S: The Sorcerers (1967)

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sorcerers_poster_04There were a few times, looking over this year’s Hubrisween list, that I panicked, because I didn’t see a Boris Karloff movie. Then I had to calm myself down because for some reason I was forgetting this is a Boris Karloff movie.

Karloff is Professor Marcus Monserrat, a medical hypnotist eking out a living in swinging ’67 London. There was a scandal in his past that ruined his reputation, and it was probably to linked the apparatus he is building in his spare room, with the help of his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). To test it, they need a human subject: Estelle proposes a drunk, but Monserrat avers it must a sober individual, with no connections to them: that is the only way to make certain the results of the experiment are pure. Thus he convinces Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy), a handsome, bored young man, to return to his apartment for “something he’s never experienced.”

s05That “something” is an ill-explained psychedelic lightshow and annoying electronic tape loops, which puts Mike in a trance and somehow places Monserrat and Estelle in connection with his brain. Mike leaves under a post-hypnotic suggestion that he forget he was ever there, and the two elderly people find that they can, indeed, influence everything that Mike does, and moreover, experience whatever physical sensations he feels.

s03This is Monserrat’s life work: he feels that using this process, a foundation could be set up to send Mike Roscoes around the world, seeing and experiencing things the elderly and other shut-ins could not. Estelle, however, after years of deprivation and poverty, begins to give play to a darker side of her desires. She has Mike steal a fur from a store late one night, and she and Monserrat revel in the adrenalin rush of a police officer nearly discovering him. They also have cuts on their hands identical to a wound Mike received in the shop.

It goes on; Estelle sends Mike ripping around on a motorcycle, terrifying his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy), and beats up his best friend Alan (Victor Henry). To his horror, Monserrat finds Estelle’s will is much stronger than his, and he cannot stop her. When he tries physically, she knocks him over the head and ties him to the china cabinet, so she can continue to experience the dark side of life with no consequences.

sorcerers-the-1967_006This being a horror movie, there’s only one place it can go: Estelle uses Mike to commit murder twice in one night, and though the befuddled Mike remembers nothing, Nicole and Alan saw him with one of the victims, and know that he was friends with another (a very young Susan George, as it turns out), and the cops are not far behind Alan and Nicole. There is a low budget (but still pretty effective) car chase, and Monserrat gathers his will to overcome the drunken Estelle’s and cause Mike to crash his car, resulting in a fiery death for him …and the Monserrats, miles away.

Realize that this is a slow-burn psychological horror movie shot on a very low budget, so take a couple of shots of patience before pressing play. This was director Michael Reeves’ second feature, after the previous year’s The She-Beast, and his next – and last – would be Witchfinder General/The Conquerer Worm. He made uncommon horror movies about the darkness in men’s souls – he and Val Lewton would have gotten on together well – and who knows what he might have done, if not for an unfortunate combination of alcohol and barbituates while in pre-production for The Oblong Box. 

How can such a sweet old lady be so utterly frightening?

How can such a sweet old lady be so utterly frightening?

Reeves has a strong trio of actors doing the heavy lifting for him – there is Karloff, of course, entering the home stretch of his career and life. The next year he would make Targets and Curse of the Crimson Altar and a slew of lamentable foreign movies before he left us all in February of 1969. Catherine Lacey had a career stretching all the way back to The Lady Vanishes and beyond, and you have to hand it to someone who can actually out-chill Karloff on the silver screen. In fact, Estelle’s thoroughly believable descent into the abyss is probably the reason I kept forgetting this was theoretically a Karloff movie. Ian Olgilvy seemed to be Reeves’ good luck charm, appearing in all his movies, and is still active to this day.

The Sorcerers has a nice, if limited, snapshot of London youth culture in ’67, and a fairly unusual approach to its plot. But it does remain steadfastly a creature of its time, and its charms may be lost on the modern viewer, used to horror movies that evince thrill rides more than anything else.

 

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W: The Walking Dead (1936)

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220px-ThewalkingeadposterI have in my possession one of those two-disc, four-movie sets, imaginatively entitled Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics. The movies are actually anything but, but the set has served me well over the years; last Hubrisween, there was Zombies on Broadway. A mere 17 days ago, Frankenstein 1970. Back in the murkier depths of the archives, there was You’ll Find Out, which in retrospect, though I had problems with it, was the high point of the set thus far. Then I watched The Walking Dead with dreadfully low expectations, and to my surprise found an underappreciated gem.

