Wednesday, 25 May 2016
“TREAT ALL SUPERNATURAL BEINGS WITH RESPECT BUT KEEP AWAY FROM THEM” ~Confucius~ (from the opening credits)
In 1933, the producer/director team of the Halperin brothers reunited many of the team from the previous year’s White Zombie to produce what they hoped would be an equally spooky follow-up success. Supernatural proved a disappointment, mainly due to the amount of time it dwells on the pace-killing languidity of high-society types instead of the rough, seedy energy of the more energetic criminal fraternity.
This is despite the rare casting of Carole Lombard in a non-comedic role. She began acting in her teens in a series of Mack Sennett shorts where her gift for comedy became her trademark. Paramount put her under contract, initially seeing her as a dramatic actress (hence her appearance in this film), but after divorcing her first high-profile husband William Powell in 1933, her turning point came with the screwball comedy Twentieth Century which set her on the path to fame and a genre she excelled in yet limited her ambition. Her second marriage to Clark Gable was the love of his life, and he is said to have never got over her shocking death from a plane crash whilst promoting War Bonds in 1942. She was just 33 years of age and had planned to aim for more serious parts in her career.
Supernatural is an odd vehicle for her, existing as it does while the studio had not found her strengths. For the first two acts of the movie she is a vaguely perplexed, beautiful cypher as Roma the twin sister of John Courtney, from whom she inherits a great fortune when he dies mysteriously.
Meanwhile, even more strange goings-on are being unearthed. Dr Huston (a grave, stagey turn from an otherwise excellent H.B. Warner) asks Willard Robertson’s Prison Warden if he can be allowed to experiment on the body of Ruth Rogen, an unrepentant soon to be executed serial murderer. Rogen is introduced to us with a fast, confident montage of newspapers and incendiary quotes - “Men. I hate the whole breed!” - reminiscent of Velma Kelly in Chicago.
Huston sells the down-to-earth Warden remarkably quickly on the idea that the evil dead may transfer their essence to other living humans causing “frequently an epidemic of similar crimes”. As if this isn’t macabre enough, look behind them through the window. Supposed to overlook the courtyard, it shows eerily unconvincing back-projected footage of officers patrolling endless lines of convicts, evoking the soulless drudgery of Orwell’s 1984. Huston is given permission to blast Rogen’s corpse with “mitrogenic rays” (which sound suspiciously like something Dr Zarkhov would concoct for Flash Gordon) to prevent Rogen going a-roamin’. It doesn’t take much to convince Rogen either since they lie to her with the scientific possibility she may gain greater freedom in this proposed after-life. “If I could use my hands - just for a few minutes…”.
So far everyone in the picture is working a self-serving angle. The most successful aspect of Supernatural is ironically in its grim reality, that of the even dodgier conniving underworld of its two crooks. Paul Bavian, played by Alan Dinehart, is an ex-lover of Rogen, a chiselling little fake spiritualist – I’ll leave aside the debate about what other kind there might be – with a handy side-line in sculpture and chemistry. He wants to worm his way into a slice of the Courtney fortune by contacting Roma, masquerading as having been visited by John astrally with a warning for her. Just as corrupt is his alcoholic snooping land-lady (a flavoursome Beryl Mercer) who reads his letters and blackmails him into making her a partner. She falls foul of his homicidal side, scratched to death by a ring he wears impregnated with a fast horrific powdered poison.
The engine of the plot now idles into more or less neutral now as it habitually does each time we focus on the wealthy set. Lombard is poised and elegant as Roma yet is required to do little other than slightly furrow her brow at events for the most part. A little interest is aroused when she opts to allow Bavian to perform a séance at his place for her. She goes, accompanied by the welcome cynicism of William Farnum, (probably the most vividly colourful characterisation of the heroes on offer as the jovial gourmand Hammond who manages Roma’s estate) and the less appealing second horror appearance of Western stalwart Randolph Scott as Roma’s beau Grant – see my Murders in the Zoo review of 25/4 – whose is merely needed to be dinner-suited romantic smoothness.
“The first of the vultures”, Hammond refers to Bavian. Unbeknownst, his streetwise instincts make him a repeated target for Bavian’s hidden agenda. In what turn out to be two séances, the used-clairvouyant salesman points the finger of suspicion at him with amusing brevity as if forging telegrams from the other side: “Hammond wants your money. He murdered me. You are next”. He attempts to poison Hammond with the ring – but an injection of occult influence is about to be far more effective.
At last, in this third act Lombard’s performance awakens from her gentle wafting as Rogen takes her over, literally possessing Lombard’s acting into a greater level of stirring femme fatale darkness. She speaks in a lower register and sexily arches her eyebrows. You can feel the actress becoming more emotionally engaged by the material as a bad girl. Who doesn’t like playing wicked? She toys with Bavian and high-tails it to her yacht with him, followed in tepid pursuit by Grant and Huston. It’s worth mentioning the frequency with which Bavian fingers his ring (as it were) and the editing insert cuts to Rogen’s shadow-rimmed eyes. They put one in mind of Bela Lugosi’s hokier screen moments. You wonder if perhaps the Halperins tried to get Lugosi for the spiritualist role as he would have enjoyed using his signature intensity and the part’s criminal slumming back story to offset his usual urbanity.
Ultimately, the spirit of John aids the good guys in returning Roma intact – just as events were getting interesting - damn. He gave our heroes the clue to the yacht by knocking over a model boat, and after Bavian hangs himself accidentally from the lifeboat ropes in fleeing from the Rogen-rogue Roma, the spell upon her is broken. Fancifully, as if in a Disney film, the ghostly dimension becomes a benign one again as John blows open a magazine to hint at a Bermuda honeymoon for the reunited couple.
Apparently Mother Nature created rumblings of excitement during filming as the Long Beach Earthquake struck. Sadly, the earth didn’t move at the box office and Supernatural was a resoundingly earthly also-ran, eventually becoming its deserved home as the bottom half of double-bills.
Monday, 23 May 2016
In 1977 British Transport Films felt they needed a stark public information film warning of the dangers to children of playing on railway lines. Unlike Apaches, with its focus on rural-centric farming perils, this was a major national concern since almost everywhere in Britain lies within reach of a working rail line (even after the country received a Dr Beeching’s powder of network cuts).
Director John Krish together with co-writer Michael Gilmour came up with a powerful and clever way to appeal to children without tiresome preaching. They staged the type of terrible tragedies that could happen within a surreal fantasy story dreamed up by a school-age skin-head fantasist on a railway bridge. In his head, he hears the stern voice of his headmaster, reminiscent of Arthur Lowe, addressing the school on the subject of railway risks. “The railway is not the GAMES FIELD!” he barks. The boy daydreams of what it would be like if it could be, triggering an elaborate Sports Day set-up at the track-side, complete with tents, the entire school turning out and equipped with St John’s Ambulance staff and the ominous sight of stretchers being laid out.
Over the next 20 minutes, a teacher over the tannoy announces a series of four events each based upon a prankish activity that kids carry out life-threateningly on railway lines. The first is the Fence-Breaking event, which consists of the pupils pouring down the embankment and crossing to the other side. They are divided for the day into competitive colour-coded teams and score points accordingly based on their success. Sadly, one boy comes a cropper and knocks himself out on the line. He is run over by an oncoming train. His tragedy, like all the deaths suffered in the film, is conveyed with sensitivity and responsibility. We never see an impact, Krish focuses instead on the aftermath whose repercussions linger far worse.
The next event is Stone-Throwing, staged with alarmingly effective direction by having the kids hurl the stones with ferociously aggressive facial expressions rather than an attitude of innocent fun. The Conductor stops the train, and in lieu of telling off the children, continues the surreal angle by marking the kids’ accuracy in blinding a blood-stained driver and passenger: “A direct hit. Six points!”
Last Across is the third round in which all four teams, two on each side, must cross the track and each other to claim victory with only three seconds to avoid a 50-mile-an-hour train. No prises for guessing the outcome here. Inevitably they are mown down and judicious editing cuts to their mangled bodies littering the line.
The final obstacle is the most lethal of all - the Great Tunnel Walk with its three miles of dank total darkness to negotiate. This is well-mounted, featuring what looks like an entire school of kids entering in a long queue. (All were actually recruited from local schools in the Home Counties). One by one a handful stagger out in a soot-smudged and blood-stained daze to be ticked off by a teacher’s register. The less lucky ones are carried out by the ambulance team and nurses. This prompts the film’s most impressive sequence as the bodies of the dead are laid out on the track as if signalling the fallen in battle. The brass band’s Last Post eulogy movingly underscores the aftermath of fictitious war.
Returning to the boy lazing on the bridge, we are left to hear the headmaster’s closing statement loaded with post-traumatic double meaning: “If any of you think that playing on the railway is a good idea, perhaps he or she would care to stand up…”
In delivering its message via dark humour, The Finishing Line is a public information film definitely on the right track. It works in the same vein as Apaches, mining anxieties and signposting its vital educational concerns without patronising its audience – whilst succeeding as an excellent stand-alone short film appreciable by viewers of any age.
