Monday, April 29, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part IV)

Count Dracula 

(El conde Drácula


What begins as a slavishly faithful, po-faced, and stylish adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel eventually devolves into something, well, less than that, but for a movie that credits its editing to Bruno Mattei, hey, we're lucky it even resembles a motion picture. Credit where credit is due: unlike any other adaptation up to 1970, El conde Dracula makes a serious go of adapting the source material with proper reverence (and it predates Coppola's "Bram Stoker's" label of "authenticity" by over two decades). These novelistic aspirations are most noticeable in the film's fantastic first act, which depicts in minute detail Jonathan Harker's visit to the Count's castle in Transylvania (down to the baby-eating). Christopher Lee's performance of Dracula in this film is a wild divergence from his previous portrayals of the character in the series of Hammer films from decades previous. Here he's an intentionally isolated racist, lonely and angry at the world. He's defined through his hunger for power, even if that power can only be the small physical power he wields over those in his vampiric thrall, and not that power implicit in possessing the same mighty conquering military force of his ancestors. In this sense, this incarnation of Dracula is (much like the novel's, but maybe even more so than the novel's) a pathetic figure: dangerous-- surely-- but ultimately ill-equipped for the realities of the modern world. Moreover, he sports a killer 'stache. (Of course, Lee was still playing Dracula for Hammer at this time, so imagining this Dracula alongside the bloodsucker of, for instance, Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) is a draining mental exercise.) Otherwise, the cast is a Who's Who of European genre stars (Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Paul Muller, Maria Rohm, Jack Taylor, Emma Cohen, and Franco's early muse-- Soledad Miranda-- in their first major collaboration together), and though they all do fine in their parts, the stoic tone of the film prevents all but Kinski from standing out. (Kinski is Renfield, naturally, and his mute scenery-chewing at one point earns him the title of "Soup Bowl Pollock.") 

Once the film exits back through the Borgo Pass and returns to London, the adaptation starts playing fast and loose, and this is where the film probably becomes problematic for most viewers. While some changes make sense in light of a need to condense narrative (the collapsing of Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris into one character) and others are most likely due to actors' availability (Van Helsing's "slight stroke"), still others appear arbitrary and so less meaningful (like Dracula's death by torch rather than by bowie knife to the heart). Unarguably the most arbitrary and absurd moment in the film is when Van Helsing, Seward, and Morris enter the Count's home with some slaying in mind and are confronted by a room full of snarling, sentient taxidermied animals. It's a more of an, uh, intense stare-off with constant quick edits and zooms, but it's an enlivening dose of batshit Franco spectacle in an otherwise perhaps too staid film. Being Franco, the film does make sure to put extra emphasis on the erotic component of Dracula's vampirism (an emphasis easily conveyed by Soledad Miranda's constant subtle expressions of ecstasy), but-- more interestingly-- it also highlights the unnerving near-glee that our would-be vampire hunters take in bloodily slaughtering sleeping vampire brides (their once beloved Lucy included), adding layers of gender dynamics and human barbarity into the picture. Count Dracula is a fine film earnestly made, but not at all what the typical Franco admirer would expect, nor exactly what the admirer of standard issue classic horror would hope for. It's an unloved mutt, stuck somewhere between past cinematic horrors and the erotic brew that Franco was soon to stir, with no clear place in the world of its time. Kind of like the Count himself.

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein 

(Dracula contra Frankenstein


Call me batty, but I find Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (perhaps more commonly known by the literal translation of its misleading original Spanish title, Dracula vs. Frankenstein) to be a fascinating exercise in updating the performance style and visual language of classic silent horror filmmaking for the 1970s. Moreover, the film simultaneously expresses a cynical contempt for its audience that's unmatched in Franco's filmography. If Count Dracula was an earnest but flawed attempt at portraying a classic literary monster on the silver screen, Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein messily demonstrates how dissatisfying those same monsters can become when commodified as defanged puppets in money-grubbing Hollywood monster mashes. Of course, that's precisely what happened with Universal's stable of monsters when its members were demoted from starring in the artistic successes of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and James Whales's Frankenstein (1931) to kindergarten cash-ins like House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and the unabashed farce of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). I can only speculate, but the notion that there might have been commercial pressure on Franco to produce a monster team-up film after the success of Count Dracula doesn't seem unreasonable. And if that was the case, it's easy to read the resulting film as a visual essay on exactly how lightweight that concept is. After all, how powerful, how menacing are our cinematic monsters when they're teamed up like superheroes and expected to execute pratfalls? 

Not very, is what Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein posits. Its monsters are mind-controlled, blank-faced props, mutely enacting the bidding of Dr. Rainer von Frankenstein (Dennis Price). At the climax of the film, when Dr. Frankenstein has decided he no longer has any use for them, he slaughters his primary monsters with nary a tussle: Dracula (a perpetually snarling Howard Vernon) fails to stir from his slumber as he's staked, and Frankenstein's Creature (Fernando Bilbao, in a Boris Karloff costume less convincing than the one your dad wore when you were seven) meekly and willingly shuffles into the electricity-producing box of his doom. The film's title and opening text almost guarantee a monster brawl, but the film seems pleased with itself for almost completely denying any such thing as it wraps up. Besides the anticlimactic deaths of its main baddies, the only monster-tussling provided is a brief scrap between the Creature and a Wolf Man, who enters the film out of nowhere and just as soon departs from it. Did the Creature kill him? We're neither told nor shown, and so again the film is rubbing our faces in what it sees as juvenile expectations for cross-monster encounters: they fought, you got what you came for, does it honestly matter who won? The film's cynicism materializes through both its critique of these sort of commercial horror ventures and its self-awareness of its own production of pure, incompetent schlock.

One might argue that the incompetence of this schlock was not at all a desired feature, and, sure, that's possible, but underestimating Franco always seems a losing proposition. As it so happens, Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is fascinating on a technical level, despite whatever intentional or unintentional narrative deficiencies it possesses. It's virtually a silent film, with almost no dialogue whatsoever in its opening twenty minutes and very little after that (so little that it all could have easily fit on a few intertitle cards). The narrative is communicated through the actors' broad performances and the emotional tenor through its orchestral score (like the score for Count Dracula, another Bruno Nicolai effort) and ADR'd sound effects. This stylistic choice is pulled off with surprising skill (no other film of Franco's feels quite like this one) and creates the curious juxtaposition of a trite commercial horror premise in the mode of a film from horror's silent, earnestly horror-minded origins. It's as if the film is trying to show us what it would be like-- and how dreadful it would be-- if halfway through Nosferatu (1922) a Wolf Man jumped out of the bushes and clawed at Count Orlok's elongated face.

