Criterion Dreaming: 5 Movies That Made Me a Cinephile

51y6xRUTHbLLife grants us a limited number of “mothership” moments: raptures of sudden belonging, occasions when our weirdness transforms into an asset, when something beloved and elusive enfolds us.

The Criterion Collection has played a more-than-supporting role in quite a few mothership moments that I’ve had over the course of 25 years.

You might say that Criterion has been the Ward Bond in my love affair with cinema. Or maybe the Edward Everett Horton. Not the object of my affection, but an oft-present catalyst, a cherished pal, a wry observer, an intermediary, a bringer of joy and plot developments.

I see a clear trajectory in my attachment to Criterion films. Through 5 DVD experiences, I evolved from that odd teenage girl who liked to watch old Hollywood movies into a far-gone cinephile—somebody who devours information about film and always hungers for more.


Even when I set aside personal favorites and epiphanies, Criterion served as my introduction to almost every essential art film that I’ve seen—though I have plenty of shameful blind spots—whether through a DVD I owned, a library loan, a title I streamed, or a college screening I attended. When I go over the highlights of that list, it sounds like an art-house litany: M, La règle du jeu, The Seventh Seal, L’Avventura, Hiroshima mon amour, À bout de souffle… and so on.

I can only write about and understand film by looking through the lens of who I am, but the movies I watched during my formative years as a cinephile refined and focused that lens. And many, nay, most of the movies that taught me how to look at movies came with Criterion spine numbers.


As a millennial, I belong to arguably the first generation that discovered film through home video and video on demand, not through television like my parents did. I was spared the effort of scouring the most recent issue of the TV Guide and staying awake until 2:00 a.m. to catch that Bela Lugosi movie. I just added it to the Amazon cart, and, mother permitting, in approximately 2 weeks (Remember the sorrows of a pre-Prime world?) the DVD was mine forever, mine to watch on my own terms.

My digital-bred cinephile memories center on curation and control rather than scheduling and scarcity. I chose and acquired movies to suit my tastes (and later to fill out my education), based on a matrix of factors, including my interests, budget constraints, and availability.

As a result, my relationship with film is wedded to brands. I can vividly picture the portrait-style box art of my Universal Monsters VHS cassettes. I recall running my finger along the spines of the DVD stacks in my college library, plucking out the Warner Archive blues.

(If that seems like an excessively commercial relationship with an art form, let’s remember that classic movie audiences would’ve known a given film’s studio but probably not its director. And what are most film texts if not products designed to deliver a certain effect?)


Explicitly defining itself as a collection, Criterion embraced the sensibility of home video as curation. With their sophisticated flair, sleek logo, and eye-catching art, Criterion boxes and discs weren’t mere carriers of digital transfers but objects of aesthetic contemplation.

In the early days of my DVD collection, Criterions were coveted, luxurious, ceremonial possessions. Many offered hours of additional entertainment through essay booklets, commentary tracks, interviews, and documentaries new and old. And their price enhanced their allure. I could’ve bought 2 or 3 less lofty DVDs for the price of a single Criterion release, so I owned a treasured few.

Let me tell you about how it started.


July 2004: There Were Warning Signs

If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Filter back to, say, 5 years ago, and the most cursory glance over your purchase history (oh, it’s still there) yields a personal narrative recorded through consumption, an auto-anthropology of needs and desires.

When I rewind to 2004 in “Your Orders” (well, my mother’s), I can confirm that my first Criterion Collection DVD was a 2-disc set of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955). The act of verification was strangely touching but unnecessary. I remember my infatuation with the item.


The gold cover design featured a haughty man in black armor on horseback—a spiky, warlike image that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a heavy metal album. With its separate disc of supplements, this DVD set differed from any I’d previously encountered.

I took the set, a talisman of my major-league crush on Sir Larry, wherever I went. My mother still shakes her head over how I opted to stay in our hotel room during a family vacation and rewatch Richard III with commentary instead of sunbathing on the rooftop deck. (In my defense, I totally rock the consumptive pallor look.)


A 13-year-old girl who repeatedly watches a 158-minute Shakespeare movie from the 1950s is unusual enough. But one who repeatedly listens to the commentary track? It’s a wonder my parents didn’t send me to a counselor.

What bound me to Criterion #215? My rising fascination with Shakespeare prompted the purchase, since Richard III was the first Bard play I’d read on my own time, not for school, but that can’t fully explain the fixation. No, the “high-definition transfer… with restored image and sound” captured my imagination.


The pristine image quality let Olivier’s characterization charm me through the screen, as he’d intended: “Richard would be flirting with the camera—sometimes only inches from his eyes—and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could.” The wicked, fourth-wall-breaking intimacy of his performance indeed felt like a courtship, entangling me into complicity with the antihero’s crimes.


The film’s fairy-tale palette, with its saturated heraldic primary blues, golds, and reds, its pastel walls and Medieval gowns, its nightmarish cobalt and violet shadows, also initiated me to the extravagant glories of Technicolor. Much of of Richard III resembles a live-action Disney fantasy somehow hijacked by a beguiling, misshapen psychopath.


Then there was the commentary track by Russell Lees and John Wilders. With their close analysis of acting styles, cinematography, set design, and more, they gave me a guided tour of the film and taught me how to read the screen. Behind the pleasures of plot and character, the pleasures of dismantling and interpreting movies beckoned to me with boundless possibilities.


It was during this phase of my budding obsession that, on a stroll down our country road, my mother and I had a discussion about my future, a conversation that strikes me as particularly ironic in retrospect. (For some context, I was one of those straight-A, type-A kids preoccupied by the complex calculus of prestigious college acceptances from a tender age. Parental pressure didn’t exist in my home, so I have to take responsibility as a self-created monster.)

“You spend so much time watching movies and reading books about movies. Maybe you should study film,” My mom suggested.

I was scandalized. “Are you crazy? I would never do that. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to make movies. I want to be a professor or something. And what’s the point of studying movies? I just like to watch them, okay?”

“Okay.” She shrugged.

We kept marching down the dirt road. I proceeded to talk her ear off about the obscure British movie from 1946 that I’d just watched in 12 installments of 5 minutes on her work computer.

(Damn those parsimonious YouTube length constraints of the early aughts. And damn mothers. They’re always right.)

August 2007: Tears for a Villain

I get nervous when stringing together words about Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). I’m not worthy. Someday when I’m a better writer, I’ll have the courage and skill to praise it adequately. For now I’ll content myself with saying it’s the first truly great movie that made me weep.


Charles Foster Kane doesn’t make me misty, but Harry Lime gets to me. That I should shed tears for an exquisite scoundrel alarms me. Do I cry because I admire his will to survive and thrive? Because his cavalier defense of amorality sets him apart from the petty, rationalizing evils that appear to us in cloaks of humility and piety? Because in the dank Vienna sewers he displays the remnants of his decency with a weary nod, giving his best friend permission to execute him?


All of the above, I suspect. Plus the glittering, slick streets that wink at you throughout the film. And the piquant zither score that mocks a shattered world.

My out-of-print Criterion set bears obvious marks of affection: white flecks of wear around the box edges and light scratches on the discs. I acquired it during a summer-long Orson Welles binge, around the time when my love of movies hit critical mass. Today, this shot of Harry in the sewers, featured on the Criterion disc fold, remains my desktop wallpaper, the center of my digital existence.


February 2009: At the Gate

The start of my second semester of college was the nadir of my life so far. A health crisis had caged our family in a gray-walled hospital for a week. My mother was ill and emaciated from something that nobody can cure, and I hated the universe. Dorm life had driven me almost to the point of a clinical breakdown. No rest. No one to confide in. Nothing but work on a diet of anxiety and bagged black tea and cafeteria pizza.

That was the semester when I took my first film class: Japanese Film, to satisfy a requirement. My life turned around from there. Never underestimate the power of Akira Kurosawa.


I arrived at the first course screening about 15 minutes early on a blustery Vermont night. The professor, a lady of seraphic calm and erudition, was setting up. On the screen, over the flickery image of a crumbling Asian temple or gate, I saw the familiar Criterion logo and menu. A good omen.

“Oh, I love the Criterion Collection,” I gushed, unaware that the series had a cult following.

“Yes, don’t you just want to collect them all?” My new teacher kindly replied.

The lights dimmed, and Rashomon hit me with the same force that it must’ve unleashed on unsuspecting Western audiences in 1950. I had no background in Japanese cinema, no expectations. I didn’t need any. I could’ve watched it without subtitles and it still would’ve floored me. Kurosawa’s dark, sensual, epistemological dance of sun and shadow took my mind in so many directions that I could hardly think straight when it was over.


Staggering out of the screening, I called my mom (you’ll notice a motif here) to talk through all the emotions. “Ohmygod, I just saw the most amazing movie. It was about, well, this rape. But not really. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like, but it was so beautiful. I mean, it has to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen…”

That night I discovered what I’d been missing by concentrating on movies from my own culture. Thank you, Kurosawa, for slashing through my ignorance with your katana-sharp vision.

