Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 6

Lips of Blood (1975)  
“Lips of Blood” has a great narrative hook. Frederic vaguely remembers a dreamy encounter he had as a child. While staying at an old castle (Of course), he spent the night sleeping in the arms of a beautiful woman. Upon spying a photograph of the castle, the memory comes rushing back. He becomes obsessed with finding the girl, especially since she starts appearing to him in visions. A trip to an old tomb doesn’t yield anything but coffins full of bats… Or so it would appear. Vampire girls, dressed in colorful see-through shawls (Of course!), emerge from the crypt and begin to feed across France. A man attempts to assassinate Frederic. It becomes obvious there’s a conspiracy preventing him from finding the old building and reuniting with the girl of his dreams.

Narratively, the film is more focused then usual. Pacing-wise, it’s still a mess. Scenes drag into each other. The long opening sequence is so soft that the next scene, a fairly explicit nude modeling session, throws you off. Moments of the vampires attacking people seem unrelated to Fredric’s quest. A scene of a woman leading him into a room with promises of revealing the castle’s location doesn’t have much to do with the story. The vamps help him out at least once but we never find out why. I like the mustachioed assassin, even if it’s a bit out of place in this horror love story, but that storyline isn’t resolved. Generally speaking, the subplot about the legion of vampire girls never meshes with the main storyline. It seems like a blatant excuse for Rollin to insert his fetishes into the film. I mean, more so then usual.

The worst part? There aren’t that many memorable visuals. A shadow of a statue of a bull is the only striking pure image I can remember. Some memorable scenes arise. A pair of nurses pulling down their surgical masks to reveal fangs is darkly funny. The vampire girls weigh a victim down in chains before kicking her up a flight of stairs. Hilariously, during a particularly windy night, a purple dress billows up into a girl’s face. I doubt that was intentional.

When the focus is on the love story and the conspiracy, that’s when it works. Jean-Loup Phillippe gives an excellent performance as Frederic, especially in a scene where he pleads with the girl’s spectre to prove she’s real. Annie Briand is enchantingly beautiful as the strange girl at the story’s center. It’s easy to see why she would inspire such obsession. Natalie Perrey as Frederic’s mother delivers exposition but her performance makes it go down easy. The scene of the arrant vampire girls being exterminated is nicely brutal, such as two girls being impaled on the same stake, but also obviously elegiac. Rollin loves his monsters and hates to see them slaughtered. 

That monster love shines through in the lengthy epilogue. Following an obvious slight-of-hand, the protagonist is reunited with his love. They frolic on the director’s favorite beach (Of course!!) and make love, before she bites him, turning him into a vampire. The nude lovers float off, where they live in vampirey bliss happily ever after. Aww. “Lips of Blood” is a muddled affair even if Rollin’s strength for romantic sincerity and some strong actors keep it afloat. [6/10]

The Black Cat (1934)
“The Black Cat” remains a fascinating film. It must have been like an explosion for audiences in ’34. Unlike many of the horror films of the period, the picture is decidedly modern. Its horrors didn’t come from supernatural creatures, ghosts, or even bloodless mystery/thriller murders. Instead, it deals with topics like war crimes, torture, Satanism, and implications of necrophilia and incest. “The Black Cat” hasn’t aged a day and remains as potent, stylish, and horrifying now as when it first premiered.

Technically, the movie looks fantastic. Hjalmar Poelzig’s mansion today looks a bit like a swanky art-deco apartment. It’s still a bizarre location, with glass screens randomly bisecting rooms and round swivel chairs artistically placed. As strange as the living room looks, no set stands out more then the Satanic altar at the end. A huge double-t leans against the main altar, like an overturn crucifix. Poelzig, dressed in a red robe, leans against an X-shaped podium. Behind him, a giant pipe organ stands, an odd, crystal-like shape emerging from it. Probably the movie’s most famous bit of art design evolves the perfectly preserve body of Bela Lugosi’s dead wife, floating in the middle of a glass tube, her hair up on end, like an underwater angel.

The creativity extends to the film’s direction. Edgar G. Ullman, who later directed offbeat film-noir “Detour” and sci-fi favorite “The Man from Planet X,” worked on many of the most famous German Expressionism film. (He blatantly references F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” with a verbose cab driver character.) Karloff’s introduction involves a slow pan into a bedroom, a white sheet hanging over the bed. A near-nude woman lays beside him as he rises up, totally silhouetted in shadow behind the sheet.  Upon seeing Jacqueline Wells as virginal bride Joan, in the forefront of a shot, we see Poelzig clutch a statue of a nude woman, visually illustrating his desire to own her. The black cat's shadow is cast huge against Lugosi, causing him to fall backwards into a glass wall, drowning in his own phobia. The Black Mass is full of creative angles, starring down at the organ keys, quick cuts between the Satanic worshipers' faces. My favorite moment in the film is one of the most dream-like and inexplicable. As Karloff speaks in voice-over, a monologue about the game Lugosi and him are about to play, about how similar they really are, we the viewer are led on a first-person perspective tour through the underground chambers of the mansion, through the secret doors, up the winding staircase. It’s a spellbinding moment. The film is important for its extensive use of music, a daring move at the time. It’s a great score too, dark and dreamy, providing exactly the tone needed for the story.

