sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-11-07 03:49 am
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I may be synthetic, but I'm not stupid

So, that marathon. With [livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks and [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, I watched twelve hours of horror film last Saturday at the Somerville. Due to life, it's taken me until today to talk about it. It will not be the most coherent marathon report I have ever written, but some weeks notes are as good as it gets.

We went into West of Zanzibar (1928) knowing only that it was the rarest of the prints, a famously lurid revenge tragedy and the next-to-last collaboration between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, who would die in 1930. Actual warning goes here: the title correctly suggested, but did not fully disclose the incredible levels of racism inherent in the African setting. The natives are an unknowable mass of superstitious primitivism with wild-eyed spooky rituals and almost no names; the black character with the most lines is a beautiful man who looks like a Herb Ritter sculpture when oiled and gleaming, but as far as depth of character goes, he's furniture. The dialogue is insultingly simplistic and the Hollywood voodoo is even more nonsensical than the usual run. And in the middle of all the colonialism is Lon Chaney, giving an arguable performance of a lifetime as a one-time music-hall magician consumed by hatred for the rival who left him paralyzed and tempted his wife away to her ruin, an ivory trader played by Lionel Barrymore—not young, he didn't start acting in film until his thirties and that was in 1911, but younger than I've ever seen him—as the kind of genial asshole who finds the catastrophic misfire of a soul-destroying revenge plot the funniest thing since Harry Langdon. Mary Nolan is very good as the girl whom Chaney would use as a pawn, damaged and cynical, morally the cleanest person in the story; Werner Baxter is bland as the dissipated doctor finding his redemption in her arms. There's a brilliant moment when the film uses the silent form against itself, in order to withhold information from the characters as well as the audience. We appreciated very much that the generic Africans are not so gullible as to accept stage magic as the real thing, but it took way too many pseudo-voodoo rituals to get there. If you want a wrenching, nuanced, arresting performance from Lon Chaney, see this film. If you don't want the painfully racist matrix it's embedded in, that's fair enough.

I believe it was at this point that we got Warner Bros.'s Hair-Raising Hare (1946), with Mel Blanc doing his best Peter Lorre impression and the monster mostly composed of fur, fingernails, and white sneakers that nonetheless reminds me weirdly of Sweetums of the Muppets. A meta joke with shadows in the front row and Bugs Bunny doing his best hairdresser impression: "I'll bet you monsters lead interesting lives." It was delightful.

Everyone who told me that I would love Dwight Frye's Renfield in Dracula (1931) was right. His introduction is a wonderful fakeout—a smart young solicitor traveling through Transylvania, guilelessly asking for directions to the Borgo Pass at midnight, should be Jonathan Harker, co-protagonist and therefore immune to the danger of Dracula's brides or the vampire lord himself. Then, as he flounders his way through an arras of spiderweb, we hear Bela Lugosi's solicitous, self-amused instruction, "The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield," and soon enough he's talking to a coffin in the hold of the doomed Vesta, a wild-eyed maniac whose grin seems to have too many teeth in it for safety. 1931 is still close enough to the silent era that Frye can play with modes of madness: sometimes his Renfield is as staring and theatrical as a refugee from Caligari's asylum, sometimes he's just a nervous man in his shirtsleeves with a weird vocal affect. Every now and then, he's the most normal-sounding person onscreen: "Isn't this a strange conversation for men who aren't crazy?" (I really enjoy the way Renfield just wanders randomly through Seward's house whenever it's plot-convenient. The sanatorium in this movie had the worst security.) I don't know if he's my favorite take on the character, because I really did imprint on Jack Shepherd, but he was very definitely my favorite thing about the movie, an A+ reason to watch it again. Otherwise Dracula is easily the least interesting of the three films I've seen by Tod Browning. Once we return to England, the action is staged very stiffly, with little about the cinematography that's as compelling as some of the character framing in West of Zanzibar or the documentary-expressionist style of Freaks (1932). I'd love to know how it was understood by audiences unfamiliar with the source material, because there are ways in which it plays like the Cliff's notes of Stoker's novel and then there are ways in which it is missing what I would consider crucial plot points, like the eventual fate of Lucy. Helen Chandler's Mina is at her best when partly vampirized, utilizing the fey demeanor so visible in The Last Flight (1931) to imply a character whose humanity is starting to drift. David Manners does what he can with the stupidest Harker-Holmwood ever to decide that leaving town with his vampire girlfriend cannot possibly go wrong. I was indifferent to Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing until we got to his verbal throwdown with Dracula ("Should you escape us, Dracula, we know how to save Miss Mina's soul, if not her life."–"If she dies by day . . . but I shall see that she dies by night"), at which point I decided he was no Peter Cushing, but I'd take him. Quincey Morris is nowhere to be seen, but nobody cares. As for Lugosi himself, I can see why his Dracula was instantly iconic to the point of caricature. David calls his portrayal "suave and dead" and it is not as inhuman as I like my vampires, but it is genuinely weird all the same, with gliding movements and oddly timed phrasing, as if spontaneity is something the undead can no longer command. The print was resurrected via digital cleanup from the only remaining original element, a lavender positive from the Library of Congress, and it looked amazing.