Sunday, 22 May 2016
‘Six children play on a farm. Five will never return home’ (BFI synopsis)
Apaches, the infamous 27-minute short directed by John ‘The Long Good Friday’ Mackenzie, was designed to warn children in rural areas about the perils of playing around farm machinery. It attained a lasting infamy for doing this unforgettably to those who saw it firstly in the intended market of schools. Such was the film’s success that it was also broadcast in TV territories like Anglia and Westward that featured heavily rural areas. Apaches deserves to be considered alongside mainstream horror films of the era not only for its impact on school-children but for the rare luxury of an above-average budget’s extended running time, enabling it have the time for a narrative and cinematic technical style beyond the usual quick-cutting of a commercial. At almost 30 minutes in the full-length version, it works as much as a piece of fictional movie storytelling as it does as an educational public information film. The log-line above, taken from the BFI’s website, could easily have been the tag-line for a horror movie ad campaign.
The film was produced by Graphic Films for the government’s Central Office of Information (for whom it eventually broke records for Central Film Library’s distribution of its prints).
Mackenzie had begun his training apprenticed to Ken Loach, famed for the realism of his own films, and had so far directed two features including Unman, Wittering and Zigo which already explored an escalating horror atmosphere amongst school-children suspected of murdering a young teacher’s predecessor. As Loach’s assistant director, he would have been familiar with directing within low budgets encouraging young, untutored (amateur) talent, a principle his mentor was famous for adopting in his casting to gain greater ‘truth’. The director of photography was Phil Meheux who likewise moved on to a Hollywood career lensing such blockbusters as the Bond films Goldeneye and Casino Royale for director Martin Campbell. Screenwriter Neville Smith went on to double as both a writer and TV actor.
Apaches was shot by necessity very quickly on a farm in the Home Counties in February 1977 using six kids from a junior school in Maidenhead rather than typically precocious stage school children. The aforementioned plot centres around their make-believe play- acting around a farm, skilfully cross-cut with later scenes preparing for Danny, the leading character’s birthday party and the aftermath of each death. He narrates the film, which at first marvellously recreates the feel of classic westerns, framing the children in a dusk silhouette against the horizon, titling the movie in the playbill font familiar from the genre. It sounds like it is he who begins the voice-over reading as an American child before switching to his own; if so, it’s a pretty good imitation of an American accent.
We see Danny and his gang made-up as playground Indians, led by him stridently as Geronimo, their cheeks daubed with paint and sporting bandannas. Five are tousle-haired boys, plus one girl who ably gives as good as she gets in this company. I’ve already revealed the multiple tragedy at the heart of the story, but it unfolds as a compelling war of attrition in a sense, with Danny’s narration nicely drawing allusions between the struggle of the Native American and his fight for preservation against the white oppressor - and the gradual whittling down of his modern-day merry band. Each of the children’s deaths redoubles his role-play character’s defiant stance.
The first child buys it when the posse ‘attack’ a tractor pulling a trailer of hay bales. They whoop after it, with him standing in triumph atop the flat-bed. A moment later, sharp editing has him falling off under the wheels with a fleeting shot of his broken rifle and blood-stains to mark his last fatal stand. This loss is starkly noted by cutting to their teacher in school tearing his label from his empty cloakroom coat-hook. There will be many more victims to the pale-face.
Kids of the 1970s will enjoy the evocation of the period in the mentioning of Action Man dolls and the required viewing of TV’s Swap Shop. The dialogue between the cast is always believable – illogically competitive, immature and playful. A game of ‘kick the can’ results in the next boy kicking the bucket when he is engulfed by quick-sand like mud. After he glugs his way to the Choir Invisible, his personal belongings are taken from his desk by a teacher in a barren classroom. Whilst I may be flippant in describing the fatalities, they are handled with taste and weight, the post-mortem repercussions sobering and sad in their consequences.
Instead of loading the mood with impending doom, Mackenzie never lets us forget the resilience of the kids. In fact I was slightly confused by the time-line as each death is soon forgotten in pursuit of the next role-play scenario. Is this really supposed to be all on the same day? Danny pulls a fast one on his friends by suddenly deciding he is a white Cavalry General and they are all now effectively cowboys. Sharon protests her confusion. “That’s because you are thick” he offers by way of leaderly troop motivation. Good thing he wasn’t a future corporate Team Bonding organiser. Those people need wiping out.
Once the farm (‘Fort Sumner’) is captured, reverting back to Indians again, the group find a brown bottle of unidentified liquid. We all know where that’s going. A tracking shot passes down the line as each tweener red-skin offers their testimony to the gods in pidgin western-movie English: “Me have many scalps”. Sadly, the peer pressure overcomes Sharon’s shrewd apprehension about the mystery toast drink. A couple of sips and she’s shrieking in death-throes of agony at her parent’s house (mercifully left as a house exterior with the bedroom lights on). The fledgling Orson Welles, Danny, switches the game and indeed the genre once more by briefly having them play as ‘70s TV detective faves Starsky & Hutch, complete with some amusing faux-weary cop attitude: “I’m getting’ too old for these capers”. The next child to ‘buy the farm’ gets it by being crushed with a falling metal grille, the shot lingering in powerful stillness as a trickle of blood runs down his cheek.
By now the fatalities are so macabre and numerous that it resembles a Friday the 13th film or The Shining (family ravaged by sentient possessed farm). Seriously, it wouldn’t take much for Apaches to be retooled as a supernatural horror film instead of a didactic health and safety piece. Another child jumps off a gate to his doom (this one is lightly unclear) and so it’s left to Geronimo/Danny himself as the last of the Mohicans. By the end, he states his creed nobly, that, having cast aside his tribe’s weapons, “We shall survive” - which is awfully ironic as he takes a header over a hill trying to drive a runaway tractor in the most notorious and brilliantly sickening death. The staging and effects work for the crash is held in the frame with brutal effectiveness, there is no cutting as he plummets down the hill to a hideous stop. This must have shocked youngsters into numbness.
Finally, after a brief but telling funeral service, the dirt hitting his coffin with simple finality, Danny’s birthday party goes ahead, but tragically it is turned into a wake for his mourning family. “I wish I was there. Honest” he offers.
To compound the warning, Mackenzie closes by scrolling up a list of real-life children who “In the year before this film was made” suffered farmyard death due to electrocution, suffocation in a grain pit, burning to death and via an explosion (a roll-call that reads like a set of cuts from a BBFC video-nasty viewing).
If this didn’t stop kids fooling about down on the farm, nothing would…
Saturday, 21 May 2016
Back in 1970s Britain as a child I remember the government making admirable attempts on TV and in the cinema to provide the public with recommendations and warnings surrounding anything in society that needed caution. They ranged from gentle suggestions aimed at adults on how to save water and electricity to more extreme mini horror films pitched at children alerting them to the dangers of live power cables, farm machinery, unsafe waters and road traffic etc. Their methods were eclectic depending on the subject and audience as well as tonally on the time of day. (The famous Noel Coward-style ‘bed-time routine’ couple dancing their way around the house disconnecting any potential fire hazard items is a charming example of palatable late-night advice especially for vulnerable adults).
Cartoon or stop-motion animation was one method of getting the message across to the little ones. Who from my generation can forget the ‘Charlie Says’ cartoon series featuring the little boy and his impenetrable gobbledigook-spouting cat softly urging us to beware of sex offenders?
Another means was to film real scenes using friendly actors who were household names to children, such as the then-recent third Doctor Who John Pertwee in the over-sophisticated road safety acronym campaign Splink! (1976).
This led to a plethora of weird and wonderful films, some fondly recalled, others indelibly stamped with fear on young impressionable minds. I intend to focus on the latter as a valid addition to the horror canon that is not only uniquely British but showcased later notable actors and long-form film directors such as John Mackenzie who went from the tractor terror of Apaches (1977) to gangster menace in his 1980 seminal feature The Long Good Friday.
It’s easy to forget that the ‘70s were a time of greater innocence for children. Rather than ignore the warnings and stride into the dangerous waters of ‘grumpy old man’ territory, I don’t imply they were better days but young kids were certainly protected from exposure to types of material that erodes naivete increasingly early nowadays. The discovery of AIDS in the mid-1980s required a more graphic sex education, the omnipresent and invaluable internet is a largely open door to easily-accessible pornography, health and safety demands create debatably draconian rules for what used to be slightly more relaxed attitudes. There is also the heightened post-millenial awareness about paedophilia that is ingrained in children much more now than when we were in their place.
An important and rosier aspect to consider is that back then in the pre-digital era children played much more on derelict waste grounds and old bomb sites from the still-ongoing post-war reconstruction. Actor Terry-Sue Patt who was in the infamous The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in 1973 (and went on to TV fame as Benny in Grange Hill) recalled ”There were no computer games, three TV channels, and kids lived outdoors: entertainment was going on adventures, finding excitement in odd places.". These youngsters arguably needed stronger cautioning against outdoor perils than later generations who often substitute real-world dangers for safer indoor XBOX and PS console thrills.
