Archive for Dracula

Cox’s Orange Pippins #1: A Fistful of Kinski

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2022 by dcairns

I picked up Alex Cox’s personal field guide to spaghetti westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die in the West, which is fun — he’s very opinionated, but his enthusiasm for the good and ugly entries, and his outrage at the bad, is infectious, so I decided to run a few of his recommendations.

AND GOD SAID TO CAIN… (either 1979 or 1970) lives up to Cox’s recommendation: a Gothic oater directed by Antonio Margheriti in a style close to his Barbara Steele horror movies (one of which, CASTLE OF BLOOD, was co-directed with DJANGO helmer Sergio Corbucci). Klaus Kinski is, ludicrously, a man called Gary Hamilton — “sounds like a football hooligan!” protested Fiona. Pardoned from his chain gang sentence, he embarks on a one-man vengeance spree against the rich businessman (and his private army) who framed him. In the course of this, he rapidly comes to seem like an avenging wraith or revenant, vanishing at will, striking from the shadows.

The movie begins with bright blue skies, bright blue eyes (Kinski’s huge watery orbs were made for ECU) and wobbly crane shots, but also artful use of silhouette and lens flare. Kinski/Hamilton rides into town on an empty horse — he apparently dematerialises from its saddle while his enemies are watching — and the whole last hour of the film is a running battle between KK and the private army. The only thing resembling a subplot is the baddie’s young son, a JFK type scion, wandering about wondering what’s going on.

There’s a strange meal where the rich folks, in their house full of red drapes, candelabras and mirrors — very American/Italian Gothic — try to ignore the sounds of mayhem outside while helping themselves to red wine, mountains of mashed potato, and a single apple, cut down the middle. An almost Chaplinesque repast.

Fiona was at once put off by a particular aspect of the spaghetti aesthetic: big orange faces in sweaty closeup. And hairstyles dyed into a dry crust. The main bad guy has the blorange waves but also a peculiar green streak, presumably some misbegotten clash of hair colouring and Technicolor. But the atmosphere and intensity won Fiona over, and even if none of the other actors was distinguished, Kinski was always around, “fully present,” as Cox says. “Languid, menacing, strong, mad, Gary Hamilton is one of his best Western roles.” That he’s dubbed is a shame: you could have German cowboy, though maybe not one called Gary. Kinski spoke German beautifully, was admired by Brecht for that reason. And his English was agreeable too, in a sinister sort of way.

Cox points out that the film’s classic unity of time, place and theme are unusual: it happens in one night, during a tornado. Margheriti fills the air with bits of straw, a striking effect I haven’t seen copied.

Kinski’s revenges take on almost Phibesian elaborateness: one thug is hanged from a bell-rope, causing his cadaver to dip and rise comically with each toll: another is carefully manoeuvred into position under the bell as it’s cut down. It’s not CONVINCING, but it is messy and horrid.

While Kinski SEEMS like a wraith — one victim calls him “a monster from hell,” and he comes in the French windows through billowing curtains to face his ex just like Chris Lee’s Dracula. But, according to the plot, he’s human. Cox seems torn between feeling the movie is weakened by a refusal to commit to the supernatural, as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would do, and feeling that the fudging of the point actually creates a more inexplicable atmosphere, which was our reaction.

For a climax, we get a Cormanesque budget-conscious conflagration, and a Wellesian shoot-out in the mirrored house where the chief villain, losing his marbles, can’t tell Kinski from his multiple reflections. Which is also a bit unconvincing, it’s his house, after all, and while there are a lot of mirrors reflecting one another, they’re all around the walls. Kinski appears to be standing in plain view in the middle of the room. But Margheriti shoots it well, we don’t have to BELIEVE this stuff, do we?

AND GOD SAID TO CAIN… is on Amazon Prime for free. We found the blacks blotchy and blocky, but otherwise it looked good.

The Tunnel of Terror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2022 by dcairns

FLASH GORDON Chapter 2.

