Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE NATIVES NEVER FORGET: BLACK MOON


Voodoo was the sensational subject of several early shockers, among them the Halperin Brothers' White Zombie (1932) and Val Lewton's Jane Eyre revision, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Turner Classic Movies recently treated viewers to an obscure Columbia entry, Black Moon (1934), in this extraordinary subgenre. The topic is invariably suffused with enough racial and religious heresies to raise the hackles of any Sensitivity Policeperson, and Roy William Neill's film of an obscure Clements Ripley potboiler is a case in point. ("Love Battling Against the Sorcery of the Jungle!" bellowed the movie's memorable poster.) That this minor but fascinating picture is unavailable on home video is indeed a pity, but perhaps TCM's noble programming efforts will bring it back into some corner of the public consciousness.

Jack Holt headlines as businessman Stephen Lane, whose neurotic wife Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) was initiated into the Afro-Caribbean path as a child on the island of Saint Christopher by her native nurse Ruva (Madame Sul-te-Wan, the first black actor to sign a motion picture contract), after her parents were murdered in the island's most recent native uprising. Juanita, against the wishes of her uncle, Dr. Perez (Arnold Korff), journeys back to St. Christopher with her tiny daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins), Nancy's nursemaid, Anna (Eleanor Wesselhoeft), and Lane's secretary, Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray, who secretly loves her employer), in tow. Danger's already afoot in the States, where the overseer of Dr. Perez's sugar plantation is knifed by a native at Lane's office before he can warn the husband of what awaits Juanita on the island. Mrs. Lane, you see, is still in thrall to the Voodoo clan, which requires a blood sacrifice every now and then, and the next full moon is three weeks away.

Juanita first appears in closeup, her face ominously half-shadowed, playing a rada for Nancy as the camera cuts to worried reaction shots of her house staff. ("She's at it again," one of them remarks.) She's a woman torn between two worlds, who feels "only half-alive" under the influence of her "cold" European-American heritage. Juanita assures her uncle that "the past is dead" and "the natives have forgotten long ago," but, as he corrects her, "the natives never forget." Mrs. Lane comes alive only when she's reunited with Ruva and St. Christopher's holy man, Kala (Laurence Criner). Soon Anna turns up dead in the local lava pit, and Ruva, who encourages the child to play with knives, replaces her as nanny. (The island's wireless operator has earlier been hanged after telegraphing Lane.) Juanita's husband shoots Kala as the high priest prepares to sacrifice the ladyfriend of the Georgia boatman, Lunch McClaren (Clarence Muse), who brought him to St. Christopher--unbelievably, the cultists do not immediately set upon the men--and blood restitution must be made by Juanita, who, after herself executing the schooner captain's gal, is expected to slay her husband, and--when her efforts to drug him fail--her daughter. The natives invade Perez's mansion and bring Nancy to the sacrificial site, but Lane plugs his wife before she slaughters the child so that Ms. Hamilton can assume her rightful place at his side.

Black Moon mightifully manifests the Caucasian fear of "going native" among African populations, as well as--more mutedly--the dread of miscegenation. Burgess adeptly projects Juanita's duality, warm one minute and darkly distant the next; she's an early and dramatic specimen of postmodern white pathology, entranced by the call of the Other. Although repulsed by the thought of sacrificing Nancy, she's nevertheless willing to kill the girl, and her ultimate objective is to rule St. Christopher once she has her uncle eliminated for oppressing "my poor natives." "Tragic woman is less moral than man," Camille Paglia asserts in Sexual Personae. "Her will-to-power is naked. Her actions are under a chthonian cloud." Juanita is Underworld Exhibit A, and she's certainly one of the more interesting villainesses of Hollywood's Golden Age, comparable to Myrna Loy in such culturally disreputable delights as Thirteen Women and the incredible Mask of Fu Manchu (both 1932). Proud and magnificent in peekaboo priestess gear, she writhes ecstatically as the red sect celebrates her, while her husband observes, hidden and humiliated.

Wray, who spent the first half of the decade hopping from island to island (The Most Dangerous Game [1932], King Kong [1933]), makes a charming surrogate mother for Nancy, but Holt (who previously starred with Ms. Wray in Frank Capra's Dirigible [1931]) has little to do except look bewildered--and, in the case of his secretary, act oblivious. Korff is quite convincing as a man navigating the minefield of another potential uprising ("Six times the blacks have tried to wipe us out. I suppose you're acquainted with the Negro superstition that seven is their lucky number"), lapsing into Lugosian intensity as he recounts of Burgess, "She tasted blood!" at a childhood sacrifice. He rules his island, three-fourths of whose population consists of "hill bandits--fugitives from Haiti," by force, and possesses as much contempt for the natives as they have for him. Muse, who appeared in White Zombie and also held an international law degree, bulges his eyes in the best Mantan Moreland tradition, while Madame Sul-te-Wan is a model of understated menace.

Multiculturalists may cringe, but it's significant that the natives want Juanita, rather than one of their island sisters, for their Queen Mother; it seems that the trophyism of European beauty prevails even in the densest jungle. Voodoo, alas, is depicted in the most negative light, though arguably the diasporic polytheism suits the natives better than the alien belief system of Judeo-Christianity which has colonized the spirits of so many Third World peoples--and, for that matter, Western Man. There's also an abundance of intraracial superiority on the part of the Georgia native Lunch, who ridicules the islanders as mere "monkey-chasers" (which doesn't, however, stop him from wooing one of them). He's especially prone to crooning "Roll, Jordan, Roll," further opposing Voodoo with That Old Time Religion, but enthusiasts of the faith will at least be relieved that no zombies are employed.

Neill, who followed this film with such classics as The Black Room (1935), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and several Sherlock Holmes adventures, keeps Wells Root's script moving at a brisk sixty-eight minutes. Louis Silvers supplied the uncredited music, a hypnotically harmonious mix of drums and chants. Joseph H. August's cinematography superbly employs positive and negative spaces; particularly pleasing are his compositions of the sacrificial ritual as the natives tremble in possession of their ancestor archetypes, as well as a smoke-filled siege in the island's tower. Black Moon isn't goody-goody by any stretch of the imagination, but this bungle in the jungle offers an amusing, and illuminating, look at a bygone era of filmmaking.

Monday, October 26, 2009

SCARRED FOR LIFE: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS


The editor of Screem devoted the most recent issue to "Films That Scarred Us for Life." Contributors' examples included the usual suspects (The Exorcist [1973], Jaws [1975]), as well as several surprises (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [1968], The Day of the Locust [1974]). The first movie I remember that frightened me half out of my wits was Dan Curtis' House of Dark Shadows, the producer/director's 1970 revision of his cult soap opera (1966-1971). I was so unhinged, to be perfectly frank, that my mother and grandmother had to remove my screeching five-year-old self from the theatre screening the picture. I still vividly recall trying to settle down in the lobby, and it was not until the summer of 1976 that I saw the full film--minus the usual television edits and interruptions--on the CBS Late Movie. The scene that most traumatized me was the moment in House when Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) ages a century-and-a-half after being overdosed with the anti-vampirism vaccine the lovelorn Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) inflicts upon him in a jealous fit. (The undead one's fallen hard for Collinwood governess Maggie Evans [Kathryn Leigh Scott], whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love Josette.) The image of this alarmingly ancient creature--like lots of children, I thought the elderly were ugly enough to raise haints in a graveyard--strangling the spiteful doctor, then biting his beloved Maggie, was too much for my nerves, which were becoming progressively raw as the film unfolded. I had never found the ABC series to be so intense, and, of course, it wasn't. MGM's feature release upped the violence ante considerably and emphasized Barnabas' romantically ruthless villainy, while writers Sam Hall and Gordon Russell drastically compressed several months' worth of their original storyline. Events, in truth, hurtle past at breakneck speed, occasionally to the point of incomprehension, but, quite happily, the picture never fails to thrill me, even if it no longer provokes a screaming spell.

