Category: Essays & Reviews
Halloween would not be Halloween without a spine-tingling horror film or two so here at Krasker Film we asked some of our staff the following question: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? And here’s our staff picks. Give them a gander… if you dare!
~Lotte, work study most likely to fight her way through
a crowd of zombies in order to make her shift on time
~Adam, work study who now understands the importance of
doing verrrry thorough research before moving into a new house
~Eliza, work study with zero interest in watching any of our old VHS
~Dave, night supervisor (We suspect he’s a vampire.)
~Anna, work study who now must watch the original Texas Chainsaw film …or else
~Jay, work study (And such a nice young man. Quiet though. Hmm…)
~Walter, Senior Technician & resident expert in all things
ghoulish, macabre and uncanny. Now he would pick something truly bizarre!
~Maya, work study/insomniac (Psst! Watch the original 1984 version!!!!)
~Neha, work study (Ok, ok, I got a confession, she doesn’t watch scary
movies & didn’t find this all that terrifying but hey it’s a Hitchcock film!
She totally earns her Krasker Film badge for that one.)
And what’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen?
But only because of that Tiny Tim song. Tip-toe Through the Tulips? Now that’s scary.
In the spirit of the season, here’s a glance at our latest acquisition: the surf and sand comedy Don’t Make Waves (1967). This oft-overlooked film was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Ealing Studio auteur and the man behind The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers. It stars Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale, and Sharon Tate –perhaps that’s why this title is just now getting a DVD release??? Tate’s tragic death in 1969 at the hands of the Manson Family cult has unfortunately made her films somewhat taboo. But when watching Don’t Make Waves one can’t help but smile at its sunny, slapstick humor. Admittedly, the script is no masterpiece and Mackendrick fails to reach the comedic heights of his earlier Ealing offerings but Don’t Make Waves celebrates the most fun-loving, free-wheeling (and dare I say innocent?) aspects of the sexual revolution sixties. And the animated opening credits sequence is poor genius: the kind of artful, cheeky flourish one doesn’t see much in movies anymore. One caveat: while the remastered transfer looks great, Warner Bros. has released the film as a computer-unfriendly DVD-R (BOOOOO!) which means you need a standard DVD player-TV to ensure playability. We have tons of those at our screening room however and if you can’t make it to the ocean this summer, hit the beach at Krasker …just Don’t Make Waves!
We hope you get that joke!!! The title of this post is of course an allusion to Mel Brooks’ classic comedy The Producers and it’s too-funny-to-offend feature song “Springtime for Hitler”. The Producers is just one film in the Krasker collection we encourage folks to check out now that spring is upon us.
Remember, current Boston University faculty, staff and students may watch any film in the collection at our screening facility in Mugar Library. Note: we are currently in the process of extending our screening hours past 5pm but right now hours vary so please call ahead at 617-353-8112 before dropping by. Also be sure to bring your BU ID!
Now here’s a few titles sure to put some “spring” in your step!
THE PRODUCERSThe Producers (1968; dir. Mel Brooks) When a down-on-his-luck theatrical producer launches a musical about Hitler what could possibly go wrong? This hysterical showbiz send up stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. (Psst! We also have the 2005 musical remake starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). Forewarning however: it is impossible to watch this film and not sing “Springtime for Hitler” for several days afterwards.
ENCHANTED APRILFor something a little more high brow check out Enchanted April (1992, dir. Mike Newall), which boasts beautiful shots of the Mediterranean countryside and stellar acting chops. Join English tourists Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and company as they find self-renewal and romance while vacationing at an ancient Italian villa.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAINGet out your umbrella and your dancing shoes and enjoy that musical of musicals, Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly’s iconic romp through the puddles and drench is sure to make those April showers seem all the less dreary.
A TALE OF SPRINGTIMECan’t jet off to France this spring? Then enjoy the next best thing! A Tale of Springtime (1989, Eric Rohmer) is a sly comedy of manners about a precocious young woman’s attempts at playing matchmaker for her already attached (though technically single) father.
I have always had a fascination with the chapterplays, or the “cliffhangers”, the old serials of yesteryear. Having just recently finished the 1915 French serial Les Vampires (directed by Louis Feuillade and pictured at left), I was struck by how little the formula changed over the decades when the serials were at their peak and how much their motifs are still in use today. The serials lasted well over four decades, from the silent era until the mid-1950s (for a fairly complete listing of the major serials and their years of production, see this link): List_of_film_serials
In the silent era, the most famous American serial star was Pearl White, star of THE PERILS OF PAULINE and many others. Dangling from cliffs, speeding to her doom in runaway cars or plummeting to certain death was all in a day’s work for Miss White. Forget Mary Pickford – many a red-blooded American girl (especially in the constricting society of the 1910s and ’20s) wanted to be Pearl White. Therein lied one of the major attractions of the serials: for 15 minutes each week, you could get lost in the fast-paced adventure unfolding on your local movie screen, full of brave heroes and heroines, dastardly villains and inescapable death traps … or were they? There was only one way to find out – come back next week!
So with coin in hand, you would rush back to see how Pearl (or whoever) got out of her latest scrape. It usually involved a “cheat”, a crucial piece of footage not shown at the end of the previous chapter. You would groan and shake your head, but were willing to go along with the deception (and the continuing deception) for the next twelve to fifteen chapters, because it was so fun.
