Friday, October 31, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: FREAKS (1932)

Tod Browning made a lasting mark on the horror genre with Dracula (1931), but Freaks (1932) is by far the stranger and more inventive of the two films. The director had explored the circus before with Lon Chaney silents like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), as well The Show (1927) with John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore, but Freaks goes beyond those earlier efforts by casting actual sideshow performers along with more typical stars. The result remains controversial more than eighty years later; Freaks proved shocking in its own time but may smack too much of exploitation for some modern viewers, even though it works hard to show that its good characters treat the title attractions with humanity and kindness, while its villains mock and reject them. Whatever we make of it, Freaks remains an essential film, one that every cinephile interested in Pre-Codes and classic horror must see at least once.

The story follows various romantic entanglements in the tents of the circus folk. Hans (Harry Earles), a little person, is engaged to the equally tiny Frieda (Daisy Earles) but becomes smitten with seductive trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She and her strongman lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), delude Hans in order to get his money, with Cleopatra even marrying her small admirer, whom she then plans to poison. Meanwhile, circus clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and pretty Venus (Leila Hyams) strike up their own romance; they both look out for the sideshow crowd and consider them friends. When Venus threatens to tell the cops about Hercules and Cleopatra, she, Hans, and Phroso all end up in mortal danger, but the circus freaks have their own plans for the cruel, murderous pair.

With their costumes, physical traits, and exotic accents, the career actors in Freaks can be hard to tell apart from the actual circus performers, and perhaps that is intentional on Browning's part. The most ordinary of the bunch are Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, whose generosity and kindness mark them as kindred spirits despite their hard scrabble lives. The Russian Olga Baclanova puts her foreign appeal to good use as the cold-hearted Cleopatra; her character stands apart from the freaks, literally above them, but the actress fits perfectly in the circus setting. Her dalliance with the German Henry Victor feels like a symbolic union of Eastern menace, especially since Victor went on to play a long string of Nazi roles. Hiding in plain sight is stuttering comedian Roscoe Ates as a circus clown married, awkwardly enough, to a conjoined twin. He, too, fits in with the circus, even though he was an important enough actor to get fourth billing on the film. Despite being under three feet tall, Angelo Rossitto is also one of the movie's professional actors; he racked up 90 screen credits in a career that lasted sixty years. Other, smaller roles are quietly filled by professionals, with Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini and Edward Brophy as one of the Rollo brothers.

Browning's special cast of actual circus performers begins with Harry Earles, who had made his movie debut in The Unholy Three. He and his real life sister, Daisy, act surprisingly well, and the story depends on them to sell their characters' hopes and heartbreak. They can't pretend they aren't German, but they use that to their advantage; unlike Hercules and Cleopatra, Hans and Frieda seem more vulnerable and lonely because of their foreignness. Their small stature makes them look very young, but Harry was thirty in 1932, and Daisy was twenty-five; both continued circus work for many years and eventually retired. Also acquitting themselves well are the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and "half boy" Johnny Eck, although they are overshadowed in the public memory by Schlitze, the Snow sisters, and the limbless Prince Randian. Other sideshow veterans include armless girls, a bearded lady, a human skeleton, and Josephine Joseph, but the film shows us the very ordinary human lives of these people, who chat and have feelings and raise families just like anyone else. If the picture's gruesome climax paints a different image, with its small, grim figures creeping through the mud, Browning at least tries to suggest that they are really just an oppressed and unfairly treated group of people looking out for their own and dishing out some thoroughly warranted poetic justice.

