Archive for Edgar Allan Poe

Fear of Falling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2019 by dcairns

11pm Halloween is when we were supposed to plummet from the European Union but that’s not happening — YET.

Here to mark the non-occasion is Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, the silent film blog for everybody, not just cockneys. It’s an interesting week for silent film as a major moviemaker just dropped an entirely wordless short film into the BBC2 TV schedule. I can only imagine how this thing affected the unwary — reminds me of reports I’ve heard from those who stumbled on ERASERHEAD or O, LUCKY MAN! after a night at the pub…

Read it here.

Next up, guest Shadowplayer James Silk, who tweets as @afterglow2046, addresses a classic piece of Italian Gothic, a film set on Halloween night and therefore ideal for you to experience RIGHT NOW, knowing that as you do, the ghosts in the story will be going about their business…

For “Project Fear” I chose to write about the 1964 French/Italian Horror film Danse Macabre (or Castle of Blood to use its international title).

Danse Macabre had pretty inauspicious origins. It was made by Sergio Corbucci to reuse sets from a “Toto as a monk” comedy and cash in on the early 60s horror craze. When Corbucci became too busy, his friend Antonio Margheriti (or Anthony Daisies to use his international title) took over.

The film, shot in 12 days, on reused sets, by an affable journeyman, should be a trifle, a piece of hackwork. Yet I find it has some strange and beautiful things to say about time, death and sensuality.

I’ll try and explain why, although trying to explain an Italian horror film is often like trying to describe a lurid & disorganised dream.

Firstly Danse Macabre has one of the best opening credits imaginable “Based on a tale of Edgar Poe.”

Which leads one to ask “Which tale?”

Poe wrote about 70, and the story that unfolds bears little resemblance to any of them. A cynic might claim that the filmmakers were just trying to cash in on the popularity of Poe adaptations, but as we’ll see, there’s no place for such scepticism here…

The film opens with our protagonist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière ) walking down a studio street in what we’re told is London, England. He approaches an inn, where a gently swinging sign reads “Four Devils” (invoking Murnau?)

Foster enters, and beholds Edgar Allan Poe himself (Silvano Tranquilli) reciting “Berenice.”

It’s quite a suprise to see Poe here, both in “London” and in his “own story” (he wasn’t one for authorial cameos).

After Poe has finished, Foster introduces himself as a journalist, one who has been hounding Poe for an interview since he arrived in England. (and considering, historically. Poe never visited England, he must have been quite hard to find).

Foster immediately marks himself out as sceptic, someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. One of the most dangerous things to do in horror film, besides profess happiness.

Poe then remarkably claims that he is the same. He’s not a fiction writer at all, but a reporter like Foster, and every one of his stories are true. Poe is a mere observer of the real world, powerless against the horrors he witnesses. He can’t help it if the real world he keeps witnessing is incredible.

(Foster avoids asking “Then how the hell did you witness The Masque of Red Death??” because the film has the language of a nightmare, and because he is polite).

This is the first of many games with reality played throughout the film. In the film’s world:, fiction is true, reality is a dream, characters will lie throughout about their histories, their feelings, even their states of corporeal being.

A third man introduces himself: Lord Thomas Blackwood (played by the permanently pained looking Umberto Raho).

This being an inn, at night, in a horror film, Lord Blackwood quickly offers Foster a deadly wager: He challenges him stay in his castle that same night, until the morning of November 1st and win £100 for his troubles.

He explains it has to be this night, because during these hours “the dead come back again and re-enact the tragedies that cost them their lives.”

He also warns Foster that many others have tried to win the bet, but none have survived.

The “truth” of this film is everything explained here. Other characters will later question this, call Blackwood a liar, and they will all be proven to be deceivers.

Our sceptic (and cash-strapped) hero quickly accepts and, a brief carriage ride later, he is left at the castle until morning.

What then follows is 10 minutes of pure cinema. Wordlessly, Foster wanders around the house, exploring, finding decaying furniture and the odd piece of discarded clothing, occasionally startled by cats or slamming doors. Autonomous slamming doors are a recurring motif in the film, forcing Foster’s passage through the house, maintaining tension and punctuating scenes.

While watching the film, an accidental moment of utter eeriness occurred during this sequence, when my automatic subtitles interpreted the film’s eerie music as a voice saying “you”

Just as we’re settling into this strange, gentle rhythm, a new character enters: Elisabeth played by the legendary Barbara Steele (perhaps playing a distant descendant of her character “Elizabeth” in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum).