Pearl was the most famous of silent heroines, but she was by no means the only one. Other notable scrappy serial stars included Helen Holmes and Ruth Roland, as well as lesser-known stars Kathlyn Williams, Mary Fuller and Norma Phillips. The silent chapterplays were heavily female oriented, coinciding with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the first wave of feminism, but with the coming of sound and the expansion into new subjects, that would soon change.
By the 1930s, the serial cliches were firmly set in place. The basic plot went something like this: hero/heroine (plus various comic relief sidekicks and red herrings) are on the trail of a treasure/invention that can be used for the good of humanity. Enter villain (who can be posing as one of the good guys/red herrings and is often hooded/masked/disguised) who will now Stop At Nothing to get his/her (yes, there were female villains, as well) hands on said treasure/invention (usually NOT for the good of humanity). As each death trap fails to kill off our stalwart heroes, the villain tries something even MORE outlandish until the final chapter, where he/she gets their final unmasking and comeuppance (and more often than not, meeting a horrible death at the hands of one of their own death traps). What was needed now was where to draw inspiration to keep the crowds coming back for more. Hollywood, always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing, took their cue from what the public was following – in the 1930s, that was the radio thrillers, the pulp magazines and the Sunday Funnies.
Tarzan, Tailspin Tommy, The Shadow, The Spider and more Western serials than you could roll a sagebrush at regularly made their rounds in America’s movie houses of this time. It wasn’t until 1936, however, that the chapterplays really hit paydirt. Those who worked in serials knew their core audience was mainly kids – they were the return customers who sweated it out every week to see how their hero escaped immolation, decapitation or worse. It was their hard-earned dimes that kept the movies going – especially during the Great Depression, when discretionary income of ANY kind was hard to come by. The studios knew what the kids wanted and who their most beloved heroes were, and so Universal gambled (and won big time) with Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON.
This one had it all – spaceships, swordfights, dinosaurs, Hawkmen, Lion Men, Shark Men … and the best serial villain of them all, Ming the Merciless (played to perfection by Charles Middleton). Olympic swimming champion Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe won the role of Flash and was forever wedded to the role. The serial was so successful, it spawned two sequels (the only serial with that distinction).
The serials thundered along into the 1940s, with every genre imaginable thrown up onto the screen. Like air battles? You could watch SKY RAIDERS, ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS, JUNIOR G-MEN OF THE AIR and more! Air travel make you sick? Prefer something at sea? There was SEA RAIDERS, THE HAUNTED HARBOR and DON WINSLOW OF THE NAVY to choose from. Keep in mind that America was now firmly embroiled in World War II, so Axis criminals abounded and saboteurs were running rampant! Ordinary heroes and superheroes had their hands full with the Nazi Menace and their cronies. From jungle adventures to spy thrillers, and from Mounties to Medieval heroes, the serials had their Golden Age during this era.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The children of the ’30s and ’40s had grown up, the harsh realities of a Depression and a World War had eroded a lot of the magic of the movies, and with the dawning of the 1950s, a new threat emerged – one that the serials could not survive: television. Serials were always made on a low budget; with the changing times, growing costs and fewer return customers, the writing was on the wall. The last serials were made in 1956 and then it was all over. Those who could, made the leap to television – veterans like director William Witney and John English (who co-directed my personal favorite serial, 1941’s THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL) and actors like Buster Crabbe continued and flourished in the new medium. Ironically, television became the center of the rebirth of the serial, both literally and figuratively. In the early days of TV, network programmers were starved for content and took to showing a number of the old serials in their afternoon time-slots. It was a perfect match and the kids loved it: a chapter a day, Monday – Friday, with plenty of time to squeeze in the all-important commercials.
Today? Take any given night on TV and look at the listings. Some of the most popular and highly rated shows are the serialized cliff-hanger dramas, the ones with a continuing “mythology” that people follow from week to week to find out what is going to happen to their favorite characters. A perfect example was the soap opera DALLAS. On March 21st, 1980, the season ended on a cliffhanger ending – and America demanded to know, “Who shot J.R. Ewing?” It was the highest-rated television episode in TV history at that time, and other shows quickly took notice. Many serialized shows (such as 24) now regularly end their season on a cliffhanger – following an honorable tradition that stretches back 100 years.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
Today we give a shout out to all those budding scoops out there–the students in the Journalism Department! Now when reporting the news, a journalist is supposed to be like Detective Friday on the classic cop show Dragnet: you’re supposed to want “just the facts ma’am”. But here at Krasker, we have a collection of feature films set in the world of journalism that may just teach you a thing or two–and some of them will leave you rolling on the floor with laughter! But whether it’s drama or comedy, these films are sure to “hook” you in from the word go!
THE FRONT PAGE (1931) Directed by Lewis Milestone, this is the first film adaptation of the hit Broadway play about a newspaper editor and his ace reporter who battle each other while fighting civic corruption in Chicago, each in pursuit of an exclusive story with an escaped inmate from death row. The Front Page marks film favorite Pat O’Brien’s screen debut and co-stars such classic stars of stage and screen as Adolphe Menjou & Edward Everett Horton.
NOTHING SACRED (1937) The undisputed Queen of Screwball Comedy Carole Lombard shines in this tale of a small-town girl who thinks she is dying of a rare disease–by the time she discovers there’s been a misdiagnosis, she’s already been made “The Sweetheart of New York City” due to a wily reporter’s publicity stunt. Fredric March plays the newsman who falls for Lombard whilst trying to get her out of this journalistic jam. An engaging satire of the press’s power as “star maker,” Nothing Sacred features the witty direction of William Wellman.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) One of the all-time great screw-ball comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, His Girl Friday follows an ace lady reporter and her slick city editor–who just happens to be her ex-husband–as they put their “noses for news” together in the hope of getting an unjustly condemned man off death row. Directed by Howard Hawks and showcasing the irresistible team of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at their sparkling best, His Girl Friday is also an inventive reworking of the famous newsie play The Front Page (The original was about two male reporters–friends only! See above.)
