Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween from Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies!

On behalf of the Duke of DVD, I would like to wish all our parishioners and subjects a most Happy Halloween!

Also, check out my awesome, prize-winning Coffin Joe costume. I'm the embodiment of evil, over here!


This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse!


Not tomorrow, not next Tuesday.

THIS. NIGHT.


View a couple more shots of the Vicar's costume here.

MORE MADNESS...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: The Wolf Man


Every horror geek has one: the movie he or she can point to proudly and say, "This is it. This is the one. THIS is the movie that made me love horror movies." The movie might be an inarguable horror classic like The Exorcist or The Evil Dead; it might just as easily be a cheesetastic throwaway like Ghoulies or The Howling 3: The Marsupials. Many disparate factors come into play, all bearing an influence on the horror fan's experience of the movie and its ongoing effect on his or her movie-watching life. How old were you when you saw it? Who were you with? What was going on in your life that made the flick speak to you in a way others didn't? What did it tap into in your psyche in order to cement itself so indelibly in your brain, and weave itself into the development of your very personality?

I was six years old, maybe seven. I was with my older brother, Ronnie, a voracious fan of old movies of every genre: musicals, noir, romantic comedies, period pieces, and yes, horrors. Because I idolized him in the all-consuming hero-worshiping manner that is perhaps unique to younger brothers and their older same-gendered siblings, I too developed an interest in the black-and-white flickers that occasionally graced our tiny television screen. It made me feel older, more mature, more knowledgeable--more like him. I don't remember what time of year it was, but I like to think it was autumn, almost Halloween, and we'd stayed up late on a Friday night to watch the Creature Feature and get in the spirit of the season. Drinking chocolate milk, eating popcorn, basking in both the cold silver glow of the television screen and my brother's warm affection and camaraderie, I saw for the first time the movie that would turn me into the horror fan I am today.

No points for guessing, especially since I've already given it away. Of course the flick was, and is, and will continue to be as long as I draw breath: Universal's 1941 werewolf classic, The Wolf Man.

Original (Awesome) Poster Art

I've seen the movie so many times since--it's easily the movie I've watched more times than any other, ever--it's difficult for me to recall my exact feelings as a small child, watching for the very first time. Later life experiences and feelings get all jumbled up with it; the movie is so much a part of my life, of my being, that it's hard to recall a time when it was new. I know I was fascinated by Jack Pierce's amazing make-up; I was chilled by the fog-shrouded moors, the exotic carnivale of the gypsy camp. I was moved even then by the tragedy that befell Larry Talbot, a good man cursed for no grievous fault of his own, punished for doing what he thought was the right thing. His subsequent ostracism, his disbelieving family, the final heartbreaking tragedy of his death at the hands of his own father--heady stuff for a grade-schooler, perhaps, but it stuck. I was hooked.

In the subsequent years I scoured library books for information on the movie--how the transformation was accomplished, the biographies of the stars, the ins and outs of the story. In this way I learned about the other Universal classics, and started scouring the TV guide every week in the hopes that one would be shown on my local affiliate. When it did, I planned my whole week around it, taking naps so I could stay awake late, reading up on the night's offering. My older brother indulged me, agreeing to stay up with me while my parents slept, cementing our movie-loving bond.

Of course over time we drifted apart--our ages and differing school experiences ensured that--but I kept going back to horror movies, the classics as well as the new, eventually including poetry and literature in my obsession, furtive attempts to create my own tales of terror, my development into an all-out horror geek. But every time The Wolf Man rescreened, Ronnie stayed up with me again; maybe because he just liked it, or maybe because he sensed, even then, how important it was to me, how wrapped up the film was in our brotherly relationship.

"Her THROAT, Lon! Keep your eyes on her THROAT!"

And now, the requisite recap: prodigal son Lawrence "Larry" Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his rural Welsh home-village after an absence of many, many years. The reason for his return: his twin brother John (seen only as a portrait) has been killed in a hunting accident. Now the sole heir of the estimable Talbot estate, Larry tries to reconnect with his stuffy, undemonstrative father Sir John (the incomparable Claude Rains) and an aristocratic lifestyle he barely remembers.

It took me years to realize it, but it's easy to see now how Larry Talbot is a character smothered in tragedy from the very beginning. It's clear from his wounded expression and childish deference in the presence of Sir John that Larry feels himself somewhat less than his heritage. The expression on Chaney's face as he regards the huge portrait of his dead brother--the good brother, the one who stayed, the one who spent all those years in his father's confidence--speaks volumes. He wants desperately to measure up to John, who was after all his father's namesake and most favored son; however, you can also tell he doesn't believe he can ever do so. After all, as James Joyce and others have artfully reminded us, no one can live up to the perfected memory of the beloved dead.

Larry Talbot, desperate for his father's approval

Despite Sir John's insistence that he wants to bridge the gap between himself and his youngest son (it's never spelled out, but I always read an Esau/Jacob-type analogy here, picturing Larry having been born just minutes too late to ever claim favored-heir status), it's clear that the old man is unused to displaying affection, and as the movie goes on he proves himself incredibly bad at the enterprise. Rains is not a tall actor--certainly nowhere near Lon Chaney Jr.'s imposing physicality--but it's a testament to both actors' abilities that in their scenes together, Rains seems to tower over the younger man. Sir John is dominant and strong, Larry cowed and deferential. This is a relationship based in respect, admiration, and fear--and very little of what might be called love. One can't help thinking Chaney's own famous discomfort living in his famous and universally revered father's shadow helped inform his performance.

(I think it's significant that Larry's brother shares Sir John's name; another mark of favored status that clearly informs Larry's feelings.* Also, the boys' mother is never mentioned; one presumes from the family dynamic that she must have died when they were young, leaving Sir John the sole caretaker--another thread in the rich tapestry of tragedy that is Larry Talbot's character.)

*Nota bene: my brother Ronnie also shares our father's first name. Coincidence?

"I don't care if you were genetically identical: John was still handsomer than you!"

