Monday, October 31, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST (1945)

Happy Halloween! To mark the occasion, my friend Wendigo and I have dug up, with help from Netflix, a Golden Age quickie neither of us had seen before. Republic Pictures came late to the horror game, almost missing the classic era entirely but managing to release a couple of movies right around the same time Universal was winding down its horror unit and Val Lewton was making his last horrors for RKO. As might be expected from Republic, director Lesley Selander was a western specialist and would remain one afterward. The big novelty here is that Vampire's Ghost is the first screenwriting credit for Leigh Brackett, whose next was The Big Sleep and whose last was The Empire Strikes Back. Brackett co-wrote this script from her own adaptation of one of the founding works of vampire fiction, Dr. Polidori's Byron-inspired The Vampyre. Wendigo vouches for her fidelity to certain plot details from Polidori, while moving the action to Africa puts Vampire's Ghost in line with a Forties fad for voodoo that encompassed the Lewton unit's I Walked With A Zombie and the Lugosi horror comedy Zombies Over Broadway. Selander gets it all done in 55 minutes (IMDB says 59) and it proves pretty easy to sit through.

The film opens with some self-pitying narration that proves to be spoken by the film's as-yet unseen vampire, for now known only by the ring on his finger as he invades an African hut to claim its female occupant. This is but the latest in a spree of mysterious exsanguination killings with puncture marks in the neck in common. The tribal drums suggest vampirism at work, but Julie Vance (Peggy Stewart) finds such talk about "a dead man denied Heaven" to be "medieval tommyrot." Suspicion naturally falls upon the new man in town, bar owner Webb Fallon (John Abbott) who hosts gambling and a sexy floor show, and all the early signs tend to confirm the suspicion. He doesn't like sunlight or mirrors, and he even grows weak when the local priest, Father Gilchrist (Grant Withers) clasps him on the shoulder. But he seems decent otherwise, can handle himself in a fistfight when a sailor accuses him of cheating (the ace Republic stuntmen predictably sell well for Abbott), can go about in the day (with dark glasses) and twice saves the life of Julie's boyfriend Roy (Charles Gordon). On the other hand, when he visits the Vance house, a servant notices that Fallon casts no reflection (the mirror promptly shatters) and the natives notice that a bullet seemed to pass through Fallon's body to wound another man when he joins an expedition to a restless village. Native vampire-hunter Simon Peter (Martin Wilkins) figures it all out and has the remedy: a spear dipped in molten silver.


But though his blow strikes home, Fallon prevails upon Roy to save him by placing his body on a hilltop (as in Polidori, Wendigo recalls) to receive the moonlight as his head rests on a box containing earth from his original grave. This rising again seems to justify the film's odd title, though Wendigo suspects from the number of times the phrase was used that the working title must have been "The Curse of the Undead," which would be used a decade later. The vampire has enough mesmeric power to prevent Roy from revealing what he knows (in Polidori, the vampire simply makes his friend swear an oath), but not from conspicuously ordering The Legend of the Vampires through the mail.

Webb Fallon is a man from Elizabethan England, a hero of the war with the Armada, who was cursed to undeath by causing the death of a woman. He's not exactly happy with his lot, but he doesn't shun his task of destroying happiness. He has an idea to make things easier for himself by turning Julie into his eternal companion, but Roy, Simon Peter and Father Gilchrist have other ideas....

For what it is -- most likely a second feature on a double bill -- Wendigo was impressed by The Vampire's Ghost and the trouble Brackett took to develop a vampire-hunting mythos that synthesized Christianity, voodoo and traditional folklore and graft it all onto the Polidori framework. Brackett and Selander found interesting new ways to envision a story and archetype that must have seemed very familiar by 1945, so that it doesn't seem like a Universal or Lewton knockoff. Wendigo liked the unassuming looking John Abbott's charismatic performance as an ambivalent vampire who can be likable yet proves himself an irredeemable villain. Webb Fallon is a cursed creature (not the victim of a vampire himself) whose curse taints everything he touches -- in a fit of generosity he hands some gambling winnings to a rummy who drops dead moments later, whether Fallon intended that or not. He's conscious of being cursed (though he's also capable of great luck at dice) and doesn't really like the idea, but he doesn't really mind existing, even if that means ruining other people's lives. Wendigo was particularly taken by the idea that Fallon has to work for a "living," though his choice of venue puts a lot of drifters conveniently in his path. Abbott's weak appearance underscores Fallon's vulnerability but also marks him as someone whose survival must be supernatural. Interestingly, he seems equally worried by manifestations of Christianity and voodoo, but less dedicated to Satanic evil than to the worship of a native "death god," and it's an understatedly progressive aspect of this film that Western religion and African "superstition" alike can contribute equally to the vampire's defeat, with the natives actually taking the initiative. Abbott is one of those actors who may not look like he should be playing a vampire, but Wendigo finds that a point in his favor, because it allows him to give a more original vampire performance. Charles Gordon does effective work as a hapless hero who knows what's going on but can't warn anyone until Father Gilchrist breaks down his mental blocks with the insight that Fallon can't maintain power over him unless Roy himself allows it. As Gilchrist, Grant Withers is adequate but his height, his bulk, his full-lenth priest's robe and his widow's peak strangely and risibly reminded us of Steven Seagal's vampire-fighter from Against the Dark. As Simon Peter, Martin Wilkins is allowed to be more intelligent and articulate than other natives, but Wendigo felt he was still handicapped by the sort of stilted dialogue Hollywood assigned to foreign characters in general.

