Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

READER RECOMMENDATION: “TOBY DAMMIT” (1968)

Reader recommendation from Steven Ryder

Note: ‘Toby Dammit’ is a segment filmed as part of Spirits of the Dead, an anthology based on ’s short stories. The other entries were “William Wilson,” directed by , and “Metzengerstein” by .

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Milena Vukotic, Antonia Pietrosi

PLOT: During a trip to Rome to film a Catholic Spaghetti Western, Toby Dammit, an alcoholic, drug-addled Shakespearean actor, falls deeper and deeper into uncertainty, pursued by a devilish young phantom.

Still from Toby Dammit (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Any number of Fellini’s films could be given the “weird” seal of approval due to his preoccupation with dream imagery and Jungian psychoanalysis, but few are as quite deeply rooted in the surreal as “Toby Dammit.” Oktay Ege Kozak described “Dammit” as “8 ½ in Hell,” and seeing as how Fellini’s magnum opus does make the List, it would come as no real surprise to see this shorter, more blatant genre offering creep its way on as well.

COMMENTS: Spirits of the Dead, the anthology that includes “Toby Dammit,” isn’t particularly fascinating, and it is painfully obvious that Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, the directors of the other two segments, either care little about or did not know how to approach the subject matter. These are directors later made made campy science fiction flicks or serious wartime dramas, and neither of these genres reflect Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic roots as well as Fellini’s style does. Now, if producer Alberto Grimaldi had managed to get on board, as he originally intended, then we may have been looking at a late-sixties masterpiece of horror cinema, but instead we get two forgettable entries and one incredibly weird, incredibly original Poe adaptation from one of the giants of Italian film, fresh off the critical hits 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. Fellini confessed to never actually read the story he was supposed to be filming, which may have assisted him in bringing his own enduring cinematic style to the table. Aside from the title and the decapitation finale, nothing else remains from Poe’s original tale.

The film opens with disheveled Shakespearean actor Toby, played with a distinct charisma and style by Terence Stamp, drunk on a plane, preparing to meet the producer of his next film in Rome. There is no mistake that Fellini wanted Toby, already a frazzled mess of a man, to be driven further and further into madness, and it wouldn’t be glib to speculate that the red mist his plane descends into is a symbol for the Hell that is to follow—even if the jaunty, instantly recognizable score from frequent Fellini collaborator Nino Rota says otherwise. We follow Toby on his first trip to Rome and Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: “TOBY DAMMIT” (1968)

THE RAVEN (1935)

The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: and . It is also downright mortifying  in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which  imbued The Black Cat (1934) . Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about.  Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.

As the -obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible.  In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience.

While Lugosi undoubtedly sends The Raven crashing, the film would have imploded from boredom without him. Aside from Karloff, the rest of the cast is a non-presence, alternately delivering lethargic line readings and  grotesque comedy relief, which is anything but. The only relief  is supplied by the two stars, who are our lifeline, even through all that Lugosi pretension.

Still from The Raven (1935)Lugosi has a chilling, seductive moment when asking Jean if her injured neck still hurts. We sense his glee in the potential of her pain. This scene of intimate sadism works far better than his later howling. However, even in Lugosi’s most embarrassing moments, he remains alluring through his presence and his idiosyncratic mangling of the English language: “Torture, I love torture! What a deeelicccious torture!” When  Vollin has just mutilated Karloff’s Bateman, the victim, upon seeing his own reflection, shoots out the room of mirrors. Lugosi’s Vollin responds with a hair raising cackle. Vollin would have felt at home in ‘s castle.

Unfortunately, Karloff is saddled with one of Jack Pierce’s absolute worst makeup jobs, which seriously threatens to undermine his performance. The actor even has a been there, done that canned monster growl. Playing second fiddle, Karloff’s discomfort occasionally shows. Still, he is our humanist touchstone. The strength of his performance lies in his introduction as a gangster on the lam, pre-mutilating surgery. He has an outcast monster-like sense of resilience and pathos, and with no help from his director or makeup man, Karloff is forced to rely solely on his own internal resources.  He succeeds with underrated, protean skills, delivering a refreshingly nuanced performance, even through a fake, pancake eye. Fortunately, Karloff never descends into Lugosi’s level of cringe-inducing caricature.