I love The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) very much, all right? I love that it's set around the Salton Sea. I love that the giant prehistoric man-eating snails are radioactive for no other reason than that it's the 1950's. I love that the giant prehistoric man-eating radioactive snails do not in fact resemble snails at all until the second half of the film when someone obviously slapped shells around their globular eyes and clicking mandibles after there were complaints. I have loved Hans Conried since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) and therefore I will watch any movie in which he gets actual screen time as opposed to a scene-stealing walk-on and it is only occasionally confusing that his Dr. Jess Rogers does not have a Mitteleuropean or even mid-Atlantic accent and is perfectly competent at his job. He gets a lecture about "common molluscs" that has almost nothing to do with the monsters at issue, but contains several useful points of data about predatory land snails. I am fond of the small bit of business Conried does with a beaker and a stirring rod while talking on the phone. Tim Holt is theoretically the hero, but doesn't even know to grab a fire axe off the wall when a giant prehistoric man-eating radioactive snail is menacing him in a laboratory. All three of us were yelling at him as he went for the fire extinguisher instead. Afterward we found out so was the rest of the theater. Gods of B-movies, of titles that promise too much and heroes who deliver too little, of eccentric character turns and endlessly unsubtle special effects, watch over this picture and make sure it is always playing somewhere at a festival or a marathon or a late-night TV channel if those still exist. It is really not as stupid as it could have been. There are some nice character moments, some nice shocks, the scene in which a girl vanishes while night-swimming with her boyfriend is very good and supposedly influenced Spielberg. There's a lot of location footage of the locks of the All-American Canal. The giant prehistoric et cetera et cetera snails are so not a kraken.

Somewhere around here, the discretion of the projectionist delivered unto us a boatload of horror trailers, mostly Roger Corman's Poe series with a judicious admixture of British horror and sci-fi, of which the classiest was the American trailer for Horror of Dracula (1958)—I applauded—and the déclassést was Konga (1961), starring Michael Gough and a terrible gorilla suit. Oh, yes, there was also a trailer for Dinosaurus! (1960), containing some of the worst stop-motion I have seen committed to 35 mm and the most unexpected caveman. I have no plans to see the movie, but the trailer is one of the great comedies of its decade.

For reasons that have much more to do with circumstances in my life than with the content of the film, I found Seconds (1966) startlingly upsetting to watch, which did not prevent me from noticing that James Wong Howe's black-and-white cinematography is imaginative, expressionistic, and disorientingly effective, that I wouldn't be surprised if Rock Hudson is better in the role of Tony Wilson than anywhere else in his career, and that John Frankenheimer must have gone through a very paranoid period in his life, because Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) are the only films I've seen by him so far and both depend vividly on a clammy sense of pawnhood, that a game is being played around you and everyone else knows the rules. The ending plays out a little more like a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone than I had been expecting, but it is fairly foreshadowed. There is an extended sequence set at a literal bacchanalia on the California coast that I really hope was done with permission from the local SCA. Three actors in the cast looked familiar to me without bringing any roles to mind: I did not expect to have seen them respectively in Brother John (1971), Jaws (1975), and Babylon 5 (1994–1998).