Larry is delighted when he can make himself useful to his father by calling on his considerable mechanical skills to install a new lens in the telescope in the manor's observatory. While adjusting the lens, Larry happens to glimpse local beauty Gwen Conliffe (the beautiful and talented Evelyn Ankers, who would be a frequent costar of Chaney's throughout the rest of their careers) in the window of her father's antique shop. Showing the first indication of a probably-innocent but nonetheless worrisome problem with personal boundaries, Larry heads down to the shop and impresses the girl with his "psychic" knowledge of the earrings she'd been wearing in her bedroom. Laying on the that old American stalker-charm thick and heavy, Larry buys a silver-topped cane from Gwen and gets his first exposure to the local legend of the werewolf, as Gwen recites the now legendary refrain:
"Even a man who is pure at heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
And the Autumn moon is bright."
Even though the poem was created out of whole cloth by screenwriter and later sci-fi novelist Curt Siodmak, it has had such staying power that it's almost become an accepted part of the werewolf mythology. It probably helps that in the span of about fifteen minutes it's recited several more times by just about every character in the movie--but that's okay, don't mind the repetition: this shit is IMPORTANT.

"Boy, with this, pimping will be EASY!"

Not taking no for an answer, Larry nearly bullies Gwen into a date that night to go to the gypsy carnival that's rolling through town and have their fortunes told. Of course Gwen could have said no, but she doesn't--she shows up outside the shop right on time, wearing the earrings he liked. (Our grandparents were much more accepting of stalkerism-as-courtship than later generations, apparently.) She's not a complete trollop, however, and surprises Larry with a third wheel/chaperon, her good friend Jenny (Fay Helm), who also wants to get her fortune told. Larry takes it in stride and goes to the carnival with a girl on each arm and his pimp cane in hand, a true playa.

At the carnival we meet Bela the Gypsy, a wonderful short performance by Bela the Lugosi. Marked with the pentagram, the sign of the werewolf, Bela sees the same sign in Jenny's palm, which marks her as his next victim. (Twisting the knife, Jenny twitters excitedly with questions like "Who will I marry?" while Bela sees the terrible truth, the tears running to their predestined end; another infusement of tragedy in a movie already sopping with it.) The girl runs away in horror while Bela looks balefully at the moon--which you'd think he'd have known would be full that night and taken steps to avoid, but let's not split hairs.

"I am...ALLERGIC...to zese flowers. My mozzer......vill explain..."
(thanks to Doomed Moviethon!)

Meanwhile Larry is out on the moors further invading Gwen's personal space. They stop by an old gnarled tree in the fog, and Chaney looms over Ankers, smiling and friendly, but a bit *too* close. Again, I tend to think this is highlight Larry's physicality--the way he towers over her, the way she draws back from him, half coquettishly and half fearfully, will be repeated later much more horrifically. Still, I never get the sense that Larry means any intimidation or harm--he's a big guy, an open guy, a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he likes her. She reacts to this--despite being engaged to local wet sock Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles), and they're about to kiss when tragedy strikes.

The wolf is at prowl on the Welsh moors, and Jenny lets loose a bloodcurdling scream as it attacks. Being a strong, upright, heroic sort, Larry immediately rushes to her aid, beating the carnivorous canine to death with his silver cane, but not before being horribly bitten by the beast. He's too late to save Jenny, however, and soon collapses in Gwen's arms.

Larry receives his destiny

Of course the wolf was Bela, and because he survived the attack Larry has inherited the curse of the werewolf. For the next several nights he prowls the moors in half-man, half-wolf shape, killing off villagers and confusing the police. When Larry learns the awful truth from Maleva the Gypsy Woman (Maria Ouspenskaya), he starts to fear he's going mad. When he tells Sir John his fears, the old man shames him for believing such nonsense, and pretty much tells him to buck up and be a man. Of course this tough love leads to a tragedy that Larry has hardly earned. And thus, the definitive werewolf movie was born.

(Wolf Man is not the first Universal werewolf movie of course--that distinction belongs to Werewolf of London (1935), a talky, unexciting flick in which Henry Hull plays a snobby upper-class twit who gets the werewolf bug and needs a rare flower to cure himself; for my money the flick is notable mainly for the makeup that would later inspire the look of TV's Eddie Munster.)

It's my considered opinion that a lot of what's wrong with modern horror movies that use old school monsters is that the filmmakers often don't stop to consider just what it is that makes the monster scary. For instance, sure it's scary to think a zombie or ghoul might jump up and start chewing on your arms, but it's even scarier to think that zombie might be your brother, your mom, or your husband or wife, their personalities obliterated by the monsters they've become. What's more frightening: the hordes of faceless zombies attacking the Monroeville mall, or Barbara getting dragged out the door by her no-longer human brother? It's that loss of personality, of individuality, of humanity that I would argue is the real terror of the zombie, over and above any flesh-eating. (And if you go back to voodoo zombies, the extra terror of being made to continue a slave even after the promised respite of death.)

He didn't wanna do it, he didn't wanna do it...

I think one reason there have been so few really good werewolf movies is that filmmakers get all caught up in the "Oh, the wolf is coming to get you!" and forget the real horror of the werewolf legend--which is of course not that you'll be killed by the werewolf, but that you'll BECOME HIM. Larry Talbot is a good man, a loving man, a sensitive man--he wants to be accepted and loved by his father, by Gwen; he wants to do good things and help people. And yet he knows that every full moon he will go out and kill some innocent, and there's nothing he can do to stop it--he is tortured by this knowledge, and by the added knife-twist that in trying to prevent it, he's convinced those very loved ones that he is insane. Morally, emotionally, and physically--and through absolutely no fault of his own--Larry Talbot is a soul in the depths of the cruelest hell. THAT is what's scary.

I'll be the first to admit that Lon Chaney Jr. was not the most talented actor ever to strut across the screen, but he had a sweet spot, a certain type of role that was right in his limited range and that he could consistently take out of the park: the strong but vulnerable galoot, big-hearted and barrel-chested, but emotionally fragile and easily hurt. Chaney could get into such a character fully, use his expressively tragic face and imposing physicality to play the contradictions off one another and make them work. He got raves for his performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939) for just this ability. Larry Talbot is right there in that sweet spot, and Chaney totally nails it.

