“Like a Big Family”: The Former Child Actors of Father Goose Share Fond Memories at TCMFF

Biting one of the most famous people in the world, even if they know you have to do it for a movie, would be a daunting prospect for most people.

But that was the task facing Sharyl Locke during the making of Father Goose (1964). Playing Jenny, the youngest of the film’s gaggle of international schoolgirls, Locke had to express her traumatized character’s anger and fear silently. And occasionally with her teeth.

“I had to bite Cary Grant,” Locke remembered. “And when I bit him the first time, I was apprehensive, and I didn’t want to hurt him. So I just kind of barely bit him when he put his finger up. And he says, ‘No, hon, you need to bite. I want to be able to see those teeth marks!’”

So Locke took the hint and chomped down for the benefit of the camera’s harsh scrutiny. And Grant gave her high marks for realism.

“Once I did bite down,” she said, “[Grant] went around the whole stage showing everybody. ‘She did bite me! She did great! Isn’t that great?’”

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, three of the former child actors from Father Goose shared stories in conversation with Leonard Maltin. Locke was the only one who pursued acting, building a resume that ranged from voice-overs on Chevrolet commercials to a role in the William Castle thriller I Saw What You Did.

By contrast, Laurelle Felsette Johnson and Nicole Felsette Reynolds, who played the twins Angelique and Dominique, never set out to be actors. Their Father Goose roles found them instead. When the casting call went out, the French-born sisters lived in L.A. but spoke French at home.

“We didn’t have an agent or anything,” recalled Felsette Johnson. “One day an agent was looking for twins who spoke French, because that’s what the script asked for. This agent called the French Consulate who replied, ‘We don’t have any twins who speak French, but we have sisters that look alike.’

“So the agent called us. We went to meet with Mr. Nelson, the director, and then we went to meet with Mr. Grant. I was so shy. I brought my autograph book, thinking, ‘We probably won’t get this role, but at least I’ll get his autograph!’ But I didn’t dare ask him for it until we wrapped and finished up the movie. And then we did a screen test and we were told that we were picked.”

Thus began a nine-week odyssey that took the girls from Universal Studios to Jamaica to shoot one of the most charming family comedies ever committed to film. It must be a surreal experience to travel the world with movie stars, be immortalized in a hit movie, then return to your everyday existence.

“How do you look upon it today?” asked Leonard Maltin. “As an adventure in your young life?”

“You want the truth?” returned Felsette Reynolds.

And here a “Yes!” rose from the audience. But it was a “Yes” laced with unease.

When you love a movie as much as many of us love Father Goose, you worry about what you might learn—especially when the movie involves children. Could you ever look at a film the same way if you knew that it put a damper on someone’s childhood (or worse)? Fortunately, any such fears were quickly dispelled by the answer.

“We got out of school!” enthused Felsette Reynolds, gushing with the glee of a little girl unleashed on an island paradise. “We had five weeks in the studio with a teacher that was worthless. I still cannot do long division because of her. And then we had four weeks in Jamaica which was really being on vacation.”

Felsette Johnson picked up the story of their off-screen hijinks: “We were very well behaved when we were at Universal Studios for the first five weeks when we weren’t on set. We were in the trailer in the classroom—one classroom for all seven of us. And that’s why we never learned anything!

“But when we got to Jamaica the director had brought two children. The producer had brought two children. So there was a whole gang of us. When we got off the set from working and we were back at the hotel, we had the complete run of the place. There was not a nook or cranny that we left unexplored! In fact, we broke the elevator.”

Apart from the occasional smoke-filled room of poker players or screening of a risqué Liz Taylor movie, practically nothing was off limits to this exuberant girl gang. In fact, the Father Goose crew got in the spirit with them: “In the evenings the crew would make us up,” recalled Felsette Johnson. “Everybody was staying at the same hotel. And they would make us up like a vamp or a mustachioed man or with bleeding knees and faces and stuff. So it was a lot of fun. We had a very good time.”

The most well-known story about the making of Father Goose centers on the tense scene where Walter Eckland’s dinghy—overloaded with seven schoolgirls and their teacher—nearly capsizes in the wake of two large ships. Filming in a large studio tank didn’t quite go as planned. And hilarity ensued.

As Locke recalled, “When were at the sound stage where they filmed all of us in the dingy and when the boats were going by, that was on the screen [rear projected]. But there was a wave machine. I don’t know if it was operated by a person or if it was automatic or whatever it was, but it malfunctioned and it kept making waves and it sank our dinghy while all of us were on it.”

When the boat began to take on water, Locke got an impromptu lesson in the value of a good behind-the-scenes story from her co-star. “I knew how to swim and I started to go,” she remembered, “Cary Grant told me, ‘Do not go! This is great.’ And I said, ‘But I know how to swim!’ And he said, ‘That’s okay! It makes a great publicity picture.’”