Casting the two towering legends of horror as rivals in a game of cruelty is the film’s most brilliant masterstroke. Hjalmar Poelzig is probably Karloff at his most sinister. The usual whimsy in his eye gives way to a detached psychosis. His mind is cunning but utterly cold. Inspired by Aleister Crowley, Poelzig cuts a sinister figure. His close-crop hair cut, extravagant outfits, and slight eye-liner makes him look like a time-displaced David Bowie. Even then, Karloff can’t help but make the guy a little sympathetic. When gazing upon the dead wife’s face, he speaks not with a dangerous obsession, but instead a sincere love of her beauty. The hatred that burns between Poelzig and Wendegast is legendary. Wendegast has spent his entire life obsessing over vengeance, determined to unleash his rage on his tormenter. Poelzig meanwhile has gone out of his way to steal or destroy everything Wendegast loves. Took and murder his wife before, never once questioning the incestuous circumstances of the move, marrying his own step-daughter, just to destroy his rival’s sanity. Lugosi’s gave-it-his-all theatrics works perfectly for a man consumed by revenge. Though toned from the original script, the movie makes it clear that neither man is sane. Both are dangerous, roping the innocent married couple into their deadly game of chess. Not that David Manners or Jacqueline Wells give bad performance. They both do quite well and have a funny, natural chemistry together. But they’re outsiders, exiles in the freakish, nightmare world “The Black Cat” inhabits. No doubt they were intended as audience surrogates in 1934.

Climaxing with a still disturbing, explicit moment of torture, “The Black Cat” can still raises goosebumps. I wonder if Chan-wook Park or Jee-woon Kim have seen it, since you can draw some parallels with their revenge epics. It’s a masterpiece of classic horror, floating across the screen like a filmed nightmare. [9/10]

The Raven (1935)
As a companion piece to “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” comes off as pretty routine. Taken on its own merits however, it’s a very entertaining piece of pulp. While the former film cast the actors against type, “The Raven” has Lugosi and Karloff in parts all ready familiar to them. Lugosi is Dr. Vollin, a mad doctor, a genius, obsessed with torture, prone to making grand-standing, long-winded speeches about his plans, always looking down on every around him. Karloff plays a murderous, but pitiful, grotesque, a bank robber who walks with a limp and soon gains a deformed face. (What has to be one of Jack Pierce’s least convincing make-ups.) Lugosi’s sadism is self-assured and only grows deeper as the film goes on. Karloff, cursed with an ugly appearance, a low intelligence, and a deeply unconvincing Southern accent, regrets his crimes and is desperate for redemption. Bela laughs manically, Boris growls like Frankenstein. Despite the thinness of the material, both actors bring their A-game. Bela’s over-the-top villainy, going way higher then even Dracula afforded, is fantastically entertaining while Boris makes fills the role to the best of his abilities. This is what TVTropes calls Ham-to-Ham Combat. Good stuff.

The rest of the movie? Not much to report. The film uses Poe’s writing as not much more then plot dressing. The raven is quoted a few times and the pendulum is prominently featured, repeatedly. I guess you could say Dr. Vollin’s unrequited love for the doctor’s daughter is vaguely reminiscent of Poe’s themes but only sort of. The film is only an hour long and I like that the entire second half takes place over one whole evening. The wacky, comic relief supporting cast is never annoying, if never really interesting. Irene Ware as Jean Thatcher is more interesting when it seems possible that she might reciprocate Lugosi’s mad love. Once it become clear she only has eyes for dull hero Spencer Charters, she becomes a lot less interesting.

The movie has at least one great sequence. Upon seeing his grotesque face, a series of mirrors are revealed. An enraged Karloff shoots out each mirror, the camera panning around the room, Lugosi looking down on him, cackling madly. Images of Bela standing underneath a pendulum or reciting the title poem in the shadow of a stuffed raven are pieces of art for classic horror fans. If “The Black Cat” totally subverts expectations for the time period and the genre, “The Raven” is a textbook example. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, some times. [7/10]

High School of the Dead: 
“The Dead’s House Rules”
If episode nine pushed my tolerance for sexism, then act ten OD’s on overblown melodrama. The cast is reunited at a fortified mansion, owed by Smart Girl’s rich parents. Anybody who has seen “28 Days Later” or “Day of the Dead” knows where this is going. People misusing their authority in the middle of a zombie apocalypse? You don’t say. Saya’s dad isn’t just a bad parent but also a fascist dickwad. Joyfully decapitating the zombie that used to be your best friend in front of a crowd of kids isn’t a great way to convince people of your leadership skills.

Anyway, the teens spend the entire episode angsting out and it’s fucking terrible. Saya, dressed as a Gothic Lolita, screams about how mom and dad don’t love her. Hero Guy bellows at her, grabs her by the collar of her dress, lifts her off the floor, and does everything but brutally smack her around. (That she is 100% okay with this doesn’t help the show’s clearly warped opinion of women.) The adults in the compound threaten to take Fat Nerd’s guns away and he falls to his knees, blubbering and crying about how useless he is without them. He also comes off as a pompous ass, claiming he’s a better marksman then anyone else in the place. The rest of the kids stand up for their buddy in the most melodramatic fashion possible.

Rei spends the whole episode in the nude, recovering from some previously undisclosed injury and talking about her tits. Takashi and Saeko are officially a couple now, since he boners out about her in a kimono. The episode ends with a high school boy that talks like a crack-addicted gremlin, the return of the hated Evil Teacher, and some more degrading sexual exploitation of teenage girls. There’s only two episodes left but I want to quit now. [3/10]

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