Hetero as Fuck: Chaney with Burgess Meredith in Of Mice and Men.

Over the years I've noticed more and more nuances to Chaney's performance that keep amazing me at his ability (or else the direction of George Waggner). For instance, while Larry Talbot is a sensitive soul, there are scenes that hint at a suppressed violent streak he must struggle to keep in check. For instance, when he confronts the gossips in Conliffe's antique shop, or when he snaps at the police for their disbelief. The idea that the werewolf frees this animalistic streak in a way the conscious Larry would never allow is an intriguing one to me.

It seems almost redundant to talk about Jack Pierce's amazing makeup at this point, but let's be honest here--the Wolf Man is absolutely iconic. Pierce famously attached small tufts of yak hair to Chaney's face bit by bit over the course of hours in order to achieve the famous effect. As good as it is, Chaney further sells it by becoming the hunched, beastly killer as he stalked the moors, growling and snarling, ripping and tearing, the destructive death instinct unleashed.

"Don't talk back."

I won't claim that The Wolf Man is a perfect movie--it has some continuity and pacing problems, and probably could have got to the point a little quicker--but it never fails to thrill me, and I literally mist up every time when Larry begs his father to take the silver cane, almost as if he knows it will be the instrument of his death. I guess there are just some movies a person can't talk about in an unbiased way, so I'm not even going to try. I love it, every single bit.

(There are also those who scoff at the fact that, with the exception of Sir John and a couple of supporting characters, everyone in the Welsh highlands seems to have an American accent. To those people for whom this impairs the enjoyment of the flick and the ability to suspend disbelief, allow me to take this opportunity to say: fuck you.)

Chaney went on to portray Larry Talbot in four more films, all of which teamed his Wolf Man with other monsters in the Universal stable. My favorite of the horror entries is Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which is Universal's first Monster Mash. More a Wolf Man movie than a Frankenstein movie, in this one Larry is resurrected by graverobbers who open his crypt on the night of the full moon. Fearing that he is immortal and thus doomed to his hell forever, Talbot seeks out the secrets of Dr. Frankenstein in order to achieve not life, but the sweet release of death. Chaney gets to do a lot more leaping and fighting in this one--not only in wolf form, but also getting very rough with some hospital orderlies. He manages to resurrect and befriend the Frankenstein Monster (played here by the 60-year-old Bela Lugosi), which sets up the titular battle in the film's wild last few minutes.

"A pleasure, I'm sure."

FMtWM is a lot more action-packed than its predecessor, and has some truly wild scenes--chief among them the one where the Monster crashes the local festival of the New Wine, leading Larry to steal a cart and whisk them both back to the castle, the Monster kicking barrels out the back Donkey Kong-style to deter the villagers' pursuit! It's little wonder that this movie inspired a young Jacinto Molina to devote his creative life to exactly the type of monster mashes depicted here, or to take on the curse himself as Paul Naschy. In fact, rewatching the movie recently, I was struck by how it is TOTALLY the template for nearly all of Naschy's output, or at least the ones involving multiple monsters. Check it out and see if I'm wrong, Naschy fans!

The next two monster mashes, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but the farewell performance of all the monsters in the comedy classic Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein more than makes up for it. It's a near perfect horror-comedy in my book, as the monsters themselves are never played for laughs, only Lou and Bud's reactions to them. Chaney also shows some talent as the straight man to Lou's jokes, particularly in the immortal scene in which he tries to get the chubby comic to understand his curse.
Larry: "You don't understand--when the moon comes up tonight, I'll become a wolf!"
Lou: "You and three million other guys!"
The Wolf Man stalks Lou Costello.
True story: the Vicarious Dad claims that as a tender youth watching this flick at the nickel matinee, this scene scared him so badly he had to leave the theater. And walk home. Barefoot. Uphill. In the snow.


I've gone on a long time here, and could go on even longer--I could consider the tragic end of Chaney's career and life, the movies that came after (American Werewolf in London is, in my opinion, a full-on remake/reimagining of The Wolf Man, in tone at least), the fact that in early drafts Siodmak had never intended for the werewolf's face to be shown (leaving the door open for a psychological explanation for Larry's "curse") and how my love of it has complicated relationships and ostracized friends, but perhaps I'll save that for another time. The Wolf Man is my favorite horror movie, the one that made me love horror movies, the one that made me the fan I am today. Thank you Lon, thanks Claude, thanks Jack and George and Mr. Laemmle.

But most of all: thanks, Ronnie. I love you.

My Next Tattoo. Seriously.

MORE MADNESS...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988): or, You All Scream When I Scream

Most people have heard the phrase, variously attributed to horror greats throughout the ages (commonly to the granddaddy of all horror icons, Lon Chaney Sr.)--a phrase so succinct, catchy, and undeniably true that it's almost entered the annals of folk wisdom:

"There ain't nothin' funny about a clown in the moonlight."

It's a feeling that predates John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise, and Captain Spaulding, a phobia so common as to have its own psycho-analytic name--coulrophobia, for those playing along at home.* What is it about the festively painted, zanily joking jester that fills some with glee and a nostalgia for childhood, and others with a paralyzing dread and desire to flee? Is it because the clown's stock in trade is his license to do the boundary-crossing things that most dare not even consider? The slapstick violence that could so easily cross the line into actual brutality, before the audience and victim even knew what was happening? The make-up that proclaims it's all an innocent gag, and the nagging fear of what corrupt monster might lurk behind it?

*True confession: for many years, the Vicar quite seriously thought this disorder was properly named "bozophobia."

These questions are not exactly answered in the Chiodo Brothers' 1988 classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space--however, the film does deliver an hour and a half of fun and fear in almost equal doses, and rightly earns its place in the Mad Movie pantheon.

