7 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: SNOWBEAST (1977) & DON’T GO TO SLEEP (1982)

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-12-38-13-pm

My intention today was to post THE BLOODSTAINED LAWN. Isn’t that a wonderful title? And such a fun movie, too. Unfortunately, the English dubbed version has been removed from the internet due to copyright infringement. That left me scrambling. I knew that I wanted to post something fun…something that can be watched and enjoyed without a great deal of thought, but I simply don’t have the time to do a last minute internet search for something appropriately rare and weird to fulfill those requirements.

My alternative is to fall back on some well-loved, nostalgic 70s television horror movies…and that is no real sacrifice on my part.

SNOWBEAST is by no means a great movie. Chances are, if you’re a fan of horror, you’ve already seen it. It’s been in the public domain for quite some time so it always ends up in those “Ten Horror Movies For Only Ten Dollars!” DVD sets along with unwatchable, badly scanned copies of HORROR EXPRESS and the like. I’m not recommending it for its overall  quality today (though it has its charms that I would defend), but only for the music.

The composer of SNOWBEAST’s score was Robert Prince. He did the music for a whole host of creepy 70s television movies as well as incidental music for popular TV shows like The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (…the Space Vampire episode!) He’s also the composer who did the wonderful score for GARGOYLES (posted earlier), but I think the score for SNOWBEAST is his 1970s television horror movie masterpiece.

For Americans of a certain age (read: my age) who have any feelings of nostalgia for their youth and a corresponding love of horror movies, the soundtrack to SNOWBEAST is instant access, like pushing a button, to good, cozy memories. Even the sound of the dialogue – just the tone of the actor’s voices – is iconically stereotypical. I recommend putting SNOWBEAST on in the background while puttering around the house for an instant transformation of your environment into a stress-free Saturday morning at home circa 1980 (or thereabouts).

If you want to focus on the music alone, I’ve uploaded a Youtube video of the soundtrack recorded straight from the video (…no soul destroying remastering involved). I personally enjoy listening to it while going to sleep. It’s very relaxing.

Unlike SNOWBEAST, DON’T GO TO SLEEP is a well respected television horror classic. It is actually frightening and has a reputation, like TRILOGY OF TERROR or (the original) DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, of causing the kind of long remembered childhood nightmares that usually results in a remake by a mediocre middle-aged director. Fortunately DON’T GO TO SLEEP still remains un-revisioned and I hope it stays that way as there is no need to amp up its scares for a 21st century audience. It is unusually intense for a television horror movie from the early 80s and certainly well cast. Valerie Harper is excellent in her role and, seriously, when is Ruth Gordon ever not fun to watch?

Though it came out the same year as POLTERGEIST and was very likely capitalizing on the popularity of that film, DON’T GO TO SLEEP is not merely derivative and, in many ways, it’s more serious and emotionally touching than POLTERGEIST. The poltergeist activity in DON’T GO TO SLEEP is often more disturbing than in POLTERGEIST without relying upon expensive special effects. DON’T GO TO SLEEP is also willing to go into thematic territory that one does not usually expect from a television film and the shock of that realization, once it comes, adds to its ability to scare.

Soooo….some pure nostalgia today, a nice little audio time-capsule for 70s horror freaks to nod off to, and a quality, well-acted television horror film. Not so bad considering it’s a last minute post…

SNOWBEAST (1977) – MUSIC BY ROBERT PRINCE:

SNOWBEAST (1977) – FULL MOVIE:

DON’T GO TO SLEEP (1982):

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

8 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: THE RAT SAVIOR aka THE REDEEMER (1976)

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-12-44-01-pm

In 1999, a poll of Croatian film critics found THE RAT SAVIOR to be one of the best Croatian films ever made…and yet no official release in the United States! So much media we have here. We are barraged with media, and yet we are so starved…so media poor. How can the “best” of any country exist only on the periphery of our consciousness in the United States? Are we not the melting pot? Are we not the central hub of globalization? These are rhetorical questions, of course.

THE RAT SAVIOR is a fantastical horror story, like a fable or a fairy tale, presented as  metaphor for the kind of socio-political conditions and cultural developments that we are currently dealing with in the United States. That makes it not only relevant to a contemporary Western audience but also more frightening.

The story is simple: rats are slowly taking over society in human form and are taking advantage of social and political unrest to increase their power. One could make comparison with the American cold-war paranoia horror of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, though the means by which the rats secure their power is of an entirely different sort. This film is from Croatia, made shortly after the Croatian Spring, and it is unclear which side of that conflict the rats best represent. No matter what “side” they symbolize, they are in essence the power that benefits from any conditions of social instability. They benefit from every side of the problem. In that sense, they are no different from the representatives of both State power and revolution in many different countries in many different times.

