Tag Archives: Expressionism

282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from Continue reading 282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

CAPSULE: SCREAMPLAY (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Rufus B. Seder

FEATURING: Rufus B. Seder, , Katy Bolger

PLOT: Young Edgar Allen comes to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and settles in at a fleabag motel; he incorporates his revenge fantasies into his murder-mystery screenplay, but finds that the killings he writes about occur in real life.

Still from Screamplay (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oddball tongue-in-cheek horror melodrama, but there’s nothing tremendously weird about it.

COMMENTS: In his introduction to the DVD edition of Screamplay, calls Rufus B. Seder the “ of Tromaville.” While that’s more than a bit of a stretch, it’s true that this classic horror homage, distributed (but not made) by Troma just before they stumbled onto the lucrative Toxic Avenger formula, is extremely highbrow by the company’s gore-comedy standards. Aside from the minuscule budget, it’s unlike anything else in their catalog. It’s far enough outside the mainstream that George “Sins of the Fleshapoids” Kuchar took on a rare acting role outside of his own productions (he’s wonderfully sleazy here as the heavy).

The story is simple: a series of murders among the dregs of Hollywood—would-be writers, actresses, agents, and producers—holed up in a low-rent motel are linked to a script being churned out by an eager but naive young screenwriter. The style, however, is more impressive. Rufus B. Seder’s influences are obvious: from the Expressionistic shadows of Nosferatu to the cheap B-movies of the 30s and 40s that vainly but valiantly tried to exploit that atmosphere (there’s even a sly nod to Plan 9 from Outer Space when a cop absentmindedly scratches his face with his revolver). Most of the time Screamplay looks like a 30s period piece you might catch on the Late Late Show, complete with a scratchy public domain quality transfer, but there are moments that would not be out of place in a Guy Maddin movie—or an early draft of Barton Fink as done by a poverty row studio. Seder’s performance seems to be at least partially modeled on Bill Woods’ wild-eyed mugging in Maniac—his innocent expression darkens and his eyes turn insane at the drop of a plot point. The ganja-inspired hallucination with a pair of murderous hands appearing in a cloud of pot-smoke also recalls ‘s maniacal epic.

The sets are very basic, but with overdramatic lighting, they achieve a melodramatic budget Expressionism. The blocky motel stairs leading to nowhere reach a minimalist sort of Surrealism, as does the police station set—basically just a raised podium reading “Hollywood Police Dept.,” flanked by Greek pillars with light bulbs on top. The story is set in no time in particular; the style recalls the 1930s, naturally, but occasional anachronisms like a roller-skating transvestite mugger add another layer of absurdity. Overall, it’s an impressive triumph of style over budget. Still, unless you’re obsessed with 20s and 30s horror, I wouldn’t recommend rushing out and trying to find Screamplay; but, if you do, I’d be willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.

Rufus B. Seder never made another movie after this one; he went into the production of holographic murals instead (examples of his work are included as a special feature on the DVD). It’s a shame, because Seder has clear talent and may have been able to make a truly great weird movie down the line had he stuck with it. He seems to have gotten movies out of his system with this project, but at least he found a niche for his creative impulses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…possibly the best Troma movie you’ve never heard of… with very few exceptions, [it] would feel right at home on a double bill with the classics from the twenties, thirties, and forties it so lovingly homages.”–James Lasome, Horrorfreak News (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ShaneWreck,” who characterized it as “[a] bizarre, expressionistic satire on Hollywood.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

202. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

La Belle et la Bête

“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy…”–Jean Cocteau, prologue to Beauty and the Beast

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Marais, Josette Day

PLOT: A merchant who has fallen on hard times wanders onto a mysterious estate and plucks a single rose to take back to his daughter, Belle. He is suddenly faced with a bipedal Beast, dressed as a nobleman, who says that the penalty for the theft is death, but who offers to spare the old man’s life if he will send his daughter in his place. Against her father’s wishes, Belle volunteers to be kept as the Beast’s prisoner, but the longer she stays in his magical castle the more she sees the noble heart beating underneath the bestial hide.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (1946)
BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau considered himself a poet who dabbled in filmmaking, although today he is best remembered for his contributions to cinema rather than literature. La Belle et la Bête was his first narrative feature film after making the 55-minute Surrealist film Blood of a Poet [Le sang d’un poète] in 1932.
  • This version of the story is based on 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; it was a faithful adaptation, except that Cocteau invented the role of Avenant.
  • Cocteau suffered from a painful skin disease during shooting, and even had to be hospitalized once while filming continued (technical adviser Rene Clement directed in his absence). At times he wore a mask while directing to hide his inflamed countenance.
  • Jean Marais, who played Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, was Cocteau’s lover. It is rumored that he convinced Cocteau to take on the project, thinking the role would launch his career as a French matinee idol (it did).
  • Minimalist composer and frequent film scorer Philip Glass composed an alternate soundtrack for the film (conceived of as an opera).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s difficult to disregard the Beast’s magnificent makeup, it’s the candelabras made of living human arms lining the castle’s corridors that have made the strangest and most lasting impression over the years.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Handelabras; statues that watch you; the steaming Beast

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There is no movie before or since that manages to strike the same tone of dreamy believability as Beauty and the Beast. It’s a spectacle picture wrapped in the trappings of high art, mixing conventional storytelling with a smattering of Surrealist visuals. Too dry to entertain the very young, Cocteau nonetheless begs us to look at the film as if we were children; to surrender to the Beast’s enchantments and enter his mysterious halls lined with arms and statues that calmly watch us as we watch them.

