I: Isle of the Dead (1945)

If you’ve been with me for any length of time (and why wouldn’t you be? I only vanish for months, sometimes years occasionally), you know I like to include at least one Karloff movie in Hubrisween. Here’s one I hadn’t seen, a Val Lewton movie I hadn’t seen, and most importantly, it starts with the letter I.

During the First Balkan War in 1912 (it seems that 2021 wants to school me in European conflicts glossed over by my World History classes), Karloff is General Pherides, so by-the-book that the movie opens with him overseeing the dishonorable discharge and execution-by-suicide of a commander for not getting his men to the battle quickly enough. Oliver (Marc Cramer), a war correspondent for the Boston Star, is shocked, but American, so he doesn’t really care.

The war has taken them near an island that houses a cemetery – in fact, where Pherides’ long-dead wife is entombed – and Pherides intends to visit his wife’s grave that night, Oliver tags along, eager to have something write about besides war and the septicemic plague stalking the Greek forces. Pherides is dismayed and angered to find his wife’s coffin – and others – smashed and the bodies missing. Seeking answers, the two men come upon a house owned by archeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.).

The desecration took place some years earlier, Albrecht tells them, and he blames himself; the locals knew he was paying top dollar for antiquities, and it was they who greedily disturbed the dead, searching for those antiquities. There are a number of refugees in his house, taking shelter from the recent battle; diplomat St Aubyn (Alan Napier), his wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her aide, the Greek girl Thea (Ellen Drew), and drunken marketeer Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).

But the person we’re going to have to watch is the housekeeper Kira (Elaine Thimig), an elderly woman who has become obsessed with the idea that Thea is a vorvolaka, a sort of vampiric evil spirit, because she is obviously young and healthy, while her employer daily grows weaker and paler. Kira tells the equally provincial Pherides of her suspicions, and he joins the rest of the household in tut-tutting this superstitious nonsense.

Well, it turns out Robbins was not just disagreeably drunk, he was suffering from -you guessed it – septicemic plague, and the entire household finds themselves quarantined on the island. The plague will claim one victim after another, while Pherides commands the quarantine the only way he knows how, through tyranny, even while Kira reawakens his beliefs in the Old Ways in her war against Thea.

Mrs. St Aubyn’s condition, you see, is catalepsy – the tendency to fall into a death-like trance. Now, you don’t suppose that will become important plot-wise, do you?

I’m going to give Isle of the Dead top marks for a different setting, different mythology, and giving Karloff curly hair. Past those, however, it is definitely a lesser entry in Lewton’s sterling run at RKO. Lewton and director Mark Robson made two movies inspired by art in 1945 – this one and the much better Bedlam, based on Burne Hogarth’s illustrations for A Rake’s Progress. Isle of the Dead is based on a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin, apparently very popular in European households in the early 20th century. Though Hogarth’s pictures were chaotic and presented numerous story hooks, Bocklin’s is more a mood piece, starkly melancholy yet beautiful.

Lewton and Robson try their usual set pieces – most notably lone women walking through dark spaces they shouldn’t – but the drama of the quarantined household becomes rather tedious and repetitive, committing the prime sin any movie should avoid: it gets boring.

Karloff is wonderful, as usual, managing to turn from menacing to apologetic at a moment’s notice; he was always able to find the human in the monsters he played. Jason Robards Sr. (yes, his father) is wonderfully kind and empathetic as Albrecht, a fine contrast to the driven Pherides. Ellen Drew is good as the prototypical Lewton tormented female protagonist, and I really loved Katherine Emery as the doomed Mary St Aubyn, especially since her roles usually cast her as a villain. Pity she didn’t do more movies.

So there are little gems to be found in the sullen morass that is Isle of the Dead. Your enjoyment of them may depend on your forbearance. But when has that never not been the case with movies?

X: The 7th Victim (1943)

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seventh-victim-poster-2It may be unnecessary, but I feel I need to point out the Blank Tile Rules for Hubrisween, which was developed precisely for pesky letters like Q, Y… and X. One can substitute a movie from either of the letters bracketing the misbehaving majuscule, or a movie with a number in its title. Hence, tonight’s offering for X (and tomorrow’s for Y, but that would be telling).

 Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) leaves her private girl’s school when she is told her last remaining relative, her older sister, has vanished. She journeys to New York City, where she finds that her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, eventually) sold her successful beauty company eight months before; she finds she had rented an apartment above an Italian restaurant, and when she convinces the restaurant owners to let her in that apartment, she finds only a single chair, sitting beneath a waiting hangman’s noose.

sv4There’s more: though there’s no sign of Jacqueline ever being at the City Morgue, it does lead her to handsome lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont!), who is also looking for her. Ward is then visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who knows where Jacqueline is, but refuses to tell anyone.