"Howdy kids! Are you ready to have some fun today?"

The movie starts as a throwback to the 50s and 60s sci-fi classics--specifically the original 1958 version of The Blob. A group of local teens--well, pretty much every teen in the whole town, including hero Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and his girlfriend Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder)--see what looks like a shooting star flash over their heads and crash in the woods outside town. They immediately head off to investigate, but not before crotchety old forest-dweller Gene Green (the legendary character actor Royal Dano) and his bloodhound Pooh-Bear find the meteorite first.

Of course it's not a meteorite at all, but an interplanetary vessel in the shape of a yellow-and-red striped big top! Thinking the circus has come to town (and for some reason set up camp in the middle of the woods), Farmer Green tries to get tickets to the show, only to meet the ship's strange inhabitants, the titular interstellar jokesters.

Royal Dano learns the shocking truth.


Not much later Mike and Debbie arrive at the crash site, and are also taken in by the bright colors and flashing lights. Going inside to check out the show, they soon stumble into the ship's power core--a wonderful matte painting that purposefully recalls the underground complex from Forbidden Planet. Realizing the big top is not what it seems, they soon discover the awful truth--a largely empty storage center with a few cotton candy cocoons hanging from peppermint-cane hooks...and inside, the slowly liquefying bodies of townspeople, including poor old Farmer Green! Debbie's screams draw the attention of the ship's inhabitants--huge, nightmarish clown-creatures whose wrinkled faces and crooked smiles are the stuff of coulrophobic nightmares everywhere. They flee for their lives, barely escaping the Klowns' fiendish popcorn-tommyguns and sugar-floss web-spinners. The innocent kids hoof it back to town, hoping to warn the authorities before it's too late.

There are many joys to be taken from Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but chief among them is the amazing production design brothers Stephen, Charles, and Edward Chiodo--who famously did the stop motion work for the Large Marge scene in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure--pack into every scene. It's all bright primary colors in front of dark backgrounds, like a skewed cartoon come to life. The klowns are both funny and terrifying, and their endlessly inventive weaponry--the popcorn guns, cream pies filled with acid, and even balloon animals that double as tracking beasts--will keep you smiling throughout.

Hydrochloric Banana Cream

Of course the local authorities have a hard time crediting what Mike and Debbie tell them. Debbie's ex-flame, Officer Dave Hanson (John Allen Nelson), promises to get to the bottom of things and find the elusive "rational explanation," but crusty misanthrope Officer Curtis Mooney (a wonderfully hateful performance by character actor John Vernon) puts it down to teenage pranksterism and wants to lock them up for juvenile delinquency. While Debbie and Mike struggle to get someone to believe their warning, the Klowns have free reign to harvest the town's populace for their hilarious, nefarious purposes.

The rest of the movie is pretty much devoted to watching the klowns do their business, and this is not at all a bad thing. Many of the set-pieces are played as straight comedy. The klowns deliver a pizza to a scantily clad single babe, with predictable results. One of the creatures impersonates an animatronic dummy to hide in plain sight. Later, an impossibly large klown emerges from a tiny puppet show booth to candyfloss his disbelieving audience, and another "drives" an invisible car next to a teen drag racer to force him off the road. And in my favorite scene, a klown entertains a group of people waiting at a bus stop with some incredibly ornate hand-shadows, culminating in a man-eating T-Rex that leaves only the stumps of their feet behind!

" *Okay guys...try not to act suspicious.* "

It's not all funny ha-ha, though. A few of the klowns' antics are genuinely disquieting. For instance, Mike and Debbie watch in horror as a disgustingly obese klown comes down to the cocoon-hold for a midnight snack, which for me called to mind both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Bloodsucking Freaks. A scene where a very frightening klown plays peek-a-boo with a small girl at the local burger joint--the grown-ups are oblivious to his presence outside--is more than a little disturbing, particularly as slowly lures her away from the safety of her parents, hiding a giant, deadly hammer behind his back. The same klown later uses one of his victims as a ventriloquist dummy, pushing his hand gorily into the poor sod's back and manipulating his spinal column in order to say his only English words--"Don't worry--we just want to KILL YOU." And a late parade scene in which the klowns wander through town sucking up the cocoons with a giant, festive machine is equal parts Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss.

Eventually Officer Dave comes round to the truth of the matter, Mike calls in the aid of his comic-relief/ice cream truck-driving friends Rich and Paul Terenzi (Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi), and they storm the klowns' big top in a desperate effort to save the town. Once the heroes are inside they find themselves in a strange other-dimensional funhouse, full of more Burton/Seussian landscapes and kids' toys turned deadly. Finally they must battle the king of all killer klowns--Klownzilla!--for the fate of the human race.

"I said, 'Where does a 50-foot clown sleep?' FUCKING ANSWER ME!"

Obviously Killer Klowns is chiefly a comedy, but the comedy is surprisingly dry given the subject matter. Like the teens in The Blob, all the characters here play the premise entirely straight--overacting a bit, perhaps, but no more so than lil' Steven McQueen and company--letting the visuals sell most of the jokes. (The Terenzi Brothers' bits are the exceptions here, and most of their funny falls flat.) The Chiodo Brothers really craft a wonderful cartoon world, one that I never get tired of looking at, and that never fails to impress. (I still don't know how they did the popcorn locomotion, for instance.) It's also fun for a horror/sci-fi movie buff to play "spot the reference" here, as the Chiodos are clearly fans of the genre they're working in.

I said the acting was a little hammy, and the worst offender is probably Grant Cramer as Mike. He reminded me a little too much of Dave Coulier with his smarmy delivery, and that is never a good thing. Suzanne Snyder comes off slightly better as Debbie, attractive and energetic if a little airheaded--which I'm going to generously presume was the way the part was written. Best here are John Allen Nelson and John Vernon as the warring police officers. Also, keep an eye out for Christopher Titus as a nerd in red-rimmed owl glasses who gets captured by the klowns--Titus would later become inexplicably famous and have his own TV show on Fox, which a few people somewhere probably watched.