These tightly-plotted short sharp shocks are sadly the end of a discontinued legacy, a talent training ground (and arguably still-necessary part of educating our young) that is no longer with us creating the same impact.
Take my hand as we explore the world of the 1970s British public information film. Stay close and DON’T talk to strangers…
THE SPIRIT OF DARK AND LONELY WATER (1973)
“Sensible children…I have no power over them”
1973 England was a somewhat gloomy place to live. The country was besieged by increasing inflation rates and by the year’s end the national miners’ strike was one of many instigated to force public sector pay rises, leading to the Conservative government declaring a three-day working week to husband the dwindling stocks of fuel. Meanwhile, a doomier note was struck in the tone of an unforgettable public information film with its own literal Grim Reaper.
The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, written and directed by Jeff Grant, was commissioned after the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling was pressurised by ROSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) over the unacceptable number of accidental child drownings in Britain. Something was needed to warn kids in no uncertain terms about the dangers of playing near dangerous waters, and if the vivid memories of my generation are anything to go by, it worked extremely well - even decades after seeing it only once.
Voiced by the esteemed master-eccentric actor Donald Pleasance (a veteran of my own alma mater Ecclesfield School), the robed and hooded Spirit stalks the water-sides looking for children innocently risking their lives at the edges of ponds and rivers – “the show-off, the fool”. His voice is the most memorable facet of the film, a chilling matter-of-fact narration edged with a faux-concern that fools no-one. This is a predator who lurks in hope of engulfing a young life. We never see his face. We don’t need to. He could be anywhere.
The cinematography effectively captures the misty foreboding of the murky depths that await the reckless. A little blonde boy slip down a muddy bank and it’s game over for him as the Spirit arrives ominously behind his friends to blankly witness his latest statistic. An older boy chances his arm literally, hanging from a branch to over-reach for something on the water’s surface. “It’ll never take his weight” observes the Spirit with silky, restrained glee. A sign ordering ‘Danger. No swimming’ prefaces a tracking shot detailing a veritable scrap-yard’s worth of rusty old jalopies, beds and weeds, death-trap henchmen of his to snare and drown young flailing bodies. But our opportunistic monk has his own Kryptonite: “Sensible children…I have no power over them” he curses, the line echoing to reinforce the power of common sense to the audience. “Oy mate, that’s a stupid place to swim” admonishes a cockney stage-school Artful Dodger as he and his pal help out a bedraggled kid in trunks who’d attempted swimming in such a picturesque spot.The only slightly false note is the dialogue when the lead boy says: “Here mate. Cover yourself with this”. It doesn’t quite ring true as a real child’s reaction, more that of a mouthpiece for shoe-horning in sober adult responsibility.
One of them throws the Spirit’s empty cassock into the muddy water, causing Pleasance’s ghostly kiss-off “I’ll be back”, likewise underlined with an ominous reverb…
One of them throws the Spirit’s empty cassock into the muddy water, causing Pleasance’s ghostly kiss-off “I’ll be back”, likewise underlined with an ominous reverb…
The lack of incidental music adds to the clinical documentary feel of The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water – 90 seconds of succinct and haunting power and a lesson in safety and film-making to all.
Friday, 20 May 2016
Late one night, over thirty years ago, possibly on the fledgling Channel 4 in the UK, I saw a short horror suspense film that in its frightening simplicity and shock ending burned into my brain unforgettably. I discovered when I went to school the next day that I wasn’t alone. Back then, before the multiplication of stations fractured audiences and recording them was in its infancy, water-cooler moments of shared communal viewing were possible, indeed delightful. “Did you see that film last night? The one about the guy trapped in the ‘phone box? It was brilliant!” we gibbered in wild teenage enthusiasm. If you were a British teen in the early ‘80s, maybe you saw it too? Never the coolest of kids, I felt here at least was a TV moment that only the real in-crowd of horror fans were in on. Looking back, it was the closest I’ll ever come to the feel of a cathode-ray urban myth or Max Renn’s experience in Videodrome of stumbling upon an unidentified, unsettling piece of entertainment and being wondrously plagued by it. Unless my memory fails me, it might even have been a last-minute replacement for a scheduled programme, which makes its mysterious appearance even more tantalising.
That film was the 1972 Spanish TV film La Cabina (‘the Telephone Box’), a 35-minute gem of perfectly-paced, developing terror conceived by Antonio Mercero and José Luis Garci and directed by Mercero. It has a simple premise but weaves in layers of themes and effects that lift it above the norm.
The opening depicts a flat-bed truck pulling up in a modern concretised Spanish city to the accompaniment of jaunty lift ‘muzak’. Four workmen get out and carry between them a new red ‘phone box which they screw into the ground in the middle of a precinct. Filmed in a long shot, the men are nondescript drones. Along comes a respectable businessman and doting father (the excellent José Luis López Vázquez) who sees his son onto the school-bus. He decides to make a call from inside the box, not seeing the door slide silently closed behind him. The line is dead. Suddenly he realises he is stuck inside. A crowd begins to form around him, uselessly gawping at him like a caged zoo animal, the comparison compounded by jeering kids. One by one, a succession of self-styled experts try to free him as the music shifts to a mournful clarinet: a macho chap who fancies himself as a strongman but whose shoulder-barging only shames him, a uniformed workman whose toolkit is no use, the police and even the fire brigade. He cannot call out or be able to receive anything inside the sealed booth. Eventually, a similar faceless team to the one at the start appears, unscrews the box and hoists it like a sedan chair onto another flat-bed truck and drives away.
Here is where the film-makers’ craft really kicks in. After treating the man’s predicament as a curiosity, they gradually work on Vázquez’s mounting unease, taking him through other profound emotional states. He falls into despondency en-route to his unknown destination as the truck pauses to allow him an ironic viewing of a funeral gathering around a glass-sided hearse. The heavy symbolism works on him morbidly as the wagon carries on. He sees burned–out cars and the equal trap of our urban, high-rise egg-box confinement. The soundtrack deftly switches to a harmonica version of ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ as the truck pauses by some sad-looking circus performers who stop rehearsing to stare at him. A clever moment that throws us off-balance shows a fellow city type leaving a duplicate box without any trouble. Maybe Vázquez simply had the bad luck to get a defective one.
The last act sees him driven through winding hair-pin turns into the countryside overlooking what looks like a barren quarry before heading into a tunnel where we glimpse other booths being tended to by workmen. Again the music score superbly telegraphs Vázquez’s sense of isolation morphing into increasing fear, jangling our nerves likewise with a church choir reminiscent of The Omen’s eerie vocal fore-shadowing (and four years before that film rendered such singing forever sinister). Another male occupant of the same demographic goes by trapped in the same kind of box on a truck. Finally, the vehicle arrives in a silo-style building that echoes Blofeld’s lair in You Only Live Twice. Our man’s box is plucked up by a magnetic crane and placed on a conveyor belt that takes him to an area that presents us with the darkest image of all - littered with booths containing men literally entombed as if in vertical glass coffins. By now Vázques has descended into utter panic – he hammers ineffectually on the glass until his heart gives out and he slumps dead to the floor.
Back in town, business as usual as another booth is set up and prepared for the public…
La Cabina is a piece of hypnotically gripping, brilliant storytelling with a gnomic ending that leaves the audience wonderfully puzzled and disturbed. Who is behind this and why? Is it a macabre ‘population control by stealth’ measure from the authorities? Whatever it could mean, it deservedly won 1973’s International Emmy for Fiction. (Lord help the Spanish if it was considered a documentary…)
Thursday, 19 May 2016
One of the earliest film versions adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella was this 1912 release by Blackhawk films and directed by some-time actor Lucius Henderson who later claimed that he discovered Rudolph Valentino, As the titular dual-personality doctor, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde stars veteran movie actor James Cruze who later went on to work at Paramount in comedy silent shorts with Wallace Reid and Roscoe Arbuckle.
There are certainly some unfortunate comic undertones in this adaptation, not to mention changes to the plot to suit budgetary and time constraints to accommodate a one-reel (12-minute) format. Immediately upon opening, we see the blonde-haired Jekyll (reminiscent of a young Chaplin) in his lab reaching for the flasks and, before glugging down his new potion, a few expressions of understandable trepidation. He has been consulting an industry text with the amusingly libel-baiting title 'Graham on Drugs'. The first transformation is simply achieved by stopping the filming, then substituting Hyde in his place and continuing to film, a special effect trick used ever since its discovery by accident by George Melies almost twenty years before. Cruze’s Hyde is now a dark-haired snarling beastie with stark staring eyes, courtesy of what looks like mascara underlining them, fanged teeth and heavy brows. Hunched over, he rages at the world with clawing hands. Fans of the Who may recognise a certain raddled Keith Moon look about him, apt considering that the film manages to convey Jekyll’s seething addiction as a form of increasing alcohol dependency.