Because Fallon isn't quite the standard (i.e. Universal) vampire in his range of powers and weaknesses, Vampire's Ghost is a relatively unpredictable film that keeps you guessing about what it might take to defeat the monster. Will another spear stop him or do you need to burn him too? If you scatter his box of earth to the wind, does he really have a fortnight to go back to his grave and restock? The horror genre may have seemed tired to many observers by 1945, but Republic, Brackett and Selander proved that it was still possible to look at vampires with fresh eyes, just as most moviemakers decided to avert their gaze for a decade. Ghost's economy of storytelling makes it more watchable now than it may have seemed at the time, and it made us feel that the Golden Age didn't necessarily need to end when it did.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mill Creek Invasion: FUGITIVE ALIEN (Star Wolf, 1978/1987)

Jo Shishido, the Japanese action star and Nikkatsu Noir icon, is probably best known in particular for his starring role in director Seijun Suzuki's directorial kamikaze run Branded to Kill and in general for his decision to undergo surgery to expand his cheeks to make his face more distinctive. How this was to benefit him -- distinct isn't the same thing as handsome -- was always mysterious, but an advantage suggested itself decades after the procedure. As Captain Joe of the Bacchus 3 in the Japanese TV series Star Wolf, Shishido's face seemed specially designed to withstand the rigors of high-pressure space flight. While his fellow crew members get their cheeks and jowls set to rippling, just as if they were being blasted by a wind machine, Shishido the human chipmunk is unperturbed. Of course, Captain Joe is better lubricated than his subordinates. He's a hard drinking, hard smoking spaceman even before his wife and child are killed in an alien attack, and afterward his vices make it easier to cope. He even keeps a flask dangling from the ceiling of the bridge to supplement the bottles he drains at every opportunity. He's dubbed into English with a vaguely Noo Yawkish smartass voice that seems exactly right for the swaggering I-don't-give-a-damn performance Shishido gives; maybe only Cameron Mitchell's voice would be more perfect.  Captain Joe isn't really the hero of the series or the TV movie Sandy Frank (that purveyor of many things Japanese to North American audiences) assembled from the early episodes, but he was my hero throughout.

It's Captain Joe's universe; the rest of us just fly around in it.

The actual hero of Star Wolf, aka the Fugitive Alien, is Ken (Tatsuya Azuma), a Valna Wolf Raider by profession, whom we meet while he and his buddies are attacking Planet Earth. Part of the ground force, he leaps about committing random acts of murder, vandalism and jewel theft alongside his comrades, all dressed like deadly hippie space clowns with long blond hair flowing out from under his helmet. Despite his exuberant rapine, Ken has a code. There's a line he won't cross. Or at least when he encounters a Japanese child named Ken, he becomes profoundly confused. He sees himself superimposed over the child, as if all Kens are the same (only Barbie knows for sure), and this seizure of fellow feeling makes him incapable of killing the kid. Worse, it compels him to prevent his best buddy from killing the kid. In the resulting scuffle, Ken accidentally frags his pal, who dies denouncing him as a traitor to Valnastar. Now friendless on a hostile planet, he decides his best option is escape to outer space, but his ship is damaged in a crossfire and he's forced to ditch. He doffs his helmet to do so, revealing that those hair extensions are actually part of the Valna Wolf Raider uniform, presumably designed to terrify primitive people like Earthlings or make them lose their composure through laughter.

Fugitive Alien carries a 1987 date, but these guys are all Seventies.

Ken is rescued from a lonely fate floating through space by the Bacchus-3, whose crew is initially uncertain of whom they're dealing with. He tells them that he's an innocent astronomer observing the stars, but his superhuman strength (he's even stronger on Valnastar, he tells a fellow Valnastarian while on Earth) makes some of the crew suspicious. As it develops, Captain Joe matches a piece of fabric from Ken's clothes with a Wolf Raider uniform found near his dead child. He confronts Ken, is disarmed, disarms Ken back with the old "shouldn't you check to see if it's loaded" trick, but is dissuaded from killing the Star Wolf by Ken's tale of treason. Assuring Ken that "the world is mad," Joe decides to take him on as a crew member, the idea being that Ken, at least, will obey all his orders (and maybe not question his drinking), lest Joe expose him as a Valna Raider and render his life forfeit. Joe's second-in-command, Rocky, has his suspicions about Ken confirmed when he tries to run the stranger over with a forklift, but Captain Joe insists that Ken's superhuman strength doesn't make him a Wolf Raider.

Joe: I know Ken's a lot stronger than we are, but there's a reasonable scientific explanation for that. He's spent a lot of time in another constellation. That increases strength.

To his credit, Rocky isn't really convinced by Joe's story, but his loyalty to the captain compels him to tolerate Ken, to an extent. Now a full crew member, Ken joins the Bacchus-3's next mission to assist the beleaguered planet Carrero, whose traditional Cesar (or Viholi; the name changes abruptly) enemy is being aided by Valnastar and its evil blue-skinned ruler Valen. The Carrero mission really puts Star Wolf (or its Fugitive Alien segment) over the top, if it hadn't gotten there already for you, because the series's six writers and three directors have given us a Planet of the Arabs. The civilians are Arab-garbed, at least, while the military wear green, turtle-shell helmets, the sight of which I'll spare you.