"There's something funny about these guys..."

And the movie would not have been half the success it is without the frankly fantastic score by John Massari. The odd instrumentation of standard circus-music themes is just off enough to make it slightly creepy as well as fun. And the theme song that plays over the beginning and end credits, performed by The Dickies, is worth having on your iPod right next to 45 Grave's "Partytime" and Calamari Safari's "Poultrygeist."

I love this movie, and am pleased to make it Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies' 200th entry. 3+ thumbs, and remember: in space, no one can eat ice cream!

"That's all, folks!"

More images from Killer Klowns from Outer Space!

She's clearly dealt with clowns like these before.

"Have you put on weight, dummy? You used to be ganglia."

John Wayne Juicy-Juice

The most chilling scene of the movie.

Keep watching the skies!

Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

MORE MADNESS...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: Five Fine Hydes


It's really not hard to see why, more than 120 years after its first appearance in print, Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal classic of horror and mad science keeps readers and filmmakers alike coming back again and again. We all find ourselves periodically trapped between the better and baser parts of our nature, our fragile human psyches the battleground for the war between the Good and Evil that reside in each of us, whether we care to admit it or not. The idea of these two sides of our personalities being separated and made flesh is one that resonates with just about everyone, whatever the nationality or time period.

So it's no surprise that at one time (and perhaps even still), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the most-cinematically adapted literary property in existence. Filmmakers of just about every decade have taken a stab at the tale, and over time these creative folks have come up with many interesting ways of presenting the slavering, amoral, unrestrained id that Stevenson envisioned lurking in us all. So for this week's Halloween Monster Memories, I'd like to take a look at five interesting manifestations of this classic character, and invite my readers to share their own faves. So take it away, Eddie!

5. Hyde and Hare (1955)


Laugh if you will (and you will, if you watch the short), but this Bugs Bunny cartoon was probably my first exposure to the Jekyll and Hyde story. In it Bugs Bunny, the Trickster God of collective our modern mythology, sees an in with mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, who comes to feed him every day at the park. Insinuating himself into the doctor's home, he soon finds himself fleeing for his life from the gigantic, green-skinned, red-eyed Mr. Hyde. Having no idea that the monster is in fact his new owner, Bugs tries to save Dr. Jekyll and himself by hiding in closets and bedrooms, with comedic results when the tiny Fudd-esque doc transforms into the rampaging beast.

One thing that struck me rewatching this cartoon recently was the odd way in which Dr. Jekyll's first transformation takes place. Home with his new pet, the good doctor passes a bubbling potion in his lab, a potion he knows he shouldn't drink, but in the end can't resist. ("Oh, I'm so ashamed!" he whimpers, as he drains the stuff.) Obviously the lure of becoming Hyde is being freed from one's inhibitions and powerlessness in the face of a disapproving society, and tiny, mild-mannered Jekyll wants that freedom, even though he knows the consequences. Heady stuff for a Looney Tunes short--but then they're deeper than most people think imo.

(No, I wasn't stoned.)



4. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

So the basic idea of the Jekyll/Hyde story is that every person has two sides to his or her personality, sides that can be separated with just the right chemical catalysts. For Stevenson this division was between Good and Evil; Freud's idea of Superego and Id, which he put forward much later, was remarkably similar. But by the time the swingin' 70s rolled around, another possible division had entered the public consciousness, suggesting every person had a "masculine" and "feminine" side. What better way to explore this bold idea than with a retooling of the Jekyll myth?

Okay, maybe that's overstating the case. Still, 1971's Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a doozy. In this one, Dr. Jekyll is searching for the Elixir of Life, which he thinks must have something to do with female hormones. (With you so far, Henry...) The predictable side-effect occurs, transforming the good doctor into evil but HAWT Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick), whom he passes off as his widowed sister. Jekyll falls in love with Susan Spencer, while Hyde falls for Suzie's brother Howard, leading to a rather sticky and sexy situation. Not content with gender-bending sex and mad science, the filmmakers tie in the Jack the Ripper murders and the Burke and Hare graverobbing spree for flavor. Though some might well take issue with the downright biblical gender roles (mens is good, womens is eeeeevil), there's no denying it's a wild ride.



3. Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again (1982)


We've already seen how Jekyll and Hyde can be played for comedy, but for my money it was never zanier or more hilarious than when Fridays alum Mark Blankfield took on the role in Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again, a barn-burning gag-fest. Zeroing in on the repressed-sex aspect of the story--which of course has been there since its uber-upright Victorian beginnings--here we see Mr. Hyde as a gold chain-wearing, pickup line-spouting, pants-bulging Lothario intent on banging everything that moves...or at least humping its leg. (The initial transformation--in which a golden pinky ring bursts from under Jekyll's skin, one of his teeth sprouts a gold sheath, and the Viagra-like effects of the drug are made clear--more than sets the tone.) A product of its time, sure--Jekyll's potion is here presented as a snortable powder, for instance--, it's nonetheless a comedic tour de force for Blankfield, who really should have become more famous than that Kramer guy. If you haven't seen it, get yourself a dvd, check your good taste at the door, and get ready to have some fun.



2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)


One of the things the bugs me about a lot of Jekyll and Hyde adaptations is the rather common decision to have the actor play Hyde with minimal make-up, relying on mannerism and expression to signify the transformation from good-hearted man of science to rampaging evil bastard. It's not the idea of a non-physical transformation that bugs me, so much as the fact that we, the audience, are then asked to believe that the supporting characters in the flick would have NO IDEA that Hyde and Jekyll are the same person, despite the fact that they look almost EXACTLY alike. Even great actors have trouble pulling it off--Spencer Tracy's turn as Hyde in the 1941 adaptation is one egregious example; more recently, John Malkovich failed to sufficiently differentiate in 1996's floptastic Julia Roberts vehicle Mary Reilly. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but still--really?