Barbara Steele, the ultimate gnostic actress: the division of body and voice. So many times we see her in European films, her voice nearly always dubbed by others, yet her ethereal appearance shines through. Her incredible eyes & the spirit behind them always overwhelm these attempts at vocal possession. Steele’s remarkable appearance inadvertently evokes the theme of the film: sensuality as an overwhelming force.

Elisabeth tells him that she is Lord Blackwood’s sister, and that Foster has been deceived. The house is not abandoned, she lives here, hidden by her brother, because of a scandal. However every year, he sends her a visitor for company (and if you believe that, congratulations on your first ghost story.)

However Foster, the great sceptic, is completely taken in, enraptured by her presence.

Elisabeth asks him for news of the outside world, having been trapped here for so long. Foster cynically replies: “There is nothing new. People are born, others die every day, business seems as usual. In fact the world goes on and remains the same.”

A remarkable response.

Firstly this reminds me of Luis Bunuel’s poetic words on his death ”I’d love to rise from the grave every 10 years or so and go buy a few newspapers. Ghostly pale, sliding silently along the walls, my papers under my arm, I’d return to the cemetery and read about all the disasters in the world before falling back to sleep, safe and secure in my tomb.”

Secondly this strikes me as the best possible thing you could ever tell a ghost who has been trapped in a castle for years: basically, you’ve missed nothing.

Foster and Elisabeth are clearly besotted with each other, and as in a dream, within minutes they are confessing their passions and embracing.

As they make love, she cries out:

“Maybe your warmth can save me from this cold that imprisons me hopelessly. Alan, I’m alive only when I love.”

This line is the film’s core. This film is not about horror, but eroticism. The conventions of the Italian Gothic have the living fall in love with the dead (and vice-versa) but unlike say, Poe’s tales & poetry, this love is not platonic, but often an erotic love.

However this eroticism is interrupted by a very different kind of passion: To everyone’s surprise, a big half-naked muscular man bursts into the room and seemingly kills Elisabeth. Foster chases and shoots him, but then finds that both bodies have disappeared.

This big half-naked muscular man will haunt the rest of film, lurking in the shadows, bursting into rooms, attacking victims and stalking Foster with a leering smile. He is like passion personified: powerful, intense, and slightly ridiculous.

Margheriti actually dubbed him “The Macho.” This makes me wish for a whole franchise of “Macho” films, this mute burly figure invading every genre whenever things get dull.

Poor Foster, just as he is beginning to lose all grip on reality, the rational world (or a version of it) tries to reassert itself. The spectral figure Dr Carmus (Arturo Dominici) appears.

He tells Foster that he has just witnessed the presence of ghosts, but assures him that he, Dr Carmus is very much alive. By now you should be getting wise to these games, but Foster gratefully believes this.

Foster asks how Elisabeth can be a ghost when he touched her, felt her warmth Carmus takes Foster down to the library, and explains “the rules.”

“Three forms of life exist together in every human being: That of the body is the most fragile form.

Next, there is the spirit, which is indestructible (Thank you Italian Catholicism). Finally, there are the senses, which are not eternal, but which can survive long after death.

So in this film, if a human being is killed when their senses are undergoing an intense emotion, these senses live on, in a strange form, neither dead, nor alive.

It’s no wonder then, that we see these ghosts fight each other, even squabble throughout the film. Usually in horror films, ghosts are united (nothing to lose but their rattling chains) But here, all that remain of these beings are their senses, their jealousy, their violence, their pettiness are all that keep them in existence. So of course they’re always fighting amongst themselves.

As with any horror film, the good doctor is the voice of reason. Only here, because we are in a nightmare, his rational explanations are weirder than anything we’ve heard before.

This curious explanation accepted, Carmus (obviously dead himself) and Foster then wander through the castle’s empty forgotten ballroom. They stand at the top of the stairs and Carmus looks down, uttering the incredibly cinematic line ~

“It is the hour. Words have no meaning.”

And suddenly, before Foster and Carmus’ eyes, the ballroom suddenly lights up with dancers and (a kind of) life!

This is my favourite scene in the film: a scene where one kind of ghost watches a different kind. Spirits kept alive by their senses watch bodies trapped in time.

When atheist Mike Hodges made his supernatural masterpiece “Black Rainbow” he protested it wasn’t a ghost story at all, but a tale of quantum mechanics. He said that because particles can be in several places in the same time, it was possible to experience time slippage, to see events before (or long after) they happen, and interpret that as an afterlife.

So perhaps what we’re seeing here is quantum mechanics, but witnessed by ghosts.

We see this ball from long ago. Everyone is having a splendid time, saying things like “magnificent party” and “the castle seems so full of life” (irony in European horror often has the force of a guillotine).

