Saturday, September 19, 2015
Halloween 2015: September 19
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
There were horror movies before “Nosferatu.” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “The Golem” are just two examples of hugely influential genre films that came earlier. Yet there are few movies from the silent era that cast as long a shadow as “Nosferatu.” It wasn’t the first vampire film or the first adaptation of “Dracula” but it might as well be. The film’s shadowy images have become synonymous with the entire genre. Look no further then Wikipedia, where Orlok’s shadow ascending the stairs is the symbol for the horror-related portal. Count Orlok has come to represent the Vampire as Monster, the ugly and diseased version of the archetype distinct from the suave English vampire. The influence “Nosferatu” has had on horror cinema can’t be overstated. However, you can ask one question. Does it hold up?
“Nosferatu” loosely follows the same plot as “Dracula.” A real estate agent travels to Carpathia because a wealthy count wishes to buy property in the local town. There’s a carriage trip through the mountains, driven by a strange man. In both, the agent slices his hand, prompting the count to accost him. In both, the vampire sneaks aboard a boat, killing everyone aboard. Once in the city, the vampire targets the young woman next door. Roles are shifted around. There’s no equivalent to Lucy, any of her suitors, or Dr. Seward. Van Helsing and Renfield are very different characters. Jonathan Harker and Mina take entirely different paths. Most importantly, the vampire brings the plague with him, decimating the town. While the similarities are enough that the Bram Stoker estate could sue for copyright infringement, “Nosferatu” ultimately stands apart from Stoker’s novel.
a hyena stands in for a wolf. The vampire is not an elegant, sexy foreigner. Instead, Count Orlok is hideous. His bushy eyebrows and hook nose don’t challenge the sometimes considered belief that the vampire is an antisemitic caricature. His pointed ears and rodent-like fangs mark the Count as a clear monster. As opposed to the Werner Herzog remake, there is no attempt to humanize Orlok. He is unknowably alien, his beady eyes showing no sign of humanity. No wonder people like to say Max Schrek was a real vampire. The character he creates is a truly grotesque, unnerving movie monster.
Whether or not “Nosferatu” is still scary is debatable. How effective you consider the images will depend on which musical score accompanies this silent film. (The score on my copy is unfittingly pastoral. After a while, I put on Philip Glass’ “Dracula” score and that worked pretty well.) With the right music backing it up, “Nosferatu” can still be incredibly creepy. The Count’s ghastly appearance, such as when he first emerges from the shadows to welcome Hutter, can still produce chills. Hutter looking from his bedroom doorway to see Orlok standing near-by is the stuff of nightmares. The vampire rising from his casket to attack the men on the boat is intense. Another nightmarish moment comes when Elaine looks from her window to see the vampire glaring back at her. Naturally, the image of Orlok extending his shadow across the wall to clutch the girl’s heart is unfathomably iconic. Scary perhaps isn’t the right word for it but, on a cool autumn day, “Nosferatu” can certainly still be spooky.
An interesting departure from the source material is the role the heroine plays. In “Dracula,” Mina is mostly a hapless victim, with little agency, who is at the whims of the men around her. Ellen, her equivalent in this film, is given more to do. While the vampire torments her husband in Transylvania, she is haunted by dreams. As the Count approaches Hutter’s sleeping body, she cries out for him. Seemingly, the vampire hears her and retreats. Once Orlok arrives in Germany, the town is gripped by a horrible plague. The locals blame Knock, the Renfield equivalent, but only Ellen notices the creepy Count next door. Using herself as bait, allowing Orlok to drink her blood, she lures the vampire out into the morning sunlight. While the men are helpless, a woman defeats the villain. It’s hard to say if you could call “Nosferatu” feminist, since Ellen still spends most of the movie pining for her husband, but it certainly has a different approach to its heroine.
an entire archetype of movie monster while sequences in it are famous to a degree that’s hard to describe. It’s no wonder there have been two separate announcements of a remake recently. Yet the awkwardness of the time period undoubtedly affects the film’s quality. “Nosferatu” is still a pretty great movie, just based of its images, though it’s hard to call it compulsively re-watchable. [9/10]
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
I remember the first time I saw “The Abominable Dr. Phibes.” It aired on AMC’s efx, a way gone programming block that had a huge influence on me. I was already a Vincent Price fan, having already gone through the period of my life were I was obsessed with “The Fly.” However, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” made me appreciate Price on a previously unseen level. From the first image, of a black cloaked figure sitting at an elaborate pipe organ, I was compelled. It’s a film I’ve seen many times over the years and easily the most iconic character that Vincent Price would ever play.
