Monday, April 20, 2020

The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace (1963)
Dir Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont, "from the poem by Edgar Allen [sic] Poe and a story by H.P. Lovecraft.”
Starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Frank Maxwell, Lon Chaney Jr.

THE HAUNTED PALACE is one of the less faithful of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, in the sense that it’s actually not a Poe adaptation at all: it's an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward(h). The credits actually say “Screenplay by Charles Beaumont, from the poem by Edgar Allen [sic] Poe,” and then add, “and a story by H.P. Lovecraft.” As in Corman's THE RAVEN, Price does read about eight total lines from Poe’s 1839 poem The Haunted Castle, four at the beginning and another four at the end. Plus they changed the home of the villainous Joseph Curwen to a castle instead of a house, as per the title. And I guess you could claim there is a haunting of sorts which occurs there, if you want to stretch the definition of “haunting” to something so broad it has basically no meaning. But come on, in literally every other respect, this is actually a broadly faithful, if somewhat streamlined, version of Lovecraft’s novella, and there’s not a hint of Poe in there. Maybe misspelling Poe’s middle name in the credits was a cry for help.

Anyway, ROGER CORMAN PRESENTS EDGAR ALLAN POE’S H.P. LOVECRAFT’S THE HAUNTED PALACE BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE is vintage Corman, with all the spooky, dry-ice haunted graveyards and gloomy, spartan castle sets you could want. As per Lovecraft’s story, it chronicles the sad case of Charles “Dexter” Ward (Vincent Price, that guy who played Joseph Smith in 1940’s BRIGHAM YOUNG), a mild-mannered modern (1963) dude who has recently inherited a Haunted Castle in the stagnant, dismal villa of Arkham, Massachusetts. You don’t pay Massachusetts taxes on a property like that without wanting to spend at least a little time there, and so Ward and his wife Anne (Debra Paget, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) decide to move in, only to find that the townspeople are suspicious and hostile to them.

Oh right, their hostility makes sense, now that you mention it, because we saw in the opening that back in 1765, the townspeople lynched the then-occupant of the Not-Yet-Haunted Castle, one Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, DEAD HEAT), on strong suspicion of being a warlock. And while you hate to endorse mob violence, they might have had a point in this case, inasumuch as Curwen cursed the town and its inhabitants with his last breath, and it seemed to, uh, take. To this very day, the descendant of the original townspeople are saddled with debilitating deformities. So Curwen's subsequent promise to rise from grave and take his revenge carries a little more weight than it otherwise might, and you can imagine the townsfolk are none too pleased when his great-great-grandson, who turns out to be a spitting image of the old wizard right down to being exactly the same age and sporting identical facial hair, shows up at the castle and makes himself at home. And those little physical similarities do not go unnoticed by Joseph Curwen himself, whose evil spirit seems to have taken up residence in a gigantic painting which will serve nicely as a conduit to take possession of his descendant’s mind! Charles himself, alas, has no idea about any of this and no way to prevent it, so he, ah, doesn’t turn out to be much of a character.

This is, at least in broad strokes, exactly the plot Lovecraft had written some 36 years earlier in 1927 (though it was not published until 1941, after his death). It is, apparently, the very first Lovecraft story to ever be adapted for film, (the next would come in 1965 with AIP’s adaptation of The Color Out Of Space as DIE MONSTER DIE!) and even though Lovecraft was not yet a marquee name in the mainstream, it's far more faithful than most of the trash that would follow it. The script by Charles Beaumont (who worked on PREMATURE BURIAL and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH from Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” among his other work in a busy and influential career) heroically doesn’t shy away from the classic Lovecraftian craziness, though he uses a light touch; Curwen even owns a copy of the Necronomicon, and both Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth get name-checked, though the former doesn’t even appear in the story if memory serves (maybe it’s from the Poe poem?). But despite the much-appreciated color that brings, the tone of the story is unmistakably rather dour; it is, after all, essentially the tale of a mild-mannered guy who gets his life stolen from him by a sinister magician for no real reason other than bad luck.

