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 undo 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

The Birds (1963)

thebirds1The Birds is about all sort of birds. The ones we are acquainted with initially are actually a pair of humans. Lovebirds you might call them. Except they don’t know it quite yet, but the moment Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) meet in a pet shop, the sparks are already flying — the birds too.

In this way, the film opens with a love story as you might expect between a grounded lawyer and a cultured woman who nevertheless has somewhat of a reputation. She matter of factly plays  “Deux Arabesques” by Claude Debussy on the piano (I had to look that up), but she’s also been involved in an unseemly ordeal at a Roman fountain. Her daddy’s a big shot newspaperman. She’s the kind of gal who elicits whistles from passersby and skeptical looks from protective mothers. The film has both types.

But if The Birds ended as a simple love story it would be a rather tepid affair altogether, not to mention faulty advertising. But Alfred Hitchcock the unequivocal master of suspense could never be accused of such a thing (other things possibly). He injects the storyline with an impending dread and a continual payoff that makes the Birds a tense horror classic even to this day putting the emphasis on his major assets. The first being his antagonistic ornithological forces cycling in and out of the narrative menacingly. The second strength is his impeccable use of panoramic locales.

Much like Douglas Sirk, Hitchcock knows how to use the glossy palette of Hollywood to the nth degree and it becomes one of his main attractions taking his favorite spots in Northern California once again — this time the idyllic Bodega Bay — and developing them into the perfect canvass for the drama he draws up.

A short story from Daphne du Maurier (author of Rebecca) provided the inspiration rather than true source material, however, Ed Mcbain, a reputable writer in his own right,  crafts something that’s still quite compelling. It proceeds like you might expect from a normal romantic drama. There’s the meet-cute, the flirtatious repartee, the woman pursuing the man who catches her fancy. Beautiful skies, sunshine, and love in the air. There’s a younger sister (Angela Cartwright), an old flame (Suzanne Pleshette), and a mother (Jessica Tandy). Each looks at this new woman with an entirely different perspective.

But upending the typical progressions The Birds becomes a grim thriller as the bird populations including crows, seagulls, and even sparrows become belligerent. Invading homes, causing havoc, and terrorizing the general population. Melanie and Mitch become our intrepid heroes but it’s almost easy to lose them amidst this churning force of nature.

In one particular scene inside the iconic Tides restaurant, all the locals trade talk about the current state of affairs. It becomes very obvious that there’s a great deal of fear and confusion. What’s at hand is almost apocalyptic as one drunkard wildly quotes the Bible out of context and a didactic bird expert tries to assuage any concerns. But none of that dialogue can possibly mitigate what happens next. A fire starts. The birds rain down in waves of fury. People are chased hither and thither. Melanie first looks on from the restaurant, fights her way to a telephone booth and somehow reaches safety. Others were not so lucky.

thebirds2Most assuredly, the film benefits from long stretches of wordless action. The most striking example involves a murder of crows gathering on a jungle gym near the schoolhouse. Never before was the name of their posse more applicable.  And while the narrative lacks a true score, the unnerving screeches from the birds is sound enough to send chills down the spine of any audience.

At different times both Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn had the potential to be in this project, but perhaps it’s better that they were not. Although Hitchcock essentially tortured her and ultimately ruined her career, Tippi Hedren gives a sparkling performance here that is nevertheless overshadowed by her many adversaries. After all, it’s not her name in the title. The same goes for Rod Taylor a handsome and adequate actor but he’s not the main attraction either. However, to its credit, the script does at least devote time to several of its supporting characters to develop their contours, namely the schoolteacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) and Mitch’s skeptical mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). But that’s not what keeps us watching or what keeps audiences coming back over 50 years later. No one knew that better than Hitchcock himself.

4.5/5 Stars

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys_baby_posterFrom the haunting opening notes of a lullaby to the otherworldly aerial shot floating over New York, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a stunning Hollywood debut for Roman Polanski.

What follows is a tale weighed down by impending doom and paranoia. But although the tone is very much suited for Polanski, it’s perhaps even more surprising how faithful his adaptation is to the original source material. Most of the dialogue if not all of it is pulled from the pages of Ira Levin’s work and the Polish auteur even went so far as getting the wallpaper and interiors as close to the novel’s imagery as he could. But that hardly illuminates us to why the film is so beguiling–at least not completely.

In an effort to try and describe the look of the film, the best thing that I can come up with is inscrutably surreal. Some of it is undoubtedly due to the lighting. Partially it’s how the camera moves fluidly through the cinematic space which is mostly comprised of interiors. But nevertheless, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at and it pulls you in like the wreckage of a car crash. As much as you don’t want to, your eyes remain transfixed.

