Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part VII): I, Monster (1971) dir. Stephen Weeks

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 I, MONSTER (1971). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: The year 1971 saw Amicus return to standalone horror films with the release of I, MONSTER, a variation on the literary STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Until then, Amicus hadn't produced a standalone horror since 1966, when their insect-infused murder mystery THE DEADLY BEES failed to stir up much of a buzz with filmgoing audiences. Five years is a long period of time in small budget genre filmmaking-- heck, Amicus made eight additional films between the releases of THE DEADLY BEES and I, MONSTER-- so it's not absurd to imagine that Amicus honchos Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg were hesitant to dip back into horror in any context outside of their winning anthology formula. Consequently, the producers simply adopted another studio's once-winning formula for their next venture: I, MONSTER is a Hammer film in everything but credit. It's well-acknowledged (even within their own films; see: THE MONSTER CLUB [1980]) that Amicus made their horror films in a contemporary setting because it was cheaper to do so, but here we find ourselves transported back to an atmospheric vision of late Victorian England. The film's source material (for once) isn't the pulpy pages of a Robert Bloch story, but instead the classic, more mannered horror of Victorian author Robert Louis Stevenson. The starring roles are filled by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who-- though certainly no strangers to Amicus's films-- here seem to be correcting the error Hammer Productions made in never casting the constant duo in any of their versions of the JEKYLL & HYDE story, as they had for so many other cinematic monsters.

The problem is that with I, MONSTER Amicus made a circa-1960 Hammer film in 1971. In 1960, Hammer released THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, and one can easily chart the similarities between the subtle and restrained approach of that film and what we find in I, MONSTER. Yet the English cinematic horror of 1971 was not what it was in 1960. In 1971, English audiences were subjected to the lurid horrors of films like THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, and PSYCHOMANIA. More tellingly, 1971 saw Hammer release their second turn at Stevenson's story, the salacious gender-bending romp DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, alongside other bold, violent, and raunchy material like COUNTESS DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER, and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. In contrast to what was happening in English horror cinema at the beginning of the 1970s, Amicus's over-serious, only slightly sleazy literary adaptation feels woefully out of step with the times. What's all the more ironic is that up until this effort the rest of Amicus's films acted as nose-thumbing heralds for the new garish style of horror cinema about to infect the country's screens. Thus, I, MONSTER feels like a misguided step backwards, a grab at the hopelessly out of reach carrot of respectability that couldn't have possibly occurred at a more inopportune time.

All of this noted, I don't dislike the film. It's far from the most daring cinematic adaptation of Stevenson's novella, but in the Amicus filmography its ambitions at least eclipse those of something like THE DEADLY BEES. I think there are aspects of I, MONSTER worth remarking upon, even if their cumulative effect inspires heads to nod off to sleep. But first, just to make sure you didn't fall into the land of slumber yourself, I'll turn the screen back to you for your general impressions.

GR: A “step back” is exactly the thought that I had after watching I, MONSTER (1971). (I actually wrote “two steps back” in all honesty.) Which is a real shame because, as you noted, the horror genre was going through such a wonderful experimental transition at this point after films like TARGETS (1968) had signaled the changing platform of the world’s terrors that all the elements seemed to be in place for something innovative or at least remotely entertaining to be assembled from Stevenson’s engaging little mystery, if nothing else than a faithful adaptation. But though certain details in the film remain quite close to the text (this is one of the few versions that retains Enfield’s “story of the door”), Subotsky makes some very odd exclusions and changes in his screen story. For instance, why does the film acknowledge its debt to the novel in the opening credits but has the name of the main character(s) changed from Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde to Dr. Charles Marlowe and Edward Blake? I fancied Subotsky was working in a literary allusion to Christopher Marlowe, the 17th century playwright who had penned the first famous version of the Faust legend for the stage—a drama that also shares a central figure who meddles in the nature of man through dark and mystical means—but I think that may be giving him a bit too much credit. My main beef with I, MONSTER is that everything seems so half-hearted and lackluster that it leaves me without much to praise or damn really. I say this all as a sucker of Victoriana, and while all of the fog and gaslights and heavy draperies and muttonchops brought a smile to my lips, the whole affair moved along at such an unwavering hum that all those images and aesthetics left my mind as quickly as they came in.

It might be too easy to lay all the blame at the feet of director Stephen Weeks (the filmmaker was twenty-three when he helmed I, MONSTER and he had only made short subjects up until that point; he only directed three other movies afterward, two of which were versions of the Sir Gawain legend), but it must be said that there isn’t too much style augmenting Subotsky’s mainly substance-free script that could have at least made the shortcomings of the screenplay work as a visually evocative horror piece. There is one good and surprising sequence where Blake’s trampling of a child (who I noticed was Chloe Franks from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD [1971] though IMDb does not list her in their credits) is seen as a hazy dream where the characters move in slow motion and the villain is depicted as only having two mad eyes staring from a white, blank face, somewhat reminiscent of the excellent scene from the spaghetti Gothic NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965). Alas, it is so fleeting as to be almost subliminal. 

I got the impression that Amicus was a tad nervous getting back into the standalone mode, and you see little hints that they were trying for that spicier flavor that Hammer was working into their productions. Repressed sexuality is discussed more than given any actual weight in the movie, but we do get a peek at some illicit photographs of models sans corsets and pantaloons in Dr. Marlowe’s study drawer that hint at a naughtiness the film never fully explores. Ditto too for the drug addiction implications of Jekyll/Marlowe’s scientific experimentation, though his gold case where he keeps the transforming liquid looks like a classy druggie’s kit. It’s too bad that they couldn’t go full bore with the trashier aspects, though this was never truly the Amicus house style anyway. There are things to like here, but at the end of the day I can’t seem to rid myself of the feeling that the audience was bereft of a truly solid piece of work. 

Now, if you are up to it, I turn it back it to you to fill us in on the specifics of your thoughts on this middling, bubbling brew.

NT: It's a queer evaluation to make, but to me it seems that Subotsky's script is so ambitious that it winds up tripping over itself in its attempts to incorporate as many novel interpretations of the Jekyll & Hyde story as it can, resulting in a film so thematically muddled and underdeveloped as to appear hollow. In the first act, Marlowe's admission to being a student of Freud couches his experiments quite literally in theories of psychoanalysis and psychology generally, though the novella and nearly all of its adaptations only elliptically address these issues. Marlowe's desire is for his serum to unleash his patients' primal Id while doing away with the pesky Superego. On a larger scale, this would, in effect, rid the population of society's enforced suppression of their basic desires, which fashions Marlowe (at least temporarily) into a sort of counter-cultural rebel with a cause (he gets into a knife fight, too, just like James Dean), who is setting out to free the minds of others with his groovy wonder drug. (Even if his serum only serves to make men into babies, women into sexpots, and cats into banshees, it's what their Ids wanted, isn't it?) 

From this interpretation, we then move into the drug addiction narrative, which you mention above. This theme could bear fine, relevant fruit on its own were it allowed the time to ripen, but soon enough the film has plucked it and cast it aside in favor of introducing yet another piece of thematic implication, this one involving the physical abuse Marlowe suffered from his father as a child. The film hints, in no uncertain terms, that the serum and its remarkable aging effects are transforming Marlowe, physically and temperamentally, into his own abusive, alcoholic, sexually frustrated father. Again, intriguing, but what does the film do with it? These specific thematic approaches to Stevenson's tale aren't as disparate as I, MONSTER makes them seem, and a smarter, tighter script could have found a way to condense and elaborate upon them. Instead, the film devotes much of its last act and a half to faithfully adapting specific scenes and sequences from the novella, all of which have lost the bulk of their relevance in this new context. The result? A final twenty minutes that beg your brain to hit the snooze button. And with a film that falls short of eighty minutes total, that's unfortunate.

But despite his relative inexperience and brief filmography, I hesitate to blame director Stephen Weeks for the messiest aspects of this production. I actually found myself quite impressed with the collaborative work between him and cinematographer Moray Grant (who was working with Hammer at the time on wonderfully atmospheric films like VAMPIRE CIRCUS [1972] and SCARS OF DRACULA [1970]). Many scenes are expertly imagined and executed, from Utterson's nightmare (which you mention above) to a personal favorite scene in which the devious Edward Blake woozily chats up a woman in a pub (which features the principal actors and all the surrounding extras slowly and perpetually shambling to the right hand side of the frame for the scene's duration while the camera follows them on a dolly, as if they were stuck in some sort of inebriated, partner-less ballroom dance or-- better yet-- trapped in a Peter Greenaway film). 