Krsto Papić, the director of THE RAT SAVIOR, has gone on to become one of Croatia’s most celebrated filmmakers and THE RAT SAVIOR was actually nominated to represent Croatia in the 44th Academy Awards (it was not a finalist). The film was remade by the director in 2003 under the title of INFECTION, although the settings and atmosphere of the original are, in my opinion, superior to the remake.

The slow burn of THE RAT SAVIOR, its eery locations and lighting, as well as its interesting, satirical take on the standard “invasion” and “mad scientist” themes make it stand out among the European horror films of its time. It is played incredibly straight, down to the detail, and as a result it transcends the folkish / fairy tale qualities of the story and reminds the viewer of the reason that this kind of story has entered into our collective consciousness and remained there. Sadly, the events that THE RAT SAVIOR refers to happen again and again in reality. It is truly terrifying that, in real life, said events continue to have a quality of “unreality” about them, coming as a kind of shock, even though history shows it is anything but a fairy tale and nothing new.

A streaming version of THE RAT SAVIOR has previously been unavailable with English subtitles. I have added the English subtitles and edited them in order to provide the version of the film I’ve linked to below. The available English subtitles were badly written (much like computer-generated closed captioning or Google Translate) and also incomplete. Not being familiar with the language, I was forced to make some creative additions and changes to the dialogue in my English “translation”. I have attempted to do so with respect to the themes of the film and what little I could decipher from the bad subtitles available to me. I tried to change as little as possible without the meaning of the words or the scene becoming absurd. There is one point at which I simply make up a few lines to fill up a gap in the dialogue…I admit it. If you are familiar with the language being spoken, you may very well find some of my interpretations amusing. Feel free to write me with corrections. I really was doing the best that I could,  under the circumstances, to make this movie for the first time available and meaningful for English speakers. If it is not immediately taken down by Youtube, it’s perfection could very well be a collaborative work in progress…

THE RAT SAVIOR (1976):

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

9 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: Blood and Beefcake – The Films of Michael J. Murphy

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-12-36-41-pm

It’s not like anyone can agree on what constitutes a film that is “so bad it is good.” Susan Sontag’s famous essay on camp, written in the 60s, hardly sheds light on the glut of trashy culture that has managed to cross over into the mainstream over the last 50 years. Camp is no longer necessarily a subversive aesthetic exclusively embraced by marginalized homosexuals. As early as the 70s, camp crossed over. By the 80s, camp had become indistinguishable from mainstream culture and the “low” tastes of popular sentiment – formerly known as kitsch – completely merged with the “high taste” of the cultural elite.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising considering that the camp aesthetic has always been left to the judgement of the consumer. From the very beginning, the intentions of a creator or the conditions of social or economic exchange that give value to an aesthetic object were recontextualized, reinterpreted or downright ignored when assessing its “camp” worth. It only makes sense that, as advertising companies and entertainment industries struggled for power over an increasingly cynical audience, they would embrace and encourage an aesthetic judgement that excuses or ignores their own less than honorable motivations. We have reached a point, culturally, at which one may proudly join a crowd of conformist, fascist thugs and still proudly point to one’s personal choice and independent, countercultural (or, perhaps, acultural) standards as justification. Real punks love Beyonce…

There are those, however, who try to keep (ironically) purist, subversive interpretations of camp alive while also taking into account the changing meaning of camp in popular culture. Bruce LaBruce, an “underground” gay filmmaker, has consistently pushed at the boundaries of camp by introducing purposeful, self-conscious “pretentiousness” that (used to) turn the stomach of both a popular audience and “high art” gatekeepers. His 2012 essay, NOTES ON CAMP/ANTI-CAMP, is the best attempt to define and recharge a living, subversive camp aesthetic that I’ve come across in recent years. In comparison, John Waters has attempted to keep up through what could only be described as ironic self-assimilation (a postmodern form of self-immolation as protest). Unfortunately, LaBruce’s most recent full-length film GERONTOPHILIA, a “sensitive” movie about a taboo subject, seems to be following suit.

