Hoover in Breakfast of Champions, the novel to which I’m referring with the “bad chemicals,” and Vonnegut himself went through crippling depression at a number of points in his life. I used to have a book containing testimonies from a number of people who’d gone through Minnesota’s mental health care system. I wonder where that is now. One very scary point it reinforces is this: it can and likely even will happen to you. Your mind, so often a faithful friend who aided you in all pursuits, suddenly deciding to take a nosedive into darkness and agony – it’s a possibility built into the electrochemical framework by which you, like everyone else, function. It’s horrifying and it’s a fact.

Thinking about lobotomies also reminded me of two things I love: Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Loosely inspired by an acid trip Kesey had while working as a janitor in a mental hospital in Washington State California, the stories are about Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the convict who gets transferred into the tyrannical Nurse Ratched’s ward because he’s convinced the prison staff that he’s crazy, though he’s just faking it, and he’s really sane… right? I am a fan of Nicholson. I can’t deny it; in fact, sometimes I randomly burst into periods where I won’t! Fuckin’! Stop! Talkin’ like Jack Nicholson! And Cuckoo’s Nest was, I think, a project that was perfect for him – McMurphy is, of course, a quintessential rebel, which fits perfectly with the image Nicholson crafted starting with his renegade lawyer in Easy Rider, his renegade pianist in Five Easy Pieces, his renegade naval officer in The Last Detail… need I go on? (Granted, in Tommy, he’s not much of a renegade, but his part in it is about 5 minutes long. As Jack says, “All hope lies with him and none with me.”)

I love the film’s environment, its supporting cast – Vincent Schiavelli, Danny DeVito being endearingly demented, Christopher Lloyd being argumentative and violent, and Brad Dourif as the sadistically-named Billy Bibbit, stutteringly sucking up to the off-beat father figure that McMurphy provides. Then there’s the Chief. Since the novel is from his (very skewed) point of view, it’s a radically different experience, but I think Forman does a great job of maybe not translating, but reconstructing important elements of the novel on screen. And McMurphy survives wholly intact. And then Louis Fletcher… she may have had other roles before and after, but she will likely be remembered solely for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Nurse Ratched, and it’s no wonder. I’d have to reread the book to verify this but I have the feeling that Fletcher is a little softer and not so overtly domineering than Kesey’s version of Ratched. But nonetheless she’s a frightening presence and is simultaneously a figurehead of executive authority and a monster of institutional malice. Cuckoo’s Nest may have swept the Academy Awards, but I still see it as a very effectively rebellious, anti-authoritarian film. Although the novel may be more in synch with the Chief’s existence as an outsider on every level, I think the film isn’t too watered-down or overly Hollywoodized. Still got that downer ending, after all, that brought me from lobotomy to Cuckoo’s Nest in the first place. Still got that pool of blood surrounding a certain beloved character’s body. My opinion on this may change in the future. But one possible explanation if this is the case? It was 1975. Recent headlines had seen the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, and the Watergate revelations. An ideal national mindset for a movie like this – and while, say, All the President’s Men may have taken the topical bull by the horns, I can at least say with certainty that I prefer Cuckoo’s Nest every time. The catch? As others have pointed out, cuckoos don’t have nests. They lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Keep that in mind while watching the movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

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