Saturday, October 31, 2015

Stubs – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Starring: Werner Krause, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski. Directed by Robert Wiene. Screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer. Produced by Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer Run Time: 71 minutes. Germany Black and White, Silent, Horror.

Hailed by such a luminary film critic as Roger Ebert as "the first true horror film", The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema. German Expressionism, and I’ll try not to sound too much like school, was a movement that began during World War I and reached its peak during the 1920’s. Largely confined to Germany, which was isolated following the War, it was part of a general expressionist movement in Europe at the time and was seen in such diverse areas as architecture, painting and cinema.

The German Expressionist movement in cinema produced several horror films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Hollywood, in general would benefit from an emigration of German filmmakers, bringing the likes of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Karl Fruend, who got their starts in expressionism to the U.S. The movement, which used light and dark effectively, is also seen as a pre-cursor of sorts to Film Noir.

While there are varying stories about the production of the film, the story starts with Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer. The two writers were introduced by a mutual friend, an actor named Ernst Deutsch, in the summer of 1918 and Gilda Langer, an actress with whom Meyer was in love, encouraged the two to write together. The screenplay took six weeks to write during the following winter. As with any writer, their past experiences influenced the story. Meyer, who had claimed to be have a mental breakdown to get out of the war, had gone through extensive psychiatric examination and modeled Dr. Caligari after one of his doctors. Janowitz claimed to have seen a murder in 1913 near an amusement park in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, beside the Holstenwall, which would be used as the name of the village in the story. Janowitz also claimed that the name Caligari was inspired by a rare booked called “Unknown Letters of Stendhal,” which featured a letter from the French novelist to a French officer named Caligari. However, no record exists of such a letter and it has been suggested that Janowitz made it up.

Through Fritz Lang, the two met with Erich Pommer, the head of production at the Decla-Bioscop film studio on April 19, 1919. Pommer asked them to leave the script, but Meyer was adamant about reading it to him and Pommer acquiesced. So impressed was Pommer that he refused to let them leave until they had signed a contract, which gave Pommer authority to make any changes he felt were appropriate. Pommer may have loved the story, but he was also drawn to the idea that the film would be inexpensive to make.

Economics being what they were at the time, even though Germans were seeing more movies, the currency and the economy were tanking due to the Treaty of Versailles requirement that Germany pay reparations to the Allied victors. German studios, like Decla-Bioscop, were looking for projects that could be made inexpensively and still be accessible to foreign audiences, which were used to looking at films made in Hollywood. Pommer’s decision to use painted backgrounds, rather than built sets, was driven by this commercial reality.

Pommer’s first choice to direct the film was Lang, but he became unavailable since he was already filming another film, The Spiders. Robert Weine was selected as a replacement. Weine had been a writer of films, since 1913 and a director since 1915, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would be his most famous and influential work.

The sets were designed by Hermann Warm, who was brought into the project by producer Rudolf Meinert. Given a copy of the script and asked to come up with a proposal for the design. Warm felt that the film needed an abstract design. Warm brought Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig into the project. The Walters were painters and stage designers, as well as Warm’s friends. The trio spent a full day and night reading the script and it was supposedly Reimann who suggested an expressionistic approach. Director Weine would also claim the idea as his own.

The abstract expressionist sets with their painted on shadows is one of the things that makes the film distinct.

Meinert agreed with the idea, no matter who’s it may have been, and encouraged the artists to make the sets as “crazy” as possible. But again, like Pommer, finances drove the decision. Since Expressionism was hot at the time, he counted on the artistic style to garner attention and make the film profitable, even if the film was not received well critically. The artists were given free rein with set design, costumes and props. It’s said Warm worked primarily on the sets, Rohrig handled the painting and Reimann took charge of the costumes.

The role of Dr. Caligari was supposedly written with Werner Krauss in mind, an actor Deutsch had brought to Janowitz’s attention during rehearsals for a Max Reinhardt play. While the role of Cesare was originally intended for Deutsch, it went to another actor, Conrad Veidt. Both Krauss and Veidt had a background in Expressionist theater and helped with final touches to their character’s makeup and costume, knowing how important their appearance would be as part of the film’s visual style.

