Archive for September 26, 2009

Hey Presto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns

Mad Magician web classic poster

THE MAD MAGICIAN is the second of Vincent Price’s horror flicks, after HOUSE OF WAX (factor in SON OF SINBAD and Uncle Vinnie must be one of the most persistently three-dimensional of actors, for reasons I can’t quite fathom), and despite boasting a story by Crane Wilbur, who scripted the earlier film, and direction by John Brahm, who had brought expressionist/noir chiaroscuro stylings to two Laird Cregar shockers (THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE), it’s easy to see why it doesn’t have the same killer rep as Andre De Toth’s wax museum penny dreadful.

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Obviously shot on a lower budget, MM is black and white, but a slightly gray and washed-out kind, not quite up to the usual standards of Brahm or ace cinematographer Bert Glennon. I suspect the technical difficulties of the 3D resulted in over-lighting, or something. I can’t think of any b&w 3D movies with outstanding cinematography, actually. And Brahm doesn’t do too many of the great off-balance compositions and slow advances that made his Cregar movies deliciously spooky — I suspect Price’s physog just doesn’t inspire him the way lovely Laird’s bloated kisser obviously did.

The plot has compensations — Price may be the only killer in screen history to frame his first victim for his second victim’s murder, and he attempts to repeat the trick with a third target. The gimmick is rubber masks, which Price has developed as part of his job designing tricks for magicians (imagine if the BBC’s Jonathan Creek went bad — and not in the sense of slowly running out of ideas and charm and droning on endlessly with a mounting sense of desperation, because obviously that couldn’t happen). He also uses lethal tricks such as a buzz saw and a crematorium to dispose of his enemies, although ex-wife Eva Gabor is despatched via simple strangulation. Which is odd — you’d think she was the kind of person who could inspire a far more creative homicide.

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Actually, the film’s most surreal moment is when the script requires Price to slap Gabor, something he just can’t do with conviction. Price is an ungainly actor, a brilliantly athletic face mounted atop a stiff, bumbling frame, with a bandy lope of a run — only his hands seem to obey his mind, forming beautiful flourishes in the air. They might wield a whip or pull a maleficent lever, but slapping a face is something they draw the line at.

The whole thing is reasonable fun, slightly unpredictable, vestigially original and worth watching for the Brahm completist, which is me. It’s interesting that Brahm really got his mojo back on TV, where some of his Twilight Zone episodes are even more visually inventive and striking than his best movies. In this he was not alone — Jacques Tourneur, whose late features are largely a sorry bunch, whether compared to his 40s and 50s masterpieces or to run-of-the-mill studio pablum, managed a terrific Zone episode, Night Call, which I recommend to all his admirers, and Mitchell Leisen’s The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine, with Ida Lupino, could serve as his epitaph.

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We watched THE MAD MAGICIAN flat. A guy with a paddle-ball routine turns up, as in HOUSE OF WAX, and the buzz saw looks like it would be fun in 3D, spitting splinters and sawdust in our faces. With Brahm at the helm, it seems likely that some of the more interesting effects are less obvious and can only be discussed after an “in-depth” viewing.

Hooray! Some clips –

And actually that does look a lot more interesting than the flat version would suggest… (You might have to double-click the image to call up an anaglyph version.)

Bwana Bubble

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns

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So — like a lot of people who’ve read some basic film history, I knew that the first 3D feature was BWANA DEVIL, promoted with the tagline “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” There were things I did NOT know, however  –

1) I didn’t know that BWANA DEVIL is based on the same astonishing true-life case as THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS: an unheard-of incident of two man-eating lions who hunted together, finishing off scores of hapless humans and delaying construction of the first trans-African railway.

2) I didn’t know that the film was made by Arch Oboler, genius of scary radio with a background in low-budget noir, and that he carried on pushing 3D into the 70s, long after the rest of the world had given up on it.

domoarigatposterOboler just wouldn’t give up on “Space-vision.”

