Tag Archives: Expressionism

PAUL LENI’S CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

In 1927 Universal Studios chose their new emigree star director Paul Leni to turn John Willard’s hit stage play, The Cat and the Canary, into a work of German Expressionist art.  Carl Laemmle was clearly envious of the types of films being produced in Europe and Leni had proven himself with the critical success of Waxworks (1924).

The Cat and the Canary is a compact (not a shot is wasted) standout in the “old dark house” genre.  Who needs dialogue when the visual story telling is so richly expressed? Leni’s style certainly was a profound influence on both the Universal films to follow, and on in particular, whose Old Dark House (1932) virtually lifted Leni’s shots of shrouded corridors and expansive, ominous windows.  Whale may have learned how to frame a composition by absorbing Leni.  Leni’s lighting, camera angles and set design mirror the emotional state of the actors to remarkably vivid effect.

Cyrus West is likened to the canary (think Tweety Bird) and his greedy relatives are the circling cats (think Sylvester), hungering for his fortune.  So incensed is the dying Cyrus that he dictates that his will be read twenty years after his death.  When it comes to money, relatives can wait.  They all show up on the twentieth anniversary of Cyrus’ passing.

Still from The Cat and the Canary (1927)To contemporary viewers, the relatives are a gang of archetypes: the bitchy, greedy matriarch Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), the sexy cousin Cecily (Gertrude Astor), the Harold Lloyd-like Paul (Creighton Hale), a seemingly insane, red-herring psychiatrist (Lucien Littlefield), death-warmed-over in the form of Mr. Crosby (Tully Marshall), and the virginal Annabel (Laura La Plante, who Whale later used in 1929’s Show Boat).  The gang is ushered in to the reading by a mysterious, somber servant named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox).  The actors are a hoot, one and all, and superbly directed. Of course, there is a romance, but it is subtle and, in a rare example of silent cinema, not embarrassing to watch.

Dead bodies emerging from hidden panels, disappearing bodies, a lycanthropic hand snatching diamonds from the virgin’s neck, a cowering geek hiding under the bed and taking a peek at Cecily’s legs, a conniving aunt, and a villain (with a fake eye and saber tooth) who seems the role model for every Scooby Doo cartoon ever made all add up to something we have seen copied to death (pun intended) countless times since.  Leni’s imaginative style, however, takes precedence here.  Leni even has a good time playing with an intertitle (the film impressively keeps intertitles to a bare minimum).  The “Gosh, what a spooky house!” text shakes and shimmers as if it too is scared from being stuck in such a scary place!

The Cat and The Canary is played for laughs and it’s not surprising that Hollywood re-made it twice, first starring Bob Hope and  in 1939 and, again in 1978 (the latter had an interesting all-star, if eccentric, cast directed by cult nasty fave Radly Metzger).  Both remakes are pleasant enough diversions, but Willard’s play becomes something unique and influential only in the hands of this German Expressionist artist. Leni’s original is finally getting its due and is part of Kino’s valuable American Silent Horror Collection (buy).

PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

*This is the first of a three part series on the films of Paul Leni.

Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well.  A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios.  His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit.  Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often attached to him).  Where his career might have gone is almost impossible to assess.  Universal desperately wanted a follow up to their immensely successful version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and they thought they had it with Leni at the helm of Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.  Despite lavish production values and artistry, however, The Man Who Laughs was a disappointing box office failure, partly because it was released just as that new invention called “talkies” was taking hold.  Today, The Man Who Laughs is rightly seen as a landmark, influential film and vivid example of exported German Expressionism.

Still from The Man Who Laughs (1928)Set in 17th century England, Conrad Veidt (another Jewish German refugee) is Gwynplaine , the young son of a recently executed political revolutionary nobleman. Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies and, as punishment for sins of the father, he is forever maimed when his kidnappers carve a hideous grin into his face and abandon him to the elements of a violent snow storm.  In a scene worthy of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), or William Beaudine’s grim Sparrows (1926), the child Gwynplaine comes upon the corpse of a frozen mother cradling her still Continue reading PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

67. SUSPIRIA (1977)

“For Suspiria I was inspired by… everything that German Expressionism means: dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis.”–Dario Argento

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , Joan Bennet, Allida Valli, Stefania Casini

PLOT: Suzy, an American ballet student, is accepted to a German dance academy, but when she arrives there one stormy night she is denied entrance and watches as a young woman flees the school and runs into the forest. The next day she returns and is admitted to the academy with apologies, but she soon falls ill and becomes too weak to practice with the other students. After a series of bizarre occurrences and disappearances, Suzy becomes convinced that the faculty and staff of the academy are not who they pretend to be.