Cretinous handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen), convinced that the legendary Collins jewels are hidden in the family mausoleum, unwittingly liberates the slumbering vampire from his hundred-and-fifty year confinement. Barnabas, posing as an obscure English cousin in those pre-googling Seventies, spends his time restoring the "Old House" on the Collins estate and courting Maggie, when he's not vampirizing the rest of the cast. Dr. Hoffman, who's researching the Collins family, realizes that Barnabas is undead when he casts no reflection in her compact mirror, and struggles to reverse his curse before giving him the business after learning the object of his affections. His handsome visage rejuvenated by a sanguinary feast, Barnabas plans to wed the entranced Maggie in the family's abandoned chapel, but her artist boyfriend Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) intervenes with a crossbow at the altar, accidentally shooting Loomis in the back. Loomis, who also adores Maggie, manages to stake Barnabas before he expires, and Clark finishes the job. You can't keep a good vampire down, however, and Barnabas turns into a bat after the credits.

Test audiences complained of the film's pacing, so Curtis removed approximately twelve minutes of footage--material which, unfortunately, appears to be forever lost. (The 1971 sequel, Night of Dark Shadows, suffered a similar fate, losing an astonishing thirty-seven minutes.) The opening sequence, in which the titles distractingly appear over a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing, excised a scene in which Maggie's charge, the bratty David Collins (David Henesey), pretends to have hanged himself in order to shock his governess. This action, coupled with the unwillingness of the boy's father Roger (Louis Edmonds) to locate the little monster, motivates Maggie to leave Collinwood for good. The studio feared that impressionable youngsters would either be distressed by, or attempt to duplicate, the child's prank, but the scene's removal obscures Maggie's reason for packing. (Barnabas, of course, convinces her to stay.) A conversation between Maggie and Jeff in the Collinwood greenhouse was also eliminated, causing further confusion. In the theatrical release, Barnabas tells Loomis that he's "done something for" Jeff, but the audience has no idea that Barnabas has recommended his rival to a local gallery so that the artist won't interfere with his plans for the governess. Finally, a sequence of Dr. Hoffman's associate, Professor Stokes (Thayer David), learning from Loomis that Barnabas is indeed undead was deleted, blunting the impact of the Van Helsing stand-in's later confrontation with the vampire at the Old House. (Stokes abruptly, almost randomly, sprouts fangs near the picture's climax, as does Roger Collins, while Roger's sister Elizabeth [Joan Bennett] retreats into a fugue state and disappears; ideally, House should have been two hours, not ninety-six minutes, long.)

MGM released this film and its sequel on videocassette in 1990, following with a double feature laserdisc three years later (all are out-of-print), but the pictures have yet to debut on DVD. The original series is available on disc, as is its 1991 NBC resurrection. Fullscreen transfers of both 1.85:1 features, sporting the same ludicrously unconvincing day-for-night shots found in theatrical prints, appear from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. Warner Brothers has announced plans to revamp Dark Shadows for the big screen with director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, so perhaps House and Night will eventually return, like Barnabas, from their home video limbo.

I hereby apologize to all those patrons, including my family, whose enjoyment of House of Dark Shadows I spoiled nearly four decades ago.

SOURCE

Gross, Darren. "Closed Rooms in the House of Dark Shadows" and "Illuminating Night of Dark Shadows," Video Watchdog No. 40 (1997).



Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SONS OF NIGHT, AND MAIDS WHO LOVE THE MOON: MIDNIGHT MOVIES


Alas, the lost pleasures of midnight, that witching hour when androgyne and undead walked the earth. The age seems as distant to us now as the silent cinema was then. There was a palpable sense of community, of shared secrets which only a subculture could comprehend and appreciate. Home video altered everything, and the delights we experienced in the darkness of the Bijou are these days relegated to the sanctity and solitude of our living rooms--ironically, the very place where many midnight cults began, absorbing--and, in extreme instances, emulating--the archetypal images beamed like spells through cathode rays. Those fantasias all had their mysteries to disclose, and, in the classic compendium Midnight Movies (Harper & Row, 1983 [338 pages]; revised edition Da Capo, 1991 [348 pages]), J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum tell us how the message(s) ran.

"If the origins of art are to be found in religion," the authors argue, "the movies are surely the universal secular faith of the twentieth century." Theatres are cathedrals, reinforcing the wisdom of sociologist Edgar Morin's dictum that "no one who frequents the dark auditoriums is really an atheist"--a word, incidentally, that Alain de Benoist identifies, in his magisterial On Being a Pagan, as being "practically meaningless" in the world of antiquity. Movie palaces were and remain polytheistic temples, for the gods and goddesses of the silver screen will never tolerate the totalitarianism of a lone desert deity. Divinity in the Bijou is diverse, and diversity is divine.

Hoberman and Rosenbaum identify France's Cinema MacMahon, with its enormous lobby photos of the "Four Aces" (Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, Otto Preminger, and Raoul Walsh), as the first theatre to harness the energy of cultism. Late shows were mounted at the Cinematheque Francaise and the Styx, which specialized in horror films, as well as at London's Electric Cinema and the Paris Pullman. In the United States, exhibitors programmed spook spectaculars and New Year's Eve revels. On the smaller screen, broadcasters needed to fill late-night air time, and motion pictures--particularly the killing kind--were an obvious solution. Human beings, hard-wired as we are for worship, require constant nourishment in our faith. How we hungered for the wee-hours appearances of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and all the other stars who seemed to come alive, like satellites and vampires, only at night. The counterculture vultures who subverted the Sixties were famished for visions that told them where they came from, what they were, and where they were going. Enter the underground. Andy Warhol was there in silver hair, as were George Romero's flesh eaters and John Waters' "filthiest people alive."

The authors dissect these artists chapter by chapter, beginning with the seminal efforts of such dark angels as Drella and his collaborator Paul Morrissey, as well as Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, and Jack Smith. New York's Bleecker Street premiered Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) and other freak-outs, but filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas claimed that the theatre's managers were worried that the "low quality of the underground" was tarnishing the Bleecker's reputation. His defiant response was a manifesto celebrating the "Baudelairean Cinemas" of the new auteurs ("a world of flowers of evil, of illuminations, of torn and tortured flesh") and their marginal appeal: "There is now a cinema for the few, too terrible and too 'decadent' for an 'average' man in any organized culture." Epater la bourgeoisie!

Mexican mage Alexandro Jodorowsky "[asked] of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs." His self-styled "quest for sainthood" El Topo (1970) reversed the polarity of the New Western, cross-pollinating Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah with Panic Movement perpetrator Fernando Arrabal and rascal guru G.I. Gurdjieff. Jodorowsky, his ego inflating to heroically mammoth proportions, maintained that "'there was no difference between filming and reality," and expressed his "'hope [that] one day there will come Confucius, Mohammed, Buddha and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.'" John Lennon was so affected by the picture that he convinced his manager Allen Klein's Abkco Films to procure what would become the pivotal midnight headtrip. Ben Barenholtz was suitably impressed to book the movie for his Elgin Theatre, where El Topo played for six-and-a-half months, enrapturing pothead audiences but dividing critics. Vincent Canby belittled Jodorowsky as "an intellectual William Randolph Hearst," while Peter Schjeldahl proclaimed El Topo "a monumental work of filmic art."

