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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dracula, Vincent Price and Manhattan


I flew to Manhattan last week to put on an event for a client at the Roosevelt Hotel, so I made sure to have all my entertainment options available for the five-and-a-half hour flight to JFK. The iPod and MacBook Pro were charged and ready, and if they failed to amuse me, the old reliable analog solution -- a book -- was also at hand. As it turned out, the iPod and the book, "Vincent Price: The Art of Fear," served me well, because shortly before takeoff a flight attendant announced over the intercom that the video system was down and no entertainment would be shown. When I found out that the alleged entertainment was supposed to have been Adam Sandler in "Bedtime Stories," it was obvious that the video system had committed suicide.

The Price book, by the prolific Denis Meikle, made for engaging reading. It was a filmography rather than a biography, which was fine for me, because I consider Price's own daughter's published reminiscences to be the last word regarding his life. Meikle's book contained fun anecdotes such as an incident during the filming of "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" when co-star Robert Quarry (a campy actor who starred in a surprise hit for American International, "Count Yorga, Vampire," which had started life as a horror-porno film but was re-edited into a PG-rated vampire opus on the basis of his performance), who was being groomed as a replacement for the aging Price, strolled around the set singing Gershwin tunes and breezily said to Vinnie, "Didn't know I was a singer, did you, Vincent?" to which the elder star retorted, "Well, I knew you weren't a f***ing actor!"

Thursday night, still flying from the success of the event that morning, I went to the Barrymore Theatre on 47th to see "Exit the King" with Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. I enjoyed the play, which looked very much like a traveling show from the 1800s (which I'm sure the art director intended), complete with face-bleaching footllights, tons of makeup and broad performances. Rush was terrific and Andrea Martin, as the maid, was hilarious. Sarandon acquitted herself admirably as the elder Queen, delivering the acerbic lines while sitting splayed-legged on her throne. Surprisingly, this is her Broadway debut and her first theatrical performance in 27 years.

One of the best things about seeing a Broadway show is that when you come out of the theater, slightly disoriented from the performance, you suddenly find yourself in Times Square with all its crowds, flashing lights and excitement. You think, "Oh, yeah! I'm in New York! Whoo-hoo!" But when you're as crazy about that town as I am, even walking to the neighborhood deli for a cup of coffee in the morning is a cause for rejoicing.

The flight back to L.A. was cursed. I won't say what airline I was on, but think of Fonzie's catchphrase on "Happy Days" and repeat it twice. First, I found that the headphone jack on my seat was missing. I notified a flight attendant who said, "I'll write down the seat number and they'll fix it later" (she never did). Then they announced that three of the six restrooms were out of service but rather than waiting two hours to fix them they decided to take off instead.

We still waited two hours on the tarmac. Once we were airborne, they announced that the GoGo Inflight Internet (which I had gotten a free coupon for) was not working. Finally, they informed us that the in-flight feature was about to begin: "Yes Man," with Jim Carrey, to which I cried, "Haven't we suffered enough?" Out came the MacBookPro and a DVD of "Brides of Dracula."

Reading about Price's movies and watching the hypertheatrical play the night before really put me in the mood for some classic Hammer, and "Brides" is truly the little movie that could. When Christopher Lee refused to put in the fangs for a sequel to "Horror of Dracula," the producers had to cobble together a story without him. Actually, it's not even a Dracula film, but "Brides of Meinster" just doesn't have the same zing. The loss of their star seems to have stimulated the filmmakers' creative processes, however, as this film is a kinky classic and one of the very best Hammers.

The imposing, hatchet-faced Martita Hunt has one of the greatest entrances in film history as she strolls imperiously into the inn and growls, "Wine" to the terrified innkeeper without even looking at him. She wastes no time in luring the wide-eyed French schoolteacher, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) to her castle as a meal for her vampire son (David Peel), whom she keeps safely chained up in his rooms. Her plans go awry, though, when the Baron charms Marianne into stealing the key from his mother's room that will release him from the shackle around his ankle. Freed, he puts the bite on his own mother and sets off to commit more vampire-centric mayhem.

Peel was an unusual choice for the role. With his blond "mod" hairdo and androgynous features, he brings an air of homoeroticism to the role so strong that you wonder why he's attracted to Marianne in the first place. And in an earlier conversation with Marianne, the Baroness alludes to "parties" she and her son used to have that could easily be interpreted as omnisexual orgies. Of course, he just wants to take Marianne's hand in marriage to gain access to all the delicious young throats at the all-girl school she's been engaged to teach "French and deportment" at. I can only guess that even though they're female, that virgin blood is delicious.

Later, he really relishes putting the bite on Van Helsing (the wonderful Peter Cushing) in the only instance of male-male vamp action that I know of in the Hammer canon. Peel's eyes are strange enough, but when the bloodshot contact lenses are put in place, they look really weird.

