Sunday, April 27, 2014

VAMPYR (1932) and 1932 RANKINGS

I am overposting today to overcompensate for taking a week or two off.  This wraps up our voyage into the horrors of 1932 and it's thankfully a glorious end.  Master director Carl Theodor Dreyer produced a film here that taps the most effective tropes of silent horror and provides them with the most successful farewell one could want.  Is VAMPYR the last great gasp of the silent style? 

Yes, it is.  From the beginning, we're awash in images that recall the best genre work of Murnau and the gang.  VAMPYR is alive with surrealism and expressionism, stuffed with distorted flesh and arcane monstrosities.  It's not really valid to say that oddities didn't hit the screen after 1932, but I'd argue that they were never treated this way again, at least substantially.  VAMPYR is hallucinogenic and dreamy, and you can easily see the stylistic difference in things like KING KONG and THE INVISIBLE MAN that followed.  More straightforward presentations, far fewer shadows and fog.

The IMDB synopsis really gives you the gist of the whole film: "A traveler obsessed with the supernatural visits an old inn and finds evidence of vampires."  This is not a very convoluted or busy plot.  VAMPYR takes its minimal concept and drenches it in atmosphere and style.

Dreyer's especially good at using light and shadow to surreal effect.  There's some interesting doubling happening here and it gets deliciously creepy when shadows stop following their casters.  Basic, but very effective when done right, as it is here.

I also thought the giant expressionist sets were fantastic and they're used so sparingly that it really jars you when you get a scene that has this sort of look.

While we're sloshing praise around, let's talk about actors.  We spend a lot of time with the occult-obsessed Allan Grey and the very Lovecraft-like Julian West plays the character very well.  

He certainly reacts to all these weird situations, but his performance is more anchored than some of the actors, making it mean more when we get feral baby vampires...

Or shocked, trancey vampire bystanders.

The narrative's not as A-B-C as something like DRACULA, so we don't get your basic linear progression of characters.  VAMPYR works more like a series of old folk tales, generally reusing the same basic ideas and themes, and, in a lot of ways, this works better as a film of images than a straight narrative.  Even so, we get a very interesting and slow debriefing of vampire info over the course of the film...

THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING, Twilight, all of it!  I sincerely loved the portrayal of vampires in VAMPYR.  They're not just weird mammals who have a list of weaknesses and powers.  The movie returns vampires to their shadowy origins.  The vamp phenomena here cannot be anticipated or explained.  It encompasses everything, up to and including a skeleton hand toting a bottle of poison.

I think that modern monsters, who tend to be a little too familiar and bound by books of rules, could learn a lot from VAMPYR.  The unknown and unexplained will forever be the best way to generate fear and monstrosity.  

Gee, I liked this a lot!  You'd have to be in the right mood to really feel it, because it is very deliberate and kind of spacey.  But I can't imagine too many films that would be a better fit for a slow Sunday of horror.  


1. Freaks
2. Vampyr
3. The Old Dark House
4. Island of Lost Souls
5. The Mummy
6. Kongo
7. Murders in the Rue Morgue
8. White Zombie
9. Murder at Dawn


Horror can manifest as a knife or a chainsaw, but for swinging teens of the early 1960s and their tumid libidos, horror took the form of a plague that showed up as bumps and sores after makeout sessions, with a theme song done by The Ventures.

America beat Germany and Japan, but V.D. would be its toughest challenge yet.  It would afflict the lives of typical teens like Jim Radman and Monk Monahan.  Both car-obsessed, each had additional hobbies that V.D. would test.  Jim excels at track and tries to decide between college or marriage with his squeeze, Judy.  Monk digs skirts and what they cover.  

The dementia and cheapness of DAMAGED GOODS doesn't really show itself until we meet Kathy, a raven-haired hussy who sets her eyes on Jim.  She shows up at a track meet dressed for prom and we get inexplicable cuts between stands full of cheering people and close-ups of two rows of elderly "teens".

Kathy, like very slutty water, finds cracks in the relationship of Jim and Judy and fills them with her presence.  She's basically queen of the maneaters and worms her way into Jim's heart, using and discarding the dull Monk along the way.

"Ah-ha!" you think. "This is where the V.D. comes in!"  But no and how dare you think that about Kathy, you son of a bitch.  DAMAGED GOODS makes you wait forever for the payoff.  Much of this is just plain ol' teenage relationship drama.  But that's not to say that there aren't interesting things happening.  Purely by happenstance, the movie captures the tension of the 50s bleeding over into the 60s.  Its mix of Coke bottles at the rec center with gin bottles at the strip club shows sex bursting out of hiding.  Kathy's bohemian outfit and garish makeup are the shock of the new.  DAMAGED GOODS is a snapshot of evolution in action.  FU, Ken Ham.