Elisabeth is here in the past, with her husband. He has an interesting line about how impressed he was with America “much more vitality than France or Italy.” Considering this film is a French/Italian co-production, this seems to be a comment on the work itself and Margheriti’s decision to ape the “vital” Americans Roger Corman and Poe.

If I can talk about European Horror for a moment., I was always fascinated by how many of the British Hammer Horror films were set in other European countries, and what this said about Britain’s perception of Europe. The continent as “other”, a place of blood, sex and old world mythology. All those RP accents trying to pronounce “Burgomeister.”

But what of this Italian/French horror film set in England? What does this say about their perception of the English?

It portrays the English as prizing respectability above all: Foster instantly believes that Elisabeth would be locked away in her castle because of a scandal. We’re told that Lord Blackwood’s original name was “Blackblood” because he was descended from lowly, overenthusiastic hangmen. Respectability is everything.

It also shows the English as deeply repressed and show what this repression conceals: At the respectable dance, everyone is curtseying & bowing, while the Lady’s lover, a lowly groundskeeper taps on the window, asking for a rendez-vous (the origin of The Macho).

Within minutes, the formal ball descends into an orgy, with seductions interrupted by murder, interrupted by further seductions and even more murder, resulting in 4 half naked corpses.

Foster now finds himself unstuck in time. The film is apparently a linear situation: its supposed to be one night in the castle, but Foster finds himself falling through different time periods, forced to watch as these spirits of passion attack various visitors in the castle’s past.

Foster watches as victims succumb to the half-naked muscled man. He witnesses happy newly-weds killed on their wedding night (shades of Shelley’s Frankenstein).

Dr Carmus, seen long ago, is attacked, receiving a particularly homoerotic bite to the neck from The Macho. Reason has not only departed, it was never really there. The man who explained death, as dead the whole time.

And Foster, once the cool distanced sceptic, becomes the engaged audience of a horror film. He screams at the victims from the past, trying to warn them as they re-enact their doom. But this is like a film, it all happened long ago and he can do nothing. Perhaps this is his salvation: in a world where senses defy death, he’s actually starting to feel something.

This is the real danse macabre, repeating the same murders year after year, a whirling, circular dance “The dead come back again and re-enact the tragedies that cost them their lives.”

And as these people from the past are murdered in moments intense emotion, their senses will also live on as spirits. The ghosts of passion create more ghosts. The castle will soon be full.

Finally The Macho, and all the other spirits of passion come for Foster himself, and pursue him across the castle. They want to feast on his blood, so they can live on, and argue, and watch themselves die for another year.

But Elisabeth returns and breaks the chain. She tells Foster she has fallen in love with him as she never could when she was alive. It’s a hopeful moment-the dead can learn. She shows him a safe passage out of the castle, so that he can escape as the sun rises.

In the end, however, Foster is felled by one more slamming door. He is struck on the head by a particularly nasty spiked gate, just before dawn. It seems all is lost.

Blackwood & Poe arrive to discover Foster’s corpse waiting for them. In a nice touch, Lord Blackwood quietly takes his winnings from the corpse’s pocket.

Finally we get an explanation of the mysterious opening credit as Poe sadly observes, “When I’ll tell this story, no-one will believe me” (and 100 years later, when Margheriti claims that this film is a lost tale by Poe, no-one will believe him either.)

Poor Poe has been trapped in his own story the whole time, unable to act, just to witness.

So was it all for nothing? Did Elisabeth just perpetuate the cycle of eros & death? Are she and Foster like the carnal lovers of Dante’s Inferno, forced to whirl & spin in a circle of lust forever?

I don’t think so. Foster didn’t survive but he didn’t get his blood drunk by the big muscular man either. He’s between two worlds. Hanging on the gate, between the mansion and the outside world.

At the beginning of the film, his attitude to life was “There’s nothing new. The world goes on and remains the same” so he was practically a ghost already, just trapped in a much larger castle.

The image of morning sun and the final lines offer some hope:

“Did you stay for me, Alan?”

“Yes, Elisabeth.”

Now his senses will be united with her Elisabeth. They’ll stay at the castle, and it seems a lovely property in the daylight. Hopefully their senses will be very happy together. “All that is solid melts into air.”

Repetitions in Repetitions.

The film had a middling reception and Antonio Margheriti had mixed feelings about the result. He later said: “When today we rediscover and screen these things of the past I don’t think they’re any good in themselves, they may be good to those of us who experienced them back in their own time.”

Spoken like a true haunted spirit, looking back at his past: it was good at the time.

He remade the film six years later as Web of the Spider (or Dracula im Schloß des Schreckens to use its ridiculous German title).

