Archive for Seven Footprints to Satan

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.

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Peepshow Creepshow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 29, 2018 by dcairns

BANG!

Ever the thrifty one, I have recycled my programme notes from the Bo’ness Hippodrome as this fortnight’s Forgotten — the subject is The Ultimate Film of Sensation — SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN!

You’re welcome.

The Sunday Intertitle: You Bad Ass

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2018 by dcairns

Movies from 10.30 a.m. until around midnight yesterday at the Hippodrome (and also at Bo’ness Railway Station). The one film I was unsure of, the recently rediscovered early ‘3-s Chinese film, STRIVING, turned out to be a highlight. For all its blatant propaganda content (“Bullets dodge brave soldiers,” one intertitle tells us — and we learn how the Chinese defeated the Japanese, which is pretty counter-factual), I actually like it better than the admired THE GODDESS. It’s in perfect nick, and Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius really brought it to life with their accompaniment.

Everybody’s favourite intertitle came from this film: “You bad ass!” a charming mistranslation which meant to come out as “You awful jerk!” or something. Difficult to find an idiom that carries the meaning and feels natural but doesn’t sound too, well, idiomatic.

The day began with Baby Peggy in THE KID DETECTIVE and Neil Brand at the piano. Neil told us that he’s actually played before B.P. herself. He asked her if they played music on set when she acted, and she said yes, there was one piece that would always make her cry. So when he accompanied her film he played it, and glanced into the audience, and sure enough, there were tears running down her face. I wish we’d had her with us yesterday. She was a big hit, especially in drag with tweed suit and inverted Hitler mustache.

Then there was the very peculiar SAVING SISTER SUSIE, a 1921 Christie Comedy with Dorothy Devore, who I hadn’t seen before. On the slenderest pretext, Devore is forced to dress as a child so she can’t steal her sister’s rich beau, but he falls for her anyway, the “Buster Brown” costume failing to put him off — maybe it even encourages him. This foretaste of THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR meant that the naive little farce stood out in a day full of imperilled virigins and sexual threat, as perhaps the most disturbing film of all.

DER SCHATZ (1923), the first film of GW Pabst, was impressive, but hampered by the score. The Hippodrome set like a good improvisation as much as the next silent film geek, but we like to feel the musician is improvising TO the film. Alois Kott had laid down a sound bed of strange noises, which sometimes changed in sync with the scenes, and then he added another layer of abstract musical noise with an amazing instrument that looked like a cross between a cello and a Curly-Wurly™. None of the sounds would necessarily have been inappropriate for this film, though the intergalactic computer twinkling was something you might want to be careful with. But none of them seemed to follow or reflect the action, tone, mood of the characters or create either tension or space. The effect became like watching a good film (with Werner Krauss and THE 39 STEPS’ Lucie Mannheim) through a thick pane of frosted glass: music as barrier.

We did learn that Kott has provided live improvised accompaniment to football matches, though. I like that idea — sounds like about the only thing that could make the experience of a football match tolerable to me.

Oh, somewhere in there I accidentally won a chocolate egg in a quiz, which I then shared with random audience members. Seemed only fair since I’d guessed half the answers.

Tom Mix and his Wonder Horse, Tony, starred in THE GREAT K & A TRAIN ROBBERY (1926), where the clean-cut hero pretends to be a bandit in order to thwart real outlaws. Heroine Dorothy Dwan (fresh from the ’25 WIZARD OF OZ) seems to be serious obsessed with bandits, fantastising Mix as Dick Turpin via match dissolve, and gloating lustfully over her big book of Romantic Highwaymen. Who knew that highwayman porn was a thing? Second favourite intertitle stemmed from this film, where an effete villain is introduced with the words, “if he’s a college man — it must have been Vassar.” It’s at 2.36 in the above YouTubing. The movie is impossibly innocent — six-shooters blast all over the Colorado setting, but nobody ever gets shot, but it IS a bit heteronormative, I guess you could say.

John Sweeney pounded the ivories to strong dramatic effect despite the chill of the open-air performance amid the Bo’ness steam locomotives.

Then came the double feature of THE PENALTY and SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, which I’d written programme notes for. Graeme Stephen & Pete Harvey provided a beautiful score for the former, quite light and airy for this sadistic gangster-horror melodrama, and maybe a counter-intuitive choice to use strings for a film about a mad pianist (Lon Chaney) — but it worked!

I’m biassed, but Jane Gardner’s score for SEVEN FOOTPRINTS, performed with Roddy Long on violin, was my favourite of the day. It started with jaunty tunes from piano and bow, then when the going gets spooky, Jane switched to electronic keyboard and Roddy added an array of filters to his violin for an eerie selection of drones, pulses, throbs, wails and screeches — but not forgetting the tunes. This movie originally had a Vitaphone soundtrack, now lost, and while it would be unlikely that Jane happened on any of the precise effects of the original (apart from the gong), I could well believe that her work complimented the film every bit as effectively. Director Benjamin Christensen must be looking up from Hell, smiling.