Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Diary of the Dead: Spring 2015

The ice has broken. The snow has melted. The temperature has risen. All this can only mean one thing: I may now commence spending the next six months wishing all this wretched warm weather away so that Halloween season can make a speedy return. Since I’m impatient by nature, I will mark this occasion by starting Halloween season right now, or at least enjoying a taste of it with a mini-installment of one of Psychobabble’s triedest and truest Halloween Season traditions: Diary of the Dead.

The films I spent March watching were mostly recommendations culled from Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth’s Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s, which I reviewed last month, so you will notice a definite decade bias amongst the following selections. I also managed to sneak in a few flicks from other decades that had been haunting my movies-to-see queue for far too long.

So squirt that sunscreen down the commode, kick off those sandals, and slip on your hobnail boots, because spring has been cancelled and Halloween season has been green lighted all in the name of a fiendish feature I call Diary of the Dead.

I wrote it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

March 11

One Frightened Night (1935- dir. Christy Cabanne) ***

A cantankerous chap with a heart of gold and a bank account of gold announces his plans to hand out fat inheritances to a bunch of friends and relatives before a new tax law goes into effect at midnight. When a woman claiming to be his granddaughter shows up, he decides to give the whole fortune to her instead, and the jilted group’s greed takes over. Things get more convoluted when yet another alleged granddaughter arrives, and someone ends up dead. This is standard-issue old dark house stuff with an incessant lightning storm, a killer in a grotesque mask, and a mummy (don’t get too excited. It stays put). The patter is passable and the cast is very good, particularly the lovable Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry of The Wizard of Oz) as old grampa moneybags.

March 14

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931- dir. George B Seitz) ***½

A ballerina inconsiderately attempts suicide, pulling her dad, Boris Karlov (the terrific Warner Oland), away from his mad doctor work. He vows to take revenge against the prince who drove her to it, which could be any young, male member of the Petroff family. The Drums of Jeopardy is no classic, but it’s solid entertainment with stormy atmosphere and a fair amount of suspense, violence, and humor. I love the cranky old woman who refers to multiple murders as “hanky panky” and nasty Karlov’s chummy relationship with the Secret Service Agent who’s trying to nab him. The novel on which it was based allegedly inspired actor William Henry Pratt to change his name to the one that would become synonymous with horror...

The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936- dir. Robert Stevenson) ****½

…One of Boris Karloff’s mid-thirties British pictures, The Man Who Changed His Mind finds his Dr. Laurience masterminding a mind swap between his wheelchair-bound former patient Clayton and pompous philanthropist Lord Haselwood. When he wasn’t wearing Jack Pierce’s makeup, Karloff was always most fun to watch when he seemed to be having the most fun (see The Body Snatcher). He looks like he’s having a ball in The Man Who Changed His Mind. He plays up Dr. Laurience’s sinister and petulant nature with all due snapping, growling, pouting, sneering, leering, and fist wagging. This isn’t just the star’s movie, though. Donald Calthrop definitely makes his presence felt as the embittered Clayton, Frank Cellier brings fire to Haselwood, and they both do great jobs playing each other after the mind swap. Robert Stevenson, who went on to direct some major live-action Disney movies in the sixties, further brings the picture to life with dense shadows, odd angles, jarring edits, shots of weird lab equipment, and a horror/humor tone all seemingly cribbed from James Whale. Another sequence comes straight from Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If you’re gonna crib, crib from the best. Universal’s great scribe John Balderston co-wrote the witty script.

March 15

Daughter of Horror (aka: Dementia) (1955- dir. John Parker) ***½

Expressionistic artiness and outright schlock totally make out in this wacko, psychosexual nightmare. Aside from some overripe music and narration (by Ed McMahon!), Daughter of Horror is a silent film that allows its skid row imagery to do the talking. Adrienne Barrett is a switchblade swinging Alice in a wonderland of drunken derelicts, brutal cops, gluttonous fat cats, greasy hustlers, and masked demons. I’ve never seen a movie quite like Daughter of Horror even as it borrows clichés from every sleazy exploitation flick of the fifties, and oddly enough, A Christmas Carol. It’s low budget for sure, but John Parker (allegedly in collaboration with Bruno Ve Sota) goes to town with a variety of interesting cinematic techniques, and cinematographer William C. Thompson (a regular collaborator of Ed Wood’s!!) definitely has a way with super-deep focus and chiaroscuro. Even if Daughter of Horror isn’t the work of art the filmmakers probably intended it to be, it’s rarely less than a hoot, and it all climaxes with some hot jazz from Shorty Rogers, who’d later arrange several Monkees recordings.

