Dr. Jekyll Is Not Himself These Days

grims grave

 

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

As the picture above would indicate, I am feeling uncharacteristically giddy and “full of beans” at the prospect of resuming my column after an exceedingly long hiatus.  Now that I am a free agent and my deathless prose is no longer hidden among the byways of the Flat Field Records website, I hope to expand my rabid and ever-faithful fan base solidly into the double digits.  (For the sake of completeness, as well as posterity, I have re-posted my early Flat Field columns for your no doubt eager perusal.)

The reasons for my absence are not pleasant.  As many of you are aware, my widely misunderstood career as an avant-garde surgeon has rendered me of no small interest to certain legal authorities.  This has forced me to lead the life of an itinerant squatter in various industrial ruins throughout the New York metropolitan region.  It is essential that I keep my whereabouts strictly hush-hush.

Nonetheless, rumors began circulating that I dwelt within the secret, twisting catacombs beneath the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg.  Having now vacated the premises, I can confirm that this was indeed true.  It was a most congenial home for me, and I left only under extreme duress.  My sacred solitude, formerly interrupted only by the occasional “urban explorer” or nosy camera-wielding tourist from California,  steadily eroded due to a stream of developers and contractors, bent on transforming my private palace into “luxury condos.”  Weep not for me, but for a once-dignified ruin, soon to be cruelly restored and revamped for nefarious purposes.

Although I am now comfortably ensconced in a location which must not be named, the process of finding new digs was long and arduous.  Furthermore, it left my beloved pet raven, Barnaby, peevish and out of sorts.  (He’s a creature of habit, poor thing, and has only recently recovered his equilibrium.)  I have more than ever come to feel the truth and power of Bela Lugosi’s searing monologue from Bride of the Monster (1955):

“…Home?  I have no home.  Hunted, despised, living like an animal!  The jungle is my home.  But I will show the world that I can be its master!  I will perfect my own race of people.  A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!”

Anyway, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Let’s discuss it, shall we?

Of all the classic Gothic horror tales, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (no “The,” originally) was by far the most frequently filmed in the early days of cinema, inspiring at least eight adaptations during the silent era alone.  And yet, while every generation sees fit to re-imagine the Dracula and Frankenstein myths for contemporary audiences, and the Phantom of the Opera has enjoyed a most lucrative afterlife, the greatest double act in horror history has fallen on hard times.  True, there has been the occasional TV version or lowbrow parody or obscure foreign-language offshoot in recent decades, but no high-profile, straightforward adaptation of the story has been made for American or British theatrical release since the insipid Victor Fleming film of 1941.

But why?  It’s not as if Stevenson’s themes have dated.  True, Victorian repression is not what it used to be, but I have detected no falling-off in human fiendishness in the ensuing years — nor has the public lost its interest in the various nasties that lurk beneath the cloak of bourgeous respectability.  Furthermore, the story’s obvious parallels with drug addiction have mostly been left unexplored.  I can offer no explanation for this neglect; I merely offer it as one of life’s imponderables.

The 1920 and 1931 versions, at least, managed to improve on their literary source.  Stevenson’s novella isn’t especially thrilling when read today, not least because it is structured as a mystery story–the solution being that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person.  Since the modern reader is unlikely to be astonished by this fact, the tension slackens and the big reveal toward the end trickles off into a damp squib.  Stevenson also managed to ignore sex completely, so the familiar dichotomy between the virtuous fiancee and the music-hall floozy, with all that they imply about Jekyll’s inner conflict, is nowhere to be seen.  (Credit Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation for introducing these now-standard characters.)

Here, then, are my pithy musings on the three most noteworthy versions to date.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Although John S. Robertson’s direction is as good as it needs to be and no better, the first feature-length version of the tale endures because of John Barrymore’s unique, spidery interpretation of Hyde.  The child-trampling scene remains from Stevenson, but the emphasis here is on Hyde’s unsavoriness and decadence rather than his physical brutality. Leering, stringy-haired, and just plain unsanitary, this habitue of low dives and opium dens owes a fair amount to the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray — while Jekyll’s prospective father-in-law Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who challenges Jekyll with his worldly cynicism, serves much the same function as Lord Henry in Wilde’s novel.

Behold the famed single-take transformation scene below.  You are permitted to laugh at Barrymore’s melodramatic, actorish flailings after swallowing the potion — but stick with it, and marvel at how much the old ham accomplishes with facial expressions alone.  (As his debauchery progresses and the makeup becomes correspondingly extreme, he begins to look somewhat like rock idol Alice Cooper on a bad night.)

 

The scene where a giant phantom tarantula bearing Hyde’s face melts into the sleeping Jekyll’s body, thus transforming him into Hyde, remains beautifully loathsome.

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Rouben Mamoulian’s film, starring Fredric March, is not only the best version of the tale, but a strong candidate for the greatest horror film ever made.  I confess that I love it beyond all reason.

Part of my enthusiasm no doubt stems from having seen it on the big screen at an impressionable age, during the pre-video era, at a time when the film was rarely shown and quite difficult to see.  It is hard to convey, in this current media environment where more or less everything is available all the time, how exciting it was when a rare and much pined-for motion picture made an unexpected appearance at the local revival house or on television.  You knew it might be your only chance to see it for many years to come.

