Archive for October 2015

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

October 25, 2015

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Generally agreed to be the first Brazilian horror film, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is the perfect underseen-in-America Halloween movie. Its director and cowriter, José Mojica Marins, also stars as Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, a robustly diabolical and atheistic mortician who terrorizes everyone in his town. Coffin Joe has long fingernails and favors a black cape and black top hat. In this heavily Catholic town, he enjoys eating meat on Holy Friday, going so far as to force a man in the local bar to chew some lamb. Coffin Joe is obsessed with “the continuity of blood”; he wants a son to carry on his bloodline, and since his wife can’t give him one, he goes looking for a candidate. As you may have gathered, this does not involve gentle seduction and walks on the beach.

At Midnight is the first of a trilogy of Coffin Joe films (though Marins made several other movies featuring the character) whose plot throughline is the anti-hero’s quest for a son. Coffin Joe went on to become something of a favorite (if disreputable in many quarters) icon of terror in Brazil, lending his name or visage to books, comics, TV shows, songs, and even a Volkswagen. Our closest equivalent, I suppose, might be Freddy Krueger, who rose out of American fears of child abusers much as Coffin Joe is partly a cautionary figure demonstrating what happens if you laugh at God and spirits and the local bruja. Brazilian audiences felt safe in vicariously relishing Coffin Joe’s blasphemies and violence as long as it was clear that he would get his comeuppance at the end — which he does, spectacularly.

Of course, “spectacular” is relative when you’re talking about something obviously made on a frayed shoestring; this is the kind of cheapjack film in which an actor must endure real live tarantulas and maggots crawling on his or her face. Despite that, the gore effects (shot in inky black and white) are appropriately gross and wince-inducing, especially for a film that landed only a year after H.G. Lewis’ seminal Blood Feast. Not really a flashy director, at least on this ride, Marins still manages to birth a classically spooky affair with the sometimes-schlocky but lovable aesthetic of a small-town haunted house: skulls, witches, glowing eyes, disembodied shrieking and moaning.

Most of Marins’ cast were non-actors (one of his cowriters, Magda Mei, plays the unfortunate woman who catches Coffin Joe’s eye), but Marins himself gives a performance of epic hamminess, constantly laughing maniacally or screaming in terror of the “inferno.” At Midnight is a lot of fun, but it’s also a serious document of its time and place, a Brazil gripped with fear of God and ghosts; the movie is suffused with that unique South American Catholic mix of religion and superstition. It’s a place where the concept of the Holy Ghost consorts uneasily with that of unholy ghosts. Coffin Joe may be one of the latter; he starts off as a fairly normal mortician and gradually adds terrible qualities, beginning by wanting meat on Holy Friday, until finally he’s drowning his best friend and raping that friend’s fiancée.

Yet the little I know about Marins suggests he doesn’t mean Coffin Joe entirely as a cautionary figure. The character is also a critique of the society that gave rise to him, a heavily paternalistic culture that places a great deal of importance on procreation, especially having sons. Women, of course, are regarded only as a means to that end (remember, a woman cowrote the script). Coffin Joe isn’t just an example of how a Brazilian man can go wrong and doom his soul (he isn’t the one, incidentally, who issues the film’s titular threat); he’s the logical extension of the harsh misogynistic world he lives in. Naturally, this being a horror film, he also drops a tarantula on his wife’s face and smashes someone else in the face with a crown of thorns he rips off of a statue of Christ. At Midnight has been compared to Ed Wood’s loony absurdities, but it’s closer to the surreal grotesqueries of Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or.

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Island of Lost Souls

October 17, 2015

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H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has spawned a variety of adaptations, official and unofficial, but the first is still the best. Island of Lost Souls, for one thing, is in black and white. That might be the secret ingredient. Most of the other film versions were shot in color, but this one is gray and grainy, and the jungle is cloaked in deep rich shadow. Director Erle C. Kenton has no particular flair, but that’s okay for a story like this, which is quite freaky enough without stylistic curlicues. Kenton stays out of the way while master cinematographer Karl Struss lights the island of Dr. Moreau as a subtle hell of half-seen atrocities. The movie has a queasy documentary vibe — there isn’t even any score except at the beginning and end.

Charles Laughton oozes into frame as Moreau, a dominant sadist who even wields a whip. Laughton sneaks all sorts of perversity into his performance through a dark side door. Moreau has created grotesque man-animal hybrids, but why? So he can have bestial slaves to serve him in the jungle? Moreau’s pride and joy, his greatest creation, is Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When fate brings shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to the island, Moreau’s interest in Edward is mostly limited to trying to get him to mate with Lota. Let that sink in: A woman who used to be an animal — who in some respects still is — being groomed to have sex with a human male. This is a 1932 film, remember. No wonder it kicked up such a ruckus in America and in England (where it was banned for years because of its vivisection theme).

