Archive for The Phantom of the Opera

Nights at the Villa Deodati #4: Pull Every Remaining Lever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Whenever I have a favourite line in a movie, it always turns out not to be in the movie at all. The intertitle “Heat! Sudden, intense heat!” which I swear I read when PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Lon Chaney version) showed at Edinburgh Film Fest, with accompaniment by Carl Davis, does not appear in any copy of the film I’ve seen since. This is disappointing. I’m afraid to see THE ASPHYX again in case Robert Stephens doesn’t actually utter the words “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?” which I have always regarded as the apogee of mankind’s poetic achievement. Mind you, it would be pretty good if it turned out I was responsible for it myself.

And so to Roger Corman’s FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, in which John Hurt does not actually say, as my brain told me he did, “Pull all remaining levers!” Instead, Raul Julia says “Pull every remaining lever!” which I feel is not quite as good.

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ROGER CORMAN’S F.U., as we must abbreviate it, is the mighty Roger Corman’s last directorial outing to date — it apparently came about when a studio did some audience testing and found that a lot of people would go and see something called ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN. So they approached the Great Man and asked him if he would care to make a film with that title. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t,” he replied, with his characteristic old-school graciousness. But then somehow Brian Aldiss’s novel came into his possession and he saw a way to make things interesting, and so the film got made because of a title that tested well, and ended up with a different title.

(I wonder what other titles they tested? ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN seems really specific. Did they also tally the scores for GEORGE ROMERO’S MADAME BOVARY, PETER WEIR’S MABINOGION, HANS JURGEN SYBERBERG’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?)

Aldiss, who also wrote the story that became the Spielberg-Kubrick A.I., seems to have intended his novel as a philosophical essay wrapped inside a sci-fi yarn, following on from his influential study of the genre, The Billion-Year Spree, in which he put forward a compelling case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel (as well as “the best book ever written by a teenager”). So, he folds Shelley’s life into the world of her creations, which perhaps made more sense on the page than it does in the movie — without a continual narration, John Hurt’s time-travelling scientist can’t share with us whether or not he’s puzzled by the fact that Frankenstein and his creature appear to be simultaneously characters in a novel and a real person (Raul Julia! Nick Brimble?). This makes Hurt a hard character to relate to — he has nobody really to talk to, although in fact his computerized car, who doesn’t have a name but whom I will call Lady Knight Rider, might have made a handy outlet for exposition.

It’s also kind of hard to relate to him as he’s building a super-weapon, although he seems to be aiming for sympathy when he says he wanted to invent a weapon that wouldn’t destroy the world. I’m not sure that proviso qualifies you for the Nobel Peace Prize, John.

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Corman wrote the script with F.X. Feeney (should’ve hired a proper writer, not a critic — oh wait, that would rule me out) but seems curiously disengaged from the whole experience. His Damascene moment on VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, nineteen years earlier, in which he realised with a shock that he would far rather go to the beach than go to the set and complete another day’s filming, doesn’t seem to have worn off. The actors seem left to their own devices (or maybe confused by unfocussed direction?) and the filming is perfectly competent but never shows any excitement. The score by Carl Davis — see how this piece is folding in on itself like a time vortex?) — flattens things out further. Davis is a great silent accompanist, but seems unable to capture the mood of a scene, or opts for the least dramatic possible mood. The score might sound quite powerful in isolation, but laid over the film it seems to nullify.

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Nick Brimble is a really dreadful monster (on the wrong sense of the word “dreadful”), in a fairly dreadful makeup (those big extra thumbs! Did Frankenstein put his hands on the wrong wrists? The discs in his head!). His first line is “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!”, a great piece of what I would call muffled exposition, in which a line sounds like it’s inserted for the audience’s benefit rather than something a character would say, but still doesn’t tell us anything helpful. The talented Nick Dudman did the makeup, but I’d say he’s tried to incorporate too many ideas. And half of them are very terrible ideas.

