Sunday, 10 February 2019

CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE (2019)

Now available in the UK on the Screenbound label, Crucible Of The Vampire is director/writer/editor Iain Ross-McNamee’s second full-length feature. It cleverly utilises the topography of a bucolic Shropshire landscape as well as the history behind the manor house used as the film’s primary shooting location, in order to evoke beautifully the golden era of British horror. But the film is a transparently low budget affair, so brilliantly steeped in a mix of the early‘70s folk horror tropes of Tigon British and the racy lesbian vampire action that writer Tudor Gates made a cornerstone of Hammer Films’ Karnstein Trilogy  -- The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Twins of Evil (1972) -- during the same period, that it really is a mystery why Ross-McNamee also allows proceedings to deteriorate, towards the end, into a mire of cheapo CGI digital effects and choreographed fight scenes. Such tactics quickly ruin the genteel air of old school charm that defines the diffident sort of British exploitation it was presumably intending to mimic the tone of in the earlier portions of the picture, only to replace it with a crude low budget aesthetic that’s a dime-a-dozen everywhere else you look in indie horror circles. Nevertheless, before we reach that final act when it goes slightly off the rails, there’s plenty else here for aficionados of 1970s Brit horror to recognise and doubtless appreciate.

The story itself will seem instantly familiar, being entirely built from tropes and narrative strands that appear countless times throughout the genre and are central to many of David McGillivray’s screenplays for British horror movie directors such as Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Ross-McNamee and his two co-writers, Darren Lake and John Wolskel, do a particularly convincing job in the first half of the movie of channelling their interest in Hammer’s ‘70s vampire output and the ‘Big Three’ associated with the Folk Horror subgenre, into what essentially becomes a re-working of Warren’s Satan’s Slave, from 1976 -- with witchcraft, necromancy, a dysfunctional family with a dodgy history and an attractive innocent who is led unsuspectingly into a carefully prepared trap set by devilish forces. This gets combined with an awareness of the methods of construction of supernatural tales by the likes of M.R James and Arthur Machen, which are often uncanny historical palimpsests that reveal their concealed layers through an exploration of architectural and landscape history.  


The film begins in a traditional fashion for this genre, in this case with a black-and-white 1649 prologue in which John Stearne, the main associate of the real-life Civil War-era Witchfinder Mathew Hopkins, hangs an old peasant called Ezekiel Fletcher (played by Brian Croucher of Blake’s 7 fame) from an Oak tree in the Shropshire woodland for the crime of necromancy. His next act is to break into two pieces the cauldron suspected of being used by Ezekiel for his sorcery. Ezekiel’s dead daughter had been seen roaming Jacob’s Wood at night, which is more than enough reason for finding the old boy guilty on the spot without further examination of the issue. Three-hundred-and-fifty years later, though, and one half of what has subsequently become known as the Stearne Cauldron now rests in the University Museum of a young assistant curator called Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch). Conscious that the owners might be attempting to scam the university to pay for repairs, her supervisor sends her to a Shropshire manor house being renovated by a family who claims to have uncovered the other half of the cauldron in their basement while preparing to lay a new gas pipe. It is Isabelle’s job to examine the artefact and decide whether or not the claim is genuine.

Karl (Larry Rew), the owner of the house, tells Isabelle about the history to the building, which was originally built by secret Catholics during the reign of James I, then adapted and expanded during the Victorian era. When he mentions in passing how the Neo-Jacobian pile was formerly a Girls’ School, it sounds like a knowing line included in the script with the intention of it being picked up on by viewers as an obvious reference to Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire from 1971. In fact, a little light research into manor houses in the Shropshire area unearthed the film’s shooting location to be one Acton Reynald Hall: ‘a Victorian mansion incorporating parts of a building dating from early to mid-17th Century’. The building was the home of the Corbett family for generations; but they first moved there in 1644, after their former home became a Royalist garrison during the English Civil War and was destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiery. It was expanded on in the early 19th century by Shropshire architect J.H. Haycock, when the entire village of Acton Reynard, along with several farms, were demolished to make way for the surrounding park. In 1919, though, the building actually was turned into a Girls’ School, and remained one up until 1995! One of the nice things about Iain Ross-McNamee’s film is how it manages to incorporate little bits of the local history of the area into its B movie plot about sorcery, witches and vampirism. At one point Isabelle finds a diary written by a former owner of the house during the Victorian era, which prompts a flashback in the style of M.R. James, where we find out how the half of the Stearne cauldron now buried in the basement was discovered. Jeremiah Cain (Charles O’Neill) describes being led by an unearthly melody floating on the wind in the woods, to the site of the hanging of Ezekiel Fletcher, seen in the 1649 prologue.  It also leads him to the cauldron, which he then takes back to the manor, only to unleash a ghostly presence in the form of a pale, ghostly woman in a black dress who comes to be known as the Dark Lady.
By this point, Isabelle has also been experiencing similar visions of a scary ghostly woman in the night. And there are also countless other odd episodes to deal with involving the, frankly, strange inhabitants who are Isabelle’s hosts up at the mansion: Scarlet (Florence Cady), the rebellious daughter of Karl and his foreign wife Evelyn (Babette Barat), steals Isabelle’s phone and even some of her underwear. And Evelyn insists on providing Isabelle with mysterious bedtime drinks and then hanging about to make quite sure she drains the glass before leaving. These mysterious ‘tonics’ seem to prompt erotic dreams (or are they dreams?) involving white horses and the ghostly pale woman. Even a trip to the local pub results in Isabelle meeting the gardener who works on the estate (played by Neil Morrissey) who then tells her about the terrible fate of his predecessor. The former gardener’s seemingly hostile son follows her back to the mansion along a moonlit path after she leaves the pub that night (providing an opportunity for some very Hammer-like day-for-night photography) issuing incoherent warnings about what might happen to her if she stays at the mansion any longer. Karl himself also becomes more suspect, refusing to allow Isabelle to remove the cauldron from its present site in the manor’s basement and demanding that she arrange to have the museum’s half of the artefact brought out instead to Shropshire in order to find out whether or not they fit together. 

When Isabelle reveals to a barmaid at the local pub that she has just broken up with her boyfriend because he couldn’t accept her religiously derived belief that there should be no sex before marriage, it doesn’t take a genius of a viewer to figure out that Isabelle’s virginal state might have also had some ulterior Wicker Man-style role to play in her being selected to come out to the manor house in the first place. The latter thought is made rather more explicit by the exceedingly forward behaviour exhibited by Scarlet who, not content with confronting Isabelle with the knowledge that she is attempting to seduce her while wearing Isabelle’s own purloined underwear, ends up exploiting a particularly disturbing encounter Isabelle has with the Dark Lady in order to successfully initiate her into the pleasures of Sapphic love!


The plot elements and the sometimes theatrically antiquated performance styles of some of the cast members make it quite plain that Hammer’s trio of films that were very loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla are the main models for the narrative, and for the lightly eroticised style of the movie. The problem with any attempt to recreate this bygone era in the present day is that actors of the personality and stature of Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt are not around anymore to do what they so often were able to do for Hammer Films: bring a degree of prestige to the productions they worked on that elevated those films beyond their nominal worth. For instance, the role of head of household Karl is played perfectly convincingly by the performer tasked with the job here, but you can’t help noticing that his role is precisely the kind that would have at one time been played by someone like John Carson if this were a real Hammer film -- and once you see that, it immediately draws your attention to the fact that the actor taking his place can never be an adequate substitute. 