Prominent doctors around London are starting to die in very strange ways. One is stung to death by bees. Another is clawed in his bed by bats. One has his head crushed in a compacting frog mask. Scotland Yard is baffled. Eventually, it becomes evident that Dr. Anton Phibes is behind the murders. A genius inventor and concert organist, Phibes is supposed to be dead. Yet he lives, with an unmoving face and assisted by a mute woman. Soon, the police realize that Phibes is targeting the doctors who performed surgery on his wife, the same surgery that led to the end of her life. The cops work to protect the remaining men, including the head surgeon Dr. Vesalius, while Phibes works to complete his elaborate revenge.
but love. Phibes’ love for his wife is so powerful that he comes back from the dead to avenge her death. He builds huge, ironic traps to punish those responsible. He’s a hugely romantic figure. Price doesn’t speak much, acting mostly with his eye and throat. Despite this, he brings an unrivaled grace and poise to the part, making Phibes funny, charming, and overwhelmingly compelling.
The horror elements of “Phibes” truly come through in the murder sequences. Being a man of such style and grace, Phibes can’t merely shoot or stab his opponents. Instead, he organizes elaborate scenarios to kill his victims. For no particular reason, he patterns his murders after the ten plagues of Egypt. (Or at least a Hollywood version of the Ten Plagues. I don’t think Egypt was beset by a plague of unicorns.) The death scenes are grotesque but pushed far enough out of reality that they also become sort of funny. Only two scenes are truly disturbing, when the man’s head is crushed in the frog mask and the other doctor has all his blood slowly drained from his body. Other deaths, like the catapulted unicorn head, freezing hail machine, or attack by adorable bats or rats, are more amusing then frightening. Phibes’ reaction to the crashing airplane, spinning his telescope and clapping triumphantly, is one of my favorite film moments. Probably the most ridiculous death scene is the sleeping nurse drizzled with brussels sprout juice and stripped to the bone by hungry grasshoppers. The focus on intricate murder sequences makes “The Abominable Phibes” a campy precursor to the “Omen” and “Saw” series, to name only two.
“The Abominable Dr. Phibes” wraps up with a beguiling climax. Enacting the plague of the Death of the Firstborn Son, Phibes kidnaps Vasalius’ son. A clever scheme has the boy on an operating table for the same amount of time Phibes’ wife was, before acid rains from above. A truly iconic moment comes when Phibes’ reveals his skeletal face. Though the make-up is not the best, it is a wonderfully hammy moment. His revenge complete, Phibes’ assistant destroys his lair. Summing up what a romantic he truly is, the doctor slashes his wrist and lays in a coffin with his late wife. Saving the Plague of Darkness for himself, Phibes lays besides his beloved wife as embalming fluid is pumped into his body. The music swells. Vasalius rescues his son and the bad guy’s ostensibly win. Yet it’s the grace, dignity, and romance that Phibes’ brings to his death that truly leaves an impression on the viewer. Up to the end, he was a class act.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)
Even though “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” ended on a fairly definite point, the desire to make a sequel must have been irresistible. Who wouldn’t want to see the further adventures of Dr. Phibes? Considering the first film had a slight Fu Manchu feel, making a new series based around the fabulous villain seemed like a great idea. After a fantastic sounding earlier treatment called “The Bride of Dr. Phibes” was rejected, “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” was quickly rushed into production. That rushing is evident in the final film, a sequel that is a pale shadow of the original.
Three years after the events of the first film, the stars align in the sky. Some sort of ancient mechanism inside Phibes’ underground lair is activated. The embalming fluid is pumped out and his blood is pumped back in. Dr. Phibes lives again. In Egypt, a magical river that can bring the dead back to life, which only appears every two hundred years, is revealed. Seeking the river so he can revive his wife, Phibes and Vulnavia ride to Egypt. Phibes, however, has a rival. A man named Biederbeck also wants to access to the life-giving waters. The two men battle for control of the resource, Phibes taking out many of Biederbeck’s men in extravagant ways.
