The Invisible Ghost (1941): Poverty Row Poetry

belaposterI love Poverty Row horror movies the same way I love cracked teacups and moldy vintage paperbacks. The bleak visuals, the improbable scripts, the down-on-their-luck casts give these crackly terrors the half-pathetic charm of unwanted things.

Films like Dead Men Walk and Voodoo Man are crowned by a halo of unintentional tragedy, since we often sense the pious devotion of martyrs to their art: talented actors and directors coping with bottom-of-the-barrel production values and perhaps mercifully brief shoots.

For those not as dorky as I, Poverty Row is a label for the cluster of small film studios, like Republic, Monogram, and PRC, that churned out B-movies for movie theater double bills. Their product would be rented to exhibitors at a flat rate—which meant that no matter how good or popular a Poverty Row flick might be, it was unlikely to rake in any more dough than stipulated.

However, far from the micromanagement that talent had to put up with at big A studios, those working in Poverty Row benefited from an astonishing amount of creative freedom. (Read: virtual indifference.) If you could turn in a salable film with something resembling a beginning, middle, and end—in two weeks—then the producers didn’t care what you did.

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While plenty of hacks earned their bread by marching actors around recycled sets, the occasional genius mined precious jewels out of the rough. And Joseph H. Lewis was one of them. Forever immortalized by Gun Crazy, his pulpy noir ballad to l’amour fou, Lewis cut his teeth on grimy B-movies, often imbuing the most routine assignments with an off-kilter grandeur.

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Which brings us to The Invisible Ghost, directed by a rising Lewis and starring a fallen Lugosi in one of 9 movies he made for Monogram. Fans of silents and early talkies will also get right into the gloomy mood at the first sight of a totally unrecognizable, catatonic Betty Compson. After starting her own business, Compson would pull herself out of low-budget actor purgatory, but she’d never forget the “hurt I got down there on Poverty Row.”

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Okay, so the movie itself is a little creaky and preposterous (“We’ve killed off the love interest? Better give him a twin brother…”) and I’ve seen pieces of broccoli who can emote more than the romantic lead. But I still urge you to watch it. There’s something borderline Lynchian about this stodgy American household… with a killer for a father and a crazy mother secretly living in the garage.

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Savor Bela’s soulful performance. Enjoy the refreshingly wise, likable, and dignified role of an African American butler, not forced to sully himself for offensive laughs. Keep an eye out for clever directorial touches—like swish pans, racked focus, and stark changes of lighting to signify the unleashing of Bela’s latent urge to kill. Drink in the duality of this surprisingly dark, despairing cheapie about an outwardly decent man split between tenderness and rage, a man who becomes a stranger to himself.

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And just try to tell me that those fugue-state scenes—in which Bela prowls the house for nubile young women to kill in the place of his long-lost cheating wife, as he creeps towards the camera with a wicked grin—don’t raise a few goosebumps…

The Invisible Ghost has slipped into the public domain, so you can watch it for free on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

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Save the Phantom Stage! Hollywood Landmark Reportedly Slated for Oblivion

phantomUniversal Studios’ Stage 28 holds a lot of memories. Some of the most iconic American films, including The Bride of FrankensteinPsycho, and The Sting were shot there, to name only a few.

Built in 1924 for the silent Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, the vast soundstage still houses the 90-year-old opera set. Designed by Ben Carré, this recreation of the Paris original practically deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having appeared in movies ranging from Dracula to The Muppets.

Throughout the years, the so-called “Phantom Stage,” nicknamed for the first film made there, has earned its title in another sense. Legend has it that the soundstage is haunted. However, those ghosts might be homeless soon.

The website Inside Universal recently broke the news that the studio would close Stage 28 and probably demolish it. According to their article, “Phantom’s set pieces are rumored to be removed and preserved… While unconfirmed, the site is likely to be used for future theme park development.”

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Okay, so up to this point, I’ve been pretty cool, calm, and collected, but now I’m going to express myself quite frankly. WHAT THE &*#$@!?!?! Are you kidding me, Universal? You want to demolish a peerless piece of Hollywood history to make more room for your theme park? Even as you prepare to cash in on your horror icons with a new shared-universe franchise reboot, you’ve decided to dismantle your strongest physical link to the genesis of those celluloid myths?

Dear reader, this is where you come in. Two petitions have sprung up to halt the closing and destruction of Stage 28. The first, a petition on whitehouse.gov, requests that the government accord a National Historic Landmark designation to Stage 28 and aims for 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, establishes a less specific goal, “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition”, and hopes to collect 10,000 signatures.

I urge you to sign both of these petitions. And I’ll make this really easy…

1. CLICK HERE AND SIGN THIS!

2. AND THEN SIGN THIS!

Please sign now. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t go get a cup of coffee. Don’t check your Twitter feed. It will take you all of 60 seconds to put your name down for both. You will feel much better once you have. And Lon Chaney might come and get you if you don’t.

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Plus, if you really care about Stage 28 and/or film history and/or horror movies and/or me not crying, please tweet about this, blog about it, tell everyone you know. Encourage your friends and family to sign the petitions. If you have pull, use it. Harass Universal Studios in any (legal and respectful) way you can think of.

Sadly, the film industry tends to realize the value of its history only when it’s too late. This is the business, after all, that destroyed God only knows how many silent movie prints to reclaim the silver from the emulsion.

Come on, people, let’s save Stage 28. Let’s preserve film history. Let’s show the studio once and for all not to mess with movie geeks and our hallowed ground. And let’s do it now.

Because, if we don’t, the Phantom Stage might disappear forever.

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Scary Funny: Dwain Esper’s Maniac (1934)

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Right now Torgo and the Master are sulking. Radiator Lady is in tears. And Glen/Glenda is stomping the hell out of his/her pumps. Because, I’m sorry to say, their movies were nowhere near this weird.

I want to make one thing clear before this goes any further: I am not recommending that you watch Maniac. But, if you do, you will have earned my profound respect. This movie will bore you. In fact, it might bore a hole right into your brain. It wants to steal your soul.

Actually, watching this film is, I suspect, akin to the experience of trepanation. Maniac violates the cherished cinematic logic of space and time so thoroughly that you begin to wonder whether you’ll ever be able to form a coherent thought again. The only defense viewers can muster against so insidious a threat is to laugh wildly and mindlessly. Herein lies the ironic beauty of Maniac: by the time it’s over, you yourself might very well qualify as the titular lunatic.

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Shot on location in somebody’s dank basement, Esper’s exploitation flick tries hard to pass itself off as a dramatization of mental illness. In other words, brace yourself for scrolling pages of rambling mumbo-jumbo about psychoses inserted without warning in between scenes.

The plot, and I do use the word loosely, resists dignity in any form. Don Maxwell, a down-and-out vaudeville actor, now assists the deranged Dr. Meirschultz in his experiments—raising the dead, naturally. (See, kids? This is why you don’t major in theater. Or film for that matter. Why, I had to join a firm of grave-robbers for two years to pay off my college loans… but I digress.)

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Squeamish Maxwell doesn’t exactly love the sordid errands that the doctor forces him to carry out. Still, on the bright side, he gets to revive the corpses of pretty suicide victims with vigorous massages.