Filming took place at the Lexie-Atelier film studio in late December 1919 through the end of the following January. It is shot exclusively in a studio which was considered unusual at the time, but dictated by the Expressionistic style the filmmakers were after. The involvement of the writers during the filming is disputed, with Janowitz claiming they refused to allow for changes in the script during production, and Pommer claiming Meyer was present every day on set. But Warm claims that neither was never present on the set or involved in any discussions during the production of the film.

Because the Lexie-Atelier studios, built in 1913 were rather small, some things in the script had to be cut or changed because they couldn’t be filmed, including a procession of gypsies and several scenes involving horse carriages.

The film opened on February 26, 1920, less than one month after it was completed. The film had been marketed like any other film, with an extensive campaign prior to its opening. And despite Pommer’s fears that "It will be a horrible failure for all of us!" the film was a success, showing at the Marmorhaus theater in Berlin, where it premiered for four weeks, unusual for the times.

The story is told as a flashback. Here Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells his enthralled audience of one, his story.

Most of the film is told in the form of a flashback using a framing story. The film opens with Francis (Friedrich Feher) sitting on a bench next to an older man. Francis is complaining that the spirits have driven him away from his family and home, when a dazed woman named Jane (Lil Dagover) passes them. Francis explains to the man that she is his "fiancée" and that they have suffered a great ordeal.

While Francis is telling his story, his "fiancee" Jane (Lil Dagover) saunders by.

The story Francis relates takes place in Holstenwall, a shadowy village of twisted buildings and spiraling streets. Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are both in love with Jane, but their competition is good-natured. The friends plan to attend the town fair together.

The village of Holstenwall as depicted in the film.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) goes to see the city clerk about a permit to present a sideshow at the fair. The city clerk, who sits in a very high chair, is rude to Dr. Caligari, but ultimately Caligari receives the permit. However, that night, the clerk is found stabbed to death in his bed.

Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) on his way to see the city clerk.

The next morning, Francis and Alan stop at Dr. Caligari's spectacle, which features a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Caligari opens a coffin-like box to reveal the sleeping Cesare, but upon Dr. Caligari's orders, Cesare awakens and answers questions from the audience.

Dr. Caligari's sideshow act at the fair.

Even though Francis tries to stop him, Alan asks Cesare "How long will I live?" To their horror the answer is, "Until dawn." Later that night, a figure breaks into Alan's home and stabs him to death in his bed.

Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) watches helplessly as Cesare enters his bedroom.

Grief-stricken over the death of his friend, Francis investigates the murder with the help of Jane and her father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). Dr. Olsen obtains police authorization to investigate the somnambulist.

The police, meanwhile, apprehend a criminal (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who is caught attempting to stab an elderly woman. While the criminal confesses to trying to kill the woman, he denies any involvement in the other murders. He was only trying to use those murders as cover for the one he was trying to commit.

One night, Francis stakes out Dr. Caligari and sees what appears to be Cesare sleeping in his box. However, the real Cesare is sneaking into Jane’s home while she sleeps. He is about to stab her with a knife, but decides to kidnap her instead. After a struggle, he carries her out through the window out to the street.

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in Jane's (Lil Dagover) home.

But a mob chases Cesare through the streets, but he eventually drops Jane and runs off, only to collapse and die. After confirming the criminal had been locked up during Jane’s abduction, Francis and the police further investigate Dr. Caligari’s sideshow and discover that the Cesare in the box is really only a dummy.

Cesare carries Jane through the streets of Holstenwall with a mob (not shown) chasing him.

In the confusion, Dr. Caligari escapes, but Francis tracks him to a nearby insane asylum.

Francis learns that Dr. Caligari is not a patient, but rather is the asylum's director. While the doctor is sleeping, Francis, with help from the asylum staff, goes through the director's records and finds his diary. The entries reveal the director’s obsession with the story of an 18th-century mystic named Caligari, who used a somnambulist named Cesare to commit murders in northern Italian towns. The director’s obsession gets the best of him when a somnambulist is admitted to the asylum. Caligari turns him into his own Cesare. The director is shown screaming "I must become Caligari!”

The asylum director is obsessed with becoming Dr. Caligari.

Francis and the doctors call the police to Dr. Caligari's office, where they show him Cesare's corpse. Dr. Caligari then attacks one of the members of his staff and has to be restrained in a straitjacket. Dr. Caligari is then placed into one of the cells in his own asylum.