Unfortunately, Jodorowsky's subsequent release, 1973's The Holy Mountain (a work superior, I submit, to his preceding effort), was outshone at Cannes by Marco Ferreri's notorious La Grande Bouffe, and failed to duplicate El Topo's financial success. It had, however, an impressive sixteen-month run at Manhattan's Waverly. Jodorowsky, nonetheless, was never again able to pack so many seekers into theatres, and his following features--among them, the memorably gruesome Santa Sangre (1989)--faired poorly at the box office. Another film, 1980's Tusk, was barely even released, but the artist took everything in stride: "What I am doing is making my masterwork, which is my soul."

Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) marked a well-acknowledged turning point in horror cinema. "Until the Supreme Court establishes clearcut guidelines for the pornography of violence," Variety complained in that year's October 16 number, "Night...will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example." The Sixties were coming apart at the seams, and Romero's Image Ten troupe were documenting the decade's self-destruction. Indeed, Hoberman and Rosenbaum opine that the picture's title "could have been a beatnik poet's metaphor for the 'CBS Evening News'" in what was supposedly "the most violent year in [U.S.] history since the end of the Civil War." Romero's zombies remain potent symbols of a disintegrating society, though the director's conception of his ghouls has evolved significantly over the years, culminating in the post-9/11 (re)visions of Land of the Dead (2005) and his "fictuality" reboot, Diary of the Dead (2007).

Romero's first few follow-ups to Night--There's Always Vanilla (1971), Jack's Wife (1972), and The Crazies (1973)--made little critical or commercial impact, and masqueraded under various titles (e.g,. The Affair, Season of the Witch, and Code Name: Trixie). The Pride of Pittsburgh fared better with 1976's vampire character study Martin, which ran for forty-three weekends at the Waverly (where it faced stiff competition from David Lynch's Eraserhead). Romero hit paydirt again with Dawn of the Dead (1978), which shifted the Anubian siege from farmhouse to shopping mall. (Dawn, incidentally, was my first midnight movie experience, and it occurred--most appropriately--in a now-demolished mall.) Night has endured two remakes, while Dawn and Day of the Dead (1985) have weathered one each. The inevitable Crazies reworking is scheduled for winter release.

Waters' "prison and...pleasure dome were American suburbia." The Pope of Trash's Pink Flamingos (1972), with its infamous coprophagic climax, threw down the transgressive gauntlet. The director's remark that "if someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like a standing ovation," may be wishful thinking, but there's no doubt that Waters touched a nerve in the damaged American psyche. The authors examine his stock players (Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Edith Massey--several of whom spawned their own cults) and chronicle his celluloid misadventures from Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) to Polyester (1980). Flamingos, of course, towers over Waters' oeuvre, flopping at midnight at New York's Orpheum, but playing for five nights a week for fifty-eight weeks at the Elgin, as well as forty-five weeks at the New Yorker. Inescapably, an element of danger crept into these screenings. "The audience was very bad," Barenholtz bemoaned. "[Flamingos] started getting Jersey and Brooklyn crowds, especially these gangs coming in and saying, 'Let's see the fag eat shit,' and throwing things at the screen.'" Waters went relatively mainstream with 1988's Hairspray, which became a Broadway musical and was itself filmed in 2007. The Court TV narrator is currently threatening a sequel.

Barenholtz also booked Lynch's hallucinatory urban horror Eraserhead (1977) at the Cinema Village where, after a slow start, the picture scrambled brains for a year. The film additionally had significant runs at San Francisco's Waverly (ninety-nine weeks) and Los Angeles' NuArt (over three-and-a-half years). Rosenbaum points out that Night and Eraserhead are rooted in "the fortress mentality of the fifties, an attitude becoming more prevalent again today" in our balkanised culture. Hoberman identifies Lynch's film and Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) as "the only midnight movie[s] which [have] really addressed" the Seventies, and, in an intriguing footnote, the authors connect the industrial nightmare to New York's seminal punk bands--particularly Richard Hell and the Voidoids' anomic anthem, "(I Belong to the) Blank Generation," which they contend constitutes "a striking analogue to" the film. Eraserhead's mutant infant--whose special effects secrets Lynch, like a good magician, has never disclosed--reflects the double anxieties of delivery and abortion, and the film chillingly charts the dubious destiny of a decaying world.

Lynch's Oscar-winning sophomore feature, The Elephant Man (1980), performed admirably at the ticket booth--scoring singularly well with inner-city audiences--even as efforts to resurrect Eraserhead at theatres screening the John Merrick biopic were unsuccessful. The director belly-flopped with Dune (1984), but returned to popular myth-making with Blue Velvet (1986), the Twin Peaks teleseries and film (1990-1992), and the magnificent Mulholland Dr. (2001). The authors ascertain "a modified pop Hinduism" in Lynch's work--he's also a prominent transcendental meditation advocate--and, of all the artists profiled in their volume, the Missoula, Montana Eagle Scout comes closest to approximating the spiritual surrealism of Senor Jodorowsky.

Admittedly, no survey of midnight cinema is complete without an analysis of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The gender-bending musical really took off at the Waverly, where disciple Louis Farese, Jr.'s so-called "counterpoint dialogue" (in the hallowed tradition of the Glass Teat's horror movie hosts) was picked up by his coreligionists, and soon spectators began arriving for the picture dressed as cast members. Toronto's Roxy preceded their late-night screenings with cartoons (Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle), while the Neptune accompanied Charle Chaplin shorts with the tight harmonies of the BeeGees. Frank-n-Furter personator Tim Curry's erotic energy galvanized viewers, and Hoberman and Rosenbaum proclaim him "the very embodiment of Andre Breton's polemical desire to 'change my sex as I change my shirt.'" Homosexual audiences flocked to the film, especially on Saturdays at San Diego's Strand. A newspaper article on the midnight spectacle attracted the attention of what cultist/ethnographer Margery Walker Pearce described as "hard-hat types" (not, apparently, of the Village People variety), who arrived at the theater shouting obscenities and "threatening to 'kill the faggots.'" Ultimately, the lads fell in line, and Richard O'Brien's and Jim Sharman's glam slam miraculously continues to unite very discrete groups.

Other chapters survey Punk Cinema (Beth B. and Amos Poe), Camp (Mommie Dearest [1981]), Gore (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]), Drugs (Reefer Madness [1940]), and Agit-Prop (Tod Browning's infamous Freaks, of which Hoberman amusingly observes that "the most militant counterculture film was made in 1932"). An especial delight is the book's conclusion, in which the authors discuss the then-state of the late-night nation. Midnight movies aren't so much born as (to borrow an old tagline) kicked out of Hell, but different films reflect the concerns of different socio-economic orders. Dawn's audience, for example, is distinctly--though not exclusively--proletarian, whereas El Topo's eminence "was predicated on the existence of the kind of marginal leisure class that wouldn't think twice about going to see a midnight flick in the middle of the week."

Hoberman and Rosenbaum offer their choices for great unsung midnight movies, and impressive ones they are: Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished Ivan the Terrible trilogy (1944-58), "which intermittently comes across as the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made." Other possibilities include such "epic, environmental" experiments as Warhol's twenty-five hour **** (1968--screened only once, at the New Cinema Playhouse) and Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971; a mere twelve hours and forty minutes). Rosenbaum nominates Frank Tashlin's "prophetic avant-garde masterpiece" Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and Hoberman suggests "a two-hour combination of Busby Berkeley's greatest hits."