The superdramatic credits music segues into a ludicrous plangent saxophone as the recap title cards fade in — we’re not at the STAR WARS scrolling infodump phase yet.

Then we get the rehash of last episode’s cliffhanger, a good economical way to eat up some footage while orienting the latecomer.

Flash and Aura have accidentally been trapdoored and are falling towards almost certain mild peril, but the designers of Ming’s infernal devices have foreseen such snafus and installed a safety net, which interrupts their stylishly-shot plunge towards the inevitable enlarged iguanas. Oh for the days when death-traps came with safety features! In the modern world of airbags and such, ordinary transport has become crammed with lifesaving add-ons, but what of the lethal weapon or IED? Surely nailbombs could be fitted with nullifying magnets, imploding their shrapnel safely if a mistake has been made in the planting or detonation? Landmines should be fitted with bathroom scales so they only de-leg responsible adults. &c.

They’re way ahead on Mongo.

As a kid I wasn’t bothered by the implausibility of the net that catches F & A, either its existence or the speed with which it can be deployed (also a function of the sheer excessive Wonderland depth of the pit — but then, I guess you wouldn’t want to keep enlarged iguanas IMMEDIATELY under your palace linoleum). I just thought it was insanely cool and dramatic, which it is, plausibility aside.

(Perhaps every film should have an imaginary twin into which plausibility can be put aside: all movies need this. In Ken Loach’s solidly “realist” CARLA’S SONG, the bus-driver hero [and yes: more of these, please] is following the eponymous heroine through wartorn Nicaragua, but he’s told the village she’s now in is totally inaccessible — you can’t get there from here. But neither he nor anyone else asks or explains the obvious question — how in Fuck or Nicaragua did SHE get there?)

“They’re in the net, make prisoners of them both!” orders Ming, redundantly. Isn’t anyone in a net a defacto prisoner anyways? But if you’re an emperor you can say things like that with no pedantic critic to quibble.

Aura meanwhile explains that the enlarged iguanas should be properly known as the Dragons of Death — a bit of alliteration hinting at the chapter’s intended title until somebody realised there were more tunnels than dragons onscreen.

Aura, being an insider, knows all about The Secret Door, so she and Flash can attempt to elude their captors. Now we have some running about in caves/corridors, always good filler material in any serial, from here to Doctor Who. The corridors are artfully intertwined to avoid a spacetime continuum blow-out which would result if Flash met Buck Rogers going in the opposite direction.

Director Frederick Stephani, whose only canvas chair gig this was (but he wrote a bunch of stuff, contributing to this script and to the same studio’s DRACULA) now gets adventurous, essaying some Deutsch tilts, perhaps preparing us for the leftover FRANKENSTEIN sets which are waiting in the wings. He always tilts to the top left, rather than alternating, which I guess saves him having to commit himself to an ordering of shots (you generally want to go left-right-left to get that nice Eisensteinian crisscross effect in the cut).

Squeezed against a rockface with Aura, Flash crassly wonders about Dale’s fate (Sam J. Jones in the remake had similar difficulties compartmentalising his romantic interests). Larry “Buster” Crabbe speaks out the side of his mouth when stage-whispering (guards are searching a nearby Dutch angle) but, with adorable incompetence, it’s the WRONG side of his mouth. But hey, it favours the camera.

Bronson Caves, Bronson Canyon — no doubt the desolate, lizard-infested surface of Mongo was filmed a stone’s throw away. Anyway, FG had the biggest budget of any serial to date, so it’s not ALL stock shots and models and leftover sets. It’s an impressive location, even if, like Griffith Observatory in part 1, it’s more local than exotic.

Meanwhile, in Ming’s laboratory or “workshop”, Zarkov is put to work. I presume this is an old palace set from some Ruritanian operettafilm, with Kenneth Strickfaden electrics shipped in. An exciting combo.