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) In Billy Wilder’s classic, Kirk Douglas give a fierce performance as Chuck Tatum, an amoral newspaper reporter caught in dead-end Albuquerque who happens upon the story of a lifetime–and will do anything to ensure he gets the scoop.
THE FRONT PAGE (1974) Before you groan, “Oh no, not another remake!” let me tell you this gem has Billy Wilder directing one of the greatest comedic film duos of all time: Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Now, try to beat that! The stellar supporting cast includes Carol Burnett, Susan Sarandon, Vincent Gardenia and Charles Durning.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) Okay, now it’s time to really get serious: All the President’s Men chronicles reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s landmark investigation into the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up by the Nixon Administration. Based on their best-selling book, this film inspired a generation of journalists and takes a riveting look at the 4th Estate’s potential roles as “muckrakers” and political power players. It’s also a darn good nail-biting mystery at times. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as the famous pair of newshounds. Jason Robards co-stars. Directed by acclaimed director Alan J. Pakula.
ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981) Paul Newman and Sally Field give powerhouse performances in director Sydney Pollack’s dissection of journalistic ethics: Michael Gallagher, a legitimate business man, reads in the paper that he is the subject of a criminal investigation. Suddenly, everything he has ever worked for is in jeopardy. He confronts the author, Megan Carter (Sally Field), a relentless investigative reporter who may have been playing fast and loose with sussing out her sources. With Gallagher’s life hanging in the balance, the two potential adversaries join forces to uncover the truth.
BROADCAST NEWS (1987) Forget Morning Glory, Broadcast News was there first! James L. Brooks’s laugh-out-loud look at the personal and professional politics on a television news program still packs a punch. Featuring stellar performances by William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks. Keep your eyes open for a young Joan Cusack in a scene-stealing supporting role.
GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005) Actor George Clooney steps behind the camera to direct this black-and-white paean to Edward R. Murrow’s brand of “morally courageous” journalism during the dark days of the McCarthy Era, depicting the controversial steps the famed newsman took to question Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist tactics. David Strathairn brings Murrow to bold life in a mesmerizing performance. Clooney co-stars as Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer and confidant.
Please Note: Since this post was first published, Krasker has moved! Current BU Students, Staff and Faculty can watch films at our new facility, located at 771 Commonwealth Avenue in Mugar Library, Basement Level. Krasker is usually open for screening during regular library hours, however patrons wishing to view materials outside of 9am-5pm, M-F, are encouraged to call ahead at 617-353-8112.
It has only been in the past year that we at Krasker began tagging titles in our catalog with the subject heading Films: Feature Foreign (Canadian/Quebecois French), but the need for such a designation is clear. Canadian cinema is fertile ground for critical analysis–a country whose home-grown talent offers up a unique perspective on the world and which is, increasingly, exploring this point of view with daring visual gusto.
Too often Canadian filmmakers have been overlooked in this country–or rather their “Canadianness” has been overlooked, as scholars and critics treat their works as a sort of extension of U.S. cinema, thereby blurring the borders that define Canadian cultural and aesthetic experience to the point of invisibility. Furthermore, when an attempt to distinguish Canadian Cinema from our own is made, Canadian film is all too often portrayed as a counterpoint to the United States experience–the quirky neighbor to the North, a pale imitation of the United States, Hollywood on a shoe-string budget in a colder climate. Adding a complicated layer to these modes of interpretation is the long-standing tradition of Hollywood, lured by financial incentives, to use Canadian locations as “stand-ins” for places in the United States. Indeed, the repackaging of Canada as the United States has been a profitable business for our northern neighbors, and an ironic detriment to the native Canadian film industry. A shrewd analysis of this practice’s effect on global and native perceptions of the Canadian cinema can be found in David L. Pike’s essay (featured in Bright Lights Film Journal) Across the Great Divide: Canadian Popular Cinema in the 21st Century.
So “What does Canada say about us?” cries the US! Often the answer is a smug confirmation of the States’ “superiority,” with portrayals of Canadians as quaint, ineffectual rubes that stand no chance of undermining the U.S.’s premium on “savvy”. One consistent Canadian response to this arrogance is to revel in self-deprecation, exploring the Canadian “inferiority complex” through the medium of comedy, a tactic that, when taken to its subversive extreme has succeeded in launching a huge cream pie in the puss of its southern cousins. At the epicenter of this rebellion is the iconoclastic comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, whose television show which ran in the 1980s and 90s set the gold standard for Canadian rebellion–in contrast, the weak as water cuppa served up by fellow comedian Mike Myers missed the mark with its air of pandering to Hollywood’s perception of Canada as a nation with a perpetually low self-esteem.
And hence we return to the sad state of affairs that Canadian film has rarely been assessed in its own right, leaving us to ponder the question, “What is the Canadian voice, if not merely a tentative acquiescence to U.S. superiority?” Like most cinema produced outside the U.S., it has been credited with a greater cerebralness, taking stock in the hallmarks of independent cinema: less flash, more talk, more thought. Indeed, one of the seminal works of Canadian cinema, Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) is a film that sensitively portrays people whose lives fall outside the false glitter and glamour of the Hollywood dream factory, and has been warmly embraced as a story that rings truer than the template-driven popcorn movie. However it must not be overlooked that Rozema’s masterwork offers up a unique and daring aesthetic that helped usher in a greater emphasis on avant-garde sensory experience and it is crucial to note that one of the major attributes that increasingly distinguishes Canadian film today is the realm of the visual–as more and more filmmakers push the envelope of ocular rapture.