First of all, it’s a technical and stylistic tour de force, with Karl Struss’s restless, prowling camera dynamically expressing Mamoulian’s directorial vision.  (The much-acclaimed subjective sequence that opens the film, in which we see everything from Jekyll’s point of view and don’t catch a glimpse of the man himself until he pauses before a mirror, was cut when the film was reissued several years later.  Happily, it has since been restored.)  The state-of-the-art transformation scenes are likewise astonishing, and made use of highly innovative makeup and light filter techniques which were for many years a closely guarded secret.  Wally Westmore’s Hyde makeup could perhaps have been toned down a notch or two — March is completely unrecognizable — but the apelike physiognomy is in keeping with the concept of Hyde as a kind of evolutionary throwback.

A vintage Aurora model kit, with a Hyde figure based on Fredric March.  Dr. Grimsby had one of these as a stripling youth.

A vintage Aurora model kit, with a Hyde figure based on Fredric March. Dr. Grimsby had one of these as a stripling youth.

Famously, there is also an astonishing amount of eroticism in this pre-Code film — it leaves no doubt that sexual frustration is at the root of Jekyll’s problems — and a brutality of tone that makes it suitably nerve-racking even today.

March mostly plays Hyde for laughs in his early scenes; he and Mamoulian conceive him as a simian but rather high-spirited chap, bursting with the vitality of an unleashed id.  But as his behavior toward saloon singer Ivy Pearson (played with great vulnerability and a near-hysterical edge by Miriam Hopkins) grows more vicious and controlling, we stop laughing, and March’s performance becomes one of the most harrowing portrayals of a sexual predator ever committed to celluloid.  He won an Oscar for his performance — a feat that would not be duplicated by an actor in a horror film until Anthony Hopkins’ win for The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Here’s where it gets rough.

Victor Fleming’s film is practically a scene-for-scene remake of the Mamoulian version, minus the imagination, sex, tension,  and thrills that distinguished its illustrious predecessor.  Instead, we have heaping helpings of MGM gloss — exactly what this story is not crying for.

Then there’s the abysmally wrong-headed casting.  Although Barrymore and March were both American actors, neither was quite so palpably American as Spencer Tracy, who seems very out of place indeed among the gaslit London cobblestones.  His characteristic relaxed decency suits neither Jekyll’s obsessiveness nor Hyde’s brutality; no amount of leering and grimacing can mask the fact that the man is basically a mensch.

 

Lana Turner, as Jekyll’s upmarket fiancee, is what she always was:  a signifier of glamour, more an abstract field of shimmering platinum than a relatable character.  And while Ingrid Bergman was at her most dewy and edible as Ivy, she is no one’s idea of a cockney trollop, and her East End (of Stockholm?) accent is lamentable.  (The original casting had Bergman as the fiancee and Turner as the floozy, but Bergman was fed up with playing “good girls” and prevailed upon Fleming to give her the more colorful role.)

Alas, this was the only version that played on television for many, many years, so generations grew up thinking of this, and not the Mamoulian version, as the “classic” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Alarmingly, the corporate vandals at MGM came perilously close to erasing the earlier film from history altogether.  While the remake was in preparation, the studio bought the rights to the 1931 version and destroyed all the prints they could locate; the result is that the film was thought to be lost until a print was re-discovered decades later.  I quail to think how close MGM came to consigning a great film to oblivion, in the service of one that was overextended, bland, and derivative.

A pox on it.

Finally, as a kind of post-script, I attach the sublime trailer for the 1976 blaxploitation feature, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde.  It is quite simply the finest example of the art I have ever seen, and will save you the trouble of having to watch the movie itself.

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The Plot Sickens: Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast

Originally posted June 28, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

As I sit here in my underground lair, listening to Barnaby’s evocative caw, caw and fortifying myself with strong drink, I find myself wondering where it all went wrong.  Not my life, you understand; that went off the rails the day those officious rapscallions invaded my laboratory and examined the contents of my freezer.  I speak, rather, about the moment when the horror film left the realm of dream and myth, and descended into the abbatoir.

Which brings me to Blood Feast (1963), about which I have a strange ambivalence.

It isn’t often that you can point to a cultural artifact and definitively claim it as the first of its kind, but here we have an exception.  Few would deny that Herschell Gordon Lewis’s sanguinary spectacle is the first gore film ever released, although as producer David Friedman declared in his memoir A Youth in Babylon, “Blood Feast wasn’t released—it just escaped.”

FIRST, I am depressed, because Blood Feast began the trend away from the suggestive, poetic horrors of the Val Lewtons and Tod Brownings, in favor of ugly, artless little pictures in which nubile cuties are creatively slaughtered by knife-wielding loons.  Its descendents are the dispiriting mad-slasher films of the ‘80s and abominations like the current Saw franchise.  I should also add that, as a once-practicing avant-garde surgeon, it pains me to see bodies torn apart with such pitiful lack of finesse.

NEXT, I am fascinated, because the film is such a prime example of early-‘60s grindhouse fare at its most disreputable, and the ensuing decades have given it a patina of what I’m tempted to call “period charm.”  And then there’s the sheer sense of wonder that engulfs one when viewing a picture that is so very, very bad in every conceivable way.  The mind reels, grasps for reference points, and finally gives way to a kind of awe, laced with perverse affection.  We are talking Edward D. Wood levels of ineptitude, but without the earnestness and berserk integrity which entitles Wood to a qualified respect.

No one who is not either delusional or French has ever made a serious artistic case for Lewis, and neither he nor Friedman—an ex-carny, as it happens—has ever denied that their motives were purely mercenary.

The two collaborators got their start in the once-popular “nudie cutie” genre, with such choice titles as Goldilocks and the Three Bares and BOIN-N-G! (both 1963) to their credit.  Sensing that the market for these innocuous romps had already peaked, Lewis and Friedman cast around for some other exploitable element—something Hollywood wouldn’t touch, and that other independent filmmakers hadn’t dared to try.  Gore, they decided, would be their ticket to notoriety.

