Archive for Radley Metzger

Old Dark House Valuation

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by dcairns

These are my programme notes from Hippfest’s screening of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY ~

John Willard’s 1922 comedy-thriller play The Cat and the Canary has been filmed four times: probably the 1939 version with Bob Hope is the most-screened; the second version, The Cat Creeps, from 1930, sadly seems to be lost, apart from a few fragments; the 1978 remake, a rare fully-clothed outing from soft-porn specialist Radley Metzger, is an oddity. But it’s this 1927 production from the German émigré director Paul Leni, that really tickles the ribs and sends shivers up the spine at the same time: a cinematic workout for the whole skeleton.

All the surviving footage from the 1930 version.

It’s also a highly cinematic spectacle, with a mobile camera that looms and lurches (at one point even taking the point-of-view of a painting as it falls from a wall), expressionistic sets, eccentric title cards and artful superimpositions – the invalid Cyrus West, encased in the medicine bottles that give him life, is attacked by giant black cats, embodiments of his greedy relatives: a startling image! And that’s just the opening sequence.

Leni had directed Waxworks in Germany, likewise a riot of visual ideas, but he had a playful side too: he seems to be the only man ever to adapt a crossword puzzle into a film. Sadly, he died too soon, but not before giving us a trio of superbly atmospheric, macabre movies, rounded out by The Last Warning (another horror-comedy) and The Man Who Laughs (indescribable: a Victor Hugo period drama which inspired Batman’s ever-grinning foe, the Joker). Another hit, the Charlie Chan thriller The Chinese Parrot, is sadly lost.

An eerie mansion; a bickering throng of relatives; a will to be read at midnight; an escaped lunatic; sliding panels and hidden passages; a vanishing corpse – the story offers a dizzying array of melodramatic clichés, sent up with gusto and presented with all the shadowy spookshow atmospherics Hollywood could muster. While Lon Chaney’s freaky revenge thrillers were certainly a major influence on the horror cycle of the thirties (Dracula, Frankenstein et al), this macabre caper provided a lot of the inspiration too. The sepulchral sets were designed by Englishman Charles D. Hall, who had come to the States to work for Chaplin and would go on to create the creaky castles for most of the later Universal Studios monster movies.

It’s very much an international affair, reminding us how Hollywood has always sucked into its orbit the top filmmaking and acting talent of the world: Irishman Creighton Hale is the timorous hero, the kind of role he would reprise several times: he’s one of the Hippodrome’s favourite actors, having previously been screened in Annie Laurie and last year’s hit Seven Footprints to Satan. Hale had played staunch leading man types in movie serials of the teens (e.g. The Exploits of Elaine) before donning Harold Lloyd specs here to embody a comic milquetoast. The glamorous Laura La Plante, former bathing beauty, a big star of the silent and early talkie era, is top-billed, but it’s the grotesque supporting players who really bring out the goose-pimply fun…

The cadaverous Tully Marshall, resembling a kind of silly-putty skeleton, makes a lugubrious lawyer; Martha Mattox as the housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant, manages to make any shot she appears in startling, then unsettling; Flora Finch flutters as daffy Aunt Susan, and even the small role of a passing milkman becomes an exercise in grotesquerie, thanks to the chinless Joe Murphy, who was best-known for embodying yokel Andy Gump, a newspaper cartoon character.

And that’s what this is, in many ways, a live-action cartoon, with animated intertitles and a painted mansion to add to the funny-pages feel. Everything, from the actors to the sets to the exciting, swooping camerawork is designed to add to a heightened sense of macabre hilarity: Leni proves that German expressionism isn’t just there for the nasty things in life, it can be good for a laugh, too.

Scratch Film

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by dcairns

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THE FLESH EATERS seemed like the best film for me to write about for the Film Preservation Blogathon, whose theme this year is science fiction. Obviously METROPOLIS, that ever-lengthening classic, would make a lot of sense too, but somebody’s probably already thought of that. But THE FLESH EATERS is an obscure monster movie in which the monster is played by neg scratches. Put it on a double feature with DECASIA, in which a man engages in a boxing match with an all-consuming blob of nitrate decomposition. But the silvery, wriggling scratch-monsters here are much too tough to punch out with a padded glove — they go boring into people’s legs in gory insert shots that are genuinely disturbing, despite the seemingly primitive nature of the effects work. I mean, OUCH.

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The movie gains huge cult credibility by starring Martin Kosleck, the man who sculpted Rondo Hatton in HOUSE OF HORROR and the screen’s silkiest Dr.. Goebbels. By this time, he seems to have had a little eye tuck which accentuates his feline/feminine qualities and adds even more unsettling ambiguity to his persona.

The movie, unusually well covered for a B-picture (mostly shooting in the open air must have made the filming go quick) is dynamically edited by Radley Metzger, the favourite pornographer of all right-thinking cinephiles (Russ Meyer being more of a cartoonist than an eroticist).

Speaking of cartoons, the script, which trafficks in soapy stereotypes and jut-jawed confrontations, is by Arnold Drake, comic book writer and creator of The Doom Patrol (in their Grant Morrison incarnation, my favourite funnybook thing ever). The Doom Patrol were freakish superheroes who were all multiply-disabled as much as they were hyper-powered, which suggests a slightly wacky and agreeable perspective, and that off-kilter feeling prevails here too. He also created Deadman, the funniest/stupidest name for a superhero ever, and the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Drake also seems to have storyboarded this flick, so that one-shot director Jack Curtis, otherwise best known as a voice actor, consistently delivers exciting and punchy compositions far more dynamic that anything usually seen in Z-list B-pictures from bottom-feeding indie production companies.

