Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Black Sunday (1960)

I've been holding onto this one for nearly a year, just waiting for Hallowe'en (Check the date today? If only by the "Sell-By" date of the candy you bought for the swarm of urchins accumulating at your door?) This is a well-renowned horror film of the Italian Gothic line. As impressive as the cinematography is—Bava was the cinematographer as well as director (his first feature)—it gets by on "atmosphere"...which it certainly has in graveyard spades...but as far as script, characters, acting....well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Black Sunday (aka La Maschera del Demoinio aka The Mask of Satan aka Revenge of the Vampire)(Mario Bava, 1960) When it was released in this country (by American International Pictures), it started with a pre-title crawl: "We feel a moral obligation to warn you that the picture you are about to see will shock you as no other film has...Therefore, the producers recommend that it be seen only by those persons with mature minds."

"Mature minds" were rarely the target audience intended by AIP, "moral obligations" aside. But producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson had seen the film in Italy and were struck by the exploitation aspects of the film, which boasted an unusual story, some English-speaking actors (although dubbed by others), a few grisly moments, and the production values—specifically the beautiful black and white photography by an Italian cinematographer directing his first full-length film.

That was Mario Bava, 46 at the time of the film's release, he'd been shooting movies since 1939 in his native Italy (although, as one would imagine, his output during World War II, was minimal, but he began working consistently starting in 1947). He has become a cult director, inspiring for a large swath of directors, usually in the exploitation field and the era of the "slasher" film.* You can't do any reading about the horror genre without seeing his name mentioned, and glowingly, incontrovertibly, as a master of the form, and that attracts attention when you're a student of film, even if the subject matter repels.
On a blackened stage representing an ancient grave-yard, occasionally brightened by dramatically timed lightning, black-robed priests are conducting a ceremony. While they ritualistically walk to their destination and their purpose, while a narrator morosely intones: "In the 17th century, Satan was abroad on the Earth, and great was the wrath against those monstrous beings thirsty for human blood, to whom tradition has given the name of "vampires." No appeal for mercy or pity availed, brothers did not hesitate to accuse brothers, and fathers accused sons in the frantic attempt to purify the Earth of that horrible race of blood-devouring assassins. But before putting them to death, human punishment anticipated divine judgment by burning into the flesh of those damned ones the brand of Satan." 
It is St. George's Day, and the group, having already put to death Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici), turn their undivided attention to Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) of Moldavia, accused of witchcraft, she is tied to a stake, branded with the "S" mark of Satan, and then sentenced to death: first, they're going to place the internally spiked bronze mask of Satan over her face, hammer it home with a big mallet and then burn her at the stake. Hardly seems complete enough—maybe they should put her out with holy water, scatter her ashes to the wind and salt the Earth with a chaser of Lysol. But the impalement and burning will have to do...they have other fish, fry.
But, they take so long with the slow ritual and the righteous speeches that it gives Asa the chance to spit out a curse to the assembled mob, cursing their houses and future generations as she will have her revenge. As the movie is only five minutes old, that is just about certain.