April 2010: Getting Out of the Boat

Black Narcissus? I blush to admit I had never heard of it when I saw the DVD in a jumbled pile at a church rummage sale. But it was a Criterion DVD, and I knew it was well worth the $2.00 asking price.

I sometimes muse about the person who gave this sublime film up. Could they have been blind to its lurid Jack Cardiff hues? Was it a stray possession left at a significant other’s house after a breakup? Did the owner die and donate all earthly goods and chattels to the church? I grasp for a plausible explanation.


Now, I could go on about how Black Narcissus messed with my head, but I already did so a few years ago on this blog:

“I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating…. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

“The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. ‘Holy ****!’ I exclaimed to myself. ‘Sister Ruth got out the boat!’”


December 2011: I Shouldn’t Have Come

My screenwriting professor stood a lanky 6’3”, fluently dropped F-bombs in front of students, and ate the occasional Charleston Chew for breakfast in class. I called him “dude.” He called me “dude.” I wonder if he realized that he was the closest thing I had to a friend at college.

My film professors were the coolest gang of people I’d ever met: an imposing white-haired authority on Antonioni, a transmedia expert who wore hand-knit Etsy shawls and taught me how to tweet, a former ballet dancer who sparked my fascination with the Production Code, my miraculously level-headed and brilliant thesis advisor, and my badass screenwriting teacher.


I haunted their office hours for no other reason than to pick their brains about my favorite films and theirs. When I got the chance to do some light filing and video editing for the department as a campus job, I got to hang around even more. I think they were all amused, but a respectful kind of amused. They too were cinephiles, after all.

One day I was going about my usual stapling of documents and updating of spreadsheets, when the dude slouched in to make some copies. We got chatting (I forget about what), and he was about to leave when he issued an invitation.

“Hey, I’m showing a movie tonight for the Screenwriting 1 class that you might like, Trouble in Paradise…”

That I might like? “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”

He smiled. “It’s screening in Twilight at 8:30 if you want to come.”

Oh, I wanted to, alright. But a nasty, heavily-weighted assignment, due the following morning, on Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris reared its ugly head.

“Aw, man. I can’t make that. French paper.”

“That’s cool. If you change your mind we’ll be in Twilight auditorium.”

I returned to my spreadsheet, cursing my smug 18th century lit professor, Mercier, and the whole damn French Revolution.


Around 8:20, my brain cooking over the syntactical implications of Mercier’s prose, I grabbed my coat and split from the whole f’ing program. Destination: Paris, Paramount.

As I dashed to the screening, airy flakes of snow fluttered down, heavenly in the beams of the streetlights. I tilted my face upward, stunned by the ethereal scene—and a big, wet wad of snow hit me in the eye. So much for ethereal. Shivering, I rushed into the screening hall with a false shiner of dissolving mascara and ice water.

Ernst Lubitsch once said, “At least twice a day the most dignified human being is ridiculous.” You know, I think he had a point.


Apart from my appropriately droll eye makeup mishap, Trouble in Paradise (in its dreamy Criterion transfer) reminded me that life is worth living. The unironic laughter of students my age restored my faith in timeless wit—and even boosted my faith in my generation.

Early in the film Miriam Hopkins frets, “I shouldn’t have come!” when she shows up at Gaston’s room. But Destiny already set out the champagne for her. She knows full well that she wanted to come desperately, that nothing could keep her away. I could relate.

When I ditched my paper for about 2 hours, I shed the qualities that I mistook for my identity: borderline-masochistic discipline, dependability, competitiveness. In fact, what drew me to Lubitsch—joie de vivre, the love of beauty, and the gift of finding humor in one’s own absurdity—revealed much more about who I was.


Friends, I make no claims on wisdom, but I will advise this: pay attention to the things you do “out of character,” for they will tell you the truth about your nature. Patterns sustain themselves. Anomalies happen for a reason.

After graduation I’d abandon my type-A, straight-A compulsions. I’d turn my back on the rush of academic pressure and achievement. I’d find a job that gave me freedom and paid my bills. I’d devote all of my remaining time to a vocation that didn’t pay me a thing but made me happy. Cinema gave me the strength to reinvent myself. That’s where the story ends for now.

A Conclusion in the Best Exculpatory Tradition

I feel that I should deliver a warning to the young and impressionable. Never trust cinema. Don’t look directly at the frame when confronted with a masterpiece. Abhor the company of auteurs and their works. You will ruin yourself for all other passions. You might throw away some respectable hobby—or, heaven forfend, some respectable career—for a deviant pursuit, a pernicious philia.


Cinema is the slyest of gentleman thieves. Just as Gaston Monescu would snatch the garters off your thighs, cinema will steal the heart out of your chest. It will make blocks of 70, 90, 158 minutes disappear. It will evaporate the comforting boundaries of your world. It will empty your bank account whilst cluttering your shelves.

That’s what cinema did to me. And you know something? I don’t regret it. Not one spine number, not one cent, not one second spent dreaming my Criterion dreams.


This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to read all the delightful entries!

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Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Dead Perfection

leavehertoheavenposterIt seems fitting that Gene Tierney should share a “birthday” with Technicolor.

Engineer Herbert Kalmus incorporated the company that would become synonymous with lush cinematic entertainment on November 19, 1915, exactly 5 years before little Gene Eliza made her entrance into the world.

Technicolor loved Gene Tierney, showcasing not only her enchanted, flowerlike beauty but also the currents of thought and passion pulsing behind that exquisite mask.

Vincent Price called Tierney “our most underrated actress,” and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven abundantly supports the claim.

Playing a psychopathically possessive wife, Tierney delivered her greatest performance (if I’m arguing) in this Technicolor outlier—a modern psychological thriller made in an era when the costly color process was typically reserved for musicals and historical epics. This paradoxical Technicolor noir gives us the chance to see the 1940s in a color palette of taupes, eggshell blues, and amber-browns instead of the remote elegance of grayscale.


I can hardly think of a more underplayed, chilling portrayal of evil on film than Tierney’s Ellen Berent. She wells up with crystal tears of self-pity at the slightest perceived encroachment on her territory. Yet, in the face of other people’s pain, she exhibits the hard composure of a porcelain doll.

She wields that soft, unnaturally smoke-lowered voice of hers to do as much damage as possible. Notice how it catches slightly at the ends of sentences, making an inconsequential remark sound like both a proposition and a threat.


And those eyes. Eyes the color of water. Fickle eyes. Eyes that send one thumbing through a dictionary for underused words like verdigris and eau-de-nil.

Eyes that sparkle like empty fishbowls when she gapes in incomprehension at the meanness rising from within her, at the difference that cuts her off from normal human feelings. Icy eyes that balance her fiery red lips. Eyes that tell the truth when those lips lie.


Evil Under the Sun

Tierney’s incarnation of wickedness forms the centerpiece of Leave Her to Heaven’s cruel, vaguely surreal beauty. The film’s toxic glow, its peculiar brand of unreality, contrasts with the studio-set whimsy and pageantry of color musicals or period dramas. Sequences shot on location in Leave Her to Heaven present us with a world that bears no marks of expressionist gloom yet fills us with foreboding. The film’s universe, like its protagonist, basks in sunny indifference to human suffering.


Commenting on the oppressive ambiance of Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said he wanted to give his film the menacing aspect that a commonplace room would suddenly assume if you knew there was a corpse behind the closet door.

Leon Shamroy’s pellucid Technicolor cinematography for Leave Her to Heaven accomplishes something similar. Its uncanny perfection signals to the audience that something is very awry. No corpse behind the door, though. Just a succubus at the breakfast table, wearing blood-red lipstick applied so crisply that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s tattooed on.


The movie’s interiors suffocate you with their chic, premeditated quaintness—down to seafoam sofa cushions and potted cacti and bibelots you only notice on repeat viewings—as though the characters had invaded a decorating magazine layout.


Outside, vines cling caressingly to trellises and columns. Flowers grow in harmonious bunches clearly arranged by God’s florist. Cerulean skies, complete with Magritte-wallpaper clouds, choke the frame, overshadowing the characters with backdrops of blue ether and picture-postcard mountains. Wide spaces become perversely claustrophobic.


It’s how I imagine the world would look if you knew you were going to die soon: agonizingly alive, sadistically radiant, a world laughing at you because you have to leave it. A world that has you right where it wants you. The air shimmers with irony.

Blue Gazes

Ellen’s nature emerges through 3 key scenes, connected by the dominance of teal blue and the act of looking or exchanging glances.

From the first, Leave Her to Heaven defines Ellen by her aggressive gaze. When Richard spots Ellen reading his novel on the train, he looks her over and likes what he sees. When she drops her book, he picks it up, hands it to her—and attracts her even more fixed attention. As Richard lights a cigarette, Ellen stares at him.


