Friday, June 19, 2020

Dumbo (2019)

Dumbo (2019)
Dir. Tim Burton
Screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Based on Disney's DUMBO by Otto Englander, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, which in itself was based on Dumbo, the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl
Starring Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

I was going to begin by saying that 2019’s DUMBO takes Disney's recent "why does this exist?" energy to bold new heights, but I guess that's not really true; nothing could have less reason to exist than a scene-by-scene photorealistic LION KING remake, and that’s still too traumatically fresh a memory to ignore. We’ve already reached rock bottom, no need to indulge in any more hyperbole than necessary. But just because kicking you in the balls is clearly preferable to shooting you in the face, that doesn’t make the former commendable behavior. DUMBO may not be a harrowing, soul-churning pinnacle of anti-art the way LION KING 2019 –good God, they came out the same year—was, but it has a different kind of "why does this exist" cloud hanging over it, avoiding Disney's recent fetish for grotesquely tarted-up slavish recreations of their beloved animated classics… by instead throwing out virtually every single part of the original movie which bears the same name and replacing it with --well, not quite a new movie, exactly, because despite adding a second, comfortably feature-length scenario to the runtime, the new material isn't anywhere near cohesive enough to call a "movie" in its own right-- but certainly a whole lot of new stuff.

The "new stuff" consists of basically everything apart from the concept of a flying baby elephant named Dumbo who resides in a circus and is separated from his mother. Anything else from the original DUMBO –for example, original surrogate protagonist Timothy the mouse-- is included here only in the form of stultifying throwaway references, often hitting exactly that sweet spot of being far too emphasized to ignore, but having no meaning whatsoever outside their reference to the original film. Which mean that if you haven't seen 1941's DUMBO, this movie will be a baffling puzzle of inexplicable and meaningless visual cues.* But if you did see 1941's DUMBO and enjoyed it, you are now stuck with a movie that has functionally almost nothing in common with it, but insists on constantly reminding you of it. Cool.

The setting for the 2019 version remains the same as its predecessor, albeit with some odd added specificity. As before, we are introduced first to a rag-tag circus embarking on a tour of the American South at the end of World War I. This particular interwar American South, you will quickly notice, is very pointedly a land of harmonious integration and racial diversity, where an interracial family traveling by rails might receive a hearty handwave from the simple white farmers working the fields they’re passing by on their way to perform in front of a merrily heterogeneous audience which has apparently never known division along lines of gender, race, nationality, religion, or economic status. This is a little jarring, needless to say, but after some reflection, I’ve decided that it was ultimately the right approach, at least if we assume that this all absolutely had to be set in 1919 for some reason. You’d be entirely justified, were you so inclined, to slam it for whitewashing the brutality of segregation and Jim Crow, but hey, this was always fantasy – might as well be everyone’s fantasy. Once you’ve committed to “flying elephant” as a premise, I think it’s safe to say you’ve bought yourself sufficient distance from reality to be absolved of responsibility for hard-hitting journalistic accuracy, especially in service of broadened approachability. Or at least, I thought so until the movie arrived at its final act and decided it had some very serious thoughts on the morality of keeping animals in the circus. So, no problem brushing aside a century of brutal racial oppression in the name of fantasy, but cruelty to performing animals is just too pressing an issue to stay silent about. Got it.

At any rate, after a very leisurely scene-setting, our story starts to get going with the birth of the title character, a little elephant with gigantic ears which for some reason everyone considers a hideous, unspeakable deformity which brands him forever a freak and an outcast. Maybe because they never invented racism in this alternate reality, people are just real assholes about ears instead, I dunno.

Of course, he is a freak and should be cast out, but not for his ears. I mean, look at this fucking abomination:

This goddam thing looks like a baby C’Thulu cosplaying as Robert Blake’s character from LOST HIGHWAY. It reminds me of those grotesque “realistic” renderings of The Simpsons or Spongebob or what have you. This character design was all well and good in the squishy abstraction of cartooning, but you rip it, against God’s will, off the page and into the photorealistic real world, and you’ve got an unholy nightmare on your hands. Maybe COOL WORLD had a good point about keeping the ‘doodles where they belong.

Fortunately for the little freak, children can’t recognize the face of a Lovecraftian blasphemy when it’s staring right at them with its hateful squid eyes, and “Dumbo” finds allies in two hardscrabble circus urchins, siblings Milly (Nico Parker, giving a performance which cannot be described without the words “affectless automaton”) and Joe (Finley Hobbins, who the movie is so actively disinterested in that I frequently forgot this character existed while he was on-screen). The children discover Dumbo’s amazing power of flight (a feat of fanciful delight in the original cartoon, and a source of profoundly disturbing wrongness when translated to weighty, high-definition photorealism) which drags the young pachyderm from despised outcast to celebrated circus star.

So far, so good; sounds basically like the story of the original DUMBO with kids subbed for mice, right? And yet, while all of that happens on-screen, the above description doesn’t really accurately describe the movie, because it makes it sound as though this is Dumbo’s story. That would be a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, considering the title and the source material, but that is not the movie we have as a subject here today. You see, in a baffling feint towards gritty realism for a movie which --I feel I must stress this point-- features a flying elephant, Dumbo and his fellow circus animals do not talk or appear to experience any emotional state beyond what would be expected for an average trained circus animal.** Despite the disturbingly expressive face, Dumbo’s enormous, unnatural eyes stare impassively out from an empty, soulless void utterly alien to any human sensibility, and hence, despite various human characters frequently announcing aloud what his desires and wishes may be, he is really more of a MacGuffin than a character. He’s central to the plot, but more of an object to be acted upon by his human co-stars than a protagonist in any proper sense.

