Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween Horrors:
A Feast of Faves from Franju, Bava, Roeg, Marins and More!

John Totleben, XQB, my ertswhile Swamp Thing compatriot and longtime friend, circa 1978

Flashback time!

I've been enjoying flashbacks to my own comics college years via the photos old Kubert School classmates like Tom Foxmarnick have been sending in response to my appeal on behalf of Bill Schelly's upcoming Joe Kubert biography. What a blast from the past it's been!

While photos have been zinging Bill's way from a lot of XQBs, Tom has really shared a lot of old memories amid this exchange, and it's been a great treat to savor the pix from thirty years ago. Man, we were a scruffy bunch, but what a time it was! Makes me even happier about my ongoing experiences at the Center for Cartoon Studies, where a new generation of cartoonists are carving out their own paths.

I've also been chipping away at all kinds of freelancing of late, including writing about my friend Neil Gaiman for a book project Chris Golden invited me into about three weeks ago, and a bit of illustration work.

Among the latter is a spot of work for my old amigo John Rovnak's upcoming relaunch of his PaneltoPanel comics and graphic novel retail site; here's what Cat (aka Cayetano Garza) did with one of the black and white 'button' graphics I worked up for PaneltoPanel, which bodes well for Cat and I collaborating on more work in the future.

That said, I've also been pulling together a few more notes for the promised Halloween Horrors posts, and here's two barrels worth, in your face --

A few more fave horrors to consider for your Halloween viewing, folks:

* Mario Bava's I Tre Volti Della Paura (translation: The Three Faces of Fear, 1963) stars the great Boris Karloff in what was at the time a new high in adult portmanteau horror films. An modest international hit in its day (though not in Italy, where it was ignored), released in the US by American-International Pictures (hereafter AIP) as Black Sabbath, I Tre Volti Della Paura in its original form was a far more challenging and carefully-mounted three-story anthology exercise than the version my generation grew up with at drive-ins and late-night TV broadcasts. Thankfully, it's the original version that's now on DVD, and is among the greatest Halloween treasures available this year...

AIP re-edited the film extensively, rearranging the order of the three tales to no good effect (except to postpone the appearance of Karloff in the vampire tale "The Wurdalak" for the final story slot) and in fact gutting the story "The Telephone" completely by removing all references to lesbianism, rendering it senseless. AIP also removed the final shot of the film, which I won't give away here -- among Karloff's personal favorite screen moments of his career!

Should you watch this, you should be screening the original Italian version, Bava's director's cut, if you will, which restores the trio of terror tales to their correct placement, building cumulatively to a truly satisfying horrific climax. Michele Mercier is the young woman plagued by "The Telephone" in the first tale, set in contemporary Rome, setting the stage for the terrors to come in suitably restrained style; as Tim Lucas notes in his fantastic book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007), "The Telephone" established many of the templates subsequent gialli adhered to, in its way as influential a gialli as Bava's Blood and Black Lace (another of my all-time favorite films).

Trick or Treat: Here's three faces of fear at the window -- you scared yet?

Mark Damon and Boris Karloff star in the second tale, "The Wurdulak," a medieval slice of invented Russian folklore in which a wandering patriarch warrior (Karloff) returns to the family fold and infects his brood with a strain of vampirism which preys only upon its own. This is a gem of the genre, introducing many motifs (the faces at the window, the child ghoul/ghost, etc.) central to most of Bava's subsequent works. Finally, Jacqueline Pierreux dares to pluck a ring from the finger of the dead medium she worked for as a nurse, and is duly haunted by "The Drop of Water" in a tour-de-force of orchestrated visual horror sure to entertain and stir a shriek or two.

Cut for decades from all US versions, restored at last! Eugenio Bava's prop of the severed head Karloff unveils -- which, oddly enough, was central to AIP's original ad campaign!