Moreover, I love that Weeks apparently felt no compulsion to rein in Christopher Lee's performance. Not content to simply chew the scenery, Weeks and Lee have his Blake/Hyde blow-torch it. Though the performance veers right along the edges of camp (someone should have perhaps pried the mirrors out of Lee's hands), it never fully descends into that trap: Lee goes so far out, commits so readily to his balding, increasingly stooped and mangled makeup, that a real sense of pathos begins to build in us for this abused, egotistical addict. Though much of this sympathy dissolves by the time we're hit with the standard issue thriller climax, it's notable that the film managed to generate any sympathy to begin with. The IMDb trivia section informs me that Peter Duffell, director of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971), was originally tapped to direct I, MONSTER but refused (perhaps giving credence to last week's hypothesis about his working relationship with Amicus). I'm happy he did refuse, as I could see a tonally indecisive director like him tempted to urge Lee to blissfully cross his eyes and whistle whenever he took a hit of the serum. If you can say nothing else about Weeks's direction, you can at least admit he was committed to a particular tone and vision, as hopelessly out of fashion as they may have been.

We might call I, MONSTER a botched, antiquated experiment in the Amicus filmography. That would be fair. There are greater sins one could commit, and when we contrast it with the botched experiment of Dr. Charles Marlowe displayed on screen, it no longer seems so egregious. For one, the experiment of I, MONSTER didn't require the stabbing to death of any pretty felines. There we go. That might be the nicest thing we can agree upon about the film: at least its production didn't murder any cats!

GR: Wow. I really hate to admit this, but I actually don’t remember any of that information or insinuation about Marlowe’s father at all. Typically I can follow along with a film no matter how unattached I might be to the events transpiring on the screen, but those details have abandoned my memory as completely as London fog dissipating at dawn. You discussed how the film’s final moments prompt the viewer to tune it all out and I suppose that I just did that much too well. This is quite the shame because that plot device actually sounds very interesting, but perhaps I would have only been disappointed by the lack of follow-through on that end. It’s accurate to say that Subotsky crams in too many (not completely disparate) ideas into the script so that the end result becomes a “Best Of” clip reel of all the themes that other adaptations and revisions to Stevenson’s story have incorporated (there’s also a bit where Marlowe discovers he’s transforming into his dark half one Sunday afternoon in the park like Fredric March did in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 iteration). This seems like a repeat of his old DR. TERROR practices, grasping at whatever threads looked intriguing or enlightening only to abandon them all like a cat becoming bored with a ball of yarn. (That last metaphor was written in memory of Trixie, Dr. Marlowe’s clobbered pet cat.) 

Lee’s characterization of the odious Blake is indeed noteworthy, especially as he very rarely got the chance to indulge in portrayals that really allowed him to let loose with wild abandon as opposed to being the ever-stoic pillars of evil that he depicted so many times. One of the rarities of seeing Christopher Lee in a movie that’s shown to us in I, MONSTER is also one of the most terrifying, and that’s when he smiles. Just the way his lips curl up in that depraved little grin is enough to convince you that Marlowe has peered into the abyss and has decided to cannonball into it with glee. Lee gives his moments as Blake some real gusto, especially his predatory stalking of the pub floozy and the way he barks “Now, look!” at Lanyon (Richard Hurndall). The gradual degradation of his features is cannily handled as well, like how his teeth become more pronounced, the skin seems to pale over time, and how Lee sinks his head down to produce a weird double-chin effect. It all builds up to the point that Lee resembles a diseased, jowly maggot slithering through the streets in his dark coat on the hunt for the dank flesh of corruption. That said I have to admit that the other half of that portrayal, our intrepid Dr. Marlowe, has to rank as one of the most “blah” Jekyll personas ever to strut across the laboratory in the search for the Truth. There is no real sense of conflict or drive to propel Marlowe forward in his researches; he is the epitome of the objective scientist, almost reaching the level of apathy as he discusses his findings and hypotheses to the stuffed shirts at the gentlemen’s club with all the vigor of an untenured professor giving a lecture to a room full of pigeons. Lee seems to lack the fire in his belly that you see depicted by Barrymore, Tracy, and even Palance in their respective versions. This might have been meant to act as some kind of layer of verisimilitude or an alternate take on Jekyll as concentrated scientist, but as a conductor of engaging drama it is basically a failure.

The rest of the film does have its share of modest flourishes and hiccups of originality. I had forgotten about that tracking shot in the seedy bar until you mentioned it, and it is a starkly dynamic way the scene is interpreted compared to some of the other stale stagings we’re forced through (most noticeable are the numerous club scenes I mentioned above where the characters sit like statues amongst the cushions with that cliché stock music you hear queued up anytime the world of the rich and fancy is presented to us playing in the background for an added dash of triteness). That scene between Blake and Lanyon becomes near-Expressionistic as it depicts the fiend downing the serum before focusing in on his looming shadow, showing it unwavering upon the wall before revealing the composed and clean Marlowe walking back into the frame. The whole bar scene actually has some other standouts, like when the floozy humiliates Blake in front of the crowd for his gruesome looks. The moment he takes to sheepishly gaze from side to side as the drunk party guffaws at the joke is a refreshingly humanistic approach to the Hyde character. We get a chance to look past his status as the Id personified to view him as an actual person capable of shame in spite of his unrelenting villainy. The later chase of said floozy is blocked a bit oddly, but it ends on a disturbingly effective note when the dame, finally cornered, moves to take off her clothing, apparently thinking that Blake is looking to sexually assault her. She has this attitude of “Alright, alright, if this is going to happen then let’s just get it over with,” but it’s only when she realizes the permanent punishment Blake has in mind that she truly begins to show fear. That was probably the most brilliant and terrifying moment from the entire film, and it’s the one thing that warrants congratulating Subotsky for, whether he fully understood the entire chilling implication of this seemingly throwaway detail or not upon adding it to the script. It speaks to a horror beyond mad science and transformations into boogeymen, to the universal ugliness that we force on each other and how we will, eventually, come to accept it as part of our everyday life. 

The majority of what’s left on screen though, as I said, seems to lack any real punch, and while I’d be more than happy to acknowledge Weeks’ commitment to a defined thematic tone for I, MONSTER, his film goes directly against the praise that I ended my estimation of Peter Duffell and his frenetic THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) with: “[B]ut one thing it isn’t is boring.” And to say that of a film that strives for a high-thrills ending that includes Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (or their stunt doubles) throttling each other only to have Lee set ablaze and sent screaming down a flight of stairs only for both him and any sense of excitement we might have had to land with a resounding thud is just such a terrible let-down. I won’t go so far as to say that making I, MONSTER was a waste of time, but I’ll probably not be taking a swig of this concoction again on a black winter morning any time soon.

Next week: Asylum (1972)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part VI): The House That Dripped Blood (1971) dir. Peter Duffell

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 third anthology, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: Taking a short hiatus from horror, Amicus Productions returned after filming two sci-fi schlockers (THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and THE TERRORNAUTS, both 1967) and a trio of "prestige" dramatic works adapted from literature and the stage (THE BIRTHDAY PARTY [1968] and A TOUCH OF LOVE and THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES from 1969) to the haunted grounds that had won them clout amongst fantasy fans. THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) is yet another step up on the shadowy staircase of the company's success and skill, the dawning of the new decade bringing more innovation and verve to the terror portmanteau that they had pioneered with their first two efforts, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964) and TORTURE GARDEN (1967). HOUSE is a film that could have only come from a company that had had experience with horror (as its final segment would so cheekily attest), and I feel that this film is yet a further honing on the blueprint that TORTURE GARDEN (1967) formulated and is, indeed, the very architectural structure that viewers can look to as perhaps the quintessential Amicus picture, bronze finishings and all. 

