November 21, 2007

The Bat (1926)

While less remembered nowadays than Agatha Christie, American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was as influential in the genre of crime fiction as her British colleague, as she originated many of the core elements of murder mystery stories in her writing (the phrase "The butler did it", comes from her work). In 1917 she joined popular playwright Avery Hopwood in order to write "The Bat", a stage adaptation of her novel, "The Circular Staircase", but instead of making a straight version of the novel, they added new twists and turns to the plot, including the presence of a masked criminal named "The Bat", who would make the mystery a bit more complex for Reinhart's popular character, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder. The play was a huge hit, and it fascinated director Roland West, an avid fan of mystery plays who six years later would adapt it to film.

In the film, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) and her niece Dale (Jewel Carmen) rent an old mansion that belongs to the wealthy owner of a bank. However, their tranquility is disturbed when they discover that the bank has been robbed by the master thief known as The Bat (due to his elaborate costume), the owner is now dead, and he left the rest of his fortune in cash hidden in the mansion they are renting. Now Van Gorder and her niece will be the new victims of The Bat, who wants to get the full loot and will do whatever it's necessary to get them out of the house, alive or dead. To make things worse, Dale's fiancée Brooks (Jack Pickford), a clerk at the robbed bank, is the main suspect, so he arrives to the mansion hoping to hide for a while. Fortunately, Detective Anderson (Eddie Gribbon) also arrives to help the women, but the Bat has proved to be an extraordinary foe.

Adapted by director Roland West with the aid of Julien Josephson, "The Bat" follows the play in a relatively faithful way, although since West has no way to represent the play's dialogs on film, he decides to put more emphasis on the horror elements and tell the story in a more visually rich fashion. This is specially notorious in the "first act", where West gives more insight about the Bat's methods by showing him using his skills to commit a robbery early on the film. Still, the movie version keeps those touches that made the source so different to other mystery plays, specially that touch of dark detective fiction that predates the films noir of the following the decades. As usual in this kind of plays, there's also a touch of light comedy (in the shape of the classic cowardly character) that serves to break the suspense and add some fun every now and then.

As an early adaptation of a murder mystery play (like West's other horror film, "The Monster"), "The Bat" is a very influential movie in the horror genre because of its use of the old dark house setting, however, visually it is a very memorable film too. The most striking features of "The Bat" are without a doubt William Cameron Menzies's work as set designer and the cinematography by Arthur Edeson (assisted by a young Gregg Toland, in his first real job), which under West's direction result in a wonderful expressionist nightmare. To create his atmospheric game of light and shadows, West decided to shot the film mostly at night, which is why "The Bat" has that dark stylish look that feels surreal and otherworldly. Interestingly, West's directing of actors is very restrained, as if he intended to tell the story with the cinematography instead of his cast.

While in the novel the character of Miss Cornelia Van Gorder played a more prominent role, here it's Dale and her fiancée Brooks whom are in the spotlight. As Brooks, Jack Pickford (Mary Pickford's scandalous brother) is effective, although nothing really amazing; the same could be said of Jewel Carmen (West's wife at the time), who plays Dale. They aren't bad, but not exactly noteworthy. Quite the contrary is Louise Fazenda, who steals the show as the cowardly maid Lizzie and adds a lot of charm to the film thanks to her over-the-top slapstick comedy. As the witty Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, Emily Fitzroy is pretty good, and certainly embodies the character with a strong presence. Finally, Eddie Gribbon is another of the cast members who give a great performance, possibly the best in the film after Fazenda's.

Despite it's many memorable moments, in the end "The Bat" as a film is damaged badly by its own origin as a play: on stage actors have words, but West can't have that element on film. While West certainly did his best to tell the story without words (and the first act is itself a masterpiece of silent storytelling), the film does feel very stagy, specially in the scenes directly lifted from the play, which result in a film of irregular pace, with some highly dynamic scenes and others that are slow and kind of dull. In my personal opinion, "The Bat" would had been better if West had done a less faithful adaptation, and instead had followed the path he was walking in the first act, which was highly original. For example, Paul Leni's adaptation of "The Cat and the Canary" (another murder mystery play) done the following year takes what West started here to higher levels.