These Carreros are ungrateful recipients of Earthly aid. They keep most of the Bacchus crew prisoners on their own ship while their ruler negotiates with Joe and Rocky. But Ken's a rebel at heart. He romps off the ship, which has been left unguarded -- apparently the Carreros believe in the honor system. The male crewmates want to follow him, but the one female officer (the computer specialist) forces them at gunpoint to stay on board -- but then doesn't bother pursuing Ken as he bounds childishly (I believe he actually says "yippee!") into a native town where he gets into a bar fight and is finally arrested for supposedly stealing a jewel. Informed that Ken is subject to the death penalty, Captain Joe tells the authorities they can have him -- but unlike Rocky, he doesn't really mean it.
Since the Carreros haven't stripped Ken of his uniform, Joe can still communicate with him via a device embedded in one of Ken's shoulder buttons. Another shoulder button contains a convenient "miniature nuclear device" that Ken can use to blast his way out of his cell -- it's "just like a grenade," Joe explains. Once out of the cell, Ken must break a Cesar prisoner out with him to make it easier for the Bacchus to infiltrate Cesar space. Doing this will require Ken to kill a considerable number of our Carrero allies, but maybe that was agreed upon in advance with the Carrero ruler, when that potentate made his advance payment of three blue crystals for Earth's assistance.

After Ken and the Cesar prisoner make their great escape, they run straight into a dangling subplot. Back on Valnastar, Valen had tasked Rita, Ken's lover and the sister of the man he killed, with avenging her family and her planet. That's the traditional law of Valnastar, and after a presumably traditional period of wandering in the desert, Rita embarks on her mission of vengeance. She manages to track Ken to Carrero, where she proves more adept at infiltration, disguising herself as a native woman, and more adept at tracking than the natives. She gets the drop on Ken, but basically folds as soon as he tells his sob story for the umpty-umpth time.

In the end, she only appears to convey the plot point that, superhuman strength notwithstanding, Ken is not a Valnastarian but a human, the son of a missionary from Earth. Maybe Captain Joe's theory about extraterrestrial strength is correct, after all. And having conveyed this revelation, and after having been established as the female badass of the picture, Rita is promptly shot down in a crossfire between Ken and a Carrero soldier. True to family form, she blames Ken with her dying breath -- except I have a weird feeling she might not be dead. After all, there's lots of the series left, as the "To Be Continued" card at the end makes clear....
The long journey to Mill Creek Entertainment's Sci-Fi Invasion box set began with American author Edmond Hamilton's trilogy of Star Wolf novels. Tsuburaya Productions adapted these into the Star Wolf TV series, from which Sandy Frank derived at least two Fugitive Alien films, which were in turn subjected to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. That last phase seems redundant, as I can't see how Joel and the robots could have made Fugitive Alien any funnier than it already is. From this account you can probably tell that not only Fugitive Alien but its source materials are probably pretty dumb, but it's all dumb in a charmingly childish, naive way, not in the cynically derivative manner of something like Welcome to Blood City.

The effects are hit or miss, but mostly miss, with some nearly psychedelic scenes of rotating spaceship formations thrown in alongside occasional yet understandable errors in English language labelling, but all of this comes with the territory of Japanese fantasy, where a craft aesthetic outweighed concerns for verisimilitude. But it's technical shortcomings aside, Star Wolf unselfconsciously believes in itself, and its guilelessness makes many of its sins forgivable. On top of that, Shishido seems to be enjoying and loathing himself at the same time in an eminently watchable, winningly decrepit performance. This is a bad movie by any measure, but it's the sort of bad movie that actually left me wanting to see more of Star Wolf -- so how bad can it really be?

Thursday, October 27, 2011


The first feature film by "French Hitchcock" Claude Chabrol has the additional selling point, as reiterated by the Criterion Collection's packaging, of being the first feature-length manifestation of the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave, though it was followed up more famously by Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Why Chabrol's debut and not, say, Louis Malle's debut feature Elevator to the Gallows of nearly a year earlier? Apparently because the New Wave was the intellectual property of Cahiers du Cinema magazine, for which Chabrol, Truffaut and Godard wrote, but Malle didn't. From this perspective, the New Wave was an unprecedented and unrepeated opportunity for film critics to back up their opinions by becoming the creative vanguard of a national film culture. Posterity concedes that the critics walked the walk -- and some still do today, and Chabrol did until his death last year -- but the New Wave ultimately encompassed many more directors than ever wrote for Cahiers, so it doesn't seem quite fair to say the Cahiers critics started the New Wave, unless you want to say that their criticism started it before any of them ever shot a frame. I suppose the case can be made.

Anyway, despite its primacy Le Beau Serge doesn't have the prestige of Truffaut and Godard's debut films, and on its own terms it's hard for me to see what was revolutionary about Chabrol's film without more experience with the "tradition of quality" and the prevailing pop cinema against which Cahiers rebelled. Toward the end, I did notice a self-conscious departure from the "invisible" neatness of past direction in the main character's business with a lantern as he's trying to pick his drunken friend (the "beau" Serge of the title) off the floor of a shed. As Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) struggles with the body, the lantern tumbles forward and briefly beams an utterly abstract pattern of raw light into the camera. I can imagine a lot of directors rejecting that as a bad take, but it actually enhances the intimate immediacy Chabrol seems to be aiming for overall. Apart from that, however, there's little I recognized as showiness or disruptive narrative trickery. For a newcomer, Chabrol has an assured, efficient storytelling style. There's an easiness to it all, an actual lack of pretension, that comes with the director's familiarity with the location -- the village of Sardent was Chabrol's wartime home.