However, when Meirschultz suggests that Maxwell kill himself to serve as a subject for the reanimation process, the lackey shoots Meirschultz instead. Realizing that his boss would be missed but he never would, Maxwell assumes his identity.

No sooner does Maxwell don an imitation of Meirschultz’s bushy Santa Claus beard and mimic his off-brand Bela Lugosi accent than the former ham actor slips into madness and believes that he is Meirschultz.

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“I vill be a great man!” He bellows, vowing to continue the doctor’s work. Apparently, this entails turning a patient into a sex-crazed zombie by injecting him with a glandular serum and performing sleazy examinations on scantily-clad young ladies.

Sadly, busybodies constantly interrupt Maxwell’s Nobel-worthy research. When a blackmailing widow and Maxwell’s own estranged wife show up around the same time, Maxwell decides simply to lock them in the basement and return to his regularly scheduled program of animal torture and hallucinations. Finally, the cops come to nab Meirschultz, break up the ladies’ wrestling match in the cellar, and discover the real doctor hidden in the wall.

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In a ludicrous, yet eerie epilogue (foreshadowing Norman Bates’s “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene), Maxwell addresses the audience from behind bars. Sobbing, the poor misunderstood multiple murderer confides that he only ever dreamed of being an actor. “I only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” He pleads. “But here I am. Spent my life perfecting an art that no one wanted, no one appreciated. But I showed them… Dr. Meirschultz—my supreme impersonation!”

Um, Maxwell, if it’s any consolation, you certainly amuse me.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that horror and humor complement each other, and the funniest parts of Maniac unsurprisingly emerge from its most unsettling scenes.

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Consider Maniac’s best-known moment, a highly disturbing shot of a cat’s eyeball being removed. (Trigger warning! You should know, however, that no animal was maimed for the purposes of this scene. A one-eyed cat with a glass eye was used.) While entombing Dr. Meirschultz behind a wall, Maxwell notices the doctor’s black cat looking at him. The unhinged actor, convinced that the feline is Satan, accuses the animal of standing between him and salvation. After a few disjointed shots of Maxwell chasing the cat, Esper provides this shot of an eyeball popping out of its socket.

11 “It’s not unlike an oyster or a crepe!” Maxwell-as-Meirschultz exclaims. Cackling, he drops the eye into his mouth.

Okay, so how do I even begin to react to this?

At first, I laugh. Bad acting and a wannabe Poe monologue about an evil cat = comedy gold.

Then I get creeped out. A spooky high-angle shot of Maxwell crawling out of a basement towards the camera fills me with dread.

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Then I laugh again, since we’re back in familiar territory. Jumpy cutting and pratfalls = bad movie = ha ha ha.

Then I want to cry. I don’t care if it was a one-eyed cat. Animal mutilation, even when simulated, always equates out to horror in my book.

10And then, despite myself, I feel like I’m going to laugh again. Now Shakespeare could get away with calling an eye a “vile jelly,” but the comparison between an eyeball and a crepe wins the 1934 WTF Cup. Plus, how can I hold back a snigger over the fact that the black cat transforms into a light-colored feline right before that eye removal shot?

Snarky pleasure and pain attack the viewer without warning throughout Maniac. Esper delights us with the most awkward transformation scene in the history of cinema, only to freak us out with an unexpectedly violent nudity scene. He tries to tickle our comic relief sensibilities with a quirky minor character named Goof who runs a death camp for cats. But he seemingly expects us to respond with earnest curiosity to a protagonist who suffers from every mental illness in the book—and to his lengthy hallucinogenic monologues, complete with superimposed diabolic footage stolen from (much better) silent films.

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You might be thinking, “What kind of nut would make a movie like this?” So, perhaps I ought to take a moment to introduce you to the life and times of Mr. Dwain Esper and his singular slot in film history. Okay, now, class, what’s significant about the year Maniac was made, 1934?

If you replied, “The pre-Code era ground to a halt and Hays Code censorship was enforced with new zeal”, gold star to you.

The shift back to family entertainment meant that audiences couldn’t depend on the titillation and gore they could once get from some Hollywood films. Exploitation filmmakers like Esper aimed to cash in on those forbidden desires. They’d produce often ridiculously choppy movies, but movies that nevertheless delivered the goods (or bads, rather) with scenes of drug use, kinky sex, and nudity.

esperOriginally a building contractor, Esper launched his cinema career when he acquired a set of abandoned filmmaking equipment as part of a property foreclosure. Abetted by his wife Hildegarde Stadie Esper, a streetwise carnie raised by her opium-addicted huckster uncle, Esper toured from town to town with “adults only” films. He directed his own movies on meager budgets, but would also promote and screen any sensational movies he got his hands on, including Tod Browning’s Freaks and Reefer Madness.

Gaudy lobby advertising and gimmicky publicity stunts would compensate for the less-than-stellar product Esper often exhibited. Audiences seldom got what the posters promised, but they did get to gawk at stuff that no mainstream movie of the era would’ve shown.

Operating outside the confines of the studio system, Esper could thumb his nose at the censors. Hildegarde cheerfully recalled the outrage they caused in some quarters: “The Hays Office—they hated us. You see they couldn’t stop us and that made them awful mad…they didn’t like anything we were doing. The only reason we liked it so well was because it was making money for us.” If necessary, Esper would reedit his reels to appease local law enforcement, but, all in all, Dwain and Hildegarde Esper were the Bonnie and Clyde of onscreen taboo.

Although not Esper’s most profitable film, Maniac nevertheless delivers the most unintentional laughter through its sheer bizarreness. Amateurish exploitation films affect modern audiences powerfully, I would argue, because they offer such unanticipated forays into creative plot premises or avant-garde techniques.

Jump cuts, temporal leaps, massive continuity gaps, and all manner of experimental devices—stuff that might not startle us that much in, say, a Godard film—proves deeply unsettling in the context of a 1930s movie aiming for the aesthetic of a Universal horror film. These formal eccentricities not only make us laugh at the incompetence of the filmmaker, but they also fray at our nerves and jolt us into nervous laughter.

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Similarly, nobody in this film acts like a human being—not the scheming widow who speaks in a monotone, not the gregarious cat-skin merchant, not the chorus girl dancing around her hotel room in her underwear for no reason. The magic of Hollywood acting resides in the fact that actors give us evenly stylized behavior and we accept it as reality. The black magic of Maniac gives us unevenly stylized behavior—that makes us feel like we’re watching any number of more famous horror movies through a distorting mirror. We behold a universe unthinkably out of kilter.

And then, because our short-circuiting minds can find no other appropriate response, we burst out laughing.

Maniac has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it right now. Do you dare?

This post is part of the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the banner to check out the other entries!

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Remembering Carla Laemmle (1909–2014)

phantom“If I should live to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes…”

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

On June 12, Carla Laemmle passed away at the age of 104. Beloved of cinephiles worldwide, this remarkable woman danced in the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, spoke the first lines of Dracula, and was the last surviving cast member of both films. There’s an African proverb that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Hearing of Laemmle’s death, I feel as though a whole nitrate archive had combusted.

