Monday, October 4, 2010

Ten Terrible Scenes in Otherwise Terrific Terror Movies!

There’s some old story about how master makers of Persian rugs were always sure to tie one knot incorrectly to keep their work from achieving perfection. I never understood this. You’re making a rug, it’s awful nice, why not just make the best damn rug you can make? Perhaps I don’t possess a poetic enough soul to suss the sense in the whole “one bad knot” approach to making art, which sets me apart from the creators of some of the greatest horror films. Movies such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bride of Frankenstein, and Psycho contain flaws that keep them just a hair’s breadth from achieving absolute perfection. So let’s take a look at the blunders in those great films and seven others in Psychobabble’s Ten Terrible Scenes in Otherwise Terrific Terror Movies!

*Beware of spoilers...

1. Yucking it up with Dr. Jekyll…

Essentially made to compete with the new crop of horror pictures pioneered by Universal Studios, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released at the tail of end of 1931, the year that saw the release of both Dracula and Frankenstein. Call me bold, but Rouben Mamoulian’s version of the oft-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson story is the greatest horror film ever made. It has all the atmosphere and classic appeal of the Universal films while trumping them in terms of acting, cinematography, script, drama, inventiveness, and horror. Mamoulian really pulls out all the stops, with his unsettling point-of-view shots, pioneering special effects (the on screen transformation of Jekyll into Hyde is far, far more advanced than the Wolf Man’s transformation ten years later), experimental superimpositions, and his willingness to confront adult themes fearlessly. Unfortunately, in one instance his daring gets the better of him when Fredric March’s Jekyll restores a young girl’s ability to walk. What follows is a painfully awkward shot of an uncredited child actress lurching toward the camera, laughing like a robot, and repeating “I can walk, sir!” over and over. The scene lasts about ten seconds, but it feels like ten hours. Hey, uncredited child actress, don’t quit your day job.



2. At least the ape didn’t sing “Mammy”…

The theory that King Kong (1933) is an allegory about slavery in the U.S. is not a new one. It even factored into a terrific scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Of course, there’s no evidence that Kong creators Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack ever intended such an allegory, and if their portrayal of black people in the film is any indication, it’s better off that they didn’t. After Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong) crew lands on Skull Island, they are greeted by a horde of crazed, half-naked natives, the most prominent of whom are white actors in black face (and body) and bad afro wigs. The natives’ frenzy reaches new heights when they notice that a pretty, white, blond lady (Faye Wray) is among the crew’s ranks and decide she’d make a much better sacrifice to the Mighty Kong than one of their own.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that King Kong needs to be viewed as a product of the insensitive and ignorant times in which it was made, and it is a great film that essentially portrays white men as the ultimate villains. But then again, I might be viewing the film through contemporary eyes, and this was no more Cooper and Schoedsack’s intention than the slavery allegory. Whatever their intentions, they don’t make the native sequence any less difficult to watch today.



3. The born lever-puller…

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is my bid for the greatest horror film, but my personal favorite is James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Hilariously funny, lushly produced and filmed, slyly subversive, unimaginably imaginative, and rich in iconic imagery, Bride of Frankenstein could have been a perfect film if not for a strangely lazy ending. Cut to the Monster (Boris Karloff) distraught due to his rejection by his recently assembled would-be Bride (Elsa Lanchester). The Monster takes out his weepy vengeance by destroying the castle in which the Bride was created with himself, her, and the wicked Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) inside. He accomplishes this by yanking a self-destruct lever conveniently— yet completely illogical—installed in the castle. OK, so Whale wanted to end his picture with a bang. Fine enough, but couldn’t he have conceived of something that made more sense than this bit of Monster ex Machina? That lab was full of electrical equipment that the Monster could have easily exploded with a little effort. But, then again, my ignorance may be showing. Perhaps all Gothic castles come with built-in self-destruct levers. What the hell do I know about Gothic castles?



