Film review: Service de Luxe (1938)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 31, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Rowland V. Lee. Writers: Gertrude Purcell, Leonard Spigelglass, based on a story by Vera Caspary and Bruce Manning. Starring: Constance Bennett, Vincent Price, Charlie Ruggles, Mischa Auer, Helen Broderick, Joy Hodges.

Helen Murphy runs a luxury service which manages all aspects of people’s lives for them. When she runs across inventor Robert Wade (Price), she finds him an absolute dreamboat, but he’s been dominated by his aunts all his life and can’t stand “bossy women”, added to which he hates career women. So, like a good little girl Helen submerges the truth about herself and pretends to be just a regular ole gal, but that becomes a bit of a problem when Robert starts employing her firm’s services.

This screwball comedy is hardly the finest of its type, but it does reward the viewer with a few laughs. It has a rather nifty idea to it, the all-encompassing services of Helen’s agency leading to some madcap situations, but the script built on the central premise is unfortunately rather tepid and feels even more contrived than in most examples of this subgenre. It’s also predictable in the extreme, and although you expect most of these things to end with a wedding or two, Service de Luxe even fails to produce many surprises on the way there.

Now, I like a good screwball comedy, even though it may not sound that way, but this one falls short on too many levels, for example by having people standing idle and quiet when there’s every opportunity for a witty line or a quick sight gag. As a result, many of the scenes that probably read funny in the script feel awkward and slow because one character is doing crazy stuff while the others look like they’re just waiting for him or her to be done. There’s a lack of energy, then, and I consider a kind of manic energy a vital component in this kind of film.

I think it’s safe to say that Rowland V. Lee was better suited for dramatic thrillers like his Tower of London (also with Price) and Son of Frankenstein, but that doesn’t mean Service de Luxe is a total loss. Mischa Auer is good fun as a bizarre Russian chef, and his interplay with his “pupil”, cooking-fixated engineering mogul Scott Robinson (Ruggles) is proper screwball fun and probably the comedic material that works the best.

Then there is the little matter of Vincent Price, whose film debut this was. It’s funny that both Price and Peter Cushing made their debuts in films made by directors famous for major Frankenstein films (Cushing got his start with James Whale), and another thing that can’t help bring a smile to the face of a Price aficionado is his rant in Service de Luxe about how insanity is hereditary and runs in his family – similar speeches, only not humorous in intent, was of course something he delivered in many a horror film later on in his career. But this is Price as far as you can get from his sinister future persona: he’s a nice, affable but strong willed and eccentric young man with an eye for the ladies. His part could have been played by James Stewart or Cary Grant, and to me it’s illuminating and refreshing to see him before typecasting got to him. Is he good? Well, yes, but I wouldn’t say that he’s as masterful as he would become, and he’s not really helped by an underwritten role. The famous voice is there in rudimentary form, but like his acting, it’s not quite as distinctive as one is used to. The best thing about his performance is most easily appreciated in view of his subsequent career: seeing him in a part that requires a charismatic young actor, not a “Vincent Price type”. Oh, and it turns out he had a rather nice singing voice in his youth.

Service de Luxe needn’t be on any screwball fan’s “must see” list, because it really isn’t all that funny, and it’s lacking in panache. Any serious Vincent Price fan, on the other hand, has to see it, if only to fully realise that once upon a time he was just another fresh faced stage actor wanting to make it in Hollywood.

Rating: 4 of 10. 5 of 10 if you’re a fan of Vincent Price.

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Book review: Beowulf

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2014 by Mistlake

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The court of Danish Viking king Hrothgar is under nightly assault from the monster Grendel, who overpowers and eats his warriors. Enter foreign hero Beowulf, who promises to defeat the beast.

This overview/review contains a few spoilers. Also, I always like to point out that I’m no expert on this sort of thing, so don’t go and do anything stupid, like believing that I know what I’m talking about.

The events outlined above, and the subsequent appearance of Grendel’s charmer of a mother, are the famous parts of this Old English verse epic, but that constitutes only half the story. Later on there are wars, feuds and a heavy duty dragon. Beowulf actually details the titular hero’s entire life, some of it in chronological order, some of it in flashbacks, and some of it in his own words, giving us an almost complete picture, punctuated by some rather interesting gaps, like the question of whether he ever got married and why he didn’t have any children.