Horrible. Just horrible.

What we need, then, are human characters, and obviously the more the better. What’s that you say, we already have two human children to act as surrogate protagonists, and even one of those two is flagrantly unnecessary? No no, I mean celebrity human characters. We’re trying to spend 170 million bucks here. What’s that you say, there’s no possible artistic purpose in adding extraneous adults to this already entirely self-contained little fairy tale? What is this “artistic purpose” you speak of?

Therefore to fill the absolutely unavoidable storytelling necessity of having at least three A-list names printed on the movie poster, the simple story of talking circus animals trying to reunite an outcast baby elephant with its mother has been larded up with about 90 new humans (we do not, if I recall, see a single human face in the original DUMBO), all of whom must be given something to do (because they have no obvious purpose in the story as originally conceived) and yet not quite enough to do to  constitute an "arc" for any of them. Therefore recoil in horror as Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton are dutifully trotted out for no clear reason, all giving career-worst performances while at the same time giving the distinct and worrying impression that they're trying very hard.*** They’re eventually joined by Eva Green, who manages to maintain her dignity rather better, and considering she must endure the mortifying indignity of being CGI'd onto the back of a flying baby elephant, this may be evidence that she is the greatest thespian who ever lived. Alan Arkin also appears in three scenes and so openly doesn't give a shit that you've kind of got to respect him for it. Sometimes being a pro means making a sincere effort regardless of the circumstances… but sometimes it just means recognizing a hopeless cause and giving up gracefully. Look, he set his margarita down for the take, what more do you want?   

The movie, alas, is too brain-dead to be able to follow Arkin’s example. Consequently, an absolutely exhausting amount of time is taken to establish each of these characters, even though only one has any narrative purpose whatsoever. Or, rather, only one is so completely extraneous to the original plot that establishing him essentially drags the movie in entirely new direction, thus creating a new narrative purpose for the character to fulfill. You see, once the movie has dutifully plodded through every single plot point from the original DUMBO, minus any part where animals talk or racism is happening, we’re still barely even sitting at the 40-minute mark. Now, the original DUMBO is only 62 minutes, but remember, we’re trying to spend $170 million here, and are therefore contractually obliged to pile as many convoluted plot points as money will allow into an appalling snake’s nest of wriggling chaos. That’s the law. And so, out of the blue appears Keaton, as a flamboyant, rapacious capitalist who buys the circus and immediately sets to work exploiting his star attraction, sadistically endangering his human employees, and eventually just straight up announcing that he’s going to murder Dumbo’s mom for absolutely no reason whatsoever. To accomplish these goals, he essentially kidnaps the entire cast and forces them into servitude in his garish, art-deco dystopian theme park known as “Dreamland.”

Savvy viewers will quickly notice that not a single detail of this has any relationship whatsoever to the 1941 movie DUMBO, which doesn’t even have a central villain character and is more about the generalized cruelty and randomness of the world. This is, then, basically a movie and its demented sequel uncomfortably shackled together roughly halfway though, as if somebody had edited BABE and PIG IN THE CITY to bare-bones shells, chopped the credits off the former, and then run them back to back as one movie. It’s deeply weird storytelling, but at least once Keaton appears the movie finds some focus; absent any kind of identifiable protagonist, it locates in its antagonist at least some measure of organization which utterly eludes it during the opening 45 minutes of wheezily recycled non-story. That doesn’t make it good, because it’s nothing of the sort, but at least it’s not quite so shapeless and inexplicable.

Speaking of the villain, what are we to make of the fact that, with his flashy showmanship, single-minded reckless ambition, and ostentatious theme park (complete with Epcot-center-esque “City of Tomorrow!”) this despicable sociopath is an unavoidable analog for Walt Disney himself? The comparisons are far too specific to even entertain the idea that this is not where the movie wants us to go, but why does it want us to go there? Is this some kind of sniveling JURASSIC WORLD-style apology for the tortured needlessness of the thing we’re watching, couched in ironic self-awareness? Is writer Ehren Kruger (damned forever for his part in writing three of five TRANSFORMERS films, and also producing the spectacularly moronic DREAM HOUSE, which is maybe even more embarrassing than having written it, though at least he can hold his head up with pride as the scribe of RENDEER GAMES) possibly deluded enough to believe this is somehow subversive? Or should we just consider this a tortured cry for help from the subconscious of Tim Burton, who Disney kidnapped and replaced with a TWIN PEAKS evil doppelgänger sometime in the mid-2000s? I’d dearly like to believe in the latter to be the case, but frankly by this point in his career Burton seems to have less in common with the misunderstood weirdos of the circus than he does with Keaton’s mercenary hired goons who happily trot off to murder Dumbo’s mom when their Disney-like boss tells them to, no questions asked.

Indeed, I’ve put off saying so as long as possible, but now there’s no escaping it, so let’s just face facts: Tim Burton is credited as the director here. He’s been in bored corporate lackey mode long enough now that I guess I can’t claim it’s a surprise, but even so, DUMBO 2019 conveys an alarming sense not just that the director’s a bored hack, but that there’s nobody at the wheel at all. Maybe twice in the movie he seems to perk up a little around some of the garish sets of “Dreamland,” but even the circus itself, which seems like the kind of thing Burton should have been able to work magic with in his sleep, is a disappointing nothing, lacking even the flop-sweating overdesign of 2005’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and 2010’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND. It’s a dreary, lazily shot-on-soundstages huddle of low, perfunctory structures populated by limply defanged stereotypes whom the movie is far too fretfully woke to allow to lean into their inherent cartoonishness, but also dismissively disinterested in imbuing with any other traits (at least DeObia Oparei, as the circus’ strongman/bookkeeper, gets to make some archly funny faces). The whole thing is then color-corrected into an unsettling alien landscape of not-quite-right chromatic mismatches, where the grass is an odd pine green verging on blue, and the sky is perpetually tinged with an anxiety-inducing orange-red, as if the sun was always right about to set, even when that’s manifestly not the case.