Unless you count Bava's delirious pepla Hercules at the Center of the Earth/Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) as a horror film, this was Bava's first color horror film, and as such as seminal a work as Bava's official directorial debut, the black-and-white masterpiece Black Sunday (1960). Bava's innovative and always imaginative use of color shaped the genre in its wake, which has infinite relevance to color comics, too -- in fact, I always thought Richard Corben's color comics owed a vast debt to Bava's work. Bava's cinematic universe thrives on the unreal and artifice, and many devices contemporary 2007 audiences ironically might consider 'phoney' in this CGI-dominated era are central to his art. He often created visual splendor, uncanny atmosphere and entire universes out of next to nothing, embracing the unreal and hyper-real (like the grotesque face of the dead medium in "The Drop of Water," carved by his sculptor father Eugenio Bava, whose special effects and cinematography credits stretch back to the beginning of Italian cinema).

Let yourself go, and open your eyes to what these films played like when originally experienced over 40 years ago -- savor I Tre Volti Della Paura!

* It doesn't have to be Halloween for me to go on and on about George Franju's masterpiece Les Yeux Sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face (1959) -- it is, without a doubt, one of the most strangely poetic and absolutely lovely horror films ever made. It is also among the most chilling and disturbing. I once urged my wife to see it with me; she hated it, and though she felt it was silly, she loathed it because it repulsed her so. Lunatic that I am, I love it -- I love it like few other films. It sings to me, a sad, sorrowful, alluring song, via its images and sounds and movement and uncanny icy manner. It begins in desperation and ends in the sweet escape of madness, precise and yet as elusive as the fleeting memory of a dream upon awakening.

I first saw it as around the age of 12 or 13 on our local TV station (WCAX-TV Channel 3 out of Burlington, VT) on The Late Show, in its slightly cut and dubbed US version The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (US release: 1963, co-featured with the Japanese/American coproduction The Manster aka The Split, 1962). I had seen the movie trailer for The Horror of Dr. Faustus/The Manster double bill in a theater as a mere lad, and that alone had almost traumatized me, as had the coming attractions for The Vampire and the Ballerina, Roger Corman's The Tower of London and The Flesh Eaters. That preview having scorched my brain cells, my anticipation further fueled by the images and review in Castle of Frankenstein (best of all '60s monster zines), I was ever watchful for a chance to see Franju's film, and once it arrived, I seized the opportunity.

Per usual, The Late Show was broken by commercials and I watched the film alone, in the family front room, with the lights out and the volume low so as to not wake anyone else in the house -- and the spell Franju's odd film cast is one I have never, ever shaken. The crass, blaring commercials only emphasized the alluring fragility of the soundtrack, juxtaposing stark naturalism (the sound is crisp, clear, punctuated by stretches of near-silence) with judicious use of Maurice Jarre's insidious musical score, and the grace of the visuals. Rarer still, WCAX evidently hadn't screened the print, as they did show the complete US version, which -- though it had been trimmed slightly -- was pretty strong stuff for late-night TV, circa 1967 or '68. I later saw a more complete version of the film on French Canadian television, which was another awakening experience as I realized the footage I was seeing in the surgery scene was going beyond what I had seen before.

When I see the film today -- as Marge and I did on the big screen at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center in 2005, my first experience of the film in a proper theater, and via its current restored uncut print -- I am immediately back on our couch in Duxbury, VT, watching the film for the first time that fateful night. It's of course more complete, more vivid now, when I revisit it -- but it's one of the few films that upon every revisitation, I am thrust back in time and again experience it as if it were new, fresh, a first sighting. I have context now I didn't have then: I have since caught up with most of Franju's other films, including his first (more about that another time); I know Eyes Without a Face was Franju's second feature, that he was co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française and an award-winning documentarian, and I've managed to screen all his documentaries at one point or another (including his loving ode to George Melies). I have familiarized myself with the other films screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac had a hand in, from Henri Clouzot’s Diabolique and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo to tracking down English translations of at least two of their novels. I love it all the more for that, and with 40 years under my belt since, I savor the lyric, unflinching beauty of the film all the more when I see it again.