Beowulf is commonly said to be the oldest extant piece of English literature, but there are shorter poems that preceded it, and “English” is such a relative word. The poem is certainly old enough, the earliest preserved manuscript having been dated at about 1010 AD. It’s also of a size other Old English poems can’t begin to approach: it’s 110 pages in the edition I have, which – along with other characteristics, of course ­– makes it a proper epic, and in that sense it is the oldest of its kind in England.

But you wouldn’t think to look at it that it is English. I’ve read it in the Modern English verse translation by Michael Alexander, but once upon a time I read parts of it in the original Old English. Well, I say “read”. It looks as Scandinavian as it does English, and the only reason I could struggle through even a page or two is that I know both Swedish and English. It’s not as strange as it seems: after the various Viking invasions of England, a great many English people were of Scandinavian ancestry, which also serves to explain another oddity about Beowulf: it’s an English epic that takes place in Denmark and what was to become Sweden, and which doesn’t even mention England in passing. This is probably due to the fact that earlier, oral versions of the story originated in Scandinavia and far predate the written version, meaning that Viking influence in and knowledge of England weren’t a thing in the 6th or 7th Century, when the story is set. Furthermore, this means that the prevalent Christian rhetoric is anachronistic, since Denmark and Sweden weren’t converted that early on. The Christian sentiments must have been added later on, possibly by the very poet whose version we have today.

In terms of story and character, Beowulf shows similarities to the tales about Heracles and other ancient heroes, the main character being possessed of immense superhuman strength (and apparently the ability to hold his breath under water for indefinite periods of time) and having to perform a number of feats at the behest of a foreign ruler. Women are background features, men are men, and every named character seems to divide his time between giving and receiving lavish gifts, holding boastful speeches, drinking all night, and of course bashing people’s brains in. It’s all meaty and juicy fun, but it’s droll how they’re always drinking but never seem to eat anything; at least the Greeks knew to do their boozing on a full stomach.

Lighthearted partying aside, there’s much mood in Beowulf, where our hero has to go to the depths of the ocean and into grey, misty fens to accomplish his goals against dire odds. The sense of a harsh, primordial era is dominant throughout the poem’s most memorable sequences, which occur in a bleak, rough-hewn world where only the mead-halls are places of warmth and light – and in the case of king Hrothgar, even his opulent mead-hall Heorot is invaded by an elemental evil.

The verse is haunting and often lustrously beautiful in its sometimes unexpected composites and circumlocutions (my favourite being the coinage “sword-hate” for “warlike hostility”), which adds generously to the brooding atmosphere. Here and there we find a touch of the terseness of the Icelandic sagas (when Beowulf kills a foe, it is stated with succinct dryness that “He was glad at the deed”), but largely, Beowulf’s language is more flowing, and its monologues wordier and far more emotional, and thus more reminiscent of the Greek epics. It is in fact remarkable just how polished and elegant a work Beowulf is, especially compared to something like the French The Song of Roland, which was put down in writing about a century later and is nowhere near as accomplished.

The only flaw – and this is very much a personal opinion – is parts of the structure, where flashbacks and much needed back story are crowbarred into the unlikeliest places in the narrative. For instance, we suddenly learn that Beowulf has now been king for a long time, and then he goes hunting for the dragon, and in the midst of that bit of excitement we are suddenly treated to the story of his ascension and reign, before we can return to the monster-thumping business. Other complaints might include a lack of visual description of certain key characters and events. Grendel and his mother aren’t described nearly enough to give us a sense of what they look like, and Beowulf’s fights with them are, while thrilling, somewhat lacking in detail. Personally, I don’t mind that too much, though; a hinted-at monster is scarier than one in broad daylight.

Beowulf is still enormously popular, new well-selling editions and translations being released all the time, and it is indeed a fascinating work, and I can’t recommend Alexander’s gorgeous interpretation enough. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney also did a translation, and J.R.R. Tolkien took a great interest in Beowulf, writing about it at length, not to mention cribbing some of the best bits as building blocks for Rohan, Smaug and – arguably – Gollum, since Grendel is in many ways Gollum on steroids. Beowulf stays relevant through movies, “reimagined” novels, comic book adaptations and prose versions, but the dour magic of the original remains unsurpassed.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: The Song of Roland

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2014 by Mistlake

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Due to treachery, Charlemagne’s nephew Count Roland finds himself and 20,000 other knights hopelessly outnumbered by pagan forces at the battle of Roncesvals in the year 778.