The 7th Victim has a twisty plot, even for a Val Lewton movie, and it is certainly the most noir-inflected of his eleven movies for RKO. Mary navigates the mean streets of the Village with a growing cadre of helpers: Ward and Judd, a failed poet (Erford Gage) who fancies himself Cyrano de Bergerac, and the owners of the restaurant (Margarita Sylva and the real-life Chef Milani). It has a rich cast of characters for a unexpectedly complex story.

seventhvictim2One of the people coming to our waifish heroine’s aid is a weasely private investigator (William Halligan), who takes up the case of the missing sister because he’s warned not to… a contrary urge that will cause his eventual death, in one of the most effective, tense sequences in the movie.

The 7th Victim is almost 75 years old, and has been written about by much smarter people than myself, so I don’t think I am giving anything away by revealing that Jacqueline – ever “the sensationalist”, according to Dr. Judd – joined a cult of “devil worshippers”, seeking excitement and happiness, and when those did not materialize, went to Judd for her depression – and the cult considers this revelation a betrayal to their secrecy, which demands her death.

seventhvictim1But. This cult is also (rather bewilderingly) sworn to non-violence, so they have to convince her to kill herself. This non-violence thing is certainly novel, and an odd choice; rather than making the cult evil and frightening, it makes them merely selfish and self-interested to an extreme, and this fifteen years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. This one fairly outlandish detail perversely makes our devil cult seem more realistic.

Jaqueline, we will find out, spent several weeks imprisoned at her former beauty salon, and has been in hiding since her escape. Once Mary, Ward and the Poet convince Judd to finally reveal her hiding place, Jacqueline is convinced to go to the Police. Disastrously, our band of heroes decide to let her rest for a day, which is just enough time for the Satanists to find her. Honestly, the plotting of the movie so far, in an attempt to be misleading and surprising, is a bit of a mess, but its 70 minute running time doesn’t leave much opportunity for audience cries of “Now wait just a minute…”

seventh_victim__the_001_758_426_81_s_c1Jacqueline will resist the peer pressure to drink a glass of poison, leading to one of the Lewton standards: a tension-racked walk through shadowy streets, where any patch of darkness can hide doom – in this case, one of the Satanists who has been tasked with forsaking non-violence to end Jacqueline. It can’t be overstated that RKO had come close to closing its doors after the disastrous box office of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but it had kept almost all the craftsmen who had worked on those pictures, to RKO’s ultimate benefit. After his successful string of low-budget features, it was felt that Lewton deserved a shot at an “A” picture, which was to be the original version of The 7th Victim (which apparently actually had 6 prior victims in its story). But to do this, he would have had to abandon director Mark Robson. Lewton was extremely loyal to his co-workers, and refused, relegating this movie back to a “B” budget – and this sequence alone, if nothing else, justifies why Lewton felt that way.

Lewton was also notoriously death-obsessed, and it shows in his movies; for so many of his characters, it is, to quote Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” In the closing minutes of The 7th Victim, Jacqueline meets a character we’ve seen only once, at the apartments over the restaurant – Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying prostitute straight out of La Boheme. “I’m quiet and I rest and Death keeps coming closer, all the time.”

“And you don’t want to die, answers Jacqueline. “I’ve always wanted to die. Always.”

seventhvictimmorgueAnd there it is, right there, bang. Lewton’s health deteriorated steadily through the 40s – probably not aided a bit by the hellacious work hours he set for himself – and he passed away in 1951 at the age of 46. 46! He once said, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, that the message of Isle of the Dead was “Death is good.” But that moment in this movie, that one line, is a moment that hits like a freight train… especially if you’ve ever felt that way. If you’ve felt too keenly the crushing weight of life, if you’ve listened to the lies of depression that tell you that you’d be better off, that everyone would be better off.

Don’t worry. I’m on medication now.

Mimi dresses up and goes out for one last fling before her demise. Jacqueline – quietly retires to her room, with the noose and the chair.

It is possibly one of the bleakest endings in all horror or noir, two genres not known for their uplifting qualities. And that is probably the true horror of The 7th Victim – that it touches so easily a darkened corner that lurks within us all.

Buy The 7th Victim on Amazon

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.