Locke and company continued to splash around and allowed themselves to be valiantly “rescued” by the crew, as publicity cameras snapped away.

Felsette Johnson spoke warmly of Leslie Caron, who starred as the prim school teacher Miss Freneau: “As much as she was aloof, she was also a generous person.”

Caron sprinkled moments of learning and fun throughout the shoot for Felsette Johnson and her sister: “I took a liking to her, and she took a liking to me. As soon as she knew and learned that we were studying ballet, in between takes, because, you know, they do three, four, five six, takes, she would show me how to point my toe or do an arabesque. I got the special privilege of being able to visit her in her private trailer while she got her hair done or makeup done or she was running lines. And for a nine year old kid to be next to such a star, that is just so cool!”

And Caron stepped in—literally—to coach Felsette Johnson during a tricky moment towards the end of the film. “In the scene where we have to run back into the hut because the plane’s coming in, the director Mr. Nelson said to me, ‘You have to trip.’ And as a nine year old girl, you don’t want to trip! That’s geeky. That’s embarrassing in the schoolyard. You know, it just wasn’t working. So Leslie Caron said to him, ‘Shoot this. This will work.’ And he called, ‘Action!’ And as I turned around she stuck her foot out. And I went flying.”

Caron, with her extensive dance training, no doubt knew how to trip someone for maximum visual impact—and minimum physical risk. As Felsette Johnson pointed out, the anecdote shows Caron’s dedication to helping the children give their best, most believable performances.

Beyond the cast’s headliners, the interviewees remembered how the crew went out of their way to make the girls comfortable, even as they managed a difficult shoot. “In Jamaica they were wearing shorts and they were all shirtless. And we had a lot of shots with water,” explained Felsette Reynolds. “Half of them were wading into the water up to their waists. The camera was on a raft, especially that last scene when he comes in and turns over our little dinghy.”

The little girls in the cast, however, had to deal with a special challenge in those watery scenes. “We were wearing really heavy suits. I mean, they were truly wool. They were really thick.”

So the crew stepped in with a breezy solution: “They made us these little dresses that we wore when we didn’t have to wear our wool or his outfits [clothes borrowed from Walter Eckland on the island]. And we called them our ‘pinkies.’”

The design of the dresses helped ensure continuity between the studio and location footage. “They were seersucker but with long sleeves, because everything had to match the takes we had done in the studio so we couldn’t get any sun. We couldn’t get tan.

“The only one who could get any sun was Cary Grant. He would sit there with his reflector.”

Well, there have to be some perks to being a star…

“They were all really wonderful to us,” summarized Felsette Reynolds. “It was like a big family. We called it the Father Goose Company.”

At the TCM Film Festival, actors often discover, to their humbled surprise, that audiences still cherish a film they made decades ago. As Felsette Johnson said after watching Father Goose with the TCMFF audience, “When you’re nine years old, you make a movie. You know what was filmed. You know what wasn’t filmed. And you watch it with your family and you don’t get the jokes or the laugh lines! It’s terrific to hear you guys react so positively to this movie.”

In this instance, the delight goes both ways. It warmed my heart to learn that this film brought such joy to its child stars—because it imbued my childhood with vicarious adventure. In Leonard Maltin’s words, “It’s such fun to watch this film. It’s really nice to hear that it was a nice experience for all of you. That makes it even more pleasurable.”

Queen of Hearts (and Diamonds): Angela Lansbury Remembers The Manchurian Candidate at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Equal parts awe and comfort. That’s how I’d describe the feeling of being in Dame Angela Lansbury’s magical presence.

Think Sarah Bernhardt plus the scent of freshly baked cookies. Or a Fairy Godmother who can, at will, turn herself into the Wicked Witch of the West—and back—for your amusement.

With 6 Golden Globes, 5 Tony Awards, and an honorary Oscar to her credit, 90-year-old Lansbury says she doesn’t ever plan on retiring. She’s living proof that you don’t have to act like a badass to be one.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, Alec Baldwin interviewed Lansbury before a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) at the TCL Chinese Theater. The queue for the event snaked all around the movie palace and down Hollywood Boulevard. I got number 520 in line and count myself lucky to have made it in—because it was an event I’ll never forget.

The stage and screen star made her entrance blowing kisses in response to a rapturous standing ovation from a packed house. As the applause settled down, one fan called from the audience, “We love you, Angela!”

“I love you too!” Lansbury replied. Watching her exude warmth and gratitude towards her fans, I found it all the more impressive that she had transformed herself into the chilling Mrs. Iselin.

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Baldwin began by questioning Lansbury about Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959.