Most likely written sometime in the early 12th Century, The Song of Roland is the French national epic, much like the Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey and the Romans’ Aeneid. It is not, in my tolerably humble opinion, quite on that level, but an interesting read nevertheless.

The story is pretty straightforward, although decorated with a couple of flourishes here and there, but it’s not the narrative of impossibly large armies chopping each other up that evokes the most interest. More striking, for better and worse, are the themes and the form. I don’t mean this in an over-analytical literary critic kind of way (those people bore me to death in no time flat), but in the way you can’t help noticing those aspects when reading.

Often deemed a work of propaganda, The Song of Roland points at least as many didactic fingers as any Greek tragedy or Christian sermon. And Christianity is a big thing here: trust in god and you shall be amply rewarded. You may get chopped to pieces by irate pagans, but hey, you’re in the running for a good seat at the table in Paradise. The whole source of the conflict, the whole reason why Charlemagne has invaded Muslim-controlled Spain in the first place, is that he feels a desperate itch to decapitate anyone who’s not a Christian. The pagans (nominally Muslims, but it’s laughably clear that the unknown author knew precisely not a thing about Islam) have pretty much the same urges towards anyone not sharing their faith. This, then, is the only piece of The Song of Roland that smacks of realism: the facts about Islam are all wrong, as are the historical facts of Charlemagne’s rule, and even the types of armour used in the 8th Century, but the one thing the poem gets right is just how elatedly fond religious people are of killing each other in droves.

Christianity isn’t the only thing lionized here, however. The other big constituent is the idea of “vassalage”, which evidently means a combination of lunatic courage and chivalry on the one hand, and unfailing servitude under one’s betters on the other. Roland himself is the very personification of these iffy virtues, his greatest terror being the risk of becoming the subject matter for denigrating songs. He absolutely refuses to sound his famous horn Oliphant to call for freely available reinforcements when it becomes obvious that the approaching pagan host is too much to handle; it would cut into his fame to choose not to die fighting impossible odds, so dying it is, then. He also lives solely for the glory of Charlemagne, obviously having no other ideas of a good time than conquering city after city for his emperor.

It’s all very crazy indeed to modern eyes, but one has to admit that there is a strange part of one’s brain that does find this demented mentality somehow magnificent. Well, in my case not the Christian nonsense, but the idea of going down in flames for a good cause. Not being hero material, I will of course put on a pair of slippers and have a nice cup of tea instead, but in concept there’s something in me that likes the idea.

Anyway, a great number of scholars have spent decades analyzing the themes and didactic purpose of The Song of Roland, as well as the medieval mindset in general, so I’ll foreshorten further discussion on the matter, since I am simply not qualified.

The same holds true of the poem’s form, but since it affects the reading experience, I’ll say a few words about it even so. The verse of The Song of Roland is, I’m told, ever so intricate and restricted by a number of rules. This in itself isn’t necessarily noticeable when you read the thing, because it can be just as easily read as prose, but like the Iliad’s hexameter, the meter affects the structure of the text. The Song of Roland is told in 291 short stanzas (the term for this type of stanza is evidently laisse), almost all of which are expressed in a curiously clipped, chopped and frankly wooden idiom that does little to elevate excitement levels. Considering that this is the story of men on horseback galloping towards each other with lances and swords, it feels remarkably static and unthrilling. The verse form limits the options for vivid description, and also invites laziness on the part of the author: once he managed to cobble together a fair bit of laisse, he sure liked reusing it, so that most of the knights are killed in one of two ways, lending little variety to the almost constant butchery. One of these types of deaths is a doozy, though: people are cloven from head to groin with a single sword stroke, with the blade finally splitting the spine of the horse the victim was riding on.

Instead of describing with colour and fervour just how vicious a battle is, the author prefers saying things like “the battle is very brutal, the knights fight very hard”, making parts of the poem sound amusingly like a history essay by a fifth grader. And maybe this isn’t so very far from true: if one compares The Song of Roland to The Iliad, there is no denying that the latter is a complex, highly polished work milling with the detail, richness and linguistic beauty of a refined culture, whereas The Song of Roland is a simple, creaky, thin work told in short, unpoetic sentences, being as it is a product of a rather primitive society that had yet to reach anything approaching the sophistication of – the admittedly savage – Ancient Greece.

