LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

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The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

Freaks (1932)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Freaks, the infamous 1932 film by director Tod Browning, about- and starring- the disfigured performers of a circus sideshow; controversial from the moment of its release and still disturbing today, it was lambasted by critics who found it repugnant, and was quickly pulled from circulation after provoking public shock and moral outrage.  Considered an affront to decency, it was barred from exhibition in many U.S. states and in countries around the world, and effectively ended the career of a director who had been one of Hollywood’s most respected talents; nevertheless, over the ensuing decades it gained a reputation- no doubt enhanced by its lack of ready availability- and became, in the ’60s and ’70s, a cult favorite, frequently screened as a midnight movie despite the fact that many of the prohibitions against it were still in place, making it technically illegal to be shown in many states.  Its rediscovery led to a critical re-evaluation, and today (thanks to modern society’s more enlightened, less reactionary view of its subject matter) it is widely regarded as a genuine classic, a brave and truly unique piece of filmmaking and a seminal influence within the horror genre.

The story takes place entirely within the insular world of a traveling circus, focusing on the day-to-day existence and relationships of its cast- particularly the collection of malformed misfits that comprises its sideshow, which includes dwarfs and midgets, “pinheads,” conjoined twins, a legless boy, a human torso, and numerous other bizarrely-shaped and differently-abled individuals who, despite their deformities, enjoy a comfortable and seemingly pleasant existence within the rarified environment of the circus, living together in a tightly-knit community with its own sort of exclusivity- as well as its own unwritten code that governs their interaction with the outside world.  One of their number, a midget named Hans (who has recently become engaged to Frieda, another little person in the troupe), has become obsessed with the “normal” Cleopatra, the show’s new trapeze artist, an exotic beauty who indulges his attentions with flirtation and flattery; privately, however, she is only amused by his affections, making cruel fun of him with her real lover, the circus’ opportunistic strongman, Hercules.  Though warned by his fellow “freaks” that she is not sincere, Hans continues to pursue Cleopatra, eventually spurning his fiancée for her; she humors him in order to take advantage of the lavish gifts he gives her, and when she discovers that he is secretly the heir to an enormous fortune, she and Hercules decide to steal it for themselves.  She concocts a plan to marry the little man so that she can become his beneficiary, and then slowly poison him, making his death seem due to illness and allowing her to claim the money and run away with the strongman.  At their wedding feast, however, she becomes drunk, reacting with disgust when the freaks attempt to accept her as one their own and inadvertently revealing her affair with Hercules.  Though she is seemingly able to allay the suspicions of her new husband- who has grown weak from the poison she has already begun to administer- the other sideshow performers are onto her scheme, and they resolve to take matters- and justice- into their own hands.

Director Tod Browning had spent his early youth in the circus (which he had run away from his privileged family to join) where he had formed a strong connection to the specialized society of its inhabitants; when he encountered the short story, Spurs, by Tod Robbins, he immediately knew he wanted to use it as the basis for a film.  He had built an impressive career as a director of silent films, making a name for himself through his extensive collaboration with renowned horror star Lon Chaney, with whom he created a number of classic films known for not only their moody eeriness, but for their remarkable level of humanity; after continuing his success into the sound era (as the director of Dracula, the 1931 hit which made a star of Bela Lugosi), he was able to convince MGM Studios- with whom he had worked on the Chaney films- to allow him to develop a film based on Robbins’ story.  Though the studio had serious reservations, production head Irving Thalberg gave Browning his full support, even in his decision to use real sideshow performers in the film instead of actors in makeup.  Consequently, working from a screenplay that combined basic elements from the original story with the concocted plot of Cleopatra’s treachery, as well as episodes inspired by his own experiences in the circus, Browning was able to realize his dream project.

In the end, he may have wished he had not; his use of genuinely deformed actors caused an outcry from public and critics alike, who felt their presence made the film far too disturbing to watch.  Worse yet, Browning was accused of exploiting these unfortunates for his own profit, much in the way that real-life carnivals and sideshows had done for years.  Whether or not this was true, the film’s preview screenings were a disaster, with audience response so vehemently negative- and one female patron threatening to sue MGM over a miscarriage supposedly brought on by the movie- that the studio edited out 30 minutes of the most upsetting footage before its general release, leaving it with a running time scarcely over an hour.  Even with these cuts, a new prologue, and a more upbeat happy ending tacked on for good measure, Freaks was a failure at the box office; not only did it fail to make back its cost, it generated so much negative publicity for the studio that, after a short release, they pulled it from theaters and put it on the shelf- though it would later emerge in exploitative road show tours, under lurid-sounding titles such as Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes, and sometimes accompanied by such titillating underground fare as amateur films of nudist camps.  As for Browning, he was more or less blacklisted from making any more important movies, relegated to helming a few low-grade horror entries until he gave up his career in 1939, and he passed away in relative obscurity in 1962- just a few years before the resurgence of interest in classic horror films that would doubtless have restored his fame and reputation, never to see the day when a youthful counterculture would turn his greatest failure into his greatest triumph.

Calling Freaks a triumph, actually, might not be an apt description; it possesses a raw and unfinished quality that has nothing to do with the removal of so much footage (all of which is now, sadly, considered lost).  Its story is sensationalistic, more a transposition of conventional melodrama into an unfamiliar setting than a real attempt at exploring this rarely-seen world, and it capitalizes on the irrational fears of the lowest common denominator to achieve its horrific effect.  Despite these things, however, and perhaps even because of them, it has a unique power that makes it nearly as shocking today as it was 80 years ago; watching it is as difficult as it is fascinating, evoking a decided sense of seeing something you’re not supposed to see.  It’s actually very easy to understand why audiences in 1932 would react so violently to Browning’s film, unaccustomed as they were to the kind of distorted imagery of the human body that has since been portrayed onscreen.  Even today, thanks to advances in medical and nutritional science and the ready availability of pre-natal care which have made such dramatic and heartbreaking birth defects a much rarer occurrence, the sight of all these non-CG-enhanced distortions of physical humanity is more than a little unsettling. The real power of Freaks, though, is only apparent for those who can get past the deliberate gross-out factor of its surface and invest themselves in its story, the clear message of which is that true ugliness lies not in physical appearance but in the soul.  Without exception, the so-called freaks are good-natured, trusting, generous and sweet (though Hans may be blinded by desire into making some foolish choices); it is the “normals” who are the real monsters here, with Cleopatra’s gold-digging cruelty and Hercules’ brutish arrogance making them truly among the most loathsome villains in classic cinema.  Of course, it would be contrary to Browning’s message to make all of the normal characters so unpleasant; the others exhibit varying degrees of likability, in terms of their relation to the freaks, from the uncharitable but relatively benign attitudes of the circus’ tumblers (a decidedly non-athletic-looking pair, incidentally, to be holding such a job) to the kindness and total acceptance offered by the film’s ostensible romantic leads, the lovely seal-trainer Venus and her clown boyfriend Phrozo, who even risk their own safety to come to the aid of their oddly-shaped friends.  Though the narrative approach is simplistic and heavy-handed, the black-and-white morality is part of what makes it work; it should be obvious that true humanity exists under the skin, having nothing to do either with physical beauty or the lack of it, and it is one of the defining characteristics of the insensitive and the mean-spirited that they neither see nor care about this basic truth- they are, in fact, the real “freaks” in this story, the unnatural evil that must be weeded out in order to restore harmony.  It is a testament to Browning that he makes their comeuppance both horrific and immensely satisfying, accomplishing the somewhat Hitchcockian feat of transferring audience identification to the perpetrators of violence in order to underscore his subversive point.