Ultimately, as I said in the beginning, none of this matters. The assessment of whether something is “so bad it is good” is still a personal matter of taste that depends entirely upon your own cultural background and consumption habits. What draws you to a particular kind of “bad” movie and keeps you watching long enough to consider its value is entirely unique to you. As with any challenging work of art, appreciating something you initially reject or do not understand requires exposure and attention and the willingness to change your own values. Some of us thirst for this experience. Some of us resist it. Personally, when it comes to horror movies, I’m always thirsty for a challenge.

That said, I have hard-tested values that I will not violate. I would much prefer, for example, to be challenged by and ultimately adapt to the odd, idiosyncratic aesthetic choices of a struggling independent filmmaker like Michael J. Murphy than, say, the self-consciously (though still “independent”) capitalist ideals of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment.

Michael J. Murphy, a relatively unknown and under-appreciated British filmmaker, struggled for years, against the grain, to get his personal visions onto film and to the public without compromising his own tastes and ideals. Though he sometimes fails at communicating through a traditional cinema language, this ultimately highlights rather than detracts from what makes his vision unique.

Murphy, working in his home town of Portsmouth, England, has over 25 independent horror films to his name as well as having directed several apocalyptic sci-fi films. comedies and dramas. In some ways, his movies are comparable to those of another great name in “bad” horror, Andy Milligan. Like Milligan, Murphy came from the theater and his films are filled with hyperbolic, Tennessee Williams-esque conflicts and dramatic personalities that seem best suited for the stage. His characters like to talk…and they often talk a lot. Unlike Milligan, Murphy’s characters don’t come off as bitter representations of humanity’s worst. One gets the sense watching an Andy Milligan movie that the mean, misanthropic machinations of his characters are the projections of, to put it bluntly, an old gay “queen” sitting on his bar stool and drunkenly downgrading the world around him with vicious quips (in order to make himself look better). Michael J. Murphy, on the other hand, reminds me of myself. I would be the person on the other side of the bar watching this poor, old damaged man and finding him both hilarious and empathetic. Murphy loves his misanthropic characters in the same way that gay men have always loved certain “bitchy” female characters in movies. Ultimately, it is the faulty, awkward combination of both their attempts at power and their obvious weakness that makes them appealing.

Just from watching his movies, there is no doubt in my mind that Michael J Murphy was gay (he passed away, tragically, in 2015). His horror films are more amusingly “gay” in their subtext than any I have seen not overtly aimed at a gay audience. He never misses an opportunity, however absurd, for a man to take off his shirt. He revels in beefcake getting in fist fights or wrestling on the ground in poorly choreographed tussles that would seem more fitting in a 1950s muscle magazine than in a 1980s horror film. This incessant beefcake is all the more interesting in that it is often presented in a context that suggest perversion, corruption or repression. In INVITATION TO HELL (1982), Murphy’s first full length horror film, the heterosexually married owner of a country house ogles his muscular groundskeeper who is lifting weights in front of a girly magazine collaged wall. The situation suggests repression and deceit if you’re looking for a homoerotic subtext, but it is such an unlikely scene and such an obvious indulgence on the part of the director that it comes off as anything but an expression of self-hatred or shame.

Murphy’s exploration of the male body increased throughout his career but never verged into pure homoerotic sexploitation like the “gaysploitation” horror films of David DeCoteau. Murphy’s horror films always seemed aimed at an audience that isn’t necessarily in on the gay subtext. As far as I can remember, he never included full frontal (male) nudity or an actual gay sex scene in any of his horror films. You could play a drinking game for every time a man appears shirtless or near naked in his 2007 film SKARE, but it is still, on the surface, a story about heterosexual relationships. That said, the female character who leads the film, played by one of Murphy’s regulars, Judith Holding, is such an unrealistically exaggerated “bitch queen” that one could easily see her being played by a camping drag queen were the part not so obviously written as a tribute to the special talents and appearance of the actress herself. As much as Murphy stereotypically glorifies the attributes of cartoonish female stereotypes, one never gets the sense that this stems from an underlying misogyny or objectifying idolization of the female as an extension of gay sensibilities. Murphy always seeks to highlight the human behind the mask, and SKARE could easily be interpreted as a critique and deconstruction of the idolized “bitch queen” personas of actors like Joan Crawford (or Collins…or any of the other Joans), rather than simply exploiting the type.