I don't even have to see it, really -- if I just hear the opening strains of Maurice Jarre's theme to the film, I'm there again, in that darkened room, seeing it for the first time --

Jarre's ominous, sleek music plays over the titles, which unreel from the POV of a car driving a dark country road by night, the spidery tree limbs shifting in the headlights. A fretful woman (Alida Valli) is driving, with what appears to be a body in the back seat, tightly wrapped in a buttoned-up trenchcoat, its face hidden by a pulled-down hat. She stops, and clumsily drags what we now recognize as a young woman's body out of the car and drops it into a canal. Cut to a distinguished surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) pontificating to an audience on some radical new surgical transplant technique -- the “heterograft.” Moments after, the police call upon him to accompany them to police headquarters to identify a body: he says it is that of his daughter. We are shown nothing, but typical of black-and-white horror films, the dialogue is ripe with forensic dread: her face has apparently been disfigured by an auto accident (some time in the past?), but something is suspicious: the facial wounds appear fresh and are surgically precise, as if cut with a scalpel.

We follow the doctor home. The reflections of tree limbs on the hood of his black car are as spidery as the whitened tree limbs splayed beneath the titles, in negative; even as a pre-teen, watching a less-than-razor-sharp TV broadcast, these details registered. The doctor's demeanor is still cold, aloof; Valli is there, attending to him -- and they both attend to a young woman (Edith Scob) in a locked bedroom upstairs, on the uppermost floor. She is laying face down on her bed, depressed, unhappy; nothing can console her. This is the doctor's daughter, and once we see her face -- or rather, the lovely, opaque feminine full-face mask covering her own face, upon the doctor's insistence, with the tender attention of Valli's nurse urging the young woman to comply -- the dream/nightmare begins in earnest.

As the strains of the musical theme swell anew, we see Valli stalk a young woman in the streets of Paris. With her plastic raincoat, her pensive manner, face and eyes, Valli -- female lead of Carol Reed's The Third Man, later the domineering instructor in Dario Argento's Suspiria -- makes for an unusual predator. At this point in my young life, only horror movies had touched upon the then-forbidden theme of lesbianism (Dracula's Daughter, Claire Bloom in The Haunting, etc.), and Valli seemed to be seeking prey -- for herself? For -- ?

Like a waking dream, Eyes Without a Face moved -- moves -- slowly, deliberately, with cruel precision; as cruel as that of its infamous surgery sequence, in which we watch a woman's face methodically removed.

But it is Edith Scob's dance-like performance that indelibly burns Franju's film into the memory. Eugen Schüfftan's cinematography makes her a radiant presence, adorned in her her iridescent white gown and inexpressive mask (but, oh, her eyes, her eyes!), drifting through her purgative ordeal as ethereally as the doves that flit about her in the film's final shot.

Alas, this film isn't for all tastes. Bluntly stated, it's too stately a film in its pacing for many contemporary viewers. As one of the CCSers put it after we screened it, "Eyes Without a Face wasn't as multi-layered as I'd hoped it'd be, it was just kinda, 'welp, gotta cut off this face fer my daughter, I'm evil, and mean to dogs, I wonder if that'll come back to bite me....'." Now, I could counter with the film's reassessment after being so long ignored and maligned -- it was castigated upon its release, like most genuinely innovative and transgressive horror films -- but all that has changed with time. I could cite plenty of kindred voices in the mainstream these days --
  • -- J. Hoberman's 2003 Village Voice review
  • and Terrence Rafferty in The New York Times reflect the current critical view --
  • -- but I needn't call in the troops; cinema is, after all, a purely subjective experience for all of us.

    For me, Franju's film (like those of Mario Bava) is all about atmosphere and imagery, eye and ear, an evocation of a dreamlike time and place, not narrative per se, though it's necessary to note Eyes Without a Face was among the most influential films of its era, right up there with the Hammer Films one-two punch of Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula (1957/58), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1959), and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). But like those pioneering movies, Franju's creation must be considered -- experienced, if possible -- in the context of its time.

    Seeing Eyes Without a Face any time in the '60s/early '70s was a revelation, meshing the stately grace, pace and visual care of Jean Cocteau with frightfully contemporary and dispassionate reinvention of the venerable 'mad scientist' horror archetypes. Seen then, it's deliberate narrative pacing was compelling in and of itself, a policier oddly ridiculed and subverted by its vivid horrors, its uncanny poetry.