Rosenbaum deplores such canonical splatter platters as Blood Feast (1963) and Basket Case (1982) ("neither of which I would have seen if we hadn't been doing this book"), but Hoberman wonders if gore cultists "[identify] with a lumpen, vengeful, rebellious element in popular taste," and laments that films "have turned out to be...a 'passing amusement.'" This is especially evident in the new millennium, an age whose youth prefer the virtual violence of video and computer games to traditional artistic experiences. Perhaps, in the final analysis, films aren't interactive enough, despite the call and response of the midnight mentality. As the authors note in their 1991 afterword, the enchanted era was ending by the time of the book's first edition "and we were speaking about a historical phenomenon." The mainstream sucked in the surreal, leading to a double-edged victory: Rosenbaum remarks "that midnight movies succeeded rather than failed" as their creators went Hollywood, "but it's a kind of success that resembles failure on certain fronts; it's like saying that socialism in this country succeeded rather than failed when it became part of the New Deal." Today's audiences, at any rate, crave more immediate sensations, and pushing a button or manipulating a joystick are, for them, less passive than watching a film or reading a book. The sons of night, and maids who love the moon, have, I fear, for evermore exchanged the midnight flower for the eye of vulgar light.

Friday, August 28, 2009

SEANCE: SEDUCTIVE CINEMA

 The first time I heard Judith Evelyn speak in a motion picture--she was the drunken Eloise Crandall who goes over the railing in Joseph Pevney's delirious Female on the Beach (1955)--I was mildly disoriented. Ms. Evelyn seared her way into my adolescent consciousness as the deaf-mute ticket seller whose husband (Phillip Coolidge) frightens her to death in William Castle's audacious The Tingler (1959). The couple operate a revival house specializing in silent cinema, and, as Coolidge terrorizes her in a memorably surreal sequence, Ms. Evelyn emotes like a silent film actress who has escaped from the screen in the pair's downtown theatre (where, later, the titular creature, liberated by acid-dropping coroner Vincent Price, will make serious mischief). For this viewer, Ms. Evelyn embodies the essence of silent movie melodramatics, and listening to her voice in other pictures--she was often cast as an Agnes Moorehead surrogate--always rings a bit artificial. For her every moment in The Tingler, she is silent cinema, propelling Castle's film beyond its pre-Cronenbergian body politics and backwards into the great world, now lost to us, of soundless mysteries.

James Card (1915-2000) was fortunate enough to experience these seminal shadow plays firsthand. As he remembers in the preface to his remarkable memoir, Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994 [319 pages]; reissued by University of Minnesota Press, 1999 [336 pages]), "When dialogue arrived and the silent film almost vanished, some of us were so infuriated that we actually refused, for many months, to even look at a talkie." The epic theatres of Card's Ohio youth, where moviegoers "dressed to watch Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo as they would to attend a concert of the Cleveland Orchestra," offer a striking contrast to today's shoebox cinemas and their backwards-baseball-capped spectators. Theatres were magical palaces, as opposed to places to gab, text, and tweet mindlessly while high school projectionists screen computer-generated images through projectors deliberately dimmed to lower electricity costs. Concession stands were unheard of in Card's youth, while showtimes were so obscure that audiences "did not know what had gone on before the moment of being seated" by white-gloved ushers. The atmosphere was one of ritual anticipation, and the author set out to possess the sacred images unfolding on the silver screen. In 1921, our cinephile, who admits his "own hell would be to have a projector and all the films [in the world] but no one around to see them with me," acquired a hand-cranked Keystone Moviegraph whose thirty-five-millimeter reels held a mere twenty-five feet. Several years later Card's erector-set ingenuity allowed him to progress to thousand-foot reels, and he was soon swapping items with his fellow fanatics. Providentially, a friend's city court judge father treated the Shaker Heights lads to material censored by the Buckeye State's morality guardians. (In an amusing sidenote, Card reveals that Jesus' intertitle in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 King of Kings, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," was stricken from Illinois screenings because censors had forbidden the word "sin.") The excised material offered the author his first glimpse of "greasy man" Erich von Stroheim, the magnificent scoundrel and self-mythologizer whom Card considers a wildly overrated talent, and certainly a better actor than auteur. Soon Card was reading Kirk Bond's New York Times essay, "Lament for the Cinema Dead," which introduced him to Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The author became obsessed with finding this film, a compulsion "that changed my life and shaped what would ultimately become a kind of career."

Card began renting movies for his Theatre Guild, screening such masterpieces as Fritz Lang's 1924 Siegfried (the Knopf edition incorrectly dates this picture to 1922) in a high school auditorium. (Lang's film constitutes the first half of Die Nebulungen, but Card offers no word on whether he programmed its same-year companion piece, Kriemhild's Revenge.) The author finally tracked down a nitrate print of the elusive Caligari in 1933, screening it for "my family and a few of their dispproving friends"--as well as the projectionist, who hated the film. Card attended Western Reserve University, then ventured on a scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, where he gorged on Teutonic cinema. His procurement of a nine-point-five-millimeter Caligari exhausted his college funds. After a "somewhat misguided" attempt at filmmaking, Card journeyed to Danzig to document the beginnings of the Big One, running afoul of the Gestapo in the process. He made it back to America, directing a New Deal documentary, then wound up as "buck-ass [Army] private" at Astoria Studio, pulling KP with the likes of George Cukor.

By war's end Card's collection had grown by leaps and bounds. After hiring on with Kodak, he boldly used his treasures as "bait" to finagle a position as assistant to the curator at Eastman House. Card scaled the ladder to become assistant director, and was soon a driving force in American film preservation, particularly when contrasted to Iris Barry, the Museum of Modern Art's first conservator, a crusty English critic primarily interested in British cinema. "Imagine," Card urges us, "a film archive headed by...John Simon, saving only those films considered worthy by its curator!" It would be a nightmare, unquestionably, and Barry's standards were especially severe, because the studios' bottom line was ownership, not preservation. Nitrate negatives would either disintegrate or cause spectacular blazes. While producers maintained positive prints for the purposes of remakes, the "tiniest whiff of decomposition" was enough to doom the negatives, thus ensuring the loss of thousands of films. A "no" from Barry was a death sentence for "unworthy" titles. Fortunately for posterity, Card--like his French counterpart, Henri Langlois--cast a wider net.

Card was especially entranced by Herbert Brenon's 1924 version of Peter Pan, and one of the book's highlights is his decades-long quest for a copy. Card was introduced through an old soldier friend to Chum Morris, recording man for the Eastman Philharmonic. Morris had stumbled across a cache of lost treasures in the Eastman Theatre's student organists' screening room. Musicians had practiced with these prints, learning to play in time to the unspooling images. Peter Pan was only one among many movies stored in this forgotten section of the theatre; others included John S. Robertson's 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Morris showed to Card's "almost unendurable joy." The author convinced Morris that, if they didn't act to duplicate these rare pictures, they would be forever lost once safety experts learned of their existence and sent the reels to their oblivion in silver reclamation tanks. (Nitrate from X-ray film had been blamed for a 1929 Cleveland Clinic fire which killed over a hundred patients, though Card believes that poison war gas was being developed at the clinic and was the true culprit.) The men's scheme, which Card rationalizes as a combination of cultists' obsession and post-war liberation fervor ("For the allies," he writes, "the term 'liberation' came to be extended beyond a purely political sense") was derailed when Philharmonic conductor Guy Fraser Harrision remembered the Eastman cache, and one of its jewels, Henry Kolker's 1921 Disraeli, was resurrected for the theatre's silver anniversary.

Card traces the origins of film preservation to Boleslav Matuzewski, royal court cinematographer to Tsar Nicholas II, an early subject of the Lumiere Brothers and "the world's most highly placed movie buff of the nineteenth century." Matuzewski documented everything from the Russian royal family to surgeries at the imperial hospitals, and in 1898 he published an exceedingly rare book, La Photographie Animee, describing his work and arguing for the historical and educational value of film. He and the Czar attempted to establish, in the City of Light, an international cinema archive chain, but endowments for this then-relatively-new art never materialized, and Matuzewski's archive fared poorly during the Bolshevik Revolution.

