Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Frightmare

1974
Dir. Pete Walker

British director Pete Walker is often over unfairly overlooked in the history of British horror cinema. In a time when Hammer was, well, ‘hammering’ out elaborate gothic fantasies set in far off lands full of superstitious locals, middle class genteel types and otherworldly monsters, Walker was setting his more grimy tales firmly in contemporary England. His horrors spewed out within grotty bed-sits, bleak London streets and hideous seventies décor.

Frightmare explores notions of family, generational conflict and authority, with graphic and, dare I say it, gritty enthusiasm. Taking aim at the ‘liberal’ leanings of British society at the time, particularly the reliability of psychiatric treatments, the film follows the exploits of the deranged and utterly insane Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith). Released from incarceration after fifteen years, Dorothy is not as reformed or rehabilitated as her carers would like to imagine. As soon as she is released she resumes alleviating her insatiable appetite for human flesh. Setting up a tarot-reading service in her home, she lures various waifs and strays to their violent deaths. Daughters Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) and Debbie (Kim Butcher) have wildly different opinions on their mother’s mental well-being, while their doting and completely ineffectual father (Rupert Davies) feels powerless to do anything. He is a typical weak-willed Walker ‘hero’, as is the rather dashing though clearly out of his depth psychiatrist Graham (Paul Greenwood).

As is typical of Walker though, he presents his female characters, especially Dorothy, as fully fleshed and strong-willed individuals. We see more to Dorothy than her dark and anti-social instincts – at several points throughout the film we witness her in quieter moments, reflecting and even despairing. It’s made clear that no one has ever tried to help her effectively. Those that do, such as Graham, come across as ignorant and wishy-washy dullards.




Questioning the reliability of psychiatric institutions in the Seventies, Frightmare is a taboo-breaking and gore-soaked exploration of nightmarish tendencies played out against a backdrop of the Home Counties. Walker usually liked to wind up critics and censors in his depictions of the depraved and shocking, and at the time, he succeeded in doing so with this film. In following the diabolical antics of ‘a sweet, little old lady’, Frightmare is subversive and steeped in tar-black humour. Keith’s portrayal of Dorothy Yates is mesmerising. Amongst other things the film can lay claim to being one of the first to utilise power tools as instruments of death and destruction and actually led the way for films such as Driller Killer and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in securing some form of acceptance in British cinemas. The sight of Dorothy advancing on her hapless, and quite frankly, idiotic victims is a sight you will not soon forget. And the perhaps not too surprising twist at the climax, still manages to induce chills and discomfort in its portrayal of the lengths some people will go to protect the ones they love. Families, eh? You just can't pick 'em.




Utilising an extremely low budget, and aptly conjuring a bleak atmosphere Walker presents us with a depiction of a time when he believed the majority of society to be conforming to a Conservative and conventional regime of illiberal principles. With bucket loads of the red stuff thrown in for good measure.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Black Sunday

1960
Dir. Mario Bava

Aka The Mask of Satan

With Black Sunday, Mario Bava not only directed his first film (if you don’t count Riccardo Freda’s The Vampires, which Bava photographed and finished directing when Freda gave up on it), he also made what many consider to be the definitive Gothic horror film. Adapted from a short story by Nicolaj Gogal, Black Sunday was banned in Britain for eight years, due in large to the brutal opening sequence where Barbara Steele has a mask with spikes inside it forcably fixed to her face.

The diabolical Princess Asa (Steele) and her fiendish servant, are put to death as punishment for her witchcraft and vampirism, and interned in the crypt of her ancestors; but not before she vows to inflict vengeance on the future generations of her family.
Two centuries later, the wheel of the coach carrying the doctors Andre Gorobec and Thomas Kruvajan to a convention buckles, and they are temporarily stranded outside an ancient crypt. Which of course they decide to explore. Kruvajan cuts himself while fending off a giant bat, and his blood trickles into the coffin of Princess Asa, and unbeknownst to the intrepid physicians, begins to revive her putrid corpse.
Leaving the gloomy vault, Kruvajan and Andre met Princess Katia (Steele again) outside. Steele looks resplendent against the backdrop of the ruins and the unsettled matte skies beyond as she wields two Dobermans on leashes, and demands to know what the inquisitive doctors think they are doing. As soon as he sees her, Andre falls in love. The sap.
Meanwhile, back inside the crypt, Asa is almost completely rejuvenated and using her dark powers, resurrects the decomposing body of her servant so he can aid her in carrying out her dark desires once again.

