Wednesday, May 29, 2013

THE WIND (1928)

So Baltimore was fun, if also sketchy, but now it's time to resume our jaunt through the haunted 1920s.  If this were any other week, I might begin by mocking the idea of a film about the horrors of wind, but tornadoes of Oklahoma spoil the party, plus THE WIND is actually pretty deft about its presentation of a slyly monstrous nature.


That's talking about the wind, not construction workers or the dickbags at my work who whistle and sing all day long when they are not screeching like blanched cats.  A young woman named Letty travels from Virginia to stay with her (boy) cousin Beverly and meets the improbably-named Wirt Roddy along the way.  He warns her about the wind, then turns her over to Beverly's neighbor, Lige Hightower, who is also accompanied by his comic-relief sidekick, Sourdough.  A movie would have to be mighty fine to succeed in spite of these names!


Thankfully, this is.  Lillian Gish, who has a rep ranging from "best ever" to "atrocious overactress", effects an impressive performance as Letty.  She arrives at Cousin Beverly's and immediately hands out affection like Halloween candy, even to new sisters-in law.

HOORAY FOR AMERICA
Sis-in-law isn't so pleased about Letty being all fondly with Cousin Beverly, though, and insists that she finds other housing.  Because this is a 1920s movie, we get a very brief love triangle, with neighbor Lige vying against Sourdough for Letty's hand.  


This is what happens:

SOURDOUGH: What's up, girl?
LETTY: Not u, lol!

So it's Lige and Letty forever.  Except not when touching is involved, because Letty completely wigs out whenever life gets romantical and family members aren't involved.  This sounds like a horror movie, don't it?  Don't worry, she also wigs out about the wind, which manifests as a dance-wrecking cyclone as well as constant dirt-carrying drafts.  It's also implicitly supernatural, causing Letty to hallucinate and driving herds of wild horses down from the mountains.  THE WIND is pretty cagey about its plot—it's difficult to tell if there really is a ghost wind with spirit horses superimposed on top, or if Letty's having a Hitchcock-style breakdown, or if the wind is simply an allegory for non-incestuous penetration.  Or all of the above.


Oh, and Wirt also shows up again and we get a more compelling love triangle than the one that had Sourdough as a hypotenuse.  Wirt eventually gives Letty good reason for being so skittish about sexuality.  Because Wirt's a dick.


This is your Gene Siskel moment: this is a cool WIND.  It's not a life-altering experience and it's not rife with groundbreaking visuals like your German expressionist favorites.  But WIND has a cool story and fantastic acting, especially from Gish, who shows such breadth in her performance here that I could probably side with the "best ever" sayers and fight the "terrible actress" people in the street.  


It's not a horror film in the conventional ooga-booga sense, but THE WIND's blend of psychological suspense with supernatural elements, a Western setting, and meteorology make it an easy recommendation for you, reader of blogs.  Here come the rankings!


TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste All'Inferno (1925)
5.  The Wind (1928)
6.  A Page of Madness (1926)
7.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
8.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
9.  Wolf Blood (1925)

Monday, May 20, 2013

A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Our time travel through the pre-Axis powers continues with new wonders (just wait until we get to Bulgaria!).  There aren't a whole lot of Japanese films from the silent era extant—most of them didn't survive World War II—so it's tough to say to what degree A PAGE OF MADNESS is representative or not.  What's here is totally baka, though, a whole library of madness, so I did some research to try to complement my viewing.  Apparently, films in Japan were often accompanied by an in-person narrator, called a benshi, who explicated the images and action onscreen.  I can see that being an advantage for A PAGE, which is a truly silent film in that it lacks any kind of title cards, intertitles, or text that explains who people are or what is going on.  Keep that last long clause in mind as I attempt to outline the plot.


A Japanese man works as a janitor at a integrated men's/ladies' asylum, in which his wife is interred.  He attempts to free her, but she falls deeper into madness.  Then we kind of find out how she got so crazy and committed.  Keep in mind that the version of PAGE that we have is only 2/3 complete, though, and what's in that 2/3 isn't really that concerned with making sure everyone understands the story.  It's more dedicated to demonstrating the world through the vantage point of the gibberingly mentally ill.  


Watching this, it's tough not to be startled by how stylized this 1926 movie is.  The swooping, zooming camerawork isn't too removed from Argento and Scorsese, and PAGE packs layers upon layers of shots into these incredibly dense superimpositions.  Mix in the frenetic editing, especially in the early goings of the picture, and this seems surprisingly accessible and very modern in some ways.


And still 1920s strange in many others.  


