June 28, 2007

The Seafarers (1953)

While nowadays Stanley Kubrick is considered as one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers of all time, the career of this legendary director had its humble beginning in the documentary genre, specifically in the making of two newsreels for RKO Radio Pictures in 1951 when he was only 23 years old. At that age, Kubrick was already a full-time staff photographer for the "Look" magazine, but after making those two short films he quit his job and decided to become a full-time filmmaker. However, those two short films wouldn't be the only documentaries the master would direct in his lifetime, as in 1953 he had to return to the documentary genre after the commercial failure of his feature length debut, "Fear and Desire" in 1953. His third and last documentary would also be his first time working in color, and all in an infomercial for Seafarers International Union.

Simply tittled, "The Seafarers", this short documentary is essentially an infomercial about the benefits that joining the Seafarers International Union can bring to mariners, fishermen and boatmen of the U.S. if they join it. Narrated by CBS reporter Don Hollenbeck, the film details the different activities a member can do while visiting the Union Halls that are spread around the country's coasts, as well as the many services they offer. From barbershops to restaurants, the film talks about the establishments that offer good discounts to those who join the Union. It also explores other important benefits, such as health care, insurance, and scholarships for the children of the seafarers. Finally, it also explains some of the rights and obligations of every member, as well as how is the Union organized and how their democratic processes work.

Written by Will Chasen (quite possibly a member of the Union himself), the movie is a very complete and informative commercial about the Seafarers International Union, as in its barely 30 minutes of duration it manages to cover a wide arrange of topics of major interest for the film's intended audience. Clearly devised to convince sailors to join the Union, Chasen's script is written in a very persuasive way, highlighting the Union hall's commodities and the leisure activities that the members can do in order to give the organization the image of a fun place to be. While a bit typical of the era, Don Hollenbeck's effective narration adds power to the persuasive script, as he truly makes the Union sound like a club every worker should join thanks to his friendly, yet strong presence.

In this his fourth movie as a director, Kubrick shows an enormous progression in his skills with the camera. An acknowledged follower of Max Ophüls' work (his movies inspired him to be a filmmaker), Kubrick once again shows in "The Seafarers" the enormous influence the German director had during the early years of his career, as the movie showcases scenes with very fluid and dynamic cinematography, pretty much in Ophüls' style. Also, considering it was his first movie in color, "The Seafarers" looks very, and Kubrick's creative experimentation with color can be seen in several scenes. As with the rest of his documentaries, the strength of the film is in the visual compositions the young photographer created, as Kubrick crafts a movie that supports Chasen's script efficiently and delivers the core message of the institution.

Even when there is no doubt that this is a very interesting movie to watch for fans of Stanley Kubrick, other than its excellent craftsmanship there is not really anything truly remarkable about the movie. And as written above, this is not because the movie is bad, but mainly because while competently made, it's still nothing more than an infomercial that Kubrick made as a hired gun. Of course, there's a number of sparks of the brilliant talent the young filmmaker would show in his following films, but besides that this is still a very typical commercial film in the classic 50s style. Anyways, while the film certainly suffers from being made for a specific audience, it manages to transmit successfully Seafarers International's intended message of looking like an organization made by sailors and intended for sailors.

It would be difficult to recommend "The Seafarers" to those uninterested in Stanley Kubrick's career, as due to the kind of film it its, it's probably of interest only for Kubrick aficionados (although maybe those interested in 50s infomercials will find it useful). It's kind of fun to watch the young filmmaker mastering his skills, as one can truly see how he developed the techniques that would make him a legend. While "The Seafarers" is not really one of the highlights of his career, one has to be thankful for it as this movie helped to pay his 1955 movie, "Killer's Kiss", film that would open Kubrick the door to bigger projects like his masterpieces "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory". Even when personally I think that "Day of the Fight" is the best of the three documentaries by Kubrick, "The Seafarers" is a good film by its own merits.


June 27, 2007

The Invisible Ray (1936)

There is no doubt that during the decade of the 30s, the names of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi became a sure guarantee of excellent performances in high quality horror films. After being Universal's "first monster" in the seminal classic, "Dracula", Bela Lugosi became the quintessential horror villain thanks to his elegant style and his foreign accent (sadly, this last factor would also led him to be type-casted during the 40s). In the same way, Boris Karloff's performance in James Whale's "Frankenstein" transformed him into the man to look for when one wanted a good monster. Of course, it was only natural for these icons to end up sharing the screen, and the movie that united them was 1934's "The Black Cat". This formula would be repeated in several films through the decade, and director Lambert Hillyer's mix of horror and science fiction, "The Invisible Ray", is another of those minor classics they did in those years.

In "The Invisible Ray", Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant scientist who has invented a device able to show scenes of our planet's past captured in rays of light coming from the galaxy of Andromeda. While showing his invention to his colleagues, Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), they discover that thousands of years ago, a meteor hit in what is now Nigeria. After this marvelous discovery, Dr. Rukh decides to join his colleagues in an expedition to Africa, looking for the landing place of the mysterious meteor. This expedition won't be any beneficial for Rukh, as during the expedition his wife Diane (Frances Drake) will fall in love with Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), an expert hunter brought by the Stevens to aid them in their expedition. However, Rukh will lose more than his wife in that trip, as he'll be forever changed after being exposed to the invisible ray of the meteor.

Written by John Colton (who previously did the script for "Werewolf of London"), "The Invisible Ray" had its roots on an original sci-fi story by Howard Higgin and Douglas Hodges. Given that this was a movie with Karloff and Lugosi, Colton puts a lot of emphasis on the horror side of his story, playing in a very effective way with the mad scientist archetype and adding a good dose of melodrama to spice things up. One element that makes "The Invisible Ray" to stand out among other horror films of that era, is the way that Colton plays with morality through the story. That is, there aren't exactly heroes and villains in the classic style, but people who make decisions and later face the consequences of those choices. In many ways, "The Invisible Ray" is a modern tragedy about obsessions, guilt and revenge.

A seasoned director of low-budget B-movies, filmmaker Lambert Hillyer got the chance to make 3 films for Universal Pictures when the legendary studio was facing serious financial troubles. Thanks to his experience working with limited resources, Hillyer's films were always very good looking despite the budgetary constrains, and "The Invisible Ray" was not an exception. While nowhere near the stylish Gothic atmosphere of previous Universal horror films, Hillyer's movie effectively captures the essence of Colton's script, as he gives this movie a dark and morbid mood more in tone with pulp novels than with straightforward sci-fi. Finally, a word must be said about Hillyer's use of special effects: for an extremely low-budget film, they look a lot better than the ones in several A-movies of the era.

As usual in a movie with Lugosi and Karloff, the performances by this legends are of an extraordinary quality. As the film's protagonist, Boris Karloff is simply perfect in his portrayal of a man so blinded by the devotion to his work that fails to see the evil he unleashes. As his colleague, Dr. Benet, Bela Luogis is simply a joy to watch, stealing every scene he is in and showing what an underrated actor he was. As Rukh's wife, Frances Drake is extremely effective, truly helping her character to become more than a damsel in distress. Still, two of the movie highlights are the performances of Kemble Cooper as Mother Rukh, and Beulah Bondi as Lady Arabella, as the two actresses make the most of their limited screen time, making unforgettable their supporting roles. Frank Lawton is also good in his role, but nothing surprising when compared to the rest of the cast.

If one judges this movie under today's standards, it's very easy to dismiss it as another cheap science fiction film with bad special effects and carelessly jumbled pseudoscience. However, that would be a mistake, as despite its low-budget, it is remarkably well done for its time. On the top of that, considering that the movie was made when the nuclear era was about to begin and radioactivity was still a relatively new concept, it's ideas about the dangers of radioactivity are frighteningly accurate. One final thing worthy to point out is the interesting way the script handles the relationships between characters, specially the friendship and rivalry that exists between the obsessive Dr. Rukh and the cold Dr. Benet, as this allows great scenes between the two iconic actors.

While nowhere near the Gothic expressionism of the "Frankenstein" movies, nor the elegant suspense of "The Black Cat", Lambert Hillyer's "The Invisible Ray" is definitely a minor classic amongst Universal Pictures' catalog of horror films. With one of the most interesting screenplays of 30s horror, this mixture of suspense, horror and science fiction is one severely underrated gem that even now delivers a good dose of entertainment courtesy of two of the most amazing actors the horror genre ever had: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.


