Archive for John Brahm

Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

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And as timeless as infinity…

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , on April 11, 2017 by dcairns

I knew this episode of The Twilight Zone mainly from its spoiler-heavy synopsis in the intro to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. I’m going to be equally spoilerific here, since the episode is practically a twist ending in search of a story. Nothing, for the most part, happens, until the end. Well, that’s unfair. But so is the show.

Burgess Meredith, struggling to act through coke-bottle-bottom glasses, plays a humble bank clerk who loves to read. But he can’t read at work because he’s at work, and the customers unreasonably expect service, the bank manager expects satisfied customers, etc. And he can’t read at home because of a particularly shrill version of a Rod Serling wife, who HATES BOOKS (her role is greatly enlarged and monstered from Lyn Venable’s source story). This character is completely unbelievable, but slightly fascinating in her awfulness. How did this couple come to get together? A woman whose only personality trait is her hatred of all literature, all printed matter (she’s not even embodying a real cultural phenomenon, she’s way beyond anti-intellectualism or inverted snobbery or philistinism, she’s psychopathic) and a man whose only personality trait is his benign, blinking, myopic love of good books. It would serve them right if they met via a misprint. No other explanation seems possible.

Then, while Blinking Burgess is hiding out in the bank vault to steal a moment with a treasured volume, the bomb drops. The bomb, Dmitri. The atomic bomb.

Burgess is legitimately upset about this. He stumbles around in the wasteland, and though he never worries about his wife (after all, he was at work when she was vaporised, why should he think of her?) he’s certainly unhappy that the world has been destroyed.

In this version of Armageddon, there’s no fall-out to worry about, and plenty of canned food, but Burgess is still inconsolable, alone. It’s only when he finds the city library, its books scattered but somehow unharmed by the blast that seems to have reduced everyone to dust (great writing LASTS) that he cheers up. He finally has time to read, Time Enough At Last, to quote the episode title.

And then he breaks his glasses.

“This isn’t fair!” He protests, in almost inarticulate horror. And it isn’t — the usual EC Comics “poetic justice” which makes nastiness feel good, is wholly lacking. The only “poetic justification” the gag has is that it affects the audience horribly, and maybe that’s The Twilight Zone‘s purpose, its place in the culture of its time — to let us feel unpleasant emotions otherwise somewhat forbidden, unacknowledged anxieties. And if we can’t conceive of atomic holocaust and megadeaths, maybe we can conceive of one blind man surrounded by nothing but books, with all the time in the world.

(Note that the effect is much, much worse than in the story, where the character’s love of reading isn’t drummed so incessantly into our heads, and we aren’t even convinced he does like books — he merely think he might, if given a chance to read one.)

Even Rod seems to have very little to say — how to sum this up? It’s a perfectly constructed trap, an infernal machine of awesome nastiness. Get out quick, move on, nothing to see here.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men – and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis – in the Twilight Zone.”

This one is directed by John Brahm, who usually brought some kind of magnificent simplicity to the design side — here, the wasteland is very acceptable, but the library steps strewn with literature create a strikingly epic effect, on a budget. The combination of Burgess M’s extraordinary appearance and this extraordinary place makes every shot of the ending iconic.

It is the middle ground between light and shadow…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , on March 31, 2017 by dcairns

I was duty-bound to writer about this one, wasn’t I?

In this season 2 Twilight Zone episode, Charles Beaumont pens and Dennis Weaver stars. It’s a tale of a recurring dream — Weaver is electrocuted nightly — we never see his waking life. The episode isn’t quite clear if it wants us to worry about the execution, Weaver’s perpetual oneiric torment, or the threat to the dream-characters — he warns them that if he’s executed, they’ll cease to exist. This splitting of our concerns is an imperfection, and possibly a real problem, but it works out OK since Weaver is so compelling and the unusual direct cutting back and forth between characters builds tension, and the whole waiting for execution scenario is pretty surefire as a dramatic device.

Weaver insists that irl he has no experience of trials and death-houses, so his imagination is constructing this world out of movie clichés, and so it would appear — Weaver gives an intense, perfervid performance as you’d expect from him, and everybody else is basically from Central Casting. This leads to the episode’s best stuff… Weaver, talking to the priest, speculates about where his memory has produced this priest’s face from. Then he remembers it, and tells the priest a story about a real priest who died when he was ten. And he tells this story happily, because he’s pleased he remembered it — he’d been struggling to place the man. This is all very uncomfortable for the priest.

Then, out of the blue, he tells the D.A. a weird tale about the steak his wife is cooking. We’ve already seen this meat in a shock cut from Weaver describing his execution to the oven tray being pulled out with a harsh metallic grating sound, the steak sizzling like a condemned man. If the DA goes home, “It’ll be something different!” insists Weaver. The D.A. heads back to the kitchen and finds a big, juicy joint where the steak once sizzled. WHY? No real explanation, but a great moment of phildickian uncanny.

The nice directorial touches are courtesy of John Brahm, Teutonic noir specialist, who throws in a very novel split-screen effect to show the long walk to the chair as Weaver describes it, and whose opening shot includes a dramatic pull-back with a theatrical lighting change so that Weaver starts out isolated in darkness before the world emerges around him. Niiice.

Inevitably, the meat-induced reprieve comes too late, so Weaver fries, and is then launched back into scene 1 — a DEAD OF NIGHT style strange loop, with no interval of waking reality at all. As a final pay-off, the scene plays out as before, but with the faces all jumbled up — Weaver’s cell neighbour is now the judge, the priest is now a juror, etc. A real dream feel.

Good grim episode, with no lightening of the mood whatsoever, and a central character going through an irrational hellish punishment. Just what we want from this show.

“We know that a dream can be real. But whoever thought that reality could be a dream? We exist, of course, but… but how? In what way? As we believe, as flesh and blood human beings? Or are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare? Think about it. And then ask yourself, do you live here, in this country, in this world, or do you live instead in the twilight zone?”

And to cap the whole thing off in a horrifying kind of way, Rod Serling appears with the instrument of his own doom ~