Freaks does not dwell entirely in the dark and moralistic realm of its main plotline; throughout the film are vignettes, many of them drawn from Browning’s real-life memories of his own years in the circus, of existence in the sideshow world.  It’s a place where, despite the extraordinary nature if its inhabitants, the details of daily life are mundanely familiar- Frieda the midget having girl talk with Venus while hanging laundry, lovers’ politics between the conjoined twins and their paramours (both of whom are, by the way, normals), the joyful bedside gathering of friends when the bearded lady gives birth- and go a long way towards endearing us to the misshapen cast of characters.  Some of these moments are played for laughs hinging on the idea of these outwardly strange individuals behaving like average people (a conceit which, though likely very true to real life, was also a staple of the sideshow and vaudeville acts in which they performed); others are touching and revelatory, such as the early scene in which a landowner stumbles upon Madame Tetralini, the sideshow’s “headmistress,” accompanying several of her more drastically deformed charges on an outing in the woods.  A few of these sequences awaken a genuine sense of wonder and open a window into these unusual lives, such as the famous scene when Prince Randian, the “Human Torso,” expertly lights a cigarette using only his mouth or, most particularly, when a passionate kiss bestowed on one of the conjoined sisters sends a tingling wave of arousal through her twin.  These humanizing moments, some of them unforgettable, contribute to the effects of the well-known scene of Hans and Cleo’s wedding feast; we feel the infectious joy of their raucous celebration- sharing in the fun of Koo-Koo the Bird Girl dancing on the table rather than experiencing the appalled reaction of an uninitiated gawker, respecting the true generosity of their chanted ritual of acceptance for the new bride (“Gooble-gobble, Gooble-gobble, One of Us, One of Us!”) instead of cringing at its seemingly ominous implications, and recognizing Cleopatra and Hercules’ drunkenly flagrant contempt and disrespect for their hosts as the deep affront that it is rather than identifying with it.  For the film’s harrowing climax, however, though these efforts to bond us with the freak community may allow us to be on their side, our sympathy does nothing to alleviate the sheer visceral terror they evoke when we see them lurking in the shadows or crawling slowly but inexorably towards their helpless quarry.  This is Browning’s true mastery coming to its fruition- he helps us to subdue our instinctive and primordial fears around these outwardly disturbing figures and then brings those fears to life for us in a way which simultaneously repulses and elates us.  In this way, he offers a film which transcends its own morality to deliver a pure, non-intellectualized reaction, and one which has rarely been matched, let alone surpassed.

As disquieting as this famous climactic sequence may be, modern audiences will only be able to imagine what it was once like.  Following the film’s overwhelming rejection by preview audiences, MGM made Browning cut a large portion of it; the original version featured the brutal castration of Hercules and included a lengthy and graphic mutilation of Cleopatra by the vengeful freaks.  There was also a longer version of the sideshow epilogue, in which the former strongman was seen on display, singing soprano, before the final revelation of the once-beautiful Cleopatra transformed into a grotesque duck woman- webbed feet, feathers and all.  This latter image, of course, remains in the film, no less disturbing for its lack of logical explanation, and justly infamous for its sheer audacious shock value.  It was meant to be the final moment, a lingering horror to send the audience home to their personal nightmares; in most existing prints of the movie, however, it is followed by a short finale- hurriedly filmed after the cuts were made, in hopes of leaving audiences on a more hopeful note- which shows the reconciliation of little Hans and his faithful Frieda, a pleasant enough conclusion, but juxtaposed against what we have just witnessed, one that feels a little hollow.

In terms of its production values, Freaks was a fairly high-budget project, and it shows.  Many of its scenes were shot on location (that is to say, outdoors) giving it an expansive, realistic feel that is missing in many of the more set-bound films of this early talkie period.   The cinematography (by Merritt B. Gerstad) is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro black-and-white moodiness, and the artistic design captures the authenticity of its circus setting in all its rough-edged, seedy glamour.  As for the acting, the “normal” cast all deliver perfectly acceptable performances in the somewhat stagy, melodramatic style of the day, with Olga Baclanova appropriately standing out as the flamboyantly callous and deceitful Cleopatra.  The specialty players, though all were seasoned performers in the real-life sideshow and vaudeville circuit, were not trained actors; even so- though their delivery is sometimes stilted, their diction often indecipherable, and their characterizations generally simplistic- they are so genuinely themselves that they win us over with the power of sheer personality.  This is especially true in the case of some of the more profoundly compromised actors, such as the microcephalics (“pinheads” being the less-sensitive but more commonly-known term)- particularly “Schlitzie,” (in real life, despite the dress, a man named Simon Metz), whose infectious charm practically leaps off the screen- and those others affected by especially severe genetic defects. Also memorable are Johnny Eck (the legless boy, a handsome and particularly gifted performer who was well-known and popular in Vaudeville), the aforementioned Prince Randian, and Violet and Daisy Hilton (the Siamese twins, also well-established as entertainers offscreen and later the subject of two stage musicals and an acclaimed documentary).  In many cases, these performers continued to work and thrive for many years after their appearance in Freaks (though with the decline of vaudeville many of them eventually faded into obscurity); indeed, one of the movie’s prominent dwarfs, Angelo Rossitto, went on to enjoy a long career as a film actor, culminating in his appearance as the key character of “Masterblaster” (or, at least, the “Master” half) in the 1985 action/sci-fi fantasy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

