Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part III): The Psychopath (1966) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's THE PSYCHOPATH (1966). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: Before beginning this journey into Amicus Production's haunted gallery of horrors, I was most looking forward to admiring the blood-hued canvas of THE PSYCHOPATH (1966). Amicus's third horror feature (and second standalone) shot to the top of my gawking list not merely because of the various laudatory rumblings I've heard bestowed upon it (most recently from Total Film Magazine, who ranked it #19 on their more-interesting-than-you'd-think list of 50 Amazing Films You've Probably Never Seen) but because the film is written by author and screenwriter Robert Bloch six years after another work of his-- bearing a decidedly similar title-- defined future decades of horror cinema after being adapted for the screen by a man most recognizable in profile silhouette. Discovering the degree to which Bloch's THE PSYCHOPATH would be related to or derived from the earlier PSYCHO (1960)-- either creatively or opportunistically-- was a major point of interest for me: would THE PSYCHOPATH resemble a sad second bottle waiting empty next to one stuffed with lightning, or would it be akin to another successful stab in the same harried torso? The answer, I discovered, was that is was neither. The similarity of title to Bloch's other '60s psycho-slasher proves to be a red herring in a film brimming with them: what we've got here is a whodunit. 

Specifically, THE PSYCHOPATH presents to us an Agatha Christie/Edgar Wallace-influenced yarn of murder, madness, and mystery wrapped in luridly violent cinematic trappings. With a black gloved killer. And inheritance schemes, And extravagant murder set pieces. And creepy doll murder mementos. And an opening credits sequence that's the one Saul Bass made for ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) by way of Argento's DEEP RED (1975). The clues add up, and what we realize early in the running time is that Bloch has written a British giallo, only a few years after Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) kickstarted the subgenre with style. And style is an important thing to note here, for while it's tempting to lump THE PSYCHOPATH in with the suspense films being released throughout the 1960s in England, like those from Hammer (SCREAM OF FEAR [1961], PARANOIAC [1963], NIGHTMARE [1964], etc.), it's difficult to deny that the film's macabre, sensational palette stands out in garish contrast. Again the word to drum up is "pulpy": THE PSYCHOPATH feels vivid and hastily sketched in a way that the Italian gialli of the '60s-'70s always do and that the polished British psychological thrillers never do. In many ways, I see THE PSYCHOPATH anticipating in 1966 the tonal and stylistic path along which the giallo would develop in a few brief years when filmmakers like Lenzi, Argento, and Martino began solidifying the formula.

THE SKULL's core team of director Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox return here, and their collaboration again bears fine putrid fruit. The style they develop for the film is confident enough to cut loose and slightly silly with its performances and visuals when necessary, resulting in the manic cackling and moaning of certain characters at the climax and the audaciousness of some of the murder scenes (blowtorches and floating nooses is all that need be said). Yet their style also demonstrates a sickening psychoanalytical clarity: At many points in the film, the frame finds its characters stranded in a sea of plastic and porcelain dolls, visually equating them-- as they are in the killer's mind-- as objects of vengeful play. Curiously, Francis directed many of those more reserved thrillers that Hammer released around the same time, yet none of those fine efforts even faintly possess the grisly patina of psychosexual madness covering over THE PSYCHOPATH. The well-wrought visuals are aided by an effective score from composer Elisabeth Lutyens (who has scored all three of the films we've covered thus far), which largely sounds like that of a pulsating music box cranking out eerie, slightly warped melodies, again anticipating much of the childish sing-song dread found in many of Ennio Morricone's giallo scores. Also for this venture, Hammer producer Milton Subotsky relinquished screenwriting duties to Bloch, whose story he had previously adapted for THE SKULL. Consequently, the writing is sharper and packs in more convoluted twists and turns than one would expect Subotsky to be capable of.

With this doll possessing so many of the correct parts, I'm having a difficult time understanding my vague disappointment with it. It's an entertaining film, surely, and in certain sequences shows a ghastly sense of style that is not only ahead of its time but also conjures up genuinely chilling moments of cinematic horror. But it's never quite as outlandishly fun as the gialli it resembles, nor does it seem a fifth as psychologically complex as other thrillers of its ilk (particularly when compared to that film its title inevitably evokes). I want to write more about the film's themes (and that tricky title), but for the moment I'll pass the discussion over to you. I'm hoping you can help me understand this dissatisfaction a little better.

GR: Well, you've actually summed up a lot of my feelings about THE PSYCHOPATH so, uh, good night, folks! Just kidding. The rumblings of the giallo running underneath the surface of Bloch's story only revealed themselves to me gradually during my viewing of the film. At first it all seemed to be standard in that pulpy, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants way that the best scratched-together low budgeters feel, but it wasn't until one particular sequence that the Italian influence really screamed at me. I'm talking about the late moment when a young beauty (do we even get to hear her name?) meets her maker along a dark street at the hands of the gloved killer. Not only do we have those sweet little black leather numbers (a personal favorite of mine) and the tinkling of that eerie lullaby-esque tune going on during this scene, but the woman is actually wearing a red raincoat to boot, a hallmark that made notable appearances in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) on the lovely form of that film's first victim and of course in Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW (1973).