In the end "The Bat" is a highly enjoyable film that, while not really a masterpiece, it is of great interest due to its beautiful cinematography, set design and ultimately charming plot. West would remake this film 4 years later as "The Bat Whispers", now with sound and what he lacked here. And yes, it would be that 1930 horror film the one that would inspire comic book artist Bob Kane to create his very own Batman. A flawed but still good horror movie.


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November 14, 2007

The Ghost Walks (1934)

One of the genres that flourished during the decade of the 30s was the variation of crime fiction known as "the murder mystery", as the addition of sound to films helped to make a more faithful translation to film of what the audiences experienced in the original plays. And since horror films were very popular in those years, by enhancing the horror elements of the plots the murder mystery films experienced a popularity almost equal to what it enjoyed in the previous decade (in which the first movies of the genre were produced). Aspiring playwright Charles Belden saw in this renewed interest in murder mysteries a chance to make a name for himself, after Warner Bros. picked his three-act play, "The Wax Works", to create the 1933 horror film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum". Belden joined independent filmmaker Frank R. Strayer to keep making films, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of his best.

In "The Ghost Walks", John Miljan plays Prescott Ames, a young playwright who wants to impress a famous Broadway producer named Herman Wood (Richard Carle) with his new play. Ames takes Wood and his assistant Homer (Johnny Arthur) to his country house for a reading of his play, but his car ends up stuck in the mud during a terrible storm. The three men ask for refugee in an old Mansion which happens to be property of one of Ames' old acquaintances. Inside the house, Wood and Homer witnesses the strange relationship between Ames and the house owners, however, this is all a plan conceived to impress Wood: everyone in the house is an actor playing a role in his murder mystery. Unfortunately, the murder committed is done for real, and while Wood and Homer think it's all fake (after discovering Ames' original plan), the cast knows that someone inside the house is a real murderer.

As expected, Charles Belden's screenplay for "The Ghost Walks" features the classic elements of the murder mystery stories of its time, as we have the stormy night at an old dark house as setting, the obligatory group of suspects, and the touch of comedy. However, what's interesting here is how Belden makes the film a real spoof on the genre with the many twists he puts in his story to play with the clichés of murder mystery plays. The dialogs are excellent, full of wit and lighthearted charm, and while the plot certainly loses a lot of steam by the end (it follows the murder mystery routine anyways), it never fails to be interesting and entertaining thanks to its smart twists and specially its quirky characters. Interestingly, there's an obvious gay subtext that while stereotypical, it's never denigrating and it's genuinely funny at times.

By 1934 director Frank R. Strayer was already an experienced craftsman in the Poverty row side of the film industry, but his partnership with writer Charles Belden would give him a couple of his most interesting movies, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of them. While obviously done on a shoestring budget and the typical production values of independent films of its time, Strayer manages to take advantage of his set and makes an atmospheric movie that fits nicely the mood and tone of the story. The pacing is a little too slow at times, but Strayer knew that the power of his film was on Belden's script and makes the most of it, letting his cast to make the most of their characters with excellent results. Certainly the execution is a bit typical and unoriginal, but Strayer makes an effective albeit restrained work in this film.

As written above, the screenplay is filled with great lines that make the quirky characters shine, and fortunately, most of the cast play with this to their advantage. Veteran character actor Richard Carle is remarkably funny as cranky producer Herman Wood, adding a lot of charm to his character, specially in his scenes with Johnny Arthur, who plays the flamboyant secretary Homer. Arthur is the one who gets the most best scenes, and he gives and hilarious performance as the cowardly yet witty assistant. John Miljan is just effective as Presocott Ames, nothing amazing, but nothing really bad, and the same could be said about June Collyer as Gloria Shaw (the obligatory love interest), whom is just fine. However, Donald Kirke is really enjoyable as the malicious Terry Shaw, and it's a shame he didn't get more screen time.

