Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April Quick Picks and Pans – 30s Edition

The Clairvoyant (1935) Claude Rains stars in this low-key British thriller as Maximus, a stage performer who runs a successful, albeit phony psychic act, along with his wife Rene, played by Fay Wray.  Things suddenly take a strange turn when he discovers he has the power to make true prophecies (he foretells a train collision and the winner of a horse race).  Maximus’ success is short-lived, however, when he predicts a massive cave-in at an underground tunnel project, and he’s subsequently blamed for the ensuing loss of life, and placed on trial for triggering the panic that “causes” the incident.  One minor quibble is that the filmmakers seem to pull their punches, opting for a tacked-on happy ending, rather than the tragic conclusion suggested by the plot’s trajectory.  Rains is great in his role, conflicted between the love of his wife and the desire to hone his newly uncovered talent.  The Clairvoyant is a moody, nicely acted little gem that’s worth seeking out.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Mark of the Vampire (1935) Director Tod Browning’s stylish, silly mystery/horror flick is a muddled, but eminently watchable mess.  Originally titled Vampires Over Prague, it’s a virtual remake of Browning’s earlier (and famously lost) silent film, London After Midnight, with Bela Lugosi in the role previously occupied by Lon Chaney.  The story concerns police inspector Neumann’s (Lionel Atwill) investigation of a series of mysterious deaths, and a plot to catch a killer who leaves his victims’ bodies drained of blood. Vampires are suspected to be the cause; or are they?

Mark of the Vampire was originally screened for preview audiences at 80 minutes, but its final cut was a lean 60 minutes.  While it’s probably one of the lesser Browning films, it’s still worthwhile for the atmospheric sets and fun performances.  Carroll Borland is entrancing, in a mute role, as Lugosi’s shadowy companion Luna.  Her distinctive pallid, moribund appearance prefigures the Goth movement by several decades, and has often been credited as the inspiration for Charles Addams’ character Morticia.  Check it out.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Night Nurse (1931) Barbara Stanwyck stars in this curiosity from the Pre-Code era as the plucky Lora Hart.  Night Nurse depicts a bygone age, when just a strong constitution and can-do attitude, in lieu of a formal education, was sufficient to become a nurse.  In her first assignment, nurse Hart is placed in charge of two sickly young children in a large manor.  It’s surprising to see Clark Gable, who’s usually associated with protagonist roles, playing the bad guy – a chauffeur suspected of conspiring to starve the children.  Hart finds an unlikely ally in a charismatic bootlegger, played by Ben Lyon.  While the situations never seem quite believable, it’s still an enjoyable viewing experience, since we’re never sure what’s going to happen next.  While I would never deign to reveal the film’s ending, suffice it to say the final scene could only have occurred before the restrictions of the Hays Code were enforced.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Happiness (aka: Schastye) (1935) In Russia, comedy laughs at you!  I think there’s a good reason why Soviet cinema wasn’t known for its raucous slapstick farces.  Writer/director Aleksandr Medvedkin’s bleak, dismal silent comedy proves that he’s no Chaplin.  While it’s easy to feel pathos for the protagonist, it’s much harder to find anything to laugh about.  The story follows sad sack peasant farmer Khmyr (Pyotr Zinovyev) as he moves from one crushing tragedy to the next, enduring a string of hardships that would have made Stalin proud.  To its credit, there are a few decent gags, with a tractor running in circles, various townspeople collecting all of Khymr’s earnings from a harvest, and a tiny house literally walking away, carried by the feet of several thieves.  I suppose the central message, the triumph of the proletariat over tsarist Russia (or something like that) is intended to be uplifting, but the comedic elements just appear forced.  Maybe you have to be Russian to truly appreciate it. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Classics Revisited: Mad Love

(1935) Directed by Karl Freund; Written by P.J. Wolfson and John L. Balderston; Based on the novel Les Mains D'Orlac by Maurice Renard; Starring: Peter Lorre, Frances Drake and Colin Clive; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

“I believe in the low-spoken villain, who’s absolutely blasé about what he does, who works on the murder like a mathematical problem…” – Peter Lorre

Depending on your point of view, dear reader, you might say this review was long overdue, or two and a half years in the making.  Personally, I like to believe the former, since the latter implies I’ve taken that long to craft this blog post, instead of employing the usual slap-dash effort.  I’m not entirely sure how or why it happened, but Peter Lorre, specifically his character Dr. Gogol in Mad Love, became my blog’s official mascot.  Maybe it was a Jungian collective unconscious thing, but he seemed to capture the Cinematic Catharsis zeitgeist, for lack of a better word.  It’s as if one character represented the perfect distillation of the conscious and subconscious power that films wield.  But enough of that… Let’s examine the movie a little closer, shall we?

