Friday, 27 March 2015

HOUSE OF HORRORS




d. Jean Yarbrough (1946)
Rondo Hatton suffered from Acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder that leads to a distortion and thickening of the features and gigantism. He was working as a journalist when a film producer noticed his unusual features and suggested he went to Hollywood to provide some grotesque background detail to various b pictures. In 1944 he hit the (semi) big time as the back snapping Hoxton Creeper* in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes’ film The Pearl of Death. His success in this role led to another two Creeper films in which the lumbering Hatton was, if not the lead, most definitely the star.
The first film, House of Horrors, is about an unsuccessful experimental sculptor (Martin Kosleck) who, after yet another setback, decides to throw himself in the river. Before he can do so, however, The Creeper suddenly appears, pulling himself out of the water before collapsing on the dockside. Fascinated by his physiognomy, Kosleck takes him home to his hovel / studio in order to sculpt him. One sleep and a meal later and The Creeper is ready to repay his new friend by killing everyone who has ever slighted him and his art.  
A diverting 65 minutes of long shadows, gruesome murder and waspish art criticism, House of Horrors is notable for a nicely unrestrained performance from Kosleck, some pretty girls and and, at the centre of everything, the calm, almost bovine presence of The Creeper, the gentle, quietly spoken man with a simple mind and infinitely sad eyes. If he wasn’t a serial strangler and back breaker you’d feel almost sorry for him.
There’s a great scene where Kosleck is ranting about an art critic, calling him a cheat and a liar, a low down crook and charlatan. Rondo looks up says slowly and softly ‘you don’t like the guy?’ Kosleck confirms his dislike and then just happens to let slip the critics address, sealing his fate. The Creeper is most definitely a savage killer, but he is a tool of death, not wholly evil, just ill-used. As in Rondo’s real life, The Creeper’s outward appearance constricts his opportunities: he is monstrous looking, so he is expected to be a monster and do horrible things, to smash and kill and snap in two. It must have been bitterly ironic to Rondo that he was successful because of his condition, not in spite of it: for a short period of time, he probably was the most famous ugly person in the western world, and that's got to hurt.
The Creeper dies at the end, shot in the back. You can’t keep a good monster down, though, or a profitable character, so he was soon resurrected for The Brute Man. A series of Creeper films was planned until Rondo, unlucky as ever, died of an Acromegaly related heart attack in 1946. Poor Rondo.  
* The Pearl Of Death is a great favourite in our house, particularly Lestrade's line ‘The ‘oxton Creeper? The ‘oxton ‘orror, I calls him’.

Friday, 20 March 2015

THE MAN FROM PLANET X












d. Edgar G. Ulmer (1951) 


An interesting attempt at making a film about an alien invasion on a tiny budget and with only a few painted sets and some scale models to help set the scene, The Man From Planet X is notable for two things: it's supposed location, and the X Man himself, who is an amazing and surprising creation.

The film is supposedly set on the 'Scotch' island of Bury, a place of fog and moors and fishermen with stick on sideburns and a variety of accents. Bury will be the closest point on Earth when the newly discovered Planet X's orbit brings it close to our world for the first time. As such, some scientists and a journalist have gathered there to more closely observe the arrival of X, little realising that the mysterious sphere is populated, and that the inhabitants are mainly interested in decamping from their place to ours.

Which brings us to the X Man, the 'fantastic gnome': a small, rather feeble humanoid in a cumbersome space suit that is reminiscent of a deep sea diving outfit. The alien's face resembles crude, ancient figurative art, with stretched and elongated features, something like Humpty Dumpty's face etched onto sandstone. It's both creepy and rather sad, especially as the X Man seems permanently terrified. It takes a little spark of genius to imagine a life form that is recognisably a 'person' but also completely alien: the really clever part is that the X man appears to be made out of geological rather than biological material.       

We learn that Planet X is icing over, and will soon be unable to support life. The funny faced envoy is not unreasonable in the first instance but, once he's been beaten up and the military have been called in he gets a lot more aggressive, using a mind control ray to get the help he needs from the locals to trigger a full scale invasion.

Mankind triumphs in the end, of course. The army blow the X Man and his rocket to bits and so Planet X swings out of orbit without making contact, disappearing out into the farthest reaches of space on a trajectory of frozen doom. Hurrah, we should all be very proud of ourselves.  

Friday, 13 March 2015

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD



d. Edward Dein (1959)


An uneven horror western, Curse Of The Undead isn't completely successful but it does come up with the brilliant idea of a vampire working as a hired gun, a black clad killer who isn't particularly quick on the draw because he doesn't have to be: you can shoot him all you like with ordinary bullets, it doesn't make a scrap of difference.

The vampire himself (played by Australian character actor Michael Pate) is almost sympathetic and, in his attacks on the necks of the local girls, regretful and tender. It seems that, some twenty years previously, he found out that his new wife had been sleeping with his brother, so he stabbed the brother to death before killing himself. Via a route that is not particularly well signposted, he then came back as a vampire and few soft necks have been safe since. To his credit, he hates what he has become, shouting 'do you think I wanted this?' as he kills. It's not all nibbling virgins and long lie ins, you know.   

Somehow the vampire ends up in a love triangle with a beautiful local land owner called Dolores and her pompous and overbearing preacher boyfriend (Eric Fleming*) and, as this is cowboy times, it can only end in a shoot out. Although you're rooting for the vampire, the preacher prevails, killing his undead rival with a holy bullet, a slug capped with a sliver of thorn from the site of the crucifixion. As the vampire's body fades away into nothingness, Dolores looks on in horror, knowing that this means she will now have to marry the boring, bossy Vicar and spend the rest of her life hearing about how he saved her life . Oh well, Dolores does mean 'sorrows', after all...


* I don't like Fleming's character in this film, but I always feel a bit sorry for the actor himself. In 1966, he was making a film in the Amazon when his boat overturned and he was eaten by piranhas. 

Friday, 6 March 2015

I SHOT JESSE JAMES











d. Samuel Fuller (1949)


I Shot Jesse James was Samuel Fuller's directorial debut, but all of the Fuller trademarks are already in place: spinning headlines, omniscient narration, piquant dialogue, strong women, big close ups, love, hate, action, violence, death. But it's a bit of a muddle, as if Fuller (who also wrote the script) is trying too hard to find an oblique angle that will take the film into territory not normally covered by the standard and already well worn western tropes*. 

Bob Ford is the man who shot Jesse James, a man subsequently reviled in folk songs as a dirty coward (even by the authorities: he didn't even receive the full reward promised). Here, his motivation to kill his friend and colleague is not about the money: he simply wants to be free, to receive a pardon for his previous outlaw life and to get married to the girl he loves. His act of assassination (or murder, there's no clear line in this instance) doesn't liberate him, however, it kills him, filling him with self loathing and regret and making him a target for every kid with a gun who wants to be the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James. Worst of all, his girl turns away from him, no longer able to love a man whose name is synonymous with treachery. 

In this film, which is as much an old fashioned melodrama as a western, Ford dies in a gun fight with a love rival, an upright, honourable man who represents all the values that Ford lacks. It's a nice idea, but a load of rubbish. Ford was murdered by a man who walked up to him and, without warning, blasted him in the throat with a shotgun. There was no pomp, no ceremony, no build up, no drama, no tension, no honour. The man did it simply because he wanted to make a name for himself. For me, that's an ending that is heavy with irony but also sums up the circular nature of violence and, moreover, the savage nature of the old West.  

* Fuller is much more successful at this with his later 'Forty Guns' and 'Run Of The Arrow'.