As usual with Frank R. Strayer films, the low budget hurts the film badly, as while Strayer makes the best he can, the film still feels kind of plain at times. However, the main problem is problem the very slow pace it has, as even when the film is filled with sparkly moments of witty dialogs, it moves at a pace so slow that can become boring and tedious for moments. It also must be said that while effective in their roles, Miljan and Collyer are pretty dull and average when compared to Arthur and Carle, and one wishes the movie had been more focused on the comedic pair they make than on the main couple. Finally, as written above the ending is kind of weak and not up to the high standard of the first and middle parts, although credit must go to Belden for keeping creative plot twists appearing until the very end.

One could say that Charles Belden is an unsung hero of the murder mystery genre, as among the many horror and mystery films that came out the B movie studios nicknamed as "the Poverty Row", "The Ghost Walks" is easily among the best (alongisde Strayer's previous film, "The Vampire Bat") despite its shortcomings. And even when it's definitely not a masterpiece of the genre, it's a nice way to spend a night enjoying the way it pokes fun at its own origin as a murder mystery play. A very recommended film if you like the genre.


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November 12, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Ever since the release of Bryan Singer's "X-Men", movie based on Marvel Comics' popular superhero team, the first decade of the 2000s saw a revival of films based on the adventures of comic book heroes even bigger to what Donner's "Superman" did in the late 70s, and Burton's "Batman" in the late 80s. After "X-Men" came "Spider-Man", "The Hulk" and many other classic names of the main comic book pantheons (even the Batman franchise got a reboot) as modern technology made possible what in the past years was impossible: to represent the fantastic abilities of the characters in a somewhat realistic way. After more than 6 six years of troubled development (it was one of the first to be announced), the supernatural hero created in the 70s by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, "Ghost Rider", has now joined the ranks of superheroes with a movie adaptation.

The movie is the story of Johnny Blaze (Matt Long), the son of a stunt motorcycle rider (Brett Cullen) who one day discovers that his father is dying of cancer. On that day the demon Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) appears to him, and offers Johnny the chance to save his father if he is willing to give him his soul. Blaze sings the contract and his father gets cured, but later gets killed on a motorcycle accident, making Johnny's soul the Devil's property, and he'll find a use for him someday. Many years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is now a famous stunt driver, and is in this way where he gets reunited to the girlfriend he abandoned as a teenager, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). However, the Devil also returns to Johnny's life and forces him to become his warrior, the Ghost Rider, as he needs him to kill his son Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who plans to overpower him.

Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (who previously worked on "Daredevil"), "Ghost Rider" is essentially, a movie to spent the time and have some fun. This is not a movie that explores the complexities of its hero, but one that seems to celebrate the fun and entertainment that comic book superheroes represent. Unlike what one would expect of a title like "Ghost Rider" (and its themes of demons and ghosts), Johnson makes a story that owes more to adventure comic books and the Western serials of old than to the Faust myth, as he adds a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that lightens up things a lot. Johnson truly captures the feeling of a comic book in his story, but sadly it also carries the problems that this kind of stories have, like for example a very shallow characterization, several underdeveloped subplots, and a predictable and clichéd plot.

Now, while Johnson's work as a writer is average at best, he fares a tad better as a director, as he manages to bring to life his comic book adventure with all the wry humor and action he put on paper. As written above, Johnson's movie owes a lot to Western serials and pulp fiction, and this carries out to the visual style too, as even it makes a big nod to the Phantom Rider, the classic Western character that originated "Ghost Rider". Since the main character is literally a living skull on fire, the special effects had to be excellent, and fortunately, they are the best part of the film, as their creation of the rider and his fire is simply outstanding. Sadly, a movie can't be completely about special effects, and to his great misfortune, Johnson's skill as a director of real life actors are considerably inferior to his skill at making great visuals.