Speaking of strange eyes, Andree Melly, who plays Marianne's roommate at the school, also has unusual features, and when she becomes vampirized she's a sight to behold. She also has one of the greatest lines in the film. Fangs bared, she entreats Marianne to give her a kiss and begs her forgiveness for "letting him love her" too. Awesome.

Freda Jackson, as the Meinster's loony housekeeper, Greta, presides over a delightfully obscene corruption of the birthing process as she lays on the ground next to a freshly dug grave, encouraging the newly-made vampire underneath the dirt to "Push, push! No, I can't help you! You have to do it yourself!"

Cushing himself has a wonderful scene with Hunt, who has been transformed into a vampire against her will and is terrified that there will be no release for her. Van Helsing says, "There is one release," which makes her smile at him hopefully. You know what that release is -- the male empowerment phallic symbol of the vampire genre -- the stake!

A great anecdote about Hunt, who was something of an eccentric free spirit in real life. During the filming, a production staffer inadvertently walked into her dressing room while she was practicing nude yoga, standing on her head, of course. Describing the incident to others later, he remarked, "Have you ever seen two fried eggs sliding down a wall?"

If you haven't seen "Brides of Dracula," run out right now and rent the DVD. Or on demand it. Or Netflix it. Or watch it on Youtube. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Wolfman is Looking At You

Did you ever notice in the classic Universal horror films that the featured monster frequently will break the fourth wall and look directly at you, the viewer, if even for just a menacing glimpse?

I'm not talking about the full-frontal, soft-focus terror of the original "Phantom of the Opera" unmasking scene, where we're invited to "feast our eyes and glut our soul" on Erik's (Lon Chaney) accursed ugliness. No, I'm talking about those menacing looks, delivered by his own son's Wolfman, for example, that seem to say, "I know you're watching me. And I'm coming to get you."

The "Creature Features" late-night weekend movie show was going strong on WSJV-TV in South Bend during my pre-teen years, so I was able to catch all the Universal classics. They'd begin at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday (later if there was a game), but I didn't care. I'd make a deal with my mom to take a nap beforehand so that I could get up again. Alone or with my sister, I'd watch them unspool while the crickets chirped outside the open windows and a warm, damp midwestern summer breeze sent the curtains billowing. The lights were off in the living room, of course, and only the glow of the enormous console television set provided illumination. And the thrills would begin.

What about the direct-eye-contact thrills? They varied in impact. The 1931 "Dracula" certainly had misty atmosphere, but the scene in which Lugosi is descending upon Helen Chandler in bed abruptly cuts to the shot of him staring straight at us to evoke a "YOU are the victim!" response, his mouth is curled in a toothless sneer that makes him look like he forgot his dentures! Not scary. Boris Karloff's mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, dragging himself toward the hysterical Bramwell Fletcher, is much creepier, but the payoff is still only semi-frightening because his eyes are mostly concealed in bandages and therefore not direct. Actually, he shouldn't even have eyes, but that's a moot point. And Karloff's other magnificent portrayal, the Frankenstein Monster, is never intentionally menacing unless he's being threatened by those ever-reliable villagers, so he even managed to generate sympathy while strangling one of them. The Wolfman, however, was a completely different story.

The suspense would build while I waited for the elaborate facial transformation to occur. The filmmakers would tease me early on with a hairy hand here, a clawed foot there, but I wanted to see the face. Then the time would come. I'd watch in excited apprehension as Larry Talbot became the Wolfman in those obvious but still strangely compelling lap dissolves. My heart would really start pounding after he got that black wolf nose because I knew he would crinkle it as if he could smell someone...and then he'd look at me! Thrilled and terrified at the same time, I'd hide half my face behind a blanket, wondering if tonight would be the night that the Wolfman would cast a shadow across my curtain, only to pull me out of my suburban slumber and rip out my throat. I knew even as a kid that in the sequels these scenes became more extreme, to the point that it seemed that he was going to ask for a date, but I still loved that eye contact.

Here's a primo example of what I've been talking about. The YouTube poster obviously shot it off of a television, but you still get the shot of Lon slyly looking at us. Yeek!



Did any horror films of later years make good use of eye contact? The Creature from the Black Lagoon looked straight at us, but that was only to fulfill the thrills of 3D. And I remember when the full-color, full-blooded Hammer films hit the drive-in theatre circuit. Christopher Lee would bare his fangs and almost make eye contact with the camera, which still made the hairs on my arms stand up . In "The Exorcist," there are two "I'm looking at you" shots during the final exorcism when Linda Blair's head spins around for the second -- and less horrific -- time, but even as a kid (I saw it in its original theatrical release when I was 13!) I thought it was kind of cheesy and pandering.

