October 2008


Year: 1963

Director: Robert Wise

Cast:Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Fay Compton, Rosalie Crutchley, Lois Maxwell, Valentine Dyall, Diane Clare, and Ronald Adam

The Haunting is just that, haunting.  It is not a slasher.  It is not gory, It has a strong atmosphere.  This is a film that relies heavily on stimulating emotions and getting those little hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end.  It allows the imagination of the viewer to run wild, creating an experience that is uniquely creepy for every member of the audience.
 
It follows a scientist into a home that is apparently haunted.  He brings a small group of people he has hand selected to the home who have had supernatural experiences in the past.  Most of them take the experience in stride but one of the young participants, Eleanor Lance becomes increasingly distressed by the home.  Eleanor Lance is played by Julie Harris whose performance carries this film.  Claire Bloom also stands out at the only other female in the house.  She comes across as simultaneously supportive to Eleanor Lance and at the same time judgmental and condescending.  There also feels like there is a certain tension between the two that is enjoyable to watch.
 
Another element of the film that is especially impressive is the cinematography and the sound design.  This is a film that utilizes the skills of a expert filmmaker to deliver the chills, not gory encounters and CGI like so many films that have been released since The Haunting was released in 1963.  This is a ghost story for those who love the medium of film in the purest sense.  In some respects this strength of the film may also be its weakness, since many modern audiences crave explicit content in horror films.  This reviewer, relishes a film that is able to creep an audience out without simply relying one hundred percent on gore and violence.
 
As a side note, fans of early Bond films will enjoy Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny, from so many of the earliest Bond movies) in The Haunting, who has a key, but small role in the film.
 
Also, fans of the rock band White Zombie will notice a line from the film that was sampled and utilized at the beginning of the song Super-Charger Heaven on the album Astro-Creep: 2000

 

Year: 1965

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Huston, Valerie Taylor, James Villiers, Helen Fraser, Hugh Futcher, Monica Merlin, Imogen Graham, Mike Pratt

 

Repulsion gets under your skin. Polanski pushes the limits with this movie that for its time was surely seen as extremely explicit, crass, sexually candid, violent, and intensely disturbing. The stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve is absolutely riveting in her performance, which relies on her body and facial expressions often times to tell the story, with very little dialogue written for her part, Carol.

Carol is a young attractive woman. She is a woman with a problem that some girls would envy. It seems she attracts men. All kinds of men. In fact, every man it seems. Every man she has ever come in contact with. That is her problem. See, unlike so many young woman who enjoy male attention, Carol doesn’t like the affections of men. The question is, why? That, Polanski leaves up to the audience to deduce. It is this reviewers belief that the reason for Carol’s struggles can be found in the very last shot of the film. Her glance, reveals the root of her problems.

This movie is a simple movie in many respects, as it simply attempts to capture insanity visually, filmically. Many events take place that demonstrate insanity.

However, it is left up to the audience to try to deduce why the things witnessed are shown. What, exactly is the cause?

Visually stunning, this movie is worth a look, despite the pace of the film which younger viewers will find slow. The use of symbolism in the film has great impact. Especially, the apartment Carol spends much of her time in, which physically manifests her mental state. Polanski is clearly a master of film, the art of telling a story visually. He even opts to not include sound at key moments of dramatic impact. Also, there is little dialogue in this film, compared to most, which adds to its eerie feel. It is very detailed in its style, and it is wise to not miss a frame while viewing it. It is a movie that I believe is meant to be felt, not just watched. In many respects it would seem the film maker is more interested in evoking an emotional response from the audience rather then explaining the intricacies of the plot points in the story. No matter what conclusions are drawn by the audience, all who see are bound to feel exactly what the director intends. Like I said, it gets under you skin and festers, rotting your insides, until the final frame, when the audience is left alone, much like Carol herself. Alone and disturbed.

Halloween is finally here! So now I will finish my list of scary movies I love to watch on Halloween.

