Saturday, October 20, 2012
Ah, it’s that time of year again. You can smell it in the air — the decaying flesh of zombies, the fear of small children. The decorations are up, people are planning their costumes, and once again, I’ve been spending October watching some of my favorite horror movies.
I’ve made my way through the classic Universal Frankenstein films, the Hammer Dracula series, and waiting on the shelf are seasonal favorites like Halloween (the 1978 original, of course), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the 2007 horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat. There are some movies, though, that don’t get the attention I think they deserve. I thought I’d recommend a few titles.
After winning a Best Screenplay Oscar for 1978's Midnight Express, Oliver Stone got a chance to direct his first movie for a major studio. He made The Hand, a horror movie based on Marc Brandell’s novel The Lizard’s Tail. It wasn’t his first dip in the horror well. His feature film directorial debut was 1974's Seizure, starring Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins in the old daytime horror soap Dark Shadows) and Martine Beswick (Prehistoric Women, From A Whisper to A Scream). I still haven’t seen that movie, but I like the fact that one of the most fascinating, unpredictable and respected careers in American cinema began in the horror genre.
Released in 1981, The Hand was met with hostility, derision, and dismal box office numbers. Critics hated it, and so did moviegoers. I did not agree with them. I didn’t know who Stone was back then, but I enjoyed the movie thoroughly. A few years ago, I watched it again for the first time in about twenty years. As so many other movies I’ve enjoyed in the past have done, I expected it to disappoint me. I expected to find that it didn’t hold up, that everyone had been right back in 1981, and I had simply been young and easy to please. But I was wrong about that. If anything, I liked the movie more. Now I’ve added it to my list of October movies.
Michael Caine plays Jon Lansdale, a successful artist with a popular syndicated comic strip. Lansdale is spoiled, self-centered, conceited, and seems unaware of the fact that his wife is unhappy and stifled in her job as caretaker and yes-woman to him. When she suggests that she pursue her own interests, he sees it as a threat. They have a heated discussion in the car while she’s driving, and in a subsequent car accident, Lansdale’s right hand is severed. The hand is never found. But as Lansdale sees his life unraveling, he does the same. The hand returns to dispatch those he sees as enemies, or at least as threats.
The movie explores the power struggle in relationships and the severed hand becomes a kind of Id monster. Lansdale wanted to keep an iron grip on his wife, as if she were a piece of property, but in addition to losing her, he loses his career because he can no longer draw. The hand lashes out, desperately trying to keep him from falling deeper into the hole he’s been digging for himself. Michael Caine gives a powerful performance, managing to make Lansdale somewhat sympathetic, even though he’s not very likeable. Caine makes him human. What Lansdale experiences could be seen as a nasty case of PTSD brought on by the accident in which he lost his hand — which, by the way, is a very brief, disturbing incident, beautifully shot, that haunts the rest of the movie. The Hand is my favorite kind of horror movie — is there really an evil hand crawling around, or is Jon Lansdale batshit-crazy?
Another such movie is 1957's Night of the Demon. The U.S. release was trimmed down from 95 minutes to 83 and retitled Curse of the Demon, but back in the 1980s, Columbia Pictures restored the footage while retaining the U.S. title (a DVD release has both versions). Based on M.R. James’s story “Casting of the Runes,” the movie follows Dr. John Holden, played by Dana Andrews, a skeptic who intends to expose black magic cult leader Julian Karswell (a cheerfully sinister Niall McGinnis). But things don’t work out quite as Holden expects. Director Jacques Tourneur planned to avoid directly showing the “demon” of the title, but the studio thought a monster would increase the film’s chances of commercial success and insisted it be shown. The result has been the subject of much debate. Would the movie be better without showing the demon? Yes, I think it would — but I like the damned monster! It scared the piss out of me when I was a boy. Even with that big ugly, we find ourselves wondering throughout the movie what is real and what has been created by the power of suggestion.
There’s not much suggestion in 1977's The Sentinel, adapted from Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel and directed by Michael Winner. It’s not a subtle movie. But I think it still packs a hell of a punch. Christina Raines plays fashion model Alison Parker, who wants to prove to herself — and to her lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) — that she’s capable of living on her own and taking care of herself. She moves into a building where she has some extremely bizarre neighbors. There’s Mr. Chazen (Burgess Meredith) and his cat, and a pair of exhibitionist lesbians (Sylvia Miles and Beverley D’Angelo), among others. On the top floor, seated at a window looking out over New York, is Alison’s quietest neighbor, Father Halliran, an old, blind priest played by horror veteran John Carradine. Haunted by a traumatic experience with her father and a subsequent suicide attempt, Alison is emotionally fragile and not entirely stable. When she complains about her noisy, weird neighbors, she’s told that, other than the priest, she is the only resident of the building. She has no neighbors. She begins to discover that she did not move into that building by chance, and she is there for a horrifying reason.
Whether or not The Sentinel works for you will depend on how you feel about religious horror. I’ve always had a soft spot for it. This is religious horror with a vengeance. I’ve seen it many, many times, and even now, as I approach my fiftieth birthday, there are scenes in this movie that make me want to hide under the bed, and I think they are among the greatest, most effective horror movie scenes ever shot. Director Winner did something that caused a great deal of controversy at the time, something that still makes the movie stand out all these years later. He cast as the denizens of hell real human oddities, people with shocking deformities. As controversial and politically incorrect as this was, it was effective as hell. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, this is a great time to watch it.
