Tuesday, 16 October 2018

NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986)

It’s hard to think of another film you could show someone today that conveys the direction popular mainstream horror cinema was going during the 80s as well as Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps. Released to very little fanfare back in 1986, Dekker’s big studio debut feature has since become a minor cult classic, and is still probably the most memorable piece of work in what has turned out to be a rather scattered career for Dekker, although his long-time association with director Shane Black continues to this day -- most recently with a co-writing credit on Black’s 2018 Predator franchise reviver.

The 1980s saw the beginning of the ‘post-modern’ fad for overt self-aware genre referencing in movies, and Night of the Creeps encapsulates that major trend, defining this era of movie-making in one perfectly garish ninety-minutes of self-referential mayhem. It’s curious how the film had to wait until so much later to find its audience, though. Watching it now, in its pristine, newly minted high-definition Blu-ray incarnation courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, it becomes clear that, as well as standing equal alongside contemporaries of the period such as Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) -- which also mined the horror genre’s rich history for irony-laced humour -- it has, by an accident of its own design, come to be seen as a concentrated nostalgia blast for 1980s cinema enthusiasts in general.


Dekker captures the ambivalence and ambiguity behind the colourful ribaldry underlying so much mainstream cinema of this decade. All dressed up with an outer layer of glamour and gloss, yet driven by an undercurrent of social and political strife. The film is faithful to the style and tone of the John Hughes high school youth movies and American Graffiti-inspired 50s Frat boy humour of the same period, and charts similar territory with its focus on adolescent male friendship, the trials of dating and courtship, peer pressure and the politics of finding acceptance within the strictures laid down by a society in which it is considered requisite to be a rebel, but only with a view to eventually finding and accepting your place within an order defined by the values of Regan’s America. 

Popular North American horror cinema of this era is both anarchic and deeply conformist: so much of it hankers back to the presumed innocence of the 1950s while at the same time it rebels by recognising  and rejoicing in the cynicism of the EC Comics sensibility of that same decade; paying it a particular form of homage through its rubbery, FX-laden, animatronic cartoon splatter. In Dekker’s vision, a coach-load of frat-boys can have its brains invaded by alien slugs looking for a place to incubate space eggs, but it doesn't stop them turning up at the swanky Sorority House to pick up their dates for the Formal; they may technically be dead (shuffling zombies, prone to showering all-and-sundry in gruesome wriggling slug creatures that make heads suddenly to split apart to release their incubating swarm), but they follow the expectations of their peer groups nonetheless and continue to enact the social requirements of 1980s culture; rehearsing the accepted codes of societal behaviour as rigorously as all those blue-faced ghouls in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead who traipsed aimlessly up and down the aisles of their favourite shopping mall as society collapsed around them.


The bulk of the film is quite specifically set in the 1980s but deals with a legacy of events from thirty-years previously that has returned to haunt the present. As well as allowing Dekker the chance to pastiche 1950s monster movies and saucer mania-inspired SF in an exquisitely shot black-and-white ‘prologue’ section, this specificity of era means that, when viewed today the haircuts and fashions and even the tonal mix of humour and splatter don’t feel jarring or dated so much as perfectly attuned to the tenor of the times in which they are presumed to be taking place -- just as the preponderance of buzz cuts, T-Birds and ‘gee-whizz’ space age cutesiness soundtracked with the music of The Platters helps to place the 1950s part of the film for us. 

It helps, too, that Tom Atkins shows up in a prominent role as a hardboiled gumshoe cop, slowly losing his mind as the ‘creep’ invasion brings back the trauma of losing his high-school sweetheart to an axe murderer when he was but a lowly beat cop. Atkins has since become one of the standard bearers of 80s horror thanks to the roster of important movies he appeared in at the time -- such as The Fog, Escape from New York and Halloween 3: Season of the Witch -- so it makes perfect sense that he should show up in a movie made slap-bang in the middle of the decade, specifically written and shot as a mosaic of references to both past and then-contemporary genre trends. 

This was becoming a common-enough trait of 80s horror at the time, but few movies took this self-aware, postmodern-jigsaw-puzzle-reference-point approach to filmmaking quite as far as Dekker did: the opening scene, set on board an interplanetary craft full ludicrously rubbery aliens that look like overgrown babies without the nappies (and minus any visible genitalia), manages to combine an irreverent tribute to the  opening action from George Lucas’s Star Wars with the set design and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien and the mad humour of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste -- as we witness vertically challenged space creatures toting oversized laser weapons chasing a rogue member of their crew down shadowy corridors in the battle to stop him escaping in a space pod with a canister containing a deadly stolen genetic lab experiment. 

This is before the opening credits have even rolled. 

We then segue without pause into the lengthy black-and-white prologue, where the alien experiment falls to earth in 50s America as an apparent meteorite, witnessed and followed by a smooching couple at a drive-in haunt. It comes to rest in a pine forest along Route 66 and releases a slug-like creature that crawls into its unwitting human host’s mouth, turning the frat boy victim into a zombie that breeds more of itself inside the brain. 


This whole section is a pitch-perfect parody of 1950s b-movies and concludes with a slasher movie sting involving an axe-wielding maniac who escapes from a local lunatic asylum on the very same night aliens release brain-invading slugs into the vicinity. This provides the backstory to explain the PTSD detective Ray Cameron (Atkins) will still be suffering from thirty years on from the night he discovered the hacked up body he was called out to investigate was that of his own sweetheart. But it also introduces the central conceit of the movie, which depends upon shamelessly pilfering to combine elements of David Cronenberg’s Shivers and George Romero’s Dead trilogy. Oddly enough, the style, the aesthetic and the content anticipate the 1950s black-and-white segment from episode eight of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s recent Twin Peaks: The Return -- including its use of music by The Platters and the references to zombies and horrible bug creatures that take control of their host by crawling in through their victims’ mouths!  

The setting for the main 1980s-set portion of the movie is the nearby Corman University, where best buddy outsiders Chris Romero (Jason Lively) and John Carpenter (JC) Hooper (Steve Marshall) are desperate to join the Beta Fraternity in order to impress Sorority princess Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow), whilst being unaware that she is already the girlfriend of the fraternity’s loathsome president (Allan Kayser) -- known to all as the ‘Bradster’. If the character-naming policy illustrated above has made you groan out loud, then be prepared to make rather a lot of similar noises throughout this picture as in due course we will be introduced to a Detective Landis, a Sergeant Rami and a high school janitor called Mr Miner! Otherwise, Lively and Marshall anchor much of the writer-director’s tendency towards genre box-ticking enthusiasms like this in likeable performances that flesh out Dekker’s ability to turn story cliché into some emotionally engaging material.

