Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 18

Mad Love (1935)

If horror fans give you that shit about how remakes have taken over the genre, crack this egg of truth over their head. “The Hands of Orlac” has been told on screen officially three times, though the story has been adapted unofficially more often. The most highly regarded adaptation of the story, 1935’s “Mad Love,” is actually the second cinematic version. (For non-horror fans who make the same argument, bring up “The Maltese Falcon” instead.) “Mad Love” would be the final directorial credit of legendary cinematographer Karl Freund and the American debut of Peter Lorre. While Freund would mostly focus on television from this point on, Lorre’s subsequent career as an iconic screen presence needs no introduction. “Mad Love” would come a little too late into the thirties to be a huge hit but would, in time, develop the reputation of a classic.

Concert pianist Stephen Orlac is wildly successful and is happily married to Yvonne, a popular actress. Yvonne, however, has a not-so-secret admirer. The surgeon Dr. Gogol rents the same theater box every night, to intently watch her performance. Gogol’s obsession is such that he buys a wax sculpture of Yvonne and keeps it in his bedroom. Stephen’s career as a piano player is seemingly cut short when his hands are crushed in a train crash. Gogol, as a favor to Yvonne, performs a miraculous hand transplant. But there’s a catch. Stephen has lost his ability to play piano but has gained a knife throwing hobby. Gogol, it turns out, transplanted the hands of a notorious murderer onto Orlac’s wrists, all in a scheme to win Yvonne’s heart.

“Mad Love” differentiates itself from the other adaptations of “Hands of Orlac” by turning the surgeon into the main character. His title-lending romantic obsession with Orlac’s wife is unique to this version. This totally shifts the focus of the story but that's okay because Peter Lorre is awesome. His unforgettable voice immediately establishes Gogol’s mad infatuation. His wide eyes stare upon the woman with absolute devotion. When she rejects him, his sorrow is deeply felt. Lorre, of course, is also excellent at playing crazy. When he touches upon his plan to frame Orlac, Gogol’s reflection begins speaking to him. His intense stares grow even more unhinged. By the end, he’s dressed in a elaborate costume featuring robot hands and a neck brace. He’s gone completely around the bend. Lorre’s Gogol is a dangerous villain but too pathetic, too relatable, to be a two dimensional bad guy. He even gets a charitable moment, when he performs surgery on a sick girl. This combination of madness and sympathetic qualities was already Lorre’s trademark by 1935. It was rarely better used then here.

Freund’s expressionistic cinematography would define the look the earliest Universal Monster movies. Freund would bring that same style to his directorial credit, like this film and the original “The Mummy.” “Mad Love” is often gorgeous looking. Gogol’s lair is characterized by deep shadows, the man’s silhouette often peering out of door frames. His house features some “Caligari” abstractions, with slanting windows and winding staircases. His hallucinations ratchet up the eeriness. An extended montage, where Gogol’s mad face and Stephen’s anxiety are framed by grasping hands, is especially memorable. We get a first person perspective of Gogol’s maid, as she sees double in a drunken haze. Freund brings his A-game to the picture, creating a black and white atmosphere distinct from the other horror classics of the time but no less intoxicating.

“Mad Love” spends so much time focusing on Dr. Gogol that the actual hands of Orlac plot falls somewhat by the wayside. In most versions, the audience is left wondering if Orlac’s new hands are compelling him to murder. In “Mad Love,” it’s all but immediately known that Gogol is gaslighting him. Yet this subplot is still interesting, mostly thanks to the cast. Colin Clive – Dr. Frankenstein himself – brings a similar sweaty desperation to his role here. We know better but Clive’s performance sells the character’s wild fears. Clive is good but Frances Drake is better as Yvonne. Drake is a phenomenal scream queen, shrieking in terror during several key moments. She has a few stronger moments too, like when she sneaks into Gogol’s lair. Admittedly, it’s by accident but that still counts for something in 1935.

Because it’s not associated with a studio known for genre films, like Universal or R.K.O., “Mad Love” has been somewhat overlooked over the years. Classic horror fans who haven’t checked it out already, drop what you’re doing now and watch this. It’s a brilliantly acted, gorgeously directed film with a powerfully composed story. Since Lorre never got a Dracula or Frankenstein level part to confirm his status as a horror icon, I submit the mad Dr. Gogol as his trademark role. It has all the characteristics you associate with Lorre and belongs to a wonderful film. [9/10]

Grace (2009)

This is how far in advance I plan things, sometimes. During last year’s Monster-Mania, I met Jordan Ladd. I told her how much I enjoyed her performance in “Grace,” prompting a conversation about the film. I had planned on revisiting the movie that year. However, I wasn’t able to find a copy in time and “Grace” got shuffled over to next year's watch list. Luckily for me, if not local businesses, I grabbed a DVD of the flick when the last video store around here went belly up. I wish I could’ve re-watched the film before meeting Miss Ladd last September but better late then never, I suppose.

Madeline and Michael have made three previous attempts to conceive. For the first time, they’re successful. Madeline isn’t taken any chances. She’s switched to a vegan diet and is consulting with an all-natural midwife. (Who happens to be her former lover.) But luck still isn’t with the couple. After a close-call at the hospital, Michael drives Madeline home. A car crash follows, Michael and the unborn baby dying. Despite this, Madeline decides to carry the fetus to term. The child is born dead… Until she revives suddenly. Madeline names her daughter Grace. At first, the baby seems normal. Soon, Grace starts to smell strange. Flies buzz around her. Most pressingly, the baby will only drink blood. Others try to come between Madeline and her blood-sucking baby but she won’t let them.