Speaking for movie geeks everywhere, I like to think of Carla Laemmle as the high priestess of Universal horror. She was an unusual horror icon, for sure: a glamorous, sunny centenarian made more famous by documentaries about old Hollywood chillers than by her appearances in the original classics. A witness to film history, Carla Laemmle possessed the power to transport fans to the silent or early talkie eras with a vivid anecdote or observation.

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Carla, dancing on the Universal backlot, c. 1920s

As anyone who’s ever watched her in an interview or a behind-the-scenes featurette can tell you, Laemmle could summon some of the greatest gods and monsters of the past century at will—and she didn’t need the Scroll of Thoth.

One of her earliest memories, of the indelible flashbulb kind, stretched back to 1912: she could picture a newspaper headline about the sinking of the Titanic and recalled her parents’ shocked faces. In 1922, she’d seen Universal’s extravagant Monte Carlo set illuminated by every arc light on the lot for the fiery finale of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. A year later, she watched Lon Chaney as Quasimodo swinging from a gargoyle on the studio’s colossal Notre Dame duplicate.

Born on October 20, 1909 in Chicago as Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle, she changed her name to Carla in 1931 as a tribute to her uncle, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle.

Ogden Nash’s doggerel about Carl Laemmle lavishing jobs on his “very large faemmle” has unduly tarnished the mogul’s accomplishments. Uncle Carl—as even employees knew carlhim—was a visionary who invested his savings in a Nickelodeon parlor and grew it into an entertainment empire. He gave opportunities to female filmmakers as early as the 1910s, took chances on first-time directors, and brought Irving Thalberg into the picture business. During his retirement, he leveraged his time, money, and prestige to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.

In the fascinating documentary Universal Horror, Carla praised her uncle’s kindness and approachability: “He was a wonderful human being. He was very democratic. He would talk to everybody and listen to everybody… If they [employees] needed any financial help, he would give them help.”

It was Uncle Carl who urged Carla’s father, Joseph, to move his branch of the family from Chicago to Hollywood in the early 1920s to improve his weak health. Carla and her parents lived on carladancethe expansive studio grounds, known as Universal City. Almost a century later, she remembered exploring the backlot’s spectacular sets, playing in “New York”, “Monte Carlo”, or “Paris” on any given day, depending on her mood. As she recounted to Gregory William Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration:

“There was a zoo, and almost every morning I’d wake to the roar of the lions—they were hungry for their breakfast! They had tigers, monkeys, an orangutan, and even two elephants. They had a camel, which was funny—this camel would get away and make the trek all the way up to our bungalow and graze on our vast green lawn. I named him ‘Houdini’ because he always got away. I’d go out with oats and lure him into the garage and then call down to the zoo and tell them, ‘Houdini is here!’” 

To this little girl, Universal’s fiefdom “was a fairyland.”

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Our clearest view of Carla (center left) in The Phantom of the Opera

In 1925, choreographer Ernest Belcher, also Carla’s dance teacher, cast her as the prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s new deluxe “Super Jewel” production—a huge undertaking for a studio that mostly focused its resources on low-budget Westerns and comedies.

Sixteen-year-old Carla was undaunted: she had been taking dance lessons since early childhood. Instead of being scared, she remembered that dancing for the camera was “a big thrill” to her. “It was a very elaborate, very expensive production. The stage was an exact replica of the Paris opera house.” Rigorous rehearsals often took place on that enormous stage with the real orchestra featured in the movie playing for the dancers. During filming, a full audience of nattily dressed extras would watch and applaud at each take. “It was like performing in a real opera,” she said.

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When not working, Laemmle would watch her longtime friend Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney from the sidelines. She told Michael Blake, author of A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures:

“I remember seeing Lon in his makeup and it was pretty scary. I’d say it was ghastly. I don’t know how Mary was able to work next to that face every day. It probably helped her when she was to look frightened! As I recall, the color of his makeup was a chalky white.”

Just to put this into perspective, Chaney’s makeup design was so secret that his face was blanked out from all publicity photos sent to the press. Carla Laemmle was thus one of very few people given a preview of his bloodcurdling phantom.

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As for Laemmle’s second famous tie to horror history, her brief part in Dracula remained something of a mystery to her. She was simply told to report to the casting office and given the role.

By 1931, Carla’s cousin Carl Laemmle Jr. was running Universal, having been given the studio by his father on his 21st birthday in 1929. However, as Carla explained, the change in leadership brought about an aesthetic shift that the studio founder hadn’t foreseen:

“Carl Laemmle Jr. loved horror. When he was a little boy he was crazy about anything that had to do with the macabre… so, he thought it would be a great idea to make movies like that. But his father was dead against it.

So, perhaps Junior wanted please his father and win his blessing by putting a little more of the Laemmle clan into the picture.

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Interviewed by Leonard Maltin at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012, Laemmle revealed that she was allowed more or less to create her costume and she went for a note of self-effacing humor, selecting a dowdy suit, an out-of-style cloche, and Harold Lloyd-ish glasses. Ostensibly the secretary of a wealthy woman on tour, Carla’s character reads from a guidebook in the opening coach scene, before being jolted out of her seat by those inhospitable Transylvania roads.

Her klutzy pratfall and schoolgirl reading of the local lure adds enough humor to pull audiences into a film heading towards uncharted waters. After all, in 1931, a film where the bad guy really did turn out to be a vampire, not a criminal pretending to be one, was downright revolutionary.

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Little did Carla know at the time that she was speaking the very first lines of the first important sound horror movie, kicking off Hollywood’s first major foray into the supernatural, and launching a classic that, like Dracula himself, will probably never die.

Outside of the horror genre, perhaps Laemmle’s most notable appearance was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an MGM production. She emerges like Venus from a seashell, hollywood revuesinuously dances in a proto-bikini, and beckons suggestively to the camera, every inch the pre-Code cutie. She continued to dance onscreen and to play small film roles through the 1930s, before ultimately opting to perform in live venues.

As the heady heyday of classic Hollywood drifted into the past, film historians began to draw on Carla’s increasingly valuable first-hand accounts of the golden age. Reintroduced to viewers through making-of featurettes, she continued to received fan mail from around the world, which she considered a testament to the enduring spell of Dracula. Into her 104th year, she could recite the lines of dialogue that made her such a cherished cult figure:

“Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age…” 

Laemmle brought two layers of awe to her interviews and documentary appearances: she was a wonder herself, but she also communicated her own wonder at that bygone age (to borrow a phrase from her famous line) that she had witnessed. What she saw was impressive then—and it’s even more impressive over a century later.

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Longevity was nature’s gift to Carla Laemmle, but she chose to make it a gift to film lovers everywhere by cheerfully recounting the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Not only could she clearly recall moments so far away that even celluloid might buckle under the impact of the years, but she also shared them with contagious enthusiasm and joy.

Her personal affection for the creepy classics resonated with new generations of fans like me. She echoed our love of the horror flicks produced by Universal when she confessed, “I never got enough of them. You got scared, but you enjoyed it.”