“The book was presented to me by the director, John Frankenheimer, on the last day of the shoot of a movie we were making called All Fall Down,” Lansbury recalled. “He slammed the book down and said, ‘There’s your next movie.’”

She remembered being “blown away” as she read. “It was wonderfully well-constructed and so original, so extraordinary, and the character that I assumed he wanted me to play was like nothing else I had ever read for myself as an actress.”

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“They didn’t put everything in the movie that’s in the book?” Baldwin asked. “Well, they couldn’t, quite frankly,” Lansbury said, referring to the more explicitly Oedipal mother-son relationship in the novel.

Although Lansbury was Frankenheimer’s first choice for Mrs. Iselin, Frank Sinatra initially had other ideas. “He wanted Lucille Ball,” Lansbury recalled. “I mean, that could’ve been fascinating. You wouldn’t have believed that she could be this devil incarnate.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Fortunately, Frankenheimer prevailed, and Lansbury savored the chance to deliver such a marvelously wicked performance. “It’s a lot of fun to play a villain, a well-written villain, you know, not just a villain-villain, but a brilliant, interesting one, a villain of parts, you might say. So you weren’t quite sure about her.”

Lansbury clearly relished the moment when Mrs. Iselin’s mask drops as she invites her son to “pass the time by playing a little solitaire.” It was a joy to hear her repeat this line, in her naturally friendly tone of voice, and appreciate by contrast just how much creepiness she’d infused into those words for the film. “Only in that moment do you realize that she’s in charge,” she noted.

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Lansbury was only 36 when she made The Manchurian Candidate, just 3 years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son! Yet she projects the matronly authority of a senator’s wife—and the commanding fierceness of a high-level communist agent—with frightening conviction.

Baldwin wondered how Lansbury managed to carry herself like a woman in her forties or fifties. Did she observe and mimic the movements of women much older than herself—like Julie Andrews studied the way men move to play in Victor Victoria?

Lansbury explained that she took a text-centered approach to creating Mrs. Iselin. “I’ve never really described how I arrived at the character. I don’t do the kind of spadework that you just described. I sort of take on attitudes that are, in this instance, the absolute antithesis of the woman that I am. Because, as far as I’m concerned, what the writer has for me to say is immediately a clue for me, the actress, as to how my attitudes, or my looks, or everything else that’s packed into this character that will emerge.”

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Unlike Method actors, Lansbury said that her craft doesn’t involve mining her own memories and feelings: “I always say, ‘Leave yourself at home. Don’t bring yourself. Be that woman. And, you know, get on with it.’ And that seems to work.”

Frankenheimer gave his actors the chance to build their characters and add nuance to their interactions. As Lansbury reported, “We rehearsed a lot. They don’t take the time or the money to rehearse these days, but in those days certainly John demanded that we did. So we went into scenes really knowing them backwards.”

The demands of the film’s top-billed star also motivated the extensive rehearsals. “Frank Sinatra wouldn’t do two takes. He just refused. So if you didn’t get it the first time you were out of luck. And luckily he gave one of the best performances he’d ever given in The Manchurian Candidate.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

The Manchurian Candidate conveys an ambiance of oppressive paranoia, and it sounds like the shoot was no place for levity. “I can honestly say that John maintained a mood on that set that was all business and had everything to do with the story and the scenes I had. He was a very serious director in his own way. And he really got terribly excited with the drama that was in the scene and we were dragged into that. And we went along with it. We were very sincere in that we wanted to make a great movie. And it really turned out to be.”

Laurence Harvey broke up the gravity with his humorous, laid-back disposition. “He was tremendous fun. He took it like a joke. Typical English actor.” And here Lansbury did a quick impression of her co-star, leaning as far back as she could in her chair then looking up distractedly. “Oh, ready for me yet?”

Lansbury didn’t get the chance to work with Sinatra much. “I was only in one scene with Frank. We were in the cloakroom picking up our coats,” she said. “And that’s the only time we were ever on the set together.”

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Prompted by Baldwin, Lansbury also discussed her early career at MGM. Her versatility made it difficult for the studio to reduce her to a type and find strong vehicles for her: “I always felt challenged because the kind of odd thing was that directors, producers, they all saw me in a different way. One producer would see me as a kind of song and dance girl, the next one would see me as a mother or as a rather boring kind of nurse in some movie with Walter Pidgeon.”

She expressed her fondness for Gaslight and especially for her part as Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “I loved that sweet, vulnerable girl. To get to play that was a miracle.” However, she ultimately felt that Hollywood’s Golden Age afforded her few golden opportunities. “I gave them the impression that I could change myself, because I did. I had to. And it bored me to death to play some of those movies, I can tell you that.”