As for the Byron/Shelley menage, the movie doesn’t bother with Dr Polidori or Claire Clairmont (though GOTHIC’s C.C., Myriam Cyr, appears as a futuristic scientist), but gives us Jason Patric as Byron, Michael Hutchence as Shelley, and Bridget Fonda as Mary. Patric might have gotten away with his arch manner, but Hutchence has evidently decided that High Camp is the way forward for romantic poets, and assumes an unhelpful effete manner. These fops have nothing to do anyway, and neither in any real sense does Fonda, but she at least has a bit more screen time. She sounds rather American, as do half the bit players (the good ones — the Brits shipped in to the Italian locations are dreadful), but like the yanks in HAUNTED SUMMER she does have that zesty, unselfconscious quality that one admires in American acting.

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VAGINA BOREALIS

At the one hour mark, a Bride is created, using technology borrowed from BACK TO THE FUTURE — Hurt hooks Lady Knight Rider, who has Delorean style slide-up doors, to a Special Apparatus and waits for lightning to strike a church tower. All it needs is a bit of Huey Lewis. Somehow Hurt blasts the whole building into the future using a laser (Lady Knight Rider turns out to have a built-in laser) and the characters start killing each other for no reason.

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I would welcome a movie in which Raul Julia’s Disco Frankenstein meets Frank Langella’s Disco Dracula.

When I first saw this, there was a bit where Hurt expresses uncertainty about when this latest time warp has brought him, and I got very excited. Of course, I thought, they’ve been zapped into primordial times and the monster and his mate will become Adam and Eve, breeding and perhaps mating with neanderthals and thus father the human race! Frankenstein created us all! And himself! John Hurt: temporal ourobouros! FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND.

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But no: it’s a wintry apocalyptic future. Hurt and the monster have a big fight in a bunker full of lasers, the monster rips his own arm off and hits Hurt with it, Hurt sticks a pipe in him, and then lasers him to death. Then he gets a Fu Manchu-style post-mortem monologue in which he mysteriously claims to be unbound. Hurt heads off for a frozen futuristic city, suggestive of LOGAN’S RUN or QUINTET or, come to think of it, A.I. No epic philosophical issues are implied at all. No learning. No hugging.

I would like Roger Corman to make something else, because I don’t really think his final F.U. is good enough. If he makes something else, I would like him to star in it himself, and just tell stories, in his wonderful purring voice, about his amazing career and the amazing people he’s known. It can be a very, very long film, if he likes.

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Please accept my humble Egyptologies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 23, 2013 by dcairns

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Van Beuren was an animation studio in Hollywood in the thirties — Frank Tashlin worked there for a bit (he worked everywhere) and created a comic strip character called Van Boring. Until now, what I’d seen of the studio’s output, which lacked the jazzy energy and character of the Fleischer Bros work, seemed to confirm the implied criticism in Tashlin’s choice of name.

But this one, MAGIC MUMMY, is kind of nice. It begins with two cops in a patrol car — they’re rather bland stick figures with smiley-face heads, their design seemingly based solely on ease of reproduction rather than upon any desire to suggest character or humour. But then things get weird as they listen to a musical number over the radio, and we discover it’s being broadcast from their very gay headquarters. Having just watched Mark Rapport’s entertaining documentary THE SILVER SCREEN: COLOR ME LAVENDER, loaned to us by David WIngrove, I was primed to appreciate this material in all its resplendent campery.

But more weirdness is to follow.

The song is then interrupted by an announcement that another mummy has been stolen from the museum. Another mummy? I’m intrigued. But we’re never going to learn about any of those previous stolen mummies, and the ultimate fate of this one will remain a total mystery too…

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The patrol car now turns into a sniffer dog, because this is a cartoon, and leads the intrepid but unnamed constables (I’m going to call them Larry and Kelton*) into a deserted graveyard overlooked by a ruined building. It’s all very PLAN 9, but twenty-six years earlier. And now we meet the black-robed figure lugging a small sarcophagus. This proves to be a witch, in traditional garb but with the less usual head of a skeletal cow, or possibly dog. I’m picturing Billy Drago for the part in my live action remake. Magicking open a fresh grave, Billy the Dead Cow Witch enters the bowels of the earth — the rest of this cartoon will be a series of descents ever further into Stygian terror, like Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space mixed with a Scopitone musical.

