Winter Chills: 10 Scary Old-Time Radio Episodes for the Snowy Season

snow_curse_cat_peopleHorror and winter weather go together in my mind. Whenever a fierce north wind sets my windowpanes rattling and snow engulfs the landscape like some bizarre fungus, I want nothing more than to curl up with a pot of tea and some spooky stories.

Many great horror movies wield the threatening beauty of winter to evoke fear and wonder. Think of the bundled-up mystery of The Invisible Man’s opening scenes, the forbidding splendor of The Curse of The Cat People’s conclusion, the snowbound terror of The Thing from Outer Space, and the wintry isolation of The Shining.

The motif of menacing snow and ice runs through classic horror radio as well. Snow might imprison radio characters in one of those tense, confined locations that became a hallmark of the medium. Or icy winds might attack our heroes on a journey, suggesting nature’s hostility towards puny mankind. Or perhaps the grip of the cold underscores a sinister force beyond human knowledge.

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On this fine snowy day, I’ve picked out 10 chilling episodes that relate to snow, ice, and winter. Make yourself some cocoa, cuddle under a blanket, and swap your real-life worries for some old-fashioned terrors.

“Poltergeist” – Lights Out! – December 16, 1936

Three women on a holiday break in the country provoke the wrath of a malevolent spirit when they unknowingly dance on a grave. I’ve probably listened to this old-time radio episode more than any other. The rising hysteria of the heroines, the evocations of bitter cold, the ghost’s unusual modus operandi, and the hallucinatory conclusion make this a perfect haunting tale for a winter’s night.

“Return Trip” – Suspense – June 27, 1946

Yes, it’s one of those “Who among us is the escaped lunatic?” potboilers that old-time radio did so well. As a bus hurtles through a blizzard, passengers eye each other suspiciously. They know that one of them may be the killer who recently broke loose from an asylum. Disaster looms over the bus, but how will it strike? The homicidal maniac? The weather? The escalating paranoia of the passengers? All of the above?

“Northern Lights” – Quiet, Please – January 30, 1949

A little bit Lovecraft, a little bit E.F. Benson, a whole lot of icy Wyllis Cooper imagination. Two researchers experimenting with teleportation notice an abundance of strange caterpillars in their laboratory. Where did the creatures come from? And do they hold the secret of a cosmic horror poised to descend on humanity? If far-out sci-fi is your jam, you will love this episode, one of the best and scariest from Quiet, Please.

“The Abominable Snowman” – Escape – September 13, 1953

The pinnacle of armchair adventure radio, Escape dramatized action-packed stories so vividly that you feel transported to faraway lands. In this riveting horror-laced thriller, an excursion party in the Himalayas tracks the legendary Yeti in the hope of bringing a specimen back to civilization. Good luck with that.

“The Crystalline Man” – Macabre – January 1, 1962

An ill-fated expedition to a glacier uncovers a glistening tomb buried deep in a crevasse, containing a translucent, uncannily lifelike statue of a man. Once the crystalline figure is installed in a museum, people start to die. This far-fetched but fun episode doesn’t have that much to do with snow and ice, but a certain voice at the end certainly chills me to the bone.

“The Phantom Coach” – Beyond Midnight – 1968

Fair warning: Muffled audio dampens the pleasure of this radio adaptation of Amelia B. Edwards’s spooky classic. However, I think you’ll still enjoy this surreal, slightly rambling tale, punctuated by a ghastly denouement. A man lost in the snow luckily happens to catch the attention of a passing coach on the moors and finds himself in odd company.

“The Ghost-Grey Bat” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 25, 1981

Don’t you hate it when your charming vacation-swap home in Austria turns out to be the lair of an unholy terror? Sudden snowstorms and motifs of frosty desperation crop up frequently in CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes, including “The White Wolf” and “Return to Shadow Lake,” but “The Ghost-Grey Bat” is my favorite example by far.

“The Porch Light” – Nightfall – February 26, 1982

CBC’s Nightfall combined the sleight-of-hand suspense that we associate with golden age OTR with distinctly lurid, modern material. “The Porch Light” falls within the grand tradition of stories about clueless young married couples who move into houses with dark pasts.

In the wee hours of the morning, while a heavy snowstorm rages outside, our unlucky protagonists see a man on their porch. A man who casts no shadow. Don’t expect a happy ending, folks.

“The Snowman Killing” – Fear on Four – January 3, 1988

Creepy kids are creepy. Creepy kids who build possessed snowmen and threaten their siblings with death by freezing are quite a large helping of British heebie-jeebies to spread on your scones. BBC’s Fear on Four struck a delicate balance between subtlety and stomach-churning horror that “The Snowman Killing” exemplifies.