It seems rather fitting that the plot of Blood Feast was inspired by a tacky motel statue.  When Lewis saw the seven-foot plaster Sphinx outside the Suez Motel in Miami Beach, the proverbial light bulb went off, and he concocted a story about a crazed Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who gets hired to prepare a birthday feast for a blandly blonde Egyptology student with the unimprovable name of Suzette Freemont (Connie Mason).

Regrettably for all concerned, Ramses is devoted to the bloodthirsty goddess Ishtar (a Babylonian deity, but never mind), and believes he can resurrect her by hacking up assorted young lovelies and harvesting their organs for use in an ancient ritual.  The cop whom Suzette happens to be dating (Thomas Wood) eventually tracks him down, but not before Ramses has subjected several maidens to such indignities as whipping, eye-stabbing, leg amputation, brain removal, face-hacking, and—in the film’s infamous coup de gross—tongue extraction.  (The tongue in question originally belonged to a sheep, and had begun to ripen on the day of the shoot; Lewis responded in true do-it-yourself fashion by dousing it in Lysol.  The hapless Astrid Olson, cast because of her cavernous mouth, managed to contain not only the tongue but a goodly portion of strawberry gelatin and Lewis’s patented blood solution.)

Part of the fascination of Blood Feast is trying to figure out how firmly Lewis’s own tongue was planted in his cheek.  After all, this was a supposedly charming and intelligent man who had a Master’s degree in journalism and once taught English literature at the college level. Did he really expect us to take the preposterous Fuad Ramses seriously?  And those periodic blasts of soap-opera organ—deliberately campy, or just plain tacky?

But even if we’re feeling generous, and assume that Blood Feast is largely a put-on, the film gives no indication that Lewis had the slightest flair for storytelling, or any sense of where to put his camera, or anything but the tinniest of tin ears for dialogue.  And make no mistake: this is Lewis’s project all the way, even though the script is credited to one A. Louise Downe.  (According to Lewis, she did nothing more than type the script, but he gave her the dubious honor in order to avoid the embarrassment of claiming every single screen credit for himself.)  Lewis even composed the abysmal, ear-defying score, and performed its maddeningly inane two-note timpani motif.

As for the acting, the clip above epitomizes the general level of emoting found throughout Blood Feast.  Mal Arnold, who had the good taste to vanish into obscurity after this film came out, delivers his lines in one of the most dreadful Lugosi-esque accents ever heard—though it should be noted that his overgrown, spray-painted eyebrows perform yeoman service.  The casting of Connie Mason can be attributed to her appearance in Playboy as the June 1963 Playmate of the Month—and her status as Friedman’s main squeeze—rather than any notable skill as a thespian.  Lewis couldn’t stand Mason (though she somehow wound up in his 1964 follow-up film, Two Thousand Maniacs!), and was prone to saying cutting things about her in interviews, even decades later.  Here he is speaking with trash auteur John Waters, in Waters’ memoir Shock Value:

JOHN WATERS: Where did you find your first star, Connie Mason?
LEWIS: Under a rock….She never knew a line.  Not ever.  Nor could she ever be on the set on time….I’ve often felt if one took the key out of Connie’s back, she’d simply stand in place.

Not knowing quite what they had on their hands, Lewis and Friedman bypassed the major markets and decided to see how it would play in Peoria.  Literally.

“We decided to open the picture in the Bel Air [Drive-In] Theatre in Peoria,” Lewis recalled, “feeling if we drop dead in Peoria, no one on earth will ever know—it’s a different planet.  We opened on a Friday and we went down there on a Saturday in a driving rain, and here was traffic backed up down the highway, and the state police directing traffic, and I knew we had something.”

You have to hand it to the old boy; he called the movie Blood Feast, and that’s exactly what it is.  “You’ll Recoil and Shudder as You Witness the Slaughter and Mutilation of Nubile Young Girls in a Weird and Horrendous Ancient Rite!” screamed the posters, and for once, the hyperventilating ad copy promised exactly what it delivered. Women fainted; husky men quaked and blanched; concession-stand cashiers stared at the screen in disbelief.  The censors threw their hands in the air; they were used to dealing with nudity and profanity, but there were no laws addressing this kind of stuff.

So, even though Blood Feast paved the way for a trend in horror that I detest, I can’t bring myself to hate the picture itself.  It’s too ridiculous, too much a quaint relic of the early ‘60s, and too unapologetically itself.  Despite the lovingly photographed mutilations that earned this film its sicko reputation, there’s no genuine malice in it.  It’s just the old carny hustle, with Lewis and Friedman beckoning you inside the tent to see the two-headed baby.

Where Art House and Grindhouse Meet: Eraserhead, Possession, and Begotten

Originally posted June 1, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

The summer heat saps me of my manly vigor.

The summer heat saps me of my manly vigor.

Summer has arrived early in my part of the world, and needless to say, I am not amused.  I detest heat and humidity, which sap me of my manly vigor.  The past several days have found me irritable, chafing, listless, damp in inconvenient places, and otherwise incapacitated by heat prostration.  My dear raven, Barnaby, is also feeling the effects; his feathers are limp and bedraggled, and his manner lacks its customary vim.

For this reason, I now turn to the cooling balm of Art, and examine three films which, though not horror per se, borrow elements of the genre to further the filmmakers’ uniquely warped visions.  (All three also happen to have one-word titles, which I think you’ll agree gives a pleasing sense of unity to the grouping.)  Think of it as the intersection where the art house and the grindhouse meet.

