Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Horror Hags Part Two

Baby Jane and Charlotte improved Bette Davis' fortunes somewhat, and she traveled to England to make The Nanny (1965) for Hammer Films. While it certainly falls into the "horror hag" genre, it continues the string of good films she was making during the period. She plays the titular character, a Mary Poppins from hell, and she's terrific, even affecting a believably English accent. She plays the nanny of a family whose young daughter had accidentally(?) drowned in the bathtub, and the surviving sibling is convinced that she is trying to kill him, too. And, boy, is she rockin' the eyebrows! Not since playing Charlotte Vail in Now, Voyager had she had such a couple of enormous caterpillars crawling on her forehead.

Another star hitting the horror hag circuit for Hammer at the time was Tallulah Bankhead, who was predominantly famous for her stage work but in later years was more notable for her outrageous excesses and smoky voice. In 1965's Fanatic (aka Die, Die, My Darling), she plays Mrs. Trefoile, a religious nut who blames her son's ex-fiance (Stefanie Powers) for his suicide and holds her prisoner. She's surprisingly restrained—maybe too much—because anyone wanting to enjoy Bankhead's trademark bizarre mannerisms ("dah-ling") here will be disappointed.

Joan Crawford, unfortunately, didn't get the lift that Davis did, and her motion picture career was winding down, which must have pleased Davis to no end. She also went to Europe, but the films she made there were less than stellar. Berserk! (1968)  was made by Herman Cohen, who had done some hits for American International in the '50s (I Was a Teenage Werewolf being the most notable) and migrated to England, where he did Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), filmed in full color and featuring nasty murders in an effort to cash in on Hammer's bloody bandwagon after their remakes of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein hit it big internationally.  

Museum delivers the blood (including an excruciating death by spring-loaded spikes in a pair of binoculars), but it doesn't have Hammer's wonderful cinematography, story structure or the magnificent performances of Peter Cushing and  Christopher Lee. It's fun to watch, but for all the wrong reasons. Michael Gough (Hammer's Dracula and the '80s Batman remakes) is the star, minimally supported by a Diana Dors lookalike (Dors was England's answer to Marilyn Monroe) who provides the cleavage, but she can't act and does a spastic dance in a sleazy nightclub that's so hilarious you have to rewind the tape (or DVD or DVR) to see it again. She accidentally pokes herself in the eye and they use the take!

But Berserk! is even worse. It's saddled with a  tired story about the owner and ringmaster (mistress?) of a traveling circus (Crawford) who must cope with with the violent murders of her performers right on the tanbark. Of course, she's doing sexy times with the much younger '60s hunk du jour Ty Hardin. As I mentioned in the last post, Crawford was concerned about how she photographed, so at this point in her career she seems to have a distance limit that the director of photography must obey: in medium-long shots that are well-lit, it's okay to show her neck, but come any closer and the incongruous black bars of shadow appear.

Crawford, who always thought her legs were her best feature, hits the big top in a skin-tight outfit featuring revealing fishnet panty hose and severe hairstyle, looking like some bizarre circus dominatrix. And that's not even the worst part—a short script forced the producers to pad the film out with lame acts and musical numbers, one of which is performed by the circus' "freaks," and goes on interminably while Crawford chortles with delight. To demonstrate how bereft Berserk! is, Diana Dors plays a small part, having been forced to hit the Cohen circuit after the tragic death of her progenitor (it was too soon for Monroe impersonators to be fashionable). And yes, Michael Gough makes a brief appearance in the first of his two films with Crawford.

Meanwhile, Davis made The Anniversary for Hammer, starring as the abusive one-eyed matriarch of a dysfunctional family. She's fun as she verbally hacks her children and grandchildren to pieces, but like all forced camp, it doesn't really work.