One can't help but wonder if Bloch was aware of the shared palette that he was dipping into when writing his script. I can't recall any of his other cinematic efforts quite feeling as close to a giallo as this one. Obviously the other creative forces at work would have had a hand in generating some of the continental influences, but Bloch's story does contain some wildly outlandish moments that seem like they would be right at home in a spaghetti slasher, especially that crazy blowtorch death that we do *not* see enough of and the automobile explosion that our intrepid detective hero Patrick Wymark (previously the slimy Marco from THE SKULL) is clued in to by the sudden appearance of a doll in his front seat. However, one should also consider that Bloch was, from the start, a writer of pulp entertainments and that the cinematic gialli themselves were adaptations of sorts of the yellow-spined paperback thrillers that were proliferated in Italy, so it's very probable that Bloch and the respective writers of those seedy volumes were working from the same toolbox despite their global distance all along.

The death scenes in THE PSYCHOPATH are obviously nowhere near as gory as anything that Argento or Fulci would offer us though, perhaps due to the ever-stringent demands of the British censors. The most we see is a lone trickle of blood here and there, but Bloch cleverly utilizes his concept of the dolls made in the likeness of the victims to sharp effect. Take for instance our poor singed friend. His crispy remains are nowhere to be seen, but when someone happens upon his representative doll that's in a similar state, they reach out to grab it... and it crumbles into an ashy heap. Our minds are then given free reign to imagine the victim in a similar condition, and it works incredibly well. The same occurs in the opening when the first mark is run down repeatedly by a car, his violin case left crushed and mangled. It's not hard for one to picture the man's innards being spread across the cobblestones like the splinters that his case has been reduced to.

You don't have to squint too hard to see why THE PSYCHOPATH might be considered a hidden gem by some. It operates on a level of quirk and innovation that might make its contemporaries, as you said, seem a tad stale in comparison. Some of the themes that were analyzed at a distance in PSYCHO (1960) are shown to us in a more lurid light here. The relationship between Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnson) and her son Mark (John Standing) never feels appropriate from the start; she is practically forbidding him from leaving her shop, a place haunted by the lifeless eyes of countless dolls, so we can't possibly expect a healthy bond to be growing there. Interesting enough too, Bloch introduces the corresponding Freudian concept of the Electra complex briefly when our heroine Judy Huxtable constantly voices her concerns for her ailing father only for her white-bread American fiancee Don Borisenko to snap "He's your father, not your lover!" What's surprising and pleasing about THE PSYCHOPATH is that just when you have it pegged as being a retread back to the Bates house, it does something that pushes it a little further into the "Well what the hell was that?" field... for better and worse. I'll get to those in just a bit, but for now I'll turn it back to you to see if you're on a similar wavelength here.

NT: Stage-blood-red raincoats do indeed frequently crop up in gialli: my favorite iteration of this motif is in Umberto Lenzi’s EYEBALL (1975), the original title of which is GATTI ROSSI IN UN LABIRINTO DI VENTRO, or, as translated, RED CATS IN A GLASS MAZE, in reference to the fact that the victims and killer alike spend the majority of the film prancing and stabbing around rainy Barcelona in red raincoats. I have to imagine the red raincoat in the gialli is akin to the red Starfleet uniform worn by all of those poor U.S.S. Enterprise chaps who croaked on missions in the original STAR TREK. The color red visually marks a character as doomed, and that’s the sort of simplistic but vibrant level of visual storytelling that THE PSYCHOPATH is operating on. The transmuted doll deaths that you highlight (standing in for the far-too-gory-to-depict murders of the actual characters) are the perfect symbol of this approach: the film’s frenzied juggling of its characters and their fragile lives feels like a complexly plotted but thematically childish form of adolescent play, in which these (barely) living dolls are moved about and dismembered with the same indifference as displayed by a child ripping apart her stubborn toys. (Worth noting: I don’t see this as a detriment to the film.)

I think this pulpy, juvenile storytelling approach informs the film’s thematic thrust as well. Isn't it peculiar that this diegetic world seems populated solely by doll owners? Nearly everyone that Wymark’s Inspector Holloway encounters either collects dolls, sells dolls, modifies dolls, or purchases dolls for nefarious purposes. The fact that doll doppelgangers can so easily replace the original human forms in our eyes as the audience speaks to the degree to which the characters within the story view others around them as objects, playthings that can be manipulated, kept, or broken. As you’d begun to note, we see this most significantly in the two prominent parent-child relationships in the film, those of Mrs. Von Sturm and her son Mark and Frank Saville (Alexander Knox) and his daughter Louise (Judy Huxtable). An obvious Freudian interpretation would be to read these possessive relationships as sexual (and incestual) in nature (as Louise’s fiancée whines), but I think they can be read more productively through this lens of objectifying ownership, in which adult children jealously cling to their beloved toys when they’re threatened with the concept of “sharing.” Mrs. Von Sturm’s modification of Mark into a (again, barely) living doll at the film’s conclusion is the clearest and most horrific demonstration of this, but the notion that she’s surrounded herself with a forest of dolls for the bulk of her adult life is another obvious indicator. In the case of Mrs. Von Sturm, the film blatantly aligns her with this destructive psychological complex through its aforementioned jackhammer-subtle visual storytelling, but I think there’s an implicit implication that this avaricious, objectifying affliction affects many of the film’s other characters, too (Mark, Mr. Saville, and Louise’s fiancée, at least). Unlike those others, Mrs. Von Sturm simply doesn't bother to obscure her intentions.

