Friday, 28 August 2015

DEMENTIA 13




d. Francis Ford Coppola (1963)

A rather murky tale of intrigue and murder set in Ireland, the plot revolves around that most baleful of storylines, the death of a child and the terrible, dysfunctional, psychotic effect it has on an already eccentric (and not Irish in the slightest) family.

The young Francis Coppola wrote and directed the film, the culmination of a short apprenticeship with producer and director Roger Corman that had seen him doing anything and everything from editing, dubbing and script writing to the washing up and driving. Corman worked his interns pretty hard, but he was also remarkably astute about talent and very generous with opportunities. When 'The Young Racers' concluded under budget and ahead of schedule, Corman decided to maximise the saving by giving Coppola forty grand, nine days and Samuel Beckett's favourite actor* to make his very own film - as long as it was a bit like Psycho**.

The script (written more or less overnight) is, perhaps not unexpectedly, a little uneven, and the direction is occasionally self-conscious but, overall, it's an impressive achievement, not least because of the atmosphere of sustained dread it creates and some nicely realised underwater shots. There's also a short monologue about a recurring nightmare and incipient madness that makes you stop everything that you're doing to listen to it, including breathing.

* I am referring, of course, to the amazing Patrick Magee, an actor with a sinister voice somewhere between a purr and a croak and an extraordinary intensity. I was going to describe him as immortal, but he died in 1982, and I thought somebody might write in.

** The opportunity turned out to be a parting gift: Corman hated the film, and Coppola went his own way after the test screening.

Friday, 21 August 2015

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE












d. Gene Fowler, Jr (1958)

Despite the sensational title, this is quite sombre, serious stuff. In it, an advance party of aliens arrive on earth and take over the minds and bodies of some of the male inhabitants of a small town. What do they want? Well, their own females have all died in the wake of a nuclear war, so they are after wives and girlfriends, which somehow seems much worse and far more presumptuous than simply zapping everybody to death and taking over the planet.

The aliens here are a fantastic conception, with hideous tentacled faces that are reminiscent of Lovecraft's cephalopod-like Cthulu. Their space suits seemingly provide them with an artificial atmosphere, and glow and vibrate so that they are hard to see, like a hallucination - or a nightmare. The aliens have the husks of their kidnap victims back in the mother ship, hanging mindlessly in the air, hooked up to some sort of transmitting device that allows the aliens to inhabit a facsimile of their bodies and access their memories and thought patterns - and their wives, especially their wives*. 

Even so, the aliens make unconvincing humans, at least as far as their wives are concerned: they can't have kids for a start (their scientists are working on this), dogs and cats hate them and, incredibly for 1950s America, they don't touch alcohol, not even cocktails. Naturally, they don't last long and are ultimately hunted down by a good old fashioned angry mob and killed, collapsing and coalescing into a pool of dirty bubbles as they die.

The final shot is of hundreds of saucers leaving the earth's atmosphere and moving on to the next galaxy: defeated, ugly men, still desperately looking for love.

* In the outwardly prim and proper 1950s, 'marriage' is synonymous with sex. The inference is quite clear: these fucking aliens are fucking our fucking women.

Friday, 14 August 2015

I MARRIED A WITCH












d. Rene Clair (1942)


There's something slightly demented about 1940s comedies. Perhaps its the mix of elegance and slapstick, like panto performed in evening dress, or that the tempo and volume are just on the edge of too fast, too shrill. Either way, they certainly seem strange to me, which is not to say that I don't enjoy them very much.

I Married A Witch is a lovely film, full of good humour and bags of energy, slightly frantic, often chaotic. But there's some darkness in there, too: it starts with the execution of a witch and her warlock father, after all, and is quickly followed by a montage of the misery inflicted on a single family by the dying witch's curse. When the oak tree planted over their graves is hit by lightning their imprisoned spirits are free to wander the earth in the form of smoke - and, even then, they still have revenge on their minds.

The witch is given a body, the beautiful, elfin form of Veronica Lake, with her little girl voice and phenomenal bone structure and, of course, her famous lopsided hair. Her witch is wicked, mischievous, relentless and absolutely adorable. When she drinks a potion intended for her victim (stiff old Frederic March), however, she falls desperately in love with him, a state of events that impairs her powers and incurs the wrath of her much less forgiving father (a surprisingly malevolent presence).

Some things I learned about witches from this film: they live incredibly long lives (the father is half a million years old, his daughter a mere 200 odd thousand); they are responsible for most of the great disasters of history (Pompeii is mentioned); they can reanimate corpses and live inside them (the father does this with the victim of a fire. The body is still hot so, when he sits down, the chair catches alight) and, finally, 'love is stronger than witchcraft' (even if it's love created by witchcraft, apparently). It's all very informative, and beautifully frothy and funny - and marvellously macabre.

Friday, 7 August 2015

THE NAKED WITCH












d. Larry Buchanan (1961)

She's a Witch! And she's naked! Could this film get any better? Well, no, not really as, despite its no budget look and sound (about the standard of a home movie with dialogue recorded on a dictaphone in an aeroplane hanger), it's actually rather good.

Starting off with a ten minute prologue on the history of witches, this film does little wonders with scant resources. Despite some confusion over when the Dark Ages were, the prologue manages to be informative and engaging using only a reverberating voice over, a rostrum camera and a reproduction print of The Triumph Of Death by Peter Bruegel, a work of hideous imagination and horrific detail. 

After this comes an interesting if somewhat familiar tale of resurrection and revenge in the unusual setting of a German community in Texas. When a student rather foolishly pulls the stake out of the heart of the corpse of a long dead witch, the sorceress comes back (naked, and considerably more coiffured and made up than in the flashbacks) to murder the ancestors of her original accuser. It sounds fairly hackneyed and, yep, it's super cheap, but the dialogue is intelligent (although delivered poorly) and the story trajectory comes in at a pleasing angle. Despite the title, there's no smut and the witch is generally obscured by shadow, a negligee or, occasionally, a black smudge on the screen. There is some twilight skinny dipping.

The soundtrack is less successful, mainly sounding like a slightly inebriated man in the corner of the room prodding an over-amplified Bontempi organ but, just before she gets re-staked, the witch does a sensual interpretive dance routine to a really great exotica track, so even that works out in the end.    

So, yes, an unexpected hit. That said, even if it had been appalling I wouldn't have cared, I'm just here to enjoy myself.