Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Black Cat

(1934) Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer; Written by: Peter Ruric; Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop and Lucille Lund; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.”
– Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi)

“…You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
– Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

The Black Cat might just be the ideal vehicle to showcase the talents of on and off-screen rivals Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. While the reality of their rivalry is probably less interesting than the publicized version, a kernel of truth lies within. Lugosi burst out of the gates with Universal Studios’ first bonafide talkie horror hit Dracula, but was quickly   overtaken by Karloff in Frankenstein (in a role that Lugosi famously turned down) and other subsequent films. The fact that Karloff was frequently offered juicier roles, while Lugosi was often relegated to second banana characters only helped stoke the flames of (alleged) animosity between the two. What makes The Black Cat such a pleasure to watch is that both actors are at the top of their form, and were given equal time.* Director Edgar G. Ulmer (a German transplant who worked under F.W. Murnau) and writer Peter Ruric spin a deliciously macabre tale of revenge, based (very) loosely on an Edgar Allan Poe story.

* According to Arthur Lenning in The Immortal Count: The Life and Times of Bela Lugosi, Karloff was compensated a flat rate of $7,500 for his work in The Black Cat, while Lugosi received $1,000 a week for three works (compare to David Manners’ salary of $1,200 a week for a supporting role).

Karloff is striking as satanic architect Hjalmar Poelzig. With his pallid complexion, angular facial features and dead stare, he resembles a walking corpse rather than a living man. Although we’re commonly taught you can’t judge a book by its cover, his appearance mirrors his evil deeds. Poelzig’s erudite demeanor belies his sinister intent. He’s a man who has experienced so much death in his lifetime that he has become death.
In a scene that will likely appear cliché to modern audiences, he sits at his organ, playing Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” (It must be an unwritten rule that all villains learn this familiar musical piece).

Lugosi displays tremendous range as the haunted psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast. For reasons not made entirely clear, his nemesis Poelzig has profited from war and destruction, while Werdegast has spent the past 15 years wasting away in prison. En route to his confrontation with the man who ruined his life, Werdegast encounters an American newlywed couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells as Peter and Joan Alison) on a train to Budapest. After their tour bus crashes, they accompany him to Poelzig’s home, where a match of wits is about to begin. When it becomes apparent that Poelzig wishes to keep Joan for himself, Werdegast remarks, “There was nothing spiritual in your eyes.” The two enemies engage in an all-stakes chess game for the woman’s fate, while the ineffectual Peter stands on the sidelines. According to Arthur Lenning, the filmmakers toned down Werdegast to make his actions seem more heroic in contrast to  Poelzig’s treachery. Embittered by years of incarceration, Werdegast has suffered many losses, but not all of his humanity. He intends to prevent Joan from becoming another conquest. Along with his manservant Thamal (Harry Cording) he bides his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike. By the time Werdegast exacts his gruesome revenge against Poelzig, our eyes, but not our ears are spared.

A moribund atmosphere surrounds everyone and everything in the film. Werdegast describes Poelzig’s domicile as a “masterpiece of construction, built upon the ruins of a masterpiece of destruction.” The modernist house, replete with sliding doors, a sweeping staircase and rectangular features was designed by Poelzig and built atop the ruins of a fort, while the structure’s sharp angles echo its creator’s geometric appearance. Underneath the house, at the former entrance to the gun turrets, lies a dungeon with “death in the air.” Locked away in the bowels of the dungeon, the preserved corpse of Werdegast’s wife, one of Poelzig’s former conquests, is kept on display. Poelzig subsequently married the daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund), who remains unaware that her father still lives.

