Archive for Night Must Fall

Cats in the Brain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by dcairns

“The latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”

Both Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and Sergio Martino’s more memorably titled YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY rework Poe’s “immortal classic” in lurid and rambling fashion, only really returning at the end to play the climax “straight”. Which kind of seems a mistake, since the visualisation of a recognised story flattens the delirium they’re otherwise aiming to evoke.

Bonuses include the charm of Fulci enacting his usual vicious brutality, with familiarly over-exposed, fumbling special effects, in a leafy English village — Fulci seems to have liked England, he set several movies there. There’s also the acting — Patrick Magee hams it up for Fulci (theory: by pushing his actors into extreme and contorted styles of playing, Kubrick may have actually ruined them — Nicholson was never quite the same after THE SHINING, and as for Magee…) in an amusingly out-of-control manner, palsied and weirdly enunciated.

The acting in Martino’s film is more traditionally “good”, with Anita Strindberg and Luigi Pistilli genuinely, uncomfortably unappealing in the leads, and some welcome sex appeal shipping in by the reliably underdressed Edwige Fenech. What disappointed me was the lack of swooning beauty and striking images, which are what I go to Italian horror for. I counted two lovely moments, though ~

When a preposterously over-the-top prostitute shows up in town, her near-instantaneous murder is a depressing inevitability. This disturbing little scene is one of the last things she sees. Love the doll.

Gratuitous lesbian love scene — with rather striking dissolve from two silhouettes.

Fulci being the mad doctor he is, his movie has a more consistent visual quality, with low-flying cat POV shots, and the cat himself is full of personality. Plot revolves — or spins, rather — around Magee’s tendency to astrally project his spirit into the cat and use it to do his murderous bidding, a sort of feline MONKEY SHINES avant la lettre.

By chance, in revisiting Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch’s horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, for the sake of the third episode, in which Peter Cushing keeps a reanimated Poe in his cellar, churning out new tales of Mystery and the Imagination*, I realised that the film’s first episode was very much Poe-derived. Michael Bryant (a sort of Martin Amis type, crisply fervid with ciggie) murders a supposedly wealthy uncle (enabling Francis to repeat some of the persecuted-person-in-a-wheelchair he tried out first for Karel Reisz when he shot NIGHT MUST FALL) — so far, so Tell-Tale Heart. Then he unearths a coffin with a headless skeleton and a very much alive cat. This one isn’t pure black, so it photographs with more personality. As it psychically brainwashes Bryant, he speaks aloud the transmitted thoughts: as he says “you’re hungry,” Francis cuts to the little fellow licking his chops. Francis’s horrors always have a cheeky sense of humour.

* Cushing and Jack Palance are both huge fun (Cushing gets a drunks scene) and Francis blocks their conversations very nicely, and I don’t mind that the set wall visibly wobbles during their fight and I’m more bemused than annoyed that Palance plays a Brit and Cushing a yank, but really, the ending falls apart disastrously. It’s amusing that the great Poe collector has actually collected Poe himself, but the pay-off ought to involve something of the author’s personality, not just some diabolical double-cross. Still, the rest of the film has magnificent stuff from Burgess Meredith (as Dr Diablo) and Michael Ripper (as the personification of ubiquity).

For Anne Billson.

Where’s the rest of me?

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2009 by dcairns

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There’s an important distinction to be made between films with severed heads in them— such as THEATRE OF BLOOD, where Arthur Lowe’s disembodied bonce turns up adorning a milk bottle on Ian Hendry’s doorstep, or NIGHT MUST FALL, where Albert Finney delivers a veritable masterclass in eccentric and flamboyant acting as he works up the courage to look at the severed head he’s got in his hat-box — and severed head films, films which feature severed heads in starring or at least co-starring roles. THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE and THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE are two excellent examples of the latter. (But where is the third film in that triptych? I propose it should be called THE BRAIN/THING THAT SHOULDN’T DIE.)

THE HEAD is possible the greatest severed head film ever (I’m not actually saying it’s good, mind you), and it has interesting credentials too. Director Victor Trivas had a lengthy-ish career which produced some dignified and respectable films, including NIEMANDSLAND (1931). His 1933 screenplay THE TRAP was adapted to make Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER (at least according to the book Orson Welles at Work — I can find no sign of this movie on the IMDb), and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS also apparently has a Trivas source.

It’s 1959, and Trivas returns to the cinema after a twenty-four year absence (is this even the same guy? Are we sure?) with an original screenplay about a brilliant surgeon, played by an on-his-uppers Michel Simon, whose “life serum” has kept a dog’s head alive, in the absence of its body, for, oh I don’t know, longer than you’d normally expect anyhow. (It seems a missed opportunity that we don’t get to see this living doghead. What would look best? Something with voluminous jowls, like Simon himself — a bloodhound, or even a cocker spaniel.) Poor Michel then gets to experience the dog’s life, when his insane assistant performs a head transplant that’s only partially successful — he gets the head OFF, alright, but fails to find a viable body to connect it to.

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Having created its indelible image: Simon, a tiny fat head perched on a mountain of chins, lying amid a folded towel upon a glass table, surrounded by gurgling tubes, while the severed head theme plays incessantly on the soundtrack (it involves a saxophone, this theme, and is unpleasantly wheezy), the film doesn’t really know what to do with him. There’s an attempt at having him outsmart the evil assistant, who’s gone totally mad and transplanted a hunchbacked nun’s head onto a stripper’s body (does that qualify as insane? I don’t see how we can judge him without knowing more about his background and personal circumstances) but Trivas seems uncertain how to resolve his plot, or even whether to resolve his plot. Or whether he wants to have a plot.

In fairness to Mr. Trivas, I was watching a cheapo dubbed version, and who knows what alterations the film had undergone — there are signs that plenty of stripping has been removed, and some of the storyline and character motivations may have gone with it (maybe the nudity really wasessential to the plot? That would be seriously ironic). I was also watching it an an AVI, which my fancy DVD player started to play out of synch. Since it was dubbed anyway, this didn’t seem like a major worry, although by the end the film was not just a few frames out, but whole lines out. Each character seemed to be speaking the other’s lines. I was hoping the nun would meet the stripper, because then, you see, they really would have been speaking each others’ lines, literally, and the film would have arrived at a strange kind of cranial equilibrium.

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I’m grateful to Christoph Huber for bringing this film to my attention— it’s quite trippy and wrong. Apart from the rare pleasure of seeing Michel Simon without his limbs and trunk (you can’t really get that anywhere else), it affords us some suave and glistening production design from the very important Hermann Warm, who designed THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (I mean, he designed the film, not just the cabinet). Warm always spoke warmly about director Robert Wiene, whose contribution was greatly downplayed by that film’s writers. Other highly relevant credits include Dreyer’s VAMPYR and Fritz Lang’s DER MUDE TOD. His work here (sharing credit with Bruno Monden) is a joy, giving us an expressionistic strip joint that Fritz Lang could stage a seance in (although with all the strippers, it could get distracting) and a gleaming oilslick-black surgical theatre in Simon’s modernist nightmare house.

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Science-note: surgeons have already kept a monkey head alive without a monkey attached to it, and they’ve proceeded to attach the monkey head to a headless monkey. The monkey was paralysed from the neck down, of course. On the plus side, this technique could extend the life of a paraplegic person suffering from organ failure. On the minus side, it’s pretty hard on the monkey. A scientist put his finger in the monkey’s mouth to see if it was responsive, and it bit his finger off. You have to be on the monkey’s side, there.