Two non-devilish centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are riding a coach through Moldavia on their way to a medical symposium when—wouldn't you know it?—they get the 19th Century version of a "flat"—one of the carriage wheels breaks. While the driver attempts to repair the wheel—coaches did not have "spares"—Kruvajan and Gorobec decide to take a stroll in the middle of the night and find an ancient crypt. They are medical specialists, so, of course, they are intrigued and, after all, what can go wrong?
Well, a lot, actually. They find the tomb of Princess Asa, an elaborate affair with a glass window over the mask that has been impaled on her face, and above it a crucifix because, why else would you put a window in a coffin? And what better way to keep a "vampire," even a de-fanged one (the fangs were attempted but looked silly, so were abandoned), at bay than a crucifix? As long as everything is in place, the dead will stay buried and things will be right with Moldavia.
Then, a bat attacks and Kruvajan beats at it with his cane, but in the midst of bat-bludgeoning, he manages to smash the crucifix on the coffin, breaking the glass and exposing Asa's masked face to the open air. Kruvajan, not having done enough damage already, decides to pry the mask from Asa's face—which is remarkable well-preserved considering that she was burned at the stake—and, in so doing, cuts his hand on the glass. His blood drips onto the face of the dead witch. Really, really bad move.
When they escape the crypt and move outside to check on the driver and the coach repairs, they are startled by a ghostly form standing just beyond the crypt, who bears a striking resemblance to Princess Asa...
It is Princess Katia Vajda (also Barbara Steele) who has been walking her pet dobermans—also in the dead of night—as the Vajda castle is not far from the crypt. Gorobec is entranced with her beauty, and she tells them that she lives at the castle with her father and brother and she has come to the crypt as she's heard their stumbling around, breaking things and generally making a mess of the crypt—not many people come around those parts, as the castle has a reputation for being haunted. 
The two doctors spend the night at a nearby inn, but things are restless at the Vajda castle. Katia's father, the Prince (Ivo Garrani) knows that it is the anniversary of Asa's death, and as mysterious things have occurred before on the anniversary, he fears for Katia, as she so strongly resembles her evil ancestor (as revealed by a portrait in the castle). He is reminded that as long as keeps a cross around his neck, no evil will befall him.
But, in the crypt, Asa has awakened but is immobile with just the few drops of blood she has. She reaches out with her powers and implores Javutich to rise from the grave to do her bidding. The first task is to get Dr. Kruvajan from the inn on the pretense that the Prince, but the destination is not the Vajda castle, but the crypt where Asa's coffin lies, so that she can get more of the hair of the doc. As Kruvajan approaches, Asa's coffin explodes and she entices him near so she can drain his blood, enabling her to walk among the Moldavians and, ultimately, take over Katia's body, in order to...oh, who knows what she plans to do?
There's a lot of running around the castle, one or two more murders of innocents, crosses or not, and dire consequences for the rest, what with the fangless vampires running around. It's all very gothic in appearance and silly in practice, with no logic to the motivations of the fiends or the mechanizations that they need in order to accomplish what their end-goals are. It's all explained away with "We're in the presence of some unnatural mystery!" Unfathomable, as well.
But, gosh, it looks terrific, and Bava sells it with a skill far beyond the budget seems to allow, and his experience as a director would indicate. This has more to do with his choices of camera angles and atmospherics than it does anything else. And despite the subject matter, the film is often beautiful to look at, the sets built to be seen to their best advantage in black and white (Bava refused to do a later color remake) and the atmospherics are rich in detail, influencing many a horror film that would come after—check out Bram Stoker's Dracula, as an example.
And then, there's Barbara Steele. Hollywood's loss was Italy's gain. The oddly ethereal look of Steele—22 at the time of filming—made her a natural whether she was playing damsel or devil, and she made a career out of playing both to the hilt, although she does more chest-heaving in Black Sunday than any other film in her career. Nor was she afraid  to sacrifice her looks—when it was required—as she is called upon to look hideous with nail-marks in her face as she does in this film—it was certainly good for poster images. She was a trooper and her appearances in so many horror films earned her a place in the staked hearts of so many horror fans as the undisputed "Scream Queen."

* Tim Burton mentioned that Black Sunday was his favorite horror film—as he was working on Ed Wood at the time, so the choice would seem to be appropriate, and certainly his film Sleepy Hollow is very much in the Italian mold—it has the set-bound feel to it, and he seems to have a "thing" for "other-worldly" looking actresses with large set-apart eyes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Fly (1986)

It's October..."so maybe I should pay attention to horror films." How cliché. I have some planned and in the hopper, but I noticed "The Large Association of Movie Blogs" is showcasing director David Cronenberg, so I'm also going to be throwing in a bunch of Cronenberg reviews from the past and the retrospective present. 

After all, you can't have a Cronenberg movie without a little bit of horror...somewhere.