“Snow Shadow Area” – The Vanishing Point – February 3, 1989

“Winter: a state of mind. Wonderland… or cold-blooded killer?” During an oppressive winter, a series of child mutilations terrorizes a small community. Listener, beware. This story is not for the faint of heart. Don’t blame me for your nightmares.

Fear You Can Hear, Volume II: 31 More Scary Old-Time Radio Episodes for Halloween

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

It’s that time of the year again. A season for cozy sweaters, hot cocoa, flame-colored leaves, and—my favorite part—ghost stories.

Last year, I put together a list of 31 scary radio episodes. I’m grateful to those of you who enthusiastically shared it!

So, this October I’ve sifted through audio archives again and put together a totally new list: 31 more spooky radio episodes for you to enjoy.

In our seen-it-all era, it’s inspiring for me to discover that so many other people gravitate towards radio’s subtle storytelling.

Macabre masterworks of cinema often harness the power of the unseen. As Fritz Lang described the offscreen child murder in M (1931), “The violence is in your imagination… by not showing it, I force you as spectators to think about the most frightening thoughts you can imagine.”

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Radio horror, by the very nature of the medium, possesses this alarming power to hijack your mind’s eye, to tap into your worst fears. It preys upon your imagination, holding your senses hostage. I love it.

Old-time radio addicts will notice that many top chillers, like “The Thing on the Fourble Board” and “The House in Cypress Canyon,” are conspicuously absent from this list. That’s because I included them in last year’s “Fear You Can Hear” post.

This year I got to dig deeper and share some episodes that I consider underrated, along with a few beloved creepers. These are in rough chronological order by the date of the oldest episode I selected from a given series.

Since this is a film blog, all of the images I’ve included here for ambiance are stills or screenshots from classic movies. Can you identify them all?

Cuddle up under a blanket and prepare for shudders!

Update (10/4/16): I was made aware of a 2 episodes that weren’t playing. This was due to special characters in the URLs that were creating problems. I’ve found alternate URLs and they’re working now. Thanks for your patience!

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1. “The Hairy Thing” – The Witch’s Tale – Aired on September 26, 1932
We can all thank The Witch’s Tale and its creator Alonzo Deen Cole for ushering in the grand tradition of radio horror. Only a small percentage of its original episodes survive; some seem creaky today, but a few retain their original spark of spookiness.

In this standout early episode, a plucky nurse inherits an old house—on the condition that she sleep there every night for a year. Alone. In a certain room. Okay, you’ve totally heard that premise before, but the unusual supernatural entity that creeps by night in this tale might still send chills up your spine.

2. “The Gypsy’s Hand” – The Witch’s Tale – April 5, 1934
A doctor amputates the infected hand of a world-famous pianist who promptly dies of sorrow—and seeks revenge beyond the grave. A variation of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” this story begins with a stomach-churning operating scene, then works its way up to a crescendo of blood-curdling screams.

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3. “Knock at the Door” – Lights Out! – December 15, 1942
Our narrator, a hardboiled dame if ever there was one, wanted the easy life. She had a plan. Marry a chump. Kill his mother. Enjoy her money. But our heroine didn’t bargain for momma’s willpower—so strong that she’d even crawl out of her watery grave to protect her not-so-bright baby boy.

4. “The Meteor Man” – Lights Out! – December 22, 1942
A professor brings a meteorite into his home to examine it. Little does he know that the rock from outer space carried a passenger to earth—and a hostile one at that. (The lead actors’ accents come and go, but if you can get past that, this episode contains some first-rate material from Arch Oboler.)

5. “Death Robbery” – Lights Out! – July 16, 1947
When will fictional scientists learn that reanimating corpses is not a great idea? When it stops being entertaining, I suppose. And this episode certainly is entertaining. Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist who seeks to vanquish death. When tragedy strikes, he uses a loved one as his human guinea pig with calamitous consequences.

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6. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” – Suspense – April 27, 1943
Agnes Moorehead could make the phone book sound menacing. When Suspense matched Moorehead with macabre scripts by radio writer Lucille Fletcher, the resultant shows are white-knuckle affairs. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” is an ambiguous addition to the “women in peril” sub-genre of film and radio from the 1940s. Is it a ghost story? A psychological thriller? A hallucination? Listen and decide for yourself.

7. “Narrative About Clarence” – Suspense – March 16, 1944
Laird Cregar stars as a vengeful mesmerist. Need I say more? This episode tends to get overlooked among Suspense’s flashier chillers. Yet, its unremitting sense of dread and gut-punch ending make it one of the most haunting examples of radio horror I know.

8. “Fugue in C-Minor” – Suspense – June 1, 1944
Oh, Vincent Price. He always seems like a perfect husband. Until you look in his basement. Ida Lupino plays the damsel in distress who falls for his lethal charms in this grisly Gothic tale.