Eraserhead (1977)

This multi-petaled blossom of strange botany is among the most personal and synopsis-resistant films in existence, though its central situation is fairly prosaic:  Henry (Jack Nance), a seemingly depressed schlub who lives in a depopulated industrial wasteland, discovers that his sulky, hysterical girlfriend has given birth to their child.

Now, I am the farthest thing from an expert on babies.  I did see a baby, once — and it seems to me that Henry’s progeny is even less attractive than the run-of-the-mill variety, being a slimy, gasping mutant whose body must be wrapped in bandages to keep its innards from flying hither and yon.  (Seeing the film again after many years, it struck me as a mistake to show Junior in such lengthy, explicit close-ups; although convincingly done, we become too aware of it as a special effect.  A few furtive glimpses of the critter lying in the shadows would have been more in keeping with the deep sense of mystery which permeates the rest of the picture.)

Henry’s glum domestic situation is, of course, only the springboard for a torrent of dreadful yet ineffably beautiful scenes that finds Lynch unconsciously re-inventing the techniques of the original Surrealists. Actually, “torrent” is the wrong word; the rhythm is much more deliberate than that.  More like a slow, viscous ooze.  Few filmmakers have attempted to put the unfiltered stuff of the subconscious onscreen, but Lynch was just visually imaginative, adroit, and obsessive enough to pull it off.  With this film, he came as close as anyone has to expressing the inexpressible.

Lynch once described Eraserhead as his “most spiritual movie,” and despite the gloppy and unsettling imagery that has caused some delicate souls to turn pale and flee the theatre, the description is apt. Henry, I believe, is suffering from the burden of fatherhood, responsibility, and corporeal existence itself, and dreams of entering some pure and transcendent realm–hence his visions of a tiny woman who lives behind his radiator and sings about finding happiness in Heaven.  The film’s hallucinatory sequences might best be understood as the inchoate metaphysical yearnings of a man who is neither articulate nor self-aware enough to express them verbally.

My responses to Lynch’s subsequent films have ranged from halfhearted semi-approval to bottomless irritation, but in this courageous debut he created one of the most convincing alternative universes ever committed to film.  And for anyone who has unsettling dreams, and is honest about the unseemly symbolic beasts therein, the universe of Eraserhead is not nearly as alien as it might first appear.

Possession (1981)

Director Andrzej Zulawski wrote this film in the throes of a messy divorce, and judging by what’s on screen, it must have hit the poor fellow pretty hard.  An unlikely mix of formally accomplished artistry and splattery creature-horror, Possession anticipates Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) in its portrayal of a toxic relationship that spins into ever-widening circles of obsession and madness.  The pictorial beauty and outlandish histrionics that established Zulawski’s cult reputation are lavishly on display here; self-administered electric-knife wounds to the jugular vein are the least of its excesses.

The ever-delectable Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, a Berlin woman caught between a husband she desperately wants to divorce (played by a rabidly intense Sam Neill) and her smarmy, open-shirted lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent).  Imagine their pique when the fickle Adjani throws both of them over for a slimy, tentacled beast with whom she copulates squishily in her barren apartment.  That the creature (designed by Carlo Rambaldi of Alien fame) eventually becomes Mark’s doppelganger does little to quell his marital angst.

Any resemblance to recognizable human behavior is purely coincidental, though it’s hard not to be sucked into the vortex created by Mark and Anna’s escalating hysteria.  Adjani displays total commitment in what must have been a physically and emotionally exhausting turn, notably in the famous scene in which she dashes herself repeatedly against the walls of a deserted subway tunnel.

Whether all this amour fou adds up to anything substantial is difficult to say.  A whiff of allegory hangs in the air, and I assume the creature is some kind of metaphor—but for what?  I pondered, threw my hands in the air, and rejoiced that I am a bachelor.

Begotten (1990)

Battle-hardened veteran of weird cinema I may be—but I’ll admit that even I quailed at the prospect of watching E. Elias Merhige’s avant-garde phenomenon, mostly because of how it was presented to me.  It happened like this.

My old friend Lars, expatriate cinephile extraordinaire, first alerted me to the existence of Begotten via a transcontinental phone call in which he called it “the single most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on film.”  He didn’t say I should see it, and he didn’t say I shouldn’t.  But he did recommend that if I were to rise to the challenge, I should do so in the daytime, with people nearby, and have a stack of Warner Bros. cartoons on hand to serve as a chaser.

I proceeded to my neighborhood video emporium and asked the clerk if the store carried Begotten.  An oppressive silence descended, and the clerk addressed me with bulging eyes and lowered voice.  “That is the single most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on film,” he intoned.

In addition to these testimonials, I encountered an enthusiastic endorsement from well-known barrel of laughs Susan Sontag, plus Time critic Richard Corliss’s assurance that “Nobody will get through Begotten without being marked.”  Well now.

As it turns out, it is just a film—albeit one that looks like it was transferred to celluloid directly from the darkest, most obscure corners of the sleeping brain.  Heretofore, I regarded Eraserhead as the most genuinely dreamlike picture ever made, but Begotten easily usurped the crown.  Eraserhead may flow with the free-associative logic of a dream, but its sound and imagery are crisp, even hyper-real. Begotten is shot on black and white reversal film, then painstakingly re-photographed to create grains the size of golf balls, and contrast so high it approaches abstraction.  (The picture is disturbing partly because we’re not always quite sure what we’re looking at, and our fevered imaginations fill in the blanks.)  The unique look of Begotten recalls both the atmosphere of a queasily recollected nightmare and the harsh, scratchy visual texture of the earliest films ever made.

