The Curse of The Cat People (1944): The Oddest of Horror Sequels

800px-Curse_of_the_Cat_People_lobby_card.jpgThe Curse of the Cat People feels like entering a storybook only to find ourselves in Tarry Town near Sleepy Hollow. Fittingly, we are placed with a group of kindergarteners who have come with their teacher to frolic and enjoy a field trip to the place brought to life in the tall tales of Washington Irving.

Immediately, this latest Val Lewton production plays to its greatest strengths by melding folk tale, supernatural sensibilities with bits and pieces of our world. The medium through which the picture chooses to work is a little girl named Amy (Ann Carter). She’s a serial daydreamer with her big doe eyes constantly glowing with light. One moment she’s infatuated with a butterfly and an overeager boy obliterates it in his attempts to catch it for her. She proceeds to rear back and slap him across the face.

It’s only her way but the other kids see her as odd and aloof. She’s not like them. With its opening premise in place, it’s safe to say The Curse of the Cat People is one of the strangest sequels for the very fact it has a decent amount to do with its predecessor and yet feels as if we have literally been transposed to a different cinematic world. Also, the name is an utter misnomer.

We have an offshoot taking the basic characters and settings from its predecessor while foregoing normal horror beats for a stranger set of psychological and adolescent themes. It might as well be an entirely standalone film with the urban working environment being replaced with a rural suburbia.

Now our hero from Cat People (1942), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), has settled down with his wife Alice (Jane Randolph) and his little girl, but parenthood has made him a bit testy. Given the powers previously wreaking havoc on his life, perhaps it’s warranted. He wants to shield Amy from his deceased wife’s fate at any cost. 

But if we look at their current domestic life, it’s fairly sterilized in a way that might quickly become sickening to watch. They go by their three names: “Daddy,” “Mommy,” and “Darling” while their able-bodied, eloquent servant Edward (Sir Lancelot) keeps house. However, this very veneer is set in sharp juxtaposition with forces far more volatile and unnerving — at least at first.

Amy begins to have arcane experiences with the old Farren House where a cantankerous matron resides with her brooding, spectral-like daughter. So if we want to get technical, the movie is really about two families: One seemingly perfect, the other accursed.

On one such visit, Mrs. Farren grips the little girl with the local myths. The recounting of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow all but sweeps us up in a moment of pulse-pounding vigor, in spite of taking place entirely in a single drawing-room. Something about it is so alive and deeply unsettling.

As a defense mechanism, Amy calls out to a phantom who comforts her. We’ve all had invisible companions at one time or another so it’s not a strange request. However, her friend feels far more tangible than any of ours.

Of course, it’s Irena (Simone Simon) the woman her father has never dared tell her about. Besides, Irena is dead. As her parents worry about her mental stability, Amy is comforted by having Irena as a confidante. 

Life continues cheerfully enough. On Christmas, all the most important people in her life get a present. Carolers come by and begin an impromptu chorus of, “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.” Mommy reminisces about her memories putting on “mummers plays.”

We expect something darkly twisted to invade this holiday conviviality and yet it never comes. What was initially exploited is childish fancy intertwining with this supernatural entity. But everything gives way to a heart-aching sincerity. We come in expecting one twist, and we get an almost anti-twist in its place. Instead of being haunted by demons and cursed things, a young girl makes friends and finds a way to heal wounds through a firm embrace. It turns out this could be an offbeat Christmas classic in some circles. 

The picture strikes this curious tone between obvious markers. Though it makes it maddening to try and categorize — especially for contemporary advertisers — now it plays more like a blessing than a curse. Because we expect something mundane and one dimensional, only to get a surprisingly inventive exploration of childhood and imagination. While we never quite forget we have a minor production on our hands, this Val Lewton-produced effort continues his run of beguiling material.

Taken as a body of work, Lewton’s pictures are bewitching to the very last frame. A young up-and-comer, Robert Wise, would also be called upon to complete the picture. It’s probably an understatement to say it was a humble beginning to an auspicious career. 

3.5/5 Stars

The Seventh Victim (1943): Lewton’s Economy Rules

Seventh-victim-poster_one_sheet.jpgWhat a picture for Kim Hunter to have come into her own (and Mark Robson for that matter). The 7th Victim is a chilling gem, and the motor to move the story forward is an audacious girl, Mary Gibson (Hunter), who makes a decision to leave her boarding school of stain glass and angelic choirs, to search after her missing big sister.

Upon arriving in New York, Mary finds out Jacqueline, in an uncharacteristic fashion, sold her profitable cosmetic company eight months prior. Something must be up. Our kiddy noir hits its paces as Mary’s intrepid investigations lead her to Dante’s Italian Restaurant. She checks in on her sister’s rented room only to find a chair and an ominous hangman’s noose.

Next, she files a claim with the missing person’s bureau and looks to hire a private eye to give her help in a city that feels generally unfriendly. However, this is not entirely the case as she makes the acquaintance of Jason, a local poet who looks to lighten up the atmosphere. Likewise, Hugh Beaumont acts as a calming force in this labyrinth of turbulence and underlying dread. Nevertheless, he warns Mary that her sister, “Lived in a world of her own fancy. Didn’t always know the truth.” Another portent of some ill fate awaiting her.

Admittedly, on a micro-level, all the pieces simply do not fit together. To understand why we only need look at what moments were potentially left on the cutting room floor. In the age of narrative incoherence in crime storytelling, The 7th Victim is among the best (or worst). The fact that in such a short time it can be so befuddling must speak to something. Dissenters might clamor this is a disjointed mess but if this is faulty storytelling there is also a sense of apprehension present, inherent to such narratives.

