Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Poe & Price for Halloween

I wish I had been able to get to more of the Edgar Allan Poe series at the Brattle - other plans and being a bit worn down managed to cut into that. The idea really wasn't to concentrate on the Price/Corman stuff, although that turned out to be fun. It wound up being just those and silents, though

Pit and the Pendulum

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Remember, always check to see whether the film you're looking to see is actually screening. I was expecting some silent-era avant garde versions of "The Fall of the House of Usher", and instead got this Roger Corman film. Which, of the several Corman/Poe films with Vincent Price that have shown during the series, is easily the least impressive. It has long stretches where nothing really happens, and the gulf of skill and charm between Price and the rest of the cast is vast. Corman does some nice things with his low budget, but it's not quite enough.

(Of course, it may be all the better that the "Usher"s were delayed to the 14th; I went to the 9:30 show after being sucked into the Tigers-Twins play-in game, and don't know if I was totally capable of the concentration necessary for a silent.)

The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Though not a direct adaptation of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, D.W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience nevertheless displays his influence proudly. One of the main characters is shown reading Poe, bits from several stories are included in the plot, and the poem "Annabel Lee" is used to frame most of the affair.

It's the story of a young man (Henry B. Walthall), raised by his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) since infancy, when his parents died. Now, he's in love with a girl (Blanche Sweet), but his uncle doesn't approve, insisting he spend more time working on the accounts for their business. Eventually, this Uncle is going to have to go, but a troublesome detective (Ralph Lewis) soon gets curious about the man's disappearance.

The script is more than a bit rickety, though I'm not sure whether it's inherent in the writing or more because certain attitudes don't just look quaint or dated 95 years later, but downright alien. The nephew and his sweetheart, both adults, seem to cave into the uncle's demands with relatively little resistance. Some attitudes are potentially a bit ugly - none of the characters have names, so having the thug be referred to as "The Italian" says something about the attitudes of the day. There's a subplot about a maid flirting with a grocery boy that doesn't tie in with the rest of the story much at all. And even in 1914, the ending may have been a silly cliché.

For all those things that may make a modern audience look somewhat askance, though, the movie is nicely put together. Once you're used to the silent acting style, the performances come across very well. Griffith uses intertitles to regularly cut to "Annabel Lee" in a way that probably wouldn't work in a talkie, and his editing style is very modern and fast-paced. The double-exposed "ghost" effects shots looks pretty good for the period. Griffith does throw some odd stuff into the end - a rather literal reading of the end of the poem - but at that point, the surrealism works.

The version shown was the version on the Kino DVD, which clocks in at just about an hour, with a soundtrack by NAME. It probably wouldn't gain much from being much longer (although IMDB has it as running 78 minutes at some point); as great a story as "The Tell-Tale Heart" is - and that's the most obvious influence on this film - it would likely be diluted if expanded to something much larger.

The Tomb of Ligeia

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Roger Corman and Vincent Price made seven films based upon the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the 1960s, of widely varying quality and fidelity to the original works. My knowledge of Poe is incomplete and rusty enough that I can't say how closely The Tomb of Ligeia adapts the original story, but I can say that it is one of the most entertaining of the group.

Years ago, Verden Fell (Vincent Price) buried his beloved Ligeia in his family plot despite the objections of the local clergy to her pagan beliefs. Now, the abbey where they lived is a crumbling ruin that the Lady Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd) and her friend Christopher (John Westbrook) happen upon during a fox hunt. Verden has long been a recluse, but sparks soon fly between him and Rowena, and they are married. Ligeia's presence dominates the abbey - but is it just in Rowena's head? Or is there something sinister to the black cat that wanders the grounds? Or perhaps Fell is insane?