In his/her PHANTOM OF THE OPERA style lair, Billy Drago telekinetically extracts a bandaged bundle from the casket, and zaps the bandages off to reveal a shapely female in a VERY low-cut gown. Sitting at a piano which appears by the magic of bad continuity, Billy the Witch commands the somnolent lady to “BREATHE!” and breathe she does, bosoms expanding. It’s interesting to see elements of PHANTOM, THE MUMMY and witchcraft all bundled together like this, as early as this — the Karloff movie was brand new, but already the iconography had been crammed into a trunk marked “spooky Halloween stuff.” And interesting, now that I think of it, that Hollywood in the thirties did very little to do with witchcraft, as if the implications were too upsetting to religious sensibilities, even though the carnivalesque side of sorcery was celebrated every October 31st with little real controversy.

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Larry and Kelton , having crept into the crypt, now decide to bust the witch, but are blasted with a cruciato curse which threatens to pull the ink from their bones. Then they’re knocked through a hatch and the witch and mummy descend still further into the subterranean depths, to what turns out to be a theatre. Excellent image of the witch winding up a disintegrating curtain to reveal an audience of skeletons. At a stroke of his/her baton/wand, a skeletal orchestra rises from the earth like the children of the hydra.

Now Billy Drago’s darker purpose manifests itself, as he compels his mesmerized mummy companion to take part in a Betty Boop style musical number, interrupted by Larry & Kelton again who have extricated themselves from a drain pipe and snuck onstage. Strange image of Kelton raising the witch’s skirt — for why? — and looking aghast at her tibia and fibula.

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The cops announce a raid and the skeleton audience flees as if caught at a speakeasy. Then there’s a chase into still deeper depths of the earth, a place of stalactites and Clangers-type potholes leading, presumably, to Hell itself. One of those scuffles in the dark that’s so cheap to animate follows, and Kelton, alone and apparently unconcerned as to his friend’s fate, emerges from the graveyard entertainment complex clutching the hard-won sarcophagus and speeds back to police headquarters to show his homosexual cartoon policeman friends.

But — oh horror! — when he opens the case it is his buddy Larry who staggers out, his once-circular eyes replaced by the unseeing X’s of Death. Iris in. The End.

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The moral: don’t pursue bovine skeleton witch’s to underground musical theatres no matter what your sniffer dog car suggests.

*But apparently they are called Tom & Jerry. They are the original cartoon T&J, long before that cat and mouse act.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith, Part 2

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Our trawl around the ghost cinemas of Leith seemed to do Fiona good — or else it coincided with a period when she was starting to feel better. It gave an added purpose to going for a walk other than exercise and fresh air, and allowed us to look at familiar places in a fresh way. So we did it again.

Leith Walk is a big hill a mile long leading into town. We’d looked at the defunct cinemas on its lower stretch, so we headed further up to see what we could find. According to Brendon Thomas’ The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, there were once several cinemas along here — we used the book as our Baedeker, but also freely pillaged from the indispensable website, the Scotland Cinemas and Theatres Project, which is where I found the image above.

The Petit Paris is one of the most mysterious of all these vanished picture houses. Thomas supplies no address, only an area, Shrub Hill, which is rarely referred to anymore, outside of a bus stop reading “Shrub Place”. The theatre, originally named The New Electric Cinema, opened on Hogmanay 1908 “with staff dressed in Napoleonic costume.” The first film advertised was BLUEBEARD, but I’m unable to be sure which version — maybe the date is wrong on this Charles Ogle version?. Children, who were apparently encouraged to see this bloody story, received a free stick of “New Electric Rock” (rock: a tube of hard candy with a logo printed all the way through the centre). The cinema was either closed within a year, or else it burned down in 1912.

Nothing remains, even of the building which replaced it.