You have no idea how rare that truly is.

Warner Brothers was having incredible success with their gangster movies at this point, so it’s little surprise that The Walking Dead opens just like one – crusading judge Shaw (Joe King) convicts a racketeer, despite all the anonymous threats he’s been receiving. The other racketeers meet to decide what to do; killing this judicious killjoy is the obvious course of action, but they need a fall guy, and down-on-his-luck ex-con pianist John Elman, convicted (perhaps unjustly) by Shaw years ago for manslaughter, seems ripe for that role.

walking deadThe fact that Elman is played by Boris Karloff means the gangsters have just doomed themselves, of course.

Interspersed with this is the laboratory of Dr Beaumont (future Santa Claus Edmund Gwenn), who has kept a human heart beating in a jar for two weeks. His two lovebird assistants, Nancy and Jimmy (Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull) head out on a date, which is where our two storylines will intersect.

PHOTO_20869619_66470_34381520_apThe gangster’s plot relies on their house hit man, Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to pose as a detective who hires the desperate Elman to watch Judge Shaw’s house; Nancy and Jimmy see the hoods deposit Shaw’s dead body in Elman’s car, and get threatened with death if they don’t keep their mouths shut.

The head of the racketeers, the crooked lawyer Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) acts as Elman’s defense, insuring his conviction and date with the electric chair. Nancy’s conscience finally wins out over her fear of death, and she tells Beaumont what they saw that fatal night. Nolan manages to draw everything out just long enough that the phone call from the governor arrives too late to save Elman’s life. Beaumont insists on delaying the autopsy and claims Elman’s body,

THE WALKING DEAD, Boris Karloff, Marguerite Churchill, Edmund Gwenn, 1936

This has gone from noirish gangster flick to horror movie with fine efficiency, and here is where The Walking Dead actually begins to distinguish itself. Beaumont will, of course, bring Elman back to life, but the process as shown is fairly unique. There is the usual folderol with electricity, but we’ve already seen (and are now shown again) a pretty accurate model of the Lindbergh Heart Pump, a device that could keep organs functioning apart from the body (Yes, that Lindbergh). Then Karloff is set on a sort of teeterboard, which rocks his body back and forth, and the commentary track by film historian Greg Mank points out this is based on the fairly contemporaneous work by Dr. Robert Cornish, who apparently revived a dog five minutes after its death. Jank goes on to relate that the dog lived for another eight hours, but seemed to suffer a sort of waking nightmare, constantly whining and barking. My research doesn’t support that, but my research was done pretty quickly, and besides – that does support what comes after in the movie.

The post-execution Elman (now with a sinister shock of white hair) shambles about in a near-catatonic state, except when he is near a piano – he remembers how to play one very well. He recognizes the District Attorney (who suspects how Elman was railroaded), but does not regard him as an enemy; on the other hand, he also recognizes Nolan and knows he is an enemy – though he does not remember why. Beaumont chalks this up to an inoperable blood clot in the brain, although, just to help the audience along, he mentions Elman sometimes acts like “the tool of some supernatural force.” (Fine scientist you are, Beaumont!)

Give it up, boysThough he may be right about the supernatural force, as Elman begins improbably tracking down the criminals responsible for his execution, often appearing almost miraculously, when least expected. This is another distinguishing characteristic of the movie: we are primed to expect Elman to exact some sweet, painful justice on these bad guys, but in every case, all he does is slowly advance on them, asking “Why did you kill me?” and it’s their own blind, guilty panic that undoes them. The triggerman trips over a table and shoots himself. One runs in front of a speeding locomotive. One has a heart attack and for good measure, falls out a window.

In each instance, Elman seems shocked and saddened by the outcome. Karloff should have patented his ability to shift from frightening to pathetic to sympathetic in the same scene.

There are other factors that elevate The Walking Dead above the norm. Beaumont’s conquering of death actually makes headlines around the world, counter to every other mad scientist we’ve seen (and provides another reason why the bad guys can’t just kill Elman again). When Nolan manages to get himself named Elman’s legal guardian, Beaumont prepares to operate on the blood clot, which he knows will kill Elman – this time, permanently – but also might finally unlock Elman’s memory so he can tell Beaumont what he really wants to know – what happens at the moment of death? That’s a plot thread I feel could have been given more time (as it was in the much later Brainstorm), but there’s little room for it in this movie’s slim 65 minutes.