The rest of the film is merely a commercial for torture devices. Just as in a commercial, little drama is drawn from the props.  Apart from the two leads, The Raven is adolescent, gothic decor.

178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Peter Allison: “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.”

Dr. Vitus Werdegast: “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”–The Black Cat

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund

PLOT: A rainy night and roadside accident lands WWI veteran Dr. Vitus Werdegast and a honeymooning couple to the old dark house of Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig, a mass murderer guilty of war crimes, is also Werdegast’ s longtime nemesis. Werdegast is sworn to revenge, but must also protect the couple from being sacrified at a Black Mass.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
BACKGROUND:

  • In his native Hungary, Lugosi had often played romantic leads. Typecast since Dracula (1931), Lugosi was initially enthusiastic about taking on the role of Werdegast. However, upon seeing the script and discovering that his beloved “protagonist” raped the heroine, The Black Cat became a career nightmare for the actor. Adding to the onset tension was Lugosi’s increasing jealousy of Karloff. In an interview with author Gregory Mank, Ulmer’s widow, Shirley Ulmer, related that Karloff and her late husband were kindred, erudite spirits. The two often engaged in discussions ranging from art to philosophy and film aesthetics. Lugosi, who was no intellectual heavyweight, felt the odd man out. Threatened by his genre rival, Lugosi resorted to lurid anecdotes for attention, even claiming that he had once been a Hungarian hangman. Naturally, such yarn spinning only served to further distance Lugosi from his peers.
  • According to Mank, Lugosi got increasingly excited at the prospect of “skinning” his rival. Multiple takes were required and, in each take, Lugosi’s English became even more rushed and indecipherable. Many years later, Karloff advised impressionist Rich Little to watch the skinning scene from The Black Cat, in order to mimic Lugosi’s idiosyncratic vocalizations: “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’sh what I’m going to do to you now. Vear the skin from your body, shlowly, bit by bit.” Karloff’s infamous lisp, at its most pronounced here, parallels Lugosi’s language mangling. Reportedly, Lugosi, of all people, consistently ridiculed Karloff’s speech impediment.
  • Among the excised scenes were the afore mentioned rape, a scene of Joan Allison actually transforming into a black cat, and shots of Karloff’s skinned Poelzig, crawling on the floor with bloodied, flayed flesh hanging off his frame. Awkward comedy relief and embarrassing scenes depicting Werdegast’s fear of black cats were added, along with a slightly more traditionally heroic shaping of Lugosi’s character.
  • Ulmer drew his inspiration for Poelzig from two sources: first, the German architect and leading member of the avant garde architectural society “Der Ring,” Hans Poelzig. Polezig’s work was an eccentric mix of Gothic and Noveua, filtered through very personal sensibilities. Second was the infamous Satanist and misogynist Aleister Crowley, whose concupiscent philosophy is expressed by his motto “I rave and I rape and I rip and I rend.” Ulmer grafts those two identification points into a First World War backstory. Ulmer had additional influence here as well: his father was one of the countless European victims in the Great War.
  • Ulmer doubled as set designer and imbued the film with Bauhaus sensibilities.
  • Ulmer should have been Universal’s third iconic horror director, directly behind  and . Like those contemporaries, Ulmer had enough personal vision to elevate a pedestrian seed into something unique. Unfortunately, Ulmer broke a basic rule: He had an affair with his boss’ wife, which lead to his being fired and blacklisted by major studios. Although Ulmer was offered a chance to direct a big budget Shirley Temple musical for Fox, he turned down the offer, choosing instead to makepoverty row quickies for  PRC, where he languished for the rest of his career. Most of  his films are saddled with execrable scripts, and despite a cult following in France, Ulmer’s ultimate artistic merit is speculative.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the roadside accident, Vitus Werdegast and company arrive at Hjalmar Poelzig’s mansion. Ulmer’s camera jerkily climbs the deco stairs. The light from a radio blinks. Through cracks and clicks, Poelzig’s manservant announces: “Dr. Werdegast has arrived.” Poelzig’s wife lies asleep in bed; a half nude vision of purest white. Next to her lies the blackened silhouette of Polezig. Upon hearing the voice of his servant, Poelzig awakes, clicks on a light, and sits straight up. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see the image for what it is; a blatantly erect phallus. Polezig rises and walks menacingly toward the bedroom door, seen through the sheer curtain of a canopy bed. He is a phallic symbol as harbinger of death. Sex and death awash in starkly cubist black and white, and dramatic classical music. Poelzig’s wife is also his step-daughter, and Werdegast’ daughter. Werdegast waits below, suspicious but not completely aware of the incestuous milieu permeating Polezig’s fortress.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Despite a checklist of outré taboos, The Black Cat, partly due to studio tampering, is characterized by subdued aesthetics. Rather than conveying grotesquerie and perversity through blood-soaked Poe-like dungeons, which would be the pedestrian route, Ulmer crafts a very personal restlessness through the icy tents of modernism, futurism, highly stylized acting, and artistic music. While this may make it a challenge for contemporary viewers, it renders this tale of revenge, lust and paranoia even weirder.