Daughter of Dracula 

(La fille de Dracula


If I were told I was the last living descendant of Count Dracula, I know I'd probably spend my undead afterlife rolling about all day and night with the lovely Anne Libert and her massive hair, much like Britt Nichols does in this film. Released in the same year as Dracula, Prisoner of Darkness, the more typical Daughter of Dracula falls in line with Franco's other erotic lady vampire films like Female Vampire (1973) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971). While failing to create the stylish and melancholy excellence of those superior films, Daughter of Dracula nonetheless survives with the help of a bleeding vampire heart of its own. The main narrative (when the film chooses to stick with it, which is not all that often) concerns the jealous, possessive love that our Dracula daughter, Luisa Karlstein (Britt Nichols), has for her adorable and devoted cousin, Karine (Anne Libert), which evolves into awkward passion before exploding into if-I-can't-have-you-then-no-one-can vampire violence set to a second cousin of the Merrie Melodies tune. Karine's tragic fate (she wasn't even considering leaving the irrational Luisa!) provides a coherent emotional anchor for the film, but even then its often crowded out by all the other stuff going on over the film's brief running time. There's a police investigation (naturally), an occult expert,  the nearly inexplicable basement appearance of the stone-stiff ancestral vamp, Count Karlstein (Howard Vernon, reprising his non-performance from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein), and a series of voyeuristic (read: eyeball zooms!) stalkings and slashings by a giallo-esque killer. That last bit is especially odd:  for reasons entirely unclear, most of Luisa's vamp attacks occur when she's decked out in a fedora and trenchcoat. This visual association with the giallo film-- at its peak in 1972 and always resplendent in leering, maladjusted peeping toms and janes-- lends some emphasis to Luisa's psychosexual issues, but it also results in the film feeling confused: our villainess trades out a straight razor for a pair of fangs, and we haven't a clue as to why. But this one's undeniably a quickie for the exploitation crowd. Not convinced? Peep the conclusion of Karine's emotional death scene, in which the camera, nonplussed, pans from a close-up of her lifeless face to a close-up of her pubic hair. Classy, Jess.

Revenge in the House of Usher 
(El hundimiento de la casa Usher)

Well, one supposes Franco's declining reputation in the 1980s wasn't spurred for no reason whatsoever, and Revenge in the House of Usher is pretty good reason. Though purporting to be based upon the similarly titled E. A. Poe novella, the film is nonetheless another thinly veiled Orloff variation set in a house that crumbles at the conclusion. Howard Vernon returns to familiar territory as Dr. Usher, a hermetic mad scientist with an assistant named Morpho and a daughter with a bizarre, incurable disease named Melissa. Melissa's affliction has led Orloff to commit sundry murders in her name, as the only temporary relief from her debilitating illness comes from complete neck-to-neck blood transfusions by way of nubile lasses. Unlike the Orloffs of past films, Dr. Usher displays a certain intriguing uniqueness by admitting that he's an unremitting sadist who discovered that he enjoyed every scream that his killing for "a larger purpose" produced. This is an explicit dimension of the Orloff personality only hinted at in previous films. Previous films like, say, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), which Revenge in the House of Usher helpfully reminds us of by dedicating its entire second act to replaying the greatest hits from that landmark film. Yes, unfortunately, this film is one of those lazy footage recyclers, in the tradition of spendthrift classics like Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987), Boogeyman II (1983), and much of Jim Wynorski's filmography. It's a shame, because what's here apart from the roughly twenty minutes of padding is a moderately intriguing film that interests not due to the ways in which it adheres to the Orloff formula, but rather through its divergences (like the icky ghost of Usher's dead wife who haunts him and desires to drag him down to hell with her; Lina Romay's devoted assistant character, who appears to be supernaturally trapped by the house and who messily makes out with a member of Menudo; and of course the crumbling Usher mansion, the shaky existence of which is tied to the grim fate of its owner). Alas, all of this original material plays a far too minor role in what emerges as a basic retread with rotted foundations begging to give way.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part III)

Jack the Ripper 

 (Der Dirnenmörder von London


A variation on the Orloff theme, Jack the Ripper replaces one wide-eyed European genre star (Howard Vernon) for another, even wider-eyed European genre star (the incomparable Klaus Kinski) and throws him into much the same situation faced by his his predecessor in The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962). The similarities the films share are less in theme or tone than in explicit narrative structure: once again we have a respected doctor of high society who murders women after wining and dining them; we have a lengthy scene documenting how the ongoing police investigation is aided by a composite sketch of the suspect, drawn from various eyewitness reports; and we even have the chief inspector's gal-pal, a ballerina (another one!), who decides on a whim to involve herself in the investigation, without prompting, as disguised bait for the killer. Befitting of its 1976 pedigree, Jack the Ripper is a whole heck of a lot sleazier than the already-quite-sleazy Orlof, with Kinski's Jack suffering through some debilitating "Mommy Was a Whore" issues that result in him being more likely to stab his female victims half to death before beginning his clumsy, impotent sexual assaults. There's some interesting symbolism (Kinski's predatory owl-like gaze is contrasted with the benign old man's blindness) and a bit of effective, perception-shifting frame composition (Kinski's near murder and rape of Lina Romay's burlesque singer is filmed from a distance in a static shot, replacing the expected leering quick cut closeups that would typically grace such a visceral scene with some distance that creates a disquieting pathos for both victim and perpetrator). Speaking of Lina Romay, she gleams like never before in her cutesy and frivolous song and dance number that winds up as the chief highlight of the proceedings. In a film full of wide eyes, she pulls the widest.

Mansion of the Living Dead 

(La mansión de los muertos vivientes


Yet another example of Franco still possessing cinematic chops in the decade of mullets and denim is his ghosts-and-girls-on-vacation romp, Mansion of the Living Dead. The film is a romp in part, certainly, but we'd be equally as apt describing it as a funeral procession, and one not too dissimilar from the melancholy cinematic dirges of a certain like-minded genre arthouse pioneer. Although Franco and his French brother in arms, Jean Rollin, spent (by all reports) the entirety of their careers having little to do with one another, it would be foolish to proclaim they weren't familiar with each other's work. Mansion of the Living Dead is proof enough of this familiarity, as it's the closest Franco ever came to luxuriating in the same moody supernatural romance elements that Rollin filled his filmography with. What makes the film more curious than a direct theft of Rollin's milieu is that Franco deftly blends the brooding romance with his standard cheeky sleaze and nutty sadism. Four near-middle-aged Spanish lesbians (stock Franco characters if ever there were ones) arrive at a perpetually windy abandoned seaside resort hotel. While they wonder where all the other guests are and writhe around together in the nude, clues like a knife that has been chucked at the ladies by unseen forces and the discovery of the creepy concierge's flower-eating wife chained to a bedpost by the neck provide hints that all is not well in paradise. (Well, to us, anyway. The girls assume the best, asking themselves, rhetorically, "who would want to murder four hotties like us?") From there the Franco and Rollin sensibilities commingle all over the place, allowing scenes of Exorcism-esque torture and sexual sadism to butt up against breathless whispers about reincarnated princesses and the loneliness of being a ghost. These frequent transitions between disparate tones and styles (including playful eroticism, moody romance, sleazy mystery, and occult sadism; one brief moment, concerning the concierge and a desk redirection gag, is more or less a truncated Monty Python skit) are indeed jarring, but this is a film whose villains' motivation rests on a bewildering contradiction ("Bless you and damn you"), so one can't help but feel that the structural chaos is appropriate. Mansion of the Living Dead is thick with atmosphere and ideas (arguably too thick with each), but it's one of the best of Franco's later years and an undeniable treat for the initiated.