The sequel also cooks up a convoluted mythology. There’s the magical river in Egypt, which can only be accessed during a certain time. There just happens to be a mysterious gold casket, with hidden doors and keys inside. How Phibes, a concert organist, found out about this stuff isn’t explained. It sinks the character into a weird pseudo-Egyptian mythology story line that doesn’t suit him the best. In the original film, Dr. Phibes was a man of few words. He couldn’t physically talk. When he did speak, after plugging his larynx into a phonograph, it was to say something important. In “Dr. Phibes Rises Again,” Phibes doesn’t shut up. Half the film is devoted to him explaining the plot and the mythology. It’s tiring and drags the pacing way down.
Robert Quarry, star of the “Count Yorga” films. AIP was grooming Biederbeck to replace Price as their marquee horror star, so pairing the two together seems clever in concept. However, Quarry’s Biederbeck is hugely unsympathetic. He seeks the magic river for solely selfish reasons and spends the whole movie stealing from Phibes. Though we all like Phibes, he’s not exactly a good guy. With Biederbeck being so unlikable, “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” leaves the audience with no one to truly root for. It doesn’t help that Robert Quarry has only a fraction of Price’s charm and charisma.
With a weak story and a batch of lesser characters, the only thing “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” has going for it is Vincent Price and the ridiculous death scenes. Price gets a few good moment, like when dining with Vulnavia or decorating his lair. (He also sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the end, which is awesome.) However, he seems mostly bored by the material. As for the death scene, they’re some notable ones. One guy is sand-blasted to death inside his own car. Another gets a golden snake through the ear. Yet another is pinched by a giant scorpion statue before being stung by smaller scorpions. The most memorable death involves a mook being crushed inside a giant vice. Phibes has no real reason to be killing these guys in such elaborate ways but at least the scenes stick in the mind. Lesser kill scenes, like death by falcon or giant bottle, noticeably do not.
Son of Dr. Phibes” would have Anton and his previously unmentioned son waging war against environment polluters. “Dr. Phibes” would’ve moved Phibes into 1980s New York. “Phibes Ressurectus,” which would have been produced by either Roger Corman or George Romero, would’ve had a star-studded cast. My favorite sequel idea was “The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes” which would have wrapped up the story, explain what’s up with Vulnavia, and featured Greek mythology-themed murders. There was even talk of a TV show! Every few years, you hear chatter about a remake. Phibes is so fascinating that I don’t blame people for wanting to resurrect him. Yet Vincent Price is irreplaceable. It might be best not to try. [5/10]
The Cat with Hands (2001)
For years, stop motion animation was a part of the horror genre, as it was the only way to bring certain fantastical creatures to life in any convincing manner. Of course, that was years ago and the method has long fallen out of favor. Yet I always thought stop motion was perfect for horror. Lots of people are scared of dolls. And what’s a stop motion puppet than a doll that has seemingly sprung to life? There’s a certain inherent spookiness to the art form, is what I’m saying. At least one guy out there gets that. His name is Robert Morgan and one of his best works is “The Cat with Hands.”
The short film plays out something like a twisted fairy tale. An old man, accompanied by a younger boy, travels to an isolated well in the middle of the forest. He tells the boy about a cat that wished to be human. Over the years, the cat thieved body parts from people, staring with the hands and working his way up, until he resembled a man. The short functions on the same sort of dream logic the Grimm’s fairy tales do, where odd statements play as a matter-of-fact. The ironic ending certainly feels like something out of an old fable. The movie’s plot occupies a place between gothic nightmare and other-worldly morality play, delivering a moral that’s intentionally not quite there.
At the very least, this one will justify any paranoia cat owners may have about their pets. Pussycats should not be trusted. There are different types of “scary.” While “The Cat with Hands” isn’t terrifying, it’s definitely creepy and surreal. Like a half-forgotten fable remembered through a fleeting nightmare, its’ likely to stick with a viewer. [8/10]