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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

It strikes me that there are very many worse job titles to have than ‘head of horror unit’. Holding this post was the fortunate position that the writer and producer Val Lewton found himself in in the early 1940s, when he was working for the American film studio RKO. The job only came with three provisos: all the films Lewton oversaw had to be no longer than 75 minutes, they had to cost less than $150,000, and they had to use titles provided to Lewton by his bosses. Call those strictures? That just sounds like fun to me.

The films Lewton ended up producing may not have packed quite the same cultural wallop as the horror cycle which Universal was midway through at the same time, but they do have a certain style and class which most of the later Universal movies are really lacking in. They are, in general, artier and more subtle, with less reliance on special effects and make-up to do their thing. In some ways, though, Lewton’s work has been just as influential as those other movies, name recognition or not.

The first fruit of the horror unit under Lewton was the 1942 movie Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cats are, not surprisingly, something of a motif in this film, which opens at the zoo. (This is one of those odd American films from the early 1940s which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the fact it was made in the middle of a global war.) Just outside the panther cage, we are witness to a meet-cute between well-to-do marine designer Oliver Reed (a name which is a little more snigger-worthy now than it was at the time), who is played by Kent Smith, and illustrator Irena Dubrovna, played by Simone Simon. Irena is supposedly Serbian, which the French Simon opts to indicate by doing a sort of generic European accent.

Well, Reed and Irena hit it off, and sure enough she is soon telling him stories of her charming homeland, much of which seems to have been inhabited by devil-worshipping witches with the power to turn into savage big cats when they got riled (perfectly ordinary first date conversation fodder, if you ask me). The romance proceeds swimmingly, possibly because Oliver seems permanently distracted and doesn’t notice things like the entire population of a pet shop going into a terrified frenzy the moment Irena walks through the door. Soon enough (because, after all, the whole movie has to be finished in under 75 minutes) they are engaged, which is a heavy blow for Oliver’s assistant Alice (Jane Randolph), who bears a not-especially-secret torch for him.

The only problem is that Irena is convinced that the blood of the ancient cat-women flows through her own veins, and if her darker side is roused – by, say, her new husband kissing her or doing something even more intimate – she will turn into a cat and rip his head off. I think it is fair to say that few marriages would prosper under such circumstances. At Alice’s suggestion, Irena is sent to frankly dubious psychiatrist Dr Judd (Tom Conway) – but can this really do any good? And how will Irena’s growing jealousy of Oliver and Alice’s obvious closeness manifest itself?

Cat People did well enough to earn a sequel and a remake (made by Paul Schrader in 1982, with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell), and it is usually assured of at least a mention in any serious discussion of the development of the craft of the horror movie. (This is due to the fact it introduced a couple of tropes to the genre – ‘The Walk’, represented by the scene in which Randolph is stalked through a park by something unseen but malevolent, and ‘The Bus’, in which tension is suddenly defused by a ‘false alarm’ moment (the air brakes of said vehicle sound momentarily like the hiss of a cat).) So you would expect this to be a superior and classy horror film.

Superior and classy it certainly is, but I’m just not sure if it really works as a horror movie for a modern audience. Parts of Cat People have not aged well, if we’re honest, and it is if anything too refined and ambiguous to really meet the standards of the genre. The briefness of the movie results in it only having four significant characters. Irena is an interesting attempt at creating a genuinely ambiguous character – she is initially quite sympathetic, an impression which is gradually dispelled as the story progresses. However, Judd turns out to be an arrogant tool, and unprofessional to the point of complete sleaziness as well. I’m still not sure if he’s less sympathetic than Oliver himself, who comes across as bland and self-satisfied. He obviously has a good job, women are falling all over him, and at one point Kent Smith is required to bewail the fact that never in his life has he ever really felt unhappy before. This sort of thing is not guaranteed to get the audience on-side with a character. Only Alice comes across as someone you’d generally want to spend time with – she’s the kind of plucky character who’d get called a brick in a British film – and you do wonder what she’s doing falling uselessly in love with someone like Oliver Reed.

Still, coming across dodgy handling of female characters is par for the course with this kind of old movie, and it does not take a psychology graduate to recognise that this is a film with a somewhat dubious subtext. Lurking within some women, it seems to be suggesting, is a savage, out of control beast, prone to vicious fits of jealousy. Irena isn’t afflicted with her curse in the course of the story in the way that Lon Chaney Jr is in The Wolf Man; she was born with it, intrinsically compromised. You could argue it is about the male fear of female desire, a very characteristic psycho-sexual undertone for this kind of film, and one which is handled reasonably subtly.

