A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

Last evening, we ventured out into the world of real, first-run movie theaters in order to catch a few end-of-year things. First up was Corman’s World, a really delightful documentary on Roger Corman and his near-50 years of being an awesome guy. It’s mostly an opportunity for people like Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdanovich to shoot the shit with stories about how ridiculous (and wonderful) working for Roger was. If you can catch it, definitely do; there’s probably going to be an amazing DVD release, if the list of people interviewed who didn’t end up in the film is to be believed.

 

And then, there’s A Dangerous Method. I had such high hopes: David Cronenberg! Michael Fassbender as Jung! Spanking! Unfortunately, I haven’t been as disappointed in a movie in a long time. It was…dull. The last thing I ever thought I’d call a Cronenberg movie was dull, but there you have it. Both of us here at BCMH were looking for something, any hook to get a good, interesting grip on the movie. There is nothing.

First off, the film’s chronology is not only vaguely confusing, but seems arbitrary: the movie begins with hysterical (but brilliant) Sabina Spielrein arriving at Jung’s Switzerland clinic. Jung decides to try out his fancy new “talking cure” on Sabina. It’s going really well! Sabina realizes she loves getting humiliated because her dad beat her as a child! And then…it’s two years later, and Sabina is in medical school and in love with Jung. The first few minutes is all we get to see of the talking cure, another one of my major faults with the movie. For as much clinical talk as there is in the film (and there is a lot), there’s no real explication of what Jungian analysis is. If a viewer comes into the movie not knowing much about Jung, they will certainly not come out knowing much more. Is Jung psychic? What is he talking about?

Then, there’s Kiera Knightley. I put her squarely in the category of “pretty actresses people think are really good for some unknown reason” (looking at you, Scarlett Johansson). Knightley is, frankly, pretty silly as Sabina. She lets her jaw do most of the acting; in the early scenes, when Sabina is freaking out, Knightley sputters and sticks out her jaw, and flails her limbs around, Thom Yorke-style. It’s almost embarassing to watch.

I wish I had caps of the scene in question, but you’ll have to look at these pictures I found on the internet and believe me. She is awful. Bless his little heart, Michael Fassbender tries to make this one interesting, and at times, he almost succeeds. He’s a great actor, and we can see it here, but in the end, it barely even matters.

Ultimately the problem is we don’t know why any of this matters: as far as the film goes, the split between Freud and Jung basically reaffirms that psychiatrists are the monks of a secular culture. Do they dare transgress the laws of the brotherhood? If you’re going to go that way, then you should go whole hog, because the most interesting thing is the results of this schism, none of which is mentioned in the film. It’s the sort of “Watch someone’s life from before they were interesting” you get when you read a biography that spends four chapters on someone’s childhood. The increasing slickness, the commercial lines of Cronenberg aren’t ironic any more. There’s nothing transgressive here, and that’s fine, but it’s not like there’s historical interest in Jung And Freud Go To America, Apparently, On A Stupid Boat. That’s my take, anyway. There’s just so little here that it’s hard to grab onto anything, which seems antithetical to the idea Cronenberg is trying to get across in the film (the catalyst of transgressing a boundary in ritual). I don’t even care if it’s historically accurate, if you’re gonna go that route you need to deliver on some other flavor, and there’s nothing there, really. Depressing! I could so totally go for a long boring film about Jung and even I didn’t like it! Two thumbs down on this one, for sure.

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

There is a (ever-dwindling) list of movies even I am shocked that I haven’t seen, as someone who is (relatively) serious about film. Until the other day, L’avventura was on it. I love, loooooove Antonioni’s work, particularly his work with the amazing Monica Vitti, but this had somehow slipped by me. Never again! I’m starting to learn that some things are standards because they are, indeed, awesome.