According to the film’s press kit, the production design drew inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper, an odd choice any way you want to look at it -- Hopper’s best known work came from decades after the movie’s 1919 setting, and is marked by a spare, quiet sense of modern alienation, making it a baffling aesthetic touchstone for a childrens' fantasy—but made even weirder by the fact that the movie’s nettled plottiness and overabundance of unnecessary characters all but ensures that Hopper’s serene minimalism is entirely out of the question.**** The only way this makes any sense is as an explanation for why Burton’s recent penchant for seizure-inducing overproduction is ratcheted down to simply garish overproduction. It’s depressing possible that this is what Burton believes qualifies as “minimalism” by this point in his career -- although it’s probably a lot more likely that this is just a simple case of barely giving a shit at all, and having his production crew try to run cover by throwing out an aesthetic which wouldn’t be immediately familiar enough for most people to call their bluff.

Let's compare this 1957 Hopper painting entitled Western Hotel... this frame, from 2019's DUMBO. Anybody else not seeing much similarity? 

Which is, ultimately, the real problem here: despite the effortful ponderousness inherent in any movie pushing a 200 million dollar budget, there’s not a single aspect of this that doesn’t seem to be operating on autopilot. At no point throughout the momentum-free 112 minutes***** does the movie ever make even the flimsiest argument as to why anyone thought it would be worth making; there’s nary a character, setpiece, storyline, or sequence that feel inspired by recognizable human interest. The sole artistic inspiration in this entire sorry affair was the marketing departments’ dead-eyed certainty that people will pay to see an insanely expensive iteration of a recognizable brand name. That’s the movie they tasked Burton and co with making, and that’s what they got: a huge pile of busy but meaningless narrative clutter indifferently trying to obscure the fact that this exists exclusively to remind you of that famous thing you’ve already seen. Despite all the added narrative detritus, there is literally no other purpose here, and the movie never even pretends to aspire to any. It is more reference than film.

This tendency reaches its zenith during a little vignette –too insubstantial to call a “scene”—where Dumbo sits in a tent while some clowns blow large, elaborate bubbles in the air while a wordless snippet of the tune “Pink Elephants On Parade” --the big showpiece hallucinatory number from the original (brought to the pinnacle of its form by Sun-Ra and the Solar Arkestra in 1988)-- wheezes over the soundtrack. This all plays out in an entirely literal, straightforward way; there’s nothing subjective of surreal about it, we’re just watching a CG elephant baby watch a mildly impressive circus act set to inexplicably ominous orchestration for a minute or two, while he kills some time. There’s no reason for this to happen; Disney in 2020 isn’t going anywhere near “drunk baby elephant” territory, and it has no baring whatsoever on the plot and is never referenced again.

Now, there isn’t exactly an overwhelming narrative necessity for this sequence in the original film, either, but the reason for including it is immediately obvious: just in the fun of it. It exists entirely for a bunch of hungry, energized artists to indulge in the sheer joy of going hogwild animating a bunch of surreal nonsense. Their delight in it is palpable, and its ability to inspire similar delight has not diminished in 80 years, not due to any quantifiable utility, but entirely because it is a curious bauble, a creation entirely of whimsy.

Again, let's compare.... this still from the original sequence...

... to this one from 2019. Which one of these looks like a human being actually cared about it? 

That is categorically not so in 2020; here, the same basic elements exist entirely to fulfill a rote function… and that function is simply to mirror something else that already exists. There is no whimsy here, no sense of artistic exhilaration; hell, there’s barely even any cynical, pandering calculation. Nobody ever even bothered to ask why. The sequence, like the movie itself, takes for granted the idea that creation and simulacrum are indistinguishable, that the act of evoking is functionally identical to the act of creating. It is, in that sense, very nearly some kind of experimental postmodern gamble that content is completely meaningless in the face of context, challenging us to ask if meaning itself is purely a construct, a function of the viewer’s applied cultural baggage projected not onto the screen, but into our own internal landscape, where it can be given whatever meaning we find useful.

But I cannot concur. A pipe is an exceedingly useful tool, should I fancy a smoke. A painting of a pipe merely reminds me that I want to smoke. One is the inevitable outcome of human ingenuity and desire; the other is an advertisement. It’s why Magritte titled his famous painting The Treachery of Images. The evocation of “Pink Elephants,” and of 1941’s DUMBO more broadly, is equally treacherous here. The images of 2020’s DUMBO might conjure some vague nostalgia for the real thing, but they have no meaning of their own, and they were never meant to. Ceci n'est pas une DUMBO. Ceci n'est pas une film, even. It’s just a very long, very expensive callback. And not even a very entertaining one, at that.

That said, just looking at Dumbo’s awful CGI face for two hours conjured the most raw, primal horror I’ve felt for a movie in quite some time. This isn’t an uncanny valley, it’s the fucking uncanny Mariana Trench. DUMBO 2019 inspires very few emotions other than despairing tedium, but profound spiritual disquiet is a feeling, and if, as is sometimes postulated, the purpose of art is to draw a reaction from the viewer, I guess you could still say that ol’ Tim Burton managed to make some extremely potent art afterall, despite himself. Recommended for fans of ANGST and A SERBIAN FILM and anyone who wants to see just how much implacable, disturbing wrongness they can withstand. Otherwise, you’re better off forgetting this ever existed as quickly as possible. And fortunately, other than some lingering elephant-related nightmares, that shouldn’t be too hard at all.