For most casual audiences, the most important question is this: does Freaks live up to its reputation?  My answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!” Truncated and brightened-up as it may be, Freaks is still a powerful film experience, one which achieves the rare objective of truly forcing the audience to confront its own level of humanity.  It’s hard not to feel compassion for these examples of nature gone wrong, but Browning’s film makes it clear that it is not our pity that matters- rather it is our acceptance.  Pity is another form of judgment, after all, no different perhaps than the less charitable attitude of dismissive contempt exhibited by the film’s scheming villains; it is based on a presumption of inferiority, and even of powerlessness- a presumption Cleopatra and Hercules, to their misfortune, discover to be very much mistaken.  Browning’s movie, for all its deliberate creepiness and sensationalism, is ultimately a powerful reminder of the old admonishment not to judge anything- or anyone- by appearances, and more than that, a strong plea for tolerance and equality.  The circus, after all, is a classic metaphor for the world itself, and the sideshow freaks stand in for all those social misfits who are outcast for their differences.   It is no wonder that Freaks was rescued from cinematic oblivion by the counterculture of the ’60s, and has been embraced ever since by those who, for whatever reason, stand apart from mainstream culture and disdain the shallow hypocrisy they see there; the appeal is obvious to anyone who has ever felt shut out because of who or what they are- and which of us can say they’ve never felt that?  Freaks, then, is a parable that validates the disenfranchised.  It also (to borrow a phrase) comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable, which it’s probably fair to say is what Tod Browning set out to do with his magnum opus.  Though it may have cost him his future, I’m sure it would be some consolation for him to know that, even if it did take decades to happen, he is dearly appreciated for having succeeded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/

 

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bride of Frankenstein, the classic 1935 sequel to James Whale’s Frankenstein, once more directed by Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the iconic monster and Colin Clive as his creator, as well as featuring Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger in new roles.  Though it did have its detractors, it was mostly seen as a triumph even upon its initial release, and it is widely hailed today as one of the few movie sequels to surpass the original, not only representing the artistic pinnacle of Universal’s cycle of horror films, but considered by many to be the defining masterwork of Whale’s short career.

After a sumptuous prologue in which Mary Shelley- author of the original Frankenstein novel, for those who don’t know- regales her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron with the continuation of her macabre tale, Bride of Frankenstein picks up where the first film left off, at the smoldering wreckage of the windmill in which, after throwing his creator to an almost certain death, the monster has presumably been burned alive.  As the mob which had trapped him there disperses, the parents of a child he had murdered linger to assure themselves of the creature’s demise, only to make the fatal discovery that, having found refuge in the mill’s flooded basement, he has survived after all.  Meanwhile, after being transported back to his baronial castle, Dr. Frankenstein is also found to have survived, much to the joy of his fiancée Elizabeth, who vows to nurse him back to full health so that they may finally celebrate the wedding postponed by the rampage of his marauding creation.  His recuperation is interrupted by a visit from his former professor, Dr. Pretorius, who reveals that his own experiments in the creation of life have also met with success and insists that the two join forces in order to continue the work; Frankenstein, despite the horrific experiences that resulted from his previous efforts, is fascinated and drawn in by the possibilities.  In the outside world, the monster wanders the countryside, seeking safe haven and experiencing disastrous encounters with terrified townspeople.  Eventually captured and imprisoned, he breaks his chains and escapes into the woods, where he finally finds refuge with a lonely blind hermit, who treats him with kindness and teaches him to speak and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  This idyllic respite is short-lived, however; a pair of hunters discover the creature, the hermit’s cottage is accidentally set ablaze in the ensuing struggle, and the forlorn fugitive flees as his new friend is led away to safety by the interlopers.  With the entire countryside on his heels, the monster hides away in a dilapidated crypt, where he unexpectedly encounters none other than Dr. Pretorius.  The scientist befriends him, and promises that, with his help, he can persuade Dr. Frankenstein to make a new creature, a female that will at last offer the lonely outcast the companionship for which he longs.  When the good doctor, newly married and about to embark on his honeymoon, refuses to cooperate, Pretorius instructs the monster to abduct Elizabeth, and promises Frankenstein her safe return upon the completion of the new creation.  Though he has been forced into participation, the doctor becomes enthusiastic about the project in spite of himself, and soon- thanks to some unsavory assistance procured secretly by Pretorius to find a suitable heart for the new creature- the experiment reaches its successful fruition.  The original monster’s intended mate, however, has a mind of her own, an unexpected development which leads to disastrous complications.

Following the success of the original Frankenstein in 1931, Universal was eager to produce a sequel; they publicized their intention to make one almost immediately, but director Whale was uninterested in returning to the material, feeling that he had exhausted the possibilities with his first effort.  It took several years for the pieces to come together, during which time the filmmaker was persuaded to helm the project as part of a package deal- he was given the chance to direct another film in which he was interested (the now-virtually-forgotten One More River) in exchange for accepting the assignment on the Frankenstein sequel, over which he was also promised absolute artistic control- and work commenced at last on the long-awaited film.  Whale believed, however, that a sequel would be unable to surpass his original movie, so he decided to take a different approach; seeking to turn the film into a black comedy, he rejected several scripts before settling on an adaptation by John Balderston (who had adapted the first film for the screen) of an episode in the original novel in which Frankenstein is coerced into building a mate for his creation.  Another writer, William Hurlbut, was brought in to add the macabre touches of humor desired by Whale, and it was ultimately his screenplay from which Bride of Frankenstein was made; it is clear, however, that he worked in close collaboration with the director, for the film bears Whale’s unmistakable stamp on every frame.

With his background in design and direction for the theatre and his taste for the techniques of German Expressionism, James Whale was an ideal choice as a creator of gothic horror films, something Universal- and its chief executive, Carl Laemmle, Jr.- fully appreciated; the director himself, however, was bored with the genre by the time he made Bride, and frustrated with being pigeonholed into the category of “horror director.”  This conflict seems to have created the perfect foundation for Whale’s precocious creativity to manifest itself on film.  With the rare artistic freedom that was his price for doing the job, he turned the project into something more interesting for himself than just another A-list shocker.  His movie is rich with subversive subtext, taking the accepted conventions of horror melodrama and slyly turning them inside out; he infuses the plot with sly social commentary, finding a sense of the absurd in every scenario and exploiting it for dry comic effect even as he takes delight in its horrific elements.  The representatives of decency and normality are presented as grotesque caricatures, exhibiting ignorance, intolerance, hypocrisy and cruelty at every turn, while the film’s outsiders are treated with dignity and sympathy; whereas in the original film, Frankenstein himself is the main protagonist, a misguided but well-intentioned visionary who takes on the role of Prometheus, in Bride of Frankenstein there can be no mistake about the fact that it is the monster who is our hero.  The angry mobs- a cliché ripe for satire even in 1935- are here the enemy, and the unfortunate victims of the monster’s wrath are merely collateral damage in a reactionary war against the unknown and misunderstood.  As for the doctor himself, he is now an overwrought, uptight coward, denying his true nature to pose as a bastion of decent society; he has been supplanted instead by Pretorius, a figure of dubious motivation but possessed of an undeniable charm which makes us like him despite the shadier aspects of his character.  Pretorius is clearly bent on the destruction of the status quo, and given the unflattering portrait we are given of the society around him, such a goal cannot help but seem reasonably understandable; thus he, like the lonesome creature he befriends and ultimately exploits, becomes a focus for audience identification.

