Monday 11 February 2008

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The series of horror movies produced by Val Lewton for RKO in the mid-1940s are not only among the greatest of all horror movies, they’re also among the most unconventional. And horror movies really don’t get any more unconventional than The Curse of the Cat People, made in 1944. It’s really a fairy tale about a disturbed child, and about being deprived of love, and about dysfunctional families. There are some disturbing images and some moments of horror, but this is a movie that really pushes the boundaries of the horror genre. It starts with what seems the perfect all-American family, but it’s soon obvious that all is not well with 6-year-old Amy (a stunning performance by Ann Carter). Amy is distant and distracted, and the other kids don’t like her. Her parents are pretending that the events that occurred in Cat People never happened and that Ollie’s first wife, the tragic Irena, never existed, but Amy’s mother suspects that Amy is cursed by the dead Irena (which is the only reason the title makes any sense at all). Meanwhile Amy has acquired an invisible friend. There’s also a sub-plot about an ageing actress who, as a result of an accident, does not believe her daughter Barbara is really her daughter. The daughter (played very effectively by Elizabeth Russell) has lived her entire life from the age of six without any love at all from her mother.

Apparently the shooting of the movie was chaotic, with director Gunther von Fritsch being fired and replaced by Robert Wise, and with Lewton insisting on the ending being reshot completely. The plot is a strange conglomeration of elements, but in spite of this and the chaos of the shooting the movie holds together extremely well. Nick Musuraca again contributes some magnificent cinematography. The way he photographs Elizabeth Russell is especially impressive. In fact the way he photographs the three main female characters – Amy, Irena and Barbara – is impressive. This is a sensitive and beautiful movie, which is not the way one normally describes horror movies. A brilliant movie.

Sunday 10 February 2008

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The Mystery of the Wax Museum has been remade several times, with the 3-D version starring Vincent Price being the best-known (and it’s a very good film), but the original 1933 version directed by Michael Curtiz may well be the best. It was made in two-strip Technicolor, and the strange and unrealistic colours that this early colour process gives actually lend the movie a wonderfully weird and other-worldly atmosphere. Curtiz was clearly very much under the influence of German Expressionism at this stage, with lots of eerie shadow effects and odd distorted camera angles. The story starts in London in the early 20s, but after the disastrous fire destroys the wax museum of the gifted but unworldly sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) the action moves to New York in 1933, where Igor is opening a new version of his museum. Hard-bitten motor-mouthed reporter Florence Dempsey is desperate for a story, and the disappearance of the glamorous and wealthy Joan Gale leads her to take an interest in the goings-on at the wax museum, while the brilliant but now thoroughly uhinged sculptor is taking an interest in her friend Charlotte (Fay Wray), who reminds him strikingly of his celebrated but now destroyed wax portrait of Marie Antoinette. Atwill is excellent, not going over the top but still disturbing. Glenda Farrell is a delight as the reporter, and Fay Wray gets to scream a lot. The movie is like one of the hard-boiled early 1930s Warner Brothers crime or newspaper movies, but with a horror theme and shot in an Expressionist style. It’s a combination that you wouldn’t expect to work, but it does. Curtiz is in complete control, moving the action along at breakneck pace and providing non-stop entertainment and visual treats that make this an absolutely superb little movie. It’s also very much a pre-code movie, with lots of drug references and some moderately risque dialogue.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is an odd hybrids, a combination of a Dracula movie and a king fu movie. It was a co-production between Hammer Films and Shaw Brothers Films in Hong Kong, and was made in Hong Kong in 1974. Like Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula It represented another attempt by Hammer to breathe new life (or unlife) into their Dracula franchise. It actually works surprisingly well. Professor van Helsing (a spirited performance by a somewhat frail-looking but enthusiastic Peter Cushing) is lecturing in China, trying to convince the university history faculty to take seriously the Chinese legends of vampires. What van Helsing doesn’t know is that his olds foe, Dracula, has been in China for many years, and now controls a coven of Chinese vampires, the infamous Seven Golden Vampires. So the indomitable European professor joins forces with a family of Chinese vampire hunters and martial arts experts and sets out to track down the local undead. His expedition is financed by a beautiful blonde Norwegian woman, played by Julie Ege. Ms Ege is not over-endowed with talent, although she is extremely well-endowed in a couple of other areas. As an actress she can best be described as mostly harmless. Robin Stewart as van Helsing’s son comes into the same category – he is required to be handsome, not terribly intelligent but awfully brave, and his talents are fortunately just sufficient for such a role.