‘Those empty eyes seem to be looking at us.’
 
Black Sunday is a film of immense visual finesse and poetry. The cobwebbed and mist shrouded ruins in which Asa dwells, are a particularly astounding set piece. When Kruvajan and Andre enter the vault, Bava’s camera glides wraith-like through it, making an impressive 360 degree spin and taking in every inch of the ominous set.

The special effects utilised are subtle and created in camera, using make-up, lighting and editing trickery. A few memorable images occur when the devil mask fastened to the faces of Asa and her servant is reflected in a glass of wine, and when two eyes appear in the dark and empty sockets of Asa’s corpse. When Kruvajan ventures out into the night to smoke a cigarette, he stands by a little pool and throws a stone into it. As the water ripples the face of Asa slowly appears in the darkness, beautiful and dreamlike and more than a little unnerving.



When the spectral horse and carriage gallop in slow motion through the forest to abduct Kruvajan, it is reminiscent of Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula and just as creepy. Amando De Ossorio would appear to have been rather touched by this imagery as he would famously, and just as breathtakingly, recreate it in his Blind Dead films.

One of the most memorable scenes unfolds when Asa’s servant is resurrected and begins to claw his way out of his burial place. The camera floats to a window in the barn where a young girl is hiding and looks out at a creepy cemetery. We suddenly jump cut to the heaving earth under a tombstone as the corpse rises, still wearing the hideous and startlingly sinister mask. The stillness of this scene is also disconcerting; no music accompanies the chilling imagery. Bava makes impressive use of creepy sound effects such as the eerie winds that seem to constantly howl and the guttural wailing that emanates from the family vault.



Usually horror films are not renowned for their beauty or aesthetic quality, but Mario Bava (and later Dario Argento) would take a radically different approach to depicting scenes of terror. Murder and death is eroticised and twisted into something that is darkly beautiful. When Asa’s coffin rumbles open, revealing the wide-eyes and seductively heaving bosoms of Steele inside, the scene is immensely disturbing in its erotic intensity.

A sort of dream logic comes into play as the film nears its climax, particularly in the scene in which Constantine becomes trapped in the secret passageway behind the fireplace and is menaced by Asa’s servant who appears from nowhere and forces Constantine into a hole that just as suddenly appears in the floor.
Tim Burton would pay homage to this film in Sleepy Hollow – as much of a love-letter to old Hammer Horror films as it is to Black Sunday. The scenes in which Depp’s Ichabod Crane has flashbacks of his mother’s demise inside an iron maiden echo Steele’s ghastly fate in this film, and her later emergence with a multi-punctured face.


‘We’re in the presence of some unnatural mystery.’
Of course, we realise long before any of the characters, that Katia is the unfortunate descendant of Asa and that the evil princess plans to vampirically drain the life out of her and carry on living in her place. The twin roles that Barbara Steele portrays have cemented her reputation as one of horror’s most commanding presences. No one can play equal parts vulnerable and irresistibly menacing like her. Apart from Vincent Price of course. But that’s a whole other blog.
While it does contain many clichés associated with the gothic tradition, such as the secret-passage riddled castle, the superstitious locals, the helpless and swooning heroine, the stiff upper-lipped hero and rather quite baffling dialogue such as ‘The river! Can’t you see he’s dead’ or ‘He seems to be a lot calmer now’ – well, he IS sleeping!), Bava conducts this symphony of moodiness with such aplomb; it is never anything short of captivating.

A dark and gloomy fairy tale that crawls under the skin to seductively nuzzle from within.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Kill Baby Kill!