Buy "The Invisible Ray" (1936)

June 26, 2007

Flying Padre (1951)

In the early 50s, a young photographer named Stanley Kubrick decided to quit his job at "Look" magazine and try his luck at directing movies after discovering the potential of cinema as an art form. While eventually Kubrick would become a master of the craft and a renowned artist by his own right, the young filmmaker had his humble beginning at making short newsreels for RKO Radio Pictures. It all started when a friend convinced him to make "Day of the Fight", a short documentary about boxing that they intended to sell to "The March of Time" newsreel. Sadly, that newsreel was canceled, but to their fortune, people at RKO liked Kubrick's movie and bought the film. While Kubrick didn't make money out of "Day of the Fight", it opened him the doors at RKO, as they gave him the chance to make a new documentary for them: "Flying Padre".

Narrated by CBS announcer Bob Hite, "Flying Padre" tells the story of two days in the life of Father Fred Stadtmuller, a Catholic priest in rural New Mexico with a very particular way of reaching the people of his 400-square mile parish. Since his parish is too large and the roads of New Mexico aren't really good, Father Stadmuller uses a Piper Cub airplane to travel to whenever his people needs him, offering not only spiritual help, but sometimes also physical. Through the film, we follow this "Flying Padre" through his daily obligations, which not only include giving sermons at the church or helping people to solve their differences peacefully, as Father Stadmuller also uses his plane to help people in emergencies. In the movie for example, Father Stadmuller takes a sick child and his mother from their isolated ranch to the nearest hospital.

Based on Stadtmuller's experiences as priest of the New Mexico community of Mosquero, Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for this brief recounting of several of Stadtmuller's adventures as Mosquero's "Flying Padre". Contrary to what the narration may tell, while the events portrayed in the movie did happen, what we see on screen is only a reenactment of them, not an actual depiction of Stadtmuller at work. Despite the fact that what it's on screen is obviously staged, Kubrick makes a great job at making us discover the true heroism behind the humble priest, and to a certain extent it's very informative about the situation of New Mexico's rural land of those years. The text of the narration (apparently also written by Kubrick) is very in tone with what was the standard in the early 50s, although often falls in the clichés of the era.

While his work with the screenplay doesn't show any sing of the talent that would make him a legend, the excellent camera-work he uses in the shooting of the film is a clear display of the abilities of the promising director. As he did in "Day of the Fight", Kubrick employs a mix of editing and cinematography to create a very dynamic movie in the style of Max Ophüls (who was a big influence in his early years). While of course Kubrick is forced to remain true to the newsreel's conventions, he manages to create pretty good looking scenes that at times seem to tell the tale of the "Flying Padre" in better fashion than Bob Hite's fast narrative. Sadly, the film's cinematography is probably the only think that would make one see this movie as a Kubrick film, as it is probably the only element that shows Kubrick's rising talent as a filmmaker.

What I mean is that not only the screenplay is troubled, where the movie truly suffers the most is in the quality of the reenactment of several events in the priest's life. The problem is that since neither the "actors" (people literally playing themselves) nor the director had any experience in this aspect, the result is a "documentary" that feels staged and fake when it should be the exact opposite. Another of the problems is definitely Nathaniel Shilkret's score for the film and the way Kubrick uses it in the movie. While Shilkret was one of the best composers for newsreels during the Golden age of the genre (and even composed for feature films in the 30s), his work in this movie sounds old, clichéd and archaic, a sad ending for his long career.

Even when "Flying Padre" is definitely a flawed film, it is still an interesting piece of history as it shows the development of Stanley Kubrick's career from young photographer to legendary filmmaker. While the writing and the directing of actors leaves a lot to be desired, the camera-work and the cinematography are 100% Kubrick and it shows. It is very easy to dismiss this movie as a mere curiosity, but one has to remember that in only 4 years Kubrick went from this movie to "Killer's Kiss" and his first two masterpieces, "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory". Of his three first documentaries this is probably the worst, and I don't doubt it could be seen as disappointing; but as people say, "you have to start with something".


June 25, 2007

The Innocents (1961)

Among the many works of Gothic fiction that came up during the revival of the genre in the 1880s, Henry James' classic ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw", is certainly one of the most intriguing and fascinating of all. The reasons for this are many, but one of the most important has been the ambiguous way James uses his ghosts to explore the psychological issues of his characters. This ambiguity has led to countless debates about the nature of the plot, as the way James wrote the story has allowed many different interpretations about it over the years. Obviously, this has resulted in the fact that most of the many adaptations to other media that have been done about the novel presents a different way to see the story. Fortunately, the 1961 movie, "The Innocents", is somewhat an exception, as this masterpiece of 60s Gothic horror manages to keep the seductive ambiguity of the novel.

In "The Innocents", Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a young and unexperienced governess hired by a wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) to work at his country home and take care of his nice and nephew, as he is unable (and has no interest in) to take care of the two orphaned children. After her arrival, she meets Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper, and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the young child now under her care. Everything seems to be working perfectly until she receives the notice that the other kid, Miles (Martin Stephens), has been expelled from his school. After Miles returns from school, Miss Giddens will begin to experience strange events around the house, hearing and seeing eerie apparitions that make her suspect that the house is haunted. The strange behavior of the two children will only increase her suspicion that someone or something wants to take control of the innocents.

Following Henry James' short story in a very faithful way, the screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote manages to capture the exact same atmosphere of ambiguity and paranoia that impregnates the pages of James' classic novella. In fact, one could say that the writers take the story's ambiguity one step beyond as they joyfully play with every element the story has to offer: supernatural horror, psychological drama, and even a subtle yet strong nod to the voluptuous sensuality of Victorian sexual repression. The plot twists and turns as the story unfolds, toying with every possible explanation for the strange events that are taking place, but never giving too many clues, wisely keeping all the mystery and suspense till the very last moment. Finally, the superb development of the characters is another element that makes this movie one of the most powerful tales of horror ever put on film.

Two years after directing the internationally acclaimed "Room at the Top", director Jack Clayton once again shows off his talents to transform literary works into classy films that remain faithful to the essence of their sources. Focusing entirely on Miss Giddens and the two children, Clayton stays in line with the ambiguous tone of the script, creating a claustrophobic character-driven horror based almost entirely on suggestion, leaving to the audience's imagination the nature of the haunting and the source of the those unspeakable horrors that seem to take place in the house. And of course, the star of Clayton's masterpiece is without a doubt the impressive work done by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who using black-and-white photography creates an ominous atmosphere of dread that's frightening in all its beauty.

While Francis's cinematography is definitely a highlight of the film, "The Innocents" wouldn't be the same without the remarkable performances done by its cast. Deborah Kerr's acting as Miss Giddens is a powerful dramatic Tour De Force as she literally becomes her character, transmitting that subtle mix of naiveté and repressed sensuality that fits perfectly her character, and one can truly sympathize with her as she descends into a spiral of fear and paranoia. As the innocents of the title, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are perfect in their performances, and one wonders how they could achieve the maturity to play their roles. Stephens is specially a joy to watch, as he can go from playful child to sinister figure in a frighteningly natural way. Finally, Megs Jenkins adds her talents as Mrs. Grose, making an excellent performance in a role that easily could had become a caricature.

As Robert Wise's "The Haunting" would do a couple of years later, "The Innocents" is a movie that bases its impact in the power of its ominous dark atmosphere and in the ambiguity of its script, and it is probably this last element what may also be its main flaw. Well, not exactly a flaw, but certainly something that won't be everyone's cup of tea. What I mean is that since the movie takes on many different interpretations to what is going on with the children, modern audiences may feel that the movie doesn't give enough answers to the questions it poses. However, that's precisely where the magic of "The Innocents" is, as like Henry James' novella does, this allows a wide range of possible interpretations to its ambiguous plot. Wheter this is a flaw or a virtue depends entirely on the viewer, and personally I think that this is one of the film's strongest points.

The fact that some consider the film too vague while others think of it as too biased towards a single explanation, is simply a testament of how intriguing and fascinating the movie still is more than 40 years after its release. Creepy and atmospheric, "The Innocents" is also a powerful display of the best talents the British film industry had to offer in the 60s. With its excellent cinematography and wonderful acting, "The Innocents" is simply a masterpiece of Gothic horror that easily ranks among the best horror movies ever made. Fans of ghost stories, this is a definitive "must-see".


June 22, 2007

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Between the years of 1827 and 1828, a strange series of murders took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, terrifying the population during the almost eleven months between the first attack and the capture of the criminals. At the moment of their capture, 17 persons had been killed by William Burke and William Hare in order to be sold as corpses to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection, with the prestigious doctor Robert Knox as the main customer. This revelation shocked the nation and made the case (now named "The West Port murders") part of popular culture, and even sing-song rhymes were written about the case. Years later, famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson would become fascinated by the case, and in 1884 wrote the short story "The Body Snatcher" inspired by it. This short story would be the inspiration for a movie in 1945, a classic of horror starring the legendary Boris Karloff.