Mia Farrow, with her figure gaunt and her hair short, becomes the perfect embodiment of this young wife. The progression she goes through is important. Because she starts out young, bright-eyed and cute. Still, as time progresses she evolves into her iconic image, shadows under her eyes, ruddy and covered in beads of sweat. Her state is no better signified than the moments when she walks through oncoming traffic in a complete psychological daze.

John Cassavetes brings his brand of comical wryness to the role of the husband and struggling actor. But face value gives way to more sinister underpinnings. Old pros like Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy are given critical parts to play as an overly hospitable old crone and her husband and the aged doctor who are all privy to this deep-seated conspiracy.

You’ll find out soon enough what that means if you watch the film. However, for me what kept coming back to me is that this is, in essence, a subversion of the Christ child narrative with a new “Mother Mary” figure.  And hidden behind this psychological horror show is something, oddly enough, darkly comic. It’s summed up by the scene in the doctor’s office waiting room where Rosemary begins to leaf through Time Magazine. The headline reads bluntly, “Is God Dead?” As a relapsed Catholic surrounded by people who scoff at religion, the world is seemingly devoid of such things. Even the film itself features more profane moments, greater sensuality, and darker themes than any film of the early 60s. Thus, that magazine headline is not too far from the truth

It’s a question that many would have undoubtedly answered in the affirmative in 1968 too, a year fraught with rebellion, unrest, assassinations, and conflict. Polanski himself would even lose his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Mansion family. Mia Farrow was served divorce papers by Frank Sinatra on set. It surely was a dark time and yet while Rosemary’s Baby is disillusioning, there’s also an absurdity running through it.

However, the bottom line is that it maintains its frightening aspects because so much is left ambiguous. We don’t see the baby. We never fully understand what’s afoot. And we don’t even know what will happen to Rosemary in the end. What choice will she make? What path will she choose? Is this all a cruel nightmare or will she wake up? Can anyone rescue her from her torment? There are no clear-cut conclusions only further and further digressions to be made.  There’s something fascinatingly disturbing about that. It ceases to grow old.

4.5/5 Stars

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterI’ve never seen anything like it, and I mean that in all truthfulness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has the esteem of being called the original horror film, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. Perhaps I’m more partial to Murnau’s Nosferatu that came out two years later, but this film directed by Robert Wiene is really the epoch of German Expressionism. The German Expressionism Movement, after all, was not simply about painting, or architecture, or theater. It bled into the Weimar film industry as well, drifting as far away from realism as was possible at the time. Some say D.W. Griffith wrote the rules of moving pictures as we know them today, and if that’s so, then it was this film that tried to push the boundaries to the limit.

In an effort to be transparent, I will acknowledge that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not engage me, narratively speaking, like some other silent films. It follows a Dr. Caligari as he presents his spectacular somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) at a local carnival. But all is not as it seems as a string of murders terrorize the town by night. Also, I was not a big on the score that accompanied this version. It was rather a discordant cacophony and it did not seem to go well with the action, but that is often a problem with silent films if they do not already have a score to go with them.

CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01Nevertheless, the images alone are striking, and it is still fascinating for the very reasons I mentioned above. It boasts the craziest sets, highly stylized, and made up of every type of angle and shape imaginable. We know resolutely that this is not reality, these are simply facades being put up to engage our eyes. It features a mise-en-scene for the ages, with no attempt to try and be the least bit objective. There’s no effort to aim for realism; none whatsoever, and that level of audacity is impressive. Furthermore, it’s mind-boggling to think that so many people and so many films were influenced by this movement. Especially in Hollywood.

Without it, we would not have 1930s horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula. There would be no Film-Noir or at least not the same moody, atmospheric creature that we know today. In truth, it was many European directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and even Alfred Hitchcock, who channeled this movement in their own work. It proved to be so important to the medium of film and thus, it’s important to remember these roots. So maybe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not as engaging today, but there is much to be admired and extracted from it still.

4.5/5 Stars

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

220px-Shaun-of-the-deadImagine that, it took me until after I finished the film to realize that its title was an obvious homage to Dawn of the Dead. And why not, because this comedy-zombie film celebrates the genre and George Romero’s lineage, while also carving out its own little niche. Really, this first installment from Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright is brilliantly clever in its own right.

What I’ve come to recognize from their partnership is that they are all for the gags, the gore, and excitement, but they also have a handle on emotional impact. The worlds they build through script and character are certainly fun and engaging. I’m not even a big fan of zombie films, but this is probably one of my favorites and that’s because it’s more than just a superficial apocalyptic romp. Heaven forbid I actually care for these characters, but I do. Even Nick Frost, who is oftentimes a real idiot, but even he still finds ways to endear himself.