We have here a basic Animal House/National Lampoon-style coming-of-age comedy of errors set-up: a bromance of teen-boy bickering and wisecracking, during which the lovelorn but awkward Chris depends upon his physically handicapped but loquacious and much wittier best pal sidekick JC to help him get the girl. In order for them to be accepted as new Beta House members, their plan requires the boys to pledge to break into the town morgue to steal a corpse as a prank. This being a sci-fi horror comedy rather than a conventional high school sex farce, the plan runs afoul of the fact that, unbeknownst to them, the morgue harbours a secret underground cryogenics laboratory where the high school victim of that earth-fallen alien brain slug has been on ice since the 1950s. JC and Chris manage accidentally to revive the zombified High School Jock, who promptly makes his way back to the Sorority House he first visited thirty years previously to pick up his date. Soon enough, a batch of newly incubated brain slugs emerges from his exploded head, thus setting the stage for much of the gory comic-strip excess that follows.  


Like many young first-time directors, Dekker handles the action like this film might be his one and only chance to prove himself behind the camera while he learns on the job. As a result, he throws every technique he can come up with onto the screen. This turns out to be good for the material, though, as Dekker’s preference for perpetually roving cameras, making use of dolly shots and various focusing tricks learned from his favourite directors, is undoubtedly a perfect fit for this kind of comic-strip action. Cinematographer Robert C. New and Editor Michael N. Knue handle the picture’s main and most important FX business -- David B. Miller and his team’s special make-up effects and Ted Ray’s animatronic splitting head creations -- with cool efficiency; and if some of the dialogue scenes and transition sequences can seem a little lacking in pace by today’s standards, that’s only an indication of the different requirements of 80s mainstream cinema. If anything, it comes as a pleasant change to be reminded of an era when more attention was paid to character beats and backstories. The relationship between the three young leads reaches a terminal crossroads when JC falls prey to a space slug infestation in the high school restroom, and Cynthia’s choice between boyfriend Brad and suitor Chris is decided by a flamethrower to Brad’s slug-infected head after he too gets turned into a shambling zombie (although Cynthia doesn’t immediately notice the difference)!


Perhaps the most memorable piece of the puzzle that falls into place and sets the tone here is Tom Atkins’ character arc as Detective Ray Cameron: with his trench coat and vintage Mercedes, we at first peg Cameron for a conventional hardboiled detective in the Raymond Chandler mode. But we soon discover there is a much darker edge to his story, lifting the character to a whole other realm that brings a level of poignancy to the film’s unhinged episodes of splattery horror. The make-up effects strike a nice balance between gory realism and rubbery cartoonishness and there is even a finale that employs Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation techniques, mocked up by animation supervisor Todd Masters for a scene in which a nest of writhing brain slugs is discovered dwelling in the Sorority House basement having recently hatched from a box full of human brains being stored there as a favour to the campus medical lab!


This new UK edition, hatched on Blu-ray just in time for Halloween 2018, features a pristine transfer and restores the director’s preferred ending. 5.1 DTS audio options and SDH subtitles are included, and the Limited Edition first pressing comes with a special O-card slipcase. The extras are plentiful and supply an exhaustive overview of the origins, making of, and post-production history of the film thanks to two commentaries (the first with Fred Dekker and the second with the cast) and a documentary which interviews just about everyone involved with the movie who is still around to be interviewed about it, including composer Barry De Vorzon and members of the make-up team who have since gone on to even greater things -- like Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman who appear on-screen as members of the Fraternity and get turned into zombies for the big campus invasion scene at the climax of the movie! There are also video interview featurettes with Fred Dekker and Tom Atkins which discuss their careers outside of their involvement with this particular film. Throughout all these extra features the director is thankful for the film’s new after-life on video, DVD and now Blu-ray, but honest about what he considers to be the mistakes of inexperience it highlights for him when re-watching it now. Also interviewed are contemporary fans that have discovered the movie only recently and enjoy it precisely because of the peak 1980s vibes it exudes.    


Sunday, 14 October 2018

MONKEY SHINES (1988)

Monkey Shines was the first feature to put George A. Romero in the director’s seat as a hired hand on a fully-fledged non-independent studio-backed production. Inspired by a pulp novel written by Michael Stewart, it was initially mooted for adaptation by independent producer Peter Grunwald, who proposed it as an investment opportunity for the American entrepreneur and sometime-producer Charles Evans (brother of the Hollywood production legend Robert Evans), with Romero only joining the project after it’d already received substantial backing from Orion Pictures. In spite of studio interference which resulted in the ending having to be radically reshot and altered after a bad preview screening, and despite being required this time to employ a great many outsiders on the crew rather than rely exclusively on his usual close-knit team of Pittsburgh-based collaborators, the film fits neatly into the overall Romero oeuvre, while presaging a certain taming of the anarchic spirit for which his name had hitherto been a byword. 

This being his first film since the anti-military gore-fest that was 1985’s Day of the Dead, the mainstream approach here is particularly noticeable. Even so, Romero was still the primary creative force on the project and was called upon by the producers to write the screenplay as well as direct the feature; so although his version apparently sticks fairly faithfully to the original source novel, it does place more emphasis than the book on a view of human nature that is relatable to the perpetual Jekyll and Hyde struggle many of Romero’s films portray as the key to understanding the social relations governing human interaction. In fact, Monkey Shines, in retrospect, can be considered the first entry in a trilogy of Romero films that feature murderous doppelgangers that take on a destructive physical form that represents the unacceptable or negative aspects of their protagonists’ overstressed psyches.  The Romero touch is still very much evident, then, even if the rough edges had to be somewhat sanded down on what was always going to be a relatively bloodless affair.


As well as the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, the film takes inspiration from certain elements of H.G. Wells's novella The Island of Dr Moreau, especially regarding its handling of the vivisection theme and its portrayal of animal experimentation in the name of scientific discovery – a topic that was also addressed in Day of the Dead in a much more graphically visceral and intense way than it is here. The Victorian short story Green Tea seems to have some degree of relevance as well. This was one of five supernatural tales constituting the 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly, by Sheridan Le Fanu. Ostensibly a story of the uncanny and the supernatural, it also in a veiled way addresses what can be the lonely silent struggle of those who face mental health issues, tackling the theme metaphorically through the story of a devout vicar who starts to see an impish spectral monkey everywhere he goes that is only visible to him and is able to read his mind. It exerts a malign influence at first by interrupting his prayers, until he feels that he can pray no more, and eventually the protagonist comes to believe that the creature communicates through him by actually influencing his actions: "Yes, yes, it is always urging me to crimes – to injure others, or myself!" he tells the sympathetic narrator at one point. The body of the victim who has been experiencing this bizarre manifestation is later found having committed suicide with a cutthroat razor.

A monkey and a cutthroat razor also appear in Monkey Shines, most likely inspired by Romero’s friend, the Italian director Dario Argento, and a scene in his 1985 movie Phenomena featuring a razor-wielding chimpanzee belonging to a disabled entomologist. Arguably, though, the more pertinent of several tableaux Romero builds around the theme for the film features the rogue monkey in question brandishing a hypodermic needle loaded with a lethal dosage, as she ‘experiments’ on her intended victim by holding flaming matches against their skin. This scene forms the crux of the movie’s tense climax, merging its Darwinian take on Jekyll and Hyde with an ironic reversal of the roles of experimenter and experimental subject -- as an incapacitated human observer finds that they are helpless to intervene in the macabre spectacle, much like the small group of anti-vivisectionist campaigners the film depicts protesting in the lot outside a lab where monkeys have been injected with cells from the temporal cortex of the human brain with the aim of increasing their intelligence.