That being said, Florence Cady does make a seductive might-be-a-lesbian/might-be-a-vampire antagonist; and newcomer (and Brie Larson-look-alike) Kate Goldfinch is a suitably engaging lead, although she inevitably struggles with the inconsistency of character that is demanded of her by the script when she goes from being a naïve, out-of-her-depth academic who falls for the same ‘drugged drink’ trick twice in close succession, to an ‘arse-kicking’ superwoman, slashing throats and crushing heads with seemingly no problem whatsoever, who manages to take out a coven-full of robed cult members about to drain her of her virgin’s blood so that they can fully restore their vampire-witch queen to her full glory. Neil Morrissey receives top billing on the cover of the DVD, but in truth turns up for only a handful of scenes, mainly concerned with delivering exposition. He is also given a scene at the climax of the movie just to make it worthwhile his turning up presumably -- although his role in the events depicted is, to be honest, rather minimal. In his director and editor roles Iain Ross-McNamee makes evocative use of the exterior and interiors of Action Raynard Hall to deliver many atmospheric moments in the build-up to the easily predicted climactic reveal; and a dream-like sequence that takes place in total silence and in slow motion is directed (probably unintentionally) like an ethereal Jesus Franco fever dream -- although there’s nothing in the film that's anywhere near as pervy as what ol’ Jess would have presented us with, I’m sure.
But if you can ignore the terrible digital FX, one or two weak performances and a resolution that seems to aim for charged ambiguity but just ends up feeling slightly unsatisfactory instead, there’s still an overall old-school feel about Crucible of the Vampire that is undoubtedly attractive, and will please many fans of the classics of 1970s British horror. It does, in the end, draw many strands of influence together in a way that feels utterly natural and convincing. It’s just a shame the pay-off seems rather rote, and plays by the rules of a more modern breed of horror rather than having the courage to stick with the original low-key style it began with. Screenbound Entertainment has just released the film on dual format Blu-ray/DVD and on digital platforms after it garnered many festival plaudits and awards, so this is a film that will definitely be of interest to many, despite its flaws.                 
         

Monday, 28 January 2019

HUSH ... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964)

Robert Aldrich’s 1962 horror thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? single-handedly spawned the psycho-biddy subgenre by successfully blurring the thin line already dividing the gossip column-generating heat of off-screen rivalries indulged at the time -- largely for publicity purposes -- by its two ageing Hollywood stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and the murderous, co-dependent animus that drives the unstable characters they play to extremes within the context of the film itself. The imaginations of movie audiences were galvanised by the histrionic performances delivered by these rival ‘Grand Dames’ of the silver screen amid the feverish atmosphere of stifled Gothic melodrama Aldrich was able to generate from Lukas Heller’s adaptation of Henry Farrell’s source novel. It was inevitable a second pairing of the veteran star actresses and the independent director would become a much sought-after commodity in the wake of the unexpected box office success and the five Academy Award nominations picked up as the fruits of their first collaboration, and so when Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) came along, 20th Century Fox must have been banking on the chance to considerably up the ante on its Warner Brothers-distributed predecessor, as Heller and Farrell sought to recombine their talents in the cause of helping Aldrich bring to the screen an unpublished sort-of semi-sequel short story (originally titled, with obvious self-awareness, Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?) that Farrell had written to be made as another one of Robert Aldrich's independent productions, but on a considerably larger budget than had been available for Baby Jane.  


For reasons now more widely understood (and which furnish a great deal of the ample background material one will find related in fascinating detail by Kat Ellinger and Glen Erickson across the two commentary tracks included with this new Masters of Cinema release), the proposed ‘rematch’ between Davis and Crawford never materialised, Crawford’s supposed health issues apparently necessitating her removal from the production. Fascinating production stills, taken during the shooting of now-missing footage shot before Crawford left the picture, and which show the actress made-up and appearing in character as Miriam Deering, do still exist and display her very different take on a role that was eventually filled by Davis’s colleague Olivia de Havilland. Instead, free of the constant circus of speculation that surrounded the relationship between these infamous Hollywood rivals, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte emerges as nothing so much as a lavish-looking Southern Gothic spin on the mini-Hitchcock thrillers that Hammer Films had been knocking out on a regular basis for some time by this point, a cycle which had started with Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay for Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear in 1961. Convoluted Gaslight mimicking narratives and endless permutations on the plot to Henri Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques are what drive most of these films, and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte turns out to be no exception, despite being much more handsomely mounted and exquisitely photographed than anything Hammer -- for all the studio’s brilliance -- could ever have hoped to replicate, even in its heyday.


With its generously sprawling 133-minute full feature length, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte has more than enough time on its hands to cover quite a few other bases as well: among them out-and-out exploitation and shock imagery. The film racked up an impressive seven Academy Award nominations. But it’s a safe bet to assume that no other Oscar-nominated film in 1964 (and not many others thereafter) featured explicit shots of limbs being bloodily lopped off with a hatchet, or a decapitated head tumbling down a spiral staircase in an antebellum-era-built Louisiana mansion: just two of the film’s main selling points amid a whole suite of gloriously torrid horror theatrics initially disguised by the film’s prestigious cast of Hollywood greats and beautifully lush Southern locations. The film is intentionally constructed from a vast mosaic of cinematic signifiers which are deployed in this case to enable it to straddle the murky grey area that separates B movie hokum from the Hollywood prestige project without ever having to come to a decision about which of these modes should ultimately get to define it. The screenplay is seemingly precision-tooled to evoke every Southern Gothic motif under the sun and, more pertinently, details of narrative, production design, art direction and even the actual casting, conjure at every turn formless ghosts that hint at many instances of Hollywood’s representation of the Deep South on film: having Bette Davis play a fading Southern Belle traumatised by an incident from the past that robbed her of her one chance at happiness might be assumed a  reference to the kinds of roles the actress played in her younger days, when she was quite often cast as characters from a similar milieu, such as in the 1938 film Jezebel, for instance; while casting Crawford’s replacement with Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland simply reminds the viewer that Davis also lost out on the role of Scarlett O’Hara to de Havilland’s co-star Vivian Lee.


The film begins with a 1927-set prologue that initially plays like a stage-bound scene from some sultry Tennessee Williams play or other: two characters on a single set confronting each other over the heavy oak desk in the study of formidable Louisiana plantation owner 'Big' Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) on a hot summer night in New Orleans, strains of jazz discernible in the distance from a party that’s in full swing elsewhere in and around the colonnaded mansion and its oak-studded grounds. Baby Jane star Buono’s interlocutor is the young Bruce Dern -- here in an early role following a brief appearance in Hitchcock’s Marnie the year before – who is tasked by the screenplay with the plot-instigating duty of getting himself blackmailed and then becoming an instant murder victim, whose death thereafter haunts the central character for the rest of the film. His name is John Mayhew: the married lover of Hollis’s young daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis). The couple had been planning to elope together on this very night, but their plans have just been exposed and thwarted after Mayhew’s wife Jewel (Mary Astor) somehow got wind of it and told Charlotte’s father. Under pressure from the overbearing patriarch, Mayhew later that night breaks off the elopement with Charlotte in the summer house, leaving her heartbroken. Not long after he is dispatched in the grisly fashion already alluded to. The young Charlotte Hollis, the lower portion of her party dress stained red with her lover’s blood, then wanders semi-comatose into the crowded ballroom of the Hollis mansion, confronting her father and all his guests with this menstrual symbol of the family shame.


Did she kill Mayhew or was the deed done by her overbearing father? Thirty-five years later and the locals of Hollisport continue to debate the macabre legend which has grown up around the lurid events that took place in the home of the reclusive Charlotte Hollis all those years ago. The ageing occupant now lives on the site of the former plantation like the Miss Havisham of Baton Rouge: quite alone apart from her dishevelled housekeeper Velma (Agnes Moorehead) who devotedly tends to her needs and sees off any troublesome trespassers. Pining for her dead love, Charlotte Hollis is believed by most to be mad; children might dare each other to sneak into the old mansion at night, but those who attempt such a feat are liable to find not an axe murderer but only a disorientated old lady in white, still clutching at a box that just might contain the head of her dead lover … or perhaps, maybe, it's the music box Mayhew gifted her thirty years ago, that plays the song he wrote for them both. There is the common suspicion within the community, though, that Charlotte herself was Mayhew’s murderer, and that she has been protected from punishment all these years by her late father’s influence and power, which still seems to exert itself from beyond the grave even now.



