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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 19

Nosferatu (1922)
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.

The modern concept of the vampire is totally informed by Bela Lugosi in “Dracula.” Yet there were no previous standards for what a vampire was like before “Nosferatu.” There are no bats or wolves. Rats are the animal most associated with the vampire and 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.

I bet “Nosferatu” is a lot of people’s first silent movie. (I can’t remember if I saw this one or “Phantom of the Opera” first.) For all its incredibly powerful images, I’m not sure the film is a good one to introduce novices to the format. “Nosferatu’s” pacing can best be described as glacial. The first half of the film; showing Hutter’s trip to Transylvanian, his messages to his fiancée, and the Count’s journey on the boat; is incredibly slow. The movie crawls through these scenes, probably because Hutter is an incredibly bland lead. The silent movie era effects can be awkward. The attempts to illustrate the Count’s powers, such as opening doors or moving coffins full of dirt with ease, are brought to life with incredibly creaky stop-motion effects. Once Orlok reaches Germany, things pick up considerably. “Nosferatu” ends strong. But that first hour nearly kills the movie.

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.

It’s difficult to rate “Nosferatu” apart from its iconic status. Graf Orlok has come to represent 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.

Dr. Phibes is not your normal horror movie mad doctor. From its opening minutes, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” is possessed of a style all its own. The impressive art deco sets and costume designs lend the film a certain style, along with its somewhat campy screenplay. But Phibes is at the middle of it all. He dresses in elegant robes. When not busy plotting his vengeance, he dances in a ballroom with his female assistant, accompanied by big band music. When plotting revenge, he shakes his fist in front of a portrait of his late wife, burning wax heads of his victims. In short, Phibes has style unlike any other cinematic villain. Furthermore, he is motivated not by greed or power 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 end credits of the film names Phibes as one of its’ protagonists. Though mad and murderous, Phibes is doubtlessly sympathetic and likable. The technical heroes of the film are the buffoonish Scotland Yard detectives. Inspector Trout, played by Peter Jeffrey, is outmatched by Phibes at every turn. He and his assistant bumble and stumble through the adventure. Jeffrey makes Trout amusing though, keeping the character from being annoying. More sympathetic is Joseph Cotton as Dr. Vasalius. Cotton, who would do a decent Price impersonation in the next year’s “Baron Blood,” plays Vasalius as a man of reason and ethics. Though the audience definitely likes Phibes more, Vasalius proves a decent rival to the mad villain.

“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.

Or it would’ve been the end, anyway. Robert Fuest’s direction is stylish and impressive. The music is lovely. The script is clever. The execution is funny and clever. And Price is entirely brilliant, bringing a fantastic character to life. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was a ready made cult classic. It’s eccentric quality and glorious style was bound to imprint on plenty of viewers. Though Price did many fine films with American International Pictures, this may very well be the best. [9/10]

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.

What’s most frustrating about “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” is that it disregards so much of the original’s ending. Phibes didn’t finish his own life at the end of the first one. He merely went into a ridiculous state of hibernation. His goal in this movie is to resurrect his wife. In the first movie, he wanted to avenge her death. So I guess that mission was meaningless, if he only had to wait three more years to bring her back to life. This is a mistake many bad sequels make. It invalidates the first film’s story and robs it of meaning. As a further slap in the face, the film brings the formally dead Vulnavia back to life with no explanation. The sequel somehow manages to both rewrite the original’s ending and restore things back to the status quo.

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.

The de-facto hero of the first was Detective Trout, the goofy Scotland Yard cop that was no match for Phibes’ genius. Trout returns for “Rises Again” but in a much smaller role. Instead, Phibes’ adversary this time is Biederbeck. A man who has lived for hundreds of years by drinking the magic water, he and Phibes seek the same goal. Biederbeck is played by 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.

“Dr. Phibes Rises Again” is a disappointing sequel. It was so disappointing that it more-or-less ended the franchise. That wasn’t for a lack of trying though. Several sequels were considered. “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.

What’s mostly remarkable about the short is its amazing production design. Sound is fantastically used, as the story begins with a drinking shanty sung in an ominous, before continuing to a crow’s yell and the creaking of an old wheel. The wheel and surrounding forest are fantastically presented, the trees gnarled and twisting, the well stark and industrial. The stop-motion sequences are appropriately dream-like. The Quay Brothers were an obvious influence on Morgan. The titular cat, with its mingy hair and sharp fangs, looks a lot like a Quay creation. Mostly, the effect is odd and off-putting, the animal moving in a way that’s half-way creepy yet strangely playful. That even the humans in the short seem to have doll-like eyes holds up the weird netherworld of “The Cat with Hands.”

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]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Thanks again for doing this Halloween Horror blogging. Really enjoy it!

Max Schreck's makeup and portrayal of the Count in "Nosferatu", along with the age and graininess of the film make this absolutely nightmarish at times. Anytime the Count is hanging back in the shadows, it's shudder time! (5/10)

I'd been hearing good things about "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" and saw it for the first time back in 2012. It's an odd artsy Horror/Comedy but it's really interesting. The "kills" by Dr. Phibes are ingenious even if I'm not sure exactly how he manages to execute them undetected. The police force, led by Inspector Trout, offer some great comedy relief because Vincent Price's Dr. Phibes is an emotionless zombie for the majority of the film.

This is really a unique Horror movie and will be very popular with any classic Hammer or William Castle fans. (7/10)

Well, "The Cat With Hands"...I haven't seen many shorts, so this was interesting. I love stop-motion and you're right, the sound production is really great in this.