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

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community spent May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

mulholland-drive-poster-_2David Lynch has been called a lot of things, but probably the most succinct is challenging. Here, though, We have a movie that is adapted from a failed TV pilot, so the viewer feels secure that at least it’s going to be as comprehensible as Twin Peaks, right?

That’s if the viewer has forgotten how weird Twin Peaks could get.

Naive small town girl Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in LA to spend a few weeks at her aunt’s apartment, hoping to break into show biz (the aunt is out-of-town on a movie shoot). What she finds in the apartment is an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Herring), pulling the name off a Rita Hayworth movie poster. We know that Rita was on a limousine on the titular street and she was apparently the victim of some set-up robbery when the limo was smashed into by drag-racing teens – Rita, however, doesn’t even remember that. When the girls search her purse for ID, they find many thousands of dollars and an odd key that fits a triangular lock – and so the Scooby-Doo sleuthing begins, with the girls not totally unaware that there are men searching for Rita, not the least of which is the most inept hit man in the history of the universe (Mark Pellegrino).

mulholland_drive_snap_2In the course of the first part of the movie, most of the Strange with a capital “S” is provided by movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who suddenly finds a shadowy organization demands the star of his next movie be a certain actress – “This is the girl” – and when he refuses, his entire world – personal, financial and artistic – is jerked out from under him. The organization is apparently run by familiar face Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks’ Man From Another Place), but Kesher meets with a fellow apparently above even him, known only as The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who wears a ten-gallon hat and no eyebrows.

Keep in mind I’m telling you the normal stuff. I haven’t gone into the spirit of death and horror who lives behind a Denny’s, or the eerily recurring red lampshade, or other Lynchian touches. At the two hour mark in a two-and-a-half hour movie, the girls go to a club in the middle of the night – Club Silencio (“No hay banda! There is no band! All this is… a tape recording!”) at which point we go full-on Lynch, and just when we think the plot has gone circular, it has turned into a damned Spirograph.

mulholland-drive-2001-to-2-gThe major portion of Mulholland Dr was supposed to form part of the third season of Twin Peaks, featuring Audrey Horne miraculously surviving the explosion in the Season Two finale and getting shuttled off to Los Angeles to find… well, you know by now. Knowing this doesn’t really help, since it leaves you wondering what would have been the outcome in that case, and then you start wondering if Season Three would have ever revealed why Josie Packard’s soul was trapped in the knob of that bedside table. Which doesn’t really aid any analysis of Mulholland Dr, but watching Lynch movies opens up some really odd brain connections.

I think we can conclude that the Audrey Horne version of the story would omit the R-rated lesbian sex scenes between Watts and Harring, not to mention the denouement of the last half-hour, which would fuel a fair number of discussions at movie nights. What I like about these accessible dreamscapes by Lynch is that on some level, you absolutely cannot intellectualize what is going on, you can only intuit it, engage with it on a primal level. This is a hypnotic, mesmerizing movie, genuinely suspenseful, often hilarious, ultimately puzzling. So yeah, I enjoyed it.

I am also fascinated by Lynch’s ability to wring existential terror out of a Roy Orbison song – this is twice that I know of. That, and if Lynch ever decided to do a serious full-on horror movie, we would all be screwed.

Dark City (1998)

darkcity1If there is a general upside to this determination I seem to have to watch movies on MY terms, not other peoples’, it’s that I missed out on Dark City the first time around.

I thought Dark City would make a good follow-up to Mullholland Dr., and I was right, as the movie begins with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakening with amnesia, in an apartment with a murdered woman. A phone call tells him “they” are coming for him and he must run. “They” are indeed after him, a trio of cadaverous men in black overcoats and fedoras, and who can seemingly make people sleep at will. Murdoch, of course, tries to piece together who he is, and what’s going on, but that last one is a tall order: at midnight, everybody in the city goes to sleep, and the men in black – and there are a lot more than three – change the world, making buildings grow like plants, changing people’s personalities.

dc08There is one non-blackclad doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to be collaborating with these mystery people, but is also fearfully trying to get in touch with Murdoch. A police inspector (William Hurt) is pursuing Murdoch for serial murder – the previous investigating officer has apparently gone mad and left the force.  The Inspector is working with Murdoch’s wife (Jennifer Connelly). And one of the Men In Black (Richard O’Brien) is injected with Murdoch’s memories in a desperate attempt to track him down – desperate because Murdoch is showing signs of possessing the same world-changing powers as they.

First, we’re going to agree this is a hell of a good cast. Second, we are going to stand dumbfounded that this is actual thoughtful science-fiction, not some other genre script gussied up with sci-fi exteriors. Third, we’re going to find out that the studio did their best to kill it.