The fabulous location exteriors used for Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte play an instrumental role in imbuing the film with the requisite sense of faded historical grandeur, crucial in conveying the latent idea that sins of the past once obscured by these stately residues of a supposedly more genteel age are only now being exposed to light again, as the past crumbles or is forgotten. The plantation owners of the 18th and 19th centuries built their grand homes with those imposing upper balconies and columned porticos, in a neo-classical Greek Revival style intending to associate themselves with the great splendours of a former European civilisation. But the history the architecture of the Antebellum now represents to most of us is, of course, also marked by a darker side: the fact that its beauty was founded on the prevalence of slavery as a tool for economic dominance and social oppression. Charlotte Hollis lives in an anachronistic museum commemorating the historic brutality of this ‘golden’ age once presided over by her late father and his immediate ancestors, and given actual form in the historically preserved location of the 1840s plantation house Houmas House in Burnside, Louisiana that was used for the exteriors -- one of the grandest of its design. In the present day, Charlotte has herself practically become a ghost from this vanished age. Never having come to terms with the belief that her father was responsible for John Mayhew’s murder, she remains frozen in the shock and grief of that immediate moment from all these years ago, only being spurred into action when her family home is threatened with demolition to make way for a new highway. Even more ambiguous a commentary on the shadow of the past is a scene that comes halfway through the film, in which the kindly insurance investigator who takes pity on Charlotte, Harry Wills (Cecil Kellaway), takes tea in the grounds of the house owned by Charlotte’s great rival, the ageing Jewel Mayhew (Mary Astor), and talks with her about that fateful night many years ago when Jewel’s philandering husband was decapitated in the summer house at the Hollis mansion. Aldrich uses as the backdrop to their talk the picturesque sight of a canopied oak allée from the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana: a location so exquisitely designed to fit a romantic view of the past one would almost have assumed it to be a matte-painted background created specifically for the purpose of conveying that impression. The film is all about the prevalence of masks, and the most deceptive mask is the mask of nostalgia: it cloaks all manner of ills in the soothing afterglow of best intentions and whitewashed motives.      


While the historical authenticity of the exterior locations allows the film to become infused with an atmosphere of stately decay and moral ambiguity, the studio-created interiors and the way they are staged, dressed and shot by Aldrich and his repertory company of regular crew members, attest to the continued potency of Gothic horror and its macabre genre offshoots. Art director William Glasgow and cinematographer Joseph Biroc are primarily responsible for creating the rich velvety high-end noir atmosphere enveloping the ornate décor of Hollis House, while costume designer Norma Koch puts the older Bette Davis in platted pigtails and flowing nightgowns to emphasise how the character of Charlotte is trapped in her youthful past even as she plays out the role of a traditional Gothic heroine. Davis gives another committed full-throttle performance that holds nothing back: she may not get to be as demonstrably evil-hearted as she was in Baby Jane but a good portion of the film requires her to inhabit various stages of insanity as visitations and hallucinations of severed heads bouncing down the staircase and-the-like begin tormenting her one by one, as does some ghostly harpsichord music that plays in the night and an encounter with faceless guests in a dreamlike slow-mo ballroom sequence recalling her last night with Mayhew. Frank De Vol’s music once again strikes a fine balance between saccharine irony and sweeping melodrama, particularly on the title song (a rival to Baby Jane’s I’ve Written A Letter to Daddy) which serves multiple roles in the film: one minute functioning as the creepy music box motif associated with Charlotte, and the next as an eerie harpsichord air to signify her final descent into madness. It later also transformed itself chameleon-like into a pop hit of the day for Patti "(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window" Page!


Davis’s florid performance is complemented by an equally robust comic turn from Agnes Moorehead, as muttering maid Velma. A fine character actress who at the time would have been best-known for playing Samantha’s mother Endora on the TV series Bewitched, Moorehead's career stretched back to the 1930s when she did a stint with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe, performing alongside Joseph Cotten, who now joins her again in this film for a smallish role as Charlotte’s doctor, Drew Bayliss. As the former lover of Miriam Deering, Cotten delivers the required levels of sliminess in a role originally slated to have him play most of his scenes opposite Crawford but which eventually saw him working with Olivia de Havilland instead. The couple’s relationship dates back to the time of John Mayhew’s murder in 1927. Bayliss broke it off back then with Miriam because of the scandal associated with the Hollis name in the wake of Mayhew’s death -- meaning Miriam is returning to a site that holds painful memories not just for cousin Charlotte but for her too. Those memories are made all the more tangible when Miriam comes back to Hollisport at the request of her cousin after years living a metropolitan life in the big city. Charlotte wants her to help in the fight to oppose the building of the highway on the site of the Hollis mansion, but Miriam returns to find that, forty years later, her old lover Bayliss is still the acting family physician. While everyone else appears to be trapped in an emotional time warp by the events of forty years ago, Miriam comes across as a stable, level-headed person who is being forced into confronting the tumult of her past against her will. But of course, this being a Gothic-themed thriller, with all the twists and turns that entails, the truth of the matter proves to be a great deal more complicated. Olivia de Havilland is probably a much better casting choice in that regard than Joan Crawford would have been, since she initially exudes an air of normalcy that makes her a viewer identification figure from early on in the movie: a witness to the madness, eccentricities and abnormalities of all the other characters, and a good steady foil to the exaggerated flightiness of Davis’s character. As the plot unfolds, a harder edge emerges to her Miriam Deering and one of the film’s major strengths lies in the way de Havilland manages her character’s transition from apparently innocent bystander to the prime instigator of some pretty fiendish events. The plot itself might not contain anything truly surprising, and is pretty much boilerplate thriller material but de Havilland gives a fully rounded performance that holds the attention throughout, while Aldrich manages to sell a whole plethora of deranged, surrealistic sequences in the second half that makes the ride entertaining even if we’re never truly in any doubt as to the eventual destination.


Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte was always a handsome-looking film, and it finally gets a fitting 1080p HD presentation for this UK Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment as part of The Masters of Cinema series. A 22-minute archive ‘making of’ featurette contains all the basic background production facts on the film, and Bruce Dern provides a nice 13-minute interview in which he recalls his interactions with Bette Davis on set and behind the scenes. There’s also a brief 5-minute contemporary set report narrated by Joseph Cotten. But the two stand-out commentaries are the main centrepieces of the extras package included here: Kat Ellinger once again proves her worth with a well-researched track that takes a thoughtful look at, among other things, Robert Aldrich’s relationship with the ‘women’s picture’ and the cross-over he forged with noir and Southern Gothic. Meanwhile, Glenn Erickson provides a more traditional overview, concentrating on biographical info about the main cast and crew members. Both contributors tackle the Joan and Bette feud and the drama of Crawford’s replacement by de Havilland, each managing to bring an individual take to the business without contradicting the other on the basic facts. Trailers and TV spots are included, and this Blu-ray only release also comes with the traditional collector’s booklet, this one featuring a new essay by Lee Gambin illustrated with some fascinating archival imagery.


Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a gorgeously overwrought piece of Gothic melodrama and a fine example of the mid-sixties ‘twist in the tail’ thriller. It has some great performances from usually side-lined older actresses, while the likes of Joseph Cotten, George Kennedy and Cecil Kellaway are this time relegated to supporting roles. Aldrich gave what could have been considered relatively trivial by-the-numbers material his full directorial attention, creating a lush spectacle of Gothic madness that delves into all manner of twisted psychological unpleasantness with a wilful glee. The cast of Hollywood greats at its centre seems to have been more than happy to follow Aldrich wherever he may lead them, in what has turned out to be a much-overlooked gem of the genre.    

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Blu-ray Review: LAURA (1944)

The 1944 Hollywood movie Laura plays for the most part as if it were a conscious postmodern deconstruction of film noir character types and motifs despite the fact that the term "film noir" did not become available for use until years after this acknowledged classic of the subgenre had been released. This is surely the biggest consequence of the fact that the  source novel and the subsequent play on which the film was originally based were the work of a female writer, Vera Caspary, who was obviously aware of the 1930s tradition of hardboiled fiction by male writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler -- the key literary influences and sources of what came to be known as film noir  -- yet was herself drawing more upon a template established by the popular "Sensation Literature" of the middle of the 19th century in work by writers such as Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood. With Laura, Caspery, much like her near-contemporary Daphne Du Maurier whose Rebecca is a clear reference point, was attempting to unpick, in a particularly acute way, many of the gender roles that underpin this area of fiction, using a reformulation of the devices previously employed by writers of great Victorian popular literature.

Sensation Literature narratives often revolved around strong independent-minded female characters who pose a challenge to the gendered patriarchal domestic institutions that greased the gears of Victorian society. These narratives frequently relied on unexpected, rug-pulling twists devised to force the reader to reassess former prejudices as apparently ‘respectable’ characters are revealed to harbour dark destructive secrets that fester at the heart of English suburban society. The genre also produced, in Collins’ The Moonstone, a novel widely considered to be the first detective story in English literature.