The Song of Roland has a stirring story at its heart, and it is intensely interesting to see what people’s thinking was like in the 12th Century (or rather, what the authorities wanted people’s thinking to be like). Furthermore, Roland is one of the great legends that echo behind much of modern fiction, and it’s satisfying to have read the source material behind it. Tolkien must have taken quite a bit of inspiration from it, and Stephen King has stated outright that it was a huge influence on his Dark Tower series, so Roland lives on. He just might not be at his most inviting in his original form.

Rating: 4 of 10 as literature. 7 of 10 as a cultural document.

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Book review: Homer – The Iliad

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by Mistlake

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During the Bronze Age, combined Greek forces under the command of King Agamemnon are entering their tenth year of laying siege to the city of Troy. The foremost Greek hero, Achilles, stops participating in the war when enraged by Agamemnon’s theft of a fair maiden won in battle by Achilles. Without him and his immense fighting prowess, the Greeks’ fortunes take a turn for the worse, and the Trojans are suddenly in with a chance of victory.

My observations below contain a few spoilers, which doesn’t really matter, since The Iliad itself is pretty good at spoiling its upcoming events. Also bear in mind that I’m no expert. On anything.

I was too young the first time I read The Iliad. My impression of it was an endless number of pages of two armies kicking each other’s asses back and forth across a plain while Zeus and the other gods behaved like playground bullies. I still find this description valid as far as it goes, but my younger self managed to miss all the things that make The Iliad a great work of literature and a singularly intriguing instrument for spying into a long-vanished mindset.

Troy did exist, and it was besieged more than once, longer ago than most human minds can readily comprehend – mine certainly can’t absorb the time span involved. These wars were ancient history even when the version of The Iliad which has come down to us was fixed in written form about 2,700 years ago. Between the actual events and “our” Iliad there were centuries of oral tradition retelling the tales, embellishing them, and adding mythical elements to them before they were assembled into a whole and were further refined into the magnificent epic of ancient fantasy that we know. This process is evidently known as “epic fermentation”, but that only makes me think of really strong beer, so let’s leave that to one side.

Considering this immensely long period of development, it’s no wonder that The Iliad has been polished like a stone in a stream until reaching a smoothness of near perfection. In the written version, much remains of the oral tradition that preceded it, like the standing epithets, standardized depictions of sacrifices and other actions, and the verbatim repetition of certain speeches and formalized events – all designed to provide mnemonic resting points and simplify memorization for the rhapsodes who had to learn it all by heart before the dawn of literacy. These linguistic artifacts are beautifully formulated and work almost like the refrains of a song … which to all intents and purposes is what The Iliad originally was.

There are many other stylistic peculiarities that stand out in the eyes of a modern reader, particularly the liberal use of the “epic simile”, in which it isn’t enough to state, for instance, that a warrior fights like a lion, but like a lion that shakes its mane in rage as it attacks a poorly herded flock of sheep in the wooded mountains while the shepherds and their dogs quiver in fear nearby, afraid to throw their javelins at the rampant beast that is hungry for blood and intestines. These elaborate digressions can, it must be admitted, be a damned nuisance when they interrupt a particularly exciting action scene, but in and of themselves they are gorgeous little mini poems, almost like haikus marbling the main text.

Another specific characteristic of the ancient epic, Iliad included, is of course the hexameter verse, with the strange syntax and circumlocution needed to fit the story into the meter. The hexameter furnishes much of The Iliad’s heavy, regally rolling atmosphere, since it even makes the act of washing one’s face or slicing a loaf of bread sound like events of thunderous importance. The translation I’ve read (a Swedish one from 1908) is rather archaically worded, but I rather like that, as I think it retains the dignity and grandeur of the poem; Plato’s and Socrates’ conversations, by contrast, are rather informal and can productively be rendered in a colloquial modern idiom, but The Iliad is a heroic epic and should – I firmly believe – sound like one.