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Further up, however, is the site of another cinema about which more is known, and the building still stands. Pringle’s Palace Roller Skating Rink was originally a veterinary college, then a cinema. It opened in that capacity in 1908, under the auspices of one Ralph Pringle, a Northerner who got bit by the movie bug while touring with his Animatograph (sample Animatograph titles: AN OPERATION IN A DENTIST’S CHAIR and AN AMERICAN LYNCHING SCENE. All very mondo).

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Atmospheric interior.

At one point, it had what I consider the most beautiful of all Edinburgh cinema names — The Atmospheric Picture Palace. Later it was Millicent Ward’s Studio Theatre, The Repertory Theatre, The Festival Theatre, The Broadway and finally The Gateway, run by the Church of Scotland. They opened it in 1946 with OUR TOWN, supported by the Ken Annakin short WE OF THE WEST RIDING.

And then it was acquired by Scottish Television to use as a studio, then I think Queen Margaret’s college had the run of it, and now it’s been turned into apartments, still preserving the Gateway name. But think how much better if they had been called The Atmospheric Apartments! Still, those lucky tenants, passing through the carbon-charged air once stabbed by a smoky projector beam!

A side street on the right as you ascend Leith Walk, Annandale Street now contains no trace of the mighty Olympia, adapted from a roller rink in 1912. It sat 1,800 — a vast size even then, and proved unprofitable, switching to circus shows a few years later.

At the very top of the walk is Baxter’s Place, and this was home to what my Dad dubs “a flea-pit,” naturally known as The Salon (see top), now a burnt-out shell concealed within a woodchip box. I caught up with this one on  a separate outing, since it isn’t mentioned in Thomas’s book. Walking in the area, I bumped into my friend Graham Dey, and he pointed it out to me, reminiscing the while on an epic early seventies screening of THE LAST VALLEY which marked him for life. I believe it was the site of my parents’ disastrous second date — THE VIRGIN SPRING is not recommended to courting couples.

Diversion — a right turn onto Broughton Street immediately presents us with the site of the Theatre Royal, which ran summer season films shows until it closed in 1946. Demolition took place in 1960. Carrying further down would take us to Rodney Street, where another cinema formerly stood —

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The Ritz was all-talking from the start, opening in 1929 with THE SINGING FOOL. It closed in 1981, so why don’t I remember it? I don’t think I was ever there. It’s the true lost cinema of my life.

Back to Leith Walk, which ends in a big roundabout, and we get The Playhouse, a working theatre specialising in big musicals, and possibly still capable of showing movies. Edinburgh International Film Festival used it as a venue during the 80s and 90s, and Fiona and I attended a screening of the Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.

Currently screening: Ghost, from the Swayze/Moore movie. Fiona points out that nearly all the shows playing are based on movies.

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The Playhouse opened in 1929, having converted to sound as it was constructed — THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, starring Ruth Chatterton and based on a work by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, was the first film shown. By wild coincidence, today I randomly picked up a copy of Projections 2, the John Boorman/Walter Donohue movie publication, and here’s Sidney Gilliatt recalling that movie —

ds“Now it’s totally forgotten. I suppose it had little merit, but it completely fascinated me because it was a complete thing on its own. The lighting was different from what you got on silent films because of the incandescent lamps, which they used because of the soundtrack, and that gave it a different look. I still felt that talkies had nothing to do with art, but did have something very immediate. The audience felt a part of a whole new medium.”

I’d like to see THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, if anyone out there has a copy. It was directed by William C. DeMille, brother of the more celebrated Cecil, and featured sexy Jesus H.B. Warner.

Next to The Playhouse is The Vue, a modern multiplex, part of a mall, only a few screens, but one of them is a luxury cinema where you get served beer, like a PULP FICTION Dutchman. We saw THE NEW WORLD there, because it was the only cinema showing it. Very comfortable, but it still did little to change my view that a multiplex is not a cinema, it’s merely a place to see films.

This is no longer remotely Leith — Fiona and I walk on into the city centre, but that’s another story, for another day.

To Be Continued…