The critic Burns Manthe also called, in 1921, for a cinema archive, but such as existed at the time contained specialized films held by the major military powers, in order to review battles and armaments. Finally, in the 1930's, Britain, France, and Germany combined their collections to form the FIAF (Federation Internationale des Archives de Film), and MoMA installed the merciless Ms. Barry. Card observes that, due to her cultural unfamiliarity with the country, Barry cared little for American pictures, and cites as an example her dismissal of Edward Venturini's The Headless Horseman (1922) as "difficult to view without boredom." The author admonishes her obliviousness to the film's employment of a Negro youth to rescue Ichabod Crane (Will Rogers) from a potentially lethal tarring-and-feathering (a scene, incidentally, nowhere to be found in Washington Irving), arguing that, for the time, "such noncaricatured use of a black character is without parallel in American movies." "For many years," Card notes disdainfully, "the British enjoyed castigating Americans for their cultural mistreatment of blacks--through the years before the wholesale immigration of Indians to the British Isles." He also takes to task American Marxists who considered any Soviet film, "however stupid, [to be] a splendid example of 'the people's art.'"

Indeed, the author has plenty to say, little of it positive, about the business of film studies. Card challenges former music critic Siegfried Kracauer's thesis in From Caligari to Hitler (1947) that the bulk of German cinematic masterworks "harbor the sinister principle of National Socialism," and points out that Kracauer's most "ominous examples" were actually created by Jews. Herr Kracauer's low command of English, Card submits, "was just sufficiently obscure to make his points ambiguous enough to delight the pipe-smoking elbow-patch English professors of our universities. After all, ambiguity is their way of life." Semiology, Card insists, is even worse, leading him to wonder if its practitioners are "prisoners of inferiority...hid[ing] themselves in the jungles of jargon, where they are protected from the awful responsibility of lucidity."

Card further notes that the crowds who attended silent films came not for the directors, but for the stars, and Seductive Cinema is rife with his reminiscences of such actresses as Joan Crawford and Ms. Swanson. He is, however, gentlemanly discreet regarding his relationship with Louise Brooks, the G.W. Pabst siren whose reputation Card resurrected in the Fifties. (He also restored and popularized their dismembered 1927 classic Pandora's Box.) Recalling his first encounter with Crawford, Card confesses that he didn't recognize "the short, freckle-faced girl who answered the door" of her home. Swanson he met at a department store luncheon for the actress, who was promoting her Forever Young dress line, and Card "had just sense enough not to tell her I'd been watching her in films ever since I was a little boy."

The author examines the world of "Vanished Vamps," from Alice Hollister and Theda Bara to Negri and the bewitching Garbo. But women were not the only stars. Card evaluates the work of John Barrymore, wondering if the Great Profile's maddeningly erratic performances were the result of either "despair over [his] failing powers, or a deep doubt of the ultimate merit of what he had accomplished in his most serious efforts." (Barrymore's real passion was not acting, but illustration.) Card scrutinizes the oeuvre of DeMille and Josef von Sternberg, highlighting DeMille's obscure 1915 classic, The Cheat, and devotes several amusing pages to such irregular talents as Stroheim ("the realism touted in his films is nonexistent") and D.W. Griffith. He scolds scholars whose celebration of these artists is "so utterly irrational as to be comparable only to religious fanaticism."

Of course, any discussion of Griffith will inevitably involve The Birth of a Nation (1915). "A dedicated woman seeking to improve the social climate in Rochester" requested from Eastman House a series on bigotry for a combined black and Jewish audience. Card gave it to her with both barrels, programming Griffith's adaptation of Thomas Dixon's notorious novel and play The Clansman (the film's original title), and incensing this mistress of uplift. "'When I came in here tonight,'" she told Card "in a voice trembling with emotion," "'I was an enemy of all censorship and felt that I would be ready to put my life on the line against any threat to freedom of speech or expression.' Her voice suddenly grew strong, and she almost shouted: 'But that film should never be shown anywhere to anyone!!'" Card recounts a visit he received by black community leaders, who informed him of the NAACP's staunch opposition to Birth's public exhibition, which he had scheduled for the Dryden Theatre Film Society. The delegation's leader told Card "that if I persisted in the plan to show the film, the chances were very good that I might not survive the protests of their more activist groups." Card defied their bullying, and the movie was screened without mischief. Griffith's epic was banned for a time in the author's home state, and MoMA was so intimidated by the picture's controversy that it withdrew Birth from circulation, but fortunately the film has not become extinct like too many other silents.

Seductive Cinema is an exquisite appreciation of a glorious art that Card considers a "seance." The necromancy of pre-sound imagery endures, even if silent films will never attract more than a small audience. It is enough for those of us who remain core followers to communicate with the spirits of the Bijou. I've been privileged to attend several of these seances through the years, beginning with the late Lee Erwin's marvelous accompaniments, on a Robert Morgan pipe organ, to the exploits of Ms. Swanson and Rudolph Valentino at my city's downtown revival house. Every October this theatre screens Rupert Julian's 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, and every year I watch the images unreel to the virtuosity of a live keyboardist. I open myself to seduction, to "that delightful state that," in Card's words, "can come very close to one's private definition of love." His, surely, was one of the world's great romances, and Seductive Cinema is a compelling, and deeply moving, billet-doux.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

TWERTLE SOUP AND A BOX OF TOOTHPICKS: PINOCCHIO IN OUTER SPACE


One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching, in a state of some mesmerisation, the mysterious creation that is Fred Ladd and Ray Goossens' Pinocchio in Outer Space (1964) on the late show. I was spending the night at my maternal grandmother's house, which meant I was allowed to stay up at all hours, or at least until local television stations signed off the air in those Dark Days Before Cable. The animated fantasia's surreal images of flying whales, giant crabs, and other creatures have rattled around in my skull to this day, which brings me to Image Entertainment's 2003 DVD. This U.S.-Belgian revision has been dismissed by several Internet commentators, but--however far the story strays from Carlos Collodi's original satirical conception--Pinocchio in Outer Space deserves revisitation, if not precisely reverence.

The boy's continued mischief has motivated the Blue Fairy to turn the child back into a puppet, who lives with his father Geppetto and dog Fedora in the old man's toy shop. Pinocchio wants to be a boy again, but he's not making much headway in his studies: "The planet Venus is twenty-six million miles from Earth. Mars is thirty-five million miles away. I wish school were a million billion miles away!" Meanwhile, the just-launched Cosmos II satellite has been destroyed--the third in a week's time--by the picture's Terrible Dogfish/Monstro surrogate, an interstellar rogue whale named Astro. When Pinocchio sets off for school the next morning, he's waylaid by the Fox and the Cat (called in this version Sharp and Groovy), and winds up parting with his lunch money for a hypnosis primer. He later encounters interplanetary operative Nurtle the Twertle from Twertle-D, who's overshot his orbit and imagines he's on Mars, where he's been sent to investigate atomic energy on the presumedly dead world. Pinocchio, hoping to haul in Astro with hypnosis and (not incidentally) get out of going to school, climbs aboard Nurtle's spacecraft, and the two journey to the Red Planet.

