Friday, April 26, 2013

The Horror of Dracula

The Horror of Dracula aka Dracula (UK title) (1958)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster (from the novel by Bram Stoker)
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling

From the director of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT comes this early Hammer production, the first to feature the now-classic pairing of Lee and Cushing as arch-nemeses Dracula and Van Helsing and only the second of Hammer’s series reinventing the classic Universal Monsters (after Fisher’s own THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN one year earlier). That’s a lot of baggage for one 1958 horror film, and one would be forgiven for imagining that this would be at best a middling oddity, a prototype which showed promise but still suffered unmistakable signs that the creators were still defining their formula.

You’d be forgiven for imagining such a thing, but you’d be wrong. Turns out that they got it right the first time: Fisher delivers a fully-formed vision with a startling ferocity and focus, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of the delightful mechanics that would eventually define the Hammer brand. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise after watching his highly entertaining DEVIL RIDES OUT, but for a 1950s horror film HORROR OF DRACULA is surprisingly packed with action, perverse sexuality, and imagination, even as it hews more faithfully to the original Stoker novel than most versions of the tale.

Man, this Castle is all stairs and no lights. How'd they ever get this place insured?

I love that unmistakable Hammer feel, but I have to admit that a lot of their films feel languid and uneventful, padding their running time with boring exposition in posh sitting rooms and interminable footage of people driving places. Sometimes the atmosphere is strong enough to justify the measured pace, but a lot of the time --let’s face it-- it’s not, and you’re left with a ridiculously low ratio of horror to scenes of a bunch of iffy English actors sitting in front of bookshelves and remarking that they don’t believe in this or that. I had assumed this tone was set early on, since 50’s horror tended towards slack pontificating (see, for instance, the enjoyable but mostly uneventful CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON only a few years earlier). But I guess not, because HORROR OF DRACULA packs a lot into it’s slim 82 minute runtime, teasing the essence of Stoker’s novel out of its taut screenplay while adding little elements of its own character.

Finally, a practical application for his years of experience cultivating tomatoes.

The most important of these, obviously, is Christopher Lee as Drac himself. In later films, Lee would often find his Dracula sidelined, revived by some hippie cult only to swish around in a cape for a few scenes at the end. He looks great in the cape, of course, but isn’t always given much to play. Here, though, he’s mesmerizing; his performance (while short on dialogue) combines Lugosi’s seductive coldness with a unique animal intensity. Lee plays the Count not as a wanly magnetic hypnotist, but as a calculating predator who moves slowly only because he is patiently waiting to pounce. There’s an athleticism and a sense of barely-concealed raw power to his performance. His sexuality is not one of desire, but of overwhelming force. As such, it makes sense to cast skinny little Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing. Cushing looks ludicrously overmatched by 6’ 5’’ Lee, but he has an inherently resolute British seriousness to him, giving him just enough fight to stand up to an ancient evil or two (check out the finale, where he --and not a stunt double, I don’t think-- leaps off a table like a monkey and swings down on a gigantic curtain). Though it was obviously a stroke of genius for George Lucas to cast him as a villain, Hammer always saw Cushing as a good guy, and here he aptly demonstrates just what a stalwart Brit can do with a little moxie, a bible, and a well-sharpened stake. Still, Lee is commanding enough that for once Dracula seems like a genuinely overpowering being, and Cushing’s plight seems convincingly desperate.

Fun fact: Christopher Lee put out two "Symphonic Metal Concept Albums" about Charlemagne. I'm not even a little joking and I urge you to click on the link if you don't believe me. 

Interestingly, even though this film seems amazingly subversive for 1958 (PSYCHO, remember, was still two years away) it was originally intended to be even more button-pushing. The recent discovery of a badly-damaged longer Japanese cut features a more explicit seduction scene and a bloodier final death for the Count (including Dracula peeling away his burning flesh in a groundbreaking makeup technique which, alas, no one but the Japanese saw until the 2012 blu-ray release of the film). I take both these elements are more evidence of director Fisher’s surprisingly unheralded desire and ability to make crowdpleasing, overstuffed horror on a Hammer budget. DEVIL RIDES OUT obviously attests to that, but HORROR OF DRACULA impressively finds time for atmosphere too, particularly in its highly effective crypt scene, which gets plenty of mileage for the classic Hammer foggy British gardens setting without skimping on the fangs. With a few books dedicated to his work published in recent years, it seems like Fisher may finally be getting his due, both for creating (essentially from nothing) the essence of the Hammer Horror identity and for crafting genuinely entertaining horror films in their own right. THE HORROR OF DRACULA is a testament both to that legacy and to the enduring appeal of Stoker’s tale.




