Archive for The Brain that Wouldn’t Die

Wagner’s Wrong Cycle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2019 by dcairns

“Stand there, Bob. No, elbow up a bit. Turn your head a fraction…”

Hollywood started going weirdly wrong in the fifties, I think. Competing with TV, which in those days had really great scripts and acting but looked essentially like Mr. Magoo’s Dream of Hell, Hollywood countered with some terrible scripts and elevated a lot of attractive non-actors to leading roles.

A KISS BEFORE DYING isn’t an appalling piece of writing, but the need to render the central literary trick of Ira Levin’s source novel in cinematic terms robs it of most of its bite, and the dentition is further eroded by the casting of bores and incompetents in the leads, with one more skilled player so miscast her abilities wrench the whole thing in the wrong direction. True, the casting of Robert Wagner as a killer of women is… suggestive. Titillating, even, in a deeply wrong way. And it’s true that Wagner’s blandness shows some sign of becoming a positive dramatic force — he IS the banality of evil — in this unfamiliar context. Mark Cousins recently introduced me to RW’s early appearance in WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, where he plays a traumatised veteran, and the contrast of his catalogue model beauty with the “troubled” label is as close to “electrifying” as one could ever speak of in relation to this player, who always seems smothered in insulation.

And that’s still the case in AKBD. If one reads about the life and death of Natalie Wood, RW emerges as someone with a definite dark side, even if you don’t think he’s guilty of or hiding anything beyond rowing with his wife and being a bit inept at calling in an emergency (I would say he might well be guilty of more than that, though the term “person of interest” never sat more uncomfortably on the shoulders of a movie star). But as the would-be serial unmarried young Bluebeard here, Wagner invests no malevolence, no cunning, no manipulation in the role, he just doubles down on his native blandness. (One exception: the character’s nastiness to his dear mother, played by a rare Technicolor Mary Astor, makes you want to stab him.)Uh-oh.

OK, so that could actually work, even if it’s a side-effect of somebody’s casting error rather than an inspired choice (and you just can’t tell with Wagner) but who do we have as the good guys? Uh oh.

Jeffrey Hunter is the studious young man who tries to thwart Wagner’s proto-uxoricide (is there a word for killing your betrothed? Anyone writing about this story needs such a word). Hunter, unlike Wagner, is a man who shows clear signs of wanting to act, so he dons glasses and clenches a pipe between his pearly whites I refer to his teeth, not his butt cheeks, as you might suppose)… and that’s it for performance. Can you wonder that, despite yielding to no man in my admiration for Nick Ray, I have never made it through THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, or if I have, I can’t remember it? What stops me making another attempt on that Everest of tedium is that I might be wasting my time, having already accomplished the feat only to have it slip from my memory like an unusually dull bar of soap. That one also has both Wagner and Hunter as leads — the Dream Team! In that you actually fall asleep watching them.Then we have Virginia Leith, evidently also being groomed for stardom — thrust upon the blameless public. She’s really, um, “good” in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, in that she invests lines like “No, my deformed friend, like all quantities, horror has it’s ultimate, and I am that,” with exactly what they seem to demand, whatever that is. Here, she’s lost, just uninterestingly terrible, and the script loses focus whenever she’s around, since it wants us to be on her side as she investigates her sister’s death, and still on her side when she refuses, against all reason, to believe in Wager’s guilt. Very hard for an actor to put over, and completely impossible for poor Virginia, who is very attractive I must say.

Joanna Woodward is the miscast one, the only lead who can act: she’s studied her part and deduced that the character written as a doting nitwit must be played as such, an unavoidable conclusion for a method actor but the wrong choice for this hokum. (Look at Mia Farrow’s far more sympathetic, less distanced performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, from another Levin book about a deceived and betrayed woman.) If they’d only swapped Leith and Woodward around, I think you’d have something: Leith’s lack of experience/skill would allow her to play dim naturally, without knowing she was doing it, and maintain our sympathy without trying, and Woodward could invest her shrewdness in playing the wilful, sharp (some of the time) and passionate heroine.

