Friday 29 September 2017

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera, released in 1943, is a rather odd hybrid, part musical and part horror film. The Paris Opera had provided a great setting for Gaston Leroux’s immensely successful 1910 novel but with Nelson Eddy getting top billing in the movie it made sense to put much more emphasis on the music. There’s not much point in having Nelson Eddy as your star if he doesn’t sing.

There have of course been countless film and stage adaptations of Leroux’s novel, including the celebrated 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney while Hammer did their own version in 1962.

As far as this 1943 film is concerned the story starts with violinist and aspiring composer Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) being fired from the Paris Opera orchestra. He had developed a problem with his left hand that affected his playing. Unfortunately being unemployed hits Erique hard. Although he had been well paid he has not saved any money. All his money has been spent paying (anonymously) for singing lessons for up-and-coming soprano ChistineDuBois (Susanna Foster).

Erique is hopelessly in love with Christine but his love is not requited. She has firmly friendzoned him. In fact she has (perhaps without being aware of it) committed the ultimate act of cruelty. She has pitied him.

Erique hopes to revive his fortune by means of a concerto he has written but he becomes convinced that music publisher Pleyel has stolen his work. This has tragic, indeed fatal, consequences and Erique is left horribly disfigured after being doused with acid. He takes refuge in the Opera, not difficult to do since the building is a bewildering warren of literally hundreds of rooms and passageways both above and below ground. He becomes a shadowy presence in the building, leading to rumours that a ghost is stalking the Opera.

Christine has two suitors for her hand, baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and detective Raoul Daubert (Edgar Barrier). Their rivalry provides some comic relief as well as romantic tension and also serves to emphasise the utter hopelessness of Erique’s love.

Erique has plans to advance Christine’s career, by drastic means. He is clearly becoming more obsessed and more unhinged and he has convinced himself that he can still win her love. He will do anything to further his plans, including murder. If necessary multiple murders.

Universal at this time relied mostly on B-pictures and cheap A-pictures but this time they decided to spend some real money (well real money by the studio’s parsimonious standards) and shoot the film in Technicolor. This does cause a slight problem. The musical side of the film is certainly enhanced by the lush visuals but the visuals that suit a musical are not those that make for an effective horror film. The horror parts of the film do look surprisingly atmospheric and spooky but it is a bit jarring switching constantly between lavish musical spectacle and creepy horror picture.

The sets are pretty impressive. Erique’s lair beneath the Opera in particular looks wonderfully atmospheric.

The acting is a bit strange, since Claude Rains is really the only one whose performance is close to what you expect in a horror movie. Everyone else is giving light-hearted musical comedy performances. The cast is likeable enough but they seem out of place in a chiller.

Rains does pretty well. He makes Erique’s behaviour comprehensible and he’s convincingly obsessive. If course we’re going to suspect that his obsession is indeed partly musical, but also partly sexual as well. You don’t spend every cent you have on financing a young lady’s musical career merely because you like her singing. Unfortunately this aspect is so downplayed that the full impact of his tragic obsession is lost.

In the original draft of the script Claudin is Christine’s father. That idea was dropped which was probably a good idea since having Claudin romantically and sexually obsessed would have given the story more punch and would have made Claudin’s situation more tragic, had the screenplay been prepared to go in that direction.

Claude Rains took his role pretty seriously. Prior to the beginning of shooting he learnt to play both the piano and the violin so that he would look convincing when Claudin was playing those instruments.

The real problem is that there’s way too much opera and not enough phantom. This is a musical comedy romance with the horror bits tacked on as an afterthought. And the horror elements don’t have the necessary punch. Partly this is because none of the victims are sympathetic so we don’t really care when the Phantom kills them. Even Christine is not sympathetic enough to make us care too much about her, cheerfully playing with the affections of two handsome men whilst casually ripping poor old Erique’s heart out. In a musical comedy she’d be a successful character and we’d know that she’d end up choosing the right man but for the purposes of this story she’s too worldly and calculating to be the innocent victim in danger from a maniac.