The film, shot seemingly entirely from behind Monica Vitti, is pretty clearly delineated into two halves. In the first half, Anna (Lea Massari) and her BFF Claudia (Vitti) go on a boat trip with Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and some of his questionable rich friends. Anna spends most of the time in the midst of an existential panic, and, after fighting with Sandro, disappears off the face of a tiny island. Claudia and Sandro spend all their time looking for Anna; for a few days, at least. In the second half, which takes place only a few days after the incident, they seem to have forgotten Anna altogether, and are embarking on an affair of their own. Claudia is torn between passion and guilt, between lust and reason, between right and wrong. Anna is barely mentioned in the second half of the film, and the mystery goes completely unsolved.

There’s an eerie 3 Women quality to the film (I know this predates the Altman considerably, but go with me here). In some of the final moments before she goes missing, Anna gives Claudia one of her blouses that she no longer wants; when Anna’s father shows up at the island after her disappearance, Claudia is wearing the shirt, which clearly freaks him out. Claudia’s relationship with Sandro seems to go into borderline-obsessive territory. Although we never saw what either woman was like before the events of the film started, they both took a half-obsessive, half-disdainful stance to being Sandro’s lover. For his part, he’s basically a scumbag. At first he’s concerned with Anna’s disappearance, then he’s not (Claudia seems to be the only one who remembers her, and even then, only vaguely), and while at first he begs Claudia for her love, once she gives it to him, he becomes markedly less interested. It’s as if Sandro is the bridge between these two women.

A few visual techniques really stood out for me in the film. As I mentioned above, it seems that during most of the film (particularly the first half), the camera is pointed at the characters’ backs. I love this! It’s really amazing; the audience gets to join Claudia and Sandro in their search for Anna, we get to see the hopelessness of actually finding the woman, and the vast stretches of nature that expand out in front of the characters. One of my favorite Antonioni visual tropes is the “small humans vs. vast nature” thing, and he’s really doing some remarkable stuff with that here. Plus, we don’t get to see Claudia’s face as she looks for Anna, so we have no idea what she’s really thinking. Antonioni forces us to extrapolate onto her. So good!

Another reoccuring visual motif is that of half-indoor, half-outdoor space. We see it in the film time and time again, where someone (usually Claudia) is inside, staring out the window, and we can see that expanse of nature in front of the character, within reach, but the other half of the frame reminds us that we’re still indoors. Trapped, if you will. Antonioni’s visualization of the struggle between heart and head usually has Claudia trapped inside, looking out. Until the last shot of the film.

After he has betrayed her, Claudia seemingly makes the choice to embrace Sandro anyway (and, in the process, Anna’s ghost?). They stand outside, still staring into the distance, still looking for Anna (maybe), but this time, a building half-obscures the view. Even when Claudia chooses love, the clarity she’s hoping for is denied her. That damn building is still in the way.

My favorite Antonioni, and one of my favorite films of all time, is Red Desert, and I was pleasantly shocked to see just how many similarities the two films have. It’s as if Red Desert‘s Guilana is Claudia, aged a few years and thoroughly disappointed by her life with Sandro. I’ll be doing a frame comparison of the two films within the next few days (get excited); for now, have a sexy Monica Vitti face for your patience.

Nevermore (part one)

There’s two ways of interpreting that word in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem (I’ve heard it read by Vincent Price, Christopher Walken, James Earl Jones, Basil Rathbone and Abel Ferrara), arguably the most famous poem ever produced by an American poet — it either means nothing or it means everything. For Guy Davenport, the raven’s reply is entirely without meaning, representative of a predetermined clockwork universe. As devil’s advocate, I’ll argue that each of the raven’s replies is in fact the truthful answer to the questions the narrator puts forth. Either way the outlook is grim. This is worth noting as it’s not only the title of the one man show performed by Jeffrey Combs and directed by Stuart Gordon, it’s also the last piece Combs recites, the piece he’s been promising the entire show, and as Poe always saw his legacy as a poet more than a storyteller it’s hardly an arbitrary choice. It’s such a famous poem, in fact, that it’s hard to hear without the cruft of the classic interfering with the actual purpose of the poem, the anguish at the passing of a loved one. In Nevermore, Combs helps put this at the fore by reciting Annabel Lee, Poe’s final poem, before The Raven. Poe is someone who knew a little something about the death of a beautiful woman at an early age: his biological mother Eliza died at the age of twentyfour, the same age at which Poe’s wife (and cousin) Virigina died of consumption. By this point in the show, Combs’ Poe has regaled us with overheated (and increasingly drunken) readings of his work, paeans to Sarah Helen Whitman (whom Poe tried to woo, without success), jabs at his peers (particularly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Poe accused of plagiarism) and a really impressive pratfall right off the stage: apart from looking remarkably like Poe, Combs gives an impressively physical performance), but the show does a well-executed beat change to make clear that when Poe writes about loss, it’s something he knows in his bones, something he takes with the highest seriousness, and it’s in that spirit that the reading of The Raven takes place.