Recommended Online Viewing:

On YouTube: Laemmle remembers The Phantom of the Opera in clips from an interview with David J. Skal

On YouTube: Laemmle discusses Dracula and Universal with Leonard Maltin at TCMFF 2012

On YouTube: in conversation with her niece Antonia, Laemmle talks about her family history and old Universal City

And, of course, at the Internet Archive: The Phantom of the Opera, with restored 1929 tinting, toning, and two-strip Technicolor sequence. Keep an eye out for Carla. She is on the stage, held aloft by a male dancer just as the curtain closes. However, you can spot her more easily in a backstage scene immediately after this intertitle: “The Phantom! The Phantom is up from the cellars again!”

The Unknown (1927): Body Conscious

unknownThe Unknown is one of those miraculous movies snatched back from the edge of oblivion, presumed lost for decades until a print turned up in France. Amusingly enough, the reels had been marked “Inconnu,” meaning “unknown.” And nobody since the 1920s had interpreted this rather algebraic designation as anything other than the label for an unidentified film, not considering that it might be a title—the title of one of the most bizarre films ever produced by Hollywood.

Watching this potent entry in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m beholding some deep, primordial allegory masquerading as a gritty horror film. Chaney’s character, “Alonzo the Armless,” earns his living by sharpshooting and throwing knives with his feet at a carnival. (A real armless leg double, Paul Desmuke, did these amazing stunts for Chaney.)

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When Alonzo falls in love with the carnival ringmaster’s daughter, Nanon, the good news is that she likes his lack of arms. Coping with a pathological fear of men’s groping hands, Nanon cherishes Alonzo as a safe companion.

The bad news is that Alonzo isn’t what he seems. A violent, wanted criminal with a recognizable genetic defect—double thumbs on one hand—Alonzo hides his arms, strapped to his body by a harness. How can he get close to Nanon without betraying his secret? The answer is every bit as gruesome as you’d might hope.

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The Unknown bristles with an unholy energy, a tingling magnetic field mastered by hungry poles of repulsion and passion, pulling the characters back and forth. While my metaphor might seem a little overwrought, bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Because The Unknown is a tragedy spiced with movement, a horror story about the way bodies carry themselves and interact.

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Tod Browning specialized in letting a sordid, macabre ambiance—almost a stench—ferment and rise from stagings that seem primitive on the surface, but actually reveal a multitude of complexities on a second look. As you watch the film, notice how frequently somebody walks towards the camera, eventually exiting on one side of the frame. We’re meant to feel these things, the motion of the characters, blurring, rushing past us. The world in general, we understand ,isn’t so very different from Alonzo’s dizzy carnival act, where he tosses blades at the lovely Nanon as they both stand on a rotating platform. The intoxicating, alarming movement of bodies governs the lives of the characters, agitated by crude, unconscious drives.

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In addition to the pluparfait body actor Lon Chaney, the cast offers up a pleasant surprise in the form of a super young Joan Crawford (another actor of powerful physicality) as Nanon. Crawford cited this film as a milestone in her career, the experience that ignited her desire to be a dedicated actress. Starting off as a chorus line hoofer, she initially wanted nothing to do with movies. Only when told that she would get the opportunity to dance in her pictures did she agree to sign a contract. However, working with Chaney changed everything. She later recalled: “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had been conscious only of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting.”

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Although Crawford found Chaney’s dedication to his character somewhat daunting, she strived to keep up. The young contract player pushed herself and transformed a potentially implausible character into a nuanced, vulnerable young woman.

In keeping with the motif of contorted, unnatural bodies, Crawford lends credibility to Nanon’s phobia of men with her ability to suggest physical disgust and horror through body language. Crawford, usually so graceful, frequently swaps her poised posture for the stance of a frightened, cowering child, whenever in the presence of a threatening male.

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She fairly withers in the presence of the amorous strongman Malabar, shrinking into the corners of the frame. Or, unable to avoid a confrontation, she braces herself against a chair or a wall. When her phobia is first introduced to the audience, we get a medium close-up of her mortified face followed by an eloquent long shot, as she pulls herself into her caravan car. That motion, that backwards crawl offscreen, conveys more than words ever could.

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I might be reading too much into this, but I do think the audience is meant to infer that Nanon’s father has prostituted her out in the past or, at the very least, put her in a situation that resulted in some form of trauma. (Otherwise, why should he be so outraged at Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men? My father and most others, I think, would hug him for such pearls of wisdom.)

Crawford suggests this history of abuse by the way her friendly, upbeat Nanon seems to switch off around the well-muscled Malabar and tries to disappear, to curl up into nothing. She might not totally understand why she acts like this, but, as my psychology professor would say, “The body remembers.”

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This tendency of our bodies to control us, to harbor our darkest secrets and ultimately betray them, returns in one of the most poignant and disturbing moments of the film. When Alonzo realizes that he can never fully possess Nanon’s love as long as he has arms, his foot, agile as his hands, rises to cover his face in despair. Alonzo’s hands are freed from their harness, but he automatically uses the limbs that, in his elaborate guise, substitute for his arms to express his pain.

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The gesture not only affects the audience on a traditional level—as an outward sign of sorrow—but also adds an uncanny overtone to the scene. Chaney covering his face with a foot etches itself on the mind as a surreal image, subliminally depicting the pain of unrequited love as a kind of emotional amputation.

As Alonzo’s accomplice, Cojo, watches from a staircase, the criminal continues to use his foot to light and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, Cojo laughs, exclaiming, “Alonzo, you are forgetting you have arms!”

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A look of horror crosses Alonzo’s face. His eyes widen as he realizes what he had been unconsciously doing. Alonzo has so altered and fragmented his body that it believes it really is fragmented, incomplete. His charade has taken over. He has partially become what he pretends to be.

He has effectively trained his body to be an other, something unnatural and foreign to himself. Of all Browning outsiders, Alonzo may be the most freakish—because he is a self-created freak, a product of radical self-mutilation.

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But then again, aren’t we all? The Unknown probes the ugly side of human desire and self-perception. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the deep fear of a fragmented body festers in all of us from childhood onward. As babies, we experience our bodies as parts. That is, we move each limb, but we never see ourselves in entirety, until we recognize our whole bodies in the mirror.

However, that reflection makes us feel insecure: the image is a powerful, unified being, in contrast to the divided sensations that otherwise combine to form our sense of self. Throughout our lives, we come to identify with the “I,” the ostensibly whole self or the mirror self that represents us… but that other, fragmented body haunts us.

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The Unknown resonates on such a raw level because it activates this underlying dread—not as a mere gore effect, as is too often the case with dismemberment in horror films, but rather as central conflict of the story. Alonzo is hostile to his whole body (just as we resent our mirror images because they seem more unified than we are) but his amputated body frustrates him even more.

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The frenzied cutting of the final sequence amplifies this fragmentation or division. Alonzo disintegrates into raging madness—because he succumbed to his obsession with a mutilated body—as Nanon triumphs, because she managed to stitch her mind and body back together.

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Interestingly enough, Nanon’s fear, her brokenness, her neuroses serve as major attractions for Alonzo. Browning provides some borderline obscene voyeuristic close-ups as the imposter watches Nanon recoil from Malabar. This disturbed individual, a thief and a killer who fragments himself and cuts himself apart in the most horrific of manners, compulsively seeks a similar dysfunction in another person.