In the film, Ellen’s gaze makes Richard curious and mildly uncomfortable. In Ben Ames Williams’s source material, however, Richard grows downright angry, initiating and losing a staring contest with her. Although that reaction isn’t present in the film, it reveals the extent to which Ellen’s scrutiny threatens her future husband by reversing the traditional one-way structure of the male gaze.

He looks at her as an embodiment of his fantasy—a moment later, he’ll recite grandiloquent prose from his own novel to describe her—yet he quails when she returns his look and sees in him (we come to find out) an updated version of her fantasy object: her father.


The cinematography and editing emphasize the unsettling persistence of Ellen’s stare. We get 4, yes, 4 shots of her—oddly immobile against the dancing, arid landscape seen through the train car windows—just looking at Richard. Deliberately awkward and protracted, this series of shots forces the audience into Richard’s position, making up excuses for this odd, gorgeous girl, desperately trying to rehabilitate the “meet cute” from its creepiness.

The train car’s color scheme accentuates these jeux de regards. The teal walls and deep blue-green curtains match the color of Tierney’s eyes. This is no coincidence. The entire decor amplifies the power of Ellen’s gaze, as though the setting were an extension of her, almost a huge eyeball, an apparatus for looking.


To quote Nietzsche’s gift to psychological thrillers, when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back. In Leave Her to Heaven, when you gaze at the female fantasy object, she gazes back—and you become her fantasy object.

True, the close-ups of Tierney serve the actress up for the movie spectator’s gaze. Well, I’ve seen this with an audience, and, believe me, the focus on gazing and looking jolts the viewers, chastens them, and makes them wary, tainting the vision and reducing our pleasure to nervous titters in the dark.

Still Waters

The film’s most famous sequence, the drowning of Danny, derives its horrific impact from its refusal to look horrific or include the signifiers of doom that films have trained us to expect.


The soaring Alfred Newman score makes no comment on the heinous crime. The quality of light doesn’t change to telegraph a major shift in Ellen’s trajectory—from thought to act, from jealous wife to murderess. Tierney doesn’t jubilate in her triumph. She sits emanating darkness, her pale eyes piercing through her tinted shades.


As in the train car, blue-greens overwhelm the color palette: the bright grayish-blue sky, the deep green pine forests in background, and the glimmering, saturated navy-teal waters. When she whirls off her terrycloth robe to jump in and “save” Danny, Ellen reveals an aquamarine bathing suit. These colors tend to calm and soothe; they suggest refreshing coolness and peace. The shock of Ellen’s sin alarms us all the more amidst this consonance of teal shades.


Again, eyes and the act of looking take on central importance. We can identify the precise moment when Ellen decides to eliminate Danny through the way her eyes narrow in a medium close-up. The pristine mountains and sky shine behind her, as though tacitly condoning what she’s about to do.


As Danny struggles, burbles, and cries out for help, the act of gazing holds power over life and death. By casting herself as a spectator in the drowning that she’s effectively staged, Ellen tries to dissociate from her guilt. She puts on sunglasses, perhaps as a shield against the ugliness of her actions, but we can still see her light eyes peering out in anticipation (especially spooky on the big screen).

We watch her watch Danny die. And through the act of watching and consuming the beauty of images we symbolically share in her wickedness. Our bond with Ellen (a most unlikely heroine) rests on a surfeit of visual splendor. Feast your eyes, the film seems to tempt us, and be seduced.


Dressed to Kill

Ellen escalates to the next level of violence by throwing herself down a flight of stairs, inflicting injury to her own body in order to kill her unborn child.


In the previous scene, Ellen bemoans how pregnancy has changed her appearance, looking at herself in a bedroom mirror. We can see Ellen. We can see the glass of the mirror. But we cannot see her reflection, as though she, like a vampire, doesn’t have one.

Shortly thereafter, she seizes on the idea to stage her fall. Rushing to her closet, she carefully selects her costume for this performance, an alluring blue lace peignoir.

vlcsnap-2015-11-19-16h43m25s233 After a dissolve, Ellen is looking in the same bedroom mirror as before—but this time all we see is the reflection, not Ellen. She glides towards the mirror like a phantom and the camera glides in step with her. She dabs perfume on the curve of her neck and retouches her lipstick.

Although this shot doesn’t completely synch with Ellen’s POV (it stays in place as she moves away), it aligns the viewer with her perspective. It appears as though the spectator were standing in front of the mirror; she is our reflection.


Tierney floats down the hallway in the icy blue nightdress, just a few shades lighter than the cornflower blue wallpaper all around her. These restful shades of blue, the swirling, gently suspenseful music, and Tierney’s slow progress to the edge of the stairs imbue the scene with an inappropriately dreamy, romantic vibe.

Just as the drowning took place against a background of idyllic sparkling waters and the wholesome outdoors, this crime toys with our emotions by contextualizing an act of brutality within a gauzy, delicate domestic setting.


When Ellen steps to the top of the stairs, the camera moves from her to the staircase and the long drop, as though guided by her thoughts. Ellen pauses, digging one silk shoe under the ragged carpet to lend realism to her plunge.

She looks up; for me, this close-up represents the zenith of her beauty in the film, all eyelashes and cheekbones and lipstick. Since we haven’t seen this angle of her before, the shot strikes us as the face of a stranger, almost diabolical in its intensity.


We get a POV shot of the bottom of the stairs, again strengthening our association with Ellen’s perspective, then another close-up of Ellen. As her nerve and excitement mounts, her eyes widen until a tiny spark of malice gleams there.

The foot steps into nowhere, and we hear a scream. Ellen lies at the foot of the stairs, her unconscious figure fragile and sad, like a lily snapped off its stalk. The images won’t relinquish their willful loveliness. The yawning disconnect between hideous deeds and onscreen perfection stays strong.

The viewer has witnessed all the scheming behind this tragedy concocted by Ellen, yet we can’t escape the aesthetic victory she’s masterminded—carefully costuming and choreographing her murderous leap.


Leave Her to Heaven was a smash hit for 20th Century Fox in 1945, and it resonates with an encouragingly large audience today. When I post a picture, a GIF, or an observation related to the film, it often goes haywire. Why? Because we love pretty surfaces? Because we’re attracted to the dysfunction underneath them? Or because the film itself asks those questions, confronting us with our allegiance to aesthetics over morality?


I would argue that the enduring popularity of Leave Her to Heaven comes from its challenges to viewers and their gazes. This Technicolor noir interrogates the sinister beauty that reels us in, noting how we make excuses for beauty and for our own appetites for beauty. The film suggests that even the act of being caught looking at things you ought not to want to see contains a frisson of forbidden delight.


Most of all, Leave Her to Heaven eschews easy answers and reassurance. It offers no pop Freudian jargon to assuage our fears over Ellen’s crimes and neatly pinpoint the etiology of her jealousy. It shows how people ignore blatant danger signs because of love and fear and loyalty. It illuminates a world of blinding beauty where evil can break loose at any moment. A world very much like our own, in fact.


This post is part of the Gene Tierney Blogathon hosted by The Ellie Badge! Click the banner below to check out all of the other entries!


Brides of Dracula (1960): Dandy of the Damned

bridesofdracula_posterThe elegant man in gray stands on a high stone parapet, poised as if about to take a death leap. Suddenly, from the balcony above, a woman cries out to stop him. “No, don’t do that!”

And so the spirited but naïve Marianne first meets the dashing and dangerous Baron Meinster in Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Under other circumstances, it might be called a “meet cute.” In this case, it’s more like a meet deadly.

If this scene sounds familiar—even to those who haven’t seen Hammer’s underrated follow-up to Horror of Dracula (1958)—that’s because Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) brought its hero and heroine together in almost the exact same way. On the cliffs by the Mediterranean, Joan Fontaine’s nameless slip of a girl calls to Maxim de Winter, pulling him away from the edge… and plunging herself into a frightening love affair.

Perhaps this parallel is accidental. Perhaps not. In both films a young woman obsesses over pleasing a mysterious aristocrat and nearly pays with her life. However, whereas Rebecca rewards its self-effacing Cinderella with some semblance of happily ever after, Brides of Dracula drives a stake right through the heart of the Gothic fallacy—the myth of “I alone can save this misunderstood man.”

vlcsnap-2015-10-31-16h53m01s202vlcsnap-2015-10-31-18h58m37s41(Finally) Bitten by Hammer

I was lucky enough to discover Brides of Dracula in epic fashion: screened from a vivid 35mm print at the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York. The heady, luminous Technicolor cinematography of Jack Asher—awash in ripe burgundies, ominous grays, and borderline cadaverous shades of pastel violet—converted me to the glories of Hammer horror (with which I’d never previously felt much of an affinity).

Just to make sure it wasn’t the big-screen effect getting the better of me, though, I watched Brides on DVD shortly thereafter. Twice. In three days. It really is that good. If the Hammer films were burning and I could save only one, this would be the one.


A sumptuous cautionary tale, Brides of Dracula seduces then shocks, revealing the rancid dysfunction festering beneath the surface of Gothic romanticism. As the title suggests, the film largely focuses on women, in particular the grave consequences of socially-sanctioned female fantasies. An integral mother-son relationship also gives the plot a Freudian depth of depravity and enhances its subtle critique of women enabling irredeemable, monstrous men.

