One Groovy Bat

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

As a fan of Dracula (from Lee to Lugosi) and blaxploitation cinema (from Coffy to Dolemite), I have a hard time resisting the nocturnal urban lure of Blacula (1972). By the 1970s Count Dracula had seen countless screen re-imaginings and misrepresentations. The movies were hammering the final nail into the classic icon’s coffin, but there was always the occasional hit that kept him from staying in the grave permanently. Blacula may not be considered a great film, but for what it is—a movie about a black Dracula—it’s actually a really enjoyable romp through the supernatural…and it’s got soul. Sure, it has it’s fair share of cheese and hokiness, but even the immortal Bela Lugosi version from 1931 wasn’t perfect and was certainly not lacking in the melodrama department.

Dracula is a racist.

Dracula is a racist.

The story of Blacula begins exactly as it should: in Transylvania in the year 1780. The African noble, Prince Mamuwalde of the Ebani tribe (played by impeccably William Marshall), is having a little chat with the notorious Count Dracula. Mamuwalde urges the Count to aid him in his efforts to end the slave trade, but the Count evidently likes the slave trade and, additionally, has developed a fancy for Mamuwalde’s wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Dracula feels it is perfectly acceptable—nay, even complimentary—to take Luva as a concubine. When Mamuwalde refuses the diabolical insult, the Count reveals his vampiric powers and has his undead minions attack the Prince and his wife. Pay attention to the disappearing and reappearing candles during the scuffle. Biting Mamuwalde on the neck, Count Dracula curses him with an unquenchable lust for human blood and seals him shut in a coffin, leaving Luva to die alone in the stone room with her trapped husband.

Where was Luva's skeleton when the coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???

Where was Luva’s skeleton when Blacula’s coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???


Then the awesome animated credits pop up. It’s very Fistful of Dollars, but with a funkier score.

Flash-forward to 1972. Two gay interior decorators are buying stuff in the Count’s old castle and, naturally, just have to have the coffin, unaware of the horror within. While unpacking their Transylvanian bounty they unleash a very cramped Blacula. Bewildered and stiff, Blacula discovers the unstoppable desire to snack on human blood. He makes short work of his first two victims.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Blacula wanders the streets of Los Angeles and chances upon Tina (Vornetta McGee again), a dead-ringer for the deceased Luva. The encounter proves incredibly taxing on Tina as she frantically flees the strange man as a chase reminiscent of a Pepé Le Pew cartoon ensues, ending with one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie: Blacula’s pursuit of Tina is punctuated by him getting hit by a taxi cab and a rattled female cabbie berating his apparent lack of intelligence as he casually rises up off the ground, muttering about the collision ruining his reunion with his reincarnated lover. When at last he realizes the cabbie’s antagonism he snaps into vampire mode (developing fangs, some super-gnarly eyebrows, a rather pronounced widow’s peak, and cheek-burns) and bites her. Awesome.

Autopsy.

That’s weird. The deceased is completely drained of blood, clutching a crucifix, and has two small holes on her neck. It must have been a car accident.

Things get more coincidentally complicated when Tina’s sister, Michelle (a very fine Denise Nicholas), is the girlfriend of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala—easily the coolest name ever) who is investigating the mysterious murders of the gay interior decorators and the cabdriver. The deep holes in the necks and the absence of blood in their bodies seems suspicious, so Dr. Thomas reads up on the occult.

Clubs back in the day.

Clubs back in the day…

At a night club, Tina, Michelle, and Gordon are treated to a special guest. It is Blacula, arrived to return the purse Tina dropped when she ran away. He apologizes for frightening her and joins them for drinks. The sight of this caped, eloquent, and charismatic aristocrat (with the diction of a god!) against these modern settings doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And the stranger’s deep poetic voice with its enchanting cadences (seriously, I want William Marshall to read me bedtime stories) echoing back to time’s long past captivates his new friends. Things are going well, bloody Marys are ordered, Tina is warming up to Mamuwalde, and then someone snaps a picture of them and the gallant ex-prince excuses himself…to kill the photographer just as she’s developing the pictures and discovers that Blaculas don’t show up on film.