The Black Cat’s pervasive sense of gloom is marred only by a few abrupt tonal shifts. The opening and closing scenes with the newlyweds seem more appropriate for a light romantic comedy than a morose tale about a Satan worshipper. Similarly, an awkward comic sequence ensues when policemen come knocking at Poelzig’s door. Arguably, all of the ancillary characters in this film are extraneous, since our eyes remain glued to the screen whenever Karloff and Lugosi appear. The Black Cat suitably exploits the respective charms of both actors, and features one of Lugosi’s finest performances.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Once Over Twice: The Vampire Lovers

(1970) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Tudor Gates; Adapted by Harry Fine, Tudor Gates and Michael Fine; Based on the story “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu; Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Pippa Steel, Dawn Adams, Madeline Smith and Peter Cushing; Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Rating: ****

“…She has this extraordinary enigmatic quality… I could always see a sort of tragedy in her eyes as well, as if she doesn’t want to be a vampire.” – screenwriter Tudor Gates on Ingrid Pitt as Marcilla (from DVD commentary for The Vampire Lovers)

“It might have been shocking, but it wasn’t dirty… I thought the things I did in that film were wonderful. I loved it when I had nothing on.” – Ingrid Pitt on her role as Marcilla (from Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn)

My semi-regular feature The Once Over Twice* is dedicated to films in my personal collection that slipped through the cracks and never quite got the respect they deserved. Some of them are a tougher sell than others, but I hope you’ll find at least a few titles that you like as much as I do. If not, ‘ya can’t blame me for trying. Today’s film du jour is a spicy little number by Hammer Films, The Vampire Lovers.

* Which gets its name from a song by the seminal L.A. punk band X. Hey, do I have to explain everything around here?

Film guides tend to discuss The Vampire Lovers more from a standpoint of what it represented, rather than the movie itself. The film’s release in 1970 marked a transitional phase. The Hammer brand of horror had carved a niche for itself in the late ‘50s, featuring high production values laced with ample doses of blood and heaving bosoms. What was once cutting edge a decade ago, however, seemed tame by the end of the ’60s. By that time, audiences were growing accustomed to more explicit content, and if Hammer intended to survive into the next decade, the company needed to keep up with the times. Because The Vampire Lovers ushered in a new era, many critics have chosen a somewhat condescending stance, acknowledging the film’s craftsmanship, but in the same breath deriding the more lurid aspects.

The Vampire Lovers was the first and best of a loose trilogy (all written by Tudor Gates), frequently referred to as the “Karnstein trilogy.” The disappointing Lust for a Vampire (1971) soon followed, with the surprisingly good Twins of Evil (1972) completing the trilogy. Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt, a virtual unknown, was selected for the lead in the initial film. At the insistence of co-producer American International Pictures, Peter Cushing was added, to improve the film’s “bankability.” Cushing’s small but memorable role as The General adds a level of class to the proceedings. At the end of the day, however, it’s Pitt who steals the show. Despite a paltry budget of less than 170,000 pounds, director Roy Ward Baker displayed Hammer’s typical knack for turning out a quality project, with riveting performances, sumptuously detailed sets, colorful costumes and a suitably grand score by Harry Robertson.*

* Just don’t scrutinize things too closely. One brief exterior shot of an impressive period estate is marred by visible tennis courts in the background.

At the film’s center is Pitt’s* complex, star-making performance as the temptress Marcilla (really the undead Carmilla). Men and women are powerless to resist her formidable charms (No, I didn’t mean it THAT way. Get your mind out of the gutter.), which she employs to take whatever she wants. Her haunting, magnetic stare engages the audience from her first entrance. She’s a contradiction, taking joy in wrapping people around her finger, contrasted with ruminations of fatalism and despair. The ubiquitous Man in Black, played by John Forbes-Robertson,** lurks in the background, orchestrating Marcilla’s movements.

* Pitt, Baker and Gates all contributed to the insightful DVD commentary. Sadly, all three are no longer with us.  

** According to the commentary, Robertson was Hammer’s back-up for the Dracula films, in case Christopher Lee was unavailable for the role. He finally got his chance to play the eponymous count in Hammer’s vampire/kung fu hybrid The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

Madeline Smith is perfect as doe-eyed innocent, Emma Morton, who succumbs to Marcilla’s spell. Gates and Baker seem to suggest that the women who fall victim are at least partially complicit in Mircalla’s advances. In two brief dream sequences, Laura (Pippa Steel), followed by Emma, are visited by a giant gray cat. Their burgeoning sexuality manifests itself as a large, feral animal. The filmmakers use the period setting to great effect, to underscore the repressed atmosphere that prevents both young women from vocalizing their innermost, sublimated urges.