I was first introduced to Mad Love through an unlikely source – TNT channel’s 100% Weird, a weekly showcase of unusual genre films.  The show’s introduction featured a clip from one of the most famous scenes in the film.  Just those few seconds of footage suggested this wasn’t an ordinary schlock horror flick, but a work to be reckoned with.

Mad Love was based on Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les Mains D'Orlac, which was originally filmed in 1924 as The Hands of Orlac, starring Conrad Veidt in the titular role.  MGM’s 1935 version retained the thematic elements of Orlac coping with the transplanted hands of a killer, but chose to turn the spotlight on the mad doctor, instead.  Karl Freund, a veteran of German expressionist cinema, was chosen to helm the film, which proved to be his final directorial effort.  Freund, who predominantly worked as a cinematographer (Metropolis, The Man Who Laughs), continued to work in films and television for the next twenty years.

Following the heels of his English-language debut in the original version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Peter Lorre (born in Hungary as László Löwenstein) signaled his entrance into Hollywood with Mad Love.  Lorre was perfectly cast as the obsessive surgeon Dr. Gogol, who becomes infatuated with Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), a performer in Le Théatre des Horreurs (a nod to Paris’ infamous Grand Guignol Theatre).  During his nightly visits to the theatre, he witnesses various gruesome re-enactments, and takes perverse pleasure in seeing Yvonne subjected to sadistic torments.  Gogol keeps a lifelike wax figure of Yvonne in his home – a constant reminder of what he cannot possess.  Her inaccessibility merely strengthens Gogol’s resolve to pursue her relentlessly.  In his DVD commentary, film historian Steve Haberman cited a critic of the time, who observed that Lorre’s performance vacillated between “dull apathy and hysterical outbursts.”  This perfectly encapsulates his ability to create his signature brand of brooding menace, aided by his distinctive sleepy voice and hypnotic eyes.  Lorre was keenly fascinated with mental illness, and once studied with Freud and Adler in Austria.  With Gogol, he appeared to be channeling the darker recesses of the human mind.  In his book Heroes of the Horrors, writer Calvin Thomas Beck opined that Lorre probably would have pursued a career in the field of psychiatry if he had not found success in film

Employing his twisted logic, Gogol finds what he considers to be the perfect way to win the affections of Yvonne – through her husband’s misfortune.  When acclaimed concert pianist Stephen Orlac’s (Colin Clive*, best known for his role of Dr. Frankenstein in the first two Universal Frankenstein films) hands become irreparably damaged in a train wreck, Yvonne reluctantly turns to Dr. Gogol for help.  Gogol transplants the hands of recently executed knife-thrower Rollo (Edward Brophy) to Orlac’s body.  Shortly after the operation, however, Orlac’s new hands seem to take on a life of their own, displaying the homicidal tendencies of their previous owner.  In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, Gogol tries to take Orlac out of the picture by convincing him that he has gone insane.  He poses as the formerly dead Rollo, brought back to life by medical science, donning metal gauntlets, dark goggles and an elaborate neck brace.  His ghastly visage and maniacal laugh contribute to one of horror cinema’s most unforgettable moments.

* Colin Clive, suffering from years of chronic alcoholism and generally poor health, died two years after Mad Love was filmed.  In a sad, but morbidly fitting twist, Lorre served as one of the pallbearers at Clive’s funeral.

Another compelling aspect of Mad Love, aside from Lorre’s captivating performance, is the dazzling cinematography by Chester A. Lyons and Gregg Toland.  It was said that Freund, with his years of camerawork experience, had trouble staying focused on his director’s duties, which makes it difficult to ascertain how much he contributed to the finished product.  Mad Love certainly feels like one of the German silents, with its emphasis on expressionism and the distortion of reality.  The scene in which Gogol argues with his reflection in a mirror would be copied many times over the years, notably by Sam Raimi (with Ash in Evil Dead 2 and Norman Osborn in Spider-Man confronting their respective doppelgängers) and Peter Jackson (Gollum/Smeagol’s schism, reflected in a pool of water, in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).

