laying down the law

a resounding cry of "yes! finally!" went out across the land this week as the criterion collection released a feature-packed edition of erle c. kenton's masterpiece, island of lost souls (1932). this first, and still greatest, adaptation of h.g. wells' the island of doctor moreau has never seen a dvd release until now. for collectors of classic horror cinema this represents a significant gap being filled. it is one of my favorite examples of pre-code filmmaking, regardless of genre, and one of the most unsettling films ever to come out of hollywood's golden age.

it is a forbidding and claustrophobic film from start to finish. it opens on the ocean, aboard the cargo ship covena, completely shrouded in fog, moves to an overgrown jungle and then into the zoo-like compound of the good doctor. there isn't a single significant setting that provides characters any room to move. it is suppression and control at every turn. navigating that initial fog bank, the steamer comes upon a derelict vessel carrying the lone survivor of a shipwreck, edward parker. he is taken aboard ship and nursed back to health. fighting through his fever, parker asks the doctor to send a wire on his behalf to his fiancée to let her know he is safe. plucked from the ocean, on the mend and equipped with a wireless, his fortunes seem to be on the upswing. "i'm in luck", he says. i don't know that i would go that far.

parker's intended receives the good news and is left to bide her time until they make it into port. meanwhile, back on board, parker runs afoul of the captain of the vessel. captain davies is transporting a virtual menagerie to an uncharted south sea island and seems to be little more than just another animal himself. already drunk and on edge, the captain lashes out at m'ling, the servant of the doctor who ministered to parker, knocking him unconscious. parker comes to m'ling's defense, returning the favor and knocking the captain out, as cold as a mackerel. rushing to m'ling's aid, parker notices something a little odd about the man - a pointed, fur-covered ear.

strange things are afoot. parker lays low at doctor montgomery's suggestion and soon they meet doctor moreau to transfer the cargo. completing the transfer, davies brutally throws parker overboard and he is now left in moreau's diabolical hands. echoing a shot from when parker was rescued, the camera pans across moreau's crew and it becomes startlingly clear that something is terribly wrong here. the crew is populated by lumbering sub-humans, blasphemous by their very existence. they haven't even made it to shore before moreau has developed a devilish plan. parker is going to come in very handy. they repair to his compound and an elegant meal only to have it interrupted by the first of many ugly and horrifying screams. parker returns to his room as the doctor puts his plan into action. he intends to introduce his greatest creation, lota, to parker and let nature take its course. lota and parker begin to get comfortable as moreau lingers in the shadows, watching his latest experiment with a voyeuristic satisfaction that seems hardly scientific. more screams erupt and parker abandons the court and spark to see just what can be making such horrific sounds. stumbling onto the house of pain, he finds moreau in mid-vivisection.

in a textbook example of frying pan/fire, parker takes lota and flees into the jungle, where they stumble onto a colony of more man-beasts. led by the sayer of the law, a perfectly tortured bela lugosi, these creatures waste no time in moving in on lota and parker but moreau quickly puts them in their place. playing the plantation owner to the hilt, moreau, whip in hand, has his subjugated creations recite the code by which he keeps them in thrall. according to the law, it is forbidden to eat meat, go on all fours or spill blood. "are we not men?!", the beasts intone repeatedly at lugosi's urging, asking a question that they don't actually know the answer to yet.

the half-man, half-cat out of the bag, moreau lays it all on the surgical table for parker. all animal life is tending toward human form, he theorizes. his plan is to strip away all of those thousands of years of evolution. through the miracle of modern science he has created this race of miserable, tortured hybrids out of lower animal forms. "do you know what it means to feel like god?", he asks parker as he slinks almost lasciviously around his laboratory, sickening grin bubbling up on his face. lota, his most successful experiment so far, will play eve to parker's adam in this hellishly inverted garden of eden. the seduction is almost complete when lota's panther origin begins to aggressively reassert itself. parker rockets past guilt at betraying his betrothed into full blown confused disgust as the implications of the bestiality he wants to commit settle on his brain. he threatens to expose moreau but it is idle at best, as moreau holds all the cards, it would seem. at least it seems so until parker's fiancée, ruth, shows up. she managed to secure passage to moreau's island and is intent on getting her man back. blinded to the inherent dangers of all these interlopers, all moreau can focus on is the next unspeakable experiment made possible by ruth's arrival. parker, with his troublesome knowledge, is no longer of consequence if he can simply mate ruth with one of his abominations. he wastes no time in putting that plan in motion but it goes awry and parker and company decide they can no longer wait. they must escape now. they send the captain who ferried ruth to moreau's island back to the ship but he is waylaid by one of moreau's things. moreau instructs the beast to kill the man, a direct violation of the law. it is the thread that begins moreau's unraveling. he has developed a beast with enough intelligence to understand his hypocrisy. this violation means one thing. law no more!

