Friday, October 31, 2014

Mr. Sardonicus

Mr. Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961) It just wouldn't be Hallowe'en without a visit to the films of William Castle, an inveterate showman of B-movies, who always gave his audiences a bit of theater with their trashy movies, that were done with such a humorously satirical edge ("Filmed in 'Illusion-O' or 'Emergo' or 'Percepto!'" which were usually just special "rigs" in the theater) they could be seen as something of a knock at studios' trumpeting of new film stocks and aspect-ratios, all developed in order to make a theater film "an event" (and drag people away from their televisions).

Castle was fun. And not a bad film-maker, either—just not a great one. He wasn't much on atmospherics (as a producer, he always kept his eye on the budget), but his films were done with a humor and an archness that came across from the screen, even without the swooping skeletons and shocked theater-seats that he would plant in the loges.

William Castle explains it all for you.
Mr. Sardonicus had a less sophisticated gimmick. Castle, himself, introduces the film jocularly and the film begins with Dr. Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) arriving in the European country of Gorslava at the behest of his former love, Maude (Audrey Dalton), now the Baroness Sardonicus, whose husband (Guy Rolfe) has a strange malady she wants the doctor to cure.

Sardonicus was once Marek Toleslawski, a peasant farmer, whose father Henryk buys a lottery ticket. That night, however, his own ticket gets punched and he dies in his sleep. The ticket, however, is a big winner. Small problem, though: it is buried with Henryk. Marek's wife at the time, Elenka, persuades him to dig up his father's corpse to retrieve the winning ticket, and the sight of his father's grinning corpse, creates a hysterical reaction—he can no longer speak, and his face has been paralyzed into a terrifying grin, similar to the ghastly one he saw on his father's corpse. Seeing his face, his wife died of a heart attack and Marek's purloined winnings have made him rich enough to buy a castle and a title—the Baron Sardonicus.

The Baron spends his life in torturous experiments (on others, of course!) hoping to find a cure for his condition. Somehow, with his bad reputation, ghoulish face and torturing habits, he managed to win the heart of Cargrave's former flame (which speaks volumes about her, even if Sardonicus cannot...speak volumes, that is). But, the good doctor, despite being disturbed about the whole situation, reluctantly agrees to try to find a cure for the Baron, out of love for Maude. As the baron has mentioned that he will mutilate her face, if he isn't cured, well, that's just another incentive.

Baron Sardonicus, being reflective.
How does it all work out? Ah, now that's what makes Sardonicus unique. Castle's little trick with this one is that the audience gets to decide with glow-in-the-dark cards—what Castle calls "The Punishment Poll,"—what fate should befall the characters? Talk about bread and circuses—theater-goers could vote like Romans (or Siskel and Ebert), as the card showed thumbs up or thumbs down. Castle (on-screen) took the count of the cards (one thus suspects it was rigged, and evidently no evidence of an alternative ending has been unearthed) and the audience's "decision" played out on the screen. That the ending that is shown is always the "thumbs down" version shows what Castle thought of his audience's ability to practice leniency—none at all. Why else would they be showing up at a creepy movie like Mr. Sardonicus?

Like most Castle movies, one can't take any of this too seriously, as the film is being presented in deadly earnest, despite the crazy ideas and the Sardonicus make-up that produces more mirth than actual horror. It is a jolly little ride, not too different (or as frightening) as the spook-house at the fair, and its effect is just as short-lived.

The Doctor and the Devils

The Doctor and the Devils (Freddie Francis, 1985) The film company Brooksfilms (established by Mel Brooks) had a bi-polar streak to it. Yes, they would do comedies, of course, like Mel's movies and To Be or Not To Be and My Favorite Year. But they would also make projects of The Elephant Man (the first studio film directed by David Lynch—now, there was a gamble), the Frances farmer biography Frances, and this film, adapted from a literary rarity, an original screenplay by Dylan Thomas (written in 1953), based on the true story of the mercenary ghouls Burke and Hare, who, starting in the year 1827, developed a lucrative trade in killing locals in Edinburgh and selling the corpses to an anatomy professor for display in his lectures.