But we all paid to see V.D. and we finally get there.  The kids journey to the seediest of strip clubs.  The movie's low budget really works in its favor here, since this dark and ugly dump looks exactly like the kind of place that idiot boys would visit.

In some really inspired scenes, we get superimpositions of boy reactions over various grinding parts of the female anatomy.  DG kinda goes superimposition-crazy here, with the lads floating over skirts and blouses, but also gushing beer taps.  I think there might be a metaphor here, I dunno.

These scenes just basically want to indict everything.  Sex, drinks, and close-ups of cash register operations.  Capitalism and its insidious friends.  All things that can annihilate promising young lives.  

Even so-called art is not spared from the movie's critical eye.  The boys hook up with hookers, which isn't shown in explicit detail, although the next scene does let us know what happened.

Yes yes yes yes yes!  Perhaps the greatest metaphor in the history of metaphors.  

Jim blows a race because of a pimple on his penis, so he consults his coach and a doctor.  Then we get the blow-off scenes, a film-within-a-film about SYPHILIS AND GONORRHEA.

I love how this could be read as syphilis and gonorrhea being products of the US Public Health Service.  They didn't really perfect their disease production craft until AIDS came along.  The film has a typical sex-hygiene narrator, shot in extreme close-up in front of wood paneling.  

The goods are delivered in the form of squicky scenes of sore-ridden unfortunates.  A young Robert Redford, everybody!

We also get detailed animation (yay! cartoon time!).  Overall, the V.D. scenes of the film only occupy maybe 10% of its running time.  

"We're not here to pass moral judgment, we're here to stamp out V.D.!"  I suspect that this is probably an upper-echelon example of the sex-scare genre.  That's not really saying much, since DAMAGED GOODS isn't spectacular or anything.  It's moderately diverting and entertaining if you're in a goofy mood, but it fails to provide consistent fun.  Remarkably, lots of the actors had lengthy careers after this with Dolores (Kathy) Faith going on to perennial MST3K favorite THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS.


Monday, April 7, 2014


Before we see anything else in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, we see this:

And why not?  Karloff was a big draw at this point and you can't fault a film for exploiting its most exploitable elements.  But that card does mislead a little in that it makes you expect a movie that orbits around KARLOFF THE MAD BUTLER~.  What we really get is a solid ensemble piece in which Karloff is fun, but not any more important than CHARLES LAUGHTON THE PORTLY BRITISH CAPITALIST~ or other members of the cast.  Karloff is pretty dreamy here, excelling at another speechless role, but he's working as part of a unit here.

Three people break down in muddy puddles after a rock slide.  They trudge on over to the nearest house, which houses shriekingly religious Rebecca Femm and her cadaverous and potato-loving brother Horace.  More folks arrive, romance is kindled, and the old dark house reveals its secrets, including murder, arson, and withered old bedridden men.  I feel like I should discuss why I think OLD DARK HOUSE qualifies for inclusion on this blog, but the movie that almost took its spot, DOCTOR X, does not.

So this is not strictly an unadulterated horror film.  There's romance, as stated, and comedy of the Addams Family type.  But OLD DARK HOUSE meets my standards, since at least a plurality of it is devoted to frightening the audience or delving into the macabre.  I watched DOCTOR X and it had some horror, but the horror was there mostly to steer the movie into moar wacky dialogue and such.  OLD DARK HOUSE is clearly constructing suspense for its own sake, not as a springboard for lesser things.  And even the comedy here has a ghoulish tint, like Eva Moore going on a tirade about flesh rotting while poor Gloria Stuart is just trying to change out of her wet clothes.  It's not positively goofy like lots of misguided comedy-horror; if anything, all the humor here has a very dark tinge and some of it isn't immediately recognizable as joke content at all.

James Whale basically did the same thing with FRANKENSTEIN, which isn't regarded as a laugh-a-minute rib-tickler, but has plenty of gallows humor if watched with the right eye.  That same style gets pressed to the fore in OLD DARK HOUSE, but without being counterbalanced by sad old drowning-kid scenes.  There are undoubtedly better experts out there than me, but I view the "old dark house" style as, essentially, fun horror (not wacky/goofy horror).  The situations and revelations are ridiculous, the characters are unbelievable, and everything proceeds like a light stage play about murder and madness.

This movie is helped by wise direction and an incredible cast.  There's not a weak performance here, but give special consideration to Elspeth Dudgeon and her TCM's Grandpa-style turn as the Femm family's patriarch.  Yes, that is a woman down there, you were bound to see such things on the Internet eventually.  Also noteworthy are Brember Wills as Saul, who is so crazy that he only escapes the attic during the film's final wind-down, and Melvyn Douglas as Penderel, the dashing male lead.

I still think FREAKS is the best horror flick of 1932 (so far), but THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly adds to the argument that '32 was a great year for the genre.  It has admirable goals and accomplishes them in an entertaining way.  Good times all around.