The narrative returns to the present, where Francis concludes his story. But in a twist, it is revealed that Francis is actually an inmate in the very asylum. Jane and Cesare are both patients there as well. Jane believes herself to be a queen, and Cesare is fully awake. Dr. Caligari is, in fact, the asylum’s director.

This time, it is Francis who attacks him, but he is restrained in a straitjacket and placed in the same cell Dr. Caligari was confined to in his story. After examining Francis, the director confidently announces that, now that he understands Francis' delusion, he knows how to cure him.

The film did well in foreign markets, but as with practically everything about this film, how well is a bit of a discussion. After the film opened in Paris on March 2, 1922, it supposedly played at one theater for seven consecutive years. In the U.S., Samuel Goldwyn’s Goldwyn Distributing Company bought the rights and opened the film in New York on April 3, 1921 and in Los Angeles on May 7, 1921. Protests in Los Angeles forced the theater to pull the film. However, the protests were not over content, but rather the fear that Hollywood jobs would be lost with the importing of German films into the U.S. While box office wasn’t the public data it is today, it’s hard to say how well the film did in release here. Two separate film historians took a look at the available information from the time and came to different conclusions, but what do you expect with this film.

Of the actors in the film, Conrad Veidt is the best remembered today. He would be America’s favorite Nazi to hate during World War II, most famously appearing as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), sadly one of Veidt’s final films. A fervent anti-Nazi, Veidt would flee Germany to the UK and then to America. When it looked like he would typecast as a Nazi, he made sure to stipulate that they always be shown as the villain.

Before he left Germany, Veidt would appear in such classics as Waxworks (1924), The Student of Prague (1926) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). In two of these films, Waxworks and The Student of Prague, Veidt would appear with his Caligari co-star, Werner Krauss.

Conrad Veidt as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari carrying Jane.

Unlike Veidt, Krauss was very pro-Nazi and an anti-Semite. For a time after the war, he would be banned all together from the German stage and from films.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most interpreted mainstream films ever made. Due to when it was released and the subsequent rise of socialism in Germany, the film has been interpreted to be foreshadowing of Hitler’s rise to power, illustrating German’s need for a strong ruler. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film by Siegfried Kracauer proposed a connection between the apolitical and escapist orientation of films made during the Weimar-era and the rise of totalitarianism of the Nazi’s Third Reich.

Kracauer’s thesis was disproven by Thomas Elsaesser in his book Weimar Cinema and After. Elsaesser describes Kracauer’s work as a “historical imaginary.” Elsaesser argues that Kracauer had not watched enough films to be able to support his idea. Also the discovery of the original screenplay has disproven some of Kracauer’s assumptions, including the idea that the framing story was added after production, when in fact the script does contain one, although different than the one that was filmed.

But Halloween is not the time to be discussing the rise of Nazism in post-World War I Germany. Horror films are selected for their scare factor, not their political allusions, present or not.

In the end, though, the film probably won’t scare anyone today. A killing sleepwalker seems mild by today’s standards. And the film, despite its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, suffers from a slow pace, again as judged through a modern filter, and overly melodramatic acting, sadly common with silent films. What you can’t say with words has to be expressed in exaggerated gestures that either seem funny or too old school. The title cards used have so much screen time that you are almost able to learn the German language.

Still, there is something seminal about the film that makes it right for Halloween: this is one of the earliest examples of the horror genre. While a sleepwalker might not seem like a scary monster, there is a little of the Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in the Dr. Caligari / Cesare relationship. And as noted above, the use of shadows, both real and painted, is a precursor to the shadowy world of Film Noir that was given life by German expressionist filmmakers who immigrated to the U.S.

Personally, I find Nosferatu (1922) to be scarier, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfect example that a film doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective or have an impact.

Be sure to check out our other Horror film reviews here.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stubs – London After Midnight

London After Midnight (1927) Starring: Lon Chaney, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall, Percy Williams, Conrad Nagel. Directed by Tod Browning. Screenplay by Waldemar Young. Based on the story The Hypnotist by Tod Browning. Produced by Tod Browning. Run Time: 65 minutes (as seen 45 minutes). U.S. Black and White, Silent, Horror.