I had occasion to mention Oboler this summer when I met Bruce MacDonald, director of the stupendous PONTYPOOL, which deals with the power of radio. He mentioned Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. I mentioned Oboler’s Chicken Heart broadcast, in which a giant, ever-expanding chicken heart eats the world, and discovered that MacDonald was familiar with the Bill Cosby routine based on the show, but not the show itself.

It still strikes me as weird that Oboler would come from radio, which uses only the dimension of imagination, sparked by sound, and yet the ordinary two-dimensions of cinema were not enough for him.

Here’s a classic slice of Oboler — listen with the lights out!

Oboler’s cult output also includes the slick psycho-noir BEWITCHED, which I wrote of here, post-atomic survival drama FIVE, and THE TWONKY, a bizarro comic fantasy about an alien visitor who takes the form of a TV set. As a drunken sports coach says, “I used to have a Twonky when I was a kid. A Twonky is something that you don’t know what it is…”

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The big problems with BWANA DEVIL are that (1) it doesn’t really benefit from 3D much at all, and Oboler’s flat, washing-line compositions are a waste of the medium. The lion leaps over the camera every time it appears, but there’s not enough suspense to make us afraid of the thing. Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE gets one thing right — the very tactile  and three-dimensional big cats in the movie feel really alive and present, in a way Oboler’s cut-out creations never get a chance to. What’s needed is some Val Lewton atmospherics, giving the lions the aura of the supernatural the African and Indian characters ascribe to them. The real motheaten beasts in this movie, and the CGI creations in the more modern version (another form of 3D — computer-generated 3D cartoons) are neither real enough nor phantasmagorical enough.

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(2) The wonder of the story depends on the audience carrying it its head the fact that this is TRUE and UNIQUE, two qualities from outside the frame of the movie. We have to remind ourselves, in the midst of important action “Seems implausible, but apparently it really happened,” and “I don’t know much about lions, but apparently they never normally do this.” It’s a story that works brilliantly in the history books and when William Goldman tells it in prose. And the movie begins with a title, “This is a story that was told to me in Africa,” hinting at the excitement he must have felt when encountering this great yarn around the campfire.

Robert Stack tries hard in a role not so much underwritten as unwritten, and Nigel Bruce, the beloved Dr Watson from the Basil Rathbone Holmes films, makes a good fist of his Scottish accent — he ought to, despite being born in Mexico (!) he was a descendant of Robert the Bruce.

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“Take these damn Space-Vision glasses! Take them, I say!”

Much better is THE BUBBLE, Oboler’s penultimate Spacevision production, which draws on some of the pulp mystery and numinous terror of his best radio work. A group of 1D characters is trapped in a 3D town which seems to be surrounded by a giant perspex dome. The town is as incomplete and inconsistent as a movie set reconstruction of Patrick McGoohan’s Village, left half-finished, and its populated by humans reduced to robotic repetition, who “feed” by some kind of gross osmotic process conducted in a queer biomechanical temple. Is there no escape?

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The groovy yet unexplained brainwashing sequence.

Oboler’s direction is much friskier here, with carnivalesque effects created by camera movement and odd angles, but the aesthetic is still one of sticking stuff in the viewer’s eye. Why was Oboler obsessed with 3D if that’s all he could see to do with it? Unfortunately, his compelling premise fizzles out, and a lack of consistency in the characters’ behaviour robs it of a lot of its potential. The crux of these Twilight Zone scenarios is that they only work if played out to their natural conclusions, with the crazy idea followed through step by step with impeccable logic.

But the hackneyed effects are still enjoyable, the underwritten character are played by fresh, unskilled but somehow believable actors, and the idea is a nice, creepy one. If Oboler had only come up with a neat, PLANET OF THE APES-style zinger ending, the movie would probably have found its place as a minor cult object.

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Buy Arch Oboler from Amazon –

Five

The Bubble

Lights Out Everybody

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