March 16

Murder by the Clock (1931- dir. Edward Sloman) **

An old rich woman is so terrified of being buried alive that she has an alarm installed in her crypt. Naturally, she croaks early in the film, not long before a body slumps through a doorway. While Murder by the Clock may seem a loose Poe adaptation, it was actually based on a mystery novel by Charles Beahan. This adaptation has style, borrowing much from the gothic horror sensibilities popular in ’31, and things briefly get spooky when that alarm starts honking. Overall, the film is too static and talky and the depiction of the woman’s mentally challenged son as a violent, horny hulk is hard to watch. Our story’s true monster is the manipulative wife of the rich woman’s boozy nephew. Lilyan Tashman relishes her role, but that’s not enough to help Murder by the Clock transcend its issues.

Danse Macabre (1922- dir. Dudley Murphy) **½

Personifications of Youth and Love flee from Death to a creepy castle during the plague, all to the glorious swirl of Camille Saint-Saën’s immortal tone poem. I was expecting a lot from this short film, and there are some interesting snatches of “animation” (a live-action arm and bow sawing away behind an illustrated Grim Reaper and his violin) and ghostly superimpositions, but there’s too much danse and not enough macabre. Plus, the first minute and a half of this mere six and a half minute film is wasted on credits and introductory titles. That two-and-a-half-star score is for the film alone. Saint-Saën’s piece is my all-time favorite—a five-star number if ever there was one.

March 17

Pan Twardowski (1936- dir. Henryk Szaro) ****

A lot of American horrors of the thirties picked up on expressionism’s distortions and shadows, but few dabbled in its artificiality and fairy-tale fantasticalness. The lush Polish production Pan Twardowski is one such film, with its miniature cities, prop moons and stars, and Merlin’s bag of in-camera magic tricks. The version I watched lacked subtitles, so I had to rely on Christopher Workman’s synopsis to get an idea of what was going on (dude makes deal with Devil to win a woman’s love—simple enough). That didn’t bother me much since Pan Twardowski feels more like a silent horror in the vein of The Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Faust, and Häxan than more contemporary stuff like Dracula’s Daughter and The Invisible Ray. It’s a pretty creepy picture too, and its ending is like the horrific flipside of the transcendent finale of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

March 18

Stephen King’s Night Shift Collection (1983/1982- dir. Frank Darabont/Jeffrey Schiro) *½

A pair of short films based on stories in Stephen King’s Night Shift collection were gathered on a video called, appropriately enough, Stephen King’s Night Shift Collection. The first is “The Woman in the Room”, in which a lawyer takes care of his dying mother and a client on death row. The second, “The Boogeyman”, deals with similar themes as a man talks to his psychiatrist about the mysterious death of his young daughter. Serial King-adapter Frank Darabont handles the first tale, a drama that consists of people talking flatly in rooms interrupted by a more mobile but no less chintzy dream sequence that provides the only traditional horror moment. The serious subject matter and heavy finale aren’t enough to taxi this tale out of Student Film City. The second is just one of three of Jeffrey Schiro’s directing credits (he seems to exclusively edit TV shows about the Bible these days). It’s more stylish and less inert than Darabont’s film, but it’s so shoddily acted that it makes one long for the comparatively professional dead-eyed cast of “Woman in the Room”.

March 20

Kill List (2011- dir. Ben Wheatley) ****½

A former soldier and retired hit man goes back to work to provide for his financially flailing family, and then… ahh, but I’ve already said too much. Kill List is a movie best seen completely fresh, because it’s full of unexpected developments, and if you’re anything like me (pray to your god that you are not), those developments will uproot you. This is a deeply, deeply disturbing movie that goes places few other films with this level of artistry dare. I’m sure there are “torture porn” movies that do, but those kinds of movies usually aren’t guided by a filmmaker like Ben Wheatley, one of the few truly original new voices in horror I’ve discovered. I’ve seen three of his four films, and each is a completely unique and lingering experience, though Kill List is the only one I’m not sure I can handle seeing a second time. It haunted me for days. Nevertheless, I’m very glad I have seen it. There are so few movies that really make me feel anything. Kill List did. I’m still trying to unfeel it.

