Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Something to Tide Us Over Until THE WOLFMAN (2010)

Fangoria and others are now reporting that Joe Johnston's remake of THE WOLFMAN has met with yet another delay and will make its way to theaters in February of 2010. However, an independent film, HOUSE OF THE WOLFMAN, has been piquing interest lately, with some speculating that its 1940s vibe might overshadow Universal's big budget production. Starring Ron Chaney, the film's trailer comes to us via Youtube (among other sources):

On a personal note, I'm set for some minor surgery tomorrow, though my recovery time could take weeks. Maybe . . . just maybe, I'll get a new head!

Monday, July 20, 2009

INCUBUS: Leslie Stevens' Cursed Masterpiece

An unusual film if only for the decision to have the actors read their lines in Esperanto, Leslie Stevens' INCUBUS (1965) stands as one of the most daring and original American horror films of the 1960s. Featuring an expressionistic landscape of demons and fog, the narrative involves Marc, a young soldier played by William Shatner, who becomes the target of Kia, a tempting force of satanic evil. Having grown tired of corrupt men who fall easily before her, she desires a truly good and courageous soul to deliver to hell. She succeeds in seducing Marc, but in the process, she herself falls prey to the purity of his love and so finds her evil corrupted. To exact her revenge, she summons the incubus, a male demon who rapes Marc's sister during a black mass, consequently drawing out the worst in Marc as he exacts his own bloody revenge.

The main strength of INCUBUS lies in its visual power, suggesting possible influences ranging from HORROR HOTEL to HAXAN and VAMPYR. The latter seems an especially important title to consider in the context of INCUBUS, as it becomes easy to imagine Marc living in the same land of shadows that serves as the setting of Dreyer's masterwork. Indeed, INCUBUS feels very much like a European film, a sensibility that the use of Esperanto reinforces. In terms of a narrative that involves demons trying to tempt mortals, the screenplay seems to come out of a tradition of morality plays that were popular during the medieval era, wherein characters often represented human vices and virtues.

In fact, the film works very much like a tragedy in the classic sense, though it includes set pieces that come across as startling for a film of its time. In particular, the rape of Marc's sister must have disturbed audiences lucky enough to see the film during its original release, as it features some brief if unexpected nudity. Moreover, the film's climactic scene between Kia and a satanic goat threatens to cross the line of good taste in its suggestiveness. Although he has become known for his scenery-chewing, Shatner plays his part remarkably well and, like the rest of the cast, seems to handle the Esperanto almost like a native language.

While POLTERGEIST often comes to mind when people think of cursed horror films, it really has nothing on INCUBUS. The negative and nearly all the prints of the film were lost in a mysterious fire around the time of its 1965 festival run. One of the film's actresses, Ann Atmar, committed suicide, and Milos Milos, who played the incubus, murdered Mickey Rooney's wife. Eloise Hardt, another actress in the film, suffered through the kidnapping and murder of her daughter. Apparently the lucky member of the cast, Shatner would score the part of Captain Kirk one year after the film's production. In addition to chronicling its various tragedies, the DVD from Fox Lorber offers a striking print of the film which we are lucky to enjoy, given the aforementioned fire.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Exhuming Dracula's Daughter

Pity the female monsters we find in the Universal canon. Their male counterparts seem to possess a limitless immortality, with Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and Larry Talbot all returning in a long run of sequels, even if in different incarnations. Not so for the Bride of Frankenstein, the She-Wolf of London, or Dracula's Daughter, each of whom find their cursed conditions (or even existence) ended in their first feature. While the image of Elsa Lanchester as Frankenstein's Bride has proved the most iconic, Gloria Holden's portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska stands as perhaps the most memorable performance--this despite the fact that the finished film very little resembled screenwriter John Balderston's original idea for the production. According to David Skal, Balderston originally wanted to "play up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately" by focusing more on the brides of Dracula found in the Count's Transylvanian home. In THE MONSTER SHOW, Skal writes, "Cracking a bullwhip against the stone floors, [Dracula's Daughter] subdues her evil stepmothers like an animal trainer, and, in a scene borrowed directly from Stoker's novel, offers them a squalling infant in a sack to feed upon." Apparently, the censorship office rejected the material, robbing us of a film that would have included the return of Dracula in flash-back scenes consisting of even more overtly sexual material.

Even without such scenes, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER contains some striking material. Focusing solely on Countess Zaleska, the film presents us with a character trying to free herself from the unholy urges inherited from her father. In a scene memorable for its play of light and shadow, she burns his body in a funeral pyre, but ultimately cannot separate herself from his legacy, which sometimes manifests itself in weird music and art, at one point involving a fetching prostitute standing in as a model, resulting in a wonderful scene suggestive of lesbian desire. The film's tag-line--"She Gives You That Weird Feeling"--somehow manages to hold true even today.