Nicolas Cage is surprisingly effective as Johnny Blaze (an improvement over his disastrous performance in the remake of "The Wicker Man"), and against all odds makes a convincing tortured antihero with a very black humor. Peter Fonda and Donal Logue are also pretty good in their small roles, although the real highlight of the film is Sam Elliott, who plays the mysterious Caretaker of the local cemetery. They all make great jobs in their arguably underwritten characters, but sadly, the film is also plagued by awful performances, starting with the one given by Eva Mendes, whom at best feels severely out of place, and at worst looks like an amateur trying to act. Definitely not her best moment. The other cast member who brings the movie down is sadly Wes Bentley, who not only isn't remotely memorable as the main villain, but also overacts to the point of ridicule.

While certainly the bad performance of some cast members hurt the film a lot, it must be said that there really wasn't a lot for them to work with, because as written above, the writing isn't exactly the best material and no matter how good one actor is, the quality of the script will play a major role in the final output. This is specially obvious in the way Johnson fleshed out his villains, as if some characters are insipid, the villains here are dull, uninspired and serve no other purpose that to let the hero show off how amazing he is. A good villain has a definite personality and in "Ghost Rider" they only exist to look good, and that's a real damage to the movie, as there's never a real sense of danger with such weak counterparts for the hero. The complete opposite are Fonda and Elliott's characters, whom are easily the best thing about the film.

Despite all its flaws, I enjoyed "Ghost Rider" for what it was: an action movie with a touch of the Western genre meant to translate the fun and entertainment of comic book adventures to film. I probably liked it more that I should have, but that's mainly because while it certainly lacks a lot of quality, it had a lot of heart, and sometimes that's all that matters. Not a particularly good movie, but it is a good ride.


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November 10, 2007

Saw (2003)

In January 2004, a horror film titled simply as "Saw" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival generating a lot of interest among the audience, and most importantly, winning a distribution deal with Lions Gate Films, which released the movie to general audiences on October of that year. The rest, as is said, it's history, as the modest horror film became a huge commercial hit that has spawned several sequels by now and also influenced a lot of the style that mainstream horror has had in the first decade of the century. Not bad for a project that started as a short film. Only a year before "Saw"'s rose to stardom, its creators, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, were using a little 9 minutes short film produced by themselves to pitch their concept to various studios and actors. That short film would later become the concept now know as "Saw".

"Saw" is the story of David (Leigh Whannell), an orderly at a hospital who is explaining to a Cop (Paul Moder) the story of how he ended up involved in a heinous crime against his will. One day after work, David gets kidnapped by a mysterious man who drugs him and takes him to an unknown location. When he wakes up, David is sitting on a chair in a darkened room, and has a bizarre artifact placed over his head. In a TV screen he sees an odd looking ventriloquist's dummy, who informs him (obviously the voice is the one of his captor) that the device is a "Jaw Splitter", a machine that will crush his skull if he can't stop it on time. The key to David's survival is to find the key that stops the Jaw Splitter, a key that the killer informs him is hidden inside the body of the dead man lying in the same room as David. But when David goes to get the key, he discovers horrified that the man he has to open is not dead.

Written by actor Leigh Whannell, "Saw" has all the core elements of the "Saw" series premise: a serial killer who do not kills with his own hands, but who instead puts his victims in a deadly trap where they have a chance (albeit small) of survival by doing an often difficult and painful (either physically, mentally or emotionally). It's an interesting take on horror that returns elements of suspense to the genre, as the shock is not only in the killing itself, but in the tension caused by the events that lead to it, and in the idea that the characters can escape from their dreadful fate. It's certainly a simple story, but despite this the concept feels truly fresh and original thanks to this focus. As many will notice (specially fans of the series), "Saw" the short film eventually became part of the first "Saw" film, as it evolved into the experience Amanda has with Jigsaw.