The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) It was a time when things were just getting gooier in movies. The things you could do with special effects make-up and mechanics were taking a quantum leap. Alien came out in 1979. John Carpenter's version of The Thing was released in 1982. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing for 20th Century Fox to attempt a remake—not so much that Mel Brooks and his Brooksfilms would be the production company—for director David Cronenberg to update a version of the completely awful horror flick The Fly (even if it DID have a screenplay by James Clavell). 

And why not? Cronenberg had a way with viscera and making icky movies with a brain...and a spine (a distended spine, maybe, but they were solid features). But, what was a bit different about his version of The Fly was it also had a heart. It was a bleeding, spurting heart, was a heart.

Reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) meets inventor and theoretician Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) at a party being thrown by his funders, Bartok Industries, and he tells her about his research on transportation. Realizing this could be a scientific break-through, Veronica pitches it to her editor Stathis Bohrens (John Getz). As Brundle's transportation device requires the conversion of matter to energy and then the top to bottom resequencing of the energy back to matter, he gives the story a pass. Veronica's disappointed, but a visit from Brundle to the magazine's office to stop any story makes the decision an opportune one for all parties.
Brundle's research has hit a snag. His transporter can move inanimate objects, but living things—well, that's another tissue, entirely. Test subjects don't show up the same way they left. Veronica sees this for herself when Brundle invites her to document his research—a test baboon materializes inside out—convenient for autopsies, maybe, but not for the betterment of mankind.
All that apartment visiting and recording of horrific lab accidents (and the resulting unseen clean-up afterwards) must have an odd erotic effect, as Brundle and Veronica become attracted to each other and sleep together, a conjugal conflict of interest in journalistic circles. But a passing remark by Veronica inspires Brundle to try another approach in programming and voila!—the next test actually produces a baboon with internal organs staying internal in the pod. Eureka!
Plans are made to do the story, but that means Veronica is spending more time with her ex than with Brundle and for someone with a lot of intellect but no perspective, that raises a monster—a big green one.

If that were all that came from it, it would be preferable. But Brundle is compelled to test the transporter on himself.

If only he'd thought to include a bug-zapper in the transporter...or at least a screen-door.

During the test, Brundle's DNA is combined with another living organism in the pod—a stray fly (it begs the question of how well he cleaned up after the first baboon test...or what would happen with any other micro-biology in the chamber). At first, he isn't aware of any change, except his strength and stamina have increased. It isn't long, however, before bug-hairs start sprouting from his back and he gets a mean case of psoriasis. Checking the logs for his experiment, he realizes that his DNA has been scrambled with the fly in the chamber, and that his body is starting to react to change—he isn't the same man he was before he transported and transubstantiated. Everything worked out well for Peter Parker, but Brundle gets the powers, the wall-crawling, but also the not so pleasant ability to eat by spewing digestive bile onto his meal and melting it in order to consume. Plus, he starts to lose limbs and shed his skin...and well, turn into a fly.
Even as Brundle deteriorates, we see his transformation through the eyes of Veronica, who has an additional worry—she's pregnant with Brundle's...whatever. It's her mounting horror over what is happening to someone she loves that keeps The Fly as grounded as it is, without clipping its horror-wings while doing it. 

More than one reviewer mentioned the AIDS epidemic in their review at the time of the film's release (although Cronenberg dismissed the specificity of it). It could be cancer or Lew Gehrig's Disease or MS or any other disease that turns the body against its host that the film has an emotional connection to that might resonate with audiences. We've all been helpless watching disease take someone we love and transform them. We've all lived through our own horrors—maybe not as extreme as this—but still scary, which makes The Fly a strangely heart-felt tragedy and turned into Cronenberg's biggest box-office hit in the United States.
It seems so easy on "Star Trek"...except in "Mad" Magazine parodies.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Young Frankenstein

The Set-Up: When Gene Wilder (and Mel Brooks) decided to do a burlesque of Frankenstein (and, more specifically, Son of Frankenstein) there were all sorts of tropes to draw on from the Universal series canon. The crazy villagers, the odd maid, the teutonic burgomeister. And from James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, they took the blind hermit scene. This did not appear in Gene Wilder's original script. It was a collaboration between Wilder and Brooks, taking all of the aspects of the original scene and turning it into a schtick-filled, slapstick classic. As the Monster, Peter Boyle mines the most out of what few lines he's allowed, and in this scene he's allowed to break "the fourth wall" a bit, and give the Creature a bit more on the ball than a script has given him before.