Probably the person on whom the blame for this can be laid is legendary silent screen star John Barrymore, who famously portrayed Jekyll and Hyde in the revered 1920 version. Why blame Barrymore? Because he did the same thing, but in his case, he totally made it WORK. His initial transformation is all body-positioning and facial expression, and yet by the time he emerges as the evil Hyde, you can totally understand why even his closest friends wouldn't recognize him. A little make-up is added as the flick moves on--his hunched back is augmented, and he's given that famous pointy head--but it's a testament to Barrymore's immense talent at physical acting that he completely pulls it off--in a way I'd argue no film star has been able to approach since.



1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)


Fredric March won the Best Actor award at the 1932 Oscars for his role in this, for my money the definitive screen version of the story. (Okay, in point of fact he tied with Wallace Beery for his role in The Champ, but let's not split hares...um, hairs.) One of the few classic monsters NOT to come out of Universal Studios (it was an MGM production), March's Mr. Hyde is as instantly recognizable as any of his hideous brethren. The simian brow, huge ape-like teeth, hairy and pointed skull--this Mr. Hyde represents a physical devolution as well as a moral one. It's a fantastic pre-Hays Code film, and the amount of sex on display will shock those used to the golly-gee-whiz romantic subplots that came later. And the amazing transformation sequence--done with colored filters, lighting tricks, and old fashioned ingenuity--is still something glorious to behold.



So how about you, parishioners? Who are your favorite Hydes?

And special thanks to Vicar-ious pal Tenebrous Kate of Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire--she knows why. ;)

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Monday, October 19, 2009

DVD Review: HARDWARE (1990)


I must admit that the first time I watched Richard Stanley's HARDWARE (1990), on VHS during my undergrad 3-movies a night college days, I didn't really see what the big deal was. I thought it had a few good images, a couple of okay ideas, and the cameo appearances by GWAR and Motörhead's Lemmy on the "plus" side of the equation. I also remembered there being a fairly hawt sex scene between principals Stacey Travis and then-unknown Dylan McDermott, but that was about it for me. Everything else faded into the cinematic junkheap of my memory.

In the years since, of course, the movie's cult cachet has grown by leaps and bounds, aided in part by the flick's relative rarity--after that initial VHS release, the movie all but disappeared in a swamp of rights issues and bootlegs. By the time Severin Films released their super-special 2-disc edition a month or so back, anticipation among horror and sci-fi fans was at a fever pitch. And thanks to the good folks at Severin and their consideration in sending your ever-lovin' Vicar a review copy, I was able to go back and look at the flick anew, to see if age and experience would make me more appreciative of this artifact of post-apocalyptic cinema.

Vacation in Sunny New Jersey!

First the good news--which should come as no surprise to those who've championed the flick over its near two-decades of obscurity--it's actually a pretty neat little flick with several things going for it. While I still have some issues with it as a movie (more on that in a moment), I do like it more as a thirty-something, cosmopolitan adult than I did as a fresh-faced college kid in Arkansas.

The net is absolutely infested with reviews of the movie thanks to the deserved attention Severin's release is getting, so I won't go point-for-point here. Quick plot summary: in a post-nuclear-war future, American society keeps limping along, with the government ruling nearly all aspects of the citizenry's daily lives. Thanks to the war, high levels of radioactivity have emptied many of the larger cities (New York is posited as a vast junkyard ripe for salvage), forcing most people to live either underground or in fortress-like apartment complexes. Mutations are rampant, as is cancer and widespread ugliness.

"She's a maniac, maniac, oh no..."

The ugliness hasn't touched main character Jill (Travis), however, an implied-agoraphobe artist who stays sequestered in her high-security apartment, smoking legalized weed and making sculpture out of the junk her on-again/off-again lover Moses (McDermott) periodically brings her. Moses--or "Mo"--makes his living picking junk from the nuclear wastes and selling it to dwarf salvage specialist Alvy (Mark Northover). Things take a turn for the Terminator when Mo unearths a Mark 13 experimental killbot, selling part of it to Alvy and taking the rest back to Jill for artistic reinterpretation. Of course the Mark 13 is artificially intelligent, self-repairing, and badly malfunctioning, so it's only a matter of time before it wakes up and starts rampaging around Jill's apartment, waiting for bit characters to come visit so it can chop them to bits and inject them with nerve toxin. It does have one weakness however, a weakness that fans of The Wizard of Oz and M. Night Shamalamalookylou's Signs will be all too familiar with.

So first the good stuff: one thing that resonated with me a lot more this time than it did back in my yout' was Stanley's fully-realized and very believable vision of the future. Even without the nuclear apocalypse that was much more front-and-center in 1990 than it is today (one would hope), the idea of a future society living off the trash and leavings of previous fallen generations is one I found intriguing. I can totally see a future in which we are overwhelmed by the garbage of those who came before, and build our lives on it--literally, not just in the figurative sense in which that ALWAYS happens. Thus the vision here doesn't seem too far off.

Mo never regretted springing for the Digi-Thruster 3000's "extra" attachments.

Stanley's eye is impressive here too--the orange, red, and brown color scheme he creates along with cinematographer Steven Chivers gives the flick a unique look, both horrible and beautiful at the same time. Much has also been made of the musical tie-ins here: along with Lemmy as a water-cab driver (who plays a "golden oldie" for Mo and his friend Shades during the trip, which is of course "Ace of Spades"), Iggy Pop makes a voice-only appearance as Angry Bob the radio madman, and Carl McCoy of Fields of the Nephilim plays the mysterious Walking Man who brings the Mark 13 into the picture in the first place. And then there's GWAR, the perfect band to play on TV in a post-apocalyptic future (though the music that accompanies their image is in fact Ministry--still, it works surprisingly well). So there's all that.