Freaks was banned, recut, denounced, and relegated to vaults for decades; the version you'll find today is not the original work that Browning intended, and the more upbeat ending was a late addition. Modern viewers are unlikely to have the same response that audiences did in 1932; we are too accustomed to a constant diet of visual spectacles, but still Freaks stands out as something unique in the history of film. For more from Tod Browning, try West of Zanzibar (1928), Mark of the Vampire (1935), and the weirdly wonderful The Devil-Doll (1936). Olga Baclanova plays another cruel temptress in The Man Who Laughs (1928), while Leila Hyams faces bestial threats in Island of Lost Souls (1932). Violet and Daisy Hilton made one other screen appearance in Chained for Life (1952), which capitalizes on their experiences as conjoined twins and adds a murder plot twist. Look for Angelo Rossitto in The Beloved Rogue (1927), Spooks Run Wild (1941), and, decades later, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962)

Ray Milland takes over from Vincent Price as Roger Corman's lead actor in The Premature Burial (1962), which builds a feature-length story of obsession and betrayal around a much simpler tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Price's absence makes this entry into Corman's Poe canon less of a favorite among classic horror fans, but those who appreciate Milland on his own merits will find him capable and even quite chilling in the picture's third act. Horror queen Hazel Court also gives a memorable performance, but those who like to see familiar stars in unusual roles will particularly enjoy the presence of Alan Napier and Heather Angel as supporting characters with their own motives for watching Milland's morbid protagonist succumb to his fears. Less deliriously Gothic than some of the best Poe pictures, The Premature Burial is nonetheless an entertaining contribution to the Corman collection and a good example of the horror director's distinctive style.

Milland plays Guy Carrell, a middle-aged gentleman gripped by his fear of being buried alive. Despite the objections of his sister, Kate (Heather Angel), Guy marries the lovely Emily (Hazel Court) and tries to be happy, but events around his home constantly remind him of his phobia. He builds an elaborate mausoleum for himself equipped with numerous escape routes, but when he suffers a bout of catalepsy and is mistaken for dead he is, of course, confronted with the realization of his worst nightmare.

Vincent Price is so closely associated with the Corman Poe movies that it's strange to see Ray Milland step into his place as the haunted protagonist, and Milland certainly plays Guy differently from Price's usual style. Early on he seems much more normal and sane than we might expect, his mania about death excepted, and we wonder why such a charming, ordinary man doesn't just shake off his grim daydreams and get on with his life. Milland's intensity bursts forth in his darker moments, when he rejects flowers and his wife's intrusions, but he really transforms into a figure of madness after his premature burial takes place and he sets off to punish everyone he holds responsible for his fate. This is, after all, the actor who won an Oscar for going on an epic bender in The Lost Weekend (1945), and when he cuts loose Milland shows that he really can work his way around a Gothic fit of violent insanity.

The other players also offer more subtle performances that complement Milland's approach to the protagonist, with the third act finally seeing each character's true nature revealed by the aftermath of Guy's interment. Hazel Court has a spectacular conclusion that justifies her presence, while Alan Napier's Dr. Gault turns out to be a much more heartless old scoundrel than his paternal demeanor suggests. Gault's grave-robbing expedition is the event that first propels Guy into his ongoing fear of live burial, but Gault is the kind of man who will have the corpse of his own son-in-law dug up for medical experimentation, so poetic justice practically begs to catch up with him. Heather Angel is the most inscrutable of the lot; she plays Guy's sister with impeccable reserve, so that we never know how she really feels about her brother and his wife until the very last scene. Richard Ney has the relatively thankless job of playing Miles, a foil to Milland's character who once courted Emily and still harbors strong feelings for her.

Corman presents viewers with the Victorian atmosphere and constant swirling fog that feature in so many of his Poe films, along with copious cobwebs and a handful of dry corpses. If the themes of catalepsy and live burial seem repetitive after House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), that has as much to do with Poe's obsessions as Corman's. The influence of German Expressionism and the importance of art also recur in this outing, with Guy's dream sequence awash in blue and green light and his surreal paintings depicting the disordered state of his mind. Corman also evinces a sly, twisted sense of humor in his use of the old song, "Molly Malone," as a persistent theme. We never hear the actual lyrics sung in the film, but the refrain of the song is "Alive, alive, oh," which serves as an ironic summary of Guy's obsession.

