Archive for The Spider

Stagebound

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2021 by dcairns

So, the reason Joe May’s been turning up so much here is that we’re at work on a video essay for Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming THE INDIAN TOMB Blu-ray, and it’s a job that benefits from a little research. Perversely, it turns out to be a project with an immense appetite, the more we dig up the more interesting it gets. Trying to stop it from running away and becoming gigantic, like the film itself.

We watched HOUSE OF FEAR — not the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes adventure, but the earlier remake of Paul Leni’s THE LAST WARNING. Though May filmed on the same main set as his former production designer (who had in turn recycled the Paris Opera stage from the Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), he did not deign to produce a shot-for-shot remake, which is a pity. I expect budgetary limitations prevented that, so the movie is much flatter and more ordinary to look at — but it does feature a nice APPARITION…

Sadly, the play this is based on isn’t terribly interesting, except for a bravura climax that must have worked really well on the stage. Carl Laemmle (Junior, I think), the Universal studio boss who produced the original, reviewed the remake for Variety and gave it a pan. An act that highlighted how far both Laemmle and May had fallen.

I do give the movie points for attempting to electrocute El Brendel (top), but deduct those points since it failed to finish him off. He seems to be in this purely because he was in an earlier backstage thriller, THE SPIDER, which someone must have remembered, God knows why. Nobody’s bothered to write any Swedish meatball malapropisms for him, so he has no reason to be here, but then he never did in my view.

William Gargan “stars” and there’s a typically fun performance from Robert Coote, anticipating his swan song in THEATRE OF BLOOD.

Bone and Sinew

Posted in literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by dcairns

Boneless

The best episode of Dr. Who this season was called “Flatline”, written by Jamie Mathieson and featuring aliens from a two-dimensional universe, known as “the boneless.” This season has featured an influx of big screen talent — Frank Cottrell Boyce (writer of 24HR PARTY PEOPLE); Ben Wheatley (director of A FIELD IN ENGLAND) and Rachel Talalay (TANK GIRL), but ironically these have all been trumped by Mathieson, who has only one cinema credit, and director Douglas MacKinnon, whose several other Who episodes have not reached such heights of atmosphere and excitement. The combination of a lively story full of ideas, both amusing and creepy, and a well-conceived look for the baddies (inspired by 3D printer glitches — this gives them a Francis Bacon quality) brought out the best in everyone.

***

This will all link up in the end. For my birthday, my parents gave me some goodies including Best Movie Stories, a review copy of a 1969 anthology of cinema-themed short fiction. While it was delightful to read Noel Coward referring to “the Beverley Hills” (that definite article still cracks me up, obscurely), the big hits for me were the tales by William Saroyan, O.K., Baby, This is the World, and Gerald Kersh, The Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Passes, which is actually the last part of a novel, An Ape, a Dog and a Serpent.

I resolved to seek out more Saroyan and Kersh.

boneless1

***

More or less at once, a copy of The Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories fell off my shelf. Like Best Movie Stories, this was a second-hand bookshop purchase, and it turns out to contain a story by Kersh, Men Without Bones. It’s quite Lovecraftian, with maybe some Quatermass thrown in. It doesn’t make all that much sense but stirs up some creepiness and revulsion, with its armies of small, fat, jelly-like boneless men.

Anyhow, that connects up with Dr. Who, doesn’t it?

***

So now I’ve bought Fowler’s End, supposed by many to be Kersh’s best novel, a black comedy of London life in the early thirties, set around a decrepit cinema showing silent films. Here’s how Kersh describes the central light fixture in the auditorium ~

“From a peeling brass-plated rod fixed in the centre of the roof hung a kind of orange-and-green dustbin made of glass lozenges. If there is such a thing as brown light, brown light leaked out of the top of this contraption, making a shapeless pattern which, when you looked at it, took away your will to live. Looking up as a quicksand closes over your head, you see such a light and such a pattern as the last bubble bursts.”

Like Edinburgh Filmhouse, the Fowler’s End Pantheon is housed in a former church, in this case one created by a sect called the Nakedborners. It’s owned by a grotesque caricature of the Jewish entrepreneur, a vulgar, crooked lunatic called Sam Yudenow, whom the Jewish Kersh has great fun making as flamboyantly repulsive as possible. Kersh is also the originator of Night and the City and London low-life was his metier, though he also wrote sci-fi and horror and journalism and whatever paid the bills.

***

bonel

Addendum: in an old volume entitled St Michaels’ 65 Tales of Horror — published by the shop chain Marks & Spencer in the 70s, and containing a story, The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers, which I filmed in 1993 (the text still has orange highlighter where I underlined the useful bits), I find another Kersh, Comrade Death. It is astonishing, horrific.

“And then again, gas; I can show you some quite amazing things the Necrogene has done to men. They have twisted themselves into positions — well, I tell you, if they had studied acrobatics all their lives they could never have achieved such contortions! Amazing! One poor fellow bit himself in the small of the back. But you’d never believe. Come, let me show you —”

Brrr.

Moral Quandary

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2010 by dcairns

One of those eternal hypothetical dilemmas — if you could travel back in time to the 1930s, would you kill El Brendel? Think of the torment the world could be spared!

Comedy’s answer to gastric reflux — a tight-lipped, mirthlessly grinning faux-nitwit with a phony Swedish (I think) accent, the artist formerly known as Elmer Brendle dragged his evanescent non-talent across a succession of seventy-four otherwise blameless movies. He was even in silents! A dialect comedian in silents? That’s like a ventriloquist on the radio! Oh, wait.

THE SPIDER, a 1931 theatre-set murder mystery with a magician as sleuth, is static and stiff, but crackles with compositional power thanks to co-director William Cameron Menzies, one of my current obsessions.

The dialect comedian is a nightmare from which America finally awakened. At this historical distance, it’s easy to forget that Chico Marx was not an isolated case, although he was perhaps unique in actually being funny. One could in theory spend a lifetime in Hollywood movies without meeting El Brendel, and not miss much, but Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL is a significant movie, both for it’s early starring role for a gawky John Wayne, and the pioneering use of widescreen. Unfortunately, Walsh’s first ‘scope film (that’s Magniscope, in this case, an early 70mm system) is as static and slow as most of his later ones, made in old age when much of his cinematic vigour had burned out. The great Walsh movies are all square-ish, as far as I can see. It’s weird to see him holding a flat, wide shot, yawning with emptiness, for minutes on end, as El Brendel burbles away and Wayne drawls back, both filmed practically head-to-toe, and just when an edit becomes a matter of essential resuscitation, Walsh finally cuts — to an even wider shot.

Preston Sturges loved to employ comedy old-timers, and in 1949 he brought El back from four years of filmic unemployment, for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND. I can’t actually recall his turn in the film, but Hugh “Woo Woo” Herbert’s scene is etched on my brain in the spot where I store childhood traumas and intimations of mortality. That said, I quite like the film, and having gotten to know E.B. I’ll be watching out for him next time I run it. And I will be armed.

Support Shadowplay — The Big Trail (Two-Disc Special Edition)