It cannot simply be about four scenes that were famously cut out of the picture. Though we would have gained clarity in one sense, in another these missing pieces somehow aid in this byzantine journey weaving a yarn out of relatively meager resources. The dialogue is just okay but on a macro level, it’s all very intriguing.

The creme de la creme of chiaroscuro photography occurs when Mary goes down to a mysterious shop with Mr. August on a clandestine mission that goes awry. Anyone walking into such a world would know to begin with no good will come of it, inching down a hallway of darkness.

Then, we have the curious appearance of Dr. Judd (Tom Power) from Cat People who conveniently provides another male character with information on Jacqueline’s current situation. He subsequently has deep abscesses of knowledge about a cult of Palladian Devil Worshippers operating out of Greenwich Village. Again, we have a mythology evoked with traditions and sacred texts lending credence to this widespread conspiratorial atmosphere.

Because of course, as you might have guessed already, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), now cloaked in a bob of dark hair, found herself immersed in a very foreboding crowd. They don’t look too kindly on those who let their secrets out. Another stylistically rewarding moment comes right after the woman is released from certain death and winds up wandering the darkened streets in a near dazed state. She scurries away into the shadows to evade an unknown pursuer — frantically seeking the aid of an oblivious theater troupe.

We’re on again with the perplexing waling nightmares because the film chooses to dwell in such places. But if the picture chooses to acknowledge Satanic cults the equal and opposite must be called upon to whether the evil. Though not an obviously religious man, the good psychiatrist asserts there is proof that good is superior to evil.

It comes in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He speaks the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…Deliver us from evil.” Again, the real world liturgy pads the narrative with a kind of believable ethos even as Jacqueline is still hounded by some unknowable, supernatural specter.

The final scene is a blink and you missed it circumstance. Provided a few more seconds to sink in it could have been a horrible thing. As is we hardly have time for the facts to dawn on us until the movie is over, literally seconds later. While not optimal there’s no discounting how the scene was handled visually. Even in this single moment, it says so much with what is not seen and a sound compared to so many other pictures bloated with extravagant sets and resources.

7th Victim is a reminder that sometimes our movies lack imagination, thinking money and special effects can be thrown at a story to make it novel. While this might be true on a most superficial level, sometimes it is constraints that bring out creativity and reveal to us how starkness in the right context can be a beautiful gift. Val Lewton’s horror unit is one of the small wonders of classic cinema, and they cast an indomitable shadow, widely in part to cinematographers like Nicholas Murucasa. This one is another low-lit gem. Once again economy rules.

4/5 Stars

The Leopard Man (1943): A Work of Sound and Shadow

190px-Leopard_man.jpgIt’s fitting that a pair of castanets act as our entry point into the latest entry from Val Lewton’s RKO unit. Not only do they instantly grab our attention, but they foreshadow the auditory nature of the film and, in the cultural context, provide a little shorthand for where our setting might be.

Because with this stereotypical “Latin flavor” we find out soon enough we are indeed in New Mexico. At the local nightclub, Kiki (Jean Brooks) bemoans the fact her rival Clo-Clo (Margo) is constantly clicking, and it does seem blondes like herself are on the downside. However, her boyfriend, a fledgling publicity man (Dennis O’Keefe), has a new stunt to make waves with the viewing public.

When he walks into her dressing room with a leopard on a leash, she nearly dies of fright, and we have entered into the kind of territory intent on making our B feature a pulpy pleasure. Kiki reluctantly makes a grand entrance with her new pet and makes quite the impression as patrons look on with shivers of trepidation. Except her moment doesn’t last long as Clo-Clo scares the creature off and it goes racing off into the night — a beast off on the loose. One can only imagine what a deadly cat might get up to lurking in the shadows on any given evening…

From this point onward, the picture introduces a plethora of players from a fortune teller hiding in the shadows with her deck of cards just waiting to tell Clo-Clo her fortune. There’s the hapless bloke Charlie who gave up his prized leopard to Manning and wants his remuneration.

Then the local girl deathly afraid of the beast at large and nevertheless gets locked out of the house by her mother until she fetches the cornmeal for her father’s supper. We know the inevitable is about to happen. The creature will find her. Her world is developed almost solely through sound. The drip of water. Feet trudging through the dirt. A train passing overhead. They punctuate the scene immaculately leading into the big reveal. Because we know what is waiting for her…

She makes a mad dash to the front door of her home crying out to her family to open up but she gets no further. Like Cat People before it, The Leopard Man is made as much out of what is not seen and it has one of the most startling cinematic death scenes executed through utter minimalism.

Because although Manning and his girl feel awful about their hand in this girl’s tragic death, they soon realize more might be afoot. Another grisly death follows and then a subsequent evening Clo-Clo…

It is the stripped-down sound design in the picture that reflects the Lewton/Tourneur unit at the pinnacles of their powers. Where pure suggestion is imbued with so much meaning. So little can be so very much. Whereas M was a picture where the killer has a calling card, in this film the murders can be remembered by their accompanying sounds.

The wind whipping through the trees as a woman sits locked in a garden. A car engine driving off to get someone to open up the gate. Rustling leaves being stepped on and then quiet. With Clo-Clo it’s little different with the same repetition of her heels clicking on the pavement in rhythm with her castanets. Then, she too reaches a finality.