Set in Edinburgh in 1831, "The Body Snatcher" is the story of Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), a young student of medicine who is not doing well financially and will be forced to leave school. To his surprise, he is accepted as an assistant to his teacher of anatomy, the famous Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who considers Fettes a promising student and is willing to aid him to remain in school. However, not everything is sweet for Fettes, as his new job will show him the dark side of his profession when he discovers that Dr. MacFarlane must pay John Gray (Boris Karloff), a cab-man, to bring him exhumed bodies from the cemeteries for his classes. But this will only be the beginning, as after meeting the sinister cab-man Fettes will discover that Gray is more than a mere body snatcher, as he knows a horrible secret about Dr. MacFarlane that gives him power over the reputed physician.

Written by producer Val Lewton (under his usual pen name "Carlos Keith") and popular crime writer Philip MacDonald, "The Body Snatcher" is a powerful psychological drama in that subtle style that Lewton mastered during his days as head of the horror unit at RKO studios. Using Stevenson's story as a template, the writers crafted a plot that explores some of the darkest aspects of the human soul in a way that mixes the story's Gothic origins with the films noir of the time. The screenplay excels in the development of the characters, as one can't help but feel for them as we follow their descent into the dark side. It also creates one of the most extraordinary and complex characters of horror in the figure of John Gray. Finally, it's worth to point out the outstanding quality of the dialogs, which is another of the elements that add a lot of class to the film.

"The Body Snatcher" was Robert Wise's second solo effort as a director after making "Mademoiselle Fifi" for Val Lewton a year before. Like in that previous work, Wise once again proves his skills to create a visually outstanding period piece under Lewton's low budgets, as he manages to create a very dark 1830s setting with great detail. As some critics have pointed out, "The Body Snatcher" is an effective throwback to the classic horrors of the 30s done by Universal, as Wise brings back the Gothic atmosphere of those movies and adds the subtle ambiguity of the RKO style imposed by Lewton, creating something that could be described as a "gothic film noir". As he would do years later in "The Haunting", Wise uses what he learned from Lewton and takes it beyond, creating stylish and horrific scenes based almost entirely on suggestion and mood than in unabashed shock.

While probably he'll always be known as the Creature in James Whale's 1931 classic "Frankenstein", British actor Boris Karloff wasn't exactly a one-note performer, and this movie is a clear testament of that. As John Gray, Karloff delivers what simply is the best performance of his career, transforming himself in this sinister man that can go from a sympathetic nice cab-man to the cruel and rude body snatcher that tortures Dr. MacFarlane's mind. However, Karloff is not the only one who makes a great job, as Henry Daniell is another of the highlights of the film in his performance as Dr. MacFarlane. RKO's regular Russell Wade completes the cast as young Fettes, and is very natural and believable in his role as the naive student. Edith Atwater and horror icon Bela Lugosi appear in minor roles, but both manage to steal their scenes with great talent.

During his short run at RKO studios, Lewton showed a great hand at picking the crew for his movies, and this movie wasn't the exception. Not only Robert Wise makes a wonderful job at directing the film, but also cinematographer Robert De Grasse adds his talent to the creation of many of the haunting scenes of the film. Wise learned a lot from working with Orson Welles, and together with De Grasse he employs Welles' techniques to the horror genre with excellent results. While personally I consider this movie among the best horror films ever made, it's worth to point out that modern viewers may feel the movie's pace a bit too slow, as this is not a movie that uses direct shock to be scary; this is a movie that moves around the creepiness of its ominous atmosphere and specially, the unsettling nature of its characters' psychology.

Morally ambiguous and of excellent craftsmanship, "The Body Snatcher" is probably among the best horror films ever made. Those who think that horror is nothing more than cheap entertainment will find that this film elevates the genre to the level or an art-form, and that there is more in Boris Karloff than Frankenstein's monster. Along with "Cat People" and "I Walked with a Zombie", "The Body Snatcher" is another proof that while short, Lewton's run at RKO was enormously influential for the horror genre.


Buy "The Body Snatcher" (1945)

June 21, 2007

The Raven (1935)

Actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are definitely two of the most easily recognizable names in the history of the horror genre, and not without a reason, as their iconic performances as the title characters in Universal Studios' 1931 classics, "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" respectively, truly added a lot of power to those legendary films and transformed them into stars. Given the attraction both actors had on the audiences, the obvious next step was to put them together in another horror film and the result was 1934's masterpiece, "The Black Cat", a classic film inspired by the works of writer Edgar Allan Poe that became the first of eight movies where the two legends would share the screen. The following year, Universal gave young serial director Lew Landers the job of making another Poe-inspired horror film with the two legends.

Contrary to what the title may imply, "The Raven" is not an adaptation of Poe's classic poem, but the story of a man obsessed with the legendary writer. That man is Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), a neurosurgeon of enormous talents who one night is called out of retirement by the wealthy judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), who wants Vollin to operate his daughter, a famous dancer named Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) who suffered brain damage after a terrible auto wreck. Vollin reluctantly accepts and miraculously saves the girl's life, but after Jean's recovery he discovers that he is now in love with the dancer. Sadly, Jean rejects him in favor of her fianceé, Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews), and this event makes Vollin to decide to take revenge on the Thatchers. To achieve this, Vollin will use an escaped convict named Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) to do the dirty work.

Written by David Boehm (with Universal's assortment of usual collaborators), "The Raven" is a dark tale of revenge that, while having a plot completely different to the poem that inspired it, effectively manages to keep the themes of obsession and insanity so characteristic of the classic poem. Boehm's screenplay is actually quite fascinating, as by focusing entirely in the villains it manages to develop a complex psychology for the characters played by Lugosi and Karloff. As in "The Black Cat", the development of their characters is exceptional (specially considering the film's short runtime), and the movie features some of the best dialog exchanges in a Universal horror film. Vollin's obsessive fascination with Poe and torture devices is explored extensively in the script, resulting in a very dark and violent film, in the spirit of 1932's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (also starring Lugosi).

Director Lew Landers takes a very restrained and straightforward approach to the story, as if he was limiting himself to simply shoot what is on the script. While his work with the film isn't really bad in the strict sense of the word, it is certainly bland and a bit uninspired, as at times he fails to capture the dark atmosphere of the story and leaves the film as nothing more than a typical horror of those years. Despite this uneven work of direction, Landers manages to create some interesting scenes that thanks to the excellent cinematography by Charles J. Stumar (in one of his last works before dying in a plane crash), seem to deliver some of the spirit of Boehm's creepy tale. While his camera-work is a bit average, his dealing with actors is without faults, as Landers truly gets the best out of his cast.

Bela Lugosi's talent for acting has always been questioned given the poor choices of roles he made when his health got worse and became type-casted as a villain. However, "The Raven" is an irrefutable proof that the legendary horror icon could be perfect in the adequate role. As the sadistic Dr. Vollin, Lugosi's talent shines without problem and manages to overshadow everyone in the cast, including his usual "rival" Boris Karloff (himself another very talented actor). As the dangerous criminal Edmond Bateman, Karloff is very effective despite his somewhat limited screen time, and he manages to be both frightening and sympathetic. Character actor Samuel S. Hinds delivers his usual good work as Judge Thatcher, and Irene Ware is equally delightful as Jean. Lester Matthews is probably the weakest link, but to his favor I can say that his character was terribly underdeveloped.

It's a true shame that Lew Landers' hadn't taken Boehm's story to its full potential, as easily the movie could had been as good as the previous year's "The Black Cat"; however, this could be blamed on Landers' lack of experience in this kind of movies, as his style shows a lot of the influence he got by directing serials ("The Raven" was his first feature film). Anyways, as written above, this shouldn't be seen as a bad thing, just a slight criticism on the missed chance to create a horror masterpiece out of this script. Still, this is no reason to dismiss this film as Lugosi's performance in the movie is certainly something to be seen, as it ranks as one of his best along his work in "White Zombie", "The Mystery of the Marie Celeste" and the aforementioned movie, "The Black Cat".

While nowhere near the better known classics by Universal, "The Raven" still manages to capture a bit of that magic that made those early sound horror films an unforgettable landmark in the history of horror. It's kind of sad that Lugosi's career started its slow downfall in the years after this movie, as this 30s classics show the enormous talent that was in the person of the iconic Hungarian actor. Despite not being faithful to Poe's work, with this film one can agree with Dr. Vollin's words: "Poe, you are avenged". Avenged indeed.