At this point, Pinocchio in Outer Space becomes quite interesting. Our adventurers, after encountering a magnetic storm, touch down on Mars and spot a mysterious city, which resembles a futuristic Disneyworld, in the distance. After narrowly escaping being devoured by colossal, drooling sand crabs, Pinocchio and Nurtle explore the city, which upon closer inspection is deserted and disintegrating. The puppet suggests that Astro must be responsible for the destruction--indentations in the ruins reveal ominous whale shapes--and Nurtle agrees that "there's something fishy here, all right." The pair examine the city's underground chambers as organic-looking machines hum eerily. They discover a flowing canal, as well as pits of regular-sized crabs and scorpions, and deduce that the contraptions dispensing radioactive food to the creatures are mutating them into giants. Other monstrosities, including enormous spiders and turtles, make their presence known, and the astronauts flee down a long tunnel. (How this subterranean sequence fired my prepubescent imagination!) The pair also encounter a pod of whales, from which Astro has undoubtedly escaped. A colossal sandstorm begins to blow, and Pinocchio and Nurtle take off in their spacecraft before sand reaches the atomic reactors and the city explodes.

Astro, of course, awaits with snapping jaws to consume the ship. As the duo drift among swallowed satellites, seemingly doomed to be digested, the Blue Fairy appears to the puppet, inspiring him with the idea of exiting through the creature's spout. (In a nice touch of swish humor, Pinocchio cries, "That's the Blue Fairy!" and Nurtle--to whom she's invisible--skeptically replies, "Sure it is, and I'm the Queen of the Moon.") The ship's stabilizer, alas, is damaged in its trip through the darkened spout, causing the craft to spin. "By the time we get back to Earth," Nurtle informs Pinocchio, "I'll be twertle soup and you a box of toothpicks." Astro is awakened by the commotion and gives chase, only to be hypnotized by the brightly-twirling ship and captured. But re-entry into Earth's atmosphere is deadly, and Pinocchio sacrifices himself to save both the spacecraft and the planet by reversing Astro's spout. Fortunately, the Blue Fairy returns to resurrect him in flesh and blood.

It's fluff, admittedly, but compelling fluff nonetheless. Some reviewers have found the picture's trio of songs intolerable, but I must confess a grudging admiration for the Fox's ditty, "Doin' the Impossible." Pinocchio is voiced by Peter Lazer, while Nurtle is rendered by Arnold Stang of Top Cat fame. (Most, if not all, of the cast were drawn from radio.) Image offers a colorful transfer of this sixty-five minute feature, with odd bits of grain here and there. Supplements include a still gallery containing poster, lobby card, and production boards. Universal's original six-minute U.S. prologue, which tours the Milky Way, is also included, and the opening "Little Toy Shop" sequence is available for inspection sans titles. Martin Caidin, whose novel Cyborg inspired television's Six Million Dollar Man, is credited as the film's technical advisor.

Ladd's audio commentary redundantly describes the onscreen action, in addition to praising Animation Director Goossens' work and pointing out the various performers. (For some reason, he identifies Lazer twice.) The film's narrator, Bret Morrison, who was radio's Shadow, is best remembered among cultists for his trailers voicework for Radley Metzger's Audubon Films erotica; he, rather than Fox personator Conrad Jameson, also renders "Doin' the Impossible," as the studio preferred Morrison's silken stylings. Ladd observes that the obliterated city's mushroom cloud took four months to complete, while the feature required four years. He further notes that the cosmic clouds in the background of the penultimate space sequence were often invisible in dense theatrical prints, but Image's transfer renders them distinctly. A separate commentary is included for the prologue, which combines government and privately-made footage with impressive animation effects. Pinocchio in Outer Space appears in its original 1.78:1 ratio (enhanced for widescreen sets), and contains fifteen chapter stops. Image's Dolby Digital Mono disc is as easy on the ears as Mr. Morrison himself.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A VISIT TO THE PLEASURE DOME: KENNETH ANGER AT P.S.1


I recently vacationed in New York, and visited P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center's Kenneth Anger exhibition. The installation, located in the second floor Kunsthalle, focuses entirely on eight of the nine films in the maestro's Magick Lantern Cycle (1947-1980). A conscientious effort has been made to recreate the atmosphere of Anger's films, so that visitors will feel they have indeed entered the director's Pleasure Dome. Fireworks (1947), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1980) cast their spells on large video screens, while Puce Moment (1949), Eaux d'Artifice (1953), and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) are disappointingly relegated to much smaller monitors, impairing the overall impact. (Fireworks and Inauguration unreel in separate, curtained rooms.) The biggest letdown, however, is the glaring omission of Rabbit's Moon (1950), either in its original or condensed form. The films' scores occasionally overlap, but fortunately this is a minor distraction. P.S.1's exhibition employs red and silver vinyl partitions, as well as coverings for walls and floor, and appropriately ritualistic lighting. Well-worn copies of the Hollywood Babylon books, as well as Alice Hutchison's 2004 Anger monograph and Jack Hunter's 2002 essay collection on the filmmaker, Moonchild, are available for perusal. All prints are apparently drawn from Fantoma's recent two-disc restorations. The installation, which began February 22nd of this year and ends September 14th, 2009, is organized by Susanne Pfeffer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THE DARK GODS OF THE TENDERLOIN: SLEAZOID EXPRESS


Some filmmakers have their fingers on the pulse of the movie-going public, others down its throat. The latter group constitutes the rogues' gallery of Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square! (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2002; 315 pages). Landis, who earlier published a splendid biography of Luciferian auteur Kenneth Anger, and wife Clifford vividly recreate the lost world of Manhattan's 42nd Street, the former cesspool which now serves the Big Apple's international tourist, as opposed to its rough, trade. Landis (1959-2008) pulled several years as a projectionist/manager at sundry fleapits, braving a workplace where "muggings and bloody needles were the order of the day." His legendary fanzine helped legitimize the grindhouse genre, earning him the enmity of underground heavyweights Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs, while endearing him to Mr. Anger. (Anger later feuded with Landis over his unauthorized bio, but that's showbiz.)

The tour ranges from the stylized kink of the Olga trilogy (1964-66) and other early roughies to women-in-prison epics and mondo movies. Their creators are creatures of the night: shadowy, often pseudonymous people who move with hand-held Bolexes through the margins, where magic usually happens. Film distributor Stan Borden "was slobbering, but he was personable." Producer George Weiss "had a Jungian feel for the sordid American S&M unconscious." Andy Milligan made movies for as little as $750, and the costumes for his gory period pieces were loudly colored so as to survive the blowup to thirty-five-millimeter. Once, when his Sweeney Todd ripoff Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970) was resurrected at the Lyric, a censored throatslitting--performed to appease the MPAA--resulted in the hurling from the balcony of a small refrigerator. "The crowd became agitated," Landis notes dryly. These were dangerous places to displease an audience.

The Cameo purveyed industrial-strength hardcore, while the Anco "sat on a nest of rotten eggs." Genderbenders from Ed Wood to Doris Wishman unreeled while "Latino junkies on the lam after a quick strongarm robbery slumped in the aisles." The Rialto programmed an unrelenting gore apocalypse; the Roxy's blaxploitationers "were as inflexible and distinct as the troublemakers sitting in the audience." These theatres form an infernal roll call as the authors invoke the Dark Gods of the Tenderloin.

Of course, conjuration demands sacrifice, preferably bloody. Roughie pioneer Michael Findley was decapitated in a helicopter crash atop the Pan Am building. Laurence Merrick, director of 1972's Oscar-nominated Manson documentary, was murdered several years after the film's release, as was interviewee Ronni Howard. The toll was also psychic. William Sanderson, best known today as hillbilly Larry from Newhart, hanged a black pastor's wife in Fight for Your Life (1977), a picture "calculated to drive inner city audiences berserk with rage." He told Clifford he was afraid the film would come back to haunt him. (Landis, who was present at an Empire screening, reports that "white patrons tried to leave the theatre as unassumingly as possible"). Many filmmakers never made any money from their work. Distributors sold prints to subdistributors, who could reissue them with impunity while their creators received no residuals whatsoever. Roger Watkins was unaware for years that his pseudo-snuff Last House on Dead End Street (1977) was actually playing somewhere and even turning a profit, as well as stomachs. The Dark Gods have a voracious appetite.