The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus 

(Le mano de un hombre muerto


Despite having the snazziest poster of any Franco film, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus might be his dreariest. Gosh, what a slog it is, and what a let down after such a promising premise! The premise is this: the OG Sadistic Baron lived 500 years in the film's past, and after having tortured and murdered a young girl from the nearby village he disappeared into the swamps surrounding his property, becoming-- as legend would have it-- a ghost eager to possess his descendants and urge them towards continuing his slaughter of the innocents. That's more or less standard horror stuff, sure, but it's aided (at least momentarily) by a cozy backwoods Gothic atmosphere (this spooky set-up is revealed to us through a hushed conversation at the village's musty bar, for example, with talk of vampires(!), bats (!), and ghosts (!)). But to expect an opulent tale of horror would be to set yourself up for disappointment: The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus falls more squarely into the contemporaneous krimi movement in European mystery cinema-- which often placed flamboyant horror film baddies in the confines of procedural murder mysteries-- than it does into the Gothic horror genre. That  distinction doesn't make it a bad film by default, as krimis are often delightful, but Baron Von Klaus is almost entirely  concerned with its procedural elements, and considering that our not-so-mysterious killer can only be one of two possible suspects, it takes us merely as long as it takes to explain the film's premise for us to have the case solved. The film has a nice jazzy score accompanying it and there's an amusing bit at the climax in which the killer, finally revealed and fleeing from the police, submerges himself into the swamp water, muttering "I am the swamp man!" Baron Von Klaus came out in the same year as The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), and even though both films hunker down in similar narrative and aesthetic territory, it's no mystery why the latter is held up as one of the key foundational components of European horror and the latter is only remembered for a brief shot of a lady's sideboob.

The Diabolical Dr. Z 

(Miss Muerte


A madcap, pseudo-scientific revenge thriller with all the fine trimmings of Gothic horror, The Diabolical Dr. Z stands as one of the best of Franco's first decade of filmaking, and-- barring Succubus (1968)-- probably his early weirdest. We find the visual content and narrative concerns of the film both looking forward to future films of Franco's (there's the seeds of images and ideas that would later blossom into Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Venus in Furs (1969) present here) and backwards to what had already worked in the past (the notion of mind-controlled zombies who desire to defy their master is straight out of Dr. Orloff's Monster (1964). In fact, Dr. Orloff himself is even name-dropped by the diabolical doc). What begins with a serial killer's dark and stormy prison break ends with a man who is being restrained by robot arms bracing for the pain of the giant knitting needles his mind-controlled girlfriend in a mesh spider-patterned bodysuit is about to skewer him with. How these two points of interest join together involves (if you haven't guessed) a few twists and turns. Fortunately, every one of them is a loopy pleasure to watch. The film is scored with skittish jazz and features striking cinematography that's a cut above that of many of Franco's later films while still relishing the sloppy trademarks of days to come (catch those quick zooms!). It sounds smooth, looks delectable, and feels like a knitting needle through the skull. It's one to cherish.

And to make it even sweeter, The Diabolical Dr. Z also sports one heck of a complicated lead villain. One sort of assumes that the titular Dr. Z would be the first Dr. Z introduced to us, a Dr. Zimmer (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), who claims to have discovered the physical capacities for good and evil within the brain, but this isn't the case. In order to eliminate evil entirely, Dr. Zimmer asks a board of his peers for permission to begin experiments rehabilitating violent criminals, and when the other doctors not only deny him this but also call him a Nazi monster for even suggesting it, Dr. Zimmer immediately plops down dead of shock and distress. The adjective of the film's title is then earned by his wicked daughter Irma (Mabel Karr), who is also an accomplished amateur doctor of a sort (she's so tough, she performs facial reconstruction surgery on herself), who fakes her own death (rather disastrously)  in order to carry on her father's work in secret, with the sole aim of using his work to punish the men who she feels are responsible for his death. There's a really interesting dimension-- or, rather, lack of dimension-- to Irma's character: she's a woman who literally and figuratively surrenders her own identity in favor of the identities of others. This aspect of her character is first discernible in both of the film's most common titles (The Diabolical Dr. Z title has her adopting and sullying her father's professional title, while Miss Muerte refers directly to brainwashed dancer Nadja's stage name but more accurately describes the willfully murderous Irma). But this eradication of self is present in Irma's actions throughout the film, too: Irma drops everything in her own life to achieve revenge for her father's death and to continue his work; she callously murders her double (a random woman who closely resembles her) and symbolically burns the body, burning her own face in the process (go figure!) and, in a sense, the most recognizable part of her own identity; she dons disguises throughout the film, concealing her identity from those suspicious parties; and, moreover, she shifts all of the physical responsibility for the revenge murders off onto another woman (who she also vaguely resembles), keeping her own nonexistent hands clean but also denying her the catharsis of doing the deed herself. Irma becomes a sort of nefarious ethereal presence, always machinating from behind the scenes but physically subsumed by her father's ambitions and unable to become even the deadly feminine black widow she must be in order to take revenge for herself. She's diabolical-- naturally-- but also a little bit sad.

Last up: Count Dracula (1970), Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972), Daughter of Dracula (1972), & Revenge in the House of Usher (1988).