There is a fast dissolve back to Hyde’s well-groomed alter-ego, allowing us to see him courting the minister’s daughter, one of many alterations from the book that the film makes, which at least here enables a saintly contrast with Jekyll’s hideous hidden evil. An intertitle suddenly jumps the time-line to some months later where by now the drug “causes him to change to his evil self against his will”. Hyde has become a notorious menace, intriguingly not in the usually authentic setting of the city of London, but “in the village” in which Jekyll lives. Bad luck for the doctor as that makes his wicked other side harder to conceal than in a crowded metropolis – you know how village folk talk.
Jekyll finds Hyde’s desire to show himself also puts a damper on his love life, interrupting his woodland idyll with his fiancé when the urge to transform grips him. His sweetheart is played by Florence La Badie who was introduced to film by her friend Mary Pickford. Subsequently she became a star, notably later working with D.W. Griffith but is most famous for The Million Dollar Mystery, a serial she co-starred in with James Cruze in 1914. Sadly, there’s no mystery as to what happens next as Hyde attacks her and kills her father when he comes to the rescue. A moustached village policeman pursues him to his home, where he safely turns back to Jekyll.
In the next scene after we learn that Jekyll wants to get away from the pain he is causing his fiancé, he coincidentally sees her on the street (not that unlikely in a village?). Just as he seems to confess his uncontrollable tendency to morph into a ’70s rock star drummer, he cannot un-Hyde any longer and has to leave her without explanation. Back home, his butler (Poole in the novel) hears a commotion and calls the police, fearing that this wild man has gained entry to his master’s study. The cop hacks down the door with an axe but it is too late. Hyde has poisoned himself to death. Disappointingly, the onlookers only see his monster face. The film robs us of the all-important chance for him to transform back to Jekyll before his fiancé.
A rushed, sketchy yet interesting archive piece from the very earliest days of silent horror.
Tuesday, 17 May 2016
“You are about to meet the ninth guest. His name is death…”
This pacey murder-mystery whodunit came from Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems subsidiary, which according to the screen credit was already hitching its wagons to the future preparing movies like this for TV distribution. Director Roy William Neill ably helms this quickie, later going on to continue in that vein directing several of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series. Based on the 1930 mystery thriller The Invisible Host by Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow, The Ninth Guest is very much a lightweight programmer with horror overtones, but moves quickly enough to entertain, so quickly in fact that you have to concentrate to keep up with the criminal backgrounds emerging from each of the suspects.
The set-up is simple: eight guests are contacted by telegram to attend a party in a high-rise penthouse. They know nothing of the host and the wording flatters their egos and curiosity by making out that it is especially in each one’s honour. As they arrive, whilst quizzing one another as to which is the host, we soon realise that as well-to-do as each one is, they all have something on the others that inspires mistrust and even bitter animosity. Amongst the privileged set are political manipulator Jason Osgood (Irish character actor Edwin Maxwell), the murky yet “well-known educator” Dr Reid (Samuel Hinds, best known for his work on Frank Capra and Abbott and Costello films), showbiz songstress Jean Trent played by film comedienne Genevieve Tobin, Donald Cook (stage and screen star of The Public Enemy and Showboat) as “brilliant journalist” Jim Daley and Henry Abbott (Hardie Albright).
Once it dawns on the eight that none of their fellow guests invited them, suddenly a disembodied dramatic voice from the radio introduces himself as the unnamed host and tantalises the assembly by pitting them in a game of wits against him. He massages their egos once more by referring to their exceptional intellectual ability as worthy opponents, but creates fear by promising to reveal from each: “Some secret that you hide from the world”. Such is his confidence that he predicts their deaths one by one on the hour - and thus we’re off to the races, with mounting paranoia between the guests as the bodies stack up like firewood, with the ‘phone lines cut and the gates electrified to seal then off from outside help.
First to join the choir invisible is corrupt political player James Osgood, who punctures the tension with punctuality by drinking Prussic Acid from his glass on the very stroke of eleven. The host points out that none should mourn him as he had attempted to poison all of them. Margaret Chisholm, a wealthy grand dame, hides a letter addressed to her, yet to no avail as it’s revealed by the voice of doom that she is a bigamist whose husband was committed by her to an insane asylum while she enjoyed his money. As the clock hits twelve, she hits the floor, taking the easy way out once exposed.
As cabin-fever grows amongst the group, sourpuss Tim Cronin tries to signal for help by burning newspaper on the balcony, a futile gesture when it’s pointed out that they’re fifty stories up. “Like a cheap movie”, observes Jean softly off-camera. Eventually, the numbers are whittled down to four and before you can say ‘vol-au vents’ the clandestine cards of the remainders’ corruptions are exposed. Tim’s wife Sylvia (Helen Flint) may be gunning for his $200,000 life insurance policy. Jim and Jean were childhood friends from close families whose fortunes were literally tied together over a shared inheritance of property that he wants to sell because oil is discovered there. Jim muddies the slick even further by choosing this moment to confess that he has always loved Jean. A queue seems to be forming as shortly afterwards so does Henry Abbott. Jean welcomes this – clearly her “honeyed voice and golden charm” praised by our host is working over-time.
An eerily effective gradual dousing of the light followed by a gun-shot triggers the demise of Dr Reid, clearly teaching the educator a lesson. Finally, Jim exposes Henry as the villain/radio voice/host all along using remote chair-buttons and a microphone to cue the voice. It turns out that he is linked to them all via being the brother of Margaret’s asylum-incarcerated hubbie, (who Sylvia and Tim covered for) and being thrown out of university by Reid. At this point, the plot’s amusingly labyrinthine exposition resembles Dustin Hoffman’s hilariously convoluted self-unmasking at the soap-opera climax of Tootsie.
“Is a man mad because he kills his enemies?” Abott ponders, which would have been fine as an undergraduate debate with a lecturer but not in the real world. Juries don’t look too favourably on such defence strategies. He lets Jim and Jean go as promised, before taking his own life. “Trials are such messy things”, he remarks before grasping the re-electrified gates and saving the tax-payer and jury a hefty court-case. It’s just as well. They’d need a flow-chart to follow the motives here. Macabre armchair-sleuthing fun….
Monday, 16 May 2016
“Even the phone is dead…”
By the time The Ghoul was released in July 1934, to lukewarm reviews and box-office in America, Boris Karloff had already returned to the U.S. The long-awaited script for The Invisible Man still wasn’t ready, undergoing seemingly endless re-writes in James Whale’s quest to hit the right tone. Meanwhile, he absorbed himself in a sincere desire to better the conditions for Hollywood film actors. He attended secret meetings to discuss with others how they might replicate the success that Actors’ Equity enjoyed in representing theatre members (which had resulted in the first ever theatre employees’ strike in 1919). He and his colleagues knew they would have to bide their time until movie producers made the kind of exploitation mistakes that would persuade the stars to join forces with them into a powerful enough body that could be taken seriously.
Whilst the Screen Actors Guild was being formed, the beginning of June saw Karloff briefly in exactly this type of fractious negotiation with Universal over his contract option being picked up for a new term. He was due to rise from $750 a week to $1250, representing two agreed steps of increase of $250. He suggested waiving the first and going immediately to the higher amount due. The studio refused, but the matter was smoothed with a new five-year contract that earned him $2000 and gave him the attractively rare carrot of a guarantee that he would be billed on publicity as ‘Karloff’. Intriguingly, Variety reported that The Return of Frankenstein would be the opening project.
Karloff’s filming schedule at first moved ahead without Universal. He worked with the emerging genius John Ford for RKO’s WWI drama The Lost Patrol, shot in the brutal heat of Arizona, which sapped the actors’ energy and the equipment. Soon after its release, garnering mixed reviews about Karloff, praising his intensity and criticising a ‘theatricality’ in his performance, he was part of a historic power-play off-screen. In good company with 22 other star actor signatories including Gary Cooper, Frederick March and James Cagney, he resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ‘Dissatisfied with the fashion in which their interests have been represented in NRA code hearings in Washington’ according to Variety on the 2nd of October, the ex-members felt that their self-formed Screen Actors Guild would protect them better than the code, which tried to bail out the economy in part by imposing measures counter to actors’ livelihoods - for example banning producers from bidding competitively between themselves over actors, (which would effectively stop performers from a vital aspect of financial betterment). The code had also ratified, without consultation, a move that forced a ceiling on actors’ earnings of $100,000 and enabled producers to control the licensing of performers’ agents. These two rules alone clearly established that producers were being allowed unequal bargaining power. It was only a few weeks before the Guild’s membership expanded to 4,000 members under its inaugural president Eddie Cantor, who used his influence with U.S. President Roosevelt to ensure the offending sections of the code were excised.
Following his evil Ledrantz in the nascent 20th Century Fox’s Napoleonic drama The House of Rothschild, another historic moment happened for Boris Karloff and horror fans at the start of 1934. It was to mark his first of eight on-screen pairings with fellow star Bela Lugosi in horror cinema – The Black Cat. Karloff was back in the Universal family again with a fee of $7500 for the four-week shoot. Lugosi accepted an offer of $3000, sadly indicative of his waning bargaining power by comparison. (This would see him gradually descend into increasingly shoddy parts with only his remarkable Ygor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein to worthily showcase his versatility). Lugosi had just finished one of the many stage Dracula tours he would be forced to take on the road over the decades.