Buy "The Raven" (1935)

June 19, 2007

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

After the enormous success of Tod Browning's "Dracula" in 1931, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. finally proved that his vision had been correct and that the horror genre was an excellent source of stories to film. With that in mind, he began to work immediately in a follow up for that success with an adaptation of Mary Shelley's immortal novel, "Frankenstein", in the expressionist Gothic style of Browning's film. The film was set to be written and directed by French director Robert Florey and starred by the recently discovered Hungarian star of "Dracula": Bela Lugosi. However, people at Universal changed the plans and assigned the film to British director James Whale, who had a different idea for the movie and replaced Lugosi with Boris Karloff. Owing a film to both Florey and Lugosi, Universal gave them a project based on a tale by Edgar Allan Poe: "Murders in the Rue Morgue".

Set in Paris during the late 19th Century, "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is the tale of a series of unsolved crimes where women are abducted and murdered by an unknown method. Since the murders began to take place after a carnival arrived to the city, young medicine student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) suspects that Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), a scientist who owns one of the sideshow attractions, is behind the crimes, but so far he finds himself unable to prove it. His suspicion has its source in the fact that Mirakle has claimed to be looking for a way to finally prove that man and ape are related, and apparently has been experimenting on his sideshow attraction: an intelligent ape named Erik, which Mirakle claims is the missing link. Dupin fears that Mirakle's experiments are related to the murders, but the truth is far more horrible than what he thinks.

"Murders in the Rue Morgue" is not exactly a faithful adaptation of Poe's short story, as the script (written by Tom Reed, Dale Van Every and Robert Florey himself) focuses more on the reasons behind the murders than on the investigation done to solve the case. It is because of this reason that it is Dr. Mirakle who is in the spotlight while Poe's famous character, Dupin, has been transformed from cunning detective to a young student of medicine. With this change, the writers allow themselves to completely focus on horror, and deliver one of the darkest and most violent stories among Universal's classic horrors. However, as many have already pointed out, the story is not only an exploration of Poe's tale, but also a charming tribute to German expressionism's most celebrated triumph, "Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari", as the plot mirrors the classic silent film in more than one way.

The tribute to "Caligari" is not only a part of the script, as director Florey, aided by the legendary cinematographer Karl Freund and the wonderful art direction by Charles D. Hall, extended the tribute to the overall visual look of the film, following the expressionist style to the letter with an amazing use of light and shadows to create a powerful and haunting atmosphere. However, not everything is lifted from German expressionism, as Florey adds his own realist style to the mix resulting in a powerful combination that enhances the violence of the script. As the film was done before the Production Code was introduced, Florey manages to bring to life a lot of the vicious images of the script with an amount of detail that would be impossible a few years later. Sadly, Florey's skills at directing actors aren't as good as his skills with the camera, and some bad performances end up damaging the movie a lot.

While Florey doesn't seem to direct his actors as good as he does with the visuals, Bela Lugosi shows off his talent in a tremendous performance that's probably among the best of his career. As Mirakle, Lugosi is incredibly believable as a demented scientist, and despite being one of his most menacing roles he even manages to be sympathetic at times. The sadly ill-fated Sidney Fox is also good as Camille, the damsel in distress of this eerie horror, but sadly her counterpart, Leon Ames, isn't up to the challenge. While he later proved to be a talented actor, in this movie Ames delivers an awful performance that looks stagy and simply out of place in the movie. Bert Roach, who plays his sidekick, is not much better, as his delivery of comic relief is mediocre at best and ludicrous at worst.

This varying quality of the performances and the sharp contrast between them and the superb visual look of the movie may had played a part in the relatively disappointing reception the film had at box office, but the main reasons the movie failed was probably the fact that the audience wasn't ready for the dark nature of the plot and the violence displayed on screen. In fact, there are rumors stating that Universal removed almost 20 minutes of the original cut, taking away scenes supposedly too violent for being released. Anyways, whether this rumor is true or not is ultimately irrelevant, as the film's main problem is still in the actors' performances and that's something that missing footage hardly could improve. It is a shame that one of Lugosi's best performances ends up in the same film as one of Ames' worst.

Despite its many troubles, Robert Florey's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is still an effective tale of horror and mystery that keeps the classic Universal feeling to the max. Dark and atmospheric, it is also an unusual movie due to its raw portrayal of violence on film. While not exactly a classic of the level of Universal films like "Frankenstein" or "The Black Cat", this movie is definitely a must see if only for Karl Freund's masterful cinematography and Bela Lugosi's amazing performance.


Buy "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932)

June 18, 2007

The Haunting (1963)

Ever since the beginning of civilization, stories involving ghosts and spirits have existed in many cultures worldwide, as the fascination with death and what comes after it is definitely a part of our nature. This fascination found itself at home in the horror genre, and became a trademark of the Gothic and romantic literature of the 18th century, as it was a natural source of inspiration for many different kinds of nightmarish stories. Of course, ghost stories would also make the transition to cinema and soon became staple of the horror film genre as a major source of macabre movies. As an important sub-genre within horror, many movies about ghosts have been made through the years, however, if there is a movie that has captured perfectly the essence of what a good ghost story is, and elevated the genre to the level of masterpiece, is definitely Robert Wise's "The Haunting".

"The Haunting" is the story of a house, "Hill House", an old mansion named after the hills that surround it. But Hill House is not a common house, as for over a century it has been known as one of the most sinister haunted houses with a past filled with death and madness. Dr. Markway, a famous scientist obsessed with the supernatural, decides to carry an experiment in Hill House in his desire to prove that the supernatural exists and that the haunting of Hill House is real. He invites a group of selected people whom he thinks are able to help him in his quest, but only two answer the call: the clairvoyant Theo (Claire Bloom) and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a shy woman with a mysterious past. Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), heir of the house, joins the group as a skeptical with an interest in his inheritance. However, what they'll discover at Hill House, will change their lives forever.

Written by Nelson Gidding, "The Haunting" is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, "The Haunting of Hill House", probably the most famous ghost story published in modern times. Despite some changes to the characters, the movie is relatively faithful to its source, although Gidding removes the slight comic relief the novel has and completely focuses on the psychological horror of the story. This is best exemplified in the way the script deals with Eleanor, who while arguably the "main character" of the story, is also the most psychologically vulnerable, and this is reflected in the way Hill House reacts to her. The script is remarkably effective in the way it develops its assortment of characters and their relationships, as well as in the subtle ambiguity in which the supernatural events of the haunting take place.

This subtle ambiguity that impregnates the script is superbly made to come alive by director Robert Wise, who in a masterful exercise of the power of suggestion, manages to create an ominous and very powerful atmosphere of dread using only the effects of light and sound. With an excellent camera-work and the wonderful black-and-white cinematography by Davis Boulton, Wise literally transforms Hill House into a full fledged character on its own. Having started his directing career at RKO Studios under the guidance of legendary producer Val Lewton, Wise knew exactly how to make atmospheric horror with minimal resources, and in "The Haunting", he returns to that subtle, minimalist style to exploit the psychological drama of the story. However, "The Haunting" is not only a very good looking film, as Wise's skills at directing actors are also fundamental part of the success of the movie.

As expected, the cast performances are of enormous importance as well, as while the film is heavy on the visual style to create atmosphere, most of the film's strength is in the development of the characters. Leading the cast is Julie Harris as Eleanor Lance, and she delivers an amazing performance (probably her best) as the shy and troubled woman. Many have criticized her performance as excessively whining, or irritating, but that criticism fails to see that it was natural for her character to come up that way. It is that way because she is meant to contrast with the uninhibited Theo, played superbly by the beautiful Claire Bloom, who adds a strong sexuality to her character. Richard Johnson plays Dr. Markway, and he is very effective in his role, as he adds a lot of charm to his character. Finally, Russ Tamblyn is pitch perfect as the skeptical rich kid Luke.

While "The Haunting" is definitely among the best horror movies ever made, it is relatively easy to see why modern audiences may face a challenge to like it. The main problem is definitely the slow pacing the movie has to build up the story, as while it's essential for the development of the events surrounding its grand finale, those used to the fast paced action of modern horror movies will definitely be disappointed. However, this is not to say that the movie has lost its edge, on the contrary, the failed 1999 remake, which essentially worked the opposite way than this movie (by having a fast pace and an extensive use of special effects), ultimately proved that such changes weren't necessarily for the best. Still, modern viewers should approach this film in the right mood to fully appreciate the beauty of its craftsmanship.

Considered among the best horror movies ever made, Robert Wise's "The Haunting" is without a doubt a classic of the genre that every horror fan should give a try. Unsettling and atmospheric, "The Haunting" took the ghost story on film and elevated it to an art-form, becoming the epitome of the genre. 18 years after making "The Body Snatcher", Wise made another masterpiece of horror in the shape of "The Haunting", and ghost stories never were the same after it.