Fan made trailer for The Black Cat (by David Smith)

COMMENTS: For the first team-up of Universal’s horror stars, Karloff and Lugosi, uncredited producer Carl Laemmle Jr. virtually gave director Edgar G. Continue reading 178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (2013 BLU-RAY)

A Vincent Price six pack has made its way to Blu-Ray. The set features some of the actor’s most iconic roles, along with at least one surprise inclusion. It is by no means a complete collection, as it concentrates primarily on the late actor’s work with  and AIP (since most of these movies were adapted from works by they are known as the “Poe cycle”). Even by that criteria, the collection is a mere introduction.

Price cemented his status as horror icon in Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), despite the fact that that this 3D box office hit is a flat and unimaginative remake of Michael Curtiz’ vastly superior Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In a way, this parallels Price himself. Although he has been beatified by genre aficionados, and despite doing occasionally fine acting work, Price’ carefully crafted screen persona seems more derivative than innovative. That persona lacks the authenticity of a , , , or . The passage of time makes that even more apparent. Still, the veteran actor could often supply a luster to pedestrian productions, without necessarily redeeming them.

Fortunately, this Blu Ray collection, although somewhat haphazard in concept and packaging, is a marketable compilation in a “Vincent Price’s Greatest Hits Volume One” style. Like most such compilations, the choices deemed “greatest” are not without debate.

With The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) Roger Corman convinced AIP to give him an increased budget of $270,000 (which included color film) along with an extended shooting schedule ( a whole 15 days). Convincing the producers was no simple feat, as the film, with a literary source, lacked a identifiable “monster.” Somehow, Corman won Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson over when he pitched the house itself as the supernatural antagonist. While the film is not a masterpiece, Corman’s enthusiasm, matched by Price, the surreal cinematography by Floyd Crosby (High Noon), Lex Baxter’s score, and screenplay by cult genre favorite Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man), makes it possibly the best of the Corman Poe cycle. This assessment is shared by most critics and by Price himself (although, reportedly, the actor’s personal favorite of his own films was MGM’s 1973 black comedy Theater of Blood).

Still from The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)Price’s aristocratic bearing and pronounced theatricality makes the effete, sensitive, and cowardly Roderick Usher utterly convincing. There is more than a hint of an incestuous relationship between Roderick and his sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), leading to masochistic decay and fiery finale. Almost singlehandedly, Price carries the film in the acting department, with his co-stars going the distance in convincing us that protagonist family is indeed a bland lot. Remarkably, the film was a box office success. This, along with critical accolades, paved the path for seven additional Poe-inspired films.