We could also be looking at a Darwinian concept here: the manimals onscreen came from animals, just as we derived from apes. But the oily Dr. Moreau, hairless except for his pate and his fussy mustache and beard, seems neither human nor animal. He’s like some gelatinous god or demiurge, a Judge Holden at play in the fields of the Lord, dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders or the bride of Frankenstein. Laughton keeps Moreau polite and cool-headed in most cases, until he must discipline his ranks, at which point he barks or hisses or growls. The performance isn’t over the top, though; Laughton sprinkles these weird touches around like biscuits for dogs to find.

As in the same year’s Freaks, we couldn’t care less about the “normal” couple (Leila Hyams plays essentially the same level-headed woman in both films). Our sympathies are with most of Moreau’s creations, like the yowling Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), or the frighteningly lustful Ouran (wrestler Hans Steinke), or the abused M’Ling (Tetsu Komai). Make-up legend Wally Westmore turns the Beast-Men into shaggy, melancholy nowhere men, neither-nors like their father-god, not remotely cute or clever but tormented demons from the nightside of nature. Ouran is pretty scary when he tries to get into Leila Hyams’ room after dark, but is he scarier than a man of science who essentially pimps out his “daughter” to see what her offspring will come out looking like?

Island of Lost Souls was described by Michael J. Weldon, that arbiter of all things cult and psychotronic, as “probably the best horror movie ever made.” There’s something legitimately sick and cold about it, a chill sweat of jungle malaria. Moreau hypocritically lays down a series of laws for his Beast-Men (“Not to eat meat…not to spill blood”) but ignores all manners of moral and medical law, including, eventually, his own — which leads to his downfall, vivisection at the hands/paws of his children in his dreaded House of Pain. Thus do creators of life die in this new world of gods and monsters.

Freaks

October 11, 2015

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The horror of Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks is not simply that it showcases “freaks.” It kicks off with a long, gloriously pious text prologue soliciting the audience’s sympathy for the malformed, the mutilated, and so forth. (It was assumed, of course, that the film’s audience was composed of “normals.”) Then, for a good long while, every scene seems to make the same point: that the differently bodied are no different from “normal people” in emotion, in their need to belong, and in their sexual drives. The “normal” audience is thus conditioned to see the “freaks” merely as “normal” people in unusual packages. So we shouldn’t be so surprised, perhaps, when the “freaks” end up acting, indeed, much like the violent, vindictive, vengeful “normals” who have forced their hands.

Set behind the scenes of a circus sideshow, Freaks gives us what Stephen King pegged as an E.C. Comics horror story twenty years early. The midget Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with able-bodied trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She strings him along, getting jewelry and “loans” out of him, until she learns he’s sitting on a fat inheritance. Then Cleopatra conspires with her real love, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans and gradually poison him to death. Hans’ fellow outcasts — who had earlier grievously offended Cleopatra with their wedding-night chant “Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us” — band together for ghastly revenge.

The beginning of that climactic sequence boasts a genuinely badass moment Quentin Tarantino would be proud to have filmed: dwarf Jerry Austin snapping open his switchblade and polishing it, followed by “half-boy” Johnny Eck taking out a gun and polishing it, while dwarf Angelo Rossitto plays his flute, unperturbed. Freaks is essentially a melodrama (based glancingly on Tod Robbins’ rather corny short story “Spurs”) that rolls inexorably towards a uniquely powerful and frightening denouement. It’s not that the “freaks” confirm our suspicions about them as inhuman; it’s that they, after spending much of the running time seeming quite amiable, fulfill their potential towards a darker kind of humanity. In true noir fashion, they prove as rotten as almost anyone else onscreen.

After the movie died in previews, a nervous MGM hacked out roughly half an hour, reportedly including a scene in which we see exactly what the enraged performers do to Hercules (castration, rumor has always had it). In the existing film, we never find out what happens to him, which kind of makes it worse, since our imaginations fill in the grotesque details. Part of the horror, for me, was seeing one of the “pinhead” women — previously never seen without gleeful smiles — crawl through the mud after Hercules, her face frozen and numb. The “freaks” are not shown to enjoy their revenge, exactly; it’s just something that must be done. The “straight” world has stomped on their kind once too often. At that point, the movie’s putative heroes, good-hearted “normals” played by Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, have been soundly forgotten; they turn up at the very end in a happy coda that feels pasted on. We know the true final shot should be of Cleopatra in her new role in the circus.

Tod Browning, who’d directed a few Lon Chaney vehicles as well as Lugosi’s Dracula, more or less killed his career with this film; he would helm only four more before spending twenty years inactive until his death in 1962. In truth, Browning’s choice of material and comfort with the unusual were always more interesting than his generally stiff direction; someone like James Whale might have found bizarre outsider wit in the story. But where it counts, in that apocalyptic finale and the revelation of Cleopatra’s fate, Browning locked in some of horror cinema’s most indelible images. Decades later, of course, Freaks would find a younger, more appreciative audience on video and midnight-movie showings, influencing filmmakers as well as the Ramones (who misquoted the freak-chant as “gabba gabba” on their 1977 song “Pinhead”). By then, it wasn’t that Americans accepted freaks but that Americans accepted themselves as one of them.