The 1943 novel of Laura, as initially conceived by Caspary, relies on multiple narrators each providing their own unique and individual perspective on events, and thus raising the spectre of the unreliable narrator: a mainstay of the Sensation genre. The film, though, in structurally simplifying much of this, actually creates yet more ambiguity. The title character becomes, in the first half of the film, an unobtainable male fetish object accessed only through the many distorted reflections produced by second-hand accounts of her brilliance that emphasise only their vainglorious narrator’s projection of an idealised form of femininity: a quality the film itself echoes with a mise-en-scène shot through a gauzy, romantic high-gloss sheen. 

It’s noticeable that 20th Century Fox, recently back under the control of Darryl Zanuck after his period of leave for army service, envisioned Laura as an A-List project almost from the start: there is no skimping on glamour and prestige in any area of the production, as is highlighted by the film’s five Academy Award nominations. Production design, cinematography and costuming are all rendered with exquisite elegance, in presentation of the milieu of the sophisticated Manhattan smart set providing the film’s decorative backdrop and shrouding the entire production in an entrancing, dreamy aura that’s quite at odds with the more usual gritty style associated with the crime, mystery and investigative genres. Laura is an ingenious murder mystery presented to audiences in the form of a refined woman’s picture of the same period: its sophisticated cast performances highlight at every turn the involved nature of the twisted character relationships that propel the narrative, as opposed to the approach taken by a contemporary film such as Mildred Pierce (1945) for instance, which was a relationship drama and character study in its original form that had these elements simplified for the screen so that murder and noir trappings could be added to the adaptation for commercial reasons.

Laura, which can also be thought to be a crisply mounted noir precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is a film about the male gaze that exemplifies, in style and character, every domineering surface aspect of the attempt to obliterate the self-determination of its female subject. In the film, we are presented with three male leads, each of whom is shown (through being either a suspect in a woman’s murder or a detective with a hand in the investigation) to have a connection to the murdered Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). But only by the images of her they present to us and each-other do we as viewers have any access to her at all. Then, halfway through the picture – and this is the big twist or spoiler that underpins the film’s reputation, so stop reading now if you wish to remain blissfully ignorant -- we discover that Laura Hunt is not actually dead at all. She suddenly walks into the film as a living, breathing presence, at which point she goes instantly from being a potential murder victim to the chief suspect in a murder plot.


In a way, the film’s production history rehearses themes central to the narrative to an uncanny and mordantly ironic degree: Caspary, a female artist, who writes a story about a young ambitious woman whose life, work, image and very memory are fought over for interpretation by a group of men, was to find the same thing happening to the story itself when producer Otto Preminger, studio mogul Darryl Zanuck and their proposed directorial choice Rouben Mamoulian got to work on remoulding it into something that might function as a cinematic rather than a literary vehicle. Caspary clashed with Preminger early on over the decision to drop the concept of multiple narrators which underpins the novel in favour of the third-person objective ‘invisible’ narrator preferred in most Hollywood cinema. But the labyrinthine rivalries and insecurities that the project exposed between the three male creatives when they took over the reins of Caspary’s vision couldn’t be more symbolic of the clash of male egos and romantic delusions that the film they eventually crafted from the source novel depicts so piquantly.  


When Otto Preminger first identified Laura as a potential project that could be brought to the screen, he’d been working practically covertly at Twentieth Century Fox under its "caretaker" head William Goetz. Preminger had earlier been frozen out of Hollywood altogether after falling out with Fox co-founder Darryl F Zanuck in 1937, over his direction of Zanuck’s screenplay of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Unable to find work elsewhere, he’d returned to his theatre acting roots and had great success in long-running productions acting alongside, among others, Vincent Price. While Zanuck was away doing his army service, Goetz had brought Preminger back in from the cold, employing him as both actor and director on a number of B pictures at Fox. When Zanuck returned, though, and immediately started discarding all of Goetz’s films, Preminger feared for a time that his brief spell of favour had come to an impromptu end. Instead, Zanuck summoned him to a meeting where Preminger learned that he would be allowed to stay on as director of the minor war picture he was at work on at the time, but that he would only be allowed to produce Laura.

Even then, the property almost got shelved when the head of the B unit, Bernie Foy, decided on the advice of his reader that he did not like the script. It took Zanuck himself to come to the rescue when he upgraded the production to the ‘A’ unit and decided that he would also supervise it, working alongside Preminger as the production's script doctor. It was also Zanuck who voiced the need to make the characters 'real outstanding personalities', determining that in order to be successful the film had to aim to be more than just another 'blown-up whodunit'. One of Caspary’s original bugbears with Preminger was that he only wanted to make a conventional detective story, although Preminger had also sensed, correctly, that Laura Hunt’s fastidiously epicene mentor Waldo Lydecker should be made the central spoke in the narrative hub. Zanuck, meanwhile, realised that Laura should come into the story as 'a breath of spring' to contrast with the 'Park Avenue cutthroats' who otherwise populate it.


As the producer of the property, it was up to Preminger to find someone suitable to helm Laura. Successful stage and screen director Rouben Mamoulian seemed like a brilliant choice at first: he was one of cinema’s earliest and most innovative pioneers of the movie musical and of mobile camera technique (who oversaw the making of the first three-strip Technicolor movie made in Hollywood), and was seemingly a perfect fit for a film with the prestige status Zanuck’s stewardship seemed set to bestow upon the production. However, problems soon began to mount behind the scenes, principally over Preminger’s dissatisfaction with Mamoulian and Zanuck’s casting choice for the crucial role of Waldo Lydecker. They’d plumped for an actor, Laird Cregar, who had just become well known for playing Jack the Ripper in the 1943 version of The Lodger. To cast Cregar as Laura’s tart bisexual mentor would be to throw too much suspicion on his shoulders, identifying him as the prime suspect in the mystery from the off. Preminger much preferred a little-known actor called Clifton Webb, who had thus far confined himself mainly to the stage, appearing in musical comedies and revues. Webb’s off-screen persona – cuttingly loquacious, upper-class and openly homosexual – signalled those important elements of Waldo Lydecker’s fastidious nature that still could not be openly stated on screen in 1944, plus the actor was virtually unknown so anyone watching would have no cause to suspect him over any of the other shifty high-class Manhattanites portrayed in the film. 

Preminger managed to get Cregar replaced with Webb behind Mamoulian’s back, despite initial opposition from Zanuck. When the dallies started coming back from Mamoulian’s closed set, both Zanuck and Preminger expressed dissatisfaction with the overly theatrical way he was directing some of the actors, particularly Judith Anderson. In meetings between the three men, Preminger was only too happy to spell out where he thought Mamoulian was going wrong, and it wasn’t too long before Mamoulian was off the film and Preminger found himself finally in charge of the production, scrapping everything that had been done so far and starting again from scratch with a new cameraman, Joseph La Schelle, and a new scenic designer, Lyle Wheeler, who was soon to garner a reputation as the designer of some of Hollywood’s most lavish productions.  

Preminger directs Laura with understated grace and restraint studded with the occasional unconventional flourish -- like the sudden whip-pan in the opening scene that introduces society newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, naked in his marble bath but still tapping away on the typewriter suspended above it. The world of New York high society was one Preminger had moved in himself and understood implicitly to be elegant and attractive on the surface but populated by ruthless vipers. The casting choices were essential for teasing out the dysfunctional interplay of psychological pathologies at work in the subtext of the scrip, with the effete Clifton Webb playing against leading man Dana Andrews’ rugged investigating detective, Mark McPherson. The opening scene demonstrates how harmoniously the casting, décor, photography and script combine to create the film’s textured air of feverish mysteriousness, with McPherson rendered ill at ease amongst the fussily arranged glass display cabinets and quaint antiques of Lydecker’s high-end suite, the columnist’s penchant for extreme feminine fetishisation already becoming apparent to us from his immaculately curated surroundings. Lydecker even mythologises and attempts to control McPherson’s masculinity, quoting from an article he’d once written about the detective after he sustained an injury during a siege that resulted in the death of a gangster: “The detective with the silver shinbone” sounds like the title of a hardboiled crime fiction that might have been written by Raymond Chandler, the film cleverly fixing immediately how we view McPherson through the words and sensibility of its most manipulative character. There’s even a fairly overt-for-the-time frisson of homosexual flirtation in the air when Lydecker casually rises from the bath in the nude and asks McPherson to hand him a washcloth, the manly detective casting the fey newspaper columnist a wry split-second sideways glance before doing so.