Exasperated with Hollywood, she returned to the theater. “I said, ‘Enough already,’ and I shuffled off to Broadway.” As for the dream factory studios where she worked, “I didn’t miss a darn thing, to be truthful.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Lansbury waxed poetic over the live theater experience. “I simply love the feeling that you the audience are there, and we’re together in this. And this onstage is something that absolutely propels me forward and gives me the excitement and impetus to go out there and give my absolute best. The curtain goes up, you’re mine, and I’m yours.”

After relatively few feature film roles in the 1950s, Lansbury did some of her best film work in the early 1960s.

“The last great movie that I got to be in was The Manchurian Candidate.” While she said she wouldn’t consider it her greatest film, “It’s certainly the most outstanding and astonishing film I was ever connected with. From an audience standpoint, I think it’s a unique piece of work on the part of everybody who was in it. And John’s conception of it, his work with Axelrod on the script, the minutia that he took the time to do, it paid off so amazingly.”

When she saw the film screened, she found it thrilling. “I had no idea how it would all be cut together. We really don’t because we do little bits and pieces, you know how it is…. I had no idea that it would land with the impact that it did.”

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As for recent accomplishments, in 2014 Lansbury received an Honorary Academy Award, presented by none other than Robert Osborne.

“I requested that he should be the person to give it to me, because he always stood by me,” Lansbury said, echoing her audience’s love for the Turner Classic Movies host. “I said, ‘Look, he’s the only man who knows all the movies that I made in that period.’ And, of course, he’s TCM. There was no question in my mind that he was the right person and I’m so glad he did it.”

Alec Baldwin concluded the conversation with a fitting tribute to Dame Angela’s dazzling range: “One thing that is always so thrilling and so powerful is to witness someone whose soul can range from one end to the other. I’ve worked with just a few who can do anything…. They can play the darkest forces in the world and they can play the most beautiful spirits in the world. There aren’t many of them.”

And Angela Lansbury is surely one. She’s not only the queen of her fans’ hearts, but also the Queen of Diamonds.

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Brides of Dracula (1960): Dandy of the Damned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newfangled Bad Boy

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

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

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

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

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

The Gentle Art of Vampirism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another such close-up signals Meinster’s most disturbing assault on a victim, one I could hardly believe at first. Having strangled Van Helsing unconscious, the Baron pounces on him like a bat, raising his cape over the prostrate man. We don’t see the bite… but Meinster’s head rises from the lower edge of the frame and his fangs glisten with fresh gouts of blood. To borrow Bram Stoker’s words, he wears “a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.” This savage bite scene left me rattled. Though tame as far as horror gore goes, it strikes at the audience’s deeply-held confidence and investment in Van Helsing as a recurring, beloved character who tends to hold the trump cards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la vie moderne.

Art Imitates Life: Shirley MacLaine Revisits The Apartment (1960) at TCMFF

maclaine“We didn’t know where it was going,” Shirley MacLaine recalled.

That “it” happened to be the plot of The Apartment, which remained up in the air as shooting for the film began. “Jack [Lemmon] and I both, we talked about it, we were given 29 pages of script.”

The actors just had to wait and see how it would crumble, cookie-wise.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, MacLaine, exuberant as ever at age 80, regaled a packed audience in the TCL Chinese Theater with stories about the making of Billy Wilder’s enduringly powerful dramedy. 

I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that audience. After seeing MacLaine 4 times over the course of the festival, believe me, I could have listened to this fascinating and endlessly sassy woman for hours more!

In conversation with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine revealed how behind-the-scenes spontaneity helped to shape the masterpiece. Asked about the onscreen sparks between herself and Jack Lemmon, with whom she’d never worked before, she explained, “I think chemistry is good when you find yourself on a discovery mission.”

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MacLaine and Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

In keeping with this atmosphere of “discovery,” writer-director Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond largely eschewed any preconceived story or characterizations. Instead, they tailored their script to fit the two leading actors’ growing friendship—with remarkable results.

According to MacLaine, Diamond and Wilder “watched the developing working relationship. They were so on cue, on key about every little movement, every little sigh and disappointment and joy and happiness, and they made little notes about what they saw. So, the love affair between Fran and [Baxter] became basically what they observed.” 

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Wilder and Diamond also mined MacLaine’s personal life for screenwriting material, finding inspiration for what would become a major motif in The Apartment: “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

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MacLaine also unwittingly supplied one of the film’s most memorable lines while having lunch with Wilder: “I was having a love affair that wasn’t working. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people anyway? Why can’t we be in love with giraffes?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Knowing a good thing when he heard it, Wilder launched into action. “He ordered us to retake the whole scene, because that made sense to him and to Izzy Diamond,” MacLaine said. “See, that’s unusual, because it took a lot of expense, time, and so forth, but when he saw something that seemed, in his opinion, to make his stuff better, he went for it.” 