Simon Pegg goes through your typical hero’s journey, it’s just that it involves a lot of zombies. He begins as a washed-up assistant manager in a dead end job, with a romantic relationship that he’s really messing up. His girlfriend isn’t too happy with him as of late, and after 17 years he’s still at odds with his step-father (Bill Nighy). Meanwhile, his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) is making a nuisance of himself, playing video games and doing little else. It’s a real humdrum life that Shaun’s partaking of. You can see it in his demeanor, even his posture. If you didn’t know any better you’d think he’s a zombie or something. It’s true that Pegg and Wright have fun with a few gags like this, and even when the zombies take over the streets, Shaun hardly seems to notice. He’s so far gone in his own personal funk.

But in his case, a zombie apocalypse is just what he needs to kick-start his life again. He gains new meaning, asserts himself, and acknowledges how much he cares about those around him. He also gets to bash rows of zombies with a cricket bat and blow them up with a Winchester rifle for good measure, while saving his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), so that’s a major bonus.

Edgar Wright’s style is very dynamic and in your face, but within all the hubbub there are real moments of sincerity that elevate Shaun of the Dead not just above a lot of other zombie movies, but a lot of movies in general. Forget simply a zombie flick. This is a romance, a buddy film, and a redemption story all wrapped up into one. Simon Pegg proves himself as a leading man, who we would willingly follow during an apocalypse, especially given the other choices at hand.

4/5 Stars

Nosferatu (1922)

nosferatu1The hand of F.W. Murnau is less noticeable in this early classic of his, but Nosferatu still works seamlessly as a piece of drama and horror. In fact, it by now has become somewhat of a horror classic and the archetype when it comes to vampire movies, taking a lot of inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think one of the things that makes Nosferatu so gripping is the fact that it mixes the plausible with the supernatural making for this weirdly rewarding ride. Is it scary? No, not in the modern sense of the word.

But it’s a story steeped in Myth. There is mention of the Black Death, supernatural creatures, and a being that “suckles himself on the hellish elixir of their blood.” What wonderful imagery that develops a genuine awe in this devilish being. And yet in the same instance, we’re getting scientific explanations of venus fly traps and tentacled polyps acting as symbols certainly but also tying us back to the real world. These forces of nature are real, backed by science, and make a vampire just a little more conceivable.

Running through Nosferatu is a love story, and much like Sunrise, although Nosferatu is a “symphony of horror,” there is also a bit of a love song underlying the vampire tale. It lends this story some heart, because these characters, like our protagonist Hutter, actually have something to live for.

Nosferatu most certainly is a symphony, and along with the expressionistic images, it uses title cards as well as excerpts from ship logs, books, and letters to tell the story. One such inter-title card from Count Orlock reads: Your wife has a lovely neck. Hutter has little idea what he means (or pretends not to), but we know, making it a rather funny but unnerving comment. There’s something about knowing what is undoubtedly going to happen and being powerless to stop it. For instance, when someone acknowledges they have two mosquitoes bites quite close together that spells trouble to the audience, but we can only watch and wait.

nosferatu2Because when Hutter first goes to offer Count Orlock a house we know it is bad news, to begin with, but it takes a long time for anything to actually happen. Orlock moves into the abandoned mansion across from Hutter and his wife, and that’s when the danger strikes close to home. There’s a madman in the hospital diverting attention, and Hutter winds up incapacitated so he is incapable of coming to the aid of his love. She is left vulnerable and the vampire has already proven what havoc he can wreak with the crew on a ship. Aside from Max Schreck’s frightening facade complete with pointy ears, bulging eyes, and menacing fingers, the vampire literally appears and disappears into thin air. There is a haunting aura built around him because he is something supernatural, something that we cannot understand except through myth. I found myself getting tense waiting for something that I was not sure about. That was the exciting part. It’s not a blood and guts, monsters jumping out of closets, kind of horror. It’s not ridden with cliches either because it was the one creating its own mystique.

It’s hard to believe how much popular culture has been derivative from Stoker’s Dracula, much like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, amidst all the vast works of Dracula and vampires, Nosferatu stands out. It represents the visual aesthetic of German Expression wonderfully, and it casts a long shadow. It’s hard not to, at the very least, admire its artistry and be taken aback by its legacy. In the realm of silent films, Nosferatu is a must, pure and simple. It doesn’t rely on bloodcurdling shrieks and screams, but the images begin to invade our consciousness. One seems fleeting and the other sticks with us.

4.5/5 Stars