Dark Continent

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , on October 31, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-10-31-08h15m48s226

THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST (1945) sounds like it ought to be terrible, to match its title — it’s a low-budget horror from Republic, it’s devoid of stars, it has Lesley Selander as director, who has little reputation that I’m aware of… But it’s quite diverting. The script is co-written by Leigh Brackett of THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE fame, and one is tempted to assign most of its interesting qualities to her influence. Though not a horror author, her literary works included pulp noir and sci-fi, so she could turn her hand to a variety of genres.

vlcsnap-2014-10-31-08h14m49s111

The movie is set in a sound stage Africa and authenticity isn’t exactly a priority. Still, it’s probably less racist than most Tarzan type adventures. The worst moment, when a group of white characters complain that the recent spate of vampiric killings have so spooked the natives that they aren’t doing any work, could almost be a critical commentary of the colonial mindset, though perhaps I’m giving the film too much credit here. Still, there are a few black characters who actually ARE characters. A shame to see Theresa Harris (I *think* — she’s uncredited) wordlessly wasted in the opening scene, though she does make a seductive scream queen.

Not many horror movies are narrated by the vampire — this one is! And we begin with a subjective camera bloodsucking, so we’re preconditioned to take his point of view, and when he turns up, played by gaunt, gimlet-eyed John Abbott, he’s easily the most appealing character n the film. Even after he announces his intention to destroy the virtuous hero and heroine, hypnotizing her and plotting some kind of “destruction” for her — seemingly he wants her to REIGN THROUGH ETERNITY AS HIS BRIDE or something — we still kind of like him. Brackett has saddled him with the name Webb Fallon — a heavy burden to carry through the centuries — and made him a survivor from the first Elizabethan age — he carries the soil from his grave in a box gifted to him by the Queen. The noir-corny name and the historic backstory (had any vampire save Dracula boasted such a heritage at this point in the movies?) suggest to me that the writer had in mind a more handsome, Byronic type of vampire — plus he runs a gambling house in Africa so he should be a tough guy — but budgetary considerations evidently prevented Cary Grant from receiving the fateful call. A more on-the-nose casting choice — make him sepulchral, corpse-like — resulted in the bulb-headed Abbott being handed probably his best-ever role, a leading man role of sorts, something

vlcsnap-2014-10-31-08h15m10s92

Like Wesley Snipes, Fallon is a daywalker, though he needs sunglasses in the African glare. This kind of imaginative detail, simple in itself, just wasn’t being seen in Hollywood B-pictures. Even Val Lewton, who made films immeasurably superior to this one, didn’t explore his genre elements in this practical way, because he was more interested in using a mythic pretext to get to a thematic subtext. Good Hawksian that she was, Brackett was interested in what you might get up to as an immortal with superpowers. (But I doubt even she could tell you why there’s a statue of Kali, shorn of half her arms, in an African temple.)

Abbott/Fallon is persistently glum, seeming to take no pleasure in his role of corruptor. This makes the victory of the good guys — achieved through a combination of religious iconography and murderous violence — ring more hollow than usual, especially since Abbott has prophesied that those he has bitten will rise from their graves. The prospect of a sequel with a fanged Theresa H and lusty Adele Mara rampaging across the Gold Coast is positively mouth-watering, but it was not to be.

Steel and Glass

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 30, 2014 by dcairns

playtime-restaurant

I have written a little essay for Criterion’s magisterial Complete Jacques Tati box set, recommended as the ideal Christmas present for a discerning cinephile, if you have the means. But I have also made a video piece for Criterion’s website, along with editor Timo Langer and online editor Stephen Horne, to whom thanks are due.

You can view the thing free, gratis and for nothing, here. I’m quietly chuffed with it.

Also, look around at all the other nice goodies on offer. The magnificent box set can be grabbed at the link below.

The Complete Jacques Tati [Blu-ray]

The Dada Book

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by dcairns

babadook

Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK is getting lots of favorable attention, and the low-budget Australian horror deserves it, though we weren’t wholly captivated. But the minus side — too much generic running around, recycling of tropes from Mario Bava’s SHOCK and THE SHINING*, neglecting the unique possibilities of its original ideas, like the scary pop-up book — is pretty well balanced by some strong pluses.

I’m going to play the game of not spoiling the storyline, but you might pick up hints from the following, and if you want to see the film with a virginal mind, see it first before reading the rest.

babadoo

The title is really delightful — Fiona was convinced she’d heard this word before, which is testament to the word-sound’s grip on the collective unconscious. It’s like onomatopoeia for something that doesn’t exist.

The performances, particularly the two leads, are just extraordinary. Little Daniel Henshall Noah Wiseman has one of those wildly expressive, photogenic faces, eyes like fishbowls, porcelain skin, and disconcerting FANGS (like he hasn’t quite grown into his teeth, or like they just grew into him) — he transfixes the camera. Essie Davis as his mum is just perfect too, maintaining sympathy as long as possible as things start to get really, really bad.

The movie is playing an elaborate game with the genres of psychological and supernatural horror, so expect some slide between believing the Babadook is a real monster and thinking it’s all in the mind. Some of this journey is rocky, with promising avenues closed off too soon, and the part of the film where it comes down strongly on one side gets kind of dull and uninvolving — we feel we’ve lost sympathy, and for all the running around, this can only end really badly, which is depressing. But then the movie pulls off an eleventh-hour recovery and goes somewhere quite unexpected and possibly unique in the genre.

baba2

Fiona: “Magicians are scary. Child magicians are very scary.”

Basically, the Babadook — a crow-like caped man with dagger-like fangs, somewhat Tim Burton-like — also a mysterious hand-crafted children’s book with some highly inappropriate content — comes to have a very clear metaphorical significance. He’s the embodiment of a repressed emotion, and ultimately the way of dealing with him seems quite apt and may even have helpful real-world applications for the viewer. Grief isn’t dealt with by violence, and it can’t be effectually shut away and forgotten, and it is a dark, all-consuming monster… I can say no more.

The movie has a jittery, juddery, propulsive editing style which keeps you nervous most of the time. Mom walks towards the front door — the sound of the door opening breaks in before she gets there — we cut to her midway through opening the door, now shot from outside — which smooths over the jumps just enough to feel like smooth continuity, but has an undercurrent of nervous anticipation. This is kept up, which means the film doesn’t get to creep us out much with slow, building suspense, but it’s also a world away from the traditional, conventional 1-2-3-BOO! approach of teen horror. It has its limitations but it’s at least a fresh approach.

*Anyone who has seen LET US PREY, co-written by Fiona & I, will be able to point triumphantly to a lot of SHINING-influenced business in that one, but we already have our answer worked out, which is to deny all responsibility for anything you don’t like, okay? As long as we can take credit for anything you DO like. The ultimate powerlessness of the screenwriter has to confer SOME advantages…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 438 other followers