The Tomb of Ligeia is a handsome film, with Corman and company venturing out onto location much more than usual. Aside from the English countryside just plain looking nicer than a set built on a soundstage, the openness makes Rowena's adventurousness a nice counterpoint to Verden's tendency to shut himself in. The interiors of the abbey is nicely realized, too, giving the characters plenty of room to maneuver. A lot of horror movies, especially in the budget range where Corman tended to work, look like they're trying to cut corners, but this one almost never does.

Corman turns in a fine job directing. Working from a screenplay by Robert Towne, he spends just enough time on setting the scene to get us to believe in the movie's world, but never gets mired in minutia. Corman and Towne, in adapting the short story, don't over-complicate things - for example, while Christopher's obvious feelings for Rowena are never far from the audience's thoughts during Westbrook's scenes, the filmmakers don't let the potential triangle among the living elbow the one that involves the dead out of the way. They do a nice job of keeping just what is going on vague without being frustrating, so that there's plenty of genuine tension in the last act with potential sources in both the supernatural and human madness.

The cast is very good as well; one of the best in the series. Price gets one of his better roles as Fell, able to play forbidding, romantic, worried, and mad in turn. Price became a horror icon perhaps even more for his charm than for his ability to be ferocious, and he puts that charm to good use here while only occasionally seeming fangless. Elizabeth Shepherd is a nice complement as Rowena, intelligent and fairly sure of herself, in a way that is not undercut when circumstances call on her to scream. John Westbrook, Derek Francis, Oliver Johnston et al fill out the cast without creating a dip in quality.

And that can happen in relatively low-budget films. There are certainly times when it's clear that Corman didn't have a whole lot of money to throw around. Bits of the finale look to be recycled directly from House of Usher, for instance, and as well-done as most of the film is, there are still moments when you might think that one more take or run through the script might have helped.

They're relatively minor, though, and for the most part Corman and company do a good job of telling a gothic romance without overdoing the atmosphere. This is the sort of movie that could easily become a parody of itself, but instead manages some genuine scares.

House of Usher

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

After the past week I could probably set some sort of site record by having reviews of four different versions of "The Fall of the House of Usher", if I really wanted to - this, a pair of 1928 silents, and a modern version that hit video with little fanfare a couple years ago. For now, though, let's stick with this film directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, the first of their seven collaborations on Edgar Allen Poe stories, and one of their best.

Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the titular house seeking his fiancée, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), who recently left Boston without a word. The butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) tells him that the mistress is not well, but Phillip pushes his way in to confront the man of the house, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price). Roderick tries his best to push Phillip away, saying that Madeline suffers from a family malady - though perhaps that is not the Usher legacy which should concern them!

House of Usher created a template that at least half of the later entries in the Poe "series" would follow - outsider comes to a mansion inhabited primarily by Price's character and a servant, is initially rebuffed by Price, and has his or her persistence rewarded by insanity and inevitable destruction, along with certain other recurring motifs. Perhaps for Halloween, I'll pick up a copy of Poe's stories to see whether this comes from him or whether Corman found a formula that worked and exploited it for as long as it sold tickets. Of course, screenwriter Richard Matheson's expansion of the story to feature-length didn't create these tropes - they are familiar elements of gothic horror stories going back decades if not centuries.

The question, then, is execution, and Corman and company do pretty well. It's a bit rough at times - for instance, at one point the audience this writer sat in laughed at something that looked like an error, something that would have been an "aha!" moment if the movie were firing on all cylinders. Aside from that, though, it's mostly fairly smooth sailing: Corman builds things up quickly, but things don't get frantic until the end. He gets shocks without a whole lot of blood and guts, and brings things to a nice climax.

The cast turns in good work, too: This is a prototype Vincent Price role, with Price carrying off a frail, aristocratic air while also being legitimately threatening. Mark Damon is a fine complement to him as Winthrop, quite physical and determined, making a virtue of his comparative simple-mindedness. Myrna Fahey hits the right note as Madeline, making her fragile but also implying that she could be otherwise under different circumstances. And character actor Harry Ellerbe makes the most of his part as the loyal Bristol, connecting with both Price and Damon and, as a result, the audience.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's more famous stories, so the audience likely has a good idea how it ends. The getting there is quite enjoyable, though, creepy but also just plain fun to watch.