Astor is good but there isn’t enough of her. Dear old George Macready is acting for five, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate the effort but maybe not now, George?

Gerd Oswald directs, his camera leering-looming-lurching in for dramatic close-ups, unsubtle but certainly appropriate, and the whole production gleams dumbly. I love Technicolor, part 2.

There is a love song, “A Kiss Before Dying,” playing on every juke box in this movie, and nobody says “What a weird idea for a song!”

Oh, and the credits have kissy lipsticks all over them, which is particularly curious with Wagner and Hunter being top-billed.

A KISS BEFORE DYING stars Prince Valiant; Jan in the Pan; Teenage Jesus; Clara Varner; Miss Wonderly;  Count Yorga, vampire; and General Mireau.

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Yootha Runs Wild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2011 by dcairns

Anne Bancroft meets Yootha Joyce at the hairdresser’s in Jack Clayton’s film of Harold Pinter’s script of Penelope Mortimer’s novel — THE PUMPKIN EATER.

This must have been an uncomfortably autobiographical book for Mortimer to write. The story of a woman married to an unfaithful, famous writer, seems to echo her marriage to John Mortimer who, apart from writing the Rumpole of the Bailey stories, worked on Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS and father actress Emily Mortimer and another daughter out of wedlock…

I find Clayton’s work as impressive as Neil Sinyard does, and he wrote a book about Clayton to prove his admiration. At the time, THE PUMPKIN EATER seems to have been dismissed by a lot of British critics as imitation Antonioni or something, but it’s uniquely English (even with American and Australian leads) and quite precise in its milieu… Pinter gets a lot of comedy of menace into it, Georges Delerue provides a truly heartbreakingly beautiful score (as he always did for Clayton) and Clayton’s handling is expressive, imaginative, forceful and not notably like anything else going on in British film of the period. The people are wealthy and in the media, so a movie like DARLING… would seem to be the nearest equivalent, but that makes for a pretty small sub-genre.

Anyhow, Yootha Joyce, best known here for her sitcom work (Man About the House and George and Mildred co-starring Ken Russell rep company fave Brian Murphy) is terrifyingly deranged. Directorially, the major device is the inexorable creep in, achieved with a slow jib in and down, which initially seems to be about progressing the intimacy, but soon serves also to impart menace to relentless Yootha. Then cuts take the strain, bringing us even tighter into claustrophobic proximity — at some point in this sequence, we may start to reflect on the brilliance of the setting, the strange no-escape tension of the scene, carried mainly by the social taboo against jumping up and shouting “Get this maniac away from me!”

And strange how the last angle on Bancroft in this scene makes her look like THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE.

Thanks to Chris Schneider for reminding me off this great scene.

“You don’t explore on people.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2009 by dcairns

Well, folks were telling me THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE was a monsterpiece, and now we can see they were right. (Too bad this is the cut version though.)

With lines like the above-quoted, and “Very well, the corpse is yours,” and “The line between scientific genius and obsessive fanatacism is a thin one — I want you on the right side of it!” — all in the opening scene alone, the film has an Ed Wood feeling for demented speechifying that anticipates the current comedy work of Larry Blamire and more than justifies the credit for “Additional dialogue by Doris Brent.” (Doris also plays the terrifying whispery nurse in scene one.)

(Did I imagine it or does THE SOUND OF MUSIC feature an all-time classic grudging credit, something like, “With partial use of ideas by -“? It’s been a long time since I looked at it, so I can’t be sure I’m not making it up.)

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T, as I’m now calling it (for short), is one of those B-films where there’s a perfect balance of defects — lack of funds, lack of talent, lack of experience, lack of good sense — so that a kind of cockamamie artistic harmony is engendered, and everything seems VERY GOOD INDEED. The car crash is a perfectly fine no-budget smash-up, but what lifts it into the paranormally brilliant  is the way the arrogant doc then gets lingered over by the rubbernecking camera as he apparently suffers a painful attack of trapped wind, and by the time he gets through with that the stock music has run out of cacophonous melodrama and segued into a cavorting faun theme, which plays, with a sort of helpless shrug, as the heroine is incinerated in the wrecked vehicle. Just beautiful.