(more on this soon, but let me say right now: if you have a chance to see Nevermore, DO IT. Re-Animator junkies will need no encouragement, and those of you who saw Combs portrayal of Poe in the Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat (which played right before the show and is excellent) will know what they’re in for, but I honestly was blown away.)

October Horrorfest: The Revenge

To round out our month-long horror celebration, Darren and I decided to each curate a night of films for one another. While we still haven’t gotten around to Darren’s picks (we’ve been busy, so tomorrow is unofficially October 33rd), we plowed through my choices on Sunday night. In order to be able to even narrow down “horror movies I want to watch with Darren” to four movies, I went with my favorites of the past ten years; partly because there have been some downright amazing horror films produced in the last ten years, and partly because I knew Darren’s knowledge of current horror cinema isn’t as vast as for those produced before 1980. So without further ado, here’s what we watched.

Them (2006) is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked horror films of the past decade. Made in France in the middle of the New French Extremity, Them offers very little (if any) blood; instead, it relies on the terror of solitude and the unknown to unsettle the viewer. Clementine and Lucas are French expatriates in Romania; Clementine works at a French school, and Lucas is (sort of) writing a book. They live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge rented house. Clementine comes home for the weekend, they hang out some, and go to bed. Then, they start hearing noises. And her car disappears (and the Romanian police are very unhelpful). And the lights go out. And then it’s a solid 40 minutes of intense action. The movie is a sparse 77 minutes; I really appreciate that, as they cut the fat out completely. I don’t care about Clementine and Lucas’ relationship, really. All I care about is them getting terrorized. I am a huge fan of movies where intruders come to your house and try to kill you for no reason (except Funny Games, which I fucking abhor), and an even bigger fan of creepy Eastern European houses with giant attics. Them is a good, quick scare, a perfect start for the night.

As Them ends with a bit of underground claustrophobic panic, The Descent (2005) was logically up next. The first time I ever saw this film was my senior year of college; I had ordered a Region 2 DVD of the film, because I was so excited about it, and it wasn’t due to come out in the States for another few months (I also protected myself from the terrible American edit this way). After a late, late party night, I came home wired, and decided to pop the movie into my computer to fall asleep to. Bad idea. I ended up terrified, up until 8am with my muscles tensed, afraid cave monsters were going to eat me. It’s that intensity that I love about the film. So, you think it’s about women getting stuck two miles underground in a secret cave? Well, it’s also about blind, cannibalistic cave monsters. And then the women start turning on each other. Every time Neil Marshall ramps up the panic on one scenario, he adds another. Darren apparently didn’t love the film the first time he saw it (he didn’t appreciate the gratuitous jump out of your seat moments), but I’m glad he gave it a second chance, as he appreciated it much more the second time around. I love the jump out of your seat moments: even after seeing it several times, even when I knew a monster was going to be around that corner, I still was startled. I love even more the subtlety that Marshall gives the characters. They’re a group of women with personalities that exist outside their relationships with men, virtually unheard of in horror film. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t know why you’re still at the computer.

