MonsterGirl’s Halloween ūüéÉ 2015 special feature! the Heroines, Scream Queens & Sirens of 30s Horror Cinema!

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Horror cinema was at it’s spooky peak in the 1930s~ the era gave birth to some of the most iconic figures of the genre as well as highlighted some of the most beautiful & beloved heroines to ever light up the scream, oops I mean screen!!!!

We all love the corrupted, diabolical, fiendish and menacing men of the 30s who dominated the horror screen- the spectres of evil, the anti-heroes who put those heroines in harms way, women in peril, –Boris, & Bela, Chaney and March… From Frankenstein, to Dracula, from The Black Cat (1934), or wicked Wax Museums to that fella who kept changing his mind…Jekyll or was it Hyde? From the Mummy to that guy you could see right through, thank you Mr. Rains!

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Gloria Stuart The Invisible Man

Last year I featured Scream Queens of 40s Classic Horror! This Halloween ūüéÉ – I felt like paying homage to the lovely ladies of 30s Classic Horror, who squealed up a storm on those stormy dreadful nights, shadowed by sinister figures, besieged by beasts, and taunted with terror in those fabulous frisson filled fright flicks… but lest not forget that after the screaming stops, those gals show some grand gumption! And… In an era when censorship & conservative framework tried to set the stage for these dark tales, quite often what smoldered underneath the finely veiled surface was a boiling pot of sensuality and provocative suggestion that I find more appealing than most contemporary forays into Modern horror- the lost art of the classical horror genre will always remain Queen… !

Let’s drink a toast to that notion!

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The Scream Queens, Sirens & Heroines of 1930s Classic Horror are here for you to runs your eyes over! Let’s give ’em a really big hand, just not a hairy one okay! From A-Z

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phantom in the rue morgue 1954
Phantom in the Rue Morgue 1954

ELIZABETH ALLAN

Elizabeth Allan

A British beauty with red hair who according to Gregory Mank in his Women in Horror Films, 1930s, left England for Hollywood and an MGM contract. She is the consummate gutsy heroine, the anti-damsel Irena Borotyn In Tod Browning’s campy Mark of the Vampire (1935) co-starring with Bela Lugosi as Count Mora (His birthday is coming up on October 20th!) Lionel Atwill and the always cheeky Lionel Barrymore… Later in 1958 she would co-star with Boris Karloff in the ever-atmospheric The Haunted Strangler.

Mark of the Vampire is a moody graveyard chiller scripted by Bernard Schubert & Guy Endore (The Raven, Mad Love (1935) & The Devil Doll (1936) and the terrific noir thriller Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) with sexy Steve Cochran & one of my favs Ruth Roman!)

The film is a Tod Browning’s re-take of his silent Lon Chaney Sr. classic London After Midnight (1927).

The story goes like this: Sir Karell Borotin (Holmes Herbert) is murdered, left drained of his blood, Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) believes it’s the work of vampires. Lionel Atwill once again plays well as the inquiring but skeptical police Inspector Neumann.

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Irena (Elizabeth Allan) and Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore) hatch an intricate plot to trap the murderers!

Once Sir Karell’s daughter Irena ( our heroine Elizabeth Allan) is assailed, left with strange bite marks on her neck, the case becomes active again. Neumann consults Professor Zelin the leading expert on Vampires. This horror whodunit, includes frightened locals who believe that Count Mora (Bela in iconic cape and saturnine mannerism) and his creepy daughter Luna¬† (Carroll Borland) who trails after him through crypt and foggy woods, are behind the strange going’s on. But is all what it seems?

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Elizabeth Allan and Carroll Borland Mark of the Vampire
Elizabeth Allan (below center) and Carroll Borland as Luna in Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935)
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Elizabeth Allan and Carroll Borland Mark of the Vampire (1935)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Directed by the ever interesting director Maurice Elvey (Mr. Wu 1919, The Sign of Four, 1923, The Clairvoyant 1935, The Man in the Mirror 1936, The Obsessed 1952) Elizabeth Allan stars as Daisy Bunting the beautiful but mesmerized by the strange yet sensual and seemingly tragic brooding figure- boarder Ivor Novello as Michel Angeloff in The Phantom Fiend! A remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s first film about Jack the Ripper… The Lodger (1927) starring Novello once again.

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Ivor Novello is the strange & disturbing Michel Angeloff. Elizabeth Allan is the daughter of the landlords who rent a room to this mysterious fellow who might just be a serial killer. Daisy Bunyon falls captivated by this tormented and intense young man…
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A.W. Baskcomb plays Daisy’s (Elizabeth Allan)father George Bunting and Jack Hawkins is Joe Martin the regular guy in love with Daisy
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Michel Angeloff (Ivor Novello) to Daisy Bunting (Elizabeth Allan) “Stay away from me… don’t ever be alone with me…{…} -You trust me, no matter whatever I’ve done?”

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)

There is a murderer loose in London who writes the police before he strikes with a sword cane, he signs his name X. It happens that his latest crime occurs on the same night that the Drayton Diamond is stolen. Robert Montgomery as charming as ever, is Nick Revel the jewel thief responsible for the diamond heist, but he’s not a crazed murderer. The co-incidence of the two crimes have put him in a fix as he’s now unable to unload the gem until the police solve the murders.

Elizabeth Allan is the lovely Jane Frensham, Sir Christopher Marche’s (Ralph Forbes) fianc√© and Police Commissioner Sir Herbert Frensham’s daughter. Sir Christopher is arrested for the X murders, and Nick and Jane band together, fall madly in love and try to figure out a way to help the police find the real killer!

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HEATHER ANGEL

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Heather Angel is a British actress who started out on stage at the Old Vic theatre but left for Hollywood and became known for the Bulldog Drummond series. While not appearing in lead roles, she did land parts in successful films such as Kitty Foyle, Pride and Prejudice (1940), Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943) and Lifeboat (1944). IMDb notes -Angel tested for the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), the role was given to Olivia de Havilland.

Heather Angel possessed a sublime beauty and truly deserved to be leading lady rather than relegated to supporting roles and guilty but pleasurable B movie status.

The L.A times noted about her death in 1986 at age 77 “Fox and Universal ignored her classic training and used her in such low- budget features as “Charlie Chans Greatest Case and “Springtime for Henry.”

Her performances in Berkeley Square and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were critically acclaimed… More gruesome than the story-lines involving her roles in Edwin Drood, Hound of the Baskervillles or Lifeboat put together is the fact that she witnessed her husband, stage and film directer Robert B. Sinclair’s vicious stabbing murder by an intruder in their California home in 1970.

Heather Grace Angel was born in Oxford, England, on February 9, 1909.
Heather Angel in Berkeley Square (1933) Image courtesy Dr Macro

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932)

Heather Angel is Beryl Stapleton in this lost (found negatives and soundtracks were found and donated to the British Film Institute archives) adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holme’s thriller Originally serialised in The Strand magazine between 1901 and 1902.

In this first filmed talkie of Doyle’s more horror oriented story it calls for the great detective to investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville and solve the strange killing that takes place on the moors, feared that there is a supernatural force, a monstrous dog like fiend that is menacing the Baskerville family ripping the throats from it’s victims. The remaining heir Sir Henry is now threatened by the curse.

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Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

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Douglass Montgomery as Neville Landless and Heather Angel as Rosa Bud in the intensely superior rare gem The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

Mystery of Edwin Drood (played by David Manners) is a dark and nightmarish Gothic tale of mad obsession, drug addiction and heartless murder! Heather Angel plays the beautiful and kindly young student at a Victorian finishing school, Rosa Bud engaged to John Jasper’s nephew Edwin Drood. The opium chasing, choir master John Jasper (Claude Rains) becomes driven to mad fixation over Rosa, who is quite aware of his intense gaze, she becomes frightened and repulsed by him.

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The brooding & malevolent Rains frequents a bizarre opium den run by a menacing crone (Zeffie Tilbury), a creepy & outre moody whisper in the melody of this Gothic horror/suspense tale!

Angel and Hobson

Valerie Hobson plays twin sister Helena Landless, the hapless Neville’s sister. (We’ll get to one of my favorites, the exquisite Valerie Hobson in just a bit…) When Neville and Helena arrive at the school, both Edwin and he vie for Rosa’s affections. When Edwin vanishes, naturally Neville is the one suspected in his mysterious disappearance.

OLGA BACLANOVA

Olga Baclanova

Though I’ll always be distracted by Baclanova’s icy performance as the vicious Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s masterpiece Freaks which blew the doors off social morays and became a cultural profane cult film, Baclanova started out as a singer with the Moscow Art Theater. Appearing in several silent films, she eventually co-starred as Duchess Josiana with Conrad Veidt as the tragic Gwynplaine, in another off-beat artistic masterpiece based on the Victor Hugo story The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning produced & directed this eternally disturbing & joyful portrait of behind the scenes melodrama and at times the Gothic violence of carnival life… based on the story ‘Spurs’ by Tod Robbins. It’s also been known as Nature’s Mistress and The Monster Show.

It was essential for Browning to attain realism. He hired actual circus freaks to bring to life this quirky Grand Guignol, beautifully grotesque & macabre tale of greed, betrayal and loyalty.

Cleopatra (Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor) plan to swindle the owner of the circus Hans, (Harry Earles starring with wife Frieda as Daisy) out of his ‘small’ fortune by poisoning him on their wedding night. The close family of side show performers exact a poetic yet monstrous revenge! The film also features many memorable circus folk. Siamese conjoined twins Daisy & Violet Hilton, also saluted in American Horror Story (Sarah Paulson another incredible actress, doing a dual role) Schlitze the pinhead and more!

Freaks

Anyone riveted to the television screen to watch Jessica Lange’s mind blowing performance as Elsa Mars in American Horror Story’s: Freak Show (2014) will not only recognize her superb nod to Marlene Dietrich, but much reverence paid toward the Tod Browning’s classic and Baclanova’s cunning coldness.

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( BTW as much as I adore Frances McDormand, Lange should have walked away with the Emmy this year! I’ve rarely seen a performance that balances like a tight rope walker, the subtle choreography between gut wrenching pathos & ruthless sinister vitriol. Her rendition of Bowie’s song Life on Mars…will be a Film Score Freak feature this Halloween season! No I can’t wait… here’s a peak! it fits the mood of this post…)

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Baclanova and Earles

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“You Freaks!!!!”
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Gooba Gabba… I guess she isn’t one of us after all!

here she is as the evil Countess/duchess luring poor Gwynplain into her clutches The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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Continue reading “MonsterGirl’s Halloween ūüéÉ 2015 special feature! the Heroines, Scream Queens & Sirens of 30s Horror Cinema!”