Like many classic stars, Ray Milland made a number of horror features late in his career, but for a great example of his earlier work in the genre see The Uninvited (1944). He also gives a standout performance in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller, Dial M for Murder. Look for Hazel Court in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) as well as Corman's The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Heather Angel appears in Suspicion (1941), The Undying Monster (1942), and Lifeboat (1944), but you might also recognize her as the voice of Mrs. Darling in Disney's Peter Pan (1953). Alan Napier is best remembered today as Alfred on the 1960s TV series, Batman, although his long career spanned more than 50 years and nearly 150 roles.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958)

Directed by Robert Day, The Haunted Strangler (1958) comes from the later part of Boris Karloff's career, long after his iconic roles in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932). Karloff churned out modest chillers for decades, and he's usually the best thing in them, but The Haunted Strangler gives him a particularly good role as a Victorian novelist trying to uncover the truth about an old murder case in which the wrong man might have been hanged. The eloquent, intelligent Karloff is on full display here, but fans of the horror star's more monstrous side will also find plenty to appreciate.

Karloff plays reform-minded writer James Rankin, who hopes to show the flaws of the legal system by proving that innocent men are executed for other people's crimes. He begins investigating the conviction of Edward Styles as a serial killer called The Haymarket Strangler, although his young assistant, Ken (Tim Turner), doubts the point of his efforts. As he digs deeper into the past, Rankin unwittingly resurrects the real killer, long hidden from view, and new murders precede the revelation of a shocking connection between the intellectual author and the bestial criminal.

The story opens like a police procedural revolving around a cold case, with Rankin and Ken mulling over files, clues, and autopsy reports. They interview witnesses and anyone else connected with the crime, including the residents of The Judas Hole, the seedy dance hall where the final murder took place. There they find Cora (Jean Kent), who was the dead woman's friend, and her pretty apprentice, Pearl (Vera Day). Cora piques Rankin's interest in the mysterious young Dr. Tenant, who frequented The Judas Hole and was involved in the original investigation but disappeared after Styles was hanged. Once The Judas Hole characters are introduced, the plot shifts into the territory of more traditional horror. The murderer returns to spill fresh blood, the search for the killer becomes urgent, and Rankin finally begins to suspect the awful truth. Even worse, his wife Barbara (Elizabeth Allan) and stepdaughter Lily (Diane Aubrey) become targets of the deranged fiend, and even the police cannot protect them.

Film still from Criterion Collection site

Along with Karloff's keen performance, thoughtful cinematography and an emphasis on psychology also elevate The Haunted Strangler above the lurid premise of its title. The opening scenes depict a Hogarthian tableau of the gathered rabble's indifference to justice and suffering, prompting us to sympathize all the more with Rankin's humanitarian quest. The can-can sequences also offer a visual contrast between the animal pleasures of the masses and the intellectual refinement of the idealistic gentleman. These images both confound and prefigure the later motif of the suppressed id breaking through to wreak havoc on a carefully ordered and civilized life. Robert Louis Stevenson provides obvious inspiration for the narrative's thrust, but The Haunted Strangler offers its own take on the well-worn tale, merging its Freudian concerns with Jack the Ripper mania and the unconscious transgressions of the involuntary monster.

While it's Karloff's movie from start to finish, be sure to note career villain Anthony Dawson playing against type as the Scotland Yard policeman. Robert Day directed The Green Man (1956), several Tarzan films, and the 1965 version of She starring Ursula Andress. Day's Corridors of Blood (1958) also stars Karloff and makes for a fine double feature with The Haunted Strangler. For more Karloff horror in a similar vein, try The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946) from the Val Lewton canon.

The Criterion release of The Haunted Strangler, which looks fantastic, is available for streaming on Hulu Plus.