Whale’s film is filled with deliciously subtle wit, even in its most horrifying scenes- Pretorius is a major source of the verbal comedy, although other characters deliver some intentionally unintentional zingers, such as the stodgy burgomaster’s assertion that it’s time for decent men and their wives to be in bed.  This kind of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness is largely responsible for the film’s status as a “camp” classic, which further has given it a reputation for having a heavy homosexual subtext.  Whale was openly gay, and other members of his cast and crew were either known or rumored also to be so; it is not surprising that a connection could be made between the movie’s dominant theme of social ostracism and an expression of gay experience in 1930s culture, and the film’s ironic tone and anti-social perspective certainly suggest an alternative sensibility.  The most obviously gay element, of course, is the prominence of Dr. Pretorius, whose arch attitude and fey demeanor go beyond the level of the typical codified “sissy” characters of the period to make him clearly identifiable as gay to all but the least sophisticated audiences, even in 1935.  Many of Whale’s contemporaries have vehemently dismissed the notion that he deliberately intended the film’s content to be read as “gay,” either overtly or by inference; watching Bride of Frankenstein, however, it is hard to imagine that a director of such obvious intelligence and command of his art would be unaware of the implications inherent in many of the movie’s situations.  Perhaps it is an overstatement, based on a retro-fitting of modern ideas, to interpret (for example) the extended sequence of the monster’s relationship with the blind hermit as an allegory for same-sex unions; but it seems equally unlikely to think that Whale and his associates were not aware of the obvious metaphor of an “unnatural monster” being persecuted and driven to the fringes of society to find acceptance.  Of course, social isolation is a universal experience, and one of Bride‘s great strengths is the clarity with which it is portrayed; Whale’s acute personal connection to the monster’s plight no doubt played an important role in his ability to bring it to the screen with such powerful resonance.  Like all great artists, he drew inspiration from his own psyche to infuse his work with a conviction and authenticity that is accessible to all.

Whether or not the supposed gay subtext was intentional, Bride of Frankenstein contains a considerable amount of sexual innuendo which most definitely was meant to be there.  Nevertheless, these elements were not the source of the film’s difficulty with the Hays Office; rather, the censors objected to the film’s heavy use of religious iconography and its extreme (for the time) violence.  Whale loaded his movie with crosses and crucifixes, at one point even featuring a scene in which the monster, captured by the irate villagers, is lashed to a post and raised is an unmistakably Christ-like pose before being loaded into a cart for transport to a jail cell; while much of this material remains, the Hays censors insisted on the removal of some even more overt scenes which they deemed to be blasphemous.  The director was known by his colleagues to be irreligious, but even so it is doubtful he intended disrespect by including these aspects in the film; more likely, it was a pointed observation on the irony of the decidedly un-Christian treatment visited on the monster by the supposedly righteous mob, and perhaps also, subtly, an inversion of the Christ story, in which a being raised from the dead is persecuted and rejected by an fearful and inhospitable populace.  As for the violence, it probably goes without saying that it is hard to see, by today’s standards, how there could be any objection to the few brief moments in which the monster dispatches yet another irate villager; there is no visible bloodshed, we are given no gruesome close-ups or buckets of gore, and most of the killings are over before we even realize they are happening.  Still, the body count in Bride of Frankenstein is considerably higher than that of the original film, and quick as they may be, some of the murders are admittedly disturbing on a psychic level that has nothing to do with the gross-out factor which has today replaced the deeper shocks favored by horror filmmakers of old.  Consequently, extensive cutting was necessary to obtain a passing certification from the Hays Office, and at least one new scene had to be hurriedly added before release in order to bridge the story gaps created by these edits.  Thanks to Hollywood’s self-imposed decency standards, therefore, Whale did not quite achieve the complete artistic control he had been offered; indeed, the studio also reneged on its promise in one key instance, demanding a happy ending (and one which might facilitate the possibility of yet another sequel) to replace the one Whale shot, in which (“spoiler” alert) all the principal characters perished.  Consequently, new footage was shot at the last minute, depicting the escape of Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth (who is technically, of course, the actual title character of the film); however, due to budgetary constraints, it was not possible to reshoot already finished footage of the exploding laboratory, so that in the final version, the good doctor can still be seen pressed against the wall as the room collapses into rubble.  Though this was contrary to the director’s plan, there is a certain ambiguity to the hollowness of this tacked on reprieve, which evokes questions of how this hopelessly scarred couple can ever hope to free themselves of the nightmarish experiences they have lived through- particularly the doctor, already a visibly broken man, who was at least partly responsible for the preceding events having ever taken place.  In any case, the survival of these two characters does nothing to alleviate the sense of tragedy which permeates the film’s final moments; if anything, it underscores the sadness we feel at the fate of the film’s true protagonist.

Analytical discussion aside, there is much to praise in Bride of Frankenstein; Universal considered it one of their most important productions, having established a lucrative domination of the horror market and fully anticipating a major hit with the eagerly awaited continuation of one of their most popular films.  Consequently, the production values are sumptuous, from the elegant period decor and costumes of the Romantic Era prologue to the elaborate blend of gothic futurism that dominates the laboratory in the movie’s climactic scenes.  The special effects were top-notch for their time, and black-and-white cinematography (by John J. Mescall) is a glorious example of the bygone aesthetic of light and shadow that made films of this era such a magnificent, ethereal beauty.  Franz Waxman’s eerie, unresolved score provides a darkly romantic atmosphere throughout and drives the story relentlessly towards its cataclysmic finale.  Whale’s skill as a director manifests itself not only through his overseeing and coordination of all these elements, but in his edgy visual style; with rapid cutting, extreme angles, and a highly mobile camera, he manages to build a film that keeps the viewer breathlessly off balance, ensuring that it works as a horror movie independently of the black comedy that simultaneously exists for those audiences savvy enough to see it.