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I have always wondered why Browning and company ended up entitling this film The Unknown. Sure, it could refer to Alonzo’s hidden identity, but I believe that it also alludes to something more subtle and psychological. According to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, what we desire in other people isn’t really a trait that belongs to them, but rather the missing parts of ourselves that we attribute to them.

Lacan described this thing, this source of desire, in algebraic terms as object a, an unknown that draws humans into their webs of attraction and frustration. Rather like Alonzo mutilates himself in pursuit of the illusory quality that he sees in Nanon.

Perhaps that’s the inconnu, the unknown that’s really at work in this sublimely twisted melodrama.

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Don’t Kill a Dead Man: Decoy (1946)

DecoyDecoy is a movie of the dead.

Honestly, the more I think about it, this movie is a Jacobean revenge tragedy wearing a fedora. It’s Lady Macbeth in a mud-spattered trench coat.

Over the course of this film’s action-packed 76-minute runtime, no less than two men essentially walk out of their graves to get what they want. The whole story is framed by a voice-over slipping into the beyond, but not spoken by a deadman like Joe Gillis, but by an evil woman whose life force is rapidly ebbing away.

That’s right—the femme fatale is… our protagonist.

In this movie, life is cheap and death is nasty, painful, and pointless. Crazy, farfetched conceits—like chemical resurrection and a map to a buried treasure—furrow the unreal story world of Decoy. It’s one bad trip.

Produced for a song at Monogram and directed by the obscure Jack Bernhard, Decoy takes the bizarro, jigsaw plot style of the Poverty Row studio’s often incoherent oeuvre and spins it into something truly extraordinary.

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At once linear and all over the place, at once inevitable and luridly surprising, this film galvanizes everything warped and gorgeous about horror, sci-fi, trashy crime literature, and the legit noir canon into a dark, relentlessly suspenseful parable.

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With a faint pulse of fatalism where a healthy moral might’ve been, this beautiful freak, we recognize, is a kind of pulp fable, a skid-row myth that resonates far beyond the confines of its characters and plot. It makes me think of the Greek word phobos, which refers not so much to ordinary fear (as in phobia) as to a more cosmic species of dread, associated with bloody, harrowing tragedy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I mentioned, the wacko story is told in flashback by Margot Shelby, girlfriend of vicious mobster Frankie Olins who robbed an armored car, killed the driver, and made off with $400,000—only to get nabbed by the cops. Before getting caught, however, he managed to stash the loot in a location known only to him.

Sent down the fast track to the gas chamber, Frankie refuses to tell where to find the money as long as he’s going to die. Well, being the resourceful dame she is, Margot happens to know of a chemical, called Methylene Blue, that can revive an executed man. Personally, I’m surprised that the smell of her perfume alone couldn’t do it.

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With the help of her main squeeze, Vincent, another racketeer, Margot seduces a naïve prison physician, Dr. Craig. They hijack the body and bring Frankie back from the edge of that Unknown Country, just long enough to draw out a map to where the loot is buried.

All along the way, a basically decent tough-guy cop, Sergeant Joe “Jojo” Portugal lingers around Margot, drawn in by a mixture of disgust and attraction, and attempts to unravel her scheme.

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How do I begin to count up the ways I love this movie? I won’t try, but for starters, the camerawork impressed me by aligning the spectator with the point-of-view of the dead and dying. The first post-credits shot of the movie has the hemorrhaging, gut-shot Dr. Craig washing his shaking, bloody hands in a gas station sink and looking in a mirror. From the camera’s perspective, we’re looking in the mirror, seeing him as ourselves.

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Likewise, when Frankie Olins succumbs to the cyanide gas in the State of California’s death house, we “die” in his place. We look through the glass at the stony gallery of spectators who’ve come to attend his execution—also a kind of parallel movie theater audience, drawn in by death as a spectacle.

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As tendrils of grey vapor swirl in front of our (and Frankie’s) eyes, the angle of the shot torques and falls into black. When Frankie comes back from the dead, we assume his perspective once again as his blurred vision slowly focuses on Dr. Craig.

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Decoy

Thanks to these creepy subjective touches, Decoy stands out as a rare film noir that never loses track of the real-life stakes of its plot (the girl, the gun, the money) while taking a dip into the swampy pool of metaphysics. It is both gritty and surreal, corporeal and ethereal.

The dialogue, in particular, suggests this strange tug-of-war between the earthly and the unearthly. When noir has a sense of humor, it’s usually the trench humor of Hamlet’s gravediggers. Decoy doesn’t disappoint with its two bickering prison morgue attendants, situated in a long line of morbidly funny, quirky tertiary noir characters.

Immediately after Frankie Olins departs this life in the gas chambers, a shot tilts down from a clock to reveal one of the attendants cracking himself up by reading the dictionary. He happens to be spelling out (as in, “D-I—‘die’…”) and reading the word “dichotomy.”

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Although he mispronounces this piece of semantic pretension, the fellow still exclaims, “What a beautiful word!” The beauty of a signifier without a signified, of a string of symbols without meaning, is something I can definitely relate to. Perhaps something is always most lovely to us when we don’t understand it. But that’s also when that alluring something is at its most dangerous—hence the lethal charms of the inscrutable femme fatale.

Dichotomies breed contention, division, conflict—I mean, it’s not a particularly positive word. Certain schools of thought strive to eliminate all notions of duality as harbingers of discontent. Yet, this silly morgue attendant considers the word beautiful (and it is indeed) because of its surface qualities only.

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Noir, to a certain extent, revolves around this fatal error. Characters make the assumption that what something looks like, it must be in reality. They jump to the conclusion that a hidden thing, “the great whatsit,” or the chest of money in Decoy, is to be desired and not avoided like a toxic temptation. Interestingly enough, dichotomy can technically refer to that stage in a planet or celestial orb’s waxing or waning when it is half illuminated, half in darkness, half seen, half concealed.

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What is film noir, if not a genre that stretches many dichotomies to their furthest extent while placing them side by side? Darkness and light, death and life, innocence and guilt, good and evil, love and hate, rich and poor—these poles, these binaries structure the genre and remain locked in a tense embrace. A dichotomy (or any duality) brings pain, but, the morgue attendant is right without knowing it. Dichotomy is beautiful. Like our very unconventional protagonist, Margot.

She’s also our narrator—and you know a noir’s bound to be full of doom when the femme fatale is telling the story, for crying out loud! And telling it from her deathbed. In the first five minutes of the movie, she gets shot by a man’s she left for dead. When Sergeant Jojo arrives on the scene and carries her to a nearby sofa, she utters a line of sheer tragic lyricism: “Everything’s mixed up. What mixes things up, Joe?”

Like the flatfoot he is, refusing to grasp the larger implications of her question, Jojo replies, “Simple arithmetic,” echoing something she said to him earlier in the film. From there, she launches into her story—which Jojo mostly knows already. In this case, the act of telling serves as a catharsis, an unburdening between her and Jojo.