Stylistically, Murphy is not averse to purposefully experimenting with cinematic tropes but, as in much of what constitutes “so bad its good” cinema, what really makes his movies special are his failed experiments or attempts at dramatic effects hampered by lack of funds or resources. Clunky pacing and bad acting can turn even ordinary scenes into absurdist theater, but Murphy’s editing tends to keep the ball rolling with some sort of uneven, unpredictable (and indescribable) kinetic energy that ultimately prevents them from becoming the kind of sluggish dreamscape one might find in a Bill Rebane movie. While Murphy has the talent to make something that adequately reflects his intentions, his failures truly reveal more than his successes. His movies have plenty of holes to let the light shine through anarchically free from its celluloid (or digital) mask.

Unfortunately, Michael J. Murphy has not developed the cult following that has deservedly grown around the other directors I name-dropped above. One would hope that he would attract, at the very least, a gay audience recognizing him and his work as important, early, and highly original examples of “queer horror,” but his movies remain frustratingly obscure (in spite of some coverage by the wonderful Bleeding Skull website). I’ve been wanting to share INVITATION TO HELL on my blog since the first year I started writing, but there was only one terrible, completely unwatchable VHS rip streaming online and any search for it through search engines was complicated by Wes Craven having made a TV movie by the same name in 1984. It is bittersweet but, since Michael J. Murphy’s death, the production company he helped found has finally released several nice prints of his films onto Youtube. They don’t seem to be too popular on the basis of viewing numbers, but I sincerely hope that his work will slowly build up an audience as well as the appreciation, as camp, that it deserves…

INVITATION TO HELL (1982):

SKARE (2007)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

10 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: NIGHT OF THE DEMON aka CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957)

screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-11-56-03-am

I’ll be away from my desk today. I am currently focusing my time and energies on preparing some very exciting (at least to me) posts for these last few days leading up to Halloween and I need another break to get some other things done.

We all need a break sometimes.

That doesn’t mean that the momentum stops or quality drops.

“It’s in the trees…it’s coming!”

Information processing theory suggests that skills and knowledge are lost without continuous practice or, at the very least, that skills and knowledge become flawed or tainted without direct repetition. The occult practice of magick suggests otherwise. The development of any knowledge or skill can continue, unabated, in the form of ritual that has very little similarity in form or content to the skills and knowledge it represents and maintains.

You may very well develop your skills as a painter, or a parent, or even a politician, through years of washing dishes or the daily practice of lighting an incense stick. It is the intention that matters when it comes to the continued maintenance and development of the human mind.

NIGHT OF THE DEMON is a break in my usual “programming”, but it is by no means a gap.

NIGHT OF THE DEMON is a ritual. It also happens to be one of the best horror films ever made and certainly the best horror film about the occult or magick (in my reasonably informed opinion). If you’ve seen it, it can be rewatched without losing its power. If you have not seen it, you are wrong. You are just wrong. Change your mind.

If you have an emergency, stop reading now and deal with it immediately. Not having seen NIGHT OF THE DEMON counts as an emergency.

Otherwise, you may leave me a message after the tone and I’ll try to get back to you within 24 hours….

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

Fun is the Law…


NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

11 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: BLOOD LINK aka EXTRASENSORIAL aka THE LINK (1982)

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-5-15-42-pm

A few years ago I searched high and low for BLOOD LINK on Youtube in order to present it along with my (then) comprehensive list of 80s Italohorror streaming online. This year I’m pleased to announce that it is available again through the website of Horrorfanbaby: a collector of rare horror that has been such an important source for this blog that I previously dedicated an entire post as tribute to his Youtube channel.

Before I talk about the movie, though, I want to give credit to another valuable Youtube channel that I’ve linked to this year and which I urge you to check out.

I’m particularly fond of Italian horror and so I would very likely have posted many examples of it on this year’s blog in any case, but I’ve been surprised and delighted (imagine me throwing my hands together and opening my eyes wide, raising in my seat) to discover a new Youtube channel with streaming copies (some very nice) of many Italian Giallo films that up until recently have been nearly impossible to find.

That channel is EUROSLASH:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtkguJzjcJIuOoblOo3Ef1w

Between EUROSLASH and it’s sister channel RETROTHRILLS, you have enough quality entertainment to last you for months. What makes this site particularly important, apart from the Giallos, is that it makes available one of the largest selections of German Krimi films (kind of a German version of the Giallo…but also an influence on Giallo filmmakers) that I’ve ever seen online in the States. From the moment I started this blog I’ve been wanting to do an entire post dedicated to Krimi films but not one of any quality was available on Youtube. Now there are so many on EUROSLASH that I wouldn’t even know which to choose for sharing. Just go to the site and pick one…you can’t go wrong!

Okay, that business is out of the way…on to the movie.

