Monday, January 23, 2012

From the Video Shelf: Four Short Reviews

We had snow and ice this past weekend, so it was a prime time to be lazy and watch movies. Here's a few from the collection that deserve some mention.

Britain's famed Hammer studios have risen from the dead! Still famous for their gothic horror films that starred such luminaries as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Barbara Shelley, Andre Morrell, and others, the studio fell on hard times in the 70s as tastes went to explicit gore, and some poor business decisions (including a disastrous remake of The Lady Vanishes with Elliott Gould and Cybill Shephard) sidelined any production for a while. They made some TV projects during the late 70s and early 80s, but now, thanks to bold investors, are rising again as a theatrical production company.

So far it's been only horror, although the original Hammer ran the gamut from comedies to dramas to action to costumers...although it was really the horror films that got a lot of play overseas. The first of the new Hammers, Wake Wood, didn't get theatrical play in the US when it came out last year but is available on DVD.

In WW, a veterinarian and his pharmacist wife are reeling from a bitter blow; a vicious dog killed their young daughter. Their marriage under a strain, they move to a village named Wake Wood where they encounter odd locals, but eventually are given a macabre offer: the locals know a pagan ritual that will bring back the dead, but only under certain circumstances, and only for three days. The grieving parents jump at the opportunity...and in a memorably grisly ritual, their daughter is reborn and returned to them.

Naturally, Daddy didn't tell the truth about some things, and as a result, we go into a typical evil-kid-on-a-rampage story. It's most disappointing after such a promising beginning, but it does manage to pack a few jolts and does deliver a great macabre twist at the end.

It's imperfect, at one point descending into needless cliche, but it's got a solid cast (including Timothy Spall), and sometimes inventive imagery courtesy of director David Keating. Annoyingly, sometimes it got so dark it was hard to tell what was going on.

Hammer also co-produced Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In, and is making their grand theatrical return with The Woman in Black coming out in a few weeks, so hopefully there's more on the way.

An older Hammer film is 1963's Paranoiac, which was actually an uncredited adaptation of Josephine Tey's novel Brat Farrar, although given a gothic fillip. The Ashby family is shaken by the return of adult Tony Ashby, who was supposed to have drowned at 15, a suicide. Simon (a young and dishy Oliver Reed) is obviously unstable, and neurotic Eleanor (Janette Scott) isn't much better. But soon there's murder attempts, and Simon playing the chapel organ at night, and other strange things going on. Is Tony really Tony? What's the secret?

Paranoiac is one of Hammer's lesser-known suspensers, what they dubbed "mini-Hitchcocks." It's got great decadent, gothic atmosphere with the crazy family and their crumbling home, full of plot and counterplot with nobody really being what they seem to be. I find it vastly entertaining, a great gripping story for a chilly afternoon. It was one of Freddie Francis' best jobs as a director (honestly, he was a brilliant cinematographer, but he had weaknesses as a director). Here's a clip.

Going further back, I saw Paul Leni's 1924 flick Waxworks. This is often plugged as a horror film, but it's really not, completely.

A young writer (William Dieterle) comes to a wax museum at an amusement park to inquire about a job. He's asked to write stories to publicize some of the figures, and he sits down and makes up stories.

The first is really a comedy, set in Baghdad of the Arabian Nights, and featuring super-popular actor Emil Jannings as the caliph, Haroun al-Raschid. The second is a dark historical drama with another popular actor, Conrad Veidt, as Ivan the Terrible. Last up is a nightmare sequence with Werner Krauss (who was Caligari to Veidt's Somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as Jack the Ripper.

While not all that horrific, it is good fun to watch; there's a ton of great imagery and inventive set designs. You're also seeing some of the biggest names of Weimar-era cinema here. It's a great chance to sit back and enjoy something by one of the silent cinema's great craftsmen.

It's available on Youtube; here's the first part.

Finally...I rented the Criterion edition of the long-unavailable The Phantom Carriage, a seminal film from Sweden of 1921. It's another that's given a push as a macabre classic, but it's really a morality tale with some trappings of the supernatural.

It's New Year's Eve. A Salvation Army sister, Edit, is lying in bed, dying from tuberculosis. She begs to see David Holm again. He's drinking in the cemetery with some friends, and they share the tale of the Phantom Carriage, which drives invisibly around fetching the souls of the dead. Whoever is the last to die before the New Year becomes the driver for the next year. David has a scuffle with his friends and dies just before the stroke of midnight...and finds his old friend George driving the carriage. The next part of the film is a prolonged lecture and flashback in which we see David's descent into alcoholism and his creation of a toxic home atmosphere for his family. His wife abandons him and he goes out in search of her, spending the previous New Year's Eve at a newly-opened shelter, where Edit had mended his coat...and as we find out later, falls in love with him at first sight. She makes him promise to come back a year later.

Finally we have David's visit as a shade to a dying Edit, and his eventual reformation, and a message laid on with a trowel (as was done so often in silent films) that all should pray that their souls aren't reaped before they become fully mature.

While it glorifies the Salvation Army (a group I personally abhor), I was willing to go along with it, and it's not completely bad. There's some good atmosphere and a scene with David at the end actually affected me. This flick was also a huge influence on Ingmar Bergman, who watched it at least once a year for a long time. It's just not all that grisly and gothic as folks may want you to think it is.

Here's some of the more eerie scenes, set to music and put together by Youtuber shivabel, whose work I admire.

Lots more coming...I'm working through my video collection as a prelude to a relocation coming in about a year. (Yup, I'll be leaving DC, thanks to my work moving, although I'll be just going a short way north, to Baltimore, so I'll be close to Poe and still close to DC, and I'll have to start apartment-hunting and all that come fall....oh my...) So stay tuned...

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