On a related note, I wanted to query you about this film’s troubling title. Is there a psychopath in THE PSYCHOPATH? If so, who is it? Mark seems sane enough, and Mrs. Von Sturm might be crazy but she’s far from the deranged murderer that such a title implies. (Well, okay, maybe she’s an attempted murderer.) I can’t shake the feeling that the title was solely bestowed upon the film as part of a marketing gimmick (“From the man who brought you PSYCHO, feast yourselves on THE PSYCHO... PATH!”), and that’s unfortunate. Do you buy the title as a fitting one, or would you have gone with something more distinctive? You brought my attention to the film’s French theatrical one-sheet, bearing the title POUPEES DE CENDRES, or DOLLS OF ASHES, which is—in my doll-addled brain—the most appropriate moniker possible. The Brits blew it.

GR: Yes, it is quite odd how everybody seems to have a doll on their person for one reason or another. Such a trait is usually seen as an eccentricity of sorts, the collecting of these painted figurines of porcelain and china, but in the world of THE PSYCHOPATH you can't even go to a restaurant without being offered a little doll as a dining favor. I was somewhat surprised to find that Bloch never incorporated marionettes into the storyline at any point. If the overall theme is indeed the inherent wish we all have to excise control over the lives of others, then what better, blunt visual could there be within the realm of toys and terror than a gleaming-eyed maniac "pulling the strings" on his victims only to grab a pair of scissors to cut the thread of life that they dangle from on his stage of death? That might have been a little bit too much, but in a film like this can there ever be too much of anything? One might say that the prominence of dolls in the story is Bloch's way of viably perpetuating the suspicion of the characters' involvement with the murders and keep us guessing, but it turns out in the end that the "killers" are the weird people who own the doll shop. So, so much for all that!

Notice too how prominent the color red is in the von Sturms' shop. The walls are bedewed in scarlet, making that duo's connection with death all the more apparent. It can also be seen as a visual signifier that within Mark's and Ilsa's battered family unit life cannot truly exist. Ilsa constantly questions Mark for his attempts to go out, to break free of the tomb where the frozen dolls stare with lifeless, black eyes, in a way cutting off any chance of him having an independent, healthy existence. And, as Hjalmar Poelzig might say in relation to Mrs. von Sturm, even her legs are dead. It's a terrible irony that's wrought upon Mark that he becomes one of the very dolls that he's been trying to break away from, put on the shelf just like another one of his mother's antiquities to be admired from afar. That final tag where Mark is sitting in the rocking chair, paralyzed now himself and with his face made up like some clown from a tragic opera, whimpering "Mama... mama..." felt incredibly sad to me. For all the horrendous crimes that Mark committed, that comeuppance feels particularly nasty. The way the film ends almost makes you think that Inspector Holloway is fine with leaving him to weep over the twisted corpse of his mother until they're both nothing but doll ash. I mean, damn.

The question of whether there truly is a psychopath present in the film is a valid one to posit. There's no doubt that there are criminals aplenty amongst this shifty-eyed bunch, but are any of them actually insane? Mark, despite his shuttered existence and oppressive mother, doesn't seem like the obsessed, neurotic Norman Bates. In fact, a revelation that Louise makes to Mrs. von Sturm at the climax reveals that Mark's crimes were essentially an ends to a mean to finally free himself from her palsied grip. Not exactly the machinations of a diseased mind; more like the focused calculations of a desperate man. Ilsa doesn't quite fit the bill either. We see her get a little razzled at the end there, and she certainly grips a knife like an old pro, but there's still nothing that happens before this that would suggest she's not in control of her senses. Calling her a psychopath would be the same as calling any other witchy sayer of doom in a horror film the same. You're probably right in suggesting that the title was tacked-on in order to market Bloch's involvement (his name would forever be subtitled with "The Man Who Wrote PSYCHO" on nearly all of his paperback releases). 

In addition to fudging on the title, I have to admit that the confrontation between Holloway and Mark in his boat house almost lost me, as in confusing me as to what happened. It was all building up pretty solidly; I liked how Mark's hand in the killings was just kind of revealed, without any kind of "Dun-dun-dun!" built into it. The attitude seemed to be "Well, yeah, of course he is. Have you *seen* where he lives?" Another element that was interesting was the record playing classical music in the background as Mark and Holloway play cat and mouse. Now, I can't say with any certainty, but I wonder if this was one of the first times that had been done in a movie. Having pretty orchestral pieces serve as the aural backdrop to scenes of violence and horror has pretty much become part of the cinematic grab-bag (I can think of two other contemporary examples--David Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Guy Ritchie's SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, both 2011). But I started scratching my head the moment that Holloway gets the upper hand and Mark ends up being buried under those massive chain links. It all happens very fast. You see Mark's head wriggling from underneath the iron coils like a worm poking his head out of the earth and then there's a harsh cut to a policeman twirling his fork with spaghetti as a "clever" bit of visual duality (it reminded me of the moment from DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW [1981] where a villain's fall into a whirring thresher is cut to another character spooning strawberry preserve onto his plate!). It's very sudden and bizarre, as I thought that Mark had been crushed to death, but we eventually find out his back was broken, an injury which he survives. With the great shadowy duel ending like that, it was like listening to a joke that suddenly skipped out on the punchline. Thankfully, the film recovers from that slight blow with the scene of Mama von Sturm revealing her true colors, but man did that trip me up the first time around!