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Opening shot is a succulent flesh feast, a lithe bikini girl laid out like a banquet, in combination with the title seemingly inviting the audience to consider cannibalism. She’s soon skeletonized along with her obnoxious boyfriend, washing up later as a fully articulated set of science lab bones clutching a bikini top (the movie is totally silly but somehow preserves its own strange dignity).

Soap opera: a broke pilot takes a job flying a drunken movie star and her nurse/PA, unwisely trying to dodge a tropical storm — they wind up on an island inhabited only by nasty Kosleck and his weird man-eating sea-spawn, the results of a Nazi experiment he uncovered after the war. Rather refreshingly, Kosleck isn’t himself a Nazi — he’s a German-American employed by the US to investigate Nazi science — having found the ultimate weapon, he now hopes to make his fortune selling the blighters to the highest bidder.

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Barbara Wilkins’ balconette bra is the film’s strongest supporting player.

The bickering crew are eventually joined by another character, Omar the beatnik on his raft, a yammering chowderhead whose role is to delight us by dieing horribly, eaten alive from the inside out. Kosleck feeding him flesh eaters seems to anticipates Michael Fassbender’s entirely unmotivated poisoning of a crewmember in PROMETHEUS, while a guy who rides to the rescue on a speedboat only to immediately get his face eaten reminds me of Scatman Crothers abortive mercy mission in THE SHINING.

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The effects work is consistently ambitious and inventive. The most epic shot tries to suggest that the whole sea is glittering with the silvery worms, which it does simply by filming sunlight reflecting on the water’s surface. Not so much a special effect as an attempt at brainwashing, telling us that the commonplace sight we see is something else — Raul Ruiz would be proud of that. Landscape as bricolage. When Kosleck electrocutes the ocean as part of his crazy masterplan, we get one giant monster, the least satisfying thing in the film because obviously it has to be a Cormaneqsque monster costume, waving an action figure in its left tendril. But there’s one further insane flourish: to kill the thingy, stalwart Byron Sanders injects human blood into its eye, and Curtis films this action from INSIDE THE EYE.

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Blob-monster puppets inspire affectionate nostalgia rather than terror. But those scratches… those can really fuck you up, especially if you’re a film lover.

This is my first entry for the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted initially at Ferdy on Film. Click the button below to read all about it and then donate.

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The Monday Intertitle: And Then the Phantoms

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2013 by dcairns

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As part of my research for the blogathon, I watched Alain Resnais’ most recent film (but not his last — he already has another on the way), VOUS N’AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU aka YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET! — in which a group of actors (the creamy cream of the French acting establishment playing versions of themselves) gather in a secluded and stylised theatrical mansion to hear the last will and testament of a director who had worked with all of them in various productions of the Oresteia (this is based on a play by Anouilh). As the will is delivered by the dead man himself via a film, and the assemblage is then shown film of a new production of the play that unites them, which they then begin to interact with in various impossible ways, I was reminded of two wildly different films — THE CAT AND THE CANARY for the plot device and specifically the Radley Metzger ’70s version for its playful Pirandellian approach to the screen within the screen (at one point an aged retainer in Metzger’s flick dodders behind the screen only to appear, in perfect directional continuity, ON the screen in a younger incarnation. When this youthful image passes out of the edge of frame, the real-life older model takes his place, back in reality.) — and it’s nice if Resnais is referencing Metzger because Metzger was certainly influenced by MARIENBAD — and Olivier’s HENRY V, which seems to function as much as a commentary on the theatre-going experience as it does an adaptation of the play itself. For the first half hour or more we are amused but somewhat distracted by the fact that Resnais is showing a play with the roles played by a series of different actors, and in settings that vary from the actual screening room where the actors are gathered, other rooms nearby which MAY be part of the same building, and locations or CGI environments illustrating the places in the play.

But after a while this ceases to distract and despite all the apparent alienation devices, the story is quite involving. And indeed the emotional pull of the scenes is strangely increased, particularly when they’re performed by actors too old for the characters they play. Because we get not only the emotion of the scene but a kind of nostalgia (in a good, unsentimental sense) for the youth they once possessed and the feelings they must have originally brought to the roles. Or maybe it’s just that old actors are better than young actors.

Except that the character of Death is played by only one actor, Mathieu Amalric, and he’s not that old but he’s electrifying. His trenchcoat made me think of the figure of Fate in Carne and Prevert’s LES PORTES DE LA NUIT.

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But there’s another movie reference too, and it’s certainly intentional. As he’s setting up the plot, which he does in a bare-bones way, cheerfully acknowledging the artifice, Resnais uses a couple of intertitles, including this one (above). “When they passed through the gate, the phantoms came to meet them.”

Which is a paraphrase of one from NOSFERATU ~

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The translation of that we used to read was something like “And when Hutter crossed the bridge, the phantoms came forth to meet him.”

But the subtitles provided now that we can see the original German-language title card say something like “the uncanny faces came out” or the “spectral images came out” — but I’m guessing Resnais is familiar with the same translation as me.

You can read it at 18:12.

This talk of phantoms refers to vampires in the Murnau film but to memories and movie images in the Resnais. Which feeds into my growing suspicion that phantoms and memories and movie images are all different manifestations of the same, misunderstood phenomenon…