Archive for Incense for the Damned

We’re gonna need a bigger goat

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2018 by dcairns

A blogathon! How NICE! The main page is here.

Fiona first saw THE DEVIL RIDES OUT — “From the classic novel by Dennis Wheatley — on TV, while high on magic mushrooms, an experience she does not recommend. When the Duc de Richleau commands “Don’t look at his eyes!” she became entranced, hypnotised, staring at the eyes and trying to work out what was so special about them. “He’s right! They’re TERRIBLE!” she concluded, and never took mushrooms again. The other main effect of the shrooms was that nothing about the story seemed comprehensible, which might be a good thing — Dennis Wheatley’s novels are pretty basic and stodgy in terms of story, character, prose and dialogue. A dash of psychoactive substance might be just what they need.

Mind you, Hammer’s other Wheatley adaptation of 1968, THE LOST CONTINENT, based on the novel Uncharted Seas, caused my friend Danny to think he WAS on drugs, even though he wasn’t. It is completely bananas, and Wheatley’s peculiar Sargasso Sea fantasy is adapted by Hammer boss’s son Michael Carreras, who couldn’t write, didn’t know one end of a story from another, had no concept of structure… (I hate producers who give themselves writing gigs nobody else would ever hire them for.)

DEVIL is adapted by Richard Matheson, an altogether more skilled writer — and ACTUAL writer — who had recently been writing Poe films for Corman. Hammer didn’t have a terribly proactive approach to scooping up outside talent — they should have jumped at Barbara Steele, lured over Vincent Price, recruited Michael Reeves, and acquired better writers than Jimmy Sangster. When they did hire J.G. Ballard, they spelled his name wrong. But they did well to pick up Matheson, and the ever-reliable Terence Fisher.

Though maybe a more eccentric director would have worked here, for the film’s slightly psychedelic sequences. Fisher can be rather stolid, prosaic, and so can some of his actors here. In fact, Fisher does marvelous work here with scenes of waiting and suggestion, but is let down badly by the special effects and make-up and, to a lesser extent, the fight arrangements.

BUT — like Fiona, I knew this film from TV and VHS and seeing it again in the right aspect ratio and a sharper image really made it come alive.

Here’s a limerick — I should have saved it for Limerwrecks, where my doggerel usually appears, but I didn’t think of it.

The Devil Rides Out — best beware

He revels without any care

At midnight black masses

He fiddles with lassies

Disheveled and sprouting with hair.

Despite it being 1968, these are the only bare breasts displayed.

Onto the film! Christopher Lee was very keen on this one, and happy to be playing a hero — a sort of Sherlock Holmes of the supernatural, another of Hammer’s rather harsh authority figures — they idea seems to be, we’re supposed to find Van Helsing and De Richleau unsympathetic, cold and scary, but still prefer them to the licentious evil of the netherworld, which can only be safely enjoyed in movies.

In postmodern terms, the film stars Saruman, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Captain Miles Gloriosus and Prime Minister Jim Hacker.

It’s a very linear, this-follows-that kind of narrative — when the characters branch off in separate directions, we typically stay with only one set, eschewing intercutting. Lee’s Richleau meets up with friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, but dubbed by Patrick Allen) and they set off to investigate why their friend Simon (Patrick Mower) has dropped out of circulation. Stopping by at Simon’s newly-acquired big country house, they find a gathering — supposedly an “astronomical society” — “My God!” exclaims Greene, using Allen’s voice — apparently it’s the presence of black and asian people in their native garb that shocks him so.

Lee quickly deduces that Mower has fallen into the hands of satanists, just as he would in INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED. Mower is a pushover: anything in a ceremonial robe. In this case, the cult leader is one Mocata, played with fruity relish by Charles Gray, aka The Criminologist from ROCKY HORROR. Also drawn into the madness is young Tanith, Nike Arrighi, who seems dubbed but isn’t. Maybe she had to loop her lines to match Greene/Allen’s post-synched dialogue. (Incidentally, I can’t see why Green had to be dubbed: his voice and delivery was fine in other films — he was an opera singer, in fact.)