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Decoy

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However—and this is key—Margot doesn’t betray a modicum of remorse or apology. The awkward angle above, her point-blank stare, and the feverish beads of sweat on her brow inform us that Margot isn’t ’fessing up. If anything, she’s bragging. “I wanted money. And Frankie Olins had it,” she explains.

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This might be a good place to mention that noir dialogue takes on a whole new life in Margot’s mouth because of actress Jean Gillie’s British accent. She gives every word of hardboiled, slang-rhythmed speech an immediate otherness, a quality that makes the audience more aware of the genre’s off-kilter poetry. Just the way she pronounces “Methylene Blue” makes it sound like a Tennyson heroine rather than an exotic chemical. Although her voice-over dissipates as the story unfolds, her personality prevails. Make no mistake—it’s her story.

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Like many a femme fatale, she comes from grungy poverty, an English mill town where she learned to play for keeps. When the doctor she’s seducing suggests that they call off the plan and live simply and honestly off of his charitable medical practice in the slums, she gives him a reality check:

“Reality? What do you know about reality? You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality.”

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Ouch! In one little rant, she demystifies her dewy glamour and yet becomes even more powerful through a crystallized fragment of logic. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a woman with expensive tastes, but I can’t fight back a tremendous feeling of edification when she rips into his moral high ground like that.

We see that only one thing scares Margot and that’s poverty, especially in an interesting scene during which she walks through a shabby part of town to visit Dr. Craig’s office.  In a long take, she walks past a cheap set, a street of restaurants, laundries, sordid little buildings (that I’ve seen in probably half of the Monogram flicks I’ve ever watched).

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Children are playing in the street—but whereas children usually signify hope or innocence in films, these little tykes only get in Margot’s way, throwing their stickball in front of her and rushing around in front of the camera. She doesn’t even turn her head to look at the kids, just stops a moment when a little boy rushes in front of her, then coldly goes on her way, wrapped in mink in the midst of bare subsistence. We understand only later that her desire to avoid the children stems from the fact that they remind her of her own childhood. As she blurts out to Craig,

“If I had never seen it, I still could have described it because that street runs all over the world. I know because that’s the street I came from: 6000 miles from here in a little English mill town. But it’s the same rotten street, the same factories, the same people, and the same little gray-faced children!”

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That’s just one brilliant, thematically rich scene in this noir gem. There are too many more to describe, which is probably why this blog post is epically long. Seriously, if you read it all, you should get a drink on the house. You’ll probably need one.

Oh, and please note, beyond this point, major spoilers lurk. Beware. 

I also have to applaud the tension of the reanimation scene that strongly recalls Frankenstein’s “IT’S ALIVE!!!” coup de théâtre. A lot of build-up… dials, respirators, heart monitors and suddenly a cyanide-gassed murderer sees, moves, and walks again, his muscles slack and wobbly as a newborn’s.

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His eyes bulging and unfocused, the dead man opens the blinds, looks out at the nocturnal city, lights a match, stares in horror at the lick of flame on the match, and grunts, “I’m… alive,” before collapsing into tears.

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Watching this big, prune-faced tough guy being medically reborn sends shivers up my spine, especially since no one cares about heinous killer Frankie Olins. All they want is to know where he hid the dough.

The scene isn’t a resurrection; it’s an interrogation. Life and death bend to the service of mercenary pursuits.

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No sooner does Frankie reluctantly draw out a map to the treasure, then he decides he wants some back-from-the-dead sugar from the lovely Margot. Horrified, she backs away from her reanimated squeeze. I can only describe this scene as ultra-noir. It’s so morbid and creepy and wonderful and twisted. With one well-placed shot from Vincent, Frankie dies for the second time in under an hour.

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If I have any advice to you all, it’s this: Don’t kill a dead man. It’s plain bad luck.

A moment later, Jojo shows up at the Doc’s office and Decoy takes the famous hallway scene from Double Indemnity and blows it up to a logical extreme. While Dr. Craig improvises some excuses about Olins’ missing body for Jojo’s benefit, Margot, her lover, AND the dead body cram into a tiny medical supply closet… while Vincent points the gun at Jojo, ready for action. It’s a master class in pulp suspense with the promise of violence hanging thick in the air, like the smell of antiseptic in a doctor’s office.

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Most of the second half of the film takes place in a car, as Vincent, Margot, and Dr. Craig hit the road to find the loot. And, lest I forget, this film contains one scene that, I swear, I have no idea how they got it past the censors. It’s that unrepentantly brutal.

Because Margot runs over Vincent. She asks him to fix a tire. He does so. Just as he’s finishing, we see him stand up. We see Margot’s face glow with diabolic resolve. Then—WHAMMO! A blur and a shriek and he’s dead.

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Okay, so here’s where most films noirs might dissolve to the following scene, the continued search for the treasure. Nope! Instead, we get damn long takes of Margot skipping back and forth between the car in real time, as she puts the tire-jack back in the trunk. The camera pans back and forth to follow her movements while her coat billows around her in the night breeze.

The lack of ellipses and the insistence on showing the logistical aftermath of Margot’s crime with detached observation makes the brutal, sudden murder seem all that more real and shocking. It’s not a just cinematic event, it’s something that happened, and has to be cleaned up afterwards.

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The long takes ensure that we’re sewed up in the moment, we’re there with her, as time elapses in a continuous space. There are a few match-on-action cuts, when she pulls the treasure map out of Vincent’s coat pocket, but even then, the strange high angle and the way Margot’s head bobs in and out of the frame suggest both the sordidness and the matter-of-fact necessity of what she’s doing. And then they’re back on the road, hunting down the treasure.

Just when you thought the movie couldn’t get more nightmarish, it does. When Margot finds the treasure spot, she sinks to the ground and starts clawing, as the camera tilts up to a drunk and delirious Dr. Craig holding a sort of sickle-machete over his head.

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Decoy

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He brings the weapon down—initially we think he’s going to brain Margot!—and proceeds to hack away at the earth where the treasure’s supposed to be. Meanwhile, Margot keeps on cackling, whipping herself up into a frenzy over how many people they killed for the treasure. And then she shoots Craig, grabs the casket, and runs giddily back to the car like a little girl coming home from a candy shop.

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Now for the big spoiler. After Dr. Craig finds his way back into town, shoots Margot, and dies, Jojo opens the treasure chest over Margot’s dead body. There’s one dollar in it and a letter from Frankie Olins bragging that he leaves his loot “to the worms.”

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So, the “decoy” referred to by the movie’s title is the phony treasure, planted by Frankie Olins to keep anyone but him from benefitting from his ill-gotten gains. I must confess, when I first picked up Decoy, my assumption was that it was going to be about an undercover agent or a police sting. In fact, the title was announcing a twist ending all along, right under my nose!

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Usually the first part of a movie we come into contact with is a title, and they’re often not very revealing. Well, this one blows the movie’s whole secret. How’s that for a clever meta-filmic joke, a joke you only get after the whole gruesome spectacle has splattered across the screen? I suspect that you don’t realize what your own life is about until it’s over—if then—and Decoy follows this bitingly ironic path.