No pictures!

No pictures!

The movie goes on with many things happening at once. Blacula courts Tina like a true gentleman while Dr. Thomas digs up corpses and realizes they’ve a vampire epidemic on their hands that the police station will never believe. Also, several characters that Blacula has bitten earlier in the film become vampires themselves and start biting everybody indiscriminately. Apparently you never truly die from a vampire bite, you only become a superhuman vampire with greenish skin (there is one cop and a guy with a hook hand we never see again after they get bitten, but seeing as how every other character survives to be vampires I just bet those two guys are still wandering around somewhere). It almost reminds me of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) starring John Saxon (Enter the Dragon), a particularly terrible movie where so-called cannibals bite people and then those people in turn become “cannibals” who only desire to bite other people and make them “cannibals” (yeah, nobody ever dies. They just become oppressed minorities with weird nibbling habits fleeing government retaliation. Like Blacula the only characters who truly die are the ones who get killed by normal means).  A highlight of Blacula is the police raid on a warehouse full of vampires bitten by one of the gay guys from the beginning. People get shot, attacked, bitten, and set on fire. Major points for all the full body burns, but I can’t help but wonder about this scene. The gay vampire seems to have bitten (by far!) the most people. Is Blacula making some kind of commentary about promiscuity or the spread of social diseases during the 70s? Should we be offended?

These vampire zombies are fabulous.

These vampire zombies are fabulous.


As Tina falls more and more in love with Blacula/Mamuwalde, Dr. Gordon Thomas and the cops get closer and closer to unmasking the vampire and discovering its daytime coffin hideout. Actually, the romance between Tina and Blacula is the least interesting and least believable part of the movie, but the movie seems to know that and focuses on other things while that stuff is happening. By the time Gordon and the cops find Blacula’s hideout in a chemical plant, Tina has already agreed to be Luva II for the undead Prince Mamuwalde (it’s like The Mummy). Time is running out and cops with spherical helmets—seemingly from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs —fill the chemical plant, putting Blacula on the defensive. Comically, the cops are very easy to kill. Gently bumping their big, stupid helmeted-heads against a wall takes them out in a flash. Something I noticed the second time I watched it; I wonder if Dr. Gordon Thomas is safe from vampire attacks because he’s always wearing a turtleneck.

SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoiling the epic finale of Blacula.

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week...

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week…

One dopey cop catches Blacula and Tina running away down a hallway and discharges his firearm, killing Tina. Blacula dispatches the policeman by gently bopping his helmet head on a pipe and punching him. With no time to lose he bites Tina to ensure she will have eternal undead life as a vampire with him. Angered and vengeful, Blacula storms through the dark chemical plant killing cops left and right. Guys get stuff dropped on them, they get thrashed, and some guys get thrown off ledges, but soon Dr. Gordon gets to the coffin, hands the stake to the police sergeant, opens it up, and the sergeant rams the stake into the body…only to discover it’s Tina! Tina sits up (now with vampire fangs) and claws at her bleeding chest and finally dies. Her sister Michelle screams in horror and cries as Gordon stands off to the side (probably tacitly reflecting on the grim turn of events and thanking God Almighty he gave the stake to the sergeant). Blacula appears and everyone backs away with fear and respect as he steadily approaches Tina’s dead body. A beaten and heart-broken vampire, Blacula announces that he has lived again only to lose Luva twice. With a heavy heart Balcula turns and marches up the stairs and into the dawn’s early light to commit vampire suicide. He stumbles as the sun’s cruel rays burn him and he at last collapses and his flesh melts away revealing a maggot-filled skeleton.

That might take more than a Tums.

That might take more than a Tums.