While Mad Love received generally favorable reviews, it was not appreciated by the film-going public, bombing at the box office, and losing money for MGM.  Perhaps Lorre’s portrait of mental illness, culled from his personal insights, was too much for audiences to take.  The film’s subsequent revival, decades later, would ultimately vindicate Mad Love’s place in film history as a significant entry in the horror genre, and a successful melding of artistic ambition with mainstream filmmaking. Lorre’s characterization of unrequited lust and sadistic desire remains the gold standard, which other, mostly lesser, performances are compared against.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Man Who Could Work Miracles

(1936) Directed by Lothar Mendes; Written by H.G. Wells (Scenario and dialogue) and Lajos Biró (Screenplay); Based on a short story by H.G. Wells; Starring: Roland Young, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman, Ernest Thesiger, Joan Gardner and Sophie Stewart; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“A miracle, I say, is something contrariwise to the usual cause of nature, done by an act of will.” – George Fotheringay

One of the biggest discoveries of this month-long exploration of 30s films has been the delightful fantasy/comedy gem The Man Who Could Work Miracles from director Lothar Mendes and producer Alexander Korda.  Based on a story by H.G. Wells, and co-written by Wells and Lajos Biró (who was uncredited), the film is a fascinating take on the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme, with a populist twist.  Compared to the better-known Things to Come (also written by Wells and produced by Korda), which was released the same year, The Man Who Could Work Miracles remains relatively obscure.

In the opening scene, three omnipotent beings dispute the merits of humanity.  As an experiment to “see what is in the human heart,” one of the observers chooses an ordinary man, draper’s assistant George Fotheringay (Roland Young), as a test subject.  The meek Fotheringay is suddenly endowed with virtually limitless power.  At first, his miracles are relatively banal, making small animals and food appear at will, and fixing a co-worker’s sprained arm.  As he gradually accepts his powers, however, his ambitions increase.  He enjoys a chaste friendship with his co-worker Maggie Hooper (Sophie Stewart), but truly has eyes for another female employee, Ada Price (played by Joan Gardner).  Fotheringay quickly learns that his power has limits when he attempts to make Ada love him, but he finds he can’t change her heart.

Reflecting Wells’ socialistic leanings, our protagonist is not a world leader or captain of industry, but an average working stiff.  He doesn’t lust for power, but intends to make the world a better place.  His attempts to seek counsel from other, presumably wiser individuals yield little insight about how to best channel his miraculous energies.  Each, in his own way, would use Fotheringay for his own selfish ends.   He first consults his employer, Major Grigsby (Edward Chapman), who values dominance, greed and profit above all else.  He wants to use Fotheringay as his exclusive tool for financial gain, admonishing him that there should be “no outside miracles.”  Mr. Bamfylde (Laurence Hanray), Grigsby’s pragmatic banker, stands by his employer, appalled by Fotheringay’s suggestion to just give people everything they desire, stating that “human society is based on want.”   Rev. Silas Maydig (Ernest Thesiger, best known as Doctor Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein), is little help as an indecisive intellectual, willing to proselytize about a perfect world ad infinitum, but reluctant to act.  Ralph Richardson, as wealthy retired Colonel Winstanley, has some of the film’s funniest moments.  He desires to preserve the status quo, enjoying the spoils of war.  When Fotheringay shares his vision of a new world, with people loving one another, Winstanley replies, with utter horror, “Have you no sense of decency?”

Fotheringay’s powers culminate in the construction of an enormous palace, where he summons the world’s political and business leaders to sort out the world’s problems and “run it better.”   Young’s indignant speech at the film’s climax, a rallying cry for empowerment of the disenfranchised, speaks to the vast percentage of the population that will never have the opportunity to influence world-changing decisions.  While the preceding description might sound like a heavy-handed dissertation on societal imbalance, it’s all handled with deft charm, dry wit, and customary British reserve.

H.G. Wells’ cynical and thoughtful social satire is just as topical today, suggesting that human nature hasn’t changed much over the years.  Its basic premise has been recycled in film many times, and could have easily formed the basis for many Twilight Zone episodes.  The film’s reluctantly optimistic final message asserts that there may be hope for humanity one day, if we don’t give in to our baser desires and petty disputes.  According to The Psychotronic Book of Film, a remake with Richard Pryor had been planned at one time.  Several decades later, a remake still seems a viable possibility, if handled right.  Marketability aside, this charming, wonderfully acted, and surreptitiously thought-provoking film deserves to be better known.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Classics Revisited: Island of Lost Souls

(1932) Directed by Erle C. Kenton; Written by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie; Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells; Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Kathleen Burke; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law.  Are we not Men?”
– From The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Island of Lost Souls represents a true melding of horror and science fiction, exploring the awful implications of biological experimentation taken too far.  It’s a stunning example from the short-lived Pre-Code era, pushing the envelope of what was acceptable, and exploring territories most other films only hinted at.  80-plus years after its initial release, Island of Lost Souls still manages to mesmerize viewers with its haunting imagery and themes of hubris taken to awful extremes. 

