Archive for the Mythology Category

The Fearful Vampire Hunters

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2021 by dcairns

I’ve been writing limericks for the run-up to Halloween — you can read them here.

Despite, or maybe in part because of, the outrageous lifts from PSYCHO, part two of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot TV adaptation satisfied and startled. Fiona screamed several times. It’s fashionable to disparage jump scares, and with the modern soundtrack’s capacity they might seem too easy, somehow, but I think they still have a place in the horror film. I can respect a movie that’s too clever and disquieting to need them, for sure, but for the kind of thing SL is, they absolutely belong.

Stephen King has said that horror comes in three basic shapes — (1) is the subtlest and noblest, the suspense/dread kind, (2) is shock, the jump-scare or startle effect introduced by Tourneur (usually associated with dread and suspense but he liked to mix things up) and (3) is the gross-out. King states that he aims for (1) for preference, but resorts to (2) when necessary, and then to (3) when he has to. The trouble always seemed to me that (2) and (3) can push out (1). But I note that Hitchcock pushed graphic violence in PSYCHO and it HELPED with the dread and suspense, and that the Lewton-Tourneur school purveyed not only subtle psychological tension, but shocks AND had more blood than other ’40s horrors.

The acting in Salem’s Lot helps hugely. Reggie Nalder, as noted by David Ehrenstein, is a formidable living special effect who didn’t even need all the makeup he’s given to be alarming. When you’ve hired Reggie, youdon’t have to paint him blue. As Simon Kane notes, they’ve taken away all his dialogue and that makes him scarier, less human. James Mason’s Mr. Straker is basically playing Renfield, but a Renfield hugely empowered and elevated, suave and cunning and not loony at all, whereas Nalder’s Mr. Barlow is a Dracula degenerated, pure animal will, a semi-sentient walking plague.

Small-parts supporting vampires add to the general mood of abjection: Mason’s real-life wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason (whom he met while casting for a Miranda to his Prospero in Michael Powell’s never-made THE TEMPEST) gets probably her best onscreen moment; Geoffrey Lewis is fantastically creepy, the screen’s best blue-collar neck-biter; the two kids, Ronnie Scribner and his recruit, Brad Savage are legit terrifying.

Credit also to David Soul, who plays a hero who can actually be terrified. The way you or I would be. I don’t know why this obvious bit of realism isn’t used more often in horror films, other than that you need good actors and you need to spend time showing their reactions. Leading man vanity may also be a factor. But David Soul, rarely discussed as an acting talent, wets himself with real conviction.

Who keeps a drawer full of rats and eyeballs?

The show is peppered with instances where Hooper clearly just didn’t have time for a second take or reshoot, but it succeeds where it counts. It’s impressive that he was able to make the haunted house a memorable, beautifully-designed set that lives up to the two-hour build-up: production designer Mort Rabinowitz does a grand job. The place seems alive with mould. And Barlow’s lair is, magnificently, reached by descending an absent staircase and passing through a tiny, scary door. These bits of architectural surrealism enhance the terror in hard-to-analyse ways. They do make us feel like we’re leaving the domain of the human.

Fiona was much taken with the way Barlow’s recruits are just lying around in the dirt around his coffin. Only he gets a box. Stephen King probably deserves some credit for the way the film makes vampirism seem really grubby and nasty and degraded, a new development in the genre. True, both the Murnau and Herzog NOSFERATUs (from which Nalder’s makeup is derived) associate their head vamp with vermin, and he doesn’t look as sexy as Chris Lee. But at least he has a nice coat. Barlow’s black robe makes him a shapeless mass with a little blue head and hands grafted on, a shred of midnight torn loose and apt to pop into frame from odd angles, and he’s maybe the first screen vampire you gotta assume must smell really bad.

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

Teardrops

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2021 by dcairns

A weekend double-bill of Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and Fritz Lang’s LILIOM provided food for thought, as well as entertainment and awe.

It feels certain that P&P were familiar with the earlier film, and as a cultured Hungarian, Emeric Pressburger was probably familiar with Ferenc Molnár’s source play. But the fact that Lang ends his film with a closeup of teardrops, which then find their way into Powell’s film, makes me think that the movie was at the back of somebody’s mind.

The concept of bells ringing in heaven also recurs from Lang to the Archers, and the whole idea of the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a very specific concept, seems to have been ported over. True, Molnar & Lang portray the place as a police station — the way the film’s carny antihero (Charles Boyer) might imagine it — and P&P give us something more benign, a kind of anticipation of the welfare state.

“Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience,” says Peter D. Carter (David Niven), when asked about his politics. The Archers were nothing if not High Tory, it pains me to admit (I’m indebted to Andrew Moor, author of Powell & Pressburger, a Cinema of Magic Spaces, for the information that Pressburger was in the habit of sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, even in wartime if memory serves, a detail Moor considered absolutely to absolutely clinch the filmmaker’s arch-Tory tendencies). I imagine, since AMOLAD was originally intended as a propaganda film during the last days of the war, with the intention of demonstrating that the USA and the UK can overcome their differences (“We were all getting along fine,” Powell was told, “until we started winning.”), the filmmakers would have been at least somewhat party to the great secret project, chaired by Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing, to prepare Britain for a Labour government. So the version of the afterlife portrayed, where there are no differences in rank (an enlisted man calls his officer “brother” when he learns this), and where everybody can do the job he likes, might be the film’s fantastical prophecy of Britain’s future. Carter on the afterlife: “I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if only we’d listen to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus, with all our earthly problems solved, but with bigger ones worth the solving.”

We were talking about influences. And not just political ones. I’m struck by the similarities with a work by another writer-director team, Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert, LES VISITEURS DU SOIR. Both films feature emissaries from the afterlife (but in the French film they come from Hell) who can stop time, a fairly distinctive idea. But it’s far from certain that, with the war raging, P&P could have seen P&C’s film. I guess there was just time: France was liberated in autumn 1944, AMOLAD was shot at the end of 1945. How quickly did the backlog of French movies shot during the occupation get seen in Britain? I would imagine not very quickly and not very completely, but Powell would have been greatly interested and he probably would have had better access than just about anyone. So a direct influence seems possible.

If the influence wasn’t direct, then France should still get some credit because the first time-stop/fermata film I can think of is René Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT of 1925, which I’m certain Powell & Pressburger knew. Powell was actually working in movies in France in 1926. And so it seems not chance alone that explains the fact that Conductor 71, P&P’s heavenly emissary, is a Frenchman.