Win One for the Gifford

Watched HOUSE, or HAUSU, as the Japanese call it — our friend Kiyo had recommended we obtain it, and then we read a glowing FaceBook recital of its many virtues from regular Shadowplayer and critic Anne Billson. Eaten by a piano? Drowned in cat’s blood? This sounded like a film to give Ozu a run for his money.

What concerns us for the moment, however, is a moment relatively early in the film, which has an unusually long preambular sequence setting up the arrival of seven cheeky Japanese schoolgirls (soon to be dead and possibly naked) at the titular haunted hausu. We’re on a coach, heading into the country. But what’s this extra on the left reading?

“The Gifford!” cried Fiona, startling me worse than anything in the movie would.

What a nice tribute from director Obayashi-san: Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (far left of frame), suggesting a possible clue to his movie’s patchwork style — he’s been inspired by the random collection of images approach taken by Gifford in illustrating his Big Green Tome.

As I’m working my way through all the films illustrated in this book, it was a pleasure indeed to find a fellow fan.

So how am I doing?

Candace Hilligoss, so effective in her goose-like beauty in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, makes her only other appearance in CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (that’s not her above, though), a movie that actually does try hard to be good, and even seems to have a partial, coffee-stained map guiding it in the right general direction. Period flavour has been aimed for, unusual dialogue attempted (“The body is a long insatiable tube!”), and suitable actors engaged (a nubile Roy Scheider, not yet tanned to alligator-hide perfection, is particularly effective). Plus a decent nasty plot premise, in which some insufferable rich folks in period New England are wiped out (perhaps by a departed relative) in the manner of their worst fears. Lest the gimmick and the talking stuff don’t quite carry the day, some gore and some decorous semi-nudity are laid on. It doesn’t quite make it to being memorable or actually, y’know, good, but one can’t fault the intent.

Attempts to obtain THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE have so far defeated me — anyone out there can help?

I have, however, got my sweaty mitts on FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, a Japanese kaijin flick using the man-made man, grown to giganticular proportions, as protag. Can’t wait to sample this Ishiro Honda weirdfest.

Also obtained but not yet watched: the 1957 THE VAMPIRE, which for some reason Gifford illustrates twice; THE PHANTOM OF SOHO, in two distinct versions;

Enjoyed two surviving Melies masterworks, THE VANISHING LADY, from which Melies produces three frame enlargements for a before-during-and-after account of M. Melies magic trick, and THE GIGANTIC DEVIL, whose oddly simpering Satan I had long admired in still form. This year I intend to recreate, in my own fashion, the lost movie LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE, so I can tick that one off my list also.

CRY OF THE WEREWOLF was directed by I LOVE A MYSTERY’s Henry Levin, but disappointed on most levels: there IS a werewolf, but it’s played by a large-ish dog, and the transformations are just crummy dissolves. Nina Foch lends low-budget class, but it’s all uphill.

VOODOO MAN amuses pretty thoroughly (especially George Zucco runnign a gas station) and DR RENAULT’S SECRET is genuinely, like, good, with an affecting monster act by J. Carrol Naish. Appallingly, I mainly knew this fine thesp for his swan song, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, a truly tragic affair in which his struggle to keep his false teeth inside his head while mouthing idiotic lines is the sole memorable feature, unless you count a mute Lon Chaney Jnr, who, like his great father, had been robbed of the power of speech in the last months of his life, and thus appears here as a wordless monster.

THE MAGIC SWORD, known to Gifford as ST GEORGE AND THE SEVEN CURSES, making it slightly trickier to track down, is a full-to-bursting confection of sub-Harryhausen fantasy FX. Not half bad by Bert I Gordon’s standards (and he does have standard — though if challenged I’m not sure I could quite explain what they are). The prosthetic hag in Gifford’s still turns out to be Maila Nurmi, AKA Vampira, and the hero turns out to be Gary Lockwood of 2001 fame. Basil Rathbone and Estelle Winwood heap on the ham, but the film’s finest thespian delight turns out to be busty nonentity Anne Helm, playing “Princess Helene” in the manner of a concussed cosmetologist. It’s so wrong it’s exactly right.

THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES seems to exist not to honour MGM’s 25th anniversary, as suggested, but merely to prove that even James Cagney’s talents have their limits. The real casting coup is Robert Evans as Irving Thalberg, before Evans made the transition from tanned-yet-pallid toyboy leading man to high-powered, wide collared exec. It’s perfect casting, with what one might politely call Evans’ limitations as an actor (Peter Sellers, on hearing of Evans’ appointment as head of Paramount: “Why, you silly cunt, you couldn’t even act the part!”) serving him well in the role of the ultimate empty suit.

In fact, it’s a pity Chaney never played The Invisible Man, robbing us of the sight of two shirt collars, encircling vacuum, nodding in cheerful agreement.

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37 Responses to “Win One for the Gifford”

  1. AnneBillson Says:

    Wow! How did I miss the Gifford? I think I was probably looking at the cat.

    I watched Bright Star last night, and couldn’t take my eyes off the big black and white cat with a VERY loud purr.

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    HAUSU is going to be released on MoC and apparently, Criterion.

    Interesting how that book entered the film. Whenever something like that happens, I get the feeling that the film processed and recreated by sub-conscious much like Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models getting the shock of his life when he finds out that his beloved Bat Lady lives two flights up in his building.

  3. I should have that front cover burned on my retinas by now, yet I might have missed it too if not for the sharp-eyed Fiona.

    Still to see Bright Star, part of a cluster of interesting releases I need to catch up on. Where the Wild Things Are tomorrow.

  4. At this point in the movie the pop band who provide the soundtrack have just made a cameo appearance, so it’s a particularly permeable kind of film.

    Undecided as to whether it deserves the Criterion/MoC treatment — it’s gloriously weird, and not just in terms of bizarro monster imagery, but also structure: it’s about halfway over before anything supernatural happens, and for the life of me I can’t work out how they spent the first 45 mins. Character development? Each of our seven protagonists has precisely one personality trait. Obayashi decorates like mad with meaningless stylistic flourishes, but as it went on there seemed to be method to his madness: he’s certainly creative. A sepia flashback made in the style of an old movie edited down to highlights was really nice.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Apparently Obayashi worked at Dentsu Advertising before making movies.

    I haven’t caught up with all the talked about films made in 2009…Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bright Star, The Hurt Locker, La Danse, Me and Orson Welles, I had hoped that the first one at least would come to theatres by now but our distributors haven’t picked it up yet. Now that people are lining up the Bigelow film for the Oscars, hopefully that’ll come now. I don’t even know if Shutter Island will be here next month. Can’t bear not seeing it with everyone else…sigh. That’s one of the miseries of my wretched country, they’re obsessesed with Hollywood crap and our distributors don’t care about the really good films. Even an animated film with big stars like the Wes Anderson.

  6. Shutter Island wasn’ released stateside in 2009. It’s been put off til this year. March I think.

    Curse of the Living Corpse is un film de Val Tenny, (auteur of The Horror of Party Beach) Glad you noticed Roy Scheider. Right at that time he was appearing live on stage in the U.S. production of Genet’s The Balcony with Grayson Hall, Sylvia Miles and Salome Jens. Ran for years. They were all marvelous in it.

  7. Del Tenney’s Party Beach is hilarious camp, but CotLC is almost reasonable. I can’t think what got into him. The premise, midway between Phibes and Woolrich, framed in a Poe/Hawthorne setting, is strong enough to be actually worth remaking. The title could be improved though.

  8. Oh I LOVE the title. I use it all the time when speaking of Joe Lieberman.

  9. Well it has its uses, yes.

    Distribution looks set to continue to be a pain in the ass forever, but at least home viewing will become easier. I love the big screen experience but it’s inherently less flexible and responsive, more lumbering and insensitive, and prone to blockbuster syndrome.

    The film of The Balcony is playing here soon as part of a Joseph Strick retrospective. Amazing cast, and it’s a pretty good movie. Strick is apparently at work on a feature film shot on palm-sized digicams. He is 86. Hoorah!

  10. Leonard Nimoy, Peter Falk (! – a personal fave) and Shelley Winters in The Balcony:

    There’s more there.

  11. Thanks! Lee Grant is an amazing actress too. Underrated.

    I’m not sure what to make of Strick’s weakness for filming modern literary classics, but I’m tempted to see his Ulysses or Portrait of the Artist out of sheer curiosity.