It’s not often that a lost film is resurrected. There have been some notable exceptions when films thought to be lost have been found and made whole again. Wings (1927) is an example of a film made whole when all seemed lost and they kept finding bits and pieces of Metropolis (1927) as they restored that masterpiece. Sadly, though, there are thousands of films that have been lost, 70% of all silents, and will never be made whole again.

Such is the fate of London After Midnight, Tod Browning’s first foray into vampire films; he would later direct Dracula (1931) for Universal Pictures. The last known print of the film burned in a vault fire at MGM in 1967. The electrical fire in Vault #7 on May 13 destroyed hundreds of silent films, including pre-1924 films from Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation, as well as the silent Our Gang shorts from 1927-1929 and all the film prints of pre-1960 MGM Cartoons, including Tom and Jerry and cartoons by Tex Avery.

Some films survive only in memory and others have been found in private collections. But some films refuse to go gently into that good night and hang on in one form or another. In the case of London After Midnight, a version of the film was reconstructed in 2002 by Rick Schmidlin, a film preservationist who was behind the re-edited version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Using a collection of stills, as well as the continuity script held by the Library of Congress, Schmidlin and crew put together a version of the film. Robert Israel, noted composer, wrote a new soundtrack and TCM has been airing this since 2002.

What we have now is a record of the movie, but not the movie itself. The experience of watching “the film” is more like looking very closely at someone’s scrapbook while they tell you in great detail everything that is going on in a particular photo. There is no real acting or reactions between actors, just frozen expressions that on their own lose some of their bite, so to speak.

The film was shot in 24 days on a budget of $152,000; the shortest schedule and lowest budget of any of Lon Chaney’s MGM films.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found shot dead in his London home late one night. Within fifteen minutes, at 1:08 AM, Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney) is already at the scene asking questions. There is Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall), Balfour’s neighbor, friend and the executor of his estate; Williams (Percy Williams), the Butler who discovered the body; Sir James’ nephew, Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel), who was next door in his reading room; and Balfour’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day). There is a brief suicide note, “I am taking my own life. Forgive me, Lucille” and Burke declares it a suicide, even though Hamlin insists his friend would never take his own life.

Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard (Lon Chaney) is called in to investigate Balfour's death.

Five years pass and a creepy man with long hair and sharp teeth, known as The Man in the Beaver Hat (Lon Chaney) and Luna (Edna Tichenor) a pale woman in a long gown, also known as Bat Girl, rent the Balfour estate. The Man in the Beaver Hat tells the leasing agent (Allan Cavan) that they are moving in that night and are already expecting guests.

The Man in the Beaver Hat (Lon Chaney) leases the Balfour estate.

Smithson (Polly Moran), Hamlin’s new maid, is the first to see the couple and reports to her boss that the Balfour’s house is haunted and that the new residences are “dead people from the grave! Vampires is what they are!”

The maid, Smithson (Polly Moran), is the first to see the new neighbors.

Alarmed by his new sinister-looking neighbors, Hamlin calls in Burke to investigate, who comes to stay at the house. Also living in the Hamlin household are the other people who were present in Balfour's house the night he died: Arthur Hibbs, Lucille, and the butler.

Lucy (Marceline Day) five years after Balfour's death.

Hamlin insists to that these new neighbors might have been involved in Balfour’s murder, but Burke expresses skepticism about the idea, since the death was declared a suicide. But Hamlin has a copy of their lease and it is signed by Roger Balfour, whose signature he’s very familiar with.

Further, Lucille tells Sir James and Burke that she’s been hearing her father’s voice calling out to her from the garden. They tell her that they’ll take care of it, but later, Sir James tells Burke that he won’t be satisfied until he sees that Balfour is in his tomb. The two investigate and find that the tomb is indeed empty.

Meanwhile, Arthur reads up about vampires (or as they’re spelled vampyrs) and learns that when they sleep during the day, they will sometimes take the form of bats. “As such, they seek sleep in the seclusions of spots accursed.” He shows this to Burke and tells him that after what happened tonight, “I do believe in vampires!” To which Burke responds that “This is all ancient tommyrot!”