Just as the screenplay has most of the elements that became core part of the "Saw" series, James Wan's work as a director already shows where he was going with this concept and what exactly he wanted to do with it. Like the "Saw" films, the visual look of the short film is sleek, but with a welcomed touch of grittiness that fits perfectly the concept of brutal torture devices of the modern era. The highly dynamic camera-work that Wan uses later in "Saw" is also here (courtesy of cinematographer Martin Smith), as well as his preference for industrial metal music as soundtrack. However, while this was only a low-budget short film, this style feels more at home here than in the feature movie (where it gets tiring), as the atmosphere of fear, shock and desperation it's supposed to create works better in the short than in the films (no wonder why this scene in the feature film is the most iconic).

The acting is also better in this short than in the scene from the feature film, with Leigh Whannell giving a solid and very realistic performance as David. One can truly feel that his character has gone through hell and back, specially in his scenes with the Cop. Please not that I'm not saying that Shawnee Smith (who plays Amanda in the feature) is a bad actress, I'm just saying that Leigh Whannell seems to put a lot more of effort in the role than her (without a doubt because this was his pet project). However, that also must have something to do with the fact that in the feature, Amanda is just another victim, while here, the tortured character is also our narrator, so that gives Whannell more room to explore the role. By the way, Whannell's character is different to the one he plays in the feature, although one is certainly the evolution of the other.

Personally, I found "Saw" the short to be a lot better than "Saw" the film, mainly on the basis that it has everything that makes the first film in the series great (the fresh, original approach to horror and its creative story) without the elements that in my opinion work against it (it obviously lacks the underdeveloped subplots that lead to nowhere in the film). As it was done with a low budget, Wan and Whannell had to use creativity to make it work, and the result is wonderful, as while it may lacks the more graphic violence of the feature (due to the already mentioned budget constrains), it plays more with suspense and tension, which make it a bit more atmospheric and haunting than the movie gets to be. "Saw", the short film, is a very interesting movie to watch (and not only for fans of the series), as it shows what one can do when one plays with an idea and lets it grow.


November 07, 2007

Svengali (1931)

In the early 1930s, the horror genre entered into the era of sound films thanks to producer Carl Laemmle Jr. of Universal Studios, who after the success of "The Cat Creeps" in 1930, and specially "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, inaugurated a Golden Age of American horror that produced a lot of classic movies. But while Universal was the major producer of horror movies and literally ruled the genre through the decade, it wasn't the only studio that was producing masterpieces in those years. Warner Bros. Pictures, a studio famous for their musicals, began their history within the genre only three months after Universal's "Dracula" was released, with a movie based on the popular novel by George Du Maurier, "Trilby", in which the legendary actor John Barrymore would enter for a second time in horror history by playing one of the most popular characters in Gothic literature: "Svengali".

Set in France during the 1850s, the movie is the story of Svengali (John Barrymore), a music maestro who often uses his great skill at hypnotism to get what he wants from his pupils. One day he visits a group of artists he knows, hoping to get some money from them, but instead he meets Trilby O'Farrell (Marian Marsh), a beautiful model who has come from England to work with the artists. Svengali falls in love with her, but she prefers one of the artists, Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) instead. Despite this, Svengali doesn't lose hope, and one day when he uses his hypnotic powers to cure her headache, he discovers that while tone deaf, Trillby has actually good vocal chords. With this in mind, Svengali decides to use his power to its full extent and via hypnotism transforms Trillby in "La Svengali", a singer of unparalleled skill completely devoted to him. But Billee won't let him run away with his love.

One of the last works by the experienced writer J. Grubb Alexander, this adaptation of "Trilby" remains close to Du Maurier's novel, but with an important change: the plot is focused completely on Svengali, and the story is shown from his perspective. This is even more interesting because unlike the rest of the villains of the era, Svengali isn't an archetype of pure evil, he is instead a really complex character that can be funny, evil and tragic as well, as he is essentially a human being with a great skill that he chooses to use in his favor. This complexity plays a big role in the film, as one of the central themes is Svengali questioning the morality of his acts and wondering if they are worthy. And despite this, writer Alexander manages to keep an equilibrium between the Gothic horror and the melodrama and the comedy of the script.