The story remained the same but was now in colour, with Klaus Klinski as Poe and gratuitous bloodletting. Margheriti regretted this version even more.

The film became like one of his spirits, endless repeating itself, needing more blood to live.

One can imagine Margheriti carrying on. endlessly reliving and remaking Danse Macrabre making it increasingly violent, over and over.

But instead, fortunately, he found peace making Yor: Hunter of the Future.

James Silk

Death: Tonkinese Style

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 31, 2019 by dcairns

Always excited to see a Tonkinese cat in an Italian horror movie.

The Tonk is a cross between a Siamese and Burmese, but at some point it was decided that this could be considered a pedigree rather than a cat-mutt, so they needed a name for it and selected the fictitious location of SOUTH PACIFIC, Tonkin, as mythical country of origin for a mythical breed of feline. (FAKE NEWS! See comments section.)

Our cat, Momo, is solid Tonk, all the way through.

Joe D’Amato’s DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (a title trying a bit too hard, as is the film) actually climaxes with a man having his face eaten off by a Tonk, in one of the least convincing examples of cat-on-human violence ever presented (and there are A LOT of examples to choose from).

Actual frame from Tonkinese face-eating scene
Momo does it better

Even less convincing than the cat is Ewa Aulin (CANDY), whose eccentric performance refuses psychology altogether, in favour of a series of random smiles and glazed stares — yet you cannot argue that her choices are wrong for the film, which never makes a lick of sense from start to finish. I quite liked that about it.

Klaus Kinski has contributed a few days of his time, which I suppose kept him out of trouble, as a doctor called to treat carriage-toppling-accident victim Aulin. He finds a pendant on her neck with a strange symbol which he decodes, allowing him to raise the dead. Then he’s murdered by his mute manservant and the chap he’s raised.

Oh, but before that, he’s stuck a needle in Aulin’s eye, in a quite horribly convincing manner. I can in no way work out how this special effect was achieved. It looks completely real and it is a one-shot extreme closeup. Maybe Aulin has unusually soft, permeable, liquid eyes. They do LOOK like they might be. It seems to do her no harm. Did it really happen? We never find out. Possibly she’s invulnerable due to the fact that she, too, has been raised from the dead, by her incestuous brother the mad scientist. And now she’s out to get revenge, seemingly, on those who somehow killed her? Maybe?

The Tonk gets to re-enact edited highlights from Poe’s The Black Cat, when Aulin gets bricked up by her lesbian lover, then she returns from the grave to destroy the lover, her husband, and her father.

At one point, a maid starts experiencing a different character’s flashbacks, which is certainly interesting. Then she runs away and gets blasted in the face with a shotgun, but we never find out who did it or why. It’s just that kind of film.

My favourite favourite bit, apart from Aulin’s creepy random smiling, was a party scene where the dialogue assumed a terrifying-hilarious disjointedness. Characters would speak over one another, replying to questions that hadn’t yet been asked, then silences would break forth, long, supremely awkward conversational gaps which nobody onscreen seemed to recognise were happening. I eventually sussed that one of the dialogue tracks had been placed out of sync, and the dubbing mixer either hadn’t noticed or couldn’t be bothered fixing it. Or thought, quite correctly, that such a bizarre error would be right at home in this movie.

There’s a twist ending, too, where Aulin, an avenging revenant, also turns out to be the detective’s aged, disabled wife. Which is impossible to reconcile with anything we’ve just seen, and has no dramatic implications whatsoever. It’s an illusion, something that looks like a plot twist, but is only a trompe l’oeil painting of one.

I never had any interest in director Joe D’Amato because his stuff seemed just to be nasty porn, but — though it’s wall-to-walled-up tits and gore — this is pretty engaging. Maybe because the two writers never met, or couldn’t read each others’ handwriting, or speak the same language? Hard to say, but it achieves a demented discombobulation rare in cinema, and even in life.

This won’t hurt…

DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER stars Aguirre Fitzcarraldo Stroszek Nosferatu; Candy Christian; 3rd Sombrero Onlooker at Tuco’s 1st Hanging; Dr. Schwab; Dr. Paul Eswai; and Momo, as himself.

As for Momo, he comes back from the vet today after a very expensive scale and polish, minus one tooth, and with the news that his kidneys aren’t what they used to be. But he seems otherwise healthy as a horse — body of Oliver Reed, lungpower of Ethel Merman.

Basely loosed on a story by…

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2017 by dcairns

                     

  1. It’s quite possible that I’ll be doing these long after you’ve stopped being interested.
  2. There is a school of thought that says this has already happened.

Oh, hey, two weeks until supposed blogathon! I better announce it. Think about taking part, you guys.