These standard Romero themes concerning the expression of humankind’s essentially animalistic nature, are usually pitched in his films at the societal level. Day of the Dead also explored how institutionalised practices in the sciences can encourage a utilitarian attitude towards other animals that provides the means for us to remain in a state of denial about our own animal natures, a theme that reoccurs here in a domestic context as more a commentary on the fragility of adult masculinity expounded through a story in which a two-way psychic link is inadvertently created between a 
quadriplegic man and the female capuchin monkey trained to be his home help.

 Despite the outré subject matter, Romero mainly tackles it in broadly conventional terms. Cinematographer James A. Contner is primarily known as a TV cameraman and director, and his aesthetic style leads to a mise en scène that is fairly restrained and generic, like a 1970s TV Movie of the Week. Actor Jason Beghe, playing the lead role of Allan Mann, has the clean-cut conventionally handsome looks of a late-twentieth-century daytime American soap star, while the plot is pitched at much the same level, exploring its ideas through the prism of broad-brush melodrama and soap opera intrigues. Where the film particularly excels is in its editing. Romero’s regular editor since Knightriders, Pasquale Buba, does an astonishing job of crafting a believable performance from the facial expressions and actions of Boo the stunt monkey, edited with Tom Savini’s various puppet stand-ins to perfectly capture the illusion that this capuchin is a full participant in the emotional elements as well as in the action side of the narrative. Romero has understandably described Monkey Shines as his most ‘crafted’ film, and its conventional, invisible-too-the-viewer technique is a plus when it comes to persuading its audience to passively accept a feature like that which has had, out of necessity, to be painstakingly constructed from scratch in the edit.  


The film introduces Allan Mann to us as someone to aspire to -- the acme of masculinity -- defined through the physicality of his body. He has it all: good looks, robust athleticism, a gorgeous girlfriend -- and a bright future in Law, ready and waiting for him for when his athletics career eventually comes to an end. But, following in the tradition of tragic melodramas from time immemorial, all of this is taken away from him in an instant after a freak accident renders him paralysed from the neck down. His perfect life falls apart almost instantly: the girlfriend (Janine Turner) runs off with the surgeon (Stanley Tucci) who operated on him, and Mann is forced to rely on technology and a live-in nurse to help him with the basics such as feeding, washing and dressing. Unable to adjust to these reduced circumstances, Mann attempts suicide, and is only saved in the nick of time by his friend, research scientist Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow), who’s been working on ways of increasing levels of intelligence using capuchin monkeys as test subjects, injecting them with a serum made from human brain cells in experiments conducted at a small lab run by his devious boss (Stephen Root).

Geoffrey has heard about a ‘helping hands’ program created specifically to train up monkeys that help quadriplegics with daily chores around the house. Because there is such huge demand for the service (and it takes time to train a monkey from scratch), he ‘donates’ his own best research subject, Ella, to be taught alongside Allan by trainer Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil); but he lies to her about the nature of the experimental research Ella has previously been exposed to. Romance blossoms between the caring Melanie and Allan, as she spends more and more of her time helping him learn to control and command the versatile Ella; but soon an equally intense and infinitely stranger relationship also develops in parallel between man and beast.

The film becomes an examination of what happens to a man whose identity has been founded on a physical demonstration of his masculinity, who suddenly loses that outlet as an expression of his identity. Caught between an overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten), who takes charge of bathing him using an embarrassing harness contraption suspended above the bath, and a fussy live-in-nurse (Romero’s ex-wife Christine Forrest, who also cast the film) employed to help administer to his needs but who treats him with the same patronising condescension as she reserves for her pet Budgerigar ‘Bogie’, Allan not only loses the ability to direct his own life but also his pride and his dignity. He finds himself caught in what to him has become a horrifying vice-grip of humiliation and infantilisation perpetuated by the dotting women who preside over this daily emasculating cycle of domestic frustration.


Ella the monkey is, in turn, reviled by these same women who seem unconsciously to see her as a threat to their status as primary carers, especially when Allan begins to form his unusual bond with the creature. Secretly injected on a regular basis by Geoffrey with brain cells taken from a human female, Ella starts to display peculiarly human traits, such as her tendency to respond to music. This is highlighted by her preference for the music of Peggy Lee which she plays on cassette while she works. As the monkey gets more humanlike, so Allan simultaneously becomes more animalistic and prone to savage bursts of spiteful anger directed at the people he feels have humiliated, cuckolded or thwarted him as a man.

This two-way ‘mind-meld’ cross-species identity crisis accentuates the evolutionary connections that already exist between the mind of man and primate. Romero symbolises the union with the image of Ella licking blood from Allan’s bitten lip, as though she were engaging with him in a romantic, distinctly human-like kiss. The psychic connection unleashes the primitive Id in Allan, interpreted in common religious mythology as the ’evil’ born of the fall of Man. Allan’s impotent rage fantasies of revenge duly filter through to Ella’s monkey consciousness and she begins carrying out the hateful acts his subconscious can no longer suppress or control. Allan’s unfaithful ex-wife and her lover are soon the number one targets, but so too are all the other women in his life who now control and dominate him, including his mother. Allan is able to see everything that happens to them through Ella’s eyes but is unable to turn off the flow of hate. 

The turning point of the narrative comes when Allan’s relationship with Ella’s former trainer Melanie becomes sexual, and Ella’s human-like feelings bring forth in her a jealousy that unleashes a veritable orgy of violence and confrontation involving Geoffrey, Melanie and Ella in a fight to the death for full dominance and control.


The film was not received well by audiences at the time of its release, and never really had much of a chance at the box office after being put up against Tom Cruise’s Cocktail. Disability groups were not too pleased with it either. Specifically, they objected to the terrible ad campaign devised by Orion Pictures that led to some theatres in the States being subjected to protests. In truth, there is something slightly iffy about the premise of the movie from the point of view of disability rights: it does rather depend on a common trope in fiction where the villain is given a disability that confines them to a wheelchair simply so as to provide writers with a trite backstory to account for the frustration, dependency and impotence of the character, which must then be compensated for with a tendency to dominate and control through other means, inevitably resulting in criminality and immorality.