Friday, October 24, 2014

ELVIRA'S HAUNTED HILLS (2001) Have Eyes for Vincent Price

Serendipity led me to watch the 2001 horror-comedy Elvira's Haunted Hills this week, immediately after several nights running of Roger Corman classics. The Elvira picture popped up on Hulu Plus; I wasn't planning to watch it but figured "Why not?"since I like Elvira's oddball style well enough that I own the Elvira: Scared Stiff pinball machine (come on over sometime and you can play, too). I hadn't seen Haunted Hills before, but imagine my delight when it turned out to be a loving parody of two movies I had just seen: House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)!

Seriously, Richard Matheson really deserves a writing credit for Elvira's Haunted Hills because whole chunks of dialogue are lifted directly from the older movies. The plot splices together the Roger Corman versions of two classic stories by Edgar Allan Poe, with much more emphasis on Corman than Poe. There's some Dracula (1931) thrown in for good measure, along with a string of other gags that mock familiar films and tropes. The result is sort of a mess, but it's a funny mess, especially if you recognize the source material and the way the Elvira film turns it to comedic purposes.

Elvira plays herself, naturally, roaming around 19th century Carpathia en route to Paris and her showbiz career. Along with her French maid, Zou Zou (Mary Jo Smith), Elvira accepts a carriage ride from randy Dr. Bradley (Scott Atkinson) and ends up at Castle Hellsubus, where she meets Vladimere Hellsubus (Richard O'Brien), his wife (Mary Scheer), and his consumptive niece (Heather Hopper). Vladimere suffers from acute sensitivity and an obsession with his dead wife, Elura, whom Elvira happens to resemble. Weird mayhem ensues, along with a fair bit of randy humor, which is just what one expects from Elvira.

This is goofy, low-budget stuff, but it's clear that Cassandra Peterson and her director, Sam Irvin, share a deep love for the Corman Poe movies. The picture is even dedicated to Vincent Price, who played the lead characters in Corman's films. Richard O'Brien, best known for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), offers his own take on the Price characters but certainly seems to be having a lot of fun. He looks more like Nosferatu but doubles down on psychological infirmities with Roderick Usher's hypersensitivity and Nicholas Medina's morbid obsession with his deceased bride. The wan Lady Roxana, aka "Catalepsy Poster Child," wickedly skewers the Poe motif of the dying maiden, while Lady Ema takes her cues from Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein (1974) but still evokes the Gothic wives of the Corman pictures.

For the best experience with Elvira's Haunted Hills, do watch House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum first, perhaps over the Halloween weekend. Then you can really revel in the allusions and jokes the way God and Cassandra Peterson intended.

You wanted to see the pinball machine, didn't you?

Classic Science Fiction Movies and More at NerdCon!

If you're in the Huntsville area, head on over to NerdCon at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library this weekend. I'll be there doing a joint panel on Stunt Casting in Modern Popular Culture on Friday evening and a solo talk about 10 Classic Sci-Fi Movies Every Geek Should Know on Saturday afternoon. I'll also have copies of BEYOND CASABLANCA for sale and promo postcards for my YA fantasy novel, WIERM'S EGG.

NerdCon promises to be a great event with lots of programs that are teen-friendly as well as some panels that are just for adults. You can find out more about it by visiting the library's website. I should be at the LEGO panel (of course!) as well as my own two panels, and I hope to attend some of the other fascinating programs on the schedule.

While I'm at it, let me just mention this brand new review of WIERM'S EGG on from Huntsville Book Examiner Lionel Ray Green. Go check it out!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) rambles far afield of the original story by Edgar Allan Poe, even for a Roger Corman adaptation, but that doesn't prevent it from being an entertaining horror film. With Vincent Price and Barbara Steele both giving memorable performances and a gruesome story of adultery and torture providing the narrative thrust, The Pit and the Pendulum has plenty to offer viewers who enjoy Corman's distinctive style, and Richard Matheson's screenplay delivers a sly mix of Radcliffean Gothic and psychological suspense. While it can't really be considered as an adaptation of Poe's work, the movie stands on its own creative merits well enough to warrant the attention of horror fans, especially those who appreciate the macabre charms of Vincent Price.