The visual? Ocular rapture? Canada? Again we confront the limitations people feel compelled to place on Canadian artistic expression. Yet to discover Canadian cinema as a landscape with more to offer than snowy vistas and maple leaves is to be delighted–and one such filmmakers that exemplifies this trend (and whose work can be found in the Krasker collection!) is Guy Maddin.
It is hard to describe the work of Guy Maddin…a few words and phases come to mind: a pastiche, cinematic collage gone wild, a fusion of silent era filmmaking aestethic and the contemporary, certifiably insane. Perhaps you just have to check it out for yourself and two works in our collection that Maddin is perhaps most identified with are The Saddest Music in the World (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). The Saddest Music in the World tells the warped saga of a Winnipeg-based brewery owner Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rosselini), who also happens to be a double amputee covetous of a man’s glass prosthetic limbs, and her deranged search for–you guessed it!–the saddest music in the world. She launches an international contest to find this elusive musical treasure and subsequently several storylines converge as people race to Winnipeg for the contest. Maddin sets his Winnipeg in the dark days of the Great Depression, and appropriately plumbs the depths of 1920s and 1930s cinema in creating an at times overwhelming visual experience. If Joseph von Sterberg and Busby Berkeley had a child, who then proceeded to go on an acid trip and take us a long for the ride, the result would be this film.
Along the way, Maddin makes some deft observations about U.S.-Canadian relations: one of the central characters is a patriotic Canadian at odds with his American ex-pat son and visions of a drab Winnipeg are tensely juxtaposed with over-the-top Hollywood styling. Furthermore, the at-all-times surreal aesthetic constantly considers and challenges stereotypical perceptions of Canada as the United States’s “plain Jane cousin,” and in so doing, Maddin casts Canadian filmmaking (and Canadian filmmakers) in the role of aggressor–assaulting the viewer with a visual feast that makes the usual U.S. fare taste bland in comparison.
Brand Upon the Brain! likewise provides a stunning visual experience, but whereas The Saddest Music in the World also revels in the aural Brand goes in the very opposite direction: it’s a silent film. Intriguingly, it is a film about Guy Maddin…or at least a version of Guy Maddin. In Brand we follow a young Guy as he wiles away his days on a strange island he will one day inherit. Mystery and odd characters abound, naturally, and the viewer can’t help but wonder what is Maddin trying to say about himself and his art? The silent film device begs a connection between the Canadian artist and a “silencing” of Canadian culture in general; the silence of Guy’s world makes the viewer ever-presently aware of it. At a time when sound film is the norm, the realm of the quiet grabs our attention as much as the silent screams of the bold cinematography and production design make us cock our heads to listen. It is worth noting that the original film did not have a recorded sountrack and upon initial screenings boasted live accompianment and foley artists for the production of sound effects–creating further distance between the Maddin’s Canada captured on screen and the ability to create a sound, a voice if you will, that people will pay attention to. A musical score was added later, however, and is provided on the Criterion DVD release available in the Krasker collection.
~By Mary Bowen, Krasker Film/Video Services
Ah, the month of October! Summer is gone and there’s a brisk nip in the air giving you fair warning that Winter will soon be upon us – but before it arrives, we have Fall. That in-between time, too warm for Winter yet too cold for Summer, a time of changes, both seasonal and personal. The light clothes are put away and the sweaters come out. The nights get darker earlier and the houses are decorated – with every sort of ghoul and goblin imaginable. Why? Because Fall is also the time for Halloween. Forget Christmas – many a child will tell you that Halloween is REALLY their favorite holiday, that one special night they get to stay up late, get dressed in a costume and go door-to-door trick-or-treating for candy. I still recall a year I went out with my son and he went non-stop for three hours! It’s also the season to revisit old friends and family … but not the kind you’d invite to dinner.
While Thanksgiving is the traditional family reunion time, I’ve always looked at Halloween as a time to revisit the cinematic aunts and uncles who made me the unabashed horror fan I am today. It’s a tradition I passed on to my son when he was young, and one I hope he continues. If you’re looking for something spooky to show to the young and/or timid of heart, may I recommend the Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection. An eight disc DVD boxed set, it’s a crash course in monster-dom; specifically the Old School monsters of Universal Studios.
Are you a Twi-hard? Love the vamps of TRUE BLOOD or THE VAMPIRE DIARIES? Then check out their great-granddaddy Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931, 75 minutes). Originally released on Valentine’s Day in 1931, it was advertised as “the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” Director Tod Browning was no stranger to vampires, having directed Lon Chaney in the (long lost) LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT in 1927. Sadly, seen today, his DRACULA is no better than a curiosity, almost filmed as if it were a stage play, with very little camera movement to bring it to life (as it were). That’s where the joy of the Special Edition DVD kicks in: on the same disc is the SPANISH edition of the film, shot on the same sets with a different cast and director (George Melford), and with a creeping feeling of terror the Lugosi version never masters. They are both eerie in their own ways, and make for a fascinating night of side-by-side comparisons.