NT: Counter-point: I loved how the confrontation between Mark and Holloway plays out. While (as you note) the scene begins effectively enough, I can't shake the feeling that it's the wrong scene. It's the suspenseful crime thriller climax, and I sense that the filmmakers understood that that sort of climax wasn't what was needed at the moment (despite plot necessity) and thus dispatched with it rather flippantly, making way for the macabre horror movie ending the film had long been hinting at. The unveiled horror in the film is not that a guy would kill a bunch of people and frame his mother to claim an inheritance. No, the horror is one of close family bonds, those sickly and ghoulish attachments entombed in attics and basements and never let out for fresh air. You're right that the closing shots are drenched in sadness. Mark wailing on the soundtrack as the credits begin to roll is the only Amicus Moment we've seen thus far that haunts my memory: even the film itself is content with stranding the poor boy in cinematic purgatory, despite his pleas, rather than confronting the unseemliness of his situation for a moment longer. The film's two endings work perfect as a pair for me, with one soft step kicking aside those thriller trappings and the other diving us headlong into the psychological deep end.

I think this has been a productive conversation: I like THE PSYCHOPATH even more now than when we began. Certainly the film is not without its demerits, but there's too much sweet ash packed inside the film's grotesque porcelain doll casing to deny. We've seen over only a few years that the core Amicus team evolved and improved their productions through formal experimentation and a willingness to get a little weird, resulting in a trio of films that stand apart from the bulk of their contemporaries for their ambition. At this point in our flight through the hive of Amicus horror, it would take a truly distressing film to ruin the sweet honey buzz we've got going...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part II): The Skull (1965) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's first standalone horror film, THE SKULL (1965). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: So here we are a year on from Amicus' premiere with DR. TERROR and already things are looking fairly more polished. The company's sophomore effort, THE SKULL (1965), gets the gourd rolling right from the start when we fade in on that lovely studio-constructed graveyard set. The wind wails, the spades heave the ebony dirt hither and yon, and the moldy remains in the cracked casket are revealed to us in all their rotted gory. Erm, glory. This is quite the change of pace from when Freddie Francis took the reins for Amicus' first romp. It's incredibly stylized and darkly moody while simultaneously popping from the screen with retro-hot colors. As you mentioned in your own review, this is at odds with the stately and earth-hued Gothic architecture from Hammer and more in line with the vibrant hues of the Italians.

All of this perfectly sets the tone for the creepy opening where we see one of the eager gravediggers sever the corpse's head and take it home to give it an acid dip in his bathtub (without the use of any gloves!). We also get an all-too-brief glimpse into the world of grim antiquarians, including our hero Peter Cushing and his friendly rival Christopher Lee, who gamely bid to acquire all manner of horrible artifacts including a nice set of stone demons that would look great as a centerpiece on my dining room table. I kinda wish that this aspect of the story might have been explored just a little bit more, with some loving detail given to all the leafy-paged grimoires and hoary torture devices that adorned Cushing's home, in the same way that Polanski captured a similar world in THE NINTH GATE (1999). But enough about the movie that THE SKULL isn't. 

Speaking of antiquarians though, I was mildly surprised to see an addition that Subotsky had made to the story that was absent from Bloch's original yarn. The fact that Maitland, Cushing's character, has a devoted and loving wife is a subtle but fairly subversive--in its own way--change to the general depiction for this type of character. Just think of the collectors and historians from the stories of Lovecraft and James; romantic interests were about as common as happy endings in those tales. A marriage was all the more rare, if one ever existed at all. Not only that but, unless I missed it, I don't think we see Mrs. Maitland comment in any way on her husband's unorthodox interests.  

You would think that Subotsky would make her the "voice of reason" that the audience could find a line of sympathy with (maybe by making her say something like "I just don't understand how you enjoy all of these ghastly things" or something equally cliche), but she's loving and understanding all the way through. She stays up late worrying about where he's been and escorts odious guests like Marco into her home with nary a question. I don't mean to point this out as a way of saying "Good! That's how them wimmens should be treating their husbands!" but just to voice my surprise that, in the world of this story, Mrs. Maitland is willing to accept her husband and his proclivities because she cares for him that much. Even though he has a withered Hand of Glory hanging in his library, he's still her partner. 

Did you notice anything similar in watching all the skullduggery on hand?

NT: THE SKULL feels like the sort of film that would have been produced at the height of a production company's success, when those talents and bankrollers involved felt both skilled and financially solvent enough to experiment with the established genre formulas of the era, striving towards a new approach to horror storytelling. This is the type of film that Hammer wouldn't have made until 1972. Yet THE SKULL was only Amicus's fifth film production overall, and released a scant six months after their first horror outing, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), arrived on British screens. As you've noted, the narrative and aesthetic transformations that take place between DR. TERROR and this film are remarkable, all the more so considering that THE SKULL is led by the same creative team of director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Milton Subotsky. Credit can of course be given to cinematographer John Wilcox (whose inspired shots place an unusual-for-the-time emphasis on visual storytelling and cause the film to resemble a hallucinatory, expressionistic silent for extended periods) and Robert Bloch (whose story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade" (1945), Subotsky adapted for the screenplay), but it's clear that Francis and Subotsky worked to correct many of the flaws present in their first collaboration. Consequently, THE SKULL is assured, focused, and deliberate, unfurling its skull-centric horrors possessed with the confidence that we'll follow along with its surreal, ever-so-slightly perverse thrills. I'm glad you agree with the point I made in my earlier review of the film that THE SKULL feels far more continental than proper English: it's the nightmare Mario Bava would have after watching a Hammer marathon.