The same hyperstylized elements that make PAGE more familiar than staid two-shot relics like WOLF BLOOD simultaneously push the viewer away, though.  The "narrative" here is presented in such a dizzying, alien way that some have found it easier to view the film as a tone poem of pure images rather than try to parse some kind of story out of it.  Like GENUINE, if you come here with your hand out for plot, you're going to have a bad time.


It's fascinating as a visual exercise, but also works pretty well on a symbolic level.  Certain elements and images are repeated, and I was especially jolted by the linkage of dance with insanity, given that the same motif reappears in later Jap genre cinema, like HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN. 


It ain't exactly fair to rate this, given its truncated form, but I would absolutely recommend that you seek this out if you're interested in most of the films that appear on this blog.  It's so relentlessly odd and creative!  I'm happy that most early cinemas appears to have been shaped by mutant weirdos, and fear that I'm going to be really sad to reach the 1930s, when commercial concerns sent all the madness back behind locked doors.


I'm going to be away in Maryland over the weekend, hence the sudden extra blog post.  You're welcome!

RATING: 7/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste All'Inferno (1925)
5.  A Page of Madness (1926)
6.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
7.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
8.  Wolf Blood (1925)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)


Despite CALIGARI's reputation as an obelisk of weirdness, I think the DVD commentary track is correct: this film works because it's a blend of jarring oddity and commercial, consumer-minded techniques.  Watching this after the audience-despising GENUINE makes the case even clearer.  CALIGARI definitely takes more risks than ZOOKEEPER, but it's got a narrative that human beings who are not tripping on acid can easily follow.  It's also one of the first and best horror films ever.


The tale is told by one man to another, this frame being rly important as the film winds down.  Francis, the storyteller, recalls the arrival in his town of Dr. Caligari, who exhibits a somnambulist named Cesare at the town's fair.  Be thankful that you live in a world of myriad entertainments and don't have to get excited about watching a guy sleep!  Caligari rouses Cesare from his years-long, death-like slumber and allows fairgoers to question him.  Francis's dull-witted friend Alan asks how long he will live and gets the answer he deserves.  And now we have a series of murders, right here in sleepy and angular Holstenwall!


This isn't even close to the entire plot, but CALIGARI offers one of the earliest examples of a feature film with exceptionally intriguing plotting.  Twists galore adorn this movie's latter half and cursed be the blog that spoils them.  Even discarding the plot, CALIGARI would be worth seeing.  As you'd expect given the ground we've already covered, this thing is well-steeped in German expressionism.  Sets gape and threaten to consume actors slathered with black eyeliner.  Spaces between rooms echo mirrors and prisms.  It's all very easy on the eyes.


The acting here is uniformly excellent, too.  Werner Krauss as malefic Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt as  Cesare, the exquisitely-named Lil Dagover as imperiled love interest Jane...everyone fulfills their role perfectly without going into Halle Berry-as-Storm overacting mode.  Credit master director Robert Wiene for assembling all of these far-flung strengths into an incredible whole.  And for making history's greatest title cards.


I am better at tearing things apart than lavishing praise, probably, but some of themes that CALIGARI explores are worth noting.  There's obviously some play with the concept of sleep and dreams vs. wakefulness, and the way that generally plays into the nature of reality...is part of the plot that I cannot reveal.


There's also a ton of focus on eyes and seeing, which is apt considering how skewered the film appears to the first-time viewer.  Obviously, the jagged sets force you to recalibrate your normal movie-watching approach, but so many scenes end with people staring at each other or at nothing.  Perception and dreams and all such as that.  It's what horror is made of!


I feel like I'm not selling this film enough, but you can check Rotten Tomatoes, where it scores a whopping 100% on the Tomatometer, if you need further encouragement.  I really feel that Robert Wiene, and Dr. Caligari himself, would be most proud of their Tomatometer accomplishments.  

RATING: 9/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste All'Inferno (1925)
5.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
6.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
7.  Wolf Blood (1925)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

GENUINE: A TALE OF A VAMPIRE (1920)

Ginuwine rose to fame in the R&B world in the late nineties with hits like "What's So Different?" and "Differences"  He was originally slated to appear in the classic dance film YOU GOT SERVED, but got replaced prior to filming.  He is now a spokesman for the beverage Adult Chocolate Milk, a version of chocolate milk for mommys and daddys that includes 40-proof vodka.  What does this have to do with GENUINE: A TALE OF A VAMPIRE?