Film Noir ‚ô• Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground

‚ÄúUnexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.‚ÄĚ
‚Äē Sigmund Freud

‚ÄúLadies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965
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Fran√ßoise Dorl√©ac and Donald Pleasence in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac 1966
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Constance Towers kicks the crap out of her pimp for shaving off her hair in Sam Fuller’s provocative The Naked Kiss 1964
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Peter Breck plays a journalist hungry for a story and gets more than a jolt of reality when he goes undercover in a Mental Institution in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963
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Bobby Darin is a psychotic racist in Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer’s explosive Pressure Point 1962 starring Sidney Poitier and Peter Falk.

THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER  a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!

Constance Towers as Kelly from The Naked Kiss (1964): “I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw.”

Griff (Anthony Eisley) The Naked Kiss (1964): “Your body is your only passport!”

Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (1965): “I must get this crack mended.”

Monty Clift Dr. Cukrowicz Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) : “Nature is not made in the image of man’s compassion.”

Patricia Mor√°n as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”

Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”

The Naked Venus 1959‚ÄúI repeat she is a gold digger! Europe‚Äôs full of them, they‚Äôre tramps‚Ķ they‚Äôll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”

Darren McGavin as Louie–The Man With the Golden Arm (1955): “The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”

Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961) “The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”

Lorna (1964)- “Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”

Peter Fonda as Stephen Evshevsky in Lilith (1964): “How wonderful I feel when I’m happy. Do you think that insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness?”

Glen or Glenda (1953)“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even a lounging outfit and he’s the happiest individual in the world.”

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Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda 1953

Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot in Five Minutes to Live (1961):“I like a messy bed.”

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) Island of Lost Souls: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969): “Sex dominates the world! And now, I dominate sex!”

The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham “I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness (1971)“Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”

Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968) -Suzanna York as Alice ‘CHILDIE’: “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know” Beryl Reid as George: “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!”

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Susannah York (right) with Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George Susannah York and Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George 1960

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”

THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”

Peter O’Toole as Sir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”

Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin in Return From The Ashes 1965: “If there is no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.”

Euripides 425 B.C.“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”

Davis & Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring to life two of the most outrageously memorable characters in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?

psychotronic |ňĆsńęk…ôňątr√§nik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia

In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know‚Ķ ‚Äúkicks‚ÄĚ yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s‚Ķ I‚Äôd like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!

FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…

THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!

I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!

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There’s even this dvd that points to the connection between the two genres – Here it’s labeled WEIRD. I like transgressive… They all sort of have a whiff of noir.
Grayson Hall Satan in High Heels
Grayson Hall -Satan in High Heels 1962
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Gerd Oswald adapts Fredrick Brown’s titillating novel — bringing to the screen the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, Phillip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes in the sensational, obscure and psycho-sexual thriller Screaming Mimi 1958
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Victor Buono is a deranged mama’s boy in Burt Topper’s fabulous The Strangler 1964
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Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary as the unhinged nymph in Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual tale of growing madness in Repulsion 1965

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. While Film Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.

Continue reading “Film Noir ‚ô• Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground”

A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943

This post is a feature…As part of the CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON hosted by the fantastic gang over at- Movies Silently, Silver Screenings & Once Upon a Screen– Visit these wonderful blogs during this historic event and fill your head with a collection of fascinating movie memories.

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From Dreams of Darkness-Fantasy and the films of Val Lewton by J.P. Telotte:
‚Äú{The audience} will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of… if you make the screen dark enough, the mind‚Äôs eye will read anything into it you want. We‚Äôre great ones for dark patches.‚ÄĚ – Val Lewton

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Jane Randolph as Alice Moore in Val Lewton’s Cat People 1942 directed by Jacques Tourneur
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A scene from Bedlam (1946) directed by Mark Robson 

During the 1940s Val Lewton and his ‘Lewton Unit’ used the essential vision of fantastic darkness to recreate a very unique style of horror/fantasy genre, one which challenged Hollywood’s notion of the tangible monsters Universal studios had been manufacturing. Lewton, while working at RKO Studios, produced an exquisite, remarkable and limited collection of films that came face to face with a ‘nightworld.’ Lewton used our most deepest darkest psychological and innate fears that dwell within the lattice of shadows of our dreams and secret wish-fulfillment.

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“Our formula is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fade out” -Val Lewton

Lewton worked at MGM between 1926 and 1932 and then served eight years under David Selznick. He had published nine novels and a number of short stories. In addition he produced regular radio show versions of MGM films. He also had ties in the industry as his aunt was the the very influential silent actress Alla Nazimova.

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the great stage and silent screen actress Alla Nazimova-Val Lewton’s very influential aunt…

But Lewton had left his mark with Selznick and in 1940 rival company RKO was interested in hiring him..It was actually Selznick who negotiated Lewton’s contract.

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“My task is to initiate a programme of horror pictures to be made at the comparatively low cost of 125,000 each. Which should compete successfully with Universal horror films. Which cost anywhere from 300,000 to a million dollars. I feel I can do this quite easily and the Universal people spend a lot of money on their horror product. But not much on brains or imagination.”-Val Lewton

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Lewton put together a team of collaborators with whom he would work closely. He chose Mark Robson to edit. Robert Wise and Lewton worked together on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. DeWitt Bodeen¬†had worked him during his time with David O’ Selznick was to write the first screenplay for Cat People.. His old friend Jacques Tourneur whom he became friends with while working on A Tale of Two Cities. was brought on board to direct. He chose Nicholas Musuraca as his director of photography and Roy Webb to compose the musical scores.They all worked on countless RKO films. It was Lewton’s intention to create quality pictures though he was constrained with a low budget. Jacques Tourneur had said that Lewton was an idealist who had his head up in the clouds who would come up with impossible ideas. However for Tourneur his feet were planted firmly on the ground, yet somehow they complemented each other perfectly, Tourneur claims it was a very happy time in his life, and that Lewton’s gift to him was the filmic poetry that he was able to carry with him forever.

Jacques Tourneur is perhaps one of my favorite directors, with his use of shadow and and all together dreamy lens of the world, he’s responsible for one of THE best classic horror films Curse of the Demon & film noir tour de force Out of the Past.¬†

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Jacques Tourneur directs Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past 1947
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Jacques Tourneur’s moody horror with Niall MacGinnis and cat Curse of the Demon 1957
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Part of the Lewton Unit- image from the documentary The Man in the Shadows from top left Roy Webb composer, Val Lewton, Nicholas Musuraca Cinematographer, Mark Robson editing/directing, DeWitt Bodeen writing and Robert Wise-director.

“Horror is created in the mind of the spectator. It’s necessary to suggest things. In all my films you never saw what caused the horror. I saw people screaming in the theater when there was a young girl in a swimming pool, but you never saw the black leopard. The lights blaze up at the end. And there’s Simone Simon. Something has definitely happened. -Jacques Tourneur

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Jacques Tourneur looking over the film sketches
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Jacques Tourneur on location for Berlin Express 1948

“Lewton gave us something quite different than what’s known as Hollywood craftsmanship you can say that he presented us with a parallel world in which everything feels both real and a little unreal-familiar but strange. The characters and the viewer slip into a mysterious, troubling gray zone. Where real life and dream life come face to face. And where beauty and destruction merge. Lewton and Tourneur really created a new kind of cinematic beauty”-from The Man in the Shadows Val Lewton documentary

The Golden Boy in Bedlam
the golden boy from Bedlam

Learning from his last employer Selznick he made sure to supervise absolutely every aspect of the film’s production, from casting, set design, costumes, the direction, and editing. He even rewrote every script himself without taking credit or under a pseudonym. In this way he developed his own visual style of storytelling, having prepared each detail before shooting.

“My feelings are generated, however by more than my gratitude for that first opportunity. They come from the warm and highly stimulating creative experience I had working with Val. He taught me so much about directing and filmmaking in general…Val Lewton was one of that fairly rare species, a truly creative producer. As such, he was able to achieve an outstanding reputation for the high quality, unusual and interesting “B” pictures he produced at RKO Studios starting in the early 1940s”¬†–¬†Robert Wise, March 1994

Robert Wise behind the camera
Robert Wise behind the camera
Wise, Robson & Lewton
Robert Wise, Mark Robson & Val Lewton

“I remember him staying up until all hours of the night working on screenplays. He enjoyed having his hand in the writing. I used to that that he went out of his way to pick inept writers so that he’d have to redo their work. He used to write on a Royal typewriter;he used only two fingers but he was very fast. He’d talk out the different parts as he wrote them and, since my bed was just on the other side of the wall, I’d fall asleep listening.”Nina Lewton Druckman from the Reality of Terror by Joel Siegel

Robert Wise was part of the Lewton Unit, one of my favorite directors who would go onto direct some of the most outstanding films in a variety of genres, from musicals like West Side Story 1961, Sound of Music 1965, to Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944 and The Body Snatcher 1945, noir masterpieces, Born To Kill 1947, The Set Up 1949 and The House of Telegraph Hill 1950, I Want to Live! 1958, Odds Against Tomorrow 1959,to sci fi and Gothic ghost story masterpieces Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, The Haunting 1963 and The Andromeda Strain 1971.

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Michael Rennie and Gort in Robert Wise’s Sci-Fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
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Robert Wise’s boxing noir The Set-Up 1949

Lewton drove himself very hard trying to achieve something beautiful of quality. He and his team were given a very small budget, a cast of veritable unknowns, and evocative titles that were sensationalist and lurid in nature and did not truly represent an accurate account of the narrative. There were no gruesome fiends nor even evidence of malevolent forces at work in his ordinary everyday environments. Yet RKO’s studio head Charles Koerner¬† dictated such titles as Cat People 1942, Curse of the Cat People 1944, Bedlam 1946, Isle of the Dead 1946, The Body Snatcher 1945, I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man in 1943 and The Seventh Victim.

“If you want to get out now, Lewton told Bodeen, I won’t hold it against you”

The sensationalistic titles lead viewers to expect corporeal horrors, grotesquery and accustomed chills. As critic¬†Manny Farber¬†points out that while¬†Lewton¬†got nicknamed the “sultan of shudders” or the “Chillmaster” they were missing the point entirely.¬†Lewton’s¬†films were purposefully¬†inhabited by the average, the bland, the pedestrian all, so as to populate his world with normal characters. People you’d see on the streets, or doing menial jobs. And amidst this population of ‘normal’ stirred interesting pulp stories that were unorthodox, otherworldly and often grim.¬†Themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which someone believes they are an animal as in¬†Cat People¬†or the pervasive fear of¬†the Vorvolakas, an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in¬†Isle of the Dead.¬†Even when dealing with dreadful English asylums and the sacrilege of body snatching.