(see also: Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

West of Memphis

West of Memphis (2013)
Dir. Amy Berg
Written by Amy Berg, Steve McMillin
Starring Lawyers, well-meaning middle-aged lefty activists, Eddie Vedder, rednecks.

OK, so you watched the PARADISE LOST trilogy following the tragic murder of three young children and the pathetic failure of justice afterwords as three Arkansas high school outcasts were railroaded by an uncaring cadre of simpering rednecks into life imprisonment for the crime, despite the fact that they obviously, you know, didn’t do it. Soundtrack by Metallica. And you also watched DELIVER US FROM EVIL, about the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. And you were right depressed (even though that one didn’t have a soundtrack by Metallica) and thought, you know what I need, a movie about the whole West Memphis Three experience, but with that added soul-crushing artistry so evident in DELIVER US FROM EVIL, and also with Eddie Vedder instead of Metallica, because it’s god damn 2013 and Metallic is passe.

Well, happy National Depression day to you, you got it. This is a Peter Jackson-produced, slickly-constructed one-and-done documentary which covers the whole episode from beginning to the end, sort of as a companion piece to the PARADISE LOST movies. What’s that you say? Why is that necessary when we already have three movies which cover roughly the same time period and have that great story-unfolds-in-real-time Maysles brothers style rawness to them? Well, I asked that same question, but then went to see it anyway. And it turns out that it was necessary, because while the PARADISE LOST films are a terrific example of activist journalism, WEST OF MEMPHIS is the definitive account of the story as a whole. Looking back from the conclusion, Berg is able to construct the whole narrative from the beginning, laying the groundwork and expertly guiding us through the way various events impact each other and culminate in the strange, winding tale of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin navigating through a obtuse bureaucratic nightmare of tangled justice and morbid celebrity.

It all started back in 1993, when the three then-highschoolers were railroaded through the justice system on the sensational charge of a triple homicide for the purposes of carrying out Satanic ritual. Today the charges seem ludicrous, but in 1993, in the waning hours of the great Satanic Panic, they seemed so plausible that apparently they passed almost uncommented on by anyone, as Berg demonstrates in a wickedly convincing opening which lays out the case against the boys. Multiple witness attest to their satanism and their private confession to the crime. Serious, credentialed experts on Satanic ritual testifying about the plausibility of the crime. Jessie Misskelly’s detailed confession to the police. A knife found in the lake behind their house. Their disturbing, cheerful demeanor in the face of a horrific accusation. The sequence ends with Echols (the reputed ringleader) flashing a sinister smile at a reporter after his conviction, an image which made the national news and sealed the case against them. It all seems pretty overwhelming, until you step back from the sensational news coverage and realize it’s a fundamentally outrageous case from the ground up. There was never a swath of Satanic violence which swept the nation -- just a wave of fear and a self-confirming media cycle which whipped hysteria higher and higher. The very accusation being leveled against the three self-described “poor white trash” high schoolers was absurd on it’s face. But no one seemed to be paying any attention to that -- at least until award-winning documentarians and Maysles Bros. disciples Joe Berlinger (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT 2 [really!]) and Bruce Sinofsky (BROTHER’S KEEPER, SOME KIND OF MONSTER) turned their cameras on the drama for a HBO documentary.

Note to self: Never go to Arkansas.

Here’s where things get weird, because suddenly the PARADISE LOST movies transforms the case of these three high school outcasts from a pathetic small-town miscarriage of justice to an international cause du jour. Out of the blue, a stranger from New Zealand calls the incarcerated kids, promising to help them with their case and appeal. They cut to this kindly benefactor. It’s Peter Jackson.

At first, it’s slightly disappointing to see Jackson and Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins and so forth show up. Documentaries love to rope unrelated celebrities into appearing in these things so they can get their picture in the trailer. Hell, Slash seems to have built an entire cottage industry around appearing at the beginning of docs about other musicians. “The story of the three kids pushed into prison by a bunch of superstitious slimeballs who wanted the case resolved quickly so they could get a career boost is interesting enough by itself,” you think, “Stop wasting our time by telling us what Johnny Depp thinks.”

But then you gradually realize that no, that’s not what they’re up to; this story just is strange enough that Peter Jackson is legitimately a part of it. Before long, Jackson (along with his longtime partner Fran Walsh, who curiously never appears on film) is not just sending money, but is pouring through long legal documents looking for inconsistencies, making arrangements with DNA testing facilities, advising their lawyers on legal strategy. Henry Rollins is in West Memphis, interviewing witnesses. Eddie Vedder is visiting Damian in prison and co-writing songs with him. This lends a bizarre surreal air to the whole thing, where the legal system grinds on in its predictably agonizing glacial way, and the whole thing devolves into a never ending cycle of lawyers meeting in sparse, florescent-lit government offices. But then, there’s Eddie Vedder, sitting there at a table with his own legal pad and briefcase!