To paraphrase the ending credits, a good cast is worth mentioning, and no discussion of Bride of Frankenstein would be complete without mention of its star, Boris Karloff, whose fame and popularity were so great at the time that he was billed simply by his last name.  The pathos which he brought, somewhat unexpectedly, to his portrayal of the monster in the original film, is here brought to the front and center of the proceedings, and he provides genuine heart to the story, which prevents the loopy comedy from undermining the movie’s seriousness and keeps the sensationalism of the horror elements from overpowering its deeper message.  It is well-known that the actor objected to the creature’s development of speech within this movie, feeling that it would create an awkward and jarring effect that might alienate the audience- or worse, make them laugh; even so, he rose to the occasion well, delivering his stilted, remedial dialogue with as much conviction and sincerity as he performed the physicality of the monster.  The addition of speaking did have a somewhat unfortunate side effect, in that Karloff was unable to remove his dental plate as he had in Frankenstein, which meant that the formerly sunken-cheeked monster had a fuller face this time around; but the iconic makeup (designed by the uncredited Jack Pierce) was adapted to reflect the damage caused by the windmill fire that ended the original film, so the change was perhaps less noticeable than it might have been.  As for Colin Clive, the other returnee from the first film, his severe alcoholism had progressed considerably, and its ravages were plainly visible onscreen- the actor looks considerably older this time around, and his distraught, unfocused persona is a far cry from the clear-eyed drive and passion of his former appearance as Dr. Frankenstein.  His deterioration was doubtless made all the more evident by the fact that he broke his leg in a horseback riding accident shortly after filming began, requiring him to be seated for most of his scenes and in excruciating pain for the ones in which it was not possible.  Though this was obviously a tragic state of affairs for Clive, who would die at the age of 37 just a few months after the release of Bride, it gave him a decidedly convincing edge in his nerve-wracked, tormented performance as the unfortunate doctor.  Replacing Mae Clarke, who was battling health problems and unable to return as the hapless Elizabeth, was 17-year-old Valerie Hobson, whose melodramatic performance, while hardly memorable, adds an appropriate touch of the hysterical to the mix; and the aforementioned Ernest Thesiger, an English stage actor of considerable reputation who was a friend of Whale’s, makes one of the most memorable appearances in the history of horror as Dr. Pretorius, dripping with prissy irony and presenting a veneer of good-natured gentility which magnifies, rather than masks, the malevolent intent behind it.  As for the justly famous appearance by Elsa Lanchester as the monster’s would-be mate, it is without question the film’s electrifying highlight- not just because of the iconic design of the character, with her Nefertiti-inspired lightning bolt hairstyle, but because of the actress’ brilliant, jerky performance (which she said was based on angry swans), punctuated by shrill shrieks, deadly hissing, and other sub-human vocalizations.  Often overlooked, however, is Lanchester’s other performance as Mary Shelley in the film’s opening scenes; she sets the tone for the entire movie, offering up a demure and delicate persona with the unmistakable glimmer of a twisted and demonic imagination underneath it.  Rounding out the cast is the delightful Una O’Connor, as Frankenstein’s busybody housemaid, whose encounter with the monster early on is another of the film’s highlights; she provides comic relief, of course, but there is an undercurrent of ugliness within her character that continually reminds us of the small-minded baseness of the common throng.

Bride of Frankensteinin (which was referred to in publicity material with “The” in front of the title, though the word is absent in the credits), by today’s standards, is not a scary movie.  Modern audiences expect much more gruesome and explicit shocks, and the lingering Victorian morality which pervades horror movies of the past now seems quaint and laughable.  Nevertheless, it is, by any standards, a superb movie.  Once its conditions are accepted, it offers a compelling and surprisingly affecting story while laughing with us at the ridiculous conceits the genre requires.  Regardless of whether Whale intended it or not, it contains a rich subtext that reflects both his personal experiences and the larger social fabric of the time, and touches on a universal nerve that is timeless in its relevance.  Most importantly, it contains a treasure of rich, indelible images that transcend the material itself to become icons of the popular cultural imagination.  On top of all that, it is what Whale himself declared it would be: a “hoot.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026138/

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 classic by director Howard Hawks, teaming Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as a pair of misfits who become entangled with each other in a complicated adventure involving (among other things) a tame leopard, a rambunctious terrier, a priceless dinosaur bone, several cases of mistaken identity, and a million dollars.  Despite good reviews and popularity with audiences in more sophisticated urban markets, it was a major box office flop upon its first release, leading to both its director and its female star being released from their contracts with RKO Pictures, the studio that produced it- indeed, Hepburn, who had headlined a string of financially disappointing movies, was labeled “box office poison” following this failure, and had to return to the Broadway stage in order to restore her reputation and her clout.  Nevertheless, a generation later, the film was rediscovered through the new medium of television, and has subsequently taken its place as one of the greats, a definitive example of the “screwball comedy” sub-genre, one of the finest vehicles to feature either of its iconic stars, and an influential piece of filmmaking that has inspired countless imitations and homages over the years.

The plot, based on a short story by Hagar Wilde (who also co-authored the screenplay with Dudley Nichols), focuses on one David Huxley, a paleontologist who, on the eve of his wedding to no-nonsense colleague, Miss Swallow, is sent to secure a million dollar donation to the Manhattan museum for which they both work.   It seems an open-and-shut deal- all that is required is a meeting with the donor’s attorney, upon whose approval the money will be bestowed; but David’s appointments with the lawyer are repeatedly interrupted by Susan Vance, a dizzy young society woman who seems to turn up everywhere he goes- and whose precocious antics involve him in enough confusion and mishap to blow his chances at obtaining the money.  As it happens, though, Susan turns out to be the niece of the museum’s would-be benefactor- a wealthy widow named Mrs. Random- and she promises David (with whom she has become smitten) she will persuade her aunt to donate to the museum anyway.  She enlists his help, against his will and his better judgment, to accompany him to her aunt’s country estate in order to deliver a pet leopard (named Baby) that has been sent as a gift from her big-game-hunter-brother; once they arrive, more confusion erupts, starting with Susan’s false introduction of David as a mentally unstable friend of her brother’s, and complications continue to arise- including the theft of David’s precious brontosaurus clavicle by Mrs. Random’s dog, a mix-up between Baby and an escaped (and mean-tempered) leopard from a traveling circus, and the interference of a crotchety local constable.  Through it all, David struggles to resolve the situation and make it back to the city in time for his wedding, but it becomes clear that Susan is doing everything she can to delay him and keep him by her side.

A description of the plot, in print, seems ridiculously far-fetched and convoluted; that, however, is what gives Bringing Up Baby its zany appeal on film.  The entire movie is a whirlwind of unlikely circumstances and coincidental relationships, bound together by a premise that is as flimsy as one of the diaphanous costumes that Hepburn sports onscreen.  This is the nature of the screwball comedy; we take for granted that the scenario will be ridiculous, and as long as it yields the kind of laughs we expect, we don’t mind suspending our disbelief in the absurdity of its situations.  As scenarios go, that of Bringing Up Baby is more ridiculous than most- in fact it borders on the surreal, but we accept it without batting an eye, because it also delivers more laughs than almost any other film of its era- or any other, for that matter.  It certainly helps that director Hawks drives the proceedings at a breakneck pace, scarcely giving us time to think about the credibility gaps or even to register the fast-and-furious jokes until they have already passed us by.