Instead of simply resurrecting Dracula, this enclosed entry in the Hammer canon creates a daringly different kind of vampire, a disciple of the Count with his own shadowy backstory. As incarnated by David Peel, Baron Meinster is a spoiled, manipulative, sexually ambiguous rakehell who recognizes and ruthlessly exploits the images that women project onto him. He’s the Prince of Darkness in Prince Charming’s clothing.


The Brides script went through a long and complicated development, yet it manages to clip along at an exciting pace, evoke a sense of familial tragedy, and include several memorably unsettling scenes of the dead rising and attacking. No small feat!

Traveling through the Carpathian Mountains for an appointment as a schoolteacher, lovely Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) ends up stranded at Castle Meinster. The sinister Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt, at her regal and unhinged best) tells the girl about her “mad” son, whom she keeps a virtual prisoner.


Her Pandora instinct aroused, Marianne frees the apparently sane and and impossibly beautiful Baron Meinster. And, as you might imagine, all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, one of few actors who can ever make me root for the good guys) happens to be passing through the area to continue his mortal battle against vampirism.

From here on in, there be major spoilers, friends. 


Newfangled Bad Boy

What could’ve been Brides of Dracula’s greatest weakness—the fact that the iconic vampire mentioned in the title doesn’t show up in the film—turns out to be its greatest asset. (No disrespect to Christopher Lee, whose Dracula performances all stand the test of time and chill me to the bone. I merely appreciate that Hammer took the vampire concept in an unusual direction here.)

The literal and figurative fair-haired boy of his noble family, Baron Meinster departs from the dark and brooding vampire paradigm set up by previous Draculas. On the most basic visual level, David Peel’s classically handsome Anglo-Saxon features and wig of frosted blond locks endow the Baron with an angelic aura.

Meinster lacks Dracula’s grand reach and authority, yet the intimate scope of his agenda and his stealth approach inspire a more relatable fear: mightn’t we all fall for such an ingratiating personification of evil? Beyond his imperative to stay alive, Meinster also displays a refined, psychological strain of sadism. Deceit isn’t a means to an end; it’s part of the thrill for Meinster. And, unlike Dracula, he can muster the disarming façade needed to deceive.


Christopher Lee played Dracula as “monarch of all vampires,” the title bestowed upon him by Brides’ prologue: somber, domineering, and attractive, certainly, but animalistic. Lugosi accentuated the seductive magnetism of the Count, but nevertheless exuded a debonair creepiness that initially prompts Mina to mock his accent and bearing.

In essence, Dracula is an outsider. You might be drawn to him, but you’d also be on your guard around him. Potential victims don’t tend to suspect that he’s a 500-year-old bloodsucking demon until it’s too late; then again, most don’t wholeheartedly welcome him into their lives either. Dracula makes no pretense of courtship. He simply takes what he wants. The emotions of his prey are as meaningless to him as the squeaks of a field mouse to a hungry hawk.

The Gentle Art of Vampirism

By contrast, the Baron comes across as a dandy in the Baudelairean sense: “These creatures have no state of being other than cultivating the beautiful in their appearance, satisfying their passions, feeling, and thinking.”* Even the costuming choices confirm Meinster’s dandyism. No austere black cape for him—a dove gray cloak is so much more becoming.


The Baron elevates his search for sustenance to an artistic pursuit, one that he goes about with the dedication of a collector. Referring to Marianne, he comments, “What a pity such beauty must fade… unless we preserve it.”

Meinster clearly derives pleasure from winning his victims’ trust, which makes his hunting technique inherently dandyish. As Baudelaire wrote, “Without ardor or caprice, it becomes a repugnant necessity.” Now, dear Charles was talking about love (and all that love implies), but substitute “blood” in there and you have Baron Meinster’s guiding maxim of vampirism.


Our vampire dandy also displays a downright artful knack for beguiling any woman who crosses his path. He effortlessly presents himself as a wronged and tortured heir during his first face-to-face encounter with Marianne. The Baron drifts out of the shadows, strategically reveals his Adonis beauty, and sighs, “So, you’ve come to help me, have you? Well, no one can do that, mademoiselle.”

The viewer realizes the truth of his statement—there’s no cure for what Meinster is—but he knows that emphasizing the hopelessness of his case will only intensify Marianne’s desire to save him. Chained to the wall, Meinster draws Marianne nearer and nearer with his words, as the yearning violins of the musical score evoke the mood of a love scene.

By this point in the film, the intoxicating jewel tones of Castle Meinster and the delicate shadings of light and dark have swept the spectator into a mindset close to Marianne’s. Nevertheless, unlike Marianne, we know that we’re watching a vampire movie, so we can fill in the dramatic irony.


Terence Fisher and company keep up a clever double game of dizzying romanticism and creeping dread. You’ll certainly notice some warning signs. Meinster stares just a few degrees south of Marianne’s face, and a crimson lampshade casts a baleful, blood-red glow on the wall over the Baron’s left shoulder.

However, only after Marianne darts off to rescue the dream boy in the tower do we get a close-up of his smug triumph. The cunning devil has ensnared his own Pandora and seems awfully pleased.


Once the Baroness discovers that Marianne has stolen the key, the imposing dowager chases her frightened guest into the castle’s main hall. The girl barrels down a flight of stairs and runs straight into the Baron’s arms. The camera whirls into Meinster’s dreamy face with a flourish—portraying him as just the sort of romantic hero he wants Marianne to take him for.


“There, there, don’t worry,” He coos to the terrified Marianne. “She can’t harm you now. You have nothing to fear.” A noted radio actor, David Peel drawls each line of Meinster’s double-talk as though he were tasting it, rolling it over his palate. I can’t think of any other vampire who would say such a thing, who would savor the irony of reassuring his intended victim.

Power Player

Every significant female character in Brides of Dracula fawns over Meinster. His mother admits that she encouraged “his wildness” and procured girls for him to drain even during his captivity. Meinster’s childhood nurse Greta essentially serves as his Renfield. She crouches over the grave of one of the brides, guiding the vampiress out of the ground like a midwife might coax a newborn out of the womb.


The concept of vampirism as a kind of rebirth also connects Meinster’s sins with those of his mother. The script explains that the Baron harbored a cruel streak from childhood, indulged by the Baroness and brought to fullness by the wicked circle of friends he sought out. In other words, Meinster emerged from an interplay of nature and nurture. Yet, had his mother stood up to him, the film implies, this horror story would’ve ended in the home long ago.

Meinster perpetuates the vicious cycle of dysfunction that made him a monster (or failed to prevent him from becoming one) by creating new monsters—his children, in a sense. The product of a bad mother, Baron Meinster, in turn, becomes a bad mother… and in more ways than one.


In addition to triggering misplaced maternal devotion in the Baroness and Greta, Meinster fits into the unhealthiest sort of romantic fantasy. Marianne’s student teacher colleague Gina develops an immediate crush on Meinster—he’s a Baron and he looks like Prince Charming, that’s enough for her. After learning of Marianne’s engagement, Gina envies her friend. All alone, following a congratulatory session of girl talk, she examines her face in a hand mirror and laments, “It should have been me.”

Then she feels a chill in the air and goes over to close the drapes. The icy blue of her peignoir against the orangey floral pattern of the curtains hits the eye like a danger signal. The audience knows that poor Gina is about to have her wish come true in a way she never bargained for.


The brilliance of Brides lies in such varied examples of how women lose their identities by giving power to a man and making him the focus of their lives and goals. A mother becomes a ghoulish enabler and accomplice, a servant becomes a slave, and a young teacher becomes a mindless conquest. Meinster craves absolute interpersonal control and leaves wrecked people in his wake.


In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentlemen.” That observation suggests the outward urbanity of wickedness as well as the privileged social position occupied by the devil—both aspects of evil that Baron Meinster knows quite a bit about.

Not only does Meinster seek a degrading abject power over his victims, but he also exercises his drive to dominate in a more conventional class-bound way. When leaving the girls’ school where Marianne teaches, for instance, he can’t resist a threatening jab at the headmaster (a tenant of the Meinster estate), hinting that he had better show respect or he’ll be paying a higher rent.


The Baron also wields his privileged status as another lure for potential mates. After all, what is the Gothic romance if not the Cinderella fantasy gone very, very wrong? Marianne traveled from Paris for her job as a schoolteacher… yet she’s ready to sacrifice it to become the new Baroness. Sounds shallow doesn’t it? But who among us isn’t swayed, to some degree, by rank and appearance? Especially women brought up on fairy tales featuring an aristocratic stranger who fixes everything and rewards the heroine with the honor of being his wife.


Close-ups of the Baron, both in and out of vampire mode, abound and seem to magnify his power. He fills the screen, dominates even the camera. It’s as though the cinematography were bowing to his will in the way a 19th century portraitist might have.

