Sunday, December 5, 2010

Will Eisner and the "Graphic Novel"

I recently returned from a trip to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at the Ohio State University, where I went to examine the library's Will Eisner Collection, which contains, among other things, letters, original art, and most of Eisner's publications over his long career. While there, I found what is, as far as I can tell, a previously undocumented source that sheds some light on how Will Eisner arrived at the term "graphic novel" to describe his 1978 work, A Contract with God.

First, some background: Bob Andelman, in the biography Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, describes the scene where, in 1978, Will Eisner tried to pitch his book, A Contract with God, to Bantam Books.

Eisner called up Oscar Dystel, then president of Bantam Books, and pitched the concept. Dystel not only knew Eisner but was said to be a fan of his work on The Spirit. Dystel remembered him, but he was a busy man, as publishers usually are, and he was impatient. He wanted to know what it was that Eisner had, exactly. Eisner looked down at the dummy, and an instinct told him, Don’t tell Dystel it’s a comic book or he will hang up on you.

So Eisner thought for a moment, and said, “It’s a graphic novel.”

”Oh,” Dystel said, “that sounds interesting; I’ve never heard of that before.” (290)

As the story goes, Dystel ended up rejecting the work once he saw it and determined that it was a comic book. But this story, repeated frequently by Eisner and his biographers (Michael Schumacher repeats it on pages 200-01 of his recent biography, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics), is cited as the point, in a fit of sudden and desperate inspiration, where Eisner first came up with the term “graphic novel” to describe A Contract with God.

It is now fairly common knowledge that Eisner neither invented the term itself nor the form that we call a “graphic novel,” but it is fair to say that he popularized the term when he later used it to promote the book upon publication from Baronet Books in 1978, and, for better or worse, the term has stuck.

However, for some time after, Eisner was credited as the “inventor” of the graphic novel and the first to use the term. Even as late as 2003, Stephen Weiner wrote in Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel,

“The first modern ‘graphic novel’ was written and illustrated by veteran cartoonist Will Eisner, who coined the term while trying to persuade the editors at Bantam Books to publish the book-length comic book” (17).

There are, of course, a few contentious points in this statement, leaving aside the point that A Contract with God is a series of short stories, rather than a novel per se. First, it is well known that Eisner did not “coin” the term. In North America, the term “graphic novel” has been traced back to fanzine writer Richard Kyle, who first used it in November 1964, and the term later appears on the dust jacket of George Metzger’s 1976 work, Beyond Time and Again, as well as Richard Corben’s Bloodstar and Jim Steranko’s Chandler that same year.

Also, several earlier works that could now be described as “graphic novels” precede the publication of A Contract with God in North America, in addition to the ones mentioned above, and, therefore, make it difficult for one to call that work “the first modern ‘graphic novel.’” This is by no means an inclusive list, but Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s His Name Is … Savage (1968) and Blackmark (1971) and Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, Ray Orsin, and Matt Baker’s It Rhymes with Lust (1950) all fit most formal definitions of “graphic novel,” and those alone are enough to call into question the statement that Eisner’s was the first modern one. However, such claims persisted even beyond the point that comics historians had proved them wrong.

Later in life, Eisner did admit that he was not the first to come up with the term, as Schumacher quotes:

”I thought I had invented the term,” Eisner admitted, “but I discovered later that some guy [probably Kyle] thought about it a few years before I used the term. He had never used it successfully and had never intended it in the way I did, which was to develop what I believe was viable literature in this medium” (201).

And this has become the accepted story of how Eisner arrived at the term independently, and how he managed to begin popularizing it around 1978, with the publication of A Contract with God. Yet no one has found a connection between these earlier uses of the term "graphic novel" and Eisner's own use of the term.

At the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, I read through Eisner’s surviving letters, including business correspondences and fan mail from around 1963 to the late 70s and early 80s, mainly doing research on my larger project on race and comics. About 90% of the fan mail consists of requests for sketches and original art, accompanied by Eisner’s polite refusal (most of the time-he did provide sketches and prints on some special occasions). Therefore, while there was a high volume of fan mail during this period, much of it was very easy to move through quickly.

One of the qualities that struck me in Eisner’s correspondences, though, was how generous, encouraging, and detailed he was in the critiques he provided to up-and-coming comics pros who sent their early work to him.

One such pro was Jack Katz (often cited as the creator of one of the precursors to the graphic novel) who began a correspondence with Eisner in August 1974, with the inclusion the first book of Katz’s epic fantasy series The First Kingdom. In his introductory letter, dated Aug. 7, 1974, Katz writes,

Here is the first book of a series of 24 books which it will take to complete the epic. … What I am starting is a graphic novel in which every incident is illustrated.

Katz goes on to explain the plot and themes of the entire epic at length, and he thanks Eisner for his continuing inspiration.

On August 26, 1974, Eisner responds in his typical polite and encouraging fashion:

My compliments to you on an imaginative piece of work. There is strength, drama and great picture value.

I’m particularly impressed with the enormity of your undertaking. It is efforts like this that move the standards of our art form upward. (The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Will Eisner Collection, Box WEE1, Folder 22)

The correspondence between Eisner and Katz went on for many years, at least to the end of the Eisner letters that OSU has collected, which is about 1978. In all, exchanges survive through January of 1978, in which Katz sends Eisner book 7 of The First Kingdom. Throughout these exchanges, Eisner is detailed in his praise and critiques of Katz’s work, citing in particular the improvement of Katz’s inking skills from the first book on, and continued recommendations for Katz to work on integrating images and text better (anyone who has ever read The First Kingdom will know that this is sound advice). Eisner, in fact, frequently refers back to earlier letters to note this progress, and he often cites how Katz’s project renews his faith in the progress of the comics form. Notably, it is during the latter part of these correspondences that Eisner is generating the idea for and composing his first graphic novel, A Contract with God.

Now, I want to resist speculating too hard on what all this really means, but it is safe to say, at least, that Eisner was introduced to the term “graphic novel” by Jack Katz in 1974, and Eisner exhibited a clear memory of their exchanges over the course of four years, up to the composition of A Contract with God. Some kind of cross-pollination between Eisner and Katz is likely here.

Beyond that, what can we say? Did Eisner recall that first letter from Katz while under pressure to come up with some descriptive term for Bantam? Or did the term just float through his transom at that point in 1974, only to emerge on its own again in 1978 with no connection to its past use? We probably won’t find answers to those questions, but the latter may be the most likely scenario. I would hesitate to conclude that Eisner’s use of the term and subsequent failure to credit Katz with introducing him to it constitute some kind of willful omission on Eisner’s part (though, as Ken Quattro's recent discovery reveals, Eisner was prone to a kind of historical revisionism that tended to place him in a better light than the historical evidence would otherwise prove).

But what remains is still useful: we now know Eisner’s earliest known exposure to the term “graphic novel,” which at least provides an addendum to the oft-repeated story of how he came to use the term to describe A Contract with God. And, therefore, the accepted wisdom of that story needs to be revised.

Works Cited

Andelman, Bob. Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Milwaukie: M Press, 2005. Print.

Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The. The Will Eisner Collection.

Schumacher, Michael. Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Weiner, Stephen. Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel. New York: NBM, 2003. Print.

Dr. K's Research Blog

One of the reasons why I created this blog several years ago was because I wanted a venue for more fun, informal writing than the normal academic writing I was doing would allow (not to say that academic writing isn’t fun—it’s just a different kind of fun). That is, I would use this blog to exercise my excitement and enthusiasm as a comics fan, and, therefore, keep it separate from my academic writing.

For the past few months or more, however, I have let the blog slide as my opportunities to write and publish scholarship have increased, and these opportunities will see fruition in the coming year. At times, though, my academic interests have dovetailed with the blog writing. For example, the still-popular Chop-Chop posts and Blackhawk Wingsdays came at the beginning of my research on a larger project about race and comics, on which my efforts are now mostly focused. And the Gil Kane Punch of the Week, which I need to get back to, came about while I was researching the Gil Kane entry that I wrote for Greenwood Press’s Encyclopedia of Comic Books and Graphic Novels.

One of the things I would like to start doing here, in addition to reviving the more humorous fan writing, is use the blog as a kind of research log, where I document the progress on some of the work I’ve been doing. I hope this will be of interest to at least some readers.

Upcoming, then, will be some essays on that research, including one that I hope to complete today. Please stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

To celebrate the republication of one of my favorite comics of all time--Superman vs. Muhammad Ali--which is out in comic stores today, here's the second fight between Ali, then Cassius Clay, and Sonny Liston, from 1965:

For the fight itself, you can skip ahead to about the 2:50 mark. From that point on, though, it's important to pay attention because things happen pretty fast. And for fans of Mad Men, this is the fight that factored in to episode 7, "Suitcase," this season.

Also, because it's a perfect example of why Ali was the Greatest, here's round 8 of the Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and George Foreman:

On a personal note, about 10 years ago or so, I was walking through the lobby of a hotel in Louisville, when I saw Ali standing with a group of people. He looked over at me, so I gave him a "Hey, Champ." He then lifted up his fists a few inches and gave me a nod. I just about lost it right there.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This Makes Me Want the Flu

The other day, one of my nephews, who is somewhere between the ages of 3 and 12 (I really don't pay attention to the ages of my nieces and nephews, except when they turn 21 and can start buying their own alcohol) said to his mother during dinner, "This food makes me want the flu."

Now, his mother immediately took this to mean something like, "This food makes me nauseous," or "This makes me feel like throwing up," but I took it to mean something more than that. I think that, in an effort to see himself in relation to the world around him, he developed a rather sophisticated standard for evaluation. Rather than meaning, "I want to throw up," he was actually saying, I would argue, "If given a choice between eating this food and having the flu, I would rather have the flu."

I immediately saw the appeal of this system. "You know what?" I said, "Two and a Half Men makes me want the flu." And then I started to run through my head all the things I don't like, trying to determine if I would rather have the flu than be exposed to them again. FOX News, The Eagles, Katy Perry, Outsourced, most of CBS's Monday night comedy line-up with the exception of How I Met Your Mother, Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, brussel sprouts, Joe Buck calling the World Series--all of these things make me want the flu.

But then I realized there are things that I don't really care for, but if given a choice, they were all preferable to the flu. Billy Joel, the Confessional poets, Norah Jones, broccoli, Adam Sandler comedies (with the exception of Now I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which makes me want the flu and thensome), Tim McCarver calling the World Series--none of these things rose to the level where being sick was preferable to being exposed to them. And that made me feel a little more tolerant of those things that I don't like, but can live with.

So, I'm grateful to my young nephew for introducing me to this sophisticated and truly helpful system for evaluating the world around me, which helps me break the simple binary of "I like this/I don't like that" to provide a more nuanced judgment. I hope that everyone will pick this phrase up and use it when they feel it's appropriate. I know I'm going to start using it every day.

And this leads to my final question: what makes you want the flu?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 31: Happy Halloween!

Batman, circa Halloween 1977.

I don't know if you're community did Trick-or-Treat last night, like mine did, or if you live in a place that values tradition over zealotry so you're having Trick-or-Treat on the correct night, but whatever the case, I hope you got/get all the candy you want. Me, I bought way too much candy for the turnout we had, so unless we get a second wave tonight, I'm gonna be throwing down Kit Kats, Almond Joys, and Starbursts for some time.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 29: Paranoiac!

When I begin these Halloween Countdowns, I usually start with around 4 movies that I want to cover, and then I just go kind of stream-of-consciousness style from there, as one movie will remind me of another, and so on.

And it seems like, for me, all roads lead back to Hammer Studios. After covering Girly last week, I was reminded of some other Freddie Francis movies that I hadn't covered, and that led me to today's film, Paranoiac (1963), directed by Francis and written by the great Jimmy Sangster, who was responsible for writing some of the earliest Hammer horror classics.

Next year, I should really do Hammer all month.

Paranoiac is more of a modern gothic mystery with a horror undertone than it is a typical Hammer horror film. Beautifully shot in black and white by Francis, who had won an Oscar a few years previously for the cinematography to Sons and Lovers, this film looks amazing, with a strong, atmospheric contrast between light and dark that lends to the film's mood.

The Ashbys are a disfunctional, upper-class British family. Eleven years earlier, the two parents were killed in a plane crash, leaving three orphaned children in the care of their aunt Harriet. Soon after, the eldest son, Tony, commits suicide, leaving Simon (Oliver Reed) and Eleanor (Janette "Day of the Triffids" Scott) as the sole heirs to the Ashby estate.

When the movie opens, Simon is less than one month away from coming into the fortune, which he will need, as he has long expended his budget on booze, and the local liquor shops will no longer cover him. This role may not have been a stretch for Oliver Reed, but he is perfect as the spoiled, dangerously unstable, and unapologetically nasty young man. This is an early film for Reed, but everything that's great about his screen performances is here--the charisma and physical energy that are both just teetering on the edge of restraint.

Eleanor, meanwhile, appears to be going mad, and has herself been unstable since her beloved brother's suicide. At the beginning of the movie, however, she starts to see what she thinks are visions of Tony, first at church and later outside their home.

It turns out that these aren't visions, and a man claiming to be the long-lost Tony Ashby (Alexander Davion) shows up to claim his inheritance.

This feels like a fairly standard mystery plot, but Sangster takes it in some surprising directions. First, he reveals fairly quickly to the audience that Tony is indeed a fake--a grifter hired by the Ashby lawyer's son to try to scam the family out of their fortune. Also, a romance develops between fake Tony and Eleanor, yet the movie pretty much suspends the idea that this is a romance between a mentally unstable woman and a man who is identical to her dead brother.

And that raises one of the most fascinating elements of this movie. Sangster and Francis create a world for the Ashbys in which, by virtue of their wealth, they get to create their own moral system, though one that has been difficult to maintain. Simon has become more and more dissolute over the years, endangering himself and others in his decline; Eleanor has deteriorated mentally; and Aunt Harriet has tried desperately to maintain the status quo. Even fake Tony, whose real name is never revealed, should hardly get to function as the hero of the story, though his intrusion into the family tears down that status quo once and for all. And once it starts to go, the movie transitions from mystery to horror.

At 80 minutes, this is a tight movie, filled with solid performances across the board, a smart plot, and beautiful black-and-white cinematography. However, I would add that the film's sensational title is a bit inappropriate for such an intense but cerebral thriller.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 28: Sugar Hill

As I've mentioned before, I like to watch bad horror movies, but I do so in order to find that nugget of creativity or originality--those points when, despite a lack of talent or a series of bad choices that permeate the rest of the film, I'm genuinely surprised. That moment where I think to myself, "No matter how bad this movie is, I'm glad it exists for this reason alone."

That is definitely the case with Sugar Hill (1974, not to be mistaken for the Wesley Snipes movie of the same name), a blaxploitation zombie horror film that varies wildly from amateurish to inventive.

Sugar Hill deserves to exist just on the virtue of its premise alone: a fashion photographer whose name is actually "Sugar Hill" (Marki Bey, who looks a lot like a disco-era Vivica A. Fox) seeks revenge on the white gangsters who murdered her man, Langston. Instead of going the Pam Grier route and doing the job solo, she gets supernatural help from top voodoo figure Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) and his army of zombies, all of whom are re-animated slaves.

So, there is considerable satisfaction in seeing a horde of zombie slaves killing a bunch of racist white gangsters, and that alone goes far to make up for the film's many faults. But each set piece, where Sugar picks off the gangsters one by one, is incredibly inventive and, most of all, fun. Sugar wears a sexy white jumpsuit for each killing that could almost qualify as a superhero costume, and Don Pedro Colley is clearly having a good time as Baron Samedi (he even steers away from the booming, otherworldy, Geoffrey Holder-style voice that one might expect for the character). These scenes appear with enough frequency--Sugar has a lot of revenge to get--that the weaker, in-between moments don't feel so bad.

For one gangster, Sugar has the zombies feed him to some hungry pigs. As he falls into the pen, Sugar says to the pigs, "I hope you like white trash." This is a great one-liner, and the movie does not hide its glee at the comeuppance these racists received. Another henchman is attacked by a disembodied chicken foot, which is also pretty awesome.

The police investigation that punctuates these murder scenes is otherwise terrible: the acting feels amateurish, and the investigating detective, Valentine (Richard Lawson), seems to come up with leads off-screen, as we don't quite know why he suspects Sugar in these murders. But this sub-plot is abruptly and unceremoniously dropped from the film.

The climactic scene, where Sugar and the Baron go after Morgan (Robert Quarry), the mob boss, is disappointing in light of the creativity shown elsewhere, and the film's abrupt ending, where the contract between Sugar and the Baron is fulfilled, was not what I expected to happen. Nonetheless, this movie has enough occasional fun moments that make it worthwhile.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 25: The Devil Within Her

The Devil Within Her (1975, a.k.a. Sharon's Baby, a.k.a. It Lives Within Her, a.k.a. I Don't Want to Be Born) looks on the surface to be a late Hammer production, including such Hammer alums as Ralph Bates, Caroline Munro, and Joan Collins, along with direction from Hammer stalwart Peter Sasdy. It also looks like a low-rent Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist rip-off, which it is, for the most part (even the poster seems to acknowledge that). However, in the final half-hour, the movie becomes suddenly, surprisingly batshit crazy in a way that's barely hinted at in the first hour.

In fact, the film is downright terrible for the first hour, wasting the potential of a great cast, that also includes Donald Pleasance and Eileen Atkins. Joan Collins plays Lucy Carlesi, an ex-burlesque dancer who, when we first see her, is in the process of giving birth. Her OB/GYN, Dr. Finch (Donald Pleasance), seems to be having some trouble and blurts out, "It's like he doesn't want to be born."

I'm going to stop right here and explain exactly why this movie fails to live up to its potential. A movie that casts Donald Pleasance as Joan Collins's OB/GYN should be in the running for greatest movie of all time, and this opening certainly sets that up with the normally indefatigable Pleasance starting to lose his shit at this difficult birth. But, unfortunately, we have to wait an hour for the movie to really kick in.

The baby is finally born, much to the excitement of its dad, Gino, played by Ralph Bates. For no really good reason, Gino has an Italian accent, and Bates, who is otherwise great in his Hammer appearances, just can't pull it off. But he sounds like a native speaker next to Eileen Atkins, who plays his sister, the nun Albana. One can only assume that Atkins has never actually heard an Italian speak before, especially when she says stuff like, "Your child is a day-vill."

When Lucy first tries to feed the baby, he scratches up her face pretty badly, and this sets up an aversion to the child from which Lucy won't recover. Later, when the baby trashes his nursery like it was Led Zeppelin's hotel room, Lucy realizes something is truly wrong with the tyke. He also throws a total freakout when they try to have him baptised.

She then flashes back to her stripper days, when she had a bizarre act that involved a dwarf hunchbacked sidekick named Hercules. Hercules tries to feel her up backstage, and when she rebuffs him, he puts a curse on her and her future child. Soon after that, she meets Gino and begins what she hopes to be a normal domestic life.

The introduction of Hercules here sets up the rather awesome final act, where the baby does some crazy and unexpected shit. Still, it would be nice if the movie had been paced a little better, with the crazy shit escalating earlier. Also, much of the excellent cast is wasted, especially Pleasance, who would be so good a few years later doing a similar role in Halloween. Caroline Munro may be the movie's biggest victim, however, as Mandy, Lucy's stripper buddy. For some reason, Munro is dubbed, and dubbed poorly. But when the movie finally does step on the crazy throttle, it reveals what this movie could have been, which is one of the classic horror movies of period.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 21: Girly

During my past Halloween Countdowns, I've covered several films from British director Freddie Francis. Francis had a stellar career as a cinematographer, earning an Oscar for his work on Sons and Lovers, before becoming a director, where he did most of his best work on horror films for UK companies Hammer and Amicus.

Perhaps his best film, however, has been very hard to find until its release this year on DVD, with little fanfare. Girly (known in the UK as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly) is a strange, wonderful black comedy that barely made it into theaters in 1970.

The poster above (still oddly used for the DVD) reveals one of the reasons for its failure upon initial release in the US. With the name change and the blood-dripping poster, the film was marketed as a straight-up horror movie, completely eliding the film's dark comic elements. In fact, the woman in the picture isn't even Vanessa Howard, the actress who plays the title character; instead, it's some model hired to attract a horror-movie audience.

But anybody coming to Girly for the first time is in for a treat. Many contemporary critics describe the film as unique and ahead of its time, but I rather see it as a perfect amalgamation of several significant elements circulating in UK pop culture at the time. It has a surreal quality that permeates many episodes of The Prisoner and The Avengers, plus the darkly parodic attack on the British class structure and values that one sees most prominently in something like A Clockwork Orange. In addition, Francis brings to the film a visual style that's in keeping with his work for Hammer and Amicus.

The four title characters represent a bizarrely happy, oddly functional upper-class family. The two children--Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly--exist in a state of blissful arrested development: they are clearly in their late-teens or early twenties, though they dress in sixth-form school uniforms and spend their time playing childish games. Their biggest game involes the recruiting of new friends to take home and serve as their playmates. The film opens with the recruitment of just such a friend: a bum asleep on a park bench, whom Girly lures home by plying him with alcohol. At home, Mumsy and Nanny prepare a room in preparation for the new guest. However, when the "new friend" refuses to play "Ring Around the Rosie," he quickly learns the importance of rules, the most significant being that one must always play the game. As Mumsy says, "If you don't have rules, where are you?" Unfortunately, the new friend didn't adhere to the rules quickly enough, and Girly decapitates him while reciting "Oranges and Lemons."

This opening sets up the structure of the family: Mumsy makes the rules, Nanny assists Mumsy with household tasks, and the two children remain in a constant state of play, where everything is a game with a capricious set of rules. Sonny even records most of the games on film, highlighting the fact that they exist in a continuous, never-ending performance.

But with the latest new friend so short lived, Sonny and Girly must find another, and they do so with a drunk swinger (Michael Bryant) and his equally drunk girlfriend. The girlfriend doesn't last long in the game, however, and the new friend is kept in line with threats of blackmail about the girlfriend's fate.

New Friend quickly learns the rules of the house, and after a failed attempt at escape, he starts to play the game with a surprising level of enjoyment. He also, however, works to maneuver things in his favor by playing off the sexual jealousy among the three women in the house.

Girly is a truly exceptional black comedy: creepy, funny, and unsettling all at once. Howard Trevor--who, according to IMDB, never made another movie--makes Sonny a terrifying figure whose idea of fun involves a high level of sadism. And Vanessa Howard as Girly alternates from childish charm and coquettish flirting to psychotic evil effectively. Of all the family members, she allows herself to slip out of the performance occasionally to let New Friend know the seriousness of his situation. Also, Michael Bryant makes New Friend a kind of amoral survivor who doesn't quite realize what a dangerous game he's playing when he starts to toy with the three women sexually.

Amazingly, this movie is available through Netflix Watch Instantly, and I can't recommend it enough. Since seeing it the first time, I've moved it high up my list of cult movies I watch in regular rotation.

The preview below gives a good sense of what this movie is like, though it does give away a couple of key spoilers. However, it does include one of my favorite bits, where Girly introduces Sonny to "Tony Chestnut."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 20: Astro-Zombies

As is probably clear from my Halloween Countdown selections, I sometimes enjoy watching really bad movies. The best bad movies, for me, are those that are unintentionally bad, where ambition or passion outstrips talent. Such movies have a certain level of authenticity and humanity about them that contributes to their appeal.

The Astro-Zombies (1968), however, is not one of those bad movies. While it's occasionally entertaining in its badness, and it's clear that some of the actors are trying to elevate the material, the whole project feels very cynically bad, like classic bad-movie director Ted V. Mikels either set out to make a bad movie or at least didn't give a shit (with a script by Wayne Rogers, of M*A*S*H fame, which is mind-boggling).

The plot doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense, though there is a good schlocky sci-fi idea at its heart. A disgraced scientist, Dr. DeMarco (John Carradine, hired to do the thing that John Carradine did in dozens of films), has made major breakthroughs in the areas of organ transplantation and thought-wave transmission in an effort to create a "Quasi-Man" (or "Astro-Man," or "Astro-Zombie," as it is alternately named) that could be used for space travel. This artificial lifeform would pilot spaceships and receive brain transmissions from various specialists on Earth in order to complete space missions. DeMarco, however, has used the brain of a dangerous criminal for his Astro-Zombie prototype, and this creature is going about killing people.

Meanwhile, foreign agents led by the sexy and evil Satana (played, of course, by Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill!'s Tura Satana, one of the few reasons to watch this movie) want to steal the Astro-Zombie technology, and their efforts are challenged by government agents led by Wendell Corey.

Wendell Corey's presence in the movie is, perhaps, the movie's saddest element. Corey is clearly drunk in his scenes (he would die from complications related to alcoholism soon after this movie was finished, and he didn't live to see its release). One can almost hear his brain screaming "I worked with Hitchcock!" as he has to deliver some really shitty lines.

I feel less bad for John Carradine, who did this kind of thing more than enough during the later years of his career. As Dr. DeMarco, he doesn't have to interact much with any other characters, with the exception of his mute assistant, Franchot. Carradine's dialogue is basically nonsense as he explains to Franchot the technological steps behind his experiment.

His lab, also, looks like it was cobbled together from hardware that Mikels had lying around his garage. A brain sensor seems to be made out of the metal casing from a small floodlight, and special fluids for the procedure are held in plastic distilled water containers.

The fancy, professional lab that the competing "good" scientists run does not look much better. A living brain is contained in a plastic cake holder, for one. As can be seen in the preview below, a "Visible Man" features prominently in the lab, which did give me a frisson of nostalgic pleasure.

The movie's finale reveals the real failure to give a shit on the part of the filmmakers. As authorities and foreign agents close in on DeMarco's lab, located in what appears to be a suburban home supposedly in the evening, police cars drive up a dirt road in the daytime while Satana and her lackies take an alley at night.

Many of the actors, though, give it a shot. Tura Satana gets to wear some wild outfits, and her character is the kind of evil that she does so well. And Rafael Campos, as her knife-wielding assistant, Juan, does try to camp things up and have a bit of fun. But meanwhile, they're thrown into an incomprehensible script and some incongruous scenes that seem not so much the product of ineptitude, but rather a cynical attempt to pad the movie out to a reasonable running time and throw in some T&A for the drive-in market.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 18: The Alligator People

I kind of biffed things last week by missing two posts, but a crappy internet connection and some other stuff managed to get in the way. But that doesn't mean I stopped watching horror movies, so let's get back on track!

The 1959 Cinemascope horror movie The Alligator People, directed by Roy Del Ruth, is almost a great horror movie. It's potential stems from a cool film noir premise and an intriguing framing sequence, but it's quality is undermined by some dicey special effects and costumes and a plot that seems to drag despite the film's brief, 74 minute running time.

The framing sequence sets things up: a doctor has a nurse, Jane, who reveals a secret past only when in a narco-hypnotic state. Otherwise, she seems to exhibit no memory of this past trauma in her waking life. The doctor consults another doctor, and they both put Jane under to reveal her story.

"Jane" is actually Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland), an Army nurse, and at the beginning of her story, she has recently married a soldier, Paul Webster (Richard Crane), who had been badly injured in a plane crash but fully, and mysteriously, recovered. While on a train heading toward their honeymoon, Paul gets a telegram that agitates him, and he gets off at the next stop without returning to the train. Joyce then begins a months-long search for her missing husband.

Like I said, this is a nice, film noir set-up for this movie, and it retains this feel for the first half or so. Joyce's search leads her to Louisiana swamp country and a small town called Bayou Landing. While at the town's apparently abandoned train station, she meets Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who turns out to be the handyman at the plantation where her search has led, and he offers to give her a ride.

Manon is the type of character Lon Chaney, Jr. played in dozens of movies like this, and he's just the right mix of bizarre, creepy, and dangerous. He has a hook for a hand, which he lost to an alligator, and, Captain Hook-style, he is obsessed with gators because of it. He spends his evenings getting drunk on his own moonshine and then walking out into the swamp to shoot gators. "I'm gonna spend the rest of my life killing gators," he shouts. He also tries to roadkill one while driving Joyce to the plantation.

At the plantation house, Joyce meets Mrs. Hawthorne, who denies knowing anyone named Paul Webster. While the lady of the house does not want this intruding visitor, out of politeness she asks her to stay the night, anyway, as there are no more trains out of town until the next day.

Joyce gets nosy, and she eventually finds out the fate of her husband, who has begun transforming into an alligator man due to an experiment with alligator pituitary extract that saved his life after the plane crash. The experiment was performed by Dr. Sinclair (George Macready), whose research is funded by Paul's mother, Mrs. Hawthorne. Also, Dr. Sinclair drives around in a duck boat, which is awesome. The movie then spends way too much time trying to explain its phony science, and not enough time with alligator wrestling and duck boats.

There is a nugget of a cool story here, with a woman investigating the disappearance of her husband and then finding a completely fucked up family conducting bizarre experiments in the swamps. But it never quite reaches that potential. One big obstacle is Paul's ridiculous alligator make-up and costume. I normally give such movies a lot of leeway when it comes to cheap effects and costumes, but here it's pretty distracting. The filmmakers would have done better to keep Paul's appearance hidden so that the viewer could imagine the transformation.

At the end, the framing sequence closes with a nicely disturbing and insidious moment where the doctors discuss whether or not to tell Jane about her secret life, while the nurse goes about her work, happily oblivious to her past.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Even More Ask Doctor K!

Once again, I've been asked some very important questions about comics from a young reader. So, let's just jump right in to one of them:

"Has Batman or Superman ever driven a rocketship before?"

The short answer is "Hell, yes!" to both. But the long answer is even better than that.

But before we get started with the answer, I would point out that the correct verb is "flown." You "fly" a rocketship, but you "drive" a car.

First, Batman. Batman has everything you can think of, as well as everything you can't think of. So, of course he has a rocketship:

This is Batman with his son, Damian, who has taken on the mantle of Robin. You are a bit too young, however, for me to explain how Batman got a son, or why Batman and his son's mommy aren't married to each other. Someday, when you're older, we'll have this talk.

Meanwhile, though, Batman definitely flies a rocketship.

Now, Superman is a different story. As an infant, Superman came to Earth in a rocketship, but he didn't technically "fly" it: his father programmed it to fly to Earth just as the planet Krypton was destroyed.

Also, because Superman can fly in space on his own power, he doesn't really seem to need a rocketship. However, that doesn't mean he has never flown one. For example, sometimes he loses his powers or has to fly through a cloud of kryptonite meteors, and then he really needs a rocketship. Other times, he just thinks rocketships are cool, which is why he has the SuperMobile!

The SuperMobile is a rocketship that also punches. That makes it the greatest rocketship ever made.

Hope that answers your question!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 13: Let Me In

After watching Let the Right One In on Monday, I decided to check out the English-language remake, Let Me In. I had a free ticket to the local theater that was about to expire, and I figured that if I went to the early matinee on a Wednesday, I would have a good chance of a private screening.

Alas, that didn't happen. In fact, in a huge, virtually empty theater, some dude with a huge bucket of popcorn and a giant soda decided to sit in the seat directly behind me for some reason. I'm guessing this guy is a 12:00 Wednesday regular, and he was passionately tied to that one perfect seat in the theater.

As most reviews of Let Me In have noted, the film is surprisingly faithful to the original, and if I were to have seen it on its own terms, I would have considered it an innovative, challenging horror movie. Director Matt Reeves, who also adapted the screenplay, pretty much hits the major notes of the original, with only subtle differences and rare improvement.

In the Swedish original, we get subplots involving the lives of various neighbors in the apartment complex where Eli and Oskar live. This ramps up the emotional impact when Eli kills one of the neighbors and later turns another into a vampire. The audience feels the impact of Eli's presence on the larger community, and that creates a complex ambivalence for the vampire: we understand that she needs to feed, but we also feel something for her victims. This is especially effective when Ginia, the woman Eli accidentally turns into a vampire, chooses to end her life when she discovers what she's become.

In the remake, we only see these neighbors as subjects of Owen's (the film's version of Oskar) voyeurism. The characters are not even named, and the impact is reduced when Abby (Eli) accidentally transforms the woman. Then, the woman's death comes by accident rather than choice. We get a different sense of the impact of Abby on the community, but it also resonates less. Ginia's death is tragic, but it also reminds us that the life of a vampire is itself horrible.

The new version has the great Richard Jenkins as Abby's "father"--the man who goes out and obtains blood for Abby's survival. In Jenkins's performance, this man is at the end of his road, making sloppy mistakes because he has finally reached his limit in a job that we assume he has been doing for decades. One of the few improvements Reeves makes on the original occurs in Jenkins's bungled attempt to kill one of the bullies that besets Owen. Reeves places the camera inside the car that Jenkins tries to escape in when he's caught, and the long take used traps us in this confined space as things go horribly wrong.

As I mentioned in Monday's post, the original film uses a more subdued style that heightens the film's tension in surprising ways. Reeves takes a more conventional route in terms of style, and the impact is again reduced. In one scene, a police detective (Elias Koteas, in a role added for this movie) searches through Abby's apartment. As the tension increases, a wind-up toy drops on the floor, providing a sudden, cheap shock through a red herring that has become a cliche in horror movies. Then, as Koteas approaches the bathroom door, behind which Abby sleeps, the music ratchets up to prepare the audience for another shock to come. In fact, the musical score is pervasive throughout the movie, and I wish Reeves had trusted in silence more. But this particular scene highlights the film's major problem: while it's focus on the relationship between Abby and Owen feels different from other horror movies, it gets its shocks in a highly conventional, and occasionally cliched, way.

The remake also deals less with Abby's gender-ambiguity, though the idea is definitely raised. However, it does explore more overtly something that is only subtly touched on in the original. We get the sense that Owen is not Abby's first "friend" of this sort, and that Richard Jenkins's character had been in Owen's shoes decades earlier. That lends a more intensely tragic air to the film, as we see in Jenkins the end of the inevitable path that Owen is just beginning.

Let Me In is a better than average horror movie, mainly because Matt Reeves smartly adheres to the original's plot. However, I wish Reeves had been bolder in his stylistic choices, matching the plot with a style that relied less on convention and cliche.

Also, I'd like to add that Let Me In is the first big release from the revived Hammer brand, and I got a kick out of seeing the Hammer logo at the beginning of the film. I'm curious to see what the future holds for this brand.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 12: 4D Man!

Today's movie, 4D Man (1959), is by no means a great sci-fi movie, but it has a Silver Age comics vibe that I find appealing.

This movie takes forever to get going, but once it does, it's pretty good. The movie follows two brother scientists: Tony and Scott Wilson(James Congdon and Robert Lansing, respectively). Tony is trying to perfect a way to force two different objects to merge with one another, like pushing a wooden dowel through a steel plate. He believes this is a natural process, where, over time, two objects in constant contact with one another will eventually merge together. When his experiment fails, the entire lab building burns down, and he loses his job. He then goes to visit his brother Scott, who works for a research facility associated with the US military. Scott is trying to develop "cargonite," an impenetrable metal.

The first half of the movie deals with the brothers' personal relationships and their scientific work, and it feels more like a soap opera than a sci-fi movie. While both brothers are trying to deal with penetrable and impenetrable metals, they are both also trying to penetrate fellow scientist Linda Davis, played by Lee "Catwoman" Meriwether in her first film role. Linda is dating Scott, but when Tony arrives, she looks him over like they are the only two people on earth with compatible genetalia.

Here's a good example of how Linda totally cockteases Tony right in front of her boyfriend:

Also, Lee Meriwether is foxy.

Tony has a history of stealing his brother's girls, so he's at first hesitant to take up with Linda. However, there is an obvious sexual metaphor in the research the two brothers conduct, and so Tony gives in to his natural impulses.

The close proximity to cargonite, however, causes Scott to have increased brain waves or something like that, and he discovers that he can do with his mind what Tony is trying to do with machines: he can pass other objects, as well has himself through solid objects. However, there is a catch: doing so causes him to age rapidly. Tony determines that this is because Scott is speeding up a natural process that causes all matter to merge over time, so when Scott enters the fourth dimension to do this, he saps some of his own life energy.

This movie provides an interesting twist on expectations: Tony is the irresponsible scientist who often blows shit up, while Scott is a more traditional, responsible scientist, though occasionally prone to personal risk. We expect Tony to become the victim of science gone awry, but it ends up being Scott.

When he first develops his powers, Scott starts by taking mail out of a mailbox. Then he steals fruit from a closed grocer and thinks about grabbing some jewelry before putting it back. However, the scene ends with him eyeballing a bank. And this is where things start to go bad for Scott.

He then finds another side effect of his powers: if he passes his hand through another human, that person ends up dying of old age. But the person's life energy then transfers to Scott, reversing the aging process. So, Scott becomes a kind of energy vampire who can also turn immaterial at will.

Once the movie gets rolling, it has a cool, Silver Age comics vibe, with science causing Scott to become a super-villain instead of a hero. The fear of science gone awry feels like it's straight out of an EC or Atlas comic of the same period. The movie also has a cool jazz score by Ralph Carmichael that is largely incongruous with the movie itself, but once it kicks in during the opening credits, it's infectious. Also, look for Patty Duke as a young girl who tries to befriend Scott because she thinks he's a hobo, which we all know is a good idea.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 11: Let the Right One In

First off, I want to apologize for not posting over the weekend, and to let loyal readers know that that will probably be the case for the rest of the month, too. So, expect the Halloween Countdown posts only during the week.

For the first movie this week, I decided to watch Let the Right One In (2008), a film that had been recommended to me over and over, but for various reasons, I never got around to seeing.

I generally tend not to get enthused about contemporary horror movies. I've enjoyed some of the j-horror movies I've seen, but otherwise, most contemporary American horror movies tend to leave me cold. There are a lot of reasons for this, but Let the Right One In managed to highlight one in particular.

First off, I want to be clear that I was blown away by Let the Right One In. The concept of the vampire stuck in eternal childhood is fascinating, and it's one of the things I love about my favorite vampire movie, Near Dark (it's also one of the more interesting elements in the otherwise flawed Interview with a Vampire). Let the Right One In manages to be haunting, emotional, and deeply unsettling in ways that are genuinely rare for most horror movies.

However, I really can't add much to a discussion of this movie that hasn't already been addressed in the well-deserved praise it's received. I do, though, want to highlight a particular element of the movie that I found works tremendously well, and it's a technique that's almost never used.

For the most part in this film, violent scenes tend to appear in long shot, recorded by a static camera. The image below gives a sense of the kind of shot I'm talking about, though the violence--when Eli's "father" hangs a victim upside down and drains his blood--takes place a bit before this moment:

One particularly effective example of this type of scene occurs about halfway through the movie, when Eli suddently drops out of a tree from above frame onto Ginia (there is a quick clip of this scene in the preview below). Within the same shot, we see Ginia walking up the steps and away from her husband, with whom she has just had a fight. So, the shot is held for a bit before Eli drops out of the tree.

Most contemporary horror movies would depict such a scene in a series of close-ups, punctuated by quick cuts and utilizing loud music and sound effects to heighten the shock. The effect, in such a case, is to prepare the viewer for the shock of violence--to warn us that it's on its way, and we should feel scared now.

Here, in Let the Right One In, however, the long shot with the static camera creates a sense of innocuousness and safety, so that the sudden intrusion of violence on the scene is truly disruptive. Nothing prepares us for what is about to happen, so there is no safety net of music or quick cuts to warn us that scary stuff is about to happen. Therefore, it also makes the viewer wonder, for a moment, about what is really happening.

Such an approach to violence has a practical side as well: big special effects aren't needed because the action is taking place off in the distance, and the audience has to use some imagination to figure things out.

This technique is so much more unsettling than the more common ways that violence is depicted in horror movies. Director Tomas Alfredson puts the audience on insecure ground like this throughout the movie, building to a climactic scene that is one of the best I've ever seen in a horror movie. The popularity of this film gives me hope that other filmmakers will dissect this movie for what works and borrow it for their own horror movies.

Here's the trailer, which shows some of what I'm talking about:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 8: Hammer Horror on TCM!

Rather than review a movie today, I want to point readers to Turner Classic Movies, which is showing 4 Hammer horror films tonight, and every Friday night in October.

First up is Plague of the Zombies (1966), a movie I have some fondness for:

I especially like how this film uses zombies as a critique of British class structure, anticipating anticipating the way George Romero uses zombies as a means of social critique. The film also anticipates Romero in the appearance of the zombies, though it's still tied to an earlier tradition of voodoo as the source for the zombie outbreak.

I'm looking forward to the second movie, The Devil's Bride (1967; a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out) because it's one of the Hammer films I have never seen.

Set in the 1920s, it stars Christopher Lee, this time as the hero, and Charles Gray as the Crowley-esque Satanist. It's directed by Terence Fisher, who made most of the great, early Hammer productions, and it's written by the great horror novelist Richard Matheson, adapting Dennis Wheatley's story.

The other two movies, The Reptile (1966) and The Gorgon (1964) are both worth checking out. I especially like The Gorgon because Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing team up as partners, rather than antagonists, which was usually the case. Also, these two movies are linked together nicely by virtue of the fact that they both feature female monsters, and to different degrees make commentary on the gender dynamics at work in each.

So, enjoy this opportunity to see a few non-franchise Hammer horror movies tonight!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 7: Vampire Circus

Watch enough Hammer horror movies, especially the vampire movies, and certain formulas and tropes become apparent. For example, many of the vampire movies begin in an idyllic, pastoral setting--a place intrinsic to the British cultural consciousness--that is then disrupted by the appearance of supernatural violence.

This is definitely the case in Vampire Circus (1972), directed by Robert Young. The film opens with a man out in nature, reading near the woods, while a young girl plays nearby. A woman begins to talk and play with the girl, and soon they disappear into the woods, while the man is distracted by his reading. He chases after them, but they go inside an old castle before he can catch up.

The castle is owned by Count Mittenhaus, a vampire who has beset the local village for years. The young girl is still in a state of happiness, unaware of the danger she is in until too late, when the Count bites her neck and drains her blood. Announcing, "One lust feeds the other," the Count then begins making out with the woman.

This opening scene is decadent and effectively chilling, and it sets up the rest of the movie well. It sets the stakes high by killing a kid within the first few minutes, and the unsettling mood created by this scene builds throughout the rest of the film. What I like most about Vampire Circus is that it comes very close to being the exact movie that I would want a film called "Vampire Circus" to be.

The man who witnessed the girl's kidnapping turns out to be the local schoolteacher, as well as the husband of the woman shacked up with the Count, and he gathers the village men to storm the castle. Many of these men have also lost their daughters to the Count, so emotions are running high.

When they get in, they are too late to save the girl, but after some grappling with the Count, they are able to bring down the vampire with a handy stake to the chest. Before he dies, the Count vows vengeance on the village that brought him down. The men then prepare to blow up the castle, but the schoolteacher's wife runs back in to take the Count's body deep into the catacombs and preserves his body.

The film then jumps ahead 15 years, when the village is beset by a plague and quarantined by the military. Some believe the plague is the manifestation of the Count's curse, while the local doctor and others seek a medical cure. In the midst of this, a mysterious circus arrives in town, somehow making their way past the roadblocks around town.

Circuses are inherently creepy, but this circus in particular has a series of bizarre acts that do not make it seem family friendly. The first act we see involves a naked woman painted like a snake, who fights a dude with a whip. At another point, a panther turns into a guy, and this does not set off signals that this might be a, you know, vampire circus. Even the weird twin acrobats who turn into actual bats don't set off any signals in the villagers. These villagers are basically the definition of easy marks.

There is also a little clown who is scary as hell.

Seriously, this guy

makes this guy

look like this guy:

The other performers in the troupe are creepy across the board. The panther man turns out to be Emil, the Count's cousin who is in the village for revenge. The acrobat twins clearly have some kind of incestuous relationship, plus they have some kind of Corsican Brothers deal where they feel each other's pain. Also, the female twin is played by Lalla Ward, who would later go on to be Mrs. Tom Baker and is currently Mrs. Richard Dawkins.

The cast is, in fact, filled with other performers who would go on to some notoriety. The mute circus strongman is played by David Prowse, who later played Darth Vader. And the primary female victim, Dora, went on to marry Peter Sellers and inherit his estate.

Vampire Circus is genuinely unsettling, with a real subversive quality. Tension builds through the effect that constant isolation and threat has on the village. The movie also paces the deaths well throughout, without any lapse in dramatic tension that many other Hammer films often get in the middle.

But it does have its flaws. A nice, suspenseful scene where a family tries to escape the village with the aid of the little clown is partially undermined when they are attacked by a very fake panther. Still, the fake panther kills the hell out of these people. Also, according to behind-the-scenes information on the making of this film, several key scenes weren't shot when budget problems arised, and there is a sense that some crucial information is missing.

The finale is also a mixed bag. A vampire is weakened when a crossbow is held up as a cross, which is just cheating. However, the moment is redeemed when the vampire is cleverly killed with said crossbow. Also, the villagers, with all their experience fighting vampires in the past, don't come to the final fight very well equipped. For one, you don't bring a gun to a vampire fight, and only one person seemed to think to bring a stake.

Still, the movie succeeds more than it fails, and even after almost 40 years, there is something truly unsettling about this movie. For one, children are constantly at risk in the film, and the opening shows the filmmakers' willingness to see that risk through to the gruesome end. Also, the circus itself is decadent and mysterious, and for most of the film, it seems as if the villagers can do nothing to stop it. And like The Vampire Lovers from two years earlier, Hammer continued to push the boundaries of sex and violence in this movie, but here it doesn't yet seem excessive, as it feeds the feeling of unrestrained evil that the circus presents.

Here's a look at the film's trailer:

Before I go, I'd want to comment on some sad news relevant to the films I've been discussing this week. Director Roy Ward Baker passed away today at the age of 93. Baker is probably best known for directing A Night to Remember, but I'm particularly fond of the many great films he did for Hammer studios, including Quatermass and the Pit, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Dracula Meets the 7 Golden Vampires, and the aforementioned The Vampire Lovers. Baker's audio-commentary on the Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde DVD is especially enlightening and gives a good sense of how Hammer films got made. RIP

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 6: Countess Dracula

Yesterday, I covered the 1970 Hammer horror film The Vampire Lovers, starring Ingrid Pitt, and as promised, here's Ingrid Pitt's second starring role for Hammer in the 1971 film Countess Dracula.

One thing to note about Countess Dracula is that the title is really misleading. No actual vampires appear in this movie, and the title character is in no way connected to the Dracula family. Instead, Hammer went to the horror well to find new source material and came up with the historical story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was rumored to bathe in virgins' blood in order to stay young.

And that is basically the plot of this movie. The film opens with the funeral of Count Nodosheen, and at the reading of his will, the aging Countess finds out that she has to split most of the estate with her absent daughter. In addition, a young man named Toth--the son of a soldier who served in the military with the Count--inherits the stables, horses, and cottage. Also, Captain Dobi, who is the Countess's lover and the Count's chief steward (played by the great Nigel Green), is pissed because all he gets are a few lousy suits of armor.

As the Countess prepares for her bath that evening, she beats her servant for making the bath too hot. The Countess gets some blood on her face, and quickly discovers that it causes part of her face to look younger. She then enlists her nurse and Captain Dobi to retrieve the servant and see what a full-body blood dousing will do. It has the desired effect, and she becomes a young woman again.

This, and all the subsequent blood-bathing that follows, happens off-screen, which some may find as a drawback for a horror movie. In fact, one of the problems with this film is that it's not much of a horror movie. Instead, it's a kind of romantic melodrama with some supernatural undertones. The Countess spurns her older lover, Dobi for the dashing young Toth. But in order to pull off this romance, she has to pretend to be her daughter. This creates some problems, as the daughter (played by a young and almost unrecognizeable Lesley-Anne Down) is on her way to the castle. Dobi arranges for some Serbs to kidnap her before she arrives.

Toth falls in love with the young Countess, and she becomes increasingly desperate to keep her young appearance. After bathing in the blood of a whore, however, she discovers that not all blood will work. And she has a nasty case of hepatitis. What she really needs is some virgin blood.

In general, the movie doesn't quite live up to the potential of its subject matter. Some class conflice emerges early in the movie, as the Countess's first victims are a servant and a gypsy, but the movie really does nothing with this until the end, when the local village women celebrate the Countess's execution. Also, the inherent potential for sex and violence the Elizabeth Bathory story is almost completely missed, and that in particular seems odd, considering how excessive Hammer would become along those lines in the next few years.

However, the movie does look very good, and Ingrid Pitt also looks great, though she's unfortunately and unnecessarily dubbed throughout the movie. Also, Nigel Green seems to be having fun as the flustered and quite whipped Captain Dobi, who continues to do the Countess's dirty work while she prances right in front of him with her young boy toy.

Here's a link to the trailer for Countess Dracula. One of the things evident in the trailer: the aging makeup used on Ingrid Pitt is actually pretty good.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 5: The Vampire Lovers!

Every Halloween season, I try to watch a bunch of Hammer horror films, and I feel that's especially appropriate this year, as Hammer Productions has returned with Let Me In.

I'm curious to see where Hammer goes with its revival, but in the meantime, let's look at one of the classics produced by the company in the past.

(I love how this poster--which has nothing to do with the actual movie, by the way--provides the warning "Not for the mentally immature!" In other words, "Don't giggle at the sexy lesbian parts!")

One of the more notorious Hammer productions was The Vampire Lovers (1970), directed by Roy Ward Baker and based on Sheridan Le Fanu's great early vampire novel, Carmilla (1872). Like Hammer's other adaptations, this plays fast and loose with its source material, but it remains a solid vampire movie from a time when Hammer films were starting to slip in quality.

In the late 60s and early 70s, Hammer went looking for other source material, as the main franchises--Dracula and Frankenstein--were wearing thin. Le Fanu's Carmilla seems like a logical choice, especially as the story's lesbian undertones could be exploited by a studio that was further pushing the boundaries of sex and violence in its movies.

The film opens in a typical Hammer milieu: a gothic castle surrounded by a fog-strewn moor. Voice-over narration from Baron Hartog explains the situation--he has dedicated his life to destroying the Karnsteins, a family of vampires that was responsible for his sister's death. He also explains the vampire rules for this story, in that vampires can only be killed by a stake through the heart or decapitation. He then proves this by slicing the head off of a hot blond vampire who is trying to seduce him.

The importance of this opening won't be clear, however, until much later in the movie, as Baron Hartog pretty much disappears until the end.

Years later, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing, who cuts a fine figure in a Prussian officer's uniform) holds a fancy ball, which is attended by a mysterious Countess (Dawn Addams) and her daughter, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). However, soon after their arrival, the Countess is called away by a pale man in black, who gives her some news that requires her to leave immediately. The General offers to let Marcilla stay at his estate and serve as a companion for his daughter, Laura (Pippa Steele), until the Countess can return.

This whole scenario turns out to be a scam orchestrated by the Countess so Marcilla can infiltrate the household and feed on young Laura. Over the course of several evenings, Marcilla comes to Laura in the form of a cat, and then proceeds to feed from her breast. Every night, Laura wakes up screaming while also getting progressively weaker. In typical vampire story fashion, the General and the local doctor chalks the weakness up to anemia, and both miss the supernatural explanation.

Laura dies, and Marcilla and the Countess take their scam back on the road, working their way into the Morton house, with their young daughter, Emma (Madeline Smith). When Mr. Morton goes away, Marcilla, now known as "Carmilla," has the run of the house, seducing both Emma and her attractive governess (Kate O'Mara). The film generates much of its tension from Carmilla savvily overcoming obstacles and potential exposure before her vampire identity is finally revealed. In the meantime, though, Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith get down to some sexy times.

Interestingly, the plot of this movie follows that of Bram Stoker's Dracula even better than any of the other Hammer Dracula movies. In particular, when Morton becomes aware of his daughter's plight, he enlists the help of the General and Laura's boyfriend, Carl (Jon Finch, in his first film role). The General and Carl have also tracked down an aged Baron Hartog in order to take advantage of his expertise in killing Karnstein vampires. So, like Dracula, the male characters band together to combat the danger created by the female vampire. In general, the movie raises a few interesting gender issues.

The movie follows its own internal logic well enough, though it doesn't quite match the standard vampire rules. Carmilla travels during the daytime frequently, though she does have some photosensitivity, and we see her reflection in mirrors quite often. Also, the vampires don't reproduce through biting, but instead only feed. The cross and garlic still work, though, as well as staking and decapitation.

Though the film comes to a satisfying conclusion, a couple of loose ends are left dangling. We never really learn the true role of the Countess, for one. Baron Hartog claims that he killed all the Karnstein vampires but one--Carmilla--so the Countess is probably not Carmilla's real mother, and it's not clear if she's a vampire. Also, the mysterious, pale man in black appears to watch all the events of the film unfold, but we never find out who he is or what purpose he serves.

In the end, The Vampire Lovers is a solid vampire movie with a lesbian twist. It pushes the envelope of sex and violence compared to earlier Hammer films, but it looks positively constrained alongside those of the following years. Ingrid Pitt stands out as one of the great female vampires in Hammer history, and Madeline Smith makes a nice transformation from sweet innocent to willing companion to physical wreck in the course of the film. However, while the movie tends to focus on the female characters, great actors like Peter Cushing and Jon Finch are underused. And like a lot of Hammer films, it has a rather weak second act, but it is otherwise stylish and well-made.

Here is the trailer for The Vampire Lovers:

Ingrid Pitt would return to Hammer films the following year in Countess Dracula, the movie I will be covering tomorrow.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 4: Houdini in The Man from Beyond!

If I had to make a list of the most awesome people in human history, Harry Houdini would easily be in the top five. So, when Kino put out a DVD set of Houdini's surviving movies, I thought for sure that these would be the greatest films ever made.

However, other than the serial he made called "The Master Mystery"--which is just freaking incredible and has Houdini fighting a robot--the movies Houdini made just aren't very good. And they are all not very good for fundamentally similar reasons: Houdini doesn't escape from enough shit.

Now, it would seem that, if you are a master showman like Houdini, and you are making movies with a considerable amount of creative control, then you would want to give the audience exactly what they want from a Houdini movie. And what might audiences want to see Houdini do? Make out with a chick? No. Emote? Not really.

What they really want is to see Houdini escape from shit. Unfortunately, he only does that a couple of times per movie, when he should be escaping from something every five minutes. (This is probably why the serial he did is so good: each episode is structured around a cliffhanger that involves Houdini escaping from some trap. So, every 15 minutes or so, he has to be handcuffed or locked in a trunk or strapped to an electric chair something like that.)

A case in point: The Man from Beyond (1922), a melodramatic mystery with supernatural overtones.

On the surface, The Man from Beyond sounds like it should be the most awesome movie ever. Houdini plays Howard Hillary, a man found frozen on a shipwrecked vessel in the Arctic 100 years after his ship disappears. Imagine if Houdini were Captain America, and you get a good sense of just how much potential this movie misses out on.

Hillary is discovered by the final surviving members of an Arctic expedition--Dr. Gregory Sinclair and Francois Duval--as they are on the verge of starvation and death from exposure. Duval comes across the mysterious ship stuck in a glacier, with a perfectly preserved human frozen in ice. While Dr. Sinclair studies the ship's logs to find out its story, the Frenchman chops the body out of the ice as a potential food source. But that plan disappears once Hillary thaws and proves to be still alive.

We then get a flashback to 1820, where Hillary is first mate on a ship. The passengers on the ship include a young woman named Felice, with whom Hillary falls in love. The captain of the ship, however, is out to get his first mate, and he throws Hillary in the brig when the ship is wrecked in a terrible storm

Hillary, Sinclair, and Duval return to civilization just in time for the wedding of Sinclair's neice to Dr. Trent, a scientist and partner with the neice's father, Professor Strange. It turns out that the neice is also named Felice, and she's the spitting image of Hillary's lost love. Hillary breaks up the wedding with his sad story, and Felice decides to delay her nuptials, much to Trent's chagrin. Hillary becomes convinced that she is his love, reincarnated.

And all this is really where The Man from Beyond goes wrong. Instead of making an action-packed adventure, Houdini, who also wrote the script, oddly decided to make a supernatural melodrama--one that exceeds the limits of what little acting ability the performer had. Houdini also seemed more interested in making some kind of pro-Spiritualist propaganda about the validity of reincarnation, as the movie repeatedly presents itself as "evidence" that such a phenomenon is real.

In order to give Houdini some Houdini things to do, a mystery is introduced: Felice's father had been on the Arctic expedition until called away by a cable from Trent informing him that his daughter was sick. However, Trent denies sending the cable, and no one has seen Prof. Strange in a year. It immediately becomes clear that Trent is one shady dude, and he uses Duval to set up a frame job on Hillary for the murder of Prof. Strange.

The professor, however, is being held prisoner in Trent's dungeon, where the evil scientist also performs experiments on animals.

Meanwhile, Hillary gets taken away to an insane asylum, where he is put through some elaborate torture. He is tied up and strapped to the floor with sheets, while water pours down from above. Hillary wriggles out of the sheets, and then uses them as a rope ladder to escape the hospital. This ends up, unfortunately, being the only Houdini-style escape he performs in the entire movie.

Later, Trent tries to kidnap Felice in order to drug her and then force her into marriage, but Hillary comes to the rescue, and fisticuffs ensue. Felice escapes by getting into a canoe, which then careens out of control toward Niagara Falls. Hillary dives into the river in what turns out to be the movie's centerpiece: a dramatic river rescue.

Behind the scenes, this rescue--inspired by a river rescue in D. W. Griffith's Way Down East--proved to be potentially dangerous for Houdini. He used 8 cameras to capture the rescue in one take, and he even shot an alternative ending for the movie in case he was injured or killed in the rescue. Houdini even offered $5,000 to any filmmaker who could make a more thrilling scene.

However, the rescue as seen in the movie is not that thrilling, perhaps due to a more jaded contemporary perspective. There is, though, a striking similarity between this scene and a similar river rescue in Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality, released a year after Houdini's film.

I'd always understood Keaton's scene to be inspired by Way Down East, but after seeing The Man from Beyond, I wonder if Keaton wasn't taking on Houdini's public challenge to make a more thrilling scene. Keaton's is definitely better from both technical and dramatic standpoints, building up several short obstacles before getting to the big rope stunt at the end. Keaton also cutely flips the script on the earlier, similar scenes by first having the male character in need of rescue. But there are enough similar shots between the two to make me think that Keaton may have had Houdini in mind when constructing this scene.

The Man from Beyond ends with a final nod toward the veracity of reincarnation. The scientists Sinclair (who, by the way, was played by Erwin Connelly, an actor who later worked with Keaton) and Strange declare that reincarnation is definitely possible. Hillary even hands Felice a copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Spiritualist tract, "The New Revelation," just as we see a ghostly image of the old Felice inhabit the body of the new one.

The publicity for the film announced, in bold hyperbole not uncommon for Houdini, "It is as much unlike the average picture as Houdini himself is unlike the average man." (This really should be the tagline for the next George Clooney movie.) It also explained that "the story is essentially a love story, with the added feature of unparalleled thrills." Unfortunately, the film spends too much time on the love story, and the thrills are more than paralleled. But, like all the Houdini films, it does have historical value that makes it worth seeing, even if it steers too far away from what made Houdini's live performances, as well as The Master Mystery, such huge successes.