Det. Henry Rollins in: The Case of the Missing Justice.

The PARADISE LOST movies have the advantage of being a minute-by-minute dog’s-eye view of the whole saga with Berlinger and Sinofsky’s trademark hard-nosed journalistic style. Berg --entering the story only at the very end-- doesn’t have that angle, but instead finds a different kind of meaning in her god’s-eye hindsight storytelling. While Berlinger and Sinofsky were blindly feeling for clues in the murk, Berg already has all the information at her disposal and consequently draws elegant narrative lines from the chaos of the moment, eloquently demonstrating how the tangled mess of legal wreckage came to its final shape. She lays out the story of the ambitious small-town prosecutor who managed to make a sensational case just in time to run for higher office. The grieving parents who (understandably) trusted the police and the seemingly ironclad evidence against the three kids, but who gradually came to have their doubts. The horrifying physical and psychological damage to the three caused by the more than 18-year incarceration (Echols, in particular, deteriorated considerably towards the end). And perhaps most interestingly, the suspicious behavior of one Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys and one would think a prime suspect in their murder. Apparently the police barely interviewed him, but a significant amount of evidence piled up against him as increased funds enabled the defense to conduct more thorough forensic investigations.

Hobbs’ case is particularly interesting because it allows the defense to plausibly offer an alternative scenario, rather than just the devastating critique of the case brought against them which originally rallied people to their cause. One of Hobbs’ hairs was found in the middle of a ligature knot used to tie the murdered boys. His alibi, which at first seemed convincing, becomes highly suspect when the person he was with confesses that he can’t account for his whereabouts while the murders were taking place. Pictures from the day show that he changed his clothes sometime after the murders occurred, and witnesses saw him doing laundry that night (unusual, considering his son was missing and everyone else was out looking for him). He has a history of violent behavior, and now even his ex-wife has her suspicions about him.

It all seems pretty convincing, right? But then, they also interview his sister, who assures us that Hobbs is a good person, and someone should stand up for him against these accusations. And it strikes you that you may never know the truth. Hell, PARADISE LOST 2 strongly (and believably) implicates John Mark Byers (another father of one of the boys) as the true killer, but evidence ultimately exonerated him. Meaning that the father of one of the dead boys had to spend years being publicly accused of their murder. He even shows up at the release of Echols, Misskelly and Baldwin, asserting he feels sympathy for them because he, too, was a victim of false accusation. And then goes on to accuse Hobbs, proving that some people just never learn.

Would you believe this billboard actually produced tangible, concrete results?

The reason I bring all this up is that the movie’s most powerful moments are not the ones you might expect. Yes, it’s moving to watch the three wrongly-incarcerated boys try to hold onto hope and finally experience some level of vindication, but many of the most heartwrenching moments come from heretofore minor players in the saga. As the movie begins to voice its suspicions about Terry Hobbs, it moves to interview his ex-wife, stepdaughter, and friends. We get to watch in real time as Berg lays out the case against Hobbs to the guy who provided his alibi (apparently never interviewed at any length by police) and he gradually realizes exactly what she’s suggesting about his friend. And the horror and the guilt this guy suddenly feels just comes pouring out. It’s not like he did anything wrong or has anything to confess, it’s just the visual record of a man suddenly forced to rewrite the past 18 years of his life and question everything he’s assumed he understood. Likewise, watching Hobbs’ ex-wife and kid struggle with their inability to rule out this suspect is just painful to watch. Again, it’s not like they were withholding evidence or anything, its just that they’re suddenly forced to confront the unthinkable. And without the ability to ever truly know for sure. As horrible as it is to spend 18 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, it’s got to be almost worse to suddenly realize you were at least partly responsible not only for the witch hunt which locked away three innocent boys, but for providing cover to the real murderer.

A now-grown Echols, waiting to be interviewed by Wener Herzog

Fortunately, the movie has a (spoiler) semi-happy ending, with Eddie Vedder et al finally managing to negotiate the release of the three (but allowing their conviction to stand, freeing the state of Arkansas to save face but also preventing any legal action against Terry Hobbs). We even get to spend a little time amidst the stock footage of symbolic birds flying with the three now-grown-men as they eat their first meal outside of prison in almost two decades, meet with their families, and (with difficulty) adjust to outside life. Echols is a particularly articulate speaker about their journey, and comes across as an amazingly charismatic and intelligent spokesperson for himself and his peers. Admittedly, he’s one of the credited producers for the movie so it’s not like they were going to make him look bad. But the whole film has a palpable sense of fair play to it, giving everyone a say and --with the exception of Hobbs-- never appearing to manipulate the narrative in an effort to create heroes and villains. Even the Arkansas government lawyers trying to keep the innocent kids in prison are given the chance to explain and present themselves as decent, honest public servants who are just trying to do their job.