March 21

Secret of the Blue Room (1933- dir. Kurt Neumann) ***½

Secret of the Blue Room has many calling cards of a Golden Age Universal Monster Movie: a screenplay by William Hurlbut, roles for Lionel Atwill and Gloria Stuart, opening credits scored with Swan Lake, a screeching windstorm, a creaky door, heightened nerves, a very trim running time. Actually, it’s more of a drawing room murder mystery despite the talk of ghosts and Blue Beard. There’s nothing quite so luridly gruesome or supernaturally thrilling about the title room, though several people did die there…or just outside its open window. To prove he’s worthy of gorgeous Stuart, a callow kid dares to sleep in the allegedly haunted room and challenges everyone else in the joint to do the same regardless of what happens to him. The cast and atmosphere are very strong, everyone approaches the material with good humor (Hurlbut sneaks some funny lines into his script), and the camera pov is very original, regularly roving like the eyes of an invisible observer.

March 23

Ginger Snaps (2001- dir. John Fawcett) ****

This gory and fairly campy werewolf flick is not the first to equate puberty with lycanthropy, but it’s probably the first to acknowledge that girls can be little monsters too. It’s also better than I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Teen Wolf. Brigitte and Ginger are sisters. Brigitte is the brooding one with the scraggly hair and bad posture, and Ginger is the one all the horny boys lust after. They both have classic teenage bad attitudes, but it’s Ginger who’s the werewolf. In an interesting twist on the myth, her transformation is gradual over the course of the whole movie. The witty script uses her supernatural condition to deal with a litter of teen topics: menstruation, immature sex, drugs, cutting, pubic hair, dog eating; you name it. With its grunge and goth fashions and too-cool nihilism, Ginger Snaps feels more like a nineties film than a twenty-first century one. It still smacked a nerve with contemporary horror fans and became a huge cult favorite and birthed a string of sequels. That success is not undeserving. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle are sulky fun as the sisters, and both became genre staples (Perkins had actually already cut her fangs in horror quite memorably in Stephen King’s It). Mimi Rogers is awesome as the mom who isn’t as clueless as she seems. John Fawcett directed several episodes of the similarly cartoonish, violent, snappy, and feminist “Xena: Warrior Princess”. Devotees of that show and “Buffy” will devour Ginger Snaps.

March 25

The Maze (1953- dir. William Cameron Menzies) ***½

Richard Carlson puts his engagement to Veronica Hurst on hold when his uncle croaks and he must go to Scotland to inherit uncle’s castle. Like Manderley of Rebecca and Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre, Castle Craven is one of those Gothic domiciles that houses a horrible secret. Daphne Du Maurier and Charlotte Brontë surely slapped themselves for not making their horrible secrets a giant frog. So, The Maze is the tale that ended up becoming a classic. Sorry, ladies. Menzies approaches this material somberly, which makes the big reveal all the more ludicrous. Before we see Kermit in the final reel, there are secret corridors, unnatural aging, a rubber bat, fog, cobwebs, strange shadows and noises in the night, webbed footprints, and of course, a massive hedge maze to keep us occupied. Good stuff.

March 26

The Death Kiss (1932- dir. Edwin L. Marin) ***½

A year after Dracula vivified the sound horror age, three of its principal players—Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, and David Manners— reunited for a film a lot of buffs haven’t even heard of. Perhaps that’s because The Death Kiss is really a murder mystery, but as far as that horror cousin goes, it’s basically a clever and well-made one. An actor playing a guy who’s supposed to die in a movie actually dies while shooting his big scene. Lugosi is the studio manager and Van Sloan is the director, but it’s the usually bland Manners who gets top billing as the scenario writer who’s written so many murder pictures he’s convinced he can solve the crime himself. Manners actually exudes some personality in this flick and gets to spout some of its peppy patter. The Death Kiss works best as a nasty satire of Hollywood. The producer only cares about how much the actor’s death will cost him. Journalists just care about the scoop. The low guys on the studio totem poll just want to pass the buck. On the down side, its is very light on action and overstuffed with talk and Lugosi and Van Sloan are both underused. Still, not a bad way to spend an hour and ten minutes.
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