Director Archie Mayo was one of the filmmakers who managed to make the jump from silent to "talkies" in the early 30s, and in "Svengali" one can see his experience in the silent era, as it is a very visual film. The most striking feature of the movie is its notoriously expressionist look, that goes beyond what Tod Browning had done in "Dracula" and truly feels like a German silent film at times due to its amazing use of sets and miniatures (including an awe inspiring shot over Paris' rooftops that's still impressive even now). Barney McGill's cinematography is put to great use through the film, and gives the movie a unique, almost surreal look that fits perfectly the themes of hypnotism that the movie handles. Mayo makes his movie to be highly atmospheric, and one can truly feel the tragic sense of impending doom that the characters have.

The legendary John Barrymore returns to the horror genre more than 10 years after his excellent performance in 1920's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and while lesser known than that famous role, his work as Svengali is simply masterful. As written above, the character is very well developed, and allow Barrymore to show his talent, and while he overacts at times, it strangely doesn't feel out of place in his role as Svengali is after all, an eccentric bohemian artist. Marian Marsh plays Trillby, and while very young at the time (only 17), she makes an excellent counterpart to Barrymore and is a highlight of the film, playing very convincingly the role of the energetic young model that becomes La Svengali under her master's spell. Bramwell Fletcher plays Billee, and while effective, his performance as the story's hero is nothing really amazing.

Some have criticized "Svengali" for its use of comedy, mainly as Svengali is presented as clumsy at times, but in my opinion, that's a strength of the movie, as it offers an atypical villain in the sense that he is very human. Unlike more archetypal villains, it's easier to relate to Svengali, and feel identified with his story of unrequited love, and that's probably what's more disturbing about him: he just had the power to do his will and used it. It's hard to find a real flaw in "Svengali" (although I'm sure some may dislike Barrymore's overacting at times), and probably its main problem is that while it has everything to be a classic, it simply gets easily overshadowed by the more influential (and superior in number) output of Universal Studios. However, I personally find it to be easily on the level of anything done by Universal.

Seldom seen by the audiences nowadays, "Svengali" is one of those movies that even now can be impressive. In this movie, director Archie Mayo and John Barrymore give justice to Du Maurier's legendary character and bring him to life in extraordinary fashion. With its excellent performances and the beautiful art design, "Svengali" is definitely a forgotten masterpiece if there ever was one.


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November 06, 2007

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)

While originally created as the embodiment of the racism towards Asian people that was prevalent when British writer Sax Rohmer wrote about him for the first time, the criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu is nowadays considered as one of the most famous and influential characters in fiction. In the early 30s, several movies about Fu Manchu were very popular, specially the fourth one, 1932's "The Mask of Fu Manchu", which had horror legend Boris Karloff playing the infamous criminal (Swedish actor Warner Oland played Fu Manchu in the first three American movies). While not a success of the proportions of other horror movies of the same period, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" performed very good commercially, and producer George Yohalem at the legendary B movie studio Monogram Pictures decided to make his own thriller with an Asian mastermind played by another horror legend: Bela Lugosi, who in those years was beginning to be type-casted in villainous roles.

A series of mysterious murders begin to take place in San Francisco's Chinatown, in what at first sight looks like a war between rival Tongs, the infamous Chinese American secret societies. Reporter Jason Barton (Wallace Ford), is sent to investigate on the case, but while he also initially believes that this killings are nothing more than a typical clash between mafias, soon he discovers that the truth behind them is far more amazing than what he ever thought, as the clues unveil a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as Wong (Bela Lugosi) as the responsible of the murders. Mr. Wong is looking for the Twelve Coins of Confucius, a mythical set of coins that according to legend, will grant to its owner the power to rule over an ancient Chinese province. Barton will have to solve the mystery behind the identity of Mr. Wong in order to stop him before he finds the twelfth coin.