For the all the questions Blacula raises, the film is kind of awesome. Perhaps Mamuwalde’s acclimation to life in the 20th century was a bit too easy, but maybe they didn’t want to rely on simple fish-out-of-water jokes like the George Hamilton movie Love at First Bite. I do wonder how he innately knew that cameras—an invention he would have never been introduced to beforehand—would not pick up his image, but that’s nit-picking, I guess. There are some continuity errors, but the editing is pretty good for the most part. The plot moves quickly and the characters (with the possible exception of Tina, unless Mamuwalde put some spell on her to make her fall in love with him) have believable motivations and are interesting and engaging. William Marshall takes the role very seriously and commands every scene he is in. Another actor might have tried to bring humor to the part, but Marshall plays it completely straight and, you know something? It works. Any Dracula character needs one essential ingredient: charisma (unless you’re the gnarled Nosferatu type). William Marshall has great charisma and screen presence as Blacula and he elevates the entire film. It’s a fun Halloween movie with classic horror-tragedy and some great action. Unlike the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Draculas, Blacula is almost a good guy. He is the victim of Dracula’s evil and is driven more by love than by wrath. He is a compelling character with a life full of tragedy. Maybe Blacula isn’t quite as raucous or ground-breaking as other blaxploitation movies like say Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but for my money it’s pretty entertaining.

There's a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn't there.

There’s a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn’t there.

The sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973) is not as fun. Blacula’s not in it as much and it doesn’t have the same quick pace and much of the magic is gone, but Pam Grier is in it and the last scene in the house is pretty neat. I like the first movie and I hope you will too. For great soul horror this Halloween look for Blacula.

Top 10 Reason to See Blacula

1. Blacula totally sticks it to the Man (by gently bopping their helmeted heads against walls).

2. It’s got a great funky score.

3. Thalmus Rasulala’s mustache.

4. Denise Nicholas is real pretty.

5. William Marshall’s commanding and elegant performance.

6. If we all watch it maybe we can bring back the cape look.

7. People get set on fire.

8. Blacula was the first movie to win the Saturn Award for “Best Horror Film” (to put this in perspective: other great films to win since include The Exorcist, Young Frankenstein, The Wicker Man, The Fly, The Silence of the Lambs, and Army of Darkness).

9. It’s a cherished classic from the blaxploitation genre.

10. Remember Twilight? Me neither, watch Blacula.

Good evening.

Good evening.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 30, 2010

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For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! See the Freaks!

Schlitze laughs.

Schlitze laughs.

It’s one of those films that movie nuts grow up hearing about. Banned for years. Directed by the guy who did the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Oh, and starring mostly sideshow talents of the day. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a sort of holy grail for many years. Based on Tod Robbins short story, “Spurs,” Browning’s film would prove to be a controversial classic of the grotesque and remains unique and controversial to this day. What sort of deranged mind could be behind such a disturbing landmark film?

kinopoisk.ru

Tod Browning with some of his extraordinary cast.

Tod Browning (one of my personal favorites) actually had a rather close relationship with the circus growing up and in the early 1900s the great American sideshow was a huge attraction. People would flock to the circus to see wild exotic beasts, incredible feats, and see the unusual and deformed bits of humanity that were sadly usually kept behind locked doors at the time. This was Browning’s turf and, after having directed several weird movies in the silent era with men like Lon Chaney, Sr. (including West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown) and proving he could be a master of supernatural horror culminating with Dracula, he was the perfect gentleman to adapt Robbins’ dark tale of carnival carnality and revenge.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Freaks employed such circus sideshow talents as Prince Randian the Living Torso (otherwise billed as the Human Caterpillar); Schlitze, the pinhead; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who would also star in Chained for Life); Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo the Bird-Girl; Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton; Josephine Joseph the Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; and a host of dwarfs, Pinheads, and assorted legless or armless people.

Just a regular day at the circus.

Just a regular day at the circus.

The plot revolves around the sociopathic but beautiful trapeze acrobat, Cleopatra, who takes advantage of the rich lovestruck dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three). But Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Man Who Laughs) is actually romantically entangled with Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra seduces the gullible Hans and marries him only to plot to poison him to death and take his fortune. All the while she and Hercules mock the “freaks” and laugh at Hans. Oh, how they shame him. And then it happens. Cleopatra and Hercules become acquainted with the code of the freaks and revenge is served up cold and horrific.