1966
Dir. Mario Bava

Slightly absurd title aside, Kill Baby Kill is without a doubt one of Mario Bava’s most underrated films and an undeniable slice of sublime high-Gothic hokum.
Arriving in an isolated Transylvanian village to investigate the death of a local woman, Dr Paul Eswai (the rather stiff and gauffered Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is met with suspicion and wariness by the various local types he encounters.
With the help of his assistant Monica (Erika Blank), Paul begins to suspect that something supernatural is occurring in the village. Something that is driving the locals to suicide. Something that appears to have a connection with the crumbling Villa Graps and its sinister inhabitant, Baroness Graps. But what?

Kill Baby Kill is, like quite a few Italian horror films, an exercise in style over substance. But when the style is created by Mario Bava, it is somehow easier to overlook the convoluted and threadbare plot and slight overuse of the 'shock zoom', and just allow one’s self to become utterly emerged in ethereal visuals and overwhelmingly creepy atmosphere. Bava is a true visual artist and treats his films like canvases, drenching everything in moodiness and saturated colour. His masterful direction renders the mundane and the everyday with a sense of otherworldliness and mystery: a slowly opening door, a child on a swing or a bouncing ball have rarely seemed so threatening or sinister. In lesser films, characters endlessly wandering through darkened streets and eerily lit hallways in crumbling gothic mansions might become tedious, but in a Mario Bava film, these moments are indelibly etched on the consciousness and are hypnotic in their style and mood.

The village in which the sinister events uncoil is essentially another character in the film, especially during the scenes that occur at night, when it takes on a completely different appearance once darkness falls. The Escheresque lanes and archways are ominous and yet retain a strange beauty due to the way in which Bava bathes them in moody lighting and meticulously considered composition.


 
 
The stifling atmosphere of impenetrable doom is further heightened by the locals’ saturation in superstition and anxiety. Paul represents the forward-thinking outsider; he comes from a world of reason and logic and is completely at odds with their way of thinking. It soon becomes apparent though that the supernatural does indeed have the village in its grip. Various appearances of a creepy ghost child are scattered throughout the film and create moments of genuine uneasiness. The ghost is that of a small girl who died under mysterious circumstances while the villagers were indulging in a festival many years ago. The fact that the ghost-girl is actually portrayed by a young boy in a vast blonde wig only adds to the uncanniness of her various appearances at windows, peering in ominously. These images seem to have had a big influence on Guillermo Del Toro, particularly in his film The Devil’s Backbone.


The oppressive atmosphere and airlessness of the film seems to affect the very characters themselves. The use of restrictive costumes adds to the stifling claustrophobia evoked by Bava. The female characters are bound up in corseted dresses, and throughout the film various male characters tug at their stiff collars as if gasping for air. Everything hangs together under a suffocating, unearthly ambience.






Events descend into further delirium and surrealism when Paul and Monica enter the dilapidated Villa Graps, resplendent in its faded grandeur. When Monica disappears, Paul follows her calls and enters a room with a huge cobwebbed painting of the house in the background. Following Monica’s voice through a door at the far end of the room, he ends up in the same room again. He continues to run through the same door and end up in the same room, over and over again. He speeds up, until he eventually begins to enter the room before he has left it and starts chasing himself through the same room over and over again, finally catching up with himself and providing the film with one of its most unsettling moments: his doppelganger staring back at him and laughing maniacally before disappearing. Paul at this stage is in as confused a state as we are. Stumbling back towards the picture of the house, Paul then becomes tangled up in cobwebs and falls back into the painting, emerging outside the house in a huge web, struggling to break out of it.

Meanwhile Monica has also become trapped in her own Moebius inspired nightmare: descending a flight of spiral steps, she begins to panic as she realises that they never end. Bava begins to move the camera to counter her movements and the effect is dizzying and utterly disorientating.




