Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 15, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 13

Incubus (1966)
“Incubus” is a true oddity. I was surprised to discover it is neither the first nor the last film to be performed entirely in Esperanto but it is, doubtlessly, the most famous. It would be a very strange film, even without being filmed in an obscure, invented language. The decision to shot the story in Esperanto just furthers the movie’s otherworldly atmosphere. “Incubus” feels like a fable from another place.

The story is simplistic, playing almost like a Greek myth. On an island there is a monastery and, near-by, a spring with supposed healing properties that is also supposed to make whoever drinks from it beautiful. This attribute attracts a lot of vain, morally bankrupt people, so the island is also a gathering ground for demons. Succubi lure impure, corrupt men into the ocean and then drown them, holding their heads under the water. Kia, a young, proud succubus, longs to seduce a holy, pure man. Despite the objection of her fellow succubi, Kia’s quest leads her to Marco, a war veteran living with his sister near the spring, hoping to heal his lingering war wounds. Marco immediately falls for Kia but can’t bring himself to consummate the relationship. His pure love infects her, prompting the other succubi to unleash an incubus on the island in revenge. There’s a solar eclipse, a blind girl wandering through the forest, a lot of religious imagery, and a savage goat attack.

The movie feels very much like a 1960s art film. Certain shots recall both Bergman or early Polanski. When the succubus is brought to the chapel, when her evil soul is “raped by goodness,” we get a lot of crash zooms on the religious icons, followed by a shifting, upside down shot of her running off. Early on, we get a drowning man’s perspective, the camera shooting up through the water. Seeing Shatner bring his usual stilted style to Esperanto can be as exactly hilarious as you’d imagine. However, the movie is legitimately eerie and creepy at times. A dusty wind seems to being blowing at all hours on the island. The sequence were the Incubus is summoned is especially effective. A demon, his wings wide and huge, stands in an abandoned building, silhouetted in the shadows, fog blowing all around him. The ground shakes as the Incubus emerges from the dirt and mud. The film’s latter half is shot entirely at night in deep, foreboding darkness. Even on DVD, it’s sometimes hard to see what is happening. The climatic goat attack sounds absurd on paper but, in practice, it feels almost sincerely sacrilegious. The sparse score serves the otherworldly feel.

The film was followed by a lot of bad luck. Two actors committed suicide, but not before one murdered Mickey Rooney’s wife. Another actress had her child kidnapped and murdered. The production company went bankrupt and the film was lost for many years. The only existing print was found playing in Paris as a midnight movie. The French subtitles were burnt on the print which is why the DVD’s English subtitles are so big and black, obscuring half of the screen at times. The DVD includes a sparse, frequently quiet, hilarious, melodramatic, no doubt lie filled audio commentary from William Shatner, a must-listen for fans of the actor’s unique style. At only 75 minutes, “Incubus” is a quick watch and, considering how odd and unforgettable the film is, well worth your time. [8/10]

The House of the Seven Gables (1940) 
I guess it probably says a lot about my taste in entertainment that I actually like Nathanial Hawthorne’s writing. Yes, his prose can be horribly stiff but few authors were as adapt as summoning up feelings of guilt and dread. (Even admirer and student of Hawthorne, HP Lovecraft wasn’t as good as it.) Despite being frequently slotted in with Poe and other early pioneers of the genre, Hawthorne was never really a horror writer. Subsequently, an adaptation like “The House of Seven Gables” isn’t really a horror film either. It’s a romance and melodrama with deeply gothic overtones, such as a dusty old mansion, a family curse, and occasional mentions of ghosts and witches.

The movie also stars two actors in their youth who would, later on, become very famous for their voices. Vincent Price, of course, was only 29 at the time of filming. He doesn’t really sound like himself, I’ll admit, especially not when sitting at the piano and singing an old, possibly dubbed, shanty. Playing the villainous Jaffrey Pyncheon, George Sanders doesn’t quite sound like Shere Khan though he’s a lot closer then Price’s voice. The movie is a loose adaptation of the source novel. Hepzibah and Clifford are lovers, possible kissing cousins. Clifford winds up in prison following the strike of the family curse and a kangaroo trial. In jail, he meets Matthew Maule, no doubt based off of Henry Thoreau, especially with his talks of being imprisoned but his mind still being free. Time passes, the house with its slamming shutters and windy nights ages. In one of the film’s few story gaps, the sudden introduction of Phoebe Pyncheon kind of comes out of nowhere, even if Nan Grey gives a fine performance. Normally, time jumps take me out of the story but here it’s actually fairly effective, especially since the old age make-up on Price and Margaret Lindsay is very well done. The final shot of the film cuts back between their aged appearances and their youthful ones. The movie certainly borrows many of the book’s themes, like the influence baseless town rumors has over local and law and justice, or the lack there of.

All of the acting is top notch. Margaret Lindsay in particular is great, especially in the scene where she shouts George Sanders out of the house. Price, similarly, gets a standout moment when he calls out his cousin in court after his trumped-up trial. The creaky old mansion certainly does provide some fantastic atmosphere, even if the movie is never a proper horror story. I did enjoy the film a lot, primarily because of the cast. Fans of any of the actors involved should probably check it out. [7/10]

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Young Vincent Price double feature! “The Invisible Man Returns” is a fairly standard sequel, clever in some ways without recycling too much from the first flick. Set nine years after the first, squarely placing the first film in the 1930s, this time the invisible man is a hero of sorts, a falsely accused innocent man who uses the invisibility formula to escape jail and prove his innocence. Suddenly Claude Rains’ Jack Griffin has a brother, who provides the formula and is now desperately searching for a cure. There’s a race against the clock, as the potion slowly causes violent insanity. Price’s love interest (Vincent Price / Nan Gray romantic pairing double feature!) has to watch him, always worried about his sanity slipping. The current owner of the family coal mine, played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, is the one responsible for the murder and for framing our hero. A Scotland Yard inspector has a grudge against the invisible man and is determined to catch him this time.

Thoughts: This one is a lot more focused on special effects then the first. The obligatory de-bandaging sequence is better done then in the first film. The scene were Price uses his invisibly to taunt, prank, and then force information out of one of the bad guy’s partner is funny and effective, combining effects with witty writing. His face suddenly appearing in a puff of cigar smoke is one of the film’s best moments. At the end, we see coal dust shuffling off a ladder and, a little later, Price has a monologue as he steals a scarecrow’s clothes. There’s even an invisible guinea pig which is brought to life in a clever way. Even though Price’s voice was still developing, it is put to good use here. The only effect that doesn’t really work is when you can see the wires holding up a gun.

Price does fairly well, especially in his scenes with Nan Grey. Cedric Hardwicke doesn’t seem very interested in the material here. His performance is fairly weak. I think it’s a bit of a cope out that insanity is made a direct side effect of the formula. I always preferred the implication that just being invisible, just being free of society’s rules, was enough to make anyone into a violent megalomaniac. The ending features another cope out, a bit too easy resolution to our character’s problems. It’s not exactly surprising that this franchise would continue to focus primarily on special effects and comedy, never really returning to the horror elements. [6.5/10]

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