Val Lewton with Boris Karloff set of Bedlam
Boris Karloff and Val Lewton on the set of Bedlam

By the way…¬†Bedlam 1946¬†is perhaps my favorite of the¬†Lewton¬†series. I’ll be doing a follow up to this piece and with an aim at covering the magnificent piece of filmic art that is¬†Bedlam. I’ll also include the remaining films I love,¬†Isle of the Dead,¬†The Body Snatcher¬†and his first¬†Cat People.

Films with subversive themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which a person believes himself to be an animal as in¬†Cat People¬†or the pervasive fear of¬†the Vorvolakas is an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in¬†Isle of the Dead.

Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead Lewton
Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead 1946

One of the things I love about Lewton’s films is that he used many either lesser known actors or those who never quite attained stardom yet lived on the fringe. Wonderful character actors such as Ian Wolfe & Edith Barrett (whom I both adore) actor/director Abner Biberman, Theresa Harris, Edith Atwater Sir Lancelot former calypso singer from Trinidad, the unusual beauty of Elizabeth Russell who was a former fashion model. The portly Billy House who played Lord Mortimer in Bedlam had been a star of vaudeville or Skelton Knaggs (Terror By Night, House of Dracula) British actor worked on the stage. The handsome Richard Dix ,Tom Conway, James Bell, Anna Lee, Evelyn Brent, Helene Thimig, Dewey Robinson and Ben Bard.

Lord Mortimer's new pet with Skelton Knaggs
Billy House as Lord Mortimer in Bedlam
Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
The marvelous Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
Knaggs as Finn in The Ghost Ship
Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finn in The Ghost Ship
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Kate Drain Lawson as Se√Īora Delgado in The Leopard Man
Edith Barret the ghost ship
Edith Barrett and Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Helene Thimig in Isle of the dead
Helene Thimig in Isle of the Dead
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Julia Dean and old Mrs Farren in The Curse of the Cat People

These characters seems to transcend their positions in the background and add layers of depth and a quiet simplicity or realism that made the storytelling more rich. They possessed a certain unique expressiveness that at times eclipsed the lead actors.

RKO known for their capacity to release films that were of the fantastic and original, initially who hired¬†Lewton¬†to organize and run their ‘B’-Film unit. RKO¬†had a reputation for ingenuity and artistic innovation, paying careful attention to the shaping of the narratives.¬†What he endowed them with was his deep understanding of the subtle patterns and symbols that lie within our dreams, psyche and fantasy world. Lewton satisfied the audience’s desire for horror yet what he delivered was swathed in a strange and poetically beautiful style.

At his disposal he had some of the best writers who knew how to tap into this process. Writers like DeWitt Bodeen, Donald Henderson Clarke, Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray art director Albert D’Agostino (Notorious 1946, Out of the Past 1947, The Thing from Another World 1951) cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca & J. Roy Hunt (Crossfire 1947, Might Joe Young 1949) and directors Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past 1947,Curse of the Demon 1957), Mark Robson and Robert Wise all contributed and helped shape the vision that became the Lewton film.

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Nicholas Musuraca and Jacques Tourneur

And while¬†Val Lewton¬†didn’t direct any of the eleven films he produced for¬†RKO, (in two cases only taking screen credit for his contributions as writer), it’s rather irrelevant in terms of authorship -as collaboratively infused with talent of vision these films possess a distinct frame of reference that lead you into the fantasy realm or genre with an artistic unorthodoxy like no other.¬†Director¬†Jacques Tourneur¬†directed the first three¬†Lewton¬†films produced by the¬†Lewton Unit. He gave Lewton the soubriquet “The Dreamer.”

Joel Siegel from his 1973 book Val Lewton tells us,¬†‚ÄúHis production unit would make only horror movies with budgets limited to $150,000 per picture. The films were to be ‚Äėprogrammers‚Äô slated for placement on double features in less than key theaters, with a running time not to exceed 75 minutes. {Production Chief Charles Koerner‚Äôs office was to dictate the titles of these films, based upon a system of market pre-testing.‚ÄĚ

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Mark Robson and Val Lewton

Lewton hid much of the story in his shadow-plays and this allowed his crew to work the landscape by creating symbolism, key sounds (natural ordinary sounds become ominous premonitions and are fatalistic in tone), haunting textures, abstract shadow and a sense of dark absences. Within the more focused frames of the films are incidental point of view shots that fill in the spaces with a rich texture of realism within the fable-like quality, relying on shadow and suggestion to deliver the desired effect.

Lewton¬†himself would usually write a rough draft, an idea adapted from a property to be filmed. Then using his grand ability to visualize a formula, manipulate the structures of conventionality so that he could compose a landscape and narrative that would best articulate his observations.¬†Tourneur¬†emphasized¬†Lewton’s¬†“structure, construction, progression of high points, low points‚Ä̬†in the narrative. Director¬†Mark Robson¬†suggested that Lewton had already ‘thought everything out’ in such detail so as not to miss a thing.¬†Jessie Ponitz,¬†Lewton’s secretary relates,¬†“the last draft was always his.”

Lewton and typewriter
Lewton at his typewriter

Lewton’s brilliance and vision are partly due to his understanding of how psychoanalytic symbolism, myth, dreams and archetypes influence our intimate fear of what lies invisible to the eye. The¬†Lewton Unit¬†embraced the collective nightmares of the human experience, bringing our dream-work into the cold light of daily life¬†bounded to the material world.¬†He presents us with irrational unseen forces, in particular those that lurk in our subconsciousness or dream world. His films transport his protagonists by contrasting them from the open, sense of security from daylight- immersing them into the dark regions of shadows, and the black patches of uncertainty. They do not confront conventional monsters, vampires, ghouls and malevolent spirits of the classic Universal plots- but actually come face to face with their own internal nightmares. A mechanism that emerges from the shadows of the mind. We see these images of fantasy and it triggers our most basic and personal need to belong to that which is created, however disturbing those visions are, these fantasy/horror films possess an enigmatic kind of darkness. His characters never ran away from the darkness and dread that was so pervasive they actually ran head on into it, in order to demystify it and lead themselves & us to understand it a little better.

PSYCHE OR SOUL- THE LEGACY OF THE FANTASTICAL

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Jean Brooks as the mysterious Jacqueline in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim

Lewton¬†and his associates understood the principles of fantasy, and utilized them in the¬†complex visual structures they created in their series of films. In writing about Lewton’s use of fantasy,¬†J.P. Telotte informs us that these films “are not mere horror stories or exercises in terror, yet ‘redeem’ or reunite us with a repressed side of the human experience.” And this is what makes Lewton’s fantastical work so unique.

As in his book America in the Dark, Thomson implies that unlike the films that consist of vampires, werewolves, and other alien presences “The Fantasy genre {…} draw fundamentally on a realm of darkness and psychic imagery for it‚Äôs existence. Such films typically evoke a dreamlike environment or nightworld in which, as if it were our own sleep, we can pleasurably and profitably immerse ourselves. {…} I wish to call attention to their ability to reveal how we also might come ‚Äėto life with the dark‚Äô finding an important, even life enhancing meaning in the fantastic‚Äôs dream realm. {…}”

The Body Snatcher
The Body Snatcher 1945
A Palladist The 7th Victim
a Palladist from The Seventh Victim

Lewton’s fantasy reworks our perspective to let us ‚Äėsee‚Äô the dark spaces even within the light.¬†As Todorov writes in The Fantastic 1975, fantasy¬†evokes an ‚Äėindirect vision‚Äô¬†that allows us to see what is usually not visible in the ordinary world. Lewton uses this ‘indirect vision’ to transgress and transcend normal perception. Lewton’s works suggest a disparity between the expected and reality. From this disparity, the greatest threats come from the most ordinary occurrences, objects, and the commonplace. ¬†He populates his films with figures of authority who interpret their world incorrectly, harshly or inharmonious. The sudden revelation of the ordinary frightens and disorients the viewer in unexpected ways, forcing them to be more reflexive, to show the menace in the every day. As¬†Carl Jung¬†believed, fantasy precedes our normal sense of reality-¬†“The psyche creates reality everyday. The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy.”

Drawing on the psychologist James Hillman who specialized in archetypes, Lewton’s¬†films evoke a dream-like nightmarish world in contrast to the realm of truth.¬†The style of these films are often lensed as seductive and mysterious journeys, where the audience can escape the ordinary for a while.¬†They seduce us by taking a path which follows our hidden desires within the psyche.

This is the proper aim at fantasy, as¬†James Hillman¬†explains; it should challenge our normal¬†‚Äúliteral perspective, its identity with material life,‚Ä̬†since that perspective is usually¬†‚Äústuck in coagulations of physical realities. This perspective of reality needs to break down and fall apart, to be skinned live and sensitized, or blackened by melancholic frustration.‚ÄĚ

Isle of the Dead-Karloff
Isle of the Dead 1946

This fantasy forces us to look at our own limitations of vision, and how difficult it is to describe the structure of something that has no’ structure’¬†It’s easy for the grey areas of fantasy to ‘lapse’ into absence and dissolve from a narrative field of a nightworld/dreamscape using the device of voice-over narrative or subjective camera. Lewton’s images make us ask are we seeing what’s really there, or are we merely informed by the dark spaces both inside the film and tapping into our individual and collective psyches.¬†As¬†Telotte¬†cites¬†Rosemary Jackson–¬†

‚ÄúObjects are not readily appropriated through the look; things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility.‚ÄĚ

Val Lewton¬†had a special insight and grasp of formulas and mythic structures so that he could envision within the complex narratives, the presence of the most significant archetypal patterns.¬†Lewton said ‚ÄúIf you make the screen dark enough, the mind‚Äôs eye will read anything into it you want! We‚Äôre great ones for dark patches.‚Ä̬†What those ‘dark patches’ suggest is something innate in all of us, a dark region within the ‘self’ that gets lost, or hidden away, or even denied as we go about our daily lives doing ordinary things in the guise of normalcy.

DARK PATCHES AND THE ABSENCE OF KNOWING

The Seventh Victim

In a Lewton film there is a sense of ‘Lack’ as an absence in the lives and environments seems to be at the core substance of these films.¬†This play of absence and presence operates as a structural principle in Lewton’s films. For the benefit of this post I will point particularly to I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man¬† and The Seventh Victim, the prior both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur.¬†In his two films¬†that ‘lack’ translates into a disturbing landscape of openness in the narrative style.

The everyday, whether it be modern urban city streets, islands in the Caribbean or the nineteenth century, there is an attentive eye for detail that weaves a texture of daily life that the Lewton unit worked so hard to achieve. Be it the costumes, the architecture and the general look of the place during it’s particular time period. So much research went into developing the landscape of reality with a distinct verisimilitude. By looking at books, paintings and photographs they would try to capture the perfect light and shadow of the piece.