Unfolding as a series of provocative images and intriguing exposition, Kill Baby Kill is a visual feast that ambles along at a cadaver’s pace, but becomes increasingly involving as the protagonists become more immersed in the mystery. Logic is dispelled and in its place remains only the possibility that anything can happen. A masterpiece of mood and style.


Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Stage Fright

1987
Dir. Michele Soavi

AKA Bloody Bird
Sound Stage Massacre
Deliria
StageFright: Aquarius

A group of thespians are trapped inside a theatre while rehearsing a production based on the life of a nasty serial killer – who is also lurking inside the theatre and begins to pick off the actors one by one in a series of increasingly grisly ways…

Argento protégé Michele Soavi directed this, his debut film, as something of a homage to Dario Argento. The film is laced with outlandish implausibility and forehead-smacking irrationality, but it is shot through with such unflinching intensity and flair, it manages to retain one’s attention and perhaps even immerse the viewer in a dark and claustrophobic world in which a violent psychopath lurks behind every corner…

Argento’s influence on Soavi is apparent in the film’s visual department: creepy sets and lurid lighting abound in Stage Fright, and while it might be all style over substance – what style it is!

The film begins with what appears to be an attack on a prostitute in a dark and eerily lit alley. Suddenly the camera pulls back to reveal what we are actually witnessing is a dress rehearsal by a theatre troupe producing a play entitled The Night Owl. It is with this scene, and a few others like it that pepper the film, that Soavi sets the tone for Stage Fright. We are constantly reminded that what we are watching simply isn’t real. This isn’t done in a jokey ‘we’re so postmodern’ way; rather a more subtle and, dare I say it, sophisticated approach is utilised. This playful approach to the artifice of the horror genre is also deployed in a canny scene where, just before a character is killed, a bottle of fake blood falls to the floor, its contents spilling everywhere. Moments later when said character is killed by the owl-head wearing killer, his own blood mixes with that of the fake blood already on the floor. The hilarity. I mean, the reflexivity!





While the scenes depicting violence and stalking are carried off with aplomb, the same cannot be said of the rudimentary scenes and characterisation. Vague attempts are made to flesh out essentially 2D cardboard characters who are of course, only here to be bloodily murderlised. And Soavi knows this as well as we do. There is absolutely no mystery surrounding the killer’s identity or his motives – with this sort of information cast aside, Soavi quickly gets to work to do pretty much what any slasher movie fan expects the director to do. So what we get is a director who craftily toys with our expectations and every now and again actually provides something that is pleasantly refreshing in an otherwise by-the-numbers slasher film while also providing a high body count, gallons of blood and, if we’re lucky, some tension.




This is carefully exemplified in a rather tense scene in which we are led to believe (or simply assume, because it usually happens this way) that the killer is hiding in the back seat of a woman’s parked car. She sits futilely waiting for the intense rain to subside. And she continues to wait. And wait. All the while the tension mounts and continues to mount when the payoff we are so diligently waiting for doesn’t happen. Soavi manages to muster a dark and unnerving foreboding throughout, relaying heavily on atmospheric lighting and effective editing.

One of the most memorable moments occurs towards the climax, when our resourceful heroine Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) discovers she is the only one still left alive. She hides under the stage as the killer, complete with large owl head, grandly emerges onto the stage accompanied by the strains of operatic music and begins to adjust the exquisitely strewn corpses of his victims. Feathers billow ethereally around and the scene possesses a strange beauty. Some frantic tension involving a misplaced key ensues.
Soavi also has a little fun with the film’s mise en scene and there is usually something strange such as a mask or a mannequin in the forefront of various shots that proves quite striking and startling.



Despite these neat little touches, Soavi is still too quick to employ conventional shock tactics – the obligatory cat jumping out of a cupboard raises more of a chuckle than a jolt. Interestingly though, the group of characters attempt to stick together and don’t wander off alone to investigate strange noises. They still end up dead though – which they are supposed to do, what with this being a slasher film and everything.

