Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein is the film that launched Hammer Horror on to the world, and there is a deliberate attempt to distance this film from both the Mary Shelley book and James Whale's iconic Universal version and create something unique. There are no pursuits to the North Pole, no fairy-tale castles, and no hunchback assistants, but the basic premise of the precociously talented scientist obsessed with creating a fully formed human being, and then being forced to deal with the consequences of achieving this remains intact.

Jimmy Sangster's script makes Victor Frankenstein the focus of the story but makes no attempt to portray him in a sympathetic light. This is a man who does not think in terms of good and evil, only in terms of getting his work done, and as a scientist who has no concept of the consequences of his actions. Peter Cushing brings a mix of charm, coldness, and nervous energy, to the role, creating a character who is determined, dangerous and unpredictable. While courting his cousin Elizabeth he carries on an affair with his maid, and when the latter finds she is pregnant, it is fascinating to watch the difference in his attitude to creating life in the laboratory and creating life with a human being.

Christopher Lee gives a similarly distinctive performance as the Monster. When he is discovered chained to a wall by his creator, his first instinct is to cover his face, still showing traces of vanity and humanity. The end result is a complex creature who is both a mindless killer, and a slightly pathetic pawn of somebody else's ambitions.

With two such dominating characters (and actors), it is difficult for the supporting cast to get a look in. Hazel Court does her best with the underwritten part of Elizabeth, but Frankenstein's increasingly moral and self-righteous mentor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) is just irritating.

When placed in the context of the Hammer Horror story, what amazes in retrospect is how fully formed the style seems already, with so many of the tropes, such as the colour, the gore, the actors, the urgent, dramatic music, and the Gothic European settings already in place.

The Curse Of Frankenstein / Original Theatrical... by AndersEben

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

With Love And Hisses (1927)

Although starring the duo (along with their regular sparring partner, James Finlayson), this is not a Laurel and Hardy film featuring the familiar characters, but another early silent where the duo are still working out their roles. Despite the occasional blasts of crude energy, the end result is a little slow and sluggish.

There is no real story to speak of, just a selection of loosely strung together sketches featuring the misadventures of Home Guard Private Cuthbert Hope (a very effeminate looking Stan), Sergeant Banner (Olly) and Captain Bustle (Finlayson). What surprises is the earthy, coarse tone of some scenes - at one point, the sweaty, slobby soldiers are packed into a single train carriage, sticking their backsides in other people's faces, making revolting smelling food, while other gags involve skunks, swollen posteriors and (implied) nudity.

Some of the elements that would be staples of Laurel and Hardy are in place here, such as the perpetually splenetic Finlayson and the sparingly used caustic intertitles from HM Walker ("There were cheers and kisses as the Home Guards left for camp. The married men did the cheering"). Unsurprisingly, the most successful sections are the gags involving the duo working together to cause mayhem. Their combined carelessness leads to the destruction of the soldier's uniforms, and an elaborate and silly gag involving a conveniently placed and conveniently sized movie poster. They were perfectly talented on their own, but together, greater than the sum of their parts.

With Love and Hisses(B&W) 1927 - Laurel & Hardy by herbert-hueller

Sunday, 30 October 2016

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Despite the painfully lurid title, I Walked with a Zombie is not a horror film, but an unsettling melodrama with lashings of ambiguity and ambience.

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a nurse, sent to Haiti to care for Jessica (Christine Gordon), the wife of sugar plantation manager Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Jessica, always seems to wandering around in a silent stupor, and the Voodoo practising natives think she is a zombie. But is there something more to it than that? Something that involves Paul's missionary mother and his jealous alcoholic half-brother Wesley?

This was the second collaboration between French director Jacques Tourneur and RKO producer Val Lewton, following their box office smash Cat People. Both films share a visual palette steeped in shadows, a plot steeped in ambiguity and uncertainty, and a shocking advertising campaign from the studio.

However, unlike Cat People there are no jumps or shocks, as Tourneur prefers a slow burning atmosphere of creeping dread. The world of this film is one of unresolved conflicts and contrasts - light and dark, Caribbean Voodoo and Western Christianity, science and superstition, slavery and freedom, none of which are ultimately resolved.