Mr. Corliss succinctly summed up Merhige’s approach as “No names, no dialogue, no compromises, no exit.”  I suspect Carl Jung would have approved, as the film occupies a nameless terrain in which archetypal figures (“God Killing Himself,” “Mother Earth,” “Son of Earth”) enact scenes dimly suggestive of creation myths and ritual sacrifice.  We might almost be watching the damaged remnants of a documentary made by time travelers, chronicling some forgotten pagan ceremony from a thousand years ago, whose ultimate meaning we shudder to contemplate.

Give a copy to your Aunt Martha.

The Drac Pack is Back: The Universal Dracula Sequels

penguinOriginally posted May 8, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

It occurs to me that it has been nearly a month since my last missive. Believe me, I did not intend to cause you any anguish, or make you rend your garments in despair over my long absence.  Nor am I “pulling a Garbo” and deliberately creating an aura of mystery.  I have simply been cultivating my rich inner life, mostly by perusing my well-thumbed copy of The Penguin Book of Sick Verse.  While sipping some well-aged vin de Gowanus from a goblet I had made from the skull of a nosy paparazzo, I happened upon an eerily appropriate bit of poesy entitled “Lines Inscribed upon a Cup formed from a Skull,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron.  It reads (in part):

Start not – nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
….
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine:
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?

Which brings me to the latest outpourings of my own skull, which I trust you will find suitably intoxicating.  Since my last column dealt with Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, I thought I’d tidy up some loose ends by commenting on the three other Dracula pictures released by Universal over the subsequent twelve years.  In effect, I will be discussing sequels in a column which is in itself a sequel.  How very meta of me.

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
Although released five years after the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi Dracula, the first sequel picks up immediately where the previous film left off.  Van Helsing (once again, Edward Van Sloan) surrenders to a couple of comical, lily-livered bobbies after finishing off Count Dracula (briefly portrayed by an unconvincing effigy).  Enter Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), a mysterious black-clad countess who identifies herself as Dracula’s daughter.  Along with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), an ambiguous ghoul with patent leather hair, she steals and ritualistically burns Dracula’s remains to rid herself of the curse of vampirism.  Sandor is skeptical that such a thing is possible – and indeed, it isn’t long before Marya is hypnotizing potential victims right and left, including a comely artist’s model (Nan Grey) whom Sandor has brought to her studio to pose.

The aforementioned scene has been much commented on by contemporary critics; its Sapphic implications can hardly be missed, but the censors apparently did.  In addition to being the screen’s first lesbian (or, more accurately, bisexual) vampire – a trope that would be exploited to varying degrees of hilarity in later and more permissive decades – Countess Zaleska may be the first instance of the conflicted vampire.  Her dear old dad seemed content enough with his lot, and never appeared to suffer any existential torment, but Zaleska is one of our more reluctant fiends of the night.  She tries to go straight, as it were, but is as helpless to resist her impulses as a junkie in the throes of withdrawal.  The figure of the angst-ridden vampire, and the vampirism-as-addiction metaphor, would both perform yeoman service in such later efforts as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) and Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973).

Stately of figure and patrician of chin, Gloria Holden is remembered, if at all, for this film and The Life of Emile Zola (1937).  It’s a pity so few memorable roles came her way; her imposing presence as Countess Zaleska suggests that she was seriously underused, and capable of marvelous things.  Director Lambert Hillyer made over 160 films, almost none of them distinguished – but in Dracula’s Daughter he managed a moody, haunting, adult picture whose reputation has blossomed over the decades.  The best of the series.

Son of Dracula (Robert Siodmak, 1943)
I don’t claim to know if the Count sired any male progeny, but this film offers no clues one way or the other.  Title notwithstanding, the dapper, mustachioed bloodsucker who descends on a New Orleans plantation home is actually Dracula himself, though he makes a fairly lackluster attempt to disguise his identity by presenting himself as Count Alucard.  (His hosts crack the code in about five minutes.)

Lon Chaney (having recently dropped the “Jr.” from his name, to much subsequent confusion) reveals his limitations as the Count.  An ungainly sort with a permanent sad-sack expression, Chaney the Younger proved ideal as the tortured Wolf Man, but he looks desperately uncomfortable here and his line readings lack panache. Siodmak, who helmed many of the most atmospheric films noir of the ‘40s, gives the picture a boost by ladling on the swampy atmospherics, notably in the scene where Alucard drifts across a pond in a semi-blasphemous evocation of “walking on water.”  John P. Fulton’s special effects in the man-into-bat transformation scenes hold up surprisingly well.  Enjoyable matinee fare for the not-too-demanding.

House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)
After Universal’s previous all-star monster jamboree, House of Frankenstein (1944), there was nothing left to do but wring a few more nickels out of the monster-mad populace by rounding up the usual suspects yet again, this time under the increasingly tattered Dracula banner.  (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the next stop.)  The results are best appreciated late at night with a snootful of Old Crow, or perhaps some oriental herbs of dubious legality.

A certain Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) occupies a cliffside castle and conducts experiments not approved by the American Medical Association, along with two female assistants: cutie pie Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) and the hunchbacked but otherwise fetching Nina (Jane Adams).  (I have had numerous lab assistants in my career as an avant-garde surgeon, and only a few of them have been hunchbacks, but said deformity was apparently a prerequisite in earlier epochs.)  Traveling incognito, Count Dracula (the excessively gaunt John Carradine) appears on Edelmann’s doorstep to request a cure for his vampirism.  Word must travel fast, because the doc’s next patient is none other than Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who seeks a remedy for his lycanthropic ways.