Much of the hilarity, however, arises from the chemistry of the two stars, perfectly matched and clearly relishing their roles; their comic banter arises so effortlessly as to belie the artificiality of the dialogue- indeed, the two performers ad-libbed some of the film’s best jokes- and they so completely inhabit their roles as to make us easily forget the many other personas they adopted on the screen over their long individual careers.  Grant in particular made a breakthrough here; his previous career had been mostly comprised of more-or-less dramatic (and none-too-weighty) leading man roles, and though he had previously appeared in The Awful Truth– another screwball classic in which he demonstrated his particular flair for comedy- nothing had prepared audiences for his work here.  Playing gleefully against type, the impossibly handsome Grant pulls off the role of the timid, nervous and befuddled bookworm without ever letting us doubt his awkward ineptitude; at the same time, he rattles off his barbed dialogue with the timing and wit of a master, making it clear that he is up to the challenge of sharing the screen with the formidable Hepburn.

As for The Great Kate, it’s hard to see her performance here and understand why she should be deemed a liability by studio executives; her sharp, patrician bearing is brilliantly undercut with a little-girlish softness that makes her instantly lovable no matter how maddeningly daffy she gets.  Careening from haughty and indignant to doe-eyed and tender and back again through all stops in between, her portrayal of Susan drives the film and gives it a heart; and even when her behavior is at its most inane, her glittering intelligence always shines through, giving this upper-crust oddball an edge that leaves no doubt of her absolute control over the entire madcap situation.  She never overwhelms her co-star, however; the two make a magnificent team, one that is immediately recognizable as perfect for each other (a conceit on which, of course, the entire movie depends), and the obvious real-life affection between them translates into an onscreen chemistry that has rarely been matched and makes this pairing one of the most iconic co-starring turns in cinematic memory.

Perfect as they may seem in their roles, both of the stars initially had trouble with the project.  Grant feared being unable to project the necessary intellectual quality of a career scientist, and was only able to relax into the the character when director Hawks told him to base his performance on the persona of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd; Hepburn was stymied by the over-the-top zaniness of Susan, and struggled with finding the right approach until Hawks asked veteran character actor Walter Catlett, who was playing a minor role, to coach her in the art of playing outrageous comedy- he taught her the effectiveness of underplaying and naturalistic delivery (as opposed to the more deliberately comedic style she was attempting), and she was so grateful for the help that she insisted his part- the town constable with whom she tangles in the film’s climactic scene- be expanded to give her a chance to work with him more extensively.  Their initial reticence allayed, both the film’s stars settled into the rhythm of their characters and created the sparkling joint accomplishment that makes Bringing Up Baby so delightful to this day.  Their enjoyment of each other is clear to see, and infectious; they had so much fun working together on this film that shooting went over schedule (and over budget) due to their difficulty in completing their scenes without laughing.  Though doubtless this was a thorn in the side of RKO executives who were already anxious over the project, the fun translates to the screen.

Apart from the obvious joys of Hepburn and Grant’s interplay and their attractiveness both individually and as a couple, there is a more subtle aspect to their dynamic that lends a unique flavor to the goofball romance at the center of Bringing Up Baby.  Grant, though decidedly masculine in his energy and personality, plays the passive, pursued role in this relationship, while Hepburn is clearly the active aggressor.  It seems a minor twist, but by reversing the traditional gender roles of courtship in such a way, Baby sets itself apart from most of the romantic comedies that came before it.  It would be wrong to credit the film for being the first work of fiction to do this- after all, Shakespeare wrote several plays in which this inversion was explored- but Hollywood has always been known for reinforcing stereotypes, and by swapping these accepted standards of masculine and feminine behavior Bringing Up Baby became a milestone in the depiction of gender identity on the big screen.

This in itself is enough to have given the movie a special significance for GLBT audiences; but there is another point of interest here for cinema historians which also gives the movie its “gay appeal.”  In one memorable scene, Cary Grant, dressed in a frilly and feminine house robe (having had his clothes stolen by Hepburn whilst showering), is forced to meet the returning aunt- a formidable dowager- at her own front door.  The understandably flustered woman, confused by the presence of a strange man in her house, presses him impatiently with questions, and most adamantly (for some reason, though it seems the least alarming aspect of the situation) she wants to know why he is wearing those clothes; the badgered Grant, already pushed to the limit of his patience by Hepburn’s continued hijacking of his formerly sedate life, leaps in the air and shouts, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!”  This line, ad-libbed by Grant on the set, may be the very first instance in mainstream fiction that the word “gay” was used to denote homosexuality, though within the underground gay community it had been used as a code word since at least the 1920s.  It may not have been intentional (though frankly, it’s unlikely that a group of Hollywood sophisticates such as these would be unaware of the double meaning- particularly Grant, whose famous long-term relationship with “roommate” Randolph Scott is still the subject of much debate among his many fans), but whether it was or it wasn’t, this bold double-entendre provides one of the biggest laughs in the film, and is yet another reason why Bringing Up Baby has been accorded landmark status.

Historical footnotes aside, there are plenty of reasons to watch this little gem of late-Depression escapism today.  Not only are Hepburn and Grant a rare treat to watch, they are supported by a fine cast of character players that bring to life the assortment of other lunatics surrounding the film’s dotty protagonists.  In addition to the aforementioned Walter Catlett, whose comically cagey turn as the rural lawman provides Hepburn with a magnificent foil late in the film, there’s Charlie Ruggles (as a mild-mannered and easily flustered hunter who turns up as a guest to Mrs. Random’s estate), Barry Fitzgerald (as a heavy-drinking Irish gardener, a bit of now-inappropriate ethnic profiling that nevertheless seems innocent of malice and manages to still be funny today), perennial screen waiter Fritz Feld (here cast as a smugly pompous psychiatrist whose path keeps crossing with Hepburn’s, adding to the already-convoluted tangle of misunderstandings), and the redoubtable May Robson (as the somewhat battle-axish Mrs. Random).

More vital than any of these notables, however, are the non-human members of the supporting cast, and they too deserve mention.  Nissa, the leopard, a veteran of numerous B-movie jungle adventures, plays the dual role of both Baby and the dangerous circus escapee; the other four-legged star, in the role of the mischievous bone-thief, George, was Skippy, a terrier whose fame as “Asta” in the popular Thin Man movies made him nearly as big a draw as the human headliners, and his appearance here is highly memorable, exhibiting the exuberant canine personality that made him a natural and ensured his place as one of the immortal screen animals.