I Married a Witch
Not exactly a “scary” movie, but it is a great watch for Halloween. It’s the movie I always take to work to watch. Veronica Lake plays a witch who’s trying to get Fredric March to fall in love with her. The movie is a really funny romantic comedy, with a strange atmosphere that makes it perfect for Halloween viewing. Veronica Lake is pretty much the most adorable thing ever. If you want a light movie to enjoy this Halloween, I Married a Witch really is something you should look into.

London After Midnight
Sadly, the only print of this film was destroyed in a fire in the 1960s. But there’s a pretty good reconstruction using stills from the film and the original script. It’s not really eerie or scary since it’s really just pictures, but you can tell that the story is a bit creepy. It is a Lon Chaney movie, after all. And his makeup looks pretty amazing. Mostly, though, it is just something that has to be watched as an historical oddity. And we can hope that maybe, someone somewhere has a print of this, hidden in their attic, without realizing it. The remake, 1935’s Mark of the Vampire is worth watching, but it’s not a great movie.

Mad Love
Peter Lorre could be a really creepy dude when he wanted to be. And clearly in Mad Love, he wanted to be. It’s not a ghost story. It’s one of those films that’s a horror film based on its atmosphere, and the horrible actions of its main character. Lorre is a crazy doctor who falls in love (or, really, just becomes obsessed) with a beautiful actress. When her paino player husband’s hands are damaged in an accident, Lorre replaces them the the hands of a murderous knife thrower. It’s just  strange, completely creepy movie that’s excellent for Halloween viewing.

And there you have it. My Halloween recommendations.

Here’s the link for Part 1, in case you missed it.
https://obscureclassics.wordpress.com/2008/10/01/zombies-and-witches-and-ghosts-oh-my/

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1932

Director: William J. Cowen

Starring: Walter Huston, Lupe Valez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce, C. Henry Gordon, Mitchell Lewis, Forrester Harvey, Curtis Nero

Though more forgiving of films that are reductionist and stereotypically bigoted towards different cultures from the 20s through 50s, I still have a difficult time dropping all my own biases and beliefs to appreciate films made in an era where it was acceptable. This gets in my way of my appreciation of Kongo, an otherwise creepy and sweaty horror tragedy that bleeds atmosphere. Though it does not aim for shocks or scares, it aims to disgust and repel the viewer with it’s degradation of the human body and spirit. It twists and contorts our perception of humanity through the mangled body of the twisted protagonist, Flint , a man so driven by the desire to revenge he degrades not only his own existence, but that of a young woman who he believes is his enemy’s daughter.

Set in the depths of Africa, Flint has convinced the natives that he is a voodoo God through the use of a few simple magic tricks. It’s all part of his master plan to avenge the man who crippled and stole his wife 20 years ago, though he attests it’s not for these actions, but rather his “sneer”. Brought to life by Walter Huston, reprising his Broadway role, it’s clear that the horror comes as much from the man’s paralyzed body as his disturbed mind. Horror has always been deeply rooted in “perversions” of the human body, from Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s The Fly, there is little more that is upsetting than a body that isn’t as it should be. Though Flint is only paralyzed, the film emphasizes the grotesque nature of his disability, by having him crawl around and have Huston constantly fussing and bringing attention to his legs. This reminds me very much of Freaks, where entire conversations seemed entirely superfluous to the audience watching one of the “freaks” perform some sort of task like in a slideshow. Though, this film never aims to sympathise with Flint’s condition, it’s just a display of his frightening body.

The film’s greatest horror is the treatment of Ann. When she was born, Flint had sent her to a convent in order for her to be brought up “pure” and right, only to rip her away at 18, to destroy her spirit and take away her purity. Though mentioned only in passing or hinted at, his degradation seemed to have included rape and sending her to a madhouse in Zanzibar. There are also implications that she worked as a prostitute and now, dying of some disease, he medicates her with alcohol only to worsen her condition.

The film’s saviour, is quite ironically, a junkie who just happens to stumble by. He’s also a doctor, and on that virtue alone, is kept to eventually treat Flint for the pain in his legs. The man comes to love Ann and vows to save her, though ironically, is first saved from his addiction by Flint himself.