Monday, April 15, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part II)

The Awful Dr. Orlof 

(Grito en la noche


The Awful Dr. Orlof doubles as both one of Franco's earliest films and one of the earliest horror film in Spanish cinema. Though rather tame, conventional, and linear when seen in comparison to Franco's later work (and to the seedy, gory depths that horror cinema in general was to begin to scour by the decade's close), Orlof isn't without its own taboo-breaking moments: hark, the fondling of bare breasts! the sucking of necks! the surgical violation of nude torsos! Though possessing the general air of a supernatural Gothic horror romp, the film is distinct from its symbolic predecessors due to the fact that its villains are decidedly human. Moreover, they're humans with sexual obsessions and perversities that render them into monstrous beings. Orlof (Howard Vernon), our primary antagonist, is essentially a date rapist, drugging intoxicated women at nightclubs while appearing to behave as a gentleman and then carting their unconscious bodies back to his abode where he has his way with them. Granted, "has his way with" in this case translates to "performs experiments on," but it's made fairly apparent that his Moreau-like, objective-less experimentation has sexual motivations. His implied motivation-- curing the physical and emotional ailments of his ambiguously fire-mutilated  daughter-- is merely a distraction: she's nothing more than a cipher for his sexual desire and gross medical ambition. (Unsurprisingly, she expires (without explanation) at the exact moment her father does.) We bear witness to the supremacy of his sexual desire, portrayed with all the agony of a pining lover, through his tireless pursuit of a famous ballerina for his next victim (a ballerina who happens to be played, not coincidentally, by the same actress who plays his daughter) and his easy promise of his "beloved" daughter's sexual favors to his oafish assistant, Morpho (Ricardo Valle), in return for positive results in regard to the ballerina's capture. Morpho is himself a human monster, a bug-eyed, mute brute who attacks the doctor's victims with bouts of pathetic, ineffectual sucking of the neck, as if he were an impotent vampire, trying desperately to get his fangs up. With these rather blatant sexual overtones, Orlof ushered an unreserved strain of eroticism into the realm of visual horror, bringing to the fore themes that were previously restricted to mere suggestion. For this, the film stands as a landmark alongside similarly themed early erotic horror films, like Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), released in Italy a scant month after Orlof was released in Spain.

Better yet, the film also manages to throw in a handful of broad-minded transgressive touches, including a strong female protagonist who, through her independent actions, makes her distinguished male counterpart look like an ineffectual doofus. This woman is Wanda Bronsky (Diana Lorys), the ballerina ladyfriend of Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin), who -- despite no personal connection with the case-- basically does his job for him in her free time by donning a disguise and tracking down Orlof. Sure, she gets herself caught in the process and requires male intervention to break free, but it's questionable as to whether or not the slovenly police would have ever caught up to Orlof without her selfless efforts. Appropriately, Tanner, and the film, bestow upon her the title of "finest investigator." But besides these delightful touches, primarily the film is a well-made, atmospheric, pseudo-scientific European chiller, showing us-- through sumptuous black and white photography-- perspectives on a series of abductions from both those persons responsible and those investigating. It may at times err on the side of the obvious (Orlof is visually coded throughout the film's first act by a blanket of perpetual shadow), but it's never less than striking in its effect.

  Dr. Orloff's Monster  

(El secreto del Dr. Orloff


Two years later, Franco's follow-up-in-name-only to The Awful Dr. Orlof, Dr. Orloff's Monster (a.k.a. The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll), adds an extra 'f' to the good doctor's name and almost completely jettisons Orloff himself (who garners a mere cameo), introducing instead a Dr. Conrad Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui), a man who "comes off like he invented penicillin or something" and who bears no relation to that other Jekyll. Maybe. Though producing a mostly new story and cast of characters, the film can be viewed as a reconfiguration of the themes from its predecessor. It's not nearly as sleazy, but the film is still all about sex and, moreover, sexual dissatisfaction. Dr. Jekyll, a man cuckolded by his wife and her lover (who happens to be, of all men, his own brother), sets out to create a creature of the undead, a walking organic "robot" to do his bidding, through his immoral science. The catch is that his new experimental subject is none other than his brother, Andros (Hugo Blanco), whom he murdered in a fit of rage after walking in on him with his wife in bed. Curiously, Dr. Jekyll's anger at his wife does not manifest in any overt way through his treatment of her (as she appears to be suffering enough knowing her lover is dead); instead, Jekyll takes his frustrations out against all other woman, becoming a murderous misogynist angry at all the women who might betray him if given the opportunity. But his twisted, sexually motivated revenge couldn't possibly settle there: Jekyll doesn't kill women himself, but instead compels his brother (whom Jekyll freely admits has always been more charming and handsome than him) by way of radio waves to commit the bloody deeds for him.  In an inspired bit of irony, Jekyll spitefully transforms his romantically successful brother into a literal "ladykiller." The unexpected arrival of Andros' daughter, Melissa (Agnès Spaak), at the Jekyll residence precipitates a series of events that lead to the almost-touching rediscovery of Andros' humanity through his love for his daughter. This evolution of the monster is the heart of the film and Franco pulls it off with a surprising grace that is evident in scenes such as the one in which  the shambling Andros visits his own grave and the film's closing moment, in which the monster fails to comprehend why his loving daughter has betrayed him. It's worth noting that unlike The Awful Dr. Orlof, Dr. Orloff's Monster, through its creation of the Andros zombie, veers headlong into the supernatural. And yet it's a decidedly more human film than its namesake, dealing with genuine human emotions-- both those repressed and those thrashing at the surface-- through the symbolic filter of monstrosity. 

The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff  

(Los ojos siniestros del Doctor Orloff


Dr. Orloff (William Berger) returns in style a full decade later in The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff, which is in many ways the most conventional of the Orloff tales. Such conventionality also means that it's perhaps the most immediately entertaining of the films, being as it is a twisty gaslightling tale of a woman (Montserrat Prous) who may or not be a deranged, sleepwalking killer. Berger makes a fine replacement for Howard Vernon in the Orloff role, but this version of the character lacks the psychosexual dimension of previous incarnations due to his motivation stemming entirely from an over-elaborate inheritance-grabbing scheme (yet another sign of the film's conventional aspirations). The film more closely resembles the convoluted commercial mystery plot styling of Silence of the Tomb (1972), released a year prior, and it may be that this was simply the sort of film Franco was being paid to make at the time. It's difficult to complain when the results are this fun: we're gifted with throats (or as the subtitles tell us, "uvulas") being slit with a clock pendulum, Lina Romay refusing to ever wear pants, a Freudian father/blood dripping/leg paralysis nightmare, and sexy evil assistants who plan on using their cuts of the inheritance money to have "thousands of adventures with the hottest men of the Earth." What The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff lacks in depth it makes up for with demented pulp zeal. "We all have a demented germ in our brain," one of the film's characters declares. That's not false, and it's precisely that germ that allows us to take pleasure in the joys found here.