With this film one could possibly describe Soavi as a poor-man’s Dario Argento, however with his subsequent films such as The Sect and Dellamorte, Dellamore, Soavi would really prove himself as a director of unique talent and vision, and come into his own as a purveyor of stylish and atmospheric edgy horror.
An unpretentious slasher film that possesses artistic flair, a striking visual style and more than a few moments of genuine tension.

Masque of the Red Death

1964
Dir. Roger Corman

‘Death has no master.’

What better way to celebrate the Bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe (only a day late) than to settle back, raise a glass of something shockingly red and full-bodied and feast your eyes upon the visual decadence that is Masque of the Red Death. Based upon one of Poe's most celebrated short stories and starring Poe-adaptation stalwart, and all-round devilishly watchable, Vincent Price, Masque of the Red Death is another Corman adaptation of Poe's work and one of the few films that fully captures the doomladen tone of the morbid writer's best work...

Tyrannical Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) abducts the beautiful young peasant girl Francesca (TV’s Jane Asher) and adjourns to his castle in an attempt to corrupt her innocent soul and offer her as a bride to Satan. Meanwhile, a deadly plague known as the Red Death ravages the countryside around his castle, indiscriminately killing off the local surf population and covering their faces in bright red sores.
Prospero decides to hide out in his seemingly impenetrable castle until the plague has absconded and offers refuge to his fellow noblemen and dignitaries. He plans to hold a masked Ball in honour of Satan and to make Francesca choose whose life she saves: her father’s or her lover’s.



Of all Corman’s Poe adaptations, The Masque of the Red Death is surely the most lavish and sumptuous. And it shows. Shot in England – the lower cost of doing so allowed Corman to fully utilise the slightly higher than usual budget and get value for money - the director was also able to make use of ready-made sets and costumes.
Photographed by a young Nicholas Roeg (who would go on to direct the likes of Walkabout and Don’t Look Now), the film unfolds within a number of opulently lit sets and thematically coloured rooms and chambers. This must surely be one of the most beautiful and lushly filmed horror movies and recalls the eerie beauty of work by the likes of Mario Bava and, eventually, Dario Argento.

The film also seemingly benefits from a longer shooting time (Corman was renowned for churning out his films in a matter of days) of 5 weeks. The studio-bound set lends the film an otherworldly edge, particularly the scenes in which the hooded reapers move ominously through the countryside, evoking memories of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, another film that deals explicitly with the nature of death and fate.
The film directly addresses a number of dichotomies such as good and evil, moral and immoral, rich and poor, before unveiling them all as equal in death. Approaching the concept of equality in death, the film possesses a cold logic that is deeply perturbing and lingers like a shroud of impenetrable fog.




The film also contains a number of overtly sadistic set-pieces, notably the scene in which Prince Prospero forces Francesca’s father and her suitor to cut themselves with a number of blades – one of which is poisoned. There is also a nasty scene that presents the death of Prospero’s ape-suited friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee) at the hands of a vengeful midget. This sub-plot is lifted wholesale from another Poe tale: Hop-Frog.

Another stand out moment occurs when Prospero’s companion Juliana (Hazel Court) invokes the presence of Satan and offers her earthly vessel to him to do with as he pleases. What follows is an incredibly creepy, nightmarish and suggestive scene in which Juliana dreams that she is repeatedly stabbed by different men with blades that increasingly differ significantly in size…


Vincent Price as the sadistic Prince Prospero is diabolically good. His cruel and distinctive tones wax lyrical about the power of the Dark One and the precarious stability of the material world. Philosophical discussions about morality and faith lend the film a distinct gravitas and depth and enhance the immoral deeds carried out by the unsavoury characters. It is again testament to Price's performance that we actually feel a shred of sympathy for the eeeevil Prospero when he realises the magnitude and inescapable nature of Death. The Bacchanalian ball is a visual delight and ripe with seedy, hedonistic imagery: prior to the dance, Prospero forces his guests to mimic the movements of animals he believes that best represent their primal characteristics.