The Raven

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Look at the credits for this. Price, Lorre, and Karloff. Jack Nicholson before he was JACK NICHOLSON. Richard Matheson writing what amounts to an original story, and Roger Corman directing. All of those people have done some shoddy movies in their time, sure, but they've all done impressive enough wok that you'd think someone would be on their game. That's not the case, though, and the result is almost no fun at all.

Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) is a sorceror, though he mostly keeps his sorcery to himself. One night, though, a raven flies in through his window and starts talking to him. It turns out to be Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), transmogrified by another magician, Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven wants no part of these wizard turf wars, though his mind changes when Bedlo claims to have seen Craven's late wife Lenore (Hazel Court) at Scarabus's castle. So, with Craven's daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo's son Rexford (Nicholson) in tow, they head out to confront Scarabus.

Deliberate camp is almost always always painful, and that's not just a recent phenomenon. Still, though everything in The Raven is done with a wink and a nudge, I'm not sure this film is really in the camp mode. Camp requires a certain amount of effort from the participants, and while the intent here is for the audience to laugh, the majority of the cast and crew appear to be mailing it in. Scenes which could be dry or limp almost invariably end up as the latter. Plot twists occur without thrilling or exciting; it's just something else that has happened as the film drunk-walks to the hour and a half mark.

By far the most obvious lack of effort comes from Peter Lorre. He quite frankly seems annoyed to be there, and I don't think he shows an actual emotion other than irritation throughout the film. He can't even muster the effort to be a sniveling coward, and if you can't get that from Peter Lorre, what's the point? Hazel Court and Olive Sturgess are unimpressive, respectively chewing scenery and being blandly winsome, and Karloff seems to be trying to be charming when he'd be much better off with intimidating. Jack Nicholson actually fares rather well as the square-jawed hero of the piece - oddly, the performance made me think it was a shame that he didn't do westerns in his early career. Price's light touch comes out looking the best.

Still not good, unfortunately - he doesn't have much in the way of quality material to work with. Matheson's story gives the feeling of being made up as he went along, with no goal other than ending on "quoth the Raven nevermore". Corman doesn't do much to help; like the rest of the cast and crew, he seems to be coasting along, unable to help his cast find the right rhythm for Matheson's words, which perhaps might have been fun with snappy delivery. It's as if all the money was spent on animation effects (which, for an enterprise this side, aren't that bad), leaving no margin for error with the rest.

I suppose movies like The Raven do the rest of moviekind a sort of service: It's better if everybody involved has their worst work in one place, rather than having the substandard work strewn over a half-dozen films.

Tales of Terror

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

I like the Idea of Roger Corman's Tales of Terror quite a bit, although I'm surprised it got made as a feature: Television anthology programs were enough of a going concern in the early 1960s that it would seem to make more sense to have Corman adapt various Edgar Allen Poe tales with Vincent Price there, rather than as an anthology feature. Of course, even a Corman production probably had more to work with than television at the time, and maybe the movie wouldn't have ended up with such a nifty cast.

The first story told is "Morella", in which a young woman by the name of Lenora (Maggie Pierce) visits her father Locke (Price) for the first time in twenty years, having spent her entire life at boarding schools and with relatives. She finds him still mourning - and haunted by - the loss of his wife Morella (Leona Gage), for which he blames his daughter.

Take out the "scary movie" elements, and this would still be a pretty good piece. Price's theatricality is there, and Corman is ever aware that he's not making a movie called "Tales of Awkward Reconciliation". Price and Pierce play the part of a wounded family very well, though, and it's a pleasure to see that even though Price's job description by a certain point was "being Vincent Price", he had range beyond the genial monster.