his abominations explode in open revolt as they begin to understand that he, too, can die. they pursue him into the compound and finally bring him to the house of pain where his hideous shrieks ring out as they use his own implements to cut him to ribbons while still alive. our protagonists use this opportunity to make good their escape and moreau's hell on earth literally burns to the ground behind them as they row to freedom, moreau's former assistant imploring them, "don't look back".

the great horror movies succeed often because of a perfectly sustained mood. the texas chain saw massacre (1974) is so effective because the entire second half is a raw nerve. it turns your cerebellum into a jangling fire alarm that simply does not stop. audition (1999) works so well because it sits in your stomach not like sickness, but the anticipation of sickness. it's that feeling where you try to kid yourself that if you just lay still and think of something cool it will all be alright when you know nothing could be further from the truth. this film succeeds because it is a seventy minute bruise. i don't know if i know another film that is so drenched in pain, definitely not one from this era. instead of glorious black and white it should be in purple and sickly yellow tinged with green. the stifling settings, the lack of a score, everything about it contributes to one prolonged howl of miserable agony. you have never heard screams like the screams you hear in this film. they are truly horrifying and heart-rendingly sad. they make you sick to your stomach because they impart such pain.

charles laughton is pitch perfect in the lead role. he is utterly charming and sadistic beyond measure. he takes the blasphemies that preceded him and obliterates them for sheer pleasure. the transgression of frankenstein (1931) is that henry frankenstein dared to know things beyond the scope of mortals. moreau is not satisfied with that. he must make it not only transgressive but perverse. forbidden knowledge is not enough. there must be immeasurable suffering as well. why on earth would this doctor elect to never use anaesthetic? he treats his creations with callous disregard, handling them like things, like meat. laughton is utterly convincing. there is a glee bordering on sexual euphoria that flashes in his eyes every time he strikes upon a new way to manipulate, miscegenate or amputate another cog in his diabolical machine. he is seductive and repulsive in equal measure. his ego is beyond control and yet he seems intimately acquainted with the idea that man's control over nature is tenuous and temporary, at best.

this movie hasn't lost a step. the potential for allegory abounds - old testament god/satan, british colonialism, american slaveholding, employer/employee relations and on and on. the wicked implications of moreau's methods and madness cast long, sick shadows over every mad scientist that followed in his wake. bestiality, rape, murder, eugenics - heady stuff, be it 1932 or 2011. at its core, though, it remains so powerful simply because it is so painful. the horror comes directly from that, undiluted.

i would have been thrilled for this to get a dvd release at all. no more scrambling around trying to record the occasional televison showing, no more need to employ dying vhs technology. to have criterion issue it, though, is a godsend. in addition to the pristine, uncut restoration it is full of treats. gregory mank contributes a commentary track with plenty of anecdotal delights. there is a conversation with john landis, rick baker and bob burns in which their enthusiasm for the film makes it possible to picture them as the kids who fell in love with movies far before there was even an inkling that it might become their profession. there is an extended interview with david j. skal, one of my favorite horror film historians. richard stanley, originally slated to direct the version that was eventually completed in 1996 by john frankenheimer, gets out his scalpel and dissects what exactly went wrong with that whole process. my favorite feature, though, is the interview with gerald casale and mark mothersbaugh of devo about what a profound impact the film had on them. i, as i am sure a number of other geeks can, relate to their story on a number of levels: the thrill of discovery via the local late night horror host, the encouraging feeling that someone else is speaking your language, the way things that find you like this have a way of taking on a significance you could never expect. if you have been lucky enough to have an experience like this, it's easy to relive as they describe theirs. the whole package makes for great viewing and great fun. this one is essential.