H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, was intended as an impassioned treatise against vivisection.  Many individuals saw the material as ripe for adaptation into film,* with several versions produced over the following century.  Paramount’s 1932 version, however, remains the most noteworthy example, and hits closest to the mark of embodying the novel’s horrors.  Perhaps it succeeded a little too well.  Island of Lost Souls was reviled by Wells, who perceived the film to be vulgar, demonstrating that writers may not always be the best judges of adaptations of their work.   The general consensus of government censors seemed to concur with Wells’ negative assessment.  In the United States and Canada, the film suffered various cuts, while in Wells’ native England it was banned outright, until a heavily censored version was eventually released in 1958.

* According to film historian Gregory Monk, two unauthorized versions of Wells’ novel were filmed prior to Island of Lost Souls, in 1913 and 1921.  Both are presumably lost.

Island of Lost Souls was shot on location on Catalina Island, 26 miles off the Southern Californian coast.  Foggy weather and expressionistic cinematography by Karl Struss contributed to the film’s nightmarish tone.  In addition to the location shots, sets were built on the Paramount Ranch, in nearby Agoura Hills, to simulate Dr. Moreau’s secluded lair.  Struss employed light and shadow to great effect, alternately concealing and revealing Moreau’s creations.  The animal men are brought to life, thanks to Wally Westmore’s distinctive makeup.  Dozens of extras were covered in collodion and animal hair, to simulate humanlike creatures derived from wolves, apes, gorillas and pigs.

 Much of the film’s raw energy stems from Charles Laughton’s remarkable, darkly humorous performance as the amoral Dr. Moreau.  His angelic white suit belies his less-than-pure intentions,* as he creates pain and suffering without remorse.  He sets himself up as a quasi-deity to his pathetic animal creations, keeping them in line with threats of a visit to the House of Pain.  He’s obsessed with overcoming the “stubborn beast flesh,” as he transforms animals into distorted facsimiles of humans.  He glibly deflects Edward Parker’s (Moreau’s unwitting guest, played with suitable self-righteous indignation by Richard Arlen**) disgusted remarks.  While possessing a childlike gleam in his eyes, he proclaims, “Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?” (Unfortunately, the line was cut from many prints during the film’s initial run).  Laughton, an avowed animal lover, was troubled by his character’s blatant disregard for the wellbeing of his creations, and allegedly developed a phobia for hair and avoided visiting zoos after the film’s completion.

* Moreau’s distinctive satyr-like beard was inspired by Laughton’s visit to an eye doctor.

** Arlen’s co-star, Leila Hyams (Parker’s girlfriend Ruth) appeared in another landmark 1932 horror film, Freaks.

Kathleen Burke (Billed simply as The Panther Woman in the opening credits) is Moreau’s latest and greatest creation, Lota.  Her casting was the result of a Panther Woman search held by Paramount in 1932, in which she was selected from 60,000 contestants.  Lota represents the culmination of his life’s work, and is the subject of Moreau’s newest experiment, to see if she will mate with Parker.  Burke conveys an odd mix of licentiousness and trepidation, which seems consistent with her nearly human character.  She prompts ambivalence in Parker, who is initially drawn by her innocent sexual charms, only to feel revulsion after he discovers what she really is. Burke’s animalistic, erotic performance as Lota effectively presents an uncomfortable dilemma for the viewer.  We, as the audience feel unclean for being drawn into the chemistry between Parker and Lota, even though we realize she’s not quite human.

Bela Lugosi shines in a small part as the wolf-like Sayer of the Law.  His anguished, sympathetic performance is among his best.  The financially strapped Lugosi was only paid $875, substantially less than his co-stars.  In the previous year, he turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, because he didn’t want his face buried in makeup.  Ironically, he’s virtually unrecognizable here, leaving us to recognize him by his signature voice alone.

The film diverts from Wells’ novel by doing away with explanations about how Moreau created his beast-men.  While Wells vaguely described a surgical procedure involving the grafting of bone and tissue, director Erle C. Kenton and screenwriters Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie leave the nuts and bolts of the operations to the audience’s imagination.  The screams of the beasts, emanating from the House of Pain, are enough to imply that painful transformations are taking place.  The filmmakers captured the essence of Wells’ cautionary tale about human arrogance.  Long before Jurassic Park, Island of Lost Souls posed the dilemma that just because we could do something didn’t necessarily mean that we should.  Nature would inevitably turn the tables if we continued our trespasses without regard to the consequences.

1932’s Island of Lost Souls remains the definitive adaptation of Wells’ novel, and continues to be an influential force in pop culture.  Several music groups, including Devo (incorporating the refrain, “Are we not men?” into their defining song, “Jocko Homo”) and Oingo Boingo (with “No Spill Blood,” an 80s concert staple) owed much to the story and film.  Island of Lost Souls has been remade and copied numerous times, but none of the versions have ever equaled the seminal, atmospheric original.  The issues raised by the film remain topical today, and time has done nothing to diminish its power to disturb – something that few modern horror films can lay claim to.