  The Sinister Dr. Orloff  

(El Siniestro Doctor Orloff


The Sinister Dr. Orloff, arriving yet another decade after the loose series' nearly identically titled previous entry, is basically The Awful Dr. Orlof updated for the Fear City (1984) crowd. It's sleazy as heck, smeared with that unmistakable grimy '80s sheen, wailing synth score included. (For a specific instance of this contemporary update, gander at the Morpho character, here named Andros (Rafael Cayetano), who dons a cheesy leather jacket and aviators while going about his mute abductions of women). An elderly Howard Vernon makes a welcome return as a wheelchair-bound Dr. Orloff, though he's relegated to the background so that his son, Alfred Orloff (Antonio Mayans), a budding macabre scientist himself, can take the woman-slaughtering, body-part-collecting reins. When not carrying on an incestuous relationship with his perpetually nude comatose mother, Alfred cruises the neon-lit streets of the city in his automobile, providing voice over narration reiterating how desperately he wishes to kill all those "sluts" and "filthy whores" out there in the night, though in practice this hatred materializes as a scene of near cunnilingus with a fleshy middle aged prostitute. Although Alfred relates that he's only able to be aroused by the anguished cries of women, we're never given a meaningful or coherent reason for his feelings. (Though, if he's comparing other women to his mute and passive mother, we can probably figure he'd be peeved by all those conscious women out there who say "no" to his clumsy, creepy, sociopathic advances and don't simply lie there and take it.) It's a sloppy film (the version I saw had Andros alive one moment with a cut to him lying dead the very next), but it musters some interest with its off-kilter approach to the material. Of particular interest is the pseudo-science, here taken to a light-strobing metaphysical level involving the transference of souls between bodies. This creaky scientific advancement results in a cynical and poignantly grim ending in line with that of Dr. Orloff's Monster. If nothing I've said is enough of a recommendation, be informed that the film features a cameo from Franco as a flamboyant gay shop owner and that it also includes mention of an angora cat named "Pussywuss." One cannot find this stuff simply anywhere.

Coming up: Jack the Ripper (1976), Mansion of the Living Dead (1985), The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962), The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966).

Monday, April 8, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part I)

Jesús Franco Manera: 12 May 1930 – 2 April 2013
A month or two ago, when planning out the next handful of months' content here on the blog, I found some difficulty in deciding upon the most appropriate track to take for April, the month of Nessun timore's one year anniversary. Naturally, I wanted to dedicate the month to something significant. After considering more than a few themes, it struck me: over a year of blogging and hundreds of pages of words, I'd only written about one film by perhaps my favorite director of them all, Jess Franco (that film being Nightmares Come at Night (1970), which I wrote about nearly a year ago). Often maligned by cinephiles who should know better (or who simply haven't seen enough of them, or who are prejudiced against Franco's more-than-occasionally shoddy production values, sleazy content, and breakneck turnaround times), the uniquely provocative cinematic exploits of Jess Franco are always worth discussing, if for no other reason than to commend the obvious love he held for the medium. The sheer volume of his films in existence (by most counts, just shy of 200 feature-lengths) has provided genre fans with decades of evaluative and re-evaluative viewing, allowing us to unearth the numerous profound and emotional gems nestled in his filmography. To this date, his surreal and touching eulogy A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) is the only film to inspire me to weep openly.

Having settled on this theme and having begun to watch the sixteen of his horror films I'd chosen for the month, this anniversary endeavor took on a more poignant air when Franco himself passed away at the beginning of April at the age of 82, the week after his final film (Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies) premiered in Spain. The tragic loss of his wife, muse, and caretaker, Lina Romay, early last year to cancer, coupled with his advanced age, did not bode well for Franco's longevity, yet his death still came as painful news to the paracinema and exploitation community. Though European genre cinema has long since evaporated as a commercial reality, his passing marks one of the final blows for those of us imagining these films would garner wider appreciation from modern audiences before their creators were to fade away. Monstrously prolific to the end, Franco is a (if not perhaps the) key figure in European exploitation cinema, having mounted productions in every conceivable genre across Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom while working with international stars as diverse as Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, and Mercedes McCambridge. Though he has left us, his films-- mesmerizing and groan-inducing, accomplished and fraying at the seams, sublime and detestable all-- will endure.


(Les prédateurs de la nuit


Because the majority of Franco's 1980s output fast devolved into hardcore pornography, the decade is commonly viewed as that during which he lost both his workable budgets and creative talent. A pleasing revelation for any fan willing to more closely explore Franco's work in the '80s is that this isn't exclusively the case: though perhaps not reaching the dizzying psychosexual heights of his films from the early '70s, the decade's highlights nonetheless display a filmmaker of considerable satiric and poetic talent.  Faceless, a reconfiguration of Franco's own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1960), falls on the satiric side, with the added appeal of a smattering of crowd-pleasing gore effects, eclipsing those he employed earlier in the decade in his slasher film Bloody Moon (1981). (Franco's face transplant scenes are the queasy definition of one-upmanship). A George Micheal-lite opening credits tune gives way to the main narrative, concerning the efforts of Dr. Frank Flamand (Helmut Berger) to remedy the severe facial disfigurement of his sister, Ingrid (Christiane Jean), which was caused by one of his disgruntled patients. See, Dr. Flamand runs a specialized plastic surgery and therapy clinic that caters to vain elderly women by helping them revitalize their youthfulness. Flamand accomplishes this by having his kinky assistants abduct and drain the blood of young women, which is then used to synthesize a magic age cream or something along those lines. This subplot results in the film resembling a particularly twisted version of the Countess Bathory tale, in which the young are sacrificed for the vanity of the old and decayed. (One cutting scene features a particularly cloying patient of Flamand's in her clinic room as she interacts with the doctor and displays a pathetic inability to accept her own age, the walls of her room plastered with old headshots from her youth). Another intriguing, if ultimately underdeveloped, subplot involves the peculiar dynamic between Dr. Flamand and his sadistic assistant, Nathalie (Brigitte Lahaie), who engages-- gleefully-- in Fulci-level eye violence while completing Flamand's dirty work, the doctor sitting meekly by, getting off on voyeuristic security camera footage. Faceless is a flawed film, but to be flawed because of an excess of ambition hardly seems a crime: the film incorporates slasher tropes, private eye investigations, mad scientist plots, Vietnam War angst, and Edgar Allan Poe irony. It's all over the place, and, appropriately, Faceless boasts one of Franco's most impressive casts of recognizable faces-- Telly Savalas, Helmut Berger, Brigitte Lahaie, Chris Mitchum, Caroline Munro, Anton Diffring, and Howard Vernon (reprising the role of Dr. Orloff once again)-- though the wealth of talent results in issues like the ever-hammy Chris Mitchum seemingly existing in another film for much of the running time and Telly Savalas phoning in his performance (literally, while sitting at a desk to which he must be attached). Bleak, sprawling, and nihilistic, Faceless is the type of film in which the baddies win and you couldn't fathom any other conclusion.