The film also lacks any real sense of mystery, or suspense, or weirdness. We know from the start that the Phantom is Erique and we know there’s nothing supernatural going on. We know why he’s doing what he’s doing and what he’s hoping to achieve.

I’d only previously seen this film on VHS and seeing it again now on Blu-Ray certainly makes a difference. Universal have provided some very desirable extras including an audio commentary and a documentary (which provides some truly fascinating information about the 1925 version as well).

The Phantom of the Opera just doesn’t quite come together. It looks great but it doesn’t deliver the goods as a horror film.

Saturday 23 September 2017

The Curse of Her Flesh (1968)

The Curse of Her Flesh, released in 1968, was the second instalment in Michael Findlay’s notorious Flesh trilogy, perhaps the most deliriously perverse of all 1960s sexploitation movies. This is bizarre entertainment, although entertainment may not be the right word to use to describe these cinematic sleazefests.

The roughie sub-genre emerged as audiences began to tire of the rather innocent shenanigans of the nudie-cutie genre. If nude volleyball was beginning to pall why not add lashings of violence and add a kinky edge to the sex? Actually the nudie-cuties didn’t have any sex, just nudity, but by the mid-60s it was starting to be possible to depict sex as long as care was taken to ensure that very little was actually seen. Violence on the other hand was much easier to get away with.

There were roughies, and then there were the films of husband-and-wife team Michael and Roberta Findlay. The Findlays didn’t just push the edge of the envelope. They ripped up the envelope, set it on fire and then stomped on it. Their films were exercises in bad taste, misanthropy, weirdness, kinkiness and excess. Michael directed and often starred in the films while Roberts handled the cinematography. They co-produced and co-wrote the productions. Roberta occasionally acted as well. Roberta was one of the fairly small number of women involved in actually making sexploitation movies rather than just appearing in them. 

Considering the nature of their films it’s unusual enough for a woman to be involved in the production side. It’s even more surprising for a married woman to be doing so. You have to wonder what their marriage was like!

Watching such movies you’d have to suspect that Michael had a few issues. In fact you’d have to suspect that he had lots of issues. Whether this was true or not I have no idea. For all I know maybe he was actually a nice regular guy in real life.

This one takes up where The Touch of Her Flesh left off. Arms dealer Richard Jennings, having bumped off his unfaithful stripper wife, along with sundry other hookers and strippers, is back and his mental state hasn’t improved any. He wants more revenge. And he intends to get it, in the most extreme manner possible. It’s not really necessary to tell you much more about the plot. This flick is a series of strange and depraved sequences and plot coherence was not a major priority.

Apart from the revenge theme there’s also something connected with an inheritance but I’m still not quite clear what that was all about.

Richard as usual is venting his anger on strippers and in this case he’s particularly targeting a girl who does a kinky lesbian stage act. He deals with her indirectly but in a suitably gruesome and nasty manner.

There’s also another girl who is the girlfriend of his main target, the man who stole his wife. She has somehow managed to convince the guy that she’s a virgin. In fact she has plans to restore her lost virginity and that offers Richard an opportunity to make his vengeance very devious indeed.

There’s a definite arty edge to this film, or rather there’s a definite attempt at artiness. Trying to be arty is something that is generally best avoided and to be honest Radley Metzger was the only film-maker capable of convincingly combining erotica and art (which he did most successfully in his superb The Lickerish Quartet). The Findlays don’t really get away with it here. They give the impression of trying too hard and the result is a movie that is slow-moving and muddled rather than artistic. It’s also debatable just how successfully anyone could have combined this much sleaze with art.

The acting is mostly typical of the genre, in other words the performers were chosen for their willingness to engage in cinematic kinkiness rather than for their acting chops. It does have to be said though that Michael Findlay makes a fairly convincing psychotic killer.