Their discussion is cut short when Smithson screams and it is discovered that she’s locked Lucy up in a closet. She explains that she did this to protect her after she was confronted by the Man in the Beaver Hat in Sir James’ house. She describes him as having wings like a bat and threatening her. Smithson’s scream is what scared him away and adds “And out of the window ‘e flew!”

The Man in the Beaver Hat scares Smithson.

Outside they all see the Bat Girl and the back of the man. Smithson is convinced more than ever that the man is a vampire. Sir James wants to call for the police to arrest everyone in the Balfour house, but Burke doesn’t want the police involved.

Meanwhile, Arthur and Lucy realize they are in love since she turned to him when she was in danger.

Arthur (Conrad Nagel) and Lucy realize they are in love.

The next morning, Burke and Hamlin go into the Balfour mansion. The house shows five years of neglect, with dust everywhere, paintings askew and the furniture still covered. But there is no one there. The only living creature they find is a bat. They flee.

The bat in the Balfour mansion.

Later, Burke tells Lucy that her father’s death was not a suicide and asks her to trust him and to keep the secret from everyone. She agrees.

When Arthur asks her what Burke said, she tells him she can’t tell him. Arthur doesn’t trust Burke, since he wouldn’t bring in the police the night before and worries that Lucy is under his spell. Lucy blurts out that Burke thinks someone killed her father.

That night, lights and strange noises herald the return of the tenants to the Balfour house. Burke and Sir James go to investigate. Looking through the window, they see the Man in the Beaver Hat, his butler (Andy MacLennan) talking to Roger Balfour. In the background, Bat Girl can be seen floating above the floor. Frightened, Burke and Sir James flee from the house.

Wreaths with swords through them are set up by Burke to protect Lucy from the vampires. Burke tells Lucy to obey his instructions. It is made obvious to all that Sir James is holding Lucy’s hands.

Wreaths with swords are used to protect Lucy from the vampires.

Burke and Arthur retire to Burke’s room to talk, where Burke tells the young man that he has long suspected him in Balfour’s death. A hypnotist as well as a detective, Burke puts Arthur into a trance but learns nothing new about Balfour's death.

He leaves Arthur in his room and goes to Arthur’s. In the middle of the night, Burke fires his gun after being attacked in his sleep. He first accuses Williams but lets him go. Sir James wonders what happened to Arthur and Burke adds to that suspicion, again refusing police help and asking Sir James to trust him.

Burke awakens Arthur, who doesn’t know he’s been hypnotized. Next, the three men go to Lucy’s room but find both her and Smithson missing. Lucy is over at her former home. In front of Sir James, Burke accuses Arthur of knowing what happened to Lucy.

Back at the Balfour house, her father is reminding her that she’s doing this for her father. She is given an old dress to wear.

Meanwhile, we see Burke conversing with The Man in the Beaver Hat, telling him they have the nephew and the butler where they want them, all that is left is Sir James.

Burke gives Sir James his gun and instructs him to go next door and ask to speak with Roger Balfour.
Meanwhile, Arthur breaks into the Balfour house in an attempt to rescue Lucille, but he's intercepted by Burke and a couple of detectives and taken away.

Sir James, acting at Burke's instructions, goes to the Balfour house, but is met out front by the beaver-hatted man, who puts him into a hypnotic trance and tells him that it is five years ago and you are at Roger Balfour’s house.

While Smithson and Burke observe, Sir James, under hypnosis, re-creates his actions the night Roger Balfour died, with Lucille and the butler, Williams, playing themselves, and Burke's double playing the part of Balfour.

Balfour has just signed his will naming Sir James the executor of his estate and Lucy’s legal guardian. The obviously smitten Sir James tells Roger that he hopes Lucy will be his wife someday. But Balfour rejects James’ idea of marrying his daughter, thinking the age difference was too great. Sir James leaves. Lucy thinks that eliminates him as a suspect, but Burke wants them to wait.

Balfour's (Claude King) double interacts with The Man in the Beaver Hat.

At 1:10 AM, Sir James returns and forces Balfour to write a suicide note and then shoots him with Burke’s gun. Burke, with police back up, swoops in and arrests Sir James for Balfour’s murder and accuses him of being the one who attacked him in Arthur’s room the night before in an effort to get rid of his rival for Lucy.

Later it is revealed that the man in the beaver hat and pointed teeth was really a disguised Inspector Burke, who was aided at times by a double. Smithson, the new maid, is actually an assistant detective; and the mysterious young woman is a stage performer working for the police.

