Thursday, September 26, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)

Hands of the Ripper (1971) is a gory Hammer horror foray into the much visited territory of Jack the Ripper mythology, this time focusing on the serial killer's imaginary daughter and the effects of being a witness to acts of extreme violence. While it has many of the customary elements of classic Hammer - namely bloody killings, a lush Victorian atmosphere, and buxom girls in various stages of undress - it comes up sadly short in the narrative department, mainly because its focus on Freudian psychoanalysis and compulsive behavior takes precedence over any effort to make its most important character actually interesting. The result is disappointing because Hands of the Ripper could be a much more sophisticated and engaging story than the one we get, in which a milquetoast and often catatonic girl suddenly becomes a killer every time the right stimuli occur.

Directed by Peter Sasdy, the film follows the psychologically damaged Anna (Angharad Rees) as she leaves a trail of corpses behind her. The daughter of Jack the Ripper, Anna witnessed her father murdering her mother but grew up an orphan with no memory of her past identity. Her murderous impulses are triggered when her employer, a fraudulent medium, accidentally recreates the stimuli that Anna experienced during her mother's gruesome death, but Anna is spirited away and protected by Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter), who wants to study her using Freud's psychological methods. Soon members of Pritchard's own household are turning up dead, but the doctor cares more about his research than Anna's well-being or the lives of other people.

Visually there's a lot to like about Hands of the Ripper, from the flashing lights that mesmerize Anna to the delirious climax in the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul's Cathedral. The scenes of violence grow increasingly dreadful with each occurrence thanks to the persistent formula that stimulates them, with viewers waiting in suspense for the inevitable, innocent kiss that causes Anna to strike with the nearest sharp object. The scenes featuring prostitutes - and there's no shortage of them - are colorful and energetic in their earthiness, contrasting splendidly with the buttoned up, secret depravity of respectable gentlemen like Pritchard, Dysart, and even Jack himself.

Unfortunately, Anna remains a tabula rasa, a cipher without agency or personality, throughout the film, and outside her brief flashes of violence she does nothing at all. She's more like Conrad Veidt's sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) than Laird Cregar's tortured killer in Hangover Square (1945), and that's a shame because the monstrous is always more powerful when the viewer pities and understands the struggle of the person who becomes monstrous. Anna never puts up much of a fight and barely even registers that anything has happened, which leaves the viewer with Pritchard as the only character whose motivations can be pondered to any degree. Pritchard, however, is deeply unsympathetic from the moment he lets Anna murder the housemaid and then covers it up without warning his family that he's brought a dangerous, uncontrollable killer into their home. His behavior smacks of paternalism and misogyny, especially because it doesn't seem to matter to him that Anna's victims are all women... until, of course, he finds himself on the receiving end of her violent compulsion. Pritchard, Dysart, and Jack all use Anna for their own ends, making all of them far worse monsters than the girl who never has any say in her own fate, but we don't feel like justice is served or karma balanced by the ending because the original author of all this suffering, Jack himself, cannot be held accountable for his crimes.

If you're interested in more developed female monsters and killers in other classic horror films, try Dracula's Daughter (1936), Cat People (1942), or The Vampire Lovers (1970). Peter Sasdy also directed the Hammer films, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971). Eric Porter is best remembered for his leading role in the TV miniseries, The Forsyte Saga, while Angharad Rees starred in the 1970s TV series, Poldark. For more classic movies inspired by Jack the Ripper, you might try The Lodger (there are two films with the title, from 1927 and 1944, and both are about the Ripper) or the 1979 Sherlock Holmes thriller, Murder by Decree.

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.