On top of the performances, Bringing Up Baby offers a fine look at late-thirties fashion and design through its sets (a sumptuous blend of Art Deco and neo-classical influences alongside the elegantly rustic charms of the Random estate, overseen by the legendary Art Director, Van Nest Polglase) and its costumes (most particularly the various range of outfits worn by Hepburn, with which designer Howard Greer manages to add some sly satirical commentary on the frivolity of fashion into the movie’s comedic recipe).  In addition, tech aficionados may find some interest in the early special effects- quite sophisticated for the time- with which the actors are sometimes made to appear with the leopard in close proximity (especially Grant, who wouldn’t go near the creature- though the fearless Hepburn directly interacted with it and can even be seen petting it in a few scenes); in several of the split screen sequences, a moving center line was required, creating a complex challenge for the technicians of the day.  They rose to it admirably; the seams are virtually invisible to all but the most attentive observers.

Bringing Up Baby, it may be clear by now, is a seminal movie for me; I have fond memories of watching it on TV with my parents, all of us laughing out loud together, and through the years I have seen it countless times- I can practically recite the dialogue along with the actors, and yet a viewing will still have me giggling uncontrollably throughout, as well as discovering nuances and subtleties that I had never noticed before.  No doubt there are many others out there with a similar relationship to this film; it was, after all, one of the first movies selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and it has been consistently named on lists of the 100 best or funniest movies of all time.  For most, it is the movie that comes immediately to mind when the term “screwball comedy” is mentioned, and for good reason- it’s about as screwball a comedy as you can get without veering into the realm of the Looney Tunes.  For those who have yet to discover its sublime wackiness, I will give away no more than I already have; and for those who feel their modern tastes are too sophisticated for a 75-year-old comedy to provide much amusement, I can only challenge anyone to sit through Bringing Up Baby without cracking at least a smile.  After all, it has been called more than once a movie ahead of its time- which may, better than anything, explain why a film that temporarily sank the careers of both its director and its leading lady (though not, tellingly, that of the resilient Cary Grant) went on to become one of their most enduring and beloved creations.

http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0029947/

Vampyr (1932)

Today’s cinema adventure: Vampyr, a 1932 French/German horror film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, about a young man, obsessed with the occult, whose wanderings lead him into the dark troubles of a remote countryside manor, where the owner’s mysteriously ill daughter may be in the grip of horrifying powers from beyond the grave. Dreyer’s first film using sound, it was also his first effort following The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature which, despite enthusiastic acclaim from critics, had been a box office disaster. With no studio willing to take a chance on the basis of his artistic promise alone, Dreyer found private financing from Nicolas de Brunholz, a young Baron who was a fixture of the Parisian social scene, known for his extravagant parties and his patronage of the arts, who would later become a prominent fashion editor for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and a mentor for designers Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, among others). De Brunholz’s condition for backing Dreyer’s film was that he would be its star; under the pseudonym of “Julian West,” assumed to assuage his prominent family’s disapproval of his acting ambitions, he portrays the wispy focal character of Allan Grey, and though his acting abilities were decidedly limited (and wisely un-stretched by Dreyer’s demands), his tall, slender frame and his handsome, elegant appearance set a distinctive tone at the center of the movie, aptly suggesting a strong spirit that has perhaps found himself over his head in a situation beyond his grasp.

Nevertheless, despite the support and participation of one of Europe’s most prominent society figures and the attendant buzz which surrounded it, Vampyr proved to be a worse flop than Joan of Arc, booed at its debut screening and, this time, even derided by the critics, who found it slow-moving, incoherent, and/or laughable; for many years it was widely considered Dreyer’s worst film, falling into such neglect that all but a few damaged original prints were lost. Indeed, produced to capitalize on the popularity of such American horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (though it was initially conceived before these films had been released), it had such a marked difference in tone and style that it is easy to see why it perplexed and disappointed movie-goers of the time. The film’s failure contributed to Dreyer’s declining financial and emotional stability, which led to a nervous breakdown and kept him from making another film for another 11 years. It was only after his subsequent career and the retrospective appreciation of a later generation that reassessment granted it a status more deserved by its innovative and unique contribution to the horror genre and to cinema in general.

Ironically, many of the elements which made Vampyr such a flop are the reasons it is considered such so significant today. On a superficial level, it is one of the first horror films to feature a female vampire (and an elderly one at that) as its main antagonist, having been partly based on the short story Carmilla, by L. Sheridan La Fanu, a popular 19th-century fiction known for its decidedly lesbian overtones- some of which carry over into the film. It was also one of the first times the obvious sexual implications of the vampire myth were explored more overtly; though there is no explicit reference or depiction of sex, the metaphoric connection is clear, particularly in the decidedly romantic manner in which the young heroine is seen being victimized by her attacker. The film is also notable for its re-imagination of the standard, Dracula-based formula seen in most vampire movies; although it features most of the key archetypes inherent to the story, many of the familiar stock characters are absent or significantly changed, and the locations, though suitably grim and antiquated, are not the gothic staples of our expectation- the village is an idyllic, sun-scaped riverside town, devoid of torch-waving mobs, and in place of a foreboding castle for the vampire’s lair, we are given a decrepit flour mill.

More important, however, is Vampyr‘s visual and thematic style, and the underpinnings of its influences from dominant artistic movements of the time. Dreyer’s artistic sensibilities, while distinctly his own, were clearly influenced by his involvement with the French art scene, resulting here in a movie reminiscent of works by his more directly avant-garde contemporaries such as Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. His stated intention with Vampyr was to take the art of cinema in a new direction, using a vehicle which lent itself to imaginative treatment by nature of its supernatural content; in realizing this goal, he blended his own passion for realism (enhanced by his use of natural lighting and authentic location photography) with the heightened theatricality and Freudian overtones of Expressionism, the seemingly nonsensical and dreamlike imagery of Surrealism, and the piecemeal construction of Impressionism. The resultant film glows with an ethereal beauty, combining a variety of cinematographic techniques (exquisitely executed by Rudolph Maté) that range from the sharply defined to the gauzy and murky; the narrative is deliberately cloudy and illogical, filled with non-sequiturs and credibility gaps, creating the feeling of a dream or even a delusion, an effect bolstered by camera trickery that gives us such jarring elements as shadows moving independently (or in compete absence) of their owners, and otherwise commonplace actions occurring in reverse; deeply symbolic or arcane iconography is everywhere, and the screen is filled with a rich and varied texture of design- mostly the result of decor and objects inherent to the actual shooting locations; and finally, the overall effect of Vampyr is created by a cumulative process in which the broad and vivid strokes of its seemingly disjointed progression combine to form a complete picture that is unified and harmonious- if somewhat unsettling.