The mystery of Balfour's death solved, Lucille and Arthur, who have come to realize how much they love each other, are free to marry.

The movie was a big success at the U.S. box office, but foreign books were below average. The film had domestic sales of $721,000 and a gross profit of about $540,000, making it the biggest success of Browning’s ten film collaborations with Chaney and putting it fourth for the studio’s 1927-28 hit list. London After Midnight finished behind White Shadows in the South Seas, The Cossacks and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Critically, however, it was not considered to be their best film together.

Browning must not have been completely satisfied with the film either because 8 years later, he remade the story as Mark of the Vampire (1935). Names and circumstances were changed and the dual parts played by Lon Chaney were split between Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi. That film came late in Browning’s career, which had been derailed by Freaks (1932) and would never recover. I have not seen the remake yet, but all the reviews from the time seem to indicate it is a better film than the original.

While I cannot comment on how well the film is made or acted, since there is really no film anymore, I can see the shortcomings of the story. London After Midnight is really a murder mystery with a horror film laid on top of it. I’m all for mixing genres, but in this case it doesn’t really seem to work all that well. The supernatural bent the story takes is a little out of left field as far as a technique to solve murders. This is so obviously a ploy to showcase Chaney’s makeup abilities, he is the Man of a Thousand Faces after all, but otherwise there is no reason for it. And frankly, the Man in the Beaver Hat looks more like a buzz saw with those sharp teeth, rather than a vampire with fangs.

Adding to the horror quotient, we’re told the Man in the Beaver Hat and Bat Girl are vampires, but short of a bat in the mansion, there really isn’t anything else that suggests it, except for Smithson’s accusation and that she’s in on the plot. And while I think the vampire story doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s the murder mystery that is even more of a head scratcher.

The only person who doesn’t think Balfour’s death was a suicide is the killer. How dumb does he have to be to insist the police investigate a crime he would otherwise get away with? And if Sir James was intent on marrying Lucy that he would kill for the right, why hasn’t he in the five years since her father’s death? As far as can be determined from the film, with the exception of some obvious hand holding, they are not even engaged. What’s Sir James waiting for? Or, perhaps scarier, how young must Lucy be at the beginning of the film?

I’ve heard you can tell how good a song is if it still holds up with only one person playing it on one instrument. In the case of London After Midnight, we’re left with only an illustrated screenplay, without acting and directing to obfuscate the plot holes. In its sort of naked form, the story doesn’t really hold up.

I’m all for preserving our film heritage and I’m happy someone spent the time and money required to bring it this far. I only wish that London After Midnight was as good as the effort they must have put in to its restoration.

In the mood for horror, check out our reviews of other Horror films here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Future Part II

To continue our series of re-reviews of the Back to the Future trilogy, we’re going to cover Back to the Future Part II, released by Universal Studios in 1989. However, the timing of this review is also to commemorate a milestone, for if the posting has been timed right, it will be the exact date and time that Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in the future (or at least the future depicted in the movie): Wednesday, October 21, 2015 at 4:29 PM. This exact date and time will only occur once, so what better way to celebrate it than by posting thoughts on the movie itself?

Back to the Future Part II begins exactly where Part I left off, where Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is arriving at 1985 in the DeLorean to take Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Jennifer Parker (Elisabeth Shue) “back to the future” to prevent their future children from doing something disastrous. When they arrive in 2015, Jennifer is knocked out and Doc Brown gives Marty clothing to help him blend in, as well as specific instructions on what to do at Café ‘80s to prevent his (Marty’s) son from getting into trouble. Though the plan works, they later find out that an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) has stolen the DeLorean and used it to create a dystopian version of 1985, aka 1985-A, where his younger self is a multi-billionaire. Marty and Doc Brown must now figure out what exactly happened to cause this and use that knowledge to fix the timeline.

Behold, the proper day on the time machine.