Next up is "The Black Cat", though it certainly has had "A Cask of Amontillado" poured into it. It centers around Montressor (Peter Lorre), once an officer during the Revolutionary War but now the town drunk, whose wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson) is pretty well fed up with him. Looking for a drink when thrown out of his usual bar, he comes upon a wine tasting where he meets expert oenophile Fortunato (Price), who is impressed not only with Montressor's expertise with the grape but also his sadly neglected wife.

Lorre is not quite so indifferent here as he was in The Raven, although he tends to have two modes in this role: Angry drunk and bitter wisecracker. Price, meanwhile, seems to get a kick out of his role, a genial fop who happily enters into an affair with Annabel but seems to have no issue with Montressor at all. It's an odd tone, a bit of light sandwiched between a couple grimmer tales, but it mostly works.

Finally, there's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", in which Price plays the title character, a man dying of an illness that leaves him in chronic pain - until he starts getting treatment from hypnotist Dr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone). The condition he attaches is that Valdemar must allow Carmichael to hypnotize him just before the moment of death, testing his theory that this will keep someone from passing on fully. Valdemar's wife Helene (Debra Paget) and doctor James (David Frankham) aren't thrilled with this, especially since Carmichael's intentions appear sinister.

Rathbone makes for a great villain; unfortunately, he's not given a whole lot to do. He's got the right attitude, and he makes a fine foil for Paget and Frankham in their scenes. Matheson just doesn't give him a lot to do; it's a very passive story. That changes quickly toward the end, with a fairly satisfying finale (and pretty nasty, for the period).

None of the stories are great, but all of them are good. Three times good isn't quite qreat, but it's a decent enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Witchfinder General

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Witchfinder General was programmed in the Brattle's October Edgar Allan Poe series because Roger Corman bought the American distribution rights, slapped some excerpts from the poem "The Conqueror Worm" on the front and back, and changed the name to match. Either way, it's the sort of horror that comes out of being based on actual ugly history.

It's the time of the English civil war. Lord Cromwell controls East Anglia, although fighting with Royalist forces is still fierce. Soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) has distinguished himself in Cromwell's army, and on a brief stop in his village, Father John Lowes (Rupert Davies) asks what his intentions are toward his niece Sarah (Hilary Dwyer). When he admits it is to leave farming, the vicar is actually pleased - he has heard that Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) is on his way, supposedly to smoke out witches though he and his partner John Stearne (Robert Russell) are the type to use what they claim is the Lord's work to satisfy their own urges.

Witchfinder General is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, filled with all manner of nasty rape, torture, and murder. Women sell their bodies casually in some cases and out of a harsh practicality in others. Corruption is rampant, in no small part because the film often seems to lack specific ideals. Marshall is a good soldier for a cause that is frequently shown as questionable, Hopkins shows loyalty to nobody except himself, and there's not a drop of remorse to be found. Director Michael reeves knows how to shoot and cut his movie so that we see just enough for the movie to feel unflinching but also don't see enough that we might imagine the worse.

Exemplifying all this is Vincent Price in possibly the finest role of his career. There's not a drop of camp to be found in his Matthew Hopkins, just a cold cruelty to go along with a brutish intelligence. Price plays Hopkins as completely casual in hypocrisy, an implacable force that never gives hints of a righteous nature misdirected or particular pleasure taken in his power. He looks down at Stearne with disdain - and Russell does make the man into a particularly vile sociopath - but doesn't gain any measure of respect because of it.

The rest of the cast does fine work, as well. Ogilvy plays Marshall as quite capable but not a genius, sincere but not one to over-sell his point. That characterization is matched by Hilary Heath, who gets across that Sarah is good but not naive or foolish. Rupert Davies gets a bit less screen time as Sarah's uncle, but creates a solid connection to them in that time. And even the actors with the smallest roles turn in good work.