Carrying on the theme of “horrific car crashes will kill everyone you love,” Inside was next. I have a personal interest in films, particularly horror films, about the terror of motherhood. I read about it, I write about it, I absolutely love to watch it. So while I do wish that Inside was a little more than it turns out to be, it’s still a film I greatly appreciate and love. Like Them, Inside cuts the fat and basically gets right to the story: after her husband/boyfriend dies in a car crash, Sarah sulks. She’s going to have her baby on Christmas (heavy-handed, yes), so on Christmas Eve, she makes plans for her boss to take her to the hospital tomorrow, and settles in for the night. Then a woman knocks on the door, who knows all about her. She seems to leave after the police arrive, but she definitely hasn’t. Then, there’s bloodshed. Lots and lots of bloodshed. Even the blood lake in The Descent really can’t compare with the body count in Inside. Beatrice Dalle, one of my all-time favorite actresses for her ballsiness and willingness to do absolutely anything (see also: Trouble Every Day, which I considered watching in this “program”), and that gap in her teeth, plays the unnamed woman who wants Sarah’s baby and will do anything to get it. There’s a lot of stuff happening here, all in the dark, claustrophobic setting of Sarah’s house. It gets a little silly towards the end, and I really didn’t need any CGI shots of the baby, much less all of them, but it’s incredibly effective in unsettling the viewer and satisfying any bloodlust.

My final choice (which we unfortunately didn’t finish – it was late by this time!) is probably my personal favorite horror film of the past decade, Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009). I wanted to be sure to get an American film in – which goes to show you how strong European horror has been recently – and this fit perfectly. I liked having a “strong lady” vibe going, plus the black mass in this film is not to be missed. Every performance is awesome: Jocelin Donahue is pitch-perfect as Samantha, and Tom Noonan is equally amazing – his creepy phone voice gets me every time. Plus, it’s great to see Greta Gerwig (my biggest ladycrush) in just about anything. The movie delves into 80s horror tropes and mimics them exactly, without ever slipping into self-referentiality or mockery. West clearly loves horror, and it shows. The House of the Devil is slow, and not a lot actually happens, but isn’t that what great horror is about: the waiting?

poe: 2009

You may well think I am mad. I no longer have the will or the tenacity to attempt to convince anyone otherwise, and even the most lucid and sensible of arguments takes on a hollow tone when spoken from a prison cell. Here I attempt merely to explain how it was I arrived in this most woeful state, in a manner as calm and collected as I can manage, though the facts of the case, if facts they can truly be said to be, are of such a phantasmagorical nature that I can only pray some reader, perhaps centuries from now, distant enough from the gossip and vile slander which has surrounded my case to make a truly impartial decision, might read these words and consider that, if I am mad, I am not *merely* mad, not exclusively mad, that a force of an entirely corrosive malevolence has made a home within my skull and mistranslated the gentlest of my intentions into catastrophe and ruin. I was a bookish child, and so it is fitting that a book began my downfall. I checked out this book from a children’s library, and later discovered it was Bowdlerized and edited to such extent that one can barely see the true story behind this veil of cheap moral obfuscation, yet that glimmer was in fact there, as the book began a path toward the actual texts, the storehouse of an intellect desiring of nothing but to follow its whims wherever they may lead, through the most rigorous of analytical consideration through the most lugubrious and saturnine of poetic sorrows. If a story can be said to be a moment of inhabiting the thoughts of others, from which we can grasp a sense of what it must be to not be ourselves, then these journeys were the most distant and exotic I had ever found, dappled with quotations in Latin and Hebrew that would cause Robert Burton to take offense, would lead Thomas Browne back to his Winchester grammarians. Yet for all the pleasure such stories arouse in me, and still do, it was he who planted the foul concept within my teeming brain, the notion that a perfect crime is a crime entirely without purpose, without gain, without malice, and so it was that on that terrible night I took to the woods with my axe and…the details need not be recounted here; I trust you know them better even than the rosaries you whispered when first you heard of my deed. I speak of this now not in the hope of absolution, but as a cautionary tale to those of you still young and headstrong, those who feel they are beyond the grasp of pernicious inflence through either the senses or the mammalian impulses of our baser nature, I say to you no! Any obreption on my part comes merely through the disarray which is all now left to me, and this criminal you all have cast as a demon sent from the very maw of Hell is simply a victim of forces beyond his comprehension! You think not? You think it cannot be? Then prepare for your own judgment, you vultures, for I am not that man at all! I merely wear his flayed skin!