Bleak nihilism doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of either Corman or Price, and it’s a colder, meaner movie than their usual fare, with a colder, meaner Price in one of his more hissably villainous turns. You could fairly argue it’s less fun –and certainly less colorful-- than the other films in the, ah, "Poe" series, but it also maybe hits a little harder; Corman’s corny B-movie effusiveness isn’t a great fit for the material, but Price is an actor with sufficient range to make the sadistic Curwen a genuinely threatening figure. I prefer him in deliciously mincing mode, of course, but it’s always nice to be reminded that he was capable of a lot more. In a showy double-role, he carries the movie more or less by himself, aided only by Debra Paget’s affecting commitment to the role of Ward’s distressed wife who suspects her husband is no longer entirely himself.

Which is not to say there’s any shortage of acting talent on hand here, but other than Price they’re not used to their potential; Lon Chaney Jr. (in his sole Corman production, if you can believe it!) and Elisha Cooke Jr. (ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLING) are wasted in minor roles, while the bland local doctor (Frank Maxwell, MR. MAJESTYK) eventually wins the musical chairs of who will emerge the protagonist, since it’s certainly not going to be a woman (Paget does fine work, but it’s a thankless, somewhat demeaning role, as I suppose befits a female lead inserted unnaturally into a Lovecraft story).*

Speaking of protagonists, the film’s major problem is doesn’t really have one. As with so many possession stories (from BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB to LORDS OF SALEM), we once again discover that having a main character who is subject to possession leaves the film stranded without any character capable of advancing the plot or experiencing conflict. “Charles” spends the majority of his time on-screen under the influence of Joseph Curwen’s mind whammy, and even if we’re told he’s “fighting” Curwen’s influence, this is a visual medium and just taking it on faith that the main character is taking action we can’t see is not going to cut it. That leaves Curwen as the functional protagonist, since he motives every single narrative action, but since he’s a rather loathsome villain, somebody eventually has to turn up to take action against him. Like I said, this was made in 1963 and it’s adapting Lovecraft, so that hero obviously can’t be the only person who has a meaningful emotional stake in this conflict, since that would be a woman (his wife) and she must inevitably end up a damsel in distress. So, uh, I guess get excited for an unnecessary minor character, who has heretofore only existed as a vehicle for rote exposition, to suddenly turn into an action hero in the final reel. What, do you find that unsatisfying in some way?  

  Lovecraft’s story has the same problem, of course, and in fact it’s something of a feature of his work (see the even more narratively broken The Dunwich Horror and the subsequent film version of the same name). But Lovecraft's oeuvre tends to be structured in a deliberately antiquarian style, often using multiple framing devices and epistolary in a way which gives the stories some unique flavor as written objects, but transitions to more traditionally structured film narrative less than gracefully. At any rate, it's an affectation which doesn't have a very neat parallel in the medium of film, and it's a chief reason why his work has such a dismal track record on-screen. It's fitting, then, that Lovecraft should first make it to the silver screen riding on Poe's coattails, since if there is any other artist more celebrated and influential whose work has suffered more wretchedly in the translation from page to screen, I certainly cannot name them. The problem, I think, is that while both Poe and Lovecraft had a certain gift for clever scenarios and memorable --even iconic-- details, neither one is especially celebrated for tight narrative plotting. They were artists who excelled in cultivating a feeling, not through their stories themselves, necessarily, but through their medium. As clunky and easily parodied as it is, Lovecraft's trademark archaic writing style is part of that feeling, and simply transferring the basic components of his plot to the screen in an otherwise contemporary cinematic style loses something of that feeling. Poe, of course --even less devoted to gripping plotting and far more gifted as a writer-- tends to fare even worse. 