But the film is actually attempting to critique the more general issue of how our received ideas about strength and masculinity get rooted in able bodied-ness by society and can impact negatively on our ideas and assumptions regarding how the sexes should relate to each other. But by addressing this theme in the form of an evolutionary Jekyll and Hyde genre story that sources our conception of evil in primitive urges that can only ever be papered over by the civilised norms we create through the workings of our higher-cortex functionality, such ambitions rather tend to get lost in the mix, leaving Romero open to having the subtlety of his original intentions misinterpreted. The film tries hard to appeal to a mainstream horror audience but it also features a protagonist who becomes less and less likeable as it progresses. Things are confused further by a thwarted and, as the film stands, an unnecessary subplot, involving John Pankow’s idealistic, driven, drug-addicted research scientist Geoffrey Fisher and his cynical, business-minded, pro-vivisectionist boss Doctor Burbage (Stephen Root). This was originally intended to pay off with a final scene where it was to be revealed that Burbage had harvested the remaining vials of Fisher’s serum. Both actors deliver enjoyable, high energy performances, but this element of the story fell by the wayside after the studio used negative audience reaction during previews to force Romero to come back and replace the original ending with a Carrie-like final shock for the last reel, which even the director admitted was a lazy rip-off of the ‘chest bursting’ scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien. This re-shoot, incidentally, also resulted in Romero being unavailable to start work on his ‘dream’ project Pet Cemetery, which instead went to Mary Lambert.


Away from the issues and controversies of the time, and with the dust settled on our understanding of his career now that we can see the completed larger canvass on which the late Romero’s relationship with the horror genre was eventually constructed, it’s possible to appreciate Monkey Shines for what it is: a quietly satirical deconstruction of male fragility disguised as a mainstream horror romp. In trying to please everybody, Romero may well have alienated many of the fans whose imagination he first galvanised with the uncompromising gore-drenched vision at the heart of his Dead trilogy ... at least at the time. But nowadays Monkey Shines seems considerably less polarising: a flawed but well-constructed morality play, it often does manage to present large amounts of perversity and borderline surrealism in such an understated manner that you don’t fully appreciate the oddness of it all. It is extremely gratifying to have this film at last presented as a special edition dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release in the UK, with Eureka Entertainment providing all the bells and whistles this entails. There are a whole bunch of extras here, including a new commentary by Travis Crawford, and an older one by George A. Romero -- although Crawford’s ends up seeming rather superfluous and resorts to listing the filmographies of the cast. By the end he’s even listing the entire filmographies of Romero’s contemporaries as well, suggesting that Romero’s informative commentary track and the lengthy retrospective documentary also included on the disc, An Experiment in Fear – The Making of Monkey Shines, had already covered the bases with its discussion of the details of the production as well as coverage of pre- and post-production too. Deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage and the alternative ending nixed by the studio are presented, along with the original EPK materials produced at the time for TV promotional purposes. Finally, trailers and TV spots are included and there’s a limited edition collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Craig Martin along with archival materials, which rounds off a release that features DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 audio options, optional English SDH titles, and a 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray. The first print run will also include a limited edition O Card slipcase.   

                             
   

Monday, 10 September 2018

ALLURE (2017)

Allure is the cinematic debut of Canadian photographic artists Carlos and Jason Sanchez, working here as a fully-fledged feature writer-and-directer team.  The brothers design images for their gallery-exhibited photographic work that function within photojournalistic parameters covering natural disasters or human interest stories that one might find in a glossy magazine. In fact, the brothers meticulously stage all the images and incidents depicted in their work and approach all their subjects like a film script, building sets and employing actors in an effort to make the physical and emotional content of the work seem more convincingly authentic. They have even been known to exhibit what appear to be movie stills that, in fact, come from Hollywood films that exist only in the Sanchez brothers’ imaginations. By mimicking the visual techniques, codes and signifiers marking out various genres of publically consumed image making, including photo-realism and movie stills, their photographic representations automatically suggest in the viewer’s mind a reality beyond the picture frame that we know does not really exist for the imagery it depicts. As a result, their photography can achieve a strange hybrid resonance, almost Lynchian in the way it manages to displace the concept of the ordinary within apparently naturalistic settings. The images are artificial reconstructions of authenticity, often containing confounding details that really shouldn’t be there. A favourite device is the staging of a domestic scene that at first glance appears to be quite innocent and ordinary -- even banal-looking – but which conjures all sorts of odd or disturbing narrative possibilities in the viewer’s mind the more carefully the image in question is studied.


Given this tendency to approach photography as though they were auteurs in charge of directing a scene (the brothers’ gallery shows are routinely described as ‘cinematic’ by art critics), concocting images capable of sustaining sophisticated narrative threads, it’s interesting to see how differently the brothers approach image-making when they are overseeing an actual movie. Their art normally exploits the fact that a single image can sit within a particular genre, inform the telling of a story and suggest an entirely fictional world. But a film obviously depends on an extended series of inter-related images flowing one to another to make sequences and scenes in combination with the spoken word and other kinds of diegetic and non-diegetic sound; the single composed shot is available within that framework as one particular tool that can be used in conjunction with a great number of others. Allure works as a low-key relationship drama with erotic overtones, and the visual presentation the Sanchezes arrive at through their collaboration with cinematographer Sara Mishara is relatively unobtrusive and naturalistic. However, they take full advantage of the emotional engagement and viewer investment it is possible to create only when working with a fully committed actor whose performance holds nothing back. Rather than concentrate on the purely visual to create the resonating and ambiguous effects for which their photography has come to be appreciated in contemporary art circles, Allure (previously titled A Worthy Companion for its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival) sees the Sanchez brothers significantly expanding their palette to exploit the unique possibilities that cinema brings to the table when it gives itself over to performers and actors who are able to work the material to create sophisticated, complex characters with ambiguous motives and conflicting drives and aims. 


Evan Rachel Wood is the active ingredient here: a dynamic but sensitive combustive element whose performance ignites inside the film and allows the Sanchez’ brothers to apply their subtle, detached, naturalistic yet rigorously formal visual approach to content and subject matter that many will find shocking and upsetting. They manage this without losing the humanity and emotional fragility at the heart of what could have become a mere stylistic exercise in cinematic transgression. 

That said, the brothers’ talent for scene-setting, for creating a whole milieu out of a judiciously judged use of location with careful lighting and the thoughtful placement of objects and people within a scene etc., is as evident from the start as it has been in all of their previous photographic works: throughout the picture a drizzly, leaf-damp, autumnal suburban landscape entering the frosty prelude before the darker days of winter, is presented as a deadened hinterland full of anonymous rented hotel rooms, generic office workspaces and blank house interiors which are isolated cocoons of emotional manipulation: prisons of domesticity and unvoiced familial trauma. Wood plays Laura Drake: a deeply troubled twenty-something of retro-grunge musical tastes and ‘emo chick’ clothing, who works as a cleaner for her lean-framed, nervously twitchy father William (Denis O’Hare), who he runs his small mobile house cleaning business for middle-class districts of Montreal. The provocative opening scene of the film introduces Laura hazily waking up in some drably lit, seedy rented roadside hotel room to engage in rough violent sex with a blindfolded stranger (Jonathan Shatzky), who can’t rise to the occasion when confronted with Laura’s angry indifference, and can’t take the slaps and punches she dishes out as she rides him ferociously -- as if attempting to obliterate the horror of some past traumatic event by re-enacting a version that puts her in control of it. The scene is extreme yet ambiguous because we can’t quite tell if Laura is a customer, a client, a victim or an aggressor. 