All this has to build up to something, though, and it’s here that the film may fall down for modern audiences. Jane Randolph’s initial encounters with something unseen but hostile are well-mounted, but – with some justification – you are expectating some kind of money shot before the end of the film. Imagine a werewolf movie where you not only never got to see the transformation, you barely got to see the beastie – many viewers would be crying foul, I think. And that is essentially what happens here.

You can certainly understand Lewton and Tourneur’s preference for subtlety and implication over hiring one of the Westmore family to glue cat ears onto Simone Simon, but the end of the film still slightly feels like it isn’t delivering in terms of solid scares and dramatic resolution. There are clearly significant and symbolically important things going on, but it still feels like it is being just a bit too subtle and understated for its own good. Nevertheless, Cat People is a very competently-made movie with an unusual degree of psychological depth for the early forties; it may not much look like the modern definition of a horror movie, but you can see why it is still remembered today.

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Over forty years on, all the movies that Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made together have coalesced in the cultural collective memory into one disreputable, slightly garish lump: probably with a rubber monster of some kind sitting on top if it. They flow together in the mind as well: which is the one with the bi-plane? Which is the one with the giant octopus fight? Which is the one with the iron mole?

The first of the set, The Land That Time Forgot, isn’t any of those. Made in 1975, it is the one boasting a screenplay co-written by legendary author Michael Moorcock (based, of course, on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). As a long-time admirer of Moorcock and his work, I am perhaps biased when I say that his contribution gives the film an element of class and intelligence not present in the various follow-ups – the way the film opens and closes with the same sequence gives it a pleasing symmetry and indicates some thought has gone into it.

This material relates to a vestigial frame story which is not much gone into – it is mainly present to recreate the structure of Burroughs’ novel. The tale itself begins in 1916, with a German U-boat sinking a British cargo vessel. This is portrayed entirely from the point of view of the German crew, mainly because the submarine set is essential to the film and the cargo ship is just in this one scene: one of the hallmarks of the film is the way it manages to be thrifty without it being obvious too much of the time. Amongst the survivors are beefy American engineer Bowen Tyler (McClure) and comely English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).

Having his ship torpedoed out from under him isn’t much of a problem for a guy like Doug McClure, though: together with the captain of the ship (Keith Barron) and a few other crew members, they board the U-boat when it surfaces to refresh its air supply and take it over, rather to the annoyance of the German captain (John McEnery) and his second in command (Anthony Ainley). (The captain is one of those decent, noble German officers one so often finds in this kind of story, while Ainley is honing the performance as a fanatically malevolent psychopath that would stand him in good stead throughout the 1980s.)

So far the film has been solid, gripping stuff, but now we encounter a significant wobble, as the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans is followed in fairly short order by the Germans seizing control of the ship from the British. And this in turn is followed by the British seizing control of the ship from the Germans, again. This inelegant plotting is all to get the film to where it needs to be: the U-boat ends up lost in the southern Atlantic, low on fuel and supplies.

However, there are glimmers of hope when they come across a mysterious new landmass, surrounded by towering, icy cliffs. The German captain suspects it to be Caprona, discovered centuries earlier by an Italian explorer who was unable to make landfall due to the cliff barrier. The existence of an underwater passageway means the U-boat could penetrate the interior of Caprona, thus possibly giving them access to the supplies they so desperately need.

Well, after a tense passage and a few dings to the sub, the voyagers find themselves in a lush, tropical paradise. Finally we get the first of the rubber dinosaurs we have been impatiently awaiting, and rather superior they are too. This is no consolation to the crew of the U-boat, who find themselves on the lunch menu of the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs infesting the river they are on.

Still, at least the skirmish provides the hungry sailors with some fresh provisions. ‘Should one drink red or white wine with plesiosaur?’ wonders Keith Barron. More pressing concerns supplant correct etiquette, however: there are places in Caprona where crude oil springs from the ground, raising the possibility of refueling the sub. However, in addition to the dinosaurs, there are ape men here too – and the natives may not be friendly…

Well, regular visitors may recall my recent cri de coeur about the BBC non-adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which effectively threw away all but the most fundamental details of the original novel and ended up being almost wholly unsatisfactory as a result. Here, perhaps, we have an example of the opposite situation – an adaptation which on the whole stays remarkably faithful to the source text, to the point where it impacts on the film’s success as such.