4. Don’t worry, kids. There’s no such thing as vampires…

Without a doubt the most famous lost horror film is Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). The film’s fame and the ravenous desire to rediscover it apparently has more to do with the opportunity to see Lon Chaney’s toothy “vampire”* live and breathe** than the plot. I place the word “vampire” in quotes because the big twist at the end of London After Midnight is that Chaney’s character is not undead at all, but a disguised Scotland Yard inspector seeking to root out a murderer. That Chaney’s horrifying ghoul turned out to be nothing more than a cop in vamp drag must have been a devastatingly disappointing scene. According to Jonathan Rigby’s excellent book American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema, Browning said at the time, “mystery must be made plausible… nobody believes in ghosts and grave spirits except children and maybe some dark-complexioned Southerners” (Yeesh. He probably loved that native scene in King Kong).

Considering London’s lost status, I can’t personally attest to the terribleness of the film’s climactic scene since I’ve never seen it. I have, however, seen Browning’s 1935 remake, Mark of the Vampire. Nearly as iconic as Chaney’s faux vampire is the equally fake vampire team of Count Moran (Bela Lugosi) and Luna (Carroll Borland). In the remake, the Count and his daughter are actually actors hired by the Inspector (Lionel Atwill). Luna must have been one hell of an actress to fly through a window on giant bat wings.

*See the banner at the top of this page. Chaney is the one who isn’t Keith Richards. I know, I know…it’s really hard to tell them apart…

**This is a joke. Vampires don’t live and breathe: they are the un-dead, and therefore, they un-live and un-breathe.



5. You’re next! You’re not next…

As anyone who has seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) knows, Don Siegel’s film has one of the most disturbing, terrifying, and pessimistic conclusions of any classic sci-fi or horror film: having seen everyone he loves replaced by an alien replica, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) loses all hope and self-control, rushes into traffic, and starts screaming “You’re next! You’re next!” into the windows of the cars speeding around him. At the last moment, his crazed glare is directed directly into the camera for one final “You’re next!” (that means you, movie watcher!) and the film ends. Quite a finale, eh? Kind of perfect. Well, it would have been perfect if it had actually been the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Irritatingly, the dumb-ass suits at Allied Artists Pictures felt this ending was too pessimistic and needed to be softened by an anticlimactic epilogue in which a cache of alien pods are discovered and the FBI is called in to save the day before the pods hatch the next batch of insidious alien replicas. The ending leaves the viewer feeling hopeful that Hoover’s rangers will save the day, but hopeless that Hollywood will ever develop a backbone.



6. Reading the Bible with Lillian Gish…

I shouldn’t really be bothered by anything in Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, Night of the Hunter (1955). It is as close to being a perfect movie as any on this list, executed with dreamy flair by Laughton and expertly acted by Robert Mitchum as demonic preacher Harry Powell, Shelley Winters as Powell’s doomed bride Willa Harper, little Billy Chapin as Willa’s wise son John, and Lillian Gish as, basically, Mother Goose. But I can’t help lament that atheist Laugthton missed a grand opportunity to maintain his critique of religion that begins as soon as Powell makes his first appearance on screen in a creepy jalopy. Instead, Laughton cops out by having Gish’s Rachel Cooper start droning on about Jesus and Moses and reading Bible stories to her clutch of orphans. Cooper is a great character with several great scenes—especially the one when she expresses a surprising level of understanding after learning that one of her charges has been screwing around with men. It’s disappointing that Laughton chose to go the easy route by having Cooper combat Powell’s evil with dull religious dogma, in effect reducing the battle in his very complex, very adult, and generally progressive film to yet another hokey duel between Dracula and a bottle of holy water.