Karloff and Lugosi benefitted from the directorial and visual flair of Edgar G. Ulmer, a former set designer in German theatre and then film, most notably on The Golem and Metropolis (reviewed here respectively on 28/12/2015 and 5/02/2016). His art design for Poelzig’s house in The Black Cat featured much that recalled German Bauhaus architecture and an expressionistic use of light and shadow. Ulmer’s unity of vision was further strengthened by his co-writing of the screenplay with George Sims, a mystery thriller writer who later served in WWII in the Army Intelligence Corps and then became a rare book dealer, a grounding in reality that made his eerie thrillers particularly highly-regarded.
The Black Cat took the title of Edgar Allen Poe’s story yet had no connection with it. Instead, it was partly inspired by a court case surrounding famous British occultist Aleister Crowley, the self-styled ‘Great Beast 666’ whose far-reaching influence extended to include appearing as one of the 20th century’s cultural icons on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Stephen Jacob’s superb biography Boris Karloff: More than A Monster details how Crowley had taken umbrage at the reference in his friend Nina Hammett’s autobiography Laughing Torso that: “He was supposed to practise Black Magic…and the inhabitants of the village were frightened of him.” Crowley sued for libel on the basis that his was the more benign White Magic. However, his case was thrown out after an occult student of his in Sicily, Betty May Loveday, testified that her husband died as the result of a ceremony involving drinking the blood of a sacrificed black cat.
Ulmer and Sims were inspired to blend some of this grisliness into the creation of Hjalmar Poelzig, Austrian architect extraordinaire and Black Magic devotee played by Boris Karloff. With his stone-faced demeanour, black gown topped with an occultish pentagram necklace and hair oiled to a widow’s peak, he is every inch the secret Satanist – aided by Jack Pierce’s much simpler make-up than for previous horror roles. The other blueprint in creating the character was the real-life German architect Hanz Poelzig. Lugosi, meanwhile, is allowed a pleasing change of pace into a more humane, even heroic figure, that of Dr Vitus Werdegast. (With names like this, perhaps the writers were masquerading as practising sadists to actors too!). His character is a promininent Hungarian psychiatrist who suffered the devastating loss of his wife and has only recently been released from the ravages of 15 years in a Siberian prison camp. “After 15 years….I have returned”. (This underlying deep-seated trauma was based on Ulmer’s study of the PTSD effects upon survivors from the French fortress Doumont following World War One).
Despite the heavyweight aspect to the material, Ulmer found Karloff bringing a continual levity, pre-take, to a part he struggled to regard seriously, whereas Lugosi exuded an intensity of passion that Ulmer had to judiciously cut away from at times.
Due to a booking mix-up on a train to Hungary, he is forced to share a compartment with a canoodling honeymoon couple, writer Peter and his wife Joan Allison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells). Although Manners had already been the 1931 Dracula’s John Harker opposite Lugosi, a residual aloofness of manner from the older actor discouraged Manners from a friendship off-camera.
Nevertheless, Lugosi portrays Werdegast as a tweedy, avuncular gentleman of impeccable manners and unlike almost all of his recent post-Dracula roles, this is not a pose that dissolves to reveal a stiff, glowering Svengali of evil. When the new friends’ bus crashes, hurting Joan, it forms a useful plot device to gather all three together at Poelzig’s home, a ‘friend’ of Werdegast, built on the foundations of Poelzig’s old command post of Fort Marmarus. Their host appears with a strident music cue and the forbiddingly focused gravitas of Karloff that enables Lugosi to play more humanely opposite him by contrast. Joan is put to bed and treated by Werdegast with the hallucinogenic Hyoscine. The young couple are thus not privy to the seething real animosity Werdegast has nurtured toward Poelzig since the war, his home “..built upon the masterpiece of war…the masterpiece of destruction”. Poelzig had given up the fort to the Russians, sacrificing 10,000 soldiers and now Werdegast is back “To kill your soul….slowly”. It’s amusingly ironic to note David Skal points out in The Monster Show that Vitus Werdegast literally translates as ‘Life becomes guest’. He demands to know where his wife Karen is, which Polezig perversely satisfies by showing her dead body perfectly preserved on display in a glass cabinet. This morbid sight overcomes Werdegast with grief. Poelzig argues that his gallery of others like her are the living dead, preserved as though they are still alive. Good thing he doesn’t yet know that Poelzig also sleeps with her beautiful blonde identical double daughter. (There’s only so much a concentration camp survivor can take on his release).
When Joan enters in somewhat of a trance state, the sight of a black cat causes Werdegast to react with fear. Poelzig tells his guests that Werdegast has a serious phobia of cats, whom Werdegast feels are “deathless as evil”. There’s a tangible atmosphere of death over the whole film in fact, an unshakeable funereal fog of mourning that works very well. The theme is constantly referenced by the two combatants who eventually settle down to the literal game of chess that they’ve already metaphorically begun since Werdegast arrived. They agree that the safety of the Allisons will be the stake.
Werdegast also introduces another lit fuse to keep things darkly simmering – he reminds Poelzig’s undertaker-like Majordomo, (Egon Brecher) who is secretly working for him, that the house sits on top of a colossal store of dynamite.
This is not to suggest that Ulmer lacks the confidence to add a little comic relief into the mix courtesy of a group of Gendarmerie who arrive to take statements about the bus crash. The harmless squad bicker amongst themselves about which is the most beautiful local village, resembling chocolate soldiers rather than officers of the law. Their quaint ineffectuality is enhanced even more when the Allisons ask for a lift (to flee what they suspect is a madhouse) and are regretfully told the policemen only use bicycles.
Eventually, the mask of decorum slips off. By the time Poelzig savours the observation that “Even the ‘phones are dead”, the guests are well aware that it’s time to leave their key at reception as events build to a nightmarish climax. Joan is carried away by the hulking man-servant Thamal (Harry Cording), while Poelzig plays the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor signalling his Phantom of the Opera ghoulish intentions. He presides over a well-attended underground Black Magic ritual, “the rites of Lucifer” while Joan is visited in her room by Karen’s namesake daughter. Somehow, Poelzig knows this and breaks away from demonic business long enough to reprimand Karen in a genuinely unnerving off-screen fatal ‘reprimand’ from which she shrieks.
Such is Karloff’s unholy energy that it takes Thamal and Werdegast to bring him down, seized even as Werdegast is by the grief-fuelled anger of seeing his daughter on the slab at the hands of Poelzig. Those who think Lugosi has been neutered in this film need have no fear. He suspends Poelzig on his own rack, stripping him of his shirt and teasing his captive with “Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar?” He is thwarted by a misconceived shot in the back from Peter, but this inspires a new height of refreshing heroism that Lugosi may never have achieved on screen again. After urging the couple to go, he flips the switch that primes the dynamite and with the satisfying epitaph “It has been a good game”, he blows up the house, Ulmer making what seems cunning use of WWI trench explosion stock footage. In a train epilogue, Peter reads to Joan a review that accuses his novels of being far-fatched. Not that we care, as we’ve just seen a bravura example of lead horror actors enjoying an entertaining battle of wills discarding the humdrum need for realism.
The Black Cat was originally completed in less than three weeks of the allotted four, but under pressure from the MPPDA Ulmer had to reshoot sequences and excise others to tone down the more enthusiastic focus on occult sensationalism, such as a graphic flaying of Poelzig by Werdegast, and “a derogatory reference to Czech Slovakians as people who devour the young”. Ulmer’s daughter recalled though that the hint of necrophilia in Poelzig’s corpse-preservation kink had sneaked in under the code’s radar. On release, it generated almost a quarter of a million dollars in spite of the New York Times and Variety praising Karloff and Lugosi but criticising it over-harshly for an oppressively thick atmosphere and story unoriginality. Even so, it became the studio’s biggest hit of 1934 thus proving it was a ‘good enough’ game…
Friday, 13 May 2016
The great success of King Kong even during the worst of the Depression gave RKO the confidence to produce an inevitable sequel. The speed of its release was unprecedented, a mere nine months after the original at the end of that same year of 1933. The rush to capitalise on Kong fever however resulted in cut corners, a much smaller budget and production schedule that showed in the final result. Amongst the team reunited for it was effects supremo Willis O’Brien who under the circumstances chose to leave much of the sub-par animated work to his assistant and asked for his name not to be credited (although he is , in bold font size, as Chief Technician). The director this time was solely Ernest P. Schoedsack, without the input of Merian C. Cooper.
The film betrays the lack of expense firstly in the script’s structure, again written by Ruth Rose, by being an exotic sea-faring melodrama sparked by Carl Denham (returning Robert Armstrong) needing to escape an impending Grand Jury indictment and constant shower of writs being served to him in the aftermath of Kong’s New York rampage. The opening shot of the poster proudly boasting Kong’s debut not only haunts him but will also do the same to us. “I’m sure paying for what I did to you” he says softly to it. He re-teams with the S.S. Venture’s old Captain Englehorn, Frank Reicher, who makes him an offer to begin again in partnership using the ship as a freight business. With Victor Wong once again as the pidgin-speaking cook Charlie, they set sail for the Orient, landing in the port of Dakang.