9. “Zero Hour” – Suspense – April 3, 1955
“Mommy… Daddy… Peek-a-boo!” Never have those words sounded more terrifying than in Ray Bradbury’s rich slice of Cold War-era paranoia. Children all over the nation are engrossed in a new game: “Invasion.” It’s sort of like “Simon Says,” only you take detailed orders from a Martian called Drill. One mother begins to wonder if it’s more than just make-believe.

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10. “The Warning” – The Weird Circle – 1944
I confess: most episodes of The Weird Circle fail to thrill me. The series specialized in adaptations of classic literature with a spooky bent. Yet, it rarely summoned the moody atmosphere without which radio horror falls flat.

“The Warning,” however, is a hidden gem. Aristocratic Hester has visions of her missing brother… that lead her and her husband into a trap set by a wicked spurned suitor. This yarn offers just about everything you could wish for in a Gothic tale: premonitions of doom, walking cadavers, a magic ring, a twisted romantic obsession, a mist-shrouded castle, and a resourceful heroine… I find the possessive villain especially unsettling. Imagine having a stalker with an army of enslaved corpses at his disposal!

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11. “The Beckoning Fair One” – Molle Mystery Theater – June 5, 1945
A writer rents a suite of rooms in an old house. His friend warns him of a malicious presence, but the author can’t resist the alluring influence of an elusive female spectre. What unspeakable things will her hypnotic spell drive our hero to do?

This episode might not enchant you as much as it does me if you haven’t read Oliver Onions’s “The Beckoning Fair One.” It’s tricky for a half-hour radio play to capture the slow descent into madness that a novella can.

For that reason, I’ll include a more accessible bonus episode of Molle Mystery Theater as well: “Burn, Witch, Burn”.

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12. “The Creeping Wall” – Inner Sanctum – January 8, 1946
Best remembered for the groan-inducing puns of its ghoulish host Raymond, Inner Sanctum served up pulpy crime stories with high body counts. The series flirted with the supernatural, but episodes usually went out with a whimper, not a bang. Expect a lot of Scooby Doo-ish cop-outs if you ever go on an Inner Sanctum binge. “The Creeping Wall” is a favorite of mine because the real and the unreal blend to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s disturbing no matter how you read it.

To escape her stifling claustrophobia, a pathologically vain woman moves into a big old mansion with her devoted husband. Soon she feels the walls closing in on her. And the mysterious portrait of a beautiful dead woman seems to mock her. Don’t ask too many questions, dear listener. Just savor the gory, lurid, melodramatic fun.

Bonus episode! For a well-done example of the dark crime fiction that Inner Sanctum specialized in, I’d recommend “The Scream” (1950), which also has strong horror overtones.

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13. “The Kabbala” – Murder at Midnight – December 30, 1946
Murder at Midnight is a fairly new discovery for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the darkness of its supernatural plots. A professor researching the occult obtains an oracle that can answer all his questions. But at what cost? A pall of doom hangs over this episode. It channels the same kind of black magic spell as M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

14. “Death’s Worshipper” – Murder at Midnight – October 20, 1947
“It’s as though I were trapped in a spider’s web, waiting helplessly as the spider comes closer,” says Kate, our heroine, at the beginning of this episode. A creepy guy named Quentin insists he loves Kate, but she doesn’t love him. In fact, she fears him, his boasts of occult knowledge, and the threats he makes about destroying all those who stand in his way. Then people start turning up dead and horribly mutilated.

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15. “Taboo” – Escape – December 3, 1947
Two friends traveling through Hungary go on the hunt for the beast that’s been killing the locals. Can there be any truth to the legend of the werewolf?

16. “Ancient Sorceries” – Escape – February 21, 1947
Algernon Blackwood is one of my favorite writers of weird fiction. His stories might deal with the dead’s grotesque intrusions into material things (as in “The Kit Bag” or “The Listener”) or with atavistic forces bubbling back up into the lives of modern individuals (as in “The Willows”). Surprisingly few American radio shows have adapted his work, but “Ancient Sorceries” does a swell job. In this eldritch tale, a traveler stumbles upon a strange Welsh village where remnants of the old pagan ways threaten to keep him from leaving.

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17. “My Son, John” – Quiet, Please – November 28, 1948
After his only son, John, is reported a war casualty, a grieving father calls him back from the dead. I don’t want to spoil Wyllis Cooper’s twisty tale, a unique fusion of sadness and terror. Allow me to drop a hint: “My Son, John” takes a well-known horror movie monster and makes it scary and tragic on an intimate scale.