These kinds of distinctions will prove difficult to formulate for all the film's relationship depictions. The screenplay peppers the dialogue with allusions and references that suggest something untoward may have occurred between Laura and her father in the past, and the awkward body language and dysfunctional interactions between them at work certainly suggest as much. But even when the script appears to be forthcoming about these supposed events, there is always a large degree of uncertainty present because of the web of manipulations and dependencies such ‘revelations’ have as their context. 

There are hints that Laura tends to get herself involved in illicit, destructive lesbian relationships with women she’s met through her cleaning work, some of which involve her stalking those she has become attached to. It is even hinted that her father knows about what goes on during her clandestine hotel rendezvous with strangers and that he ‘cleans up’ for her when things go wrong. But  this is mainly suggestion or insinuation; the film is never one-hundred-per-cent clear on the precise nature of the relationship between Laura and William, but there is enough information by the end to indicate that there has been a fundamental struggle going on inside the former for self-definition and independence, stifled by the guilt and regret William feels for something he has done to her in the distant past. 


There is one other equally fraught parent-daughter relationship depicted in the film: sixteen-year-old Eva (newcomer Julia Sarah Stone) is a student of classical piano, whom we first meet on-screen when Laura is engaged to clean for her divorcee mother Nancy (Maxim Roy). In these initial scenes, the Sanchez brothers use a handful of cinematic techniques to imply the distant relationship that exists between Eva and her mother. For instance, they use a shallow lens depth so that the camera focuses exclusively on Eva practising in the living room, while what’s going on behind her (which involves Laura being given her cleaning instructions by Nancy out in the hallway) remains completely out of focus. The camera shifts its focus just long enough to catch Laura noticing and taking an interest in Eva from behind as she passes the room.

 As she practices, Eva is shown to be a person who is isolated in her own headspace, slightly removed from her mother’s immediate concerns which are focused on preparing to move in with a new boyfriend and his young son. Playing classical piano appears to be something Eva does to please her mother rather than for pleasure; a classic case of the parent living out her own failed dreams by proxy through the activities of the offspring, while requiring an impossibly high standard be maintained to achieve the level of success she deems appropriate. The harsh regime of constant practice cuts Eva off from the life of an average sixteen-year-old girl growing up in a prosperous but ‘dull’ city such as Montreal. But it does keep her close to her mother, which is its main function for the daughter. However, the coming move threatens all that -- and promises to produce a fatal rupture in an already fairly dysfunctional and strained state of affairs. 


One early scene, shot at some distance from behind, has Eva playing the piano alone inside the otherwise empty house, pouring her feelings into an emotional, non-classical recitation, becoming so lost in the undulating melancholy of the piece she is playing that she does not notice her mother has come home and is quietly walking up behind her. When she feels her mother’s hand lightly rest on her shoulder, Eva instantly stops the melody dead, then starts playing again -- but this time taking up a dizzyingly fast and complicated fugue by Bach which sounds robotic in contrast to the simple but heartfelt piece she had been playing to herself before. Sacrificing your own desires for another then being disappointed by their lack of ability to reciprocate with the kind of sacrifices you require from them in return will become a key emotional leitmotif that informs all the events to come. Events set in motion when Laura turns up at Eva’s house to clean and finds she has walked in on the tail-end of an almighty bust-up between mother and daughter, culminating in Eva refusing to move house and Nancy reminding her daughter, before storming out, that until she is eighteen she has no choice in the matter.  


The build-up to this moment has been marked by Laura’s quiet but determined attempts to befriend this young girl while her mother has been preoccupied at work, the two being regularly left alone after Laura finishes her cleaning shift at the house. The implication is that the young woman is attempting to facilitate a much more intimate relationship with Eva than the girl’s age legally allows. She manoeuvres herself into becoming Eva’s link to the outside world, as they bond over the music of Nirvana (Laura clocks a Kurt Cobain poster on Eva’s bedroom wall) and Laura introduces Eva to marijuana cigarettes. There is the queasy taint of a paedophilic grooming process about the methodical manner Laura goes about the business of gradually ingratiating herself, inch-by-inch, into this much younger girl’s affections. Yet such is the evident hollowness and frustration of Eva’s relationship with her mother -- who remains inattentive and blind to her daughter’s need to develop her own independent personality and discover her own interests and desires -- that one cannot help relating to Eva’s willingness to grasp the apparent escape route being offered by Laura, even though the older girl’s motives seem more than a little bit suspect.


Eva’s big argument with her mother makes it very easy for Laura to convince the emotionally upset and angry teen to leave home and come and live at her house without telling her mother where she has gone. As we watch Laura’s orchestration of this highly dangerous situation, the film becomes ever more uncomfortable to watch: we see Eva gaining more confidence from being free of her mother’s unhealthy control, and engaging in more of the kinds of activities a girl of her age would normally be experiencing, while Laura gets to present herself as a sisterly mentor figure. But at the same time, Laura is spiking Eva’s soft drinks with vodka, choosing which clothes she should wear and clearly attempting to manipulate her into adopting the role of a girlfriend rather than a younger sister. Julia Sarah Stone, physically very slight and winsome-looking, is a twenty-three-year-old playing a vulnerable sixteen-year-old here, but if anything she looks a good deal younger than her character is supposed to be in the film -- thus adding even more, as this relationship develops, to a sense that these two are embarking down a very dark path. When Eva is filed as a missing person with the police and an officer comes to interview Laura at her work’s offices, events take an even more pronounced turn for the worse and the relationship becomes openly abusive and manipulative. First Laura locks Eva in a room all day to make sure she’s not seen by neighbours and preventing her from phoning home to reassure her worried mother while Laura is at work; then she tries to make Eva feel guilty for the fact that she has to be locked up in the first place -- which Laura puts down to Eva’s reckless disregard for the knowledge that Laura would go to jail if anyone found out what she has done. Laura characterises what has now apparently turned into a prospective kidnapping and false imprisonment charge (leaving aside her plotting to corrupt a minor) as a sacrifice she has made on Eva’s behalf, which Eva doesn’t appreciate because she has so thoughtlessly neglected to consider what Laura had to put at risk in order to provide this opportunity for her to live the life of ‘freedom’ she now enjoys.