The detective is ostensibly there to interview the self-regarding Lydecker about his relationship to the supposedly murdered woman, Laura Hunt, who has (apparently) been found in her apartment, shot in the face at point-blank range after answering the door buzzer dressed in her night robe. He claims to be ‘the only one who really knew her’ and imperiously insists that she considered him to be ‘the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met.’ McPherson also speaks to Laura’s serpentine playboy fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a parasitic hanger-on who seems equally as effeminate and ineffectual as Lydecker paints him to be, and who appears to be happy to accept the continuing financial assistance of Laura’s wealthy socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) -- who is, in turn, totally infatuated with him but unapologetically hard-nosed about that fact, and about both their many personal failings.

The catty rivalry that's on display between the two men, and which McPherson deliberately facilitates as a tactic to try and determine the facts about what really happened between them and Laura, is at the centre of a lot of the film’s most acerbic and quotable dialogue as well as its mystery. But when McPherson goes with Lydecker to visit what used to be his and Laura's favourite restaurant, the film goes into an extensive flashback sequence in which we see how he promoted her climb up the career ladder to the top of her profession after she approached him speculatively, while an ingénue with an advertising firm, hoping to secure his endorsement on a campaign she’s been working on for a new fountain pen. (‘I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom!’ he responds, sniffily, to her initial request.) 

Lydecker starts to live an obsessively vicarious existence through Laura's ensuing professional and social successes, revelling in fashioning for her a new, sophisticated identity that might almost be an alternative feminine version of his own. He secures her more endorsements and thus helps her progress at the advertising firm; he shows her how to carry herself in high-status social circles; he decides what clothes she should wear and how she should arrange her hair. Although it is platonic, the obsessive nature of their relationship encourages a sickly proprietary attitude in Lydecker with regard to who Laura can be seen associating with. He essentially starts stalking her: he’s jealous of the infatuated artist who painted her portrait which now dominates the mantelpiece in her apartment lounge, and he’s disapproving of her relationship with Carpenter, when she hires him to work with her at the advertising firm after meeting him at one of the upper-crust soirees Ann Treadwell regularly holds to help Carpenter get a foothold in the dissolute echelons of Manhattan’s beau monde.


After listening to all of this being so eloquently expressed to him by Lydecker, and then seeing the magnificent portrait of Laura in her apartment building, McPherson essentially falls in love with the mythical image of a dead woman -- a development that brings a perverse hint of necrophilia with it to the dreamy romantic atmosphere that predominates in the film, largely thanks to David Raksin’s memorable score based around the theme he wrote for the title character. It results in a heady mixture that raises all sorts of unanswered questions about the true nature of the couple’s relationship when the real Laura unexpectedly turns up again out of the blue, and it is revealed that the murdered woman was, in fact, a model called Diane Redfern from the advertising campaign Laura and Carpenter had been working on together, and whom Carpenter had been having a liaison with at Laura’s flat while the latter was away in the country deciding whether to marry him or not! McPherson’s subsequent courtship of Laura is simultaneously being conducted, then, as a murder investigation in which she has now been made the main suspect, while Lydecker’s obsession with the version of Laura he has constructed for public consumption (and which McPherson has fallen for) is now even more challenged by the flesh and blood Laura’s choice of romantic partner, as Lydecker gradually realises that she is responding to detective McPherson’s overtures.


Lydecker’s dialogue throughout the film is peppered with waspish expressions of apparent disgust for any kind of overt demonstration of male physicality, putting further emphasis on his own inability to successfully masquerade as heterosexual in this area of his life by suggesting the true direction of his own proclivities if he (and the film) could only admit to them! One can practically sense Lydecker’s repressed frustrations boiling over in lines like: 'If McPherson weren’t muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, you’d see through him in a second', and 'I hope you’ll never regret what promises to be a disgustingly “earthy” relationship!'  Vera Caspary was always unhappy about Otto Preminger’s decision to change the novel’s climactic revelation, in which it is discovered that the pistol that killed Diane Redfern has been concealed in the handle of Lydecker’s walking cane all along – a deliberately placed Freudian symbol that stands for the character’s sexually impotent destructiveness. But, in a way, Preminger’s alternative -- of having the phallic murder weapon hidden instead in a secret compartment inside the body of the replica copy of Lydecker’s elegantly adorned antique clock (which he gave to Laura as a present and which now stands in her apartment) is a perfect metaphor for the film’s unspoken theme, in which closeted homosexuality is covertly depicted finding its sublimated but unstable release through a vicarious usurpation and impersonation of feminine identity. One can understand Gene Tierney’s initial reluctance to take on a role that actually requires her to pose as a remote and not fully realised character for much of her time on screen, and one in which she is almost completely defined by the men around her; but Tierney, of course, has no trouble in rising above all of her male co-stars in one of the most memorable screen portrayals of the 1940s. Nevertheless, one cannot help but agree with detective McPherson’s rather accurate assessment of Laura Hunt’s poor choice of relationships when he tells her: ‘I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes!'


It’s wonderful to see this exquisite noir finally receiving a UK Blu-ray release in which its beautiful photography really gets a chance to shine. It’s part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema collection and comes with some nice extras including an archive featurette on the film; a video interview with composer David Raksin; and two commentary tracks: one in which film professor Jeanine Basinger, Chairman of Film Studies at Weston University, Middle Town, Connecticut provides an excellent analysis of the film with occasional separately recorded interventions from Raksin regarding the score; and another in which film historian Rudy Behlmer concentrates on the production history of the film. 

The disc also includes four radio adaptations, including the Lux Theatre one hour broadcast from 1945 which starred original cast members Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Vincent Price. Philip Hoad contributes an essay to the accompanying collector’s booklet, which also features a selection of rare archive images.

Laura is a key entry in the psychological noir subgenre of the 1940s, where flashbacks and false memories and a dreamy sense of romantic ennui dominate the mood. Often these films fell squarely into the Gothic Romance genre. But Laura straddles the borders of Gothic ghost story, romantic thriller and detective mystery like no other: a perfect blending of genre elements that combine to produce a uniquely ravishing, beguiling effect on the viewer in a film that continues to cast its hypnotic spell across the decades. Let this release contribute to that spell lasting for many more years.
   


     

Monday, 10 December 2018

BLU-RAY REVIEW: When a Stranger Calls (1979) Limited Edition

Although writer-director Fred Walton often cites as inspiration for the opening segment of his seminal suspense thriller When a Stanger Calls (1979) an infamous true crime murder case that took place in Columbia, Missouri during the 1950s, it’s actually the 1960s urban legend the story later spawned that is being so skilfully wrung for maximum scare potential in those tense first twenty minutes of the movie. Dubbed ‘the babysitter and the man upstairs,' this is a legend with many varied permutations based around old newspaper reports of the discovery of the body of thirteen-year-old Janett Christman, who was brutally slain at the home of the family whose three-year-old son she had been babysitting. Walton and his co-writer Steve Feke zeroed in on the essential dread elements of the tale to identify why it continues to resonate so powerfully. It’s probably fair to say that the movie’s opening act – a re-staging of the material that Walton and Feke first wrote in 1977 for a short film called The Sitter – has been largely responsible for the currency When a Stanger Calls still enjoys to this day for cementing the popularity of the slasher movie, particularly for horror fans who are interested in the roots of the sub-genre. 


Everybody knows the scenario the movie so brilliantly enacts: a young babysitter, left alone in a house late at night and charged with looking after two young children for the evening (both asleep upstairs), is plagued by  a series of creepy nuisance calls from a stranger who repeatedly asks her the same question: “have you checked the children?” Eventually, she rings the police, who tell her they’ll put a trace on the line. After the next interruption, when she is explicitly threatened by the same mysterious voice, the police immediately phone right back to inform her that the call has now been traced to the very house she is currently in! They urgently advise her to leave the residency as calmly as she can while a patrol car is sent out to meet her. Later, it emerges that the killer had indeed been upstairs in the house all along and that the two children have both been murdered in their room. They had already been dead for hours before the police discovered their bodies.