Silence of the Tomb

(Un silencio de tumba


Having no proper English-language release leaves Silence of the Tomb as a bit of a Franco rarity, though subtitled bootleg versions are easy enough to come by for those curious. I certainly became curious after glimpsing the poster on the right of your screen, imagining the film as the sort of Gothic chiller that Franco (on the rare occasion) dipped his toes into (see: the exquisite Night of the Skull (1974)). This is partly the case, though not until the film's final act and its candlelit corridor chase scene: prior to then, the film resembles a Ten Little Indians plot, with the crew of a Western film in post-production (who are staying as guests on an island retreat) cropping up as corpses one by one after the mysterious and inexplicable kidnapping of a child. The film plays up its traditional mystery angle, with each of the guests being as likely a suspect as the next, in scenes such as one in which all of the guests sit around in the parlor and cast dramatic, accusatory glances at one another. Much of the film's action is punctuated with zooms into the bloodshot eye of the killer observing the suspicious guests as they wander about the island mansion. Livening this typical (and unremarkable, if technically competent) mystery narrative is a strong and nuanced focus on our protagonist, Valerie (Montserrat Prous), the jealous sister of a movie star, who is stranded on the island and forced to care for her nephew while she's driven towards madness. Valerie is a fascinating protagonist, by turns both a troubled, sympathetic heroine and a monstrous, neurotic tyrant who wishes harm on her flighty sister and all of her associates for reasons as legitimate as the neglect of her nephew and as petty as the male attention her sister receives. (Valerie admits to feeling instant psychic relief immediately after her sister is killed-- even before the body is discovered!-- which casts some momentary suspicion on herself when viewed alongside her growing-- possibly psychotic-- instability.) She's perhaps a difficult character to root for without reservation, but when she expresses her pitiable situation with such conviction ("I can't remember a single moment of happiness in my life") it becomes equally as hard to begrudge her the pat ending that the film provides for her. She's a more complicated and compelling heroine than one would expect to discover in this breed of well-acted, atmospheric mystery-thriller. A lovely title song composed by Fernando García Morcillo rounds out one's enjoyment of Silence of the Tomb's lazy island charm.

Lorna the Exorcist 

(Les possédées du diable


An affecting synthesis of eroticism and mythic horror, Lorna the Exorcist is Franco at his drowsy, hallucinatory best. A haunting and repetitive guitar score echoes over the film from the first frame to the last, coating the proceedings with a sense of melancholy supernatural longing and concealing the trauma that lies just beneath. Lorna is a slow and deliberately paced film, and so is decidedly not for some viewers. Like Female Vampire (1973) and several other of Franco's erotic horrors, much of the film transpires in the confines of bedrooms, centering on writhing bodies in various states of pleasure and pain. And yet, this confined setting is never less than totally enthralling when paired with Lorna's tragic incestual domestic drama by way of a Rumpelstiltskin-esque demonic twist. Newly legal Linda (Lina Romay) travels to a vacation spot with her mother and father (Jacqueline Laurent and Guy Delorme) and soon has a series of run-ins at their hotel with Lorna Green (Pamela Stanford), a mysterious and witchy woman in Divine's makeup who eighteen years previously struck a deal with Linda's father for his firstborn daughter's soul/virginity. Lorna, a sterile woman "from beyond" aims to transfer her "infinite powers" to Linda through lesbianism, erotic breastfeeding, and a bloody dildo. Along the way, Lorna will also see fit to give Linda's mother crabs (literal crabs, that is, crawling around in her pubic hair). Rendered in text it all sounds tacky and tasteless, doesn't it? And yet in execution these events are powerfully realized, the sexual activity broadly symbolic and devoid of cheap titillation. Rather, the erotic component in Lorna the Exorcist is one steeped in the tortured shame and anger of one betrayed by a loved one, being informed as it is by the scars left on the family unit due to Linda's father's infidelity and his incestuous desire for his own daughter. The chilling finale, in which Linda assumes Lorna's role entirely and exacts revenge against the violating paternal figure, might stand as Romay's most captivating acting, as her wide-eyed face morphs from screams of horror to the laughter of cathartic release.


(El sádico de Notre-Dame


A conceptually and thematically strong film with an arguably flabby running time, Exorcism (a.k.a. The Sadist of Notre Dame) commences with a startling tableau that soon takes life and proves to be as cheeky as it is horrific: a nude woman (Lina Romay) is chained up in a theater mocked up like a dungeon, and while an audience watches she is rubbed with bird blood by another woman, forced to drink it, and eventually stabbed to death as she moans in ecstasy. Her horror gives way to desire which culminates in her apparent murder. At the end of the show, both women-- torturer and the tortured-- smile and bow for the applause from their audience. Exorcism presents a society that requires the visual stimulation of such phony but sadistic Black Masses in order to get off, hinting at the degraded moral fiber of the culture at large. Our hero-villain, Vogel (Franco himself, in his juiciest role), is an ex-priest who has turned to writing sadomasochistic pornography "based on history" that is gobbled up by the eager public. Vogel, however, is an essentially "moral" man, from a religious standpoint, and so eventually cracks under the weight of the cognitive dissonance created for him by his society. Witnessing one of the erotic Black Mass stage shows, Vogel assumes that the participants are possessed and vows to save them by exorcising them (read: sensually running knives along their bodies before stabbing them to death). Vogel is a damaged man, a walking contradiction, crying as he stabs, putting into practice that which is only erotic play in his own society. When he murders a couple girls and kidnaps the actress character played by Romay, one might imagine this to be a rude awakening for those involved: their kinky exploitation of torture and violence for kicks isn't so fun when it has real consequences. And yet that's not the case: he's the monster, not the culture that has in part created him by deeming his actions arousing in theory. (This pointed critique carries over to the audience that is watching Exorcism and receiving the same vicarious thrills of violent fantasy. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that Franco intends to criticize his audience for enjoying the very type of film he makes, but the film does seem to provoke its audience to question why it watches such films and to what end. Do Franco's films exist solely for the erotic gratification of their sadistic audiences? I'd beg to differ.) When Vogel commits a live murder in front of the crowd at the Black Mass theater, the audience screams and flees, though not before a notable delay in reaction. After Vogel is killed by the police at the film's conclusion, the detectives responsible chat flippantly about their plans for later that day. The inference one can draw from moments like these is that Vogel is the first aberration in a society sick to its core, blind to-- or worse yet desirous of-- the violence it has encouraged.

Next time: The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), Dr. Orloff's Monster (1964), The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff (1973), & The Sinister Dr. Orloff (1984).

Thursday, April 4, 2013

March 2013's Footstones

Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of March, 2013.