For a New Wave film, Beau Serge reminded me a lot of some Elia Kazan movies, particularly those taken from Tennessee Williams.  Chabrol's film is a tale of thwarted nostalgia; the message may not be "you can't go home again," but this movie might make you think twice. Francois, the local kid who made it in the big city, has come visiting as a convalescent and hopes to look up his old best friend Serge (Gerard Blain, the driver in the shot above). To his dismay, Serge, once an aspiring architect, has become one of the town drunks, a truck driver who hangs out with the local trash, most notably an older man (Edmond Beauchamp) and his jailbait companion (Bernadette Lafont) who may or may not be his daughter but dutifully wheels him home in a barrow every night. Serge himself is unhappily married to Yvonne (Michele Meritz), whose second pregnancy repels her husband -- the first turned out traumatically bad. Once presumably the envy of the village -- hence the "beau" nickname -- Serge has been demoralized by his entanglement in its dead-end economy and social life. Francois takes it upon himself to rescue Serge from his despond, but only embroils himself in the simmering issues between Serge and Yvonne and the other couple, his own dalliance with the jailbait leading to her rape by the old man, who was apparently waiting all along for someone to say in public that the girl wasn't his daughter. Serge himself doesn't welcome Francois's solicitude, finally beating him up outside a village dance, but despite that rebuff our hero feels a commanding need to save his old friend. He imperils his own health to find Serge on a wintry night after the bum has gone on a bender while his wife has gone into labor. Francois exhausts himself dragging the possibly moribund Serge through the streets to his house, where they get news that might turn Serge's life around....

I suppose Francois is a sort of heroic figure, but Chabrol lets us keep our distance by giving us an ambiguous ending that represents not redemption but at most the possibility of a second chance for Serge. The writer-director has meanwhile so completely convinced us of the hopeless conditions in this rotten town that you can leave the film questioning whether Francois has really done Serge a favor at all. The real subject of the film isn't Serge's fall or rise but Francois's troubled nostalgia and his desire to make things what they were before. His is the situation most viewers will identify or empathize with, and Brialy does a fine job cinching the identification. You may leave Le Beau Serge asking whether it was worth it to Francois himself to undertake such a potentially thankless mission, but it won't be hard for many viewers to understand or at least imagine why he does it. Leave the question of the film's historical significance aside and you still have a well-made film with a solid story and a strong beginning to an honored and honorable career.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Werner Herzog's STROSZEK (1977)

Welcome to Werner Herzog's America. Your tour guide is Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), an ex-con street musician with a prostitute for a girlfriends and her erstwhile pimps hassling him. His life in Berlin is wretched apart from his occasional musical ecstasies, so when his eccentric (a redundant term in Herzog's world) neighbor Herr Scheitz decides to move to the U.S. to live with a cousin, Bruno and his girlfriend Eva (Eva Mattes) decide to try their luck in the land of the free. From New York they travel to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, where Bruno becomes a mechanic and Eva becomes a waitress. Expecting too much too soon, they buy a prefab house and furnish it on credit, but can't keep up payments on their small salaries. Before long Eva is hooking again and Bruno loses his house. He and Herr Scheitz embark on a criminal spree, robbing a barber shop. The old man is nabbed at the very next stop, a grocery store, but the cops ignore Bruno in another aisle. With a frozen turkey in tow he lights out for the territory in a stolen tow truck, his trail ending in a tourist trap and a final ascent into the hills on a chair lift. There is, of course, also a dancing chicken, and another that plays a miniature piano.

The journey of Bruno S(troszek)
1. Berlin
2. The Empire State Building
3. Somewhere in Wisconsin

On the Anchor Bay commentary track, Herzog attempts to explain his typical compulsive inclusions, observing that he instantly saw the sideshow chickens as a metaphor without really knowing what they stood for. The great man is perhaps being disingenuous here, since the juxtaposition of the barnyard creatures imitating human entertainment and the consummation of Bruno's failures probably wouldn't seem that mysterious to the moviemakers or moviegoers of the olden days of silent cinema. Herzog's sensibility has often struck me as being about a century behind the times -- and that's often a good thing. That archaic sentimentalism marks Stroszek as an oldschool play for pathos, with Mr. S. (an authentic crank whom Herzog had first cast as Kaspar Hauser) as the sort of grotesque everyman -- paradoxically a universal figure because he's so particular but not generic -- that used to be commonplace in silent comedy above all.

Like many a pathetic hero, Bruno is humiliated by bullies like this allegedly authentic pimp and ex heavyweight boxer.

Herzog's approach to America, his quest for authentic locations, his readiness to recruit ordinary people for bit parts without even asking for their names, all remind me of the old Mack Sennett approach to guerrilla filmmaking. But Herzog eschews the Keystone quest for the belly laugh in search of the extreme, almost self-parodying pathos of someone like Harry Langdon. The director is clearly driven to make his film both funny and sad as an expression of his own grim compassion for the world's outsiders and misfits. Stroszek is on some level Herzog's satire of Charlie Chaplin's more optimistic Mutual short The Immigrant -- a denial of America's redemptive potential for every newcomer. The fault lies not with America (Herzog is more insistent on that point in his commentary) but with ourselves, if we're damaged goods like Bruno and Eva, but Stroszek isn't interested in blaming its characters for their failures, or anyone for anything. Herzog accepts America, Germany, the world and its people as they are; he practically wallows in it all. But his audience can have it both ways because Herzog is technically an unsentimental filmmaker. He doesn't cue your emotions with music, and his star is an undemonstrative personality. The grotesquerie on display in Stroszek may merely amuse or it may arouse the compassion Herzog probably intends -- but that seems to be up to each viewer.