Later on, Nike Arrighi’s voice will issue from another character’s mouth, making this a film ABOUT dubbing…

What follows is a fairly relentless series of set-pieces: two hypnotisings, some psychic attacks and summonings, a black mass (starring the Goat of Mendes) and assorted conjurations. The simpler these are, the better they tend to work. The black guy who materialises in the middle of a room, staring and grinning, is scary because he doesn’t move (also: don’t look at his eyes) ~

The Angel of Death, however, is pretty disappointing, with his horse with bat-wings pasted on. Fisher tries to make the thing dramatic by having the horse rear up in close-up, and then some idiot looped the film to make the action repeat. Slow-motion and long-shot and losing the stupid wings would have worked a lot better. Just exploit the uncanny/surreal set-up of a horse indoors: you lose that by going in close. A shame, because the whole magic circle bit was atmospheric, with the camera edging round the chalk outline, causing candles to float through frame. And Lee is marvelously authoritative.

Christopher Neame, in charge of the second unit, reports in his memoir that the Angel of Death’s horse’s wings had a tendency to fall off whenever it reared up. I think the Great God (or Devil) of Cinema was trying to tell him something.

But the melodrama of Lee’s exposition and Gray’s bully-boy sneering is so effective that the main objection to the story — that Richleau has an amulet of incantation for every occasion, and so real menace is absent, a lack disguised by Richleau simply not telling us what he’s got planned — doesn’t occur to one, or didn’t occur to me, until after the film is over. At which point it’s too late to jump into the screen and cry, “Hang on! This is a stitch-up!” The magic spell has already been performed. Time and space have been altered.

Lost in time… and lost in space… and meaning…

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Unmastered

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 2, 2018 by dcairns

How does he do it? In the book Cut to the Chase, Polanski’s editor Sam O’Steen talks about Polanski’s tendency to not always shoot masters. The master shot is the wide shot that covers the entire scene and establishes the space and where everybody is. There are filmmakers who ONLY shoot masters — Polanski has been known to play out entire scenes in single shots. And there are directors who tend not to shoot masters. Even though he made ROPE as an experiment in long takes, Hitchcock was famed for his “damned jigsaw cutting,” assembling his scenes from fragments that don’t cover the whole action. Close-up of one actor saying one line, close-up of someone else reacting, a hand, a landscape, a POV.


Polanski does something that seems even riskier. I flashed on the opening scenes of CHINATOWN, neither of which offers a true establishing shot or a master. Polanski doesn’t prove to us that Curly (Burt Young) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) are inhabiting the same space in scene 1, even when JN passes BY a whisky. He relies on eyelines and dialogue overlaps, plus there’s some movement of the curtains behind Gittes that suggests the distressed Curly has gone from trying to eat the Venetian blinds (just installed Wednesday) to clutching the drapes.

Polanski MAY have shot something showing the two men in one frame, but he cut it out, jumping ahead to Curly’s exit from the outer office, which finally shows both characters together. Then Gittes gets the news that “Evelyn Mulwray” (actually Ida Sessions, an impostor played by Diane Ladd) is waiting for him in another office.AGAIN, Polanski cuts his master-shot in two — making it no master at all.

As you’d expect, the scene begins with Gittes entering — but Polanski doesn’t show this at all. We hear it, and Sessions and the operative she’ been talking to look up. That’s it.Then we see Gittes in a separate shot, with another op behind him. These guys are chosen to contrast with Gittes and thus help characterise him. One is oldish, to emphasise Gittes’ youth, the other is a crass gum-chewer, to point up Gittes’ slickness. Incidentally, this guy is standing as Nicholson enters, for no reason at all — except to allow us to see him in a shot that’s framed to show a standing man. The height of the camera position is midway between Gittes and Sessions, so it looks down on her and up at her, and this helps tie the shots together. Not much else will.