Price plays Nicholas Medina, whose grief over the death of his young wife is interrupted by the arrival of her brother, Francis (John Kerr), from England. Francis insists on details about the demise of Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), forcing Nicholas and his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders), to reveal family secrets they would just as soon keep hidden. When strange events cause Nicholas to believe that Catherine was buried alive, Francis and Catherine struggle to get to the truth, but sinister machinations draw all of them to a fateful encounter in the torture chambers deep beneath the house.

Only the last ten minutes of the movie have any connection to the Poe story, but the original material is lurid enough to make for a good Gothic yarn, even if it isn't Poe. The screenplay concocts an elaborate narrative of betrayal and revenge against Poe's backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, adding romantic intrigue and a haunted house element to flesh out the brief source material. We learn that Nicholas witnessed the brutal murders of his adulterous mother and uncle at the hands of his father when he was just a child. Already psychologically fragile, he seems poised on the verge of a complete breakdown when eerie happenings suggest that his wife's angry spirit is haunting the house in order to punish Nicholas for her premature burial. His doctor (Antony Carbone) advises him to leave the house forever, but Nicholas is drawn back to his wife's tomb and the horrid torture chamber where his father carried on the bloody work of the Inquisition.

The weakest link in the picture is John Kerr as Francis, who is something of a stick and too stiff-necked for us to care much about his fate. Playing the straight man against an actor like Price is never a rewarding job, but Francis could at least react when he's about to be cut in half by a giant pendulum. Antony Carbone also plays it very low-key as the doctor, leaving Luana Anders as the most interesting member of the household after Price himself. Barbara Steele is great in her few scenes, especially in the final act, but once again Price is the main attraction, coming unglued like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944) until he finally snaps. His pursuit of the ghostly Elizabeth through the cobwebbed secret passages drips with classic Gothic atmosphere, and the finale gives him a terrific mad scene in which to cut loose.

Be sure to appreciate the dreadful irony of the picture's closing shot; it's a devilish example of poetic justice at its most perverse. For more of the Corman and Price collaborations, see House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). John Kerr worked mostly in television, but you can find him in The Cobweb (1955), Tea and Sympathy (1956), and South Pacific (1958). Catch Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's horror classic, Black Sunday (1960), and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). Luana Anders appears in Night Tide (1961), Dementia 13 (1963), and Easy Rider (1969), while Antony Carbone turns up in other Corman pictures like A Bucket of Blood (1959), Last Woman on Earth (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSE OF USHER (1960)

Roger Corman's series of Poe adaptations begins with House of Usher (1960), which sets the tone for the later films and establishes Vincent Price as Corman's ideal Gothic figure, a cultured, romantic, but fatally haunted central character entangled by strange twists of fate. Screenwriter Richard Matheson takes liberties with Poe's original tale but remains true to its essence, while Corman uses art and Price's tremendous screen presence to invest the proceedings with an air of sophistication in spite of the director's reputation for low-budget cult productions. If one doesn't insist too much on strict fidelity to the source material, the Corman Poe films are all great fun, and House of Usher makes an excellent introduction to the ghoulish thrills that follow it.

Price takes center stage as Roderick Usher, a solitary gentleman peculiarly afflicted by acute sensitivity. Roderick is not pleased when Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) intrudes on the Usher mansion looking for Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who is Roderick's sister and Philip's intended bride. Philip resolves to take Madeline away from the crumbling house and the morbid obsessions that seem to plague both siblings, but Madeline's sudden death defeats his schemes. Soon he discovers that Roderick may have buried his sister somewhat prematurely, with fatal consequences for everyone associated with the house of Usher.