Even more shocking is that this argument resonates enough with Eva for a form of co-dependence to develop between the two girls that eventually becomes so all-encompassing it makes it very difficult to tell who is really in control of the situation: thanks to her manipulative spiel, it at first appears to be Laura who holds all the cards: she sets herself up as Eva’s ‘suga mama’ and the younger girl willingly submits to the restrictive terms necessary for preventing her discovery as a lodger in Laura’s home. But soon, any kind of assertion of independence or any interest Eva takes in any other person, even a playful friendship with Laura’s disabled brother Benjamin (Joe Cobden),  results in Laura falling prey to jealous sulks and violent rages that escalate in intensity (“I say what you can and cannot do!”), followed by hysterical bouts of apologetic self-recrimination and violent self-harm. This is the paranoia of someone who has at last found another person that they can manipulate easily enough to be able to create the façade of a normal relationship that mimics the kind they’ve always been seeking, and which they feel they desperately need in order to feel complete, but who at the same time realises that the object of their obsession could, for the same reasons, just as easily fall under the influence of someone else, too. It is a realisation that makes Laura uniquely vulnerable to the threat of eventually losing Eva to another, and this knowledge induces in her feelings of inadequacy and rage that increase the likelihood of exactly that situation occurring.  


For the most part, the Sanchez brothers allow this relationship study to play out in naturalistic terms that echo the understated visual style they generally favour throughout. Their attention to the composition of their images often sees them adopt a frame-within-a-frame aesthetic choice that utilises doorways, mirrors and windows to suggest multiple simultaneous frames of reference, a subtle visual code for the way in which Laura and Eva can be viewed to have created their identities through mutual identification with the image of the other, in Laura’s case, by manipulating the younger girl with the aim of creating a self-image that Laura wants to see reflected back in Eva’s interactions with her. The music functions in a similar ambiguous way, with many of the apparently non-diegetic cues used by Montreal-based musician/composer Olivier Alary that define the emotional temperature of the relationship, suddenly becoming diegetic when we see Eva playing them on the piano in the scene following their audio introduction. These compositional and editing choices create a distancing effect: the sense that we are looking in on events from without, attempting to assess the constantly shifting nature of what we are seeing and hearing, and frequently finding our natural prejudices and sympathies vacillating accordingly. By the end, the power positions in the relationship seem almost to have been diametrically swapped around, like they’ve fallen out of one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s spellbinding female-centric melodramas. Despite a growing intimacy, Laura’s preference for rough sex forces her back to the twilight world of shady encounters in cheap hotel rooms where a violent incident leads to a major shift in the focus of the drama’s relationship narrative: Laura takes on the role of an abuse victim rather than that of an abuser; someone who now needs active care from Eva as the latter finds herself forced to outgrow many of the adolescent rites of passage her association with Laura had been helping to precipitate in her. 


However, this, too, is another disguise of sorts, allowing for a fabrication that is also an obfuscation to be made of painful familial secrets from Laura's past. The Sanchezes allow themselves only one ostentatiously abstract image during all of this: a shot of Eva floating in a dark, formless watery void that recurs several times in the second half of the film before it is revealed to have been a flash-forward to a scene that takes place at the very end, when the girls are visiting an indoor swimming pool at a crowded public baths and there is a sudden, unexplained power blackout. This episode seems to have a metaphorical importance to the story, conveying the girls’ sundering with a Lynchian sense of strangeness, and an atmosphere similar to the kind the brothers have frequently been able to capture in their photographic work. Allure is a powerful, provocative study of isolation, obsession, unhealthy desire and unstable identity, anchored by a frighteningly convincing performance from a fierce and diamond-hard Evan Rachel Wood. Newcomer Julia Sarah Stone is perfectly cast to lend solid support in what is, for most of the run-time, a virtual two-hander and American Horror Story’s Denis O’Hare is quietly, unassumingly riveting as Laura’s tortured father. Allure is a promising debut. 

This film is now available on DVD in the UK from Eureka Entertainment.  

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Old Dark House (1932)

The Old Dark House is a striking, lavishly mounted pre-code oddity from the early years of producer Carl Laemmie Jr’s cycle of horror classics made in the 1930s at Universal City in Los Angeles. It saw the British director-abroad James Whale return to the genre that has since come to define his reputation not long after attempting to escape its gravity-like pull with a little-remembered drama called The Impatient Maiden, which had delivered somewhat unconvincing results at the box office following the huge success of Frankenstein the previous year. In the novel Benighted (the original 1928 source for the picture) the Yorkshire-born author & playwright JB Priestley sought to critique what he perceived to be the aimlessness and drift of interwar Britain, viewing the country’s malaise through the allegorical lens of a well-established British Gothic tradition for bad-things-happening-to-people-in-creepy-abodes plots stretching all the way back to the first Gothic novel itself -- Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, from 1764. This Gothic tradition was sustained in English literature through various permutations until eventually influencing John Willard’s 1922 comic stage play The Cat and the Canary: a recurring text in the story of how the Gothic mode got translated from literature into a visual medium by way of the German director Paul Leni’s 1927 American-made silent version of the play and its now-lost Universal sound remake The Cat Creeps, which technically predates Dracula as Universal’s first foray into Horror.


Undercutting or deflecting the possibility of censorship by using comedy to distract from the often macabre or sensational nature of Gothic subject matter was a common technique in the early Horror sound pictures -- becoming especially prevalent as a method once the Hays Code really kicked in. But in the hands of James Whale, the turn to comedy contributes to a high-camp auteur sensibility unique to this director’s particular oeuvre, and indicative of a much more subversive and playful approach to the material. The Old Dark House may indeed be Whale’s most artistically cogent expression of that ironical, witty style of his. Perhaps one of the main reasons he suggested that the film rights to Priestley’s novel be secured by Universal lies in the fact that this property so obviously gives him the perfect opportunity to provide Universal with yet another horror blockbuster starring Boris Karloff, while simultaneously indulging himself in what is at heart an intrinsically British comedy of manners, full of deliciously strange characters. 

One of Hitchcock's former collaborators, Benn Levy, contributes a screenplay adaptation capturing the sort of waspish, cutting sense of humour that Whale himself often demonstrated off-screen, and gives the comedic material an incongruous context via Gothic set designs that hark right back to Leni’s original film. Indeed, Universal Pictures’ art director and frequent James Whale collaborator Charles D. Hall had himself worked on the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary. This combines with a taste for the absurd deriving from the novel itself, which is delivered on screen in the guise of a series of macabre comedy grotesques made ‘flesh’ via the particular talents of Universal makeup man Jack Pierce; not to mention a hand-picked cast, largely made up of British stage performers already known to Whale from his days as an actor and theatre director, imported especially to play alongside the genre’s latest star, Boris Karloff.

Interestingly, although the screenplay adheres fairly closely to events as detailed in the novel, little of JB Priestley social commentary survives beyond the most perfunctory elements of character detail. The author was apparently sorry not to be asked to contribute to the script or even to be consulted about it, yet he and Whale share formative experiences (as do a great many of the cast) rooted in their participation in the First World War, and these undoubtedly inform each of their very individualistic approaches to the work. For the Bradford-born Priestley, his time in the army made the young writer acutely conscious for the first time of the English class system in a way that led him to believe that it played a key role in contributing to the moribund psyche of the Country in the years after the war. For Whale, though, becoming a POW in Germany during the conflict introduced him to the world of drama for the first time. He put on theatre shows while imprisoned in a Holzminden prison camp in Germany, and afterwards became an actor and theatre director whose most successful London stage production was an adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End --  a play set in the trenches of World War One – which successfully transferred to Broadway and Chicago and provided him with his route into film and to Hollywood. Whale’s first proper directorial assignment (after re-sculpting a sound version of Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angles) was the 1930 Tiffany film version of the same wartime play.