Although I won’t be covering Bedlam in this piece, the film is a perfect example of how The ‘Lewton Unit’ employed this research approach prior to filming. Several shot compositions were based on William Hogarth’s illustrations. Much emphasis was placed on ‘context’ as Lewton characters can so evidently be characterized by their station in life or occupations living in the seemingly natural world that is commonplace.¬†Writer DeWitt Bodeen notes that Lewton ‚Äúalways insisted that all his characters have special occupations or professions and be shown working their jobs.‚ÄĚ

Lewton’s films are populated with a texture of normalcy, people living in a visibly conspicuous and commonplace field of reality so that when the presence of the mysterious, and irrationality poke through it shatters the veil of normalcy and settles down to become abnormal and disturbing for the protagonist and us the viewer. These characters must journey through a field that is rife with coded messages, where they are not believed by the people around them.

Telotte explains, “What results is a subtle dialectic between ‚Äėsubstance and lack’, presence and absence, replacing that of the more traditional horror films, where in the ‚Äėself‚Äô as the audience‚Äôs surrogate, is opposed by a threatening otherness in the shape of a monster or murderous apparition. The tension is no less. Though it‚Äôs source is different it is more disturbingly lodged in the individual¬† and the way in which he perceives and conceives of his world.”

The Body Snatcher Karloff

Like the protagonists, we are laid bare with our vulnerability to the abnormal. The threat comes as an external challenge to our lives, exposing our human weakness and fears and forces us to see life in an unsettling way. Everything falls out of harmony that which is usually so ordinary. And the sense of ‘otherness’ fills the screen and taps into our own psyche as the formidable shadows move about with an anima. The dark patches set themselves outward as props, while strange sounds and eerie low key lighting color the screen’s canvas as dark and mysterious.

Psychoanalyst Hillman¬†refers to a ‘vesperal’ motion that leads us into the darker regions of the self and the human psyche with it’s ‘fantasizing impulse.’¬†Lewton’s¬†Curse of the Cat People (you can read an earlier feature I did on this film-click on the link) is a more conventional initiation story focusing on the nature of innocence and ‘otherness’ and how it often challenges our rational perspectives of the world because it evokes the ‘unknowing.’

All of¬†Lewton’s¬†films are structured with a careful eye on the sequential narrative.¬†Val Letwon referred to scenes heightened by shadows as signifier of something foreboding he called them “horror spots.”¬†These¬†“horror spots’ were carefully spaced through out his films in sequential scenes, as if each frame were its own visual narrative. Many potent moments though brief partly due to the limited time constraints yet remain with you forever.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

These scenes were preceded by scenes of an alternating tone designated to bring relief to the audience, utilizing some form of imagery that could be very beautiful or lyrical.¬†Joel Siegel talks about this approach as ‚Äúfragmented, mosaic-like structure‚ÄĚ of the films, with their dependence on a ‚Äúseries of tiny, precise vignettes which do not so much tell the story as sketch in its borders and possibilities. For film historian Robin Wood in his “Return to the Repressed,” Lewton’s series of films is distinct for their “often illogical¬†poetic structure.‚Ä̬†

Early¬†Lewton films display a narrative style which recalls Jean-Paul Sartre‚Äôs prescription for fantasy storytelling: ‚ÄúIn order to achieve the fantastic, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to portray extraordinary things. The strangest event will enter into the order of the universe if it is alone in a world governed by laws.‚ÄĚ

Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett in I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Lewton films do not simply strip the world of the laws which Sartre describes,¬†as many horror films do, rather they manipulate the context within which even the most commonplace actions are perceived. In I Walked With a Zombie, the players are often viewed through a veil of elaborate shadows cast by wooden lattice, brush and thicket, Very sensual images and very flowing. The eye for detail… every frame is so well thought out.¬†And while we as spectators have truly seen nothing tangible, there is that ‘lack’ reinforced by structural repetition. Drawing us in depends on our ability to fantasize and tap into the deep-rooted fears that we unconsciously embrace. This portrayal of Lewton’s mysterious yet mundane environment becomes utterly frightening.¬†Lewton explained how this process reveals the viewer‚Äôs participation in that which he sees, establishing that given these kinds of visual narratives man himself ‚Äúwill populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.‚ÄĚ

Robin Wood’s The American Nightmare chapter of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.–
It is built on elaborate set of apparently clear cut structural oppositions : Canada-West Indies, white-black, light–darkness, life-death, science-black magic, Christianity -Voodoo, conscious -unconscious, , etc–and it proceeds¬† systematically to blur all of them. JEssica is both living and dead.; Mrs. Rand mixes medicine, Christianity and voodoo, the figurehead is both St. Sebastian and a black slave, the black-white opposition is poetically undercut in a complex patterning of dresses and voodoo patches; the motivation of all the characters is called into question; the messenger-zombie Carrefour can’t be kept out of the white domain.”

Lewton’s work absolutely inspired and trained Robert Wise to scare the hell out us with his adaption of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting in 1963, when in reality we never see a malevolent presence. Wise’s use of absence and presence, sequential stages of darkness and shadow, odd angles, and the process of what we ‘don’t see’ became one of the greatest ghost stories on film and I would dare to say one of the best films ever made. Wise learned this film philosophy from his time working as part of the Lewton¬†Unit, whose contribution to film rippled outward for decades.

Robert Wise The Haunting Julie Harris
Julie Harris climbs the menacing spiral staircase in Robert Wise’s masterpiece of Gothic ghost storytelling The Haunting 1963

Lewton’s most accomplished manoeuvre was making the audience think much more about his material than it warranted. Some of his devices were the usual ones of hiding information… he hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures and the like which made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship… He imperiled his characters in situations that didn’t call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of¬† journalistic camera. {…}Je would use a spray-shot technique that usually consisted of oozing suggestive shadows across a wall, or watching the heroines’ terror on a lonely walk {…} The shorthand allowed Lewton to ditch the laughable aspect of improbable events and give the remaining bits of material the strange authenticity of a daguerreotype.” Manny Farber criticquoted from 1951 in¬†Jeremy Dyson’s book Bright Darkness

There is an overall unsettling revelatory pattern to each of the Lewton narratives. While I’m only covering the 4 contributions Lewton made during the year 1943, all of his 9 fantasy/horror films isolate the commonplace through the story, the patterns, the symbolism of innocence, and the rigidity of authority. In his films our roots in proven reason and sanity¬†are given a different value. This contrasting shadowplay create the ultimate texture and environment of fantasy/horror.

A SYMPHONY OF DARK PATCHES :

Continue reading “A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943”

Backstory: What ever happened to William Castle’s baby?

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bill from Spine Tingler
Photo of the great William Castle -courtesy of Spine Tingler

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Castle in NYC street with Polanski

“The film is frightening because it forces us to examine the kinds and bases of belief. We confront the idea that the Christian myth is certainly no more believable that its mirror image, and possibly less so. And beyond this, we are also forced to realize that our mode of believing in Christianity is quite different from the one with which we perceive ‘real’ things In other words, while Polanski’s film is determinedly realistic, it is at the same time a challenge to realism, locating the ordinary world of plausible social interaction within a wider and more primitive universe of magic, sorcery and supernatural forces.”Hollywood Hex, -Makita Brottman

Rosemarys-Baby

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Rosemary’s Baby is my favorite film. I plan on doing one of my long winded major features on this masterpiece in it’s entirety but for the sake of celebrating William Castle this week, I’d like to strictly focus on his contribution to an iconic tour de force that would not have been filmed if not for him. Rosemary’s Baby premiered in June 1968.

billboard for the film

color of Polanski and Castle
Roman Polanski on William Castle: “He was an excellent technician who understands filmmakers’ problems and doesn’t have the usual worries other producers have. He made a constant effort to make me happy in my work. I can’t think of a better producer.”

polanski, castle and Farrow happy

After many years of William Castle slaving over B movies and programmers like The Whistler and The Crime Doctor, he found his niche in horror. He saw Henri-Georges Clouzot le¬†Diabolique in 1955 and it lit a fire in his belly to create his own Gothic creepy storytelling that would lure the audience under it’s spell. Thus sung Macabre in 1958. While certainly not Diabolique, Macabre put Castle on the path toward creating engaging & frightening landscapes that would entertain millions!

That same year, thanks to his very successful House on Haunted Hill¬†and his 12 foot plastic glow in the dark skeleton deemed ‘Emergo’ that flew over theatre audiences, he was now dubbed the ‘King of Gimmicks.’¬†Castle went on to chill us with The TIngler in ’59, 13 Ghosts in ’60, Homicidal and Mr Sardonicus in ’61, Strait-Jacket in ’64, and I Saw What You Did in ’65 both landing Joan Crawford at the helm.

homicidal
William Castle’s Homicidal ’61starring Jean Arless (Joan Marshall)

With all the ballyhoo and commercial success, Bill was craving respect.¬†He thought he’d find that admiration in Rosemary’s Baby, a novel by Ira Levin (A Kiss Before Dying, The StepFord Wives, Boys From Brazil) about an unassuming pretty little housewife chosen by a coven of New York City witches to be the mother of Lucifer’s only begotten son and heir.

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What is remarkable about the film is the realism. It is so careful to remain dedicated to the naturalistic tone of Levin’s novel showing us a set of ordinary characters in an apparently common world. Then they gradually become introduced to extraordinary elements of dark forces, both magic and fantasy that begin to overwhelm the narrative.¬†We as spectators are now caught up in Rosemary’s plight and her utter sense of powerlessness. This story is less about witches and more about paranoia and the lack of control over our own bodies and destiny. However explained in supernatural terms, it’s still about losing trust with those closest to us, the people we depend on to protect us from harm. We watch as Rosemary’s world turns upside down.

Rosemarys-Baby-paranoia

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I saw Rosemary’s Baby during it’s theatrical release in New York in June 1968. It was billed as a double feature with The Mephisto Waltz. We won’t get into how either really enlightened or truly nutty, depending on your perspective, my mom was for taking her 6 year old little girl to see two very intense horror pictures dealing with adult and subversive themes.

I was an extremely mature child and the film not only didn’t traumatize me, it opened up a world of desire for me to see as many intellectual horror stories without fear of nightmares. Although I must admit when I used to watch Robert Wise’s The Haunting in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, I did manage to lock the basement door and shove the large gold (the color of Archie Bunker’s favorite chair) love seat in front of it to keep any boogeyman from coming up the basement stairs into the den when I was alone in the house.