BLOOD LINK is winter horror at it’s finest…at least for the first half. I have no idea if it was filmed in Canada but it might as well have been. It has that Canadian feel. Perhaps it was filmed in Germany…IMDB doesn’t say. In any case, it makes good use of flat suburban-sprawl landscapes, covered with snow and smud  with 80s office buildings and spatterings of not-yet-developed nature, that makes it all very familiar and cozy to a midwesterner like myself. It’s almost ugly…but then it’s absolutely not. In fact, BLOOD LINK is beautifully filmed. It is a shame that it has not been rereleased and restored because I would love to see it in its original aspect ratio as intended. There is a close attention to visual composition and effect in this film that doesn’t entirely come across in the full screen version. The color white is used in interesting ways that suggests it may be even more effective in widescreen. Instead, the beauty comes through almost subliminally as a sign of what might be. I’ve never seen it “letterboxed” myself. I consider that one of my “holy grails” of horror…which means it will likely happen eventually. If I appreciate it that much someone else has to…someone with the money and discipline to make it happen! Watching this full screen version has the same kind of bittersweet appeal for me as watching Dario Argento’s films back in the 80s when they were only available in full screen. You just KNEW you were missing something great…but you could only DREAM about it. Sometimes dreaming is a good thing…

BLOOD LINK, though directed by an Italian, backs off from the editing and narrative eccentricities one might expect from 1980s Italy. It is much more subdued in its imagery for the most part…often evoking, in my mind, Cronenberg. Perhaps it’s those winter landscapes, as well as an introduction to the main character strangely similar to VIDEODROME, that provokes the association. However, if you explore the psychological subtexts of the film, there are also some blood links with Cronenberg when it comes to the themes as well. I imagine the director had Cronenberg in mind…but I have to admit that David Cronenberg is like Tootsie Rolls to me. He’s everywhere I see…

Michael Moriarty plays a psychologist who has undergone an experimental therapy that seems to have unleashed visions of murder that disturb and fascinate him. What follows is, for the most part, somewhat similar to the EYES OF LAURA MARS mold…but there is the added touch of his actually feeling the emotions of the killer as well as seeing through the killer’s eyes. That certainly adds a twist. As the film becomes an exploration of man struggling with his dark double (see FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY) it tends to avoid many of the cliches associated with that theme and manages to really develop some empathy for its characters. Of course it also threatens those empathetic characters with murder (and sometimes follows through).

The suspense in BLOOD LINK is remarkably well done. The classic Ennio Morricone score helps, but the stalking and murder scenes are effective in their own right. I don’t just watch BLOOD LINK as a detached aesthete, it definitely gets my blood pumping. There are some scary moments and some of these are very cleverly contrived.

BLOOD LINK is one of my favorite 80s Italo-horror movies for a reason other than what draws me to most of my favorites (like, for example, the previously posted THE PRINCE OF TERROR). I usually enjoy 80s Italo-horror at least partly for its (masterful) utilization of camp and shallow stereotypes. BLOOD LINK is not “camp” …or at least not “low camp.” It is actually a damned good, slickly crafted horror movie.

Let’s hope for a letterboxed version to come out that can finally prove it…

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

12 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958) & MANNEQUIN IN RED (1958)

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-3-54-36-pm
Two very different classic horror films from Northern Europe today. You can see they both came out in the same year. The late 50s were apparently a very good time for horror/thrillers in Sweden and Norway.

The Norwegian film LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958) is famous in Norway. It was recently listed by Norwegian critics as one of the best five films to be produced in that country and it has a reputation as a horror film similar, I suppose, to what PSYCHO might have in the United States. In style it is much more like the eery, subtle horror of Jacques Tourneur’s THE CAT PEOPLE or I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Like those movies, the black and white photography is pushed to its expressive limits depicting ominous, mysterious threats in apparently benign locales.

Like THE CAT PEOPLE, LAKE OF THE DEAD is heavily laden with references to Freudian psychology. The novel it was based upon was one in a series featuring the same amateur detective whose peculiar sleuthing style was founded entirely upon psychology. You could say it was a forerunner to the popular “criminal profiler” trend we’ve seen in contemporary film and TV since THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS made it such a big success. This sleuth, by profession a Freudian analyst, often finds himself at odds with more overtly rational, Sherlock Holmes-style detectives and beats them at their own game. It is interesting to see this popular image of psychology from the 1950s in opposition to rationality. That dichotomy hasn’t necessarily endured in popular culture, but it was certainly still alive and well in the late 50s. Perhaps it was the work of Jung that helped to associate psychology with the occult, ghosts, psychic powers and the like, but the association took on a life of its own and in many classic genre films from around the world, well into the 70s, psychology is often presented as indistinguishable from what is now, charitably, called “parapsychology.”