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Fans of the film will know that Fran Kubelik does closely echo MacLaine’s words. Sitting up in bed after her failed suicide attempt, she half-ignores Baxter’s sweetly clumsy attempt to distract her from her sorrows with a game of cards and asks, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” 

In contrast to Wilder’s human-centered approach to the script, he proved a steely, almost clinical taskmaster when it came to coaching performances. 

Wilder was “the most scientific of directors,” as MacLaine described him. “He would say to us, ‘Do the scene again and take out 12-and-a-half seconds.’ I don’t really know how that worked, but we did it.” 

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On the whole, with 55 years of perspective on The Apartment, MacLaine spoke of Wilder in fond and admiring terms: “As a person, I liked him a lot. He was very funny and very sensitive when it came to what he thought would be best for the screen.”

Day to day, however, Wilder often used his caustic wit to keep the actress in line and it hurt. “At times he was very brittle with women,” she observed, “but in the end you were better for it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m38s155The next day at Club TCM, again in interview with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine elaborated on the pressures of being directed by Wilder. “He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work,” she said. “He scared the hell out of me. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and how to take criticism.” 

Fortunately for MacLaine, years as a dancer had taught her to deal with tough overseers. “Choreographers are made to make you miserable, so I was used to that… When this incredible Austrian [Wilder] came at me, I thought, ‘Okay, well, just show me the step.’” 

And what a dance it turned out to be!

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m30s80 As for her co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine had nothing but positive memories: “He was such a sweetheart. What a wonderful man.” On the set, she would watch Lemmon perform whenever possible: “He really could do anything. He was good, very, very, very good, until the sixth or seventh take. I mean, absolutely sterling.”

With his “scientific” approach to comedy, Wilder gave MacLaine plenty of opportunity to watch, as he put Lemmon through long series of takes, seemingly for the sake of experiment. “I think Billy wanted to see what the contrived actor in all of us could do if he asked him to do take 16,” she said. “He was seeing how far probably the best actor of drama and comedy… could go and still be honest to it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h26m30s27MacLaine also mentioned an encouraging foible of Lemmon’s: “He would say, ‘Magic time!’ every time the camera rolled. And then we knew we’d better make some magic.”

Fred MacMurray didn’t get off so easily in MacLaine’s no-punches-pulled appraisal. “Fred never picked up the check at lunch,” she wryly commented, prompting gales of laughter at the Chinese Theater. The next day at Club TCM, the spirited actress couldn’t resist another jab at MacMurray’s parsimony: “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-05-19h49m04s98While discussing the collaborative effort of making The Apartment, MacLaine emphasized a contributor who rarely gets the credit he deserves: Doane Harris. “He was Billy’s secret,” MacLaine insisted. This veteran editor worked on most of Wilder’s greatest films, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, and received credit as an associate producer on The Apartment.

After looking over the rushes in the cutting room, Harris would make his diagnosis to Wilder. As MacLaine recounted, “He would say, and I heard this because Billy didn’t mind if I heard… ‘Billy, you gotta shoot that whole day over. You did not break my heart today.’ And they would re-do it.”

“See, that’s where trust comes in,” she explained. “Billy didn’t even ask why. To save time, he just did it.” 

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On the subject of retakes, MacLaine told us about a scene where the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her: when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks spend apart and rekindle their affair.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

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Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

After a few takes, MacLaine’s nervousness about the line interfered with her ability to project Fran’s multitude of emotions in that scene, as she opens up about the shame of being the mistress of a married man.

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The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

(Ouch. Yeah, I can see why Marilyn was scared of Wilder, too.)

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Whereas other actresses might have buckled under the humiliation of being called out in front of her colleagues, MacLaine had a different reaction. 

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

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Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

I’m darned grateful that she was, because the scene plays beautifully. It stands as a lesson to all of us. There’s a lot to be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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Cary as Chaplin: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 31

And so my series comes to a close with this hilarious portrait of Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin for LIFE magazine. I adore this image because, silly as it is, it hints at the way Grant assimilated many of the best traits of the silent comedians… and combined them with the wit and suaveness of talking comedy. He was a treasure and always will be.

Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin for LIFE magazine

Image scanned from LIFE Goes to the Movies (Time-Life Books, 1975).

Father Goose (1964): 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 30

A close-up of Cary Grant on the set of Father Goose (1964).

During his one-man show “An Evening with Cary Grant” when asked which of his roles came closest to his real-life personality he’d answer, “the bum I played in Father Goose.” Indeed, in this rare recorded sound clip from one of his appearances, he admitted to a flaw that sounds more akin to gruff Walter Eckland than to Grant’s sophisticated public persona: “I do a lot of burping.”

Cary Grant in Father Goose

Image scanned from LIFE Goes to the Movies (Time-Life Books, 1975).

Cary and the Next Generation: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 28

Cary Grant with Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando, and Gregory Peck in 1962.

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Scanned from Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (Harmony Books, 2004). Most of the images I’m scanning for this series are publicity photos, intended by the studios that created them to be reproduced and shared. However, since this one comes from a more exclusive publishing context, I have watermarked it with the copyright.

Paranoiac (1963): Gothic Grisaille

poster63“The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.”

—Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry”

You’ll rarely find the words “Hammer horror” and “good taste” in the same sentence. On the whole, the studio’s landmark chillers bequeathed such a lurid legacy of eye-popping color and eroticized violence to the film industry that there’s hardly a post-1960s horror film which doesn’t owe a debt to Hammer’s unabashed excess.

However, Paranoiac, directed by master cameraman Freddie Francis, is something of a black sheep in the Hammer family of spooks. The studio did go in for a touch of class every now and then, as with Taste of Fear, and Paranoiac holds up as one of its best psychological horrors. This sleek Hitchcokian thriller eschews Hammer’s signature bombast in favor of disquieting innuendo and the cool splendor of black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Though rather sedate in terms of what it shows, the film mostly leaves the horrors offscreen, preferring to let a number of unpleasant suggestions fester and multiply in our minds, where they can do the most damage.

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Eleven years ago, John and Mary Ashby died in a plane crash leaving three children: Eleanor, Simon, and Tony, the last of whom apparently committed suicide in despair shortly afterward. As siblings go, it’s hard to imagine two more different than Eleanor and Simon. Gentle, romantic Eleanor quietly teeters on the brink of sanity, still pining for her lost brother, whereas rakish reprobate Simon boozes it up, trying to figure out new ways to get at Eleanor’s inheritance. Because this is a Hammer film, there’s also a luscious French nurse living at the Ashby estate, supposedly caring for Eleanor. Sinister battleaxe Auntie Harriet serves as the watchdog of the dysfunctional clan’s reputation.

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Shortly before the Ashby heirs are about to come into their money, a mysterious man claiming to be Tony Ashby shows up and begins to suspect that someone’s driving Eleanor mad. Faced with a powerful rival, Simon has to act fast to obtain what he wants… and keep his skeletons in the closet.

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Loosely adapted from a novel by Josephine Tey and scripted by Jimmy Sangster, Paranoiac revives the tropes of Gothic literature for a new generation. Starting off with a rather conventional family melodrama scenario, the film progressively focuses on the ever-present undertones of incest, morbid mental states, and sadistic acts of cruelty that lurked between the lines in the novels of Walpole and Lewis.

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This film capitalizes on its lugubrious settings—craggy cliffs, a maze-like manor house, ancestral gardens—to place the audience in a receptive state of mind. As I watched, I kept thinking that Ann Radcliffe, the 18th to 19th century queen of the florid British Gothic style, would’ve approved of Paranoiac. In her dialogue essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” she praised the type of literature that “seem[s] to perceive a soul in every thing; and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combination of its incidents, [keeps] the elements and the local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect.”

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Though it abandons the supernatural, Paranoiac does a fantastic job of extracting “the soul in every thing,” of wringing its mise-en-scene for every ounce of dread. Even trappings of the modern era, like Simon’s swank E-type Jag, bend to the Gothic agenda. The Jag becomes a harbinger of disaster after Simon crashes it in a flowerbed upon seeing his ostensibly dead brother for the first time in 11 years.

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Freddie Francis recycles a trick that he used as cinematographer for The Innocents, cultivating anxiety through the inclusion of frames within frames. The constricted or divided screen spaces contrast with the occasional sweeping outdoor landscape shots, reminding us of the unhealthy, benighted ambiance of the Ashby manor. Tony’s apparition loiters in a doorway or is seen by Eleanor as she looks through the bars of her window, a virtual prisoner to her family’s sordid connivances. As Tony and Eleanor peer into the manor’s spooky music room, we see their faces through a tiny clear spot in a window opaque with dust.

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As a literary style, the Gothic is particularly tethered to a sense of place. The architectural features that so often crowd the frame in Paranoiac translate that sensibility, adding tension to important “incidents… heightening their effect” to borrow Radcliffe’s words.

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On the other hand, Francis also exploits the full potential of widescreen to arrange engrossing compositions and dignified tableaux. Even in the most static scenes, he amps up the drama and tension by balancing the frame with several figures. The eye wants to travel, to take in all of the faces. For instance, I love how many possible points of interest there are in this shot from the scene where the Ashby family lawyer interrogates Tony, who’s apparently risen from the grave.