Despite the stylistically rewarding elements, The Leopard Man gets less interesting with time as it comes out the leopard might be masking a more mundane serial killer plot. Not to sound overly callous, but this is more of a real-world development. Aside from courting too many characters who dilute the impact of the whole story, The Leopard Man feels more stagnant than its predecessors.

The greatest pity is how there isn’t the same unnerving magic hanging over the picture. It probably has too big a stake in reality. What its predecessors were blessed with, in narrative terms, was the supernatural mixed in with everyday reality. The Leopard Man falls on the wrong side of the fence, unable to leave us with the same type of lingering specter. Its strengths were always in what was not actually there, instead of human beings of tangible flesh and blood.

3.5/5 Stars

I Walked with a Zombie (1943): Shadow and Psychology

IwalkedwithazombieThe film commences brilliantly as Frances Dee can be heard in voiceover with almost fond recollection, matter-of-factly stating, “I Walked with a Zombie.” The way she expresses it immediately debunks anything we might think from an admittedly exploitative title. Producer Val Lewton does not settle for a straightforward slapped together horror flick.

His ambitions were always to elevate the concepts he was handed into something indelibly interesting. Our heroine Betsy Cornell (Dee) is a Canadian nurse who applies for a position taking care of a man’s wife. It’s all very mysterious, but she’s eager to work and sets sail for San Sebastian where she will be in the service of Mr. Paul Holland (Tom Conway).

Lewton re-framed the source material into a Jane Eyre tale transplanted to the West Indies. Here Ms. Cornell arrives by boat, immediately struck with a callous first impression of the aloof Mr. Holland. He easily dismisses her childhood fear of the dark, while noting he never should have hired her.

I still contend most children are never afraid of the dark per se but what might come out of it. It’s the fear of an unknown thing lurking out of reach. Meanwhile, his younger brother (James Ellison) is a charming fellow who immediately takes a liking to the new nurse and helps to make her feel welcome. We have polar opposites set up and obvious points in a possible love triangle.

However, in following the plotting of Bronte’s work, the elder half-brother is tortured by a secret, literally locked away. It is, in fact, his mysterious wife, whom Betsy unwittingly meets one night, upon hearing a startling noise. At first, she’s taken aback by this specter of a woman, this ghost, this living dead.

But as her kindly doctor explains, supplying a firm foundation of ethos to this enigma, a portion of the spinal cord is burned out, and it has permanently made her a sleepwalker who can never be awakened. Aside from a potentially dangerous foray into shock therapy — to induce some sort of coma and hope for the best — her future prospects look dim. That is unless there’s an alternate means to bring about healing.

Like the Wolf Man before it, we are introduced to a stylized but nevertheless real locale that thrives by mixing the logical digressions that come from our world with ghostly influences. Screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Raye create a kind of poetic mythology for a supernatural conclusion to be crafted out of. Whether they meant to or not, they succeeded in canonizing zombies in the same manner werewolves were developed in Siodmak’s earlier script.

What’s lovely is how Betsy foreshadows all sorts of events to come and there are strangely mesmerizing objects to captivate us. The figurehead of a slave ship features Saint Sebastian himself pierced by arrows. It lends this undercurrent of the brutish injustices of the slave trade to the landscape we must come to terms with.

These very same traditions have the same weighty dolefulness but are also imbued with an otherworldly quality of its own. It gives this shading to the African-American characters who seem so happy-go-lucky like other Hollywood creations, and yet there’s an almost unnerving sense about them as if something is working under the surface. It’s hard to put an exact finger to it, but though they look similar, they aren’t quite straightforward stereotypes.

A local club singer chants an island song mixed with family folklore telling of the deep-rooted tragedies of the Holland family. The local populations are also adherents of local voodoo customs, and their nightly drumbeats ring out through the air ominously, picked up by the tropic winds. It’s yet another layer to this continually bewitching atmosphere.

Another character of crucial importance is Mrs. Rand, the deceased patriarch’s widow, and Wesley’s birth mother.  Her own station in life, as the wife of a Christian missionary, creates a juxtaposition between a so-called normal religion and a darker, more dubious strain.

Because it cannot help but bump up against the voodoo rituals even as black and white people now exist together. In fact, one might say the religious rituals become nearly intertwined. Betsy begins to realize maybe some powers at be might be capable of lifting the spell that has entranced Ms. Holland, even as she herself falls for the comatose woman’s husband.

As such, it is not horror lingering over the frames but a near mesmerizing catatonia. It carries you up in its grips from start to finish, trying to decipher what to make of such a vision. Enchantment, ugliness, cruelty all apply. And yet it’s difficult to cry out and out evil against the people partaking in these dances or voodoo ceremonies. The acts themselves might be evil, but the people are held in the grips of entrancement. Everyone is, to varying degrees, weighed down with desolateness even before the fateful dead are laid to rest.

We must recall the beginning voiceover once more. The fact Betsy walked with a zombie might hold an inherent element of terror, but more so, it carries with it a despondency that cannot be lifted. It hangs over us and haunts us just as the lurching Carrefour does throughout the picture.

The beauty of most any of the Val Lewton films of the 40s is how the studio and the audience expected one thing — a low budget horror flick with a provocative title — then the producer turned around to make micro-budget gems steeped in shadow and psychology. They have more depth and complexity than they have any right to.

Each entry boasts sumptuous visuals hiding weaknesses in the budget department to fully develop, not necessarily a world, but the impression of a world. One might contend the latter is far more powerful in an expressionistic capacity. Arguably, Lewton had no more formidable collaborator than director Jacques Tourneur who had an established knack for conjuring up the most splendid atmospherics.