For instance, shortly after he “saves” Marianne from the Baroness, he transforms from gallant and sensitive to cruel and incestuous in seconds. We get not one, not two, but three close-ups of Meinster’s beauty—like an exquisite mask with furious eyes burning through the holes—as he beckons the Baroness to her doom. “Come here, mother,” he purrs.


The first sight of Meinster in full bloodthirsty form strikes the audience as all the more grotesque in comparison to his earlier handsomeness. Framed by a doorway in long shot, he hisses at Van Helsing. A jump cut amps up the horror by jolting us with a ghoulish close-up of the Baron, his cheeks contorted, his eyes bulging.


Another such close-up signals Meinster’s most disturbing assault on a victim, one I could hardly believe at first. Having strangled Van Helsing unconscious, the Baron pounces on him like a bat, raising his cape over the prostrate man. We don’t see the bite… but Meinster’s head rises from the lower edge of the frame and his fangs glisten with fresh gouts of blood. To borrow Bram Stoker’s words, he wears “a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.”

This savage bite scene left me rattled. Though tame as far as horror gore goes, it strikes at the audience’s deeply-held confidence and investment in Van Helsing. Watching Meinster triumph over the doctor overturns our sense of the genre’s rules and reminds us that, in real life, evil sometimes wins. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to cherished, recurring movie characters or to people we love, but they do.


Even Dracula himself never got that far with Van Helsing! And when the Count does come close to biting his nemesis during the Horror of Dracula showdown, he approaches Van Helsing’s neck with a more adversarial intensity, eager to deliver the coup de grâce. Dracula wears the sneer of victorious rival. He doesn’t exalt in the depraved pleasure of violating an enemy, like Meinster does.

Fortunately, Van Helsing knows how to purify himself and, in another stomach-churning turn of events, cauterizes the bite mark with a red-hot branding iron and some holy water. I can’t think of another actor who could make this as convincing (and badass) as Cushing does.


Killing Van Helsing apparently wasn’t even Meinster’s immediate intent, though. He returns a few minutes later, dragging Marianne in tow, and taunts Van Helsing with the exhibitionistic prospect of forcing the good doctor to watch her “initiation.”

Interestingly enough, the Van Helsing of Brides acquires his own mantle of romanticism. Reading between the lines, one senses a bit more chemistry between the doctor and Marianne than expected from a vampire-hunter and a woman he’s trying to save. If you don’t believe me, watch Cushing’s face when he hears of Marianne’s engagement and asks, “Are you in love with him?”


In other words, Meinster’s pursuit of Marianne satisfies another facet of his sadism; he’s tormenting Van Helsing through her. The Baron may not be the most ambitious vampire, but when he sets out to do damage, it’s on the most personal and vicious level. His violent attack on Van Helsing strips away the refinement of the Gothic hero, showing us the brute under the ascot. Brides arguably confronts and crushes the oxymoron of a vampire romance before that idea even went mainstream.

Brides of Dracula is a subversive, rewatchable masterpiece of horror wrought from lavish jewel tones and Baroque shadows. (Never mind the plot holes. Or the awkwardly flapping bat. I find them endearing, frankly.) Its complex intermingling of social and sexual signifiers and its sheer amount of striking set pieces ensure that any post about the film has merely scratched the surface. I urge you to seek this movie out, whether you’re a Hammer fan or not—because you will be one by the time the credits roll.


*Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la vie moderne.

Sherlock Holmes (1916): Romance of the Impossible

William Gillette Sherlock Holmes“MARRY HIM OR MURDER HIM OR DO WHAT YOU LIKE WITH HIM.” With this 1897 cable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle placed his most famous creation in the hands of another. It was a shrug for the ages, a non-decision that would forever shape the public’s perception of Sherlock Holmes.

The telegraph’s recipient, American actor and playwright William Gillette, took Doyle at his word and recast the immortal detective as such stuff that matinee idols are made of. He turned Holmes, an object of curiosity and awe, into an explicit, if unlikely, object of desire.

Gillette opened up the Holmes character for generations of actors to come by giving him flexibility and humanity. He proved that the sleuth was not only fascinating on the page, but also bankable on the stage—and screen.

The Reappearance of the Reels

In 1916, with over a thousand performances of his theatrical hit Sherlock Holmes behind him, 63-year-old Gillette traveled to Essanay Studios in Chicago to shoot a movie adaptation. It would be his first and last performance in a feature film.

And, for almost a century, Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes went unseen. Until last year, when a nitrate print of the film—long presumed lost—turned up in the Cinémathèque Française’s collections.

Last month at New York’s Film Forum, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Sherlock Holmes, lovingly restored by Flicker Alley and tinted according to handwritten notes on the original negative, with live accompaniment.


Now, when a film reappears after so long a hunt, the initial jubilation yields to creeping anxiety. The question begs to be asked: “But is it any good?” The possibility of disappointment runs high. Of course, all movies have value as documents of their time, but entertainment value? Not necessarily.

So, let me say this at the outset (well, sort of). I had high expectations for Sherlock Holmes. And I loved it.

Directed by Arthur Berthelet, Sherlock Holmes packs enough action, intrigue, and humor to show even skeptical modern viewers how delightful an early feature film can be. Kidnappings, tense confrontations, sinister lairs, nasty henchmen, cunning disguises—you can expect all the ingredients of an exciting thriller.

From the “lowest and vilest alleys in London” to the “lonely houses” of the countryside, Berthelet conjures up a bygone world both warmly nostalgic and fraught with peril. Characters rove the smoky, burnished universe of Doyle’s canon, instantly familiar to a century’s worth of readers.


The cast’s wildly uneven approaches to movie acting add some unintentional amusement to the film, but don’t generally detract from the story. The extremes on the melodrama-to-naturalism spectrum balanced each other out neatly, pitting caricatured miscreants against more subtle good guys.

Taken as a whole, Sherlock Holmes is a treat. But the film is ultimately a fine gold setting for the star sapphire that is Gillette’s performance.

A Study in Sherlock

It seems nothing short of miraculous that a man who’d never before acted for the camera could deliver such a compelling screen debut. However, throughout his stage career Gillette won a reputation for subtlety, and his celebrated style of underacting transitioned seamlessly to cinema.

He inhabits the role of Holmes, body and soul. Doyle wrote about eyes that “fairly glittered” and a body that can spring “like a tiger” and let readers’ imaginations do the work, but Gillette made Holmes real in a way that satisfied legions of fans. As Orson Welles remarked in 1938, “It is too little to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”


Indeed, Gillette not only lent his aquiline profile to the character, but also contributed to the public image of Holmes by adding the drop-stem pipe and the lavish dressing gown. He also adopted the iconic deerstalker and ulster jacket and made them Holmes’s uniform for outdoor scenes.

Although this costuming decision would’ve been a faux-pas in Victorian England—Country attire in the city? Quelle horreur!—it reflects the character’s worldview perfectly. The city is the detective’s hunting ground. He stalks his prey through the mean streets of London just as a country squire would track a fox in the forest.

More important, Gillette (even in his sixties) translated Holmes’s languid yet powerful physicality into flesh. His Sherlock can believably stride unarmed into a criminal’s headquarters and, with one intimidating step forward, slap a gun out his foe’s hand, making the bad guy draw back in fear.

sherlock holmes william gillette gun

In writing and acting Holmes, Gillette also distilled and elegantly evoked the personality traits that have defined every major interpretation of Sherlock Holmes since: incandescent arrogance, brooding melancholy, inventive eccentricity, rigorous focus, and, of course, massive intellectual acuity.

When the spectator first sees him in the film, Holmes is wearing a white lab smock, pouring chemicals from one flask to another. Flames leap rhythmically upwards with each careful drop he adds. Such is the precision of Gillette’s timing that this display of chemistry elicited chuckles from the Film Forum audience. This introduction also echoes the first time Watson lays eyes on Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, heating test tubes over Bunsen burners and exultantly crying, “I’ve found it!” From the beginning, Gillette grounds Holmes the modern myth, Holmes the Victorian superhero, with a sense of wit and whimsy.

william gillette sherlock laboratory

Throughout the movie, Gillette infuses humor into the story through Holmes’s sardonic conceit, his slight swagger, the glimmering pride that endears him to the audience.

Surrounded by thugs, Holmes practically yawns in boredom, “All of these maneuvers have been entirely commonplace. Can’t professor Moriarty show me anything new?” Then the lights go out and, in the blackness the point of light at the tip of his cigar traces zigzags around the screen, a ruse to distract the baddies while he escapes. This puckish cinematic touch conveys the quirky brilliance of Holmes’s mind.

In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, Holmes cheerfully defies Moriarty when the menacing nemesis barges into his flat. Ernest Maupain’s fuming, grimacing, scenery-chewing turn as the Professor fares surprisingly well, since his over-the-top malice contrasts with Gillette’s underplayed strength. When Moriarty leaves in exasperation, Holmes kicks one leg up on his ottoman in a stance of sublime nonchalance and triumphantly puffs smoke from his pipe. It’s the gestural equivalent of a “sick burn.”