While not really a statement about America, Stroszek boasts indelible images of the country in the 1970s, a place and time I recognize in cinematographer Thomas Mauch's images even though I've never been anywhere near Wisconsin. Herzog is clearly inspired by a certain drab tackiness that now signifies the first stage of national decline, and his film is as much a document of that moment as any American-made film. His empathetic portrayal of a loser isn't exactly alien to the American cinematic sensibility of the era, either. Bruno never speaks a word of English in the picture, if memory serves, but in many respects Stroszek qualifies as an honorary American film from one of the nation's peak movie epochs. It may not have quite enough plot for some viewers, but I imagine Herzog would happily echo Mark Twain in warning that anyone seeking a plot will be shot.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mill Creek Invasion: WELCOME TO BLOOD CITY (1977)

Did you ever have one of those days? One moment Tom Lewis (Keir Dullea) is stuck in traffic in the middle of some sort of evacuation, and in the next he finds himself dressed in prison garb in the middle of a wilderness. He meets a woman, Martine (Hollis McLaren), and several men, all similarly dressed. They tell him to consult a card in his pocket which tells him how many people he's killed. It seems that they're all murderers, though that's news to Lewis, and they seem to have escaped from prison with no idea of where to go. While they ponder their predicament, random letters appear on screen and the camera pans and scans desperately to keep up with them. These reveal that we're looking at an EMI production of a Peter Sasdy film with butchered cinematography, courtesy of Mill Creek Entertainment's Sci-Fi Invasion collection. The presentation doesn't inspire confidence, and that's probably for the best. This film would probably be just as stupid in all its original widescreen splendor.

Our wanderers are soon beset at a creekside by a potbellied road agent and his sidekick who confiscate everyone's boots and rape Martine. Observing from a discreet distance is Jack Palance on horseback, a man in black with a silver cross for a badge. After the rebooted desperadoes go their way, he identifies himself as Sheriff Friendlander and herds the barefoot victims into his town, Blood City, and deposits them in a secure house in advance of their choosing day. Blood City is a place with its own laws, imposed, from the look of things, by the totalitarian dictatorship of the Red Cross.


At the choosing day, Lewis and his new friends will be -- you guessed it -- chosen for a period of indentured servitude. Until that time, they're eligible to be killed by established citizens or their bodyguards, and they're not entitled to bear arms to defend themselves. Citizens themselves are entitled to kill one another until someone has killed twenty people. Such a person becomes an "Immortal," like Friendlander, whom no one may shoot at. Lewis isn't having this. When he wants footwear, he goes to a bootmaker and beats the man into providing what he needs. In general, he's full of gripes. He fails to understand why everything in Blood City boils down to "kill, kill, kill!" His complaints get to the sheriff, who suddenly flashes back to a better time when he (or Jack Palance) was a benign academic of some sort. This reverie sets off alarms in a distant laboratory where technicians in modern dress monitor a mannequin on a hospital bed. One of the technicians, Katherine (Samantha Eggar) pushes some buttons and Friedlander promptly forgets what he was trying to remember.

 Above, the fantasy of the Blood City Slickers tour package. Below, the sad reality.

At this point, Welcome to Blood City veers away from its apparent destiny as a Westworld ripoff and reveals itself as an even more specific ripoff of that old Prisoner episode where Number Six and his tormentors dress up as cowboys. The ripoff is so thorough that Lewis is at one point informed, apropos of nothing, that he is "Number Nine." Gradually, tortuously, Blood City reveals its purpose. The citizens, prisoners, slaves, bodyguards, etc. are being cultivated or culled in the hope of finding a "Killmaster" to do an unidentified government's dirty work in distant parts of the globe. As an Immortal, Friendlander has been the most likely candidate so far (his scholarly background notwithstanding), but Katherine believes that Lewis is something special. She advances his cause by programming herself into Blood City as a citizen who throws Lewis a rifle so he can save his life, kill a man, become a citizen, join the Red Cross, and acquire his own bodyguards from the man he killed. While the real Katherine is in no way hooked up to the virtual reality (avant la lettre) simulation, she gets off watching video footage of her Blood City self done up as a saloon girl getting it on with Lewis, while a colleague complains that her interest borders on the pornographic. Forget about scientific objectivity. Instead, Katherine grows murderously jealous of Lewis's continuing interest in poor Martine. When Lewis plots to liberate her from slavery to the fat robber from the early scenes, Katherine and her posse intervene, and when the big slob uses Martine as a human shield, she coolly puts a bullet in her virtual (?) rival's brain.


Not satisfied with this result, Katherine resolves to terminate Lewis once and for all. From her control post in the lab, she can manipulate reality in Blood City to make Friendlander appear out of nowhere like Droopy Dog whenever Lewis tries to elude him. When Friendlander isn't sufficient to her purpose, she empowers one of Lewis's erstwhile fellow victims to whack the renegade. But something goes wrong here as well. Lewis is killed fair and square in Blood City, but he wakes up in the real world -- that's not supposed to happen, at least not so soon. But before Katherine can follow through terminating the man, her boss (Barry Morse) appears to insist that Lewis be retained to lead an Elite Force. In the meantime, in Sasdy's big would-be mindfuck finish, Lewis staggers around his room (where he'd at first looked a lot like the dummy previously playing Jack Palance), discovering first a bunch of TV monitors showing atrocity footage from around the world, and then a reject room where the real Friendlander, Martine, etc. stagger about in a white-clad stupor. Confronted with such horror, Lewis takes the only escape route available to him, somehow reprogramming himself into Blood City and riding off into the sunset.

Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain.