I'm sure Jason Voorhees must have looked at us at some point throughout the numerous "Friday the 13th" sequels, but his eyes are kind of wet and blurry in the "I kill but what I really want to do is direct" sort of way. And, of course, Freddy Krueger looked at us many times with ever-diminishing results. If they can get back to the thrills of the original 1984 version with the recently-announced remake (with Jackie Earle Haley!) they will truly have hit on something. Otherwise, the tedious abbatoir "Hostels" and "Saws" don't look at you -- they want you to look at them and say, "Eww, how disgusting!"

Nevertheless, things haven't changed for me even now. If I happen to catch any of the "Wolfman" movies on AMC, I always wait for the transformation scene. And I still feel the same frisson when Lon's eyes dart over to the camera. He wants to kill me!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Three disparate films watched back-to-back several times

When I was sixteen, my sister came to visit South Bend from Texas for the summer. She wanted to go to the Niles 31 drive-in theater to flirt with a guy she was interested in, and I was happy to go along for the movies. Little did I know we'd have to go see the same damn movies three nights in a row in order for her to complete her conquest. And what the hell was the film booker smoking? The films were "Love and Death" (1975; United Artists), "Nashville Girl" (1976; New World Pictures) and "Lipstick" (1976; Paramount).

Usually film bookers got "deals" from studios to run old films with new films (i.e., the memorable triple feature of "Phantom of the Paradise," "The Rose" and "All That Jazz," which I saw at the Chippewa Drive-In, all from 20th Century-Fox, which made for a memorable but extremely long night of musical fun) but this flea market of disparate celluloid made no sense whatsoever. How was one to absorb these three pictures together to form some sort of theme? Even as a 16-year-old, I had no frame of reference. They were nice, warm summer nights, so I didn't really care. I guess I could have walked over to screen #2 and watched what was playing there, but the lot was gravel, not tarmac, and it wouldn't have been very comfortable to sit on. Plus I might have been chased out by employees brandishing baseball bats.

Onto the movies:

"Love and Death" is Woody Allen's 1975 spoof of Russian lit and Ingmar Bergman films, and it's one of my three favorite pictures from the Woodman (the others are "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan"). He was still in his slapstick phase, and even though I hadn't yet discovered the icy, austere joys of Bergman, I still loved it. My favorite exchange occurs when Woody is ogling a beautiful woman at the opera house and asks his companion, "Who's that?" She responds: "The countess Alexandrovna. She takes lovers." His response: "She takes uppers?" This is not a drive-in film per se. It's too highbrow and requires a sophisicated sense of humor, unless you're stoned, which I'm sure was the state of many of the other patrons.



Then came the Roger Corman flick, one of those "hicksploitation" epics made popular in the wake of such classics as "Macon County Jail" and "A Small Town in Texas." In this one, Monica Gayle ("Switchblade Sisters") stars as a small-town girl who longs for stardom in Nashville but gets used and abused on the way. Her family is trash and she gets raped by a wanderer, go she packs up her guitar and heads for Nashville only to discover that she needs to bed-hop to make her way to the top. This one was definitely the dull spot in the program and was really painful to watch three times, as it didn't generate a lot of excitement unless you really enjoy rape scenes and country music. It was much more of a drive-in picture, though, and if it had been paired up with the aforementioned films or even "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry," it would have been more thematically appropriate.

The final film of the evening was definitely a "huh?" Margaux Hemingway, then red-hot as the model for Babe Perfume, takes the lead. Unfortunately, it was produced by Freddie Fields at the height of the coked-up Studio 54 glamour phase, and is an uneasy mixture of high fashion and violent rape. It was meant to be a starmaking debut for Margaux but unfortunately revealed that she had a major speech impediment and limited acting ability. However, it did make a star of sister Mariel, which must have caused no end of family squabbles. Tragically and ironically, Margaux killed herself one day before the anniversary of the suicide of her grandfather, Ernest Hemingway.

Here's the revenge scene. Warning: violence and disco music!



Did you dig the "Jaws" theme stuck in there? What the hell was that about?

Back in those days you could often be surprised by the content of the films. For example, Italian gangster films were often promoted as horror movies. I hated that. And Film Ventures International retitled and rereleased its absurd animal revenge epic "Day of the Animals" as "Something is Out There" within just a few months, which was also infuriating. On the other hand, a title like "Don't Open the Window" was the name that the 1974 classic Spanish zombie movie, "The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue," came to America with; a thrilling discovery. And from time to time the Niles 31 would throw in something really vintage and offbeat as the first feature (when the sky was still light), such as "The Girl Can't Help It" or "Dracula, Prince of Darkness."

But these three? If you've read this far, you're probably saying, "Why do you even remember?" Because that's the way my mind works.

I never saw "Nashville Girl" again but I revisit "Love and Death" frequently. A couple of years ago the American Cinematheque showed a double feature of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (another Freddie Fields epic) and "Lipstick." I watched all of "Goodbar" but only stayed through the rape scene in "Lipstick." Is that crass?

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