I also just saw Rosemary’s Baby remastered on the big screen at the Film Forum a few weeks ago. I have to admit, that as soon as Christopher Komeda’s music starts playing and the birds eye view of the Dakota emerges on screen the electricity started flowing up my legs, this time not my usual RLS, I began weeping. Not only is Rosemary’s Baby my favorite film, I recognize the confluence of perfectionism in each and every scene that makes it a flawless masterpiece, from the vibrant performances to the exquisite storytelling. Every detail is magical and I don’t mean devilish, I mean artfully.

Castavets at Terry's fall

Something else wonderful happened during the screening that day. Amidst all the other film geeks like myself, and aside from the audible pleasure the audience let out when the magnificent Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer walk on screen where we all laughed and silently cheered for their strolling entrance as the iconic quirky and eccentric devil worshiping senior citizens. When Bill Castle did his Hitchcock walk on by the phone booth, I realized that it wasn’t only me smacking my partner Wendy’s knee with childhood excitement, “There’s Bill, there he is!!!¬†We both chuckled with glee to see his wide warming grin. Suddenly we heard others in the crowd stirring and murmuring “there he is, that’s Bill Castle!!!” Amidst all the appurtenances Rosemary’s Baby has to offer, so many of us fans were thrilled to catch sight of Mr.Castle with his fat cigar standing by the phone booth. We were collectively excited to see the man who had entertained us all these years. It was heart warming. I did tear up.

Bill outside phone book color shot

Mia back of Bill's head phone booth

rosemary in booth sees Bill

I recognize Roman Polanski as the auteur that he is, but that is not what I want to dwell on here. I want to stress that Rosemary’s Baby would not have been made if it weren’t for William Castle, and his perseverance, passion and eye for intellectual property. William Castle acknowledged that The Lady From Shanghai was a work of art because of Orson Welles‘ direction, however, it was Castle who first discovered and purchased the rights to If I Should Die Before I Wake, only to have Orson Welles turn around and pitch it to Harry Cohn as his own idea.

It was Rosemary’s Baby that Bill chose to elevate his status from B movie maker to respected filmmaker in a very fickle industry. Let’s¬†pay tribute to one certain fact:¬†Rosemary’s Baby would not be the film it is after 45 years without William Castle’s imprint on it.

B&W Bill at Booth

In Bill’s memoirs Step Right Up, I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America¬†(which is¬†a fantastic read for any enthusiast about the golden age of Hollywood and just a darn good bit of story telling) describes how¬†William Castle’s literary agent Marvin Birdt,¬†the person who found the script and insisted Bill read the galleys immediately. Castle looked at the title and dismissed it saying “Its probably some story about an unwed mother… cheap exploitation. Who the hell wants to make a picture like that?”¬†

rosemary'sbaby book cover

Bill Castle¬†thought the film just wasn’t for him at the point. It was 1968 and the film industry wasn’t really embracing horror films anymore. He was so overwhelmed with the lousy books and manuscripts that were piling up that he just couldn’t fathom wasting any time with yet another piece of junk.¬†But, it took him all of three hours to finish the story, as he said, ‘bathed in sweat and shaking.’ Castle¬†saw the magnitude of¬†Ira Levin’s¬†story when it was still in unpublished manuscript form:¬†“I made up my mind when I read the novel Rosemary’s Baby that it was the greatest novel that would translate into a screenplay that I had ever read. That just lent itself to a brilliant movie. And I loved the property and I brought the property because I wanted to prove to the industry my fellow peers that I could do something really brilliant.”¬†(Step Right Up,¬†2010)¬†He told Ellen, his wife, that it was one of the most powerful books he’d ever read, and that it would be an incredible picture to make. When Ellen finished reading it, she told him “it’s disturbing… frightening and brilliant.”(SRU, 2010) But Ellen also warned that he’d have trouble with the Church.

Bill and Ellen
William Castle and the love of his life, his beautiful wife Ellen courtesy of Spine Tingler

Catholic Condemnation clip

Castle’s agent Birdt¬†tormented him about other studios and directors interested in the story and making offers. Later,¬†Castle had found out that the book had actually been offered to Alfred Hitchcock first. One wonders what it might have looked like if Hitch had been behind the camera, storyboarding Levin’s work.

Bill Castle was worried that he was going to lose the picture, but where was he going to get the quarter of a million Birdt demanded to finance the rights to the film? He asked Birdt to offer one hundred thousand dollars up front and then fifty thousand if the book became a bestseller with five percent of one hundred percent of the net profits. His agent wasn’t very encouraged that they’d accept the offer. The waiting to hear back was excruciating, but Castle did get the rights to Rosemary’s Baby. Now he had to come up with the money!

In¬†Step Right Up,¬†Bill¬†describes how Robert Evans, in charge of Paramount Pictures, called¬†to check in, not sure William Castle could handle such a serious motion picture.But,¬†Charles Bluhdorn, owner of Paramount, wanted to meet with Castle personally to discuss the picture, saying¬†“I have big plans for Paramount, and they include you.” Castle found Bluhdorn’s persona magnetic. He told him that Bob Evens had informed him about Castle’ obtaining Rosemary’s Baby.“Would you like to make the picture for us?” Of course, Castle told him, yes.

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head of Paramount Robert Evans

“Your services as producer, how much would you want?” Bill Castle corrected Bluhdorn by adding the word ‘director’… trying to avoid negotiating with this man without his lawyer. Bluhdorn¬†wasn’t having any of that. He told Castle that he would not negotiate with lawyers on the making of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s either between Castle and him, or Donnenfeld and Castle’s attorney. Castle decided he had the ego to take on this financial genius and told him he’d negotiate with him directly. But first, Bill asked him if he had read the story.¬†Bluhdorn had not. Bill thought that worked to his advantage as the story was intensely disturbing so the less Bluhdorn knew about the story the better.

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Robert Evans and Roman Polanski

When Bill Castle finally blurted out that he’d want to produce and direct, Bluhdorn laughed at him called him a ‘big ridiculous clown.’ He tried to offer Bill only one hundred fifty thousand for the film plus thirty percent of the profits. Bill told him no way. It was a hard bargaining session. Bluhdorn didn’t know what he was dealing for and Bill did, Bluhdorn was also dropping the phony niceties and getting close to bowing out of any deal. “If I walk through that door, Rosemary’s Baby is finished at Paramount. No one -and I mean no one- will renegotiate!” Castle finally composed his inner panic and came back at the austere blowhard with an offer of two hundred fifty thousand and fifty percent of the profits. It was a deal. (Step Right Up, 2010)¬†

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Bill Castle courtesy of Spine Tingler

Producer Evans In Conference

Bill’s daughter, Terry Castle remembers,¬†“He had to do whatever he could and it was his time. Mom and dad mortgaged the house and they bought the rights for a substantial amount of money.”¬†(Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story)

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Bill’s wonderful daughter Terry Castle founder of Dark Castle Entertainment

With that he asked¬†Castle’s age¬†and if he’d heard of director¬†Roman Polanski, or seen any of his pictures. Castle¬†had seen Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Bluhdorn sung Polanski’s praises calling him a genius. He impressed upon Castle that with¬†the director’s youth and Castle’s experience as producer, they could both learn from each other.¬†Bill Castle started to find his fire, “Look Mr. Bluhdorn, the reason I bought Rosemary’s Baby with my own money was to direct the film… It’s going to be an important motion picture and I’m not going to miss the opportunity of directing.”¬†(Step Right Up, 2010)

Bluhdorn told him that Polanski directs Rosemary’s Baby or no deal, and¬†asked Bill to at least meet the young director. Castle says¬†“I had made up my mind to hate him on sight‚Ķ and that he wasn’t going to direct the picture I said absolutely no way. I bought the picture, I bought the book. I own it, I’m going to direct it..{…} I worked all my life to get something worth while on the screen and so at first sight I hated him.”¬†He’d sent Polanski the galleys to read and if after meeting him he decides he doesn’t want him directing the movie then fine. Bill Castle says in his memoirs that while Bluhdorn was a tough negotiator he was at least an honorable and fair man whose handshake was better than a written contract.

Castle and Polanski Spine Tingler
Castle and Polanski courtesy of Spine Tingler

In Step Right Up, 2010 Castle¬†describes his first impression of Roman Polanski was that he was a little cocky vain narcissist who liked to look at himself in the mirror a lot. Bill asked if he liked the story, “I like it very much… It will make a great picture.” Polanski spoke in his Polish accent. “You would like to direct Rosemary?” Bill asked. “That’s why I’m here. Nobody will be able to direct it as well as Roman Polanski.”¬†And Bill Castle’ felt that Ira Levin’s book was perfect for the screen, needing absolutely no changes whatsoever in adapting it. This was something he felt passionately about. He posed the question to Polanski. “The book is perfect… no changes must be made” Bill says that Polanski was so intense about this that it was quite jarring. “It’s one of the few books I have read that must be translated faithfully to the cinema.”¬†(Step Right Up, 2010)

And having read Levin’s book, I can tell you that reading each line of every page is exactly like watching the story unfold on screen. It is the most faithful adaptation I’ve ever read, more like reading the script after the fact.

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Then Castle posed a trick question to Polanski to see what his vision was for filming the narrative, suggesting to him that the camera should not only move around a lot but use strange shots to tell the story. Polanski was empowered by his convictions and told Bill,“No, I don’t Mr. Castle. Actors tell story… like peeping through the keyhole of life. I do not like crazy tricks with camera… must be honest.”¬†That was exactly how Bill Castle saw the film being made. When Polanski told Bill to start calling him Roman, Bill couldn’t help but start to like this man who truly did share a special vision for a very special story. Polanski went on to tell him, “Bill, we can make a wonderful picture together. I have been looking for a long time for a Rosemary’s Baby. To work with you would be my privilege.”¬†(Step Right Up, 2010)

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Terry Castle, Bill’s daughter, remembers:¬†“Polanski came over to the house and he was this young wild guy, just this incredibly wily dynamic man with this very thick accent talking about cameras and light he was just incredibly dynamic himself and my dad totally got him. He wanted to get Rosemary’s Baby made and he wanted to produce it‚Ķ and yet he wanted to direct it. But I think once he met Roman Polanski I think he understood he could bring something incredibly special to the project. And I think it was okay for dad to give that up to him because I think he saw the brilliance in this man. […]¬†Even though he wasn’t going to be directing it at least his name was going to be on it as a William Castle production and he was making for the first time in his life an important studio film.”¬†(Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story)

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Left tor right, William Castle, Mia Farrow, and Robert Evans during the production of ROSEMARY'S BABY, 1968.