But that same year in the U.S., Roman Polanski's magnificent Rosemary's Baby hit the screens. Not only is it a freaking great horror film, it's also a terrific time capsule of New York in the 1960s, a location and era that I would've loved to have been an adult in. Ruth Gordon plays the neighbor from hell, whose nosiness and constant prying deflects what's really going on—the intention to impregnate Rosemary with Satan's baby.

Gordon won the supporting actress Academy Award for her performance, and it's well-deserved. Minnie adds just the right mundane tone and day-to-day blah-blah-blah to make Rosemary not notice that a group of elderly satanists are making plans to have her raped by the devil.

Don't believe how great she was? Catch it on cable and watch the scene where Minnie is serving Rosemary's (Mia Farrow) husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), some of her homemade cake. Messily cramming forkfuls into her mouth, she watches intently to make sure he's enjoying it, mugging relentlessly through the other actors' dialogue, and swooping in to offer him another slice. Sure, she's shamelessly stealing the scene, but she's hilarious.

Remember, true horror hag films have questions as the titles, so Gordon made the grade in the Robert Aldrich-produced Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). Geraldine Page stars as a pine-tree growing widow who murders a succession of housekeepers for their money and buries them in the garden. Gordon arrives to investigate the disappearance of her friend, who had been dispatched by Page, and the mayhem ensues.

Sadly, Crawford's last theatrical release, also for Cohen, was Trog (1970). She plays Dr. Brockton, an anthropologist who discovers a troglodyte in a cave and wants to study, much to the dismay of the locals, led by religious fanatic Sam Murdock (Gough again), who wants it dead. The film is dull and the troglodyte makeup is ridiculous—a hair shirt topped off with an ape head. Still, Crawford, brings a surprising dedication to her role. She finished her career playing bit parts on television, the most notable of which was the pilot for Night Gallery (1969), in which she was directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

In 1971, eclectic director Curtis Harrington made two horror hag films, both starring Shelley Winters, What's the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Of the two, Helen is more interesting. It's set in the 1930s, and Winters and Debbie Reynolds star as Adele and Helen, two midwestern mothers whose sons have been sentenced to prison for a Leopold and Loeb-style murder. To escape their shame, they relocate to Hollywood where they open a dance studio for aspiring Shirley Temples. The weight of her guilt and suppressed romantic feelings for Helen proves too much for Adele, though, and she loses it.

Shot for not a lot of money, it has a marvelous period flavor, the creepy little Shirley Temple impersonators are fun, and the great Agnes Moorehead roars onscreen as the fire-and-brimstone breathing Sister Alma, modeled after real-life evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

In Whoever Slew, Winters plays Auntie Roo, a seemingly kindhearted and wealthy matron who lives in an English country mansion and has an annual custom of bringing children from the local orphanage into her home for the Christmas holidays. One of the kids (played by Oliver himself, Mark Lester) is convinced that she's a witch, intent on fattening him up and eating him. Winters' performance is suitably broad and it has a nice fairytale feel, but it's kind of ho-hum after the many pleasures of Helen.

Part Three—Horror Hags on TV—coming up next!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Horror Hags Part One

Yes, it's a rude and extremely un-PC moniker, but that's what the stars of the '30s and '40s became in the '60s. Too long in the tooth for romantic leads, too stylized in appearance and performance to blend in with the mainstream entertainment of the time, these actresses took the roles that were offered them—and more and more, these roles were in the realm of horror.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had both been superstars at their respective studios (MGM and Warners), but by 1962 they were taking bit parts or making occasional television appearances when director Robert Aldrich approached them to star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the grandmother of the Horror Hag genre. Davis stars as Jane Hudson, a former child star ("Baby" Jane) who has impossible aspirations of reviving her long-faded career. Crawford is Blanche, Jane's reclusive, invalid sister, who had become a famous star in the '30s after Jane's career had ended. Wheelchair-bound and totally dependent on Jane, she must tolerate her drunken, delusional sister's abusive treatment day after day.