Hence, you understand where they’re coming from even as you also understand how they fit into the colossal legal quicksand that seems uniquely primed to suck in powerless misfits like Echols and his friends (in maybe the film’s darkest moment, he notes “People are always talking about this case like it’s extraordinary, but it really isn’t. This happens all the time – people get murdered, things get swept under the rug, and nobody thinks twice about it. We were three kids: bottom of the barrel, poor white trash. They thought they could just throw us in jail and we’d be forgotten. The only thing that made our case an exception was that there were film crews in the courtroom who caught everything on tape.”) The film offers plenty of evidence to back him up, but thankfully it’s about more than that, too. It’s about a whole universe of people drawn together by this entire mess, each with their own reasons and internal logic. It’s about the whole experience, from the crime scene to the confines of prison to the grim government offices to the celebrity sitting rooms and benefit concerts.

It’s this ability to weave a cohesive whole out of so many disparate and sometimes contradictory parts that makes WEST OF MEMPHIS such an achievement. I’m not usually one to gush over these talking-heads retrospective documentaries, but in this case the unbelievable story, exhaustive research, sharp filmmaking and keen sense of purpose combine to create something seriously great. Not for a second of it’s 147 minutes does the film drag or belabor a point, nor does it ever gloss over something which seems important. Rarely does one see a documentarian take such a sprawling topic and still produce a result this focused, and the result is a document of genuinely breathtaking power and endless fascination. If there’s a better film this year, I’ll be amazed. How’s this for a miracle: for a story with a core this depressing, in the end there’s much more to be inspired about.

Happy ending: release from prison, an HBO documentary, and a lifetime of morbid celebrity! But hey, they got to meet Eddie Vedder.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Factory

The Factory (2012)
Dir. Morgan O’Neill
Written by Paul Leyden, Morgan O’Neill
Starring John Cusack, Jennifer Carpenter, Dallas Roberts, Mae Whitman, Ksenia Solo

You gotta admire John Cusack’s commitment to taking chances. I mean, for every 2012 or HOT TUB TIME MACHINE he stars in, it seems like he takes three weirdo roles in small, otherwise obscure projects. He followed up the cutesy rom-com SERENDIPITY by playing a Jewish art dealer opposite Noah Taylor’s Young Hitler in MAX, followed MUST LOVE DOGS with THE ICE HARVEST, followed HOT TUB TIME MACHINE with SHANGHAI (which has never even been released in the U.S.), Lee Daniel’s crazy THE PAPERBOY, and... THE FACTORY, which was filmed in 2011 but no one ever bothered to release until now. In real life, his restless energy and interest in trying new things has led him to friendships with Joe Strummer and Hunter S. Thompson, earned him a 6th-level black belt in kickboxing, and given him a platform for his progressive politics on issues ranging from freedom to the press to the Obama administration’s drone program. Sometimes it pays off in the movies too; MAX is one of my personal favorite underseen films, ICE HARVEST is a great latter-day Harold Ramis neo noir, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is still a masterwork of unparalleled madness. But more often it pays off with embarrassing crap like THE FACTORY.

THE FACTORY follows the tradition of the apparently endless parade of serial killer police procedurals which trail THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, in that it’s the story of an obsessed cop trying to hunt down a skeezy weirdo who’s been kidnapping prostitutes and (mild spoiler) chaining them in his basement, forcing them to call him daddy and pump out babies. Our bedraggled, underappreciated hero Mike Fletcher (Cusack) was already fixated on solving this to the exclusion of his own life and problems, so you can imagine how well he takes it when his own daughter becomes the latest victim.

Oh yeah, I forgot, Dexter's sister is in there too.

There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with the movie, it’s just a not-interesting-enough basic idea which is then dragged down by a bunch of bad choices. Not bad enough to be fun, unfortunately, just bad enough to squander whatever potential was left. It does take place in Buffalo, NY, though. Not too many serial killer movies set up there. So that’s something.