Bill with Mia and John on the set of Rosemary's Baby

The last thing Bill Castle needed to know was who he’d pick to write the screenplay and why. Polanski told Bill¬†he would do it himself because he would stick strictly to the book. They spent the rest of the time discussing the film, Bill¬†finding Polanski brilliant and extremely open. He immediately called Bluhdorn and told him that he was right Polanski was the only one who could direct Rosemary’s Baby.¬†Bill Castle¬†had the wisdom and grace to understand that¬†Polanski¬†would make a great film, but to be fair to¬†Bill Castle.¬†it’s also only after his careful facilitation and thoughtful know-how that helped bring¬†Ira Levin’s¬†story to life.

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Polanski and Farrow and Cassavetes in hall color

Polanski kept his word, he wrote the screenplay and adhered strictly to the book as promised. Polanski asked Bill to help him find a house by the beach to work and that he’d send his fiance over to help him look for one. On a Sunday morning Sharon Tate was standing at Bill Castle’s door. They¬†found the perfect¬†beach house for the couple, owned by¬†Brian Aherne who was in Europe.

Polanski wanted to use Richard Sylbert to do the set design for the film. Sylbert¬†had¬†just finished working on Mike Nichols’¬†The Graduate. Roman Polanski thought his work was brilliant. Polanski¬†suggested Tuesday Weld in the lead as Rosemary. Bill agreed that she was a fine actress but said, “I think the role was written for Mia Farrow” Polanski¬†watched her in several episodes of¬†Peyton Place and¬†didn’t agree. He thought Tuesday Weld would be better.¬†Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Hartman, and Joanna Pettet were also considered for the part.¬†Evans asked about the casting of Rosemary, which they both gave their choices.Evans told them that he didn’t think Mia Farrow was available because she was working with George Cukor, he’d check with Zanuck at Fox and in the meantime try and get a reading with Weld.

Tuesday Weld
Tuesday Weld

Now the buzz was all over Hollywood and every actress in town felt they would be just perfect for the lead role, but Polanski was still stubborn about Tuesday Weld. When Zanuck called Bill and told him the Cukor picture fell through, and Mia was available. Bill set up a meeting with Mia and Polanski over lunch and Polanski wound up being completely mesmerized by her. He finally agreed she would play Rosemary. The rest is history.

Roman Polanski¬†actually developed a wonderful working relationship with¬†Mia Farrow¬†on the set. She didn’t bring any preconceived motivations to her role as Rosemary Woodhouse. Supposedly he had some difficulties with¬†Catherine Deneuve¬†on the set of¬†Repulsion,¬†but he found Mia very amenable to work with.¬†Mia¬†followed Polanski’s directions very well, which might explain some of her childlike and innocent air to her performance of the blithe and charming Rosemary.

Continue reading “Backstory: What ever happened to William Castle’s baby?”

EDGAR G.ULMER’S: THE BLACK CAT (1934) “ARE WE BOTH NOT‚Ķ THE LIVING DEAD?”

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“The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.”

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THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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THE BLACK CAT (1934) U.S. (Universal) runs 65 minutes B&W, was the studio’s highest grossing picture in 1934. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and written for the screen by Ulmer and Peter Ruric.
Also titled: House of Doom; The Vanishing Body (the alternative British title was used in it’s re-release in 1953 as a double bill with The Missing Head an alternative title for the “Inner Sanctum’s” offering Strange Confession.

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Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi
Boris Karloff in Jame's Whales Frankenstein
Boris Karloff in Jame’s Whales Frankenstein 1931

With the success that Universal Studios garnered from Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1931 starring Hungarian born actor Bela Lugosi, and the equally sensational popularity of Mary Shelley’s adapted Frankenstein 1931 directed by James Whale starring Boris Karloff, it would seem only natural for the studio to harness the cult popularity of these two stars, creating horror vehicles to pair them together in. This is the first of the collaboration between Boris and Bela. Also both stars were equally billed in terms of their leading roles. In Lew Landers The Raven 1935, Lugosi dominated as Dr. Richard Vollin and in Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray 1936, the emphasis was more on Karloff’s complex character Dr. Janos Rukh. The Black Cat was a huge success for Universal and opened up the flood gates for seven more films featuring the collaboration of Karloff and Lugosi; Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Black Friday (1940), and You’ll Find Out (1940).

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Edgar Allan Poe

Although The Black Cat 1934 claims in it’s opening credits that the film is ‘suggested’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s story from 1843 the film bares no resemblance to his short story, nor did Poe ever pen a single word about Satanism in all his volumes of the curiously macabre. The film does evoke the spirit of Poe’s fixation with morbid beauty, the preservation or perseverance of love after death, the suggestive ambiance, conflation of beauty and death and the unconscious dread of the uncanny. The architectural lines seem to also evoke the nihilistic sensibilities of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s ‘No Exit’ or a Kafka-esque fantasy of entrapment, with a mood set forth of futility and hopelessness. It also represents a cultural aesthetic that was emblematic of WW1.

Ulmers The Black Cat is melancholy poetry that articulates its substance within a half-light dream world. There are overcast clouds of menace, with modern Gothic gloom and impenetrable dark spaces. A wasteland of lost hope, it is a land of the dead.

Karloff is driven by his profane lust and twisted faith and and Bela is a ghost of man n a deadly excursion into vengeful rage.

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“Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”-Werdegast

Poelzig and his women in death

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‘the beast’ or the wickedest man in the world Aleister Crowley

Karloff’s character Poelzig is actually based on the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer and Ruric were inspired by an odd news story circulating in the world press shortly before the making of the film. Stranger than fiction, it seems a naive young couple who were visiting a remote home of a magician, became entangled in the occult rituals involving an unfortunate animal sacrifice, a victimized black cat named Mischette. The magician was Aleister Crowley, and the isolated location was his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. The press got wind of this when Crowley accused one of his writer friends Nina Hamnett of libel in a London Court. Hamnett had mentioned Crowley in her 1932 autobiography Laughing Torso.

The passage that incited Crowley’s vengeful wrath was Hamnett’s description of his days at the Abbey of Thelema “He was supposed to practice Black Magic there, and one day a baby was said to have disappeared mysteriously, There was also a goat there. This all pointed to Black Magic, so people said, and the inhabitants of the village were frightened of him.” Crowley became known in the public’s perception as ‘the wickedest man in the world.” It was from this story that the seed of sensationalism gave rise to the idea for The Black Cat which emerged as a tale of savagery and horror for Ulmer.

So, in actuality the title has nothing to do with Poe’s short story at all, as it merely alludes to Dr.Vitus Werdegast’s (Lugosi) all-consuming fear and dread of cats. A more faithful adaption would be The Living Dead (1934) directed by Thomas Bentley, and Tales of Terror (1962). The Black Cat (1941) starring Basil Rathbone was more of an old dark house mystery.

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Roger Corman directs Peter Lorre in Tales of Terror 1962

This mysterious and decadent tale was directed by Austrian born Auteur Edgar G.Ulmer’s who was part of the vast succession of √©migr√©s of high-art who came to America, Ulmer passed away in 1972.

It is one of the darkest films of the 30s.The Black Cat is an effusive, atmospheric and brutal masterpiece of decadent horror among some of Ulmer’s other interesting contributions (People on Sunday 1930, Bluebeard 1944, film noir classic Detour 1945, and the wonderfully lyrical science fiction fantasy The Man From Planet X 1951).

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Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film lays out a sinister territory, strange and foreboding, unsavory and dangerous, clandestine and provocative. Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in the early days living in Germany involved on films including Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). He also worked with F.W. Murnau on Sunrise (1927) Ulmer also worked with Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch in the 20s and Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnermann and cinematographer Eugen Sch√ľfftan,who was responsible for Metropolis’ miniature sky-scapes and vast edifices.

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On the set of The Black Cat
Boris and Bela in Edgar Ulmers The Black Cat
Boris and Bela on the set of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat

The Black Cat is considered to be Ulmer’s best film, though his career did start to maneuver it’s way downward into poverty row’s fabulous cinematic gutter toiling in low budget features, after beginning an affair with a script girl named Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to one of Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephews. At the time Laemmle was head of Universal Studios, and so Ulmer was essentially blackballed by the mogul from Hollywood. Another factor might have been Ulmer’s unwillingness to sacrifice aesthetic sensibilities over commercial profits.

Ulmer and Shirley got married and wound up moving to New York City spending many of his years working on low-budget films. He began this part of his career by making bargain-basement westerns under the pseudonym John Warner directing a series of cheap ethnic-market movies incorporating groups like Ukrainian,Yiddish and African Americans, before he moved onto the more stylish low budget thrillers.

Edgar Ulmer in the directors seat

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Edgar G. Ulmer

The Strange Woman poster

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By the 1940s Ulmer wound up back in Hollywood but had already resigned himself to making poverty row productions. All of which I find thoroughly enjoyable, such as his Bluebeard (1944) starring the ubiquitous John Carradine, Strange Illusion (1945) and film noir cult classic Detour (1945) starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage who’s battered and desolate characters actually fit the noir cannon with an authentic realism despite the anemic budget. I also love The Strange Woman (1946) and another great film noir¬† Ruthless (1948) with Zachary Scott.

Ulmer still remained a very productive director with PRC, even if it was one of Hollywood‚Äôs bastard children. Studio head Leon Fromkess never gave Ulmer enough money to fund his pictures, Ulmer wanted to produce high art films and first class effects as his origin had come from a place where he was such a ”visual artist as well as a filmmaker. The one good by-product of the deal was that it gave him creative license to run with what ever vision he had for a working project of his.

Boris and Bela on the staircase

Director Ulmer also doubled as set designer on The Black Cat to create a work of visual stateliness, beautifully stylish and elaborate with its collection of modernist set pieces, working with the art direction and set design of Charles D. Hall and cinematographer John J. Mescall’s (The Bride of Frankenstein) vision of the striking, uniquely cold and Futuristic Modern Gothic art deco ‘castle fortress’ and it’s interior shots creating the arresting landscape of luxury belonging to the enigmatic Poelzig’s (Karloff) inner-sanctum.

The eclectically sharp and angular camerawork establishes a stylish Machine Age imagery and eerie symmetrical aestheticism. Mescall’s camerawork creates a very non-Hollywood and non-stereotypical horror film, filled with a sense of melancholy responsiveness from the heavily influenced authentic Eastern European films of the period. There’s also a quality of cinematic eroticism with Mescall’s use of muting the focus within the shot to create an added emphasis on suggestive sexuality, as the camera dances through various scenes.

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Boris High Priest

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Poelzig down the spiral stairs

The stark use of light and shadow, the well defined contrast of light and dark with it’s cold black spaces and diffuse whites constructing margins that pay homage to the expressionistic lighting used by German Expressionists film makers of the 1920s and early 30s. The atmosphere is oppressive as well as claustrophobic with an added air of perversity that effervesces within the elegant framework.