A recent graphic novel, DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (2007), written by Ron Fortier and illustrated by Rob Davis, takes the character's implied eroticism into literal territory. Maintaining the name "Marya," Fortier sets his story during World War I and focuses upon a love affair between the vampire and the German ace, Baron Von Richthofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron. Fortier builds upon the character's cinematic counterpart's vulnerability and sensitivity, while at the same time giving her a level of assertiveness and aggression that would have been unacceptable to American audiences in the 1930s. Paced very well, the narrative reaches an unusual (if slightly improbable) conclusion as far as vampire lore goes, while at the same time doing a satisfying job of tying in real historical details of Von Richthofen. Artwise, Davis provides some striking frames, capturing erotic moments as well as the more violent scenes. At first, Marya's features struck me as too angular, but gradually, this personal bias gave way to an understanding that such physical features emphasized her sense of presence and strength. Recommended as supplementary reading to the film, the book can be found here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

SHE DEMONS and the Nazis Who Love Them

Thanks to Mykal of Radiation Cinema who alerted me to this tasty morsel back when I reviewed DEAD SNOW. Richard Cunha's SHE DEMONS (1958) stands as a particularly sleazy example of 50s drive-in horror, a melange of ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and the real-life Nazi horrors that the world witnessed just over a decade before this film saw release. While not a zombie film in itself, it still anticipates later movies like SHOCK WAVES and Jess Franco's OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, though it's still more striking to consider how Georges Franju would borrow key plot points from this film to create his 1959 masterpiece, EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

The main plot of the film focuses on a group of boaters (including the delicious Irish McCalla) who become stranded on a remote island during a hurricane. After one of them falls victim to the island's mysterious inhabitants, the trio explore their surroundings, ultimately learning that a group of Nazis, lead by a war criminal known as "The Butcher," now use the island to continue their nefarious experiments. These experiments turn the island's native female population (who look very fetching without, presumably, modern cosmetics) into fanged but otherwise relatively unthreatening "she demons." The real horror comes from the Nazi guards who cage these women and routinely whip them for their perverse pleasure.

The motivation for the experiments stems from the head Nazi's desire to restore his wife's beauty after she became horribly scarred during a lab accident. Her face remains carefully wrapped for much of the movie, until the climax, when she dramatically reveals her disfigurement. Indeed, this popular trope--a scientist who sacrifices other women in the name of restoring his loved one's feminine beauty--which became a major building block in the development of Euro-horror, leading to films like FACELESS and THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, may have its origins in American drive-in cinema. Who knew?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

And who needs fireworks when you have a leering image from William Lustig's holiday shocker, UNCLE SAM?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer Reading: DUMA KEY by Stephen King

My impressions of DUMA KEY come tempered by two facts: 1) Despite the fact that PET SEMATARY completely traumatized me as a teenager--in a good way, I should add--and that I, like many others, consider many of King's early novels (SALEM'S LOT, THE DEAD ZONE, et al) land-marks in contemporary horror fiction, I have read very, very little of his recent out-put; and 2) I currently live within the same zip code as King's fictional key, which starts on the south end of Casey Key, where King himself resides during part of the year. True story: a couple of years ago, King walked out of the Shell station where I frequently fill up, and I made an utter dork of myself by waving to him from a distance. He waved back, a twinky in his hand, before getting back in his car and driving back toward the flying bridge that separates Casey Key from the mainland. My brush with greatness.

And DUMA KEY is great. I have not heard positive things about works like THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, but this novel stands as a testament to a formidable imagination. In fact, on some level, DUMA KEY is about the artistic imagination, perhaps a sign that after writing for decades, King has developed complex ideas about the power of the creative process. The main narrative of the novel involves Edgar, the owner of a construction company, who loses an arm and much of his cognitive powers after a bad accident. During the recuperative process, his wife divorces him, and he finds himself looking for new digs to recover himself and find a way to enjoy life again. This search leads him to Duma Key, a sparsely populated island, where he rents an oppulent house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. There, he begins sketching and painting, something he did during an earlier stage of life, and soon strange images begin manifesting themselves on his canvas, images connected to the haunted past of the key and the old woman still living there. Their lives intersect in a creepy fashion, involving set-pieces that include a ghost ship with tattered sails, ghastly corpses that stagger in from the surf, a dilapidated mansion hidden in the key's shrubbery, and a malevolent entity that, in Lovecraftian fashion, appears connected to a time of "elder gods."

Despite its 700+ pages, the novel's narrative still feels tight and lean, a testament to King's story-telling prowess. Scrupulous readers might feel that some information gets repeated too often--in fact, one might tire of the repetition of certain axioms by Wireman, a character close to Edgar. Nevertheless, King achieves an exciting build-up in action, leading to a breathless climax in the aforementioned mansion.

In closing, I want to add a few words about a very minor character in the novel, a man who walks up and down Casey Key holding a "gnarled briarwood cane, almost as tall as he is, and a big straw hat on his head"--he's an actual person who, up until a year or so ago, I'd pass on the road quite often!