Vampires leave you cold? How about something a little more … stitched-up? Then you need to check out director James Whale’s one-two punch of FRANKENSTEIN (1931, 71 min.) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935, 75 min.) – both with the gifted Boris Karloff. He was indelibly linked to the Frankenstein Monster his entire career, calling the character “my old friend”, and had an amazing gift for pathos under the heavy makeup and pounds of costuming. Even today, you still feel the creature’s plight, thrust into situations not of his making, wanting only love and companionship and shunned and attacked on all sides. If possible, see these with a young horror fan, who is just seeing them for the first time – it’s a revelation what the kids come up with. Karloff said many times that when children wrote him fan mail, they always understood and sympathized with his portrayal of the creature, and felt bad for him. BRIDE is a Hollywood rarity: a sequel better than the original. Both Karloff and Whale were familiar with and more assured in their roles, and it shows. The addition of Elsa Lanchester as the titular Bride, with her electric hairdo, remains a stunner today.
If vampires and monsters are STILL too much for your timid audience, then start them out with 1933’s THE INVISIBLE MAN (71 min.) – another James Whale film, this time with Claude Rains in the (unseen) titular role, with ground-breaking special effects by John P. Fulton. Of all the films so far discussed, this one was closest to it’s original source, the novel by H. G. Wells. DRACULA, although based on Bram Stoker’s novel, more resembles the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, while FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE were a mish-mash from all over, taking bits of Mary Shelley’s original novel and spreading it out over two films, along with play adaptations and original bits from Whale himself. THE INVISIBLE MAN sticks very closely to the novel, and thrilled audiences of the time, especially with Rains’ dramatic unveiling of … nothing … underneath his bandages, before going on his crime spree.
We now turn to my personal favorite in the collection, 1932’s THE MUMMY (74 minutes). Another masterful performance by Boris Karloff under the brilliant (and daunting) makeup of Jack Pierce, THE MUMMY still brings chills today. I have written about the film before in greater detail, so rather than rehash it again, may I direct you here: mummy-january-1992.html.
For those of you who prefer monsters of the more hirsute variety, there’s the 1941 production of THE WOLFMAN (70 minutes). Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed the cursed Lawrence Talbot for the first time in this film which, like Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, would become his signature character. Bitten by a werewolf at a gypsy camp (Bela Lugosi), Talbot is now eternally cursed with the affliction of lycanthropy and all it entails. His father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), believes none of this, eventually killing his own son with his silver-headed cane … until the next sequel. Of all the films in this set, I think this one has the most quotable lines (courtesy of writer Curt Siodmak), such as my favorite, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” The film still holds up well today and was the basis of a criminally ignored remake in 2010 starrring Benicio Del Toro in the Lawrence Talbot role.
The weakest link in the set is provided by 1943’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (93 minutes). Supposedly a remake of the 1925 Lon Chaney version, this Technicolor extravaganza forgets who the story is supposed to be about, concentrating more on the opera performers (Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster) than the Phantom himself (Claude Rains) – ironically, by shifting the mood away from horror to romance, it predates the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version, which was one of his most enduring successes. The film is still worth seeing, but you would be better served tracking down the original silent Chaney version to see the story done properly.
The collection ends with Universal’s last great original monster: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954, 79 minutes). I still have fond feelings for this old chestnut, as it was the first film I saw in 3-D (at a re-release showing). I was so taken by it I ran a 3-D double feature of it and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE one weekend at my college, and those silly glasses were popping up all over campus for months afterwards! Sadly, the version here is not in 3-D, but the film holds up well in whatever dimension you view it in. The tale of scientists who come across a missing link ‘Gill Man’ deep in the Amazon and his fascination with the woman aboard the expedition (Julia Adams), it’s the deepest (no pun intended) themed film here. A lot has been written and seen in this film that I’m not sure director Jack Arnold ever intended: themes of conservation vs. destruction of native environments, of erotic interspecies romance, etc. Sometimes a monster movie is just a monster movie, I say! It is another title that holds up as well today as when it was first made, and is another favorite of mine – I have a stuffed Creature behind me in my office as I type this, so I have to watch what I say! :)
Finally, if you have any interest in or love for the old Universal Horrors as I do, it would be remiss of me to end this article without mentioning a book from 2009, Michael Mallory’s Universal Studios Monsters: A legacy of Horror. Filled with stories and anecdotes about the films mentioned above and more, by the people who made them, this is an AMAZING oversized book, crammed with detail and behind-the-scenes photos, many of which I’ve never seen published before. It’s a perfect complement to the DVD set for the horror fan in your life.
So when the pumpkins have all been carved and the trick-or-treaters have all been served, sit down and turn off the lights and get to know your Halloween family all over again – you’ll be glad you did.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
Dr. Mabuse is dead! Long live Dr. Mabuse! This was the theme of Fritz Lang’s final entry of his ‘Mabuse trilogy’, as well as being his final film as a director. In the best Mabuse tradition, it has something for everyone: women driven to madness and suicide, people who are NOT what they seem, masters of disguise and ingenious methods of death and destruction. The film begins with such a death, that of investigative TV reporter Peter Barter, by a high-pressure needle gun to the brain (in a drive-by shooting that is almost a scene-for-scene copy of a similar execution in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). Sharp-eyed viewers and students of world cinema will recognize Jess Franco’s favorite go-to villain Howard Vernon as the assassin ‘No. 12’.