happy halloween!

have fun, be careful and get cauldrons full of candy.


starlite spooktacular

the starlite cinema series took it all the way up to the witching hour tonight with our halloween spook show.

tonight's program was a celebration of the undead, the bloodsucker. we started things off with a pair of animated shorts. first up was alê camargo's highly expressionistic night of the vampire (2006) followed by spike jonze and simon cahn's to die by your side (2011). for those of you that couldn't make it, here's a halloween treat for you.

then it was on to the feature, park chan-wook's thirst (2009). the stephens went above and beyond to get everyone into the spirit of this one. stephen orsak brought a delicious pot of traditional spicy korean soup. stephen smith, not to be outdone on his home turf, kicked it up a notch and added to the sanguinary delights with his own unique contribution.

it's not halloween unless a little blood is spilled. not to worry. he is alright. the pumpkin pie (with ginger snap crust!) that he and lauren made for us took some of the sting out of it. lauren also turned these tangerines into sweet li'l jack o'lanterns!

this is the kind of loving attention to detail that you find at every starlite screening. i'm very lucky to have the smiths as my partners in this endeavor. who else would be so willing to share their blood, sweat and citrus? check in with us next month as we bring you jodie foster's overlooked gem of a thanksgiving picture, home for the holidays (1995). as always, there will be a couple of surprises on the bill and it would be great to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season with you. the screening will be on saturday, 11.19.11 at 7:30 p.m. here's the event page if you'd like to rsvp there. if you're not facebook-enabled just let me know. i will get you the information. these screenings are always free and very casual. join us if you can.



regulars around here know that the laszlo clan is my absolute favorite family that i wasn't born a member of. it seems like something happens every day that makes me love those crazy kids even more. today's exhibit A? my favorite two year-old in the whole wide world is going as gelsomina from la strada (1954) for halloween.

i hear her quack is top notch.

happy birthday to me

you should stop by. it's going to be a great party.


trailer tuesday

as this is the last trailer tuesday of the halloween season we are going to send things out with a bang. ladies and gentlemen, this week's entry is for david cronenberg's scanners (1981).


look what the cat dragged in

the criterion collection have outdone themselves this halloween season with a pair of dvds that are absolute musts for fans of classic horror cinema. in this first of two reviews, i want to talk to you folks about their freshly-minted release of kaneto shindō's kuroneko (1968).

based on a japanese folk tale called the cat's revenge, this is an evocative and beautifully photographed tale of supernatural retribution during a period of civil war. it opens with a sedate, static shot of a solitary house on the edge of a farming village. winds ruffle the tall grasses and the only sound is that of insects. almost imperceptibly, a ragged band of starving samurai creep out of the surrounding forest. entering the house, they find the two women who live there in mid-meal. the samurai avail themselves of whatever food they want and then proceed to brutally rape and kill the women. shot from exaggerated angles in closeup, the samurai are transformed into leering, murderous grotesques. their bushidō code is a sham, as they are no more concerned with the sanctity of innocent lives as they are with stealing a few grains of rice. satiated, they leisurely wander back into the forest, as if this is all in a day's work. we return to the same static shot of the house and field, this time only to have the frame begin to fill with smoke, as the samurai have also set fire to the house. a scene that was, just moments ago, idyllic is now ghastly. it is a shocking burst of sexual violence, a sickening and brutal reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn, especially in a region beset by war and strife.

in the wake of this destruction, a black cat wanders through the wreckage of the burned house, lapping at the wounds of the dead women. it is a harbinger of the terrible fate that will soon be visited upon all samurai who have the misfortune to travel through this grove. the spirits of the dead women make an unholy pact with the god of evil to return as deadly spirits and feast upon the blood of every samurai in the world. in the guise of noblewomen, they haunt the rajomon gate, luring one samurai after another into their ritual of seduction, then complete destruction. this sequence of the film is captivating. the spirits are introduced to us as they come tumbling through the air, balletically flying about the heads of their intended victims. asking for escort through the grove, they lure one traveler after another to their home. once ensconced in their abode - a house adrift in a fog-shrouded, bamboo netherworld - they ply the samurai with sake and the promise of pleasures of the flesh. guard sufficiently lowered, the samurai soon have their throats ripped out and their bodies litter the countryside.