The issue is that this is a pulp adventure – superior pulp, to be sure, but still pulp. Burrough’s plot is episodic, consisting of a series of exploits and adventures undertaken by a group of thinly-characterised individuals. There’s no sense of it building to anything, or a central issue heading towards resolution – just a series of set-piece action and special effects sequences. These are often well-mounted, but the film still feels more like a theme park ride than an actual narrative.

The closest thing to a big idea the film contains is the revelation of how life functions on Caprona. To say that this is non-Darwinian is to rather understate the matter: populations don’t evolve in the usual manner here, but individual creatures progress through the different stages of evolution in the course of their lifetime as they travel across the landscape (they apparently feel compelled to constantly travel northward towards the sea). It’s a curious idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it – we never see it happening and it doesn’t inform the plot in any meaningful way. Full marks to Moorcock and co-writer James Cawthorn for retaining it, but you almost wish they’d found a way to do something more interesting with the notion.

However, while the film’s weaknesses may have been inherited from the source novel, its strengths are all its own. This is a classy looking movie, not nearly as garish or silly as some of its successors (At the Earth’s Core, I’m looking at you) – the period detail is well done, with a nicely grimy feel to it. The presence of many solid British actors (there are many familiar TV faces scattered through the cast list) gives the movie a further touch of class.

Even the dinosaurs, usually the weak link in this kind of movie, are a cut above what you might expect. They are the work of Roger Dicken, a man with a relatively brief but nevertheless hugely interesting CV as a special effects technician – we can overlook the rubber bats he provided for Scars of Dracula, given that a decade later he created the facehugger for Alien. Doubtless for cost reasons, Dicken doesn’t go with the traditional stop-motion dinosaurs, or even men in suits, but opts for glove-puppet dinosaurs instead. I fear I may be damning Dicken and the movie with faint praise if I say that these are some of the best glove-puppet dinosaurs in the history of cinema. The only time the special effects really aren’t up to scratch comes in a sequence where McClure is menaced by some implausibly rigid and stately pterodactyls, but even Ray Harryhausen struggled to make this sort of thing work.

It’s a sign of the general quality of the movie that the dinosaurs only feel like one element of a bigger adventure, rather than the sine qua non of the whole thing. It’s true that the acting is not great, but then it doesn’t really need to be: the movie sets out to be a pulp adventure, and on those terms it’s a successful one: you can see why it was such a commercial success. You still have to wonder if there was some way of preserving the essentially Burroughs-iness of the story while coming up with a more dynamic and satisfying plot, but I still think a film like this is far preferable to an in-name-only updating of the book.

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We tend to think of cinema as an essentially modern art form – Terry Gilliam presented a TV series on the birth of the medium entitled The Last Machine – something quite different from the other visual arts like painting and sculpture. Great paintings and statues go back into the mists of time, usually hundreds of years, whereas most people tend to dismiss any film which is more than half a century old as unacceptably primitive. As time progresses we may have to change our perceptions on this topic. Unless the direst of predictions about the future of civilisation come to pass, a day will come in which people will look at the classic films of two or three centuries earlier, just as we look at the art of the Renaissance and other periods from long before living memory.

There are already films which have passed beyond living memory – I don’t just mean the legions of lost films, known only by their names and descriptions, although there are certainly enough of them. I mean films where everyone involved in their making has moved on to whatever comes next. Realistically, this probably includes nearly everything made since about 1940, by which point commercial cinema was already a quarter of a century old. The oldest of films do seem to come from an oddly different world, their difference and strangeness only heightened by the different sensibility that often shaped them and the differences in production methods.

Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem was first released in 1920. Just to suggest the lengths of time involved, this places it almost equidistant between the present day (as I type, anyway) and the Peterloo massacre. It is closer in time to the deaths of Lord Byron and Beethoven, to name but two events, than it is to the present day. Perhaps one is getting carried away by the peculiar, medieval qualities of the story, but it does feel like a strange relic of a lost age. The irony, of course – and perhaps our first inkling that maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as we might imagine – is that The Golem isn’t exactly The Golem. Rather, it is effectively Golem 3, final film in a loose trilogy.

