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.