What particularly surprised me in re-viewing this film was the inventiveness of the wraparound segment. The patented approach to creating a movie with multiple episodes (ones bother to have a uniting frame in the first place) is to stage a sit-down of some kind, a meeting place where the various vignettes are told as a stand-in character for the audience listens to them with varying mixtures of awe and disbelief. This had been the standard since DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), that British chiller that had established so many hallmarks of the anthology, one that continued to be used in such contemporary fare as TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995)--criminals listen to a demented undertaker's grim warnings--to V/H/S (2012)--more criminals break into a home to find strange footage on videotapes. 

Everything is normally so stationary in this regard that it's genuinely unexpected to see the progressive investigation of our intrepid Detective Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) as he tries to solve the mystery of the old Gothic house and its disappearing residents. It's a brilliant twist, clever partly in just how simple a change it is; the stories come gradually, each thread unraveling as Holloway turns over every stone: looking through old files, listening to corroboration from his sergeant, questioning the real estate agent. Instead of just waiting for the inevitable bogey to descend upon him, Holloway actively plunges deeper and deeper into the house's heart of darkness as its goried past plays before him like newsreel footage. The "framing story" here is not just a convenient holder for the other, meatier tales but an involved narrative in of itself.

Another element of the film that is surprising is the absence of heretofore go-to man Freddie Francis at the director's helm, replaced with Peter Duffel, who had dealt mainly in television fare before and after today's film (this was in fact his first theatrical effort). With that in mind, it's impressive how easily Duffell fits within the Amicus mold, shooting the proceedings with all the leering angles, garish lighting, and grand horrific embellishments that Francis had brought to the studio's first five genre efforts. It's a wonder why Subotsky and Rosenberg didn't go on to request his services for future productions, especially given how HOUSE appears to be a favorite amongst fans of Amicus' output.

The actual sanguinary real estate on display here seems to be a fun invention of Bloch's, like a haven for mordant-minded fiends like himself to live out the rest of their shuttered, musty days. The film's opening offers up a loving introduction, a virtual tour of the house set to the bone-clacking musical score. The gloomy hallways, the softly ticking ornate clock, the prominence of such wonderful tomes as Eisner's THE HAUNTED SCREEN and Summers' THE VAMPIRE: HIS KITH AND KIN. It's no wonder that the eerie locale calls to characters who fancy murder and the macabre. In a way I can't blame them, so count me as one more entry on the "Missing Persons" list.

What did your overnight stay in the bloody house yield for you?

NT: Here's a controversial opinion for you: if ASYLUM (1972) didn't exist, I'd find THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD to be the least charming domicile on Amicus's post-DR. TERROR block. It's certainly no atrocious ranch-style affront to cinematic architectural decency, but its brick walls crumble about as easily as the one felled on set by Jon Pertwee's pompous actor in the film's final segment. Last week, we both dropped words of praise over the thematic and tonal unity of Amicus's immediately prior anthology, TORTURE GARDEN, and I can't help but feel that THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD looks like polyvinyl siding in comparison to that sturdy stone structure. Amicus's fourth anthology has severe foundational issues: a through-line connecting the stories that is so vague that a character must turn toward the camera right before the closing credits roll in order to spell it out for us; thankless roles bestowed upon veteran actors; an over-serious tone that three-fourths of the way through sharply devolves into outright farce; and the unforgivable presence of rubber bats hoisted into the air on strings. Hadn't we moved past this?

Above, you note the novelty and influence of the film's investigatory framing structure, and it's on this point that I will eagerly agree, though with reservations. Using the Scotland Yard inspector's investigation of that old leaky house as the method through which these assorted tales are conveyed to the viewing audience is a refreshingly organic frame for the anthology conceit, serving to eliminate the more glaring logistical issues found in the frame stories of Amicus's previous anthologies. Yet, on this viewing of the film, I was astonished to note how much less of the actual running time is devoted to this frame narrative than I remembered. Most episodes are bridged with only a few short lines of dialogue between the inspector and whoever he's interviewing, which makes the investigation feel far too easy and far less engrossing. Perhaps scenes of our inspector digging through the stacks of the local library or the police archives like an antiquarian would be more than is necessary, but the fact remains that even DR. TERROR spent more time developing its frame narrative than this one does. And that's unfortunate, considering its potential.

But I don't mean to dwell entirely on the unsightly cracks in the plaster of this house: there are several things to recommend here. We had to move on from our beloved Freddie eventually (though we do have one last hurrah with Amicus's frequent director in the near future), and I agree that Peter Duffell is a fine temporary replacement. For example, a video interview with Duffell that I watched reveals that Cushing's character's dream sequence in the second segment-- a nightmarish sequence that ranks among the film's best-- sprung fully formed from the director's mind, as it was absent from Bloch's original script. (This video interview also hints that future collaborations between Duffell and Amicus may have been soured by the director's distaste for Subotsky and Rosenberg's meddling in the production, He notes, for one, that he wished for the film to be titled DEATH & THE MAIDEN. The idea was brusquely shot down.) Similarly, the cinematography by Ray Parslow feels consistent with the Amicus house-style as established thus far, with the opening credits' eerie tour of the house's many Gothic features being an especial highlight. Most worthy of our regard, I feel, is Michael Dress's evocative score, which attains an almost avant garde timbre when it resembles the furious knocking of demented woodblocks.

Now let's turn our attentions to the four walls of this structure. In the interest of fairness, you can use your words to hang up some pretty pictures on them before my complaints aim to peel off the wallpaper and reveal the lack of adequate drywall underneath.

GR: Well. Remind me to never go house-shopping with you!

“Method for Murder” might be the most unremarkable tale of the lot to the layman, but I found it to be a softly eerie and pointed look at the creative and artistic mind giving in to its fancies… and its nightmares. Denholm Elliot is an interesting choice for the imaginatively-challenged author who hopes that the stately house will bear dark literary fruit for his next paperback shocker, but Elliot does seems to fit the bill of a popular inkslinger trying to type up his latest, lurid potboiler. The central demon of his novel that he does conjure up—Dominic the Strangler—is an unnerving fiend who, with his scraggly hair, sunken eyes, and ever-grinning overbite, serves as a reminder that the most disturbing of visages are always the ones that are noticeably human. All the CGI ghosts in the world can’t hit the same nerve or as hard as Dominic does even as he peeks at us from a sun-dappled lake.

There’s a playfulness at work here that isn’t quite as overt as the unabashed parody in “The Cloak,” but it underscores the menacing scenes quite nicely, such as how Elliot typically sees Dominic leering at him when near reflective surfaces (windows, mirrors, water), cluing the audience in to the wouldn’t-be-too-surprising notion that our intrepid scribe may be taking his evil character too seriously… and acting out on Dominic’s homicidal tendencies. Especially fun is the scene where Elliot is in the psychiatrist’s office, trying to explain his delusional dilemma. A pair of large, brass hands is prominently displayed, an allusion no doubt to Dominic’s murderous, vice-strong grip. And then, just as Elliot is describing how his personal boogeyman seems to surface from his subconscious at random, there’s the strangler himself, emerging from the shadows and Elliot’s repressed Id to creep up on the doctor and give him a little neck massage. This reading is kind of hampered by the addition of an admittedly unnecessary twist ending; it turns out Elliot’s wife (Joanna Dunham) and her secret, actor lover (Tom Adams) have pulled the old double-cross in order to drive Elliot to madness. But the plan turns out to be too good for its own… good, because Adams has become too involved with his role as Dominic, as evidenced when he gleefully wrings conniving Dunham’s throat. There had been links made earlier in the story as to how actors and writers alike could fall victim to their respective fabrications, but this climax seems a little too rushed, like Bloch was eager to throw a final curveball in the tale simply because that’s “his thing.” It injures an otherwise moody piece that scores extra points for serving up a healthy heaping of Creepy Face.

We class things up a bit (but just a little) with our second story, “Waxworks.” Peter Cushing is back in the saddle here as Philip Grayson, a milquetoast bachelor who occupies his solitary hours by playing records of classical music and going to the theater. His loneliness is best illustrated in the single shot of him observing the gentle streaming of a river, looking like Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” a solitary Gothic soul attempting to find a sense of companionship in nature. Where Cushing does formulate a bond is with the molded figure of a deadly maiden in a dusty wax museum, one who symbolically holds the decapitated head of a man on a silver platter (I haven’t read Bloch’s original story, but I can’t help but think that he whipped out a “He lost his head over her” type line). And that’s exactly what happens to Cushing, and soon his visiting chum Rogers (Joss Ackland) is under the figure’s spell as well. 