Survival rates amongst films of the 1920s being as they are, the original Golem from 1915 and the spin-off The Golem and the Dancing Girl have both been lost, and the title of The Golem has now passed to the second sequel, which was originally released as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World). (You can see why people would opt for a less unwieldy title.) Even the 1920 version of Golem was a lost film for some time, eventually being reconstructed from various alternate versions of the negative which survived piecemeal in different locations.

One stroke of luck is that the 1920 version of The Golem is – in the modern vernacular – a prequel to the original film, which had a contemporary setting and concerned the title character being unearthed in the modern era. As the subtitle suggests, this is an origin story, set in the middle ages. The implication is that the story unfolds in Prague, which is the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor (portrayed here by Otto Gebuhr). As the story starts, the Emperor issues a decree announcing that the Jews of Prague are to be expelled from their ghetto, causing understandable consternation amongst them.

One of the community leaders, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), has seen this coming (he is the local astrologer and expert in arcana), and requests an audience with the Emperor so he can try to talk him out of his decision. In order to have a little more leverage at the coming meeting, Loew sets about crafting a massive human figure out of clay. His plan is to use magic of a questionable hue to animate this being, known as a Golem – if nothing else it will be nice to have another pair of hands about the place. (The situation is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the Emperor’s envoy, Florian (Lothar Muthel), instantly takes a fancy to Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and commences to woo her, assiduously but discreetly.)

Well, the rite is performed and the Golem comes to life (the creature is portrayed by Paul Wegener himself), although his initial trips down to the shops are a marginal success at best. The Emperor and the royal court are duly impressed and a bit alarmed when the Rabbi turns up to see them with the Golem in tow, but when the creature saves the Emperor’s life the grateful ruler agrees to think again about his edict expelling the Jews.

All seems well, until Loew discovers an ominous warning that the Golem’s initial helpfulness may not last, and the dark magic that animated it will lead to it eventually becoming malevolent. Bearing this in mind, the Rabbi ‘deactivates’ it. All seems well, and he goes off to a service of thanksgiving for the survival of the community. But then his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) discovers what has been going on between Florian and Miriam, and angrily reanimates the Golem, telling it to get rid of the amorous nobleman…

You can probably guess what happens next, because despite the fact that its production values, pacing, and performance style are wildly different from those in modern movies, this is still very recognisably the progenitor of a noble dynasty of fantasy and SF movies – the similarities to Frankenstein are particularly pronounced, and there’s a scene near the end where the Golem encounters a small child with some flowers which faintly anticipates one from the famous James Whale version of the story. If this film is less successful, it’s possibly because Wegener’s performance as the Golem is considerably less nuanced than Karloff’s would later be – the lumbering about is acceptable, but there’s a lot of eye-popping and pouting which is pretty much guaranteed to get laughs from a modern audience (a lot of the more, er, expressive acting in The Golem has the same effect).

The themes of hubris are less pronounced, however, and Rabbi Loew remains a sympathetic figure despite his role in creating the Golem and his dealings with dark powers. It’s probably a coincidence that for two weeks in a row the Weimar movie season has shown gloomy fantasies about people forced into deals with dark forces in exchange for different kinds of power, but The Golem does acquire a strange historical irony considering the plot is ultimately driven by anti-semitism. The Jewish characters in the movie are sympathetic, as noted, but at the same time everyone takes it for granted that the Rabbi has various mystical powers at his disposal. The movie itself hardly seems anti-semitic, but the depiction of Judaism is probably not one a director could get away with nowadays.

In the end The Golem is another fairly entertaining movie – I would say there is probably a bit too much blather near the start, and not enough rampaging and carnage at the end (by the standards of a modern horror movie it is almost absurdly innocuous). Obviously it is of great historical interest, for both cinema in general and genre movies in particular: not the biggest or the best monster movie ever made, but probably the earliest that’s still with us. Worth seeing if only for that reason; not just because it is so different, but also because much of it is so recognisable.