A prologue, set in the teens, shows young Blanche watching jealously in the wings while Jane struts onstage, singing treacly songs and being nauseatingly cute. Then, in the '30s, Blanche becomes a famous movie star while Jane is laughed off the screen by movie executives who groan over her lack of talent. An automobile "accident" results in Blanche's paralysis, and the guilt-ridden but hostile Jane becomes Blanche's unwilling caregiver. Aldrich takes full advantage of the longstanding feud between the two volatile actresses and gives Davis some wonderfully choice lines which have since become iconic:

Blanche: You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair.
Jane: But you are, Blanche! You are in that chair!

Davis fearlessly tore into her character, creating a garish white makeup because she reasoned that "Jane never washed her face—just kept adding a new layer of makeup every day." Crawford, meanwhile, refused to let herself look bad and is consequently the most glamorous invalid you've ever seen. Aldrich also casts Davis' own daughter, B.D., in a small role as the next-door neighbor, whose mother asks her if she's ever seen the glamorous Blanche Hudson, to which she replies, "No, all I ever see is that fat sister."

The casting stunt—and great movie, by the way— translated into boxoffice gold and an Academy Award nomination for Davis. On Oscar night, she lost to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. Crawford had made a prior arrangement to accept the award for the younger actress, who was unavailable to appear, and she regally swept past her seething rival to take center stage. Nevertheless, money spoke louder than hatred, and Aldrich cast them in his follow-up, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). By this time, though, Davis was in full battle mode, and she literally drove Crawford off the set with histrionics: complete alignment with the crew, interruptions during Crawford's scenes and general mayhem. Crawford entered the hospital and refused to leave until she was released from her contract.

Davis persuaded her pal Olivia De Havilland to take Crawford's role, and the result is still a good film. Davis is Charlotte, a faded and off-her-rocker Southern belle who refuses to leave her plantation home when the state wants to build a highway through her property. De Havilland plays her sweet-seeming but scheming cousin who arrives to persuade Charlotte to leave. It doesn't have the high-camp histrionics of Jane, settling instead for a decent story and solid performances from Davis, De Havilland, Joseph Cotten, old-timer Cecil Kellaway and especially Agnes Moorehead as Charlotte's slatternly maid. In this film, Another old Davis nemesis, Mary Astor (The Old Maid), appears in the film too, but Aldrich wisely avoided putting her in any scenes with the explosive star.

Crawford hit the horror hag circuit in earnest with director/showman William Castle's Strait-Jacket (1964). She plays Lucy Harbin, a woman confined to an asylum after she chops up her husband (Lee Majors!) and his lover with an axe when she catches them in bed. Years later, she is released to the care of her daughter, Carol (Diane Baker), and the murders begin again.

As she did in all of her subsequent "horror hag" roles, Crawford delivers a heartfelt performance, giving the "B" material some class. But please don't think it's a sincere character study—it's a riot. The hatchet murders are surprisingly brutal for their time (apart from some extremely obvious rubber heads which only add to the fun), and there's a scene where Lucy, persuaded by Carol to dress in her old trampy clothes (guess she used to be the Town Pump and daughter loved it), meets Carol's fiance for the first time and rubs her hands all over his face, even sticking her fingers in his mouth. And she lights her cigarette with a match that she strikes on the grooves of a phonograph record.

Meanwhile, Davis appeared in Dead Ringer (1964), directed by her former costar Paul Henreid (remember the two cigarettes in Now, Voyager?). It's not really a horror film, but Davis plays a dual role as twin sisters, one of whom murders the other and assumes her identity. If you are a fan of Davis' trademark quirky acting, it's a must-see. She smokes so much that you can barely see her behind the perpetual cloud. Her hands are always twitching, reaching for things and moving around.