I didn't quite become a full-fledged member of the Hardware cult thanks to this viewing, however. I found the performances by leads so flat as to be near Keanu-esque, particularly Travis's Jill, who can't work up the slightest hysteria, even after a Killbot appears out of nowhere and buzzsaws her mattress for her. Some might say she's jaded as everyone in the future would be, not caring if she lives or dies, but I still didn't find her the plucky strong heroine Stanley praises her as being. I had trouble with the script as well--a lot of religious and political imagery is thrown in, which is fine by me and works to a degree, but it does come across as rather ham-fisted at its worst. When McDermott mouths lines like "It's gonna get a lot worse before it gets better...Survival of the fittest, baby!" within seconds of one another...well, it won't win any prizes for dialog. And I wanted to the Mark 13 to be a little more badass than it was--I mean, it spends nearly an hour in Jill's apartment and barely manages to wound her, or kill anyone who doesn't walk right up to it and stand there. It's Tetsuo-drill dick is doubtless there to make some kind of point about sexual power struggles, but seemed gratuitous to me; I mean, sure Jill's hawt (and the sex scene still gets full marks), but is she hot enough to make a pile of scrap metal want to do her? I'm not so sure.

"I'll Facebook you."

One performance that does stand out, however, is that of William Hootkins as Lincoln Wineberg Jr., Jill's super-slimey, voyeuristic neighbor who helpfully comes over to harass her and then get killed by the Mark 13. There are few movie characters I've seen quite as disturbingly pervy as Lincoln, and his trademark song, "The Wibberly-Wobberly Walk," has been in my head for a week now.

While I have issues with the movie, one thing no one can take issue with is the excellent DVD package Severin has put together for the flick. The movie looks great, and the commentary by Stanley is a treat for fans. The second disc contains a wealth of goodies, the big one being an near-hour-long documentary, "No Flesh Shall Be Spared," about the production. Long interviews with nearly all of the actors (minus McDermott, who apparently doesn't like to talk about the flick for some reason), a history of the indie cinema scene in Britain at the time, and interesting anecdotes about their shooting travails in Morocco are just a few of the cool things here. (Question: has Lemmy EVER been interviewed while NOT a. leaning against a bar and b. wearing a German dress uniform hat?) We also get several of Stanley's super-8 short films, including the 45-minute Incidents in an Expanding Universe, on which Hardware was based. Finally, Stanley talks for about 10 minutes about why Hardware was so hard to see for so long, why his planned sequel never came to fruition, and what that film might have been like. If you're a fan of the movie, it's all wonderful stuff; even if not, it's pretty interesting.

It was then that all those years watching The Three Stooges finally paid off.

(Stanley, it must be said, is quite a character. Very unassuming and geeky-sounding, he nonchalantly mentions how in 1989 he became disgusted with the movie industry and went to the Middle East to join a guerilla group fighting against the Russians. Dude, make THAT movie!)

In conclusion, this is a great DVD release for a film lots of smart people love, so good job Severin! Even if the flick itself is not entirely my cup of tea, it's definitely a 2.5 thumb-worthy package all together. Because whether you like Full Scale Animatronic killbots or not, one thing is for certain: we all do the Wibberly-Wobberly walk.

"Oh, what a world! What a world!"


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Friday, October 16, 2009

Happy Birthday Leon Klimovsky!

Yes, today would have been the 103rd birthday of Argentine director León Klimovsky, who made his mark in Spanish cinema partly by collaborating with the legendary, endlessly prolific and creative Spanish horror icon that we just LOVE to gush over here on Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, Jacinto "Mighty Mighty" Molina, aka Paul "Fucking" Naschy.

"Of course I got to touch the pecs! I RULE!"

In celebration, please enjoy these reviews of some of Klimovsky's horror output, previously on MMMMMovies:
Also, go on over to the erudite, entertaining, and intimidating-with-his-intelligence Arbogast on Film to read a fascinating consideration of the lesbonic subtext in WWvVW (an acronym I never get tired of typing), as part of Arbogast's "31 Screams" series--which should be a daily click for horror geeks all through October:

Arbogast on Film: 31 Screams--Gaby Fuchs

So break out the Sangria, hire some gypsy dancers, and bid feliz cumpleaños a Señor Klimovsky!

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: The Other Faces of Bela Lugosi

The slicked-back black hair; the aristocratic bearing; the pointed, slightly raptor-like nose; the dark, glittering, hypnotic eyes. Is it any wonder that when Bela Lugosi intoned his first screen line, "I am...Dracula," that audiences then and forever after believed him? That god-like, he spoke, and the word was made flesh?

Bela Lugosi was nearly fifty years old when he stepped in front of the cameras to perform the role that would forever define his cinematic identity, and had already seen more hardship, adventure, and professional success in his life than most people could even dream of. He was a successful stage actor in his home country of Hungary (he claimed to have been the leading actor in Hungary's Royal National Theater, though some biographers cast doubt on this claim). He was a decorated veteran of World War I, and afterward attained the rank of Captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army's ski patrol. He had fled his home country after finding himself, as he said, "on the wrong side of the Revolution" in 1919. Eventually he sailed on a merchant ship to the United States, landing not in New York but in New Orleans (how cool is that?) and there continued his acting career on stage, in the role of Count Dracula. [wikipedia]

Another brief primer for those who might be unaccountably uneducated in Lugosi-lore: When silent horror legend Lon Chaney Sr. was forced to decline the role of the vampire count in Tod Browning's version of the Hamilton Deane stage play (NOT the Stoker novel, as should be clear to anyone who's read it), Universal's producers brought in Lugosi, who had been getting rave reviews on Broadway in the same role. (Legend has it that Lugosi, whose English was severely limited, learned his lines phonetically, resulting in his trademark strange, hypnotic cadence.) The runaway success of the 1931 film cemented Lugosi as a star in Hollywood and also kick-started the Universal Horror cycle that brought us Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and all the rest.

As most old school horror fans know, though, the success also became Lugosi's curse. A talented actor who, like all artists, wanted to practice his craft to the length and breadth of his abilities, Lugosi found himself locked into the Dracula role, permanently identified with the part that made him famous in America. Though he played many other types of characters in his career, eventually all the studio wanted from him was the sneering, aristocratic villain, who if he wasn't an actual vampire, really might as well have been. When non-Dracular roles dried up, the typecast Lugosi fell into z-grade programmers to support his ultimately fatal morphine addiction.