Ulmer co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Ruric (who used the pseudonym Paul Cain for his hard edged detective novelettes for pulp magazines, with screenplays such asGrand Central Murder 1942 and Mademoiselle Fifi 1944). Their script for The Black Cat deals with a deadly game of chess, ailurophobia (fear of cats) rather taboo and provocative subjects such as war crimes, ‘Satan Worship’, human sacrifice, being flayed alive, drug addiction and the underlying perverse fetishism of necrophilia.

Heinz Roemheld’s blustering classical score, with the pervasive use of work from classical composers, all set the stage for a m√©lange of sadism, decadence, erotic symbolism, torture and hedonist themes of pleasure pain and death. The underscoring of this deliberate use of slow, solemn and imposing classical music emphasizes the atmosphere of entrapment and hopelessness.

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Boris Karloff as the imposing Hjalmar Poelzig

Karloff’s character, Hjalmar Poelzig’s morbid and unwholesome preservation of his deceased wife whom he stole from Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), having manipulated Werdegast’s wife into marrying him telling her that her husband died in the war, ultimately murdering her and then forcibly marrying Werdegast’s daughter is all very salacious material. Werdegast’s wife’s body is kept in a state of suspended animation like a sleeping doll which is visually shocking and gruesome. He tells Werdegast that his daughter too is deceased but in actuality she is Poelzig’s new young bride. a drugged sexual slave. The film possesses so many strange and disturbing elements. The allusion to incest, sacrificial orgies and the heightened presence of music drawing heavily from Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B and Schumann’s Quintet in E Flat Major, op.44, Tschaikowsky and most notably for me, Beethoven’s movement no.7, a personal favorite of mine.

The film was made just prior to the strictly enforced production guidelines of The Hayes Commission that policed all the sin and immorality on the silver screen. Allegedly there were various edits to the production that Universal insisted upon, but the film still bares a very deviant and erotically depraved tenor to the narrative’s mise en sc√©ne.

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When Universal executives both Carl Laemmle Jr and Sr. screened the film they were horrified by Ulmer’s rough cut, they insisted that he edit the film and so they hacked it up and toned it down. And actually Bela Lugosi himself was unsettled at the thought of his protagonist showing lusty desires for the very young American girl Joan. Ulmer reluctantly went back and edited some of the harsher scenes out, including the infamous ‘skinning’ sequence, A comparison to the original script from the final version shows that many of the most disturbing elements, including a more unabashed orgy at the black mass, were quickly snipped away and scenes which were more violent and containing more suggestive elements were exorcized like the devil.

But in a subtle victory of wile, Ulmer added a few more scenes showing Karloff taking Lugosi through his historical dungeon artifacts of the encased suspended beautiful women in glass, the posed dead bodies in perpetual lifelike form as if by taxidermy, collecting them as his fetish, the idea of possessing them eternally as an ‘object’ in a state of death, the theme of necrophilia must have slipped by the Laemmles.

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Poelzig’s women in glass cases preserved. The imagery is reminiscent of Poe’s fixation with death and beauty, and the conflation of the two

The subject of contemporary Satanism had only been dealt with on the screen once before by Lugosi in his supporting role in the long forgotten and believed to be lost The Devil Worshipper (1920 German) Die Teufelsanbete.

Universal’s marketing department downplayed the aspect of Satanism in the picture, nervous that the idea of devil worship might not be acceptable to the public theater goer as entertainment. So in actuality the original version must have really pushed the boundaries farther and been even more sinister. British censors found the film so offensive and unacceptable that the British print of the film, entitled House of Doom replaces any reference to black magic, using less disturbing references to ‘sun worshipper’, (silly) which essentially obliterates the entire transgressive significance and it’s impact.

Carl Laemmle had given Ulmer a free reign on the story’s content, but kept a close eye on the director in other respects. Ulmer had not been given the larger budgets that either Dracula or Frankenstein had been endowed with. He was also given a very short span of time to shoot the film, a mere fifteen days. This did not deter or side track Ulmer at all who was used to working with small budgets, and knew how to construct a film that looks as elegant as any largely budgeted project. He began imagining the story, scrapping many scripts that Universal had been collecting. Any pretext associating the picture with Poe’s short story was cast to the wind. And so he created an entirely new vision. At the core, the film works thematically as a revenge piece. But of course there is so much more bewitching the film’s narrative.

Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem Prague Jew
Prague Jew Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem
The Golem
Paul Wegener in the adaptation of Czech writer Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem

In the 1960s Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ulmer in ‘The Devil Made Me Do It‘ who recalled another theme that influenced The Black Cat. He had been in Prague‚Ķ and met novelist Gustav Meyrink the man who wrote The Golem as a novel. Like Kafka, Mayrink was a Prague jew who was tied up with the mysticism of the Talmud. They had a lot of discussions, contemplating a play based upon the Fortress Doumont which was a French fortress the Germans had destroyed with their shelling during World War I. There were some survivors who didn’t come out for years. The commander who ultimately went insane three years later was brought back to Paris, driven mad because he had literally walked on a mountain of bodies and bones. “The commander was a strange Euripides figure.Ulmer told Bogdanovich. (Euripides being an archetypal figure as a representational mythical hero, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Also Euripides voluntarily exiled himself, rather than be executed like his colleague Socrates who was put to death for his perceived dangerously intellectual influence.)

Much of the ambiance of this historic incident is reflected in Bela Lugosi’s dialogue in The Black Cat.

Werdegast-"I can still sense death in the air"…
Vitus Werdegast– “I can still sense death in the air.”

“And that hill yonder, where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on it’s very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world.” – Vitus Werdegast

Within The Black Cat is there an aesthetic tension between Expressionist Caligarism and The New Objectivity movement or Neue Sachlichkeit, which begin in Habsburg Central Europe at the dawn of the Nazi era? The New Objectivity espoused a new attitude of public life in Weimar Germany with it’s art, literature, music and architecture created to adapt to the changing mood of the culture. It was characterized by a practical engagement with the world, which was regarded by Germans to be an inherently American style or the cult of objectivity, functionalism, usefulness, essentially- Americanism. While the film injects a modern wholesome American couple into the plot, they are mired down in the decaying ghosts of the past atrocities and sins perpetrated not only on the land, but by presence of the vengeful and malignant atmosphere. An atmosphere represented within the framework of a very Caligarian milieu. This creates a friction or contrast by injecting the fresh American presence into the plot, surrounding them within an environment of an arcane and non-naturalist landscape.

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The Expressionist Caligarism was started by director Robert Wiene who’s surreal masterpiece Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari will always be remembered as the iconic ultra-expressionist watershed moment of the genre. ‘Caligarism’ Painters turned set designers Walter R√∂hring and Walter Reimann were responsible for the brilliant expressionist style which influenced other films with both the ornamental patterns transfixed in the dysmorphic repertoire of shapes and configurations that permeated the set designs for 20s science fiction films like Andrew Andrejew’s AELITA – Queen of Mars 1924.

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AELITA- Queen of Mars 1924

The use of the color black or more accurately, the absence of light, can also been seen as part of the symbolism in The Black Cat: We are the voyeurs to this claustrophobic madness, as spectators we see the horror as highlighted by the stark blackness of the clothes, the black trees which are filmed in silhouette against a blackened sky. Poelzig is often silhouetted in distinctive blackness. This use of the color black or again more accurately in lighting it with the absence of any color or ‘light’, is used thematically as a way of installing a sadistic marker of the imagery.

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Cast of Characters:

  • Boris Karloff is Hjalmar Poelzig
  • Bela Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast
  • David Manners is Peter Alison
  • Julie Bishop is Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
  • Egon Brecher is The Majordomo to Poelzig
  • Harry Cording is Thamal Werdegast’s faithful servant
  • Lucille Lund is Karen Werdegast
  • Henry Armetta is Police Sergeant
  • Albert Conti is Police Lieutenant
  • John Carradine plays the Organist (uncredited)

Boris Karloff plays Haljmar Poelzig who is perhaps one of his most impressively darker characterizations. His all black attire, strangely androgynous hair style, and exaggerated use of make-up accentuates his features giving him the appearance of extreme and austere wickedness. Karloff’s eyebrows arch, his eyes flare and the use of his black lipstick make him almost deathly. Jack Pierce (The Man Who Laughs 1928, Dracula 1931,Frankenstein 1931 White Zombie 1932, The Mummy 1932 Bride of Frankenstein 1935 ) was responsible for the subtle yet dramatic make-up.

Karloff’s voice, his wonderfully lilting voice is typically modulated within the drift of his dialogue. He is remarkable as the incarnation of profane evil, with his icy cold reserve and detachment from the world.

Both protagonists are enigmatic, Karloff’s Poelzig’s utter malevolence and Lugosi’s hero Dr. Vitus Werdegast who is sympathetic yet also damaged, callous and obsessed by his lust for revenge, make both these disparate figures, magnetic archetypes that are equally compelling.

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Boris and Bela in a high stakes chess match, a game of death

The film takes place in Hungary, starting out with scurrying masses boarding the grandeur of the Orient Express. The Allison’s are on their way to Budapest,Visegrad for their honeymoon. American Newlyweds Peter a mystery writer and his new bride Joan Allison board the opulent train. David Manners who plays spare hero Peter Allison had portrayed Jonathan Harker in 1931’s Dracula opposite Lugosi, and again appeared as the leading man with Karloff in The Mummy 1932. Jacqueline Wells plays Joan. At first the young love birds have their compartment all to themselves until Dr. Vitus Werdegast, psychiatrist and veteran of World War I, a captive who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years imprisonment, (Ulmer himself was a refugee of Hitler) enters the compartment due to a mix up needing a place to sleep. He tells the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’

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Vitus Werdegast -“So you are going to Visegrad”
Peter Allison- “Yes to (sounds like) Gaermbish by bus.”
Vitus Werdegast– “Gaermbish is very beautiful, I too am going very near there.”
Peter Allison– “for sport?”
Vitus Werdegast (raising his eyebrows, looking down and speaking more to himself) perhaps‚Ķ I go to visit an ‘old friend'” (spoken with a dark unpinning of hatred)

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While Joan and Peter fall asleep the gentle yet peculiar Werdegast becomes fixated on her, stroking her hair while her husband Peter who is now awake watches silently for a moment. Werdegast explains that his wife and daughter were left behind when he was sent away to prison.

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Vitus Werdegast- “I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago I left a girl, so like your lovely wife‚Ķ To go to war. Kaiser and country you know‚Ķ (serious look, deeper inflection) She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? (Peter quietly nods ‘no’) It is a prison below Amsk. Many men have gone there‚Ķ Few have returned. (taking in a deep breath) I have returned. After fifteen years‚Ķ I have returned.”