Barter’s murder is just the latest in a long line of puzzling homicides for Police Commissioner Kras (Gert Frobe, of GOLDFINGER fame). With no clues to go on, he reluctantly turns to celebrated blind psychic Peter Cornelius for help. The Commissioner and Kras have a history together, so much so that the psychic’s German Shepherd knows him by smell as an old acquaintance. As psychics go, Cornelius is an exercise in frustration. He can warn Kras of crimes that are going to happen, but never with specifics, such as who the victim or killer are. His next warning to the Commissioner concerns the Hotel Luxor in Berlin, which already has a reputation for more than average sordid happenings.
At the hotel, a suicidal woman about to jump off a ledge. She is Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), long-suffering spouse to an abusive, club-footed husband. After her latest ordeal she decides to end it all, but is talked down and into the room of American millionaire industrialist Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck). He is entranced by her beauty and is determined to help her – she at first refuses, not wanting to draw him into her troubles, but eventually gives in out of hopelessness and exhaustion and with nowhere else to turn. Dr. Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss), her psychiatrist, is called after Marion’s suicide attempt, and confers with Travers about Marion’s past and her situation. Travers promises the doctor (and the police) he will take responsibility for her, and slowly the two begin to fall in love.
More characters are introduced: the seedy insurance agent Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig (Werner Peters), who runs his business out of the hotel (when he’s not cadging free drinks) and has a finger in everyone’s business; the hotel director and house detective, who seem to know far TOO much about all of their guests, and others. The paths of Cornelius and Travers intersect, with the psychic telling the industrialist that a business deal he is waiting to hear about will not go through. As predicted, the Taran Nuclear Works plant deal falls through and Travers becomes more curious about Cornelius.
Back at the hotel, we finally see the ‘Thousand Eyes’ of the title of the film. It turns out that during World War II, the Nazis had installed secret cameras and microphones in all the rooms, with a massive spy control center in a concrete bunker in the basement. All the better for blackmailing, intimidation and the learning of state secrets. However, they did not stop there – Travers is shown into the room next to Marion’s by the hotel manager, who promises him “something interesting”. That something turns out to be a one-way mirror built into her room so he can spy on everything going on there. While he is offended by the man’s salaciousness, he rents the room out so no one else can spy on her. Timing is all, as he observes Marion and her husband, who forces his way into the room and begins attacking her again. Trying to defend herself, she falls back and is about to be mortally hurt by the man when Travers breaks the mirror out and shoots the husband dead. Like it or not, he is now involved up to his neck.
Marion tells him she can take care of the body and calls Dr. Jordan, who arrives in record time, agreeing to write a death certificate for a heart attack and has the body taken out discreetly via the freight elevator to his waiting ambulance. As it pulls away, the ‘dead’ husband pulls the sheet off, pleased with “Mabuse’s” plan to capture his ‘death’ on film for blackmailing Travers. Not as pleased as No. 12 and his needle gun, who tell him his usefulness is up and shoots him. They dump the body and disappear.
Kras, Travers, Marion and Mistelzweig are all invited to a seance’ given by Cornelius. Before it can get underway, however, Cornelius asks to change seats with the Commissioner. As he does, Kras settles in only to be told by Cornelius to get down – an assassin’s bullet strikes the seat where Kras’ head had been moments before! Kras and his assistant try to capture the gunman without success, and the seance is called off. Mistelzweig stays behind, trying to interest Cornelius in becoming his business partner in the insurance racket, but is turned down. He tricks Cornelius into giving away the fact he’s not REALLY blind, but has been wearing white contacts the entire time – he’s willing to keep the secret, saying it’s a nice touch, and advises him to re-think joining him.
The film ramps up to it’s whirlwind conclusion back at the hotel when Travers figures out Marion isn’t what she claims to be and was in on the blackmail attempt – she swears to tell him all, but only when they’re outside. Her panic starts to get to him as well, and they take an elevator to the lobby. Instead of the lobby door opening, however, a SIDE door opens, revealing the spy center. The manager and hotel detective both work for “Mabuse”, and when questioned by Travers who he is, they tell him he’ll meet the good Doctor soon enough … and then he and the girl will die. Travers tries to shoot it out and escape, but Marion is wounded in the process and they are both locked in the camera center.
Out in the lobby, Mistelzweig sees the elevator come down but the door never open. He also sees Dr. Jordan ENTER the same elevator, without it ascending. He nods, putting it all together. In the control center, Dr. Jordan reveals Marion was under his hypnosis, working to make Travers love her. She would marry Travers and he would have been killed, with Marion inheriting all his assets, including the Atomic Plant where Jordan would have made and deployed nuclear missiles. “You are insane”, says Travers. “Maybe … that’s what they said about Dr. Mabuse … who died 25 years ago and whose name and plans I used.” Leaving Travers and Marion to die in the soundproof room, Dr. Jordan takes off his goatee and hairpiece to walk past Kras and the police in the lobby. Mistelzweig (who, it turns out, is secretly an Interpol agent) has a surprise of his own for Jordan … the German Shepherd! Turns out Dr. Jordan was ALSO the fake psychic Cornelius and is given away by the dog.
Thanks to No. 12 and his machine gun, Jordan/Mabuse gets away in a sedan for the final car chase, with Kras and four motorcycle cops in pursuit. Mistelzweig goes into the control center and cleans up the henchmen there, freeing Travers and Marion. Jordan/Mabuse are cut off on a bridge by the police and plunge to their death over the edge. The final shot is a kiss between Travers and Marion (in a hospital bed), whereupon her head lolls gently over. A quick pan to their clasped hands makes you wonder – is she unconscious? Dead? That is for you to decide.