That remains the case here, though at least there are enough other things to enjoy (Price's sadistic charisma, the cyclopian sets and murky, inimitable Corman spook-house atmosphere) that it feels like a less crippling loss. THE HAUNTED CASTLE, as an independent object, is a perfectly enjoyable Corman production, and certainly captures enough of Lovecraft's charm to be in the top tier of his film adaptations (though that's a perilously low bar to clear). But it's still a reminder that to successfully adapt great art** requires equally great art, but of a radically different kind. It's not enough to merely enjoy the artist you're adapting; you have to be able to find the fundamental strength of that art, and then transfer that strength into an entirely new medium which is constructed with equal craft towards evoking that same ineffable feeling. Not a thing which is easily done. But thankfully Price and Corman were artists enough in their own right to make this an entertaining version of the thing that they did well, even if it loses something from its literary source. And as Lovecraft adaptations go, hey, at least this is better than BLEEDERS.   

* One irritation once things get going is that Price-as-Curwen, as well as his eventual villainous collaborators Lon Chaney Jr. and third wheel Milton Parsons (prolific bit player, with uncredited roles in everything from WHITE HEAT to MARNIE), wear mud-facial makeup, I guess to give them a corpse-y look, or to visually distinguish Price-as-Curwen from Price-as-Charles. But it’s never applied evenly (the faces are brown-gray, but their necks and hands just look more bright pink by comparison!) and it's really distracting to look at. They should probably just have trusted Price to differentiate the roles via his performance (though poor Charles doesn’t really get to do much to distinguish himself). I don’t know what make up artist Ted Coodley (PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) thought he was doing here, but it’s not a winner. Maybe it was less noticeable in a grainy grindhouse print? Sometimes the era of HD has its drawbacks.

** Not that I would claim Lovecraft as a great artist (though Poe indisputably was), but he was certainly one who made deliberate and, broadly, successful choices in his chosen medium.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Guard From Underground

The Guard From Underground (1992)
Dir. and written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Makiko Kuno, Yutaka Matsushige, Hatsunori Hasegawa

            THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND (more literally translated, I gather, as The Guard From Hell) is a minor but crucial entry into the filmography of the other monolithic Japanese auteur named Kurosawa. It's minor because it is, in itself, not so hot. But it's crucial because of its place as a clear turning point in his early career. After his initial journeyman’s years directing comedies and Pinku eiga films —or, why try and class this up with fancy foreign lingo? I mean softcore pornos*--, Kurosawa had just made his first horror film with 1989’s SWEET HOME. He probably didn’t know it yet, but he was taking his first steps down a path that would define his career; while he hasn’t worked exclusively in horror since then, (he’s dallied with crime thrillers, yakuza films, sci-fi, drama and even romance in his lengthy, now-four-decade-long career!) it is the horror genre which made him an international icon, and it is within that genre that he established the distinct aesthetic for which he is most known for today.

But you’d never guess all that from a casual viewing of his first experiment with the genre. Far from his trademark glacial, clinical remove, SWEET HOME is a frenetic, special-effects-driven fun-house ride. If it gives us any glimpses of the Kurosawa who was to come, they are oblique and far outnumbered by material which seems distinctly unlike him. In fact, the movie is widely reported to be at least equally influenced by producer Juzo Itami (THE FUNERAL, TAMPOPO), who may have (or may not have; details in English are pretty sketchy) exercised an outsized control on the production and final cut, perhaps akin to the rumors which have always surrounded Spielberg and POLTERGEIST, minus, presumably, the mountains of cocaine. Of course, SWEET HOME’s atypical broad tone and zippy pace might just as easily be the result of a relative neophyte director still finding his feet and considering what he wants to do with the medium; you never really know these things. But at any rate, it’s beyond argument that the director’s first sojourn into the horror genre is scarcely recognizable as the work of the distinctive artist who would make such a big impression less than a decade later with CURE.

            So it is meaningful, then, that THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND, Kurosawa’s next film** after SWEET HOME, very much is the work of that same artist. Even in a somewhat embryonic state, the aesthetic is unmistakable, which makes this something of a historical landmark: the debut of Kurosawa the auteur, rather than Kurosawa the journeyman. Even if it had nothing else going for it at all, that would make it essential viewing for any true scholar of horror cinema. It’s all here, more or less, right from the get-go: the camera pulled back to a dispassionate distance, the quietly alienated performances which barely seem aware of each other, the detached sense of social isolation, the icy, patient long takes, the blunt matter-of-factness of the tiny bursts of violence.