oh, how the tables have turned. we see this deadly ritual repeated several times in this beautifully edited section of the film, each time performed with a little more speed and ruthlessness, until things reach a fever pitch and the governor must send for a champion to dispatch these foul spirits.

that hero is gintoki of the grove, whom we first see locked in mortal combat of the david-and-goliath variety. proving his worth as the sole survivor of a bloody battle in the north, he is charged with dealing with the marauding spirits. upon visiting his home he discovers it burned to the ground. it turns out that the dead women are his mother and wife whom he hasn't seen since he was conscripted into service in the civil war, dragged straight from plowing his fields. he would seem to be the last honorable man in japan, having served bravely in the wars and also having avoided becoming bloated and arrogant like so many of the samurai the spirits have destroyed before him. he visits the rajomon gate and is soon met by the ghost of his dead wife. he escorts her home and partakes of their hospitality. stunned to find spirits that are so obviously his loved ones, he attempts to draw them out by telling them his story and how he fought desperately for years to return home. due to their vow to the god of the netherworld they cannot be as forthright. he does survive the night, however, something that cannot be said of his brethren. he returns to their home and the seduction ritual we have seen so many times begins once again, this time with an entirely different ending. it is he who wants to devour her. the young lovers are reunited and spend a week experiencing the joys they once knew.

the reunion is bittersweet, though, as his wife has broken her vow by letting him live. this gift of seven days comes with a high cost and in order to pledge her love in this way she has consigned herself to an eternity in hell. with his wife lost to him once again, a grief-stricken gintoki appeals to the governor to find someone else to finish the job. his mother has resumed killing, however, so the governor makes him an offer he can't refuse - destroy the spirit once and for all or be destroyed himself. it is now his turn to haunt the rajomon gate, waiting night after night until his mother returns. she eventually does, pleading to him to visit the home one last time to read her a sacred sutra, whereupon she will gladly descend into hell herself and put an end to this terrible cycle. all is not as it seems, however, and on the trek through the grove they do battle. gintoki takes the spirit's arm and returns to the governor with his vile trophy. gintoki then begins a week of ritual purification and prayer. throughout, he is taunted and tempted by his mother's vengeful spirit and finally deceived into letting the demon into this sacred space. there is a heated battle and she reclaims her arm.

he gives chase, returning to their home only to find it frustratingly empty. he stumbles impotently through the house, brandishing his sword at nothing and crying in anguish until he collapses, feverish and mad. the old homestead is now a funeral pyre that has claimed the entire family.

shindō is in wonderful form throughout, combining elements of traditional theatre, fable and expressionist cinema to deliver a beautiful, spare film that is an atmospheric marvel. on one level it is an eerie traditional tale of vengeful spirits, on another it is a thoughtful dissection of duty and love amidst the hypocrisy of traditional japanese social strata. shindō's agrarian background left him with little respect for the samurai class. throughout his body of work he is more than willing to dispel the myth of the samurai as noble and righteous. in his universe they are often corrupt, lustful and unjust and it is precisely these characteristics that lead to their undoing. setting the carnage amidst beautiful chiaroscuro lighting and nifty aerial trickery (it was shindō's first use of wire work), he has crafted one of the most lovely and nuanced ghost stories i have ever seen, ending up with a halloween treat that is as artistic as moralistic.