One piece of the tragic love quadrangle.

Three pieces of the tragic love quadrangle.

Although a horror movie about so-called freaks, what will surprise most viewers is the humanity and compassion Browning displays. Where Count Dracula is wholly evil and inhuman, the Freaks are simply people with fascinating lives (albeit, a bit more complex in some situations) who only seek to live in harmony . . . but will violently defend the honor of one of their own disgraced brothers. Perhaps the code of the freaks strikes a slightly more mythical chord, but at the core of this gnarled beast of a film beats a heart with real feelings. Two “normal” circus folk, Venus and Phroso court each other and are friends with the sideshow folk. The conjoined Hilton sisters share comical moments with their future husbands. The Bearded Woman has a baby. Madame Tetrallini holds the Pinheads close to her bosom like a mother. Real affection exists in this cock-eyed world of circus shadows and abominations. They are a tightly knit family. They celebrate a wedding feast together and attempt to inaugurate the odious Cleopatra into their world—much to her chagrin and disdain.

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartbreak of the dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles), as she watches the man she loves, Hans, forsake her for the bigger woman and get maligned for it by the whole circus. Even though Hans ignores Daisy and pursues only the diabolical Cleopatra, Frieda still loves him and weeps for him when he is ridiculed. Earles had worked with Browning before for The Unholy Three and he and his sister both give fine performances here.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Hans' sistser

Daisy Earles as Frieda.


Freaks is a challenging film. It challenges the audience to see these people as human beings, and skilled ones at that (most of the cast gets a chance to perform bits of their acts throughout the film, such as when the limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his cigarette with only his mouth). It challenges people to not underestimate those folk whom may strike one as incapable or inconsequential. It challenges us to accept the acts of violent revenge as poetic justice. It challenges our preconceptions about the world and those in it. It is tragic, comedic, emotionally compelling, and in its final moments it is a full-fledged horror movie complete with lightning, creaky carnival convoys advancing in the night, and deformed aberrations clamoring through the mud for soft places to sink their knives into. It is the stuff horror legends are made of and it is what has made this cult classic a lasting part of our cinema history.

They're coming to get you, Cleopatra.

They’re coming to get you, Cleopatra.

Like its predecessors—Dracula and Browning’s earlier silent horror flicks—Freaks is a deeply atmospheric journey through shadowy realms of the grotesque and strange. For all its controversy and shock appeal, Freaks is a fine film with fascinating characters and a pleasing story that builds in emotion and suspense. Freaks is an oddity that gets better upon each viewing. It was almost an antidote to Dracula. What could be more of a reversal of Lugosi’s singular embodiment of undead evil cleverly disguised as a debonair and charismatic noble? Come to see Freaks for the promise of deformity and tales of the peculiar, stay for the heart, humanity, the satisfying horror climax, and genuinely surreal coda.

The Sisters.

The Hilton Sisters.

Top 10 Reasons to See “Freaks”

1. It’s a classic horror film from the great golden age of movies.

2. It’s better than Dracula.

3. It casts real sideshow performers as both human characters with ordinary (and unusual) problems and as misunderstood objects of horror at the same time.

4. It was banned in several countries for decades…making it kind of awesome.

5. A real life brother and sister play romantic interests (not necessarily cool, just sorta weird).

6. See if you can recognize one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.

7. It is a movie that is really hard to forget once you’ve seen it.

8. Halloween is fast approaching and you’ve already seen that Saw garbage.

9. It adeptly combines elements of classic horror with humor and some good old-fashioned creaky melodrama.

10. Because I demand it of you.

Prince Randian.