            What is not here, on the other hand, is a more typical enigmatic Kiyoshi Kurosawa plot. His movies, by and large, tend to be motivated by inexplicable supernatural horrors; even when he’s dealing in recognizable sub-genres (serial killer flick with CURE, ghost story with RETRIBUTION) the details are often elusive and unexpected. Consequently, much of the horror stems from the nebulous, ambiguous nature of the danger, which never resolves into something comfortably comprehensible and hence retains its ability to haunt.

            THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND takes a very different approach. It's almost shockingly straightforward, and, at least on the surface, that makes it one of Kurosawa's most clearly classifiable genre efforts. In fact, in another director’s hands, this script might well seem so baseline generic as to need some kind of further hook. It is, well and truly, a slasher film, and one which mostly seems to be content to be purely that. And as such, it also seems content to play by standard slasher rules: we are introduced to a “final girl,” who will end up trapped in a foreign environment with some disposable body count characters, only to be menaced by a mysterious, frighteningly effective killer with a yin for colorful flair in his murders and a relevant backstory.

            All this is textbook slasher movie boilerplate, and all of it is very much present here. And not even in some deconstructed, meta-textual way; whatever else the movie may be trying to do, it is obviously genuinely committed to being a meat-and-potatoes slasher. Our final girl will be Akiko (Makiki Kuno, MUSHISHI), a recent hire at a Department 12, apparently a section of Akebono Corp, some sort of large and vaguely defined international business. Her job seems to be to advise the department on the purchase and sale of  paintings, which seems like it’s gotta be a metaphor but I’ll be damned if I can figure out for what. Meanwhile, the same day she starts work, the company gets another new employee: a hulking, silent security guard named Fujimaru (the debut role for now-veteran Japanese character actor Yutaka Matsushige, who has parts in RINGU, RASEN, ONE MISSED CALL, SURIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, GODZILLA 2000, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CHARISMA, two out of there Takashi Kitano OUTRAGE movies, and a movie called ADRIFT IN TOKYO, definitely not to be confused with TOKYO DRIFT). Fujimaru, with his silent, spacey near-catatonia, seems a little “off,” but we wouldn’t have cause for concern except that we heard on the radio that a disgraced ex-sumo wrestler is on the loose, despite having murdered two people already. That seems like it might be, --gulp!—relevant information.

            Fujimaru, of course, takes a shine to Akiko when he finds one of her lost earrings, but Akiko doesn’t realize she has a secret admirer until she discovers a makeshift shrine with her face on it in the, um, weird creepy basement (?) of this huge multinational corporation (she actually goes back to work that very day! Damn, these Department 12 employees need a union). But this is not just a sign of an unusually friendly office culture. Before long, Fujimaru has locked her and a handful of co-workers inside the building (which seems to be an uninsurable firetrap, where every door locks from the outside and the lighting is a sickly green that makes the Matrix look cozy) and is methodically embarking on a murderous rampage. So it’s pretty much DIE HARD if Bruce Willis was a crazed ex-sumo-wrestler-slasher.

            That probably sounds like more fun than it actually is, unfortunately. Despite plenty of precedent, I’m afraid this Fujimaru character’s sumo background doesn’t much inform his side hustle as a murderous security guard. For starters, he doesn’t exactly fit the physical body type you’re probably imagining when I use the phrase “ex-sumo-wrestler-slasher.” He’s definitely physically imposing – at 6’ 2’’, Matsushige absolutely towers over the rest of the cast—but lanky rather than bulky, even with his blocky security guard uniform accentuating his shoulders and torso and giving him a distinctly regimented look, somewhere between a military officer and a bellhop. And I’m absolutely devastated to have to inform you that he doesn’t seem to devote his wrestling skills to the task of murdering a bunch of nerdy office workers; he’s not, like, superplexing people to death, or whatever the sumo equivalent of that would be. And he never struts down a walkway to the ring flanked by a posse of belligerent hangers-on while shitty rock music plays, which popular culture has led me to believe is the single most important aspect of wrestling other than barely-suppressed homoeroticism and hating Vince McMahon.