The style is far from being the most remarkable and perhaps alien aspect, however. More striking, and perhaps alarming, is the mentality current with every single male character (and most of them are male): war and slaughter are beautiful things; it’s as honorable to butcher sleeping enemies as it is to meet them face to face; it’s unthinkable to do anybody a favour without being richly rewarded with loot for one’s trouble; fallen enemies should be robbed and preferably mutilated; women are merely commodities (although rather valuable ones, some being worth as much as four oxen); hundreds of cattle and sheep should regularly have their throats cut to appease the gods (who rarely care anyway); and if you see a grand city with spectacular towers and gleaming spires, your first thought should be to raze it to the ground for laughs. Yes, all this supposedly took place in times ancient even to the ancient Greeks who read or listened to The Iliad, and it’s all enacted by heroes and demigods of legend, but The Iliad was still considered a sound moral guideline in classical Greece. This is easy to tell if you read a few of the blood-soaked but didactically intended tragedies written in that period. We tend to regard the ancient Greeks as highly civilized and sophisticated, and in many ways they were, but there was also much of the primeval in them with their fondness for looting, slavery, randomly ordered executions and violent battles.

And oh my, are The Iliad’s battles ever violent. Much of the poem is in fact overwhelmingly violent, with the deaths of scores of warriors described in gleefully sadistic detail, severed heads, spraying blood and squirting brains and guts flying everywhere. These descriptions grow gorier the further you read, and a case could be made for The Iliad being the most brutal bit of “high culture” ever composed.

All the deaths of brothers in arms generate a fair amount of weeping on the part of our main heroes, but there aren’t very many characters who – at least to 21st Century sensibilities – come off as human. Most of the warriors sigh a bit before returning to their former enthusiasm for killing as many people as possible. The very motivation for the war itself, the famous abduction of the fair Helena by Trojan prince Paris, is unbelievable, and most of the characters’ reasoning follow the same bizarre lines: ostentatious but unrealistic, everyone apparently inspired solely by greed and a lust for blood-drenched glory.

A couple of characters stand out as partial exceptions, among them the greatest Trojan hero, Hector, in whom one can sense a touching desperation in his fervour to defend his home city. He is also a family man, with a beloved wife and a toddler son lending him a human dimension lacking in most of the other protagonists. Achilles, arguably The Iliad’s lead character, has personality to spare too, but it’s of an archetypal and not overly well-rounded kind. He’s insanely rancorous and implacable, and by his sulky inaction permits hundreds, perhaps thousands of his comrades to die. At the same time he’s paradoxically pining for as much glory in battle as he can get, since fate has decreed that he will not live long. Incidentally, there is no mention in The Iliad of his famed invulnerability, his arm actually getting lightly wounded at one point. And he’s certainly not emotionally invulnerable: when his special friend Patroklos dies (which is really Achilles’ fault), he goes absolutely ape in his grief. This does not please the Trojans, because Achilles is an immensely powerful force – him returning to the war effort is a lot like a fairly even fight where one side suddenly gets reinforced by the Incredible Hulk.

In all the testosterone-dripping psychosis that permeates The Iliad, it’s amusing to see how all the boasting and fighting spirit goes out of our heroes as soon as they sense that the gods are getting involved: “Oh, it could possibly be that Athena or Ares is helping them now, better run screaming like little children”. This complete prostration before the various deities is rather comical, as is the professed love and respect for them, given their cheap tricks, fickle minds (especially Zeus’) and incredibly bitchy attitudes; sometimes they literally slap the weapons out of the hands of someone they’ve decided should lose a fight. Strangely enough, not even Zeus is the highest authority, since most of the gods’ seemingly arbitrary decisions are mandated by what they term “fate”. If even the gods are only the servants of Fate, then what is the point of them? It all feels like they’re a bickering branch of redundant middle-management in a poorly organised bureaucracy.

I hope it’s obvious by now that The Iliad is weird and amazing, while also quite perplexing in many of its constituent parts. Just take the fact that the story begins in the final year of the siege and still doesn’t  tell us how the war ends. That whole Trojan Horse business and the predestined death of Achilles? Nowhere to be found in The Iliad. It’s just an excerpt from an even longer tale, a gruesome anecdote that’s really about the consequences of the “wrath of Achilles” and about his eventual catharsis.