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18. “The Lodger” – Mystery in the Air – August 14, 1948
There are few radio experiences quite so exhilarating as Peter Lorre going berserk for your listening pleasure. Lorre mustered up some world-class hysterics for his radio series Mystery in the Air, particularly for this adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s chiller. As a serial killer stalks the streets of London, a landlady suspects that her new tenant is the culprit. And he has his eye on her daughter.

19. “Mars Is Heaven” – Dimension X – July 7, 1950
Who doesn’t dream of being reunited with their dead loved ones? When astronauts land on Mars, that dream is realized. They embrace their long-lost family members and bask in nostalgic joy. What’s wrong with that? Well, just listen.

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20. “The Hangman’s Rope” – Hall of Fantasy – January 5, 1952
The Hall of Fantasy impresses me with its utter disregard for the moral “rules” of classic horror. Usually good people survive and bad people die, right? Well, series creator Richard Thorne loved to kill off absolutely blameless individuals, reminding us that real evil respects no boundaries. In this episode, the ghost of a vicious executioner threatens two brothers who have the misfortune of crossing his path.

21. “The Dance of the Devil Dolls” – Hall of Fantasy – February 9, 1953
One night, two friends go out for a walk and run into a man frantically searching for a doll that looks like him and babbling about a dangerous old woman. The chance encounter plunges them into a living nightmare of witchy menace.

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22. “Stranger in the House” – The Mysterious Traveler – January 29, 1952
A happily married couple move into a country house. Well, since I’ve got this episode on a horror list, you’ve probably guessed that there’s something evil lurking in that quaint little domicile. This story, though formulaic, wins points for its grim ending.

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23. “The Screaming Skull” – Theater 10:30 – c. 1960s
A retired sailor tells the story of how he inadvertently caused a woman’s death. It wasn’t his fault, you see, but her spirit won’t forgive him. Or, more precisely, her skull won’t. The shrieks in this show are like nothing else I’ve heard in radio: ear-splitting howls of agony and rage. I also appreciate the pacing of this episode; it progresses from a cozy chat to a fever pitch of hopeless panic.

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24. “The Squaw” – The Black Mass – August 8, 1966
An obnoxious American tourist at a historic European castle crushes a kitten to death in front of its mother. He should’ve known better than to visit the torture chamber while tracked by the fierce black momma cat. “Imagine a man who’s fought Apaches and grizzly bears bein’ afraid of a mad cat,” the culprit chuckles. Oh, do be afraid, puny human. Be very afraid.

Fair warning: If you love cats as I do, this will disturb the hell out of you. I think I can guess who you’ll be rooting for.

The sound quality on “The Squaw” is, alas, fuzzy. So, to compensate, I’m including a bonus episode from The Black Mass: “The Ash Tree.”

25. “Marble Knights” – Beyond Midnight – November 1, 1968
If you’ve never read E. Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble,” I envy you, because it lands one of the most devastating endings in all of horror fiction. This adaptation from the South African program Beyond Midnight gets the meandering tempo—and the sense of impending tragedy—just right. A loving couple move into a little cottage. She writes. He paints. But the local legends start to weigh heavily on the young wife’s mind. If only her husband would listen…

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26. “The Intermediary” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – April 14, 1975
I have a weak spot for stories about houses that aren’t just haunted, but possessive. This is a splendid example, with a side of festering family dysfunction. A man inherits his childhood home, but his wicked stepmother’s will stipulates that he should actually live there. After he moves in with his wife, she starts behaving strangely and bad memories rise to the present.

27. “Sagamore Cottage” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – December 31, 1975
Yes, it’s another case of “unsuspecting couple moves into a quaint little place and discovers that an implacable evil wants to drain them of their life force.” Instead of giving any more details away, I’ll let you simmer in the suspense. The payoff is well worth it.

28. “You’re Going to Like Rodney” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 10, 1980
Poor Rodney is an orphan, shuffled from home to home. Strangely enough, whoever takes care of him seems to meet with a violent and untimely demise. This brilliant episode showcases radio’s unsurpassed ability to enlist your mind as an accomplice. Rodney never speaks, so it’s up to the listener to fill in the gaping black hole of his uncanny presence.

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29. “Ringing the Changes” – Nightfall – October 31, 1980
Nightfall might be Canada’s best-kept secret. No series—none—was ever scarier. The level of auditory gore in an episode like “The Repossession” will blow your mind. Personally, I like my horror with a touch of the traditional, so the episodes I’ve chosen are more spine-tingling than gross. Don’t worry, though. There’s plenty to shudder over.

In “Ringing the Changes,” an older man and his young, beautiful wife take a trip to a countryside hamlet. They chose the wrong day of the year to make their visit. Can they escape before they’re forced to partake in the village’s hideous annual ceremony?