At this juncture we had a thirty-minute dinner break. I spent most of it acquiring my food rather than eating it, which offered me the opportunity to remark that I am apparently the kind of person who is fine with eating through a Giger Alien movie. My chicken shawarma from Noor treated me kindly and did not explode out of my chest at any dramatic moments or at all, really, which I was also fine with.

I am not reasonable when it comes to Lance Henriksen as Bishop in Aliens (1986). I saw the film for the first time a dozen years ago and can't count how many times I've seen it since. It's one of my comfort movies; it was my introduction to the actor and the role that imprinted me on him—soft-spoken, gaunt-faced, with a disconcertingly direct gaze and a vacuum-dry deadpan. A company android, he prefers to be called an "artificial person"; it sounds like corporation-speak or a PC joke, but it turns out to be a very real assertion. He's not a programmable traitor like Ash of the Nostromo, but a self-willed, sentient being who just happens not to be flesh and blood, or at least not the born kind. I've just now realized that I associate him slightly with Elio of Diana Wynne Jones' A Tale of Time City (1987), who "seemed like an ordinary person, only rather smaller and paler than most." Bishop is taller, skinnier, and paler than most. It is impossible to tell his age, if time wore those vertical creases into his face or if they were designed by Weyland-Yutani for maximum personality. He does not ever pass for human, except briefly and accidentally to Ripley: "We always have a synthetic on board." He does "the thing with the knife" when his platoon-mates holler for it, even though it's clearly his embarrassing party trick, and candidly explains his obligation to a variant on Asimov's First Law of Robotics. (It turns out not to be quite true, since if he were utterly incapable of placing human beings in situations where they could come to harm, he would not have been able to leave Newt and Ripley even temporarily alone on the unstable landing platform, but it's a reassuring thing to say.) The subject header of this post is one of his best lines; what I love is the little smile he follows it with, a quick mechanical movement that never reaches his eyes. It could be a glitch in the uncanny valley, like the inhuman speed of the knife trick and the milky blood that gives his artificial nature away, but it doesn't look like one; it looks like an uncertain learned behavior, as if Bishop has learned that joking about his synthetic status can defuse the threat he's sometimes perceived as, but not as reliably as he would like. I like his moments of creepiness, but I also like that the climax of the film essentially proves that these were instances of professional-grade trolling. Also, in this film, there is definitive Sigourney Weaver. I know people keep talking about further Alien sequels, but I'm just as grateful those don't exist as I am there's no such thing as a live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender or a movie version of The Dark Is Rising. We've dodged a lot of bullets over the years, you know?

Going into The Lost Boys (1987), I knew primarily that it was one of the essential vampire films of the 1980's and that it was responsible for establishing certain dynamics in slash fiction that persist to this day. No one had bothered to warn me that it was also hilarious, starting with the fourteen-year-old survivalist vampire hunters who accidentally blow up the plumbing while disposing of a vampire with garlic and holy water (a bathtub full of it, whence perhaps the problem). Not a beat of the '80's is missed, from the inexplicable shirts to the feathered hair to the slow-mo softcore love scenes with plenty of synth. In what other decade could the protagonists attend a mainstream rock concert whose lead singer is a half-naked man in a necklace of steel chain-link playing a saxophone? Pleasantly, besides all the inimitable mise-en-scéne it has an innovative take on vampirism—one to which Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) owes an enormous debt, right down to the visuals—and an assortment of protagonists I actually care about, although the female romantic lead has the same blender problem as in Fright Night (1985). Kiefer Sutherland set a trend with his bleach-spiked hair and his black trenchcoat; Rush-That-Speaks and I agreed that while he would have been no less hot when the film was released, he would have been a lot less mainstream about it. I also appreciate their point that hanging out with vampires in this film means doing the exact same dumb shit as normal teenagers, only with more levitation. We suspected the ending halfway through, then the film appeared to debunk it, then we were right after all: well played, screenwriters. Apparently there are some sequels, but not very good ones, which is fine as this film ends with an untoppable punch line. I really need to see Near Dark (1987) now.

And then we went home and Daylight Savings Time fell back on us, so now it gets dark very soon, but that's not generally relevant at quarter to four in the morning at this latitude. I shall attempt sleep. The horror content is debatable, but it was a great twelve-hour marathon and David the projectionist should get more programming blocks to do with as he pleases. This anthology brought to you by my magnificent backers at Patreon.

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