Armstrong said he preferred The Son of Kong to the original due simply to its greater emphasis on his character’s development. He is probably alone in shouldering this as well as the burden of Denham’s law-suits. Admittedly it’s true that the human story very much focuses on him, his latent humanity and a delicately-developed romance; but this is supposed to be a Kong film, promising plentiful ‘Hulk-smash’ special effects more than love among the Tropics. There is an early hint as to how disappointingly the simian creatures will be respected when he and the Captain take in a show at the port. They see a ropey stage act beginning with performing chimps in costumes playing instruments, an uncomfortable sight if you consider the cruelty of how monkeys can be treated for this type of entertainment.
The compere is a moth-eaten alcoholic ex-ringmaster, played by veteran movie actor Clarence Wilson, who then introduces to the rubes the charming ‘Helene’, Hilda in the credits, to perform the song ‘Runaway Blues’. While this is obvious padding, it gives us an opportunity to see the one true find of the film in the casting of Helen Mack. She makes a beguiling and memorable leading lady, possessed of a still, soulful quality and a streetwise wisdom behind her dark eyes that gives Son its only layer of heart and depth. Mack later appeared in high-quality comedies, with Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way and the super-fast screwball delight His Girl Friday. Here, she endures the drama of her father being killed after a drunken brawl with ex-Captain Nils Helstrom (John Marston) which results in their show-tent livelihood being burnt down. She has nothing left to lose and after making a tender impression on Denham, stows away aboard his ship.
The shady Helstrom proves that he will do anything to get away as well. In return for safe passage aboard the Venture, he persuades Denham to send the party back to Kong’s home of Skull Island with a faked promise of treasure there. Despite telegraphing his inherent dodginess facially, he awakens Denham’s adventurous side as well as his greed. Helstrom was the one who gave him the original map for his first voyage. (The fact this incentive was never mentioned before is brushed aside). At least Hilda is smart enough not to trust him. The ship’s crew are equally shrewd and mutiny at the thought of re-living their monster nightmare of before. They pack Denham, Hilda, Englehorn and, as an after-thought, Helstrom off in a life-boat.
Shamefully, we’re already into the third act of Son, thus testing our patience that we may have been sold a plodding ‘B’ picture programmer in disguise. Once the principals wash up on the island, here the plot becomes all-at-sea. Immediately, they are met by Noble Johnson’s tribal chief and his natives from last time with such promptness it’s as though they’d been on the shore expecting him since March’s King Kong premiere. Once that obligatory cameo is dismissed, our cast row to another cave inlet where we see a first glimpse of how much the effects quality has deteriorated. In rushing this sequel out, the matte glass painting work that created sumptuous levels and depth in the original is delivered here in noticeably sloppy superimposed form.
More demoralising is what comes next. Denham comes face to rear-projected face with the small but familiar head of what emerges as Little Kong. “I never knew that Kong had a son” he says with awe. Unfortunately, what passes for junior is a disappointment to his legacy. Don’t get me wrong, Little Kong has a certain child-like charm. He’s definitely a gorilla, albino, smaller in stature naturally and manages a few gestures that are cute, yet the stop-motion is jerkier, much less finessed than before, resembling a crude screen-test for the earlier film instead of building on its amazing technology. As Denham helps free him from quicksand, Little Kong emits odd all-too-human sound effects of cooing and grunting that don’t help in suspending our disbelief that this is slapdash animation - in fact, it reminds me of the facetious Kong creature in Flesh Gordon.
(A more successfully-rendered creature is the Styracosaurus that chases our heroes into a cave. It is smoother and shown on screen just long enough to make an impact without exposing any shortcomings).
The big fight scene for Kong Jr is against a giant black bear, which intriguingly is made bigger than him for dramatic effect. We may be meant to regard this as an echo of his father’s titanic clash with the T-Rex in Kong, which could have worked if the animators didn’t ruin it with the fatal decision to go for laughs instead of tense action. Mid-battle, Kong falls dazed against a rock and does the rolling eyes and cartoon tweety-bird reaction that robs him of any dignity. Moreover, he wins by merely chasing the bear off with a tree-trunk. Kong Snr would have covered his face in shame. “Say, can he scrap just like his old man”, says Denham, showing he hasn’t lost his instinct for turd-polishing sales hype. Poor little Kong sustains a finger wound that Denham dresses with a bandage ripped from Hilda’s skirt (by her I should add). This is a nice pathos moment slightly undermined by those of us who notice it’s his middle finger and unintentionally has him ‘flipping the bird’ for a moment. Kong rewards their Florence Nightingale ministrations by shaking the coconut tree’s contents down in a shower for Hilda.
We then get to the location of what actually turns out to be treasure, guarded by a huge carved idol encrusted with jewels. Kong wades into another fight, this time with a lizard-esque Nothosaurus, but it’s so hurried that when he tweaks its lifeless jaw at the end (another reference to his dad’s playful curiosity, post-T-Rex rumble) the move plays too quickly to score with us.
Helstrom reveals his lie, leading to his comeuppance via a Cetlosaurus chowing down on him which only leaves us the final set-piece, a frustrating effects sequence in that it hints at what could have been a really powerful climax as the island is sunk by a huge storm. Denham is rescued by Kong, to begin with in poorly-realised long-shots of him hoisting the human onto a dry mound and then in an almost-effective ending, is hoisted above the waves by the gorilla’s mighty arm to be taken by his friends to safety aboard a small boat. The sharp editing suggests initially that the show-man was going to die in a bravura showbiz finish by drowning with Kong, an uncommercial ending to be sure, but arguably a poignant and poetic demise. By salvaging Denham and wiping out Kong, it only reminds us that the undeserving humans survive and that it’s never a good idea for gorillas to trust us.
Ruth Rose cannily surmised that since The Son of Kong was not going to compete with its predecessor on spectacle, it could at least on the humour front. Whilst the broad comedy slapstick and goonery of his offspring cheapens the attempt to create a worthy follow-up to King Kong, a lightness of touch is at least partly successful in the romance between Denham and Hilda. When she coyly suggests at the close that they might make a nice couple, combining their treasure shares, he gently agrees with her. “It’s alright”.
If only Universal had the confidence to hold off a sequel until they could have made the time and budget to produce a carefully-planned and better successor. Instead, it’s a case of ‘how are the mighty fallen’…
Wednesday, 11 May 2016
“Gee, ain’t we got enough o’ them in New York?”
During its relatively short history, RKO Radio Pictures was a film studio that produced some of the truly classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, standing the test of time against their bigger competitors, such as Citizen Kane, Bringing Up Baby and Gunga Din. They made an indelible stamp on the horror genre as well with arguably the greatest version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and possibly their most successful film (judging from its many lucrative re-releases), King Kong.
RKO (the acronym stands for Radio-Keith-Orpheum corporation) began as a British partnership, Robertson-Cole, between Rufus S Cole and H.F. Robertson that imported and exported automobiles. After becoming motion picture distributors, they decided to set up as a self-producing film studio in 1921, buying a 13.5 acre site from the Hollywood Cemetery Association. Such was their eagerness to start shooting that they began filming their first property Wonder Man before they had finished building the lot. Paramount Pictures became literally their next door neighbour studio five years later after buying the rental company United Studio. During this period, Robertson-Cole became FBO (Film Booking Offices of America, Inc) after a buy-in by Americans including Harry M Berman, whose son Pandro went on to be their most successful producer.
FBO’s output was simple and crowd-pleasing (often western and melodrama) filler product rather than the top-billing films that the major studios prided themselves on. Even after Joseph P Kennedy (father to JFK and Robert) bought out FBO and installed Paramount’s east coast head of production William LeBaron, the studio still couldn’t shake off a poor-cousin reputation. The turning point came with the sound revolution when the president of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), David Sarnoff, was scoping for a studio whose movies could utilise his company’s new optical sound invention (recorded directly onto the photographic film itself) in cinemas. The heavyweight studios had all signed binding agreements to use Western Electric’s sound technology. RCA invested heavily in FBO as the perfect partner to showcase RCA’s ‘Photophone’ system.
Despite now having a seat at the big boys’ table with their cutting-edge tech, FBO was not safe from the kind of merger mania that suddenly gripped Hollywood studios. Their major competitors feverishly speculated about potential buy-outs of each other to attain a monopoly position. This inevitably fostered a paranoia of vulnerability, particularly for FBO who didn’t have a vast chain of cinemas to protect their stronghold. To counteract this, they made a deal with the K-A-O (Keith-Albee-Orpheum) theatre network which immediately gave them access to 700-plus cinemas, albeit not all equipped to handle the new ‘talkies’. At a stroke, RCA gained a controlling interest in both FBO and K-A-O in October of 1928. What had once been dismissed as a Poverty Row outfit was now a major player worth $300 million dollars and with a new name – RKO.