With  looking to become the “female Karloff” after Mario Bava’s hit Black Sunday (1960), the Price/Steele pairing in The Pit and Pendulum (1961) should have been a star teaming worthy of the Karloff/Lugosi collaborations of the 1930s. Unfortunately, Steele is wasted (and worse, dubbed) as the doomed (and believed dead) unfaithful wife-in-waiting. The team of Corman, Price, Matheson, Crosby, and Baxter return for this disappointing second entry. Pendulum is an eclectic low budget genre soaper, sloppily utilizing elements from numerous Poe stories. Steele isn’t the only wasted talent. Reliable character actors Luana Anders and John Kerr, poorly directed, come off as surprisingly stiff and mechanical. At the polar opposite is Continue reading THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (2013 BLU-RAY)

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) AND THE MUMMY (1932)

After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for  and . After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. ).

Still from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first of an -inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat (1934, d. ) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a  young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934).

A lurid, ludicrous plot is made worse by excessive babbling from a wretched supporting cast. Lugosi supplies an essential touch of rudimentary European mystery through non-acting tricks and his bewitching deconstruction of the English language. A Cabinet of Dr. Calagri-eque chase scene across the Paris rooftops and a brutal knife fight over a prostitute (with the startling visage of a voyeuristic Mirakle descending from the fog) are stylishly executed.  Florey lacked ‘s narrative rhythm and ‘s authentic empathy. The result is a case of style over substance, with the style supplied by others.

“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff

Meanwhile, Karl Freund was finally given the chance to direct. His The Mummy (1932) is saddled with an almost equally silly plot, but in Freund’s hands, it comes across as pure grand-guignol poetry. It was made by most of the same team who worked on Dracula, and is, essentially, a reworking of that story by the same writer, John L. Balderstein. Crusty Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) and chiseled David Manners (Harker) virtually reprise their roles. Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy opens with Dracula‘s curious theme music: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

Still from The Mummy (1932)Freund creates an ominous, ambiguous, and static mood, which is refreshingly anti-commercial. Universal thought so as well. This was his first and last directorial assignment for them. Karloff’s Imhotep exudes eroticism, even through 3,000 years of masterfully stretched flesh courtesy of makeup genius Jack Pierce, perfectly caught in the film’s gorgeously lit black and white. The actor’s performance is nuanced, menacing and simultaneously sympathetic. His yearning for the tenebrous, commanding Zita Johann is entirely convincing. Johann is Karloff’s most perfect female lead. Despite the doomed setup, their chemistry elevates us past the hokum. Unfortunately, they only worked together once, but they do constitute one the silver screen’s most original couples; a sort of Grimm’s Valentine.  Several scenes, depicting the history of the lovers was excised and, unfortunately lost. Rather, we are saddled with too much of that suburban bore; David Manners. Universal, as per the norm, sadistically allows him to live and get the girl.

LIST CANDIDATE: TWIXT (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco, Tom Waits

PLOT: Horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is in decline, hacking out formulaic product and going on book tours to nowhere places, like the town of Swan Valley. The local sheriff (Bruce Dern) tells him about an unsolved massacre that took place in the town years ago, suggesting a collaboration on a book, which Hall doesn’t take seriously—until he starts dreaming of a young girl, V (Elle Fanning), who may be connected with the murders, and may be either a ghost or a vampire; and of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who becomes a spiritual muse the deeper Hall delves into the mystery.

Still from Twixt (2011)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What gives the film an aura of weirdness is its visual style, elements of which recall earlier Coppola films (mainly the more experimental ones like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart), along with the elements of autobiography that thread through the film. While it may be a bit too early to declare this as Essential Coppola, there are rewards to be found here for the adventurous moviegoer.

COMMENTS: Twixt has had a tortured time getting out to an audience; originally scheduled for release in late 2011 after several festival screenings and Comic Con hype, the movie has been released in France and England and only recently made its domestic premiere in San Francisco, with no concrete word (as of this writing) as to wider release in the U.S. Which is not that surprising, considering that most of the domestic reviews pretty much ripped the film to shreds. To a certain extent, they have a point—most of those reviews have commented on the murkiness of the narrative, which Coppola has stated had its origins in a dream. Most of those reviewers probably think that Coppola’s best creative days are behind him, or that he needs to return to more commercial fare to be ‘relevant’ again. It’s probably very telling that what North American distributors and critics have seen as a problem, Europe has eagerly embraced (especially France, where critics have acclaimed the film).