012-Walking-DeadSo The Walking Dead was an extremely welcome surprise, subverting damn near all my expectations (well, except for Karloff being excellent. That goes without saying). A clue might have been offered to me when I noticed the director was Michael Curtiz, whose name you might recognize from other little pictures like Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He was no stranger to horror movies, either, as he also directed the original, excellent Dr. X. Apparently a stern taskmaster and more than a bit of a dick, his movies are often incredible, solid entertainment, and I’m now more than a little sorry that he and one of my favorite actors didn’t get together more often.

Speaking of Dr. X, it is more than a little telling that The Return of Dr. X, which we covered last week, started as a Karloff period piece but eventually devolved into a far stupider version of this movie, down to the shock of white hair and the weakened arm of the title character. Who would notice? they figured.

No trailer this time, but here’s Beaumont and the DA holding a piano recital to guilt trip the racketeers, which at least proves that somebody had read Hamlet:

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F: Frankenstein 1970 (1958)

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frankenstein_1970_1958_poster_01So I’m what you would call a Boris Karloff fan. One day I’m going to run out of Karloff movies to watch, and that is going to be a sad day. General availability is going to render that sadness difficult to achieve, perhaps. I can’t think of any circumstances bizarre enough that I’ll get to see him play an Indian in Tap Roots, but hey, I’ve been wrong before.

Frankenstein 1970 starts out strong, with a clawed monster chasing a peasant girl through dark, fog-shrouded woods. This is damned effective movie-making. So effective that you start thinking, wait, this is just the opening, something is up, and sure enough, somebody yells “Cut!” revealing it all to be part of a movie being shot.

You will remember one of the things that will turn me against a movie is an attempt to treat me like an idiot. The movie crew is distressingly tiny – five people, and two locals – and this stick-bound tripod just shot a scene covering several hundred feet, with cuts. It’s a blatant cheat, and I’m not going to be in the movie’s corner for the next 80 minutes.

This less-than-skeleton crew is making a movie about… well possibly Frankenstein, who knows, because the director (Don “Red” Barry) keeps changing that (hell at one point he’s even decided it’s going to be a television show – who’s funding this idiot?). He rented out the actual Castle Frankenstein for his set, because the current Frankenstein (Karloff, yay!) is impoverished and needs the money to buy an atomic reactor. This is why its Frankenstein 1970, not Frankenstein 1960, as was originally planned. Obviously, it was unrealistic to expect people could buy their own atomic reactors until then.

imagesFrankenstein has a reason to put up with those odious showbiz types, the same reason he needs the atomic generator: he’s building a monster, and this time, he’s going to get it right. After his manservant gets too nosey and finds the underground laboratory, Frankenstein uses the poor man’s brain and then proceeds to work his way through the movie people for more spare parts as needed. The Monster is fairly cost-effective, too, basically a mummy with an oversized head.

monsters_csg313_frankenstein_1970As ever, Karloff is worth watching; his Frankenstein bears the scars of Nazi torture, because he would not use his skills for their cause (considering the absurd changes the Breen Office enforced on the script, a time-lost copy of Frankenstein’s Army would have resulted in a lot of soiled trousers in that Office). Karloff gives the role his all, even injecting some creepiness toward the women in the crew. It’s more dimensional than the picture deserves, really.

The movie crew is solid enough, but annoying. It’s like there are two different movies going on, using the same set, but one is a tragic horror story and the other is an unfunny comedy. I kind of wish everybody had been working on the tragic horror story.

frankenstein-1970There are two reasons this movie got made: one was the Shock Theater package that re-introduced the Universal horror movies to television audiences, and the other was the success of the Hammer Curse of Frankenstein. This is a handsome movie, at the very least; it uses a Warner Brothers set built for an Errol Flynn movie, and it’s shot in CinemaScope, for God’s sake, using the same cinematographer as that Flynn flick, Carl E. Guthrie (clever of producer Aubrey Schenck – Guthrie already knew how to best light the set). I honestly do appreciate that the Warner prop crew put the Maltese Falcon in Frankenstein’s library.