There’s a stupendous amount of depravity in this movie although it’s too bizarre and unhinged to be genuinely disturbing.

Something Weird released all three of the Findlay Flesh films on one DVD. They’re not very long films so this involves no real compromises as far as the quality of the transfers is concerned. The Curse of Her Flesh gets a fullframe transfer (which is correct since it was shot in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio) and looks very good. There are no extras, hardly surprising with three movies on one disc.

The Curse of Her Flesh is not for the faint-hearted. This is one strange and grubby little movie. It has a certain morbid fascination but on the whole it lacks the fun that makes so many 60s sexploitation movies so enjoyable. And if you want depravity Dave Friedman’s The Defilers does it better and more intelligently. I think this one is strictly for fans of the Findlays.

Saturday 16 September 2017

The Invisible Man (1933)

Universal’s 1933 The Invisible Man left me decidedly unimpressed when I last saw it some years back. That was on VHS and I thought that seeing it on Blu-Ray might perhaps improve the experience. It didn’t and I will try to explain why.

The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale who established a very high reputation as a horror director with Universal with films such as Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

The adaptation, by R.C. Sherriff, takes some liberties with the plot of the original story by H.G. Wells and even greater liberties with the intent of the original.

The movie opens with the Invisible Man making his appearance, swathed in bandages, seeking shelter in an English country inn. He needs a place to work in secrecy. He is a troublesome lodger and soon finds himself ejected from the inn, a procedure to which he takes violent objection. We gradually learn the reason for his invisibility, and for his apparent instability and violence. He has discovered a cocktail of drugs that renders him invisible but with unfortunate effects on his sanity. An invisible man is potentially dangerous; an unhinged invisible man is a very definite danger.

We also learn his identity. He is Jack Griffin, a promising young scientist who disappeared from his laboratory in mysterious circumstances.

The police are soon on his trial, an undertaking which predictably presents them with extreme difficulties and as their pursuit intensifies Griffin’s behaviour becomes increasingly violent and bizarre. He starts to lose interest in finding an antidote to his invisibility drugs, preferring to daydream about the limitless power that he imagines is going to be his.

There are many many problems with this film. It’s possible that the biggest problem of all is James Whale. His insistence on treating the story mostly as comedy not only removes most of the drama and suspense, it also strips the film of any emotional depth. Whale’s contempt for the horror genre is obvious in all his films in the genre and is perhaps the reason he insisted on adding so much ill-advised comedy.

Another weakness is that the Invisible Man is ready clearly deranged and homicidal when the character is first introduced. We never see him as a presumably dedicated and quite human young scientist but only as a murderous madman. The result is that we simply don’t care what happens to him. The sooner he is hunted down and killed the better. There is no element of tragedy to the story. There is no drama and it’s difficult to build suspense when it’s impossible to care about the fate of the protagonist, and in this film it’s actually impossible to care about the fates of any of the characters.

The extraordinarily annoying performance of Claude Rains in the title role, and the excessive ham-fisted comedy, add to the problems.

We also don’t get to see anything of the relationship between Griffin and his fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart). We don’t get to know Flora at all and Stuart’s performance is lifeless (admittedly the terrible script gives her little to work with). This means there is no effective romance angle to give us a reason to care about either Griffin or Flora. Whale seems to have had zero interest in emotional relationships. This is to an extraordinary degree an emotionally sterile film.

The acting is universally broad, obvious and generally awful. Una O’Connor screeches a lot, which seems to have the limit of her acting talents. She seems to have been one of Whale’s favoured actress and she’s as tiresome here as she is in Bride of Frankenstein.

All of this means that the movie has only one thing going for it, that being the special effects. They are impressive for 1933 and in fact are still pretty impressive today. On the whole though the movie is visually much less interesting than most of Universal’s horror movies of the period, with no real atmosphere.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release looks terrific. Unfortunately it’s let down by a horrifically useless menu system so while there appear to be some tempting extras don’t be surprised if you can’t access them.