Because the issues that Freud and psychology dealt with were taboo in polite society, there was also an exploitative aspect to referencing psychology in genre movies and novels. By the 60s, especially in Europe, psychological neurosis and illness as understood by Freud – often related to childhood traumas – were central themes in what seemed like the vast majority of well regarded horror films. This gave a certain amount of legitimacy and gravity when the main goal is to show crazy people going on killing sprees, but it also sometimes led to more mature, sophisticated approaches to narrative and characterization than horror films may have previously attempted. Sexual or moral issues that would have otherwise been off the table for a popular film, some of them central to the plot in LAKE OF THE DEAD, could now be explored more fully and, at times, contribute to much needed public conversations.

The maturity and intelligence of the characters in LAKE OF THE DEAD, even when confronted with extraordinary events, is in stark contrast to the stock characters one might see in similar American films from the time. The women are on equal footing with the men, it seems, and their relationships reflect a culture that respects “sensible” understanding and mutual respect…even in the midst of conflict. At first I felt as if the characters were talking an awful lot and this was going to be a “talky” theatrical film, but then I realized the movie was progressing at the same speed as most visually-oriented films and that this was actually just a realistic portrayal of how intelligent people of the time might have actually spoken. It’s nice to see intelligent, strong people in movies that actually have something to say…especially since most contemporary horror films seem to feature immature, self-defeating idiots lovable only for their artificial peculiarities if they’re not just vapid, featureless, avatars for a video game injured audience. (Yes…I enjoy being condescendingly disdainful. My blood is black as pitch.)

MANNEQUIN IN RED, from Sweden, is also based on a best-selling mystery novel. This series of novels featured a husband and wife crime-solving team with a dynamic similar to Emma Peele and Steed in the popular TV show THE AVENGERS. By this I mean that they are equally intelligent and capable (with the female half of the team being somewhat more intelligent) but, working undercover, the woman is able to get important inside info by playing roles that exclude men: secretary, nun, the scientist daughter of a visiting ambassador…or whatever. In the case of MANNEQUIN IN RED, our lady detective takes on the role of a fashion model in order to infiltrate the female-dominated studio of a high-fashion dress designer where the expected back-stabbing has gotten way out of hand.

The comparison with THE AVENGERS extends past the relationship of the main characters. MANNEQUIN IN RED has the same mix of quirky humor, strange imagery, and eccentric characters that made THE AVENGERS so popular. It is certainly not as serious as LAKE OF THE DEAD, but it has some nail-biting moments and startling imagery. The color and locations are beautiful. I’m sure it’s not technicolor, but it has that wonderful 1950s Alfred Hitchcock style flatness to the coloring that is so evocative and romantic to someone like me (who wasn’t alive then). The wonderful examples of high-fashion clothing and modern interior design helps. It’s Agatha Christie / Edgar Wallace meets FUNNY FACE…and that’s a helluva lot of fun. There’s even a musical sequence in which a hiply dressed chanteuse sings while making her way through a nightclub so packed with socialites and potted plants that it looks like a Surrealist exhibition. All it’s missing are live snails and an indoor rainstorm.

Historically, when it comes to horror, MANNEQUIN IN RED is significant for being a possible inspiration for Mario Bava’s more famous fashion-themed murder mystery BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. That film set the mold for visual audaciousness and mounting body count that would be imitated and developed throughout the 60s and 70s in Italy’s most famous horror films. It is also sometimes referred to as the first “slasher film” (although that honor is also sometimes given to another film by Mario Bava, A BAY OF BLOOD.)

That would make MANNEQUIN IN RED the first “proto-slasher”(I’m poking fun at a meaningless horror fan term there,) although really it’s nothing of the sort. It’s just a good, old-fashioned, twisty-turny, super-fun murder mystery that I think you’ll enjoy…

LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958)

MANNEQUIN IN RED (1958)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

13 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973)

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-5-28-05-pm

I’m not particularly fond of the classic movie monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the classic movie version of The Werewolf. I like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but that’s an exception. I don’t consider the Invisible Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Mr. Hyde to be monsters at all. I think the original Dracula and Frankenstein movies are a terrible bore, and though I truly appreciate Mary Shelley’s novel, I much prefer the classic gothic novels The Castle Of Otranto, The Monk: A Romance, and The Mysteries of Udolpho. I don’t like Bram Stoker’s Dracula at all.