This time he is aided by the black and white photography of Roy Hunt. In their hands, every character has a doppelganger in the form of shadows creeping along the walls with their human counterparts. It’s developed with the utmost efficiency, which seems all but a lost art these days.

But the astounding economy is matched only by a ceaseless ingenuity. Because the artfulness they managed to accomplish on the very same shoestring budget, is part of what makes them marvels even today. If you willingly invest your time in one of these RKO pictures, it’s very likely you’ll be met with a lasting impression. The dividends, as far as cinematic capital is concerned, are enormous.

4/5 Stars

Night of the Demon (1957) Starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins

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There’s not a more fitting place to start a horror film set in England than with Stonehenge, those relics of old that we can easily imagine being hexed with pagan cults and rituals summoning some unknown evil into the world.

Jacques Tourneur is no stranger to horror films and Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon in the U.S.) has its most obvious roots in his work at RKO with Val Lewton and the traditions hearkening back to the days of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. It’s stellar company to keep indeed. What hasn’t changed is filmmaking that surpasses its budget to create something genuinely unsettling through the generation of eerie atmospherics.

Except, one could contend that this production was much more tumultuous thanks to the ongoing struggles between producer Hal E. Chester on one side and Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett on the other. In their estimation, the man supplying them with funds, was compromising the integrity of their vision and what they saw in the script.

One particular point of disagreement was in the actual incarnation of the devilish spirits, which take on an actual form rather than simply being implied or left fully to the imagination. The creation of a windstorm conjured up on the spot was another instigator as Tourneur demanded the use of airplane engines instead of electric fans. It got so bad lead actor Dana Andrews even threatened to quit if there was further interference with his director’s work.

Even in spite of these forms of strife going on behind the scenes, the picture genuinely comes off as a harrowing tale imbued with the ongoing terrors of witch cults and devil worship.

The beauty is when these seemingly supernatural, spiritual, or otherwise questioned forces impart themselves on the real world. The real world is grounded by a skeptical psychologist named Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who is not about to believe in any of that kind of rubbish until he has no choice but to.

You couldn’t have a better and plainly a more blatantly obvious form of opening exposition. A man sleeps on a plane. It’s Dana Andrews and the paper propped over his eyes conveniently shows his picture and bears the headline that a prominent psychologist is about to arrive in England. Behind him, keeping him up needlessly, is Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), a kindergarten teacher. They don’t know it yet but they will be seeing a great deal of each other in the near future.

Certainly people note that Andrew’s career took a tailspin in the 50s due in part to bouts of alcoholism and a changing milieu but if The City Never Sleeps and Night and The Devil are representative of his low budget efforts, then I can’t say I’m too heartbroken. At least his later career gave us a few quality films to relish. At any rate, it still looks like much the same man from Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He’s simply seen more of the world.

Likewise, Peggy Cummins is a winsome heroine and a terribly underrated actress who proves a fine companion for the good doctor. They realize they have both arrived in England much for the same reason, to pay their respects to the late Professor Harrington, who died under mysterious circumstances.

Joanna (Cummins) was his niece and intuition tells her something is gravely wrong with her uncle’s untimely death. Though John is forever the skeptic, he’s nevertheless interested in investigating the research his late mentor was doing, which involved runic symbolism as well as the deceased man’s main rival Dr. Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis).

Taken at face value, Karswell seems a deceptively bubbly chap who fancies being a magician for the local kiddies. There’s an eccentric and ultimately ominous charisma about him, first claiming he conjured up a wind storm and then when he feels slighted, proclaiming John will be dead in three days’ time.

At first, John takes it lightly but strange occurrences that follow involving a parchment paper seem to suggest he is indeed a marked man with an impending threat on his life. If he’s not totally afraid yet then Joanne is certainly worried for him. She talks him into attending a seance with the medium of Karswell’s peculiar mother, bringing even more strange revelations to the table.

The doctor and his colleagues look to use hypnosis on a local named Hobart, caught in a catatonic state of immobility, to try and pry out answers about this foreboding ordeal right in their midst. The doctor even rushes to an outgoing train because he knows who he will find aboard; his last chance to make it out alive.

Ultimately over strong objections, Hal E. Chester won out and got images of the demon inserted into the film. I would wager it compromises the picture but it cannot completely detract from its unnerving nature, weaving together reality and mysticism into a compelling tale of irrefutable doom. There’s a shroud of powerlessness and dread overtaking the frames even as there’s a general sense our heroes are facing something they cannot quite comprehend. That works very much to its favor.

You do get the sense that Chester only saw this project as a fledgling picture to slide easily on a double horror bill. Tourneur, being the genre wizard that he was, knew he could do far more. Night of the Demon, like the finest horror films in the tradition, remains with us, lingering even after the credits have rolled.

4/5 Stars

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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The finest compliment I can extend to House on Haunted Hill is how it manages to exemplify many of the tropes we have come to imagine in old horror movies of yore even without having seen one. Because the hallmarks of the genre, by some curious form of cultural osmosis, have been passed down through the generations. Rather than a blank slate, an entire history of preconceived notions serves you well since many of us do not have the benefit of the former.

Much like Psycho (1060), we have some vague sense of what we have consigned ourselves too before we’ve begun. In fact, the low budget success of director William Castle’s picture is said to be behind Hitchcock’s own impetus to make a low budget horror flick. It, of course, paid absurd dividends at the box office. But now for House on Haunted Hill which proved successful in its own right.

