Since Halloween seems to have swallowed up all of October, I had an opportunity last month to see a lot of horror movies. Mostly on TV, though also one theatrical showing, which I will get to presently.
White Zombie: This 1932 film is said to be the first of the Hollywood zombie movies. Back then, zombies were not inherently threatening; what was really frightening was the sorcerer who created them, and thus had power over life, death and free will. Here the sorcerer is played by Bela Lugosi, with the fabulously unsubtle name of Murder Legendre. (It still amazes me that some studio higher-up didn’t say, “Oh, come on.”) The story concerns a wealthy white Haitian who makes a Faustian bargain with Legendre to win over the woman he desperately desires, who is about to marry someone else. Legendre’s solution is to turn her into a zombie … and by implication, a kind of animate sex doll.
I would like to track down a better print of this movie sometime, because the edition I saw — free on demand through my cable provider — was in absolutely terrible shape. (I think a better print does exist on DVD — an online review of it includes screen shots that, even in shrunken screencap version, look much better than what I saw.) The visuals are clearly very important to the film, given the number of painterly tableaux and unusual angles it employs. Despite that problem, however, the film managed to be pretty creepy. Zombies who just wander around vacantly don’t sound too threatening, but their vacancy is itself terrifying. Like many horror ideas, it is ultimately about desecration of the body. An eerie visit to Legendre’s sugar mill shows dozens of zombies working away mechanically, stripped of all humanity except their function in the business. Anyone who’s ever worked for a corporation will probably feel a shiver of recognition from that.
Shallow Ground: This is a 2004 film that I stumbled across one afternoon on SyFy knowing absolutely nothing about it. That’s probably the best way to see it, because much of the interest in watching it is trying to figure out what the heck is going on. To the film’s credit, I formed several different theories before realizing there are actually two stories going on — neither of them original, but which I haven’t seen put together this way before.
The movie was made on a shoestring budget and apparently released directly to DVD, and in a gorier form than the TV edit that I saw, if the online reviews are anything to go by. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, but I found it an engrossing way to spend a couple hours. The production is minimalist — it relies heavily on that great cheap setting for horror films, the deep woods — but never looks amateur, and the characters and plot are developed with unusual care for this kind of movie. The last scene made me roll my eyes — blatant sequel set-up! But I will say, the Wikipedia article on the film made a suggestion about what was happening that made it a bit more interesting. (Am I being vague and non-spoilery enough here?)
Horror of Dracula/Curse of Frankenstein: TCM had a Hammer-fest last month, and this was, to my knowledge, the first time I’d seen any films from this famous British studio. They are fun to watch, and in a way seem made to be watched on TV. I watched horror movies from a range of decades this season, and the ’60s came across as a sweet spot between the staginess of the old movies and the grittiness of the new ones. The actors had by then learned not to dial up their expressions for the cheap seats, but they still deployed classical British acting enunciation and a touch of stylization that gives the movies a “hey, let’s play at monsters!” feel. The sets are definitely sets, but in the fantasy-horror genre the artificiality can be a strength. Dracula’s castle looked like a near cousin to the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel.
Horror of Dracula was Hammer’s first Dracula film, with Christopher Lee playing the Count. It’s based on Bram Stoker’s novel, in an extremely loose sort of way. The novel has always been too unwieldy for film, and here Hammer crunched it into a brisk 82 minutes, so it’s not surprising that they changed a lot. The most profound thematic change is that the movie version shapes it as a hero’s quest, with Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing as a more conventional protagonist than the colorful supporting character he was in the book. The story is also shrunk geographically, with the London scenes moved to Austria, and the ship’s voyage removed entirely. The result is a sort of miniaturist version of Dracula; it feels like listening to a chamber-music version of a symphony. Nonetheless, I thought it worked on its own terms: it was absorbing, it was scary, and it justifiably made stars out of its two leads.
Curse of Frankenstein came a bit earlier, and was actually the first film to pair Cushing and Lee. It was, apparently, the film that turned Hammer into a horror factory, due to its enormous success. I found it more tedious than Dracula, but that may be because the whole Frankenstein concept never seemed scary to me — just sad. Cushing is again the star of the show here, and what he does with the character is interesting, though perhaps more in concept than in execution. He plays Frankenstein as a sociopath, but not so much the Hollywood demonic version as the shallow narcissist that sociopaths usually are in real life. He’s not a sadist; he just doesn’t feel anyone’s pain but his own. This makes the monster all the more pitiful. When the scientist opens the door to the monster’s prison to show a friend how he’s “trained” his creation, the monster reflexively shrinks away against the wall. We’re left to imagine what the poor creature’s existence has been like.