June 17, 2007

The Fountain (2006)

After the release of his acclaimed feature length debut, the independent film "Pi", back in 1998, director Darren Aronofsky became one of the most promising names of the late 90s generation of young directors. Two years after "Pi", Aronofsky proved that he was more than a one hit wonder with his adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel "Requiem for a Dream", a story about the consequences of drug addictions that without a doubt has become one of the first classics of the first decade of the 21st century. With such an outstanding beginning of career, it was natural that expectations for Aronofsky's next work grew to enormously high altitudes, and not few doubted that his new project, "The Fountain", could live up to the hype surrounding it (specially after the trouble preproduction, which lasted almost 5 years). Fortunately, Aronofsky's film demonstrates once again that his first two films were note the result of luck, and that there is real talent behind his work.

"The Fountain" is the story of Tomas Creo (Hugh Jackman), as he faces the fact that his beloved wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) has terminal cancer and is close to death. A research oncologist himself, Tomas is desperately trying to find a cure for his wife's tumor, motivated by the idea that if he discovers a way to reverse brain tumors, he'll be able to save his wife. However, Izzi seems to have a different philosophy than him, and having accepted death, decides to write a book named "The Fountain", about a Spanish conquistador looking for the legendary Tree of Life. As Tom keeps failing in his many attempts to find the cure, his mind begins to suffer the consequences, but as he seems unable to accept his wife's fate, Izzi's has prepared a way for him to overcome his grief.

Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, "The Fountain" is essentially a love story with touches of science fiction, all spiced up with Aronofsky's ideas about philosophy. It's truly a very ambitious story, but Aronofsky manages to develop it nicely and with intelligence, avoiding the clichés and the sappiness that tend to be in movies dealing with similar themes. The philosophic themes (focusing on sociology and specially on Thanatology) are handled carefully, and while they are kept in simple and easy to understand terms, Aronofsky explores them deeply, making "The Fountin" a remarkable study of love and the experience of grief. As usual, Aronofsky fleshes out his characters in a very realistic way, making them feel very real and human, allowing us to easily feel identified with them (somehting essential given the subject matter of the story).

In "The Fountain", Aronofsky shows a real improvement in his skills as a director, as well as a willingness to push the boundaries of his very own style of storytelling. While the story is entirely focused on the characters' emotions, he allows himself to experiment with different styles as the story takes the characters to the past and the future (where Aronofsky displays a heavy use of symbols and traces of surrealism), and interestingly, he also moves away from many of the devices that had began to be known as "trademarks" of his style. "The Fountain" is a very visual movie (probably more than his previous two), but despite this, Aronofsky still manages to keep the story as the main focus of the movie. On a side not, it's worth to point out that Clint Mansell's score for the movie is truly amazing, and easily one of the best of the decade.

In a movie that's basically about the undying love between two characters, the performances of the actors portraying them are of great importance. Fortunately, the cast did a very good job with it, specially Hugh Jackman, who truly surprised me (I had never been impressed by his work before) and made me realize how really talented he is. His portrayal of Tom as a man who can't bear the unavoidable loss of the love of his life is truly moving. While Rachel Weisz is a really awesome actress, I couldn't help but think that this was not one of her best works, as while her character was supposed to be truly at peace, she came to me as cold and distant, making Jackman to shine even more. The supporting cast was overall very good, despite not having a lot of screen time when compared to Jackman and Weisz. Ellen Burstyn makes a small appearance and does a great job with it.

"The Fountain" is a very good movie, with many good elements on its favor as the cast, the score and the brilliant cinematography (by Matthew Libatique); however, it is not exactly the masterpiece the hype made it out to be. The film's main problem lays in the very ambitious (and let's face it, pretentious) way Aronofsky crafts his movie, as while he does indeed attempts to keep the film's message easy and simple, he seems to sacrifice the story for the sake of the symbolism of his visual art. This results in a plot that looks more contrived than what it really is, and that irremediably will feel somewhat patronizing to some viewers. I'm not saying it's a bad movie, but it's one that one must see with an open mind and aware that it's neither the masterpiece that the most ardent fans of Aronofsky make it to be, nor the void and pretentious trash its detractors claim it is.

In the end, the movie is a really satisfying experience, as despite its troubles the movie manages to deliver a nice and intelligent story and Aronofsky's interesting views on love and death. While sadly I must say that it's not the redefinition of science fiction that Aronofsky intended it to be, I'm happy to admit that with "The Fountain", director Aronofsky has proved that he was more than a lucky beginner, and that great things await for him in the future.


Buy "The Fountain" (2006)

June 14, 2007

King Kong (1933)

On the aftermath of World War I, two different yet very similar men crossed paths with each other while working on behalf of Polish war relief: Captain Merian C. Cooper met cinematographer Ernest B. Schoedsack in Ukraine and one of the most important partnerships in cinema was born. Cooper was fascinated with cinema, and began to collaborate with Schoedsack directing documentaries. However, this two men weren't typical filmmakers, they were real adventurers with a desire to transmit the thrills of their expeditions in their movies. After several successes in this field, the duo began to make fictional films, and in 1931 the two adventurers decided to use a movie to give their audiences the most amazing adventure ever conceived. It would take them 2 years to finish it, but the result would be simply marvelous: "King Kong".

"King Kong" is the story of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a filmmaker known for his movies set in exotic lands, who has a new and mysterious project but finds himself unable to find a star for the film. On the street he meets Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a young woman who has been driven to poverty by the Great Depression. Denham convinces Darrow to join his crew, offering her a the starring role in his movie. And so they sail aboard the freighter 'Venture' and head to Denham's secret location. As the ship gets closer to it, Denham reveals them that the place they are looking for is a secret island where a legendary monster named "Kong" is supposed to live. It is only after Ann Darrow gets kidnapped by the island's inhabitants when the director discovers what he has come to find: Kong, the giant gorilla, is real, and now that he has Darrow in his hand, the crew will have to venture into the dangerous jungle to save her.

The story's mix of horror, fantasy and adventure was conceived by famous crime writer Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper himself, but the actual script was completed by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (Schoedsack's wife), who developed the story and in the process created one of the most memorable adventure films in history. While the plot is certainly simple, it's filled with a constant series of thrilling scenes that literally reinvented the adventure genre in film due to their influence on subsequent films. Also, there is a good deal of character development despite some clichéd (even for the time) dialogs. The fact that Rose and the directors were notorious adventurers on their own account (Apparently Denham and Driscoll are based on Cooper and Schoedsack respectively) gave the story a strong sense of realism despite its fantastic plot, as the adventure echoes the group's real expeditions.

Director Ernest B. Schoedsack was definitely the best man for the job of making Cooper's ideas a reality, as his great eye for visuals and remarkable technical proficiency were instrumental in the making of this, the duo's greatest challenge. It is clear that the directors knew how to raise the suspense before the revelation of Kong, as the slow pace the film has before the arrival to the island enhances the suspense and the mystery about what is truly out there, perfectly building the right mood for what's coming next. It is also obvious that Cooper knew how to give a great show, as just as soon as the monster is revealed, the movie becomes a roller-coaster of action and adventure of enormous proportions, effectively capturing that feeling of adventure that Cooper wanted to transmit. Finally, the innovative use of the music by Max Steiner to create atmosphere is the icing of the cake in this masterpiece.

While nowadays the style of the dialogs may sound corny, the performances of most of the cast were very good, specially considering that the real star was "Kong". Robert Armstrong is excellent as the enthusiast (and obsessive) filmmaker Carl Denham, and effectively portrays a man who would do anything and go anywhere to give the greatest show to his audience. As the ship's mate Jack Driscoll, Bruce Cabot makes a good job as the "hero" of this adventure, who like "Kong", gets fascinated by the beauty of the movie's new actress. Cabot's character is the typical heroic character, but he manages to make him natural and human. Finally Fay Wray gives the performance of her lifetime as Ann Darrow, as while her range as an actress was limited, in this movie she has the chance to fully show the extent of her talents, effectively delivering an iconic performance.

However, the real star of this show is without a doubt Kong himself, who thanks to the astounding work of special effects done by Willis H. O'Brien and his team, achieves a characterization never before seen for a character that was entirely created by special effects. O'Brien, who had previously worked his magic in the silent classic "The Lost World", creates in Kong his masterpiece as he makes this monster look alive and able to express feelings better than most actors. While the directors and the writers do deserve credit for this character, it was ultimately O'Brien who gave the final touch to the legendary monster, making us feel identified with the confused beast as it faces the attack of the world. Even now, more than 70 years later, his work of animation in this movie remains one of the finest ever made.

If there is an adjective that can describe adequately the impact of this movie in history, that would be "mythic", as very few movies have left in our culture an impression as deep as "King Kong" did. Not only the image of the movie's grand finale is still one of the most powerful scenes in cinema, but this movie effectively created a legend out of the sad story of its title character and the exciting adventure that took him to New York. A masterpiece in every aspect.


