Archive for Howard Vernon

Under Steam

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2013 by dcairns

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Back on my Frankenheimer kick — THE TRAIN was one I had fond memories of, but it turns out I’d only seen the last half hour of this two-hour epic. During that section, it’s basically DIE HARD, with the injured but unstoppable Burt Lancaster single-handedly taking on a train full of Nazis with stolen “degenerate” art, the plunder of France.

The earlier parts of the film feature –

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Bad dubbing: with a strange old-time prospector voice emerging from the baggy wreckage of Michel Simon’s huge landslide of a face, and weirdly New York accent issuing from Albert Remy, I wondered if this was a misguided attempt at consistency — since Burt is playing a Frenchman, maybe they wanted all the French characters to sound American. But then a character shows up with a strong French accent, and blows that out of the water. (Also, Paul Scofield assumes a German accent to play a German, while some of the bit players around him actually SPEAK German). Jeanne Moreau sounds like herself, but with her accent dialed down to zero — is she dubbed by a soundalike or by herself with an accent coach hovering over her head wielding a bat?

Gritty textures: most of the best war movies are black and white, and this one makes beauty out of dirt and oil and metal and leather, in a way that would have been impossible with colour. And desaturated hues as in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN do not cut it. In fact, with its clanking, thrumming hissing soundtrack and loving detailing of the textures of machinery and grime, THE TRAIN is like the ERASERHEAD of WWII pictures, except –

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It’s GIGANTIC — they blow shit up on a massive scale, they crash real life-size steam trains, and they imperil human life in the most terrifying ways, Burt does his own stunts, and poor Remy has to uncouple a carriage from a moving train, and one actor has to stand by while a train comes off its track and nosedives into the gravel inches away.

The DIE HARD connection also calls to mind THE GENERAL, another one man army epic, but Frankenheimer’s aesthetic, which combines mockumentary energy with Wellesian Dutch tilts and propulsive tracking shots, aims at conspicuous production values and a relishing of expense that’s alien to Keaton, who serves up spectacle deadpan.

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The pyrotechnics and suspense are augmented by traces of a genuine theme — Scofield’s murderous Nazi actually appreciates the art he’s stealing, not as loot, cultural capital of “the Glory of France,” but as art. And he’s willing to kill for it. Against this is set Lancaster, whose humanist principles are seen as mere animal instinct by the German — he has no comprehension of what’s in these crates he’s required to risk his life for.

The story is told, I think by a screenwriter, of Frankenheimer talking Burt through the psychology of a scene in great detail, only for Burt to say “Ah, what the hell, I’ll just give it the grin.” It’s a story that seems to sum up Burt’s highly physical, movie-star charisma approach to acting — but Burt never actually grins in this film.

He’s very good, if stylised, jabbing and slashing with those huge meaty hands, the actor as athlete.

Movie features a cut from Dr Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) to Dr Orloff (Howard Vernon).

Frankenheimer’s ending — incorporating quick cuts of objects littering the ground, objects the story has revolved around — is reprised in many of his films, from THE HOLCROFT COVENANT to RONIN to his last movie, REINDEER GAMES (where the objects are dead Santas, if memory serves).

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THE TRAIN is a smart dumb movie, of the kind one wishes were made more often today. If we can’t have smart, we could at least have this.

Bats

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Our pal Marvelous Mary once spent an evening round out our place watching Jesus Franco’s SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY, and came away with a healthy respect for any filmmaker who could centre a movie around a Crocheted Shawl of Death. Francophiles will recall that star Soledad Miranda dons this garment each time she goes out to shag and kill. A keen and expert knitter, Mary was smitten.

So when Jesus died at Easter, Mary popped round for second helpings. We tried to watch THE GIRL FROM RIO aka THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU but a technical glitch forced us to resort to DRACULA PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, which meant we had to trade Shirley Eaton and George Sanders for Jason Reitman’s mom and a visibly ailing Dennis Price. Too bad.

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Genevieve Robert as the Gypsy Woman: arguably an advance on Maria Ouspenskaya. For the first time in my life I begin to think of Ivan Reitman as a man of taste.

I often feel that Jesus Franco’s name should be spelled with a comma after the first name and an exclamation mark after the second. This film inspired that feeling with renewed force. It doesn’t so much lack a plot as bodily reject one, like a transplant patient spitting his new heart across the room to watch it spatter in a pointillist nebula on the far wall. Scenes wend hopelessly on without purpose or meaning, the action attenuated and dubbed like porno without the sex.

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Frankenstein Must be Debilitated. Or, “Not the pole dance, Dennis!”