I should note, though, if this movie has a weakness, it’s some of the acting. We get convincing performances from old character actor stalwarts Sheldon Leonard (the bartender Nick in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Jojo and Robert Armstrong (who played the Merian C. Cooper surrogate role in King Kong) as Frankie Olins. However, Dr. Craig and Vincent come across awkward and wooden at times.

But, to make up for that, Jean Gillie, who only made a few movies and died at the absurdly young age of 33, inhabits the role of a ruthless gangland mistress so totally that you can practically feel the touch of her powdered, perfumed, silken skin—as she chokes the life out of you. And underneath all that tough, glossy exterior lies… a great big void where her heart should be. She litters her path with broken dreams and gunshot wounds. I’d also point out that she was married to Decoy’s director, John Bernhard, but they were divorced shortly after—rather like a Poverty Row version of those femme fatale-director pairings, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and Nick Ray and Gloria Grahame. In all three cases, the unhappy unions produced wildly beautiful films noirs.

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I can’t stress this enough about Gillie’s Margot Shelby: this is one hard dame filling those bejeweled espadrilles, so hard that she doesn’t plan on any man exiting her life intact. I nominate her for the title of Film Noir’s Baddest Chick and we all know that’s real bad. She could make Phyllis Dietrichson look like a Sunday school teacher. At least Phyllis goes soft at the end, which is more than you can say for Gillie’s wholly rotten femme fatale.

In probably my favorite moment in a movie full of great moments, Margot, about to breathe her last, surrounded by policemen, sweetly coos to Jojo, asking him for a dying kiss. Clearly attracted to her since the get-go, Jojo cranes in. You can see his thought process, “Well, she’s dying, huh? It’d be wrong NOT to get some borderline necrophiliac lovin’…” whereupon Margot cackles in his face!

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Right there, in her genuine enjoyment of Jojo’s humiliation, we see the essence of the femme fatale whose ultimate goal in life is to consume and destroy as many others as possible before she herself combusts. In a world where life is unpleasant and imminent death hangs over everyone like a pall, Margot’s drive to dominate makes us admire and respect her, because of the unadulterated wickedness and willpower of her nature. Then she dies. I love film noir, but I must confess that many an example of the genre dissolves into sentimentality at the last minute, so I found such an unflaggingly harsh death scene refreshing.

A film like Decoy means so many things. For one, it’s a testament to what can be done with very little, an inspiration to low-budget filmmakers. It also tells us why Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram—because cheap, raw, yet luminescent films noirs like Decoy shaped the vision of the next generation of directors much more than the ruffled, pretentious fare that big Hollywood studios were releasing as prestige problem pictures. However, regardless of its impact, Decoy deserves to be remembered in and of itself as a taut story that entertains, even as it unravels a trail of grim developments that make us squirm in our seats at the prospect of our own mortality.

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Every now and then, I get to the point where I (rather arrogantly) think I’ve seen every movie worth seeing that exists within the confines of my interests. And I despair. And then I find a movie that hits me like a tender blackjack to the base of the skull and forces me to realize all over again what it means to watch a movie and be shocked and stunned by its audacity. Decoy is one of those movies for me. I think it might be for you too.

So dig it up. I dare you.

Decoy

The Haunted Palace (1963): A Portrait of Terror

vlcsnap-2013-10-27-23h49m23s129“You do not know the extent of my appetite… I’ll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard, ’til they have felt, as I did, the kiss of fire on their soft bare flesh—all of them!”

Joseph Curwen has no chance of escape. Lashed to a tree and surrounded on all sides by a baying mob of illiterate peasants, the stately master of the occult looks helpless, defeated, and vaguely preposterous with his frilly cravat and polished costume.

Then, he steels himself against the indignity and brazenly returns the gaze of his persecutors.

“Have you anything to say, warlock?”

Curwen trains his icy blue eyes on the crowd. “Yes. As surely as the village of Arkham has risen against me, so shall I rise—from the dead—against the village of Arkham!”

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The camera then assumes Curwen’s perspective, rapidly panning as he singles out the leaders of the riot. He pauses on each guilty, quaking face and levels his malediction. “From this night onward, you shall bear my curse!”

A torch is cast on the straw at his feet. The flames rise. Curwen looks about him in shock and disbelief, as though he cannot fathom his powers failing him. His face contorts as he attempts to bear the agony of the consuming blaze, but cannot. Curwen rears his head back, and a reedy, bellowing cry escapes him, mingling with the distant crackle of thunder.

vlcsnap-2013-10-26-23h13m37s205So begins the The Haunted Palace, my pick for the most unsettling of the Corman-Price collaborations. To address this head-on, the film, though presenting itself as an adaptation of Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” and also of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” doesn’t really fulfill either claim, on a narrative level, at least. Sure, it borrows the basic premise and a few tidbits of mythos from Lovecraft’s novella, but bulldozes the modernistic intricacy of the original.

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Nevertheless, I relish the irony that this film, with its mutants and monstrous human-god couplings, is itself a misshapen hybrid, a cross-pollination of two American horror masters. Corman and screenwriter Charles Beaumont bred the cosmic weirdness of Lovecraft with the lusty revenge motifs of Poe to forge what I consider a truly disturbing movie. And Price’s virtuoso performance captures notes of the tormented conscience and the paranoid alienation that we tend to associate with Poe’s and Lovecraft’s antiheroes respectively. Not bad for a film shot in 15 days!

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I think we can all agree that Vincent Price boosted the quality of basically every film he was ever in—and if you don’t agree, you shall bear my curse. He was the ultimate value-added actor, turning even the most threadbare of characters into tapestries of terror. However, for the film in question, his taxing role provided a perfect showcase for his considerable acting talents. As Roger Corman observed, “I think the concept of Vincent playing the dual role of Ward and Ward possessed was a challenge, but the kind of challenge an actor loves. It gives him the opportunity to work in a more complex way on camera.”

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Price plays Joseph Curwen’s meek descendant Charles Dexter Ward who returns to Arkham to claim his ancestor’s palace. Despite the threats and protests of the village, Ward and his wife investigate the drafty mansion. Unsurprisingly, a haunted psychedelic portrait of Curwen soon gets hooks in Ward and, before long, the warlock is using Ward’s body to exact vengeance on the town and continue his attempts to mate the Old Ones with mortal women.

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Foreshadowing his deadly earnest performance in Witchfinder General, Price wisely dialed down his camp sensibility to practically nothing for The Haunted Palace. I’m a huge fan of all things camp, but it does have a time and a place. In a Corman-Price picture, one might crave the comfort of wink-wink theatrics or the risible excess of some medieval debauchery. The absence of the cozy over-the-topness we expect makes The Haunted Palace doubly squirm-inducing.

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If the audience wants ham, they’ll go hungry in this one. Even some exaggerated makeup design can’t defuse the chilling impact of Price’s serene wickedness. It’s the little things that make him so unnerving. The way he calmly pops a grape into his mouth as he connives to get his wife committed to an asylum. How he tosses a lit match onto an alcohol-soaked enemy without a twitch of sympathy. His sour wit as he lights ceremonial torches, cooing, “Well, I’ll admit the furnishings do leave something to be desired, but it has a lived-in quality, don’t you think? After all, home is where the heart is…” Curwen-as-Ward is no laughing matter.