Trailer for La Belle et la Bête

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau argued with his cinematographer, the Continue reading 202. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

200. METROPOLIS (1927)

“I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier… Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities.”–H.G. Wells

“Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. That which it recounts is trivial, overblown, pedantic and outdatedly romantic. But, if to the tale we prefer the “plasitco-photogenic” background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astonishing book of images it is possible to compose.”–Luis Buñuel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

PLOT: The future city of Metropolis is starkly divided between two classes: the rulers who spend their days in pleasure gardens, and the workers who live underground and run the massive machines that supply the city with power. Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the most powerful man in Metropolis, discovers the existence of the underground world when he becomes entranced by beautiful Maria, a woman who prophesies to the workers that a Mediator will come to unite the two classes. Joh is not happy with this development and he enlists the scientist Rotwang to kidnap Maria and create a robotic duplicate of her to discredit her with the workers; but the doctor, who harbors a personal grudge against Fredersen, sabotages the plan.

Still from Metropolis (1927)
BACKGROUND:

  • Metropolis cost 5 million reichmarks to produce (about $24 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). This would make it one of the most expensive movies of its era, and although its cost has often been exaggerated, it did almost send its studio into bankruptcy. The movie utilized thousands of extras: reports range between 25,000-37,000 people.
  • Adolph Hitler was a fan of Metropolis, despite having banned another of Fritz Lang’s films, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, for its anti-Nazi sentiments. Joseph Goebbels told Lang that he would be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish heritage (the director’s mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism). Goebbels offered him a position as head of UFA, Germany’s national studio, which Lang declined.
  • Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay for Metropolis and followed up with a novelization of the story. She willingly joined the Nazi party in 1932. Lang and von Harbou divorced in 1933. Lang fled to France in 1934, and then went on to Hollywood in 1936.
  • In the early years of movies, the concept of film preservation had not yet been formed, and many movies were lost when the prints decayed or were deliberately destroyed. At 153 minutes, Lang’s original Metropolis cut was too long for many exhibitors of the time, and 30 minutes were deleted after the premier for international audiences. Portions of the original uncut prints of Metropolis did not survive, and it was long thought that a complete version of the film would never surface. In 2008, however, a nearly complete print containing an additional 25 minutes of footage was discovered in Buenos Aires. Although of poor quality, the segments were incorporated into existing prints of Metropolis and the film was re-released to theaters (and later on home video) as “the Complete Metropolis.” A few minutes of footage are still believed to be forever lost, however.
  • Ranked #35 on Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest movies of all time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The robot encircled by electrified rings as it takes on the form of Maria is not only Metropolis‘ most memorable vision, it’s one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An allegory of steely skyscrapers and miserable sewers, Metropolis is a movie that reveals, and revels in, the unique power of silent film to create an experience that feels more like living through a myth than listening to a story. Divorced from dialogue, drained of color, it is the pure images that stick in our memory, like fragments of a dream. Metropolis is not the weirdest film on our List, but its influence is seen throughout fantastic cinema (the cityscapes of Brazil would not have the same shape without it, to name just one example). Metropolis is simply too big to ignore.


Trailer for the 2010 restoration of Metropolis

COMMENTS: There is hardly an ounce of reality in Metropolis, which Continue reading 200. METROPOLIS (1927)

197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, Continue reading 197. VAMPYR (1932)

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)

173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Billy Chapin, ,

PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.

Still from Night of the Hunter (1955)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but has long been out-of-print; Centipede Press is releasing a limited-edition hardcover edition of the novel in July of 2104.
  • Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
  • was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
  • Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
  • This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
  • Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
  • In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
  • Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.


Original trailer for Night of the Hunter

 COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical Continue reading 173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

CARL THEODOR DREYER’S VAMPYR (1932)

Most agree that ‘s Nosferatu (1922) is the greatest and most unique screen incarnation of Bram Stoker’s iconic character (although, as blasphemous as it sounds, I would place ‘s 1979 remake on an equal plane. Yes, I said that, but that is a subject for another week). However, the greatest cinematic treatment of  vampire folklore is a world removed from the titular Transylvanian count: ‘s Vampyr (1932). But it is not for attention span-challenged vampire fans.