It eventually becomes the ultimate flesh and blood show as an unexpected guest arrives and stalks through the halls in a red cloak and hood: the one colour Prospero strictly forbade his guests to wear… By the end of the evening all of the guests have been seduced by the unstoppable Dance of Death. The shots of this mysterious figure cutting through the hallways are vivid and striking and singe themselves into the brain. When Prospero glances full on at the face of the Red-clad intruder, we are offered another fiendish delight that is not easily forgotten.

Atmospheric, opulent and deeply troubling, The Masque of the Red Death, while taking a few small liberties with the original source material to pad out the running time, does succeed in creating an uncanny and macabre atmosphere and tone that is unmistakably Poe through and through.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Night of the Demon

1957
Dir. Jacques Tourneur

Understated and immensely provocative, Tourneur’s Night of the Demon pays homage to the films the director made with producer Val Lewton in the early 40s (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man). Regarded as a classic of the genre, and testament to the power of suggestion and evocation, Night of the Demon is based on a short story by MR James: The Casting of the Runes.

Dana Andrews (sans silver underwear) plays sceptical American psychologist Dr John Holden, who comes to England to investigate and disprove the supposedly supernatural acts of a sinister cult led by Dr Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Upon his arrival he discovers his friend and colleague Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) has died under mysterious circumstances. Accompanied by the late professor’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), Holden investigates the matter further only to become ensconced in a dark and uncertain world where the supernatural is frighteningly real.

Much of the story unfolds in a setting of low-key, ordinariness. This makes the intrusion of the supernatural upon the lives of the characters much more potent. When events take a sinister turn, it is all the more effective. This is perfectly played out in a scene involving an initially innocent enough séance that turns sour.

The film is a paradigm of subtlety and chilling suggestion: aside from several garish shots of the demon (which actually don’t detract from the subdued moodiness at all), included at the insistence of the producers, the film conveys its scenes of terror in quietude and impressionistic insinuations: shadows shimmering on walls, a disembodied hand appearing on a banister in the forefront of a shot, all add to the subdued mystery and moodiness.




The film is laced with mesmerizingly striking images such as the moody opening montage of shots of New Grange, and the scene where Holden is making his way back through the forest to his car from Karswell’s mansion, pursued by a fiendishly glowing cloud. When the demon emerges from a shimmering cloud at the beginning and the end of the film, it is genuinely eerie and unspools as a kind of dark visual poetry, the like of which has rarely been glimpsed in Tourneur’s work since I Walked with a Zombie. The opening shots of a panicked Professor Harrington driving through the night, his own terrified reflection on the car window his only companion, are chilling to the core and instantly command attention.

Much of the camera work enhances the foreboding atmosphere, for example when the unwitting Holden is given the cursed parchment by Karswell, and subsequently marked for death, the shot of Karswell retreating down a dimly lit corridor shimmers with an otherworldly distortion, almost as though the camera were about to swoon and pass out. It perfectly illustrates Holden’s entry point into the realm of the supernatural and reflects his soon-to-loosen grip on rationality.




It is to MacGinnis’ credit that he provides a startlingly sympathetic portrayal of Karswell. Though he is a powerful Satanist, he still elicits the audience’s empathy to a large degree. The scene in which he reveals to his mother that the morbid acts he carries out are done through fear, provides vital insight into the motivations of his character. Satanic cults and demonic curses aside, Karswell is quite the jovial fellow. When Holden comes to his mansion to meet him, he discovers Karswell dressed as a clown and entertaining a group of local children. The sight of Karswell in clown garb is subtly disturbing and perfectly highlights the evil actions that his appearance belies.

The shots of him bounding along the railway track after the fluttering parchment (ever just out of reach) conveys his futile desperation perfectly.

Holden is another example within the genre of a rational, scientifically minded character that comes to realise that there are forces in our universe which cannot be logically explained away. He soon realises that he has been marked for death and his only hope for survival is that he accept the existence of the supernatural and not dismiss it. Dana Andrews provides quite a stiff, though assuredly convincing performance.

The battle of wits that takes place between Karswell and Holden, when the latter attempts to pass the cursed parchment back to the former, onboard a train at the film’s climax, drips with tension.