Buy "King Kong" (1933)

June 12, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

Among the many cases of serial killers that have become part of popular culture over the years, the case of the Zodiac killer is probably the most intriguing and fascinating of the modern era due to fact that, like the infamous British killer, Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac was never caught and his identity remains a mystery to this day. Operating in Northern California, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the region in the late 60s and early 70s, murdering at least 5 people (although he claimed there were more) during the decade. However, what made the Zodiac so intriguing was the fact that he began to send a series of taunting letters to the press and the police, challenging them and including cryptograms with hidden messages. Almost 40 years later, the case caught the interest of scriptwriter James Vanderbilt and director David Fincher, who fascinated by Robert Graysmith's book about the case, decided to adapt it to the big screen.

"Zodiac" is a careful reconstruction of the Zodiac killer case, following the members of the press and the police whom got involved through course of the investigation. After attacking Darlene Ferrin ( Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) at Vallejo, the Zodiac sends his first letter to the local police and three newspapers where he claims responsibility over the crime. At the San Francisco Chronicle, journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) becomes the top crime reporter on the case, while at the same time cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes an interest on the cryptograms sent by the killer. Graysmith's interest will take him from aiding Avery in his work to actively investigating the case on his own by following Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). However, his work on the Zodiac killer will begin to take its toll on his own homely life. And the crimes continue.

Written by James Vanderbilt, the movie follows very closely the detailed accounts of the case as they appear in Robert Graysmith's book and police reports. Due to this extreme care for realism, "Zodiac" is more a police procedural film than a typical movie about serial killers, as in this film the story focuses on those who are following the criminal instead of on the victims or the criminal himself. As the crime never had a proper "conclusion", Vanderbilt wisely makes his story not only about the puzzle itself, but also adds touches about the dramatic consequences of obsessing over an impossible to solve mystery. While long and intricate, the development of the story is remarkably good in its narrative, as the slow way clues are unveiled helps to keep the suspense rising and makes the plot captivating and never boring.

While Vanderbilt is truly responsible for a lot of the film's narrative structure, it was Fincher who decided to take a realistic approach in their conception of the film, and this can also be seen in the visual aspect of the movie. With extreme and meticulous care and Harris Savides' excellent cinematography, Fincher recreates not only the look of early 70s California, but also the tense atmosphere of paranoia and distrust that the Zodiac killer created among the population during his reign of terror. As written above, the storyline moves slowly, but Fincher successfully manages to keep a good pace while also presenting all the facts of the case. Finally, while this is not an action packed movie, Fincher creates a series of extremely effective scenes of suspense, where thanks to a subtle use of atmosphere and mood, he brings back the real horrors of the Zodiac killer.

The acting is another of the film's strong points, as even when there wasn't a serious exploration of the characters (the film was more about how the case affected them), the cast was simply outstanding in their roles. The always effective Robert Downey Jr. makes an excellent job as reporter Paul Avery, and even adds touches of dark humor that makes Avery look more human. However, the highlight of the film is Mark Ruffalo, who as Inspector David Toschi, delivers his best performance so far and proves his worth as an actor. While at times overshadowed by both Downey and Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal remains effective and makes a good job as cartoonist Robert Graysmith. "Zodiac" is also benefited by the excellent performances of the supporting cast, which includes Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Anthony Edwards, and John Carroll Lynch making a haunting performance as Arthur Leigh Allen.

Probably the film's worst enemy will be the misconceptions created by its marketing team, as this is definitely not the typical movie about serial killers, "Zodiac" is a movie about the terror the Zodiac spawned and the consequences it had in a group of people. Audiences expecting a flashy horror movie like Fincher's previous film, "Se7en", will be sorely disappointed, "Zodiac" is definitely a different kind of beast. The long runtime and slow pace the movie has will definitely be another of the elements that may cause some discomfort; although as written above, Fincher managed to keep the movie moving with a good rhythm. Finally, some may also be disappointed by the way the plot reaches its conclusion, but given the fact that the case remains unsolved, it was truly the best way to do it without compromising historical accuracy.

Perfectly crafted thanks to a solid work of writing and directing, "Zodiac" is definitely one of director David Fincher's best films. It is a movie that reveals him as a mature director and proves that the promise he showed in "Se7en" and "Fight Club" wasn't a case of luck. It may be too early too tell by now, but in my opinion, "Zodiac" will go on history as one of the finest police procedural films ever made.


Buy "Zodiac" (2007)

June 11, 2007

The Tempest (1908)

By the year of 1907, cinema had already reached the point where it wasn't a novelty anymore to see camera tricks or actuality films. While cinema had already developed a certain narrative style thanks to the efforts of film pioneers like Edwin S. Porter and Georges Méliès, many people still considered cinema as a lesser art at best, and a mere sideshow entertainment at worst. To help the new medium to gain more credibility as an art form, the shooting of famous theater plays became a new trend in European cinema, and soon the classic works of Shakespeare and other authors began to appear on movies. While the attempt to give some "credit" to films was certainly noble, this approach soon proved to be flawed, as those movies became nothing more than mere plays put on film. However, some artists tried to use this new trend creatively in order to truly innovate cinema, and British director Percy Stow was one of them.

William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" is the story of sorcerer Prospero and his young daughter Miranda. Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, but was deposed by his jealous brother Antonio and set adrift along with his daughter until they reached a magical island where they have been stranded for twelve years. On the island, Prospero found a spirit named Ariel, who becomes his servant after Propsero rescued her from imprisonment in a tree using his magical powers. Propsero also found Caliban, a native monster, son of a legendary witch, who helped them to survive on the wilderness but, after attempting to rape Miranda, also becomes Propero's slave, scared by the sorcerer's powers and Ariel's magic. However, another threat is near, as Propero finds out that Antonio is on a ship that is passing close by the island. It is now time for him to unleash the Tempest and consummate his revenge.

This version of Shakespeare's classic is actually the very first adaptation of "The Tempest" to film, and was the second work by writer Langford Reed, who would become a regular scriptwriter in many of the movies for director Percy Stow's company, Clarendon. As written above, in those years the norm was to simply shoot a representation of the play without making any changes, but under Stow's orders, Reed made the very first attempt to actually translate the classic play to the new medium. So, knowing his limitations, Reed makes a condensed, yet very complete version of the story (although Caliban's subplot is eliminated) that truly captures the essence of the play and manages to remain faithful to Shakespeare despite the changes, ultimately proving that cinema requires a narrative of its own.

Just like Langdon Reed's screenplay moves away from the stagy adaptations that were the trend in those days, director Percy Stow makes his movie version of "The Tempest" a brand new kind of way to tell Shakespeare's tale. Instead of simply shooting his actors performing the play, Stow literally makes the magic of "The Tempest" come alive by cleverly using set designs and special effects to recreate Prospero's magic island. Stow started making "trick films" in Georges Méliès' style, and again he borrows from the French master as "The Tempest" visual look owes a lot to Méliès' famous 1902 film, "Le Voyage Dans la Lune". However, Stow also uses scenes on real locations mixed with his very goo special effects to achieve a style that, while fantastic, looks also realistic to a certain extent, and of course, never stagy.

Sadly, the names of the cast of this first version of "The Tempest" have been lost forever, as there are no records of who played who in this early British classic. However, it still can be said that the actor who played Propsero did an excellent job in the role, as without any kind of overacting he manages to compel all the emotions that his character represents, and he can easily go from being fearsome to merciful. Still, the star of this "Tempest" is definitively the little teenager girl who plays Ariel, as she manages to steal every scene with her highly dynamic performance that clearly shows that she was trained as a dancer. This unknown young actress certainly had a lot of screen presence and Stow knew very well how to use it to portray the otherworldly nature of Ariel. The rest of the cast is good although nothing surprising, and as written above, the role of Caliban was diminished to the point that nothing is left of the highly challenging role of Shakespeare's play.

While this version of "The Tempest" showed that cinema wasn't an extension of theater and in fact was an entire new art form, very few followed Stow's cinematic approach to Shakespeare and the stage-bound adaptations kept appearing during the following years. Still, Percy Stow's creative genius kept shining through the following decade in his "Lieutenant Rose" series of movies, early examples of British spy films. As the co-founder of Clarendon and director of several of the most amazing films of early British cinema (including the first version of "Alice in Wonderland"), Percy Stow's name can proudly stand next to Porter and Méliès as one of the most innovative pioneers of early cinema.