The title of Larry Buchanan's High Yellow (1965) "was so offensive you had to call the boxoffice." David Durston, director of Boy-napped (1975), spent a night in the pokey after star Jamie Gillis ran through Little Italy with a pistol, alarming the locals. Bob Roberts' 1976 porno take on the Patty Hearst saga, Patty, was closed by court order after only one week. Landis and Clifford enthusiastically convey the grit and the grime of psychosexual cinema in the funniest Deuce memoir since Josh Alan Friedman's Tales of Times Square.

This is not to suggest the book is without faults. The authors perpetuate the myths that Milligan directed 1964's The Naked Witch (it was Buchanan), and that celebrity monologist Spalding Gray appeared as the depraved El Sharif in Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976). They also claim that Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was the director's response to Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox/Make Them Die Slowly (1981), when it's the other way around (though Lenzi did inaugurate this notorious subgenre). Ivan Rassimov, and not Massimo Foschi, is listed as the star of Deodato's The Last Survivor/The Last Cannibal World (1977), and so forth. These are curious errors for film cultists to make, and Sleazoid Express would have benefited from tighter editing.

To take this tour, however, is to experience by proxy the movies' anti-canon, a refreshing alternative to that puffed-up mainstream that imagines As Good As it Gets (1997) is as good as it gets. The socially disreputable sorcerers of cinema remain as vital as ever in this age of Hollywood product whose innovations are inversely proportional to their stratospheric budgets. Really, now: Wouldn't you rather watch I Drink Your Blood (1970) or White Slaves of Chinatown (1964) than the latest groaner from Jerry Bruckheimer? (Video companies are helpfully appendiced.) See them and die a thousand deaths.

Monday, July 6, 2009

PART OF THEIR WORLD: PHASE IV


Ecological revenge constitutes one of the most lurid and magnificent of film subgenres, visiting vicarious vengeance on mankind for its desecration of Terra Mater. Whether the agent of retribution is a reawakened dinosaur or an army of tarantulas, humanity must pay in full for its transgressions against the planet. From land development to runaway pollution and nuclear testing, the eternal penalty is blood, straight from the tap.

Consider the avenging ant. The power of this mighty soldier has been well-represented cinematically by the Marabunta invasion of Byron Haskin's The Naked Jungle (1953) and--more memorably--by the atomic mutations of Gordon Douglas' Them! (1954). Saul Bass examined the world of these (anti-) social insects in 1974 with Phase IV, which Paramount, in association with Legend Films, has recently released as a no-frills DVD. The picture, which took the Grand Prix at the following year's International Festival of Science Fiction Films in Trieste, was a commercial failure in its time, but a cult has steadily grown around it in the intervening years, and Phase IV is ripe for rediscovery.

Bass, best known for his incredible title sequences for Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), later directed the Academy-Award-winning short Why Man Creates (1968), but Phase IV remains his only feature. It is an experimental work, absorbing the surreal vision of 1972's Oscar-netting pseudo-documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle (along with its microcameraman, Ken Middleham), while adding a dash of (then-) New Wave style. An intentionally vague interstellar event has somehow advanced the intelligence of various ant species, who put aside their traditional antagonisms to evolve strategies against human beings in the American Southwest. Biologist Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and information specialist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) investigate the disappearance of the insects' primary predators, as well as the mysterious erection of several eerie anthill towers (recalling the 2001 monolith), from their hive-like experimental station in the Arizona desert. Several families have already been forced out of the area by the insects, and the creatures stage an assault on the remaining Eldridge family's farm, ingeniously floating--like soldiers on a raft--on a piece of bark across the fuel ditch the family has dug as a defense, and devouring the very structure of the family's house until it collapses. The ants also attack the station, forming a chain of insects to short-circuit the truck powering the biosphere's generator.

The Eldridges' car is totaled in the chaos after ants invade the vehicle, and the farmer, his wife, and their farmhand are poisoned by the defensive insecticide shower the scientists rain upon the creatures. Only their granddaughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives, rescued by Hubbs and Lesko as they emerge in their protective suits and insect-eyed goggles to inspect the carnage. The girl goes ballistic when she spots Hubbs' test ants in their glass maze, shattering the glass and causing Hubbs to be badly bitten. As his arm swells and his health--physical and mental--deteriorates, the creatures prepare for the next move in their human-insect competition, a game the smug, technocratic Hubbs savors. "We challenge with yellow chemistry," he says admiringly of the insecticide-adapted army, "and they respond with yellow creatures."

Davenport's performance of the lead scientist is pitch-perfect in its detached ruthlessness, recalling his military survivalist in Cornell Wilde's No Blade of Grass (1970). Murphy offers an effective emotional counterpoint, the warm American to Davenport's cold Anglo, and Frederick is appropriately understated as the withdrawn Kendra. Mayo Simon, who scripted everything from Judy Garland's final film, I Could Go On Singing (1963), to the underrated Futureworld (1976), here turns in his best work, exercising considerable restraint and sustaining an increasingly dark mood of meditative ambiguity. Too few science fiction films since the Seventies have explored ideas, but Phase IV is actually about something: it's ecology at its artistic deepest, outlining a grave new world in which mankind is but a minor inconvenience--mere human insects, as it were--in the Great Chain of Things. The film offers an ironic spin on the eternal battle of the sexes, as Hubbs realizes that, in order for the ants to be defeated, their queen must be destroyed. "It is she who speaks," the delirious man intones, but he is too far gone in his faith in scientific know-how to realize that she must be obeyed. An ant matriarchy is rising as the human patriarchy collapses like all great civilizations. "We knew then we were being changed and made part of their world," Lesko observes in voiceover as he and Kendra somberly await their new roles at film's end. "We didn't know for what purpose, but we knew we would be told."

Dick Bush's photography coats the screen in eerily vivid Technicolor (especially striking are the saturated blues of the biosphere at night), while Middleham's microcameras capture the insects patrolling their earth tunnels like cave warriors in some sword-and-sandal epic. One astonishing sequence--a pan of rows of dead yellow ants that the surviving blacks have arranged--is unexpectedly moving in its formalization of ritual and respect. Perhaps the film's most celebrated image--and the one referenced in the picture's deceptively tawdry poster--is the shot of ants emerging from three holes in a corpse's hand, a powerful hommage to a similar moment in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (1929). In hindsight, it's a shame there's no title sequence for Bass to work his wonders on, but the absence of one is certainly in keeping with Phase IV's understated atmosphere. According to Jay Cocks' Time review (October 14, 1974), Bass deleted the film's original ending--"a montage of hallucinatory images suggesting man's destiny after the ants have had their way"--because it was "too abstract." A fair amount of computerized psychedelia is present at the climax, however, and the picture's closing shot of the rising sun is effectively elegiac. Brian Gascoigne's score (realized in conjunction with David Vorhaus and supplemented by Stomu Yamashta's montage music) is anxiously ambient, occasionally employing fretless bass to acrobatic effect.