Having read Bloch's story in preparation for this viewing of the film, I also noticed a smattering of peculiar adaptational choices Subotsky made in his script. For instance, in its major plot points the script hews closely to the source text, but it diverges significantly in its characterization of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing). As you point out, Maitland (in text and film) is derived from a long tradition of occult antiquarians, of which M. R. James's perpetually nerdy, library-dwelling bachelors are perhaps the finest examples. Bloch's story takes pains to demonstrate the perversity of such an occupation and lifestyle by drawing attention to the skin-crawling wrongness of finding it "nice" to possess a book bound in a woman's skin, as Maitland himself does. This is an interesting emphasis, as Bloch uses it to draw some faint parallels between the explicit sadism of the Marquis de Sade and Maitland's latent but unexpressed sociopathy. In the film, Subotsky revises Maitland into a character who is merely possessed by the titular skull's demonically persuasive forces, and thus we lose this sense of his own quiet, independent derangement.

And yet when combined with the fact that the cinematic Maitland also possesses a wife, this alteration on Subotsky's part proves more interesting, though I'd argue it's less subversive than you claim. True, Mrs. Maitland's seemingly blind acceptance of her husband's bizarre and time-consuming hobby (does Maitland even have a job?) is a refreshing alternative to the "nagging shrew" wife stereotype we're gifted in most other horror films. But the fact that Mrs. Maitland is by and large a non-presence in the film is revealing as to her function as a moral fixture rather than as an autonomous character. I think what is made apparent by their little shared screen time is that Maitland and his wife lead separate lives, and that their marriage (for whatever it's worth) is a union of holy chastity (as evidenced by their separate bedrooms, of course). If we want to get all psychoanalytical (and why wouldn't we when dealing with a film featuring a floating skull as its primary antagonist?), it's not difficult to see the skull's urging of Maitland to skewer his wife with a pointy phallic knife as an expression of his sexual desires turned sadistic due to constant frustration, and-- similarly-- it's easy to read the fact of a crucifix repelling the possessed Maitland as a symbol of the conservative affirmation of the denial and shaming of sexual impulse. Add to this that Maitland is then fatally punished for his desires at the film's conclusion (despite his obvious renouncement of them), and we've got a moral message akin to "keep your private thoughts (and private parts) to yourself." And what, pray tell, is subversive about that?

GR: I think Amicus took a pretty daring bet by choosing as the source of their second genre effort a fairly obscure short story that was originally printed in WEIRD TALES by Robert Bloch, who at the time of this adaptation was still riding on the success of PSYCHO and all the similar killer thrillers that it spawned in its wake. Bloch's tale is straightforward in its design, as is the film. There aren't too many deviations to speak of (barring the ones we've mentioned), and the only way that Bloch's story differs in tone is that it is unabashed in its lurid horrors and purple-hued prose whereas THE SKULL retains that proper British attitude while indulging in small but delicious dips into the surreal. The wildest episode from Bloch's story is the dream sequence. In the film it's beautifully realized as something like an episode from an absurdist play with two dark-suited men collecting Maitland from his house without explanation only to take him to a silent room where a grave judge forces him to play a round of Russian roulette. It's a fantastic sequence; Cushing's sweaty-lipped terror is palpable as the click of an empty round brings a breath of relieved air to the tension.

Bloch, though, goes full-force with the overwrought pulpiness. In the story Maitland is nabbed not by two detectives but a duo of masked fiends who bind him in chains and sear his body with hot pokers and stinging whips. It's positively kinky, more in line with the fascinations of the historical Marquis than anything we see onscreen. To add to the naughtiness, Maitland is then stuffed into an iron maiden, the body of the Marquis lowering down upon him as the lid closes. To briefly quote Bloch:

"And then, as the body gripped his body in blackness, as the head touched his head, as Maitland's lips pressed against the place where lips should be, he knew the ultimate horror.

The face that was not a face was the skull of the Marquis de Sade!

And the weight of charnel corruption stifled Maitland, and he went down into darkness again with the obscene memory pursuing him into oblivion." 

This seems interesting in light of the relationship you outlined in the film between Maitland, his wife, and the skull. Is the long-dead Marquis tempting the collector to give in to something other than the powers of darkness by killing his wife with the long blade of Gilles de Rais's knife? If one were determined to do so, there's probably a homosexual reading to be interpreted in the boy's world of antique collectors and delicious torture on display, as stereotypical as those hallmarks may be. This is especially notable in Bloch's story, as you note, as the latent (or are they repressed?) desires of Maitland seem to be awakened in his mind after the "delicate" skull of the Marquis is introduced into his life.

I did catch the fact that the Maitlands have their own bedrooms in the movie. There might be a fun backstory there; did the missus not take kindly to her husband reading flesh-bound books while she knitted? But more than likely it's just a signifier of their conservative union as you said. It's not unfair to say that Maitland's wife is kind of a non-entity here, serving more as a symbol of pure, white-linen virginity in the face of the skull's taboo-smashing depravity. I was admittedly just pretty surprised that she was implemented into the story without the express purpose of having her scream like Adrienne Barbeau.