The dream sequence you brought up is indeed fantastic. Cushing gets so many of those! This one is comic book-surreal at its best, all drifting mists and lime-green vistas of cheaply-crafted wax figurines. “Waxworks” is similar in theme and tone to the, in my view, markedly better Bloch tale “Everybody Needs a Little Love” that was produced as an episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE. That one presented us with two male pals who became triangulated with the introduction of a store mannequin, but it took a supernatural turn as the mannequin began to show disturbingly humanistic traits. “Waxworks” doesn’t quite have the same doom-laden, uncanny valley touch as “Everybody…” but it’s serviceable in its own right and has just the right pinch of flair. It suffers from a similar fate as “Method for Murder,” as the concluding minutes feel a little too packed than they need to be, namely in the moment when Wolfe Morris as the proprietor lays some expositional hee-haw on Cushing like so many layers of molding wax that amounts to “That figure is really the dead body of my wife who I framed for the murder of my best friend because I loved her too much to let her go.” Bloch could have simply let things lie, although it is of interest that on the film’s IMDb page Russ Jones, editor and writer of Warren magazines like CREEPY and EERIE, is said to have been an uncredited contributor to this very segment. Is this merely an Internet goof, or, if true, does it point to the fact that “Waxworks” went through some last minute doctoring that made it a touch too detailed? Who can say. But nothing does quite say “cool” like a grinning skull with long, flowing locks.

“Sweets to the Sweet” feels like it’s just as long (or short, if you will) as it needs to be, and is actually quite sinister in the dark implications that it makes concerning child abuse. Christopher Lee is pitch-perfect as Mr. Reid, his tall frame and menacing bass making him seem like the great, looming shadow of a villain from a children’s fairy tale. What’s most frightening is that he never does any grand scenery chewing to make him larger than life, but rather seems like a vicious bully caught in the act when his daughter’s nanny Mrs. Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter, who has a great matronly schoolteacher vibe going and who looks stunning in a smart pair of reading glasses) questions him on his parenting, his eyes shifting to the side as he thinks of the physical and emotional scars furrowed deep between him and little Jane (Chloe Franks). Franks is cute as a button as the traumatized tot, her sugary British nature shining through even as she explains to Mrs. Norton how yew trees were used for the practice of evil magic… right before taking off on a cheery skip!

As simple a conceit as it may seem (Bloch’s tale was actually freely adapted into “Daddy Lost His Head” for an issue of E.C.’s THE VAULT OF HORROR), this one is delicately told and has a biting finish as bitter as black apples. Amicus shows their fondness for dolls yet again as little Jane constructs a voodoo replica of her mean old father from candles to inflict a little much-deserved payback on him, even reviving the “insinuated death” motif from THE PSYCHOPATH (1966) when the figure gets a little toss in the roaring fireplace as Lee screams to the heavens off-camera. It’s quite subversive in its own way; these days we’ve become accustomed to the Avenging Child in works of fiction, but here it retains a disturbing potency, the image of an oppressed waifish girl gleefully stabbing an effigy of her dear ol’ daddy chilling in its depiction of perfect innocence sent irretrievably over the edge (though Lee’s final words hint that Jane might have been more than meets the eye). It’s certainly something that Dickens would never have imagined! 

Ahh, and “The Cloak.” This is the tale that may be the most divisive amongst viewers, as its foray into outright lampoonery may be an unwelcome taste on the palate of some. I sense that this may be the case with you (at least in regards to the tonal shift), but I admit freely that I love every minute of it. Strange perhaps considering my previous thoughts on the segments from TORTURE GARDEN (1967) when I assessed that the stories therein were far better off having not been given the dark comedy twist. To specify, what I had meant by that was that it was surprising and welcoming given the content of those stories (namely Balthazar the head-eating cat and Euterpe the living piano) that the creative forces didn’t exploit them for laughs, whereas here the subject is vampires and, more specifically, the making of a vampire film, a topic that Bloch and Duffell use to poke some good-natured fun at their rival Hammer Studios as well as their own aesthetic. Take when the prissy Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) comments on the greatness of the Dracula character before off-handedly clarifying “Bela Lugosi, of course. Not this new fella.” I also really like his dead-pan delivery of “Dear God” upon seeing the actor playing the hunchbacked manservant, in a get-up that looks awfully similar to Dominick’s features!

“The Cloak” may be too high on the camp level when stacked against the other serious-minded suspense yarns, but it’s welcome in my book nonetheless. It’s all silliness and rot in its depiction of a “serious” horror actor balking at the low-budget tripe he’s forced to play in and, in an effort to bring some legitimacy to the production, purchases an antique cloak from an out-of-the-way costume shop that he mysteriously received a business card for. He’s bequeathed a royal number by the spidery Von Hartmann (Geoffrey Bayldon) and, upon trying it on, discovers that it bestows the power of the undead upon him, including two doofy fangs and the ability to float in the air at the stroke of the midnight. “The Cloak” is the most self-consciously silly entry to come through the gates of Shepperton Studios thus far, but I don’t think that it’s an affront to the stories that have come from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. It doesn’t resort to prat falls and painful puns (surprising, given this is Bloch), and when it makes fun it’s doing it at the expense of Amicus and their contemporaries more than anything else with its candid look at the colorful acting personalities and economical production values behind the scenes. When Ingrid Pitt gives us that toothy smile and salutes Paul with “Welcome to the club!” I just want to join her even as she takes to her rubbery bat flight. Primitive? Perhaps. A lesser effort than what the company was capable of? Certainly. Did it make me feel good? Absolutely.

Alright. Now I turn it back to you so that you may wheel the bulldozer in and raze my opinions to the ground.

NT: My bulldozer shall tread lightly. Truthfully, I agree with virtually everything you've written above about the individual segments. While I do think this is overall a weaker crop of installments when compared to last week's charmingly zany ones, none is without some small value or interest. My problems with the film stem from the totality, which-- for me-- never coheres into a satisfying, unified anthology. "The Cloak" is a fine short film on its own; it's a perplexing segment in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. I find it bizarre that, as you've noted, this film is often held up as the quintessential Amicus anthology when it seems to me more transitional, as if Amicus has grown unsure whether it should embrace comedy or retreat into serious horror. It upsets the fine balance that Francis and Bloch brought to TORTURE GARDEN, and which won't return until Francis does with TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

"Method for Murder" is my favorite of the four. In part, this is because I cannot restrain my adoration for the gaslight tale, in any of its sundry forms. And the gaslighting of Denholm Elliot's horror author here is quite the accomplishment, as the villains actually appear to drive him insane. Typically, a gaslighting victim's sanity may fluctuate while he's being tortured, but he'll emerge with his wits intact by the closing of the curtain. Our author is not so fortunate: until his final moment he appears to believe in the reality of Dom the Strangler and the seemingly supernatural power of his creative mind. Pleasantly, this also creates doubts in our minds. Looking back at the events, can we say definitively that all of the appearances of Dominic are actually of the actor Richard and not of some other, sinister force? The ending you found hackneyed I found to be both a moment of delicious ironic justice and a revelation that throws the prior revelations into question. Could it be that Hillyer's creative mind did, in fact, conjure Dominic into some sort of ethereal reality? Perhaps Dr. Andrews (Robert Land) was partially correct, and because this bushy-eyebrowed, Hyde-esque personality of Hillyer's no longer had him to attempt to possess, it simply jumped into the next warm male body it could find. Perhaps. This reading aside, I also appreciate "Method for Murder" because the bits of subtle humor you note work to align it more closely with those segments I adored from TORTURE GARDEN. This is the sort of tale I find Amicus tells best.