  12. Yes, make that Peter Falk, Shelley Winters, Lee Grant, Ruby Dee, and a sexy Mr. Spock. That’ll do.

  13. The Hausu house-band is in fact the legendary Godiego, the group who composed the theme to ‘Monkey’, the cult Japanese tv show that was broadcast in the UK in the late seventies/early eighties, thus giving me the perfect excuse to post the following –

    Love the Busby Berkeley style dancers in the background. ‘My Forgotten Monkey’ anyone? I have no idea what the tosh after it is though…

  14. Strick’s career is Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, especially The Savage Eye (which Taylor Mead called The Peevish Tongue)

    Some of the exteriors he shot were used for Justine, when Mr. Cukor came to the rescue and brought the film to Hollywood where it belonged. He loved Anna Karina and of course Michael York but didn’t get on at all with Anouk Aimee — a real rareity for him. I hear she was distracted by the affair she was having at the time with Omar Shariff — which figures.

    The Balcony is OK, but I can’t say I care for either of his Joyce adaptations or his try at Tropic of Cancer. Such projects require a Ruiz, IMO.

  15. Strick was one of my great examples when anyone asked me if there were directors who couldn’t tell a book was (at the very least) nearly unfilmable. Saw Ulysses and was sort of hit by “why did he even try this book?” I saw someone put a joke Twitter feed from Stephen Dedalus that were more entertaining than that film. Someone might be able to do something with the book, but I’m not sure I’d ever want to sit through it. I never bothered with any other Strick film – even the idea of him doing Tropic of Cancer was too much for me to bear. Cronenberg made an odder mistake with Naked Lunch, claiming the book was unfilmable, compounded that mistake by using Peter Weller as Burroughs’ surrogate in a gobsmacking piece of miscasting (I always got the sick feeling it was because Weller could wear the hat and glasses) and basically hashing together themes on Burroughs’ life with some hallucinogenic weirdness about the writing of the book without much rhyme or reason. A film about the making of a book? One of those times I had absolutely NO fun in the theater. I would’ve been happier if Cronenberg had used Junky or Queer as a base and weaved parts of Naked Lunch into that.

  16. The question of whether a book is “unfilmable” is central to Truffaut’s famous article Un certain tendance de cinema francais where he is blithely critical of Aurenche and Bost’s attitude towards literary adaptations where they claim the book is unfilmable and try and be faithful to the “spirit” by drastically simplifying a complex work of literature – its narrative and its characters. He compared that to Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest where Bresson was truly faithful to the spirit and the letter of the book and did it by not simplifying it a bit.

    Joyce famously pitched Eisenstein to work on Ulysses, Eisenstein came to his flat in Paris(which he described as almost totally dark on account of Joyce’s eye problems). He also said at one point that he thought Finnegans Wake might make better sense as a movie than a book. Joyce was fascinated by cinema, though which films and artists were specific influences I can’t tell(and also his eyesight was affected just when the cinema hit the golden age of 20s). He started the very first cinema in Dublin in the hopes that making it big as a film magnate might put food at the table and allow him to work without problems when that didn’t work he went back to living on his friends and mooching of his brother. Sometimes I think that Tati might have done justice to Joyce, his Play Time summons up the famous “wandering rocks” passage in the book with that amazing panorama of street life in Dublin.

    That said Huston did Joyce proud with The Dead another supposedly ‘unadaptable’ literary work.

  17. Christopher Says:

    you put big green chaneystein book down ..NOW cousin!

  18. The Dead is at least somewhat simpler than Ulysses – and shorter! People would call it unfilmable because they’re afraid of monologues, but a good actor, the right shot size, strong material and plenty of courage can carry a filmmaker through such supposedly “unfilmable” passages. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=6625

    Strick seems to veer from these unlikely literary jobs to more documentarist or improvised projects, swinging from extreme to extreme.

    Never had a problem with Naked Lunch, enjoying both book and film. Weller was perfectly pleasing to me. As David E has complained, Cronenberg de-homosexualized it almost completely (and one wouldn’t think of him as “squeamish” normally) having previously warned that as a heterosexual he wouldn’t be able to deal with those elements, which seems pretty lame. (The homoerotic fight in Eastern Promises helps make amends.)

    He didn’t so much say it was unfilmable, as that a faithful adaptation would cost $100 million and be banned in every country on earth!

    Agree that Queer or Junkie would make a sensible way in to Burroughs for a movie, Cronenberg’s film probably doesn’t work for anybody unfamiliar with the books, and for those who are, there’s certainly the possibility of a mismatch: “This isn’t the Burroughs I know!” Still, somehow I was entertained by it, found the weaving in and out of realities engaging, especially the telepathic conversation with Ian Holm.