In the very nature of its quintessential campiness, this haunted mansion seems to have just about everything. We are met with shrieking screams in the night and for someone like me who partook through in-home viewing, we have to use our imaginations in order to fully appreciate what a pitch black theater and surround sound would do to the nerves.

Because House on Haunted Hill is very much about a created atmosphere both architecturally with the facade of the house in exterior shots and then interiors which though obviously shot on sound stages, develop the ever-present eeriness handily. The soundtrack as well is an integral component with creaking doors, the liberal use of the theremin, and of course, a blood-curdling scream sprinkled throughout every now and again.

Our first introduction comes in the form of the disembodied heads of first Elisha Cook Jr. and then our host. While the memorably flighty actor preaches a message of spooky legends, Mr. Vincent Price comes in to recount how he and his wife decided to throw a little spend the night ghost party.

With the trademark condescending lilt of his voice, he introduces his guests and blandly acknowledges how amusing his wife, Mrs. Loren, is for planning such an affair. However, it really does seem like he had a major hand in it, providing an incentive to each guest of $10,000 apiece if only they manage to stay in the building alive through the night.

Whereas his wife Annabelle (Anna Ohmart) seems generally lukewarm about the gathering, he seems strangely obsessed with it. A bedroom encounter sets up just how dysfunctional their relationship is hinging on dueling strains of jealousy and avarice. What makes it delightful is the playful threats embedded in their jousting. They are cajoling each other constantly but there’s also something sinister lingering behind their words.

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The guests themselves are wide-ranging. Watson Prichard is called upon to make the festivities more chilling. The rest of the continent include a dashing airline pilot (Richard Long), a distinguished psychologist (Alan Young), a local newspaper columnist (Julie Mitchum), and lastly a young secretary (Carolyn Craig) employed in Mr. Loren’s company. What ties them all together is their desperate need for cash even if some veil their intentions behind personal preoccupations.

Their welcome is hardly cordially as they let themselves in and have a moment to get acquainted and get accustomed to their surroundings — hardly a place of gaiety and warmth. Finally, Mr. Loren makes his entrance. By now, we know his relationship with the missus is a troubled one but that is privileged information.

For the time being, he leads the guests on a tour of his recently acquired property as Prichard recounts tall tales of severed heads of his ancestors among other legends. Ceilings dripping blood and a basement complete with a trapdoor leading to a vat of acid are two of the most harrowing attractions.

But Mr. Loren relishes to make the occasion interesting and after his wife makes a stunning appearance he passes out the party favors — in the form of handguns.  They aren’t much use against spirits so one must gather they are to fend off humans. It’s a startling twist to the proceedings though he doesn’t give much explanation for such a deadly gift.

Everyone decides to lock themselves away in their rooms. Easy enough right? Wrong. Because Ms. Nora Manning seems especially susceptible to scares at the hands of horrible creatures lingering in the shadows. They frighten her out of her wits and she races around looking for some friendly face. Only time will tell what other hideous unspeakable acts she will witness.

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But House on Haunted Hill has far more human origins than we might initially suspect. It’s not just a pop out at you scary movie. Though the atmospherics are a large part of the allure, there is also an underlying motive to all we see. It provides a crucial tie back to the real world and the people assembled.

So, in the end, it works best blurring genre lines between mystery, ghost story, and a tale of murder. It’s served by elements akin to Diabolique (1955) as much The Spiral Staircase (1946) though admittedly catering to the B-grade crowd. Mind you, that’s not meant to be an insult because in its own right House on Haunted Hill is a ghoulish delight.

Although I have to admit I couldn’t help but smirk when Vincent Price’s skeleton came alive again, it is soon tied back to something rational we can comprehend. The movie plays all these pieces as parlor tricks as much as supernatural acts. And this melding makes the dividing line between the two blurry. It could be everything Watson Prichard spouted was the truth. Then, again, it’s not hard to believe everything was a fabrication utilized solely for human gain. Because everyone in this picture wants something. This is important.

As per usual, it’s hardly difficult despising Vincent Price’s characters. However, in some paradoxical way we like him for the sardonic edge. Because he holds undying scorn for just about everyone. It’s so very easy for him to turn into a parody of himself but then again in a genre such as horror so often prone to parody, it rather works to his advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Psycho (1960)

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For all intent and purposes, Psycho could be an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Hitchcock knew that better than anyone else. Foregoing the more lavish Technicolor tones he had used in Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) and lacking the same type of studio backing, he shot this film in the much cheaper black and white format and brought on a great deal of his television crew to make this production a much more inexpensive package.

In that way alone it paled in comparison to some of its much more ostentatious predecessors but that cannot for a moment take away from the impact or cultural clout that Hitchcock still managed — truly topping any of his previous efforts to date. If not his greatest film, then Psycho was certainly his greatest feat of marketing and ingenuity. Because he would never allow his public to forget their experience witnessing Psycho and very few have for generations with it becoming so closely tied to our public consciousness.

The plotline itself is a simple affair of love and small-time crime set in Arizona then transplanted to California. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has a man but a life with him seems unlikely especially with both of them being terminally strapped for cash. He’s got alimony to pay and she makes very little on a secretarial salary. But when $40,000 is dropped on her desk in cold hard cash — money she is supposed to deposit in the local bank — in a brief moment of decision she attempts to buy happiness.

She takes the money and keeps on going. From the moment Marion first sees her boss on a crosswalk as she drives off with the money, Bernard Hermann’s score starts pounding. Every time she hits the gas the composer does too and it’s one of the most unnerving pairings in cinematic history.