Dagon: We return to the 21st century with another movie with a somewhat distinguished pedigree with which I’d had no personal acquaintance. The producer and the director first collaborated back in the 1980s to make Re-Animator, and since then have had a somewhat steady business making H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. Given the infamous gore in Re-Animator, I’d never been interested in the films. But here, as with Shallow Ground, I was shielded by the censorship of SyFy. And also as before, I ran across it and got pulled in.
In this case, I think it was because I liked the nerd hero. Paul Marsh is a young man who just made a fortune with a dot-com startup (a sign the film was made in 2001), who heads out on a boating trip near Spain with his girlfriend and another couple. Before the first ten minutes are up, the boat has hit a rock, and Paul and the GF go ashore to find help in a very strange village, where increasingly sinister things happen. Paul is in some ways a stereotypical movie nerd — he has large glasses that he keeps futzing with, since it’s almost constantly raining — but I didn’t feel that either the actor or the filmmakers were condescending to him. In fact, I think the movie’s strongest point is that our protagonists aren’t movie Good Guys, but they’re not slasher-movie bastards either. They’re nice people who get into a very bad situation, and over the course of the film develop some real courage. Unfortunately they’re in the Lovecraft universe, where heroism is never rewarded.
I first read Lovecraft just a couple years ago, and like Frankenstein, it seemed less frightening than depressing. I think it depends on how you feels about inexorable doom. I dimly remember Eve and Sean Collins debating this a few years ago. Sean found inexorable doom to be about the scariest thing that could happen in a movie, while Eve said she wants horror to be about sin, not predestination. In my case, I think it’s more a basic emotional reaction. When faced with a bad thing that is truly unavoidable, I tend to withdraw into myself, detaching emotionally. That’s a reasonable strategy for real life, but it’s not really the reaction you want to a movie. Movies thrive on emotional engagement. Maybe Sean and other viewers react more with panic, which would at least make the experience more stimulating.
Nosferatu: This I saw at the AFI Silver theater with Eve. It’s a silent film from 1922, and the showing was accompanied by the Silent Film Orchestra. The “orchestra” turned out to be two guys — one on keyboard, one on percussion, both on computers. But I thought they did a really good job. They managed to make music that didn’t seem dated, but at the same time, didn’t seem anachronistic.
Nosferatu was the first film adaptation of Dracula, and was made in Germany. I have seen many adaptations of Dracula by now, and this one really stands out because it was not influenced by the Anglophone tradition of “doing Dracula”, but took the character in a quite different direction. The Count is here identified as a sort of demon personification of the Black Death; he commands an army of rats, looks a lot like rat himself, and spreads pestilence wherever he goes. As a result, the sexual horror that features so prominently in most Dracula adaptations is here almost entirely replaced with sheer repulsiveness. Even the most potentially erotic scene — the vampire biting a young woman lying in bed — emphasizes his verminous nature. We get a sidelong shot of the woman with the Count’s bald head rising behind her, perfectly still, looking like nothing so much as a giant tick having a feed.
The interesting thing is, the rudiments of this were present in the book: the connection between vampirism and disease, the Count’s physical weirdness and his friendliness with rats. The other adaptations just haven’t made much of it, preferring to go for aristocratic decadence and sexual perversion (which were also certainly present in the book). Hammer’s Castle Dracula is, in fact, almost the exact opposite of Castle Nosferatu. The latter’s castle scenes were reportedly filmed in an actual ruined European castle, with the correspondingly dank medieval rooms. Everything about it feels earthier, dirtier — making the plague seem that much more real.
You do have to put yourself out a bit to connect with this movie. The print was almost as bad as White Zombie, which was especially a problem when atmospheric dark shadows looked like masses of scratches. The vampire is well played, but the two romantic leads are too faithful to stage conventions, ludicrously overplaying their parts. There are also a few moments of sped-up photography that are meant to show the Count’s superpowers but just look goofy. Still, it’s a fascinating look at a road not taken in English-speaking vampire movies: the undead not as a seducer but a loathsome, pestilential parasite upon the living. That vision would eventually come to Anglophone film in the 1960s, but with the monsters we started with: zombies.