The murder scene is hilarious. After she shoots her sister (very cleanly, I must say), she plants a suicide note, restyles both of their absurd hairdos (the bunches of hair around the ears hide the adhesive "lifts" Davis used), and even sings a froggy version of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" to put her detective boyfriend Karl Malden (yes, I said Streets of San Francisco's Karl Malden) off track. But when she assumes her wealthy sister's identity after the death of said sister's husband—whom they both loved, by the way—she discovers that her sister had a double life herself and a younger lover in the personage of unctuous Peter Lawford. What a sadistic revenge! Even John F. Kennedy said, "Yeccch—Peter Lawford!"

Dead Ringer also boasts an appearance by the perpetually old actress Estelle Winwood (Bert I. Gordon's The Magic Sword), who lived to 102 and was 79 or 80 when this film was made. She plays the twin sister's dead husband's aunt or mother or something...anyhow, she always wants to make Davis go and pray whenever she pops onscreen. Hilarious.

While Davis was shooting Charlotte, Crawford continued her collaboration with Castle, albeit in a bit part, with his heckuva lot of fun I Saw What You Did (and I Know Who You Are). Two teenage girls make prank phone calls, repeating the titular line, and draw the ire of newly-minted murderer John Ireland, who has just offed his wife in a shower stabbing scene that Castle intended to be even more extreme than Psycho. Crawford appears in a few scenes as Ireland's lover, purring and rubbing up against him. It's disturbing. By this time, the 60-year-old actress was feeling delicate about how she photographed, so she insisted that her cameramen cast her wrinkly parts in shadow. Check out the makeup tests below. Of course, by the time she made her last Horror Hag movie, she had great swashes of darkness cast across most of her body except her eyes. But that story is to come...

De Havilland, who has been so sophisticated and tasteful in retirement (and is still with us), was somehow talked into further horror hagdom with Lady in a Cage (1964), a surprisingly nasty film featuring an early appearance by James Caan as a thug who barges into a wealthy invalid's home and terrorizes her. Combining the new permissiveness of the swinging '60s with blecchsploitation, this movie is just sort of...creepy.

Not campy or really very fun, it earns marks for its progressive sleaziness, but it's unpleasant to see the elegant De Havilland put through the paces that Davis would handle with chain-smoking aplomb. Of course, Davis would never play the victim. Ironically, when I was child, my family would go to my grandparents' house after church on Sunday and this film would often be showing on television—uncut—on the daytime movie matinee (along with The Birds and I Saw What You Did)!

End part one. In the meantime, check out these makeup tests for Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The January Curse is Broken

Traditionally, January is a bad month for movies, particularly horror films. Facing a post-holiday dip in attendance, studios dump whatever they have on the shelves into theaters, and the horror fan, a segment of the moviegoing population still willing to shell out bucks to experience a new thriller in a theatrical setting, frequently gets burned.

Well, that changed this year with the release of Daybreakers, the marvelous new vampire drama from Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead). I call it a drama because it's got some surprisingly emotional content that puts it head-and-fangs over yawn-inducing action-oriented bloodsucker epics like From Dusk Till Dawn and John Carpenter's Vampires. Vampires and action don't mix (with occasional exceptions like the original Blade). While there are certainly a lot of action scenes in Daybreakers, it is driven by a plot that provides an interesting expansion of the vampire mythos, along with some eyecatching film noir/Bladerunner-style art direction.

It is the year 2019. A plague has transformed almost of all the world's population into vampires. They've developed their own culture which mimics human life with a vampire twist, and they've built special homes and means of transportation to keep out of the deadly sunlight. Ethan Hawke stars as Edward Dalton, a scientist  employed by Bromley Marks, one of those ominous conglomerates that is harvesting what's left of humanity to feed the vampire population. The company is headed by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), an especially cold-blooded vampire whose own daughter has resisted "conversion". The vampires are reaching a crisis point, though—they're running out of human food. They're beginning to feed on each other and even themselves, transforming them into "Subsiders," mute, vicious, batlike creatures who've lost any trace of humanity and exist only to feed. Edward's task is to create an acceptable form of synthesized blood as quickly as possible.