At this point, there’s a pleasing mirroring, with Gittes screen left, Sessions screen right, and the ops positioned opposite.Now, as Sessions spins her tale about her husband cheating, Gittes and his op each cross the screen, the op going behind his desk, Gittes heading for a chair. Polanski had to stage all this carefully because O’Steen has to cut for key dialogue and reactions, but also to keep track of the men’s movements, otherwise you get an INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED teleportation situation.When Gittes pulls up a chair, the camera descends to sitting level, pulling in until Nicholson’s head almost hits the lens, and settling into an unusual composition: Gittes gets little nose-room, and his op is now positioned behind him. When we cut back to Sessions, the camera is lower and closer to match Gittes’ shot, a change so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, but essential to create a sense of matching. And now we have the shot/reverse shot pattern that will prevail for the rest of the scene. Sessions’ close-up is a little bigger, and her op is screen right, just like Gittes’, which means she has all the nose-room she could wish for, and even space to wave a gloved hand with a long cigarette holder.And that’s IT for this scene. Polanski never shows the two main characters together in one shot. He never establishes the office in a wide (perhaps because that would tend to make it look like a set). He never gives Sessions’ op a shot where he’s in focus. (Gittes being slightly further from the lens, mostly, means his op can be acceptably sharp when he gets his one line.) We tie the separate images together in our mind’s eye and it feels like a coherent space and scene.

The right way to shoot a scene (or *A* right way) is generally the most economical. Not just because time is money, but because in a scene shot with economy, the audience senses that everything they’re shown has a purpose. Polanski has just covered a long, talkie scene involving four characters with just three set-ups, one of them involving a small camera move. (It’s always possible that the two Sessions angles were once joined together by a small move two, which would make the scene two set-ups long, but I’m certain this wasn’t the case. Polanski knew he would be on Nicholson for that reframing.) In its quiet, no-nonsense way, the result is radically different from the standard master-and-two-singles approach often used as a cookie-cutter by unimaginative directors.

Now, imagine this scene in a big Hollywood film today.

Ink Stained Wretch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by dcairns

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What is THE BLACK TORMENT?

Well, we can say immediately and with certainty that it’s a 1964 Comptom Films production, a horror movie directed by Robert Hartford-Davis (like INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, it has a character called Richard and everyone is always saying his name like a damn mantra). Producer Tony Tenser later gave us REPULSION and WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which are prefigured here by the lack of supernatural elements, but the suggestion of same. As a low-budget period thriller, this certainly foreshadows Michael Reeves’ visceral English Civil War western except it doesn’t have the viciousness, the poetry, or the imagination. The plot is a Scooby-Dooby-Don’t farrago of LES DIABOLIQUES and REBECCA with a welcome bit of Roger Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER in the direction.

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But what is the actual black torment of THE BLACK TORMENT? What does the title mean? Well, at a certain fraught point of the narrative, with the lord of the manor and his new bride being tormented by spooky visions of his doppelganger and his dead first wife, his paralysed father turns up unexpectedly out of his wheelchair, and even more unexpectedly dangling from a chandelier, smudged about the face with ink.

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That seems to be it: “the black torment” means getting ink smeared on your face while hanged from a chandelier. You have to admit, it lives up to its name.

Hammer personages in attendance: hulking Francis De Wolff, skulking Patrick Troughton, sulking Heather Sears.

The writers/assemblers of stolen materials are Derek & Donald Ford, whom my late friend Lawrie believed to be distant cousins of your actual John Ford. I wonder if that’s something they spread around themselves? There’s nothing to substantiate it on the internet. Still, it beats being known as the authors of THE WIFE SWAPPERS and WHAT’S UP NURSE! (sic). They would later give us A STUDY IN TERROR, which like this one features the murder of Edina Ronay. Whether they had some kind of passionate dislike of Edina Ronay, or passionate fondness for her, or just didn’t know many girls, I can’t say.