Still from Suspiria (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • Suspiria (concerning the “Mother of Sighs”) is the first and most notable of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. Subsequent installments are Inferno (1980, about the “Mother of Darkness”) and Mother of Tears (2007). The idea of the Three Mothers came from opium-addicted English writer Thomas de Quincey, who invented a myth of three witches analogous to the three Fates in his collection of fantastical essays Suspiria de Profundis (“suspiria” is Latin for “sighs”).
  • Argento originally wanted the story to feature a school of girls in the 8-10 year age range, but producers balked at the idea of showing gruesome murders of children. Although he cast adults to play the roles, Argento left in some childlike dialogue, and actually raised the doorknobs on the set so that the actress’ would have to reach up to turn them, as if they were children.
  • Argento has said that the color scheme for Suspiria was inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
  • In an early scene in the taxicab Argento’s scowling face can be seen momentarily reflected in the glass that separates the driver and the passenger; the effect is nearly subliminal.
  • Suspiria was one of the last films made using the Technicolor process.
  • Argento co-composed the remarkable soundtrack, performed by the Italian progressive rock group Goblin.
  • Rumors of a remake have been circulating for years. A project entitled Suspiria is (at the time of this writing) listed as “in development” on the IMDB, scheduled for a 2012 release. There are reports that Italian producer Marco Morabito has confirmed that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) will direct. Earlier rumors speculated that Natalie Portman would play the lead. (UPDATE: the remake is here, and it was almost none of what was predicted).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isolating a single indelible image in the movie is an impossible task; Suspiria shapes its surreality from the play of supersaturated colors on the baroque walls of the dance academy, and from its impossible, unnatural lighting schemes. The colors as a whole are indelible; there are perhaps a dozen impossibly lit individual shots (scenes that look as if they were inked by a demented gnome) that together form an impression of a world gone luminescently awry. The image of Suzy posed in front on a neon peacock as she enters the witch’s chamber, with a background column glowing an improbable scarlet from an unseen light source, is as a representative an image as any.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there are plenty of “weird” (in the sense of “uncanny” or“ occult”) occurrences in Suspiria—such as the rain of maggots—it’s the stylized sensual elements, the brilliantly unreal cinematography and the relentless unnerving score, that catapult the movie out of the realm of ordinary supernatural horror and land it in its own unique fairy tale nightmare realm.

Edgar Wright’s commentary for Suspiria trailer for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS: Suspiria is more an assault on the senses than a narrative; it’s Gothic horror Continue reading 67. SUSPIRIA (1977)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

REPORT: THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS [1927] (2010 RESTORATION)

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Lang

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

PLOT: The futuristic city of Metropolis is divided into a wealthy, hedonistic, and patriarchal

Restored still from The Complete Metropolis

above-ground, and the beaten-down workers who serve them below.  When the son of the city’s leader falls in love with a revolutionary worker, a chain of events is set in motion that ultimately sways the balance of power.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While its story is standard allegorical fare and the performances are often melodramatic, the sheer inventiveness and visual splendor of Metropolis warrants its status as quintessential science fiction.  It set the standard for a host of weird films that came after it and has several iconically bizarre scenes and characters.  Taking into account its importance in film history, it is certainly worthy of the Weird Movie List.

COMMENTS: In a futuristic society functioning solely on a complex network of machines, the workers are beaten down to the point of exhausted submission, while the leaders squander their riches on pleasures of the flesh.  Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the “Master of Metropolis” Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), leaves the pleasure garden cultivated for the spoiled sons of the elite and discovers the horrific conditions threatening his subterranean “brothers and sisters” who operate the machines.  His instant fairytale ardor for the saintly revolutionary Maria (Brigitte Helm) encourages him to become the prophesied Mediator, a man who will act as the “heart” between the brain above and the hands below.  When Joh Fredersen fears a workers’ rebellion, he enlists mad scientist and former romantic rival Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to disguise his newly-fashioned robot into a replica of Maria, so that the automaton can destroy their faith in a mediator.

Settling into my usual stage-right balcony seat at Cambridge’s historic Brattle Theatre, I felt privileged to see such a landmark early film on a big screen, and in its complete form, no less!  An introductory title card explained that the 30 minutes or so of missing footage found in a Buenos Aires museum were shot on 16 mm and would appear in different format than the rest of the remastered film.  The few scenes still unaccounted for would be described in similar title cards.  As the music swelled over a series of pumping pistons and grinding machinery, I was once again whisked away into the simultaneously dark and resplendent world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The new footage details much of the subplot involving the “Thin Man”, a devious fellow hired by Joh Fredersen to spy on his son.  In the prior version of the film he was a forgettable, barely relevant character, relegated primarily to expository title cards for his missing scenes.  Now he is integral to the stories of the stalwart Josophat (Freder’s assistant) and Georgy/11811, a worker who trades places with Freder.  One of the most impressive new scenes is a montage of Yoshiwara, the city’s pleasure district, in which Georgy traipses about the brightly-lit saloons with pearl-draped multi-ethnic women.  It’s a visually memorable scene with several shots merged together in a mosaic to capture the Las Vegas-like over-saturation of the place.