While the film’s overt lesbian themes and nudity were calculated to raise eyebrows, Baker and company find just the right tone. Compared to the excesses from Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin that followed in the early ‘70s, The Vampire Lovers displays commendable restraint, proving that less is indeed more. Over the years, my opinion of the film has evolved from guilty pleasure to unabashed fan. The Vampire Lovers is evocative of a bygone era when it was okay to have crooked yellow teeth (thanks, Blu-ray), and still be considered sexy. It’s also one of the finest Hammer vampire films, comparing favorably to the studio’s Dracula films, and even surpassing many of them.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Terror Train

(1980) Directed by Roger Spottiswoode; Written by: T.Y. Drake; Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, Derek McKinnon and David Copperfield. 

Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: **

Why do I love Canada so much? Is it the gorgeous scenery? The poutine? Tim Hortons? A reputation for residents who are unswervingly polite? Or is it something else I can’t quite put my finger on? Several excursions to my friendly neighbor to the north have neither confirmed nor denied these questions. Whatever it is, I can’t deny Canada’s many contributions to film over the years. As such, I’m delighted to be a part of the O Canada Blogathon, co-hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. My entry for the blogathon, Terror Train, is perhaps not the finest example of Canadian filmmaking, but it exemplifies the collaborative effort of some talented individuals to give us a few moderate chills and thrills, and heck, you can’t take that away.

Terror Train marked the directorial debut of Canadian-born Roger Spottiswoode, who went on to a successful, albeit uneven, career in Hollywood (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, anyone?). Filming took place in Quebec, which provided a suitably icy setting for the proceedings of this slasher flick on a train. The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, when a group of drunken pre-med students stage a mean-spirited prank for one of their naïve peers. After freshman Kenny, lured by the promise of casual sex, discovers a female cadaver in bed, the ensuing trauma of viewing the dismembered body sends him into a maniacal frenzy (Yeah, the psychology is a bit hazy). The story jumps ahead three years, and the students, sans Kenny, are taking a train trip to celebrate their impending graduation, but they’re accompanied by one uninvited passenger. Kenny’s returned, and wants revenge against his former classmates, wearing a mask that’s supposed to resemble Groucho Marx, but looks more like Gene Shalit. Over the next 90 minutes, he switches disguises as frequently as celebrity marriages dissolve, leaving us guessing where he’ll strike next.

 You be the judge.

Jamie Lee Curtis, following the heels of Halloween, The Fog, and the Canadian production Prom Night, was rapidly becoming a hot property, solidifying her reputation, for good or ill, as a “scream queen.” Her character, Alana, was a co-conspirator in the freshman incident, along with current boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), and Doc (Hart Bochner), who still holds a flame for her. Curtis does the best she can with her underwritten character – the extent of her development is remorse for the cruel trick that was played on one of her fellow freshmen, and ambivalence for Mo. 

Ben Johnson co-stars as Carne, the conductor with a heart of gold and a brain of sand.  It’s hard to believe that he’s climbed the ranks to his position, considering his irresponsible, inept behavior. Pop quiz… You’re the conductor of a train, halfway through the middle of nowhere, and you’re the first to discover a body in one of the restrooms. What should you do first: A, Assemble the staff immediately to begin a thorough search for the killer; B, Lock up the restroom and task a trusted staff member to guard the entrance; C, Both A and B; or D, Walk away from the crime scene and pour yourself a stiff drink? If you chose D, then you might have what it takes to be the train conductor in this movie. Despite his character’s ample flaws, Johnson’s amiable performance shines through, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Carne is a dim bulb.

David Copperfield appears as (wait for it…) The Magician. He joins the party under mysterious circumstances and becomes an early suspect, but his role is primarily an excuse to perform his shtick to an amazed crowd. His scenes provide a couple fun interludes, but let’s face it, if David Copperfield is the highlight of your slasher movie, you have big problems. Despite his skills of prestidigitation, he can’t make a boom mic disappear in one scene.