Zarkov’s new status as Ming’s bitch is signalled by his costume change to a black onesie with thick medieval bdsm belt. None of us enjoys looking at Frank Shannon’s legs, though, so thank God for the medium shot. Zarkov seems for now quite ready to fall in line with his new master’s bidding, seduced by the opulent mad science facilities.

Dale, meanwhile, is rejecting her own costume change and refusing to settle into what is obviously a harem or seraglio. At last Jean Rogers gets to do some camp ham, jutting her little jaw as she asserts her stubborn earthwoman will. Because there’s a round mirror on the set, we leave the scene via a bubbling set of circular wipes. George Lucas was paying attention: when C-3PO is lifted to his feet, the wipe rises from bottom to top like an elevator. Of course Lucas’ other big influence, Kurosawa, had an early weakness for wipes too…

Aura leads Flash out of the caves to a discreetly parked rocketship, and Maestro Stephani throws in a Wagonwheel Joe / Sid Furie spy angle, shooting through an obscure stack of foreground rubble, perhaps foreshadowing some hidden assailant? Foreshadowing is usually an alien word in the movie serial, which thrives on the one-damn-thing-after-another sequential menace paradigm, where pausing to set something up is verboten. But the alternative explanation — that this is merely a stylistic flourish — is also rendered unlikely by the demands of short schedules and economy in all things. (Economy is actually a pretty good aesthetic.)

As in the comics and the 1980 movie, Aura is a near-unique point of moral ambiguity (but actually, there’s Vultan to come…) She saves Flash out of lust, and is determined to keep him from Dale. But she is a potential covert to the side of good. Her nymphomania does not condemn her, which is good, I suppose.

In movie serial logic, the fact that Flash and Dale are instantly in love is just taken as normal, though they spoof it in the remake. Whereas Aura’s hot pants are a character aberration. “You will never see Dale Arden again,” she monologues.

Flash finds a change of outfit in the rocketship’s closet. So now all three of our leads have been offered Mongoese fashions, with only Dale holding out. Obviously she’ll have to go with the tide eventually. Meanwhile, it will be a relief to get Larry “Buster” Crabbe out of those polo duds.

Dale’s refusal to become Ming’s bride and wear his togs results in the High Priest telling on her. “As High Priest, you know what to do,” intones MTM. “You mean… the dehumanizer?” quails the cleric, wondering how being ordained has led him to this end.

Ming specifies that the hypnotic spell should only last long enough for the marriage ceremony to be perfromed. Anything after that is legal, I guess. We’re only in episode 2 and we’re at the climax of the Hodges movie. Things move pretty fast around here.

Now a dude in cassock and silver slippers reports that “the gyro-ships of the Lion Men” are on the attack. He’s just seen it on a Zoom call. The Lion Men and their spinning top spacecraft are sadly absent from the later movie. I’m not sure if there’s any logical thread that says Lion Men should have giddy-making dreidelcraft. Also, I don’t know how practical these things are — maybe the centrifugal force is supposed to create gravity in space (which apparently wouldn’t work), but the things are only ever seen in Mongo’s atmosphere. A waste of energy, but then, that’s kind of the whole modus operandi here.

Seeing these invaders, Flash immediately takes off to start a dogfight or lionfight with them. Strange behaviour since (a) he’s a polo player, not a trained space pilot, and this isn’t even a earth-built rocketship and (b) he has no dog/lion in this race/fight. He has no reason to suppose these spinning tops are hostile, or that he should care if they are.

At the wheel of one ship is Thun, the lion man, disappointingly bereft of Bert Lahr makeup. But he does have the upsetting shorts that are de rigeur spacewear for Mongoites.

The ensuing battle royale does not strike me as inferior to anything in STAR WARS, and presumably cost about $1.98. Models on wires, miniature pyrotechnics, it’s all the same thing. The sound effects are of the firecracker variety, has anyone ever transposed Ben Burtt sound effects onto this sequence? I know he did a track for WINGS, and that worked fine.