And as daring as the bet was that Amicus made with choosing this story and as ably as they pull it off, I feel like THE SKULL starts to show its padding towards the end. I love the fact that it goes without any real dialogue whatsoever in its final moments, but I think it doesn't quite know what to with itself after a certain point. Maitland goes into the library, the skull slooowly floats out of the case, he saunters into his wife's room, he's repelled, he goes back into the library, he stabs the skull, he goes into his room, there's some screaming... Grant you, a stalking sequence from a slasher film can be described in much the same way, but seeing a man become "hypnotized" by a skull and fighting his dark urges isn't quite as compelling or suspenseful, as game as Cushing is. Some imaginitive decisions in the film's latter third could have probably pushed this one into being a definitive favorite.

NT: Maitland's primary color-drenched nightmare is (in my mind) the peak expression of the film's nigh expressionistic style. Through alternating long shots and extreme close ups, the sequence skillfully captures the mute terror of an incomprehensible fever dream with a perverse but inscrutable logic of its own. Francis and Wilcox find a more successful use of silence and visual suspense in this sequence than they do in the protracted finale (which I'd agree loses some of its tense charm as the minutes role on, although its hazy, somnambulatory mood and pacing don't feel totally inappropriate either).

Yet as much as I adore Maitland's dream sequence as presented in the film, its Kafkaesque thrills feel incongruous with those strands of thematic interest that surround it. It's as if Cushing took a midnight walk into the final episode of THE PRISONER. That's all well and good, but as you've pointed out and quoted, it comes nowhere near the unseemly Sadean ickiness of Bloch's version. The skeletal corpse-kissing and sadistic sexual torture that the story's Maitland endures in this dream seem like they would have been fruitful (and seedy) concepts for the film to explore, serving to underline the psycho-sexual dilemma that Maitland is working through at the climax. As I noted in my earlier essay on the film, why make the skull the Marquis de Sade's if you're unwilling to play around with the whips? What could have been a provocative slice of sexualized mid-'60s cinematic sadism, something on the order of the truly subversive BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965), falls instead into the usual traps of blaming it all on demonic influence and and tying the package up with a neat bow of unambiguous morality. In style, form, and content, THE SKULL feels like more of an obvious success than its immediate predecessor in the Amicus stable of horrors, but there's no denying that it fails to aim for the (ahem) jugular.

GR: Yes, if THE SKULL were willing to play more directly in the scintillating specifics of the Marquis' doctrine, this film would feel all the more subversive and unique. As it stands, you could substitute any name for the (former) owner of the skull and things would remain just about the same. Perhaps this is why Subotsky's take only goes by the title of THE SKULL as opposed to Bloch's full title. They didn't even bother to reword it into a slightly more cinematic name, like THE SKULL OF THE MARQUIS or something, as if the anonymity would be better for marketing. Just THE SKULL. So maybe it belongs to Aleister Crowley or maybe it's Little Orphan Annie. It doesn't matter. The fleshless gourd still hungers for blood and death either way. (Okay, maybe not.)

The first two horrific offerings from Amicus expose us to sundry supernatural horrors that come crawling forth from the abyss, washing them in popping colors that bring a little light to the darkness they are depicting; I love especially in this film the blue skull-o-vision that Francis employs and how a head injury that Lee suffers in the final third looks like a flash of paint from a comic book artist's palette. But with their next feature, we'll see the company dabbling in the calculations of a diseased mind, where methodic murder is the order of the day. And look at that, they got old Bob Bloch to come back to do what he does best: examining heads.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part I): Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964) dir. Freddie Francis

For the next sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's first horror anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORROR'S (1965). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: I think Amicus Productions has long been saddled with the reputation of being the lesser Hammer, but that feels like a poor assessment of the company's unique charm. While Amicus probably owes much of its existence to the success of Hammer's films in the early 1960s, it's insufficient to call the Amicus horror films nothing more complex than cheap imitations of Hammer's patented English Gothics. The rampant cross-pollination of acting and directing talent between the two production companies during their peak periods hints to me that there was no great animosity between them; rather, it seems to reveal that all involved felt that the two companies were producing distinct product that was less in competition with than developing alongside one another. With that in mind-- and I'm not sure if you'll agree with this-- I'd feel better calling Amicus the American Hammer. Yes, I'd like to call this English production company American because, well, they were making decidedly American films. Cheaper, faster, and looser, with more raunch, blood, jokes, and moralistic twists: how could a set of films possibly be more American? The majority of them are even sliced down into collections of bite-sized pieces, all the better for American drive-in attention spans. (Not to mention that a good number of those are composed of direct adaptations of EC Horror Comics, those staples of any contemporaneous American boy's reading diet.) In comparison, the Hammer films (at least those up until the early '70s) feel as prim and literate as a Jane Austen adaptation. Color me not one bit surprised to discover that Amicus's founders, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, were two New York City gents who relocated to England to set up their company. Their homegrown sensibilities followed them across the Atlantic and merged with the English, Hammer-influenced horror aesthetic they were striving to emulate, producing a body of hybrid cinematic beasts that (at least I feel) is totally distinct from that of the more well-known English fright factory.