7. And now Hitchcock’s spectacular climax! Scratch that, here’s some long-winded psychobabble instead…

So Mother Bates has been discovered, Norman Bates has been unwigged, Lila Crane is safe, all is satisfied. But all is not over. Like all great Hitchcock films, Psycho (1960) is expertly paced to lure us into a false sense of comfort and maximize suspense. So why do we need that anticlimactic explanation of Norman’s motives by some cod psychologist at the film’s climax? What really happened to Norman’s mother and impelled him to kill is completely unimportant. Hitchcock, the originator of the McGuffin, should have known this better than anyone else. Still we must endure an endless stream of verbiage by a smugly smirking shrink as Lila— who has just learned her only sister has been brutally murdered, mind you—sits listening politely and emotionless. The good news is that this draggy, pointless sequence is followed by one of the film’s best. Norman instantly lays waste to the psychologist’s entire monologue by refusing to kill a fly and giving us viewers a grin chilling enough to remind us why we love this movie so much.

"Blah, blah, blah."

8. Spoil the ending, why don’t you…

The treatment The Wicker Man (1973) received is hardly befitting a film often hailed as one of the greats of British cinema. When EMI purchased British Lion Films, the parent company insisted on chopping 20 minutes from the film. In the US, another 13 minutes were trimmed at the suggestion of Roger Corman (who didn’t even end up distributing the film!). As a result, The Wicker Man was only available in a diced and re-sequenced version for a very long time. The most recent DVD release of The Wicker Man contains both the butchered version and a stitched-up recreation of director Robin Hardy’s original edit. The reinserted scenes are grainier than the rest of the film, but this is still the one and only way to watch The Wicker Man. Too bad that one of these scenes essentially gives away the film’s big climactic twist. A couple of cops have a hardy larf over the possible virginity of their commanding sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward). When Howie takes a flight to Summerisle to investigate a missing girl, and it becomes clear that the little virgin will be sacrificed by the local pagan populace to guarantee good crops, we can pretty much guess what will become of Howie. In the edited version, revelation of Howie’s virgin-status is saved for the film’s finale, which helps it to pack a stronger punch. Considering how important that final shock is, and how significant a role it plays in the film’s legend, everyone involved seemed bent on ruining it for audiences: images of the burning wicker man were used in the trailer and the movie posters, and of course, on the covers of videotapes and DVDs. But those blunders are the faults of marketing and distribution people. Only Hardy is to blame for telegraphing his big twist in the film, itself.



9. The true monster in Carrie? The 1970s…

Scary as it is, Carrie (1976) is not without humor, although Brian DePalma was smart enough to make most of that humor pitch black; every scene with Piper Laurie is basically hilarious and horrifying in equal measure. So what’s with that ridiculous sequence in which the kids are getting ready for the prom to a soundtrack of moog-synth funk straight out of a “Fat Albert” cartoon? It’s as if someone cut some footage from a bad ‘70s sitcom into the movie as a prank. The piece de crap of the montage is when William Katt and his buddies are discussing their hideous tuxes and the action suddenly goes on fast-forward, the guys gibbering in sped-up chipmunk voices. This was a brainwave by editor Paul Hirsch to speed the action in the saggy scene. Hey, Hirsch, I have a better idea for quickening the pace in this scene: cut it.



10. We get it. You love your dad…

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) was a flop with audiences, perhaps because they didn’t quite know what to do with a live-action Disney film that was way too scary for the studio’s young audience. Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel may have earned less than half its budget at the box office, but the film is a gorgeously autumnal, superbly acted piece of work. If Disney has a reputation for churning out cutesy, bowdlerized fairy tales for runny-nosed toddlers, you’d never know it from this film. Well, except during the climactic sequence, in which young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) forgives his dad (the great Jason Robards) for failing to save him from drowning years earlier. I have no problem with a bit of sentimentality, especially in a movie that is essentially aimed at kids. But it’s as if Clayton tried to mitigate the creeping (and, occasionally, gory) Gothic terror of the rest of his picture by applying the schmaltz in this scene with a trowel. Along with a prolonged, teary hug, and a sappy recreation of the near-drowning event that puts Will’s dad in the hero seat, we get Will’s declaration of “I love you, dad” on a seemingly endless loop to maximize audience nausea.

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