There can be no spoilers in a story so well known, and House of Usher telegraphs its conclusion insistently, so that we only wait to see how the inevitable end comes and not whether it will happen. Inexorable doom descending is, after all, a favorite theme of the Poe tales. Corman and Matheson add some new wrinkles to the familiar story by making Madeline a much younger sister instead of a twin and by giving the originally anonymous narrator a more pointed identity as Madeline's love interest. The film also eschews the story's hints at incest and provides a truly sordid collection of sinners to justify the familial curse; Roderick and Madeline have quite a family tree of murderers, thieves, and madmen, and Roderick firmly believes that any future progeny will only perpetuate the crimes of their forebears. Eerie paintings by Burt Shonberg (credited as Burt Schoenberg) evoke the Ushers' perversions and add an element of nightmare to the ruined house. They also prepare us for a dream sequence straight out of German expressionist horror, in which Philip assumes the role of a Gothic heroine, fearfully searching the house only to encounter the leering ghosts of the Usher ancestors.

Damon, Fahey, and Harry Ellerbe as the old family servant all play their parts capably enough, but the movie belongs to Vincent Price from the moment he appears on screen. Price was not quite fifty when he made the picture, and he was already established as a horror star with roles in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), House of Wax (1953), and House on Haunted Hill (1959). The Corman Poe movies are perfectly tailored to Price's talents; his rich voice, aristocratic bearing, and ability to play both true horror and winking black comedy all contribute to his success as a variety of Poe protagonists, starting with the overwrought Roderick. We never know for certain if Roderick is insane or if the house really does pulse with generational evil, but Price depicts Roderick's conviction as absolute. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Price recite Roderick's poem, "The Haunted Palace," in this picture, especially since the 1963 movie of that title is actually adapted from H.P. Lovecraft and is not a Poe story at all. Luckily, we get such a bevy of great performances from Price in the later Corman films that it's ungrateful to complain too much about the small things that get left out.

For more of the best Corman collaborations with Vincent Price, see Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). For later Price horrors, try The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Theatre of Blood (1973), and Madhouse (1974). Mark Damon's other acting credits include Young and Dangerous (1957), Black Sabbath (1963), and a number of Italian horrors and Westerns, but he has also enjoyed a very successful career as a producer and is still working in 2014.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)

Robert Aldrich's quintessential example of Grande Dame Guignol is often discussed for its value as camp, but Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) offers genuine horrors as well as pitch black comedy. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, fierce rivals and determined survivors of the Hollywood fame machine, invest their characters with layers of psychological depth that lesser actresses could never achieve, and the result is a horror film that stirs the imagination long after the terrible irony of the final scene. Like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Baby Jane is a story about the fickle nature of stardom, but it's also a dark fairy tale of sibling rivalry pushed to murderous extremes. You may watch it for camp and laugh at Davis' shrieking hag, but the true genius of Baby Jane reveals itself in the quieter moments, where we witness the awful power of jealousy, love, and hate to wreak havoc on human souls.

Davis plays former child star Baby Jane Hudson, whose heyday on the Vaudeville stage gave way to failure as a screen actress once she grew up. Crawford is her sister, Blanche, once the jealous wallflower but later a huge Hollywood success. Blanche's career ended when a mysterious car accident paralyzed her legs, and years later she is confined to a wheelchair and dependent on the increasingly unstable Jane. Jane's outrageous abuse makes Blanche fear for her life, but a terrible secret binds the two sisters together in a fatal knot of guilt and resentment.

The garish white face of Baby Jane is one of the picture's most iconic elements, along with the infamous rat on a tray, and it might seem like a bizarre moment in Bette Davis' career for those unfamiliar with her particular talent for transforming herself into monstrous objects of pity and revulsion. Take it instead as part of a whole that reaches back to Of Human Bondage (1934) and Marked Woman (1937) and continues through Now, Voyager (1942) and Mr. Skeffington (1944). Davis revels in this kind of role, and it shows in her sharp, poignant performance. Her Jane is as much Blanche DuBois as Norma Desmond, not merely a crazed harridan but a broken soul that longs for acceptance and even love. In the tradition of all great monster performers, Davis works hard to make us feel the tragedy beneath the horror. Jane was young once, beautiful and beloved. If she has fallen so far, there must be dreadful reasons for it, which the film itself will only tease us with, even in the confessional moments of the closing scene. Davis invites us to consider the hidden things, the slow decline of Jane's mind and the toll of living with Blanche all those years.