In a video interview with producer Max Rosenberg, he admits that all he wanted from the "Waxworks" episode was to see Peter Cushing's head on a plate as the final stinger. For better or worse, that's the pulpy, four-color horror comic image that drives this tale, and it's a shame those involved couldn't come up with more interesting ideas to lead us there. Imagine how dull "Waxworks" would be without the splendid dream sequence, and-- as I mentioned-- that scene was a last minute addition! This tale also suffers as part of the anthology for being the most loosely connected. The horror in this segment (and almost all of the action) does not emanate from the titular house, but a waxworks museum in town. Are we meant to believe that the house's influence spreads so far? Again the frame story seems inadequately defined, and in this case ill-fitting to the story presented. Lastly, this tale also has the unfortunate coincidence of casting Cushing as a lonely widow pining after the memory and image of his deceased wife: Cushing's actual wife died a month before the film was released in 1971, sending his own personal life spiraling into a melancholy shared with his on-screen role. Knowing this information makes the segment painful to watch at times. Poor, dear Peter.

"Sweets to the Sweet" is the clunker. After the audience's expectations are upset by the film's revelation of the presumed abuser as the true victim, the remainder of the plot is a rote, uninspired reiteration of similar tales of the Witchy and Evil Child varieties. Lee's curt gruffness of demeanor may be appropriate for the role, but I can't help but feel it wastes his many talents. I mean, he's constantly upstaged by the adorable Little Jane (Chloe Franks), whose air of playful innocence when committing evil deeds-- even when roasting her father alive-- is a more sophisticated performance than most other child actors could muster. As for other positives, I will also say that the part during which Jane collects her father's electric shaver trimmings in her hand is the grossest image Amicus has yet captured on film stock. So kudos for that.

And, finally, "The Cloak": it is what it is. I love the early meta-humor of the piece and its willingness to give Amicus and itself a gentle ribbing (and Pertwee as the proto-Peter Vincent is aces), but as the segment progresses it loses most of its (um) bite. Tellingly, when this tale and the frame story catch up to one another in the film's final moments not a lick of comedy or satire remains and the fang-bearing is played with nary a toothy smirk. Again, Amicus appears unwilling to decide what it wants to be as a producer of horror films. Ultimately, that's my issue with the film: it's unsure of itself, and so likewise I'm unsure of it.

At times like this the only thing I can be sure of is that Ingrid Pitt was quite the lady. Of that, the film and I are in agreement.

GR: At the end of the day and after our friend A.J. Stoker closes the iron gates to await the next residents, it seems like the one thing that can be agreed upon (barring Ingrid Pitt’s classiness) is that THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is an alchemical mixture that alternatively pleases the tongue while very occasionally upsetting the stomach with its clashing ingredients. Through it all, it’s a film that I’ll probably always eye as it sits on the cobweb-strewn self, tempting myself to indulge in its varying levels of gaudiness and dread like a cursed bottle of spirits. Its tone may be schizophrenic, but one thing it isn’t is boring.

And speaking of split personalities and bubbling concoctions, that puts me in mind of our next feature, one that also has Sir Christopher Lee exercising (and exorcising) the evilness of his personality. Perhaps there we shall find unity even amongst the chaos during his dark night of the soul…

Next week: I, Monster (1971)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part V): Torture Garden (1967) 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 second horror anthology, TORTURE GARDEN (1967). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: If I may be so bold: this week's film, TORTURE GARDEN (1967), is the first perfect Amicus horror film. I don't mean to imply that the film is a flawless vehicle for classic English cinematic frights (it's close, but it's not); rather, I'm saying that Amicus's fifth horror outing is the first to achieve the delicate balance of humor and terror, of gore and smirks, and of self-awareness and pulpy earnestness that would come to typify the best of Amicus's work as a production company. And though it's not as frequently lauded as its descendants, I'd eagerly rank TORTURE GARDEN among those best. Diverse yet thematically unified, cheeky and decidedly wicked, this is the horror anthology par excellence.

Director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Robert Bloch return yet again to Amicus's fold, and each throws down his finest effort to date. This is a well-crafted piece, swift and deliberate in execution, making cuts so fine they're difficult to feel until the blood starts running. And with a cast featuring Peter Cushing, Jack Palance, and Burgess Meredith (in full-bore Penguin mode), the film has the palpable grandeur of a prestige project, which Amicus hadn't managed to pull of since THE SKULL (1965) and which helps the film look and feel expensive (even if it wasn't).

TORTURE GARDEN also rests on one hell of a wraparound segment. Amicus would go on to pull off weirder and more memorable set-ups for the anthology conceit in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970), ASYLUM (1972), and THE MONSTER CLUB (1980), but TORTURE GARDEN's carnival show/neural time travel act is my favorite. I adore its bizarre, disjointed blending of religious mythologies (why, pray tell, is the Christian devil aided by a Greek goddess?) and its defiant glorification of low entertainment (Satan spends his days on Earth as a carnival barker). Burgess Meredith as the flamboyant, fake mustache-weraing, eyeliner-smudged Dr. Diabolo is a marvel to behold, and his admission that his act is solely for kicks-- though it risks him losing out on a few meaty souls-- creates for Amicus the freewheeling, blue (or perhaps red) collared master of ceremonies that it deserves.

In our discussion of Amicus's prior anthology, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964), we (or, more specifically, I) griped about that film's tendency towards feeling like an arbitrary assortment of stock horror elements. TORTURE GARDEN appears to operate in a similarly desultory fashion-- we have stories about a head-devouring witch cat, a cabal of glitzy Hollywood cyborgs, a jealous sentient piano, and Edgar Allan Poe's reanimated and overworked ashes-- yet the film possesses a thematic integrity binding its multifarious parts together. DR. TERROR had normal, likable folks running afoul of random supernatural nastiness, and thus its series of droll comeuppances held an air of gloominess about them; TORTURE GARDEN, in contrast, fills its ranks with deplorable (if perhaps perversely charming) rogues, making their imagined fates all the sweeter while binding the varied tales together through a shared sense of Evil Ambitions being foiled. There is even (by Satan's tongue) a whiff of satire in the blasted thing. I'd like to speak about each of the tales with specifics, but for the moment I'll turn it over to you for your general impressions. Were you as wooed as I by Atropos's dazzling threads?

GR: Here, here! They say that practice makes perfect, and Amicus proves that for a studio that people might have taken for granted as a low-rent Hammer (then and now) they were more than capable—and successful in the case of TORTURE GARDEN (1967)—in creating their own patented formula that no one else could claim. The film is the first to perfectly embody that macabre mix of biting black humor and ghoulish horror that had been the legacy of the genre anthology since the time of radio programs like LIGHTS OUT and INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES. It’s interesting to note that, on the whole, all of the studio’s solo efforts thus far (THE SKULL, THE PSYCHOPATH, and THE DEADLY BEES) strove for a feeling of genuine and respectable suspense while bypassing any winking humor whatsoever, the kind of films that their contemporaries were making. That free-wheeling giddiness that we see crop up in so many of Amicus’ portmanteau films is sadly absent in their single-story films, at least intentionally. It’s that essential spark that brings the creepy clockworks of TORTURE GARDEN to vivid life.

And TORTURE GARDEN lets us know right from the start that it’s here to show us a good time. What better visual representative do you need for that theme than the tantalizing cry of the carnival barker, here the irrepressible Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, to lure you in to the dark den of entertainments on hand? If Cushing’s reserved Dr. Schreck (one can’t help but wonder if him and Diabolo have a practice together) was too mild for your tastes, than Meredith’s portrayal is sure to satisfy your sugar tooth because he’s wickedly sweet as the clotheshorse doctor, relishing in every grave warning and enticement and looking like an old dandy the whole time. Diabolo’s secreted spookhouse room seems like it would be more fitting of the DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS title—definitely more appropriate than a deck of cards anyway—but the central gimmick Bloch uses here to weave the characters’ potential futures is an ingenious one, as you’ve mentioned. Here we see the “multiple threads” idea we discussed in regards to DR. TERROR brought to literal life, beautifully and simply illustrating how the characters are all hanging at the edge of a moral precipice where all it takes is a quick snip of the steel shears to send them screaming down into the pit.

That also brings to my mind the somewhat unconventional nature of Diabolo’s storytelling session. We find out shortly after the first tale concludes that what the characters are seeing are only prospective fortunes and will only occur if they continue pursuing their latent, dark desires. So Diabolo becomes, in spite of his devilishness, almost a guardian angel of sorts, warning the humans away from the wicked path. He’s essentially saving their souls, very unlike Satan to do based on the popular conceptions we’ve seen of him. So Diabolo’s funhouse basically becomes one of those “hell houses” that Christian groups run around Halloween to show their guests how poor life decisions can ultimately lead to fire and brimstone. I think the Bloch estate is overdue some royalty checks!