I see what Sasdy and his writers were trying to say, but no -- no one in their right mind, and compared to those other poor souls Lewis is in his right mind, would put themselves back in the idiot universe of Blood City. Hell, given a choice between becoming a Killmaster, or getting an apparent lobotomy, and watching Welcome to Blood City, I can cut the choice down to two pretty quickly. Sasdy finishes a remarkable two-part cinematic coup here; after making one of the worst horror films of the 1970s in the form of The Devil Within Her/Sharon's Baby/ I Don't Want to Be Born, he bounces right back to make one of the worst sci-fi films of the decade. It qualifies for that ranking because it confuses incoherence for originality when it isn't brazenly stealing used ideas and wastes an otherwise capable cast of stars. If anything, Blood City is worse than the baby movie because its ineptitude is less amusing. It's no surprise that it was television from then on for Sasdy, with the somehow fitting exception of the Pia Zadora vehicle The Lonely Lady. Need I add that Mill Creek's atrocious rendering does the film no favors? Since it does none for itself, I guess you can't blame Mill Creek too much.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939); or, Wyatt Earp Meets the Monsters

One of the first cinematic versions of the Tombstone legend, Allan Dwan's movie takes advantage of still-widespread unfamiliarity with the Wyatt Earp story to take giant liberties with it. We're already dealing with a remake, as Stuart N. Lake's biography, based partly on self-serving interviews with Earp, had already been put on film just five years earlier. Dwan's film is an improvement in that it calls Earp by his right name instead of "Michael Wyatt." That seems to be about the end of its fidelity to history. Some Western historians claim that Lake's book is a whitewash of Earp, but Sam Hellman's script pretty much tears Earp down completely and puts up a new streamlined structure in his place. It relates to history only to the extent that a man named Wyatt Earp did some shooting of folks in the town of Tombstone, but it gets lost almost as soon as you ask who he shot. Consider: this is a Wyatt Earp film in which the name Clanton is never spoken. Since then the Clantons have become an inextricable part of the Tombstone legend, but the story still wasn't well known in 1939 despite Lake's publicity, so Twentieth Century-Fox could get away with creating an almost entirely original cast of villains for Earp to dispatch. Instead of a gang of "Cowboys" lurking outside town to rustle cattle and hoorah the place every so often, Frontier Marshall roots the Tombstone evil in the Palace of Pleasure saloon, whose proprietor Ben Carter is in cahoots with a gang of stagecoach robbers led by Curley Bill (Joe Sawyer), one of the few authentic names in the story. The robberies recede into the background, however, as the script focuses on Carter's feud with the more refined Bella Union, which can hire high-class entertainment like "greatest comedian in the world" Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy Jr.).  Attempting to keep the peace is Earp (Randolph Scott), who earns his star by volunteering to subdue the drunken Injun Charlie when the current marshal (Ward Bond) chickens out. Wyatt has come to town alone, without brothers or wife, and stays to impose order despite the machinations of Carter and a spiteful saloon girl (Binnie Barnes). Complicating matters is the arrival of temperamental and tubercular gunman Doc "Halliday" (Cesar Romero -- and I didn't misspell "Holliday," the movie did), a man with a fondness for handkerchief duels and a general death wish. An appalling amount of screen time is dedicated to the efforts of Halliday's long-suffering wife (Nancy Kelly) to recall the murderous lunger to his original vocation -- not merely dentistry but a full-scale general practice, including on-the-fly surgery. The climax of the picture is Doc's rally to perform life-saving surgery on a bartender's son accidentally shot by Earp. Following this redemptive triumph, Halliday strides out of the Bella Union and is instantly killed by Curley Bill, who informs Wyatt that he can be found at the O.K. Corral, about three doors down from the saloon. So Wyatt Earp fights the famous gunfight by himself, though help arrives at the end from an unexpected source. As the curtain falls, law and justice triumph, though one character notes that Tombstone is no longer truly safe, now that the Palace of Pleasure has been replaced by a savings bank.

The challenge for a historian or history buff when faced with something like Frontier Marshal is to distance oneself from history and judge the film on purely dramatic and cinematic terms. Cinematically, Dwan directs some crisp action and the film has some nice production values overall. But the script is a disaster that leaves Earp a bystander for much of the plot while Halliday forms a triangle with his wife and Jerrie the saloon girl. As Earp, Randolph Scott is adequately heroic but has little to work with in terms of personality, while Romero only left me wondering what Anthony Quinn could have done with the role -- the closest Quinn ever came was the Holliday a clef role in Edward Dymytryk's Warlock.  Worst of all, this Tombstone movie can't come up with a proper antagonist for Earp. Carter is set up early as the "big bad," only to be eliminated two-thirds through the picture. His assistant, Pringle, seems poised to step in, but in the very next scene Earp goads him into a fatal gunfight. That leaves the barely sketched out Curley Bill as the ultimate antagonist in an O.K. Corral fight that really feels like an anticlimax after all the storm and stress of the surgery scene. That's all a double shame, not just for the movie itself but for genre movie fans, given who plays the villains.

Frontier Marshal appears to be the first true team-up of John Carradine (Carter) and Lon Chaney Jr. (Pringle). Chaney had done bits in some earlier Fox films in which Carradine had more prominent parts (e.g. Jesse James), but Pringle is one of Junior's more prominent supporting roles before his breakthrough in Of Mice and Men. It's definitely an improvement for him on his labors for Cecil B. DeMille, who left almost all of Chaney's performance in Union Pacific on the cutting room floor, reducing the struggling young character actor to a few shots as a bystander despite being a named character in the end credits. For Carradine, a rising character actor at Fox, this film was just another day at the office; he contributes nothing special to a standard villain part. By comparison, Chaney's participation in an A picture is virtually a showcase, though he only has a couple of big scenes. In the first, Pringle has kidnapped Eddie Foy and forced him to perform at the Palace rather than the Bella Union. He stands just offstage twirling his two guns menacingly as Foy attempts to entertain the crowd. While Earp charges in through the audience to rescue Foy, Halliday appears in the wings to keep Pringle covered. In a priceless moment (perhaps) for Chaney fans, Doc decides that the audience expects entertainment and shouldn't be disappointed. He forces Pringle to dance, keeping time with bullets aimed at Chaney's feet as the big lug does a desperate soft-shoe routine. It may be the only time Lon Chaney Jr. ever dances on film. His other highlight is his shootout with Scott, his one scene as leader of the Palace gang. At first, Pringle has no intention of shooting it out with Earp, promising the marshall that Curley Bill will take care of him soon enough. But Earp's casual insult provokes a foolhardy attack, punctuated by Chaney's effective pantomime (in lieu of modern effects) of taking a bullet to the head. Thus pass Chaney and Carradine on their way to their destiny as horror men. They'll next encounter each other in The Mummy's Ghost, when Carradine plays the latest priest to revive the hapless Kharis. By that time, Carradine will already be past his peak of prestige, while Chaney will be in a thankless holding pattern as Universal's "master character creator." Frontier Marshal may be worthless otherwise, but it catches the pair as a team before either man had an inkling of his actual acting destiny. As that, it's a film of historical and maybe even sympathetic interest.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Wendigo cumpla DRACULA (1931)