A chance encounter with a group of human survivalists including Elvis (Willem Dafoe) makes Edward more compassionate toward their plight. And Elvis tells Edward that he is a former vampire, having inadvertently cured himself in a chance encounter with sunlight. Edward decides to recreate the experiment with himself as the guinea pig.

I know a lot of people don't share my enthusiasm, and I have to admit I'm a sucker (ha!) for vampire movies, but Daybreakers' dismal performance at the boxoffice and drubbing by critics is really unwarranted in my opinion. Even Hawke called it "silly" in an interview. But he brings conviction to his performance and Dafoe is a lot of fun as the freewheeling Elvis. Plus the idea of vampires cannibalizing and drinking their own blood out of desperation, transforming them into the creepy Subsiders, is great.

I admit that I enjoyed the Full Moon direct-to-video Subspecies series from the 1990s, even though each installment was essentially the same movie. I also liked Dracula 2000 and Dracula 2001 or whatever the hell the sequel was called. I caught all of them on cable or home video, though, and if I had paid eight bucks a shot to see them in the theater, I may not be so enthusiastic about them. I did  pay to see the previously-mentioned lame-os, and Guillermo Del Toro's Blade II was a huge disappointment. Daybreakers, however, was well worth the trip to the theater in a freezing San Antonio rainstorm, and if you're a vampire fan, make sure you check it out. But hurry—it's not going to last long in theaters. The January curse seems to have trained fans to avoid films released this month, no matter how good they may be.

UPDATE: I saw Daybreakers again today (Sunday, January 24) and it completely held up. Actually, it  was even better, because I saw some stuff I missed the first time. The theater in San Antonio I saw it at the first time was also a restaurant, and we were being served our lunch during the establishing scenes. How much should you tip when the server has to stumble through the darkness carrying three plates?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Great Performances

A new year is a time for reflection, and here at Weird Movie Village, it's no different. Today I thought I'd take a look at some of the great performances in horror films. Some are great films, too, but others are just standout performances in okay efforts. This is going to be a continuing feature, so if you think I've unjustly left someone off, he or she may appear in a later post. And if you haven someone to suggest, let me know!

Here are some of my picks, in no particular order...

1. Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973).

Burstyn is marvelous as Chris MacNeil, an actress shooting a film in Georgetown whose daughter develops a strange malady (and we all know what that is). A Method actress portraying a Method actress, Burstyn brings a wonderful naturalness to the role. Her interactions with the people in her life, including the household staff, her secretary Sharon, her ever-plastered director, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), and her beloved daughter, Regan (Linda Blair, of course), are very realistic. One telling scene has Regan listening in as Chris hurls obscenities at a hotel clerk who can't get her ex-husband to come to the phone on his own daughter's birthday. The scene serves a dual purpose: it shows how much she loathes her ex-husband and how much the divorce may have affected affected Regan, and it also foreshadows the screaming of obscentities yet to come.

Even when the supernatural begins to rear its ugly head, this woman is so grounded in reality she has trouble believing it, instead consulting with a series of expensive medical experts and reluctantly allowing them to perform horrible tests in search of a nonexistent brain lesion. The doctors throw up their hands, and Chris takes her daughter home to care for her, even as the demon's assaults become more and more violent and terrifying.

This leads to another key scene when she is visited by Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a friendly but inquisitive detective who is investigating Burke's death. Serving coffee and maintaining an air of cool cordiality, she knows all too well that the thing upstairs inhabiting her daughter's body did it, but she does a beautiful job of keeping her emotions hidden. Only when Kinderman can't see her face does she let the mask slip, giving us a glimpse of the pain and terror she's feeling. By the time she meets with Father Karras to beg him to perform an exorcism, she's a beaten-down, abused victim who only wants salvation for her child. And when the big gun, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow in another wonderful role), arrives to perform the exorcism, she regards him with a mixture of anxiousness and hope—without overdoing it. So many times Burstyn could have resorted to hair-pulling and rolling of eyes, but she stays grounded throughout the film. A landmark performance that just doesn't age.

2. Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire (1994).

I rewatched this recently in hi-def and while I continue to be impressed with the film as a whole,  Dunst's performance as Claudia, the child vampire, is still remarkable 16 years later. Only 12 years old, her transformation from malnourished waif cowering in her dead mother's arms to cold-blooded killer is splendid. She does a marvelously convincing job portraying a woman trapped in a child's body, yet retaining childlike feelings and mannerisms. Resentful that Lestat (Tom Cruise) and Louis (Brad Pitt) have made it impossible for her to ever grow up, she nevertheless uses her innocent appearance to stalk victims, and the gleam in Dunst's eye when prey is in sight is a wonder to behold. When she tricks Lestat into drinking dead blood and viciously slashes his throat, the unbridled fury she unleashes is galvanizing. Only when her maker's blood threatens to wash over her feet does she revert to childish reliance on Louis, pleading with him to lift her up.

I love her exchange with Louis at the Theatre des Vampires in Paris. After her explains that the actors are really vampires pretending to be human pretending to be vampires, she tosses off the line "How avant garde" just like a wealthy dowager enjoying an evening out. And in the bowels of the same theater, when the vampire troupe is getting its revenge on them for Lestat's murder, she becomes a child again, seeking shelter from the burning sun in the arms of the adult female vampire Louis has made for her.

The film is gorgeous. The art direction is magnificent, the score exceptional. Pitt is good and Cruise's stunt casting worked out (thank God), but Dunst's performance is the one that really sticks in the mind and bears repeating.

3. Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator (1985).

I saw this film at the drive-in theater when it was originally released in 1985. When the score, a complete "Psycho" knock-off, began playing, I thought: "Oh, God." But then followed 86 minutes of deliciously gruesome goodness that I still enjoy warching to this day.

As over-the-top as this film is, it's most enjoyable for Combs' performance as Herbert West, the all-business medical student with an all-abiding interest in animating the dead. Pushy, single-minded and completely self-centered, West exists only to perfect his serum, and Combs portrays him as a man who is absolutely confident of his superiority over everyone else. He strides just this side of camp, but it makes West a much more interesting character than the typical two-dimensional "mad scientist." It also made this a much-beloved character of horror fans everywhere.

You can never really warm up to him—he doesn't want you to—but his matter-of-fact reactions to the ever-increasing mayhem he's causing and his droll delivery of choice lines—makes it a performance for the horror archives. I love the way he tells Dr. Hill, his re-animated nemesis, "Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow."

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I saw Combs onstage as Edgar Allen Poe in "Nevermore," directed by Gordon. It was marvelous.

4. Danny Lloyd in The Shining (1980).

Kubrick must have truly been an actor's director, because this six-year-old's performance is one of the most amazing things about "The Shining." Those connected with the production say that Lloyd was picked for his "ability to concentrate for long periods of time" and that Kubrick told him he was making a drama, not a horror film.

Nevertheless, his scenes are so natural—talking with his invisible friend, Tony; realizing that Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) can also communicate via "shining" and his wonderful subdued reaction. When daddy Jack begins losing it and Danny uncomfortably sits on his lap in a robotic attempt to preserve the family relationship, it's  a squirm-inducing scene, since we know Jack had previously abused the boy.

Much time is spent rattling around the hotel on his Big Wheel, just being a kid, making the scenes of sudden horror even more jolting. Most spectacular of all is his reaction to the chopped-up bodies of the Grady twins in the hallway. Eyes widening in terror, he does what any kid would do—he covers his face.

It is said that Lloyd spontaneously wiggled his finger during auditions when he talked to "Tony," and Kubrick liked it so much he had him keep doing it. That is among the naturalistic touches Lloyd contributes to the role, whether consciously or unconsciously, and it contributes enormously to the power of the film.


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