and, as usual, criterion ups the ante. their restoration has resulted in a transfer that is crisp and full of rich contrasts. the real treat, however, is the pair of interviews included in the special features. critic and film historian tadao sato has a brief segment in which he sheds some light on the cultural significance of japan's proclivity for cinematic ghosts and where kuroneko fits into the grand scheme of things. there is also a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion with shindō hosted by seijirō kōyama, shindō's assistant director on a number of films, including this one. it delves deeply into his ideology, working methods and personal history, offering the type of insight you don't often see in filmmaker interviews. particularly affecting, i thought, was the section in which the prolific shindō sought to do away with the notion that once you reach a certain point in your life you become peaceful, a contented and wise elder statesman. not so, says he. if you are vital you struggle to the end, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always striving. i admire that a great deal. it is the inclusion of this type of material that always make criterion editions worth the investment - not just a beautiful film, well presented, but a richer understanding of the art and the artist. it's available in the states on dvd for the first time this week. i highly recommend you take advantage of this spooky delight this season.


trailer tuesday

halloween festivities in the vitagraph household are never complete without vincent price. this week's entry is for roger corman's the masque of the red death (1964).


trailer tuesday

trailer tuesday has one question for you this week: who will survive and what will be left of them? ladies and gentlemen, tobe hooper's the texas chain saw massacre (1974)!


BOO de grâce!

this month sees our first foray into a seasonally themed queue de grâce. my friend corey over at the spectacular optical corporation has seen fit to pick up my ghoulish gauntlet!

i have hand-selected a list of some of my favorite cinematic thrills and chills for corey to make his way through this week, a list that includes everything from pre-code mad doctors to rankin/bass clay monsters to exploitation at its worst from the four corners of the globe. follow his descent into my madness all week (and maybe beyond) while i sit back and let someone else do the work for a while. enjoy!


starlite cinema series - halloween spook show

the return of october means the return of the starlite cinema series halloween spook show!

this is always the hardest bill for me to put together. i think about it all year. how do you decide which of your kids is your favorite? i mulled over themes, odd combinations and scoured the dark, musty corners of the internet looking for just the right tricks and treats until i had bats in my belfry. in the end, the bats won out. we are devoting our entire evening's programming to the cursed undead. our feature presentation is going to be park chan-wook's south korean import, thirst (2009).

it is the tale of a priest who is devoted in his service to his fellow man. his dedication compels him to participate in a deadly medical experiment which has two unfortunate side effects: one - it kills him. two - it infects him with the virus of vampirism. newly resurrected, he attempts to continue his ministrations only to find himself afflicted by strange and powerful new desires. a need for blood turns out to be the least troublesome one. posing more of a problem is his coveting of his neighbor's wife. they enter into an illicit affair and he reveals his true nature to her, which acts as the catalyst that frees her from the life of misery she has been silently suffering through, married to a simpleton, living like the family dog in her mother-in-law's house. what follows is a twisted take on the likes of the postman always rings twice (1946), replete with bloodsuckers. it has all the requisite noir elements - a fundamentally good man in the wrong place at the wrong time, done in by desire for a woman who, once unleashed, pays no heed to whom she destroys as long as it gets her what she desires. as much a meditation on the destructive nature of need as it is a standard horror film, it combines this walk down the dark end of the street with park's usual servings of sex, violence and left-field black comedy. it is beautifully shot as well. along with let the right one in (2008), it artfully demonstrates that there is still new territory to be staked out (hey-o!) in a film genre that is now over a century old.

showtime will be at 7:30 p.m. on saturday, 10.29.11. this is a little bit earlier than they have been lately, so plan accordingly. there will be a few preliminary entertainments as well, so come early and wear your best cape. here is the facebook event page if you would like to rsvp there. if you can't access that, let me know and i will get you the information. as always, these screenings are completely free and very casual. hope to see you there.


the doctor is in

boris karloff and bela lugosi are obviously indispensable as architects of horror cinema. only one man, though, appears throughout the holy trinity of universal's monster cycle. that man is vitagraph favorite, edward van sloan.

eventually becoming one of america's most durable character actors, he appeared in only one silent film, slander (1916), prior to those career-defining roles at universal. that fifteen year gap in between was filled with a lot of stage work, most notably as dr. abraham van helsing in the 1927 broadway production of dracula. it was the role he was born to play and, fortunately for us, he was also selected by universal to reprise the role when they filmed their tod browning-directed version of it in 1931. everything i love about van sloan is here in spades. he is a dedicated man of science doing battle with otherworldly forces, rational enough to understand the nature of evil, pragmatic enough to understand that there are things which defy reason. he is encouragingly paternal yet he will countenance no nonsense. most importantly, he is one tough old bastard. with his inimitable delivery, severe crew cut and flinty eyes magnified by thick glasses, he stands toe to toe with the count and does not flinch.