The first bad idea they made here was thinking this baby farming asshole Gary (Dallas Roberts, Milton from Walking Dead) was interesting enough to make a movie about. I mean, unless you have a really fucking good hook for your police procedural film, a serial killer movie is gonna live or die on the strength of the villain. I don’t know if they just didn’t notice, or were trying to go for gritty realism as a tribute to the “actual events” this was supposedly “inspired by” (those actual events being "well, there is a police department in Buffalo, New York") or what, but this Baby Factory idea is pretty weak sauce by serial killer standards. I’m not saying I think he’s a nice guy or anything, but in the ever-escalating game of serial killer gimmicks this guy Gary just seems like a greasy loser, not even colorful enough to be interesting. In fact it’s even kind of a misnomer to call him a serial killer, since he’s really a serial kidnapper/rapist who just has to kill his victims sometimes because they try to escape. What a tiresome asshole. Milton does a perfectly fine job, but the whole scenario quickly kind of falls into that death zone for genre movies: unpleasant enough to not be fun to watch, not interesting enough for you to care.

Would you trust this man around your serial killer movies?

John Cusack, of course, is always fun to watch, so casting him was a good idea. Unfortunately, he’s cast in the most pointless role, as the detective trying to solve a mystery to which we already know the answer. Which is always a bad idea. Man, is there a quicker way to kill your movie than to have your protagonist spend the whole film trying to figure out what the audience already knew from the first scene? Short of casting Ryan O’Neal, I don’t know of one. For the viewer, there’s no doubt as to who the killer is, what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, or where he’s doing it. There is an element of minor curiosity as to why he’s doing it, but thankfully the movie never addresses that, sparing us the indignity of being mildly interested in some parts of an otherwise tepid paint-by-numbers. Cusack’s character is our protagonist, but all he does is freak out and look at pictures of people we already know and agonizingly slowly connect the obvious dots between the only three characters he ever learns about. This presents the same classic conundrum I had with the casting of Daniel Craig in the REMAKE WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: our lead has the least interesting story, but he’s also the most compelling actor anywhere in sight. Bit of a conflict of interest there.

They try to up the tension for Cusack by pushing the depressing true fact (maybe that’s what they mean by “actual events?”) that if a missing person isn’t found within 48 hours, the odds are that they will never be found. This bit of trivia is found on the movie poster, in intertitle text at the start of the movie, and then explicitly stated aloud by the characters several times, so you can see why Mike is panicking so much, trashing his office, violating people’s civil rights, engaging in a few choice moments of mega-acting, and so on. Only trouble is, since we can also see what’s going on in the killer’s mind, we know that in this one particular case time is actually not a factor. Gary The Kidnapper/Killer wants to keep everyone alive and since Mike’s daughter is already pregnant the only real danger if they delay finding her is that she’s gonna miss more days of school. This is exactly the kind of bad decisions I’m talking about here. I mean, did no one see that you can’t have it both ways? It just makes it completely impossible to empathize with Cusack’s character, while also revealing nothing even vaguely interesting about the killer (who, again, is actually more of a kidnapper).

Cusack contemplating the better film that might have been,

You know what would have made this movie good? Cast Cusack as the killer. Unlike Milton’s squalid redneck mopiness, Cusack’s charisma might have actually made him a compelling psychopath. His natural nice-guy likability would go a long way towards making him a more complex, scary figure, and his commanding physical presence would help explain the near feverish Stockholm Syndrome developed by the kidnapped girls living in the basement of his inexplicably lavish suburban home. Cusack might have been able to get you to take seriously the idea that he really believed he was doing God’s work. That might have been good. Maybe for the remake, as a cheeky homage to the beloved original.

(UPDATE: Turns out I was right, he's great playing the killer in THE FROZEN GROUND for exactly the reasons I thought he would be, even though that one is also pretty dull overall.)

As it is, though, Gary The Serial Killer is just sort of a scrawny unbalanced prick, the kind who would uncomfortably talk to you about Jesus on the public transportation system but you would never really want to know more about or intentionally spend time with. So it figures that although the only compelling aspect of the movie is what happens in his house, it works better when he’s not around. In the basement, Cusack’s daughter Abby (Mae Whitman, "Her?" from Arrested Development and, holy cow, the president’s adorable daughter in INDEPENDENCE DAY!) has to adapt to a small family of emotionally disturbed kidnapping victims who have a nearly religious devotion to their new indoor-kitty lifestyle. There’s a desperate, survivalist quality to the performances which, unlike most of the movie, actually rings true. All three females down here do a pretty great job with the complex emotions of these sequences, particularly the antagonistic Ksenia Solo (who played “Veronica” in BLACK SWAN) and Whitman, who manages to actually look and act like a genuine teenager while still doing a bunch of ridiculous serial-killer-movie bullshit. With three women locked together in a creepy basement, I thought this one would score a Bechdel test win for sure, but somehow they always end up talking about Gary or Mike. Fuckin’ figures.