On the other hand the movie has quite a lot in its favour. With Roy Ward Baker, always a stylish and skilful director with a striking eye for colour, at the helm the film is wonderfully atmospheric and visually splendid. The sets and costumes, and the make-up and effects, are all excellent. The vampires look very sinister and creepy. There are some very nice touches – especially the lesser undead minions of the vampire lords rising from the ground. It’s a touch more gory than previous Hammer outings, but without resorting to the excesses that later all but ruined the horror genre. And with a Shaw Brothers martial arts choreographer on hand to supervise the fight sequences it has more action and excitement than the average Hammer movie. The basic idea is original and effective, even if the vampire lore gets a bit tangled up. It has more than enough energy and exuberance to make up for any shortcomings in the plot. All in all it’s a great deal of fun.

Friday 1 February 2008

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is somewhat unusual, a Dario Argento movie without gore. Unfortunately Argento’s first feature, made in 1970, also lacks the characteristic Argento baroque visual splendour (although it does have a typically impressive Argento opening sequence, the attempted murder behind plate glass). I’m not a big fan of the giallo genre, but Argento’s giallos are more interesting than most. While giallos tend to focus on violence towards women, something that makes me a little uncomfortable, with Argento there’s always something else going on. If you make the mistake of only seeing the violence against women then you’re making the same mistake the protagonist of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage makes, of being led astray by your assumptions about gender. Any assumptions are dangerous in Argento’s world, since all sounds and images can mislead us. What appear to be clues are really snares.

The movie opens with a man witnessing a woman being murdered, but the events are happening on the other side of a plate-glass window and he is unable to intervene. When he gives his statement to the police, he is convinced that there’s something he’s missed, something that didn’t fit. He starts playing amateur detective, determined to find the answer, and finds that both he and his girlfriend have become caught up in a web of violence spun by a mysterious serial killer. While it doesn’t have the spectacular visuals of his later movies it is a very assured feature film debut, and (by the standards of giallos) it’s surprisingly coherent and tightly plotted. During the course of the 70s Argento seemed to focus more on images and less on plot, and his movies steadily improved, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is still worthy entertainment.

Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965)

Who Killed Teddy Bear? is a movie about sexual obsession that in many ways would be considered provocative and daring even today. The fact that the movie was made in the US in 1965 is something that almost defies belief. It’s not just the sexual content that is surprising for 1965, it’s the extraordinary degree of moral ambiguity. Larry (Sal Mineo) works as a waiter in a sleazy night club in New York. He lives with his brain-damaged kid sister. The reason she’s brain-damaged is that as a kid she saw her brother having sex with a woman – confused and frightened, she ran out of the room and fell down the stairs, sustaining serious head injuries. Now her brother looks after her, but he’s so riddled with sexual guilt he’s unable to have a relationship with a woman, so he satisfies his appetites by frequenting adult movie theatres and adult bookstores, and by watching his neighbour Norah through her window. His relationship with his sister is portrayed with sensitivity, and he is clearly devoted to her, but she is now 19 and her own burgeoning sexuality coupled with her excessive closeness to her brother adds another disturbing element to this film. As the movie opens Larry is watching Norah through his binoculars while making an obscene phone call to her, and touching himself in a way that people just did not touch themselves in 1965 American movies. The movie becomes even more unsettling when Norah calls the police and we meet the cop assigned to the case. Lieutenant Dave Madden’s wife was raped and murdered some years earlier, and Madden is now obsessed with sex crimes and sexual deviations. His apartment contains a formidable library on the subject and he has an extensive collection of tape-recorded interviews with female victims of sex crimes. The fact that he shares the apartment with his ten-year-old daughter and that she also gets to hear these tapes adds yet another disturbing layer. Madden is obsessed to the point where he cannot see the effect this may be having on her. Our unease about Madden increases still further when it appears that his motivations in taking a protective interest in Norah may not be as pure as he’d like her to believe. The situation is complicated still further when Norah’s lesbian boss Marian starts to take a protective interest in her as well.

Everybody in this movie is obsessed by thwarted sexual desires, but what makes it particularly interesting is that it avoids simplistic moralising. The motivations of all the characters are understandable, and we can sympathise with them all to a degree. They aren’t monsters, they’re simply driven by urges that they are unable to come to terms with, and unable to confront honestly. They’re all innocents to some extent, and the movie is very much about the death of innocence. Sal Mineo’s performance is simply stunning. You’d really have to go back to Peter Lorre’s extraordinary performance in Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M to find another example of such an oddly sympathetic portrayal of a sex criminal. It’s the sort of performance that in an ideal world would have earned the actor an Oscar. The stark and very noirish black-and-white cinematography gives the movie a remarkably sordid and sleazy feel. Not surprisingly this movie disappeared without a trace back in 1965, although it’s possible to see traces of its influence in later US films such as Klute. I suspect that it was itself influenced by some of Otto Preminger’s social problem movies such as The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. It’s a low-budget movie and it’s a bit rough around the edges but it still packs quite a punch. It’s an amazing movie that really has to be seen to be believed, and it’s one I highly recommend.