Edelmann appears to be making progress, but not before Talbot, with a bad moon rising, turns into the Wolf Man and escapes into a twisting series of caves near the castle.  Giving chase, Edelmann stumbles upon the remains of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), and figures he might as well revive the old boy. Complicating matters further is that a transfusion Edelmann gave to Dracula has tainted his own blood, turning him into a homicidal maniac.  From there, things really go from pillar to post: the requisite torch-bearing mob makes its appearance, a fire breaks out in the castle, and all concerned are burned to a crisp.  A tad improbable.

Don't call her "Igor."  Jane Adams as a different kind of hunchbacked lab assistant in House of Dracula.

Don’t call her “Igor.” Jane Adams as a different kind of hunchbacked lab assistant in House of Dracula.

Dracula: He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, and He’s Undead

(Courtesy of chicagonow.com

(Courtesy of chicagonow.com)

(Originally posted April 13, 2012)

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

Springtime finds me betwixt and between.  As you might surmise, this is by no means my favorite time of year.  All that bursting into flower irks me to no end.  Sunlight wreaks havoc on my carefully cultivated pallor.  It is not quite cold enough for the brown distilled beverages, but not yet hot enough for the clear. Worst of all, the trees are in an amorous mood, scattering pollen hither and thither.  Although I currently reside deep within the bowels of an undisclosed industrial ruin along the North Brooklyn waterfront, a fair amount of this accursed floral fecundity wafts its way to my sensitive membranes, rendering me an itching, sneezing object of pity.

Small wonder that my thoughts turn toward cool moonlit nights, befanged Transylvanian aristocrats in elegant evening dress, and the pollen-free confines of sealed sarcophagi.  Which is an oblique way of saying that we will now consider Universal Studios’ 1931 Dracula, and its simultaneously produced Spanish-language counterpart.

Not that you will find me showering the first horror talkie with effusive praise.  It grieves me to say it, because of my reverence for star Bela Lugosi and director Tod Browning, but Dracula is what one might call a pig’s breakfast.  An enormous success in its day, and a venerable classic in our own, it has been a fixture in the popular consciousness for generations, despite almost universal acknowledgment that it isn’t very good.  What is even more peculiar is that I have watched this not-very-good picture far more often than a lot of other, “better” films, an eccentricity in which it’s safe to say I am not alone.

Like the book on which it is based—perhaps the most enduring potboiler in literary history—Dracula has something rarer than mere “quality.”  It produced, in Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Count, an archetype that has taken on a complex life of its own, transcending its claptrap origins.

But first, the painful but necessary duty of enumerating its failings. Most fundamental of these was the decision to base the film not on Bram Stoker’s novel, but on the popular 1924 stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston.  It was the Depression, you see—and the play, which has little action and is confined mostly to various drawing-rooms, could be filmed much more cheaply.

Economical it may have been, but cinematic it emphatically was not. It would have taken a heroic effort indeed to make the play’s creaky melodramatics visually arresting.  And to make matters worse, the production was in the hands of a director who was barely there.

We may never know the precise reasons for Browning’s peculiar disengagement from his most commercially successful film—a project he had hotly pursued for many years.  Some combination of studio pressure, discomfort with sound, and roaring alcoholism seems most likely.  But to watch Dracula is to experience a definite sensation that no one was minding the store.  David J. Skal, in his book Hollywood Gothic, quotes David Manners (who played Jonathan Harker):  “To be quite honest, Tod Browning was always off to the side somewhere. I remember being directed by Karl Freund, the photographer who came from Germany and had a great sense for film.  I believe that he is the one who is mainly responsible for Dracula being watchable today.”  (Freund continues to get credit for the film’s most fluid moments, including the famous tracking shot through the tomb beneath Castle Dracula.)

Browning’s reputation as a director is based not on his visual style, which was old-fashioned even at the time.  Nor was he particularly expert at directing actors.  Even though he helmed most of Lon Chaney’s greatest films, Chaney was sui generis, and more or less directed himself.  What draws people back to Browning’s films is their marvelously bizarre, morbid subject matter, and the obsessiveness with which he returned to the figure of the deformed, twisted outsider.  An ex-carny who literally ran away and joined the circus when he was a boy, Browning revealed his thematic preoccupations early, and stuck with them to the end.  Whatever his technical limitations, he was just the kind of intensely personal filmmaker that auteurist critics build careers on.  He also demonstrated, in most of the Chaney films and in later works such as Freaks and The Devil Doll, that he could spin a yarn without the glitches, howlers, and glaring boners we find strewn throughout Dracula.

Continuity errors abound. Long stretches of stagy dialogue, which could have been enlivened by cutaways and reaction shots, remain stubbornly inert.  The fact that the dead Lucy is now poised to become a vampire is raised early in the film, and unceremoniously dropped. When Lugosi first appears to Renfield “disguised” as the coachman, his face is uncovered and easily recognizable as Dracula.  One of the two pinpoint lights, aimed at Lugosi’s eyes and intended to give them an unearthly glow, keeps missing the mark and illuminating his cheek.  Incredibly, a large cardboard shade, set up by a grip to cut the glare from a tabletop lamp, is clearly visible in two scenes.  (In the first of these, it’s by far the most prominent object in the shot.)

Skal shows little mercy for Browning.  “The published shooting script for Dracula reveals vividly the extent to which Browning circumvented and undermined the story’s cinematic possibilities,” he writes.  “ …. In scene after scene the script demonstrates just how much Browning cut, trimmed, ignored, and generally sabotaged the screenplay’s visual potentials, insisting on static camera setups, eliminating reaction shots and special effects, and generally taking the lazy way out at every opportunity.”