Frankenstein 1970 doesn’t fall into the “for Karloff completists only”, but there isn’t a whole lot here to reward the casual viewer, either.

That opening is still killer, though.

B: Bedlam (1946)

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m-bedlam-1946Here’s a movie that kept cropping up on late night horror movie slots, causing some consternation amongst fans expecting crepe hair werewolves or cardboard robots going berserk – a reasoned, almost stately historical drama. The station’s programmers couldn’t really be blamed – this was produced by Val Lewton, who similarly produced Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, you know. It starred Boris Karloff, for pete’s sake. Similar reasoning/excuses held for Tower of London (though Camp on Blood Island was a little less forgivable).

This was the last of Lewton’s movies produced at RKO, the most expensive, and the first one to ever show a loss at the Box Office. In 1945, as Bedlam was being filmed, America was dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Small wonder that horror movies were on the wane; there’d been enough horror to go around in the real world, no need to visit it in our entertainment. Lewton would only produce three more movies in his life, and when you look at what he accomplished with remarkably small budgets, you wonder how the heck that ever happened.

rp8It’s probably Lewton’s intellectual bent, as Bedlam is pretty much derived from an engraving by William Hogarth in his Rake’s Progress series. Quick views of other satiric Hogarth art is used for scene dissolves, and I can just imagine studio execs scratching their heads over that. The artwork was, in fact, excised for the TV version.

bedlam-1946-boris-karloff-anna-leeBedlam is short for St. Mary of Bethlehem’s Hospital, an insane asylum in 1761 London. Our story concerns the Apothecary General of the hospital, George Sims (Karloff) and his increasing clashes with the protege of the Tory Lord Mortimer (Billy Law), the quick-witted Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). Horrified by the conditions in Bedlam – especially during Bedlam‘s most famous scene when an inmate, gilded to portray Reason in a show to honor Mortimer, suffocates (two decades before Goldfinger!) – Nell becomes a crusader for reform, eventually losing all her standing with the politically queasy Mortimer, and finally committed by Sims and a kangaroo court to become an inmate herself at the very asylum she is attempting to reform.

Nell still manages to reform Bedlam from the inside out, turning the huge common room into a much safer, healthier place. A Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser), who had inspired her, is meanwhile working with the Whig reformist John Wilkes to get her another trial. Seeing that this new trial would be disastrous to him, Sims decides to give Nell the 18th century equivalent of a lobotomy, but the inmates rise against him, and while Nell escapes, hold a trial for their abusive warden, with surprising (but ultimately horrifying) results.

screen-shot-2013-08-18-at-23-05-52The Breen office hacked the script to pieces before it ever started filming, and it is still surprising what got through. Director Mark Robson recreates several of Hogarth’s prints in real space, often on hastily improvised sets (in fact, that enormous commons room in Bedlam is the church set from The Bells of St. Mary’s!). If Lewton could get this much period accuracy out of a tiny budget and some painted flats, it’s incredible he had to fight to get any work afterwards. Robson often said that he wouldn’t have been able to make movies like Earthquake if not for the lessons he learned under Lewton.

Karloff’s three movies with Lewton were probably the last of the classy horror movies he would make until he teamed with Richard Gordon in the late 50s. He always rankled when Bedlam was termed a horror movie, claiming it was historic drama. So it is… but nonetheless, here we are, talking about it during Hubrisween, because honestly – sometimes there is nothing so horrible as truth and history.

 

T: Targets (1968)

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MPW-56708Every now and then the pieces just come together, and it is wonderful when that happens.

After shooting The Terror, one of Roger Corman’s more infamous patchwork movies, Boris Karloff owed Corman two more days of work. There was a young feller named Peter Bogdanovich, a writer who had come to California and started working with Corman by accident more than anything. After almost half a year toiling in that fruitful movie factory/film school, Corman felt that Bogdanovich had earned his shot, and offered him his own film. It could be any movie Bogdanovich wanted, with two conditions:

1) He had to use Boris Karloff for the remaining two days on his contract, and

2) He had to use 20 minutes of footage from The Terror.

targets-1968Employing Corman math, this meant 20 minutes of new Karloff (“You can shoot 20 minutes in two days, right? I shot whole movies in two days!”) plus 20 minutes of old footage added up to enough Karloff to ballyhoo it as a new Karloff movie. All Bogdanovich had to do was figure out how.