The 84-minute film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, an approximation of its 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. Bass died in 1996, but the main actors are still with us, so it's regrettable that no audio commentary is provided. For that matter, there's no trailer, either, even though one is available on Volume Three of Synapse's 42nd Street Forever: Exploitation Explosion compilation; Paramount and Legend's omission is frankly inexplicable. The transfer reveals occasional grain (especially evident in the amazing montage of Lesko--resembling an extra from George Romero's The Crazies [1973]--scattering insecticide on his anguished trek to the queen ant's chamber), but is scarcely a distraction. Paramount's DVD, which contains a dozen chapter stops, is a definite improvement over the label's earlier videotape version, but the absence of supplemental material is a major disappointment. Perhaps, one day, a label like Criterion will treat Phase IV to the definitive edition that this film deserves.  Here's the trailer.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

ALL MEN SUSPECT THEIR WIVES: THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR

James Whale is best remembered for such classic fantasias as Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), though he himself preferred his 1936 version of the venerable musical Show Boat. One of Whale's more obscure efforts is 1933's The Kiss Before the Mirror, William Anthony McGuire's adaptation of a Ladislaus Fodor play, which the director remade a mere five years later as Wives Under Suspicion. Unlike the public domain retread, the original is currently unavailable on home video, but TCM premiered a lovely fullscreen print of this pre-Code melodrama on April 26, 2009.

Universal wanted Charles Laughton and Claudette Colbert for the leads, but they were otherwise occupied, so Frank Morgan and Nancy Carroll were loaned from Paramount. Morgan stars as Viennese attorney Paul Held, who defends his friend Walter Bernsdorf (Paul Lukas) against the charge of murdering Bernsdorf's adulterous wife Lucie (Gloria Stuart, whose early exit from the film was considered startling for its time). Bernsdorf follows Lucie to the home of her nameless bachelor lover (Walter Pidgeon), then shoots her through a window as she disrobes in silhouette. (Pidgeon also exits the picture at this point, never to return, and--for all the chatter of betrayal--seems largely forgotten.) Morgan's politically-incorrect defense strategy is that Bernsdorf was driven to the point of madness by his wife's infidelity, and thus was not responsible for his actions. Bernsdorf's first inkling that his wife was seeing another man occurred less than an hour before the murder, when the devoted professor canceled his evening lecture to return home to his beloved, only to endure her look of disgust at him, in stark contrast to her earlier emotion, as he kissed her neck and shoulders at her makeup mirror. ("You've ruined my hairdress!" she rants.) Lukas is believably anguished as he recounts the frenzy that overtook him, a frenzy immediately infecting Held.

Most appropriately for a film with "mirror" in its title, Held and Bernsdorf, as well as their wives, reflect one another. It transpires that the lawyer's spouse Maria (Carroll) is also unfaithful to her husband, though she feels considerably more guilt about her affair than the late Lucie. As Held observes her making herself up in the looking-glass, he suddenly realizes the truth about his wife, later trailing the anxious woman to a rendezvous with her lover (Donald Cook). Held's scheme, which he confesses to the horrified Bernsdorf, is to get the professor acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity, then immediately murder Maria. "All men suspect their wives," the enlightened Held assures the professor. Significantly, both men are considerably older than their spouses, while the women's lovers are closer to their own ages. Held already seems to be feeling the press of time, as he praises the opera Faust for its idea that "one could look forward to the years with such complacency if one knew that at the age of seventy, a kindly devil would touch him on the shoulder and make him young once more."

Maria attempts to break off her affair with her (nameless) paramour, while being driven around the bend by her obsessed husband. Held requests that she be present in the courtroom when he delivers his closing address ("I want to see your face when I speak"), and a memorable summation it is. His antics are enough to get any attorney ejected from the courtroom--especially when Held flourishes a revolver to Maria's terrified shrieks--but the largely male jury rules in the professor's favor, and the lawyer finally regains his senses. (Bernsdorf spends much of Held's speech hiding his face in his hands, and makes an amusing contrast to the hysterical counselor.)

The Kiss Before the Mirror functions as a footnote in Whale's horror and science fiction cycle. The countryside set through which Bernsdorf trails his wife is cannibalized from Frankenstein's exteriors, while the accused's cell suspiciously resembles the room in which Colin Clive kept Boris Karloff. Karl Freund's camera is appropriately Expressionistic, as befits the greatest of all German cinematographers; particularly memorable is the scene in which the eerily-lamplit Morgan explains his mad scheme to Lukas, as well as a 360-degree pan of the courtroom as Morgan delivers his closing argument. Stuart, who found renewed fame many decades later as the octogenarian Kate Winslet in James Cameron's Titanic (1997), returns from The Old Dark House, and would later play Claude Rains' fiancee in The Invisible Man.

Whale's film fairly sizzles with sexuality, as Morgan harps on Lucie's disrobing in her lover's bedroom as often as the judge and the censors let him get away with it. When the distraught Maria asks Held if Lucie's murder is justifiable "because she loved someone," Held counters that it is "because she lied." "That's no reason why she should've been shot down like a mad dog," Maria protests, to which he smoothly replies, "That, my dear, is a matter of taste." The director works in a homosexual newspaper sketch artist for between-the-lines followers of his films, while Held's office manager Hilda (Jean Dixon) is a definite free spirit who makes veiled reference to her randy private life: questioned by Maria as to whether she's "a lawyer or a new kind of woman," Hilda responds that she's a lawyer by day, but "at night--well, you might be surprised." (Such forthrightness is not to be found in the Wives remake, which recasts the cuckolded lawyer as a District Attorney.) Whale packs all this outrageousness into an economical sixty-eight minutes. The Kiss Before the Mirror is eminently worthy of DVD release, and hopefully TCM's screening will facilitate this.

THE FLOWER CALLED NOWHERE: PROLOGUE


"What's terrible about the cinema," Roland Barthes remarked at the dawn of the Nouvelle Vague, "is that it makes the monstrous viable." Kenneth Anger concurs: "I've always considered movies evil; the day cinema was invented was a black day for mankind." The Luciferian auteur's oeuvre is a form of magical combat, a synaesthetic spell against the structure of consensus reality. In 1986 Mystic Fire Video released Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle on four long-out-of-print cassettes, while BFI later issued the films as three volumes of its History of the Avant-Garde (a label, along with "underground," Anger abjures). Fantoma's long-anticipated two-volume restoration allows viewers to (re)visit his equinoctial gems with the renewed wonder they deserve. Anger unleashes more dynamism in these nine shorts than most directors manage in a lifetime of feature filmmaking.

The artist, born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer in 1927, evolved under the double spell of the cinematograph and the mountebank mage, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Anger's career is tangled in contradictions, if not downright dishonesty; he's as steadfast a self-mythologizer as the Great Beast himself. He claims to have appeared in several of the 1930's Baby Burlesks parodies, as well as--more pertinently--to have portrayed the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt and William Dierterle's extravagant A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). Though casting logs and call sheets identify the performer in question as a girl named Sheila Brown, Anger's unofficial biographer, the late Bill Landis, insisted that Anger is indeed the Prince--an assertion challenged anew in historian Scott McQueen's audio commentary for Warner Brothers' recent Midsummer disc.

The fledgling artist staged puppet shows for friends and began making movies with his parents' wind-up sixteen-millimeter camera. He graduated from an interest in the French occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) to the Thelemic work of Crowley, the Englishman who translated Levi's The Key of the Mysteries and proclaimed himself, among other outrageous identities, the magician's reincarnation. It is Crowley's antic post-Christian spirit that animates Anger's filmography, as well as his occasional literary endeavors. Mikita Brotman has argued that Anger was the first artist for whom "film, properly used and respected, is a spiritual form, a magical ceremony involving the display of trapped light." The Magick Lantern facilitates Crowley's "raising of the whole man in perfect balance to the power of Infinity," uniting microcosm with macrocosm through the incantatory medium of celluloid.

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