Prince Randian.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010

The Inconsequentials 2: Inconsequentialier

You may recall an article I wrote earlier called The Inconsequentials wherein I attempted to circumvent the ubiquitous essentials trope. Rather than plug great films everybody should see because of their power, depth, craftsmanship, and iconic status I chose instead to highlight some pulpier films that might not get as much attention as say It’s a Wonderful Life or Chinatown. I confess that I felt somewhat disingenuous with my previous selections of The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie. Perhaps these films were not obscure enough for the discerning Alternative Chronicle audience, I thought. Hence, I decided to extend my affections once more to the so-called “inconsequential” films of the past. This time, I tried to find movies that might be even less well-known, but still deserving of remembrance for different reasons.

They can’t all be classics, but that does not mean they cannot all entertain.

This time around we will venture into the dense forests of India with Elephant Boy (1937) then take a steamship to a deadly jungle island where they hunt The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and finally we’ll wash up on the suspicious shores of Japan to experience The Wrath of the Gods (1914). So you should know the drill by now. These are movies that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing, but I challenge you to enjoy them nevertheless. A common theme of interesting race relations lurks in all three of these films and I think it makes them even more worthy of study.

As a huge fan of iconic Indian actor, Sabu (The Thief of the Bagdad, Jungle Book, Black Narcissus) how could I resist plugging his very first movie, Elephant Boy (1937)? Nope, it’s not a prequel to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Sabu was one of those special rare cases of a non-white performer who gained notoriety in America and the United Kingdom during the 1930s and 40s. He had a naturally engaging persona and exuberance that was immensely enjoyable to watch. He’s still my favorite Mowgli. Before he played Mowgli in Zoltan Korda’s 1942 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, however, he played Toomai of the Elephants. Toomai was another Rudyard Kipling character and the movie was directed by Zoltan Korda and documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North). The Flaherty wildlife photography has been praised and it is pretty wonderful—as when the film takes the time to lollygag around a watering hole just observing a playful baby elephant run laps around its reclining mother—but the rest of the movie is just as fun. Toomai (Sabu) is a young elephant driver (Sabu’s father was one himself) and he has a special kinship with his elephant, Kala Nag. He talks to it, scolds it, scrubs it, and climbs all over it like Kala Nag is a giant puppy dog. When Toomai and Kala Nag join a party led by a British gentleman, they journey into the jungle to find wild elephants. Toomai wants to be a great hunter, but the older Indian elephant drivers tease him and say he will never be a great hunter until he sees the elephants dance. Tragedies strike and eventually Toomai must save Kala Nag’s life before it is too late. If he succeeds, Kala Nag will most assuredly repay Toomai with the secrets of the elephants.

Elephant Boy features a great debut performance for Sabu (whose life ended far too soon) and some nice jungle photography. The animal performances are pretty good too. Say what you like about Kipling’s “white man’s burden” form of racism, I still enjoy his writing. I like how in touch he tries to be with the jungle. Elephants are not just elephants for this British author and resident of India. Elephants are “the wise ones.” He captures mystery and wonder in the jungles and beasts and this film attempts the same. Another interesting thing about this movie is that Sabu is the only Indian actor. He is virtually surrounded by white actors in makeup and beards. The other odd thing to note is that the Kala Nag character is essentially selling out his untamed elephant brothers and even after he is antagonized by human captors. Maybe the wild elephants screwed him over and he’s just settling the score. Who knows? Elephant Boy could be the pachyderm equivalent to Get Carter if taken from the animal’s point of view. So why don’t people celebrate this film more? Because Jungle Book was better. The film’s story is only adequate and some might say it hasn’t aged very well, but for Sabu’s charming performance and the great elephant footage, I’d hesitate not to recommend it.