The script was adapted by Ronald Harwood and the film directed by legendary British cinematographer Freddie Francis (The Innocents, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Glory, as well as The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story for Lynch, and Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese). 
One can't say anyone scrimped on the cast. For all the loathsomeness of the subject matter, it attracted a great crew of British thespians with Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as the psuedonymed Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom, who would liquor their victims up and then suffocate them for the betterment of science. Their customer is Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton, just before his Bond years), who in some twisted idealism, looks the other way at the subjects brought to him by Fallon and Broom. He is opposed, and looked on with suspicion, at the Institute by Professor Macklin (played by a pre-Trek Patrick Stewart) and supported there by Dr. Murray (Julian Sands) who has his own secrets—he is in love with a bar-doxie (Twiggy), who may become one of the potential victims.
Great cast, maybe, but great movie it is not, despite the pains taken to present the squalor of London, both upstairs and downstairs. After starting out as a cinematographer, Francis became a director, doing a lot of pictures for Britain's Hammer Studios, a good prep for his work on this. It is atmospheric, alright, with a low-level discomfiture throughout, with Fallon and Broom being the lowest of the low, preying on the sick, weak and debilitated, and Rock turning a blind eye to the source (grave-robbing at best) of his demonstration subjects. 
There is a very large irony inherent in the script, not to far afield from the one Richard Matheson employed in "I Am Legend." But, the script, whatever it's pedigree (Harwood is an Oscar-winner, Dylan Thomas a writing legend) is the film's true down-fall.  It might seem a bit leaning to the pedestrian to say this, but there is no one to root for in all this, no one to sympathize with—not even the victims—and one watches with a dis-interest in the outcomes...for anyone.

There might have been a real reason no one dug up this script for so long.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947) Three years before he would realize his ultimate triumph of All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz made his fifth film for 20th Century Fox, a fantasy-romance, adapted by Phillip Dunne. Mankiewicz had already worked with star Gene Tierney on Dragonwyck and the two re-teamed here to tell the story of a young widow, Mrs. Lucy Muir, who, to get out from underneath the domineering thumbs of her in-laws, takes her young daughter (played by Natalie Wood) and rents a storied seaside cottage called Gull Cottage.

Storied might be too charitable a term. The landlord does his best to warn her that there's been quite a bit of turn-over lately in renter's owing to the rumor that the place is haunted. But, Mrs. Muir loves the place and is undeterred by the stories; she, her daughter and her maid move in.

The first night she is visited by the ghost, in the sepulchral form of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), the first owner of the house. He doesn't take too kindly to the living presences there, but Muir charms him, and he reluctantly agrees to a spiritual version of a renter's agreement—as they're better than past guests, he will allow them to stay, refrain from poltergeistian activities and will only check-in (fade-in) with Mrs. Muir, leaving her daughter undisturbed. Wouldn't do to scare the children, no matter the friendliness of the ghost.  And life (and after-life) settles down for the four residents.

There are disagreements, but for the most part, Gregg and Muir get along, and when Muir's in-laws pay an unexpected visit to tell of her of financial troubles that will force her eviction and her return to London, Gregg shows that the spirit is willing by scaring the in-laws out of the house.
To get her out of debt, the two devise a scheme: Gregg will dictate his memoirs to Muir, and she will then publish them and use the proceeds to buy Gull Cottage.  Gregg spins a tale of derring-do on the high seas, and his obvious love of the sea and means of expressing it, charms his biographer, and slowly, the two begin to fall in love.
But it's a love that can never be in the real world. The Captain is, after all, dead. And not just figuratively, but really and sincerely...dead. She is young, lovely, and, more to the point, alive. Suitors come and go, and Gregg watches them, disapprovingly, and is, himself, haunted by the opportunities for life that Muir might be passing by. "Life is for the living," they say. So, when Muir meets an urbane man (George Sanders) at the publisher's, Gregg convinces Muir (while she sleeps) that he is only a dream that she's had, and fades from her life to give her life, never to return.
But, life is not all it's cracked up to be. Life is hard for Mrs. Muir, and love is even harder—cruel, in reality. She lives out her life alone, without even the spirit of love she once knew.

It's simple in theme, but complex in emotion and resonance. Mrs. Muir is a widow in love with death. Mourning her husband, she finds love in a kindred spirit, in love with life, so much so that he will sacrifice himself in her interest. It is the oddest, and most haunting of love stories that ends in a love that even death dare not part.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961) One of the truly great horror movies ever made, though without a drop of blood in sight. Director Jack Clayton's film of William Archibald's play (based on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw"), with a polish by Truman Capote ("In Cold Blood"), and a final coat of lacquer by John Mortimer (the "Rumpole" series), is a creepily finessed horror story/psychological thriller depending on your point-of-view of the source of all the trouble at Bly estate. 