Moments later and our man is climbing a narrow flight of exterior stairs with his fiancee’s severed head wrapped in his jacket, and he takes a very long time to do it (be fair, he’s tired). It’s like the horror movie version of Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX. If he had dropped the head when he got to the top, and it rolled all the way back down, I believe I would have died a happy man.

I don’t intend in any way to be disparaging about TBTWD, because it can’t be easy to make a compulsively watchable film on a micro-budget without access to top-tier talent and without a lot of practice. The IMDb notes of writer-director Joseph Green, “Owned a small (he answered the phone himself) distribution company which distributed an eclectic mix of minor foreign films (such as Chabrol’s Une Partie de Plaisir) and kung fu/exploitation pictures.” So I picture him as a guy who was in it for the love. He only made one other picture — twenty four years after this one. That makes me sad.

What makes me happy? The line “How can you make of her an experiment of horror?” The gibbering THING IN THE CLOSET (you know you’re in zero-budget land when they can’t even afford an attic or cellar to imprison their failed experiments). When our obsessive fanatic scientific genius goes trolling for bodies we’re obviously looking at the inspiration for THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, only we’re looking at it for far longer than expected.

“You’re a freak of life — and of death!”

Where the film betrays some weak-mindedness is an eagerness to get to the point with Jan-in-the-pan, the severed head character. Somehow she KNOWS she’s a severed head, which robs us of a potentially very dramatic scene of her finding out, (reflection in shiny surface?) and somehow she knows that she now has a tremendous new power, without ever actually learning this, which again could have made for a good strong scene. However, as the story goes on and it becomes clear that she doesn’t have any tremendous new power at all, I came to appreciate the inverted wisdom of Green’s forbearance.

Instead we get many many shots of the withered hand guy looking pensive, which don’t achieve much since we don’t really know what he’s worried about — his shrivelled arm? The guy in the closet? The severed head lady? The fact that he’s missing the strip-shows? All good reasons for concern, but as Alexander Mackendrick says, ambiguity is a choice between two possible meanings, not countless.

“My hopes — shattering with each severed arm he grafted to me!”

Interesting how the scientific genius obsessed fanatic, having decided he needs a new body for his fiancee’s head, immediately decides that abduction and murder is the only possible course of action, and immediately resorts to visiting strip-shows and kerb-crawling and going to “body beautiful” contests. It’s hard not to form the conviction that he’d be doing all this anyway, even if he didn’t have his girlfriend’s cranium waiting in a dish.

“Posing bare for a bunch of neurotics.”

I liked the magnificent man-hating life-model with the scar — shades of PEEPING TOM. The movie’s assumption that being a man-hater with a scarred face makes you a prime full-body donor is bordering on the offensive, but the powerfully-built vixen is so impressive as she forcefully stresses every single syllable of dialogue, one can’t help but admire her magnificent froideur and hauteur. It’s kind of a shame when she mellows out.

“This kind of thing must be done.”

That’s a BIG HAND that reaches through the hatch from the evil closet. And it’s no fake monster hand, just a really enormous meaty man-paw. The mutant it’s attached to may be a bit overdone, but he’s still rather disturbing, and well worth the wait. It’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do — his gibbering was fun, but he falls curiously silent when he emerges from his prison-cupboard. A monologue about the dangers of science run amok would have been nice — everyone else has one. But fighting the mad scientist with his arm stuck through a door makes for an agreeably different action sequence. Perhaps if the monster had got a foot jammed in a waste-paper basket, that would have raised things to the next level.

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“When she does come to, it will be your head consciously awakening for her.”

Wait — the monster gets the girl? Is that a first?