Night of the Demon unfolds beneath an otherworldly and dread-drenched ambience and is utterly compelling from beginning to end. Its concept of a cursed chain letter pre-empts such films as Ringu (1998). A hidden gem within the genre.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Whistle & I’ll Come to You

1968
Dir. Jonathan Miller

‘Who is this who is coming?’

Based on a chilling short story titled ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1905) by the master of ghost tales MR James, Whistle and I’ll Come to You was adapted by the BBC for their arts Omnibus series.

The story revolves around the cranky and rationally-minded Professor Parkins (Michael Hordern) as he travels to the Norfolk coast for a brief holiday from his academic work. Out on one of his many perambulations, Parkins discovers an old whistle half buried in the grounds of an ancient cemetery. Reading the titular inscription carved into the whistle, Parkins is able to translate the latin verse and discovers it reads ‘Who is this who is coming?’ The professor dismisses it pompously and goes about his introverted daily routines of studying and hiking and further alienating himself from the other guests. Later that day though, as the light fades and the wind howls, Parkins hears a dreadful whistling coming from outside his bedroom window and dreams of being pursued by someone, or something, unseen.

The film devotes much of its brief running time to carefully establishing the character of the professor and all his bumbling pomposity. Awkwardness is rife as he starchly ‘interacts’ with the hotel staff and mumbles his way through a debate with a fellow guest, dismissing the other man’s arguments rudely while haughtily denying the possibility of the supernatural. It is testament to the focussed performance of Hordern and all of the subtle little tics and nuances he conveys as Parkins, that the character retains our sympathy and interest, despite his arrogance.


‘There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth.’
He is quite typical of many of the sternly rational and ‘level-headed’ characters created by MR James. Scholarly men who exist in a world of reason, rationality and ‘healthy’ scepticism who experience something strange that has no logical explanation; jolting them out of the comfort of their bookish existences and into a world that seems to balance precariously on the brink of some vast unknown.

Director Jonathan Miller perfectly captures the quietness and stillness that exists within the stories of MR James. Horrors are suggested and fleetingly glimpsed; they hover creepily on the periphery of our waking world, but the impact they have is undeniable. The film retains a bleak atmosphere, satiated with solemn dread and steadily cranks up a consistent foreboding terror…

The stiffness of Parkins and the stifling confinement of the upper middle-class social conventions of the time are beautifully conveyed in a scene where Parkins joins the other guests for dinner. Decked out in full evening wear, he hovers uncertainly in the hallway before entering the dining room and self-consciously sitting by himself. His presence is enough to plunge the other guests into awkward silence. The social inadequacies of Parkins, who is unable to interact with people outside of dense academic and philosophical discussions, renders him something of an awkward outcast. His solitude, coupled with the crisp black and white photography of deserted beaches and windswept landscapes, makes for sombre viewing. The tension never lets up and the feeling that this tale will not end well is simply unshakable.


 
Unsettling and supremely creepy images pepper the film and everything hangs heavy under an air of dread and sadness. As Parkins makes his way back to the hotel from the beach, we can make out a mysterious figure standing ominously behind him further down the beach.

One of the most disturbing scenes occurs as Parkins sleeps restlessly after bringing home the whistle he finds on his walk: he dreams of running along the deserted beach away from ‘something’, while behind him, further down the beach, a shapeless mass of sheets hauntingly floats towards him. There is something about this spectral image that implies so much threat and anxiety that it sears into the brain, lingering for days after viewing.


Another standout scene occurs when the by this stage completely uneasy and panicked professor attempts to sleep after having another nightmare. Sensing something unshakably unnerving, the professor glances across his hotel room from his bed, to the spare bed and what he sees finally succeeds in pushing his already brittle mental state completely over the edge and into the abyss of madness… It also provides the film with one of its most enduring and unsettling images.

The ambiguity of the film is one of its many strengths. We are never certain if these sinister encounters are brought on by genuinely supernatural occurrences, or if Parkins is simply experiencing something of a mental breakdown due to being alone for so long and having no human interaction. Either way, the end result is one of the most uneasy and disquieting ghost stories ever filmed.

The Black Cat

1934
Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Fifteen years after he was made a prisoner-of-war by his general's betrayal, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) has tracked down the old friend who betrayed him; crazed architect and Satanic priest Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Poelzig's menacing Hungarian abode, built on the mass grave of 10,000 soldiers who died in WW1 because of his treachery, is the place where the two wage a dark, psychological battle, with the lives and souls of a stranded honey-mooning American couple Joan and Peter Allison (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) as the wager.

The Black Cat is a significant genre entry for many reasons, the most obvious being that it was the first film that featured both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together. Despite the title however, The Black Cat does not resemble the titular tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed the only relevance the title bears to the film itself is that Lugosi’s character suffers from Ailurophobia (fear of cats). While a handy plot device, this notion is not really explored further.

Karloff and Lugosi were apparently bitter rivals and unquestionably successful in their own rights. The Black Cat is also the only film were each was given equal billing and screen time. The few other films they collaborated on were essentially Karloff’s films and the ailing Lugosi had to make do with glorified cameos. In this film, both are given equilibrium to shine darkly. And both seize the opportunity.

'The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.'
The film is saturated in a smothering air of foreboding and dread. The mansion in which events unspool is a veritable nightmare of art-deco design, startling lighting design and palpable doom. Made up of overtly geometric shapes and straight lines, it contrasts perfectly with the warped and twisted psyches of those who inhabit its uncanny walls. It also offers a refreshing take on the usually dank and putridly crumbling castles much of Universal’s horrors were set within. Karloff’s Poelzig is an architect not only responsible for designing his morbid home, but also his own downfall, brought about by his overwhelming greed and obsessive nature. The fact that his house is built on the very spot where he caused the deaths of so many is a constant reminder of his sordid past; one from which he can never escape. death is essentially a main character in this film too.

It is eventually revealed that Poelzig married Werdegast’s wife, and then his daughter, while the doctor was locked away. Poelzig has also been preserving the corpses of prior brides, upright, in some dreamily bizarre class cases – their ethereal beauty contained for all time. The scene in which Karloff reveals these eerie beauties provides the film with some of its most arresting and haunting images.



The Satanic ritual featured at the climax is one of the most moody and striking ever committed to film – the altar resembles something from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in all its impressionistic glory. What follows in the scene where Werdegast finally seizes the opportunity to avenge himself on Poelzig, is subtly powerful and immensely disturbing. Ulmer takes the Lewton approach to conveying how Poelzig is flayed alive by showing us nothing more than writhing shadows on the dungeon wall.


'A game of death, if you will.'
Karloff and Lugosi are both exceedingly admirable as the two men whose lives are locked in a twisted embrace of obsession, betrayal and death. Each is as thoroughly demented and menacing as the other and the battle of eyebrow acting that ensues is a pleasure to watch. The scene in which they challenge each other to a game of chess, the wager being the lives of the honey-mooners, is a great showcase of their sombrely sinister performances and perfectly illustrates the manipulative nature of their characters. Lugosi delivers one of his best performances: world weary and restrained, yet driven on by his sordid obsession with revenge.

Unfortunately the honey-mooning couple are as bland and conventional as many of Universal’s other horror protagonists at the time. Wells spends most of her screen time screaming, fainting or clutching tightly to her guy. Manners doesn’t fair much better as the typical macho all-American guy who says things like 'I don't know. It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.' Luckily Lugosi is at hand to retort 'Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.' Go Bela. The hugely symphonic swell of romantic music that plays every time our couple embrace, (which happens a lot), feels a touch intrusive and overwrought.


The Black Cat is one of Universal’s most underrated and under-appreciated genre films. Equal parts dark allegory and blatant symbolism, the impressionistic canvas it drenches is breathtaking in its beauty and stifling in its oppressive, doom laden atmosphere. Melancholic, macabre and menacing.