June 07, 2007

The Black Cat (1934)

Whenever someone talks about Universal classic horror films, two names always tend to show up in the course of the conversation: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, two very different yet still similar persons who in 1931 shared the privilegue of becoming the first monsters of the sound era in two enormously influential films. In Tod Browning's "Dracula", Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi took the role of the immortal vampire while at the same time, English born Boris Karloff became the legendary manmade creature of James Whale's "Frankenstein". While both actors had different lives offscreen, they would appear together many times on the silver screen thanks to their status as "horror icons" and their enormous talent and screen presences. Among the many movies the two legends made together, Edgar G. Ulmer's "The Black Cat" has a definitive place among the most memorable ones.

"The Black Cat" is the story of the Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop), a young American couple on their honeymoon trip through Hungary. On the train to Visegrád, the couple meets Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a charming yet strange man who like them, will take a bus to Gömbös as he is planning to visit an old friend. However, the bus has a terrible accident and only Werdegast and the Alisons survive. Joan is in a bad condition, so Werdegast suggest to take her to his friend's house in order to heal her wounds. The three arrive to a marvelous mansion on the top of a hill, where they are received by Werdegast's mysterious friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). The couple thanks the hospitality of their eerie host, but they don't know that they are now pawns in a death game between Werdegast and Poelzig, a death game between two rivals that started many years before.

While the film was announced as an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of the same name, "inspired by Poe" would be a better way to describe it, as the screenplay by director Edgar G. Ulmer and writer Peter Ruric has almost no relation to Poe's classic. While Poe's story was about a murderer, the screenplay for "The Black Cat" is about the final duel between two bitter enemies and the two innocents who get caught in the middle. What makes "The Black Cat" to stand out among the other Universal Horror classics, is the incredible care taken in the development of the two main characters. Through powerful exchanges of dialogs, we discover the dark pasts of both men, and how behind their apparently normal faces are secrets far more shocking than any monster. While the plot is certainly contrived and a bit too fast paced, the dialog written is definitely some of the best from that era.

In "The Black Cat", director Edgar G. Ulmer shows a lot of the influence he received from German expressionism during his years as an aprentice to legendary filmmaker F.W. Murnau, as by giving good use to John J. Mescall's brilliant cinematography, Ulmer manages to create an ominous and haunting atmosphere out of extremely modernist art deco sets. This highly atypical and visually striking style that Ulmer uses for the film enhances that sense of impending doom that the couple feels as they enter Werdegast and Poelzig's dark world, giving the film an atmosphere of strange and otherwordly beauty that makes it very different to other horror films of that time. Another of the elements that make this movie special is its highly innovative use of Heinz Roemheld's music, as unlike most of the films made on those years, here it is used widely through the film as another device to creat atmosphere.

Of course, what truly makes this film attractive is the chance to see Lugosi and Karloff together for the first time, and certainly the two icons do not dissapoint. Boris Karloff is delightfully evil in his role as the sinister Hjalmar Poelzig, filling the screen with that powerful presence that made him shine in "Frankenstein". However, while Karloff makes a terrific job as Poelzig, the highlight of the film is certainly Bela Lugosi, who in this movie proves that he was truly a remarkable actor and delivers what probably is the best performance of his career. As the film's "hero", Lugosi shows his acting range and makes the perfect match for Karloff's performance. As the young couple, David Manners (who was Lugosi's costar in "Dracula") and Julie Bishop are nothing surprising, but still are very effective in their performances considering that the spotlight is not on them.

If there is a flaw in this marvelous horror film, is definitely the fact that it has a very short runtime (barely 66 minutes), and this forces a very fast pace that in turn makes a bit difficult to expand on the movie's plot. That's the reason why some critics have criticized the film for having a story a bit too complex, as the extremely fast pace force the events to happen too quickly. There are several rumors about the film having originally a runtime of 80 minutes, where it expanded on several parts of the plot that were left unexplained in the final version; but that this scenes ended up cut because they were considered too disturbing for its time. While nobody can truly prove this, a more likely possibility for this is the fact that "The Black Cat" was a low-budget film, and therefore forced to have a shorter runtime.

While flawed, "The Black Cat" is still one of the best horror films from the 30s, and certainly one of the best (and definitely the darkest) of the ones produced by Universal. It is also one of the best among the movies that paired Lugosi and Karloff ("The Body Snatcher" is another great one), and as written above, Lugosi's best performance ever. Despite being short, this is one of those forgotten horror masterpieces that deserve more attention, if only for having the best of both legends.


Buy "The Black Cat" (1934)

June 06, 2007

Modern Times (1936)

The arrival of sound to films in 1927 (in the movie "The Jazz Singer") was definitely a major turning point in history of cinema, and one that would have enormous consequences in the motion picture industry of those years. Only 2 years after "The Jazz Singer" was released, sound films ("talkies") became the dominant format in cinema, and slowly the silent era reached its end and with it the careers of those who couldn't make the transition. Of course, sound faced harsh opposition from many prominent artists of silent movies like directors Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin, who felt that sound diminished the art of cinema instead of elevating it. Soon, both directors would find themselves forced to get with the times and make the transition, but Chaplin wouldn't quit without a last laugh. 1936's silent movie "Modern Times" would be Chaplin's sweet farewell to his beloved silent era, and with it, to his most famous character: the Tramp.

"Modern Times" is the story of a factory worker (Chaplin as the Tramp), who works at an assembly line in an enormous industrial facility. The constant overworking begins to take its toll in him and suffers a mental breakdown that sends him to the hospital. After his recovery, he discovers that he is no longer an employee, as the workers are on a strike, and are now marching towards the factory. By a weird series of circumstances, the Tramp is arrested after being confused with a Communist leader, and sent to jail where he spends literally the best time of his life. After being released for good behavior, he finds himself again jobless and on a very difficult condition, so he plans to return to jail as soon as possible; however, his plans will change after he meets an orphan girl gamine (Paulette Goddard), who is living in a harshest condition than his.

As usual, "Modern Times" was not only a movie directed by Chaplin, but also written and produced by himself; and once again he returns to his familiar mix of drama and comedy that he had been perfect over the years with monumental classics like "The Gold Rush" and "City Lights". This time however, Chaplin takes a more politically charged approach and fills his comedy with his ideas about the harsh life of factory workers, dehumanization, and the Great Depression. While this often unsubtle use of comedy as an outlet for his ideologies could had been damaging for the story in other writer's hands, Chaplin creates a joyfully optimist and very humanist plot that helps to make easier to enjoy and understand the overtly political tone of the film. The story is written in an episodic form, but it flows with nicely thanks to its nonstop series of excellent gags that keep the fun coming.

Visually, the movie is probably Chaplin's greatest artistic achievement, as he extends the themes of his screenplay to the overall look of the film. With a clever use of montage (obviously inspired by Soviet filmmakers) and several nods to German expressionism, Chaplin brings to life his vision of society slowly transforming into a industrialized monster where there is hardly any place for love and happiness. The excellent art direction by Charles D. Hall and J. Russell Spencer is an essential piece for this and it's definitely a highlight of the film, as it truly makes "Modern Times" feel "modern". While for the most part Chaplin manages to keep a good balance between the drama and the comedy of the film, he can't help but fall on excessive sentimentalism, making the film feel a bit too preachy at times.

The main cast, as in every Chaplin movie, is remarkable in their performances, and each one of them truly add a lot of their personalities to their roles. As his most famous character, the Tramp, Chaplin here is pure gold and as always, he fills the screen with his charming presence and enormous comedic talent. His body control shines in several scenes of slapstick comedy that are nowadays classics, and he also shows off his total domain of pantomime as he easily transmits the audience that joyful optimism that has become the Tramp's trademark. As the Tramp's counterpart, Paulette Goddard is simply beautiful, displaying a natural charm and freshness that makes her character the Tramp's best sidekick since Jackie Coogan in "The Kid".

While this movie was supposed to be Chaplin's first "talkie", he quickly dismissed the idea as he considered that his Tramp character worked better without speaking; so with this in mind the legendary comedian decided to transform "Modern Times" into a hybrid: a "talkie" in the silent era style, where every sound in the film is audible except the human voice. In fact, the only spoken voices that become audible are the ones that come out of machines (radio for example), keeping in touch with the script's themes of humanity trapped by the modern industrial nightmare. This could also be seen as Chaplin making fun of "talkies", as while technically he shot a movie with sound, he faithfully followed classic conventions of the silent era like title cards and specially, the pantomime style of acting.

"Modern Times" is without a doubt one of Chaplin's best films, and one of the most interesting comedies of all time. While it kind of lacks that naiveté that made "The Gold Rush" such an amazing experience, it offers a new and more sophisticated style of comedy. As the last movie of the silent era and the Tramp's final on-screen apparition, "Modern Times" is a timeless classic that even today helps us to remind that despite the advent of the modernization, there's still place for happiness, as in the Tramp's words, "Buck up - never say die, We'll get along."