Though most of the horror comes from degradation and humiliation, the film also has a very strong atmosphere that actually is very reminiscent of Val Lewton’s work in the 1940s. Darkness and fragmented lighting is used, particularly Venetian blinds. Though the treatment of Voodoo and African culture is extremely problematic, the use of obscure traditions (some of which are still alive today unfortunately, notably the practise of Sati in Hinduism), and strong music adds to the creeping atmosphere.

By Justine Smith

The pre-code era allowed women to do a lot of things. They were allowed to openly express their sexuality. They were allowed to cheat on their husbands. They were allowed to kill people and actually get away with it. And they were allowed to live in the professional world. To take jobs that made them equal to men.  Usually, this was in the business world (for example, Ruth Chatterton in Female). There really weren’t many films about women becoming doctors. There are two really great ones, and they both star Kay Francis. I wonder what it was that made her so convincing as a woman of medicine that she took on the role twice. She certainly possessed a unique strength that gave her both a commanding and comforting presense.

In Mary Stevens, MD, Francis plays a gifted doctor who goes into practice with her best friend (who she really loves) played by Lyle Talbot. The film shows her talent as a doctor, but it also shows people’s prejudiced views against a female doctor in those times. We’re shown on more than one occassion adults who refuse to be treated by her because she’s a woman. So she specializes in children.

We get to see Francis’ Dr. Stevens as an incredibly strong woman, both in her professional life and her personal life. She becomes pregnant by Talbot while he is still married, so she goes to Europe to have the baby on her own. This really is a great depiction of strong professional women. In a lot of movies like this, the woman gives up her career because the man wants her to. Here, they get together in the end and continue practicing medicine. It’s really an impressive pre-code film.

The next year, at the tail end of the pre-code era, Francis played Dr. Monica, who isn’t quite as strong a character as Mary Stevens. It’s also much more of a soap opera. She discovers that her husband (Warren William) has had an affair with her best friend (Jean Muir). William leaves them both, and without his knowledge, Muir is pregnant. Monica discovers the truth, and decides to stick by her friend and help with the baby. And of course, true love has to prevail in the end. Whether he cheated on her or not.

Made at the end of the era, this follows the conventional storytelling of the man being completely forgiven for cheating on his wife. All in all, it’s a little difficult to watch Francis play such a strong character as Mary Stevens, and then to watch her play someone not half as strong as Dr. Monica. It’s not a bad movie, and its themes of adultery are pre-code goodness. But the martyrdom of the characters is hard to swallow.

They do handle similar themes, just in very different ways. There’s adultery in both, but in Mary Stevens Kay Francis is the other woman, while in Dr. Monica she’s the one being cheated on. Babies are also a core plot point in both films.

Both are good movies, but if you really want to see Francis as a strong professional woman, watch Mary Stevens, MD.

By Katie Richardson

Christmas time is coming. So you should remember to ask your mom/dad/boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/brother/sister/best friend/boss/hobo who lives down the street for the Borzage, Murnau, and Fox DVD set. It is pricey, but there are sites selling it as low as $167 pre order (I believe this is DVDPlanet).

Look at all those Borzage films. Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, Liliom, Bad Girl, The River, Lazybones, and so much more! I’M SO EXCITED!!!!!

Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, Lewis Stone, May Robson, Louise Closser Hale

Joan Crawford plays the title character, a woman of questionable morals who’s taken up with  Emile (Asther), who is manipulative and controlling. She finally leaves him, and on the boat meets Jerry Darrow (Montgomery) and she falls in love. But she fears if he knows about her part with Emile that he will leave her, so she attempts to keep it a secret. Which becomes difficult when Emile meets them at the docks. Emile refuses to leave her alone, so Letty resorts to drastic measures.