I think you can spot this very American quality of Amicus's films from the start. "The Start" in this case meaning their first DEAD OF NIGHT-inspired horror anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), written by Subotsky himself and directed by Hammer regular Freddie Francis (credited on my copy as "Freddy," of course, because that's the American way). As made clear by the shockingly creative story titles in this volume ("Vampire," "Werewolf," "Disembodied Hand," etc.), it seems likely that old Subotsky simply plucked a handful of stock horror tropes from the air and started writin' himself a movie. That feels like a pretty American sensibility to me: give 'em everything they want, don't bother to make it too "arty," and screw whether or not it makes sense in context. Consequently, the film has a certain disjointed "we'll try anything once" attitude that's hard not to admire, even if it doesn't do much for the film's cohesiveness. There are some things to like here (most of them beginning with the words "Peter Cushing"), but DR. TERROR is a rather inauspicious beginning to the best run of anthology films in the genre. To me, it feels a bit like what Subotsky's script does to English horror cinema inadvertently mirrors the situation presented in the "Voodoo" segment at the film's center: an outsider invades a foreign land, flees with its cultural production, and then tricks it out for display in his homeland to an audience desiring an "exotic flavor." The rearranged composition, while loose and jazzy and not without its entertaining qualities, nonetheless lacks the original's (voodoo) spirit. What say you?

GR: For starters, your assessment is an astute one. I grew up watching the Amicus pictures and in many ways they shaped the way I processed the horror genre. That "picking of tropes" that you mentioned is how I thought anthologies of this nature were supposed to be made. You gotta have your vampire story, your werewolf story, your... creeping vine story? The Amicus films were one of the first times I was exposed to horror's nearly limitless set pieces. The number of ideas boggled me. It's fair to say too that the company's output had more of an American-ness about it. There's still a tangible British quality to their movies, but it's of a (then) contemporary flavor, a little more with the free love, a little jazzier like you say. Hammer was of the archly Gothic, getting their inspiration from Stoker and Le Fanu; Amicus was definitely the pulpier of the two, their tales culled from the thin, smudged paper that had been the home to Robert Bloch and R. Chetwynd-Hayes as well as those garishly gruesome fables from Entertaining Comics. You would go to the theater to see Hammer. Amicus was definitely for the drive in-crowd. Could one imagine Hammer ever producing a story about a jealous, sentient piano? Hardly. Some might say that this is indicative of Amicus' lower sensibilities. I say that it's proof that they were willing to have some fun, no matter how silly it might have made them look. This might all sound like it's been building up to knock them, but I think there's a good reason why when people think of "horror anthology films" the first ones that come to mind are the ones from the studio that dripped blood.

How appropriate that the first feature I ever recall watching was Amicus's first experiment in terror, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965). It uses as its template the "teller of fortunes" motif that would crop up again and again in the other portmanteau films (TORTURE GARDEN [1966], TALES FROM THE CRYPT [1972]). Here the purveyor of the grim future is Peter Cushing, looking something like a Nazi war criminal in his pointed beard and dark-brimmed hat. Milton Subotsky surely had an interesting conceit here: five trainbound travelers stuck with a strange little man who claims to know what fate has in store for them (though it's kind of odd that Cushing's Schreck would refer to his own deck of Tarot cards as a "house of horrors"). Speaking of which, I couldn't help but wonder if this movie was floating around in Stephen King's mind while he was writing DANSE MACABRE. Many of the stories themselves seem rather tame in comparison to vignettes from later pictures, but I think there's a charming, cozy quality to some of them (I have a soft spot particularly for "Werewolf" with its creaky mansion setting and entombed lycanthropes); others are just pretty flat but not without their own clever touches. For instance, I was surprised how menacing the vine strangulation was in the second story--the lack of music is key there--and how the voodoo practitioners slowly surround our "hero" in the "Voodoo" tale in between cuts. Also having a lot of fun here is Christopher Lee as the uppity art critic. He made a great priss! And as familiar as the "shock ending" has become within these types of films, seeing that grinning skull as the music crescendos at the end admittedly scared the ever-loving hell out of me when I watched this for the first time in third grade.

NT: Your point about how horror anthologies should be grab-bags of horror tropes is well-taken. The implication inherent in a well-wrought horror anthology film is that the diegetic world on screen is large and complex enough to contain not one but multiple horrific elements and situations (if not all of them), and that's enough to spin one's mind dizzy with all of the monster-mashing possibilities. I think many of Amicus's subsequent anthology films create just such hideously overpopulated worlds. But DR. TERROR's world is a bit less successfully imagined. After all, this is a world that (if Dr. Schreck's tarot cards are to be believed) is about to be plagued by a plant apocalypse. Where's the logical space for the existence of an entombed werewolf ghost in a world like that? As a winking vampire might have addressed the camera if he'd thought of it, "This town ain't big enough for a vampire and a triffid." The real problem might be tonal: as the film travels from a stately Gothic to a cold scientific thriller, from a lighthearted musical interlude to a wryly ironic morality fable, we never understand what's being presented to us as taking place in one recognizable world, but rather many different worlds with their own distinct tenors, aesthetics, and outcomes. Maybe that's the point of Dr. Schreck's house of horrors anyway, as if he desires to tease us and his victims with those wildly divergent tales of stock cinematic terror before loosing the trapdoor beneath us all and sending us spiraling down into a bleaker, unified vision of hell. Now that I've typed it out, that sounds like a pretty great concept. It's a shame it doesn't translate half as well to the screen.