Vampyr is a film of relentless, static beauty, almost demanding chimerical concentration and phantasmagorical imagination of the viewer. After the predictable box office failure of the greatest film ever made—Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the director deluded himself into thinking he could produce something commercial. He had what seemed to be the right source of inspiration (slight as it is): Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pulp hit “Carmilla,” taken from the collection “In a Glass Darkly.” “Carmilla,” with its theme of a lesbian vampire would, of course, be enticing fodder for the dull masses. But it turned out Dreyer was too original and too much in possession of an authentic, artistic spiritual substance for titillation. Fortunately, Dreyer, who wrote the screenplay, jettisoned the lesbianism and, with it, any anticipation of appeasing puerile genre fans. Vampyr was a financial flop, resulting in Dreyer’s nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his production company. He would  not make another film until Day of Wrath (1943). If period aficionados found Vampyr‘s deliberate pacing and intense, ethereal milieu too challenging, then many contemporary viewers, saddled with grand guignol expectations, often find the film provocative. Despite this, Vampyr proved to be a profound influence on both the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.

Although Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, he was uncomfortable with the medium, and the movie is imbued with pronounced silent film aesthetics. The great Rudolph Mate served as director of photography, interpreting Dreyer’s crepuscular world through incandescent, gossamer grays, giving the film an enchanted but foreboding sheen. Dreyer likened the experience of watching the film to a person standing in a room, then being told that another has just died in an adjacent room. The perception of the room you are in suddenly alters, even though the room itself remains the same.

Still from Vampyr (1922)As in a dream, the imagery is often disjointed, but deeply ingrained: a ferryman with scythe, a shrouded river, a shadow departing its one-legged owner,  the antagonist dispatched by suffocating from falling white flour in a dilapidated windmill, and the film’s nexus, the disquieting vignette in which the protagonist, Allan Grey (Julian West, who financed the film) lies, trapped, in a sealed coffin, perforated with a glass window. We take on the role of voyeur to Grey’s nightmare, his helpless, vacant stare masking his terror. His eyes take in the landscape as he is carried away to burial.

The cast is primarily made up of non-professionals (with the notable exception of Sybille Schmitz as the dying sister, Leon). Chief among the amateurs is Henriette Gerard as Marguerite Chopin, the old woman whose spectral presence is matched by her ominous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Together, the two weave a spell over the film, as does Dreyer, who imbues Vampyr with a resplendent sense of hermetic purpose permeating its sickly skin. As with all of Dreyer’s work, Vampyr is replete with spiritual preoccupations and fears.

Vampyr may be one of the films most benefited by the Criterion Collection treatment. For years, it was only available in washed out transfers. Even the Image Entertainment release was disappointing. Criterion has done a remarkable restoration, using both French and German versions. Jorgen Ross’ documentary of Dreyer, Casper Tyberjerg’s essay, commentaries, a 1958 Dreyer radio broadcast, and the original script are part of an extensive package of goodies.

157. NOSFERATU (1922)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror

“It is commonplace to say that silent films are more ‘dreamlike,’ but what does that mean? In ‘Nosferatu,’ it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away.”–Roger Ebert

Must See

DIRECTED BY: F.W. Murnau

FEATURING: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach

PLOT: A young clerk named Hutter leaves his wife Ellen to travel to Transylvania with a deed for one Count Orlock to sign so he can purchase a house in Viborg. Orlock, however, is nosferatu, a vampire, and Hutter find himself a prisoner in the Count’s castle as Orlock ships himself to the German port in a coffin. When Orlock arrives the town is shut down for fear of plague, and the vampire takes an interest in Ellen…

Still from Nosferatu (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • F.W. Murnau’s first seven films, made between 1919 and 1921, are all considered lost. Among them was an adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Nosferatu was his tenth movie.
  • Albin Grau, Nosferatu‘s co-producer, financier and production designer, was an occultist and a German rival of . His production company Prana intended to produce films promoting occultist beliefs, but the company went bankrupt after Nosferatu.
  • Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” barely disguised by changing the names and moving the action from London to Germany. The Stoker estate successfully sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement after release, and the film was ordered to be destroyed (fortunately, many prints survived).
  • Ranked #21 on Empire Magazine’s List of Best Films of World Cinema.
  • ‘s 2000 film Shadow of a Vampire is about the making of Nosferatu, and plays on the notion that the actor Max Schreck might really have been a vampire (an idea fleshed out from a tongue-in-cheek suggestion made by the writer Ado Kyrou in his book “Surrealism in Cinema”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it be but Max Schreck, the rat-faced herald of plague and pestilence and the screen’s most bestial bloodsucker? The scene where he rises unnaturally, stiff as a plank, from his coffin in the ship’s hold still presses the primal panic button.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The experimental use of negative images, sped up film stock, primitive stop motion photography, and the play of shadows to suggest a diabolical world coexisting with our mundane sunlit world creates an uncanny, nightmarish universe. The once new and startling techniques Murnau employs quickly became commonplace, but after nearly a century of disuse they have again become novel through their very archaism.


Trailer for a 2013 re-release of Nosferatu

COMMENTS: At the dawn of cinema, horror movies weren’t diversions meant to give teenage boys an excuse to put a comforting arm around their Continue reading 157. NOSFERATU (1922)