Letty Lynton is something of a legend among classic film fans. It’s rights have been tied up in legal issues since the late 1930s. A federal court ruled that the story was too close to the play Dishonored Lady, making the film an unauthorized adaptation, thus keeping it completely out of circulation. For decades, it was simply impossible to find, and for years it’s been quite the accomplishment to find a bootleg of it. Recently, though, it’s become a little more available through various rare film dealers. And now, it’s available on YouTube.

Made during the pre-code era, Letty Lynton certainly takes advantage of the things women were allowed to get away with in film at the time. Not only does Letty get away with living the wild life, she also gets away with murder, and in the end still gets the man she loves and the life she wants. These are definitely the makings of pre-code melodrama, and Letty Lynton is one of the best, mainly because of Crawford’s performance. It’s all in her eyes, the fear of being discovered as a “wild” woman, and the fear of losing Jerry. The scene in which she kills Emile has some of Crawford’s best acting, and watching her unravel is certainly entertaining.

Crawford is paired yet again with Robert Montgomery. While he doesn’t have quite as much to do here as he does in his other films with Crawford, he’s still endlessly charming and watchable. He’s definitely not the caddish character he played in so many films. He’s a good man, and his love for Letty is admirable. Crawford and Montgomery were always a really good pair, and this film definitely benefits from that.

It’s legend of this as a lost film might make one a little disappointed in what they end up seeing, but if you just go into it expecting a quality pre-code melodrama, you’ll be pleased.

Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

By Katie Richardson

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Erich Von Stroheim, Owen Moore, Hedda Hopper

In one of Garbo’s strangest films, she plays amnesiac nightclub singer Zara, who only has a memory that goes ten years back. She lives with the controlling writer Carl Salter (Von Stroheim) in a twisted, sadistic relationship. Tony (Moore) comes along one night claiming that Zara is actually Maria Varelli, the vanished wife of his friend Bruno (Douglas). Zara goes with Tony, despite not really believing she’s Maria, to get away from Salter. Both Bruno and Tony completely believe that Zara is Maria. But Zara struggles between not really believing she is Maria and wanting to stay with Bruno.

The film is based on a play by Luigi Pirandello, and one has to wonder if the story was an inspiration on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The two stories share extremely similar plot points and themes. As the viewer, we’re torn between Zara’s inability to believe she really is Maria, and Bruno’s certainty that she is, never certain which we believe. It’s very possible that Bruno and Tony, who have been clinging to an almost non existant hope for over ten years, are simply seeing what they want to see in Zara. It’s fascinating to watch Zara make the transformation from drunken nightclub singer to Italian Countess, and you have to wonder if she’s simply becoming who she always really was, or making a forced transformation to try to be what Bruno wants her to be. The only source of information we have on what Maria was really like is second hand, through the people who knew her and an old diary, so it’s hard to even tell if Zara is truly becoming like Maria at all. Even in the end, it’s left open and we don’t know for sure. It’s a really fascinating examination of perception, identity, and even hope.

Beyond those parts of the story, As You Desire Me also explores a really destructive relationship between Zara and Salter. Not a lot of screentime is given to the pair (an extended scene early in the film and the finale), but Salter’s need to control Zara is one of the main conflicts of the film, and leads to the climax. It’s interesting to compare Zara’s relationship with Bruno to her relationship with Salter. It could be argued that both are equally destructive (up until the conclusion, at least). While Salter may be more controlling and sadistic, with Bruno being gentle and loving, both relationships are initially based on the man seeing what they want to see in Zara, not necessarilly what’s really there. They project their own ideas on to her, essentially making her become what the want her to be (Thus the title). It’s a really interesting exploration of relationships. I don’t think people expect a film this emotionally and psychologically complex to come from 1930s Hollywood.

After seeing nearly every film Garbo made (there are still one or two of her European films I haven’t seen), I’m comfortable with saying that this is her best performance. The character falls in between the troubled vamps from early in her career and the self sacrificing tarnished angels from later in her career. Zara is so often confused, desperate, and even frightened that it would be easy for an actress to portray her as scatterbrained, weak, and pathetic. But Garbo gives her strength. She’s a strong women who’s endured extreme hardship, and while he situation is complicated and she’s certainly not sure what to do about it, she still has the strength to go on. And Garbo mixes that strength with a gentle vulnerability of spirit. It’s that combination that makes her so incredibly convincing and sympathetic in the role.