Meanwhile, some of Priestley’s wartime ennui survives in the film in the character of Roger Penderel, played by Melvyn Douglas, who is an amiable cynic described by one of the other characters as “one of those chaps who’s been knocked about a bit in the war.” Nevertheless, Penderel’s existential grief is downplayed by Whale, and Douglas’s performance is that of a slightly shop-soiled but down-to-earth everyman-cum-self-sacrificing romantic hero who provides a contrasting counterpoint to the more morbidly eccentric occupants of the house. They are clearly the main focal point for Whale as expressions of the director’s own arch, essentially British and borderline aristocratic sensibility, which is emphasised over and above the allegorical, state-of-the-nation pretensions of the original novel.     

One of the other ironies about the film that Whale himself might have appreciated in retrospect was that Priestley’s novel had been quite poorly received at home in Britain, while Whale’s lighter, comedic adaptation would go on to be an especially big hit with cinema audiences in the UK upon its release there. In the US, though, the reverse was the case: Priestley’s novel – retitled The Old Dark House for American publication -- did extremely well, which is what prompted Universal’s decision to film it; but the odd tone and camp humour peculiar to Whale’s film version resulted in the picture being unfavourably compared to his Frankenstein by many US critics who, because of Karloff’s presence, were expecting a more formulaic terror picture. Audience attendance proved to be nowhere near as impressive although it still did solid if unspectacular business. 

This perceived disappointment must have contributed, though, towards The Old Dark House falling into obscurity in subsequent years, while Dracula and Frankenstein would be frequently revived and their success prompt the making of numerous sequels. The film came to be considered almost lost until the director and producer Curtis Harrington rescued a nitrate print from the Universal vaults in the 1960s. Now it has been restored by the Cohen Media group after years of murky prints that in the past have made it seem tough-going to sit through. It re-emerges as a stone-cold classic thanks to a pin-sharp 4K transfer that highlights every meticulous detail of set and costume design, along with cleaned up audio emphasising the atmospheric soundtrack of thunderclaps and howling winds which replaces a more traditional musical accompaniment. The Eureka Entertainment Masters of Cinema edition also serves up a fine selection of extras -- including a total of three commentary tracks and a thirty-minute video essay.  

Both book and film detail how a trio of travellers on their way to Shrewsbury find themselves marooned in a sodden, remote region of the Welsh mountains, where they encounter the deranged household of the eccentric Femm family after a terrible storm and a flood have caused a landslide to block the narrow muddy road out of this forbidding landscape. The group seek shelter in the family’s slab-like, rain-lashed mansion house, first discerned looming out of the shadows thrown up by their car headlamps. This opening sequence is a bravura spectacle of flickering studio created lightning, soundstage wind machines and a driving torrent of sprinkler-produced torrential rain; a miniature, seamlessly spliced into the waterlogged live action, illustrates how the travellers’ motor vehicle narrowly avoids destruction beneath the slurry of mud and cascading rocks produced by the landslide. 

Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and the aforementioned Melvyn Douglas -- the American and Canadian contingent of the cast -- play the lost and beleaguered travellers seeking shelter amongst the mixed assortment of West End imports from the British stage who play the floridly weird Femm hosts. According to Gloria Stuart, the story’s set-up, which plays on a division between the oddball hosts and the fish-out-water visitors, was carried over into the off-screen relationships between the cast members, the American contingent feeling very much the outsiders as Whale filled the rest of his cast with British luminaries he had known or worked with during his years as an actor and theatre director in the UK. The British thespians indulged in strange arcane English rituals like ‘elevenses’, while Universal contractee Stuart and her co-star Melvyn Douglas played cards in the corner of the studio. Whale’s casting choices here couldn’t have had more resonance with Priestley’s critique of the English Establishment and the stultifying class system at its root, providing unspoken subtext to the macabre humour that furnishes much of the surface entertainment in the picture. 


This is especially evident during, for instance, the early dinner scene, which takes place soon after the three travellers have arrived: a set-piece of ghoulishly delightful comic awkwardness presided over by the creepily sepulchral Horace and Rebecca Femm -- the two heads of the demented household -- and waited on by the couple’s mad, drunken troglodyte mute butler Morgan, played by Karloff.

A distinguished thespian who was also the grandson of the 1st Lord of Chelmsford and a nephew of the 2nd, the prissily sparrow-like Ernest Thesiger, playing the hyper-nervous, aristocratic atheist aesthete Horace Femm, already must have seemed like a figure from a lost age to his American and Canadian co-stars; as would Eva Moore, who plays his half-deaf, religious maniac sister Rebecca. Moore was a veteran of the Edwardian women’s suffrage movement, who had been appearing regularly on the stage as a performer since the 1880s and was known as a great beauty during the late-Victorian era. She was also the mother-in-law of Laurence Olivier from his first marriage to Jill Esmond. The household presided over by Horace and Rebecca represents its own similarly self-contained lost world, into which are plunged a modern young married couple and a war veteran still searching for his place in modern society. 

The film becomes a brooding Gothic metaphor for interwar England as a land caught between the judgemental religious mania of its morally punitive Victorian past, and the ineffectual petty bureaucracy of the present, run by an intellectual class that cannot command the respect to change or challenge the shibboleths that define its antiquated surroundings. Karloff, meanwhile, represents the rather prejudiced JB Priestley vision of the brutish working classes: uneducated and inarticulate, latently violent, often drunk and lecherous, and easily exploited by the destructive anarchistic tendencies existing within the margins of a body politic usually kept figuratively locked in the attic, but which, in this case, is also literally present in the form of a homicidal pyromaniac brother, Saul Femm (Brember Wills) -- who is indeed locked up in the attic. The soul of the family is the witheringly old and critically enfeebled patriarch Sir Roderick, who is maintained at the age of 102 in a state-like, oak-panelled bedbound splendour -- like a funerary corpse hidden in the upper chambers of the house. He is played, in a typical example of Whale’s offbeat knowing humour, by a little old lady with a Jack Pierce-made glued-on beard! (Elspeth Dudgeon -- credited as ‘John’ Dudgeon in the cast list) 


Perhaps one of the things about the film that confused audiences at the time, and still disconcerts some of its viewers today, is that it has no real story … It really is just a collection of encounters between some lost young people and a selection of oddball characters that take place over the course of one long night, with everyone going his or her separate way in the morning as if nothing had happened ... except for Penderel and chorus line ‘showgirl’ Gladys (Lillian Bond) who fall in love during the course of the night despite Gladys having arrived halfway through the evening in the company of ebullient self-made businessman Sir William Porterhouse – a part which affords Charles Laughton one of his first Hollywood roles. 