Bela Lugosi offered a more sympathetic take:  “The studios were hell-bent on saving money—they even cut rubber erasers in offices in half—everything that Tod Browning wanted to do was queried. Couldn’t it be done cheaper?  Wouldn’t it be just as effective if … ? That sort of thing.  It was most dispiriting.”

And yet … and yet.  Here we are in 2012, discussing an 81-year-old film whose central figure is immediately and universally recognizable, even to the many millions who have never actually seen the picture. In the popular imagination, the Lugosi interpretation is Dracula. Given the manifest flaws of the film as a work of art, and the general perception of Lugosi’s performance as a steaming platter of thickly sliced ham, how can this be?

First, Dracula is a film of unforgettable moments.  There is Lugosi’s superbly witty line reading, “I never drink … wine.”  The interior of Castle Dracula, courtesy of art director Charles D. Hall and designers Hermann Rosse and John Ivan Hoffman, is an oneiric masterpiece of vaulted Gothic ceilings, crumbling staircases, ten-foot spider webs, and scuttling vermin.  (I even like the surreally incongruous armadillos, an eccentric detail that Browning insisted upon.)  Dwight Frye, as Renfield, remains the gold standard for cackling, pop-eyed lunatics, and his famous appearance in the ship’s hold is one of the few images in the film that can still chill the marrow.

Above all, there is the mesmeric presence of Bela Lugosi—and here’s where a look at the Spanish-language Dracula can be revealing.

draculaspanishIn the early days of talkies, it was common practice for studios to shoot foreign-language versions of their films using the same sets and shooting scripts.  Dubbing was technically difficult, and would have detracted from the novelty value of hearing actors speak in their own voices.  In the case of the Spanish Dracula, director George Melford and his cast would arrive on the set after Browning’s crew had packed up, and work through the night.

Professional opinionistas generally maintain that the Spanish Dracula is superior to the Browning version, and in most respects this is true.  Melford and his crew had the advantage of seeing Browning’s rushes before starting the night’s shooting, and they felt driven to make their own version superior in every way.  The film, which is almost twenty minutes longer than its English-language counterpart, has smoother continuity and no odd gaps in the narrative.  There are no obvious technical glitches.  The camera is more mobile, and the shots more imaginatively framed.  And the beautiful Lupita Tovar, dressed in gowns more revealing than U.S. censors would allow, is a far more toothsome morsel than her buttoned-up American equivalent, Helen Chandler.

There’s really only one thing wrong with the Spanish Dracula—and unfortunately, it’s Dracula.  I’m afraid Carlos Villarias simply doesn’t cut it.  A benign-looking fellow with a goofy grin, Villarias was encouraged to study Lugosi’s performance and copy it as closely as possible, resulting in what is perhaps the least convincing Lugosi impersonation on record.  The holding power, the malevolent glare, the long talon-like fingers—it just isn’t there, leaving a black hole of anti-charisma at the center of an otherwise beautiful production.

Dismiss Lugosi as a shameless ham if you will, but just try to take your eyes off him when he enters the frame.  His sheer presence demolishes anyone who shares the screen with him.

I believe Lugosi remains the definitive Count because he is the only actor to embody both the erotic and the repellent aspects of the character.  Most screen Draculas have been either grotesque and vermin-like (Max Schreck in Nosferatu) or suavely handsome (Christopher Lee, Frank Langella).  Lugosi has both ends covered.  He played many a romantic lead on the Hungarian stage, and women perceived him as a swoon-worthy Continental type.  Yet there is that acrid grimace, that baleful glare and batlike physiognomy, which suggest bottomless reserves of menace.  (Tragically, Dracula would also set into motion the hard-luck pattern that dogged Lugosi’s career.  His desperation for the part was so great that the producers knew he could be had for a song.  For his most famous role, Bela Lugosi was paid an unforgivable $500 a week—one quarter of what the insipid David Manners earned.)

My friends, I have done many a grafting experiment in my capacity as an avant-garde surgeon, and have achieved wondrous things too numerous to mention here.  Would that I could find a way to graft Lugosi’s performance onto the body of the Spanish Dracula.  Then we would have a masterpiece for which no excuses need be made.

Ogle This: Thomas Edison’s 1910 Production of Frankenstein

Mr. Ogle is not seen with anything like this clarity in the film.

Mr. Ogle is not seen with anything like this clarity in the film. (Courtesy of virtual-history.com)

Originally posted March 27, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

As a once-accredited physician and, therefore, a man of science, I have always had more than a little sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein. Surely he was no madman. Just a little misunderstood, as we proponents of the medical avant-garde are wont to be. From my own experiments—for I have made tentative stabs at re-animation, and dabbled in homunculi—I know full well the stresses that can beset a visionary artist whose best efforts are greeted with howls of outrage from unwashed hordes of torch-bearing rubes.

So it is in that context that I submit to you a motion picture of over a century ago—the 1910 Thomas Edison Frankenstein. Since the story is a creation myth of sorts, and since this film dates from the very earliest days of the cinematic horror tradition, I deemed it rather clever and poetically apropos to make it the first object of my consideration as a critic.

In the early 1970s, when the good doctor (me, that is) was a mere stripling youth, the first chapter of every history of the horror film included a striking publicity photo of an actor identified as Charles Ogle, as he appeared in Edison Studios’ one-reel adaptation of Frankenstein. A simultaneously silly and startling apparition, Ogle portrayed the creature as a bug-eyed, sneering hunchback in an unbecoming fright wig, his misshapen hands dripping with what appeared to be rotting flesh. These same books, while acknowledging the film’s historical importance, declared it irretrievably lost.