Buy "Modern Times" (1936)

June 05, 2007

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The city of Hollywood, California, as the historical center of the American movie industry, has been a place of fantasies and fascinations since the first film producers decided to move there in 1913. Most of this almost supernatural mystique that has impregnated the city since those days was a direct result of the economic bonanza of the "Roaring Twenties" and the creation of the "star system", imposed by the major film studios in the early years Hollywood's Golden Age. The myths and legends of classic Hollywood would soon be exported to the world, and became an enormous influence for an Austrian young writer named Samuel "Billy" Wilder. Wilder would later move to America after the rise of the Nazi regime, and started a promising career at Hollywood, the very place of his dreams of youth. The opulence and decadence of the city inspired Wilder to write and direct a legendary movie in 1950: "Sunset Boulevard".

"Sunset Boulevard" is the story of two persons, writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) and former silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whose lives will coincide on Sunset Blvd. and will never be the same again. As a scriptwriter, Gillis has not been lucky for a while, and finally finds himself hunted by two repossession agents who expect him to pay for his car. In his attempt to flee, Gillis hides his car in an apparently abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard. However, the mansion is not deserted, and inside he mets the owner, the legendary film star Norma Desmond, who has faded into obscurity after the arrival of sound movies. After she discovers Gillis is a writer, she offers to hire him so he can help her with a script she has been writing for her comeback to cinema. Gillis accepts, thinking it's an easy way to earn fast money, but soon he'll discover that nothing comes off that easily, specially on Sunset Blvd.

While the movie is definitely Wilder's brainchild, the script was written with the help of his usual collaborator, Charles Brackett; and former film critic D.M. Marshman Jr., who was hired by Wilder and Brackett to help them develop the plot. The story follows the classic film noir pattern, but soon it is obvious that this movie goes beyond any genre conventions as it adds touches of horror, drama and black comedy in the most unmerciful critique to the decadence of Hollywood's Golden Age. The way the writers develop the characters is simply perfect in all its cynic realism, as while the characters are not without a touch of grotesque, they still look and feel so real that just enhance the horror and tragedy of this twisted tale about the dark side of Hollywood. Filled with fascinating characters, carefully placed details and a wonderful tale of madness, the script for "Sunset Blvd." is definitely one of the finest ever written.

As if writing a monumental screenplay wasn't enough, Wilder also excels as a director in this masterpiece, bringing his script to life in a haunting and beautiful way. Just like he did 6 years before with "Double Indemnity", once again Wilder reinvents the film noir genre thanks to the amazing cinematography by John F. Seitz, who captures the darkness of Norma Desmond's life with his heavily atmospheric film noir photography. His care for details and references to old Hollywood extend beyond his screenplay and populate the film in more than one way (the inspired use of cameos by real former silent-film stars for example), adding a great amount of authenticity and realism to the movie. Finally, the performances he managed to get from his main cast are simply some of the best done in an American movie.

Many has already been said about the outstanding performance done by Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, but I can't help but commenting on the extraordinary level of perfection she achieved on her role. In her eerily autobiographical character (Desmond's past resembled Swanson's career in some ways), Swanson transforms herself in the vivid incarnation of the twisted mirror image of Hollywood's life, creating a larger than life character that gave her a much deserved praise. In his breakthrough role, William Holden makes an excellent subtle and witty counterpart to Swanson's over-the-top character, and despite facing extraordinary actors in this wild ride through Hollywood, he never disappoints and proves to be up to the challenge. Finally, legendary director Erich Von Stroheim appears as Norma's stoic butler, and adds a haunting aura of dignity to the movie with the powerful presence of his acting.

Despite being a powerful criticism to the studio system and a brutal deconstruction of the Hollywood myths, "Sunset Blvd." is also a fond love letter to the movies that resulted from it, and specially to the artists behind them (The cameos by director Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson are a testament of this); as while tragic and pathetic, there is a certain sweetness and humanity in the characters that makes this set of old Hollywood ghouls to be so charming despite their madness. While not without flaws (Nancy Olson's performance feels uninspired when compared to the rest of the cast), "Sunset Blvd." is one of those movies that truly deserves its status as "classic", as thanks to Wilder's direction and the cast's performances, it reaches the closest a film can be to perfection.

Time magazine described the film as the story of "Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best", and that's probably the best way to describe the haunting story of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Blvd.". Like the famous street that gives the movie its name, Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." has developed a powerful mystique around it, but that's just because in the course of its destruction of Hollywood's illusions, the movie made them even more real.


Buy "Sunset Blvd." (1950)

June 04, 2007

Dust Devil (1992)

In the early 90s, South African director Richard Stanley was a young director with a short but promising career directing music videos and documentaries. After finishing his first feature length film, the horror and sci-fi hybrid "Hardware" in 1990, Stanley started working on his dream project: a horror film very loosely based on the Nhadiep, a Namibian mythical serial killer. This project became a reality with the name of "Dust Devil" and was finally completed and released on 1992. Sadly, the film released wasn't exactly Stanley's film, as a series of problems with its production company (as well as with Miramax, its distributor) resulted in the complete mutilation of Stanley's "Dust Devil" and its subsequent failure. Fortunately, Stanley recovered his film and re-edited a version closer to his ideal, and finally, the legendary "Dust Devil: The Final Cut", became available in a way similar to the one its creator intended.

A serial killer (Robert John Burke) is on the loose across the enormous desert located on the border between South Africa and Namibia, and so far the police has been unable to locate the mysterious hitchhiker. Officer Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is determined to catch the killer, who the locals think is an incarnation of the Dust Devil, a shape-shifter who devours human souls. An skeptic, Mukurob will have to face not only the local superstitions, but also his country's racism and his own inner demons in his quest across the desert. In the meantime, Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) abandons her husband after a big fight and sets towards the desert looking for an escape from her life. However, what she finds on the road is the figure of the hitchhiker, as the Dust Devil has chosen her as his next victim.

Written by Stanley himself, "Dust Devil" is a film that walks the dangerous line between harsh realism and surreal fantasy, however, Stanley manages to keep the film together without sacrificing any of its elements or cheapening the plot with unnecessary silliness or comedy. True, the supernatural plays an important role in the film, but the way the characters are developed (there is not a hero in the traditional sense) is haunting and very believable. While at its core "Dust Devil" is about a ruthless serial killer on the loose, the added elements of folklore and magic do give the story a captivating feeling that makes it stand out among similar films, and that gives the film a soul and identity of its own.

The plot is very attractive and unusual, but what really makes "Dust Devil" a gem is the amazing way the director builds up the movie. With an outstanding cinematography (by Steven Chivers) that certainly owes a lot to the Western genre (as well as his own previous work at making documentaries), Richard Stanley captures the beauty of the Namibian desert and makes it another important character of his film. Along with the cinematography, Simon Boswell's brilliant original score is the other element that completes Stanley's haunting vision of the horror of the desert. Another important thing to point out is that "The Final Cut" version is probably the one that shows the better pace, as it's neither illogical and incomplete as the theatrical one, nor slightly overlong as the Director's Cut sounds. "The Final Cut" is probably Stanley's best "version" of the film.

The acting is overall very good, with Robert John Burke giving an exceptional job as the "Dust Devil" by being both attractive and frightening at the same time. One can easily understand why people picks the charming hitchhiker because Burke really makes him likable. Chelsea Field is also very good in what would be the "main" role despite being a really unsympathetic character. However, the film belongs to Zakes Mokae, who delivers a terrific performance (almost completely cut in Miramax's cut!) and essentially is the heart of the film. John Matshikiza appears in a small yet very important role, as well as being the Narrator of the film, both jobs are very good as he steals every scene he is in. Rufus Swart is really the only problem of the film, although that has probably more to do with the odd dubbing done by the Sound department of the film.

While this Final Cut of "Dust Devil" is near flawless and probably the best this film will ever be, there are some minor quibble found in the movie that stop it from being perfect. The biggest problem I found was the bad work of dubbing done by the sound department, as at times (specially at the beginning) it just doesn't feel right and it diminishes the impact of the cast's performances. It's easy to understand why "Dust Devil" received such a cold reception on its day, as much of the film's charm relays so on the mystic aspects of its plot that were cut by Miramax; and after watching "The Final Cut" (arguably the final Director's Cut) it becomes unthinkable to cut those elements out.

"Dust Devil", now in its "complete" version, is truly a remarkable horror film that successfully mixes graphic gory realism with a supernatural mythology. It's captivating cinematography and wonderful score are highly artistic elements that complete an overall brilliant film of great quality. I wouldn't say it's a must-have, but it's definitely a film that every horror fan should check out.


Buy "Dust Devil" (1992)