* Good luck to the new-to-DUMBO kiddies trying to figure out why the plot stops dead for a few minutes to watch an elaborate bit of bubble-art while a snatch of unaccountably creepy music plays in the background. Viewers of the 1941 version will recognize this as a dismal, watered-down tribute to the "Pink Elephants" showstopper in the original, but without that bit of knowledge it must surely seem utterly inexplicable. In fact, it bears such an uncanny visual resemblance to the "Opera scene" in STAR WARS III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (elaborately dressed dignitaries in box seats having a fraught conversation while they half-watch an elaborate 3D bubble show in a darkened, circular amphitheater, with a similar color scheme) that I would not be surprised to learn that this is the more common interpretation of the scene being referenced (there is no way to interpret it as anything but a reference to something, because the movie focuses on it so insistently and yet it has no bearing on the plot or any other context of any kind) so it's simply a matter of whether most audiences will have any reference for it at all.

** I’m aware that Dumbo doesn’t speak in the original either, but having all the other animals speak gives us a clearer sense that these are, to some degree, anthropomorphized surrogates for humans with the kind of fully articulated, complex emotional lives you’d need in order to be, you know, the protagonist of a movie. Here, no such luck; sometimes the humans speculate on what Dumbo must want, but it’s genuinely up for debate if he has any fucking clue what’s happening to him, or any clear opinion about it. This is basically a slightly less sexy THE SHAPE OF WATER.

*** This is a particular shame on the part of Farrell, who actually has a shockingly passable track record of appearing in pointless remakes and giving excellent performances (see FRIGHT NIGHT, TOTAL RECALL, THE BEGUILED). Alas, his morose one-note (or less) blob of a character, combined with a somewhat labored Southern accent, defeats any effort he might be making .

**** It goes without saying that Hopper never painted anything remotely like the art deco futurism which comprises the latter half of the movie, but even the warmer earlier scenes don’t seem to fit at all with his style, except maybe in the sense of the movie’s unusual palette.

***** Psychotically long for an adaptation of DUMBO, but at least it manages to come in under two hours, which was not at all a sure thing given that some of these live-action remakes’ aggressive runtimes are now edging dangerous close to the 130 minute mark

Friday, May 8, 2020

American Satan

American Satan (2017)
Dir. Ash Avildsen
Written by Ash Avildsen and Matty Beckerman
Starring Andy Biersack, John Bradley, Jesse Sullivan, Booboo Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, with Bill Goldberg, Bill Duke, Mark Boone Junior and Denise Richards whaaaaaaat?

AMERICAN SATAN is a fucking mystery. I never heard anyone, in real life or online, talk about it. Never saw an ad. Never saw a review. I stumbled across it only because I noticed it was listed in Malcolm McDowell’s filmography and so I looked up the trailer. But it’s not just some scruffy indie film funded on kickstarter; there’s more than a dozen listed producers and executive producers (including ROCKY director John G. Avildsen and Rob Zombie producer Andy Gould), and somebody obviously spent some money on this thing, providing it with a crisply professional crew, a gallery of recognizable actors in medium-sized roles, dozens of locations, and even a handful of huge crowd scenes. And a score co-written by Ko“Я”n’s Jonathan Davis! Holy moly! Spare no expense! They even claim there’s going to be a spin-off series? So obviously someone must have seen this, or at least someone must have had reason to believe someone would see it. But, ah. Why?

            Having now seen it myself… it’s still a fucking mystery. I can tell you a little about what happens in it, but I still can’t claim to understand it, or explain who it was made for. What I can say for sure is that I think teenagers are involved somehow, either on the supply or demand end. Because one thing that’s beyond dispute is that AMERICAN SATAN is an adorably earnest, mixed-up muddle of angst and anger and horniness and anxiety and teenage stoner philosophy, like it poured straight from the notebook doodlings of some earnest high school senior with dyed black hair and T-shirt that says “Fuck the world.” All of it is deeply and spectacularly terrible, but it’s also so adorably sincere and emo that I have no choice but to kind of love it. Can’t help myself. Oh jeez, I just realized – is the American Satan me?

The plot is less simple and clearly articulable than I’m about to make it sound, but in essence AMERICAN SATAN depicts the sad tale of youthful rocker Johnny Faust, lead singer of a band called The Relentless. Faust (yes, that seems to be his real last name – his mom is called “Mrs. Faust!”) is played by Andy Biersack, real-life singer of the band Black Veil Brides, a casting decision that makes sense --the role requires quite a number of musical performances-- until I tell you there’s a credit for “Johnny’s singing voice” and it’s another guy, vocalist Remington Leith of a band called Palaye Royale.* Which raises the question, what kind of crazy movie hires a non-actor professional singer to play the lead role of a singer, but then dubs his voice with some other singer? The mysteries of AMERICAN SATAN go deep.