Part of my bias has to do with childhood overexposure. I took horror very seriously, even at at a young age. After you’ve seen so many satires of the classic monsters, badly animated cartoon versions, and witnessed the poor monsters’ forays into comedy with Abbot and Costello or Sonny and Cher, the “monstrous” begins to wear off the monster and with it, for me, the monster’s charm. Another problem I had with the classic monsters is that they were so stuck within their origin myths that there didn’t seem to be much I could do with them in my own imagination without battling a century worth of tradition. I dare you to read Mary Shelley’s novel now without picturing at least one of the movie versions of the monster in your head!

Many films have attempted to “revamp” these classic monster stories or have offered their own postmodern takes on them. Few have succeeded, I think, better than FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY. Rather than subverting the themes of the original novel or completely ignoring them, FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY draws its inspiration from the entire oeuvre of Frankenstein films that had been made up to that point and, with respect to the themes of the novel, made some innovative, meaningful changes.

Most notable of these was the decision to portray Frankenstein’s monster, initially, as an attractive man. This has been copied so many times now (most recently in the tv series PENNY DREADFUL) that it may not have the same effect for a contemporary audience as it did when the movie was first shown, but imagine the surprise when the monster’s body, wrapped from head to toe in gauze, is slowly unwrapped to reveal a young and handsome man instead of the expected Karloff inspired monstrosity! The original film shocked through the revelation of the grotesque, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY shocked with a revelation of beauty! This was even before THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW…there was no precedent.

This certainly makes the relationship between the monster and Dr. Frankenstein, as well as the doctor’s eventual rejection of the monster, take on an entirely different character. In fact, there is a subtle homoerotic undertone to FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY that is certainly no accident. The script for the film was written by none other than Christopher Isherwood, the famed openly gay novelist, in collaboration with his lover Don Bachardy. There is no doubt that they were sensitive to the homoerotic subtexts that many critics and scholars have also pointed out in the original novel.

There are several directions I could go from here in talking about the movie. One is to give a brief synopsis of the history of “Queer Theory” scholarship and its embrace of the Frankenstein story. Another is to make parallels between the writing of the novel and Isherwood’s own experience working on this adaptation. A third is to point out some of the gay specific references and mythological references that are scattered throughout the movie, such as the decision to animate the monster with solar energy rather than electricity. Finally, I might touch upon the accusation of misogyny that I’ve seen a few critics hurl at this adaptation.

I think I will just provide one little nugget of info about each and leave it to you to do further research should you be interested. I assure you that this film is a kind of treasure chest of associations and interesting cross-references. It unfolds in a hundred different directions with just a little investigation.

Concerning “Queer Theory,” I will skip the pain of providing definitions and clarifications about the field of criticsm. Look it up. I will say that I’m not fond of the current direction this particular strain of academic research is going, but I will leave it at that. The great majority of essays I’ve read about horror written from the perspective of Queer Theory are complete nonsense. Nonetheless, before the academic institutions regimented themselves into a Marxist version of postmodernism restricted to the theories of thinkers no more than forty years old, there were at least a few daring academics who sought to approach cultural artifacts from the unique perspective of people marginalized for their sexuality. These academics worked to uncover the hidden histories and meanings of cultural artifacts that had, up to then, been suppressed. One such academic was a young Mitchell Walker who, sitting on his couch one evening, was absent-mindedly paying attention to a movie playing on TV when he was struck by something he had never seen before: the Frankenstein monster being revealed as a beautiful man in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. This caught his attention, not the least because of the handsome fellow running around mostly naked in a medical gauze jockstrap. He went on to write one of the first major essays on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from a Jungian perspective with a special emphasis on the monster being Frankenstein’s double distorted by the taboo against homosexuality. It can be found online through the following link, and reading it may be a good introduction for viewing today’s movie:

http://uranianpsych.org/pages/FrankensteinWalkerFinalR.pdf

The actual writing of Mary Shelley’s novel has some parallels with Isherwood’s writing of the adaptation. The legend concerning the writing of Frankenstein is that, during a drug fueled summer vacation at Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her partner Percy Bysshe Shelley, along with Lord Byron and several others, entertained each other by writing ghost stories. Mary Shelley spontaneously came up with the story of Frankenstein and the rest is history.