Twixt is a messy concoction, and for most audiences who are used to storylines where everything is clearly presented and all the twistedness will eventually be straightened out by the time the end credits roll, it won’t be a fun ride. Coppola describes it as “one part Gothic Romance, one part personal film and one part the kind of horror film I began my career with,” which is a pretty packed sandwich—not everything will fit neatly there. However, those concerned with neatness will conveniently overlook good performances by Kilmer, Dern and Chapin and some intriguing autobiographical references.

Twixt is available on R2 DVD and Blu-Ray. Again, no word as of yet when it will be available on R1 disc.

UPDATE 12/28/2015: In 2013, Twixt was released on R1 Blu-Ray by 20th Century Fox with excellent picture quality and sound. It’s light on extras, but what’s included is very interesting – a documentary on the making of the film shot by Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, prior to her feature film debut with Palo Alto (2014).

Twixt official site

Facebook

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily [Coppola’s] silliest work… a mishmash of absurd horror tropes with a gush of blood…”–Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A mentally unbalanced man meets a modern day Marquis de Sade who convinces him to check himself into a bizarre asylum where the patients roam free.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Readers may think I’m a lunatic myself for not inducting this tale involving the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot.  To tell the truth, Lunacy comes about as close as a movie can to being a first-ballot inductee without making it.  In defense of my decision to leave it off the List for the time being, I point out that Lunacy may actually be Jan Svankajer’s most conventional movie.  If you mentally remove the startling but inessential stop-animation transitions between scenes, then squint hard, it looks like just a regular horror movie; the director insists as much in his prologue to the film.  Given that this is Svankmajer’s most “normal” and accessible movie, if Lunacy makes the List, then all the Czech director’s work should automatically make it.

COMMENTS:  The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.”  It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents should produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing how they actually mix.  Poe adds the least to the recipe, providing mere plot.  Adaptations of two different stories by the doom-laden 19th century Romantic make appearances here; one is a digression from the main plotline that’s fun but unnecessary, while the other supplies the basic conceit for the entire second half of the movie.  Because the first half of the film is devoted to a long introduction to the characters, with that excursion into an interesting but unrelated Poe tale, Lunacy‘s story doesn’t flow as well as it might; the plot doesn’t really get started in earnest until the movie hits the halfway mark on its run time.  Other than basic story ideas, there is not much of a “Poe” feel to the rest of the film, except whatever lingering flavor comes from the passive, psychologically tormented protagonist Jean (stringy-haired, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

TOD BROWNING’S WHITE TIGER (1923)

Tod Browning‘s White Tiger (1923) finds the director revisiting intimate motifs and has an unusual connection to Edgar Allan Poe (Browning, who has often been referred to as the Poe of cinema, listed the classic author as his favorite).  In 1836, Poe wrote an exposé of the touring “Mechanical Chess Player” Automaton.  In the article Poe revealed that inside this mechanical chess player was a concealed, quite human, operator.  Poe’s article was the seed for Browning’s film, which the director co-wrote with screenwriter Charles Kenyon.

White Tiger stars Browning regular Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith and Walter Beery.  Griffith, who got his start with Mack Sennett, was once considered a rival to both Chaplin and Keaton.  Due to a childhood injury to his vocal cords, Griffith was practically mute, quashing any chance he might have had for surviving into sound film.  Most of Griffith’s films are lost, but the most celebrated, the Civil War comedy Hands Up (1926), survives, and is thought by some to be nearly as good as Keaton’s (somewhat overrated)The General from the same year.  Although that comparison is highly debatable, Hands Up is a unique film and worth seeing.  It is available from Grapevine Video, but otherwise it is hard to find.

Griffith’s screen persona was that of a debonair comedian, a la Max Linder, but  Browning, of course, used him quite differently.  Griffith plays Roy Donovan.  Sylvia (Dean) is Roy’s sister, but they are separated at childhood when Hawkes (Beery) betrays their father, Mike Donovan (Alfred  Allen), which results in Mike’s murder.  Hawkes takes Sylvia with him.  She believes her brother has also died and is unaware that Hawkes was her father’s Judas.