Gillette engages the new medium with virtuosic intimacy. This is a man who transforms the act of taking off gloves into a cinematic event.

The challenge of playing Holmes lies in visually communicating his formidable logic and intellect. Any adaptation runs the risk of getting bogged down in talky deductions or of excluding the viewer from the processes of the detective’s mind. The 1916 Sherlock Holmes avoids both pitfalls, since the lightning-fast current of the great detective’s thoughts expresses itself through Gillette’s elastic face and posture—sometimes changing at breathless speeds, sometimes freezing into a tightly-coiled enigma.

Most daring of all, Gillette took Holmes the “automaton” and gave him a heart.

The Case of the Lovelorn Detective

You can think of the movie’s plot as Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Hits. It cobbles together elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Copper Beeches,” “The Final Solution,” and other Doyle stories along with some of the old standbys of stage melodrama. (The surviving version of Sherlock Holmes also displays the influence of the policier serial, since French distributors chopped the narrative feature into multiple parts.)

Spirited Alice Faulkner inherits a packet of incriminating letters from her sister, who’d been seduced and discarded by a European prince. Mr. and Mrs. Larrabee, leaders of a notorious band of criminals, overhear Alice refusing to sell the letters to the aforementioned caddish potentate. The dastardly duo befriends poor Alice then whisks her off to a secluded estate. Though a virtual prisoner, the clever girl hides the letters before her captors can get at them.

Hired to retrieve the letters, Sherlock Holmes storms the villains’ stronghold and discovers the documents. Yet, confronted by Alice’s fierce loyalty to her sister, Holmes falters. He cannot bring himself to take the letters by force.

Wait, what? The man who “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer”?

Indeed. There are two things going on here, both of which I approve. First, Holmes respects a woman as—get this—a human being with rights and opinions of her own. Second, that respect blossoms into love.

Some might argue that any emotional involvement is a bad move for a Sherlock adaptation. This line of reasoning suggests that Holmes is inherently rational and thus cannot be romantic without betraying his primary attribute. I disagree.

Gillette Sherlock Shooting UpAbove all, Holmes thirsts for complexity. He yearns for new sensations, stimulations, diversions, preoccupations, “all that is outside the conventions and humdrum routines of daily life.” This is a man so addicted to excitement that he’ll pick up a grisly 1890s hypodermic and jab it into his vein to deliver a rush of artificial elation—three times a day, mind—rather than risk boredom.

The great detective regularly shoots up, yet recoils from emotion, lest it interfere with the delicate apparatus of his mind?

Please. Love can’t mess you up any worse than cocaine, Sherlock. (Probably.)

By forcing the great detective to wrestle with his emotions, Gillette used Holmes to explore the dilemma of the quintessential modern individual: he’s hyper-aware of life all around him, yet emotionally disconnected. Gathering data to grasp the big picture, the sleuth shuns the messy mysteries of human experience.

Perhaps Holmes and cinema were meant for each other: the man who’s uncannily like a machine and the machine that produces uncannily lifelike illusions. But if art can come from a contraption, then love can certainly come from “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” as Watson describes Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”


The romance unfolds organically within the plot. It builds up not to a love scene but to a third-act confession that brings together Holmes’s two most significant relationships: his growing bond with Alice and his longterm friendship with Watson.

Holmes explains how he’ll let Alice decide the fate of the letters. “Holmes, my good man, you’re in love!” Watson chuckles. The sleuth starts to protest. Instead, he glances down. Bashfully, he puts a hand on his friend’s jacket pocket, close to the heart. Then he looks Watson in the eye and nods, as if to say, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

This small gesture produced gales of rapturous, approving laughter from the audience I watched with. Gillette paces the reaction beautifully, tenderly. By recognizing his feelings for Alice, Holmes doesn’t distance himself from his comrade. Instead, he shares a hitherto-unsuspected piece of his humanity with the good doctor and deepens their confidence.

One understands that Holmes has found the excitement, the tingle, the sense of stimulation he’d been seeking for so long in a romance of the impossible.

His Zen-like detachment yields to his “love of all that is bizarre.” And what could be more bizarre than Sherlock in love? That is the paradox, but, let’s face it, Sherlock has never been one to shy away from paradoxes.

Just as the immortal sleuth returned from his presumed watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls to continue his adventures, the 1916 Sherlock Holmes came back to us from the land of the lost to enchant a new generation. The game’s afoot again for Gillette’s detective, and it’s an adventure to remember.


Fear You Can Hear: 31 of the Scariest Old Time Radio Episodes for Halloween

the_witchs_taleThey say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but, when it comes to the best old-time radio horror, each word is worth a thousand pictures.

By using voices, sound effects, and snippets of music, masters of radio terror turned what could’ve been a disadvantage of the medium—we can’t see what’s happening—into their greatest asset.

Radio writers and actors spawned monsters that the technology of the time couldn’t have realistically portrayed on film. They suggested depravity and gore that screen censorship would’ve banned. And they could manipulate the imagination so that listeners themselves collaborated in the summoning of their worst fears.

In case you can’t tell, I adore old-time ratio (OTR) horror. After countless hours poring over archives of old shows, I’ve selected 31 bloodcurdling episodes, from 1934 all the way up to 1979, for your pleasure.

You can dole these out one per day as a Halloween countdown or feel free to binge on them. However you choose to listen, I hope that you enjoy!

A few caveats… First, scariness is obviously a very subjective thing. These are my personal choices. If I missed one of your favorite spooky OTR episodes, feel free to mention it in the comments. I also tried to include episodes from a wide range of series. I could easily have filled this list up with only a few shows, but what would be the fun in that?

Finally, although I did venture outside of my pre-1965 comfort zone, I draw the line before CBC’s Nightfall, since, unlike CBS Mystery Radio Theater, it has a more distinctly modern vibe to me. (My favorite Nightfall episode is The Porch Light, though, if you’re wondering.)

1. “The Devil Doctor” – The Witch’s Tale – January 8, 1934

Created by Alonzo Deen Cole, The Witch’s Tale was the first radio show devoted to horror and the supernatural. Its tales often had a Gothic feel to them, probing into a fantastic past when sorcerers and spirits roamed the earth and made mere mortals their playthings. Alas, only a small percentage of episodes survive to this day.

In “The Devil Doctor,” a long-dead warlock in league with Satan rises from the dead and seeks a woman’s blood to reassimilate his decayed body.

2. “The House on Lost Man’s Bluff” – The Hermit’s Cave – c. 1930s

The Hermit’s Cave‘s plots were often formulaic, but the series outdid itself here. This episode easily stands among best and most disturbing haunted house stories from the golden age of radio.

Car trouble forces a woman, her cold and snappish husband, and her brother to spend the night in a deserted house with a macabre past. A long stretch of airtime filled by nothing but breathing and quiet footsteps never fails to spook the hell out of me.

3. “Dracula” – Mercury Theater – 11 July, 1938

A few months before he shook up America with his War of the Worlds martian hoax, Orson Welles played everyone’s favorite undead count with sinister aplomb. I first listened to this all alone at night when I was a teenager, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. When the shadows grow long, I can still hear Welles intoning, “Blood of my blood…”


4. “The Dream” – Lights Out! – March 23, 1938

Created by Wyllis Cooper and taken over in 1936 by Arch Oboler, Lights Out! epitomizes old time radio horror (for this listener, at least). Though occasionally campy in retrospect, the show’s original stories usually hit the mark and yanked at the deepest human fears—fear of the unknown, fear of inherently evil people, fear of ourselves…

In “The Dream,” Boris Karloff delivers perhaps his greatest radio performance as a man whose recurrent nightmare urges him to kill, kill, KILL!

5. “Poltergeist” – Lights Out! – October 20, 1942

A trio of working girls unknowingly desecrates a snowy graveyard. They find themselves pursued by a murderous spirit on a snowy night.

6. “Valse Triste” – Lights Out! – December 29, 1942

Two women on vacation fall into the clutches of a soft-spoken, violin-playing psychopath who decides to take one of them as his bride—and kill the other. Honestly, I consider this episode the scariest on the whole list. Arch Oboler breathed life into a a very human, very plausible monster. “Valse Triste” chills me to the bone every time I listen.

7. “The Flame” – Lights Out! – March 23, 1943

By looking into the base of a flame, a man releases a diabolical female fire spirit who forces him to commit arson and threatens to burn his fiancée to death.

8. “Carmilla” – Columbia Workshop – July 28, 1940

Queen of radio suspense writing Lucille Fletcher modernized J.S. LeFanu’s vampire novel, and the result is just as unsettling as you might hope. Jeanette Nolan (a sexy and terrifying Lady Macbeth on film for Orson Welles) exudes wicked sensuality through her voice alone, seducing then drawing the life out of her prey.