In reality, there is some question as to which parts of the Frankenstein story were inventions of Mary Shelley and what aspects were contributions from her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. While it is understandable that some might resist sharing the credit of one of our most famous female novelist’s novel with her already canonized writer husband, recent scholarship suggests that a great deal of it was developed between the two of them, going back and forth, as a collaboration. It feels like an attempt to rob a great female novelist of her just appreciation, but it appears to be the truth.

What is of further interest to those who study the novel and its subtext, is the nature of Mary Shelley’s relationship with Percy Shelley and, indeed, the nature of the romantic and sexual relationships of all the poets, writers and philosophers that she congregated with. By the standards of their time, all these people were “queers.” They developed unconventional and taboo sexual relationships and even went so far as to reject traditional marriage to look for new kinds of familial and relationship bonds. It is now a fairly acceptable theory that Percy Bysshe Shelley was primarily homosexual and that Mary Shelley was aware of this. Rather than seeing it as an impediment to their relationship, this is something that they attempted to work into their shared sex life and their private lifestyle while all the time having to contend with the frightening prospect that their personal choices could result in their persecution should they become exposed to the public at large.

As an openly gay writer collaborating with his partner of many years, Isherwood and Bachardy had more than a little in common with the writers of the original story. One could think of few writers better suited to capture the angst and sense of cultural oppression – as well as the strange mix of fascination and horror of the taboo – that informs the original text.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY remains very close to the novel in that the context of the monster’s creation is very much a hermetically sealed world of men and their secrets. They are bonded by these secrets and at the same time condemned by them. The movie goes so far as to introduce a subplot involving Dr. Frankenstein being blackmailed with the threat of having his secrets exposed. Not a part of the novel, this was a common occurrence and fear for homosexuals around the world well into the 20th century and its inclusion here is definitely a reflection of the experience of homosexuality that Isherwood would have been familiar with.

The publishing of Isherwood’s journal after his death was not good for his reputation. Mainly it revealed that, at least in his personal journal entries, he was casually anti-semitic and seemed to have a great deal of resentment toward women. The extent to which these tendencies carry into his art is debatable, but I should address the accusation that FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is a misogynistic take on the Frankenstein story. To be blunt, I completely disagree. In fact, going into the movie knowing full well what Isherwood’s private feelings were, I was expecting a fairly insensitive portrayal of Lady Frankenstein as an anchor around the doctor’s neck: a needling representation of social repression and responsibilities holding him back from his realization in his work. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Frankenstein’s dedication to his family life and his wife is, indeed, in conflict with his secret interests, the exposure of his secrets and his wife’s response to them is not in the least stereotypical.

Much has also been made of Isherwood’s portrayal of the “bride of the monster” as a kind of femme fatale. While this is true, she is also portrayed as the victim and pawn of men struggling for power. In fact, there aren’t any negative depictions of “female society” or “female traits” in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY that aren’t put into the context of patriarchal hierarchies of power and control in a manner obviously revealing the target of Isherwood’s true criticism: the complex system of social oppression limiting the personal expression, education and power of both men and women. It is surprisingly feminist in its obvious intentions at times, considering Isherwood may very well have had a strong personal disdain for women in general.

It goes to show that there is a distinction between an artist and their art. One can also make a distinction between any person’s feelings and their actions should that person have a certain amount of self-control and intellectual distance in evaluating their own motivations. It appears to me that, in spite of the sometimes inexcusable content of his private journals, Isherwood had that kind of self-awareness. On the other hand, it may have been the influence of his lover, Don Bachardy, the love of his life, that balanced out Isherwood’s negative tendencies. In any case, this adaptation of Frankenstein is among the most insightful and progressive in its examination of sexuality, gender, class and religion in the context of the well know Frankenstein mythology. By now that mythology is much more than a book by Mary Shelley and is a part of the collective unconscious of our culture. Understanding it in the light of new perspectives can tell us a lot about ourselves, our limiting biases and beliefs, and the unlimited possibilities available to us when we unleash the repressed Prometheus inside.

NOTE:

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is a “miniseries” presented in two segments over two nights. You might want to split up the viewing that way yourself. It may be a bit too much for one go…depending on your tolerance for these things.

Also, this film was presented with an incredibly bizarre, unnecessary, and spoiler filled introduction during its original broadcast. Apparently the networks thought the audience needed a “preview” of the movie they were about to watch so as to be reassured there was some action forthcoming. That introduction is included on this Youtube version of the film and it is truly awful. I beg that you fast-forward through it to minute 5:46 and begin the movie proper with its beautiful opening credit sequence.

Posted in 1970s horror, gothic horror, Television Horror | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment