It's a MAD MAD MAD Mad Movie Week--Day Three, Review #99
It's easy to watch something like the classic 1935 chiller Mad Love (aka The Hands of Orlac) and bust out the old cliché, "Boy, they sure don't make them like they used to!" And you'd be right, of course. The 30s and 40s were the golden age of gothic horror, and though acting techniques have become more naturalistic and set design more realistic, though plots have become more horrifying and monster make-up more technically brilliant, still, there's something about these old school horror tales that will always chill and delight the receptive viewer. It's like reading Stephen King, then going back and reading Poe. Both have their strengths, but Poe just has that old school something that King's just not old enough to have acquired yet.
Nope, they sure don't make them like they used to.
However, to give credit where it's due--in point of fact I don't think they EVER made them like Mad Love.
There's so much wonderful stuff in this movie it seems almost a shame to talk about it, for fear that someone who hasn't watched it will be robbed of a thrilling, wonderful discovery. On the other hand, I don't think knowing ahead of time could make it any less wonderful than it is. Mad Love doesn't depend on shocking you for its effect, and doesn't require your ignorance for its majesty. Still, if you want to come in fresh (only like 70 years AFTER the fact...), go watch now. I'll be here when you get back.
After an opening credit sequence that is awesomer than many full-length movies, we open on a hanged corpse swinging in the breeze! Hey, we've only got 68 minutes, folks, we've got to hit the ground running! As it turns out the corpse is NOT real--it is in fact a wax figure hanging outside the Theatre du Horreurs, a thinly-disguised Grand Guignol stand-in that's all the rage in the Montmartre.
Yvonne Orlac is receiving buckets of flowers from a mysterious fan. Reading the ornately lettered and high-sentiment card, Yvonne smiles to her lady in waiting. "A gentleman of the old school, Marie." The elder lady sniffs. "Old or new, they all try the same things." It's quickly revealed that Yvonne's admirer is Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon famous for fixing up wounded soldiers returned from WWI. He's occupied the same box every night since opening, and these are not the first flowers Yvonne has received from him, making it a bit of a good-natured scandal backstage.
Meanwhile, Dr. Gogol himself--the intense, inimitable, shaven-headed Peter Lorre--is arriving for the Theatre du Horreurs' final performance of the season. We get some great dissolves and cool looks at the theatre employees in spooky uniforms (including a Devil Ticketseller and a Headless Hat-Check Girl) before Gogol stops to stand before a wax figure representing "Yvonne Torturée." After getting angry with a drunk who speaks disrespectfully to the dummy, Gogol takes possession of his box and the show is ready to start.
Hearing the curtain call, Yvonne delays while waiting for her husband's radio program to start--hubby Steven Orlac (Colin "It's alive! ALIVE!" Clive) is a concert pianist getting ready to play in a distant town, sending messages to his wife via wireless through coded coughs. Once out on stage, Yvonne gives the crowd what they want--which is apparently Yvonne strapped to a wheel of anguish and branded with hot irons! Of course the gore is implied here (the Grand Guignol was famously goopy with its fx), but shots of the leering, beast-like faces of the audience and Gogol's intense, creeperiffic stare are more than a little unsettling, even now.
The last performance is a smashing success, and we learn that Yvonne is retiring from the stage to be a full-time housewife to Steven. When Marie asks whether she will miss the crowds, Yvonne replies, "Steven will be my audience!" What, you mean for the torture act? Oooer, missus! Then again, those stuffy English types are notorious for their under-surface boiling perversions...
Gogol comes backstage to thank Yvonne for all the "pleasure" she's given him getting stretched and branded every night. It must be said that in a lifetime of super-fucking-creepy roles, Lorre has never been creepier than he is right here. His huge eyes, bald pate, and the constant low-angle/eccentrically lit shots of him make for some wonderfully eerie portraiture, and Lorre's facial expressions and quiet, accented voice take him from zero to Disturbing in 0.5 seconds--a new record!
Making his move on the flattered but visibly weirded-out actress, Gogol is crushed to discover she will not be returning for the next season. "But I must see you again...I MUST!" Gogol insists, driving Yvonne even further away. He doesn't help his case when, after wrangling an invite to the cast wrap-party, he grabs her and ill-advisedly tries to plant a slobbery kiss right on her lips! Heartbroken at his rejection, Gogol stops on his way out long enough to purchase Yvonne's wax image from the tradesmen ordered to melt it down, ordering it delivered to his house the next day. SAY NO MOOAH.
Rollo aboard. Rollo is a circus knife thrower who killed his father over a woman and has a date with Lady Guillotine as a result. An American newspaper reporter has been assigned to cover the case. Both Rollo and the reporter are used for comic relief, but the actors portraying them are wonderfully brash and entertaining, particularly Rollo himself, who nonchalantly shrugs off his death sentence with the quip, "Well, we all get it in the neck eventually!" That's the American spirit!
While Yvonne and Marie wait at the station in Paris, tragedy strikes offscreen as the train jumps its track, leading to much loss of life. Again, though we don't get to see the wreck itself (nothing like the Great Model Train Crash of '33 a la The Invisible Man), what we see of its aftermath is even more chilling--the undersides of upended train cars, bodies strewn around the tracks, officials searching desperately for survivors. A desperate Yvonne discovers Steven in one of the cars, alive but horribly maimed--his hands are crushed, and must be amputated to save his life. His career is over!
Or is it? Reminded by Marie of her creepy but devoted admirer's speciality, Yvonne swallows her pride and her gorge and goes begging to Gogol for help. Not wanting to fail her and provoked by a Japanese male nurse who says saving the hands is impossible ("Impossible?" Gogol shouts, a mad gleam in his huge eyes, "Napoleon said that word is not French!"), Gogol manages to get the recently-executed Rollo's body delivered to his lab for an impromptu first-of-its-kind double-hand transplant. Naturally, it works like a dream. Gogol is a genius! (Earlier we saw Gogol witnessing Rollo's execution--once again we see not the blade falling, but Gogol watching it with a look of sick fascination, his eyes cutting down as the guillotine does its work. Again, a chilling bit of visual direction.)
"a long and expensive process," and proceeds to get the Orlacs in his deep, deep debt. (A fantastic montage/dream sequence here puts the figurative point on it superbly.) Drowning in medical bills, Steven decides to go see his cantankerous stepfather to ask for a loan.
Stepdad is a right bastard, however, gloating over Orlac's troubles and taunting him with the long-gone possibility that he could have been a partner in the old man's curio shop. Infuriated by an off-color comment about Yvonne's professional prospects, Stephen grabs a knife from a counter and tosses it at the old man, speeding it expertly through the store window! Amazed and disturbed at his newfound knife-throwing abilities, Stephen flees the store.
Meanwhile, Gogol is having long, intimate conversations with the Yvonne's wax likeness, which he's taken to calling Galatea after the Greek myth. (Since it was 1935, the appellation "Melissa Realdoll" was not yet available.) When Yvonne herself comes to the clinic to plead with Gogol to help Steven more, Gogol's lusts boil over and he advises Yvonne to leave her "broken" husband for him, the world-famous doctor! She refuses, claiming that even if she didn't have Steven, there's something about Gogol that repulses her. Gogol does not handle it well. "I, a poor peasant, have conquered SCIENCE!" he cries. "Why can't I conquer LOVE?" Poor Pete. If only he'd lived in the age of the internet, he doubtless could have found someone to cater to his "special needs."
Lacking both the outlet of cybersex and an anatomically correct wax doll, Gogol decides instead to have his revenge by driving Steven Orlac MAD! Gogol murders Steven's stepdad with a knife, then stages what has to be one of the greatest "drive you mad" scenes this side of Salon Kitty's bread penis. Playing on Steven's "psychotic" idea that his hands possess Rollo's knife-throwing, murderous desires, Gogol dresses in shades, a neck brace, and metal gauntlets to convince Steven that he is Rollo, raised from the dead with his head reattached by Gogol! Since this image is on the cover of many vhs versions of the film and litters the net in tributes to Lorre it's not much of a spoiler to show it, so get a load of THIS nightmare fuel:
It all winds up in a wild finish as Yvonne gets trapped in Gogol's lab, breaks the statue of herself, then has to pose as her own effigy when the deranged Gogol comes back flush with his success. "He thinks he is mad," Lorre intones, gearing up for the Line of His Career: "He does not know...It is I who am MAD!" If you don't get chills listening to that, get off the boat and turn in your horror fan card. You're done here.
When his Galatea comes to life (just like in the myth!) Gogol almost tops that by quoting Vicar-poet fave Robert "Fucking" Browning while he tries to strangle Yvonne with her long hair ("Porphyria's Lover." Go read it, it's excellent.), but is stopped when Orlac uses his newfound knife-throwing skills to bury a blade in Gogol's kidneys from 30 yards!
I dunno about you, but I'm SPENT.
This is what Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies is all about. I mean, let's take a quick tally: we've got mad scientists, creepy wax figures, murderous transplanted body parts, torture as entertainment, train wrecks, guillotine scenes, devil masks and headless hat check girls--and I haven't even mentioned the carnivorous plants in the lab or the drunk housekeeper with the pet cockatoo! Add Romantic poetry and comic relief that's actually funny, and you've got a winner by any standard. All in less than 70 minutes!
Director Karl Freund does an even better job here than he does helming the rightly-legendary 1932 fear flick The Mummy--the low-angle shots and strange lighting, the German expressionist shot compositions and interesting use of shadows as actors in scenes, the montage/nightmares and a neat recurring mirror-motif--all stuff to make an old-school horror geek shriek with joy. Just absolutely flawless stuff.
Acting wise, you can't overstate Peter Lorre's awesomeness here. You know all those super-caricature impressions people do of Lorre? The Tweety-in-Looney-Tunes stuff, the basis of Boo Berry? THIS is the movie they're imitating, but strangely all those caricatures don't detract one iota from the power of Lorre's performance. You WILL believe a man can go mad!
As to the supporting players, nobody does stuffy upper-crust English twat like Colin Clive; his kissing scene with 3-foot splints on both hands must be seen to be believed. Though "Sir" Frances Drake as Yvonne is no great shakes, she DOES have the big doe eyes working for her, and makes a very convincing wax model of herself, it has to be said. Edward Brophy as Rollo and Ted Healy as Reagan the American Reporter do great work as well, and the lines they're given to spout by the army of MGM Writers are genuinely funny and entertaining. Cool cool stuff.
Mad Love--and even one or two before it--but I feel safe in saying it has yet to find its equal. Any fan of Lorre, the old black & white chillers, or cinema in general owes it to himself to seek this one out and bask in the rays of awesome it emanates. The Duke and I plus all our servants give this the Off-the-Thumb-Scale rating. Not to watch and enjoy this one...would be...MAD!!!
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
It's a MAD MAD MAD Mad Movie Week--Day Three, Review #99