In a way, that's what makes the movie particularly horrifying; even the people working with Hopkins are played as utterly believable and ordinary. Reeves and the writers don't present us with a top-down hysteria driven by the likes of Hopkins and Stearne whipping people into a frenzy; there's a sense that most of this is ordinary people settling scores by vicious means because it's a vicious time. Marshall isn't that far from any of them; he just maybe hasn't been pushed quite as far yet. There's not much doubt that, should he catch up with Hopkins and Stearne, his revenge will be bloody indeed.

So while Vincent Price makes for an excellent villain here, it's not because he makes his character uniquely evil. He's just much better at the sort of ruthlessness that everybody is capable of tapping into.

The Oblong Box

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

This one, I fear, didn't do very much for me. Price plays a man who has had his disfigured brother locked in the attic for years. The brother fakes his death, is discovered by Christopher Lee's grave-robbing doctor, and goes on a killing spree. For most of the movie, the Markham brothers are kept entirely separate, and the bag over Edward's head just doesn't give him the sort of slasher-movie charisma that later mad killers would have.

Looks nice, but just didn't work for me; I think I actually dozed off during this second part of a double feature.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" (this one)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Watching even the most accessible silent film often requires a level and type of concentration that we just don't train ourselves to have in the hundred years of sound cinema that have followed. Something like the version of "The Fall of the House of Usher" made by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber is another story entirely. If I hadn't seen the Corman version days earlier, I might have had no idea what was going on.

That's not necessarily a negative; Watson and Webber create an intriguingly photographed and designed work clearly inspired by Poe's story, rather than an actual adaptation. Seen in that light, it may be a particularly fine piece of art; I just don't know whether I was able to concentrate well enough to catch all, or even most, of it.

La Chute de la Maison de Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) (this one)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Films Of Mystery & Madness: Edgar Allan Poe On Screen)

Over the years, adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" have taken various liberties. To a certain extent, it's necessary - it's not a long story, and requires bulking up to get to the hour mark. Doing that tends to mean fleshing out the characters, giving them solid ties to the narrator and the outside world. And that's kind of cool, actually - "Usher" has a structure well-known enough that people don'e mess with it too much, but it leaves filmmakers plenty of room to leave their own stamp on it, as Jean Epstein does in this silent version.

Here, the man who comes to visit the titular house is Allan (Charles Lamy), an old college friend of Sir Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt). Naturally, the local town folk don't want to take him near the actual house, although it doesn't seem outwardly dangerous. Once inside, Allan finds that Roderick has fallen victim to the Usher family curse, an obsession with painting the portrait of his wife, Madeline (Marguerite Gance). The portrait is an incredible likeness, seeming almost able to walk off the page, but there's something wrong - the real Madeline seems to grow weaker as Roderick paints, though he seems either unable to see the connection or powerless to stop it.

Collaborator Luis Buñuel quit the film over Epstein's decision to ignore much of the story, and only a few basic similarities remain - a character named Roderick Usher, and a house that is due for at least a figurative collapse due to the lack of an heir. In Poe's story and most adaptations, Madeline is Roderick's sister, and the obsessive portrait-painting is entirely Epstein's own invention. Still, Epstein retains the most important part: The sense of approaching doom.

What he adds is an interesting idea in its own right, that perhaps art should not be concerned so much with mere reproduction. In his movie, creating a perfect representation weakens the original, destroying that which the artist seeks to preserve. It's an obsession that we see even now, as computer graphics push visual effects closer to photorealism, to name only one example. This film was made as talking cinema became more and more of an inevitability, perhaps already sounding a death knell for the stylized joys of silent cinema.

Epstein uses those styles nicely, too. The film isn't abstract like the J.S. Watson/Melville Webber version that came out the same year, but there is something unreal about the Ushers' mansion. The acting is certainly nowhere near as naturalistic as modern viewers are used to, but it's also not particularly theatrical, either.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" has been told at least a dozen times on film. I'm not sure whether or not there has been a great or definitive one - this one does its own thing too much to be that - but the Epstein version is among the most interesting.

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