If you like King Kong (1933) then names like Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Ernest B. Schoedsack ought to be familiar to you. Schoedsack (Mighty Joe Young, Dr. Cyclops) co-directed this next project with Irving Pichel. Based on the famous short story by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starts with a horrific shipwreck complete with leaks, explosions, sharks, the works. Suck it, Titanic. The last survivor, Bob (Joel McCrea), swims to shore only to discover a jungle island with a castle on it. Upon investigation of said castle he meets the eccentric Russian, Zaroff (a particularly hammy Leslie Banks), and a cadre of mute cossacks acting as butlers. Zaroff introduces Bob to his guests, two former shipwreck survivors, Eve (Fay Wray) and her incessantly inebriated brother Martin (Armstrong). Honestly, Bob seems to be taking the grisly death of all his friends on the ship pretty well, and he doesn’t even seem to be a little perturbed by Zaroff’s odd insistence on ominous secrecy. He likes Eve though. Bob does finally get riled up when Zaroff’s plans are revealed: he’s a manhunter! Tired of the lack of challenge with hunting wild beasts, Zaroff craves a foe who can outsmart him. He has human heads mounted on the wall in his trophy room from his games of “outdoor chess.” Soon the hunt is on and Bob and Eve are set loose in the forest. They set traps for Zaroff, but Zaroff upgrades from bow and arrow to rifle and then he sets the dogs on his prey. The Most Dangerous Game is extremely melodramatic and silly, but the jungle settings are great (it even has the infamous log from King Kong) and the fights are fun. I really liked the castle too.

Yes, it’s hammy and the villain is oh-so-obvious and over-the-top, but I really liked this movie. It’s quick, breezy, pulpy, and fun. No one is going to confuse The Most Dangerous Game with a “great movie” but it does everything it needs to do and it’s entertaining from start to finish. So what’s the weird racial thing in this one? Here it is. It’s Americans vs. disgruntled Russians, right? Well, the head butler-cossack, Ivan, is played by African American actor, Noble Johnson (he’s the chief in King Kong), in white-face and a funny beard. As a big fan of the movies of the 1920s and 1930s, I’m used to seeing white actors in black-face, yellow-face, red-face, etc., but it’s not often you get to see a black guy in a supporting role in white-face. It’s kinda cool in a weird way. This movie obviously gets overlooked living in the shadow of the far superior and grander King Kong, but this more modest film has a lot of the seeds that would grow into Kong and it’s a fun little adventure to boot.

When you hear The Wrath of God what do you think of? Wener Herzog? Carl Theodor Dreyer? Robert Mitchum and Frank Langella? Skip them for now. How about Sessue Hayakawa? The Wrath of the Gods (1914) is a silent film that takes place near the pounding surf of a doomed Japanese shore. Sessue Hayakawa (The Bridge On the River Kwai, Swiss Family Robinson) is a poor fisherman named Yamaki. His daughter, Toya San, is cursed because of an ancestor’s murderous desecration of a temple and so she cannot find love lest the gods unleash their wrath on the village. Toya San (played by Hayakawa’s wife in real life, Tsuru Aoki) renounces her Buddhist faith exclaiming, “I refuse to acknowledge a god who would so unjustly curse the innocent.” This is a huge religious and philosophical statement. One that I’m not sure even the film fully comprehends. When a shipwreck lands an American sailor, Tom Wilson (Frank Borzage), at their doors they take care of him, but soon he and Toya San fall in love. Here’s where things get interesting. Toya San cannot accept his marriage proposal for fear of the curse, but Tom assures her that Jesus Christ will protect them and that his god is stronger than all their Japanese gods. It was at this point I realized that guys will say anything to get sex but his motives are purer than that, I think. He genuinely loves her and so he evangelizes to her so he can marry her. Seeing that they can be happy together, Yamaki accepts Christianity and builds a wooden cross to replace the figure of Buddha. Naturally, the small village community is furious when they get wind of this idiot American staining their way of life. They murder Toya San’s father and torch their house and then the whole island erupts and rocks and flames poor down on everyone. The old Japanese seer gets killed in a volcanic avalanche and the island burns and the entire town is wiped out, but Tom and Toya San escape. As the Japanese villagers die in the distance, Tom says, “Your gods may be powerful, Toya San, but mine has proved his omnipotence. You are saved to perpetuate your race.” Wow. Culturally insensitive much?