Well, not kill it, but damage it. This is where my stubborn refusal to drink from the trough at the same time as many comes in handy. “Thoughtful” movies being poison, and people stupid, uncomprehending animals, director Alex Proyas was convinced to tack a voiceover onto the movie’s beginning, which spelled out the movie’s plot. The plot I spent an enjoyable 111 minutes watching unspool.

Good God, I would have been pissed. There is nothing that turns me against a movie faster than having it treat me like an idiot. Fortunately, I only know of this voiceover through Ebert’s review; the Director’s Cut does away with it entirely. That’s the only version that exists in my universe because that is a good movie.

Cat People (1942)

CatPeopleHS-BAnother busy day, time to call in the 73 minute Cat People.

A chance meeting at the zoo between engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and immigrant artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) leads to romance and marriage. There is one snag: Irena’s Serbian hometown is supposedly home to people that turn into great cats when their passions are inflamed. Though these weird people were supposedly eliminated in the Middle Ages, Irena believes in them strongly enough that she will not even allow her new husband to kiss her. The frustrated Oliver slowly awakes to the fact that his longtime pal at the office, Alice (Jane Randolph) carries a torch for him, and is not so adverse to the kissing stuff. The major problem there: jealousy is also a passion, and Irena begins stalking the two.

This was the first of the low-budget horror movies produced by Val Lewton at RKO, directed by Jacques Tourneur; these movies are rightly considered classics, but the modern horror fan is not going to have much patience with Cat People, at the very least. Tourneur is playing a game of ambiguity here. Is Irena truly a supernatural being, or just a very neurotic young woman on the verge of a violent breakdown? It was that approach that got Tourneur replaced barely four days into shooting , and Lewton went all the way to the studio head to get him reinstated. The Supervisor that fired Tourneur, though, is responsible for an actual panther showing up in one scene, removing all ambiguity and novelty. Those suspense scenes that remain untampered with are justly considered classic and Paul Schrader had no problem lifting them for his far more explicit 1982 version.

Cat-People-1942-SimonIt would have been nice to see Cat People as originally conceived (and The Wolf Man, and a host of others), but it’s worthwhile to watch any of the Lewton films and consider that here are people who worked on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons now working on horror movies.  The budgets may have shrunk, but the talent had not.

Speaking of which, definitely check out William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) for the same reasons: good movie, lots of Kane  alumni, and Simone Simon as the living personification of sex. Oh, and Walter Huston as a particularly fine devil.

Rashomon (1950)

rashomon_sp2Coming into the home stretch on the Challenge, it gets a little wearying, so I opted for some comfort food. Besides it had been… well, I was about to say 30 years since I had last seen Rashomon, but that is too damn depressing.

Three men take shelter from the pouring rain in a burnt-out city  gate: a monk (Minoru Chiaki), a wood chopper (Takashi Shimura) and a Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The first two men are very disturbed, having testified at an inquest earlier that day, and they relate to the Commoner what transpired.

The Woodcutter had found the dead body of a samurai in the woods. The notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune)  had been captured with the dead man’s horse and some of his effects. He confesses to tricking the samurai (Masyuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) into the woods, overpowering the man, raping the woman, and eventually killing the samurai in a duel at the woman’s insistence.

All well and good, except the wife, found hiding in a temple, tells an entirely different story. When the dead man tells his story, via a medium, it is different from the other two. There is yet another version of the story, lurking about, but it is best you discover it for yourself.

rashomon-sliceKurosawa makes some intriguing stylistic choices (making the viewer the judge in the inquest scenes) and pulls some camera moves that would be appropriated throughout the ages in his forest scenes. This is a movie so ingrained in our cultural purview that The Simpsons can make reference to it with impunity. It also marked Kurosawa’s full-blown introduction to the international cinema scene, and my God, the movies that were to come.

The oddest hangover for this is a desire to once more see the 1964 Western version of this, The Outrage, which I have seen only once during a seemingly accidental showing on TCM years ago.  Based on Fay and Michael Kanin’s play version, it stars Paul Newman as the Bandit, Laurence Harvey as the Husband, and Claire Bloom as the wife. The three guys in what is now a train station? Howard deSilva as a Prospector, William Shatner as the Priest, and Edward G. Robinson as “The Con Man”.  I recall it having some entertaining differences from the Kurosawa version, and besides: I collect Kurosawa rip-offs.

(Turn on Closed Captioning for English subtitles)