Nothing!  Narratively, it makes no sense for me to talk about Ginuwine in a review of GENUINE.  It is the Chewbacca defense in another form and, unless you are loathesome and count puns as solid connections, there is no reason for this to happen.  Which fits most well with GENUINE, as it is a film in which things happen with no apparent connection.  Deeply drenched in German expressionism and sporting a fashionista's fascination with sets and wardrobe, I am certain that it would be a challenging narrative even if I had the ├╝ber-rare full copy.  But I have a 45-minute "condensed" version and a headache from watching the most baffling movie of the week, a week that also included SHOWGIRLS 2.

YEAH, ME TOO

This is going to be the toughest synopsis ever, but I will try.  A painter named Percy has a painting of Genuine, pagan priestess and slutty dresser.  As he falls asleep, Genuine escapes the painting and ends up captured by a slave trader, who sells her to Percy's grandfather.  Said grandfather keeps her locked in a basement, until she escapes by climbing a series of things (I want to say "tree", but who knows?) while dressed like a lost member of Vixen.


At some point, she also meets and mesmerizes Florian, nephew of a barber, who kills Grandfather for her.  Percy also shows up and falls in love with her and we get a brief love triangle of sorts, just before a mob shows up with pitchforks and sharp stabby things.  PS this film also features a magical Negro-controlling ring.


Released the same year and made by the same team who made THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, GENUINE takes that film's dreamy weirdness and pluses it like five times.  It's extremely visual and could in fairness take the criticism Argento films get, namely that there's a lot more style than substance here.  It's undeniably interesting and reminded me that I need to find an expressionist interior decorator to fix up my apartment, but people looking for a coherent story here are going to be gypped.


That's a skeleton with a clock for a head, your argument is invalid.  I'm not even sure in what sense this film means "vampire".  Genuine doesn't suck blood or anything, although she appears to have some True Blood glamour power.  Maybe she's a psychic vampire?  I ditched the psychic vampire lecture at that one ScareFest so I could go to the library, so my analysis of this might be iffy.  If she's a vampire, she's definitely the traditional variety, the kind who gets really into fashion accessories like cloaks and ridiculous hats.


Is this worth seeing?  Yes, absolutely.  It's short, it's strange, and it features slave boobs of the 1920s.  


It's just not what I'd call a great or especially good horror film.  Flashes of brilliance, but a little too scatterbrained in its current form.  

RATING: 6/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  Phantom of the Opera (1925)
2.  The Unknown (1927)
3.  Maciste All'Inferno/Maciste in Hell (1925)
4.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
5.  Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire (1920)
6.  Wolf Blood (1925)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

SHOWGIRLS 2: PENNY'S FROM HEAVEN (2011)

It's Mother's Day here in the champion of countries, America, so it seems inappropriate to dwell on silent horror from the 1920s.  Something more femininely mystiqual is needed, something that encapsulates and celebrates the accomplishments of women throughout our great society.


If you are reading this, I know that you didn't write off the original SHOWGIRLS, but most people who aren't us did.  Moms and other ladies stayed away, judging this book by its cover, as they love to do.  Those who attended generally had the same reaction, as they bought a ticket for an erotic epic and got a movie whose glamorous heroine vomits in a parking lot ten minutes after the movie starts.  SHOWGIRLS was exceedingly carny in that it promised glitz and ritz and delivered all that, but mostly in a loud, screeching, satirical way that only weirdos and drag queens seemed to get.


You'd expect a sequel to SHOWGIRLS to maybe be a less cagey, more straightforward Cinemaxical experience, probably just bland erotica.  But SHOWGIRLS 2 ups the ante on the first film's surrealist tendencies.  Watching it is as close as you're going to get to having a mental breakdown or doing powerful hallucinogens without actually doing such.  Even the premise is insane.  Minor characters Jimmy and Penny move to starring roles in this; no Elizabeth Berkley, no Gina Gershon, no Kyle MacLaghlan.  The Jimmy/Penny baby which was a throwaway subplot in the first movie gets sent to live on an aunt's farm or something, then Penny follows her dream of dancing on a public-access dance show.

Some of this is a little more obviously intended to be comedic than SHOWGIRLS, which was kind of sly, at least in the beginning.  It probably had to be, because SHOWGIRLS 2 looks to have been made on 2% of the budget of SHOWGIRLS.  It's shot in corridors and outside dark barns, on cameras that definitely did not cost tens of thousands of dollars.  The frugal look is going to keep the haters further at bay, since they only like films that look like glittering Versace pieces like THE GREAT GATSBY 3D, but I think it meshes well with the theme of fame and fortune and the  struggle of the dumb to get there.