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Tony stands out as the centerpiece of the shot, but we also have the battered profiles of the lawyer and Aunt Harriet, plus angelic, hopeful Eleanor and diabolic, gargoyle-ish Simon in the background. This otherwise bland scene acquires the gravity of a medieval grisaille, as we watch a conflicted man facing an ordeal, allegorically surrounded by forces of good and evil.

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The film’s true standout, Oliver Reed slyly capers through the role of Simon, exuding a heady mixture of charm and menace. Before he destroyed his matinee idol face with years of bad behavior, Reed looked and sounded like a cross between young Orson Welles and young Laurence Olivier.

I can’t top Janine Sakol’s description of this glorious throwback in his prime: “Reed in the living, lusting flesh, actually makes the fiction Gothics seem pale by comparison. He smoulders, a mobile furnace with a low, fierce heat that threatens to explode at any moment.” He carries the movie on his loutish shoulders, transforming what could have been a campy, cardboard loony into a biting portrait of malevolence, a glimpse into the abyss of psychosis.

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During an appearance on Parkinson in 1973—back when Reed still did his interviews in a reasonable state of sobriety—he spoke fondly of his Hammer days, claiming that shortly before the making of Paranoiac, Peter Cushing gave him some key advice: “always the understatement.” During his Hammer tutelage, Reed also learned that he didn’t need to overdo it for the camera, since the lenses could accentuate even the smallest gesture. He would later say, instructing another actor how to do villainous parts, “the dangerous man has a great silence about him… Don’t blink… You never see a cobra blink, do you?”

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We witness some of that subtle, frozen intensity from our very first glimpse of Simon. The film opens with a church service, where Reverend Exposition recounts the tragedies lowered upon the house of Ashby. As he mentions Eleanor and Aunt Harriet, the camera lights on the solemn pair. However, when the name Simon comes up, we get a cut to sheet music in an organ booth in the church; a plume of smoke billows into the frame from somewhere offscreen. A graceful, sinewy hand reaches into the frame to turn the page of music, and the camera pans to reveal an unmoved Simon, taking a drag on his cigarette and smirking slightly.

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Irreverent, secretive, emotionally blunted, and clever: all of these character traits emerge in that single shot, thanks to Francis’s command of camera movement and Reed’s surprisingly inert performance.

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Simon’s presence often coincides with a disturbance or some sort of visual eruption. He callously crosses in front of the camera with a snifter of brandy and sardonic quip. Or lounges in the foreground of the frame, intently pulling apart a rose. Or forces the camera to whirl around, as he jabs pub darts towards the audience, threatening to blind a stranger. A poetic underwater shot best conveys his unbalanced psychological state, as he runs his fingers through the current and ripples warp his beautiful face into a grotesquely warped grin.

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I really don’t want to include any major spoilers in this post, because I found the film’s circuitous plot tremendously entertaining. Believe me, though, this elegant, aristocratic cousin from the house of Hammer has a few good scares up its tailored sleeves.

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This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.

Hammer Halloween Blogathon

Dementia 13 (1963): All in the Past?

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If Roger Corman had produced and directed The Godfather, I can only assume that it would’ve come out with creepy paintings, a brambly plot, and plenty of gratuitous violence—a lot like Dementia 13 (alternate title, The Haunted and the Hunted). However, in point of fact, the credit for this proto-slasher belongs to Corman’s apprentice, Francis Ford Coppola.

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While filming in Ireland, B-movie king Corman gave the young Coppola permission to recycle sets and locations for his directorial debut—as long as it didn’t conflict with the shooting schedule for Corman’s film The Young Racers. And the result, Dementia 13, though uneven and sometimes nonsensical, nevertheless heralded a teething talent.

Rife with allusions to classical noir and horror, the film tries very earnestly to marry drive-in shock value with aspirations to art cinema. If the little movie doesn’t quite succeed at both, it still proves pleasurable viewing, with the added retrospective fun of picking out moments and images that echo what Coppola would go on to do.

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His stab at a Val Lewton-style horror flick centers on an enigmatic family of Irish landed gentry, the Halorans, basically the O’Corleones. Lady Haloran, widow of a famous sculptor, clings to memories of her daughter Kathleen, who mysteriously drowned 7 years before the beginning of the story.

The fearsome Haloran matriarch seems to cope with this pain by toying with her American-educated sons: corpulent businessman John, brooding sculptor Richard, and bashful, boyish Billy. Not only does Lady Haloran blame them for Kathleen’s death, but also reminds them that she intends to leave the entire family fortune to charity. Each year, she stages a special memorial for Kathleen at their ancestral castle and holds court.

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 Lady Halloran projects some extra-strength Irish guilt onto her progeny.

Interestingly, we first see this family through the eyes of an outsider, Louise, who married one of Lady Haloran’s sons. The opening sequence of Dementia 13 plunges us right into the drama. John succumbs to a heart attack during a nocturnal boating excursion in the opening scene of the film, so Louise, convinced she can get Lady Haloran to change her will, dumps John’s body and pretends that he had to suddenly depart for a business trip.