A new Limited Edition Blu-ray and download on demand release of When a Stranger Calls from the UK’s Second Sight label brings together Walton’s original twenty minute short film The Sitter (1977) with the hit feature-length movie it later gave rise to in 1979, and pairs them both on the same disc with a 1993 TV Movie sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back (also written and directed by Walton as a co-production for Universal TV and the premium cable channel Showtime). All three are presented in full HD alongside all the usual Limited Edition bells and whistles (40-page booklet, a reversible double-sided poster and a soundtrack CD), with a compliment of featurettes looking back on the film and its legacy. Watching all three works back-to-back is an enlightening and sometimes surprising experience: on the one hand the film has been remarkably influential (the opening act of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is essentially a knowing recapitulation cum pastiche for the cell phone age of the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls, that assumes at least a passing familiarity with it while adding ramped-up gore and a large dollop of patented 1990s ‘postmodern’ ironic distance). On the other hand, most of the influence it has generated comes from the pre-existing urban legend material already distilled down to its essence in the short film version. The features themselves veer off in all sorts of strange directions that have little connection to the slasher genre per se and encourage comparisons with other kinds of works one wouldn’t normally think to mention in the discussion of them.

The Sitter is actually extremely effective in its own right as a stand-alone short feature, and in some ways manages to imbue its content with far more subtext and ambiguity than is allowed for when the same scenes are reshot and appear again with different sets, different performers and a new score in the full movie version. 


It begins as a music box nursery rhyme lullaby plays over exteriors of the house at night while the (in this version) unnamed babysitter arrives during the opening shots. A caption identifying the time as being 8 pm on March 21st, 1972, and the location as Santa Monica, California immediately counterpoints the dreamy nocturnal atmosphere with an implied authenticity, suggesting, in true urban legend fashion, the film to be an account of something that really took place, but without actually saying that. The babysitter (Lucia Stralser) is left in charge of a large mansion-like house owned by a well-to-do doctor and his wife, and the short quickly establishes her as a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who is dealing with a degree of uncertainty in her relations with others. The clothes she wears emphasise her youth but also hint at a developing sexuality; her phone calls from the house to her best friend reveal that she is a privately educated grade A student (considered a bit of a swot by her peers) who is also diffidently beginning  to experiment with rites of passage associated with entry into adulthood, such as smoking and drinking (gialli fans will be amused to note that when the babysitter raids her hosts’  drinks cabinet she emerges with a bottle of J&B whisky), which she indulges in alongside the task of conscientiously studying the college textbooks on sociology spread across the coffee table in the spacious living room.

In other words, she is the archetypal Final Girl slasher movie heroine. The menacing phone calls asking her if she has checked the children only emphasise the fact that, thus far, the thought hadn’t occurred to her -- which suggests an implicit underlying urge or wish on her part to cast aside the mantle of responsibility and abandon the course her studies are leading her towards despite earlier having emphatically refused her friend’s suggestion on the phone that she should come and join her for a party at the house, bringing a boy that the sitter had been hesitantly asking about throughout their conversation. The repetitive phone calls of the stranger to the babysitter hype up the tension as the camera prowls the increasingly threatening corridors of the house, but she notably only really becomes truly terrified when the caller specifically asks her “WHY haven’t you checked the children?” This, of course, reveals that he must have been watching her the whole time. But the threat is at first still perceived as coming from the outside: a notion Walton drums home with lots of distance exterior shots of the house, its large bay window lit up against the backdrop of the night, the isolated girl left with all her vulnerability on display like a museum exhibit caught under a spotlight. But it also re-emphasises this question of why the babysitter had not looked in on the children even before the calls gave her any cause for alarm. In When a Stranger Calls, a line of dialogue is added to the script so that, as she and her doctor husband leave the house, Mrs Mandrakis specifically asks the sitter NOT to wake the children because they are both getting over "really bad colds". This, at a stroke, decisively removes all the subtext about desires, fears and secret motivations that the sitter’s inaction encourages the viewer to ponder during the short. Although this is understandable, since such concerns serve no function in the feature version as it goes off in a completely different direction after the first act is complete, the earlier version seems to linger in the imagination more as a result of these extra sub-textual considerations.



Walton and Feke shot the short in three days after raising $12,000 from friends and family. The film’s superb mounting and exemplary execution belies its lowly origins as, essentially, a student film. Walton was able to bring in a fine French cinematographer, Willy Kurant, who had worked with Jean-Luc Godard (Masculine Feminine [1966]) and 'Agnès Varda, and had shot Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968), so the film looks extremely accomplished and has a memorable and immediate visual style despite featuring only one character on screen for most of its runtime. The little-known actress playing the babysitter is extremely compelling to watch and convincing in the role of an innocent under threat, and the tension is built up then released as expertly as it is during the better-known movie version. Even the score by Jane McNealy – a mixture of woodwind instrumentation, odd percussion and increasingly discordant synth sounds – makes an effective addition to the action despite exemplifying a completely different approach to the nerve-shredding orchestrated cues written for the movie by Dana Kaproff.  

The Sitter was conceived as a means of breaking into the business at a time when short films still regularly played as support features for the main attraction in theatres. The plan was to make something that was both professional enough and commercial enough to attract an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short. Although The Sitter qualified for such a consideration by securing a week-long residency at Mann’s Village Theatre in Westwood, Los Angeles (supporting Looking For Mr Goodbar), it failed to earn either the hoped-for Oscar nomination or the attention of industry professionals who might’ve promoted Walton and Feke’s careers. However, the short film still works incredibly well years later and historically can be seen to be an unnerving, suspenseful ignition point for the slasher phenomena that was about to explode the following year with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), prompting businessman Mel Simon to invest in turning Walton’s short into a fully-fledged feature film so as to fully capitalise on the growing trend for such material.

The Sitter was by no means the first short form adaptation of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs legend: in 1971 a 14 minute film called Foster’s Release had essentially told the same tale (directed by Terence H. Winkless, whose varied career encompasses playing Bingo the Gorilla in The Banana Splits and writing an early unused draft for Joe Dante’s The Howling). Elements of the imperilled-babysitter-beset-by-a-maniac motif appear again and again in numerous films and anthology TV episodes such as, for instance, Peter Collinson’s Fright (1971), in which Susan George plays the babysitter role. However, the most obvious precursor is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which probably makes the most chilling use of the trope of any movie that has ever been made, although in this case it’s a sorority house that is under threat and the victims are college girls being harassed by obscene phone calls after one of them has disappeared during the Christmas holidays. Unlike The Sitter, Black Christmas doesn’t use the killer-is-already-in-the-house revelation as a punchline but makes the viewer aware of it from the start, and the tension comes from waiting for the characters to understand the danger in their midst as the killer stashes the mangled bodies of his victims in the attic and occasionally emerges between crank phone calls to claim another.

 It seems likely Walton was well aware of Clark’s film and included a knowing wink towards it in The Sitter by having the boyfriend that the babysitter discusses with her friend on the phone be called Billy -- which immediately brings to mind the Black Christmas killer’s crazy roleplay phone calls in which he acts out the bizarre psychosis of someone who is also known as ‘Billy’. In the full feature version, the boy being discussed has his name unaccountably changed in the script from Billy to Robert, perhaps to obscure the original debt. 


Whether or not Walton and Feke had ever been aware of Black Christmas and all the other little-remembered precursors utilising similar material, the 1979 full-length movie eclipsed them all in the public memory when it became a huge commercial hit off the back of the success of Halloween. Audiences flocked to When a Stranger Calls in expectation of similar thrills, when what they ended up getting was a film that made the inconspicuous domestic telephone a sinister harbinger of doom, even more so than had the Italian maestro Mario Bava’s creepy short film The Telephone, which had been the opening segment of his 1963 Boris Karloff-starring anthology picture Black Sabbath. It’s ironic, then, that the opening act makes so strong an impression on audiences that it often obscures the fact in people’s memories that much of the rest of the movie really doesn’t conform to the slasher template at all, which is probably why it often gets a mixed reaction from modern genre fans who have a more fixed idea than audiences in 1979 might have had, of what does and does not count as a slasher movie.

The opening act of When a Stranger Calls fine-tunes the fright dynamics and sombre tone of the original short with Dana Kaproff’s newly orchestrated score, which skilfully underscores musically the sense of dread, fear and emotional turmoil felt by babysitter Jill Johnson (yes, she now has a name) as her situation becomes more and more macabre and threatening. Even the house itself and objects within it such as umbrella stands, etc., are made to feel, with skilful direction, like a malevolent participant in the action. Events culminate at the moment Jill has to attempt to keep the caller talking on the line so that the Police can trace the call, whereupon she asks him “what do you want?” To which the anonymous voice chillingly replies, “your blood … all over me!” The distinctive looking Carol Kane, best known at the time for her recent appearance in Woody Allen’s Anne Hall (1977), brings a completely unique quality to the role of the nervous babysitter. In a way, the character she plays is far more diffident and hard to read than her short film predecessor, although Kane’s confidently understated delivery helps sell the irony of her character’s later change in circumstances -- which we will learn about when we return to her seven years later in the final act. 