As was made clear from trade journal adverts hyping his new empire - ‘A TITAN IS BORN…ECLIPSING IN ITS STAGGERING MAGNITUDE AND FAR-REACHING INTERESTS ANY ENTERPRISE IN THE HISTORY OF SHOW-BUSINESS’) - Sarnoff’s ambition for his studio extended further than film. He wanted RKO to connect the radio media with the film world. They already owned the NBC network, (now the oldest major network broadcaster in the USA), and trade-marked the name ‘Radio Pictures’. This is why their fondly-remembered logo is the quaint radio mast famously signalling ’A Radio Picture’ before each film.
Sarnoff’s triumphal advertising was not simply hot-air hubris. It heralded immense physical expansion of the studio, adding more theatre chains, half a million dollars invested in talking film production and another 500 acres of production property. He was an avant-garde media visionary who saw a future where film, radio, theatre and the latest medium of TV could work together long before the understanding of ‘multi-media’ that is so commonplace today. Unfortunately a single house style never emerged (as for example with the gritty reality gangster pictures of Warner Bros or the lush musical make-believe speciality of M-G-M).
In their superb biography The RKO Story, Richard B Jewell and Vernon Harbin noted that different film-maker groups and new managements succeeded each other frequently, and so the studio never gained a settled identity. It relied on the governing personality of whoever was in charge, which was prone to regular turbulent change. Though it ultimately was sold to the unbalanced Howard Hughes in 1948 who offloaded it to General Teleradio, Inc in 1955 (thereby ceasing its erratic production schedule for good), during RKO’s heyday there were two periods of interest to horror fans. One was the cycle of famously distinctive horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s including The Cat People and The Body Snatcher - low-budget and titled for sensationalism, they rescued the studio from financial trouble.
The first though was the earlier regime that gave birth to cinema’s most-loved monster – King Kong. David O Selznick, the genius producer who later went on to mastermind the Oscar winners Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) replaced William LeBaron as production and single-handedly ushered in a more highbrow roster of movies. Before his desire for ungranted full creative control caused him to leave RKO, he brought in Merian C Cooper, his protégé who replaced him in early 1933.
Cooper was a documentary-maker, explorer and aviation fanatic, a remarkable man who had willed himself from a timid child-hood and small stature into keen physical fitness and a confident personality that exemplified life-long bravery and derring-do. His motto was to pursue anything adventurous that was ‘distant, difficult and dangerous’. In World War One, he chose to become a bomber pilot for the French effort, resulting in a remarkable near-death experience piloting his bullet-riddled, flaming ‘plane to the ground without the use of his burned hands, using only his knees and elbows. (His family had received official notice that he had been killed in action). He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp and for the rest of his life would maintain close active links with aerial military duty. His passion for telling astounding human stories was partly inspired by flying for the courageous Polish freedom fighters in over 70 missions against the Bolsheviks.
Cooper had a feeling for spectacle and showbiz that surely inspired the central character of showman Carl Denham in King Kong. Whilst Selznick was still overseeing him. Cooper was given free reign to develop his passion for adventure films. Gorillas had fascinated the adventure-seeking Cooper since his childhood reading the book Adventures In Equatorial Africa. He had filmed baboons whilst on movie location work, and after reading W. Douglas Burden's The Dragon Lizards of Komodo, he conjured up an early screenplay idea containing some of the key elements he would later use in Kong: a gorilla fighting a lizard, a female heroine and settings that shifted from an exotic island to modern New York City. Paramount studio was offered it, but baulked at the cost of remote location work (this was right at the start of America’s ruinous Great Depression). Enter Selznick, who allowed Cooper to develop his own projects at RKO whilst being his executve assistant.
Cooper soon forged creative relationships that would create components for King Kong. He conceived The Most Dangerous Game (see my review of 30/3) whose evil big-game hunter of humans protagonist took his explorer theme and tinged it with horror. He enlisted actors Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray who would star in King Kong. Ernest P. Schoedsack was enlisted to direct, his partner from their documentary company who co-directed their renowned ‘natural drama’ projects Chang and Grass. Schoedsack was a crucial influence on Cooper and in our story, teaching him the basics of film technique and forging a globe-trotting partnership recording and creating real-life tales of valour over hardship. He also inspired Cooper’s creation of Driscoll in King Kong, the ship’s first mate, who finds women a nuisance on adventure travel but begrudgingly accepts then falls in love with Ann.
Whilst The Most Dangerous Game was in safe hands, Cooper could transfer his attention to the soaring budget on Creation, a dinosaur island film whose special effects designer was Willis O’Brien. Though he would head one of the most vital creative talent teams of Cooper’s future blockbuster, O’Brien’s boss was not impressed by his stop-motion work here. (O’Brien had previously realised dinosaur effects such as a brontosaurus terrorising London in 1925’s The Lost World). However it was enough to convince Cooper to junk his original dragon-centric concept, focusing instead on a single enormous gorilla, cannibalise the jungle sets and with O’Brien’s model effects, assemble a cast for a presentation including actors Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray from Game. The studio backed him. The name of the epic horror-adventure film changed during production from The Eighth Wonder, The Beast and Kong until settling on its regal title. Cooper collaborated with Ernest P. Schoedsack in directing and producing duties and brought in James Ashmore Creelman and then Ruth Rose, Schoedsack’s wife, to complete the screenplay he had started with Edgar Wallace. It was Rose who managed to incIude all the crucial plot points and buIld tension before Kong’s first unforgettable appearance. The movie began shooting in August 1932 but wasn’t ready for release until March 1933.
For those who haven’t seen it, the story goes that film-making entrepreneur Carl Denham (the role of a lifetime for Robert Armstrong) persuades down-on-her-luck young beauty Ann Darrow (an equally signature career role for Fay Wray) to join his voyage to a far-off island to film something exciting he will not disclose. The promise of money and adventure lures her and she signs on, falling in love with Bruce Cabot’s lacklustre first mate Driscoll as they make their way to the uncharted Skull Island. There they encounter natives before an enormous gate about to offer a maiden to the mighty ‘Kong’ that they worship. The tribal leader decides that Ann and her unusual (to them) blonde hair will make a perfect sacrificial offering to their gorilla master and kidnap her from Denham’s ship to do so.
The spectacular sacrificial scene reveals Kong, an incredible 50-foot gorilla that surpasses even Denham’s wildest dreams for a film subject. He is enamoured by Ann and carries her away into the jungle. In tracking her, the crew discover the unimagined bonus of other giant-size creatures and dinosaur inhabitants too. They are attacked by a Stegosaurus and a Brontosaurus. Kong finds himself in the heat of battle as well with a T-Rex, a Pteranodon (a diversion allowing Driscoll’s men to rescue Ann from both of them) and an Elasmosaurus. In his rage, Kong attacks the crew-men, shaking some of them off a log to their deaths in the ravine below.
Rather than relishing their narrow escape, Denham seizes the chance to capture Kong as the ultimate show-piece for paying audiences back home. He drugs him with gas bombs and ships him back to New York City as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Paraded on a theatre stage in steel shackles, Kong is docile until his temper is ignited at seeing Driscoll with his arm around Ann and by the harsh flash-bulbs of the photographers. He breaks free from captivity and runs amok, plucking Ann from the hotel room where she hides, wrecking a train and scaling the Empire State Building with her. Atop the building, he is subjected to aerial bombardment by military biplanes until he plummets to his death. As Denham surveys the once-phenomenal creature’s body, a police officer satisfies himself that the ‘planes got him. Denham disagrees with a trace of mournful respect “It was beauty killed the beast”.
The theme of beauty versus beastliness is made evident through the film, yet the accepted definition of what is civilised and what is primitive, and where it is found, is not as simple as we might think. We may be led to lazy racism dismissing the tribe that worship a giant gorilla as ignorant idolatrous savages who also cannot be trusted – (our innocent white women will inevitably be kidnapped by them) - yet are the westerners here more principled people? Leaving aside the indiscriminate shooting of the Stegosaurus which arguably could have been left alone, Denham’s people are not guests of the islanders. They turn up uninvited and expect to pillage it of its most important indigenous living creature like common thieves (or slave-traders if you want to draw a heavy comparison from history). No wonder Kong goes ape-shit. He didn’t sign up for drugged abduction from his homeland to a frightening metropolis that even a hayseed human would find intimidating. Also, in those soulful eyes that O’Brien’s team gave him and the tender moves he puts on Ann, he is less of a rough creature than you might expect. When Kong is shot down by the navy airplanes, that is no mercy killing. I would have enjoyed even more of Kong trampling New York as revenge. His death is execution dressed up as some kind of heroism, but despite the faux-nobility of Denham’s tribute at the end, (let’s not forget this is the guy who tells the theatre punters that Kong is ‘merely a show to gratify your curiosity’), the captivity and undignified parading of a beautiful wild animal solely for money is not our finest hour.