No exaggeration is necessary to make motherhood terrifying. Aside from the fleshier attributes to giving birth, the anxieties that come along with it must be shattering. “Grace” coats these doubts in horror movie metaphor. Madeline’s baby won’t eat because it’s undead. She feels like the baby is draining the life of her because it is, Grace suckling more and more blood from Madeline’s breast. Her distrust of doctors only increases after she begins to kill for her baby. Writer/director Paul Solet drapes his story in other symbolism. Grace eventually abandons her vegan diet to feed her baby blood. The film draws a slightly unclear parallel between Grace and her predatory house cat. The mother-in-law’s eagerness to adopt the child – which includes building a crib and getting herself to lactate again – another mostly unnecessary addition.

Solet is friends with Eli Roth and Adam Green. As with those guys, the director has a knack for grisly, gory horror. Solet lingers on the uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy, blood gushing from Jordan Ladd’s nether regions. Grace’s blood sucking ways means Ladd spends most of the movie with fake blood covering her breasts. Having such a sensitive area constantly chewed and gnawed can even make a man uncomfortable. The image of a fly crawling in and out of the baby’s nose is cringe inducing in a different way. Once the body count starts, the film runs with yet more red stuff. The director emphasizes the stickiest of dried blood, further making the viewer uneasy. The film’s final, shocking image confirms how strong “Grace’s” body horror roots are.

For all its other positive attributes, “Grace” works best when revolving around Jordan Ladd’s performance. Her early scenes have a natural sweetness to them, the character clearly excited about the opportunities of motherhood. After Grace’s vampiric tendencies are revealed, a thread bone exhaustion settles in. You believe how desperate she is by the time her decision to murder comes. While never loosing sight of the film’s emotional center, Ladd also displays the character’s madness. The supporting cast is solid too. Gabrielle Rose and Samantha Ferris both do decent work, despite how underdeveloped their parts are.

“Grace” only runs a little over eighty minutes. A longer run time would have allowed more room for its various subplots to breathe. Ferris’ lesbian tendencies towards Madeline seem to mostly exist in order to set up that ending. Rose’s motivations are questionable. Madeline doesn’t seem to care about her husband at all, as his death barely weights on her. By the same accord, Solet already stretches his premise somewhat thin with the film as it is. Still, “Grace” is worth seeing for Ladd’s stand-out performance and the number of grotesque thrills the director cooks up. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale

“Haeckel’s Tale” should’ve been a “Masters of Horror” two-fer. The story is from Clive Barker while George Romero was originally intended to direct. Romero had to drop out though, so John McNaughton of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” fame stepped in. The story is Barker’s homage to “Frankenstein.”  18th century medical student Ernst Haeckel denies religion. Instead, he hopes to conquer death via science. Since his attempt to revive corpses do not succeed, he seeks out the help of a near-by necromancer. He believes the man to be a con artist. With bad weather coming, Haeckel seeks shelter in a strange cabin. There, he meets old man Walter and his beautiful young wife, Elise. When the necromancer pays a visit in the middle of the night, Haeckel discovers the man isn't a fraud after all.

What qualifies someone as a Master of Horror? Yes, “Henry” is a great horror film. But it’s McNaughton’s only horror credit of note. Truthfully, the episode’s content recalls “Wild Things” more then the director's brutal debut. “Haeckel’s Tale” begins promisingly. The science vs. superstition debate is a solid foundation to build upon. Joe Polito is having fun playing the necromancer. However, the mystery of what the wife is up to builds towards a disappointing reveal. Turns out, Elise brings her dead husband back to life to have sex with him. The other zombies then join in. Yep, “Haeckel’s Tale” concludes with a zombie orgy. Instead of going for frights, McNaughton shoots these scenes with a glossy, softcore gleam. Leela Savasta is lovely, and very naked, but the zombies drain any eroticism. McNaughton’s direction is almost self-consciously hokey, featuring a theremin-laden score and shots of a foggy cemetery. The twist ending goes for broad comedy, which is against the rest of the episode’s tone. I don’t know what Romero would’ve brought to this story, other then likely focusing more on the obligatory sequence of zombie gut munching. However, his version probably would’ve been a little creepier then McNaughton’s. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Strigoi

After putting their own twist on the vampire myth in season two, “Lost Tapes” went for a more traditional approach with season three’s “Strigoi.” The Enigma Corporation returns, this time to investigate mysterious disappearances at an oil drilling installation. The team find the surrounding town abandoned, save for a few stray animals. When they discover a survivor, they notice he’s acting odd. Once left alone with some side characters, the man reveals fangs. Yep, he’s a vampire and a blood sucker outbreak is responsible for the town’s sudden depopulation.

Despite using a fancy synonym as a title, this episode is not about the witch-like strigoi of Romanian legend. Instead, it features a standard vampire. He looks like a normal person, has super strength and speed, and hisses obnoxiously when barring his fangs. As an extremely tenuous connection to the show’s Animal Planet roots, the vampire also transforms into a black canine. This leads to a comical scene of two armed soldiers backing away from a barking dog. Even though the educational segments give away the premise, “Strigoi” still plays coy. The vampire villain isn’t revealed until it’s nearly over. The attempted scares are extremely lame. The vampire springing forward and biting someone features overdone camerawork. The climatic jump scare is neutered by the resolution. The expert interviews bring up relevant information about vampire myths. They also, for some reason, mention the Black Plague and butterfly metamorphosis. Anyway, this is one of my least favorite episodes of the entire series. [3/10]

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