            Anyway, we first encounter Johnny “The Doctor” Faust as a gloomy high school senior who lives in Columbus, Ohio with his mom (Dr. Christmas Jones herself, Denise Richards!?) and assures his mewling virginial Christian sweetheart Gretchen (beauty pageant winner Oliva Culpo) that although he has to move to LA to start a band, he’ll be back just as soon as he becomes a huge mega-star by playing unlistenable Hot Topic rock music and can afford to do what he really wants, which is to return to Ohio and marry her and settle down and live a life of quiet suburban domesticity. The first part of the plan goes amazingly well: he quickly meets a trio of bandmates (BooBoo Stewart, HE NEVER DIED, Ben Bruce of the band Asking Alexandria, Sebastian Gregory, Australian musician and actor), and the four of them recruit bassist Lily (Jesse Sullivan “Creature XXX” in the short film FUCKKKYOUUU) after a brief and unfortunate debate about whether they should let women in the band. But the second part of his plan encounters some turbulence due to the apparently unexpected perils of being a huge megastar, most of those perils instigated by the openly sinister Lily, who insists on maintaining an air of suspicious mystery when she is not manipulatively provoking trouble for everyone. Can’t a guy just become a huge superstar in a sensible, responsible manner and make enough money to buy a house in the Ohio suburbs for his sexless, blank-eyed high school prom date? Oh, the cruel caprice of fate!

            The movie does not treat any of this as a joke, by the way. It is, if nothing else, incorrigibly earnest and committed to making sure we understand the tragic gravity of this tale. And that’s part of what makes the movie so alluringly befuddling, because frankly put, the inherent wrenching tragedy of becoming a huge rock star and being deluged by money, drugs, and gorgeous naked groupies might be a little hard to relate to. But AMERICAN SATAN seems only barely aware that any of those things might conceivably sound appealing. This guy Johnny Faust is the most reluctant rock-and-roller it would be possible to invent; despite all the tattoos and the persistent gothy attitude, the movie insists on treating him as a naïve but obstinately fuddy-duddy wet blanket, who wants no part of the rock n’ roll lifestyle and would rather drink responsibly, get to bed early, file his taxes, and exchange promise rings with his abstinent, blankly wholesome high school sweetheart. He’s the most innocent cinematic rock star since everybody else in Queen except Freddy Mercury as portrayed in the movie BOHEMIAN RAPSODY. He seems apologetic and a little chagrinned even at going to a nice, quiet, oak-paneled restaurant bar booth for a few pints with his bandmate.

            And well he should be, as it turns out, for it is here that they encounter one Mr. Capricon, (Malcolm McDowell, TANK GIRL) who addresses the band (minus bass player Lily, who is always mysteriously and suspiciously absent when he shows up) with a sinister proposition: if they commit one murder, he will make them huge superstars. He seems, --well—a little devilish, but due to his British accent is demonstrably not the title character.

            Obviously this is a moral turning point. On one hand, instant mega-stardom would certainly expediate Johnny’s lifelong dream of investing in midwestern real estate. But on the other hand, is it worth a human life? They mull this over for an appropriate 30 or 40 seconds before deciding to kidnap some kid who they heard was a rapist and is definitely an asshole who calls them a homophobic slur, and lock him in their beat-up band van and set it on fire, symbolically burning the honest, humble home they had built together and becoming corrupted. Standard deal-with-the-devil stuff… except that Johnny immediately has second thoughts and sets the kid free. But then the dumbass would-be sacrificial victim, now completely safe, tries to run away and five seconds later manages to die accidentally entirely through his own stupidity. So I guess the band is off the hook, morally speaking.

But it still counts with British Satan, apparently, because they do become famous, and even their van appears again! Man, lucky break! But as they tour the country spreading their message of whatever it is that they’re shouting about in their songs, things start to turn rotten as they succumb to the lures of easy sex and omnipresent drugs, find themselves constantly under attack by angry protesters, and also, --oh yeah!-- discover that their music is inspiring a nation-wide wave of vengeful murderers. Which makes one recall that some guy who is probably the Devil seemed really invested in making them famous and may possibly have had sinister motives for doing that, especially since he continued to be real helpful even after they kind of bungled the whole “murder a guy” thing and are probably at most guilty of kidnapping and reckless endangerment, not actually murder.

This little incident with the original deal, in fact, is emblematic of the film’s spectacularly confused message. I mean, in theory, this is a pretty easy little parable about selling out your morals for fame and material excess. That’s, like, the only possible point of structuring your movie around a “deal with the devil.” But then it never quite sets this up correctly. Johnny –the only character the movie is even a little interested in—keeps getting unwillingly pushed into things, and the movie keeps refusing to make him responsible for his choices. There’s no hubris here to support a cathartic fall; he never seems like an ambitious libertine who lets his insatiable desires corrupt his soul. He seems like a humble small-town kid who doesn’t quite have the confidence to say no to peer pressure. Even when things start to get out of control and everyone is banging groupies and doing heroin and causing murders, he just keeps sort of mumbling that this isn’t a good idea and he doesn’t really want to do it. Does “He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall” apply if he’s sort of ambivalent about pleasures and just doesn’t know how to politely decline? It’s enough to make you wonder whether his last name is actually a weird coincidence and not a literary reference. Which, uh, --well-- let’s just say the screenplay doesn’t make one confident its authors had read a lot of Marlowe.

The pussy-footing refusal to allow the central character to actually enjoy --or even aspire to-- the copious debauchery depicted here is so pervasive as to feel out-and-out destabilizing, like there’s some crucial context that I’m missing. In fact, for long stretches, I kept wondering, is this some sort of weird Christian-propaganda cautionary tale? That would certainly explain its overwhelmingly and persistently sordid portrayal of what should be, by any reasonable entertainment standard, a wish-fulfillment fantasy. And it would explain why it’s so poisonously afraid of the spiritual debasement of the rock-and-roll lifestyle and so bizarrely uncritical of the implication that what Johnny should do is keep himself pure for marriage to his vacant-eyed young-Republican teetotaler hometown girlfriend. Ultimately I don’t think that’s what the movie intends (nothing I could find about any of the filmmakers backs up that hypothesis, anyway), but it’s hard to miss how blithely reactionary the movie feels.