           Fortunately it’s not a total loss; while he never wears one of those asscrack-hugging sumo-wrestling thongs,* his great strength affords him a wide range of options in the field of murder, and he nearly always settles on the most brutal one available. Like I said, this is a Kurosawa who seems perfectly comfortable --if never exactly desperate— to provide some cheap thrills.

This makes it an interesting experiment for Kurosawa, who accommodatingly plays by standard slasher rules, and yet doesn’t ever quite do what you’d expect, either. He knows how to stage a satisfying setpiece death scene, as when Fujmaru elects to bash a victim into every single dangerously fragile steam vent in a narrow hallway, or when somebody gets tossed into a locker which Fujumaru then crushes like an empty soda can. But he’s just as likely to indulge in his characteristically simple, matter-of-fact framing of shocking events, which make the sudden bursts of brutal violence seem shocking and unexpected.

It’s an interesting effect, and it works like gangbusters in some of his subsequent films, most notably CURE. But I’m mixed as to how well it works in this context; slashers tend to work best in a purely visceral flight-or-fight mode, and Kurosawa’s general refusal to play the game of amping this shit up may not be the best approach to the material. His unblinking straightforwardness in the face of bizarre horror is aces at pumping up dread, but maybe not the best approach at generating excitement in something so literal. Not that it’s boring, exactly; it’s positively zippy by his usual standards. But while a static, medium shot of the killer smashing someone to pieces with no music or editing packs a sickening sort of punch, it doesn’t exactly pump up your adrenaline.

Still, it does make for an interesting approach to the killer; there’s no doubt even from the start who he is --there's no whodunit angle here-- but Kurosawa’s purposefully restrained approach extends to the way he frames him. Slashers, of course, are really about the slasher. Sure, there are characters who will become his victims, but come on, we know Freddy is the star of the show, not Heather Langenkamp. And the camera tells us as much; even when the typical slasher is kept visually obscured, he still dominates the film, relentlessly taunting us to search the shadows for a glimpse of him. And when he finally appears, we can be certain to get a thundering money shot of an introduction, the camera lovingly framing the villain as the subject of our awed terror, and consequently the dominating force of a horror film.

Kurosawa does something distinctly different. He doesn’t exactly avoid showing Fujimaru, he just steadfastly avoids making him the center of attention. He’s usually going to be found in the middle distance of a shot, perfectly visible, not in any way concealed, but with no apparent awareness on the camera’s part that he’s important. Despite his hulking stature and fierce savagery, he tends to blend into the background, a passive object rather than a functional protagonist. Like Jason, he is an inscrutable force of nature, but a more opaque, less comprehensible one. He doesn’t seem angry, especially, doesn’t seem disturbed, doesn’t seem like he’s sadistically enjoying this or perversely disgusted by it. He simply does it. He remains calm and methodical, even as he’s bludgeoning someone to paste. Even his psychotic fixation on Akiko takes a decidedly remote cast, avoiding anything resembling carnality. He’s more black hole than raging inferno, impassively absorbing rather than lashing out. When he must appear as an object of the camera’s interest, he’s nearly always obscured in shadow (sometimes in striking silhouette) allowing his giant frame to define the character, rather than his boyish, unremarkable face. Kurosawa is very interested in his body, in the deliberate, savage violence of his movements – but not in the logic that motivates them. As such, he remains an enigma, a nonentity, defined for much of the movie, in fact, by his boss, a jovial older fellow who turns out to be surprisingly comfortable with the idea of having a loyal underling he can direct to murder people he finds inconvenient. In fact, the first murders that Fujimaru commits (beyond the lovers’ quarrel slayings which happened before the events of the movie) are done at the behest of his boss, further calling into question his basic autonomy.