  19. I always found a strong Burroughs influence on the Donald Cammell film Performance I felt it had a touch of his writings rather than the artier Borges citations in the movie.

    The Dead was considered unadaptable for the reasons most Joseph Conrad novels are, it’s very inward directed, very interior and it’s a chamber piece. I’m pretty sure an inferior film-maker would have included a flashback at the end or during the scene where Greta Conroy hears The Lass of Aughrim(and featuring the songs is something that Huston’s film has over a work of literature) as per Bordwell’s amazing piece. That’s part of the usual ideas for adaptation, they try to make things faux-cinematic by using them in a very simplified for-dummies way. And that’s made screenwriters lazy in their original works as well. Amazing how relevant the Truffaut piece is in that respect.

    One interesting thing is that Stick’s Ulysses was banned in Ireland initially because it had the F-word, the Joyce work was one of the first pieces of major literature to feature the word(most notably in the final monologue by Molly Bloom) and until very recently it wasn’t circulated in the Land of Eire on account of Catholic influence which took until the mid-90s to finally crack.

    I personally don’t think any book is “unadaptable”, making any great book into a film of comparable merit is always going to be hard and simply saying that it’s too complex and too verbose is artistic cowardice in my view. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fascinating adaptation in that respect since it’s also about an “unadaptable” book. On the other end you have Kubrick’s Lolita which is a reductionist take on a narratively ambitious work of literature but is definitive on account of the level of personal commitment on Kubrick’s part and the perfectly cast roles. It finds the right tone for adapting the book and is a great piece of cinema despite the compromise on Lolita’s aging by two years…Sue Lyon is Dolores Haze!!! So, sometimes blasphemy works!!!

    It’s all a question of a film-maker’s approach. I thought of this when I revisited Jack Clayton’s The Innocents which is wonderfully atmospheric as a film but misses the boat on adapting James by that whole southern-gothic design of the film to emphasize a Freudian reading rather than creating the same sense of enigma that James does so well in the book.

  20. Ah, but I love The Innocents. Again, like Lolita, it departs from the literary work’s achievement but attains something else due to the beauty of its audio-visual weft.

    The shock effects and violence of Performance have nothing in common with Borges’ more meditative style, and do call to mind Burroughs a little. It’s a sensational movie, but not very Borgesian. Maybe it had more of that in the first cut before Cammell intensified it and Roeg walked off in disgust (only to borrow that cross-cutting in all his best subsequernt works).

    Can’t think of many filmmakers who have achieved a Borgesian dreamy thoughtfulness, maybe Ruiz.

  21. There’s Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Strategem in terms of direct adaptation. And it’s Borges by way of Welles and Sternberg, two of the Argentine master’s favourite directors(going to his days as a film critic). Ruiz is inspired by Borges to the extent that he doesn’t need to directly adapt a film, although I don’t know for a fact that if he has already done so or not(he is incredibly prolific). It’s one of Bertolucci’s most interesting films though I haven’t seen it in a good print, supposedly it’s visually spectacular and I didn’t get that at all when I saw a broadcast copy of it.

    My problem with the Clayton is that where Kubrick’s Lolita gets a lot of the sense of the book vis-a-vis that character’s romanticism and the immolation of that and the critical satire of American life and the comedy of the work despite being narratively straightforward…Clayton while faithful to the narrative reduces it by basically creating a conventional horror atmosphere by making the house a kind of theme park attraction whereas in the book it’s a normal house in exterior. And also the character of the governess is much more deeper than the film where despite the perfect casting of Deborah Kerr she’s this conventional repressed Victorian woman. It’s a very interesting film nevertheless and some scenes are great, the use of ‘Scope is something else but it’s not as mysterious as the story.

  22. Borges is more a reference point than and influence on Cammell’s masterpiece.While he had no end of trouble with Warner Bros. over his first cut he managed to get a more than satisfactory final cut through the help of Frank Mazzola, the teenaged gang member turned actor (Rebel Without a Cause) turned film editor.