"Dracula hasn't had servants in 400 years and then a man comes to his ancestral home, and he must convince him that he... that he is like the man. He has to feed him, when he himself hasn't eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine? ...The loneliest part of the book comes... when the man accidentally sees Dracula setting his table."

Steven Katz, Shadow of the Vampire (2001)

Like many horror-film fans, my friend Wendigo and I were excited twenty or so years ago when we learned of the rediscovery of a long-lost Universal horror film from the studio's classic era: George Melford's Spanish-language version of Dracula. Before its release on videotape the "Spanish Dracula," now probably the best-known instance of the short-lived studio practice of filming alternative foreign-language versions of certain films rather than dubbing or subtitling the originals, was hyped to the skies as a cinematic revelation. At least we were told it would seem like that when compared to Tod Browning's stodgy old Dracula. The camera moves more! The women look hotter! There's half an hour more of the story! We'd heard the legend, and Wendigo had read it long ago in Famous Monsters of Filmland: Melford shot his version at night on the same sets Browning used and, knowing what Browning had done, he and his crew tried every night to top the English-language version. There were wild rumors, too. Could the great F. W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, have been coaching Melford behind the scenes? Could it be true that Melford managed the shoot without knowing Spanish? Could any old film live up to that kind of fan hype? Wendigo's memory of his first viewing is dominated by the camera movement and the sexier vampire brides and victims -- he dug their longer hair compared to the American actresses Browning used. Beyond that, the story seemed to have been performed differently in nearly every way by nearly every actor -- and the differences seemed to make Melford's the superior Dracula in every respect but the obvious one. Bela Lugosi remained unassailable, and we'd also say that Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing remained unchallenged, but technically and artistically Melford appeared Browning's master.

Our viewing of Melford's Dracula this week was Wendigo's third. He's seen the Browning many more times in between viewings of Melford, and over time he's gained a fresh appreciation of Browning's strengths, some of which became still more clear after a fresh comparison with Melford. Wendigo now readily concedes that Browning is the better director, with a far superior eye for framing iconic images. He seems to have had an extraordinary rapport with both Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye and directs both actors for maximum creepiness, while Melford often seems to have no control over his Renfield -- about whom more later. Browning's 75 minutes now seem more efficient and effective than Melford's sometimes meandering 104 minutes. Browning seems to have had a superior instinct for pruning the core script from which both directors worked, while little of what Melford keeps (most of which deals with Renfield) really enhances his version. Some parts of Melford are just plain repetitive, especially the shots we once so much enjoyed of his Dracula rising from his smoke-spewing coffin. Do it once and the point is made, but Melford must have wanted to use every foot of footage of his vampire puttering around. Some other parts are just bad, like the terrible continuity mismatch of Dracula's hand first emerging from a coffin, followed by the vampire rising from an obvious crate, or the borrowing of a stock shot of Browning's brides before we first see Melford's much different vamps. And, as Wendigo must emphasize, Melford's bat effects are crap. When Dracula flies into Lucia Weston's room, the bat first swings in and swings right out again, then crashes into the windowframe and bounces off until it finally swoops drunkenly over Lucia and out of frame for the last time. Was it too late for a retake?

Wendigo is still impressed by Melford's greater mobility, and by his exploration of areas of the classic sets that Browning never examined in any detail. Melford's fluidity, especially during dialogue scenes, sometimes makes up for his lack of dramatic framing. The greater length allows for nuances that are interesting if not significant, particularly during the interviews with Renfield that reveal his academic background. On the other hand, the big confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is protracted and slackened, awkwardly intercut with a scene of Eva Seward and Juan Harker, and finally belittling to both characters. The business of Dracula hiding his face and asking if Van Helsing has obeyed him by putting his cross away makes the vampire look just plain stupid, while the vampire hunter had looked utterly weak until he revealed his ruse. To sum up, the longer script comes with pluses and minuses, and we can mostly take or leave it. And overall the Melford Dracula remains a good, entertaining film in the Universal horror tradition. We wrapped this latest viewing with a better appreciation of some aspects of the film, especially that aspect most often criticized: the star.

We don't think anyone has ever claimed that Carlos Villarias (not Vallarias as in the ad art above) was better than Bela Lugosi, and we're not going to say that, either. But while the consensus has been that Villarias was only doing a failed Bela impersonation -- he alone of the actors, supposedly, was shown the Browning rushes -- we saw something far different this time. If the studio's thought was that he would simply ape Lugosi, Villarias clearly had a different idea. Critics find his performance awkward, with its grimaces, idiot grins and overall leering and mugging, but we'd like to suggest that a good deal of that awkwardness is deliberate. Watching him this time, we were reminded of what Willem Dafoe's Count Orlok says about the literary Dracula in the movie Shadow of the Vampire, as we quote above. Villarias's awkwardness, his tendency to switch from a simpering smile to an impatient frown or a petulant pout, is his way of expressing Dracula's alien, inhuman nature -- the same quality Lugosi expresses with his uncanny stillness, his carefully choreographed hand movements, and his accent. Since we don't understand Spanish, we can't tell whether Villarias is playing the vampire with a "foreign" accent, whether Spanish speaking audiences would hear him as a Lugosi or as a Christopher Lee. Given our uncertainty about his vocal performance, we focus on Villarias's physicality.