Joan Crawford plays a subtler psychological game as Blanche, wearing her terrified martyr face but leaning on that buzzer with a vengeance. Without the opening scenes, where young Blanche eyes her sister and father with steely hatred, we might be inclined to believe that Blanche is merely the victim here, the sweet and tragically crippled star pining for a quiet life with her devoted maid, Elvira (Maidie Norman). Gina Gillespie, who plays Blanche as a child, gives a short but critical performance that warns us not to take Blanche's act at face value. Crawford's Blanche is consciously playing a role, but that buzzer shatters Jane's fragile mind at every opportunity, as shrill and profane as Blanche pretends to be long-suffering and refined. Only at the end do we understand the extent of Blanche's responsibility for the fate that befalls her, but then we see her own mask of virtue set aside, as much a false face as Jane's gruesome paint.

Other performances are also worth noting. Victor Buono earned an Oscar nomination for his avaricious, amoral Edwin Flagg, and he has a screen presence reminiscent of Laird Cregar in his sleazier villain roles. Maidie Norman is simply brilliant as Elvira, who distrusts crazy Jane but falls hook, line, and sinker for Blanche's assumed sweetness. Anna Lee provides some context and contrast as the neighbor, Mrs. Bates, who remembers Blanche Hudson's stardom but also reminds us of the normal life that neither sister got to have. Julie Allred, all blonde curls and bad attitude, provides a perfect introduction to Jane as the child star at the height of her career; her temper tantrum at the backstage door is quite a moment, with a deliciously dark connection to the movie's final scene. Oddly enough, Bette Davis' daughter, Barbara Merrill, appears as Mrs. Bates' teenage daughter; her scathing tell-all book about her famous mother was still more than 20 years away, but she would marry at the age of sixteen the year after Baby Jane was released.

In a rare showing of Academy enthusiasm for a horror film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, with four more nominations, including a nod for Davis as Best Actress. Ernest Haller's cinematography also picked up a well-deserved nomination. Davis and Aldrich reunited for Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), but Crawford famously dropped out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. For more from Aldrich, try Vera Cruz (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). See more Bette Davis horror in Dead Ringer (1964), The Nanny (1965), Burnt Offerings (1976), and The Watcher in the Woods (1980). Crawford's late career also includes horror films like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), and the infamous Trog (1970), which would be her final film credit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mystery and Maternity in GASLIGHT (1944)

George Cukor's 1944 version of the Patrick Hamilton play Angel Street is not the first adaptation of the material for film, but Gaslight provides a unique take on the events found in the original text. The screenplay makes a number of important changes, including the identity of the heroine as the murdered woman's family member, and it layers mystery upon mystery without feeling obligated to unravel every thread in a neat, methodical fashion. Because of that, one of the great charms of Gaslight is the way in which it tantalizes us with lingering questions long after the final scene fades. Chief among these, perhaps, although hidden in the subtext of the story, is the mystery of Paula's mother. Who was she? What happened to her? Why did Alice Alquist tell Paula so little about her biological parents? This mystery creates an important opportunity for Paula's sadistic husband, Gregory, but it also invites the viewer the consider the possibility that the answer, like Alice's priceless jewels, might be hidden in plain sight.

The 1944 adaptation of the story stars Ingrid Bergman as the naive young Paula, who interrupts the murder of her opera diva aunt and prevents the killer from obtaining the jewels for which Alice Alquist is so brutally strangled. A decade later, Paula falls into a whirlwind romance with the suave Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who convinces his bride to return to the London home where Alice Alquist died. Once they are in London, Gregory's affection rapidly transforms into menacing control, and he constantly suggests that Paula is losing her mind. Circumstances make Paula believe that her husband might be correct, but a determined Scotland Yard detective, played by Joseph Cotten, suspects that Gregory has sinister motives for his cruel, calculating behavior.