I think one of the main reasons that the tales in TORTURE GARDEN seem so much more unified and whole is because they were culled from established, published sources, short stories that had seen their premiere in magazines that Bloch adapted himself. These yarns had already been once around the block (bloch?), so to speak, so they have a level of sophistication that Subotsky’s rough, off-the-cuff pastiches from DR. TERROR don’t possess. This is the first time that Amicus has presented us with an anthology that boasts stories that have a real fullness to them, some more than others. And with that, I think this is a good spot to turn it back over to you so that we may discuss all those sinful little threads in more detail.

NT: And what prickly threads they are.

Amicus slops on its first genuine bucket of gore in the anthology's initial segment, "Enoch," which concerns the peculiar dietary habits of a witch's long-entombed feline familiar. We learn that this beautiful tortoiseshell kitty cat, Balthazar, eats human heads, and thus the segment's climax finds a decapitated (decatitated?) corpse proudly displayed on screen. A handful of years after BLOOD FEAST (1963) broke certain grisly barriers of acceptable screen depictions of cartoony violence, Amicus follows suit, in spirit if not in extremity: we see that it's going to be a goofy, gory road for the production company from here on.

Therefore, "Enoch" stands as a fine introduction to Amicus's new and improved aesthetic and tonal limits, as it revels in its own devilish conceits and the cheaply thrilling visual efforts used to sell them. It is, obviously, not easy to convince your audience to fear a pretty kitty, even if he's of the mind-controlling and brain-eating variety, and so the filmmakers don't bother. Rather, they wring the concept for every last drop of bloody fun, falling back on over-the-top extreme zooms, close-ups on whiskers, and auditory cat howl psychic blasts to heighten the aura of cinematic sensationalism that pervades the piece. The always irascible Michael Bryant (see: THE STONE TAPE [1972]) is great here as the ruthless nephew who can only utter a short "Damn" under his breath when his cruel game of Medicine Keep-Away results in the death of his unbeloved uncle, and he performs well otherwise considering he's acting against a cat in most scenes. In a way, we can read this segment as a parable about the sacrifices of cat ownership. We enter into a psychic agreement with our felines stating that they'll give us gold coins of companionship and entertainment, but in return we have to clean up their sanguinary messes. This parable also underlines a concept learned by every cat owner sooner or later: your cat actually owns you, and he's not afraid to bite your head off if you displease him.

The film's second segment, "Terror Over Hollywood," is the film's weakest on the level of narrative (the circumstances that lead to our anti-heroine discovering the robot conspiracy are so ludicrous as to be distracting: Hollywood hoods assassinating a top motion picture star-- or was it his double!?), but the film's satire is exquisite. It imagines a world not unlike our own, in which celebrities sacrifice their organic physical forms to stay at the top of their youth-obsessed business for longer (if not forever). It's easy to see the cyborg bodies of the segment's characters as akin to the plastic surgery-addled bodies of our seemingly ageless celebrities. The episode underlines the crushing pathos of the sort of desperation that would lead one to become, as the film puts it, "a living doll" that eschews love and a normal bodily existence for a perpetually successful career. It's telling that the segment's ending, in which our aspiring starlet Carla (Beverly Adams) actually succeeds in her goal of achieving stardom by being converted into a cyborg, is unambiguously coded as horrific. Pity those actors who refuse to accept the twilight of a career.

Between the final two segments, "Mr. Steinway" and "The Man Who Collected Poe," it's a real toss-up as to which emerges as my favorite of the entire anthology. Do I favor mean-spirited animate grand pianos or a fidgety Jack Palance as an obsessed collector of literary ephemera? Don't make me choose.

The appeal of "Mr. Steinway" is obvious. Euterpe, the gorgeous Music Goddess-possessed piano belonging to musician Leo Winston (John Standing, of THE PSYCHOPATH [1966]), is the film's most audacious (and best) supernatural creation. An evil, envious piano that pushes its owner's lover out of a window while it humorously plays Chopin's "Funeral March"?: be still my heart. Beyond the joy derived from observing this delightful absurdity in action, the episode also acts as an exaggeration of the perennial conflict between a person's love for another human being and the passion that person holds for an activity or object. When Dorothy (Barbara Ewing) enters Leo's life as a romantic partner, she is almost immediately perturbed by the amount of time he spends playing music with Euterpe when compared to the amount of time he devotes to her. (Granted, she is the sort of person who gifts framed pictures of herself to others, so a certain self-centered quality is to be expected.) Dorothy then tries her best to possess Leo by extricating him from the pull of his possession, but of course his piano possession is possessed and possessive of Leo, too, and not willing to give him up without a fight. It's all very clever when you spell it out. The message here: don't stand between your lover and his passion/possession.

Lastly, "The Man Who Collected Poe" returns us to the perversity of the impulse to collect and the rivalries such a hobby breeds, as previously highlighted by Bloch in THE SKULL (1965). There's much to adore here, too: the antiquarian convention, Peter Cushing acting drunk, the manuscripts for "House of the Worm" and "Arthur Gordon Pym 2," and the notion of Poe's reanimated corpse entombed in an almost "Amontillado"-esque fashion and forced to write for all eternity. As delectable as all of these elements are, none hold a Gothic candle flame to Jack Palance's performance, which ranks among the best I've ever seen from the incomparable actor. He plays collector Ronald Wyatt as a nervous, sweating, constantly squirming fiend with a pained grin perpetually etched onto his skull. He does more with his performance to diagnose collecting as a sort of mania than Bloch's script does, and imbues the segment with a frenetic energy not felt elsewhere in the film, which serves to ramp the film up nicely to a skin-blistering conclusion.

Would you rank these tales similarly?

GR: “Enoch” just may be the messiest vignette from the Amicus fold, at least the one that comes immediately to my mind, but it keeps from delving into H.G. Lewis-level intestinal juggling by merely suggesting the horrible thing that has just taken place with a little flash of garish stage blood. The entire story is actually rather restrained when you think about it; we are dealing with a demonic feline whose main diet consists of human craniums. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary film taking this very silly idea quite as seriously as Bloch, Francis, and company manage to. This could be said of the other tales as well, particularly “Mr. Steinway.” It’s this strong conviction to the material and to the idea of making the events genuinely frightening and unsettling that makes TORTURE GARDEN such a treat. Meredith may be a bright-eyed pygmy in the wraparound segment, but the stories within the film have none of his self-winking style and are all the more strong for it. Mind you, Meredith is a pure delight as Diabolo, but I think the creative team chose wisely to eschew any in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek mannerisms when spinning these wondrous threads for us.

I like too how “Enoch” utilizes the old “black sheep nephew” trope. It reminded me of “The Cemetery” segment from NIGHT GALLERY (1969), though Michael Bryant is decidedly icier than Malcom McDowell’s fruity deviant. His terror is keenly realized when facing down the glowing eyes of Balthazar, who must win an award for cuddliest-looking monster to ever crawl out of a coffin. I don’t know why, but for some reason I thought that I “remembered” that Balthazar was given a menacing voice that he used to communicate telepathically with Bryant.

As we saw that was definitely not the case, and despite what I said about TORTURE GARDEN thankfully not doing anything self-deprecating, I mean, how freaking adorable would it be to see that fluffy little guy sitting in an armchair and mentally intoning “I am Balthazar, devourer of worlds and destroyer of socks.”? I did find myself laughing out loud when Bryant turns from having just skewered the hobo to see Balthazar toss the gold coins at his feet as a reward for his services. Say what you will about witch’s familiars, but they do have an intrinsic knowledge of the token system.

Away from the rural squalor of dark witchcraft we’re whisked away to the glitzy world of film and fame with the next tale, “Terror Over Hollywood.” You’re correct in saying that this one suffers from not being quite thought out enough (why do the robotized actor and producer order food knowing full well they can’t eat it when they could have just not gotten anything without arousing Clara’s suspicion?), but the main purpose here seems to be satirizing the superficiality of the Hollywood scene (I love the completely unnecessary but entirely welcome addition of the entertainers encased inside a Christmas snow globe at the glamorous restaurant and the overall jazzy, noirish Tinsel Town feel that is all Bloch).