All Day Entertainment did a marvelous job restoring the film on DVD, and includes both the original German and (horrible) English dubbed soundtrack. The extras include another informative audio commentary with David Kalat, poster and ad art from the Mabuse films, trailers from other entries in the series (most of them hopelessly inept and renamed) and a 35-minute documentary featurette called “The Eyes of Fritz Lang”.
As I mentioned earlier, this would be director Fritz Lang’s last shot at a Mabuse film, and his last directorial effort period. The title makes this even more ir0nic, when you consider Lang had to give up directing due to his failing eyesight (and advanced age). The film was very well received at the time of it’s release, leading to a mini-Mabuse marathon, with a series of lesser films over the next few years by different directors. The Mabuse Cycle, with their dreams of world conquest and advanced weaponry, were the prototype for the James Bond series that would begin two years later with 1962’s DR. NO. Not a bad legacy, after all. When you see the newest chiseled actor playing 007, you can admire his stunts and coolness in the theater … but when you see the latest megalomaniac he’s up against, remember to give a small salute in the dark to the latest child of Dr. Mabuse.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
In 1933, Fritz Lang continued the adventures of one of his earliest successes, that of the demagogic madman and criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. Confined to an asylum at the end of 1922’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), the good (bad) doctor (again portrayed by Rudolph Klein-Rogge) has been locked away for the last ten years, staring into space and doing nothing but writing … and writing … and writing. At first the writing is nothing but doodles and scribbles, nonsense words that fill up pad after pad. Over time, however, the writing starts to make sense, a word here, a sentence there, until it all comes together (complete with complex drawings) for Mabuse’s Manifesto on how to run a Criminal Empire.
In the original 1922 film, Mabuse used “telepathic hypnosis” to bend people to his will and control his victims. Lang suggests that the doctor’s power has grown exponentially (since he has been locked away for over a decade, both physically in the asylum and psychically piecing back together his shattered mind, making it stronger and more dangerous) and that he is getting the cogs running again for his second stab at world conquest. The question becomes how is he doing this while locked away in solitary confinement? We are shown a gang of men, all with different code names and departments, getting the typewritten summons from “Dr. Mabuse” to meet at a certain time and place for criminal instructions. Upon their arrival at a warehouse, they are ushered into a curtained room, whereupon they are given orders by an anonymous shape behind the curtain.
One such hireling is Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl), an executive who has made bad decisions before in his life and served his time in jail, a man who has the love of the beautiful Lilli (Wera Liessem) and wishes to go straight, but who is caught up in the strangling web of Mabuse. Tom tries to break off the love affair with Lilli, telling her of his prison time for murder and his past. She assures him it doesn’t change her feelings for him, which gives him the courage to confront Mabuse and refuse to do any more of his dirty work. Announcing his intentions to quit the group, Tom and Lilli are told they have walked into a death trap and have only three hours to live! Tom shoots the character behind the curtain, only to find a wooden cutout of a man and a loudspeaker … and an ominous ticking noise.
The police have been trying to track down the mastermind of the rash of crimes going on. Celebrated police Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, reprising his role from Lang’s earlier hit M) is investigating the case of informant Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), whose mind has snapped after a run-in with Mabuse’s men (he is also now a patient at the asylum) – before they got him, he had time to scratch Mabuse’s name in a windowpane. Lohmann remembers the name and rehashes the events from the first film. Thinking he has the case wrapped up and the culprit caught, Lohmann calls the asylum – only to hear that Mabuse has died that very morning. Lohmann goes to the asylum to confirm this and is met by the director (and the man who had worked on Mabuse’s case the entire time he was interred) Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) – much has been made of the following scene, where Lohmann (in the morgue with Baum and the corpse of Mabuse) dismisses the dead man as another harmless crank and Baum, rather than agreeing with the Commissioner, goes off on him extolling Mabuse’s genius and what he was trying to accomplish with his Manifesto. The reason why is because Baum’s words here (and some of Mabuse’s notes later on in the film) are taken from Adolph Hitler’s political screeds – this was Lang’s way of trying to warn the German people of the very real madman already in their midst. Unfortunately, it was a warning that was to fall on deaf ears.
Back at the curtained room, Tom and Lilli have tried to find the ticking bomb, only to be driven to frenzy as they find walls and doors are all lead-shielded and there is no way out. In desperation, Tom cuts a water main pipe to flood the room and dampen the blast of the explosion. It now becomes a test of which way they will die, by explosion or drowning. As they are gasping for air, the bomb (which was set in the floor) goes off, blasting a hole in the floor and releasing the water … and providing their exit. They instantly go to Inpsector Lohmann with their case and with Tom’s typewritten instructions from Mabuse. Lohmann informs them of Mabuse’s death, yet the crime reign still continues … but how?
As Doctor Baum had worked so closely with Mabuse during his stay at the asylum, collecting and reading his voluminous notes, Mabuse slowly took over Baum’s mind, until at the moment of his death, he performed his greatest feat: that of soul transference (seen on the screen via double exposure of Mabuse’s astral self leaving his body and entering Baum’s). Lang said that he regretted this portion of the film and that if he were shooting it again, would have left it out (leaving the plot more ambiguous). Tom and Lohmann go to Baum’s house and hear a recording from his study, saying, “I do not wish to be disturbed”. Tom recognizes the recorded voice as that of “Mabuse” at the warehouse, and looking at Baum/Mabuse’s notes on his desk for the next act of terrorism, sees it is for a chemical plant explosion that night. They arrive too late to stop the explosion, but Lang does manage to film an eerily-lit nighttime car chase of the fleeing Baum back to the asylum. Lohmann and Tom follow Baum/Mabuse to Hofmeister’s cell (which was Mabuse’s old cell), where they hear a violent, life and death struggle break out between the two men. Looking inside, Hofmeister is being led out and Baum is sitting on the cell bed, slowly tearing the Mabuse Manifesto into small strips, a page at a time. Mabuse’s tenuous hold on Baum’s soul has been broken, but at the cost of the man’s sanity.