Director Tim Burton has Halloween in his genes. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that his head is full of pumpkin seeds and he shits candy corn. For me, his movies Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow are required viewing at Halloween time. Although his 1996 box office disappointment Mars Attacks! isn't a horror movie and doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of Halloween, I think it beautifully captures the spirit of the holiday of mischief. It’s an over-the-top spoof of 1950s science fiction movies. And it’s crazy. I’m always surprised when I talk to someone who dislikes the movie — I can’t take it seriously enough to dislike it. When you sit down to watch a movie that’s based on a series of Topps trading cards, that replaces Sarah Jessica Parker’s head with the head of a Chihuahua, and features Tom Jones singing “It’s Not Unusual” to woodland creatures, it seems kind of pointless to look for flaws.
Roger Ebert wrote of Mars Attacks!, “A movie like this should be a lot better, or a lot worse.” I agree with that to a certain extent. It has too much big-budget gloss to pull off the clunky charm of, say, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the all-star cast doesn’t help. But still, how often do you get to see a stampeding herd of cattle in flames, or Slim Whitman’s singing saving the world? Instead of wishing it were something it’s not, I prefer to enjoy the hell out of what it is. For me, the movie is stolen by the martians themselves, who make sounds that never fail to crack me up. Whether or not you think the movie is successful in its attempt to spoof ‘50s sci-fi movies, it’s still full of tricks and treats, and it makes an ideal party movie.
The Universal horror movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and to some extent the ‘50s have provided much of what we now accept as the imagery of Halloween: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Wolf Man, the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Those faces have become iconic and instantly recognizable even to those who aren’t horror movie fans. But my favorite Universal horror movie from that era usually gets passed over in discussions of the studio’s contributions to the genre. It has none of Jack Pierce’s memorable monster makeup, no mad scientists frantically adjusting the flashing, buzzing machinery in the lab. Instead, it focuses on the most diabolical, cruel, and bloodthirsty of monsters: human beings.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 movie The Black Cat claims to be based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, but that was a white lie told to cash in on the late writer’s popularity. It has nothing to do with Poe. Instead, it’s about American newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop) Allison, who encounter Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) on a train while honeymooning in Hungary. Later, after a bus accident, the three end up taking refuge in the big and beautifully creepy mansion of architect and Satanic cult leader Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).
Werdegast and Poelzig are old rivals. 18 years ago, Werdegast left his beloved wife to go off to war and has spent the last 15 years in a brutal prison camp. In his absence, Poelzig took Werdegast’s wife and daughter for his own, and now Werdegast has come back to claim them. Poelzig’s mansion has been built on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which he commanded during the war, and which he accuses Werdegast of betraying to the Russians. They are more than rivals, they are bitter enemies. But they remain gentlemen and speak to one another in a kind of code while the smiling, young American newlyweds remain completely oblivious to just about everything around them. What they don’t know is that Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan Allison in a Satanic ritual — and to be honest, the two Americans are so annoyingly stupid that it’s hard to care.
What we do care about is the struggle between Werdegast and Poelzig, and we care because Karloff and Lugosi practically glow with charisma throughout the movie. Both actors were enormously popular at the time, the masters of horror in American film. They were paired up in other movies, but never as effectively. Karloff is clearly the better actor, but both of them grab you by the throat when they’re on screen. Karloff’s wild appearance — his flattop haircut with that widow’s peak and his strange clothes — seems fitting in that weird art deco mansion. (When I was a boy, I wanted to live in that mansion someday!) The two horror stars tower over everyone and everything else in the movie. Even if the movie weren’t very good, Karloff and Lugosi would make it worth watching. But the movie isn’t just good — it’s great.
In Germany, Edgar G. Ulmer worked under F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and in The Black Cat, it’s obvious that he learned a lot from them. He brought German expressionism to Hollywood and slathered it all over this movie. The Black Cat was made before the crazy Hayes Code brought its church lady sensibilities to American movies. Satanism, necrophilia, and a scene in which Werdegast skins Poelzig alive are still kind of shocking in a movie from 1934 — and they help make it memorable.
Among all of Universal’s monsters, mad scientists, and cobweb-filled castles, The Black Cat stands out like panther at a dog show. When I was a boy, those monsters were what I expected from horror movies, and I was always disappointed if they didn’t show up. I still love them, but as I’ve grown older, my tastes have shifted, and I find movies like The Black Cat more satisfying. And the movies of Val Lewton, for example.
Lewton was a writer who, under a long list of pseudonyms (his real name was Vladimir Leventon), wrote novels, magazine articles, and even pornography, and, while working in the MGM publicity office, novelizations of popular movies. That work has long been forgotten. But the horror movies he produced for RKO have, over the years, only gained more and more respect. While Universal Studios was keeping Jack Pierce busy coming up with one ghastly monster after another, Lewton looked inward for his horrors. From 1942 to 1946, he made a series of dream-like psychological horror movies, each of which began with a lurid title. Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, Ghost Ship, Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam were the antithesis of the wildly popular horror movies being turned out by Universal at the time.
The titles assigned to Lewton and his team probably would have been shot quickly and forgotten by most producers. But Lewton wanted them to rise above their genre. Although his budgets were small, he wanted quality and intelligence in his horror movies. Producers at that time seldom if ever contributed to the creative process; they more commonly interfered with it and even stifled it. But Lewton had his hand in every aspect of production. The resulting movies look and feel different than any other genre pictures of that time. My favorite Lewton titles for October viewing are Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. Every time I watch them, I wish Lewton were still around. It would be nice if horror movies were made with such care today.
If you can think of some good old horror movies that are typically neglected these days, tell me about them in the comments below. Happy Halloween!