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We have, of course, previously discussed the question of the Optimum Period Before Sequel, and whatever your personal views may be, I think most people would accept that waiting forty years to do a follow-up is really pushing the boundaries of common sense. Then again, it might be somewhat more excusable if the sequel wasn’t exactly a sequel per se. Which of course brings us to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, based on a novel by Stephen King, which was itself a sequel to his earlier book The Shining. This means that Doctor Sleep is, by some metric at least, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of the novel. King famously hated the changes that Kubrick made to the story and disregarded them in the second novel. So where does this leave the film? Is it going to stay faithful to King, make the most of its connection to the iconic and very well-regarded Kubrick film, or somehow try and split the difference and risk satisfying no-one?

The prospect of a potentially pedestrian cash-in on The Shining made my heart sink, and it’s not even as if I’m a particular fan of that movie; the fact that Doctor Sleep actually manages to be slightly longer than its sizeable forebear did not help lift my apprehension as I approached the movie. And the opening of the film hardly seems designed to dispel these sorts of concerns – straight away they reuse one of the most famous music cues from the older film, and there is a sequence with a painstaking recreation of the hotel set, right down to that very distinctive carpet (which may or may not intentionally replicate the layout of the Apollo 11 launch pad).

The story proper gets going with young Danny Torrance struggling to come to terms with the frightening ordeal he and his mother went through in the snowbound Overlook Hotel in Colorado, something made only worse by his burgeoning psychic ability. Helping him in this respect is Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), the former chef at the hotel. Here, of course, the film hits its first real crunch point – is Hallorann a living mentor or a ghostly apparition? (He survives in the novel, but is axe-murdered in Kubrick’s version.) Suffice to say the early scoreline is Novelists 0, Film Directors 1.

Danny eventually grows up into Dan (Ewan McGregor), a lonely drifter haunted (sometimes literally) by his past, who tries to suppress his psychic gifts through drink and drugs. Eventually he pitches up in a small New Hampshire town, where the kindness of one of the locals (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis) allows him to settle and build a life for himself, using his power while working in the local hospice. (Here he is known as ‘Doctor Sleep’.)

However, he is not the only gifted individual in the world, and the film also follows a group of others: a pack of vicious and sadistic vampire-like killers who devour the souls of psychic children. The fact that they resemble Fleetwood Mac on tour may make them slightly less terrifying, or perhaps not. Their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), eventually identifies a powerful young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) as their next victim.

However, Abra is a sort of psychic pen friend of Dan’s, and she recruits his aid in helping stop the hunters’ reign of terror. Faced with an enemy whose powers may outstrip his own, Dan is forced to choose the ground for their eventual confrontation carefully. Could it be time to make a reservation at a certain hotel he was once a resident in?

Making adaptations of Stephen King books is hardly a time-honoured path to sure-fire success, and doing films derived from Kubrick movies has likewise been a slightly dodgy prospect in the past. This, together with the enormous duration of Doctor Sleep, gave me some trepidation as I approached the film – but, rather to my surprise, it turned out to be a very superior dark fantasy movie, filled with the traditional narrative virtues and with a great deal to commend it. It may not have the magisterial clarity and formal brilliance of The Shining, but neither is it quite as oblique and impenetrable – The Shining is an undeniably impressive piece of work, but Doctor Sleep is possibly a lot easier to like, simply because it is so much more conventional.

I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with being conventional when it results in a film as satisfying as this one: the story hits all the right beats, the story is well-told and resonant, and the characters are well-drawn and given space to breathe and come to life. As well they might, given the film is over two and a half hours long – but we will come back to the issue of the film’s duration. Quite how effective it is as a pure horror movie is another question – as noted, it mostly resembles a thriller or a dark fantasy more than anything else, but there are moments where it does get very nasty, and does so very quickly. I imagine there is enough here to keep fans of the genre satisfied.

The acting is certainly of the standard you would hope to find in a reputable movie: McGregor is on fine form, and there is a remarkably self-assured performance from Kyliegh Curran. The only one who really puts a foot slightly out of place is Ferguson, whose performance is just a touch too affected to really convince – then again, she is given a character with a trademark hat, an Irish accent and a lot of hippy-dippy stylings, so it’s hardly the easiest of gigs.

Does it really need to be quite as long as it is, though? Well, frankly, I’m not sure. It certainly gives you the sense of reading a King novel, where a lot of time and space is often devoted to establishing characters and settings before the action proper kicks off, but even so the film sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit. You know that traditional scene where someone comes to the hero for help, but he initially refuses, before changing his mind and engaging with the story? The one which marks the start of the narrative proper? Well, that one is in this film, it just happens over an hour into it. It’s not like the film actually feels padded or boring, but it does feel like it could have been shortened without losing too much of its impact.

One impressive thing about it is that once the opening is out of the way, it works very hard to stand on its own two feet without constant call-backs to The Shining. This means that when the film does finally head in this direction for its final act, it feels almost as if it has earned the right to do so: it is an undeniably thrilling moment when the nature of the climax becomes apparent. The recreations, when they come, are every bit as good as the ones in Ready Player One. It looks for a long time like the film is going to dance around the whole issue of Dan’s father, but the utterly thankless task of trying to reproduce Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance is eventually given to (if my research is correct) an uncredited Henry Thomas, who does the very best he can in the circumstances.

I have to say that, along with the length, it’s the climax of the film which would cause me to knock off a star, if I awarded such things – it feels appropriate and isn’t ridiculous, and no doubt Stephen King will be delighted by the fact it is partly drawn from the original Shining novel. But something about it just doesn’t quite ring true, and you do get the sense the film is wallowing just a bit too much in the chance to revisit Kubrick’s take on the story. But this is still a fairly minor quibble. Doctor Sleep is still a cut above the majority of Stephen King adaptations, and a very satisfying piece of entertainment. Provided you can handle the nastier moments, this is well worth seeing.

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One of the many good things you can say about the Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley, they seem to have a thought-through screening policy, and usually some decent movies for Halloween too – even if their choice of special events seems to be just a little wilfully obscure at the moment. They currently have several screenings of the Argentinian art-house movie La Flor in progress at different times in the week (La Flor is far too long to be shown in fewer than three or four sittings), while the current Sunday afternoon vintage season is of silent movies from the Weimar republic. (Still, I suppose it’s better than yet another season of Studio Ghibli revivals, which is what’s in progress elsewhere in Oxford – I know it’s a bit of a banker, but even so.)

Nevertheless, we are coming up to that time of year when horror and dark fantasy are usually prevalent on the screen, as I indicated near the start – and silent German movies do provide quite rich pickings in this department. For starters, there’s the famous Cabinet of Dr Caligari (sadly not showing as part of the current run), and the remarkable original version of Nosferatu (likewise not making an appearance). But the list does have on it The Golem: How He Came Into the World, and FW Murnau’s 1926 version of Faust.

(Showing straight after Faust, by the way, was the documentary Hail Satan?, which is as droll a piece of scheduling as you are likely to find all year. Hail Satan? is on again on Halloween itself, in another kind-of double bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you really must, I suppose…)

I have been… what’s the best way of putting it? ‘Participating in’? ‘Enduring’? …going along to screenings of La Flor for the last few weeks (full review to follow when we actually get to the end of it), where a rapt crowd of anything up to six people (in a good week) have been enjoying the various segments of the film. So it was a bit of a shock to arrive at the UPP for Faust and find the place practically abuzz with cinemagoers; I had got used to having the place largely to myself. 93 year old black-and-white silent movies are clearly very popular in east Oxford (and Faust somehow manages to be both silent and subtitled, thus, you would think, making it even more of a niche proposition).

They were in such a hurry to show the film that they skipped the usual trailers and no smoking/talking/eating popcorn featurette and went straight into it. Faust opens with the world in tumult, beset by at least three of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (it seems to be Death’s day off). The forces of darkness are, naturally, overseen by the demonic figure of Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings), who spends most of the film going by the snappier name of Mephisto. However, a spanner is thrown in the satanic works by the appearance of an Archangel, who challenges Mephisto’s claim to be the master of the Earth.

Well, despite gambling nominally being a sin, the Archangel and Mephisto cook up a bet to settle the matter once and for all: far below them dwells the elderly alchemist and man of learning Faustus (Gosta Ekman), who prizes truth and purity above all else (or so the Angel claims). If that’s the case, ripostes Mephisto, how come he spends all his time trying to turn lower forms of matter into gold? If Mephisto can get Faustus to forswear God and sell his soul to the powers of Hell, then Mephisto will be able to claim the world as his own.

The horned one gets down to work by unleashing a terrible plague upon Faustus’ home town, one quite beyond the old scholar’s power to cure. Soon enough Faustus loses faith in his books and erudition, and hits upon the notion of calling upon darker powers to help him save the people around him. He eventually has second thoughts about this, but then it’s too late and Mephisto is camped out in his front room (and, in terms of Jannings’ performance, I really do mean camped). Can even such a wise old man resist the inducements of power, eternal youth, and various sundry pleasures of the flesh…?

It’s black-and-white. It’s silent. It’s 93 years old. It’s articulating a very hoary old story about the struggle between good and evil. It’s German. You would be forgiven for expecting Faust to be painfully slow and primitive, of interest only to scholars of expressionist cinema. But this would be a mistake, for this is – for the most part – a pacy, engaging, and unexpectedly dynamic movie, made with a real visual sense. You can see it has had an influence on the films of the Disney corporation, just for starters: the striking composition of the demon enfolding the town in the darkness of his wings obviously recurs in Fantasia, while the sequence in which a newly-rich and handsome Faustus turns up at a palace in a turban with a load of elephants is suspiciously reminiscent of a similar moment in Aladdin. It is true that this is a film which was made in a very different world, and it functions in a non-naturalistic, stylised mode quite unlike most modern films, but it is still clearly a part of the same tradition which has led to cinema as we know it today.

There is perhaps a danger, when considering the situation in which this film was made, to start reaching too far and drawing rather spurious conclusions. You can certainly look at Faust and see the story of a man in country facing great privation and suffering, who chooses to abandon morality and learning in favour of making a bargain with the powers of darkness, and assume this is somehow anticipating what would happen to Germany in the 1930s. But that would be to make Murnau into an actual prophet, rather than just a visionary filmmaker, and there is enough here to consider without making the film a prediction of the future.

As noted, this is primarily just a very well-told story, which practically rattles along for the first hour or so – there are some rather melodramatic longeurs near the end, but not enough to actually spoil it. It’s also helped by some (for the period) rather impressive special effects – these are still a bit variable in execution, and drew the occasional laugh from the UPP crowd, but you can see the care and attention that has been lavished on them. Also unexpected and rather impressive were the many intentional moments of comedy in the film. Ekman plays it very straight as Faustus himself, but Jannings isn’t afraid to give a gleefully sly performance as Mephisto. This is a performance which does occasionally stray towards the pantomime tradition (itself in the non-naturalistic, stylised mode I mentioned earlier), but it is extremely good value and does give the film a life and warmth some of its more metaphysical moments lack.

Most of the silent films from the 1920s I’ve seen have either been comedy one or two reelers, or German expressionist films. When it comes to the latter, at least, I have seldom been disappointed: they stand up extremely well, when sympathetically displayed, appropriately scored, and approached with the right attitude. I’m not sure Faust quite matches up to Nosferatu in terms of either quality or influence, but it is still a well-made, impressive movie.

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If you’re going to make a rip-off fantasy-horror movie about a giant gorilla on the rampage, then you’re basically ripping off King Kong. One might have thought that this was obvious enough, but the makers of 1961’s Konga clearly thought otherwise, as the title of the film demonstrates. (This is not quite the utterly brazen rip-off that it might appear to be: the producers of Konga paid RKO $25,000 for rights to the Kong name.)

That said, the funny thing about Konga (directed by John Lemont) is how little it actually resembles King Kong, until the closing sequence at least. The opening moments of the film appear to be the work of people who have vaguely heard of the principle that the secret of good storytelling is to show, not tell, but don’t have any experience of actually applying it: we see a plane, flying over Africa. The plane explodes, unconvincingly. We then see a newspaper seller announcing the death of famous botanist Dr Decker in a plane crash, and then a news broadcast announcing he has re-emerged from the African Bush after a year. It is all a bit laborious, or so it seems to me at least, but the following sequence makes up for it a bit by squeezing in record amounts of exposition – setting up the whole film, in fact – without being completely on the nose about it. We learn in fairly short order that a) Dr Decker (Michael Gough) has returned with some interesting new ideas about the hidden biological connections between people and carnivorous plants, b) he has brought back a cute baby chimp called Konga with him, and c) he is not afraid to be outspoken when it comes to his bold ideas about society and the value of human life.