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This opening scene on the pond at Castle Haloran immediately creates an atmosphere of musty, neo-Gothic dread. The inky blackness of the night, the jarring high-angle compositions with the dock or the boat jutting in the frame at high angles, and the bitter stalemate between husband and wife all combine to paint one hell of an ominous canvas. Right from the beginning, we’re ready for some spine-tingling and we’ve got a suspenseful plot: will Louise connive her way into Lady Haloran’s graces before anyone realizes that John’s dead?

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The cinematography of Dementia 13 remains consistently stimulating. The wistful, unsettling clutter of a dead child’s room, the shadowy corners of an old castle, an abandoned sculpture studio, and the swampy nightscape of the deadly pond all take on an appropriately freakish, menacing aspect.

Even beyond the spectacularly grisly main murder set piece with baleful underwater photography, this ambiance injects tension into a decidedly unfocused plot. I particularly admire how the castle always seems on the verge of devouring the people or crushing them. Film brat Coppola no doubt took a few lessons from classic Hollywood claustrophobic, location-focused thrillers such as The Spiral Staircase and Sunset Boulevard.

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[If you don’t like spoilers don’t read the next two paragraphs.]

One can also discern the influence of Psycho, as well as the earlier Lewton thriller The Leopard Man, through the shifting mechanisms of identification in Dementia 13. The film gives us a nasty, semi-guilty protagonist—imagine Kay Corleone minus all the good intentions and plus an unholy amount of greed—only to kill her off in the manner of Marion Crane. Ironically, although we don’t really like Louise, our grief at her gory demise reveals how much we depend on some character, any character, to be an entry point into the film.

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So, Coppola eliminates her and swaps her out for another questionable hero, the cynical, quirky Dr. Caleb who dabbles in psychoanalysis and mind games. (In fact, the last shot of Louise during the big murder sequence is immediately followed by the first shot of Dr. Caleb!) Our director takes great relish in showing us all how helpless we are as viewers of the cinema; we’ll let virtually anyone take our hand and be our guide into the story-world. Rather like the matriarch of the Haloran clan, bending under the influence of anyone who claims to be in touch with her dead daughter, we audience members tend not to be picky about whose company we keep in order to get what we need.

Most of all, I savor Dementia 13 because it gave me a new way of looking at Coppola’s later work. When I started to think about it, The Godfather is closely related to the structure of the Gothic horror film: a dysfunctional family with an unavoidable, contaminating darkness at its heart, slowly sucking everyone in.

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As Welch Everman noted in his entertaining and insightful guide Cult Horror Films, Dementia 13 “sets up an interesting contrast between the Old World and the New. In America, we tend to overlook and even reject the past in favor of the present, but in Europe it’s often the other way round.” You can’t shake your heritage, Coppola powerfully suggests with images and plot.

The challenge of reconciling the past and its influence with one’s present identity weaves constantly through the plot and recurrently haunts the characters. Even during one of the more lighthearted moments of the film, one of the American-raised Halorans winces at a sip of Irish whisky he’s been pressured into drinking.

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In both The Godfather and Dementia 13, traditions, rituals, relics of the past cannot be easily extracted from daily life—and from the psychology of even the most apparently modern of the characters. I would argue that Michael Corleone in particular has an uncanny, return-of-the-repressed quality about him: he assimilated too well into American life… and reveals how closely capitalist business strategy is related to age-old mafia violence. At the risk of giving too much away, the killer in Coppola’s debut film also seems like the most normal of the bunch.

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Like the elusive axe-murderer of Dementia 13, Michael Corleone (to say nothing of Colonel Kurtz and Sergeant Willard who would come along much later) possesses a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature that drives the plot forward and makes him a strange object of repulsion, empathy, and vicarious enjoyment—after all, no kills, no thrills. To sum up my point, just as a reading of Dementia 13 can be enriched by the knowledge of Coppola’s later triumphs, so too does this low-budget movie shed light on different facets of the director’s later work.

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For those innocent of my mania for over-analysis, Dementia 13 also preserves the surface delights and nostalgia flair of the early 1960s, including covetable sunglasses, dome-shaped hairdos, and an airport where you half expect the Beatles to show up. The genuine textures of the Irish pub scene will likewise warm the hearts of all ye sons and daughters of Eire.

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Whether you’re interested in auteurist scrutiny or just looking for a spooky good time, pop the popcorn and check out Dementia 13.

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Since the film is in the Public Domain, you can watch Dementia 13 on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive. I also recommend Hulu, because of the superior image quality, where you can also view it for free, but the advertisements are frustrating, I confess.