What began as a joke in his head while desperately trying to put those puzzle pieces together – Karloff watching the end of The Terror  in a screening room, turning to Roger Corman and saying, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” – eventually became the movie we know as Targets.

The movie does begin with the end of The Terror and the screening room. Karloff is playing Byron Orlock, star of The Terror (and so much more), who has decided this is the perfect time to retire. Entreaties from producers and the young director of The Terror (Bogdanovich himself, playing a character based on uncredited script doctor Samuel Fuller) prove useless. Orlock feels he is an anachronism, his stock in trade fallen to mere camp against headlines of shooting rampages in supermarkets.

vlcsnap-00011What Orlock does not know, as he stands on a sidewalk arguing with the director, is that he is literally in the crosshairs of a hunting rifle across the street.

The rifle is being bought at a gun store by Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelley), who gladly purchases the rifle, then puts it into the trunk of his Mustang, where it joins a small arsenal of rifles and pistols.

And so begins the two stories that will alternate throughout the movie, as Bobby exists in his gray suburban tract house with his parents and wife. Bobby’s dad has a lot of guns and a few hunting trophies; we see a picture of Bobby in Army fatigues on the wall. Bobby tries to talk to his wife before she leaves for work, saying he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, he’s having some funny ideas. She’s late, though, and laughs it off.

600px-Targetswoodmaster4Byron, after a sullen night interrupted by a drunken Bogdanovich that ends with both of them waking up with enormous hangovers, decides to do one last personal appearance at a drive-in theater premiering The Terror. In our other story, Bobby waits for his wife to wake up, then shoots her, his mother, and a hapless delivery boy. They will just be the start.

Based on the case of Charles Whitman, Bobby climbs to the top of an oil storage tank and snipes at the cars passing on the highway below. He seems a bit surprised that the police come so quickly, and eventually dodges into a drive-in movie to escape them – as luck would have it, the drive-in where Orlock will be appearing. He manages to climb into the screen and views the killing fields below, rows of unsuspecting cars, He waits only for night, and unwary persons to turn on their interior lights to give him his targets.

It must have been kind of intense seeing this movie at a drive-in, is what I’m saying.

targets_1In a nicely meta bit, Bogdanovich keeps begging Orlock to do his next movie, written especially for him, and that script is obviously Targets (finally the drunken Bogdanovich snatches the script and staggers toward the door, saying. “Fine! I’ll offer it to Vincent Price!”).

Karloff is 80 years old here, still intensely vital and utterly professional. At this point in his life, both legs were in braces, and he was usually in a wheelchair; when we see him walk, it is always with a cane. Emphysema had him down to half a lung, and on constant oxygen support. Tales of his last years had him taking off the oxygen mask, rising from his wheelchair, hitting the damned mark and saying his damned lines, and returning to the chair and his life-giving tank only after “Cut” was called, and never complaining. That is what the word “professional” has always meant to me. Karloff had none of the bitterness or disdain for his work that Orlock has; but other than that, he was pretty much playing himself in this role. Legend has it that Karloff liked the script so much, he gave the tyro director three extra days of shooting for free.

Not all actors are lucky enough to have that one movie that acts as a perfect coda to their career. John Wayne managed it with The Shootist, and Karloff did it with Targets. But Karloff being Karloff, this was not his last movie; that would fall to Curse of the Crimson Altar and a group of low-budget Mexican movies. But I can alter my perception of the world as I see fit, and so Targets, possibly the first and best of the modern horror movies to successfully deal with a uniquely modern monster, remains for me the capper of Karloff’s long and storied career.

This trailer is obviously from after the movie’s troubled first release, and the success of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, in 1971, and minimizing Karloff’s involvement is awfully telling. 1968 was a particularly violent year for America, and Paramount was, perhaps understandably, timorous about the movie’s subject matter. But I wonder what those quaking studio heads would have thought of the present day, when mass shootings have become so common they don’t even register on the nightly news anymore.

Targets on Amazon

H: The Haunted Strangler (1958)

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haunted-strangler

If you’ve been reading my babblings for any length of time, you know that my childhood occurred during the Great Monster Revival of the late 50s-early 60s, sparked by that upstart medium, television and its dependence on older movies. Oh, how I recall poring through every issue of TV Guide, seeking out horror movies, especially those gems I read about in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the Universal cycle of the 30s.