Still from White Tiger (1923)Years later, Sylvia is a professional pickpocket under the guardianship of Hawkes, who now goes by the new identity of  Count Donelli.  Sylvia stakes out her victims at the London Wax Museum.  There she meets The Kid, who, unknown to her, is her long lost brother, Roy.  Roy has his own nefarious gig; the Mechanical Chess Player.  When Sylvia introduces the Kid to her “father,” Count Donelli, the three form an unholy alliance, which leads them and the Mechanical Chess Player to a new land of opportunity in America.

Roy develops incestuous feelings for Sylvia (of course, he is still unaware that she is his sibling), which leads to jealousy when Sylvia falls for goody two shoe Dick Longworth (Matt Moore).  Tension between the unholy three builds with the arrival of Dick.  After a jewelry heist in a mansion, utilizing the Mechanical Chess Player, the trio hole up at a claustrophobic cabin in the mountains.  The final quarter of the film casts a Poe-like eye on imagined (and real) enemies.  Mistrust between the trio is sowed and much coffee is downed, in an effort to stay awake and keep an eye on each other and the hidden jewelry.

The truth about Hawk’s betrayal of Sylvia’s real father comes out, as does the revelation that the Kid is none other than her brother.  The Oedipal killing of a (surrogate) father, mistrust among a trio of criminals, theft of jewels, false identities, the double cross, staged gimmickry, deception (which the spectator audience is privy to), latent incest, followed by jealousy for a righteous rival, a claustrophobic getaway retreat, and a finale in which one of the criminals deeds goes unpunished are familiar Browning themes.  Poe’s deceptive Mechanical Chess Player is a bizarre, added quirk.

According to several Browning biographers, acquaintances of the director and his wife, Alice, would often be forced to lock up the jewelry when the two came to visit because the Brownings had a notorious reputation for swiping  any stones they could get their hands on.  At least Tod Browning’s empathy for the criminal mindset was an honest one.

65. MANIAC (1934)

AKA Sex Maniac

“Unless you regularly do mushrooms and go to Lady Gaga concerts with your good friend Crispin Glover, then watching Maniac is guaranteed to be the weirdest experience you have ever had.”–ad copy for the Rifftrax version of Maniac

DIRECTED BY: Dwain Esper

FEATURING: Bill Woods

PLOT:  An on-the-lam vaudevillian kills and impersonates his mad scientist employer, driving himself mad in the process.

Maniac (1934)


BACKGROUND:

  • Dwain Esper was a successful building contractor who, it is rumored, only got into the movie business when he came into possession of a cache of filmmaking equipment that was abandoned in a foreclosed property.  He worked outside the film distribution system, taking his exploitation movies on the road and showing them in rented venues, accompanied by lurid advertisements promising forbidden fruit for “adults only.”  Esper obtained the rights to Tod Browning’s Freaks from MGM for a song, and took the movie on the road with his other exploitation hits.  Other films he directed or produced had titles such as Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband.
  • Made outside of the Hollywood system, Maniac was not subject to the Hays Production Code, although it probably ran afoul of most local censorship laws.  Audacious directors like Esper deliberately put racy material into their films that the major studios could not touch.  Maniac contains a scandalous amount of nudity, which had been extremely rare in motion pictures up until that time and was banned outright when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1934.
  • The film incorporates (steals) footage from Maciste in Hell (1925), and reportedly also from Häxan (1920) and Fritz Lang‘s Sigfried (1923), for its delirium sequences.
  • Named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie Movie Guide.
  • One gruesome scene involving a cat’s eyeball appears to be a real case of animal abuse, but is almost certainly a convincing illusion.
  • The movie’s ending rips off the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The Black Cat.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are lots of strange, unexpected sights to be seen in this time capsule of man’s freakish desires, but you won’t forget the cat’s eyeball.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDManiac promises to show us the life of a madman as a shameless


Scene from Maniac

pretext for delivering multiple shock scenes in an “educational” context, but the final product is so disjointed, feverish and crazily assembled that it seems to be the work of an actual madman.

COMMENTS: Most bad movies are just bad.  A rare breed are so bad they’re “unintentionally” Continue reading 65. MANIAC (1934)