For decades I carried that idea around with me, convinced that we would never know anything more of the film than the famous image of the grimacing Mr. Ogle. Had those books come out just a few years later, they would no doubt have revealed the happy news that a lone print still existed, and had been languishing for decades in the private archives of a Wisconsin film collector, one Alois F. Dettlaff. Only after learning of the item’s rarity in the mid-‘70s did Mr. Dettlaff release the 14-minute Frankenstein to the world in all its tattered, but still watchable, glory. (Like virtually everything else that was once considered rare and special, the film is available on DVD and watchable on YouTube.)

Predictably, we don’t see Mr. Ogle in anything like the clarity of the publicity shot. Movie cameras were cumbersome beasts in 1910, and the now-familiar cinematic language of alternating long shots, medium shots, and close-ups, which now seems so intuitively right, had yet to be invented. Thus, we see everything from a fixed, distant perspective, as though watching a play.

Given the brevity of the film, it’s no surprise that the poignant and mythic properties of the story are ignored, and reduced to an action-packed vignette. This Frankenstein still holds considerable historical interest—especially in the scene of the monster’s creation, which Mary Shelley only touches on in her 1818 novel. Here we see the creature materialize out of a vat of chemicals, an effect achieved by setting fire to an effigy of the monster and printing the scene in reverse.

It would take the 1931 James Whale production to establish the conventions of the laboratory full of bubbling beakers and the leering hunchbacked assistant. But with this primitive little film, a potent modern myth flickered dimly into being—and like Dr. F. himself, Mr. Edison could scarcely have comprehended the force he was about to unleash upon an unsuspecting world.

I will leave it to future columns to wax eloquent upon the enduring meaning of the story, which has been embroidered upon and dragged through the mud in countless productions since. As it stands, I have spent too little quality time with my raven, Barnaby, and he is regarding me with an aggrieved and querulous eye. I take leave of you now, to put my domestic affairs in order and fortify myself with strong drink. But first, a bonus video in the form of Le Manoir du diable (a.k.a. The Haunted Castle, 1896), a three-minute-and-change Georges Melies production which is often cited as the first horror film ever made. Since it was made to delight and amuse rather than to frighten, I’m not sure it truly qualifies, but it does contain what is perhaps the first screen vampire–plus an assortment of skeletons, ghosts, witches and the like. Besides, any opportunity to showcase the marvelous Melies should be seized upon.

I Bid You Welcome

Originally posted February 11, 2012

grims_dominoGreetings, fellow miscreants.

I type this from an undisclosed location in the wilds of North Brooklyn, where I spend my days in isolation—writing, poring over my film library, and otherwise cultivating my rich inner life.  Like Kafka’s  Odradek, I have No Fixed Abode.  I must cover my tracks, you see.  All because some so-called “authorities” deemed my experimental methods “unsound.”  Unsound, they said!  Those sniveling goody-goodies!  Those philistines with their “professional ethics” and “codes of conduct”!  One day they will rue their short-sighted pettifoggery and rejoice that they trod the earth at the same time as Dr. Grimsby von Eldritch!

But about this, more anon.  For now, I wish only to welcome you to Dr. Grimsby’s Catacomb of Horrors, where I—Dr. Grimsby—will serve as your guide to vintage horror cinema: the weird, the macabre, and the utterly unspeakable.  But first, some parameters.

For those of you inclined toward shaky-cam pseudo-documentaries in the Blair Witch mode, brooding-yet-soulful teen vampires with epic cheekbones, or the new-ish subgenre whimsically nicknamed “torture porn,” I offer no sanctuary.  Call me a wizened old relic if you must, but  most macabre cinema of the last 30-plus years fill me with little but dismay.  In fact, I have not seen any part of the Saw or Twilight franchises, and am prepared to eat my own head rather than expose myself to a single frame.

My purview is, nonetheless, catholic (with a small “c”), taking in everything from the earliest silent experiments to the gamiest grindhouse fare of the 1970s; from the lofty poetic heights of Val Lewton to the abysmally wretched depths of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

I am naturally most at home in dank and underlit spaces of great antiquity, consorting with friends like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff.  My dreams are fuelled by the spectral images of Tod Browning and Roger Corman (along with generous lashings of Old Crow, or perhaps some Oriental substances of dubious legality).  I will watch anything featuring Vincent Price in a smoking jacket—though, admittedly, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was a gruelling test of my devotion.

Just don’t expect me to cover much that happened after 1979.  The simple reason is that 1980 saw the release of an industrial product known as Friday the 13th—a watershed moment, and the point at which the good doctor realized the jig was up as far as old-school horror was concerned.  From now on, the screen would belong to faceless, knife-wielding maniacs who amused themselves by slicing scores of randy teens into julienne fries.  No more mythic, metaphorical horrors set in the cobwebbed corridors of the Gothic imagination.  No more symbolic beasts embodying our most primal fears, and acting out our unacknowledged longings.

For that matter, no more honest, independent exploitation pics, imbued with the old carny spirit and relegated to the skid row grindhouses and isolated drive-ins on the outskirts of town. Henceforth, Hollywood would make them.  They would cost endless millions of dollars, have roman numerals in the titles, and play in suburban multiplexes to scads of pimply wastrels trying to impress their wretched dates.  A pox on them.

I will leave you on that note of rebuke, as the gentle “caw, caw” of my dear pet raven, Barnaby, tells me it’s his feeding time—after which I intend to consume disreputable quantities of Old Crow and slide gently into a coma.  My takes on specific films will begin with my next dispatch.  Until then, as my mentor Dr. Septimus Pretorius once proclaimed:  “To a new world of gods and monsters!”