Even without the scoring, this would still be matchless silent storytelling and yet it’s improved upon by the music working with the image.  A paranoid Leigh becomes the latest iteration of Hitchcock’s icy blonde, curt and still constantly looking over her shoulder because she is not made to be a lawbreaker. She tries to dodge the interrogation of a suspicious policeman and brushes off the friendly salesmanship of California Charlie (John Anderson). But she rides on no thanks to the guilt written all over her face only to be impeded by Hitchcock’s latest implement, a fateful rainstorm that lays her up at the first motel she can find: The Bates Motel.

In Vertigo and Psycho, you can see how Hitchcock distinctly puts us in the eyes of the main character so we have no choice but to view the world as they do and it’s highly effective in bringing us into the story. Thus, it’s even more jarring when he rips our star and stand-in away from us brutally and forces us to frantically search for another anchoring character.

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That brings us to Norman. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is such a fascinating character because in one sense he’s like a shy little boy. The moment he asks Marion to have dinner with him is brimming with candor and a pitiful awkwardness — like a boy asking a girl out to the prom or something. That sweetness and social ineptitude are at the core of his being. He can’t hide it just as Anthony Perkins playing Bates feels like he is hardly acting at all. It’s just his way.

The Bates home could be a character in itself, a looming beast that hangs over Marion as the domain of the unobserved Mrs. Bates. It poses itself as a portent of Norman’s own ominous instability along with his pointed drawing room conversation with Marion where he freely discloses, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” 

That, of course, brings us to the famed shower scene that is a tour de force not only in editing but in the synthesis of all the cinematic components from the image, to sound, to the scoring of Hermann’s impeccable cacophony of screeching strings. It stands alone as arguably the single most iconic scene in all the movies. Thus, it’s surprising that from the very moment Hitchcock was showing Leigh flush some pieces of paper down a toilet he was already making history — because bathrooms were long-held off-limit locations. Hitchcock made them far worse for folks after Psycho.

He also starts moving around the bathroom in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Rear Window’s opening. Finally, cutting from the drain to the eye of Marion Crane suggesting the same spiraling black holes of emptiness as Vertigo. It pretty much sums of the conclusion of her life.

But then we’re back to Norman. There’s an extreme distaste in how goes about cleaning up the bathroom but also a certain industry to it. He gets to it silently and efficiently in another one of Hitchcock’s great sequences that unfold without the aid of any dialogue whatsoever until it leads us the precipice of the swamp where Marion’s car is disposed of.

It’s in these interludes that we understand the full gravity of Hitch’s wicked humor. That money — the load of cash that propelled the film forward — is cast aside as simply as that. No two thoughts about it as if to say you thought that’s what this picture was about but he’s not entirely interested in that. He just wants to hook his audience on that objective before sending them hurtling in completely different directions.

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John Galvin plays Leigh’s lover and he’s the stark contrast to Perkins’ character. Both dark-haired and handsome but Sam is a virile man even a masculine ideal of the 50s and 60s. Nevertheless, he joins forces with Lila Crane (Vera Miles) Marion’s concerned sister, subsequently becoming the driving force in the latter stages.

But also of note is the hired private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) who coincidentally comes onto the scene at the same time at the behest of the old coot that lost $40,000. Balsam a wonderful character actor throughout his career, not surprisingly appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he’s at his best as he questions Norman Bates in that genial manner of his about his person of interest, one Marion Crane.

At this point, in some small way, it feels like we are a bit of an accomplice in this crime of Norman’s.  Complicit in his secret and as Arbogast digs around for answers we crawl inside our skin. Norman tries to cover up and we know he’ll be caught in his lie.  Hitchcock frames his nervousness most overtly peering over to look at the guest registry knowing that something might give him away.

For its day and age, Psycho goes into admittedly dark and taboo territory. But what’s most unsettling is the subverted ideas of romance it showcases. Marion is looking for some form of companionship. She has desires for the American Dream including money and love. All the things that lifestyle entails and yet her desires are quickly snuffed out never to be realized. She doesn’t even receive the hope of love because on the horizon there is nothing for her — only the nothingness of a drain taking away her lifeblood.

Then, of course, Norman is so closely intertwined with his mother that it destroys his being so much so that he cannot even comprehend how to cope with other people. He’s so injured and wounded by a dominating woman and a lack of love that he has no healthy way to express his love and it’s not so much his undoing as it is his stumbling block. Sure it makes for chilling outcomes and a remarkable turn from Anthony Perkins but what resonates time and time again is the pitiful brokenness within Norman Bates. It’s all there in his famed observation that “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” His is a sorry state of mind.

Even in Sam and Lila, we find our best chance at romantic satisfaction. But that relationship too falls on problems when you cast it in the light of Vertigo. If they do continue their relationship, will it simply be because Sam sees Marion in his sister and wishes to have that or does he see the true worth of this woman in front of him blessed with an insurmountable persistence? If anyone can make it work they can but that is not to say it will not be messy. After all, this is a film of messiness — relationally, psychologically, morally. We all go a little mad sometimes. That’s why we’re not to go through life alone. We’re communal beings.

In the denouement, a psychiatrist tries to explain things away and provide a voice of reason that looks to stabilize everything his audience has just ingested. But even that fails to undue and rationalize Norman Bates completely. Yes, his psychological instabilities, his compartmentalized personalities, and the utter dissonance coursing through him can be understood at least partially by such deductions. Human psychology has its place as does scientific thought. Still, that cannot take away from that final shot as the voice inside Norman’s head keeps talking to us and he raises his eyes with a possessed grin breaking out over his face.