I watched them all, but I can’t say I really appreciated them until I was older. The thing I’m reaching for here is Frankenstein, which has become something of a touchstone for me. I didn’t really give it a serious rewatch until Universal put out a deluxe version in 1999, and a lot was suddenly made clear to me, particularly why the Monster had garnered our sympathy all these years, and that is due in no small part to director James Whale and a 44 year-old actor making the most of a long hoped-for and worked-for break: Boris Karloff.

THauntedS1Karloff proved to be an actor of great sensitivity who was immediately typecast; he made his peace with that, referring to it as a trademark he was given for free. He worked steadily through the 30s and 40s, but in the opening years of the 50s, he was seen as less useful, relegated to supporting roles. He moved into television, and his first love, theater. When he did return to movies, it was in drivel like Voodoo Island and Frankenstein 1970 – so it must have seemed a very pleasant change when, in 1957, he agreed to do two movies for producer Richard Gordon which feel like welcome throwbacks to a bygone era: Corridors of Blood and The Haunted Strangler.

Karloff plays James Rankin, a successful novelist and social reformer in 1880 London. His newest project concerns one Edward Styles, a one-armed man hanged twenty years earlier as the Haymarket Strangler (before you ask the very same question I did, his victims were only “half-strangled, then slashed to death”). Rankin feels that Styles was railroaded, and his research puts him on the trail of a Dr. Tennant, who autopsied the Strangler’s victims and seemed to know far too much in his reports. Tennant disappeared soon after Styles’ execution, and Rankin discovers the missing doctor’s kit, which has its scalpel just as obviously missing.

Film_367w_HauntedStrangler_originalRankin suspects what the audience has known since the movie’s opening: the scalpel was placed in the coffin with Styles’ corpse. Since no one will believe his theories, Rankin resorts to bribery to exhume Styles in the prison cemetery in the dead of night. He finds the scalpel, but his triumph turns to horror as his body twists and contorts, and soon he is apparently possessed by the spirit of the Haymarket Strangler, once again preying on dance hall girls after an absence of twenty years.

Despite its low budget, The Haunted Strangler manages the look of a much more expensive picture. The supporting cast is full of solid British performers like Anthony Dawson and Vera Day,  but the movie rests solidly on Karloff’s shoulders, and he once more grasps the opportunity – no pun intended – with both hands. He’s nearly 70 years old during filming, suffering chronic back pain and emphysema, but nonetheless turns in an astoundingly physical performance. Oh, I know that’s not him doing the John Wilkes Booth leap off a balcony onto a stage, or hurling himself through a window, but the later scenes when an increasingly distraught and violent Rankin is committed to an asylum, wrestling with orderlies, you would swear you were watching an actor half his age.

FILM_Wilentz_DVD_MonstersThis also brings up what has become one of my favorite Karloff stories: he and director Robert Day were discussing the transformation scenes, and how they could be accomplished with what little makeup they could afford – it is a plot point that Rankin is unrecognizable while possessed. Karloff’s solution was elegant in its simplicity: he took out his lower dentures and sucked his face into the resulting void. He had done something like this earlier in his career, when he was playing Frankenstein’s Monster, in fact: to get the proper cadaverous look, he removed a dental bridge and sucked his cheek in. Simple, inexpensive, effective.

So consider The Haunted Strangler the Jekyll-and-Hyde story Karloff never got to make. There is a major plot twist three-quarters of the way in that I admit caught me flat-footed, and that happens rarely for me, so familiar am I with the tropes of the horror movie. Karloff had other memorable roles ahead of him, but not many – The Sorcerers and Targets (and arguably The Terror and The Raven), so it is very nice to see him in great form in a tidy little thriller.

Also, there was no place to put it in that last paragraph, but I find him absolutely hilarious in The Comedy of Terrors, but, again: supporting role. And now, as is usual, I find myself fighting the impulse to replace every single movie I’ve planned to watch for this project with Karloff movies.

Monsters & Madmen on Amazon

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part eight

By now you know the rap, that members of the Letterboxd community were doing a month-long challenge to watch thirty of the movies in Roger Ebert’s list of Great Movies, and a viewing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to boot. At least that was what I thought; returns to the site find that original Challenge page gone, and only one other list beside mine using the “EbertMay” tag.