To be honest I don’t think that theme was explored quite as much as it could have been to really sell the idea that the people who become these soulless automatons were already that way to begin with; now they just have the benefit of an eternal, mechanized body. Perhaps if our wicked little starlet was given an intimate peek into the surgical process and, in spite of turning away at its gruesomeness, welcomed it with open arms, the horror of her insatiable hunger would ring all the clearer. That is essentially what occurs at the tale’s climax, but this jars with Diabolo’s exhibition in which the characters are exposed to futures that are meant to be terrible to them. Clara’s wish is horrifically realized in her tale, like that of the other characters, but she is still allowed an existence in which she lives out her greatest dream.

Also: “Mike Charles!”

Man, can John Standing ever catch a break at Amicus? He just got done trying to wrestle himself free from his crippled mother’s grasp and the den of the deadly dolls in THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), and now he has to contend with a demanding agent (Ursula Howells, the wolf-wife from DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS [1964]), a needy girlfriend (Barbara Ewing), and a great grand piano that is possessed with the soul of his deceased mother (playing herself). One idea that struck me during “Mr. Steinway” was that, despite this being Ewing’s story, the real victim at the center here is Standing as concert pianist Leo Standing. He’s being in pulled in all directions by these powerful female figures in his life (four if you count his dead mother and the piano as two exclusive entities). The piano is even personified as a goddess, Euterpe to be exact, the heavenly mistress of music. And there he is yet again, left alone in a dark room to contemplate the horrible things that have just transpired and what his life has now become like he was at the conclusion of THE PSYCHOPATH. And I loved the climax of this tale as well. I chucked at the sight (and sound) of the piano trapping Ewing in the room as it played its mournful dirge, but I was actually quite impressed with how truly menacing Francis managed to make the scene with those leering shots of those bone-white keys. Like that vengeful instrument, Francis attacks the scene head-on and keeps pushing until a falling scream seems like the only natural reaction.

And who can’t relate to “The Man Who Collected Poe” on one level or another? The desire to catalog and categorize every facet of a treasured figure’s life is the passion of the rabid collector, to the point that one becomes like Cushing’s antiquarian, practically living a replica of his idol’s life, even having articles of his clothing displayed proudly in his old house. And of course Poe specifically has that mystique already surrounding him given the tortured quality of his life and the grim nature of his famous works, so he’s an ample choice for speculation (and speculative fiction). There are some slightly silly moments from this segment that are used in service of the story; I like especially how Cushing basically tells Palance “My grandfather was a body snatcher AND a warlock.” As if his staggering collection wasn’t impressive enough!

I actually didn’t quite warm to Palance’s performance as much as you did. It’s true that he’s got a nice, barely contained frenzy and slight insidiousness that’s always bubbling under the surface, but my main problem was that I could see him thinking the entire time, like a dancer focusing too hard on his next move. Some actors assume their roles so easily that every little inflection and gesture seems like a natural, liquid movement. Palance has done that elsewhere, but not here. I feel like he was too brusque for the English crowd. It sounded like he was trying to affect a British accent (I honestly couldn’t tell if he was supposed to unless there was a detail I missed), but he just ends up sounding whispery. But he really does perform admirably, even if I’m not completely sold on the end result. The finale with Palance confronting the shuttered Poe in the hatch of skeletal remains is gold though. Old Edgar has become his own Valdemar, eking out a pitiful excuse of an existence under the whim of an obsessed keeper. His evil cackle that rings out as the roaring flames of Hell rise up to consume Palance is the perfect note of sardonic doom to tie this bundle of chillers up.

I will say too that the ending of our wraparound proves amusing in its own right. We get to see the ever reliable Michael Ripper (last seen in these parts as the gruff but lovable barkeep from THE DEADLY BEES [1967]) use Atropos’ handy shears to run Diabolo through, to the horror of the other carnival-goers. Only after they’ve left do we find out this was a final push for the guests to turn to lives of do-gooding, as Ripper was merely a stooge acting out a part for Diabolo. When he said that he was going to go back outside to get ready for the next performance, my reaction was “Umm, how about get arrested?” Did our frightened guests on their new journey on the path of morality forget to report the brutal stabbing that just took place to the nearest bobby? So much for leading the upstanding life. But Meredith brings the diabolical cheer back up when he turns to the camera with black horns and stache to ask us if we would pass his little test. It’s a nice little “Hee hee!” moment that gets us right back on the track to giddy horror.

NT: In conclusion, I'll respectfully disagree with one of your above comments. Or, more like "respectfully complicate." You argue that the success of TORTURE GARDEN's individual segments rests upon the seriousness with which they treat their often ludicrous concepts. I think this is partially true. I agree that what the film doesn't do is present these segments and their silly sentient pianos and telepathic cats as objects of farce, ridiculing the very notion of cinematic horror. And that's certainly for the best: I'm sure we're all well aware of the spotty track record out-and-out horror-comedies have had over the decades. But what doesn't totally jibe with me is the idea that these segments, unlike Diabolo's wraparounds, aren't on some level winking or grinning in our direction. As evidenced by several moments we've pointed out (Euterpe's funeral dirge, Balthazar's coin tossing, Cushing's drunk confessions), there's a certain self-awareness running underneath each of the film's four segments, infecting them with a droll, self-deprecating humor that allows us to accept the cheeky absurdities while reveling in their earnest presentations. As it goes, we laugh at the film not as much as we laugh with it. And this style of lighthearted self-awareness will only be amplified in our next go-around, when things go (at least partially) meta in a house that bleeds...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part IV): The Deadly Bees (1967) 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 DEADLY BEES (1967). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: Okay, sir, I hope you're ready for this: we're about to have opposing opinions! In our correspondences prior to me watching today's feature, THE DEADLY BEES (1967), you intimated to me that you believed it was a right old dog, and that in your words it "really stunk." And as I said myself, I had not heard the best about this programmer from Amicus and Freddie Francis--riding on his fourth consecutive feature for that company--namely that it was horrendously cheesy. Cheesy it most certainly is, but I'm definitely not inclined to call it horrendous. Why, you ask? Why on Satan's green earth would I receive any sense of enjoyment from a movie that tries to generate suspense from subpar superimposition work and has a story that moves at the speed of honey? Well, I guess it all comes down to--as does everything else--a simple matter of taste. And once I had a taste of the peculiar nectar that THE DEADLY BEES had to offer, I found myself buzzing with delight.

My diminished expectations curdled a little at the sight of the "original songs" that were featured in the film's credits, but come the swinging 60's jam session where the two ditties were utilized, it turned out that they actually weren't all that bad. But just when you think that you're going to be settling in for a kitsch-fest with more full-fur clothing than you can shake a can of red paint at, our pop star heroine Suzanna Leigh is whisked away to the quiet English countryside to recover from a case of vague nervousness. And once we pulled up to the dirt roads and weathered farmhouses in the film's first act, I knew that me and THE DEADLY BEES were going to be alright. The tone of this film compared to the others felt much more intimate to me and the stakes charmingly low. There's no implication of a world-wide invasion by the bees or even a "race against the clock" pace; it's literally about a couple of people who get stung to death in the country and the general alarm that that generates amongst the handful of citizens who are even aware that it's happening in the first place. I mean, how is that not a breath of fresh air when stacked up against other films of its ilk, both classic and contemporary, that pump up their narratives with so much sound and fury and apocalyptic hellfire that it all becomes so much white noise? Having all the "action" in THE DEADLY BEES take place in a town that looks to be inhabited by five people actually allows the strangeness and horror to seem that much more poignant.