Miss Giddens is given her first governess job by "The Uncle" (Michael Redgrave), a cold bon-vivant, who wants her to "handle everything" and "leave me alone." Arriving at the country estate, she finds a world alive with life...and some dead stuff, too. Isolated and buttoned-up (she's minister's daughter) she starts to suspect that her young little charges are more than they seem to be, then is finally convinced that they are in the thrall of the dead care-takers previously employed. Deborah Kerr treads a fine line between gentility and hysteria (one wonders whether we're watching a ghost story or a manifestation of her own worst fears and desires), and Michael Redgrave, appearing briefly, is the coldest of rakes. The stars of the film, though, are little Martin Stephens (fresh from playing the lead child in Village of the Damned) and Pamela Franklin, she, vibrating like a thing possessed (well...) and he, all-stillness and eyes that are fathoms deep. There has rarely been two kids as quietly malevolent as these two. 
Then, too, are the presences of Peter Wyngarde (Britain's epitome of the degrading satyr) and Clytie Jessop, as the figments of Quint and Jessel, who have gone before as the caretakers of Flora and Miles, and, having died under mysterious circumstances, are merely ghostly presences. The image of Jessop, standing ethereally among the reeds of a lake still is one of the singularly creepy images in all of cinema for me. Freddie Francis did the outstanding deep-focus cinematography, and A.G. Ambler and John Cox, provided the ever-present sounds evocative of things both natural and not. 
Talk about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions...

The Innocents is a magnificent film—certainly one of the best among the usual low-hanging-fruit of the horror genre—beautiful to watch, even as it chills your heart and kills your hopes.

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) is based on Henry James' classic story "The Turn of the Screw" co-scripted for the screen by none other than Truman Capote. Both deal with the attempts of a nanny to break her two young charges of the possession imposed on them by their former nanny and the old gardener---both of whom died under mysterious circumstances. The beauty of the story is that it is never stated outright--the possession may just be a figment of the nanny's sexually repressed imagination. And Deborah Kerr's sometimes feverish performance adds support to this argument. Add to the other side of the argument the eerily mature performances by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the children. Ms. Franklin grew up to give equally mature and accomplished roles later in her career--her performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie rivalled the Oscar-winning one by Maggie Smith.
A great deal of the credit of The Innocents goes to director Jack Clayton who creates such a bloody eerie mood, in much the same way as Robert Wise did in The Haunting. Clayton also, I think, has a bird fetish. We were treated to a lot of cruddy birds in Clayton's over-produced, over-publicized, under-acted version of The Great Gatsby. But he does something neat here, there appear to birds all over the place--during the day, (and) at night, even. But you don't see them too often. They are merely a presence, like the two aberrations of the household. 
The horror is done so well, so subtly in The Innocents, as opposed to the atrociousness of The Exorcist. Who would have thought that the sight of a woman dressed in black, sitting among the reeds in the distant haze could throw such cold at your back and make the roots of your hair tingle? That's the beauty of The Innocents, it does so much with so little, but when it pulls the stops out, the effect is damn near devastating.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM on January 21, 1977

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: The Haunting (1963)

The Set-Up:  I had a friend who professed to be a psychic. He didn't want the powers. He didn't ask for them. As a matter of fact, until he learned to live with them, they were a bother (and he had extensive psychological and neurological testing to make sure he wasn't going crazy) and had a brief (very brief) tenure where he was a "professional psychic." He mentioned one client who was bothered by the ghost of her mother, and I asked him "what's the thing with ghosts?" "Ah, ghosts are assholes!" he said matter-of-factly. "They're selfish bastards, always hanging around the living, worried about stuff that shouldn't matter to them anymore. Why don't they just move on?"

Indeed. What are they hanging around here for?

There are all sorts of horror movies and subjects for horror: slashers, slaughter, "snuff," torture, gore, monster, zombie, thriller, comedy, sci-fi—they cross lines and body-parts, but they all center on the brain, eventually, because that's where horror lives, right up there in the squishy, meaty, gristly gray matter.