So what is this SHOWGIRLS 2 about?  A: a lot of things, a whole lot.  Penny befriends-beenemys near-cougar Katia, who is taking the "star dancer" spot on the Star Dancer Show.  Along the way, Penny ends up getting duped into prostitution, gets attacked by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and learns about Norse sacrifice rituals, snuff films, and Madame Blavatsky.  Assured by Jimmy that she needs professional dance training (Alvin Ally, Juilliard), she gets Katia to teach her ballet in her kitchen.


I am not even making any of this up.  There's also a maid who wears lingerie while cleaning and goes to school to become a detective.  Despite the gadding about of the plot, this all feels very Showgirls-y, mostly because Rena Riffel has such a handle on Penny as a character.  Plus everybody drinks champagne all the time and wears multiple pounds of makeup, EVEN THE HOMELESS.


Riffel wrote/directed this herself and got funding to do it through Kickstarter, so that we the audience could reap the benefits of living in the future.  Rena's definitely the MVP here and that's probably true in life as well.  No woman who can incorporate such a wildly diverging set of topics into a SHOWGIRLS sequel could be called anything less than a goddess.  People are going to overlook the camera choices and blocking here because this all looks cheap as hell, but Riffel did a fine job at ensuring things look interesting.  Her acting is supreme for the type of film this is, too.  I almost fell down in the shower this morning because I was still laughing about...

JIMMY: You're not dumb, you just play dumb.
PENNY: Like a possum?
JIMMY: No...a possum plays dead.  Not dumb.


If this movie has a flaw, it's one that it shares with SHOWGIRLS...at well over two hours, there's just a little too much of it.  Movies like this need to hit and run, and SHOWGIRLS 2 starts to sputter, even with the plot's tortured twisting.  Still, Rena Riffel deserves Mom of the Year credits for giving birth to this unique experience and you deserve to see it.  Go get what you deserve, in rental or digital download form, at Amazon.

"It's better to be a starfucker than a not-a-starfucker, right?"

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

MACISTE ALL'INFERNO/MACISTE IN HELL (1925)

A great example of the sort of stuff I'm hoping to discover with this project, MACISTE ALL'INFERNO is an adaptation of The Divine Comedy in the same way that SNAKES ON A PLANE is an adaptation of the Book of Genesis.  For those of you who haven't read it, The Divine Comedy does not include these things:

  • A muscle-bound hero who solves all of his problems by punching them to death.
  • Demons who invade the Earth disguised in wax mustaches and magician costumes.
  • She-demons who jiggle around in skimpy bikinis and what appear to have been iron pasties with pentagrams on them.

There were apparently numerous Maciste shorts prior to this 1925 feature and the character would also be resurrected for a run during Italy's peplum craze of the 60s, but I think ALL'INFERNO is the only real entry with enough horror content to qualify for competition on this blog.  Maciste is basically the Italian Hercules, a hulk who is renowned for his strength and not so much for his keen wit.  A legion of demons invade Earth, disguised ridiculously as described above.  One of them shows up at Maciste's house while he's having breakfast and they immediately re-enact the temptation scene from the Gospels, only with ballerinas and flyovers of skyscrapers.  Maciste eventually realizes that the demon is a demon and begins to punch him, but the demon disappears.  Maciste then IMMEDIATELY goes back to drinking coffee nonchalantly, like this happens every day.  Maciste is the hero we need!


The demon, Barbariccia, kidnaps a baby in an attempt to get the mom to renounce God.  It works, but Maciste rescues the infant, then gets sucked into hell.  These scenes are pretty incredible.


The makeup is clearly superb and even presages an Italian film that would arrive sixty years later, Lamberto Bava's DEMONS.  The set design in Hell is fantastic, the costuming, everything looks resplendent.  I hope I've racked up enough sins to go there one day!  I like that this is a traditional, King James rendition of Hell and also that it follows the King James tradition of completely making things up as it goes along.  In this case, we get title cards like, "According to the latest rules of Hell [ed. note: lolololol], no living man could remain there for more than three days unless kissed by a female Demon."  


As intense as some of the torture scenes get (those whippings!), there's plenty of lighter outrageousness in Maciste's journey into Sheol, so you're never very far away from hilarity.  I literally died about "Even in Hell, women are fickle!" and "Oh, here we know everything!  Would you like to see her by television?"  The characters are generally pretty great, with Maciste just being dumb and strong all the time and the cutest she-demon being a good-hearted and self-sacrificing kind of gal.  


And this dragon!  What can you say?  "Hell's aeroplane", indeed.