This vague sense of judgmental hectoring is augmented by the fact that the movie is openly suspicious of bassist Lily, who is always agitating for trouble and mysteriously vague about her origins and never around when the Devil shows up. She’s proudly bisexual and liberated and confrontational, which one would assume a rock-n-roll themed horror movie would be enthusiastically in favor of. But we have a weird feeling she’s probably the Devil and she keeps goading them into situations where they get in trouble and is also revealed to work at a Baphomet-themed bordello which is just a few cenobites short of a HELLRAISER set, where she gets everyone hooked on drugs and debased sex with Satanic hookers and one of them dies. So… is the movie anti-sexual liberation, or… what? What are we supposed to make of that? It, ah, doesn't seem to have the most positive view of women, anyway.

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

 There’s definitely something that feels unhealthily repressed about the way the movie seems equal parts fascinated and horrified by rock and roll excess. I mean, there’s enough wild, out-of-control sex and drug orgies to make Hunter Thompson blush. In particular, the movie is absolutely drowning in female nudity (seriously, the most I’ve seen in a movie in years; Jean Rollin would find this excessive) but never in a positive or fun context where it seems like we’re supposed to be enjoying it, although obviously we are going to anyway… so? Johnny eventually ends up fucking everyone under the age of 80 who takes their top off in front of him, but he keeps weakly mumbling that he shouldn’t and it will ruin his life and his definitely-going-to-last-after-she-moves-to-college-wink-wink relationship with his virginal Christian high school girlfriend. But then he does it anyway, but looks sickened and horrified and disgusted with himself. The movie is obviously seriously getting off on this -- it spends like half the runtime salaciously ogling topless women banging the band-- but never for a moment allows it to pass without a stern lecture that this is degraded and obscene. And just in case we weren’t sure that Johnny is going down the wrong path, he also texts during a heartfelt teary speech at a funeral, which is very rude and Millennial of him. So surely this whole rock and roll thing is bad news, right?

            On the other hand, maybe not, because the movie can’t seem to make up it’s mind about whether the band is making the world better or worse, and it seems to be on-board with them in some occasionally eyebrow-raising ways. We learn that their music has been inspiring waves of violence as young people murder their bullies. Uh oh, sounds like they’re basically facilitating a wave of school shootings! No wonder the Devil wanted to make them America’s most beloved musical institution! Except that the movie seems weirdly ambivalent about whether or not that’s a bad thing. In fact, it offers several apparently earnest speeches suggesting that while it is, on the whole, probably a bad thing to murder people, well, maybe it’s time for society to change, and maybe murdering a few assholes will inspire a kinder, gentler society in the long run. Maybe this is what the revolution looks like, you know? Which is pretty, um, wow.

Similarly, it often seems like the Devil is making good points (McDowell gets some charmingly plummy speeches), and maybe even working with fellow supernatural being Gabriel (Bill Duke! What the?!), who is probably a good guy inasmuch as he speaks entirely in aphorisms. But come on, this guy’s literally the Devil and he’s played by Malcolm McDowell. There’s no way we’re supposed to think he’s right. Right? But then, if the Devil is trying to push their dangerous rock and roll excess, should we reject rock and roll and turn to Jesus? The movie sure doesn’t seem to think so; the Christian protesters and the angry rednecks they fight with are definitely not portrayed positively even though we know they’re right, this band literally is working for the dark one. At the end, after murders and arrests and random meaningless sex with dozens of teenage groupies and also possibly having sex with the Devil and getting hooked on heroin and overdosing and then coming back to life, when Jonny wants to get his head straight he goes to a Hindu guru. So, I guess the correct answer is Hinduism? But, like, the Devil and Angels are also real? And as long as you stay off the drugs, a few mass shootings are probably not such a bad thing after all? Like, what in the fresh fuck are we supposed to do with all this madness? A lot of people offer a lot of philosophy, and I have no idea who the movie thinks is right.

Like, this is definitely a sign things have taken a bad turn, correct? Can we agree on that?

 In fact, the movie’s oddly negative relationship with rock n’ roll recalls the strikingly negative portrayal of heavy metal music during the metalsploitation cycle of the 80’s. It’s hard to remember now, but in the 1980s, during the satanic panic, quite a few people genuinely believed that heavy metal music was dangerous and evil, and the metalsploitation movies of the time broadly reinforce that view, rather than challenge it, despite the fact that the presumed audience was heavy metal fans! As I noted back when I watched the quintessential metalsploitation classic BLACK ROSES in 2015,

“The only people on Earth who would conceivably enjoy this dumb movie are metalheads, so why would you write a plot where it turns out the parents are right, metal is dangerous and should be censored and condemned? My only guess is that [the filmmakers] … were banking on something I’ve long suspected: every true metalhead secretly wishes metal really was evil.”

With AMERICAN SATAN, we see something similar: although we have a movie whose whole hook is about rock music, which stars several professional musicians, and was directed by the CEO of a record label (more on that later), the life of a professional musician is almost without exception portrayed as miserable and corrupting, and the effect of their music is depicted as potentially destructive for the listener. But unlike with heavy metal, where you can see the appeal of the fantasy that listening to Dokken would summon slimy demonic puppets or whatever, I can’t see a similar tongue-in-cheek joy at playing into the stereotype here; watching someone despairingly bottom out just isn’t as much fun. That’s not the appealing part of the fantasy, right? That’s the boring second half of the VH1 Where Are They Now. And I can’t imagine even the most cynical rock n’ roll fan finds much appeal in the fantasy that listening to rock music would inspire you to become a school shooter, right?    