Throughout the film, Paula is described as Alice Alquist's niece, but her resemblance to her dead aunt is remarkable. "I look like her, but I don't sing like her," Paula laments early on in the film, after her mentor comments on the uncanny likeness. When Paula shows Gregory a portrait of her famous aunt, the face of the opera diva is unmistakably that of Ingrid Bergman, even though the costume shows the singer with dark hair. Brian Cameron, the Scotland Yard detective, thinks at first that he has seen a ghost when he initially spots Paula at the Tower of London. The resemblance is so powerful that Cameron breaks out the old case files on the Alquist murder and resolves to get a closer look at Paula and her secretive spouse. That fact alone makes Paula's resemblance to her aunt vital to the plot, but the likeness of the two women is far more pronounced than one might expect between an aunt and a niece. Paula seems to Cameron to be Alice Alquist herself come back from the grave, demanding that the mystery of her murder finally be solved. The two women's fates are, ultimately, inextricably linked, as Paula turns out to be married to the same man who murdered Alice. Gregory Anton, once known as Sergis Bauer, has the power to destroy both incarnations; in the attic room he wrecks Alice's possessions, the relics of her life, while downstairs he wrecks Paula's mind. Even after Alice's death, the two women are like different aspects of the same life force.

Gregory uses the mystery of Paula's mother as one of his weapons against her sanity. Paula reveals that she knows nothing at all about her biological parents, except that her mother died when she was born. She does not even carry the name of her missing mother and father; her own name before marriage appears to be the same as that of her aunt. The only person who might have told Paula about her parents is Alice, and Alice apparently chose to say nothing at all. Gregory later takes advantage of this blank history by claiming that he has been investigating Paula's mother and has discovered that she went mad and died in an insane asylum. "Your mother was mad," he tells her. "She died in an asylum when you were a year old." The news terrifies Paula and pushes her that much closer to the breaking point, but Gregory later admits that this story is a lie, something he made up as part of his attempt to drive Paula mad. Paula's mother is as much a mystery as ever, her history subject to falsification because Paula knows nothing about her. By withholding any information about her parents, Alice has left Paula vulnerable to Gregory's lies, but she must have had some reason for concealing the truth.

Alice Alquist was certainly good at concealing other vital pieces of information. She hid the very existence of her jewels from Paula, who knew nothing about them even though she lived with Alice from infancy. Alice hid them partly because of their immense value and partly because they were a gift from her royal lover, the Tzar. While opera divas lived somewhat outside the social norms of the time, Alice could not publicly admit such a scandalous relationship, even though it seems to have been something of an open secret to the police. Ironically, Alice chose to hide the stones in plain sight by having them sewn into her costume as Empress Theodora, the same character depicted in the portrait that Paula shows to Gregory. When Alice appeared on stage at the opera, only her lover would recognize his magnificent gift as part of her apparel. It was a secret between the couple that none of the adoring crowds could guess. Gregory, intent on finding the jewels, mistakes the real things for costume fakes when he first rifles through Alice's clothes. Only near the film's end does he recognize them as the object of his murderous desire. He never seems to suspect that Alice might have hidden other fruits of her romance with the Tzar in plain sight, as well.

All of these elements of the story, however, point to one conclusion: Alice Alquist was Paula's real mother, and her father was most likely the Tzar. A love child would explain the extravagance of the Tzar's gift; he wanted to give the mother of his child something priceless because he could never acknowledge either of them. Alice Alquist wanted to protect Paula from the stigma of being illegitimate and the danger of being recognized as the Tzar's offspring. As she did with the jewels, Alice hid Paula in plain sight, concocting a fictional sister who conveniently died abroad while giving birth. The closer familial relationship explains the extraordinary resemblance between the two women, but it also makes Paula's final confrontation with Gregory more poetic and significant. Paula has no idea how much she has lost because of Gregory, but she is able to seal his fate and gain vengeance for her mother's murder. Alice dies because of one hidden treasure, but another, even more precious to her, becomes the catalyst for long delayed justice.