Unfortunately the new footage was not remastered before theater release, and while I appreciate the speed with which it was put together, I did bemoan the grainy, darkened quality of the restored scenes.  The main advantage is that it makes them noticeable so any viewer can ascertain what was missing from the more familiar version.  It’s also lamentable that the film was shown in a digital presentation, but I’m not sure if that applies to all theater screenings or just the Brattle’s.  All told these are minor complaints, and the overall effect of seeing a visionary classic in its near-complete form (about 5 minutes are still lost) is breathtaking on a big screen and required viewing for any fan of science-fiction, silent film, or just great movies in general.

Riddled with shifting loyalties and a large number of characters, Metropolis spreads its complex narrative across two and a half hours of ornate sets and meticulously-planned shots.  The lively orchestral and onomatopoetic score captures the mood of each moment perfectly, magnifying the enthusiastic performances.  Helm is mesmerizing in her dual role as Maria and her robotic doppelganger: alternately a glass-eyed saint and twitchy, devilish rabble-rouser.  Klein-Rogge is the other standout as the manic inventor Rotwang, twisting his metal hand into a claw and arching his eyebrows with mad fervor as he slithers around catacombs and dingy laboratories.

It could benefit from better pacing and a more organized plot structure, and the added scenes don’t help the already dragging and plot-holed story, but the sheer wonder and imagination with which Metropolis is filmed combine with intense performances and a heartfelt message to establish it as a true masterpiece of filmmaking.  Now that it is available in its most complete form, its weird visuals and ambitious story can be fully appreciated for all their muddled religious iconography, forward-thinking mechanics, impressive effects, and allegorical implications.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…adds even more depth to a delirious, dreamlike class parable whose dystopia still feels exhilaratingly modern.”–David Fear, Time Out New York (restored version)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

AKA Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, , Ken Page

PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries to recreate it, with ghoulish results.

Still from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.

COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of  Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.

The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs.  She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?

The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.

Related: Alfred Eaker’s A Few Odd Yuletide Favs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Burton] pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination — where the real nightmares are. But through Burton’s eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren’t bad places at all. In fact, they’re quite wonderful.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

SHORT: VINCENT (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Vincent Price

PLOT: A seven year old boy wishes he could be just like the Vincent Price he sees in old movies.

Still from Vincent (1982)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  It’s not quite weird; more mildly macabre.  But it sure is cool.

COMMENTSVincent is a 5 minute poem, narrated by the mellifluous Vincent Price, about a morbid boy (also named Vincent) obsessed with emulating the horror icon’s tormented screen persona.  It’s told in a singsong, storybook cadence and given a superlative reading by Price (who was so flattered by the tribute that he proclaimed it a greater honor than a star on Hollywood Boulevard).  There are some specific references to Price’s work for the actor’s fans, though the short prefers to evoke their general atmosphere than to cite specific movies. Young Vincent’s daydreams involve dipping his aunt in wax, turning his dog into a zombie, and slowly being driven mad by his guilt over his unspeakable crimes.  A representative stanza: “Such horrible news he could not survive/For his beautiful wife had been buried alive!/He dug out her grave to make sure she was dead/Unaware that her grave was his mother’s flower bed.”  Vincent is visually impressive, deliberately shot in luminous black and white and drawing on the gloomy Gothic style of the old Universal horror movies with a powerful dose of German Expressionism.  (Burton denied being directly influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he’s the only one who doesn’t notice the similarity to the silent psychological horror classic in the geometrically warped sets).  The look and childishly ghastly tone bring to mind a lighter version of the macabre black and white lithographs of Edward Gorey (who once created a primer where each letter illustrates the death of a tot).  Burton’s visual sensibility is already fully formed here, and the elements of his classic style—his comic, cathartic synthesis of fresh childhood innocence and the must of the grave—are already in evidence.  In fact, there may be no better example in the director’s entire body of work of than this crisp five minute exhibition of his talent for mixing the chuckle with the shudder.

Disney has traditionally made Vincent and Burton’s other pre-fame short Frankenweenie as extras on all their editions of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The film is also included on the anthology Cinema 16: American Short Films (buy) alongside  Maya Deren‘s “Meshes of the Afternoon” and works by Andy Warhol, Todd Solondz and Gus Van Sant, among others.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a pastiche of styles lifted from the writings of Dr. Seuss and Edgar Allen Poe, and a range of movies from B-horror films, German expressionist works and the films of Vincent Price.”–Michael Frierson, Animation World Magazine (DVD)

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Maxwell Stewart.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]