Absurd (Rosso sangue) (1981) dir. Joe D'Amato

Absurd is Joe D'Amato and George Eastman's quasi-sequel to their own Anthropophagus (1980). Though the former begins where the latter ends (with a disemboweled Eastman stumbling about), similarities cease immediately thereafter. Something is lost in retrofitting Anthropophagus' moody, often quiet, gore-leaking atmosphere into Absurd's bombastic, Halloween-ripping slasher tropes. It feels wrong to call Anthropophagus a subtle film (if we consider the fetus-munching and all), but in comparison with its successor it's unquestionably the film more willing to allow dread to breed in the viewer through a lack of action. Absurd tries a bit too hard to be an action-packed American slasher (of course it can't completely succeed: this one is Italian to the bone), and so feels more like a tightly assembled Greatest Hits package for the peaking subgenre. Fun, clever, and messy-- assuredly-- but because of its safe (if manic-paced) plumbing of conventionality, Absurd can only express a creative originality through slight twists on stock situations (of particular note is the superbly tense sequence in which a bed-ridden preteen girl must escape from her confining traction apparatus to evade Eastman). A decapitating finale cements my appreciation for the film, but it's fair to say my heart rests more with tortured, sun-blistered, gut-munching cannibals than lumbering, self-regenerating, bearded, wavy-maned night stalkers.

Deadtime Stories (1986) dir. Jeffrey Delman

Deadtime Stories is a horror anthology film that gives an intermittently mid-'80s approach to classic fairy tales, mushing tones and time periods together into an occasionally captivating jumble of stories and ideas that is in fact quite well summarized by casting a glance at that poster to your right. The film does indeed shove a mess of disparate elements down our throats, but despite the pained expression of the poor man in the poster it's not an entirely unpleasant viewing experience. A humorous wraparound about a drunken uncle regaling a sleepless child with sloppily told fairy tales bridges our three increasingly ridiculous segments together. Though perhaps an intentional progression, this devolution of the film into a full-fledged comedy as the uncle becomes restless and annoyed over having to tell yet another story is also a pretty big problem considering the overlong nature of the first segment (concerning some witches and their slave boy) and the fact that the strong sense of demented humor displayed in the final tale (a murderous riff on Goldilocks) leaves it feeling set apart from its more straight-faced peers. Nonetheless, Deadtime Stories is brief and diverting, with fantastic practical special effects throughout. My only true gripe is that the singular 1980s charm is restricted exclusively to the sadly forgettable second story (about a spunky, teenaged, color coordinated red sweater and pants-wearing Red Riding Hood who neglects to bring Grandmother her meds in favor of boinking her boyfriend in a shed) and the film's opening tune, which manages to namedrop Hitchcock, De Palma, and Romero in the same line, leading to comparisons between their work and itself which it should probably wish to avoid.

Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama (1988) dir. David DeCoteau

Though far from what most sentient beings would refer to as "a good film," David DeCoteau's exquisitely titled Ghoulies-in-a-bowling-alley flick, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, is irresistibly enjoyable. Reveling in sophomoric humor and barely competent lunacy, the film takes a largely predictable spin on the old maxim in re: monkey's paws and wish-granting genies: "Be careful what you wish for!" (Though the genie here is more accurately a foul-mouthed, trophy-dwelling imp puppet with a drunken operator.) Though there are moments of pleasing cartoon violence, the bad wishes instead generally result in some kinky sex comedy "eroticism" that allows for the rampant ogling of bosoms, buttressed by some early sorority hazing sadomasochism with a paddle and some rear ends. (A scene that's led one salivating Wikipedia writer to opine: "This proved to be one of the best spanking scenes in mainstream film and helped the film to become a cult favorite.") The star of the film is the incomparable Linnea Quigley as the nihilistic juvenile delinquent Spider, and she's perhaps never been better than here as she forms an unlikely platonic bond with the nerdy Calvin (Andras Jones) and sends the wicked imp back into the bowling trophy from which he sprung.

Black Candles (Los ritos sexuales del diablo) (1982) dir. José Ramón Larraz

While Larraz uses sleazy eroticism in films like The House That Vanished (1974) and Vampyres (1974) in service of his story and in the hope of producing Freudian psychosexual unease, Black Candles-- emerging nearly a decade later when the director had fewer opportunities for getting his films made-- is little more than satanic softcore with the revolting inclusion of a goat in its demon seeded orgies. The film brings erotic horror to new patience-testing lows, its gigantic shrug of a horror plot existing solely to occupy the screen in the bits between the dry humpings. Because the film is so totally uninterested in imparting any feeling or emotion through its copious erotic activity, we're left having to conclude that the film exists solely to titillate, and poorly at that. Authors Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill report in their book Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Films, 1956-1984 that Larraz was embarrassed with the film, and it's not too taxing to discern why.

Boardinghouse (1982) dir. John Wintergate

Boardinghouse is an early shot-on-video horror film, and perhaps the most ambitious and cheekily demented of them all. Writer/director John Wintergate casts himself as Jim, a wealthy and perpetually shirtless landlord who rents the remainder of the rooms in his large house to a gaggle of likewise perpetually shirtless young women. The premise sets us up for a sleazier ego-driven affair than the film ultimately delivers, for which we can all remain grateful. While there's a smidgen of hanky panky, the bulk is devoted to odd spurts of cornball humor, perplexing early video effect-addled slasher killings, and supernatural ESP shenanigans falling somewhere just shy of Blood Beat (1983) on the insanity scale. Clocking in at a flabby-considering-the-paucity-of-story ninety-eight minutes, it's assured to grate on the patience of most viewers, but there's more than enough inventive weirdness for those willing to accept the faults and the decidedly amateurish sheen.

Dr. Jekyll & His Women (Docteur Jekyll et les femmes) (1982) dir. Walerian Borowczyk

Dr. Jekyll & His Women is the first film by Walerian Borowczyk I've had the pleasure of viewing, and it has fast made me anxious to devour the rest of his lengthy filmography. Though it significantly-- nearly explicitly (Hyde's giant prosthetic penis, I'm looking at you)-- amps up the sexual and sadomasochistic tendencies only latent in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, what's incredible is how faithful Borowczyk's film is to the novel's presentation of the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, if not the particulars of its plot. As in the novel, the sheer primal joy Jekyll feels at being able to transform into Hyde and let his id run wild by shirking his public face is the emphasis. To transform into the rape-happy Hyde, Borowczyk's Jekyll (the fabulous Udo Kier) must roll around in a tub full of blood-colored chemicals, and whenever he does so (which is, greedily, multiple times over the course of a single night) he appears to be at the height of orgasmic ecstasy. This Jekyll, like the novel's, is not at war with Hyde, but is Hyde. The film uses its isolated castle and overnight lodging party guests to reveal-- rightly so-- that Jekyll's condition isn't unique to him, and that perhaps we all have a Hyde within us that we're eager to set loose, if only we can discover some secret formula for evading the hypocritical pressures to behave that society places on us. (See: the General's (Patrick Magee) enthusiastic Hyde-like whipping of his sexually active daughter, and the willing curiosity of Jekyll's fiancee, Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), to experience his chemical freedom and the violently emancipating actions she takes under its influence.) Borowczyk's visual style, replete with extreme closeups and discontinuous editing, is an intimate, claustrophobic marvel, and Dr. Jekyll & His Women is a mature and disturbing probe of the seedier, but perhaps more liberated, side of human nature. Expect to see some further words on this film here at the blog at some future date.

