Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'Cagliostro: An Alternate History for ClassicFilm Monsters'

Count Allesandro di Cagliostro was an 18th century magician, scam artist, opportunist, and globetrotter. He founded an occult church called the Egyptian Rite of Masonry, lived in an ornate palace full of hieroglyphic-etched walls and statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses, and was ultimately put to death during the Inquisition. Such a colorful character was made for the movies, but as a monstery successor to Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, Cagliostro didn’t quite deliver the ghoulish goods. That’s why Universal Studios saw to it that Nina Wilcox Putnam’s screenplay inspired by the wicked mountebank was rejiggered into the film we all know and adore as The Mummy.

The script by Putnam, a novelist and short story writer with a biography nearly as eccentric as that of Cagliostro (she created the 1040 income tax form and was known to tool around in a toga as a protest against “the madness of clothing”!), displays some essential similarities to the horror classic it would become. Both center on dual-identity creeps who slither out of the past to reclaim their lost loves via bizarre Egyptian rituals. But, as stated above, Universal wanted a more traditionally iconic monster rather than a time-hopping magician, and some of the scenes Putnam included in her script likely drew gasps from the studio suits. It’s hard to imagine the climactic ritual sequence featuring a bloody, severed goat’s head, “almost naked” dancing girls, and elaborately described half human/half animal gods and goddesses making its way into a 1932 film.

Nina Wilcox Putnam

While there’s no doubt that there would be a void in Monster Moviedom without The Mummy, Putnam’s script contains enough scenes like the one above to make me miss Cagliostro a little. There’s also a terrific magic-show sequence (which, bizarrely enough, would basically be shot for the 2006 film The Illusionist) and a genuinely suspenseful race to rescue the damsel from Cagliostro. We may not be able to watch these sequences on screen starring Boris Karloff (who, of course, would be cast as the lead in The Mummy), but the publication of Philip J. Riley’s Cagliostro or The King of the Dead: An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters makes it possible to read Putnam’s vivid screenplay. The book is supplemented with Wilcox’s even less-monstery 10-page treatment, biographies of her and the subject of her unproduced film, and some essential details regarding the development of the script. As is the case with all of Riley’s “Alternate Histories for Classic Film Monsters”, it’s to be treasured by Classic Film Monster freaks.

Get it at Amazon.com here: Cagliostro or The King of the Dead: An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters
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