It’s hard to read The Iliad without preconceptions and baggage: it is the oldest extant European work of literature, and one that formed much of the later Greek notions of duty, fealty, honour and war. Of course, the more you know about Greek mythology and history, the more you’ll get out of it, but it does stand splendidly on its own as a harsh and bleak fantasy epic. Its literary legacy is immeasurable. In ancient times it inspired countless tragedies, some of them (like Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) direct sequels, as well as the later Roman homage/ripoff The Aeneid (whose main character Aeneas appears in The Iliad). Comic book superheroes owe their debt to The Iliad, as do the metric tons of fantasy novels filling the shelves of book stores. It’s the European granddaddy of the genre, and it is also electrifying if slightly demented poetry of no small brilliance.

I won’t go into the Homeric Question (did Homer exist, and if so, who was he and blah blah blah?), but the other great epic attributed to him, The Odyssey, is just as essential reading as The Iliad. And please, don’t watch the stupendously bad movie Troy in the belief that it captures the essence of The Iliad.

Rating: 10 of 10.

Artist's representation of Homer.

Artist’s representation of Homer.

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Film review: Scream and Scream Again (1970)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Gordon Hessler. Writer: Christopher Wicking, based on the novel The Disorientated Man by Peter Saxon (Stephen D. Frances). Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Marshall Jones, Alfred Marks, Michael Gothard, Judy Huxtable, Peter Sallis, Yutte Stensgaard, Christopher Matthews.

This review contains spoilers.

While a seemingly vampiric serial killer is on the loose in England, mysterious intelligence officer Konratz (Jones) advances through the ranks by killing his superiors in a totalitarian state. Oh, and someone is lopping off limbs from kidnapped joggers.

Scream and Scream Again is a confused film, and it didn’t have to be. It’s based on a perfectly lucid novel by the somewhat more low-key title The Disorientated Man, and at this point I should mention that in Sweden, a country that will not be bested in terms of stupid titles, the movie was called – re-translated into English – Screeeam and Screeeam Again. The village idiot title is, however, the least of this film’s concerns, although it will have failed to attract very many cinema patrons possessed of any standards whatsoever.

Nah, Scream and Scream Again doesn’t content itself with small mistakes like that. Of the two most glaring blunders, the most obvious one is the fact that the filmmakers have chosen to tell the story of the novel, with the slight modification of neglecting to tell the audience what the hell it’s about. True, near the end Price speaks some meandering and stunningly vague exposition intended to clarify what has been going on, but this speech (delivered with merely a hint of the hamming Price reserved for really silly parts) only serves to muddy the waters further, making so little sense that everything would have been clearer had it been left out. In the novel, it’s aliens who dunnit, and all the pieces sort of fall into place if you know that. The makers of Scream and Scream Again didn’t want anyone to find out, apparently.

The second doozy of a gaffe started out as a brilliant idea: “Let’s, for the first time ever, get Price, Lee and Cushing all together in a film.” Great! I would have watched a Roland Emmerich movie if those guys were in it. But no. They managed to cock that up too. Cushing is in one single scene, sharing no screen time with the other two horror stars. Lee has about four scenes. In the last third of the movie, Price is in it quite a bit. No shared scenes. Oh, wait, there’s that one brief sequence where the director tries to make it look as if Price and Lee are in the same room, only it’s obvious that their parts were shot separately. Now, I’m quite sure that the part of Konratz and the part of dogged police detective Bellaver were intended for Lee and Cushing respectively: they’re both good, sizeable parts playing to each actor’s strengths, but for whatever reason they preferred playing bit parts instead.

So what else does Scream and Scream Again do, apart from repelling the audience with a puerile title, refusing to reveal what the story is about, and trying to fool us into thinking it’s a movie starring Price, Lee and Cushing? Well, it also lambasts us with one of those late 1960s perky jazz scores that are so singularly inappropriate for horror movies, and augments it with the equally cheery title song by Amen Corner. It spends an inordinate amount of time showing us the “happening” London youth scene, and even more time on a not very thrilling chase scene which, more than anything, reveals the low budget: I think that if the London police is chasing a notorious serial killer, they might be able to muster more than seven officers and a doctor.

So Scream and Scream Again is remarkable in many ways, then, but I’ve saved its most remarkable trait for last: it’s actually not all that bad. For all of the silliness and failures listed above, for all its confused sci fi/Frankenstein/Dracula/police procedural/political thriller mash-up weirdness, and for all the many weaknesses on every level, it still administers a dose of eerie, coldly clinical and sometimes brutal horror that has its share of good moments. There’s a tone to it that makes it pleasantly distressing at times, and it’s an undeniable treat seeing Price, Lee and Cushing in the same film no matter the sub-optimal circumstances.