The script is the other strong point for this film, with characters that are not as straightforward as they first appear, and a refusal to provide any easy answers. It is also refreshing to see our zombies were originally presented on screen, a world away from the flesh eating, rotten corpses we are used to nowadays.

I Walked With A Zombie (1943 horror film... by Altair_IV

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The 39 Steps (1935)

Fast paced, sexy and brilliantly written and directed, The 39 Steps is a landmark in the career of Alfred Hitchcock that lays out his distinctive vision, both in terms of story and cinematic technique.

A simple evening at a London music hall turns into a nightmare for Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), when it ends in gunshots, a panicked crowd and a beautiful and mysterious woman who calls herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). After a trip back to Hannay's flat, Smith reveals that not only is she a spy, but she is being pursued by enemy agents after uncovering a plot to steal British military secrets. When Smith is murdered in his flat, and Hannay framed for the crime, he has no choice but to go on the run, using the little information Smith and told him to find the secrets and clear his name. With this being a Hitchcock film, we also get a beautiful blond woman to join him for the ride.

The film starts off at a roaring pace and barely stops for breath. Within twenty minutes of screen time Hannay goes from rakish man about town to wanted man on the run. Hitchcock effectively deploys one of his trademark storytelling devices, The MacGuffin. This is an object or person that presents the motivation or goal for a character, in this case the stolen military secrets, and drives the story, without ever overwhelming it, so the audience can enjoy the digressions.

Hitchcock also shows an assured and developed cinematic technique, going far beyond the simple static framing and sluggish editing of some of his contemporaries. He uses the camera lens to manipulate the point of view and knowledge of the audience, mixing suspense and surprises, and throws in simple but effective methods such as quick transition shots showing changes of location help keep the breakneck pace.

All of this is aided by, as you would expect from Hitchcock, a well constructed script, with set ups and pay-offs. The "innocent man caught up in something dangerous" plot was something that Hitchcock had used before in the silent film The Lodger and the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and would use again, most notably in North by Northwest. But here is where we see him first trying other tropes and ideas that he would come back to, the sharp witty dialogue, such the icy cool blonde female sidekick, and the chemistry between the two lead actors. It is also a surprisingly, for the time it was released, sexy film, whether in the scene of the two stars handcuffed together on a bed, or the conversation between two ladies underwear salesman on a train.

The story itself does sound absurd, and at one point one character says that Hannay's tale "sounds like a spy story". This is the case with many of Hitchcock's films, but to use this is as a criticism is to miss the point of what a film like this is about. It does sound absurd, but, like somebody trapped in a dream, that is what he has to deal with, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Sorcerers (1967)

The life and career of Michael Reeves was tragically cut short at the age of 25 by an accidental drugs overdose, and while much of the focus of his career is on the brilliant Witchfinder General, it would be shame if The Sorcerers was overlooked. Although made cheaply and quickly, it has a creepy, decadent atmosphere, a fascinating premise and a sympathetic and dignified turn from Boris Karloff.

He plays Professor Marcus Monserrat, an ageing hypnotherapist who has a bizarre new contraption that lets him and his wife Estelle enter and control the mind of anyone they can persuade to undergo his treatment. Not only that but they get to live vicariously through them, experiencing the sights, sounds and sensations that the subject does, the subject in question being Mike (Ian Ogilvy), a jaded party animal in Swinging Sixties London. But the scientific quest of the Professor starts to take a back seat as Estelle starts to want more and more thrills - including murder.

Reeves was, despite his youth and inexperience, gifted at using limited time and resources. He also made good choices both in casting and direction. With the former, he clearly realised the artistic and commercial potential of having a charismatic horror film icon in the lead role, and Karloff brings a humanity and sympathy to the character of Monserrat, who grows increasingly appalled as his creation spirals out of control. This trick would be repeated by Reeves with Vincent Price in Witchfinder General. He also gives the film a gritty, and at times, brutal feel, and doesn't skimp on the blood and violence. The photography is sharp with a documentary feel which does not paint a flattering picture of the groovy young swingers and their world.