One of Terror Train’s biggest offenses is the paucity of details throughout. The characters are vague sketches of college students. We have no idea what school they’re from, where they’re coming from, or where they’re going to (probably a deliberate effort by the filmmakers to convince us that the film’s events take place in the States, and not Canada). What follows is an exercise in boredom, without a single interesting conversation among them. The net effect is, there’s no one to really care about as the characters are picked off one by one. As if to add insult to injury, the aptly named group Crime, perform their non-hits, including one particularly obnoxious ditty, titled “Funky Love.”

To its credit, Terror Train features some impressive cinematography by John Alcott, known for his collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, which is easily the best thing about this film. Alcott captures the dark, claustrophobic confines of the train, and the exterior shots of the train speeding along the tracks through a wintry night landscape add to the feeling of isolation. The film has all the right elements for a murder mystery including people trapped in a confined space, a revenge plot and jealous lovers, but somehow gets none of it right. What follows is an exercise in boredom (Tedium Train?). Admittedly, the slasher genre is not my usual cup of tea, but fans would be better served by the superior Canadian production Black Christmas.

This post is also a part of Pre'Ween 2014, sponsored by Movies at Dog Farm.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blog Anniversary and Other News

It’s that time of year again, when the leaves begin to change colors, a chill enters the air (Who am I kidding? This is Central Texas), and the mind drifts to darker, more comforting places, where ghostly apparitions and monsters dwell. It’s October, and that means two things: Horror Month has returned, and it’s my blog’s anniversary. As of October 3rd, my blog turns 4 years old – not too impressive in the real world, but in blog years it’s nothing to sneeze at. What began as an excuse to continue writing essays after I left grad school and discuss my love for movies that slipped through the cracks has become a compulsion (I like to think a healthy one). Balancing time between my family, blog and day job at a Major University to Remain Nameless is still a test of my inner fortitude, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Although I’m stretched pretty thin these days, Cinematic Catharsis is my safe harbor, my refuge from everything else. It’s another year older, but it hasn’t grown old, and I don’t suspect it’s in danger of becoming so anytime soon.

If there’s one thing I could attribute to my blog’s longevity, it’s constantly shaking things up, and keeping things fresh. In addition to the recent Goldblumathon, I’ve introduced an increasing number of theme months, with Silent September, Horror Month and Japan-uary becoming regular things. For the most part, I go where the wind blows, with regard to my viewing habits. I don’t adhere to the lists of Oscar winners, and believe I can live a fulfilling life without seeing all 1,001 movies that someone arbitrarily decided I must see before I shake this mortal coil. Just because a film is beloved by a bunch of stuffy critics doesn’t make it more watchable. By the same token, just because it’s not highly ranked in IMDB, AFI, BAFTA or another bastion of critical consensus doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a mention. I’m not saying I don’t get ideas from them, but word of mouth, reading reviews from other blogs, and thumbing randomly through the Psychotronic guides has been my primary compass for the past four years. Film is a subjective medium, and doesn’t exist in an antiseptic bubble. Okay, I’m stepping down from my soapbox now, so I can do a couple important shout outs…

Brandon Early of Movies at Dog Farm has graciously invited me to take part in his month-long celebration of horror and all things Halloween-related, Pre’Ween 2014. I urge everyone to stop by and take a look, as links from several participating blogs will be posted on a regular basis.

In other news, Alex Barrett and his talented cohorts are endeavoring to get their modern silent film London Symphony off the ground. You can learn more about their 21st century love letter to one of the most vibrant, culturally diverse cities on Earth here, and also contribute to their Kickstarter campaign if you’d like to help out.


Finally, I would like to express my sincere thanks to everyone who continues to follow this little blog on a regular or semi-regular basis. I’m humbled by your support, and never fail to be  amazed that anyone would return again and again to read my decidedly uncultured opinions, when there are so many other great movie blogs out there. You make it all worthwhile. What’s next on the horizon for Cinematic Catharsis? As always, stay tuned.