30. “Baby Doll” – Nightfall – December 18, 1981
If you’re as freaked out by dolls as I am, I’d advise you not to listen to this one alone. A husband brings his wife an antique doll as an anniversary present. To his dismay, the toy consumes their lives, as his wife dotes on it like a real child. An investigation into the doll’s history reveals dark forces at work.

31. “After Sunset” – Nightfall – April 29, 1983
A series of heinous murders in a small town signals the re-emergence of a demonic spirit. The elders recognize it. They fought it before, 50 years ago. Now they band together again to destroy it once and for all. The trouble is, the evil thing can possess the body of someone they know and trust.

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Final bonus episode! “Donovan’s Brain” – Suspense – May 18 and 25, 1944

I couldn’t exclude Orson Welles from this list. (He might haunt me in protest.) I admit, I don’t find the film adaptation of Donovan’s Brain all that scary. But the radio adaptation is another story!

In this 2-part episode of Suspense, the brain of a ruthless tycoon dominates an obsessed scientist. The background sounds, suggesting the whirring, beeping, bubbling equipment of a laboratory, create a pitch-perfect sci-fi ambiance. And Welles’s two contrasting character voices—the doctor’s reedy, analytical narration and Donovan’s gruff, commanding murmurs—really deliver on the heebie-jeebies.


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

100 Reasons to Love Olivia de Havilland (Part I)

olivia_candidThis is the age of Olivia de Havilland. We’re just lucky to be living in it. Today, on July 1, 2016, she turns 100. To celebrate her talent, her courage, and her breathtakingly diverse legacy of screen performances, I embarked on an “Oliviathon” and vowed to watch or rewatch all of her films by the end of this month.

To mark her centennial, I’ve decided to list 100 reasons why I admire, worship, and adore her—starting with with 50 today.

What about the other 50? Just wait until I’ve watched my way through her filmography! Some of my reasons are frivolous, some have altered cinema history. I offer them here in no particular order. So please join me in giving thanks for a great actress and an inspiring woman.

1. She took on the studio system—and won her fellow actors greater rights and freedoms. Golden Age Hollywood wasn’t so golden for actors under contract to studios. If they chose not to do assigned roles, they could be put on suspension… and the term of that suspension would be added onto their existing contracts. Olivia de Havilland put her career on the line to fight her battle against studios that treated their artists like property.

verydoneAfter completing a disappointing melodrama called Devotion, Olivia thought she was finished with her constraining Warner Brothers contract. Jack Warner, however, insisted that the time she’d spent on suspension still counted against her. With lawyer Martin Gang, Olivia decided to take Warner Brothers to court for a practice that she considered unlawful. If she lost, she’d never work in Hollywood again.

The battle was a long an arduous one, as expertly described by the Self-Styled Siren. But Olivia’s gamble paid off. She emerged victorious—to seek out the complex roles she’s yearned for. Her colleagues could also revel in their new-found freedom. As Olivia recalls, “No one thought I would win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding.”

You know how stars today can choose their roles carefully and shape their careers? Well, that’s what de Havilland’s guts and brains earned for them back in the 1940s. As Bette Davis said, “Every actor in the business owes a debt of gratitude to Olivia de Havilland for taking us out of bondage.”

2. She can swear like a trucker if the occasion calls for it, as her bloopers indicate. Each year Warner Brothers created a humorous reel of “breakdowns” or “blow-ups” featuring snippets of stars flubbing their lines or on-set mishaps. There aren’t many clips of Olivia in these reels (I’m guessing because she knew her lines word-perfect most of the time). But there are a few choice moments, like this outtake from In This Our Life.

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She seemed to have more blow-ups than usual in 1946—no doubt because she loathed Devotion, the silly, colorless costume melodrama that Warner assigned her. See if you can detect the note of hostility in her bloopers. This is unvarnished footage of a woman about to rebel, a lady feeling the weight of the last straw before she decided to sue her employers.

3. She spent much of WWII visiting military hospitals, including psychiatric wards. A Major Richardson asked her to talk to his patients, feeling that her sensitivity and kindness could “do some good” for men under severe pressure and shock from army conditions.

I’ll let her tell it in her own words…

Olivia toured hospitals from Alaska to Fiji on such a demanding schedule that she contracted pneumonia and almost died. So, the next time you watch one of her films and she’s risking her life to stay true to her values or struggling to hold her life together as the world falls apart around her, remember: her life was no less impressive, no less courageous.

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Olivia with Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur J. Dodd at the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska, 1944.

4. Her wry winking motif in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). Whenever she winks, it fills me with such glee and hope for humanity that I want to hug the nearest object.