After writing this whole thing, I'm really loving the DEMONS connection I made above.  Like DEMONS, MACISTE isn't really a film that's going to rank as high art of the Shakespeare stripe, but it is a very fun and well-executed romp through the brimstone netherworld.  The version that I saw was just over an hour, but there's allegedly a cut that runs more than ninety minutes.  I'm not exactly sure what was excised, but I could see how additional Hell scenes might actually weaken the film—what's here does get a little draggy and repetitious, as if the director clearly wanted to show off the stylin' makeup and sets.  Understandable and forgivable in light of the overall product, which is certainly see-it-now material.

RATING: 7/10

TOP 10 OF THE 1920S:
1.  Phantom of the Opera (1925)
2.  The Unknown (1927)
3.  Maciste All'Inferno/Maciste in Hell (1925)
4.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
5.  Wolf Blood (1925)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)


Sorry, we're going to have to do some prefacing.  PHANTOM was filmed and released as a silent in 1925, but in 1929, Universal added a soundtrack to it, but was unable to get Lon Chaney to record any dialogue.  So they made do with no direct Phantom dialogue, but with some other actor speaking whenever his shadow was on screen.  Apparently, there were other cosmetic (and casting!) changes, which you can research in detail at IMDB.  I'm not entirely sure which version I watched, but it had no dialogue (1925?), although it had tons and tons of orchestral and opera recordings (1929?).  IDK, I'm just a guy with a blog, scholars can sort out these controversies.  Let's go.


Phantom, for a "classic monster", is less familiar than Dracula or Frankenstein('s monster) and I presume that the LeRoux novel still gets less attention than the Stoker or Shelley books.  If most people know about him, it's based on the Broadway adaptation in which he is a hunk with rosacea or something instead of a real monster.  So the abbreviated story: opera understudy Christina finds her career helped along with the legendary phantom of the opera, who speaks to her through her dressing room mirror and walls, promising her a storied career if she'll accept his favors.  Despite being in a relationship with the moustached Raoul, she eagerly agrees.  The masked Phantom keeps his end of the bargain, screwing with the opera lighting and unscrewing a giant chandelier until Christina gets to sing the lead in Faust, then brings her to his home five damp cellars beneath the opera house.  But oh no!


He's not cute, so it's just not working out!  Christina's probably the least likable heroine until Bella Swan.  She's all about the phantom helping her career, even though he's clearly committing acts of terrorism and sabotage and getting her to ditch her boyfriend.  But then he has some facial issues and she's all like, "EWWW NOOO!!!"  Maybe a better actress could make this character more appealing, but this PHANTOM is pretty much the Lon Chaney Show.  The rest of the cast is okay, certainly better than the more torturous performers in WOLF BLOOD, but they get outperformed by Chaney's movements and expressions.  And the sets.


PHANTOM seems pretty connected to the expressionist cinema that Germany was pumping out in the early part of the 1900s.  The actors are frequently swallowed by these huge, ornate sets and split screen time with weird props.  


Even the pre-reveal Phantom mask has an oddly blank, expressionist look, maybe presaging the mask horrors of the 80s in ways that the romantic eyemask Phantoms do not.


The music is also a highlight here, alternately stormy and saccharine all the way through, but always very memorable.  This is an accident of circumstance, but I loved the way that the opera vocals did not match up at all to the actress's lip movements.  It gave PHANTOM an even more dense sense of surreal distance.  But, as I said, this film is all about Lon Chaney.


The Phantom is one of the most human and sympathetic monsters ever, and it's mostly due to Chaney being able to emote through layers of makeup.  I don't know if you could get a performance like this today, as few actors would be able to mix the kind of "big" acting that theatrical and silent work mandated with really subtle shifts in look.  It all comes together here.  It helps that the Phantom is really a tragic figure, someone who clearly loves beauty (he stocks his grotto with statuary and violins), but who is divorced from the world of beauty by his looks.  For a monster, he sure cries a lot.


And Chaney brings the drama in those scenes, but he's equally great when the Phantom is being really pissy.


As you can tell, there is a lot of unmasked Phantom in this, which surprised me.  I figured an early horror film would keep the monster mostly in the shadows, but no sir.  I was also taken aback by the COLOR SCENES in this 1925 film!


Holy wow, man!  There were apparently many more color scenes shot, but stuff happens.  What's here, the masked ball scenes, looks great!  

PHANTOM, to be honest, felt like a mixed bag to me.  One incredible performance made the others seem even more average and acceptable, and, though there were tons of inventive visuals and  cool scenes, there were also moments that dragged on forever.  I enjoyed this, a lot, but I would be hesitant to pin it at the very top of the horror classic list.  Still, it's mandatory viewing for the countless strengths that it can claim.

RATING: 8/10

TOP 10 OF THE 1920s:
1.  Phantom of the Opera (1925)
2.  The Unknown (1927)
3.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
4.  Wolf Blood (1925)