Above, Villarias's Dracula impatiently observes Renfield's dinner.

Is Dracula more disturbed by the sight of blood (above) or a cross (below)?

His Dracula is a predator barely capable of pretending to be a human being, who often goes overboard with his goofy smiles while pretending, and his concentration fails easily. While Lugosi is almost always masterful, except when blocked by a cross or thwarted by Van Helsing, Villarias is barely master of himself, and hardly seems in Lugosi's league as a mesmerist. His hand gestures are all wrong; he seems to be threatening to pat people on the head. It's an interesting and even intelligent performance -- Villarias seems to have calculated his every expression carefully -- but the qualities that make him a distinctive Dracula disqualify him as a scary one. If anything, as Wendigo emphasizes, his awkwardness while pretending to be human ends up making his vampire all too human. In the end, it's a performance we can respect without ranking it highly among vampire actors.

Villarias's eccentric performance leaves the film for Pedro Alvarez Rubio's Renfield to steal in a way Dwight Frye could never have dreamed of. Alvarez can match Frye madness for madness, but there are different methods to each. Wendigo hears in Alvarez the laughter of a completely shattered mind, and sees in his performance a more completely fractured, mercurial personality. Alvarez can turn from calm or arrogant to batshit shrieking crazy on a dime, while Frye is in a constant simmer of insanity that occasionally boils over. Alvarez gives a more theatrical performance, while Frye plays more conscientiously to the camera. You remember Frye's face and his thin, simpering laugh above all, while Alvarez is all shouting and arm-waving, effectively often enough but too often playing to the balcony rather than with Frye's creepy intimacy.

Renfield is a test of directorial control, and the final exam is his scene with the fainting nurse. Browning films it with Frye creeping straight ahead in one of his best shots, while Melford has Alvarez come in from the side and turn in her direction in an inferior composition, holding the shot until Alvarez turns the scene into a joke by snatching at a fly in the air. In this tag-team comparison, Wendigo and I agree that Browning and Frye win hands down.

Probably the greatest acting disparity between the Browning and Melford versions comes in the form of Van Helsing. Edward Van Sloan's iron-willed performance remains definitive for many and second only to Peter Cushing for the rest. By comparison, Eduardo Arazomena impressed Wendigo as some bum who got hired while sleeping on the set. He brings no sense of authority or power to a role that demands those qualities. The most he offers is sympathy, and that's not nothing. Wendigo noticed how often Arazomena wears a horrified or baffled expression compared to the imperturbable Van Sloan. That may make Arazomena's a more humane or warm performance, but the language barrier leaves him looking weak to us based on his soft, doughy presence.

In Bram Stoker's novel, Van Helsing describes Dracula's "baby brain." The "Have you obeyed me?" moment from Melford's movie (below) appears to prove the doctor's point.

Wendigo also suggests that Melford may have needed a relatively wishy-washy Van Helsing given the limitations of his Dracula. You can imagine Villarias immolating under Van Sloan's gaze, while Villarias vs. Arazomena is more like a battle of equals -- or as Wendigo proposes, a battle of clowns hitting each other with flour.

On the other hand, if one actor from the Spanish cast surpasses his English-language counterpart, it'd probably be Barry Norton as Juan Harker. He is the superior of David Manners as long as you understand that Harker is meant to be dull and dense, for Norton achieves the miracle of coming off as a duller, denser twit than Manners, Universal's sublimely named embodiment of stalwart dullness. Those plus-fours he wears help make the right impression, though he does get one unexpectedly noirish badass moment when he stands outside the cemetery in a heavy coat, head down, his face shielded by his hat, after he and Van Helsing have dispatched the "Lady in White."

At age 101, Lupita Tovar may be the last survivor, apart from child actors, of Universal's classic horror era. Seeing her in this film, you can believe that she has a life force that keeps her with us today. Perhaps because Melford's Spanish collaborators were less constrained by lingering Victorian sensibilities, the director is able to get a far more vivacious, voluptuous performance from Tovar as Eva Seward than Browning got from Helen Chandler -- especially after she's been halfway vamped.  It's not hard to dominate a Harker actor, but Tovar practically devours Norton in a seduction scene that's far more aggressive than Browning's and topped with laughter that nearly gives Alvarez a run for his money. Both versions of Dracula are pre-Code films of course, but it's Melford's version that really looks and feels like it. Here, too, Wendigo claims, Melford's casting tops Browning's.
Ever since Melford's Dracula returned to circulation, horror fans have wished for the best of both worlds. Some suppose that Lugosi directed by Melford would have made the ultimate vampire film. Wendigo wouldn't mind seeing that theoretical film, which should also import Van Sloan and Frye from the Browning version while employing Melford's art directors, who give the Spanish version more visual variety than Browning offers. Wendigo could have fun fine-tuning the casting, down to the actor in Browning who tells Renfield, "Nooooo...." when he learns of the solicitor's Borgo Pass itinerary and the two crypto-lesbian tourists in Melford. There may never be a definitive cinematic Dracula, but there is a cumulative version out there, made up of bits and pieces of all the famous and infamous versions, and the novel, that's always in production. Once nearly forgotten, Melford's contributions to the Dracula script of our collective imagination should now be permanent.