The implications in this film are reason enough to watch this! Seriously! This is crazy, crazy stuff! It was based on an actual disaster that struck Sakura-Jima in 1914, the biggest Japanese eruption in the century. The dramatic elements were based on an old Japanese legend, but the implications here… This is not a love story, this is the gods at war. Each god has a very different nature and personality it seems, yet they appear to both wield authority despite their seemingly distant and abstract portrayal. The American guy has no idea how serious his infringement on their culture is. He just wants the girl and he has a simple faith in Christianity. He says Christ will protect them if she believes. Which he does and they are saved. The seer says that the Japanese gods will destroy the island if Toya-San marries. Which they do and everyone is killed. Not to say there isn’t a clear pro-American/pro-Christian agenda here, but I think there is plenty more to unpack in this story. It presents two very different world views. The ignorant, meddling, naive, and optimistic Christian American all in favor of New World ideals and individualism is in stark contrast to the traditionalist, isolationist, and superstitious mob mentality of the Japanese fishing village who live in fear and follow strict ritual. Both are caricatures, but both make Toya San’s choice that much easier to go with the flat white guy. He’s nice to her and says she won’t be cursed. Who would you go with?

Another really cool thing about this movie is that the Asian people are PLAYED BY ASIAN PEOPLE. The Wrath of the Gods was made early enough (1914) that there was still some diversity in American films. No yellow-face in this film. Another really fascinating thing is that, unlike Madame Butterfly copies, the Japanese girl gets the white guy in the end and doesn’t die. Actor Frank Borzage and actress Tsuru Aoki even share an onscreen kiss. Miscegenation laws be damned! This sort of interracial romantic representation would be banned later on in Hollywood and hurt the careers of people like Anna May Wong. No one remembers this movie today because it is a silent movie with no big, famous names in it. Hayakawa was a fine actor and he made dozens of films in both the sound era and the silent, but he is not as famous as Valentino, Pickford, Chaney, or Fairbanks. This is a strange little movie, particularly in its representation of foreign relations, but it’s only good and not great and so it gets swept under the carpet.

So why do I keep doing this? Watching these films that are good but not great and recommend them? It is because I’d hate to think of some of these fine movies being forgotten or missed by people who might enjoy them. Like The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie which I loved and featured folks like Marlene Dietrich, Lon Chaney, Sr., and Bela Lugosi; Elephant Boy, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Wrath of Gods are not so off the beaten path that even the most nominal of film buff couldn’t enjoy them. Sabu, Fay Wray, and Sessue Hayakawa are still pretty big. Next time maybe I’ll try to find even smaller movies. Until then enjoy these titles.

http://www.moviemartyr.com/1932/mostdangerousgame.htm

http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/Elephant-Boy/

http://www.listal.com/list/filmography-robert-j-flaherty

http://www.filmfan.com/pages/memorial_wray.html

http://furuhonjoe.blog137.fc2.com/blog-entry-5.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 22, 2011

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”


Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.


Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.


The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).

 

One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.

I’d Wear a Turtle-neck if I Were You.

*creeeeeaaaak*

*creeeeeaaaak*

In a previous article, I praised the awesome splendor that is Frankenstein and I mentioned how iconic Boris Karloff’s image as the infamous Monster had become. I also mentioned another, possibly even more iconic character: Dracula. Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, is practically synonymous with Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Lugosi (White Zombie, The Black Cat, The Island of Lost Souls, Son of Frankenstein) made a career of playing evil and supernatural villains with an aristocratic air. He played twisted doctors, cursed men, and many other grotesques, but it is his role as the charismatic Count Dracula that keeps him alive in the public’s eye. Bela Lugosi gives a spooktacular performance making Tod Browning’s (Freaks, The Unholy Three) classic film Dracula (1931).

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

I love the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula (second would be Christopher Lee), but I am saddened to see this version get crapped on so much. People say it is overrated, hammy, and a clunky transition out of the sound era. Well, it is technically all of these things, but it is so much fun. I admit my bias: I love Tod Browning. Frankenstein is the superior film in many ways simply because it has actual action and complicated character relationships, whereas Dracula is all mood and rich atmosphere with zero action. It’s about watching Lugosi gracefully interact with his unwitting victims and waiting for the moment to strike. The sets, costumes, and wonderful matte paintings are all exquisite as well. Even if you see it as being terribly dated, it is still a charming time capsule and swell pulp.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it's too late.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it’s too late.