Whilst in Dublin, I received from friend Paul Duane a copy of Dennis Price, A Tribute, by Elliot J. Huntley, a comprehensive, warm, fannish but erudite profile of the Great Actor. Huntley is generous to Franco, seeing the late films as noble rather than embarrassing, proof of Price’s devotion to his craft and desire to put on a good show however trying the circumstances. And DRACULA PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN is trying indeed. But Franco appreciated Price’s talents even if he couldn’t show them to their best advantage — “He was subtle and intelligent and quick. I found him magnificent. You could shoot eighteen hours with him” (never mind the quality, feel the width!) —  and Price enjoyed Franco’s company.

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Back seat Dracula.

On the plus side, the music, by Bruno Nicolai and Daniel White, is excellent. There are strange moments that seem straight out of a spaghetti western, which suggest a more bracing genre mash-up that might have been. This enhanced by the score and the constant antarctic whiteout wind effects, and the eerily human cries of a peacock add some indefinable unease to this already potent punch. Fiona pointed out a shot of a ringing church bell which had been apparently speeded-up, resulting in a queer, herky-jerk effect reminiscent of NOSFERATU’s phantom coach.

Franco makes great use of locations, though he doesn’t attempt to disguise that they’re Spanish and Portuguese  rather than Transylvanian. (Nor does he, in JACK THE RIPPER, attempt to pretend his location is Victorian London: it’s Zurich. Honestly, the two things everybody knows about JTR is that he stalked the East End and was never caught. In the Franco film, Klaus Kinski stalks Zurich and GETS CAUGHT.)

Odd bit with a bat in a jar that’s being slowly filled with fake blood. The poor pipistrelle can’t decide whether to struggle for freedom as the unending trickle of raspberry juice spatters its shoulders, or to lap up the delicious fluid. It keeps switching from one course of action to the other. You can read its thoughts, poor thing: “Must get out — gotta think! — mmm, delicious! — maybe if I push upwards — how do they make this stuff? It’s so sweet!” (The scene is undoubtedly cruel, but it looks to me like Franco rescued the poor chiroptera as it went under for the third time, then probably ran it under the tap or something. So that’s OK, and we can get back to worrying about the cruelty being done to the human performers, though mercifully they aren’t tortured with much dialogue.)

The illusions in the film are all curiously naked: the rubber bats on wires are obviously rubber bats on wires, but then they always were, in Universal and Hammer films too. Franco also films a real bat in closeup while some offscreen bat-wrangler flaps its wings for it to pretend it’s in flight. That looks exactly like what it is too. The plastic skeletons are resplendently plastic, and just to be on the safe side Franco performs one of his trademark zooms into ECU on Howard Vernon’s joke-shop fangs, in case we had become concerned they might be genuine.

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The Frankenstein monster appears to have had his makeup applied with a magic marker. And he has a false rubber glue-on chin, like Kenny Everett’s Marcel Wave.

When the angry mob of villagers hove into view, their torches are not quite ablaze — merely smoldering. This may be the most touching low-budget compromise I’ve ever seen. “They provide no illumination, but the smoke trails — cough, cough — allow us to see where we’ve been.”

And then, all at once and for no reason, the wolfman shows up (played by “Brandy”!). He has a papier mache nose. A well-known side-effect of lycanthropy.

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Jesus, Franco!

How Awful!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2008 by dcairns

One for the Jess Franco fans!

Franco first detailed the misadventures of demonic plastic surgeon Dr. Orloff in 1962, in GRITOS EN LA NICHE, better known as THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF. It’s a cheap ‘n’ nasty rip-off of Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, in which the titular mad scientist (American Swiss abroad Howard Vernon) is swiping the kissers of young girls to decorate the head-front of his mutilated daughter. Well, we’ve all done it.

Totally lacking the pop-surrealist poetry of the Franju classic, Franco’s film is nevertheless atmospherically shot in black-and-white, with noirish lighting effects, wide angle lens distortion, and nice tracking shots. It’s very different from the modernist noodling of later Franco breast-fests like VAMPYROS LESBOS. He leaves the zoom lens in the box this time.

Vernon’s mad scientist romped bloodily through numerous sequels by Franco and others, making him poor cousin to horror staples like Dracula and Frankenstein. He seems to have been treated as a copyright-free myth from the off, so that anybody can use him if they feel like it. His last outing, still played by Vernon, was in the glossy, cheesy, and appallingly nasty FACELESS, where he lurks in the background, allowing Helmut Berger to dominate the procedings, peeling one victim’s face off and SHOWING IT TO HER. Despite the always-ludicrous presence of Telly Savalas, Chris Mitchum, Anton Diffring and Caroline Munro (and Stephanie Audran! WTF?), the movie keeps slipping out of the realms of camp, into more upsetting territory. If you’re going to see it, turn the hot water on first. You’ll need it.

Anyhow, go HERE. Just when I was speculating what Victor Frankenstein might be getting up to nowadays! It makes perfect sense that Orloff, or maybe the SON OF ORLOFF, would wind up in such circs.

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