Nadja (1994)

Nadja is such a quintessentially 90s independent film, in a lot of ways, that it’s amazing it stands up at all, 15 years later. It features floppy haircuts (on men and women), My Bloody Valentine, plaid shirts (again, on men and women), and Martin Donovan, all things that, at least to me, strongly signify a certain period in time. But Nadja is still watchable, and certainly enjoyable, although it would have been even more so if Michael Almereyda had trusted himself more and not relied on so many gimmicks.

Elina Lowensohn is Nadja, a stunningly gorgeous vampire living in New York City, monologuing philosophically to men and then eating them. Whenever she’s on camera, you can’t take your eyes off of her; it’s brilliant casting, as it’s not hard to see why Nadja is so irresistible. Nadja picks up Lucy (Galazy Craze – whatta name) in a bar where she is sulking after fighting with her husband – who, conicidentally, is Dr. Van Helsing’s (played by an insane Peter Fonda, who really takes it to the limit here, in a good way) nephew. Nadja and Lucy talk and wrestle and kiss and after Nadja leaves, Lucy isn’t quite the same. Add in Lucy’s estranged brother and his beautiful nurse, and you’ve got a postmodern retelling of the Dracula myth that works pretty well.

Most of the film is incredibly gorgeous – the black and white photography serves the subject matter well, and makes Nadja look even more ethereally beautiful. About a third of the film, though, is shot in a really fuzzy, pixellated way – I think it’s something like a highbrow Vampire Cam ™. It’s interesting, and beautiful, at first, but it gets tiring really quickly (Side note: I felt this way about A Horrible Way to Die as well, which I watched recently and do recommend, even though the self-conscious direction really gets in the way at times). To belabor the point: it just feels so 90s independent/experimental fucking around for no good reason. I think the film would have benefitted from way less of that, particularly when the “normal” shots are so gorgeous.

The performances are hit and miss; while some people are deadpan to the point of agony (Galaxy Craze, I am looking at you), Peter Fonda sinks his teeth into crazy Van Helsing and brother Dracula! Although honestly, I could have forgone that gimmick, as well. Lowensohn is more than beautiful, she’s quietly engaging and actually really sad as the doomed Nadja. I’m a total sucker for films that use vampirism (or cannibalism, etc.) as a metaphor for human relationships, particularly familial ones, and Nadja is a good case study in that. The film really loses momentum in the second half, which I attribute almost totally to the fuzzy photography, but it’s an interesting, playful postmodern spin on the Dracula legend that is definitely worth a watch. In fact, it’d make a great “90s black & white grunge NYC vampire films” double bill with Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction.

Francogeddon: The Bloody Judge, Count Dracula, Jack The Ripper

We’re real Francophiles here at the BCMH (and big pun fans, as well). Any occasion for a little extra Jess is always welcome, and Halloween seems more than appropriate. So we’re checking out Franco’s horror side this week, with a focus on things one or both of us haven’t seen. First up, a trip through Franco’s three weird period pieces: The Bloody Judge, Count Dracula, and Jack the Ripper.

Christopher Lee does not approve.

Our trilogy consists of two double-features (I know that’s confusing, but stick with me), of which the first is Franco-Lee Double Feature Extravaganza! The Bloody Judge is well in the Harry Allen Towerrrrrrrrs! era of Franco, and as such it’s pretty upscale, with nice castle sets, plenty of armed horse brigades and cannons galore. In fact, it’s about half military set-pieces and half Franco occult sleaze, which can be a lumpy combination at times but all comes out in the wash pretty well. To no one’s surprise, Christopher Lee is perfectly cast as a cruel judge sniffing out treason and witchery in equal measure, comparable to Vincent Price in Witchfinder General. There’s intrigues, plots within plots, family betrayals, witch burnings, frolicking in the corn and heroic derring-do — it’s more swashbucklery than Gothic, really. The one problem I had was the witches were all a bit nondescript when they could have actually been more of a driving force — I for one want my witches to actually be witches since we’re not really dealing with historical accuracy anyway.