Even Mae Whitman here, who does not have an overwhelming surplus of film roles on her resume, does not list this film on her wikipedia page. Just sayin. 

With three pretty good performances in a mildly interesting scenario as well as some accomplished camerawork by Kramer Morgenthau* (who has fun finding glimmers of gaudy color in the snowy Montreal locations and Buffalo establishing shots), there might have been something to build on. But alas, most of the thing coasts along in the most predictable possible manner, treading water, wasting time and never even remotely attempting to mine anything interesting from its stock characters and trite premise. Throughout most of the runtime, there’s a palpable sense of “why bother?” which is resolved only at the end, when the movie finally manages to get interested enough in the proceedings to provide a little color in the form of an outlandishly laughable twist. The movie’s so threadbare that there’s only one possible twist they could go for, but the gusto with which they bring down the hammer is at least worth a chuckle. I’ve seen plenty of movies where they flash back to key scenes to show you how cleverly they’ve hidden clues in seemingly mundane dialogue. But this one may take the cake, flashing back to what may well be virtually every related scene in the entire runtime, and then draaaaaging out the epilogue to a sublimely silly final shot of a character smiling directly into the camera, looking evil.

Seriously though, I like the cinematographer's sparing but eye-catching use of color. I hope he goes on to make a real movie some day.

It’s not enough to save the film or to make it anywhere near worth recommending. Still, a final binge of stone-faced ludicrousness goes a long way, putting this nearly on par with THE RAVEN in terms of unwatchability instead of, say, a particularly uneventful root canal. But fans of Cusack’s more eccentric side take comfort: he’s playing Richard Nixon in Lee Daniel’s next film. Their last collaboration found time to have Nicole Kidman territorially piss on Zac Efron, so you can only imagine what he has in store for ol’ Tricky Dick. That forgives a lot, but maybe it’s also time to remind even a lifelong seeker like Cusack that maybe there are some things best left unexplored.

*DP veteran of other lame horror movies like GODSEND and FRACTURE, but more interesting as the grandson of FDR’s Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941)
Dir George Waggner
Written by Curt Sidomak
Starring Claude Raines, Patrick Knowles, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi “And Lon Chaney, Jr.”

Man, Chewie was kind of an asshole back in the day.

I would have sworn to you, sworn, that I had seen this one before somewhere back in the foggy haze of my distant past. I even saw Joe Johnson’s ill-conceived 2010 remake and felt confident enough that I has seen this one to criticize what I saw as major thematic deviations from the subtext of the original. But going back and watching Waggner’s 1941 version, now I’m not so sure I ever saw it. Maybe I just read so many summaries, allusions, and parodies as a kid obsessed with monsters that I got the false impression I’d actually seen the whole thing. Or maybe I’m just older now and different things stand out. Either way, this is a pretty great one, but also a surprisingly strange film.

The film begins by introducing us to Lon Chaney Jr, as affable lug Larry Talbot. He’s Welsh by birth, but every bit the bumbling, good-natured American in style, and somewhat bashful in the face of his imperious (but tiny) father Claude Raine’s European high culture opulence. He’s back home due to the untimely death of his brother (which interestingly we never hear much about since stoic Claude Raines doesn’t seem too torn up about it) but he doesn’t seem to have anything specific to do with his time except hang around his spartan childhood room. So he fills his time by trying to charm a pretty local girl (Evelyn Ankers) into going on a date with him. She’s engaged, but he’s lonely and his Dad is kind of shitty company, so he persists in trying to get her to come with him on a date. Chaney has a genuinely endearing aw-shucks nice guy quality, completely believable as the nice guy who never quite gets the girl but at least enjoys the chase. Even by 1941, audiences had surely seen enough movies to know that the arc here is that the good-hearted hero eventually wins the fair lady away from her asshole fiance who for some reason she never noticed is an asshole, because women are dumb.

That seems like where this is headed. In fact --despite all the exposition about the werewolf myth which seems to be the talk of the town despite the fact that ha ha, we all know that’s total superstitious nonsense-- there’s kind of a romantic comedy vibe going here. Larry and Pretty Local Girl (PLG) exchange banter, she rebuffs him but he persists, there’s a wacky misunderstanding where he explains that he’s been watching her dress through his dad’s gigantic telescope (Claude Raines is a man of science, long story). And finally she relents, she’ll go on a date with him if she can bring her boring friend. Next stop: montage-ville!

Take this plot device, it will contribute nothing.