Ah well. I watched a lot of good movies. Only two left to finish up the Challenge.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

last_temptation_of_christThis was twenty-five years ago? Good Lord (to turn a phrase).

I didn’t see this at the theaters because a) I’m not a Christian, though raised as one and pretty up on the scriptures – moreso than some professed Christians, apparently; and b) I was on staff of a small regional theater at the time. That theater is doing very well for itself now, but back then we’re talking horrific schedules, day and night, grueling definitely-for-young-people stuff. I can place the movie in that period only because I leaned on Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack heavily for a particularly awesome version of Hamlet we mounted in that time.

Ha ha, you young’uns that were born at the tail-end of the 80s and in the 90s missed quite a to-do, let me tell you. Televangelism, riding so high in the late 70s and early 80s, had suffered through some pretty bad scandals, and Last Temptation proved a very convenient “Hey! Look over here!” distracting target. Protests and picket lines were numerous. Molotov cocktails were thrown inside a Paris theater showing the movie.

There was an interview with Martin Scorsese, the director, that I recall reading. It was memorable because the journalist reported the complicated phone tag, the mysterious directions to a nondescript apartment, where the door was answered by a burly, armed security guard, before he could even get into the same room as Scorsese; that’s how serious the shit had gotten. There are people who still refuse to watch the Academy Award nominee Hugo because Scorsese directed Last Temptation a quarter of a century ago.

None of these people ever bothered to watch this movie, either. Of course.

large_the_last_temptation_of_christ_blu-ray_x09The reason for this rancor is two-fold: the first is right there in the title. On the cross, a young girl appears to Christ (played by Willem Dafoe), who introduces herself as his guardian angel. She reveals the crucifixion was a test, like the time God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, and just like then, the test has been passed. There is no reason for Jesus to die, and he finds himself free of the cross and nails. He marries Mary Magdalene, has sex with her – this is where the line got drawn – and when she dies, he takes up with Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus) and sires several children, living as a normal man. This has ramifications, resulting in the ultimate sacking of Jerusalem and Jesus’ discovery that the girl is actually Satan, using a far more sophisticated pitch than he employed when Jesus was fasting in the desert. Jesus denies this last temptation, and finds himself on the cross again, saying, “It is accomplished.”

But never mind that, they showed Jesus getting it on.

The second blow Against All That Is Decent is presenting Jesus as a conflicted man instead of the confident avatar of all that is good and decent, as presented in Vacation Bible Schools.

There is a valid school of theological thought that notes the concept of God evolves as civilization develops; thus we go from a God who heartily endorses wiping out entire tribes to the rather radical concept of the same God preaching love. One scholar goes so far as to posit God pouring a part of Himself into a mortal vessel, to suffer as his creation does, as a sort of apology to those creations, with that apology ultimately taking the form of a slow, agonizing death. Suicide as an act of contrition.

TLToC1The political angle is probably another thorn in the side of fundamentalists (though heaven forfend they should abandon their political activities). An eye-opening book for me (come to think of it, read at about this time) was Michael Baigent’s The Messianic Legacy, which examined Jesus and the disciples in their roles as political activists. Viewing Last Temptation has left me with the desire for a re-read. As Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) says to Jesus after he denies being King of the Jews or any special divinity, “That just makes you another Jewish politician.” Politics is an unfortunate, constant fact of life, even of civilization. How could a Messiah avoid them, especially if one of the roles of the Messiah is to deliver his people from oppression, either secular or spiritual?

We won’t even address the subject of Judas, here removed from the role of Designated Villain to Disciple With The Toughest Job, possibly the most faithful disciple of all. That is the sound of heads exploding in the distance.

The Last Temptation of ChristSo it turns out The Last Temptation of Christ was the Jesus movie I had wanted all my life: it does not ignore the “Son of Man” part of the story, though I can’t say it glories in it, either. Jesus is confused, conflicted, unsure, fearful – all the things a contrite Deity should feel, as He experiences what his creation must deal with on a daily basis. If the Scriptures are to be believed, Jesus was at least half human, and that is the half that most doctrine studiously ignores. You hardly ever hear about the Cursing of the Fig Tree, for instance, which was a pretty human moment, no matter how many attempts to turn it into an example of the power of prayer.