With a much bigger budget in play, the film has a more confident flow and the narrower, confined spaces of this version of the Mandrakis household bring a claustrophobic atmosphere to the proceedings which is completely opposite to the approach taken by Walton in the short, where the house and its interiors seemed vast and the babysitter was often made to look tiny -- isolated in the frame by a frequent use of wide angle lenses. Nevertheless, despite minor differences, Walton reproduces here all the main beats and many of the more effective shots from The Sitter. The cinematographer this time out was Donald Peterman, and although this was his first feature -- and he actually tried to quit the job at one stage because he found providing consistent lighting for the glaring white walls of the house interiors very hard to accomplish on the timescale allocated for filming the opening portion of the movie -- his work comes across as assured and brings an extra sheen of professionalism to what was still a relatively low budget picture. In fact, Peterman, who died in 2011, ended up being the most successful person involved in the making of When a Stranger Calls, becoming a frequent collaborator later in his career on many of Ron Howard’s movies.

One of the scariest things about the urban legend on which this opening segment is based is the unfathomable, motiveless, taunting malevolence demonstrated by the anonymous killer’s actions, with two defenceless children dead upstairs in the house before the campaign of terror against the unsuspecting innocent charged with their care is even underway. He is, essentially, the bogeyman of fable and lore: a bringer of violence and chaos to the presumed stability of a domestic space normally cast as a haven of nurture and peace, which is here depicted as vulnerable to catastrophic disruption from within. But after starting off in that distinctive manner, the film then chooses to proceed in a markedly different direction during the middle act. Both the short film version and the first part of When a Stranger Calls end with the patrol officer who became the first person to arrive at the scene, explaining to the recently arrived lead detective on the investigation that the babysitter escaped unharmed but that the children upstairs were not so lucky -- as the parents, now finally home after their night out, are consoled in the background (the film adds the almost comically macabre detail of having the children’s bodies glimpsed being removed from the house by grim-looking officers carrying their remains in what look like bin bags).

In the movie, though, Patrol Officer Garber (70s Blaxploitation star Ron O'Neal) also informs detective John Clifford (Charles Durning - a Hollywood mainstay with a string of roles in well-loved movies to his name which include three early efforts directed by Brian De Palma) that they now know the actual identity and occupation of the killer: he's an English merchant seaman by the name of Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). We then cut to seven years later and discover that Duncan has somehow escaped the psychiatric facility he has been treated in since his capture and is, once again, on the loose in New York City. This is where the film now departs from normal slasher convention. Rather than the tense claustrophobic thriller of the first twenty minutes, it takes on something of the form of a procedural investigation reminiscent of many a TV cop show of the same period. Clifford is now an ex-cop working in a private capacity for the murdered children’s father (Carmen Argenziano), who sets out not to bring Duncan to justice but to execute him before he can strike again. The truly unusual and bold move Walton’s screenplay then makes is to spend the majority of the rest of the picture exploring in detail and with some sympathy the nature of Duncan’s warped psyche, but without backtracking at all on the grisliness of his crimes as he drifts, rootless and alone among the denizens of squalid all-night bars and homeless shelters. 

Rather than a terrifying figure of dread, he suddenly seems, here, to be so small and unassuming, even pitiable. We witness Duncan cast out and totally adrift, lost in the unforgiving sprawl of big city life and unable to make even the most superficial connections with other people; begging on the streets for small change among assorted derelicts and street life, but attracting little attention unless it’s of the hostile variety. In his very first scene of the picture, he’s viciously beaten up by a bar patron for harassing Colleen Dewhurst’s jaded, middle-aged barfly character – who eventually feels guilty for rejecting Duncan’s advances after witnessing what happens to him afterwards, even though she was well within her rights to resist his clumsy, persistent pestering. This is not an imposing bogyman figure who strikes immediate fear into the hearts of all who encounter him, then, but rather a person we end up feeling strangely sorry for. Indeed, he’s only able to inveigle his way into the life of Dewhurst’s Tracy Fuller at all because he seems so unassuming and non-threatening that she’s not instantly spooked when he later follows her home and casually wanders into her apartment. The tension for much of this portion of the movie comes through wondering if and when Duncan is finally going to lose it again, with Tracy being caught between the demands of two psychologically damaged men: Duncan and Clifford.  



The rundown urban locations through which an increasingly shabby Duncan is often pictured stumbling purposelessly, and the film’s constant focus on his disintegrating mental health bring to mind several films from the same period, namely Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979) and Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), which also focus on the inner lives of fragile male killers within the concrete anonymity of a tumbledown city environment. But both these are much more nihilistic in tone than Walton’s film, which operates at the more respectable, mainstream end of a disreputable spectrum. Despite our fears for Tracy and her well-being, we are still made to feel conflicted about Clifford’s drastic form of vigilante justice and we even feel scared for Duncan at times, despite hearing Clifford persuade Tracy to help him lure the escaped asylum patient into a trap by telling her how Duncan used his bare hands to literally tear apart the Mandrakis children in their beds (“their bodies couldn’t be reconstructed for burial without six days of steady work”), a feat he managed to accomplish in complete silence, without alerting babysitter Jill Johnson at any point! 

The implication that Clifford could be thought to be in his own way just as dubious as the killer is suggested in Adam Rockoff’s chapter on the film for his book Going to Pieces, which is about slasher movies made between the years 1978 and 1986, where the author tells of Charles Durning rereading the script the night before a scene and approaching Warton during filming to confirm, “I’m the bad guy, aren’t I?” Everybody in When a Stranger Calls is damaged or made to seem vulnerable in some way: Clifford because of his failure to prevent the deaths of two children and his need to find a means to make up for it; Tracy, who is trying to live her life as a single woman in a big city but finds succour at the bottom of a bottle in sleazy bars; and even Duncan himself, a mentally unhinged man who was  the victim of an abusive institutional regime of excessive drugs and electroshock therapy overseen by the formidable  Dr Monk (played by Rachel Roberts: a former star of British ‘kitchen sink’ drama in the 1960s, who at around this time had become known for her role in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) where she played Mrs Appleyard). At one point, Duncan is pictured curled up naked on the floor of a men’s public washroom in a foetal position while he has a total breakdown. Few other such thrillers would depict their chief antagonist in such an abject state as this. At one stage, Walton explicitly connects Duncan’s vulnerability in this situation to Jill Johnson’s earlier plight: when Duncan takes refuge in an abandoned warehouse Walton shows him cowering in the dark using a shot filmed from outside the building so that he is framed by the window just as Jill had been to emphasise her isolation. “No one can see me,” he mutters to himself. “No one hears me. No one talks to me. I don’t exist. I was never born!”   



The role of Curt Duncan was played by British character actor Tony Beckley in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a similar character he’d essayed for Robert Hartford-Davis in the offbeat 1972 shocker The Fiend (Beware my Brethren). Here, Beckley played a lonely psychologically underdeveloped part-time security guard turned sex killer living with his repressed Christian fundamentalist mother. She works as a home-based church organist for an abusive preacher upstairs while he makes tapes of his victims’ death throes in the basement, surrounded by items of their stolen underwear! The film resides very much at the exploitation end of the British horror market, but some of the mannerisms of the awkward Norman Bates-like character Beckley played in that film appear again in Curt Duncan, leading one to speculate about whether or not The Fiend could have been the inspiration for Walton’s casting of Beckley in the lead role here. The actor, star of some of British cinema’s best-loved classics such as The Italian Job (1969) and Get Carter (1971), was apparently very insecure about appearing alongside the likes of Carol Kane and Charles Durning, and he died not long after the completion of the film from a terminal illness he was suffering from during the shooting. But these facts only highlight the quality of vulnerability his character places centre stage in a move where that is completely at odds with expectations for this genre of film, especially given the opening.