Count Dracula is another Franco-Lee extravaganza, but this time, with added Klaus Kinski! Lee is, of course, the Count, and skulks around and has a woefully underused underground army of nightgown-clad lady vampires. Seriously, Jess did pretty well with this movie, but he really dropped the ball when he didn’t make these women a huge plot point. Lady vampires are Jess’ bread and butter! What happened! But we do get one prominent lady vampire, in the form of Soledad Miranda as Lucy, who gets seduced by Dracula while wearing a floaty nightgown and heavy eye makeup. Soledad is breathtaking as always, even with about five lines of dialogue; she flutters her eyelids and faints with the best of them. Another Franco mainstay, Maria Rohm, is here as Mina, who also wears some beautiful nightgowns. As in most Franco films, the men aren’t quite worth mentioning, but they’re serviceable. If you’re looking for a place to get yourself, or a friend, into Franco, Count Dracula is the perfect mixture of Franco-y dreamy horror and, well, “legitimate” plot points for the uninitiated. Plus, there’s some true Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote type shit at the end of the movie, if that’s your thing.

We bid a fond farewell to Lee but Kinski remains on board the FrancoWagon with Jack The Ripper, in which he categorically closes the books on the true identity of the killer., none other than Dr. Dennis Orloff! Naaaah. It’s Kinski reigning it in and playing it ice-cold while incompetent detectives let a motley crew of witnesses piece the case together for them. I’ve been clawing away at the Video Nasty Project, and while this film never made that list it easily could have, as it’s the definition of sexualized violence, never more so than in the murder scene with Lina Romay (whose presence in this film is extremely welcome) moaning and writhing as Klaus gives her the blade. That Orloff reference isn’t without reason — Jess steals from only the best (in this case, himself) and if you’ve seen The Awful Dr. Orloff you’ll pretty much know the deal. I don’t have a problem with that, as it looks more like Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (shot at the same time) and I’m pretty happy to watch Kinski skulk around and go mad. There’s not much of an ending here, but if you’re coming to Franco looking for a tightly-plotted thriller you get what you deserve.

These three Franco films probably don’t top many lists but they’re all solid, with entertaining diversions, perfect for zoning out on the couch. Count Dracula would make a great choice for Halloween marathons, The Bloody Judge would be great for fans of period pieces and Jack The Ripper is ideal for those who like to see Lina Romay sing bawdy songs while showing off her ass. Something for everyone! We’ll be back soon with more Franco, including a look at one of his Orlof films.

poe story (11)

“Tota jocularium scena procedit, et ideo spectacula admissa sunt, et infinita tiroinia vanitatum, ut his occupentur, qui perniciosius otiari solent.” -Propertius

Having divulged the summa of hidden knowledge, the revitalized skull of Edgar Allen Poe rested at the base of its transferral fluid in an exhausted heap while the grand inquisitors of the great schools and great industries of the great nations congratulated each other at having become the masters of all space and time. I, however, was feeling difficult, and snuck between the handshakes and exchanges of certificates, kicking the tank with my hobnail boot and grumbling “Anything else worth knowing? Any final morsels of trivia left to conduit from the superluminal realms to this darkened vale of tears? Is there any leftover dregs once the cask of epiphany has been ended?”

The revitalized skull of Edgar Allen Poe, the first and what would prove to be final attempt at necrotelecommunication technology, mumbled there was one other thing, but I didn’t want to know, and he did not want to say, and the words themselves did not wish to be spoken, and the very creation of language had worked its way like a river around a great stone in order to never transmit this singluar piece of data. The great lords and ladies of public knowledge were all busy talking to each other on the internet, and paid no attention to my inquisitions, so they did not think to stop me as I once again kicked the tank and demanded an answer from this bone-shard now bouncing unhappily in an agitated frenzy along the perimeter of the tank.

I reached into my pants and pulled from my left thigh a hidden flask I smuggled into the ballroom, pouring the contents into the tank, watching the revitalized skull of Edgar Allen Poe chase after the clouds of Kentucky sourmash the way a boy chases a nipple and a man chases something lower, and finally sated on the obliterate the skull confided in me the secret within the secret, the pearl of greatest price, and I turned away, aghast, as the self-satisfied hum of the chattering experts fell into silence. Oh yes, there is a secret, let no one else tell you otherwise. Let no one tell you that I have fabricated this tale from stolen rumor and the jittering palsy of narcotic stupefaction. There is a secret.