Then, there's the Hermit, Harold. Although the actor playing him isn't listed in the credits, it's Academy Award winner Gene Hackman, doing something he rarely got to do as a "serious" actor: comedy. And he's brilliant at it, with a comic timing and a breezy way of delivering his lines as if he was making them up on the spot. He and Boyle must have had a tough time not cracking up through this scene, because both men are hilarious...and the split-second.

The Scene: The Monster (Peter Boyle) has escaped from Fronkensteen's castle, and is running loose. Deep inside the dark forest, a humble cottage sits--the home of Harold the Hermit (Gene Hackman). As a plaintive melody plays on his record player, he kneels by his bed with his rosary, asking for an answer to his prayers.


Harold: A visitor is all I ask. A temporary companion to share a few short hours in my lonely life.
Whip-pan as The Monster bursts through the door.
Monster: R-AAAAHR!!
Harold: Thank you, Lord! Thank you!

The Monster growls
Harold: No, no, no, don’t speak! Don’t say a word! Oh, my joy and my prize from heaven.
Harold: I’ll bet you were the tallest one in your class! My name is Harold and I live here all alone. What is your name?
Monster: Hrrnnn.
Harold: I didn’t get that…
Monster: Hrrnnn.
Harold: Hrrnnn... Nope. Oh! Forgive me! I didn’t realize you were mute. You see how Heaven plans. Me, a poor blind man and you...and you, a mute... incredibly big mute.
Harold: Ah, but your hand is frozen, my child. How does a nice bowl of soup sound to you, huh?

The Monster nods
Harold: Yes, well...I know what it means to be cold and hungry, yes, and...and how much it means to have a little kindness from a stranger. Are you ready for your soup?
Monster: MMMMMMMM 

As Harold talks, the Monster holds out his bowl, but Harold being blind, keeps moving the ladle, eventually pouring steaming hot soup into the Monster's lap.

Harold: Hold out your bowl, then. Oh, my friend, my friend, you don’t know what your visit means to me…
Harold: long I’ve waited for the pleasure of another human being. Sometimes in our contemplation of worldly matters....

Harold: We tend to forget the simple pleasures....
Monster: RRRAAAAAAAAH!!! (whimper)
Harold: ...are the basis for true happiness. Yes yes yes! Oh! And now, a little wine with your soup?
Monster: MMMMMM
Harold: Good, good.
Harold pours the wine into The Monster's mug, no problem

Harold: Yes, yes, good, good.
Monster: MMMMMMMMM! (The Monster is about to drink when..)

Harold: WAIT! Harold: A toast! A toast…
Harold: friendship. (CRASH!)
The Monster can't believe it...looks to Heaven
Harold: How hungry you must have been...and now, now for a little surprise. For a special occasion, I’ve been saving...
Harold: ...cigars!
Monster(suspiciously): RRRMMMMMM

Harold: Take one.
The Monster takes a cigar, then Harold, and Harold moves the candle over to light it. The Monster reacts in fear.
Harold: No, no! Fire is good! Fire is good, yes! Fire is our friend! Yes, I’ll show you. I’ll show you. You see? You see? Do you have your cigar? Let me see. Let me see.
Harold: All right. Now, now. Just hold it right there. Now. Don’t inhale until the tip glows.
Harold lights the Monster's thumb, who waits a beat to see if he's enjoying it. He's not. He's in great pain.

Enraged, the Monster rushes out of the hermit's cottage, breaking through the door. Harold calls after him.
Harold: Wait! Wait! Where are you going? I was going to make espresso!

Young Frankenstein

Words by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks

Pictures by Gerald Hirschfeld and Mel Brooks

Young Frankenstein is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment