Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962)

I'm a sucker for early 60s Gothic horror, whether it's Corman, Hammer, or Bava, which means my opinion of a picture like Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) is inclined to be positive in spite of its shortcomings. Yes, it's about a necrophiliac surgeon who like his bedmates totally incapacitated, and the dubbing is pretty ridiculous, as well, but it has that lurid charm that Gothic horrors of the period so often possess, plus there's Barbara Steele starring as the hapless second wife who little suspects her husband's sordid appetites. Suffused with references and allusions to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, as one might guess from the title, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock provides the viewer with ample entertainment and plenty to parse in terms of its relationships to other films.

Robert Flemyng plays Professor Bernard Hichcock, a London surgeon with a secret passion for dead women. His wife, Margaret (Maria Teresa Vianello, credited as Maria Fitzgerald), accommodates his desires by allowing him to anesthetize her before sex in a boudoir made up like a funeral chamber. Unfortunately for Margaret, Hichcock overdoses her one night and then leaves the country shortly after her interment in the family vault. Twelve years later he returns to London with his new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele), and resumes his medical practice as well as his lust for corpses. Cynthia soon suspects that Margaret is haunting the house with sinister plans for her replacement, but when Bernard discovers the truth about Margaret he makes lethal plans of his own to restore his first wife to her former place and beauty.

As Budd Wilkins observes in his Slant review of the film's Blu-ray release, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), with nods to Suspicion (1941) and Vertigo (1958), as well, but there's also a strong connection to 19th century literary works like Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia." (For a discussion of Gothic texts and the theme of necrophilia, see my essay, "Gothic Angels: The Good, Dead Girl in Robert Browning's 'Porphyria's Lover' and Alice Cooper's 'Cold Ethyl'.") Bernard's obsession with beautiful corpses is the logical, if extreme, endpoint of the Victorian fantasy of the angel in the house. Margaret is more than happy to play this role for him, while Cynthia resists it, which puts her in danger of being made a corpse for real by the forces that seek to uphold the patriarchy's rule that women be utterly passive. While Cynthia has a bad habit of fainting every time something interesting happens, she is nonetheless determined not to succumb to the threats around her without a struggle, and the audience's sympathy lies entirely with her.

As is often the case with horror, the villain has the best role, and Robert Flemyng makes Hichcock an intriguing study in masculine selfishness, self-loathing, and irresistible sexual desire. The best scenes are the ones where Hichcock struggles against his urges but inevitably yields to them, drawn like a moth to a flame whenever a beautiful corpse lies nearby. He's the quintessential Victorian gentleman of horror, all propriety in public but pulsing with depravity in private, a Jekyll and Hyde figure whose hidden nature Cynthia doesn't suspect until it's almost too late. As the film opens we see him ruthlessly assault a grave digger in order to molest the body being buried; later, he performs surgery to repair the damage done to the very same man, with admiring proteges and a grateful family never dreaming that the same hands both harmed and healed. His duality makes him fascinating, though not particularly sympathetic, since even at his best he's a condescending, patriarchal ruler who expects everyone around him to obey his commands, whether they be student, servant, or wife. When Cynthia tries to tell him about the mysterious presence in the house he gaslights her and says that her nerves are coming undone, but once he knows it's real he just intensifies the gaslighting to keep Cynthia from realizing her peril. That alone makes him a monster, but his mad plan to restore Margaret at Cynthia's expense shows just how unbalanced he becomes by the film's fiery conclusion.

Director Riccardo Freda, who often worked under the name Robert Hampton, also made Lust of the Vampire (1957), Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959), and The Ghost (1963). Don't miss scream queen Barbara Steele in Black Sunday (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961); she also stars - this time as a character named Margaret Hichcock! - in The Ghost, which makes it an obvious second choice for a Freda double feature. You'll find Robert Flemyng in Funny Face (1957), The Deadly Affair (1967), and The Blood Beast Terror (1968).

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Quick Trip to TIFF19

I've always wanted to attend film festivals, but they're few and far between where I live, and the timing has never worked out for me to get to the big one for classic movie fans, TCMFF. Luckily, my visit to my sister's new home in Toronto this month coincided with the second weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival. Even though this was just a quick visit to the festival, I enjoyed it very much, and it has only whetted my appetite to do more.

We didn't plan my trip far enough in advance to buy passes for the whole festival, but we were able to get tickets to see A Bump Along the Way, a comedic drama directed by Shelly Love and set in Northern Ireland. The story follows a middle aged, divorced mother and her teenage daughter, who both have a lot to handle when the mother unexpectedly gets pregnant after a one night stand. Both my sister and I loved this film and were so glad that we got to see it, particularly because it's not the sort of movie that's likely to turn up in wide release in the US. The film was a serendipitous discovery for both of us, which is exactly what you want to get from a film festival. We were sorry that we weren't able to get tickets for the big, sexy headliners like Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, and Dolemite is My Name, but we know we'll get the chance to see all of those later.

Speaking of Dolemite, we did get to see a wonderful costume and prop exhibit for the film in the TIFF Reference Library, which we didn't know was there until we wandered in. We thought we were going to see the free, permanent exhibit, so the costume display was another surprise treat. They even had free sunglasses for visitors to take home!

In the TIFF Shop we found lots of tempting books and festival swag, but in light of my current downsizing efforts I limited myself to a Midnight Madness t-shirt and a small festival poster. They did have an excellent selection of books, however, and someone in a more acquisitive stage of life might well fill a suitcase with purchases. The shop was jammed full of customers when we visited, as were all of the venues and streets in the festival area. It's always exciting to look around and see lots of people who love the same thing you love, and all around us festival goers were chatting about the movies they had seen, the movies they were going to see, and the movies they wanted to see but couldn't get tickets.

Our day at TIFF might have been brief, but it was packed with delights. I think even a short visit to a festival is definitely worth it, and the festival experience was a highlight of my trip. With my sister now settled in Toronto for the foreseeable future, I'm optimistic that I'll get to return to TIFF and enjoy more of its offerings next year!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

Of course it's a dark and stormy night when Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas stumble into a strange old house whose occupants are even more menacing than the raging floods outside, and director James Whale milks the atmosphere for all it's worth in this delightfully dire horror comedy. The Old Dark House (1932) delivers on all points, with thrills and giggles in equal measure thanks to the performers who make up the cast, including Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, and Eva Moore.

Massey and Stuart play married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, who, along with their traveling companion, Penderel (Douglas), literally wash up at the old dark house during a massive storm. They're not exactly welcomed in by the occupants, a strange brother and sister whose other family members haunt the upper floors of the gloomy mansion, but they settle in to stay the night and are soon joined by fellow refugees Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys (Lilian Bond). Things take a turn for the worse when the looming, mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), gets drunk and releases the house's most dangerous resident, a pyromaniac murderer called Saul (Brember Wills).

If you're already familiar with Whale's sense of humor from Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), you'll appreciate more of the same in The Old Dark House (1932), especially with the crusty, deaf Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) and her brother, the fey, nervous Horace (Ernest Thesiger). The brief appearance of their father, Sir Roderick, turns out to be a treat, too; the whole family is mad as hatters, which keeps the reluctant house guests in a constant state of confusion. Karloff's shambling Morgan is a scarier version of Lurch from The Addams Family; he spends a lot of time trying to molest Margaret, who has inexplicably changed out of her wet traveling clothes into the least practical evening dress one could possibly wear in a cold, damp lunatic asylum pretending to be a family home. The sense of impending doom is also lightened by the whirlwind romance of Penderel and Gladys, with Penderel seeming to nurse something of a foot fetish where his new love interest is concerned.

The atmosphere and cinematography also make this film a lot of fun, with fabulous camera shots lingering on Morgan's scarred face in closeup or building terrible suspense with just Saul's hand at the top of the stairs appearing in the frame. There's plenty of striking storm scenery, too, especially as the Wavertons wend their hazardous way through the deluge. Flickering candles and uncertain electrical lights add to the sense of dread; nobody wants the lights to go out in this house. The Gothic ambience and focus on crumbling heaps recall Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" but also Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and Whale shares Walpole's characteristic mingling of the ludicrous and the sublime. The joke of the title reveals the film's keen awareness of its place in relationship to earlier Gothic horror; the "old dark house" motif was a cliche of the genre long before 1932, but Whale's direction is always winking at us about the familiarity of it all.

Whale, Karloff, and Thesiger reunited for Bride of Frankenstein, while Gloria Stuart also stars in Whale's adaptation of The Invisible Man. Melvyn Douglas is not generally remembered for his horror films, but you'll also find him in The Vampire Bat (1933), and, much later, The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981). While Charles Laughton plays a solid fellow in this film, he really gets to work the horror vein in Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Strange Door (1951). Don't miss Raymond Massey doing his own Karloff inspired turn in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). William Castle made his own version of The Old Dark House in 1963, so you could make a double feature of it by watching both adaptations of the novel by J.B. Priestley.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


I first saw Phantom of the Paradise (1974) a few years ago and immediately became obsessed with it; I downloaded the entire soundtrack and listened to it constantly for weeks. I was delighted to be able to revisit the film this week thanks to the Shudder streaming service, where the film is currently available. If you have a subscription to Shudder, put Phantom of the Paradise on your watchlist and make time for it while it's still in the current rotation of offerings.

My second viewing of the picture left me just as impressed with the wry dark humor and literate sense of horror that the picture conveys. Brian De Palma's cult classic holds up extremely well, especially because it deals so provocatively with the same timeless themes that inspired Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. This time I introduced my eighteen year old to the film, and she was just as entranced as I was; I'm hoping she will spread appreciation for it like a virus when she heads to college this fall.

You could easily build a whole mini film festival or graduate course around Phantom of the Paradise, starting with the 1925 Phantom of the Opera and F.W. Murnau's 1926 adaptation of Faust. (For a really short course on the Faust themes, you can also just watch the 1978 appearance of Alice Cooper on The Muppet Show - it covers all the basics.) Add in some later Phantom adaptations - the 1943 version with Claude Rains or even the 1989 version with Robert Englund - and then mix in some other great horror films depicting disfigured artists, like House of Wax (1953). One of the many great things about Phantom of the Paradise is the way it evokes and dovetails with so many other films.

While I appreciate the niche focus of Shudder, I'm often disappointed by its lack of classic horror; the appearance of Phantom of the Paradise has helped to make up for that limitation, and I hope this brilliantly bizarre cult favorite will remain in its catalog long enough for lots of new fans to find it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Three Favorite Movies in STRANGER THINGS 3

*Warning! Mild spoilers ahead, but only related to minor incidents. No major plot points are discussed.

The third season of Stranger Things continues its love affair with all things 80s, including the movies of that decade and the heyday of the local video rental store, which gives the final episode of the season an opportunity to name drop a number of films that reveal aspects of the characters' personalities. A visit to the video store presents fan favorite Steve and new character Robin with an opportunity to name their three favorite films as a test of their movie knowledge and personal taste. Not surprisingly, Steve goes with some pretty obvious recent choices, while Robin plays the movie snob card by naming three classic films.

Robin (played by Maya Hawke) appears throughout the season as a new kind of girl in the character mix, but one with her own 80s movie roots. She's the edgy, prickly, smart girl who doesn't care about popularity or the usual high school status symbols. Sarcastic and bored with her job at Scoops Ahoy, she torments Steve but also proves herself to be a useful, loyal friend to the former high school golden boy. When asked to name her three favorite movies, Robin lists The Apartment (1960), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Children of Paradise (1945). Her picks are especially esoteric for a teenager living in small town America in the mid 1980s, where it would have been difficult to see any of those three pictures, but they're intended to show her as a "serious" cineaste who leans toward foreign classics and film school standards. They immediately win the approval of the video store clerk, as well.

Steve's taste is, as Robin admits, "pedestrian" in comparison with her own. His picks, after much stumbling, are Animal House (1978), Return of the Jedi (1983), and Back to the Future (1985), the last of which Steve had just caught parts of during his misadventures with Robin, Dustin, and Erica. We've seen Steve grow a lot as a character since his initial appearance in Season One, but his first choice of Animal House reminds us of the kind of guy Steve used to be and might have remained if not for his experiences with the other Hawkins kids. He doesn't know the names of the specific episodes of Star Wars, either, and he loses even more credibility with the clerk by saying he likes "the one with the teddy bears" instead of going with the more fanboy approved The Empire Strikes Back. Ironically, Robin has included in her list Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, one of the films that George Lucas heavily borrowed from for A New Hope, thus showing that the best approach is to name not an actual Star Wars film at all but to show your depth of knowledge by picking one of its inspirations.

In a season packed with movie references, especially shout outs to horror films like Day of the Dead (1985), The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978 are equally relevant), and Alien (1979), along with a heavy dose of The Terminator (1984), the final episode's video store scene is a chance for the show to engage the cultural significance of movies very directly and mention some films that fall outside its horror/action/80s frame of reference. Robin's list is more about a hardcore movie buff's idea of what matters, but Steve's list is more in tune with the specific cultural moment in which the show takes place.

Honestly, in retrospect, they're both perfectly good lists, just reflective of very different movie watching moods and perspectives. When I was 18, back in 1990, I certainly hadn't yet seen any of Robin's picks, but I had seen all three of Steve's (I only saw Animal House because I was in college by then and away from parents who strictly cut off my access to R rated films). My top three would probably have been something like The Princess Bride (1987), The Lost Boys (1987), and, yes, Return of the Jedi (I also like the teddy bears. Fight me.)

What were your three favorite movies when you were 18? Were they "classics" or things you had only recently seen for the first time? How does your knowledge of movies - from the 80s or otherwise - enhance your enjoyment of a show like Stranger Things? I'd love to see your thoughts in the comments!

PS - If you're interested in my early teenage experiences with serious cinema watching back in the 1980s, check out "My First Summer of Cinema - 1988."

Monday, July 1, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: CASANOVA BROWN (1944)

What does a viewer expect going into a movie that features multiple marriages, a burning mansion, a kidnapped baby, and a clueless new father on a crash course in infant care? Hilarity seems like a reasonable answer, but that's not what we get with Casanova Brown (1944). While its plot summary sounds like truly outrageous material for a screwball comedy, the end result is quite tame, with far quieter performances than one might expect in a story about characters who take everything to extremes. It's not a terrible film, but it's by no means a great example of the genre, especially when compared to Gary Cooper's better known foray into screwball comedy in the hilarious Ball of Fire (1941). Here Cooper lacks the high energy of a proper screwball heroine to react to, even though he has dueling leading ladies in Teresa Wright and Anita Louise. In the end, Casanova Brown is a modestly amusing picture that offers an instructive example of what makes screwball tick by leaving out an essential component.

Cooper plays Casanova Brown, a domesticated descendant of that other Casanova who stumbles into marriage rather more often than he should. On the eve of his wedding to the cosmopolitan Madge (Anita Louise), Cass discovers that his short-lived union with Isabel (Teresa Wright) has produced a child, whom Isabel plans to put up for adoption. Enamored at first sight of his newborn daughter and horrified by the idea of her being given away, Cass kidnaps the baby from the hospital and attempts to care for her while holed up in a local hotel. Meanwhile, both Madge and Isabel are searching for him with their fathers in tow.

There's certainly plenty of chaos and reversal on hand to fuel a screwball comedy. Cooper's Casanova is no Italian adventurer, much less a predatory seducer, but he still ends up at the altar with three different women. He seems to have a preternatural ability to create crises, as he does when his hastily hidden cigarette reduces Isabel's family home to a smoldering ruin, thus provoking the argument that ends his brief marriage. His reaction to Isabel's plan for their baby is to impersonate a doctor, make off with the infant, and then enlist half the hotel staff in his obsessive baby nursing efforts. Whatever the situation, Casanova Brown always seems to make exactly the wrong choice at the worst possible moment, and most of the film's best scenes rely on that disastrous trait.

The problem lies with the development of the two female characters, neither of whom clicks with Cooper or inhabits her role convincingly. I love Teresa Wright in other films, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but here she seems so painfully young as a love interest for Cooper, and she's far too wounded and pitiful to be a proper screwball heroine. Her Isabel is a sad victim of her parents' foolishness, her groom's stubbornness, and her own inability to stand up for herself. Madge, meanwhile, who ought to be a scheming socialite man eater of the first order, is never even remotely awful enough to warrant being left at the altar. Moreover, Anita Louise looks far more age appropriate as a mate for Cooper than Wright (who was actually in her mid-20s in 1944 but looks so much like a kid that even Casanova mentions it), and one has to wonder about a man who prefers a childlike bride over an actual adult. The only real case made against Madge is the constant harping of her father (Frank Morgan) about how controlling and tight-fisted the Ferris women are, and it's clear that his resentment stems from his own greedy desire to run through his wife's fortune at the utmost speed. Louise might have made a more villainous Madge if the script provided any fodder, but Wright is flatly out of place, even if the role hadn't been so weakly written. Screwball needs screwy women to shake up the social order and disrupt expectations, and when they aren't present the picture falls flat.

Aside from Ball of Fire, try iconic screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Midnight (1939), or The Lady Eve (1941) to see the fireworks when everything goes right. Sam Wood, who directed Casanova Brown, was on firmer ground with more melodramatic material like Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942), each of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Gary Cooper won Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), while Teresa Wright won the Best Supporting Actress award for Mrs. Miniver (1942). You can see both of them, once again paired romantically, in The Pride of the Yankees (1942).

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Classic Movie Style: Cary Grant's Sunglasses

On my way home from a trip to the UK last week I happened to flip through the Holland Herald on our KLM flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, and I was delighted to find this little article about chic sunglasses inspired by those worn by Cary Grant in the 1959 film, North by Northwest. Cary Grant is still a style icon, and Oliver Peoples is celebrating his timeless cool with these classy glasses. You can find the glasses in both regular optical and sunglasses versions on the Oliver Peoples website. Unfortunately for us classic movie fans who aren't as rich as a Hollywood mogul, the glasses run from $380 to $475, but they'll look fabulous on anybody who can afford them.

Oliver Peoples also offers eyewear inspired by other style icons and classic Hollywood stars. There's a pair of glasses created in collaboration with the Peck Estate celebrating Gregory Peck's signature style in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), so you can wear spectacles just like Atticus Finch if you're so inclined.

Sadly, I didn't see any glasses designed for women with classic Hollywood connections, but I'd love to find a pair inspired by Edith Head's iconic eyewear or those worn by Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). What other stars or characters in glasses would you like to see celebrated? Maybe Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945) or the fabulously four-eyed Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep (1946)? They definitely make glasses look good!