Unsurprisingly, the wraparound is the film's highlight. (The presence of Cushing here certainly doesn't hurt: his reading of the line "Have you not guessed?" before his big reveal is the most chilling the man has ever been.) Yet, some brief comments on the individual segments are in order: 1) I have fond feelings for "Werewolf," too, for both its being the only Scottish Gothic I can immediately call to mind and for featuring a werewolf named Waldemar a few years before Naschy started doing his thing in LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO (1968). 2) "Creeping Vine" certainly delivers some fine plant strangulations (bye, puppy), but the overall film's unwillingness to stretch well-worn horror concepts beyond the obvious is most apparent here. 3) Though its digs at cultural appropriation are appreciated, "Voodoo" might be a little too blase about its characters' cheerful racial belittling. Quote: Drink rum! Git love in de sun! 4) "Disembodied Hand" is the harbinger of anthologies to come and is certainly the best of the lot. Lee's snooty performance is a fun one, but I prefer how the ever-sly Michael Gough bounces off him with a slithery menace (and he's not even the villain of the piece!) 5) "Vampire" is this anthology's equivalent of a bat on a string.

GR: I hadn't considered the idea that in an anthology film, particularly one wherein the stories are supposed portents of the future, the different threads of reality would have the potential to kind of "run into each other" at one point or another. As you said, does the whole werewolf rising from his grave business occur before, during, or after the human race's enslavement by our new weed overlords? Of course, accepting that these things would take place on the same timeline is perhaps not asking too much more out of us than to believe that these supernatural occurrences would even happen in the first place, so why not go along for the whole, creepy ride?

I've always compared anthologies and collections of terror tales to buffets, and DR. TERROR fits the bill of a true sampler perhaps more than any other from Amicus and from without. There's no real unity at work in these stories as there would be in ASYLUM, for instance; they're just a handful of appetizers grabbed without discretion for the sole purpose of appeasement. Which is funny considering that the very nature of an anthology is to bring us multiple stories concerning almost entirely different subjects, and yet other portmanteau horrors manage to feel of a single piece and overriding mood despite their disparate elements. DR. TERROR, for all its dime-store and spookshouse thrills, doesn't quite have that sense of composure.

Oh, and I love that line by Cushing at the end. Not even because he's playing it sinister--he is just a little--but because he says it with this almost pitying tone, like these poor dumb fools just don't understand what's happening to them and he finds it a little tragic. If you ask me, that makes it all the more horrifying.

I did note the impressive moniker of the ancestral werewolf in the first segment, but I guess I must have misheard it because I thought they said Valdemar, as in a reference to Poe. So, either way, neat right?

I don't know why, but I keep feeling the need to defend "Creeping Vine" although it certainly is the stalest of the lot. Maybe it's because I feel like there's some actual thought that was put into it, be it however slight or half-baked, and a keen eye towards crafting a menacing presence from the most innocuous of subjects. I mean, that slithering weed was easily ten times more impressive than any of the undead hijinks in the "Vampire" yarn. There was not a single fang to be seen in that thing. And it literally does have a rubber bat on a string! Also, just how does our bloodsucking physician manage to ward off Donald Sutherland's wife by inadvertently making the sign of the cross with his arms without, I don't know, bursting into flames himself? Talk about your wasted opportunities, that.

Michael Gough is rather quietly off in his performance, isn't he? He never swears vengeance on Lee or anything like that, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wouldn't, if you catch my meaning. "Disembodied Hand" probably has the best stinger-ending of the bunch, a single line of dialogue that hits the gut harder than any visions of writhing appendages (as impressive as those admittedly are). It's in little moments like that that Subotsky's writing talents and the inspirations of his writing come to the fore. They may be modest, but they are there, like a skull peering out through the darkness of night.

NT: You know what, you're probably right about the whole Waldemar/Valdemar confusion in "Werewolf." It's not as if we see jolly Count Cosmo's name inscribed on anything, but Valdemar seems the more logical spelling because of both the Poe connection you've pointed out and the fact that the red-headed red herring maid is named Valda. (Alas, I was hoping beyond hope for her to snarl "They call me Valda...MAR!" before turning into a wolf.) I think what I was doing was imagining an alternate dimension wherein Scottish folk vocalize their words with Germanic pronunciation. I hope to visit that dimension one day. At any rate, I'd still reckon that Naschy was aware of if not directly inspired by the Count's perfectly wolfish surname.

I understand where your affection for "Creeping Vine" comes from. The segment does give the material its best, and I find the results to be fitfully effective because of this effort. (I agree with your earlier pronouncement that the absence of an overwrought musical score produces much of its success.) Nevertheless, the sight of what I would assume is a production assistant slowly outstretching a chintzy, roughly vine-shaped pole towards an actor's shoulder across multiple cuts can only inspire a snickering sort of menace in me.

But I suppose that's all part of the fun, eh? DR. TERROR is pure, unfiltered pulp: a chaotic first draft of the Amicus anthology formula that would be perfected soon after by the likes of the more narrative-conscious Robert Bloch and eventually Subotsky himself (once he began to employ helpful blueprints from EC Comics). But blundering rough drafts are the foundations of expert revisions, so the missteps here seem more forgivable while the glimmers of terrors to come leave me appreciating how much they managed to get right at the time of this first hearty howl at the full moon. All Hail Our New Weed Overlords.

Next week: THE SKULL (1965)