There is no explanation that can be given for that look. It burns into us. Emblazoned on our minds and sending shivers down the spine. That image and all those proceeding are what the cinema is capable of, evoking emotion far beyond what any word can possibly begin to unearth. That is the exorbitantly visceral brilliance of Psycho. Hitchcock was a proponent of so-called pure cinema and this is yet another showing of the “Master of Suspense” at the peak of his creative powers. Few filmmakers have made such a stream of classics of such variety and of such a multitude in such a condensed span of time — each one slowly reworking and ultimately rewriting the rules of suspense. Psycho is yet another testament to that.

5/5 Stars

Get Out (2017)

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_Out.pngGet Out seems like a simple enough premise. Ridiculously simple even. We’ve seen it millions of times in rom-coms or other fare. It’s the fateful day when the significant other is being taken to meet the parents. Whether they pass this test will have irreversible repercussions on the entire probability of the relationship’s success. Maybe that’s a tad over the top but anyways you get the idea as Rose (Allison Williams) drives her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her parents.

But if anything Get Out is the Anti-Guess Whose’s Coming to Dinner and I say that for a number of reasons. That picture was groundbreaking in its day because Stanley Kramer made an issue-driven film about an interracial couple coming to meet the parents in the age of Loving v. Virginia  (1967) still being on the recent record books. Miscegenation was still outlawed in numerous states across the country. Granted, it was set in California, that open-minded oasis in the West, but that doesn’t mean parents weren’t still skeptical about the union. It’s easy to be a champion of racial equality and quite another to have your daughter marry a man of a different race. At least in 1967. Now it shouldn’t be an issue at all. We are an enlightened people, after all, informed by a 21st-century worldview…

Yet Get Out works because it shows the flip side of the coin. You have that same forward thinking, liberal idealism that’s reflected on the surface for all to see. It’s a bit of the Hepburn and Tracy characters from the earlier picture that we see in these parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener).

Except here they’re not who they seem to be and their enlightened qualities only mask the ugliness that is hiding inside of them. Perhaps they are more nefarious and wily than the outright bigots because they hide their prejudice proclivities so well. Their racism is systematic and acceptable in the framework of modern society.

It’s nodded at and laughed off at cocktail parties because they are the folks who would have voted for Obama for a third term and their favorite golfer, of course, is Tiger Woods. He plays their civilized game and before his downfall, he played it well. As such, they can accept them without much hesitation because it’s these men who have seemingly conformed to their way of life.

A few other obvious cinematic touchstones to appreciate Get Out are The Shining (1980) because there’s an inscrutable nature to the horror that’s  underlined by dread more than fear in the accepted sense. It makes for an unsettling final act that lingers for a long time. Meanwhile, the entire conspiracy that’s going on under the surface brings to mind Rosemary’s Baby (1968), simultaneously unnerving and darkly comic to its final moments much like Get Out.

This is by no means a pop out at you horror movie which I admittedly don’t hold much taste for. Jordan Peele’s effort is far more than that. Slowly crawling under your skin insidiously looking at some unnamed problems of our society in the domain of race and it does it in such a way that’s perturbing and ultimately brings up some powerful questions on the front of a social commentary.

This is a movie that upends expectations starting out as one thing which we assume will be offered in the package of a horror picture and it morphs into something far more interesting that has the compelling power to stay with audiences long after the momentary shock value might dissipate in a typical film with few lofty aspirations.

If nothing else, it confirms that there is still so much progress that needs to be made in our nation and Peele positions himself as far more than a comedian but a fascinating creative mind behind the camera. Get Out is a shining reaffirmation that creatively potent and timely films are still being made today. It is not meant for everyone but there’s no question it has something new to offer.

4/5 Stars

The Wolf Man (1941)

The-wolfman.jpgEven a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.

Universal had an impressive catalogue of horror films during the 30s and 40s that integrated gothic and science fiction themes into stories such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The Wolf Man can be considered part of that same dynasty and it established Lon Chaney Jr. much like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi before him, as a horror film staple. He was the Wolf Man as Karloff was Frankenstein’s Monster and Lugosi was Dracula. That’s how it worked.

What makes many of these films compelling is how they take myth and ground it in a believable reality. Fact and fiction becomes homogenized in a sense and such a world is a wonderful place to draw out horror. Because it can be supernatural, otherwordly, and frightening but it also hits close to home since there is a shred of truth always visible.

In this case, the film opens with the prodigal son, the lumbering, good-natured Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to the estate of his well to do father Sir John (Claude Rains). There’s some mention of a dead brother and a hunting accident–some tragic events. This is what brought Larry home and he seems to have patched things up well enough with his dad. As they say, time heals all wounds and it’s easy enough to dismiss it with that.

Anyways, life seems generally good. He’s getting acclimated with the quaint town of Lianwilly and he conveniently spies a girl working in her father’s shop across the way, the pretty ingenue Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who happens to be already engaged. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to spend time with him because he really is a giant teddy bear with nary a violent bone in his body.

This is the preexisting world that the story develops only to be thrown off its axis by a telling event. It’s the origin of Larry’s troubles and they begin with a visit to a gypsy caravan, ending with him incurring a bite from a killer wolf. But the implications are much more ominous and deep-seated than that.