Are the flaws of The Invisible Man serious enough to make it not worth seeing? Sadly I’d have to say that the answer is yes. Apart from the invisibility effects I can’t think of a single thing about this movie that works. It’s not just uninteresting, it’s positively irritating.

Avoid this one.

Thursday 7 September 2017

Hollywood Babylon (1972)

Hollywood Babylon is a softcore sexploitation expose of Hollywood in the silent era. It’s a clever idea - take lots of stock footage from the First World War and the 1920s and lots of footage from silent movies, purporting to tell the story of Hollywood, then mix in some hot softcore sex scenes illustrating the most colourful episodes of Tinseltown depravity. So you get an 87 minute movie but you only need to shoot about 40 minutes of new footage and since all of the new footage is wall-to-wall nudity and sex you still have a potent little sexploitation feature.

There’s also the advantage that all the sex scenes are period scenes, with Jazz Age trappings and clothing (although the ladies tend to shed their clothing pretty quickly). 

And there’s the further bonus that all this depraved and illicit sex involves celebrities.

It’s based loosely on Kenneth Anger’s infamous 1965 book Hollywood Babylon. The book details the degenerate lifestyles of Hollywood’s rich and famous in salacious detail although to a large extent it’s mere gossip. Anger assumed that if there was a scandalous rumour about a Hollywood star then it must have been true. Of course the Hollywood elite did lead lives of staggering excess and there was undoubtedly a great deal of illicit and often perverted sex, even if the particular stories retailed by Anger were not necessarily true.

True or not these stories do make great material for an exploitation movie. And they’re done in full colour, in a fairly glossy style (by low-budget movie standards) with some very attractive actresses and absolutely copious quantities of sex and nudity and assorted naughtiness.

During the 20s Hollywood was rocked by a series of scandals, the most famous being the Fatty Arbuckle case. Aspiring actress Virginia Rappe died soon after attending a party thrown by Arbuckle at a San Francisco hotel. Arbuckle, one of the most popular silent comics, was accused of raping her and causing her death. He was acquitted but his career was ruined. Anger, and the fim-makers, have chosen the most outrageous and titillating of the many rumours surrounding the case, the rumour involving a somewhat unconventional use of a champagne bottle as a sex aid.

Equally over-the-top is the sequence involving Charlie Chaplin, his child bride, his aversion to ordinary sex (given that he’d been trapped into marriage by a pregnancy) and his efforts to persuade his bride that his favoured alternative to regular sex was actually perfectly normal, even though it was contrary to the California Penal Code. She finds his story a bit hard to swallow, if you’ll forgive my unforgivable pun.

And then there’s the celebrated story about the It Girl, Clara Bow, being serviced by an entire football team, a proceeding from which (in the movie) she seems to derive considerable satisfaction.

For cult movie fans the highlight is probably going to be Uschi Digard as Marlene Dietrich, a sequence featuring not just lesbian sex but lesbian domestic violence (you would certainly not get away with such a scene today), some kinky dressing-up games and some fairly hot heterosexual sex as well (Marlene being a gal who played for both teams).

Various drug scandals are dealt with as well, and of course if you’re going to deal with drugs you naturally want the actresses to take their clothes off. There’s also a rare orgy scene that manages to be genuinely decadent, and even genuinely erotic.

The totally episodic format of the movie meant there was no need to worry about a plot and the newly filmed inserts could be concentrated entirely on the sinful doings of the stars.

Hollywood Babylon is included as an extra on Bayview Entertainment’s DVD release of The Beast and the Vixens. Hollywood Babylon is in some ways the more entertaining film.

Hollywood Babylon is amusingly scandalous, genuinely sexy, quite kinky and it achieves a truly decadent feel. It succeeds rather well in doing what it sets out to do. Recommended.