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As far as cinematic depictions of possession go, The Haunted Palace stands out as one of the most implacable and frightening ever captured on film, in my opinion. No projectile vomiting, no levitation, no special effects, merely a different entity taking up residence in someone else’s body. Whereas a great number of horror flicks focus on the consequences of possession, relatively few movies dwell on the process by which the physical being, mind, and soul of one decent man are progressively permeated and conquered by a force of darkness. I mean, The Shining portrayed this kind of transformation brilliantly, but was Jack Torrence ever a normal, lovable guy? I think not.

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By contrast, Price’s Charles Dexter Ward immediately endears himself to the viewer. He is attentive and courtly towards his wife, polite to strangers, and, when the occasion calls for it, dryly humorous. The goody-two-shoes victims in classic horror movies tend to bore me to tears and have me rooting for evil in no time flat, but I appreciated how likable and initially unaware Price made his interpretation of Ward.

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Several of the most important scenes in The Haunted Palace are essentially monologues—just Charles Dexter Ward standing in front of his ancestor’s portrait and gradually coming under its malign influence. There’s the occasional ghostly voice-over to raise the stakes, but these integral exchanges mostly consist of just one man standing alone in a room. Doesn’t sound particularly cinematic, does it? Yet, through Price’s eloquent pantomimes in these portrait soliloquies, we witness Curwen’s venom slowly digesting the mild, gentle Ward. I have a hard time imagining any other actor “selling” such a sustained transformation.

The first encounter with the portrait offers an introduction: Ward and his wife walk towards the lurid painting and one shot-reverse-shot exchange suggests Ward’s connection and resemblance to it.

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When Ward next goes face-to-face with the eldritch portrait, we see Curwin’s spirit take root. Lighting his cigar, Ward glances at the painting. Then, in a closer shot, he stares up at the portrait with guileless blue eyes, but then winces, as a man might looking into a bright light or a heavy, hot wind.

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We get a series of cuts back and forth from the painting and Ward, who tries to shield his eyes but can’t resist its lure. Ultimately, he looks straight at the portrait and his face ripples from within. The forehead seems to heighten, the eyes recede, and the mouth fixes itself into a line of immovable cunning. It’s like Barrymore’s famous no-cut transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—but in close-up. (In fact, it was that famous horror performance that stoked Vincent’s childhood interest in acting; he emulated Barrymore’s Hyde in front of his mirror for hours.) By moving a few muscles, Price alters his character’s identity. The audience sees the badness of Curwen enter and possess him.

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The third portrait scene is brief—a single frightening shot, after Simon tells Ward to “ask Mr. Corwen” the answer to a question. We see a long shot of the portrait and the camera tracks back to show Ward’s head in the bottom of the frame, dwarfed by the surroundings. The sudden intrusion of his head disorients the viewer, so that when Ward whirls around, revealing Curwen’s pallid, pitiless face, we’re all the more alarmed. Curwen has installed himself in Ward.

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The fourth major portrait scene stresses the triumph of supernatural sin over a normal, healthy mind. Under Curwen’s control, Ward cruelly tells his wife not to pry into his affairs. She runs off to bed and Ward, momentarily regaining his free will, calls back to her when a disembodied, resonant version of his own voice calls to him. The camera reframes to remind us of the painting’s presence. Ward turns towards it fearfully, but bravely calls out, “Leave me alone!”

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Two progressively closer shots of the portrait emphasize Curwen’s hypnotic power as the voice protests that he and Ward are really one. Corman cuts back to a shot of Ward, cowering slightly, as the camera sweeps down in a crane shot like a falcon in the dive. Cut to the painting: “My will is too strong…” Cut to Ward, whose face shows no fear, no love, nothing but a stony resolution as Curwen’s voice completes, “Too strong for you.” Price finishing that sentence in a slightly deeper, firmer voice scares the hell out of me; nothing has changed, yet we’re looking at a totally different individual. Ward’s own body is enunciating the victory of something that Ward hates and fears. The invasion is almost complete.

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There’s more spooky portrait soliloquy turmoil, but that gives you a taste of Price’s extraordinary task of making scenes like this—which could’ve been boring—into mortifying depictions of evil winning out over good. And you might be surprised by how much evil does win in this game.

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Some of the most effective horror stories I’ve read—Blackwood’s “The Secret Listener” and Onions’s “The Beloved Fair One” come to mind—derive their menace from repetition. A normal fellow explores and describes a confined location over and over and over again, eventually succumbing to its monotonous spell.

On film, it’s damned difficult to pull off this sort of horror that grows by almost imperceptible increments until the sum total of everything not-quite-right overwhelms the viewer.

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Of course, Corman still throws in a few drive-in shocks, like one of the townsfolk’s deformed progeny reaching its grotesque hands through a slot to receive a dinner of giblets. Still, he patiently let Curwen’s creeping evil unfold through variations on these portrait scenes.

Intimate and almost anti-cinematic, these gripping passages of time spent alone (but not really!) with our tortured protagonist make us wriggle as we notice how Ward emerges from each scene having imbibed more of Curwen into his nature. Corman thus approximates a “flavor” of fear that I usually associate with top-notch macabre literature.

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The performance has the meticulous shadings that come from strategic pre-planning. Roger Corman remembered, “Vincent and I would discuss in depth the character before each picture… In fifteen days, to shoot what were fairly complicated films, there was no time to have deep discussions about character. We had to go and shoot!”

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Price and Corman (left) rehearsing the movie’s opening sequence

The tug-of-war for the mind, body, and soul of Charles Dexter Ward, as conveyed by Price, elevates the film to the level of psychological horror. A key strength of Price’s dual characterization resides in his ability to react to the wickedness that overtakes him. The actor communicates Ward’s horror at the horror he’s becoming, as the good man pitifully struggles with the spirit that’s colonizing him.

Not only does Price bring two distinct personalities to life, but he also suggests the relationship between them—condescending domination on one side and appalled resistance on the other. He’s a one-man dialectic!

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In addition to Price, the film features some stunning wide-angle cinematography, by Corman veteran Floyd Crosby, that glints like a star sapphire. It also boasts a sublime score by Ronald Stein that conveys the otherworldly sweep of the narrative. An ill, woebegone Lon Chaney is appropriately raspy and lends his considerable horror cred to the mix, but doesn’t get much to do.

Apart from Price, the standout performance is Debra Paget as Ann Ward, who reacts poignantly to her changed husband and displays admirable fortitude and courage for a horror movie wife. She loves the man she married as much as she is disgusted by the belittling, lascivious Curwen.

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In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a delicate dance of eroticism and creepiness, Curwen-as-Ward tries to have his wicked way with her or, as he says, “exercise my husbandly prerogative.” All the great horror stars had a gift for suggesting both sexual attractiveness and repulsiveness and, if you watch this scene, you might conclude, as I did, that Price negotiated this balance most adroitly of all.

Be sure to unearth this underrated classic. I suspect that you too will fall under the spell of The Haunted Palace… though thankfully not to the extent of Charles Dexter Ward.

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I did this post as part of the Vincent Price Blogathon, which also I hosted. I am honored by the amazing bloggers who participated, so be sure to check out their entries!