Unfortunately, Larry is as bad at picking dating spots as he is at not being bitten by a werewolf (spoiler). His idea of a fun time is to go get their fortunes read by openly stereotypical gypsy Bela Lugosi, who has some werewolf problems of his own. Next thing you know, Larry saves PLG’s friend from a wolf attack, only to be bitten himself in the process. Uh oh.

What’s weird about all this is that it causes the movie to suddenly and radically change directions. The whole rest of the movie is about Larry wolfing out and slowly coming to understand exactly what’s happening to him. PLG doesn’t really show up again until the very end when wolfie tries to eat her and Larry’s diminutive asshole father has to step in and save the day. Meanwhile, Larry becomes a ineffectual victim, gradually realizing the truth but unable to do anything about it until someone else intervenes. There’s no question of burgeoning romance, no lesson to be learned, just suffering and eventual death for all concerned parties. It’s actually an insanely bleak story: our affable hero is turned into a brutal killer by means utterly beyond his control, lives just long enough to learn that his situation is completely hopeless, and has to be [SPOILER] put down by his distant, uncaring father simply to prevent him from harming the only other person who ever treated him decently so she can go on to marry some other dude. Jesus fucking Christ, no wonder the remake ended with a ludicrous werewolf-on-werewolf smackdown.

What strikes me as particularly odd for a film of this time period is the notable lack of moralizing. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of irony or justice in what happens to Larry, nor does it change him in any way (either for better or worse). Actually the whole film is completely lacking in character arcs, making it really inscrutable exactly how this scenario is meant to be interpreted. Is Larry being punished for wanting to bone some other dude’s fiance? Seems unlikely, since he’s portrayed quite sympathetically and in fact ends up bitten while heroically trying to save someone he’s just met. In fact, the old gypsy woman (a great Maria Ouspenskaya) eulogizes the werewolves’ passing with “...the way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own.”

The original grumpy cat.

Fair enough, so it’s not a tragic punishment. Is this supposed to be a parable about the capriciousness of fate, then? If so, it seems strange that this is never discussed or even acknowledged, nor does Larry seem to have much luck to begin with (even his wealth is an embarrassment for him, not an advantage). There may be an element of cruel fate here, though, because the fiance takes one look at Larry and gives PLG a concerned “There’s something very tragic about that man, and I’m sure nothing but harm will come to you through him.” He turns out to be correct, granted, but it seems like a kinda convenient thing to say about a guy hitting on his girlfriend.

In fact, the only thing that people seem interested in discussing about the werewolf myth is how it works as a psychological metaphor. People struggle to accept the savage nature of man and so invent myths to explain this duality of nature, explains Claude Raines. When Larry starts telling everyone he’s a werewolf, they brush him off and seem to imply that he’s delusionally trying to impose this legend on his life to help him deal with the very real trauma he experienced recently (“Most anything can happen to a man in his own mind,” his father tells him). Claude Raines, a man of science, scoffs at the very idea of werewolves, but explains how it makes a fitting folk explanation for lycanthropy and, importantly, as a symbolic means to help ignorant locals understand how killers can live amongst us, seemingly normal but occasionally possessed by a murderous side (“the dual personality in all of us,” says Raines). In fact the very first image of the film is an encyclopedia entry on Lycanthropy, which is specifically defined as “A disease of the mind.” Why so much talk about the legend and its place in modern science? I mean, not since season 6 of the X-Files has there been so much labored skepticism about something which we can all plainly see is obviously really happening, right?

If this ice was any drier it would be a Doonesbury punchline. Hey-o!

And that’s where things get sticky, because all this obviously begs the question about what actually is going on. Does 1941’s THE WOLF MAN understand how meta it is for a story about a wolf man to go on and on about what the story of the wolf man actually represents, but then also depict it as a literal true story about a wolf man? I’m tempted to say no, but there’s a small part of me which can’t help turning over the evidence that maybe Claude Raines is right, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

From the camera’s perspective, Larry’s story checks out. We see Bela exhibit signs of werewolvery, see Larry transform --hour upon hour of painstaking makeup-- and see him venture out into the night looking for victims in various remote, foggy soundstages. We see animal tracks turning into human tracks at his window. Seems kind of overwhelming. And yet, maybe there’s reason to doubt, too.

For one thing, the initial werewolf attack that gets Larry bitten is oddly coy for a movie which is literally called THE WOLF MAN. Most of it occurs behind a tree and in the shadows, but not only is the animal Larry fights clearly a wolf (or large dog) --and not any sort of wolf man-- but we also see a few frames which clearly depict Bela Lugosi, and not a dog or a man in makeup. Wha? Since when does being bitten by either a dog or a heroin-addled Hungarian ham result in a hybrid man/wolf killing machine?