Adding to the hallucinatory feel of Vampyr is its primitive use of sound. The European film community was behind the curve with the new technology of talking pictures, and the location shooting of Dreyer’s movie only exacerbated the difficulties, as did his plan to shoot the film in three separate languages- French, German, and English, though the existing print was restored from surviving copies of the former two versions and there is no evidence that the latter was ever completed. The problems were surmounted by a screenplay (co-written with Dreyer by Christen Jul) containing a minimum of dialogue, mostly cryptic exchanges that were overdubbed in a studio after the fact by actors other than the ones onscreen; however, the inclusion of aural elements was an integral part of Dreyer’s technique here, and he utilizes a wide variety of eerie effects, not only to underscore the action (along with an elaborate and effective score by Wolfgang Zeller- a pioneering inclusion for early sound films, which were mostly devoid of musical accompaniment), but also to aid in telling the story, with several key scenes relying heavily on soundscapes to convey important events that are taking place off-camera.

However, even with full appreciation for the skill and artistry with which it was made, watching Vampyr is hardly a thrilling experience; with its emphasis on atmosphere and its artistic conceits, it fails to concern itself with such usual priorities as pacing or continuity, and in spite of the macabre crisis it depicts it is largely lacking in suspense or action, contenting itself instead to create a series of elegiac encapsulations of mood and concept. As it approaches its ending, however, Vampyr suddenly shifts gear and delivers a pair of sequences that transform it from an intellectual exercise into a genuine horror movie. First is an extended set piece in which its protagonist has a premonition of himself lying wide-eyed in a windowed coffin, being prepared for and carried off to burial. Through the use of first-person perspective, Dreyer creates a highly uncomfortable, claustrophobic identification of the audience with the corpse, forcing us to imagine our own death and experience the ominous finality of these moments, as well as conjuring the universal fear of being buried alive. Continuing to capitalize on the latter, we are shortly afterward given a scene in which one of the characters, trapped at the bottom of a storage shaft and surrounded by the cold sterility and inhumanity of ominous industrial machinery, is slowly submerged in a cascade of sifted flour until his desperate cries for help are silenced by death. These sections of the film distill its underlying theme into a direct and palpable form; for Vampyr, at its core, is ultimately a meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the fear of which, as Dreyer rightly understood, is at the base of all our obsessive fascination with the dark mythology of our folklore and fiction. When we cringe at the imagined threat of the undead monsters or unspeakable diseases that haunt our shared nightmares, we are really responding to the shadow of our own mortality; and though an iron spike through the heart may end the vampire’s reign of terror, and an emergence from fog into a sunlit clearing may temporarily provide the comfortable reassurance that all will now be well, we know that staving off these supernatural horrors can only delay the inevitable fate which awaits us all. The power of Vampyr derives from its recognition of that fact; and though much of the film expresses the concept of death through motifs and moods that impress us without involving or exciting us, it blindsides us in its penultimate scenes with these visceral evocations of our most primal fear, rendering hollow its obligatory happy ending and leaving us with an indelible sense of the bleak hopelessness summed up in the familiar words inscribed on the lid of our hero’s hallucinatory coffin: “From dust are you made and to dust you shall return.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder, and one which Vampyr provides more vividly than the vast majority of gruesome splatter-fests that represent the horror film genre of today.

http://www.imdb.com/9/title/tt002364

The Invisible Man (1933)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Invisible Man, the 1933 feature based on H.G. Wells’ story about a well-meaning scientist who discovers the secret of invisibility only to be driven to madness by its side-effects.  Produced at the height of Universal Studios’ early-thirties cycle of horror films, it established a familiar screen icon in the form of its bandage-wrapped title character, and is still considered one of top classics of the “monster movie” genre.  Its revered status is mostly due to director James Whale (the genius responsible for the first two Frankenstein movies), who combines a flair derived from his theatrical background with a keen cinematic style; his meticulously choreographed scenes are captured with inventive camera angles and expressionistic lighting, and his innovative techniques of visual storytelling- clever segues and montages, the savvy use of special effects to enhance his story rather than to dominate it- are a bittersweet testament to the brilliance that might have led to a long and remarkable filmmaking career had his distinctive artistic sensibilities not put him at odds with the Hollywood establishment and resulted in his early retirement from the industry.  Those sensibilities are on full display here: his arch, campy style results in a film ripe with macabre humor, and one which feels decidedly subversive in its gleefully ironic portrayal of a stodgy community disrupted from within by willful anarchy. Nevertheless, despite a tone which could almost be described as self-mocking, the story never loses its dark undercurrent of unsettling horror- not the horror of violence and mayhem (though there is a fair share of that), but the horror of that unseen menace within the human psyche- the potential for corruption and dehumanization that can transform even the gentlest soul into a monster capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty.  This balance between the wacky and the weird is achieved not only by the director’s considerable gift, but hinges also on a star-making performance in the title role by Claude Rains, who manages to walk the precarious line between histrionic mania and subtle sincerity, conveying perfectly the journey of a man struggling to hold onto himself even as he disappears into ego-driven insanity, and successfully holding audience sympathy even as he plots the most horrific acts of terror and revenge.  It is a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that his face remains hidden until the final moments of the film, and which deservedly led to a career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific and well-loved character actors.  The rest of the primary cast is effective enough, considering the prosaic acting styles of the era; notable more for their later accomplishments are Henry Travers (who went on to become everybody’s favorite guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) and Gloria Stuart (who, 60 years later, became the oldest Oscar-nominated performer in history for her role in Titanic).  Though most of the supporting players come off as merely adequate, however, the army of background actors are a delight- an array of craggy, comical English faces headed by the incomparable Una O’Connor as a shrill hostess whose encounter with the mysterious stranger at her inn sets the comically creepy tone for the entire film.  R.C. Sheriff’s screenplay, though it features more than a little stodgy dialogue, captures the essence of Wells’ novel- particularly its allegorical exploration of the destructive effects of drug addiction- while expanding details of character and plot and building the foundation for Whale’s subtly skewed interpretation.  The technical elements of the film are as top-notch as one would expect from a prestige production like this: the scenic design blends an art-deco flavor with the rich detail of its various English settings, the cinematography (by the great Arthur Edeson) is a sublime example of the near-forgotten beauty and power of black-and-white film, and the special effects (supervised by John Fulton), which were advanced for their time, are still fairly impressive for the most part.  Of course, for today’s average audience, The Invisible Man may bear the stigma of being dated, creaky and far too tame for modern tastes; it may also suffer mildly from its abrupt and somewhat anti-climactic resolution.  Even the most jaded viewers, however, will likely be drawn in by the considerable charm of a movie that inspires them to laugh out loud as they contemplate the deeper, darker themes which bubble within it like the test tubes in a mad scientist’s arcane lab.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024184/