I love how a felled gyroship plummets point-first, with a little candleflame atop it. A flambé spaceship. Whistling sound effect. Then Flash, great berk that he is, crashes his rocket into Thun’s, and they fall together, interpenetrated. “Try a Little Tenderness” does not play on the soundtrack, I don’t think it was written yet.

They smash into the ground diorama at lethal velocity, then EXPLODE, but it’s MUCH too early for a cliffhanger, so the occupants must simply shake off their certain death and stagger from the debris, dazed but grateful to benign providence. And still determined to kill one another. We’re probably only yards from where Capt. Kirk wrestled the Gorn. In days long gorn. Of futures past.

Like most of Flash’s enemies, Tun will end up a staunch ally. Flash has that effect. As with Jimmy Stewart, “People just seem to like him.” Clay people, hawkmen, lion men… Mike Hodges saw his film as a satire on American interventionism, but in this more innocent yarn, the fantasy of foreign entanglement is served without irony.

Thun knows a secret passage that leads to the Palace. Of course he does. It’s not nearly as ridiculous as the secret passage that saves Barbarella from the sacrificial birdbox. I mean, safety features in death traps is all very well, but having a fire exit in your infernal aviary is just silly.

Meanwhile, Dale is about to be dehumidified or whatever.

Thun’s secret passage turns out to be a huge medieval gate, heavily guarded, by some thug in Greco-Roman hand-me-downs. Flash strangles him into showing the way, and anyway, the door isn’t locked.

Dale’s hypnotic device is a strobing neon bendy straw which makes her sit up straight, wide-eyed, when it’s not even in the vicinity. Powerful stuff.

Ming wants to know if the god Tao (sp?) favours this marriage, so the High Priest cues stock footage of the Martian dance number from JUST IMAGINE, which Kenneth Anger also enjoyed. As a kid, I somehow knew that this shot didn’t belong here, that it was too big and lavish for its surroundings, and I despaired of ever learning where it originated. Happy days.

I STILL don’t know where all the stock music comes from, but there’s some Liszt, isn’t there, and some Franz Waxman?

The big anamatronic god is too impressive a guy to waste, so the serial obliges us to look at him for some time, waiting like Ming for some SIGN of approval or otherwise, which the archive material is not really equipped to give. They try piping in different bits of library music to keep it fresh.

Flash immediately locates Zarkov, which is not as silly as the different characters landing on the planet-sized Death Star in THE FORCE AWAKENS and at once bumping into one another. Flash learns that the worlds will not, after all, collide. “That’s fine!” he exclaims.

He then strangles the captive guard (again) into showing him the dance number. If movie serials have taught me one dangerous factoid, it’s that strangling always works, in any situation. This has ruled me out of a lot of teaching jobs. Fortunately art school is still OK with this.

Ming’s marriage will be conducted in “a secret chamber” but the low ranking guard knows exactly where it is and doesn’t even have to be restrangled into leading the way. But he won’t go in, because there’s a “huge beast” guarding the entrance. Good luck strangling a kaiju, Flash.

Sitting in his big conch, Ming gets the gratifying news that the god Tao has sanctioned his nuptials, something we don’t get to see despite having stared at the big guy for close to a reel. What did he do, give a thumbs-up, an OK sign, or just a giant animatronic wink?

Dale meanwhile gets a lovely makeover, and she only had to be dehumanized to make her accept it. There may be a Hollywood/western civilisation metaphor at work here.

The secret marriage chamber looks to me like a Charles D. Hall FRANKENSTEIN set, with new bric-a-brac ported in, including an Egyptian god doubtless left over from THE MUMMY. But it might all be from that one.

CLIFFHANGER — the huge beast shows up, a lovely rubber lizard costume with MASSIVE pincers. He can barely walk, whoever he is. Ray “Crash” Corrigan will later play an “orangopoid” so wouldn’t they just enlist him for additional lumbering here? We may never know, but anyhow —

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK

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.