There are, in fact, little hints here that this is all about something more than a crazed loner with nothing to lose who turns to violence. Much of the movie, maybe even the entire first half, in fact, is more about a different kind of horror altogether, the alienated, powerless dread of office life. Like many of Kurosawa’s movies, the horror seems to bubble up in some indirect, sublimated way from the rigid, alienating structure of Japanese society, here summed up within the microcosm of an office building (virtually the entire film takes place there), a blandly grim concrete-and-glass tombstone which literalizes both the isolating effects of the workplace inside (“Department 12,” apparently a new venture, seems to be connected to the rest of the company by a shared elevator and nothing else) and its stratification, with eccentric, arrogant HR head Mr. Hyodo (Hatsunori Hasegawa, GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION, Ultraman 80sitting atop the heap and coldly judging his underlings to be pathetically wanting, while he apparently fools around doing nothing in his spacious, upper-tier office. And even within this crushingly dehumanizing environment, Akiko is an outsider, uncertain of her place within the culture and openly objectified by both her sleazy, sexually aggressive boss Mr. Kurume (Ren Osugi, CURE, AUDITION, HANA-BI) and another co-worker. In fact, Mr. Kurume’s lecherous advances hardly seem less appropriate than Fujimaru’s inexplicable fixation on her. Fujimaru, at least, has reason to see her as a kindred spirit: neither one of them fits in here.

Now, all that is rather more interesting to talk about than to actually watch, understand; like I said before, the film primarily aspires to be a simple slasher, and while loading it up with a bunch of hazy, gloomy metaphors adds a little psychological kick, it is, if anything, somewhat detrimental to any hope the movie ever had of evoking the visceral, fight-or-flight adrenaline rush which is the only thing that really matters about a good slasher. Which leaves us with a movie which is interesting, but arguably not a very good slasher. Not that it’s a terrible slasher, either; the overall quality of the slasher genre writ large is so dire that even moderately competent attempts probably work out to be in the top percentiles, and this is far more than moderately competent. But that said, is isn’t exactly gripping stuff, either. It is merely interesting, and more as an artifact from the career of a notable artist than as an independent object. ‘Which do you think has more value?” Akiko, the former museum curator, is asked, “Is it a masterpiece by a lesser artist, or a lesser work by a master?” Akiko thinks the former, because “the value of a painter can change in the future, but the fact that it’s the masterpiece of the painter never changes.” By that logic, THE GUARD FROM UNDERGROUND is clearly a lesser work by a master, and probably of little real value to most casual fans. But of course, she doesn’t point out there’s another factor involved in value: the interests of the buyer. As a huge fan of a particular master named Kiyoshi Kurosawa, I find quite a lot of value even in a lesser work like this, though I’ll acknowledge that much of that value is more academic than aesthetic.

*On 1983’s KANDAGAWA PERVERT WARS: “Also I don't want to spoil the whole storyline, but in the end we'll see a sexual intercourses between Aki's friend Masami and Aki's boyfriend Ryo and Aki will seduce that boy which had sex with his mother. How this will all happen? You'll know after you'll watch this movie, but one thing which you can say now - there is a plenty of erotic scenes in this film.” – IMDB reviewer Zenka_LT, 2009.

**IMDB lists an interim film called ABUNAI HANASHI MUGEN MONOGATARI which they claim is from 1989, but it seems pretty likely to me that this is actually 1988’s DANGEROUS STORIES, apparently an omnibus film featuring a segment by Kurosawa, as well as Banmei Takahashi (TATTOO HARI) and Kazuyuki Izutsu (BREAKTHROUGH! [2004]). Neither one appears to be available in America, and neither one has one single review on IMDB (“DANGEROUS STORIES” doesn’t even have a listed cast) so I think we can currently feel safe skipping that one until we can say with any confidence what the fuck it actually is, or if was ever even released, or what.

*** Research indicates that this garment is known as a Mawashi, and I was originally going to just write that, but I already went the pretentious route by calling Japanese softcore flicks by their Japanese name and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of basement-dwelling anime creep who could casually drop the term waifu at any given moment and feel confident they understand what it means. It ain’t like that, I swear!