I can tell you, but you have to ask, and you don’t want to know. You *really* don’t want to know.

The Mansion of Madness (1972)

The Mansion of Madness is a wild, wacky thing. Once I would think I’d finally put my finger on what the hell was going on, it switched gears and went somewhere completely different. Based (very loosely, which should be obvious) on Poe’s story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” the film starts with Gaston LeBlanc recounting the mysterious death of his parents; when he says “But, that’s a story for another time,” he means it, and it’s never mentioned again. LeBlanc, his friend Couvier, and Couvier’s cousin are traveling to Dr. Maillard’s insane asylum in the middle of nowhere, as LeBlanc wants to write a newspaper article on the asylum, and Couvier and Dr. Maillard are old friends. Once they reach the grounds, Couvier and his cousin turn back, and LeBlanc gets the full tour of the place, where Dr. Maillard is perfecting his “soothing” method of treating mental illness. To explain much more about the plot would really be to spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen it; anyhow, I’m not really sure I could explain much more if I wanted to.

from The Mansion of Madness

Bunuel favorite Claudio Brook plays Dr. Malliard, and it’s quickly obvious there’s something off about the doctor. There’s a Rousselian quality to the asylum that develops nicely over the course of the film. It’s hard not to wish the whole film took place within the walls of the asylum, as the wacky screwball factor increases tenfold when it’s Couvier and his cousin trying to escape the sentries. Location is critical when shooting a film like this, and the asylum doesn’t disappoint: subterranean dungeons, decrepit industrial machinery, baroque parlors complete  with harps and stuffed alligators, corpses in glass display cases, it just gets better and better. I suspect this is in no small part due to the influence of Leonora Carrington, who was the art supervisor, and there’s scenes in this film which could have come directly from one of her paintings.

Having only seen Moctezuma’s Alucarda before, I wasn’t really ready for the surreal zaniness The Mansion of Madness offers. One moment, it’s in pure Jodorowsky territory, with a beautiful woman wearing an eyeball headpiece doing a dance with a baobab root (I know) and a surreal hippie band playing behind her; the next, it’s inundating the viewer with 20 minutes of Benny Hill-esque chase scenes, complete with goofy music.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is the score by Nacho Mendez, best known for his work with Moctezuma’s pal Alejandro Jodorowsky for El Topo. At times pitch-perfect (the glum march that begins the film), at times ridiculously farcical (pretty much anything in the forest), it can be distracting in the same certainly intentional way as Hess’s score for Last House On The Left.

The movie is most effective, in my opinion, when it gathers all the inmates together and lets them revel in their madness. The last 20 minutes of the film is taken up in this manner, and reminded me of Pasolini’s Salo at times – the formal setting juxtaposed with the insanity is really unsettling. That is, until the chicken dance. Wait until you see it. The Mansion of Madness is unapologetically surreal, for better or for worse. It’s probably the most interestingly insane Poe adaptation we’ll watch this month, that’s for sure.

The Mondo Macabro dvd is quite nice, with an overview of Moctezuma’s work and an interview with Guillermo del Toro  (the same ones as on the MM edition of Alucarda) — you can also find the American cut of this film under the title Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon on assorted Mill Creek collections. Absolutely worth watching unless you’re a Poe literalist or don’t like “confusing” films.