Going back and looking at some of the roles Lugosi played before age, typecasting, and his famous addiction to morphine brought him down, one can't help but marvel at what was lost by the producers' and directors' lack of imagination. So in the interest of redressing what wrongs I can, and further educating those who might know Bela only in his cape and tux, I thought I'd take a little time to celebrate some of the Other Faces of Bela Lugosi.

Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932)

Legendre and one of his minions.
(thanks to The Lugosi Collection)

First of all, let that character name roll off your tongue for a minute. Has there ever been a better voodoo master name than "Murder Legendre"? If there has, I haven't heard it. A year after the success of Dracula, the Halperin Brothers Productions (though filmed entirely on the Universal Studio lots, it was not technically a Universal film) went into production with this atmospheric tale about Charles Beaumont, a plantation owner in Haiti whose lust for his friend's fiance leads him to ask Murder Legendre, local voodoo master who's providing undead labor for Beaumont's sugar plantation, to turn the girl into his necro-love slave. This works about as well as you'd expect. I think this is a great creepy pre-brain-eating zombie flick (arguably the first zombie movie ever), and Lugosi, while slightly Dracula-like here, seems to me less aristocratic, more savage in a way, and extremely powerful and dangerous. He uses his famous miming skills to great effect too, clasping his hands to focus control over his undead hordes.

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Mirakle in a strikingly similar pose with his simian servant.
(thanks to tresfrompaulsbsmt.com)

That same year, Lugosi got to play one of his first mad scientist roles as the xenophilic cross-breeder Dr. Mirakle, obsessed with mixing the blood of human women with that of his monstrous pet ape. Obviously the movie had little to do with the Edgar Allen Poe story on which it was purportedly based (did Universal ever do a straight Poe adaptation?), but his wild look and unhinged manner here show what he could do with such a role. He would revisit the mad scientist schtick several times in his career, though often as the suave, sophisticated, very Dracula-like researcher (discounting the Ed Wood flicks at the end of his career, like the infamous Bride of the Monster--though his energy and commitment to the role even in that flick are compelling, especially given his frail physical state).

Lugosi vs. Karloff


It's perhaps ironic that the actor who gained the most from Lugosi's success as Dracula was not really Lugosi himself, but his fellow fright legend Boris Karloff. I hope everyone knows the story: flush with his success and newfound stardom, Lugosi was offered the role of the Monster in Universal's literary horror follow-up, Frankenstein, but famously turned it down because he didn't fancy being obscured by heavy makeup and having no speaking lines. The relatively unknown Karloff got the gig instead, and went on to have a career full of great performances in the types of broad-ranging roles Lugosi would later long for fruitlessly. Lugosi finally got his turn at playing the monster in 1943's Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, but by then it was too late. Besides, he couldn't match Karloff's pathos or physicality in the actor's trademark role, any more than Karloff could have pulled off the Hungarian count. Being matched against the much more physically imposing Lon Chaney Jr. didn't help matters any--especially since Lugosi was over 60!

Lugosi as the Monster
(thanks to Cinematical)

But the two men's careers crossed over at several points, most famously in a pair of films also nominally based on Poe stories, The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). In my opinion it's in the former flick that Lugosi makes his biggest mark, playing borderline hero to Karloff's Crowleyan villain. Lugosi's Dr. Vitus Wedergast is a man damaged by war and tragedy, bent on revenge for the horrible wrongs done him by his archenemy. The actors match each other stroke for stroke here, at one point literally playing chess for the lives of the innocent in a memorably tragic scene. Lugosi manages to instill the character with kindness and humanity, even though his purpose is hot-blooded murder. He's good in The Raven too, but that role is not as far removed from Dracula as his half-fearful, half-raging turn in The Black Cat.

The Shoulders of Giants: Karloff and Lugosi in The Black Cat
The one role that is about as far removed from the Count as you can imagine is for my money one of Lugosi's best screen performances bar none: the bearded, savage, joyfully evil Ygor in the underrated Son of Frankenstein (1939). In Karloff's last outing as the Monster, Lugosi plays the lower-class shepherd who escaped the hangman's noose (though still with a badly healed broken neck to show for it) and befriends Frankenstein's creature in order to get revenge on those he feels have wronged him. Dirty, petty, rambunctious and all-out malevolent, he's the polar opposite of the suave count who is almost always in strict control of every situation. A fantastic performance, and one that made Ygor synonymous with evil henchmen everywhere.

That's "Ygor" with a "Y"

The last time Lugosi worked with Karloff was in the excellent Val Lewton-produced RKO feature, The Body Snatcher (1945). This is one of my favorite Karloff performances, but while Lugosi's contribution is often derided as a bit part thrown in to capitalize on his name and the famous Karloff/Lugosi pairing, I think the scene in which Lugosi falls into Karloff's web of murder is affecting nonetheless, largely thanks to the pathos of Lugosi's stupid, drink-addled character work. Some would say he wasn't playing too far off type by this point--his drug addiction was beginning to tell, even then--but it's a scene I never get tired of watching.

Bela at the mercy of the Body Snatcher
Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law in Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Though Lugosi never rounded out his monster roles with a turn as a werewolf (Ape-Man don't count), he came close in Paramount's 1932 H. G. Wells adaptation The Island of Lost Souls. Again having only a brief cameo, here he plays the Sayer of the Law, a wise but raving half man/half beast. He injects a lot of energy and passion into the part, but though the film is excellent, for Lugosi fans it's largely a curiosity.

Lugosi in full beast-man make-up
(thanks to www.celtoslavica.de)

But of course Bela could never get away from the cape and fangs, even though he played Dracula only twice on screen, in the 1931 classic and in the Universal Monsters swan song, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Still, he played some form of vampire or other in various films after that, once again under Tod Browning in Mark of the Vampire, and later against such luminaries as the Bowery Boys and the Dead End kids. He died in 1956, and was buried in one of the Dracula capes he wore on stage in the role he made famous.

It only makes sense, doesn't it?
(boingboing)

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