The final act is slightly problematic motivation-wise, though, given all that has just transpired. It’s basically another urban legend-style suspense sequence which brings back Kane as Jill Johnson. But now, seven years later, roles have changed and she has become the upwardly mobile married mother of two children employing a babysitter while she and her husband go out to celebrate his recent promotion. The twist is that while she’s at the restaurant Jill is informed that there is a phone call waiting for her. When she takes the call at the reception desk, to her horror the voice on the other end of the line turns out to be the very same one that terrorised her all those years ago. Once again it utters only one sentence: “have you checked the children?” Curt Duncan has finally tracked Jill down, and there follows a skilfully orchestrated, nail-bitingly nightmarish finale that places her in mortal fear for the lives of her offspring, and concludes with a classic jump shock sequence when she climbs back into bed alongside her husband, only to find that it’s now actually Duncan who’s beside her, turning over to manically leer into her eyes. Although equally as effective as the first twenty minutes, this ending does require Beckley to revert to type in his portrayal of Duncan as a generic, cackling mental patient on the loose, all the subtle grace notes and ambiguities of his former performance sacrificed in the name of traditional scare tactics. It does rather confirm the sense that the opening and concluding acts belong in different films from the middle one.

When a Stranger Calls performed extremely well at the box office for its budget. It has now earned its place in the annals of horror history as an important addition to the ranks of the movies that heralded the slasher boom of the 1980s. However, its director struggled thereafter to turn this unexpected success into a consistent directorial career, at least on the big screen. Fred Walton did helm post ‘golden era’ slasher April Fool’s Day in 1986, but otherwise, his work has mainly been restricted to episodes of network TV series and cable sponsored television movies. In 1983, though, the latter platform did produce an extremely strange but worthwhile sequel to the original babysitter peril classic made for Universal’s TV division, which Walton wrote as well as directed. When a Stranger Calls Back also features the characters of retired detective John Clifford and former babysitter Jill Johnson, both played by the same actors as in the original: Charles Durning and Carol Kane. 

The film opens just like the first movie, reprising the motif of the young babysitter who is put in charge of two children while they are left to sleep upstairs. Played this time by a fixture of the period’s horror scene, Jill Schoelen, Julia’s ordeal begins when there is a knock at the door and a stranger asks to use her phone because his car has broken down outside and he needs to contact his auto club. Unwilling to let him in, Julia eventually agrees to take down the phone number he shouts out to her and call the organisation herself. However, the phone line has mysteriously gone dead and no external calls can be made. In this film, the phone is the source of the scenario’s suspense because of its malfunction rather than the focus of the main threat as in the original. Julia does not want a stranger to know that the house phone is not in working order because she is alone and otherwise defenceless, so she pretends to have made the call anyway in the hope that the man outside will just go away. When he persists in trying to wrangle his way into the house at the same time as objects in the house also start to go missing or get moved about, a tense twenty minutes of baffling mystery begins that end with the discovery that the children upstairs have somehow disappeared from their room -- meaning that there must have been someone inside the house with her all along! A menacing figure eventually does reveal himself to Julia but, just in time, she manages to unbolt the front door and get away – only to meet the parents coming up the driveway as she exits the house screaming.

 Five years later and Julia is now a college student, trying to put the past behind her but failing. The intruder was never discovered, but neither of the two children she was babysitting that night was ever seen or heard from again. When she notices items being moved about in her apartment once more, Julia becomes convinced that the stranger who tormented her that night five years previously has returned, and is somehow gaining entry to her third floor, triple-locked room in order to continue his campaign against her. 

Once again Walton handles the suspense and mystery aspects of the film with a great degree of confidence to produce a taut, sometimes disturbing thriller that belies the apparent blandness of the 90s TV movie aesthetic embodied in much of its imagery. Watched today, the opening act is even more evocative of the first Scream movie, which was to appear only three years later. But with the re-introduction of Carol Kane as Jill Johnson -- now a college counsellor who runs ‘Take Back the Night’ self-defence courses for young female students on campus -- the film looks at first like it might be content to settle into a routine afternoon mystery thriller format, but with a high concept villain who has an exotic psychological profile reminiscent of the type found in Robert Harris's Hannibal Lector novels. When disbelieving police officers bring Jill in on the case, she soon becomes the only person to believe Julia’s story. The experience the young student had closely mirrored Jill’s own run-in with Curt Duncan a few years previously (by the way, there is no mention of the executive husband Jill had acquired in the last act of When a Stranger Calls, or even her two kids). Jill contacts her old friend John Clifford (Durning), who seems considerably less damaged than in the original movie -- having apparently overcome his murderous vigilante urges in the intervening years -- and together they set out to help the vulnerable student, whose mental stability looks to be crumbling fast as the daily torments she’s experiencing in her apartment pick up in intensity. 

The older Jill Johnson has developed into a tough and resourceful heroine in later life and Walton’s willingness to spend a considerable portion of the movie highlighting the multiple issues around women’s safety and how to deal with the trauma of the aftermath of being attacked by a man is a neat way not only to bring some authenticity to the plot but of connecting the present circumstances of this character with her history regarding what happened to her during the first film -- although one doesn’t need to be aware of, or to have seen, When a Stranger Calls to understand and appreciate the movie. This sequel differs from its predecessor, though, in allowing the plot to spiral out into the outer stratospheres of unlikelihood, so much so that it ends up feeling more like an episode of The X-Files than it does an ordinary suspense thriller. Once again, the antagonist has a similar mental affliction to Curt Duncan. In his case, it’s rooted in an existential hopelessness which has nurtured in him a bizarre zen-like disbelief in the reality of his own (or anybody else’s) identity. The events of the opening sequence are investigated by John Clifford, who rejects the accepted idea that there were two people involved – one to terrorise Julia from outside the house and the other to break in and kidnap the children. Instead, he hypothesises that they are looking for a ventriloquist who specialises in throwing his voice!



Actually, the truth turns out to be even more bizarre than that: the man who has been tormenting Julia (Gene Lythgow) also has the ability to make himself unnoticeable, a trick of effectively rendering himself invisible to the human eye. He accomplishes this by using elaborate body paint to merge himself into the shadows of his victims’ apartments. He can throw his voice to make them think he’s in one part of the room, then quickly dash from his real location while they're distracted to move stuff about and freak them out! There’s one scene where this ‘knack’ is effectively illustrated in Jill’s house when the intruder merges in with the pattern of the brickwork that's part of a sidewall. The film does indeed appear to play fair when you watch this sequence back a second time: the intruder is positioned right in front of the viewer for some time, yet remains unnoticed until a pair of eyes suddenly appears and blinks in the centre of the screen. You will realise then that he has been stood there all along: naked, apart from a G-string, and painted in the same shade of brown defining the wall behind him -- with the same patterning. It’s clever and spooky, but it’s probably also best not to dwell too long on the amount of time it would take and the logistics it would involve to achieve such a feat!


This film was made in conjunction with the cable channel Showtime, so though in a lot of respects it has the tone of a 90s Hallmark TV movie it also features copious amounts of female nudity and one or two quite unpleasant scenes. One in particular, in which the child killer visits a comatose victim in her hospital bed and, after having stared at her unmoving form for what seems like an age, starts karate chopping the unconscious patient in the stomach -- lightly at first, but then with increasing and sickening severity -- is particularly unnerving. The villain this time out, although similarly mentally unstable, remains much more threatening and sinister and has a strange ventriloquism club act involving a creepy faceless puppet (we see him performing it in a burlesque club that has a topless bar), which looks like something David Lynch might easily have conjured up for the red room scenes in Twin Peaks. Ultimately, When a Stranger Calls Back makes for an inessential but entertaining twist on the original: a fitting tribute to a classic that honours its returning characters whilst also being unafraid to push plausibility as far as it can possibly go in the name of excitement. Its inclusion makes a nice addition to the new special edition disc and, when you also factor in the 1977 short film that kicked off this entire mini-franchise, brings considerable clout to a release that effectively constitutes a complete picture of Fred Walton’s work in this sub-genre. Therefore, it is easy to pronounce it an essential purchase.



Aside from the films The Sitter, When a Stranger Calls and When a Stranger Calls Back -- all newly scanned in HD, this limited edition also comes with a number of retrospective interview featurettes about the film, featuring director Fred Walton, actors Carol Kane & Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff -- all of whom have plenty of anecdotal information to relate about the shooting of the film while also providing overviews of their varied careers in the industry. First pressings also include an Original Soundtrack CD; a 40-page bound booklet with a new essay by Kevin Lyons; a reversible poster with new and original artwork; and rigid slipcase packaging.