Spirits of the Dead (1968)

As the Shaggs would say, it’s Halloween! and as such we have big plans here at the cult. We’re working on theme weeks for the month, and this first week is all about Edgar Allen Poe. We’ll be talking about some adaptations of his stories for film from throughout the history of cinema, as well as posting a few Poe-influenced short stories. Also, we’ll probably be drunk. Kicking things off in a stylish manner is an anthology entitled Spirits of the Dead, or Histoires extraordinaires in the original French. Both trilogy-style films and Poe adaptations for the screen were plentiful in the sixties, most notably the Roger Corman/Vincent Price films, so it’s a relief to see three of Poe’s lesser-known stories get the film treatment in 1968’s Spirits of the Dead. The first, Roger Vadim’s version of Metzengerstein, casts Jane Fonda as a sadistic countess who uses her inheritance to satisfy her decadent whims. I’m obviously on board for that. All this pales, however, once she meets her cousin, played by Jane’s brother Peter, who wants nothing to do with her or the world at large, content to befriend animals and generally be a monk. An attempt at revenge goes awry and the countess is haunted by a huge black stallion. This sort of thing isn’t everyone’s tea (I’ve heard this part described as “Jane Fonda rides a horse for half an hour”) but I certainly like it — it stays true to the original story while allowing Vadim to satisfy his love of the long take. It’s worth noting that while shooting this film, Peter Fonda met Barbarella screenwriter Terry Southern, who tagged along to Rome after shooting, and the two of them first discussed Easy Rider.

Jane Fonda’s costumes look like leftovers from the Barbarella shoot, vaguely repurposed for medieval times. I don’t mean this as an insult at all. In fact, my favorite thing about Metzengerstein is Fonda’s wardrobe: the cut-to-the-navel one-piece with a cape and high-heeled boots that she toys with a knife in; the brown leather shorts and boots combo she forces an unwilling girl into a threeway in; the 70s-anticipating sheer white nightgown she rides her horse into the distance on; and, my favorite, the totally Barbarella-esque tunic and leather leggings she goes to see her cousin in. Metzengerstein is at least a visual treat, even if nothing really happens.

William Wilson, directed by Louis Malle, also stays relatively true to the original, in which scumbaggy William Wilson is thwarted in his attempts at cruelty throughout his life by another William Wilson, whom he eventually kills. Malle captures a solid sense of dread here, and makes great use of Bergamo as a backdrop.

What more to say about William Wilson, which, in my opinion, is a little dry, particularly when compared to the other two films. Brigitte Bardot, however, is totally radiant a Wilson’s card game opponent; she wears a dark brown wig and is constantly smoking cigars, and you can’t take your eyes off of her. Which is probably why Wilson won at cards.

Originally Orson Welles was to direct The Cask of Amontillado, but after he withdrew Frederico Fellini took his slot for Toby Dammit, certainly the best known (if barely a Poe adaptation) of the three films. Terrence Stamp plays a drunk actor celebrated by Italian society, and the film definitely feels of a kin to Juliet of the Spirits and 8 1/2: fans of either Fellini or Stamp definitely should check it out.

I almost wish Toby Dammit wasn’t in this omnibus, because it so clearly outshadows the other two films, as to make them seem almost boring in comparison. Toby Dammit is Fellini as his most Felliniesque; I would go so far as to call the film Gilliam-esque (to use a later comparison) in its utterly bleak, hilarious parade of human grotesquerie. Terence Stamp looks like a zombie, is haunted by Satan (as a creepy little girl! That’s good stuff), and recites Shakespeare at an awards dinner while having a nervous breakdown and sweating profusely. While Metzengerstein has Jane Fonda riding a horse for half an hour, Toby Dammit has Terence Stamp driving a Ferrari for half an hour, trying to get away from…well, everything. It’s absolutely, stunningly gorgeous (the first scene in the airport, particularly – are we in the future, or simply Fellini’s 60s?), and enduringly creepy. I think Poe would have dug it.

One of the downsides to the trilogy format is it’s easy for one story to overshadow the others, particularly when that episode so perfectly captures a director’s style at the time: Fellini’s postneorealist Jungian style is perfectly encapsulated in Toby Dammit, which makes it not only a lot of fun to watch but useful for viewers interested in him as a director. Malle’s William Wilson, on the other hand, is an example of a director in mid-stream, working on methods he’d more successfully use in films like Lacome, Lucien. Vadim is Vadim, basically, and having come off Barbarella the style is certainly different but the structure is certainly similar.

Spirits of the Dead: definitely worth seeing for fans of the aforementioned directors, or fans of omnibus horror films; if nothing else you should certainly catch Toby Dammit. More soon!