Staging it like a proscenium play in one location, with a series of entrances and exits of characters strategically placed across a three-act structure, Whale nevertheless exploits the space in the film to make these interactions extremely psychologically compelling and dynamic, marshalling showy camera movement in the form of those enduringly wobbly tracking shots one tends to find in pictures from the early 1930s, and fractured, almost avant-garde  editing techniques which are utilised to startling effect to enhance the across-the-board excellent performances of the ensemble cast, especially the exquisite mime performance given by Boris Karloff, who is otherwise overshadowed by the likes of Thesiger, Laughton and Moore as they get to deliver all the film’s many memorably juicy dialogue scenes. 


There is no greater example of Whale’s directorial flair combining with the meticulous attention to detail of the screenplay and the performances of the cast to create heightened, resonate spectacle than an early scene that takes place between the young married Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and the barnstorming god-botherer Rebecca Femm after Margaret asks to change out of her wet clothes in Rebecca’s room soon after arrival at the Femm mansion. The room is dark and fusty, cluttered with Victorian china figurines and brass candlesticks, and dominated by a big brass bed and a large framed portrait photograph of Queen Victoria on one wall. Under the disapproving gaze of Rebecca (and Queen Victoria), Margaret strips by candlelight down to silk stockings and a loose, revealing shift undergarment, before unaccountably changing into a somewhat impractical (in these grim surroundings) bias-cut, satin velvet, Jean Harlow evening dress with spaghetti straps, personally specified by Whale for aesthetic reasons because he wanted Stuart to stand out like a ‘white flame’ when Karloff’s Morgan has to chase her around the house later in the movie. 


But the conceit also helps to illustrate the pathological puritanism of her host, bringing the casual sexuality of the 1930s into close proximity with a suffocating cloud of stiff Victorian rectitude. Her face creased with malice, Rebecca slyly informs Margaret of the salacious history of wantonness and’ fleshly pleasures’ once pursued in this house by her brothers and her ‘blasphemous’ father. She details with lip-smackingly cruel suggestive pleasure the diabolical fate of her sister, who died in the very bed on which Margaret is at this very moment sitting: “all the young men used to follow her about, with her red lips and big eyes and her white neck. But that didn’t save her! She fell off her horse, hunting, and hurt her spine!” The malignant old woman continues to relate how her sister would beg to be allowed to die in order to escape the chronic pain she was left in after the accident. Rebecca would ignore these entreaties and instead concentrated her efforts on trying to get her crippled sister to accept the Lord. “She didn’t,” snaps the old woman with satisfaction, her face distorted by the cracked and warped mirror on an old bedside wardrobe;“she was Godless to the last!”


Then, prodding at the young woman’s semi-exposed chest, Rebecca turns her attention to the vulnerable, half-naked Margaret: “you’re wicked too! Young and handsome. Silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long straight legs, and your white body, and how to please your man! You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you!” With that, she scuttles out of the room, leaving her shaken guest alone with her now utterly disturbed thoughts. Margaret distractedly attempts to straighten her hair in the gloomy mirror, but the image reflected back at her is now utterly warped and fractured. Whale emphasises her distressed state of mind by flashing back to Rebecca’s mean words and her spiteful face also warped by the mirror, intercutting it with brief images of scarred Morgan’s misshapen leering gaze ... A window blows open in the turmoil of the storm outside and suddenly it is as if the entire room is now rejecting her, as she, in turn, recoils from everything that it represents: the judgmental obsession of an oppressively cloistered household with sin and moral retribution. 


Whale includes a lovely scene expounding on this theme not long after, when Margaret, still in her fetching evening dress, makes silhouette animal shapes on the wall in the candlelight of the dining room, only for the short, stout outline of Rebecca to suddenly materialise alongside them, invading the frivolous spectacle as if from nowhere to poke Margaret’s shadow self -- also being thrown onto the wall -- in the chest. It’s as though Margaret’s peace of mind and ease with the idea of her own sexual allure has now been irrevocably tainted by exposure to the hateful moral spite of her host.

But this tour de force only sets the scene for a succession of similarly metaphorically suggestive sequences: Morgan’s subsequent violent pursuit of Margaret around the threatening Gothic pile, and the various attempts of her polite and sophisticated male companions to restrain this raging symbol of proletarian sexual brutality. Additionally, the escape of the imprisoned pyromaniac brother Saul -- kept locked in the attack until a drunken Morgan releases him to set in motion the film’s climactic struggle, sees Penderel forced to go head-to-head with this deranged imp of a man who appears at the head of the staircase in an ill-fitting threadbare suit. Amid the scattered trash and smashed cutlery from previous upsets that now litter the dining room floor, their altercation escalates downstairs before leading back up to the balcony landing, where Saul sets fire to the curtains. During their fight, Saul, giggling maniacally, shockingly attempts to bite Penderel sadistically on the neck – a scene censored from many early prints; as were references made by chorus girl Gladys earlier in the movie suggesting that she was not averse to accepting money for sex. 

The subplot involving Gladys being at the centre of a love triangle with Penderel and Lord Porterhouse provides a slither of conventional human interest drama amongst the lovingly rendered grotesquery, that also allows Charles Laughton to shine as this loud, bluff Yorkshire businessman with a bought title, who is, by the close of the picture, revealed to be so much more sensitive and likable than his initial coarse image might have suggested when he and Gladys first barged into the mansion. Whale finishes the film by upending the downbeat conclusion of the novel  -- which bowed out with Penderel dying during the struggle with Saul – and making an intertextual joke: the two still plunge from the first floor balcony, but a distraught Gladys, cradling her lover in her arms believing him expired, suddenly detects a pulse and exclaims with joy “he’s alive! .. alive!” -- repeating verbatim Frankenstein’s famous line from Whale’s classic film of the same name!



The Old Dark House is a unique entry in the Universal horror pantheon that stands proudly alongside other pre-code horror classics of the day from other studios, such as The Island of Lost Souls or the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But James Whale’s camp humour and the performances of Thesiger, Moore and Laughton bring something extra special to it that’s still discernible today. This dual format release from Eureka Entertainment features a stunning 4K high definition transfer that really makes the film pop and helps highlight how much of its humour still seems current. The extras bring together previously recorded commentary tracks including one made by Gloria Stuart herself, who gives a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes relationships between cast members. James Whale biographer James Curtis contributes a thorough, informative production history, while film critic Kim Newman and author Stephen Jones bring their brand of chatty knowledgeability to the party. Critic and filmmaker, David Cairns, continues to be a leading exemplar of the art of the video essay with another fine one included here; and there’s a short archive film featuring Curtis Harrington, detailing how he managed to save The Old Dark House from becoming lost to film history. Finally, Sara Karloff talks about her father’s prestigious career and the resurrection of The Old Dark House as a horror classic. Early pressings of the dual-format release include some impressive artwork on a limited edition O-Card by Graham Humphreys and Philip Kemp contributes a written overview essay in the accompnaying booklet. An essential release.