    It was a key influence on all who followed, and impacted my generation of horror film lovers in more ways that I can count here. It was Franju who pioneered the fusion of horror and art films, making all that followed possible -- a fact as prominent practitioners as Clive Barker, Edward Gorey (Eyes Without a Face was Gorey's all-time favorite film!), David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, and others have cited again and again.

    However, the current generation of viewers have grown up with the films Eyes influenced, all of which amplified its most obvious effects -- from its almost immediate contemporaries The Head and The Brain That Wouldn't Die (shot in Tarrytown, NY in 1959, released by AIP in 1963) to prominent 1980s-90s opuses from Clive Barker's Hellraiser to John Woo's Face/Off, cable TV series like Nip/Tuck and countless graphic forensic crime programs, Euro-sleaze like Jess Franco's Faceless (a direct remake of Franju's film), all building upon the heavy art/horror/sex spin (for its era) from Europe in the early '60s (e.g., The Awful Dr. Orloff, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Blood Rose, etc.) and '70s revamps (like the grim Mansion of the Doomed, which swapped face-removal for eye transplants, a film Stan Winston leaves off his career filmography!). This places any older horror film, Eyes in particular, retroactively in the shadow of all that followed, good and bad, and in the 'c'mon, scare me/gross me out' game most horror films/fans savor, an older film seen only in the context of the "NOW" is usually a diminished experience.

    Still as horrific as ever it was: The tracing of the crayon on the young woman's face in preperation for the cutting, the methodical process coldly observed, the lifting of the skin from the skull -- images from the central setpiece of Franju's Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959)

    The leisurely pace of Eyes is instrumental to its dread, just as similarly 'slow' pacing is critical to Roman Polanski's Repulsion, David Lynch's Eraserhead, etc. Many of my all-time favorite films -- the ones that really affected me, deeply -- are what I call 'trance' films. They mesmerize, slow one's own pace, are meditative experiences -- and while I could glibly summarize any Ingmar Bergman film just as Eyes was dismissed by one of the CCSers (who is, by the way, one hell of an artist and storyteller, among the best!), it would not change the power of Franju's masterpiece.

    If one can slow the world for the necessary 90-120 minutes to steep oneself in the experience of the 'trance' films -- like Eyes Without a Face -- the experience is haunting, disturbing, devastating.

    (Note: the Criterion release of Eyes Without a Face features photos I contributed to the gallery, hence the 'thank you' I earned -- as you can tell, I really love this film).

    * Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) from the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, starring Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn and Claire Bloom, is my amigo Joseph A. Citro's all-time favorite ghost movie, and still considered among the best horror films ever made. Like Franju's Eyes Without a Face, this is a hypnotic film, though it's more in accord with American audience tastes: its characters are more demonstrative and active, as a film it isn't as deliberately icy in nature. Seen with in the appropriate venue -- sans interruptions of any kind -- The Haunting still casts a powerful spell, raising real goosebumps at least three times.

    It's what you don't see that chills in this excellent, evocative adaptation of the novel Jackson wrote while living in Bennington, VT, which remains (next to her classic short story "The Lottery") the best-known of her works, but also the best modern ghost novel of the 20th Century, the yardstick by which all others are measured. Robert Wise cut his teeth as editor and director under producer Val Lewton at RKO in the '40s, and was part of Lewton's creative braintrust behind Lewton's powerful 'horror of suggestion' gems like The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and -- directed by Wise -- Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Along with fellow Lewton veteran Mark Robson, Wise became one of Hollywood's premiere mainstream directors, with films like West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles and The Andromeda Strain among his most popular hits, but his mastery of the Lewton principle was never better expressed than via his atmospheric adaptation of Jackson's novel.

    The Haunting is dated in many ways, particularly via Russ Tamblyn's 'daddy-o' hipster dialogue (which Tamblyn resurrected for his Twin Peaks character of Dr. Jacoby) , but Claire Bloom's lesbian psychic was unusually frank for a studio film of this time (and remains "unpunished" for her sexual preference -- rarer still!), and Julie Harris's lead performance remains among the best of any '60s film, much less '60s horror film. Richard Johnson plays the dedicated psychic investigator, precursor to countless paranormal researchers and ghostbusters to follow; Johnson, of course, is best known to gorehounds for his turn as the voodoo-obsessed mad doctor of Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1981).