Because the trauma begins to eat away at him and his father though the local doctor sees his change of state as merely a psychological issue. Something he can be cured of. He’s only misguided–a little wrong in the head. They fail to see the full manifestations of his new sickness which transform him and lead him off into the night seeking after victims.

But if The Wolfman was simply an excuse to see a beast, it’s hard to gather that the film would have resonated with anyone then or now. In fact, this film is very much comparable to the superhero films we are so accustomed to now. The great installments are made that way by compelling characters and solid storytelling.

Curt Siodmak the brother of famed film noir director Robert Siodmak must be commended on his script which in a mere 70 minutes develops a streamlined story line full of a certain moodiness. To his credit, he helped lay the foundation for a whole legend that has become the standard archetype for any narratives involving werewolves.

The very fact the little poem uttered throughout the film is practically omnipresent, conjured up by so many individuals, works as a fitting harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, the gypsies played by (Bela Lugosi) in an unfortunately relegated role and Maria Ouspenska, while pigeon-holed takes on the role of mystical soothsayers with ease. Throw in silver bullets, silver-headed walking sticks, and pentagrams and you have all the necessary touchstones (except full moons). Apparently that comes later.

Furthermore, the general atmosphere, time lapse effects, and painstaking makeup work of Jack Pierce all contribute to the heady brew. Perhaps because it is precisely these things that will make some disdain the horror genre with scorn that actually imbue a B-picture such as this a surprisingly engaging aura. It’s very much a part of the mythology that has been built around these monster movies and while meeting our expectations in a sense, that’s only a small, albeit integral part of this story.

Because, everything must ultimately return back to Lon Chaney’s performance as the genial giant Larry Talbot. He’s the complete antithesis of a monster. It’s not what he wants to be and he proves to have such a strong capacity for love. He keeps short accounts and he has a tremendous urge to protect others from harm. It’s innate in him. That’s what makes his ghastly transformation so devastating. Literally no one sees it coming (except Maleva) and you can attribute that to pure ignorance or you could go out on a limb and say it’s because Larry comes off as a genuinely good human being. By the film’s conclusion we feel truly sorry for him and that’s the key

But if we dare take the metaphor further still, I suppose we could say that his curse was a physical manifestation–reflecting the animalistic evil that can be inside of any person.  The stuff that’s churning inside of our being at any given time. That cauldron of dark desires bubbling up. That’s what makes the dividing line between the physical and psychological so interesting in The Wolf Man. Normally they exist in separate spheres but in some ways this film makes them one in the same.

4/5 Stars

 

Cat People (1942)

cat-peopleCat People has one of those sensationalized B-picture premises and there are moments when its meager aspects let slip that this is a low-budget effort, but within those restrictions, it moves with a certain purpose and chilliness. It’s true that producer Val Lewton had a B-movie renaissance going on at RKO Studios and Cat People is one of his treasures.

At its core is a streamlined love story between a Serbian artist/fashion designer and the local New Yorker who falls smitten for her in a whirlwind. Simon Simon is simultaneously sweet and bewitching as Irena Dubrovna who intrigues Oliver (Kent Smith) as much for her exotic mystery and feline figure as she does for her genial demeanor.

In several candid moments, Irena explains to her new admirer that she is a descendant from a long lineage of cursed individuals. The stories she tells of immense evil and witchcraft have the ring of gothic horror stories to Oliver and the audience.  Certainly nothing to be taken seriously. They’re legends, after all, except for Irena they are strikingly real.  And her palpable apprehension about such things allows an impending dread to set in and reach us.

With these strategic bits of exposition and foreshadowing, Cat People sets its story up well, revealing just enough to give some teeth to the impending doom as the narrative slowly descends deeper and deeper into the haunting darkness hinted at early on. But it’s the very fact, that that is not where it dwells all the time. It finds its plot in very mundane and ordinary things. The romance between two individuals. A young woman who is taken with walking through the Central Park Zoo to observe the animals.

cat-people-2At Oliver’s work, talk around the water cooler is made compelling in that his best pal and colleague is the sensible Alice (Jane Alexander) always ready to lend a listening ear. She’s genuine in accepting Irena for who she is because she can tell that Oliver earnestly loves her. But at the same time, she serves as a contrasting figure — someone who is completely different than this enigmatic creature.

But another thread involves Irena’s time spent in the counsel of the psychiatrist Dr. Judd at the behest of her love. And when she comes to him with her personal troubles it becomes evident that there is a great deal of trauma buried deep within her as there is with many of us I can imagine. The doctor rightly extrapolates that “childhood tragedies corrode the soul and leave a canker in the mind.”

It’s this that becomes the source of the horror. Because certainly, this is a fantasy on more levels than one– the man’s never been unhappy in his life until now (That’s a laugh) and the woman has unnatural impulses (You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again). But it’s rooted in some sort of fact, whether personal, mental, or spiritual.  And, ultimately, it is a harrowing amalgamation of psychological duress, sexuality, and spirituality that makes for a spooky outcome indeed.

It even taps into the apocalyptic biblical literature (Revelation 13:2) to lend a certain amount of ethos to its story. And even if the interpretation of the texts is broadened and pulled completely at of context, as a narrative device, it works wonders.

One of the film’s greatest and perhaps most obvious assets is its aesthetic with a crepuscular atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musurasca. He would partner with Jacques Tourneur later on in the decade with the much-revered film noir Out of the Past.  And what it truly adds is character, making the fears of these individuals actually legitimate and heightening the tension. Cat People does not pop out at you or repulse with gratuitous gore but it’s a completely unnerving picture all the same.

4/5 Stars