Price is fun, spending most of his time trying to look innocent and sympathetic, before going full lunatic at the end. Lee only has room to deliver his typical impatient authority figure, while Cushing is amusingly incongruous as a humane Nazi officer. Those actors and the strange atmosphere may make the movie worth watching, but the novel, while no masterpiece, is better and should be kept at hand while viewing so as to facilitate comprehension.

Rating: 5 of 10. If one is feeling generous.

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Film review: Grass – A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Mistlake

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Created by: Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper, Marguerite Harrison. Starring: Haidar, Lufta, Marguerite Harrison, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper.

Back in the good old days when you could make a movie called Grass without anyone sniggering, Schoedsack, Cooper and Harrison traveled along with the goat and cattle herding Bakhtiari people on their arduous journey from Turkey through Arabia to Persia in their vital annual quest for fresh pastures for their livestock.

In some respects, this classic documentary is rather modern in its approach. The tribes we follow are largely treated with respect and admiration, as well they should be given their tenacity and ingenuity. Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the filmmakers shared most of their exertions and deprivations, since any attempt at comfort during long stretches of the narrative – such as the horrendously laborious traversing of snowy peaks – would have required helicopters, of which there were none in the 1920s. Also, very few scenes look staged, really just a couple at the beginning and a few where people pose in front of the camera.

There are only two persons, chief Haidar and his son Lufta, at whom we get a closer look. The rest of the 50,000 nomads remain for the most part milling figures in the landscape, which somewhat reduces the level of personal intimacy that the viewer can invest in the proceedings, but the film is nevertheless a grand spectacle of awe-inspiring vistas and captivating detail.

Several scenes, like those in the mountains and those showing the thronging people and their cattle crossing an icy river with strong currents, are as grueling as they are fascinating, and they give Grass a number of dramatic highlights in the midst of otherwise pleasantly languid pacing. It is impressive to follow these incredibly stubborn people and watch their unique skill sets in action in their attempts to overcome everything nature throws at them, and the marvelous landscapes provide a suitably epic backdrop.

Apart from a couple of introductory shots of Cooper and Schoedsack, the only westerner on view is Harrison, who is seen travelling along with the tribes and doing little else. Cooper and Schoedsack were firm believers in “putting a woman in there” to attract audiences (as stated outright in their most famous film, King Kong), and they claimed Harrison contributed nothing to the actual production. This may be so, but evidently she financed the expedition, and was a highly interesting person in her own right, having for years been an American spy in the Soviet Union and several Asian countries. Knowing this gave a little bit of additional spice to my viewing of the film.

There is one major drawback to Grass, albeit one which could easily be rectified by some prudent home editing: there are at least four times the necessary number of intertitles, and most of them are either stating the bleedin’ obvious (“They are still moving up the mountain!”) or making perky, winking jokes of surpassing childishness (we see a cow worrying about her calf in the water, and the title card says “She didn’t raise her son to be no sailor!”). These intertitles do no mean job of ruining the mood, and it should be stated emphatically that they weren’t written by Cooper, Schoedsack or Harrison, but by Richard Carver, who fortunately did a better job editing the movie than captioning it.

Grass is a splendid and majestic look at an almost extinct way of life close to and dominated by nature at its harshest. Today we are spoiled with well-produced documentaries of this type, but there is something different and deeply engrossing in seeing what this kind of tribal life and this kind of filmmaking was like almost a century ago.

Rating: 7 of 10. Edit out those mindless intertitles and it’s an 8 out of 10.

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Film review: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2014 by Mistlake

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Directors: Ernest B. Schoedsack, Irving Pichel. Writer: James Ashmore Creelman, based on the short story by Richard Connell. Starring: Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, Fay Wray, Noble Johnson, Robert Armstrong.

This review contains mild spoilers.

The only survivor of a shipwreck, Bob Rainsford (McCrea) swims ashore on a tropical island that turns out to be inhabited by Russian refugee Count Zaroff (Banks), who like Rainsford is a big game hunter. Zaroff has, however, grown bored with regular prey, and has also suffered brain damage while on a trip to Africa, so he now uses his island as a hunting ground for the most dangerous game of all: humans.