Out in the rain let's share a ride

On their way

Bus Crash

In a premonitory monologue the driver had spoke of ancient malevolence in Marmorus during the years of the war. “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded… the little river below was swollen, a red raging torrent of blood”

Joan injured in crash

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When the honeymooners get off the train, it is pouring rain… they agree to share a bus ride with Werdegast , but there is a storm and the desolate rain soaked roads are treacherous, causing the bus to crash. The bus driver dies, and Joan is injured in the wreck. Needing to seek shelter Dr. Werdegast recommends that they join him at his friend’s home, the Castle Poelzig, so he can take care of the young bride.Werdegast treats Joan’s injury, injecting her with a powerful hallucinogen called hyoscine.

The name Poelzig is an homage to Hans Poelzig set designer/architect of the 1920s who’s version of Der Golem was stunning. Real life Poelzig was responsible for the astonishing Prague set that underpinned the mythic mood of The Golem.

In Hans Poelzig’s own words, “The effect of architecture is magical.” And he meant that literally as he believed that every building was a living thing, had it’s own musical rhythm and a mystical sound that could be ‘heard’ by the those who were initiated into the world of magic. Though a very private man it was known that Poelzig dabbled in magical arts, holding spiritualist seances with his wife at their home and using their daughter as a medium.

According to Poelzig’s biographer, Theodor Heuss, his library was “filled with the works of mystics, the occult sciences and astrology”¬† he was in the pursuit of the mysteries of eternal forms that he erected and revered through his sacred work constructing his grand style architectural designs as his ‘magic’ medium. Poelzig also found cinema to be an environment for his magical sensibilities, jotting in his notebook “Film‚Ķ the magic of form-the form of magic‚Ķ Devil’s Mass‚Ķ”¬†

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Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig who indulged in the magical arts and believed that buildings had a soul…

Poelzig intrigued a lot of people with his mysterious persona. Director Max Reinhardt hired Engineer Hans Poelzig to build sets for his theatrical stages. Ulmer was one of the architect’s junior assistants who later worked on the set of The Golem as a silhouette cutter for Paul Wegeners monumental production. Ulmer had studied architecture in Vienna and so carried that knowledge with him which sheds light on his sense of set design.

Hans Poelzig had a grand imagination, a creative fortitude and a host of eccentricities, one of which was to be at times a very overpowering presence and domineering personality.

Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig

This left an impression on Ulmer, who took those memories from Germany to Hollywood and created a cinematic resurrection of designer Hans Poelzig’s persona in the image of Karloff’s shadowy devil worshiper Hjalmar Poelzig, creating the shades, shadows and the template for Ulmer’s mystical engineer sadist of The Black Cat’s.

F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 too, definitely bears it’s influence on Ulmer who worked as a crew member on the film. Faust, in terms of cinema of the Satanic, was a major studio production who’s main protagonist was the Devil and who was a complex character, and not merely a vehicle for a simple horror themed picture, it sprung from a confluence of intellectualism and metaphysical ponderings.

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Murnau’s Faust (1926)

DEVILS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION IN CLASSICAL FILM

Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Dante's Inferno
Dante’s Inferno

The Black Cat does seem to be one of the earliest illustrations of the Satantic cult film. While the era of Silent Film had a slew of films that dealt with the devil and black magic, (Dante’s Inferno 1911,The Student of Prague 1913, Henrik Galeen’s The Golem 1914 Thomas Edison’s The Magic Skin 1915, The Black Crook 1916, The Devil’s Toy 1916,The Devil’s Bondswoman 1916, Conscience 1917, Murnau’s Satanas 1919, Der Golem 1920,The Devil Worshipper 1920, Dreyer’s Leaves of Satan’s Book 1920, and 1921’s H√§xan, Nosferatu 1922. The Sorrows of Satan 1926 and¬† F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 ) After the economic crash of 1929 these very recognized landmark films seem to disappear.The 30s had The Black Cat 1934 and The Student of Prague (1935), both these films might be the protracted essence of the Satanic Expressionism of 20s German cinema.

Dante's Inferno devil
Dante’s Inferno 1911
Murnau's Faust 8
Director F.W. Murnau’s expressionist extravaganza Faust 1926

The ‘devil worship’ film or ‘Satanic’ cinema evokes our primal fears, paranoia and unconscious dread that is implicit toward the ‘Other’ As was in Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s brilliant portrayal of this very paranoia. Satanic films trigger our fears of the intrusion of an outsider who infiltrates society, or rather the comfortability of our moral landscape. It also sign posts our secret pleasures which are derivative or surrogate as catharsis by way of the horrors of satanic power. In the 40s the few offerings were, William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941, Maurice Tourneur’s Carnival of Sinners (1943) and Mark Robson/Val Lewton’s literate and intensely woven The Seventh Victim (1943) and Thorold Dickinson’s imaginative masterpiece The Queen of Spades 1949.

Devil and Daniel copy
director William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
The 7th Victim Lewton
The 7th Victim (1943) a shadow play about a devil cult by Val Lewton
Queen of Spades
Thorold Dickinson’s story about a pact with the devil¬† The Queen of Spades 1949

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Black Cat Lobby Card

While Universal had successes with both Dracula and Frankenstein, The Black Cat is a more intensely layered film with it’s hidden and not so implicit meanings. It has a depth that explores the undercurrent of the 1920s aestheticism and fascination with magic. There are heterogeneous elements that run through both compelling performances by Karloff and Lugosi’s characterizations.

Manning, Karloff and Bela

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Poelzig enters Peters room

"Next time I go to Niagra Falls"
“Next time I go to Niagra Falls”

karloff and lugosi at the desk

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Werdegast “You sold Marmorus to the Russians‚Ķ scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered at, that you should choose this place to be your house. A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction‚Ķ the masterpiece of murder. (he laughs) the murderer of ten thousand men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken a prisoner to Kurgaal, Kurgaal, where the soul is killed‚Ķ slowly. Fifteen years I rotted in the darkness. Waited‚Ķ not to kill you, to kill your soul‚Ķ slowly. Where is my wife Karen and my daughter?!!!!”

Poelzig“Karen? Why what do you mean?”

Werdegast“I mean you told Karen I had been killed, I found out that much in Budapest. I mean you always wanted her in the days at Salzberg before the war, always, from the first time you saw her. I mean that after you saved your own hide and left us all to die in Marmorus, you took Karen and induced her to go to America with you. I traced the two of you there. And to Spain and to South America and finally here. Where is she?”

The film is also powerful in it’s evoking of the horrors of World War I, which was still a very haunting specter in the public psyche. Most Universal films offered escapism, in contrast The Black Cat confronts the viewer with a bit of historic retelling of the nightmares of war, more penetrating than the usual concocted monsters the studio was proffering.

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“Where is she?”
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Poelzig- “Vitus.. you are mad”
Poelzig “She died two years after the war”
Vitus Werdegast -“How?”
Poelzig “Of pneumonia, she was never really very strong you know.”
Vitus Werdegast- “(crying) And the child‚Ķ our daughter?”
Poelzig “Dead…”

Karloff’s aloof and restrained malevolence guided by the subtle intonations of his melodious voice tethered to Lugosi’s sympathetic and often poignant performance as the broken Vitus Werdegast, in particular the scene when he first sees his dead wife Karen exhibited as if in a museum, suspended in death, evoking authentic tears, Why is she like this?” All set to the maudlin Ludwig Van Beethoven’s ‘Symphony no. 7: Second Movement.’

Beethovin’s symphony no. 7 often used in films and a most powerfully contemplative piece underscores Karloff’s soliloquy as the camera glides through the dark and dank dungeon of Marmorus taking us on a tour of the decaying deathly oxygen of the place.

Poelzig leads Werdegast through the subterranean enclosures of Marmorus. It is here that Werdegast sees his wife who had died two years after he was in prison, and that his Karen (Lucille Lund) is now encased in glass.

Poelzig reveals the perfectly preserved body of his wife in necrophilic stasis, that he’s encased in glass like an immoral specimen of his unholy fetishism. This might be the only other reference to Poe and his morbid preoccupation with beauty in death. He reveals the dead body of ‘their’ beautifully angelic wife, encased in her crypt like glass vessel. Poelzig lies to Werdegast telling him that his daughter is also dead.

Werdegast is devastated and demands retribution but Poelzig insists that fate must wait until the ‘outsiders’ are gone. Of course Poelzig intends to kill the Americans, sacrificing Joan, but forces Werdegast to play a diabolical game of chess the outcome for which the lives of the young couple hinges upon. Werdegast loses and Joan is then taken to another room to await Poelzig, as she is to be his next sacrifice at the black mass ritual during the dark of the moon, in his Bauhaus ceremonial inner sanctum of worship, his sepulcher of debauchery, his sadistic sanctuary, the archaic shrine to the devil.

CapturFiles_43 Very well Vitus I'll shall take you to her
“Very well Vitus I’ll shall take you to her”
Being led to the bowels
The camera focuses on the darkened spiral staircase heading downward toward the dungeon and then again as Poelzig and Werdegast ascend from the subterranean nightmare.

Taken to the bowels

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Poelzig “Come‚Ķ Vitus‚Ķ come are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures. You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me‚Ķ did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago ?‚Ķ Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder. Are we not both, the living dead? For now you come to me playing at being the avenging angel‚Ķ childishly thirsting for blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game Vitus. A game of death if you like. But under any circumstances, you shall have to wait until these people are gone. Until we are alone.”

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Werdegast, Poelzig and the Karen under glass

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CapturFiles_50 She died almost two years after the war
“You will find her almost as beautiful as when you last saw her… Do you see Vitus I have cared for her tenderly and well.” Is she not BEAUTIFUL… “
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“I wanted to have her beauty always”-

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“Why’s she‚Ķ why’s she like this…?”-¬†

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Poelzig has finished his nihilistic sermon. The camera as spectator angles back on the two men walking slowly again. What ever remained of the man, Vitus Werdegast has now been annihilated.

The essence of which makes the film as disturbing and queasy as any in this contemporary age of violent horror films. Ulmer convinced Laemmle Jr to let him make a film in the European Caligari style, surreal, post modern and artistic. The one condition was that he use Poe’s title for the picture. The story line is hallucinatory, dream like and nightmarish, framed within the architecture of a set that becomes part of the character of the plot. Poelzig it is revealed is the High Priest of a Satanic Cult, there is a scene where we catch sight of him reading a book entitled The Rites of Lucifer, which promotes the customary sacrifice of virgin blood while Werdegast’s beautiful blonde daughter Karen believed to be dead, sleeps next to him most likely kept in a drug induced cataleptic state, to maintain her appearance of a morbid deathly slumber in order to feed Poelzig’s penchant for conflating sexuality with death.

Poelzig and Karen bedroom scene

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The dark of the moon, tis tonight
“The dark of the moon, tis tonight”

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