9. “The Demon Tree” – Dark Fantasy – December 5, 1941

A young aristocrat decides to investigate a gnarled old tree supposedly hexed by a witch to bring ruin to his family. He and his band of friends should’ve gone to look at it before sunset…


10. “The Dunwich Horror” – Suspense – November 1, 1945

A sophisticated long-running series with enviable production values, Suspense has aged perhaps better than any other old time radio show. Although it specialized in crime thrillers, Suspense made quite a few forays into out-and-out horror. Last year I actually did a post on 13 favorite scary Suspense episodes—although somehow I missed “The Dunwich Horror.” Shame on me!

Wilbur Whateley, the dangerously odd grandson of the village crackpot, wants to get his hands on a copy of the local university’s copy of the Necronomicon. But why does he want it? And what does it have to do with whatever he’s keeping in his barn—and feeding on blood? As the professor narrating the story, Ronald Colman captures much of the cerebral terror that H.P. Lovecraft evoked so well.

11. “The House in Cypress Canyon” – Suspense – December 5, 1946

The golden ideal of radio horror, “The House in Cypress Canyon” is as impossible to explain as it is to forget. The episode begins, as so many scary OTR episodes do, with a young husband and wife moving into a new home. Soon they hear a howling in the night and run afoul of an otherworldly presence that threatens to destroy them both.

12. “Ghost Hunt” – Suspense – June 23, 1949

A zany radio host decides to spend the night in a famous haunted house and see what his microphone picks up. He doesn’t make it out alive, but we get to hear the recording. This episode’s clever premise foreshadows the popularity of the “found footage” horror subgenre. It’s not just spooky—it’s meta spooky.

13. “The Whole Town Sleeping” – Suspense – June 14, 1955

Agnes Moorehead delivers a typically electrifying performance as a level-headed spinster who makes the mistake of walking home at night—while a serial killer prowls her little Midwestern town. Based on a story by Ray Bradbury, this episode is mostly told in real time, literally step by step, as fear consumes the protagonist.


14. “The Horla” – Mystery in the Air – August 21, 1947

How do you make Guy de Maupassant’s uncanny story about a parasitic phantom (or paranoid schizophrenia, you decide) even creepier? Just add Theremin music and a full-throttle Peter Lorre performance! This may be the apex of Lorre’s radio hysterics, culminating in an ending so intense that it must’ve made listeners at home wonder if dear Peter had finally lost his sh*t.

15. “Evening Primrose” – Escape – November 5, 1947

Like Suspense, Escape was a prestigious, long-running show that specialized in adventurous fare, not necessarily horror. But when it got spooky, it got leave-a-nightlight-on-and-sleep-with-a-knife-under-your-pillow spooky!

A penniless poet decides to move into a department store and live in ease and comfort off of its inventory. He didn’t bargain for the race of pale mutants who already live there. Or for how they dispose of anyone who rebels against them.

16. “Casting the Runes” – Escape – November 19, 1947

In this adaptation of M.R. James’s classic, a scholar fights to lift the ghastly curse leveled at him by a vengeful occult master. The same story forms the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon.

17.How Love Came to Professor GuildeaEscape – February 22, 1948

A haughty intellectual dismisses human love as a weakness. Unfortunately for him, something decidedly not human falls in love with him. And it doesn’t take rejection well.

18.Three Skeleton KeyEscape – August 9, 1953

Vincent Price brings the creeps as only he can in this claustrophobic classic. A horde of bloodthirsty rats lays siege to a tropical lighthouse, driving the 3 men who live and work there to the point of insanity.

19. “Whence Came You?” – Quiet, Please – February 16, 1948

Why would a man be worried by a beautiful woman following him? Because she smells of ancient Egyptian enbalming herbs… An American archaeologist, trailed through Cairo by a mysterious lady, insists on completing his latest dig. He’ll unearth something holy, astonishing, and lethal. But will it let him go?

This story shows how Quiet, Please mastermind Wyllis Cooper could take well-worn horror motifs and settings (Egypt, mummies, tombs, etc.) and make them scary again. He uses detail to build our trust, all the while amping up the dread factor, until fantastic, mystical things suddenly don’t seem so ridiculous.

20. “The Thing on the Fourble Board” – Quiet, Please – August 9, 1948

Quiet, Please wasn’t a horror series as much as a series of haunting ruminations, in my opinion. However, Wyllis Cooper delivered chills for the ages with this justly celebrated tale of an oil rig roughneck who encounters a creature risen from the bowels of the earth.


21. “The Vengeful Corpse” – Inner Sanctum Mysteries – September 12, 1949

Today we tend to remember Inner Sanctum best for the sneering, sardonic antics and bad puns of its Crypt Keeper-like host, Raymond. The series served up a lot of mysteries and pulpy crime thrillers with spooky trimmings and plenty of gore, but generally avoided the supernatural (often through annoying cop-out endings).

Only every now and then did the series venture into the realm of the truly horrific, like in this grisly standout episode. An old hag burned centuries ago as a witch returns from the grave to exact retribution on the descendents of her persecutors. (For a terrific seasonal episode that’s also genuinely disturbing, I recommend Corpse for Halloween, which aired on Halloween night, 1949.)

22. Behind the Locked DoorThe Mysterious Traveler – November 6, 1951

A distraught, delirious archaeology student tells how his expedition into an Arizona cave, sealed for centuries, went horribly awry. Without giving too much away, let me just say that if you liked “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” this perennial favorite will be your cup of tea, as well.

23. “He Who Follows Me” – The Hall of Fantasy – March 11, 1950

I confess, The Hall of Fantasy is my favorite series on this list. Why? The sheer macabre bleakness of creator Richard Thorne’s vision. Evil often wins in his stories and adaptations, reminding us of the inevitability of our own deaths. Isn’t that why we take pleasure in horror? Aren’t we inoculating ourselves against the ultimate bad news of our existence? (Sorry, I’ve had too much black tea today, and it makes me melancholic.)

Transplanting M.R. James’s “Count Magnus” to 1940s America, this episode centers on the unfortunate fate of two travelers who unwittingly stumble into the mausoleum of a man known as “the death that walks.”


24. “The Shadow People” – The Hall of Fantasy – September 5, 1952

A horde of murderous entities that only come out at night are hellbent on wiping out a family. This suspenseful episode showcases the unnerving brilliance of Richard Thorne in full force. It will literally make you afraid of the dark, as all great horror should.

25. “The Masks of Ashor” – The Hall of Fantasy – March 9, 1953

A happy, normal couple receives a pair of exotic solid gold masks from a globetrotting relative. And things get strange. Deadly strange.

26. “The Man in Black” – Hall of Fantasy – July 6, 1953

Two men out for a stroll one night run into a terrified woman babbling about a devilish man in black. Soon they become the next targets of this undead menace. This episode’s power lies in the nightmare logic of its storyline. It’s like some feverish, nocturnal hallucination that you can’t quite shake even as day breaks.


27. “An Evening’s Entertainment” – The Black Mass – October 31, 1964

Gathered around the fire with her grandchildren, an old woman unravels the gory legends surrounding a forbidden tract of land, once the site of bloody pagan rituals, and the dire deaths that befell anyone foolhardy enough to trespass on it—or to try to revive those ancient rites.

28. “Lancerford House” – Beyond Midnight – January 24, 1969

Don’t move the ugly green vase that sits in the parlor at Lancerford House. Don’t lift it. Don’t even touch it. Because, if you do, something in the attic won’t like it.

29. “The Wendigo” – Theater 10:30 – before 1971

A party of hunters lost in the deep woods encounter a malicious whirlwind of Native legend that drags humans along and steals their souls. This radio adaptation of Algernon Blackwood’s bone-chiller captures the creeping tension and disorientation of confident men forced to confront a terrifying manifestation of nature’s power. And the howling of that wind… it stays with you.


30. “Possessed by the Devil” – CBS Radio Mystery Theater – October 10, 1974

Just as horror movies upped the ante during the 1970s, so too did radio. Still, I sort of can’t believe that CBS got away with this episode, which features, among other things, satanic rites at a college and a brutal sex crime. Most stomach-churning of all is the utterly credible demonic voice emanating from the man possessed.

31. “Hickory, Dickory Doom” – CBS Radio Mystery Theater – February 26, 1979

At a garage sale, a couple buys an antique grandfather clock with strange shapes in the wood grain. In fact, the heirloom conceals a sinister portal that, once opened, could have cataclysmic consequences for the world as we know it.

As our friend Raymond from Inner Sanctum would say,“Pleasant dreams, hmmmmmm…?”

Flights of Fancy: 5 Stargazing Early Films You Can Watch Right Now

The moon’s face drifts closer and closer until finally—WHAM!—a space shuttle hits it right in the eye. It’s one of the most iconic shots in film history, an emblem of the cinema’s imaginative power.


However, while Georges Méliès’s pioneering Le voyage dans la lune (1902) gets a lot of love, few people realize that it inspired several other early filmmakers to create inventive stargazing movies. (And Méliès kept the trend going himself with other terrific cosmos-trekking films, like L’éclipse du soleil en pleine lune from 1906.)