Often regarded as a minor classic, I would say that there’s nothing minor about The Most Dangerous Game. It’s an extremely well-assembled piece of cinema, which has suffered from languishing in the public domain and consequently being released in inferior, often quite hopeless prints. Now it’s available in much better-looking editions, and is a must-see movie if you have any interest in the older stuff.

First of all, there used to be a longer, 78 minute cut which was never released, since it contained macabre material – such as extended scenes in Zaroff’s ghoulish trophy room – that was simply judged to strong even in Pre-Code days. While I would of course love to see that version, the 63 minute one we have is so tight and well-constructed that it’s hard to see how added length would improve upon it, and it’s still nasty enough with the preserved heads and spearings we do get to see.

The tightness of the story is part of what makes The Most Dangerous Game (also known by the less classy title The Hounds of Zaroff) so compelling: there is no dead meat (except in the aforementioned trophy room, he he) and yet no sense of rushing through the narrative. The first scene aboard the ship sets up the theme of the amoral hunter becoming the concerned prey, and then we proceed to beautifully written sequences in Zaroff’s fortress home, where oodles of exposition is delivered in such a way that it doesn’t feel like exposition at all, rather like a gradual dialing up of sweaty tension underneath a veneer of dark humour.

Even Robert Armstrong’s obnoxious drunk serves narrative purposes far beyond that of comedy relief, eventually revealing as he does the nature of Zaroff’s insanity and flexible code of honour. Following this expert ramping up of suspense, there is of course the climactic hunt where Zaroff gives Rainsford and Eve (Wray) a head start before going after them in the island’s dense jungle.

It’s a long, well-built sequence, alternating quiet suspense with heart-pounding chases and wild fights, all set in a gorgeous and varied environment. All of this is presented in economical terms, never dwelling too long on a scene, yet never shortchanging it either, pulling the story and characters along in the most exciting way. Perhaps we could have used a little less of Armstrong’s mindless slurring (good though his performance is), but that is so minor a misjudgment as to be insignificant, and either way he soon … goes away.

The one major change from Connell’s short story is the one expected from a Hollywood adaptation: the introduction of a woman. This usually means scenes of romance which can’t help but drag down a genre story of this kind, but strangely there really are no such scenes in The Most Dangerous Game (unless they were excised with the other stuff from the longer version), and in fact Eve turns out to be quite a useful character. Not, of course, in any practical sense (this is after all a 1930s film), but in other ways. First of all, the horror of Zaroff’s madness is given a further sinister boost by the not too subtly hinted-at fact that as soon as he has killed Rainsford he will reward himself by raping Eve. In plot terms, Eve serves as a highly useful intermediary between Rainsford and the audience once they’re out in the jungle, giving him someone to enlighten as to his plans and the traps he’s building to combat Zaroff; without Eve he would have had to resort to talking to himself, thinking aloud in a voiceover or simply not explain anything, none of which would have been as satisfactory a solution in terms of audience comprehension.

Even though I can’t help but think that Bela Lugosi would have been above and beyond perfect as Zaroff, there’s no denying that Leslie Banks does a magnificent job here. His creepy demeanour and almost supernaturally huge eyes along with his slightly odd face (half of it was paralysed due to an injury in World War I) give us a delicious villain, smooth Old European aristocracy hiding the snarling beast beneath. The other actors, while not as charismatic, do well, particularly Johnson as scary henchman Ivan.

Now, if you have any interest in older movies (and seriously, if you don’t, why are you wasting a perfectly fine day reading this?), you may find that, hm, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson seem to belong together somehow and, hm, some of those jungle sets and matte paintings sure do look familiar. You’d be quite right in thinking so, because they all showed up in Schoedsack’s and co-producer Merian C. Cooper’s next production, a lively little number called King Kong. In fact, a test reel to sell RKO on the idea of Kong was shot during the production of The Most Dangerous Game, and so Zaroff’s island and Skull Island ended up having quite a bit in common.

The Most Dangerous Game may be a minor classic, but it should be a major one, with its suspense, action, humour and use of locations all coming together to form a rousing horror adventure that, for all its hundreds of remakes, imitations and parodies, has lost very little of its power over the decades.

Rating: 9 of 10.

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