Before Lugosi donned his famous cape, however, there was another great movie vampire. Haunting up the silent cinemas in 1922 was Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s (Faust, Sunrise) Nosferatu. Orlok does not resemble your average vampire. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, which everyone copied from Christopher Lee to George Hamilton, Nosferatu looks bizarrely alien and unfamiliar and—as a result maybe—more unsettling. With his naked skull, pointed ears, high shoulders, tall stature, long spindly arms and fingers, gaunt features, demonic eye-brows, and jagged incisors, Max Schreck’s vampire is in a class all his own. When Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) directed the remake of Nosferatu in 1979 they made up actor Klaus Kinski (Aquirre Wrath of God, For a Few Dollars More) to look exactly like the sinister bloodsucker from the original and it really worked. Both versions of Nosferatu are sure to delight with fright, but I strongly advocate seeing the 1922 version first. So iconic and genuinely chilling. The Nosferatus feel like you’re running in slow-motion in a spiraling uneasy nightmare.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

Both Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922) follow pretty much the same storyline.  A mysterious aristocrat (a.k.a. Vampire) is visited by a hapless solicitor. By the time the visitor learns the truth it is too late and the Count is soon on a voyage to more urban environs (Renfield is played by horror favorite Dwight Frye in Dracula). Once established in his new home the Count begins to feed. This is pretty much all you need to know for either film. Beyond this there are many differences. Dracula is more outgoing than Orlok for instance. While Dracula mingles with oblivious socialites, Orlok lurks in the shadows. Since Orlok looks more like a malnourished rodent than a human being it makes sense he wouldn’t be as charming and seductive as Dracula. Dracula has a strange sensuality about him that Orlock could never hope to pull off.

Lurk...lurk...

Lurk…lurk…

It has been said that the Spanish version of Dracula that was made using the same sets (they shot at night while the Americans filmed during the day) is a better film from a technical standpoint. I couldn’t disagree, but Carlos Villarías is no Bela Lugosi. I like both versions, but it’s all about the casting of the Count and Lugosi is it for me.

Ya caught me.

Ya caught me.

I hope in 50 years people will still picture these classic characters whenever they hear the word ‘vampire’ uttered around Halloween. What a travesty of tragic proportions if our children should imagine only Edward Cullen. The horror.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

I am a big fan of both films. They have the old, spooky castles shrouded in spider webs and that aura of Old World mystery. They have immediately recognizable villains that we catch ourselves rooting for. Both films suck you into their own Gothic fantasy and don’t let go.  Dracula also features the fantastic horror treasure, Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) as Dr. Van Helsing, an added bonus to be sure. Where monsters like King Kong, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster are all misunderstood outcasts who are never truly evil and may be presented more as victims, it is refreshing to see an unapologetically wicked character that has the world seemingly wrapped around his finger and delights in his sly mayhem. Unlike future vampire movies, which would try to portray vampires as tormented pariahs, Nosferatu and Dracula make no bones about their vampires’ evil nature (not including the Herzog remake). They relish the kill and this is what makes the Count so engaging and horrific. There is only one goal: suck blood. Simple? Yes, but it works.

Screw it.

Screw it.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is more of a tortured soul who sucks blood for survival and he might be falling in love with a human woman. It’s a slightly different approach, but he is in no way sissified. Kinski gives another spookily unhinged performance, but you can tell he’s channeling a lot of Max Schreck.

Come with me if you want to die.

Come with me if you want to die.

Nosferatu and Dracula are two masterful classics of the horror genre with fantastic atmosphere and enchanting performances. Need I bother telling you what a magnificent double-feature they would make? Celebrate Halloween this year with a few awesome Counts.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 20, 2009