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5. She has a splendid sense of humor—especially about herself. Her witty memoir Every Frenchman Has One is as jam-packed with bon mots as the Étoile is jam-packed with lunatic drivers. Or, in her words…

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She begins the book by assuring the reader that she is not dead (“I’m not at all sure that you know that I’m alive…”). She moves on to cheerfully recount her often-mortifying adventures with the French language and culture, like that time she announced that French sailors are expensive (matelot, which means sailor, and matelas, which means mattress, sound awfully alike). Or the memory of being told that her accent was “légèrement Yugoslav.” Negotiating the minefield of niceties that is a French dinner party, she “really did want to die” after a series of faux pas involving a countess and an enormous brandy snifter.

My favorite anecdote involves her taking her young son to a French-dubbed screening of Robin Hood on the Champs Elysées. Afterwards, little Benjamin exclaimed, “Mamma, you spoke better French then than you do now!”

6. She gave us the best-ever onscreen depiction of a rabid fangirl in It’s Love I’m After (1937), a.k.a. the best screwball comedy you may have never heard of. Amusingly enough, Leslie Howard plays the matinee idol that Olivia’s character is stuck on, which gives this movie a delightful air of retrospective irony. In any case, it’s startlingly funny to watch future-Melanie tackle future-Ashley like this.

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7. Her Withering Glare of Righteous Judgement from In This Our Life (1942). I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass just looking at these screencaps. Phew.

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8. She was utterly unfazed by Hollywood’s bevy of man candy, at least according to this 1937 anecdote from Movie Classic magazine about Olivia and Robert Taylor after a radio performance. (Look, I know that fan mag articles should be taken with a grain of salt, but I do believe this one. And I sure want to believe it.)

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9. Her epic chowing-down-on-a-chicken-wing scene in Robin Hood (1938).
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10. Her astonishing range, from the fluffiest comedies to the grittiest dramas, from contemporary problem pictures to high adventures in faraway lands. I’d argue that her gifts as a comedienne are especially underrated. Had she not been one of the greatest dramatic actresses of her time, I have no doubt that she could’ve been a screwball comedy queen. Even when Olivia hated a role, she made something of it, stretching herself, learning, growing.

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11. Her laugh. A strange, coy, undeniably merry laugh. The kind of exquisite laugh that makes you finally understand what poets are talking about when they throw around words like “silvery” and “sonorous” to describe the voices they adore. Some laughter brays, some laughter snarls, some chortles, some twitters. Olivia’s laughter sings and sparkles and tickles the ear. No wonder she’s gravitated towards the French language. Her ringing laughter sounds like pure joie de vivre.

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12. She can fling a Shakespearean insult with verve and panache. As attested by this monument to feminine fury in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the first film Olivia ever made (though not the first released)!

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13. She was no mere damsel in distress. Lest we forget, Arabella Bishop, her character in Captain Blood, repeatedly flouts convention to save Peter Blood from torture and death. In Robin Hood, Lady Marian risks her life to help Robin escape hanging and then to spy on wicked King John and his allies. While de Havilland didn’t write the scripts, she invested these characters (and her many 1930s and 1940s costume heroines) with an air of competence, intelligence, and courage and made their heroism utterly believable. She played her love interest roles not as shrieking innocents, but as brave, spirited women—worthy equals of the heroes who wooed them. I can’t say how much that meant to me as a little girl when I discovered her films.

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14. She once spent her spare time calculating a formula for converting Centigrade into Fahrenheit. As she explains in her memoir, Every Frenchmen Has One, de Havilland was flummoxed by French thermometers, which only added to the anxiety of nursing her son through a fever in a foreign land. Determined to help other mothers in the same situation, “I stayed in bed in my room for twenty-four hours straight with a clutch of pencils and a quire of paper…. And finally, triumphantly, I found a formula which would translate Centigrade into Fahrenheit.” Remember, now, this happened in the days before all human knowledge was accessible through smartphones. De Havilland’s formula was published in a letter to the NY Herald Tribune. While a few mansplainers reared their heads in response, she’s proud of her formula. As she should be.

15. Her chilling double performance as good and evil twins Ruth and Terry in The Dark Mirror (1946). This psychoanalytic noir gave Olivia the chance to play against type as a jealous, charismatic murderess who nearly succeeds in gaslighting her gentle, suggestible sister.

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What’s so uncanny about this Freudian thriller is that Olivia embodies two distinct characters with an identical appearance. We get to witness how different a friendly face can look when a malevolent personality lurks behind it. Ruth and Terry have recognizably different postures, voices, and mannerisms. Abetted by skillful camera trickery, The Dark Mirror opens the audience’s eyes to the subtle sorcery of Olivia’s craft, since we can see two of her creations share the frame.

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16. The adorable dance that her daffy heiress character is doing here in Four’s a Crowd (1938) to provide a screwball comedy distraction.