But OK, maybe you can chalk that up to an odd artistic decision which was intended to create a perception, not be analyzed frame for frame on DVD. But that still leaves you with surprisingly little evidence that a transformation happens to Larry’s body and not just his mind. His victims are all alone when he sees them, and none of them says or does anything which would conclusively prove they’re seeing a wolfman. In fact, the only person who sees him as a wolf and comments on it is the old gypsy woman, who was already a believer and even seems to plant the seed in Larry’s mind as to what’s happening to him. While he’s unconscious, she transforms him temporarily back to a human, so that when a pair of hunters come across him moments later, they just see Larry. Is this starting to seem suspicious?

There, by tying you to this chair every time the moon is full, I'll prove you're not crazy!

There are other signs. Larry attributes his rapid healing to the supernatural power of being a werewolf. But wait, did anyone else even see his wounds? He comes in to the house claiming to have been bitten and covered in blood, so everyone believes his story. But the next day when they check, no wounds. Have they healed, or were they never there to begin with? If everyone is so certain that people have been dying in a series of animal attacks, why is the local constable clearly suspicious of Larry? What does he think is going on here?

There is one other person in the film who sees the werewolf: John Talbot, Larry’s father, who [SPOILERS] sees the wolf attacking PLG and bludgeons him to death at the film's end. Once wolfie is dead, though, he is amazed to watch the body transform from a wolf back into his son. Is this a physical transformation, though, or does it represent the process of Sir Talbot’s slow realization of what he’s done? After all, the whole movie is about Larry’s gradual realization about what he’s become -- maybe at the end his father finally gets to understand his son.

"Most anything can happen to a man in his own mind," right? Perhaps even a father who would rather see a ridiculous fairy tale (which he has already dismissed as bunk) than see the obvious truth which is right in front of him: his son has indeed become a monster, but the purely human kind. The veneer of the supernatural is actually a comforting lie both Talbots eventually tell themselves so they don't have to face the truth about their own inner darkness.

Obviously, this all requires a somewhat aggressively loose interpretation of a film which seems relatively straightforward on its surface. But consider: unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and so forth, the Wolf Man is one of the few Universal Monsters which does not have its roots in some discrete source of classic literature. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak (who, by the way, is the brother of classic Noir director Robert) had the leisure to make his own rules and tell the story at his own pace. It’s his choice to include so much dialogue about the legend itself, his choice to spend so much time with characters who eloquently argue against the exact story we’re watching play out. It’s also his choice to include other intriguing details (for instance, the idea --abandoned in other tellings-- that future werewolf victims are marked with a pentagram, a symbol of their fate which evokes the Nazi use of the Star of David as a marker of death) which at first seem to fold neatly into the story but later make you wonder if they’re reflections of external or internal reality. Certainly Siodmak --a Jew who fled Germany in 1937 after listening to one too many anti-semitic tirades-- probably knew all too well the horror that even being marked with an invisible star could bring. (UPDATE 10/1/2014: An interview with Siodmak from the 90's confirms that his original script left a lot more ambiguity about how much of this was real. It was changed at the behest of the studio suites who wanted a more concrete monster.)

Seriously, though, Claude Raines is like three feet tall. This frame is a LotR-style visual trick.

Whatever the truth, the thing that makes it worth discussing is that the movie (while narratively a little ambiguous) is full of classic sequences and about the most perfect example of the Universal Monsters gothic atmosphere as you can imagine. Foggy moors, gnarled tree roots, superstitious villagers, beautiful women screaming; this film’s got it all. And of course, Unlike WEREWOLF OF LONDON actor Henry Hull (who objected to having his face covered and hence had makeup designed to make him look like Tom Waits) Chaney’s wolfman makeup (by Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce, also the creator of Karloff's iconic Frankenstein look and numerous other classic horror films) is stunning even by today’s standards and earns every bit of its classic reputation, both in its technical creation and its design. But maybe the best measure of the film’s success is how thoroughly it has integrated itself into the common culture. This would be the template, and at the very least the inspiration, for virtually every other werewolf movie which would follow it, from CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to THE HOWLING to GINGER SNAPS. Only George Romero’s reinvention of the zombie with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD can compete with Siodmak for creating wholesale a cultural icon which would go on to completely dominate and define the way we think about genres themselves, let alone movie monsters. For that alone --nevermind Chaney’s loveable performance, the poetic visual atmosphere, the spectacular makeup, the subtly mysterious themes and so forth-- this is definitely one for the record books. Ah-whooooo! I saw Lon Chaney Jr. walking with the queen, doing the werewolves of

He's the hairy-handed gent, that ran amok in Kent. Lately he's been overheard in Mayfair...