This is further complicated by the weird and inescapable parallels to real life: Beirsack really was a bullied teen from Ohio with some regrettable Batman-themed tattoos who dropped out of high school to move to LA and form a crappy rock act. This is basically his 8 MILE! So maybe this is a story shaped by the perspective of a young kid who indulged too much in his initial burst of fame and now looks back with disgust and regret at those years, and that colors the way the film portrays them? In a Huffington Post interview about the movie, Director Ash Avildsen (2015’s WHAT NOW) stresses this point: “With the exception of the physical manifestation of Satan, everything in the film is based on real events. Either myself, or these guys, or the producers have had these experiences in the rock music scene. It didn’t take that much crazy imagination, even though when people see it they’ll say ‘how did they think of that?”’ (Note: No human being has ever or will ever watch this movie and say “how did they think of that?”). Fair enough, so I guess this is all about gritty reality, then? But wait, in that same interview, Beirsack draws a clear distinction between himself and the character. While noting that their origins are identical, he says, “The difference is I didn’t make a deal with a deity… [T]here’s so many divergences in paths that you can take to success… You can sometimes forget where you came from initially… I don’t know what I would have done if I had the chance to become very successful out of nowhere. When you’re hungry and you want nothing more than to have that success, who knows what you would do if someone presented you with the keys to the kingdom?” So it sounds like he took a very different path than the one we see here.

In fact, while Avildsen is the founder and CEO of Sumerian Records (who, predictably, rep Black Veil Brides, Asking Alexandria, Palaye Royale, and Jonathan Davis, along with Between the Buried and Me (!) and briefly the Dillinger Escape Plan (!!)) and is obviously in a good position to have heard the tales of some of those “real events” the movie depicts, the whole approach has a weirdly dated feel. The legendary drug-fueled groupie-banging excess AMERICAN SATAN wallows in was a feature of 70’s and 80’s metal bands, and sure enough, those are the bands that get name-checked as a reference point. But the movie is aggressively set, like, RIGHT NOW. Avildsen is explicit on this topic: “…I wanted to have the music sound like what a big band might sound like today… I wanted to be like “Okay, what if Tool was a more mainstream heavy metal band with more raspy punk vocals?”. So I strayed away from having the band sound classic rock, I wanted it to sound modern and relevant. We weren’t ambiguous with the time frame… We wanted to make it clear that this was present day.” But do the kids today do this shit? I feel like Biersack’s actual bandmates are probably teetotalers who took their rock and roll money and prudently invested in it.
            In fact, I’d go out on a limb and hypothesize that the “real events” Avildsen is recalling were likely related to him by members of an older generation (he was born in 1981).** And that’s part of the movie’s weird vibe; it’s the story of a bunch of distinctly modern millennial kids who are for some reason living out a particularly 1980’s experience that doesn’t really exist anymore. The result of this generational mismatch is that the film curiously smothers a tale of unmistakably bygone 1980’s debauchery with a thick layer of fretful millennial anxiety. But those two mindsets sit very strangely together. In the cocaine-dusted innocence of the 80’s, a hedonistic focus on the pleasure of the moment made sense; placing a bunch of painfully self-aware burnt-out twentysomethings –who, remember, have on average way less sex than their 80’s counterparts did and with a great deal more stress-- into that same scenario feels bizarre and unnatural. In order to get the characters to work themselves into a respectable heedless decadence, they require some direct pressure from the Devil himself – and even then they still feel anxious and guilty and conflicted and certain that they’re ruining everything.

Speaking of modern anxiety, there’s also a truly wonderful amount of time spent discussing stoner occult conspiracy theories. I think someone even gets a dollar bill and does the thing where you fold it up and reveal a secret message. There’s definitely a lengthy discussion of the famous Apple 666/original sin conspiracy. Why? No idea. Maybe just generalized awesomeness? But probably for the same reason, whatever it is, that the movie includes about 60,000 words of intertitles during the credits quoting various musicians talking vaguely about dark magic. Like all movies with “American” in the title, it obviously feels certain that it’s really getting at something universal and potent about the cultural moment (or at least that it’s close enough to hide behind that claim as an excuse to trot out a bunch of tits and a promotional CD for the director’s label, which is, if anything, probably a more venerable tradition). But unlike AMERICAN GANGSTER, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and AMERICAN HUSTLE (“it’s about Capitalism, man”) or AMERICAN PIE and AMERICAN BEAUTY (it’s about sex, man”) or AMERICAN SNIPER (“it’s about brittle authoritarian masculinity… or maybe we’re just awesome?”), I genuinely emerged from the entire none-too-brief, densely-packed-yet-oddly-uneventful 112 minutes without a single solid guess as to what the point here is supposed to be. Is it about the dark side of ambition? About the corrosive effect of fame? About a sinister satanic conspiracy to corrupt the youth? A sinister satanic conspiracy to liberate the youth? About being careful what you wish for? About just, like, not doing heroin and maybe not fucking so many groupies?

