Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Fly (1958)

While I'm on the subject of scary movies, I have to reveal the only film that ever kept me wide awake. The Fly, the old one, not the Cronenberg gross-out fest that is way more intelligent that it should have been. I mean the one with Vincent Price, which also was way more mature and intelligent than it should have been.

I was rather young, about ten years old. I was intrigued about The Fly after seeing a Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror episode" which homaged it (including the web scene, more on that later) My parents, absolutely underestimating my sensitivity to anything remotely frightening, thought my repeated vocal worries about the subject matter were entirely unfounded. Yeah, right. To be fair, they hadn't seen the film either, so how were they to know that this cheesy sci fi film could possibly terrify a child who hid behind the sofa whenever she heard the Psycho theme?

Admittedly, the first half of the film is rather tame, though it does contain an extremely effective build-up to the inevitable monster of the title. Those who have seen the film know what I'm talking about. The reveal was frightening enough, when the wife pulls back the black cloth over her transformed husband's head only to reveal that dreaded fly's head, her screams reflected in its multiple eyes. That was enough to send me running up the stairs, and I wouldn't come down again until my parents exasperatedly shouted up the stairs that the "scary part" was over. Foolishly, I believed them, and went down, aware what was going to happen, but underestimating its impact.

So, if that poster at the beginning of the post didn't already give it away, after the scientist with a fly's head ends up getting destroyed by his wife, the fly with the scientist's head is still free. That is, until the scientist's son finds it stuck in a web, and the audience is treated to a 1-2-3 punch of shock:

1- The Voice. Before we get a chance to see anything clearly, we hear that voice. That ungodly high pitched voice, so tiny that it's indistinguishable from a fly's buzzing. It's the scientist, crying out in primal pathetic tones. "Help me! Help me!" And it's coming from the middle of a spider web.

2- The Spider. When we finally get a close-up on the fly/scientist crossover, we are mistreated to the grotesque sight of a bald, toothless human head on a fly's body, wrapped up in spider silk, its lone human arm sticking out helplessly as a gigantic spider looms over him. The Magic School Bus taught me long ago what was going on, and what the impending fate of the fly would be.

3- The Rock. Just as the fly completely covers up its victim, and the fly/scientist gives a spine-chilling scream of fear, Inspector Herbert Marshall, viewing the scene with Vincent Price (ah, 50s casting), grabs a rock and slams it down on the spider, effectively killing it and the fly creature.

So, in simple math, when you add 1.screeching, primal voice of the fly/scientist + 2. horrifying visuals of snarement + 3. a sudden, brutal conclusion to a scientist's wayward experiments, you = 1 absolutely terrified 10 year old.

I know I eventually feel asleep that night, but it took a very long time. I distinctly remember that my leg could not stop twitching, that was how edgy I felt. Even after such jumpers as The Haunting  (1963) and Insidious, I can still get a good night's sleep. But even know, if I come across a scene from a certain 50s sci-fi film that took a silly concept and turned it into a tragedy of  regressive  humanity, subconsciously I can't hold back a shiver. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

[Rec] (2007)

An example of how viewing environment affects movie watching:

A few months ago, A friend and I watched the great Spanish horror movie [Rec] in his dorm room. The clever use of found footage, combined with the increasing claustrophobia and whammy of an ending, resulted in both us being quite shaky when it finished.  He felt fine, but since I lived across campus, I was really nervous about taking that 10 minute journey alone.

Look at this! Wouldn't you be terrified as well? Source

However, my nervousness was unjustified, because if there was anything that could relieve one of the confining terrors seen on screen, it was a nice cool walk in the outdoors; I got home fine and ended up sleeping without a problem.  So who ended up staying awake until 3 am? That's right, my buddy, who freaked out his roommate by remaining wide awake at that late hour, peeking out from under the covers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi's post-Dracula vampire reunion film is a nice atmospheric Universal horror film with plenty of low hanging fog and giant spiderwebs, all within a giant castle, of course. It also contains one heck of woman vampire.

That's Luna (Carroll Borland), and she's supposed to be the daughter of Count Dracula, d'I mean, Count Mora. While the main plot, which has something to do with Lionel Barrymore investigating a murder, is doing its own thing, Mora and Luna are wandering around their castle, looking ever so classily spooky.

Luna is a wonderfully designed creation. While Lugosi repeats his vampire garb of suit and cape, reminiscent of the 19th century, Luna looks like she comes from a more ambiguous time period. Her dress with train is reminiscent of the vampire brides that haunted Dracula's castle in the earlier film, but the lack of ornamentation on her modest, long sleeved gown, long hair, and striking make-up gives her the appearance of a more modern, yet ageless type of vampire. I have read theories that her look was an inspiration for the appearance of Lily Munster, which isn't too far-fetched.

Besides her appearance, Luna, as far as I know, is not only one of the earliest examples of a cinematic vampire who happens to be a woman, but also is one of the first seen (or more accurately, implied) to actually bite a person. I hesitate to say first, because this film is a remake of an earlier Tod Browning silent, London After Midnight (1927), one of the most famous lost films of all time. Judging from the "reconstruction" (actually just a bunch of promotional stills tied together with inter titles), the woman vampire in that film also attacked the good (ie forgettable) heroine.

Given what few scenes she has, Luna manages to hold attention in those moments with her otherworldly appearance: the way her dress spreads like wings when she attacks:

Or her slow decent with actual bat wings, a true way to enter in style.

While hesitant in calling her a rebel, there is something gratifying in seeing a lady vampire joins the Dracula club in neck bitting and transformation; it's how she separates herself from the previous vampire brides. She is a daughter, defining herself outside of a parent, no longer just a passive follower of her authority figure willing to slink off at the first glint of disapproval. Though she still follows orders, she manages to make do on her own, all the while staring eerily with the best of the bloodsuckers.

(Spoilers) Even the revelation that she and her "father" are no more than actors, hired by Detective Lionel Barrymore to...accomplish something relevant to the case, I think.... doesn't deter Luna from being cool. It's here that the audience is finally given a chance to see her without make-up, and smiling. Remaining mute throughout much of the film, she is finally given a voice, and a snarky one at that. Responding to the Count's pompus declaration that he "was better than any REAL vampire", she says "Sure, sure, but get off your make-up", followed by "And help me with some of this packing" (referring to their trucks of props, including those gorgeous wings). Her grounded demeanor is a refreshing break from the somber, hysterical ladies that so often populate this Universal horror movies; she's had her fun, but is ready to move on with her life, like a true professional performer.

Even as a mortal, she still is her own woman, one who is no-nonsense and not defined by her more famous co-star. It's beyond appropriate, after being placed in a consistent position of subservience,  we last see Luna giving that man who played her father orders.