Both of the lead men (Von Stroheim and Douglas) give interesting performances. Von Stroheim’s Salter is pretty fascinating to watch. His desire to control a woman he so clearly holds a great deal of contempt for could come off as ridiculous, but Von Stroheim simply has the personality to make it believable. Again, he doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes his mark with just a few scenes. Douglas is much better known for his comedies, so it’s a little strange to see him in such a melodramatic role. Of the main three cast members, he is the weakest (I don’t really want to say ‘weakest’, since it’s not at all a bad performance. It’s just not as fantastic as the other two). He really pulls off a sort of urgent desperation in his scenes with Garbo, both for Zara to really be Maria, and to make up for ten years of lost time with his wife.

As You Desire Me is a really unique film to come out of the 1930s. I think it’s one that people who are a little wary of older films will really enjoy. It explores some pretty emotionally and psychologically complex themes that I don’t think people expect from older films. This is definitely one of my all time favorites.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

By Katie Richardson

We’ve finally ironed out all the details, and now the new Obscure Classics team is finalized. Here are all the members…

Katie Richardson (Hey, that’s me!)
Greg Dickson
James White
Ralph van Zuuren
Justine Smith

You know Greg and me already, and James has written a few things for us. Justine and Ralph are brand new to us, though. So give them a great big welcome.

I’ll be updating the “The Obscure Classics Team” with our mini bios some time today and will be updated the Reviews and Essays archive within the next few days. And hopefully our new team members will be uploading some stuff to the site soon.

Year: 1933

Director: Albert Ray

Cast: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark, Purnell Pratt, Lillian Harmer, Arthur Hoyt, Louise Beavers

Before she got famous with Fred, Ginger Rogers made a lot of B-grade films. A Shriek in the Night is a better one, and another film that has a low rating on IMDb that I don’t understand. It’s certainly not a great movie, but it’s a good one.

Ginger plays Pat, a reporter who’s been working undercover as the secretary to a possibly crooked public figure. When that man is killed, she’s in the prime position to get a good scoop. However, her scoop is stolen by her sometimes paramour Ted (Talbot). The two eventually end up working together, and the closer they get to the murderer, the more danger their lives are in.

Ginger is incredibly spunk and likeable in this movie. In a lot of films of these types from the early 1930s, when they had a pretty young actress playing an inquisitive reporter, the actress often didn’t seem anywhere near smart enough for the role. But Ginger comes across as being extremely intelligent and resourceful. And she has good chemistry with Talbot. The relationship begins with the usual hate/love of the two leads of strong personality. Fortunately, though, it goes a different direction and sticks mostly with the ‘love’ side of things. Which is a good choice, because as good as they are when they’re fighting, Rogers and Talbot are much more adorable as a couple.

The film does have some tone problems. It’s a mystery/comedy. It is very funny, with Rogers and Talbot delivering their fair share of zingers, and Purnell Pratt being funny and quippy as the lead Inspector. He especially earns some great laughs in the first scene. It also has some extremely well done moments on the thriller side. Towards the end there are some very well executed moments of genuine creepiness and suspense. However, the two tones never really gel completely. While both comedy and suspense are done well, they don’t come together well. It’s like watching two different movies.

There is a good central mystery, though. Unlike a lot of movies of this type, A Shriek in the Night is more focused on it’s murder mystery than it is on the romance. Sometimes with mysteries, you follow the story with some interest, but not trying to figure it out because you know they’ll just tell you it all in the end. With this film, however, I found myself constantly engaged with the mystery, greatly interested in all the clues and revalations, and trying to figure it out before the end. They do kind of blow their load by revealing the killer a little too early.

With its great cast, charming leads, and intriguing mystery, A Shriek In the Night is definitely a chiller worth your time.

NOTE: This movie is available on YouTube.

By Katie Richardson

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