And there are psychological horror movies, too, like Robert Wise's version of The Haunting.* Yes, they involve ghosts and are ghost stories (like The Shining and Poltergeist, modern equivalents), but mostly they are psychological, with the ghosts' main intent being the unnerving of their victims—so, they can be left alone, presumably**—by exploiting the psychological weaknesses of the living.  The pattern is assured—ghosts must be fairly lazy, too, or maybe don't know what they're capable of—by first doing the smallest, irritating little things (creaking doors, things that go "bump" in the night), then escalating to ever-grander displays of beastly behavior that are none-too-subtle, and that even the dullest and least psychic characters will see and react to. One wonders why they don't "cut to the chase" and do those things in the first place; they must have a lot of time to kill in the after-life.

Wise's film (which he believed to be one of his best directorial efforts) borrows deep-focus photography and a chiaroscuro production design that recalls Wise's affiliation with Citizen Kane (he was that film's editor) and has a dazzling variety of camera moves that subtly tweak the nerves of audiences—he obviously had a lot of fun with it. It is also in gorgeous wide-screen black and white, a process that, by itself, has always unnerved me.

But, its focus is the very essence of horror. We've all been startled by sounds.  We've all seen things "in the corner of our eyes." But, those things fade and are explained away—figments of our imaginations and perceptions. Shake the head, and it's gone—nothing to worry about—"must have imagined it." It is when the psychological becomes tangible, manifest...against our wills...well, that is some scary stuff. We're no longer, then, in control. And something, other than us, is.

The Story: "It was an evil house from the beginning. A house that was born bad." With the death of the mistress of Hill House, Abigail Crain, at her first glimpse of the house, it has been bedeviled and haunted, the site of many a mysterious death. Now, at the request of the house's inheritor, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) is investigating whether the house is haunted so that Sanderson might be able to financially exploit the property. With Markway and Sanderson are Theadora (Claire Bloom), a psychic, and the fragile Elanor Lance (Julie Harris), who has had a history with poltergeists. They have already been accosted by dropping temperatures in the house (even though it's August) and odd smells. Something's not right in Hill House, and Nell and "Theo" are reluctant room-mates as there only seems to be safety in numbers.


THEO: You know what I think?  Markway has us all so edgy we're getting the cold sweats.  Well, the temperature doesn't have to drop to make us feel like that.
ABIGAIL: That's right.  Music gives me goose-bumps.  Still, there was that awful smell in the library.
THEO: Oh, here we go again.  You know very well what you thought you smelled in the library.  The sickroom smell.
ABIGAIL: Let's discuss me some other time.  I'm tired.
ABIGAIL: Turn out the light.
THEO: I'd like it on.  Have you seen this?
ABIGAIL: I told you I just want to go to sleep! 
ABIGAIL: Good night!
THEO: Well, why be mad at me?  I don't think you killed your mother!
ELANOR: Leave me alone!
THEO: Okay.
ELANOR: Go to sleep!
THEO: Goodnight, Nellie my Nell...
A sepulchral mumbling emerges from the wall, waking Elanor.
ELANOR: Are you awake?  Don't say a word, Theo. 
ELANOR: Not a word.  Don't let it know you're in my room.
A woman's cruel laughter joins the male chanting.
ELANOR: Hold my hand, Theo.
ELANOR: And for God's sake, don't scream.
ELANOR: Is it over?  Do you think it's over?
ELANOR: Theo!  You're breaking my hand!
Suddenly a child's whimpering crying comes through the wall.
ELANOR: (V.O.) This is monstrous.  This is cruel.  It is hurting a child and I will not let anyone, anything hurt a child.
ELANOR: (V.O.) I won't endure this.  It thinks to scare me.  It has, and poor Theo, too.
ELANOR: (V.O.) Honestly, it feels like she's breaking my hand.
ELANOR: (V.O.) I will take a lot from this filthy house for his sake, but I will not go along with hurting a child.  No, I will not.
ELANOR: (V.O.) I will get my mouth to open right now, and I will yell...
ELANOR: (V.O.) I will yell, I will yell, I will yell...
THEO: What?  What, Nell!  What?
ELANOR:  Oh, God!
ELANOR: Oh, God! 
ELANOR: Whose hand was I holding?

The Haunting (1963)

Words by Nelson Gidding

Pictures by Davis Boulton and Robert Wise

The Haunting (1963) is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

* Wise's version is Martin Scorsese's favorite horror film.  It was remade in 1999 as an FX-laden Steven Spielberg production directed by Jan de Bont.  Although the synopsis and title are similar, the film is not related to the 1973 The Legend of Hell House, which was based on Richard Matheson's lurid 1971 book "Hell House," rather than Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House."

** Topper and Beetlejuice tell their ghost stories from the ghosts' point of view.