    As for Peter Weller He’s far more Burroughsian in his greatest role

  23. For one, I was majorly disappointed with the sexlessness of Cronenberg’s NL compared to Burroughs – it’s not just gay sex, though that’s most noticeable – there’s a hell of a lot of other sex that was missing, too. The problem for me was I’d read every Burroughs through The Wild Boys by the time I saw the film, and my first thought was that Cronenberg really did get squeamish. I still think Weller’s too damn quiet to resemble Burroughs himself. I understood what Cronenberg was driving at in NL, but by calling it Naked Lunch, he drove me to expect to see something I didn’t see on screen. Most of my filmic friends did like it, but I found that most either didn’t read much Burroughs or any at all.

    There are ways of tackling books from a different angle, but I still see more failures than successes there. When it works, it can be great, but I don’t see it work so often.

    David E. – Buckaroo Banzai, one of my guilty pleasures! “What’s that watermelon doing there?” “I’ll tell you later.”

  24. Whoops! Wrong You Tube clip (though Gypsy is lovely)

  25. While Cronenberg was mightily influenced by Burroughs (as is obvious from Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome and Exizistenz) the actual Naked Lunch wasn’t a good fit for him. He was on much firmer ground with his adapation of Ballard’s Crashwhich is being discussed HERE.

  26. Stereo and Crimes of the Future are the most Burroughsian Cronenbergs, and the most gay also. He was working with a bunch of drama students and a gay sensibility of some kind emerged in the films. Though probably a “mutated” one.

    The Spider’s Stratagem was made by a TV company, but you need a decent copy to give you the colours, which is where Storaro excels in this one. It’s a fine Borges adaptation, and Bertolucci’s ending, which is his own, is marvelous and both utterly in keeping and quite out of left-field.

    Mazzola reconstructed Cammell’s Wild Side, and was lined up to help finish The Other Side of the Wind at one point, which he reckoned would be “much easier” owing to the extensive documentation. But that seems to be on hold.

  27. Alas! The Other Side of the Wind has been “just out of reach” for what seems like eons. Bogdanovich had a deal with Showtime for completion costs and bradcast, but that appears to have fallen through.

  28. I think due to the litigious Beatrice’s efforts…

  29. Yep. She’s a horror.

  30. There are also separate rights issues with The Other Side of the Wind. The whole thing with Beatrice Welles just strikes me as typical of Welles’ legacy, the total lack of dialogue and understanding between all these different parties on the right way to preserve his works. Recently, Chris Welles, Orson’s first daughter has taken strong stands for the restoration of her father’s works and is critical of her half-sister. Then when Beatrice Welles does decide to restore Welles’ works, she botches up the soundtrack like the team did with The Tragedy of Othello : The Moor of Venice despite a good print of the film(from which the Criterion LD sourced for its transfer) existing at Cannes and now she’s insistent that the restoration be the official version. Now her team wants to do a number on Chimes at Midnight as well, but mercifully the rights issues are still bogged down there.

  31. Even in death, Orson can’t get his films financed!

  32. There’s that nice bit in Return to Glennascaul where he stops to help a motorist who’s broken down. “I’m having trouble with my distributor,” says the man, and Welles sympathizes profoundly.

    Having read a bit about how Beatrice lost her mother and a chunk of her inheritance at the same time, and understanding that Welles was a somewhat difficult father, I can understand her being a bit troubled. But she needs to stop this obstructive behaviour. It would actually be in keeping with Welles’ aesthetic for his films to exist in as many different versions as possible. It might be nice if every time we saw one, it was different from the time before.

    I never felt that Chimes needed a damn thing done to it, except to preserve it and clean up the picture. The technical “faults” are so trivial, and they were always there, so taking out generator buzz or putting it in synch wouldn’t be “restoration” but meddling.

  33. Chimes at Midnight is a masterpiece — and so is the remake My Own Private Idaho.

  34. As someone who saw Naked Lunch long before I ever read any Burroughs, David C, I have to chip in and say I absolutely adored it. I think it’s Cronenberg’s funniest film and it was a firm favourite of ours nack in university back in University – Actually now I think of I used the film’s mugwump as a recurring character called the Cronenbergian in the weekly Varsity strip (here; http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=94459543&blogId=459757493) so well-loved was the film.
    Ahh those were the days, up in Edinburgh for the Fringe watching a fever dream double bill of Naked Lunch and Third Man. It worked.
    And there seems to me a genuine integrity behind Cronenberg’s excuse. He was making a very personal comedy about his own reaction to Burroughs’ work, and squeamishness played a big part in that maybe… I remember Jude Law in Existenz had the same comic squeamishness. Squeamishness in a Cronenberg film is always funny.

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