There’s something like 25 minutes devoted to a weird tangent where a nice suburban mom talks her way into bringing her virginal teenage daughter onto the tour bus to be deflowered by Johnny (!), and then while they’re at it she ends up fucking someone else, maybe even Bill Goldberg (HALF PAST DEAD 2, who, unless I dreamed this, shows up as their tour manager or something?) and it’s this nutty thing, but despite the somewhat disturbing implications it seems like both mother and daughter are into it and maybe even having a kind of weird bonding experience. Again, this sounds like something that Poison had to deal with more than anything that’s happened to any band that became famous in the past 30 years or so, but I’ll take it: it seems to be a rare lighthearted moment of debauchery where everyone had a good time. But then a few scenes later, we cut to mom and daughter at home, when their husband/father finds out what happened, grabs a handgun, and blows his brains out! What the fuck, dude! Nothing narratively substantive comes of it but it’s such a weirdly specific little vignette that you gotta figure it means something—but what?

Oh yeah I forgot to mention, that Game Of Thrones guy is in there. Not Hodor, the other one. Hurley. No wait, that was Lost. You know the one I mean. That guy.

            The movie’s most baffling turn comes at the finale, which has already started to get a little narratively abstract (long story short, Booboo Stewart, who plays a guitarist apparently named “Vic Lakota,” does a CNN interview on acid where Larry King appears as himself, and may genuinely not have known he was interviewing a fictional band). ---PLEASE NOTE: I’m going to spoil the ending, I guess, although I’m not really sure what I’m even describing here.-- “Mr. Capricorn,” alarmed that Johnny seems to be increasingly ambivalent about the whole experience, starts dating his mom (?) and meanwhile Johnny has been fucking Lily, who of course we suspect is probably the Devil in disguise (man, what is it about this movie and weird parallel incest tropes?). In the big finale, Lily vanishes and Mr, Capricorn appears and tells Johnny that he wants him to commit a murder on stage to, like, ignite the revolution or whatnot. And to further provoke him, he reveals what we’ve suspected all along, that haha, it was he, Malcolm McDowell, who has hiding inside the nubile body of the Relentless’s bisexual liberated female bassist all along, spurring them forward to this climactic point (and although he doesn’t specifically mention it, that means our boy was banging beloved character actor Malcolm McDowell in disguise!). Oh shit!

            …Except not, because after this huge reveal there’s a little coda with one line of dubbed dialogue at the end which tells us that none of that was true. I guess the Devil was just lying and all that suspicious stuff Lily did was just a coincidence and she’s just a normal human, except sort of a bitch I guess (we’re told she’s a heroin addict who is now in recovery, and she never appears or gets mentioned again and nobody seems to think her behavior requires any further explanation).*** A baffling turn for an inexplicable character in a indecipherable riddle of a movie. Or, alternately, a desperate last minute re-write so they could spin off a series (and, less charitably, possibly also to safely assure us that don’t worry bro, no homo shit here). Either way, it kind of raises the question of, what did the Devil actually do here, anyway? I’m not sure how he helped them, and Johnny doesn’t even seem to think it would be altogether a thing bad if he did – the movie seems to ultimately adopt the stance that maybe God and the Devil are both a little right, and maybe the thing to do is to kind of let them balance each other out. Which, in practice, means that a few school shootings are probably a necessary evil, but we don’t want to start a whole revolution here, that would be going too far.

            Actually, I feel the movie would probably have benefited from going too far; as it is, it feels tentative and vaguely formed, with plenty of provocation but not a lot of real substance, or, hell, even any real narrative arc. For a movie with some real crazy turns, it’s an oddly passive, languid thing. Still, I kind of admire its goofy, earnest, mixed-up spirit. Almost certainly without meaning to, it captures something that feels kind of real about the teenage experience, when the world feels overwhelming and oppressive and everything –God, the Devil, Good, Evil, Sex, Partying, Sick Riffs, Identity, The Man, Society, The Future, Texting, Responsibility, Stoner Conspiracies, Porn, Bitchin’ Tats, and everything else in a young person's**** life just sort of spills over without any real structure or logic. It’s all very dumb, but that doesn’t mean it’s not deeply felt. That doesn’t exactly make for a good movie, but it does make for one which is probably more charming and unusual than a more traditionally good version would be. It stinks, but at least it smells like teen spirit.   

*I know this, of course, from my usual high level of background research; you can rest assured that I had no prior knowledge whatsoever of what a “Palaye Royale” or whatever might be.

** It occurred to me that this tracks with the fact that he might well have grown up around hard-partying celebrities, because his dad was John G. Avildsen (ROCKY, NEIGHBORS, the KARATE KID). But then I read this rather heartbreaking interview which makes it painfully clear that he never met his father and probably didn’t even benefit from his financial success (the one time he saw him as a child was at a family court hearing over child support, where John refused to acknowledge he was present. Jesus!). Although since the elder Alvidsen is a producer on this movie, one assumes they must have met at least once since that 2015 interview. But unless they made up for lost father-son time by exclusively discussing John’s partying with Stallone in the 70’s, I doubt he was the source for these anecdotes. So I dunno. Maybe he heard these stories from grizzled old roadies? He did work with Steve Adler from Guns N’ Roses in his 2015 movie WHAT NOW, so maybe this is all stuff that specifically happened to Steve Adler.

*** I notice actress Jesse Sullivan is the only person to be recast for the spin-off show; I’m not sure exactly what happened here, but that’s obviously a clue of some sort. It’s a shame, though, because she’s giving far and away the most interesting performance in the movie, although the fact that she’s the only character who isn’t utterly passive about everything probably helps.

**** I say young person, but the movie is utterly oblivious to the idea that there might be a perspective other than a young man’s; the only female character who isn’t a completely passive object for male characters to act upon is Lily, who is a destabilizing bitch, and also a sex object. I don’t think the movie is aware of this at all, but its complete disinterest in the inner lives of its female characters is another way in which it feels startlingly dated.

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.