Written by Lew Levenson and Nina Howatt, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is an adaptation of a short story by the then popular detective fiction writer Harry Stephen Keeler, "The Twelve Coins of Confucius", which was included in his "Sing Sing Nights" book (itself adapted to film that very same year). Like many horror and mystery films of those days, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" follows a wisecracking reporter trying to catch a murderer and solve the case, however, what's interesting about this movie (and Keeler's original story) is that even when the movie was obviously done to cash in the success of "Fu Manchu", the attitude towards the Asian people is completely different, as although the villain is of Asian origin, most of the Asian characters are presented (albeit stereotypically) as wise and cultured people while the American counterparts are racist and ignorant about their culture.

Director William Nigh, famous for his career on B movies, helms "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" with his usual restrained but effective style. While the movie is built like a thriller in the "Fu Manchu" style (sometimes it almost feels like a chapter from a serial), Nigh keeps the movie deeply rooted in its crime fiction origins, and it even has traces of the elements that would evolve in the Film-Noir genre of the 40s. Already used to work with truly limited budgets, director William Nigh packs his movie nicely and makes the most of what he's got, wisely leaving his cast (namely Bela Lugosi and William Ford) to do their thing and drive the film with their talents. Nigh may had been a Poverty Row director, but he knew what worked on his movies and this time his work with the cast was spot on. Sadly, it wouldn't be enough to save a movie with an extremely poor script.

As written above, it is the cast's performances what truly makes the film worthy, as while the script it of a mediocre quality, the three lead actors make a terrific job with what they had in their hands. As our wisecracking hero, Ford is genuinely funny in his delivery of jokes and one-liners, showing that ease with comedy that he had showed before in Browning's "Freaks". Arline Judge plays the romantic interest, but she doesn't limit herself to be a damsel in distress, as she makes her character the real equivalent of Ford's and gives their relationship the dynamics of classic screwball comedy. Finally, Bela Lugosi steals the show as usual in his performance as the ambitious Mr. Wong, playing a malicious and intelligent character with great skill and enthusiasm. It's odd to see him play a Chinese man, but his accent actually works and one wonders how Fu Manchu movie with Bela would had been.

It's a real shame that such great performances get wasted in the movie, as while they make the movie worth a watch, they aren't enough to save the film from its problems, deeply rooted in the awful script built from Keeler's short story. It's true that Harry Stephen Keeler's novels never were really high class literature, but Levenson and Howatt's screenplay make what could had been an exciting mix of horror and thriller to feel slow and average. The main problem is that the movie has a great potential (that gets shown in a couple of scenes), but never truly delivers because it fails to explore what it proposes and everything ends in good ideas that never really were exploited. In all fairness, this may had been caused by their budgetary limitations, as one gets the feeling that the story was cut to make the movie shorter.

While "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" never really reaches its true potential, it's still a fun (albeit average) thriller that benefits a lot from Judge, Ford and specially Lugosi. It's no masterpiece, but despite its limitations, it's a very entertaining film. And by the way, this movie has no relation to the other "Mr. Wong" movies produced later by Monogram, where the character was reworked as a detective in the vein of Charlie Chan.


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November 01, 2007

Peeping Tom (1960)

Without a doubt, 1960 was a year of numerous and important changes in the history of cinema, specially in the horror genre, as with the beginning of the end of the Production Code, new and different ideas began to be explored within the genre's conventions. One of those was the introduction of complex psychological themes and sexual overtones, inaugurating what is now known as "psychological horror" with movies like 1959's "Horrors of the Black Museum" and Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, "Psycho", which gave a human face to the monsters of horror movies (as previously most were of supernatural origin). Another of those significant movies that helped to change the genre in the 60s is without a doubt Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom", a morbid tale of horror and suspense about voyeurism that follows that very same path of psychological horror and, like "Psycho" (released three months after "Peeping Tom"), elevates it to an art-form.