For all the competition we could give him in (liberal) chest-beating, it is drowned out by the awesome spectacle of the set pieces of King Kong, splintering any soap-boxes along with tribal huts, trains and much more in his breathtakingly-staged path. The scale and poignancy of Kong’s stunning realisation excited audiences rather than the humans, and still do to this day. Remember, he was the first major star of a film to be solely a visual effect creation. No-one ends the film gabbling to each other about the relationships between Denham, Darrow and Driscoll. They are assembled with functional speed and humour to move the plot to the real thrills. (Denham’s “Great!” that ends his whirlwind pitch to Ann is funny in his presumption of her acceptance, matched only by the pace of Driscoll’s later sudden confession that he loves her).
In the casting, actors Robert Armstong and particularly Fay Wray were pulling double-duty, split between King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game shooting simultaneously. The effects work was so time-consuming on Kong that she was only needed for around ten weeks of its eight month production schedule. Wray had been enticed, Denham-like, by Cooper’s pitch that she would have the ‘tallest, darkest leading-man in Hollywood’ before revealing his simian identity. She in fact performed in 11 films that year, notably Mystery of the Wax Museum – (reviewed 23/4). Bruce Cabot had originally been spotted working as a waiter before being put under contract by RKO and leading to Cooper’s epic.
Willis O’Brien had worked through a myriad of jobs as a jockey, boxer, farm-hand and cowboy amongst others. Experimenting with cameras, he invented stop-motion photography (filming one frame at a time to create the illusion of continuous movement) almost by accident. For The Lost World, based on Conan Doyle’s novel, he created a wealth of dinosaurs that wowed audiences, yet the time he worked on Creation, he was struggling to convince studios to bankroll the enormous cost of the laborious work it took to film in stop-motion. Cooper realised that he had already spent $100,000 on ongoing effects work for this film at a time when an entire standard Hollywood film could be shot for just $200,000. He was forced to cancel Creation. To offset the crushing blow, O’Brien’s team was moved to what would become his most celebrated show-case of cutting-edge talent using some of the abandoned project’s ideas including virtually all the prehistoric creatures. (The feature-packed American Bluray of King Kong contains test footage and a narrated animatic of what Creation would have looked like)
Although David O. Selznick’s involvement in King Kong was minor, he and fellow producer B.B. Kahane shaved enough expenses from other planned films to provide £300,000 over the original budget to support the enormity of the vision for King Kong.
Marcel Delgado and his unit under O’Brien created the various animated versions of Kong. The brilliant mechanical puppets with intricate articulated skeletons were realised in fabulous detail down to the separately-hinged phalanges of each finger, then padded out with cotton dental dam for the musculature, a layer of rubber and coated in rabbit fur for his hide. For the early jungle scenes, 18-inch models of Kong were suitable, but when juxtaposed against the scale of the urban New York sets a more domineering 24-inch version had to be constructed. There were noticeably two different-looking visages for Kong, one called the ‘long face’ (seen when he fights the T-Rex) and one known as the ‘short face’. Studio insiders initially criticised the hard-to-avoid rippling of the fur caused by the endless re-positions of his body during the shots. They soon changed their tune when audience feedback noted the ‘realism’ of his hair seeming to stand up on his body.
The finished models were then ready for O’Brien and his assistant Buzz Dixon to animate in a hugely labour-intensive process. He had spent almost twenty years pioneering this incredibly patient and painstaking technique, which incidentally has hardly changed at all in the decades since. It would require 1,440 separate frames of filmed movement for each minute of film. Even at a good working pace of say 10 frames per hour it can take 150 hours to generate that single minute on screen. Seven weeks were spent just to create Kong’s heavyweight title fight with the T-rex. What makes this work-load even more impressive is the time found for those delicate, playful gestures that imbue Kong with so much personality - his smelling of a flower while the Elasmosaurus sneaks up on Ann, his child-like curiosity tweaking the dead T-Rex’s jaw and the mischievous way he tickles the scantily-clad Ann, for example. O’Brien’s second wife fondly recalled that she saw a lot of of her husband in Kong’s character.
(Technical blooper fans might like to note that almost imperceptibly there is a frame of Kong footage on a jungle ledge where the measuring surface gauge was left in the shot).
The stop-motion effects were often combined with live-action in multiple techniques sometimes so sophisticated that even modern artists can’t always spot how they were done. One system was to film the actors in front of rear-projected footage of the creatures which helped performance authenticity by having them react to its actual presence rather than their imagination. (I can recall numerous interviews from films where embarrassed actors remember emoting their hearts out in fear of an unrealised monster and then discover the later superimposed beast was woefully unworthy of their efforts). Another was to shoot actors ‘in-camera’ and then merge those scenes with pre-filmed effects shots using the Dunning Process of blue and yellow lights to produce composite images. The Williams process was similar but allowed for using an optical printer without the colours, instead of having to mix the images ‘live’. Kong’s shaking of the men off the jungle log and his appearance through the marvellous giant gate were filmed this way. Matte paintings on glass in front of the camera added extra depth of perspective to the jungle sequences, crafted by a team featuring Byron Crabbe, Henry Hillinck and Mario Larrinaga. The giant animated arm that lifts Ann out of her hotel room was made of rubber so the enormous fingers could safely wrap around Wray’s body as it moved.
Kong’s superbly effective climb of the Empire State building was realised in miniature, but using full-sized navy issue New York-based biplanes for the dogfight. ‘We made ‘im. We should kill the son of a bitch ourselves’ stated Cooper, earmarking cockpit cameos for himself and Schoedsack as the ‘plane duo that brings down Kong. They did not fly the actual plane yet Cooper’s experience as a WWI bomber ace could certainly have handled the real stunt-work.
Willis O’Brien’s ground-breaking artistry gained him a special technical patent. He did not receive a richly-deserved Academy Award for King Kong sadly because at that time there was no precedent for FX awards. This was later redressed somewhat with a special statuette when RKO won an Oscar for Mighty Joe Young (1949) for which he had been credited as Technical Creator. His more profound legacy was to inspire generations of film-makers such as his famous protégé Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson who made his own remake homage to King Kong in 2005.
Cooper’s film wasn’t just a landmark in terms of the visuals. Thanks to Murray Spivack, it also pushed the envelope of what was possible in cinema sound design as an art form. Housed in the inauspicious environs of a small building formerly used for Tom Mix’s horse, he experimented, recording human sounds and animals from the local zoo, layering and combining. Kong’s full-blooded roar was a mix between that of a tiger played backward at half-speed and a lion’s growl played forward.
Spivack’s sound effects, like the rest of King Kong, worked in harmony with the beautiful score written by Max Steiner, possibly the first composer to construct a soundtrack of specific cues and themes in a film such as lyrical strings for Ann and an ominous three-note leitmotif for Kong himself. He is also an important factor in building tension and touching our heartstrings with Kong’s plight in the climax.
The climactic Broadway show was achieved by filming in front of a full-house of extras at the old Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and later inserting a scene of Kong himself as a matte screen effect. The bravura elevated train sequence, where Kong gives us the vicarious pleasure of pulverising the vehicle and its occupants, was an after-thought – Cooper discovered that the original cut of King Kong would have been a bad-luck thirteen reels in length, so superstitiously added this highlight scene to extend the running time. Later, with the aid of expert editing by Ted Cheesman, he truncated the flagging pace of this version down to 11 reels (100 minutes).
When King Kong opened, it was an immediate sensation, a massive box-office hit even though it came out at the height of the Great Depression.
The aforementioned re-releases, as successful as they were, each time suffered from draconian censorship demands after the Production Code came to power in the mid-1930s. Moments such as Kong biting the head off a New Yorker or stomping a crew-man into the jungle earth were excised and presumed lost for decades until it emerged in the 60s that the censor who cut them had taken the banned clips home and sold them. For many years, the only way to see a full print was a version with these 16mm edits crudely merged with a 35mm censored edition.
The almost fully intact version on the Bluray comes from a restored British 35mm nitrate print that mercifully had none of the 29 deletions made. However, there is a legendary missing scene known to fans as ‘the spider- pit sequence’. It comes after Kong shakes off the sailors into the chasm and just before Driscoll’s attack by the Komodo dragon, where the crew-men are besieged by a crab-like monster, an octopus, a two-legged lizard and a huge scuttling spider. O’Brien agreed it slowed the plot down despite feeling it was some of his best work. He burned the footage, something he commonly did to prevent unauthorised use by others, and yet many years later Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine printed a tantalising still frame showing the infamous arachnid. This obsessed superfan Peter Jackson to the point of enlisting his Weta team, Frank Darabont and Rick Baker to film a fans’ recreation of what the scene could have resembled using armature models, Weta staff as actors and Ruth Rose’s script, which handily was handily written like a shot-list blueprint. During filming they were surprised to find clues to an additional missing sequence where the sailors are pursued by a Styrachosaurus on the other side of the log, so they sourced O’Brien’s original armature as an aid and FX from the sequel Son of Kong as a reference. In post-production they even had access to twenty minutes of out-takes from Max Steiner’s score.
Peter Jackson and his friends’ finished labour of love is a fitting tribute to the powerful longevity of the awesome King Kong – truly the Eighth Wonder of the World.