The tales of the making of this film are nothing short of astonishing, including Lang demanding as much authenticity as possible of his cast by shooting real bullets during certain scenes! There is inventive use of sound throughout, but at the same time, there are long stretches of silence. This may seem disconcerting to modern viewers who are used to music playing in every scene, but keep in mind the first synchronized score for a film would not appear until Max Steiner’s composition for KING KONG (released this same year). Silent films had musical accompaniment, of course, to set a general mood, but it was not scene-specific for an entire feature.
The DVD of TESTAMENT is another Criterion Collection gem, a two-disc set featuring both this edition of the film and the French edition (which Lang shot simultaneously with different actors); audio commentary by David Kalat and many featurettes about all aspects of the character and the film, as well as a look at the advertising campaign and posters. The Mabuse-thon concludes next time with Lang’s final film in the trilogy (and his final film as a director), 1960’s THE 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE. I hope you will use at least two of YOUR eyes to join me then.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services
Criminal mastermind, master of disguise, hypnotist, psychoanalyst, destroyer of men and seducer of women – all these and more describe evil genius Dr. Mabuse. Created by author Norbert Jacques, Mabuse is the literary great-grandfather of other Machiavellian villains, from Fantomas to Ernst Stavro Blofeld and beyond. The pulp thriller was an immediate hit upon publication and was turned into a four hour extravaganza by noted director Fritz Lang, adapted for the screen by his wife Thea von Harbou.
In the film, Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) controls his underworld empire through intimidation and terror. He knows all the illegal gambling houses and delights in going in disguise to find the foolish and the weak-willed, playing cards against them (while hypnotizing them across the table), feeding on their desperation as they lose more and more, then either making them his slaves or sending them off to destroy themselves if they are of no further use to him. He also controls a counterfeiting shop, with the use of blind workers to count and stack the bills (a motif that would be carried over in the Edgar Wallace thriller and film Dark Eyes of London).
Mabuse, in turn, is being pursued by State Attorney von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). For the majority of the feature, he does not know the identity of the master criminal, referring to him as “The Great Unknown”. Von Wenk captures one of Mabuse’s gang, his femme fatale Cara Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) and tries to get her to talk. Instead she remains in jail, knowing the Doctor will come for her. And he does, but not as she expects. Another confederate arrives at her cell, with a suicide pill and instructions to end her life. La Carozza sees the error of her ways too late, but rather than turn in the man she loves, she takes the pill and buys him more time.
Mabuse turns his appetites (both sexual and monetary) on the Countess and Count Told. The Countess (Gertrude Welker) is a jaded sophisticate, one who has seen it all and done it all and is bored with life. Von Wenk tries first to get her assistance in breaking down La Carozza, but she is so shaken by the fierceness of the woman’s love for Mabuse, she cannot go through with it. After La Carozza’s death, Mabuse kidnaps the Countess to make her his latest sexual conquest, either by privation, starvation or hypnotism – it’s all the same to him. He has other plans for the Count (Alfred Abel): at a upper crust party, he hypnotizes the Count from across the room and has him cheat at cards, in full view of the other players. The Count’s reputation is destroyed and he comes to the famous psychoanalyst Dr. Mabuse for help. Mabuse agrees to take his case and sends him on a series of spiraling post-hypnotic suggestions, culminating in the Count’s throat-cutting suicide with a straight razor.
Von Wenk closes in on Mabuse, still not sure of his enemy’s identity, prompting the megalomaniac to attempt his greatest triumph. Disguised as mentalist Sandor Weltmann, Mabuse succeeds in hypnotizing von Wenk on stage and orders him to leave the theatre and destroy himself by driving over a cliff. Von Wenk’s deputies follow and save him before the fatal plunge, whereupon he finally figures out the identity of the mastermind. Surrounding his house, a shootout occurs between Mabuse and his gang and von Wenk, his deputies and the Army! Wounded, Mabuse escapes through the sewers to the counterfeiting house, only to be irreversibly locked in with the blind. As they shamble toward him, Mabuse’s mind finally cracks and he sees not the blind, but his dead victims approaching him, seeking revenge. Upon tracking him down at last, von Wenk and his men find a hopelessly mad Mabuse, who is led off to an asylum.
Seen today, the film is a quaint reminder of other pulp thrillers and cliffhanger serials that populated the movie theaters of the 1920s – ’50s. What one needs to remember while watching it, however, is the many innovations cinematographer Carl Hoffmann brought to the screen, breathing movable life to many scenes which had been static before. The casting is impressive, as well, with Rudolph Klein-Rogge’s Mabuse a dry run for his most famous role in another Lang production, the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis (1927). Ironically, his enemy in that film is the iron-willed Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen, played by Alfred Abel, who plays the weak-willed Count Told here.
Kino Video has released a magnificent two-disc DVD print of this title, with a masterful music score by Robert Israel and David Kalat performing commentary track duties. If you’re a fan of silent cinema or just want to see where cinema’s madmen got their start, this is a good jumping-off point. I’ll be back later as I continue my Mabuse-thon with the direct sequel, Lang’s 1933 film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Walter von Bosau, Krasker Film/Video Services