The premise is ludicrous but Reeves quite rightly does not focus on how the machine works, but rather on the consequences of having this sort of power. This is in turn leads to a number of possible readings of the film. On one hand it can be seen as a morality tale of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, or alternatively, a metaphor for cinema itself, how we the audience vicariously live through the characters on screen.

The Sorcerers (1967) Trailer from from PICTURE PALACE MOVIE POSTERS on Vimeo.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

That's Entertainment! (1974)

Made to commemorate fifty years of MGM, That’s Entertainment is a nostalgic trip through the history of the studio's contribution to the genre that made them. It features the contemporary presence of several bona fide stars of the day, such as Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds, all waxing lyrical about their experiences with the dances, songs and fellow artists, and clips from over sixty MGM films from the 1920s (starting with the first MGM musical, The Broadway Melody of 1929, the first film to feature the song Singin’ in the Rain) to the 1950s. Fascinatingly, when viewed together, the deluge of clips reveals some interesting things.

Firstly is the contrast between the sleek, extravagant sets in films such as The Band Wagon and Good News and the rather sad, dilapidated state of the MGM lot as it was by the 70s, on the verge of demolition. This certainly emphasises the gulf between the two eras, and increases the feeling of nostalgia. This is something that could well have been felt at the time of release, with the United States mired in the Watergate Scandal, and is tacitly acknowledged in the strapline on the poster (“Boy, do we need it now”).

Secondly, while we are used to seeing the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Eleanor Powell in musicals, the ubiquity of the genre during the 30s and 40s meant that all of MGM’s talent were expected to be able to sing and dance, and the sight of James Stewart and Cary Grant giving it their best is wonderfully surprising.

Thirdly is the gradual evolution of cinematic style, from simply pointing a static camera at performers on a stage, to two distinctive directing techniques. On one hand is the style made famous by directors such as Stanley Donen in the likes of Singin' in the Rain, where the emphasis is very much on individual performers, with long unbroken takes as the camera glides up and down in their wake. The polar opposite of this is the Busby Berkeley style, of grand, often surreal spectacle, with scores of performers moving in sync amid lavish sets, or in the case of Small Town Girl, Anne Miller dancing through a sea of disembodied arms holding musical instruments.

One thing that all of the clips have in common is an energy and exuberance, which means That's Entertainment is never dull viewing. It works as a primer for those new to the genre and trip through memory lane for existing fans.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Cafe Society (2016)

After one or two recent misfires, Woody Allen is back on form with Cafe Society. More of a witty drama than an outright comedy, this is a film which harks back to the era of some of his earlier work such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets over Broadway, although with a completely different style to either of these.

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is the youngest child in a 1930s New York Jewish family, where elder sister Evelyn works as a school teacher, while his elder brother Ben is a gangster. Desperate to escape all of this, Bobby moves to Hollywood, getting a job running errands for his high flying agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell). From here, he falls in love with Bobby's secretary Vonnie, has his heart broken in a particularly cruel twist of fate, moves back to New York, starts managing his brother's high-end nightclub, meets and marries another woman called Vonnie - then meets the original Vonnie again.

The different story strands illustrate themes that have recurred throughout Allen's career, particularly in regard to chance, fate, and justice, summed up in Bobby's observation that ‘Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.’

Eisenberg does a great job of channelling the tics and mannerisms of Allen's onscreen character. He is aided by Kristen Stewart, who as Vonnie number one, switches gear believably between lowly secretary and Hollywood wife, Steve Carrel, who brings both toughness and vulnerability to the part of Uncle Phil and Blake Lively, who makes the best of an underused part as Vonnie number two.

It is also interesting to see Allen return to a subject that he seems to have left alone for a while. Jewishness is something that defines the Dorfman family, and while it does fuel a few trademark Allen one-liners, the abandoning of this by one of their clan drives one part of the story.

Allen is not afraid to both explore and criticise two big American mythologises of the 1930s, Hollywood and gangsters. While both are undeniably glamorous for the people viewing them from a distance, and financially rewarding for those involved, any wide eyed naivety is undercut by unpleasant bitchiness for the former and gruesome violence for the latter. He also, and not for the first time in his work, ends the film on a somewhat bittersweet note, with lives changed for the worse, hopes and dreams left unfulfilled and characters left wondering what could have been.