From here, however, we’re back to scenes which mainly progress through characters telling each other in great detail things which they both already know: we meet Decker’s housekeeper, Margaret (Margo Johns), who clearly carries a torch for him (this is not reciprocated). She is devoted to him to the point where she happily overlooks the fact his time in Africa has clearly left him as mad as a stoat – he even puts a bullet in the cat when it threatens to disrupt his experiments, and this doesn’t seem to bother her that much; nor does the fact that the greenhouse is soon filled with huge, absurdly rubbery carnivorous plants. Decker reveals his master plan, which is to create giant human-plant hybrids using a serum derived from the carnivorous plants. He decides to test the science involved in this wholly reasonable scheme by injecting the serum into Konga, which initially turns him into a rather larger chimpanzee, and then (after a subsequent dose), a full-grown gorilla – or, to be more precise, a man in a gorilla suit. (The script seems genuinely confused as to what sort of ape Konga is supposed to be, referring to him as a chimp and a gorilla at different points.) Needless to say, Decker hypnotises Konga to become his mindless slave.

Round about this point we learn that Decker has kept his old job as a botany teacher (you can tell this film was an Anglo-American co-production, for despite supposedly being set near London, the depiction of Decker’s college resembles an American university far more than anything in England at this time), who entertains his students by showing them films he made in Africa. (The script hurriedly gives him a line where he explains how lucky he was to be able to save his camera and film-stock from the exploding plane. Mmm, quite.) But not all is well. Quite apart from the fact that all the students at the college are visibly much too old to still be there, it is clear that Decker has a rather inappropriate thing for Sandra (Claire Gordon), one of his students, and the dean of the place is ticked off with Decker for making outrageous claims in newspaper interviews about his work, and thus potentially making the college look bad.

Well, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist to do but go on a murderous spree bumping off anyone who threatens to deny him, well, anything he wants? Although in this case it is, obviously, Konga who is charged with doing the actual dirty work. So we say goodbye to the dean, and to a rival scientist threatening to publish ahead of Decker (wait, there are two famous botanists trying to create giant hybrids using carnivorous plants…?), and even to Sandra’s jealous boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad, who probably deserves it for This Pullover alone). When Margaret takes him to task for this homicidal outburst, Decker first claims it was technically Konga who did all the actual killing, and then that it was scientifically necessary to test the limits of his control over Konga. Yeah, sure, no jury would possibly convict.

But a fly has managed to dodge the enormous rubbery carnivorous plants and is threatening to settle in Decker’ ointment. Margaret has rumbled to the fact that Decker is letching all over Sandra and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. Although a man in a gorilla suit, blown up to ginormous size by another dose of the serum, can come pretty close. Cue rampage! Cue soldiers! Cue dialogue like ‘There’s a monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’

That line is delivered with an admirably straight face, by the way, and one of the things about Konga is that it does manage to take itself rather seriously, despite all the odds – there’s no hint of tongue-in-cheek knowingness to most of the film, despite how ridiculous it is. I know it’s customary to praise Michael Gough for a long career of fine performances in everything from Dracula to Batman, but I think that managing to keep a straight face throughout this film may be one of his greatest achievements, even if there are moments when his performance seems to be on the verge of anticipating Kenneth Williams in Carry On Screaming.

As alluded to earlier, one of the less obviously odd things about Konga is the fact that despite all the references to King Kong in the title and advertising, this more obviously resembles a mad-scientist film than a proper monster movie. It bears a sort of resemblance to something like Captive Wild Woman, with perhaps a touch of the botanical horror to be found in a number of British films from the late 50s and early 60s. Only at the very end does it actually start openly ripping off King Kong, with Gough in the Fay Wray role (and much as I admire Gough as a performer, I think this is really asking too much of him). It feels like a contractually-obligatory afterthought, without enough money available to do it properly (you don’t get to see Konga climbing Big Ben, for instance, he just stands there and lets soldiers shoot at him a lot). It also mostly fails when it comes to generating pathos: Konga has been a murderous plot device for most of the film, and Decker is just a nutcase, so it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them.

It would be wrong to say this spoils the film, anyway, although what ‘spoil’ means in this context is difficult to say for sure. One thing you can say about Konga is that it manages to find a consistent level of extreme badness and stick to it remarkably successfully for an hour and a half. If any of it were actually conventionally good, that would somehow make the film less enjoyable. So: this is a thoroughly silly and terrible film, but that is the main thing that makes it worth watching. I seldom have truck with the ‘so bad it’s good’ notion, but I would suggest that Konga is one of those films where such a claim is justified.

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The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

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