So did it convert me? No. But then I don’t really believe that was the purpose behind it. Scorcese said he had always wanted to make a Jesus movie, and when the original production was cancelled by Paramount, he persevered. Universal finally green-lighted it, with a truncated shooting schedule and a budget fully half of what Paramount had agreed to – and at that, Scorsese had to agree to make a “Commercial” movie in exchange (Universal got Cape Fear out of the deal, so it was pretty good investment, overall). This was a passion production (you should forgive the double meaning) for Scorsese and many of the personnel (like Barbara Hershey, who had given Scorsese a copy of the book back during Boxcar Bertha), and it shows.

So the angry True Believers can keep themselves warm with their protest signs and their molotov cocktails. I’ve got my Jesus, and I am perfectly okay with him.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Poster - Bride of Frankenstein, The_07So a little more tampering in God’s domain. I definitely took it easy on myself for the last movie in the Challenge, finally pulling out that Universal Monsters Blu-Ray set again.

After the incredibly successful Frankenstein, director James Whale spent the next four years scrupulously refusing to do a sequel, until he was promised artistic freedom. The result is one of the best horror films ever made.

After an odd little vignette that has Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) telling Byron that the end of her novel was not the end of the story (and also has Byron referring to the Monster itself as Frankenstein, Universal Pictures buying into and perpetuating that little bit of cultural mangling), Bride literally begins at the end of the first movie, the burning of the windmill with the Monster inside. Much as Baron Frankenstein survives, so does the Monster, falling through the burning floor into a flooded chamber.

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762045-1600-1246So the Monster roams the countryside, and he’s more than a little put-off with his treatment, made worse when he rescues a shepherdess from drowning and, naturally, it is assumed he’s attacking her. It’s perfectly obvious that Whale’s sympathies lie with the misunderstood monster, and it’s never more clear than the famous scene where the Monster finds the blind hermit, drawn by the smells of food and beguiled by the music of his violin. This sequence is genuinely touching, both the hermit and the Monster reduced to tears of gratitude for deliverance from their loneliness.

Concurrent to that, Victor Frankenstein has renounced tempering in God’s domain and is trying to finally get married and leave Gothicland, when he is visited by one of his old teachers, Dr. Septimus Praetorius (a silky smooth and utterly charming Ernest Thesinger), who has been conducting his own experiments in life creation: a series of homunculi living in jars. He wants Frankenstein’s aid in creating something more substantial, an actual, life-sized human being. The younger scientist, having recently survived one such creation, refuses.

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762095-1546-1133The Monster, never having a surplus of luck, gets rousted from the hermit’s cabin (by an interfering John Carradine, no less), gets captured, escapes (killing several villagers, whom everybody’s getting sick of, anyway) and takes refuge in a huge mausoleum, where he is discovered by a grave-robbing Praetorius. Realizing that he has found a perfect lever to move the intractable Frankenstein, Praetorius promises the Monster that he will make a friend for him – a woman, to be his bride.

Bride is the very rare sequel that betters its predecessor, by not only giving the audience more of the same, but also expanding intelligently on the themes of the first. Karloff himself felt that the hermit teaching the Monster to speak was a mistake, and to be sure, all the power of the original movie derives from his astonishing, mute performance. But as the Monster becomes more adult, as it were,speaking in simple sentences and continually brutalized by a world uninterested in understanding his plight, we are also watching his corruption; manipulated by Praetorius, he finally becomes the villain the world expected, though at the end, consumed by sorrow and despair, he does try to set things right by the only means he knows, or has been allowed to learn: by destruction.

the-bride-of-frankensteinMention must definitely be made of the Bride, also played by Elsa Lanchester. A striking figure, moving like a clockwork robot, due to Pretorius’ artificial brain, the five foot Lanchester stands on stilts concealed beneath her flowing robes to bring her to seven feet. As archly pointed out in Gods and Monsters, not only have the mad scientists dressed her, but they’ve done her hair, now cascading upwards over a wire mesh foundation. Lanchester modeled her performance, the startled hissing at the Monster’s appearance, on wild swans. For all its brevity, it is one of the most unique, memorable performances of the universal Classic Monster series.

The Bride is also the only Classic Monster to achieve her fame without killing anybody. Not that she ever really had the chance…