And yes, of course those superimposed images of the bee's swarming look terrible (Tess, the Hargrove's dog who, naturally, is the first victim of the bee's wrath has this look on her face when the first superimposed shot of the bees shows up that is basically the canine version of "Uhhh... what?"), but in my eyes they are redeemed by the one real onscreen death that manages to be uber-creepy and unsettling. I'm willing to give Amicus the benefit of the doubt with the special effects, in all their scratchy, penny-ante glory, but Francis really does his best with the material he has to work with, proving that he was a craftsman as well as a workhorse. The death of the character played by Catherine Finn (who is clearly the Ghost of Charlotte Rampling Yet to Come) is extremely well-played. The shots of her seem hazy under all those laid-over bees, but what you do glimpse looks like the bees on her face are stuck there, as if they were burrowed in her skin. The closeups of the insects barbing real human flesh do much to sell that idea, their spurs leaving behind little noxious balls of bee-goo. And when Finn shakes her head up and down, her scalp looks positively bedazzled with writhing bees. It's just nasty, and personally I'm fine with having one death scene as memorable as that in a killer bee movie than a repetition of the same old stunts. Because, really, how diverse can killer bee murder sequences be?

Okay, I think I've babbled on enough for the moment. We know some of the reasons that I think this movie is the bee's knees (he said, hating himself), but now I'm interested in knowing how all of this was interpreted by you. Try not to be a buzz kill. 

NT: First, I would like to amend my previous, pre-discussion assessment of today's film, as I feel that my comment, in its brevity and curtness, belies the thoughtful analysis I was reaching for. What I should have written was that "THE DEADLY BEES [yawn] really stinks." About the nicest thing I can say concerning Amicus's fourth horror outing is that it made for an uproarious episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. But as much fun as Mike and the 'bots have skewering the film, they repeatedly point out an essential truth about THE DEADLY BEES that I'm trying to get at: this is a dull and dreary piece. Marital strife, petty rivalries, and cute dead dogs in the lifeless English countryside. Oh, joy.

You list a few aspects of the film that you found enjoyable, and I couldn't quibble with most of them too much. The groovy musical numbers are just fine, though I question the narrative logic and necessity of their inclusion, along with that behind making the heroine a fragile pop starlet in the first place, beyond a misguided stab at capturing the interest of England's youth (which would then be promptly lost the moment the glitzy, fast-paced music world is traded in for the small town arts of beekeeping, tea-time, and passive aggressive matrimony). The shoddy projected VFX of the bee attacks are pretty far from what you or I could reasonably call 'great,' and the plastic bees glued to the actor's faces don't help sell much either, but these scenes don't fatally sting the film's chances at success. I also agree that the small scale of the story is preferable to a hysterically pitched, overly ambitious beepocalypse. (For evidence of why this is so, sit through all two and a half hours of THE SWARM [1978] and then rock restlessly back and forth as you ponder giving up on cinema.) Yet, THE DEADLY BEES' small scale approach is also responsible for the majority of the film's problems. This is a mystery with no mystery. We're stuck in a Two-Beekeeper town, and it doesn't take much brainpower to figure out which one's responsible for the deadly stingings. (Never trust a kindly old beekeeper; eat the honey of the scowling ones.) Moreover, we don't much care about the killer's motive (not to say there's much of one), or about those who have died (who will quietly fume and smoke all those cigarettes now that Mrs. Hargrove is gone?), or about those who might (come again, how did a pop star end up in the middle of all this small town aggression?). We care only about watching the time clock tick up to the closing credits, and that's a damning feeling to hold against a film scarcely eighty minutes long.

I'm not certain what went wrong here. As noted, the stellar creative team behind our last few films is once again present, and yet Freddie Francis's direction turns out nothing but flat and uninspired performances, John Wilcox's cinematography finds few ways to make the village visually engaging when not bogged down by those lousy swarm VFX, and Bloch's script is as confused as it is thematically bereft. For all three to have screwed up this badly seems unlikely. For whatever it's worth, Bloch-- in his autobiography-- washes his hands of the script, claiming it was tinkered with by Francis and another scribe before shooting. So maybe he wasn't responsible for the whole pop star angle (though who's to say?), but the mystery-mongering feels like a product of his bag of tricks, so I'll lay blame for that aspect's poor quality on him. I haven't read the film's source material, H. F. Heard's Sherlock Holmes homage A TASTE FOR HONEY (though I do own an attractive vintage paperback copy), but the foreword to a recent edition reveals the basic fact that it's not a mystery of the whodunit variety, but instead one of motive and resolution. The novel, featuring only four (!) characters, realizes how silly staging a whodunit would be with such a small cast of suspects, and so diverts its attention to more interesting matters. Bloch's script fails to do the same, while only incrementally increasing that number of warm bodies worthy of suspicion. This sort of animal attack whodunit can prove effective and surprising when handled with intelligence-- heck almost the same scheme would work a handful of years later in the poisoned-claw-cat-in-a-wicker-basket giallo THE CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT (1972)-- but there's a decided lack of filmmaking intelligence on display here, from all involved. In that autobiography, Bloch also states that the film was written for Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, and I think it says a lot that imagining their presence in the film doesn't improve it much. I wish THE DEADLY BEES were a horrendous film, because a true atrocity-- unlike a crushing mediocrity-- is something to admire.

GR: It's one of those indescribable feelings that I have for THE DEADLY BEES. I acknowledge and understand all of its intrinsic shortcomings and yet there it is, that damnable attraction to it that flies in the face of conventional good taste. Some may call that love, but I certainly don't feel that strongly about it. And yet I'm still willing to posit that almost all of the film's inanities are in fact positive points for me. Who can make sense of the curious and illogical draw we all subjectively have to art? I'm sure that you would not say that THE DEADLY BEES gets anywhere close to a semblance of art, but for me it's a simple and humble vehicle that I can't help but smile at even as it makes adorable missteps like a toddler learning how to walk.

Grant you, I will readily admit that the film's pace seemed a little lagging; during the inquest scene, I happened to glance at the run time and said to myself "Holy crap, we're only halfway through?" It's certainly true that a genuinely entertaining movie wouldn't normally elicit this kind of reaction, so that lackadaisical quality to THE DEADLY BEES does end up hurting it a bit. And my comment before about the film thankfully not having that Hollywood disaster-blockbuster feel doesn't necessarily mean that THE DEADLY BEES couldn't have used at least one show-stopping set piece. A homage to Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963) with the swarm of bees attacking a charming countryside schoolhouse full of screeching British kiddies, perhaps? But again, I'm perfectly fine with the movie retaining its small town drama, in all its daytime soap opera glory. 

I sense from what you mentioned of Heard's novel that this overall theme is more in tune with his original story. Bloch's attempts to cast the tale as a mystery does hamper the narrative--and as you said, that approach has his fingerprints all over it--but for me the "whodunit" aspect presented here is the same kind of mystery that you see in ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968). WE know that quiet Mr. Manfred (Frank Finlay) is up to no good (his reveal of the record tape that controls the bees with a high-frequency ring is basically him saying "Hey, it's me!"), just like those crafty Castavets from Polanski's film, but that doesn't make their respective schemes any the less engaging simply because of the intuitive knowledge we have of their true motives. Well, at least for me. (On a somewhat related note, I'm sad to say that THE DEADLY BEES does fudge on properly selling the beekeeper uniform as a new and distinct garb for its killer in the same fashion that black leather gloves and veils were utilized in the Italian gialli.) Finlay himself makes a lovely villain in the final moments. He may not be a Lee and definitely not a Karloff, but his stodgy, tweeded presence has its own unique charm. His dull-eyed admission to Suzanna Leigh of "I have to kill you" is chilling in its banality. Though I can see how you might say that his nonchalant delivery of this line might be an indication that even he is bored by all the stingy shenanigans.

I can see how THE DEADLY BEES would be perfect MST3K fodder if only for some of the bizarre lines and non-sequiters that pop up. Take for instance Mrs. Hargrove's unfortunate wording of the query "The dog's meat, have you seen it?" or Leigh's agent calling her up to lay on an inadvertant poetry jam when he says "Nothing to do work work, baby. Just seeing if you arrived safely." or the brooding Mr. Hargrove getting stuck on his line: "Don't repeat your visits... to Mr. Manfred." Not to mention Ms. Leigh finishing up one of her numerous toothbrushing sessions with a mouth full of paste only for her to put her electric toothbrush away one cut later with a perfectly clean mouth, insinuating that she enjoys swallowing toothpaste as much as she loves running away from bees in her bra and slip. Such is the weird and inept world of THE DEADLY BEES, and such is my mysterious enjoyment of it. 

NT: All I can say in conclusion is that you've been very kind to these deadly (tiresome) bees, Jose. I'm certain you'll make a fine beekeeper one day.