Silent Madness (1984) dir. Simon Nuchtern

One of the more tiresome slashers I've seen in some time. Silent Madness (in axe-flinging 3-D) makes the unconventional choice of mostly neglecting to spend any quality time with its sorority sister victims. Rather, the film centers on a pair of adults-- a medical psychologist and a local newspaper reporter-- who attempt to apprehend a neglectfully released homicidal lunatic in-between sessions of batting their eyelashes at each other. Loading a slasher film with mature protagonists is rarely a poor move, but placing them (for the majority of the film) out of direct peril sucks dry any immediate tension, the abundance of which is a dire necessity in a film in this mode, and the fact that spending so much time with them prevents us from getting to know-- much less distinguish between!-- the sorority sisters makes their inevitable deaths feel all the more perfunctory, as inspired as they might occasionally be. (See: a particularly gleeful-- and particularly '80s-- double homicide involving workout equipment and the arcade version of Dragon's Lair, in 3-D.) If the film has one thing going in its favor, it's an almost un-slasher-like subplot concerning the wild abuses of medical institutions that violate human rights while assuming authority of the management of hostile human bodies. But this queasy sci-fi tangent doesn't elevate the film: it instead leaves the film feeling more confused about what it aims to be. The film is no Hospital Massacre (1982) or Alone in the Dark (1982), both of which easily folded similar medical concerns into the slasher formula and became all the more thematically rich for them. Silent Madness is primarily rich in yawns.

The Uninvited (1944) dir. Lewis Allen

A puzzlingly well-regarded ghost yarn from the classic horror era, The Uninvited is brimming with much too much corny, folksy humor that deflates (one imagines unintentionally) all of the few horror bits, which barely register on the horror scale to begin with. At times the film more closely resembles a less-spirited (pun optional) foray into the contemporaneous romantic comedy genre, though with the perplexing distinction of the central couple being a brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) cohabiting a (barely) haunted house. This romantic comedy tone becomes an issue when we notice that not even our protagonists are frightened by the ghost that appears every evening in their new abode. If they're not the slightest bit uneasy, how could we possibly be? The film concludes with Milland's character actually laughing and wagging a finger at the ghostly apparition in front of him until it vanishes in shame, back into the ether. The film's needlessly complicated plot doesn't help matters much either, as it serves to only confuse the viewer and dedicate much of her remaining attention to its fruitless unraveling. The architecture of the haunted seaside house is rendered in a mundane contemporary style, and while this is a refreshing move away from the Gothic tradition it's a choice let down by the bland and workmanlike cinematography, which never attempts to capture the eerie quality that even relatively modern domestic structures can possess in the dead of night.

Images (1972) dir. Robert Altman

Images is one of Robert Altman's least often seen and talked about films, probably because it's one of his least "Altmanesque." Weird to say, because the film features many of his already-fully-developed signature stylistic touches (overlapping dialogue, ambiguous plot points), but Images differs from its obvious descendant in Altman's filmography, 3 Women (1977), in that it's wrapped snugly around a conventional psychological thriller story and concludes rather neatly with a definite (and not unexpected) closing revelation concerning the psychological state and prior actions of its tortured protagonist (Susannah York). This results in the film occupying a peculiar place in '70s cinema: it's too weird for the bulk of the psychological thriller crowd, but also ultimately too ordinary for the arthouse filmgoers. I think the pat quality of its resolution and some of its symbolism (the film returns on numerous occasions to the protagonist assembling a jigsaw puzzle) distracts from the complex psychological portrait of York's character painted throughout the film: that of a woman at war with her own desires, a conflict creating fluctuating perceptions of the men in her life-- both those present and absent-- that terrify her and threaten to collapse her various lives and identities into one messy, unfathomable jumble. It's an often startling film, with an impeccable score and lush cinematography revealing the vast, isolating nature of the Irish countryside that abandons York among the rolling hills with nothing but her multiple selves for company.

The Seventh Victim (1943) dir. Mark Robson

The Seventh Victim was a revelatory film experience. Frankly, I hadn't previously imagined a cheap horror production from so early in the genre's life could have mined such philosophical and psychological depths to such devastating effect. It's the best of the Val Lewton RKO horror productions I've seen thus far (now that's an accomplishment), and, moreover, one of the best early Hollywood films I've encountered, period. Dripping with stark but softly lit black and white compositions and morose, sleepwalking performances, the film is a dejected, nihilistic, minor-key masterpiece. Regardless of her sparse screen time, Jean Brooks is a captivating stoic presence as the tragic and doomed Jacqueline, pursued as desperately by her own depression as by the sinister forces out to silence her. Even when stripped of its admittedly toothless primary horror element (the passive satanic cult, so easily swayed from its devilish beliefs by only the slightest bit of preaching) the film remains an undeniable-- if experimental and unfortunately neglected-- pinnacle of the genre, wallowing in the most mundane but paralyzing of horrors: that of continued existence.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur

I Walked with a Zombie is another Lewton-produced horror classic with an atmosphere almost more oppressive and mournful than The Seventh Victim's. The entire film feels like a protracted funeral procession, from which none of the participants wish to depart. Despite being produced in the 1940s and being set in the Caribbean with a largely black supporting cast, the film manages to toe the fine line between exploitation of indigenous cultural beliefs for moody and atmospheric chills and respect for the genuine power those beliefs seem to carry. This balance is probably best observed in the towering, bug-eyed zombie guardian Carre-Four (Darby Jones), who we're allowed to perceive as unnerving before the revelation of his total benevolence. Better yet, the film unambiguously asserts that the villains here (though such a term is difficult to bandy about) are the white settlers who have used the voodoo religion of the natives foolishly and unthinkingly, producing an unnatural (if harmless) creature, an undead physical reminder of their sins that locks their family into a painful and destructive stasis from which they cannot escape, even as it rots them from the inside.