    Be sure to check out the original version -- not the abysmal Jan de Bont 1999 remake -- and enjoy!

    Other favorites:

    * The Call of Cthulhu (2005) is the most faithful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's work ever brought to the big screen, care of the H.P. Lovecraft Historic Society. As in Manitoba filmmaker Guy Maddin's films (e.g., Tales of the Gimli Hospital, Careful, The Saddest Music in the World, etc.), this is a 'faux silent' film -- presented as if it had been produced the year Lovecraft wrote his famed short story "The Call of Cthulhu," 1926. Very cleverly and stylishly done, with limited budgetary means and effects (miniatures, stop-motion animation, etc.) and silent-movie intertitles -- no worries, there's also a great musical score. Essential viewing!

    * Nicolas Roeg's physic thriller Don't Look Now (1973), starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, has been much imitated (you'll see how once you've seen the film) though it was almost buried when the production company completed this uncanny, almost sui generis drama in tandem with the similarly genre-challenged The Wicker Man (another favorite, natch). Thankfully, the star power alone of Sutherland and Christie led to this being picked up by Paramount for theatrical release, indelibly marking those of us who saw it -- though it's impact was soon drowned out by the blockbuster success of The Exorcist at the end of that very year. Like Walkabout and his first collaborative directorial effort Performance, Nicolas Roeg's distinctive approach to storytelling here weds its perfect complement in its source short story by Daphne deMaurier (author of Rebecca and the short story that inspired The Birds). Roeg's 'fragmented reality' vision of the universe is the ideal methodology to exploring and illuminating the dread nooks and crannies of psychic experience -- we, the audience, essentially experience the psychic visions of the protagonist as he experiences them, and share his uncomprehending rush to -- ?? This is also a truly adult horror film, in that its characters and their relationships are fully realized, dimensional, and strongly felt, as is their world and their plight; thus, the horror of the climax is more potent than that of the typical '70s genre exercise. We care about this couple, their loss, and their fate.

    * A genuinely rare slice of '60s cinema that fused fringe movies, Brazilian carnival culture, EC-style horror comics, Catholicism gone mad, and bizarre philosophical rants was Jose Majica Marins's (writer, director and star) At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963)! This was Marins's first film, introducing to the big screen his mad undertaker character Ze do Caixao (US name: Coffin Joe, coined by Something Weird's beloved honcho Mike Vraney), a sort of "Crypt Keeper" type in search of the "perfect woman" to be his wife. Marins and Ze do Caixao went on to become a pop culture star in Brazil: radio, TV, comicbooks, movies, stage, and even pop songs -- Marins did it all. This was the first true horror film ever made in Brazil, and it's surprisingly graphic and sacriligious for its time. Check it out -- IF YOU DARE!!

    * The first great political horror film of the sound era was Abel Gance's 1937 J'Accuse! (aka That They May Live, 1939, the cut US theatrical release). Gance's stirring remake of his 1919 WW1 classic (which D.W. Griffith admired and said "wrote history with lightning") expands the silent film's fantasy climax -- in which the dead of WW1 march on the living -- into a passionate anti-war drama, with which Gance (with the foolish optimism of a poet) hoped would prevent what became WW2. Alas, mere weeks after J'Accuse opened in France, the Third Reich had occupied Gance's native country and the film was banned by the Nazis and the French gov't. This is a stunning film; note many of the walking dead are indeed veterans of WW1. Recommended co-feature: Joe Dante and Sam Hamm's "Homecoming" (2005) from Showtime's Masters of Horror TV series, the film that had 'em standing and clapping for five minutes in Italy in 2005! What if the dead soldiers from the Iraq War awoke from their 'sleep' -- and voted? Amazing slice of agitprop horror from screenwriter of Batman Sam Hamm and vet 'monster kid' director Joe Dante (who wrote for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein monster zines in the '60s, and since his directorial debut co-directing drive-in gem Hollywood Boulevard and solo-directing Piranha has made The Howling, Gremlins and Gremlins 2, The 'Burbs, The Second Civil War, Innerspace, Matinee, etc.).

    Happy Halloween, one and all!

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