"Peeping Tom" is the story of Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a young focus puller in a British film studio who aspires to become a filmmaker himself. A shy and lonely man, Lewis is not very social, and prefers to spend his time with his camera, working as a photographer of pornographic pictures of women. However, this young man has another secret, and that is that he is actually a serial killer who films and murders young women, the same that the police has been looking out for weeks. Things get complicated when he meets Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), a young woman who lives downstairs with her mother (Maxine Audley) in a room they rent to Mark. Soon, her friendship begins to mean a lot to Mark, as she offers him an honest understanding he had never had before. However, the shadow of Mark's traumas and obsessions is always present, and he'll have a hard time facing his demons.

Written by former cryptographer Leo Marks (albeit Powell had a hand in the script as well), "Peeping Tom" is a deep and disturbing journey through the darkest sides of the mind as it's entirely focused on Mark as the main character. Unlike Hitchcock's "Psycho" (a movie often compared to "Peeping Tom"), the serial killer is not seen through the eyes of those around him, in this film we are living the story entirely from his perspective, discovering the person behind the psychopath personality as well as the reasons behind such a disturbed mind. In a way, it's a deeper humanization of the serial killer character, although interestingly, it doesn't attempt to glorify him or justify him (like posterior movies of the same type did), as the movie centers on his attempt to stop doing what he knows is wrong and his desire to have a normal life.

Using a strikingly beautiful color cinematography (by Otto Heller) and a remarkably skillful use of the first person viewpoint, director Michael Powell conceives "Peeping Tom" as a bizarre chant to the voyeur we all have inside, and the pleasure we get from watching others. It's not for nothing that our central character is a filmmaker himself, as the concept of filming a person becomes one with the concept of killing one, as like some have done before (Buñuel for example), the camera is taken as an aggressive, almost physically violent entity that invades and steals the life essence of the person filmed. However, it's not only Powell's use of cinematography what shines in "Peeping Tom", his overall use of suspense in the creation of his scenes plays a major role in this highly atmospheric movie where one can almost feel the tension that fills Mark's mind at every step.

And this takes us to the cast, which under Powell's direction deliver for the most part excellent performances. Karlheinz Böhm is truly the highlight of the film, as his acting as Mark is instrumental for the success of the movie. Making a very real and believable character, Böhm transmits perfectly how insecure and vulnerable his character is deep inside, giving definitely one of the best performances in a horror movie ever done. As Helen, the young girl who befriends Mark, Anna Massey is simply perfect, as she perfectly portrays the naiveté of the character, as well as the innocence that leaves a profound effect on Mark's psyche. As Helen's mother, Maxine Audley is effective and has a couple of excellent scenes, although it must be said that the film ultimately belongs to Böhm and Massey, as its their relationship what becomes the central focus of the story.

As one can imagine, this movie is not the typical horror movie, it's complex and dark, but also disturbingly very human; definitely not what people expected from director Michael Powell, whom along Emeric Pressburger made some of the most cherished British film of the 50s. This darkness of the subject that "Peeping Tom" handled was too much for the audiences used to Powell's previous work, and therefore the movie failed commercially and sent Powell's career to oblivion. However, it must be said that none of the problems "Peeping Tom" had during its release are due to poor film-making, quite the contrary, as this movie ranks easily amongst the most influential horror films ever done, and its commercial failure can only be blamed to the fact that it was ahead of its time. Despite the harsh bashing it received, Powell considered this movie his masterpiece, and I can only agree with him.

One of the most interesting (and disturbing) movies about serial killers, "Peeping Tom" is easily one of the best too. The comparisons with "Psycho" are fair, albeit this is certainly a different kind of beast, as it's like a deeper, harsher version of the same subject but with less psychology and a lot more of heart. And it's probably this enormous humanity what makes the film so ultimately disturbing. A really influential classic of horror that should be better known in the future as the masterpiece that it is.