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17. Her raw, shattering, fearless, compassionate performance in The Snake Pit (1948).

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18. She means what she says. When de Havilland started making films, she asked James Cagney for advice on screen acting. His advice: Always mean what you say. You can hear that she took those words to heart. She is so grounded in her text. She says things with startling sincerity—startling because sincerity is not common.

19. Her magnificent I-came-to-slay face and pose in this 1930s publicity portrait. That’s almost too much fierce for a single image to contain.

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20. And lo! Olivia’s I-came-to-slay face is still with us today. Because she’s still slaying. In vintage Dior. (Photo by Brian Adams for The Evening Standard.)

21. She was lobbying for strong female protagonists decades before it was cool to do so. While she made the most of her “love interest” roles, she didn’t want to keep on playing guests in other people’s stories (cough, cough, men’s stories, cough, cough) for the rest of her life. As she told the Academy of Achievement, “The life of the love interest is really pretty boring…. I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things.”

22. That scene between Melanie and Belle Watling in the carriage in Gone with the Wind (1939). De Havilland’s whole performance is flawless, filling the movie with an almost otherworldly grace. But, if I had to choose only one scene to show her artistry, this quiet scene in a film of bombast astonishes me much more than the burning of Atlanta. Her Melanie is one of those rare people with the intelligence and humility to understand that the smartest thing we human beings can do is to be kind to each other. Melanie knows that survival depends not only on Scarlett values—like ambition and chutzpa—but also on love and caring. Scarlett values can keep you from dying when your world’s gone to hell, but Melanie values will keep you truly alive.

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23. The Heiress: it was her idea to make the story into a film, she selected the director, and she delivered a virtuoso dramatic performance that runs the gamut from devastated vulnerability to commanding authority, a performance that shows what she was fighting for all those long years. The freedom to make great art and to realize a vision of her own.

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24. This clip of her dishing on her silent crush on Errol Flynn. (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build a time machine so I can slap Errol upside his head. “Dude, a snake? Seriously? Seek help!”)

25. The fact that she didn’t let Errol Flynn (and his ridiculously gorgeous face) derail her life plans. Respect. That must’ve taken superhuman discipline.

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A pretty accurate depiction of Errol and Olivia’s relationship.

26. Her jaw-droppingly determined and terrifying build-up and climactic flip-out in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Few people have out-Bette-Davised Bette Davis in a Bette Davis movie, but I think Olivia has in this instance.

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27. The vivid expressions that she lavished even on a silly spread in a 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. She’s supposed to be writing “a letter to her beau,” the sort of things that fan mags of the 1930s routinely cooked up. But, damn, look at these faces. Olivia never does things by halves. You’d think she was auditioning for Juliet. Or Lady MacBeth. Or Ophelia. Or all three at once.

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28. Her wrenching, poignant, and utterly convincing Oscar-winning transformation—in mind, body, and spirit—from dreamy young woman to embittered matron in To Each His Own (1946).

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29.  Her gift for conjuring the essence of a character through her voice alone—an ability which served her well on the radio. Listen to the brittle, nervous tones she brings to this 1944 Lux Radio Theater version of Suspicion.

(I wonder what sister Joan would have thought. And that’s is the only oblique reference I will be making to the de Havilland-Fontaine feud in this piece, thankyouverymuch.) For more excellent de Havilland radio performances, I refer you to this wonderful post on Once Upon a Screen.

30. This triumphant portrait, which seems to say, “Yes, I’ve got two Oscars, I’ve outlived all the haters, and I look fabulous.” (Photo by Philippe Biancotto for Madame Figaro.)

31. Her exquisitely vulnerable performance in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which needs a DVD release as soon as possible. As the naïve American who marries a European gigolo in Mexico—unaware that he’s just looking to cross the border—de Havilland exudes wonder, tenderness, and innocent sensuality. The story’s redemptive arc works because you believe that something about this shy little schoolteacher can free a world-class operator (Charles Boyer, never better) from his hardened cynicism. She embodies the best of small-town America, in all its starry-eyed kindness and cluelessness. Really, see this movie if you get the chance.

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32. This pout from Call It a Day (1935).

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33. Just look at her cuddling with these cats.

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And, hey, I’m all for equal-opportunity snuggling. Here’s Olivia with a puppy on the set of Hold Back the Dawn.

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34. Based on these publicity stills for Captain Blood, she totally should’ve had her own swashbuckler movie where she wore boots and a cutlass and took down the patriarchy. (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

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35. She illuminates even the clunkiest, dullest films with passion and pathos. Take Anthony Adverse (1936). Now, I love Fredric March, but he looks bored to his knee breeches and buckle shoes by this unwieldy literary adaptation. Claude Rains does his best wicked Claude Rains, and Gale Sondergaard does her best wicked Gale Sondergaard. It’s Olivia who delivers the film’s most memorable tearjerking moment (in my opinion) with her devastating, “Goodbye, Anthony…” whispered from the stage of a Paris opera house.