Enjoy these 5 impressive, lesser-known flights of fancy from cinema’s formative years!

The ‘?’ Motorist – Walter R. Booth – 1906

To escape the cops, a reckless motorist defies gravity, driving up into the sky and careening along on a celestial joyride.

Voyage autour d’une étoile – Gaston Velle – 1906

A beautiful lady in the stars beckons to an astronomer, so he rides a bubble to the heavens… and discovers that they have jealous husbands up there, too!

Excursion dans la lune – Segundo de Chomon – 1908

A stunning remake of Méliès’s original expedition to the moon (with extra dancing girls).

Claire de lune espagnol – Émile Cohl – 1909

A lovelorn young man attempts suicide but falls onto a spacecraft that carries him into the sky. He hits, shoots, and axes the man in the moon, prompting a bevy of star maidens to take their revenge. Note the early animated touches by the innovative Cohl.

Matrimonio interplanetario – Enrico Novelli – 1910

An enthusiastic stargazer and a moon princess fall in love through their telescopes. So, he travels to the moon, gets consent from her father, and they celebrate the wedding. This one is worth watching just for the novel way it imagines a telegraph being sent across space!

BONUS: Rêve à la lune – Gaston Velle and Ferdinand Zecca – 1905

Since I couldn’t find a decent quality version of this film, I figured that I’d include it as an extra. A drunkard falls in love with the moon and climbs up a building to meet it. What could possibly go wrong?

Sweet dreams, friends!


The Exile (1947): King of Hearts

dougieIt would be a gross understatement to say that Max Ophüls knew how to make a camera dance. His cinema waltzes and gavottes, prances and strides, twirls and whirls, tiptoes and swaggers, sweeps and strolls, races and meanders, depending on the mood and meaning of the moment. His tracking shots keep time to the many rhythms of the human body and the human heart.

For The Exile, Ophüls’s balletic camera found an ample partner in Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Playing the future Charles II of England hiding out in the Netherlands, Fairbanks carries the film with a wry, world-weary charm, largely evoked through the way he moves.

(If you need a quick history refresher, Charles Stuart fled England during the period known as the Interregnum rather than face execution by the Puritan zealots who took over his country and killed his father, Charles I. The Exile is a fanciful account of the months leading up to his restoration.)

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Prince Charles Stuart’s key strength—the quality that’s kept him alive through all those years of exile—lies in his adaptivity, and Fairbanks communicates this through the nimbleness of his movements.

Whether darting through a marketplace, leaping onto a river barge, or swinging onto rooftops to escape his foes, Fairbanks’ Charles displays a kinetic energy that we seldom associate with royalty. Charles is a vagabond king, a streetwise king, a king whose experiences living among ordinary people have enriched his character.

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For instance, we get an early indication of his respect for the commonfolk when he tells his group of loyal companions that he won’t force a return to Britain until his people call for him. A series of swift camera movements as excited messengers and followers wind through the king’s broken-down headquarters, spreading the news that more and more citizens are chafing under Cromwell’s regime.

This giddiness ceases, however, when Charles gives his friends a reality check. Fairbanks delivers a beautiful speech, recorded in a grave long take during which the camera creeps slowly towards a medium close-up, as he declares that he’s endured too much suffering to inflict a war on his countrymen.

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Now, some reviews of The Exile that I’ve read complain that the pacing lags. If you were expecting The Adventures of Robin Hood, then, yes, it does. It is, after all, a movie about waiting, about an heir biding his time.

But I think this line of criticism has fundamentally misunderstood what The Exile wants to be: not a swashbuckling adventure, but rather a beguiling historical romance à la Sir Walter Scott.

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The movie takes the time to ripen the characters (and our investment in them) and to establish a multi-layered conflict. On the most basic level, The Exile pits Charles Stuart against the sinister Roundheads who want to kill him and deny him his kingdom.

However, the film dwells on the question whether he really wants to take his place on the throne. Laying low in the country, Charles falls in love with Katie (Rita Corday), the enterprising and spirited woman who runs the farm where he works incognito.

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Their first kiss is a masterstroke of cinematic discretion: we see them embrace through a barn window, as the loose shutter opens and closes, opens and closes… until it finally obscures the view of their passionate reunion. Through this tender relationship, the prince discovers the joys of ordinary life, joys that he must eventually relinquish to do his long-delayed duty.

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If you love well-staged action, you’ll need to bide your time until the third act of the film, but it’s worth the wait. When the Roundheads try to seize Charles at Katie’s farmhouse, Fairbanks is a wonder to behold, an effortless, grinning demigod tracing arabesques with feet that never seem to touch the ground.

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He’s not just eluding his would-be assassins. He’s creating art. His buoyant movements even seem to establish his ideological superiority over the bad guys: his response to their rigid, dogmatic beliefs is resourceful and flexible, just as he reacts to their brute force by capering and gamboling out of their reach—while lovingly followed by Ophüls’s camera. Consider it a dance-off of regimes. (And Puritans don’t dance too well.)

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The film also culminates in a dazzling sequence set on a windmill, in which our hero climbs onto the spinning blades to fends off his attackers. I don’t want to give too much away, but prepare your mind to be blown.

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In addition to starring and doing his own stunts, Fairbanks also co-wrote and produced The Exile, made at Universal Studios. Partially on the recommendation of Robert Siodmak, he picked Ophüls as his director. If this be a vanity project, here’s to vanity.

Despite the long-ago-and-far-away setting of The Exile, its emotions hit home, due (I would argue) to the personal experience of the two men who shaped it. Fairbanks delivers arguably his most moving performance as the heir to a burdensome, if illustrious, legacy—something he clearly felt in real life, as the son of silent superstar Douglas Fairbanks, sometimes called “the King of Hollywood.”

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The smile and the ability to wear a dashing moustache ran in the family.

As Fairbanks Jr. said in an interview, having a famous father “made it [his career] more difficult in the sense that people expected more from you.” Despite the doors his family opened, Fairbanks remembered that there were directors and executives who would say, “ ‘You aren’t the man your father was.’ The door may be open to get in, but it stays open, to get kicked out of that much quicker, too.” However, just as Charles Stuart proves himself entirely worthy as a monarch, Fairbanks Jr. bears his father’s mantle with grace and a flair that was uniquely his.

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One also suspects that Max Ophüls’s experience fleeing Nazi encroachment through Europe added to the bitterness of the film’s portrayal of exile—and to the grimness and malevolence of its villains. Indeed, in 1947, it would have been hard to watch the stern, humorless, black-hatted Puritans hunting down and dispatching dissenters and not think of S.S. agents.

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Ophüls conveys the oppressiveness of the Roundheads through the eerie gliding camera that snakes through their headquarters and the stark lighting that the heavies seem to bring with them, very different from the warm, inviting glow of Holland in early scenes. The director thus suggests that these men are real-life monsters by shooting them in manner more akin to what you’d expect from Universal horror flicks of the same era than from a light-hearted swashbuckler.

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Interestingly enough, Universal feared the glut of Technicolor adventures on the market in the mid-1940s and vetoed Fairbanks’s desire to film The Exile in color, an unusual move for an A-budgeted movie. However, black-and-white turned out to be the right choice, in my opinion, since it enabled Ophüls to evoke the deathly threat of the Roundheads and to endow The Exile with the feeling of a period engraving at times.

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To highlight the contrast between the single-minded Roundheads and the easygoing Charles, Ophüls interjects a sequence of vivid crosscutting. We see the doomy Puritans amidst inky trappings, plotting Charles’s demise, while Charles frolics around Katie’s bright farm, helping to plough fields and toting around baskets of adorable chicks (yes, really).

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As the formidable Colonel Ingram, Charles’s antagonist, perpetually chilly character actor Henry Daniell cranks up the frost to career-high levels. Daniell dispenses with the comforting roguishness and devilish wit that make audiences come to cherish swashbuckler villains, like Levasseur in Captain Blood or even Rupert of Hentzau in Prisoner of Zenda, in spite of themselves. No, Ingram is a irredeemable fanatic, devoid even of humanizing vices like lust or greed, who considers himself the mouthpiece of God’s will.

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When Ingram shows up at Katie’s farmhouse, Ophüls startles us with the sudden change of ambiance. We never see Ingram arrive. Ophüls transitions from the happiest scene in the film (the love scene in the barn) to Ingram in a spookiest long shot, sitting dead still at the farmhouse table, cloaked in low-key gloom. Charles peers out at his enemy from the kitchen, the prince’s rakish smile replaced with true concern for the first time in the film. It’s as though Ingram has carried the pall of despotism around with him. This evil man and all that he stands for will finally force the reluctant king to fight for his throne… and his survival.

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The Exile is an underseen and underrated gem: an adventure with a heart, a romance with panache, and an artful swashbuckler that recaptures the romance of silent cinema. I’m grateful to have seen it on TCM (as part of the network’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and I really hope that it’ll get a DVD release some day soon.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 7.22.44 PMThis post is part of my TCM Discoveries Blogathon. Please check out all of the wonderful entries!