he is an implacable font of arcane knowledge with an almost suicidal fearlessness. he stands like a stooped colossus, an indomitable center of gravity and will in a house swirling with madmen, bats and silly young lovers. he wastes no time, ever. the very moment he deduces dracula's true nature when the count casts no reflection in the mirror, he lets him know he is onto him. he does not devise ridiculous traps and hunt only by day. he openly declares war. all this is not to say he doesn't know how to have fun, though. look at the joy in his face as he taunts renfield with wolf's bane. he doesn't walk, he runs, into carfax abbey. this is a man who clearly loves his work. while hugh jackman's van helsing is out shopping for hair care products, van sloan's is ensconced in his library, getting smarter, better, stronger.

ready for action!

the next time we see van sloan is in james whale's frankenstein (1931), where he takes time out of his busy schedule being a badass to issue this warning:

it's a kinder, gentler van sloan this time around and that costs him dearly. here, he portrays dr. waldman, henry frankenstein's former mentor and friend. prevailed upon to draw henry out of madness and seclusion, he accompanies henry's fiancée and friend to henry's castle laboratory just in time to see frankenstein's experiments bear blasphemous fruit. again, he is the stern but loving father figure, espousing common sense and dispensing valuable advice.

for instance, when selecting a brain to put into a reanimated body made of corpses, don't use the one marked "abby someone".

it's a complicated line dr. waldman walks. he is conservative, a card-carrying member of the medical establishment that has ostracized frankenstein. he tries time and again to warn henry of the potential dangers of his research, that evil will most certainly prevail. yet, he does not leave. his scientific curiosity gets the better of him. though he is repelled by the nature of henry's experiments and fearful of their outcome, he cannot completely divest himself of them or his former student. they are too fascinating. even when it becomes clear that the monster must be destroyed, he cannot quite pull the trigger before investigating a little further, which proves to be his undoing. the lure of forbidden knowledge is strong, even to someone as buttoned-down and practical as waldman. if only he'd had the fortitude of van helsing.

finally, a few months later, we arrive at my favorite of the golden age universal horrors, karl freund's the mummy (1932).

once again, van sloan is on the scene, laying down the law. think of how much destruction could have been averted in the thirties, if only people had listened to him. he portrays dr. muller here, an expert in egyptian occult lore. this time around, although still as astringent as ever, he is possessed of a romanticism that was not present in the other two films. this van sloan is much more deeply acquainted with recondite forces. he is as knowledgeable as van helsing and conscientious as waldman but the ancient mysteries of the desert manifest something quite different in him as he prophecies ruin. he struggles vainly to get everyone to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, ultimately ending up impotent against karloff's threat himself, his vast knowledge and respectful fear of the secrets of the dead being of no use to him at all. he must sit idly by and, in a rare turn of events in horror cinema, watch the heroine save herself. he suffers that terrible fate of every man with an inquisitive nature - that of having wisdom which brings no profit to the wise.

so, how did he do?
dracula - staked the villain in the final reel
frankenstein - strangled by frankenstein's monster
the mummy - powerless to help, but survived

one win, one loss, one draw - a very respectable record against cinema's greatest monsters. he would go on to play a number of doctors, doomed and otherwise, until 1950, but would never surpass this trio of films. in a span of just under two years in the early thirties, he cemented his reputation as your board-certified herald of disaster in a way that left an indelible mark on the landscape of horror cinema. my prescription? take all three of these as needed, every october. to quote another highly esteemed medical man, dr. john, "don't be ashamed to call the doctor when there ain't nobody left".

good for what ails you!


trailer tuesday

october is here! of course this means all month we will feature trailers to make your blood run cold. we kick things off with the original longform trailer for roman polanski's rosemary's baby (1968).


hidden horrors II: hidden-er

as october returns so does my warning to look and then look again. hidden horrors abound...

sweet dreams.