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36. This early 1940s home movie footage of her acting goofy in a pool with John Huston. Wow.

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37. She can rock a corset and an eyepatch simultaneously, as this still from That Lady (1955) shows.

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38. She makes good girls so interesting. In many of Olivia’s best movies, she’s “stuck” with the part that would make many actresses cringe: the nice sister, the quiet daughter, the dutiful friend. And she tackled those parts while going up against stars playing flashier (ostensibly meatier) roles—nymphomaniacs, shysters, shut-ins, sociopathic Southern belles. Many actors would be grateful merely to register as a blip on the screen against such a gallery of eccentrics.

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Olivia, however, never took good girls for granted. She underpinned their goodness with a rich psychological tapestry, woven in a unique pattern for each one. Roy in In This Our Life is a very different woman from Melanie in Gone with the Wind and from Emmy in Hold Back the Dawn—though they share many qualities and face similar situations.

Goodness never equates to dullness for Olivia, as for many other actresses. We often assume that a girl is good because she lacks imagination, because it never occurred to her to be bad. She brought a sense of interiority, of free will to her good-girl parts. They choose their course in life—for reasons specific to their characters—often more consciously and clear-sightedly than their sinful sisters/friends/rivals/relatives. And that’s why de Havilland’s good girls remain fascinating and complex—and tend to eclipse the flashier characters around them.

39. The seductive, enigmatic allure she channels in My Cousin Rachel (1952).

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40. She won over Bette Davis as a friend. And that was not an easy thing to do. As de Havilland says, “The first time I saw Bette Davis she scared the daylights out of me.” I’ll let these two legendary pals tell the story for themselves…

41. Her luminous beauty in Technicolor. Yes, that sounds shallow, but it takes a hell of a lot of poise and grit to seem serene and glamorous under blindingly bright and swelteringly hot lights!

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42. Her intrepid strength in the little-known made-for-TV movie The Screaming Woman (1972). I watched this on YouTube while going on a 1970s thriller binge (as one does) and hardly strayed from the edge of my seat until the denouement. Olivia’s portrayal of an older woman who solves a grisly mystery while questioning her own sanity not only provides gripping entertainment, but also sends a poignant message about society’s treatment of its elders.

43. She immersed herself in a foreign culture—and advises her fellow Americans to do likewise. 

44. Her searing take on Lady in a Cage (1962): “a depiction of the aimless violence of our era.”

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45. How absolutely believable Olivia makes it that Melanie got up from her sickbed, grabbed a saber, and toddled out, ready to hack a would-be-thief-and-rapist Union deserter to pieces. Look at the stone-cold conviction on her face. Sure, she’s sweet and gentle—BUT DO NOT MESS AROUND WITH HER FAMILY OR FRIENDS. Even Scarlett’s all, “Wow, I majorly underestimated how badly Melanie could mess somebody up.”

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46. She injects boundless enthusiasm into Alibi Ike (1935), her first released film. I can’t think of many kind things to say about Alibi Ike as a whole, except that it’s mercifully short. Olivia, by her own admission, “detested” making it. But you’d never know that from the sweet, spunky dream girl she incarnates on the screen. She almost makes this uneven baseball romp bearable. Almost.

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47. She used her art and talent in the service of a good cause, hoping that The Snake Pit would help to lessen the stigma of mental illness. As she told Time magazine, “We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been the hardest pressed.”

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48. This enchanting moment from Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), her first movie in Technicolor.

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49. Her ferocious intensity in a screen test for Max Reinhardt’s unproduced film project, Danton. She was just 19, but the maturity and conviction of her acting blows me away. Warner Brothers had a powerhouse dramatic actress on their hands. They didn’t know it. Thankfully, Olivia did.

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(You can watch this stunning clip as a supplement on the DVD release of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

50. Having achieved her centennial, de Havilland is still looking forward. In the most recent issue of TCM’s Now Playing guide, Robert Osborn reveals that Livvie announced, “I’ve changed my goal. I’ve decided I want to live to at least 110.

Long may you reign, Queen. Long may you reign.

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Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

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Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

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Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.

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.

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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.

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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?)

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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.

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July 2004: There Were Warning Signs

If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Amazon.com. 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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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 loyal 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.

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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.

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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!’”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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.

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…”

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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…

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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 the local university’s copy of the Necronomicon. But why does he want it? Does it have to do with whatever he’s keeping locked up 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 alone 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.

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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.

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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 as a witch centuries ago returns from the grave to exact retribution on the decendents 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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…?”