Compared with the first movie, I felt that Part II was a bit sillier. While the movie has become more iconic over time for its unique vision of 2015, more on that later, it relies a little more on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief than before. For instance, how is it that Marty wouldn’t have been able to hear or notice the DeLorean being stolen by an older Biff Tannen? How is it that in the return trip to 1955, no one notices the various things that Marty does even when logically he would be heard, such as the case of communicating with Doc Brown via walkie-talkie while in the back of 1955 Biff’s car? The plot in general also requires Doc and Marty to be very inattentive with the Delorean, as they so easily leave the door open, creating an opening for 2015 Biff to steal it in the first place. Because of the number of these moments that can pull someone out of the film, it’s pretty obvious at times that there wasn’t meant to be a sequel and the only way to cover it up is to go through several time hops. For that, I’d conclude that Part II just simply isn’t written as well as Part I, which had a much tighter and better thought-out script.

While this movie may not be as well-written, that doesn’t stop it from being funny, albeit not quite as laugh-out-loud funny. The jokes still aim for smart humor that doesn’t stoop to appealing to the lowest common denominator, save for maybe the repeat of the famous manure scene. Character interaction is still a great source of humor, especially when it’s between Doc and Marty or between the 2015 and 1955 Biff Tannens. As with Part I, the science jokes are pulled off well and the minimal swearing that exists is done in a humorous fashion.

I also wish to point out that the movie seems to like hitting a lot of the same notes from the original. These include Marty regaining consciousness in a McFly residence and being confused about his temporal location, a Biff Tannen being covered in manure, Mr. Sandman playing when visiting 1955 and Marty being chased by Biff and coming out on top. For that last one, I could see the repetition of the hoverboard chase being justified as both versions are in different time periods and feature Marty against different technology. Whether these repetitions in general are good or bad is up to you.

With that said, I have to commend the special effects during the revisit to 1955. The scenes that were reshot are generally pretty convincing replications and it was very interesting how they were able to incorporate multiple copies of Doc and Marty into the appropriate scenes. Though it’s not perfect, it does at least help to sell the idea that the Doc and Marty of Part II were running around during Part I as well. As for the effects in general, the time travel is still good to look at and the variations in the sets for Hill Valley are rather impressive. The effects are also good enough to sell the 2015 technology as plausible, so it’s no wonder an audience watching it at the time would’ve wanted their own hoverboard or self-lacing shoes (or “power laces” as Marty calls them).

I should talk about the movie’s time travel logic, which is still fairly consistent from Part I. However, it seems to work a little differently despite this. Doc Brown mentions that 1955 seems to be a very crucial point in history, as 2015 Biff’s tampering skewed the timeline to create an alternate 1985, dubbed 1985-A. The idea, then, is that by going back and stopping 1955 Biff from maintaining control over a future copy of Grays Sports Almanac, the timeline created by the events of Part I will be restored. In some ways it feels like it shouldn’t work that way, but you have to be able to gloss over any inconsistencies for the sake of the plot, tying back into how this installment further stretches willing suspension of disbelief.

Despite what I have said already about the quality of the writing, the movie is still well-acted. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd still have a great onscreen chemistry that sells the friendship between Marty McFly and Doc Brown. If nothing else, you’d want to watch Part II just to see them act. However, I find it a little odd that Marty was suddenly given a trait where he doesn’t like people calling him a coward. It does help to reinforce the message that you shouldn’t let your emotions get the better of you, and Fox incorporated it into the character in a believable way, but it still felt a little out-of-character in comparison to the first movie.

Michael J. Fox (left) and Christopher Lloyd's (right)
interactions are the best part of the movie.

Newcomer Elisabeth Shue also proved herself in the role of Jennifer Parker, playing her with more of an onscreen presence than Claudia Wells. In this way, she seems to be better suited as Jennifer, but it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t really get to do much of anything in the movie to show off her skill. It’s fairly obvious that the writers didn’t know what to do with Jennifer as a result. Thomas F. Wilson had his own challenge as well, having to play multiple versions of the same one-dimensional jerk, Biff Tannen. Though Tannen is still a pretty flat character, Wilson manages to succeed in at least making each version of the character feel a little different, such as having 2015 Biff be noticeably smarter than his younger 1955 self. The other returning actors play their roles in reshot scenes very well and sell the revisit fairly convincingly.

Elisabeth Shue (right) replaces Claudia Wells (left) in the role of Jennifer Parker.

Before I conclude, I would like to take this space to talk about the movie’s vision of 2015, more specifically the way 2015 has turned out in real life versus what’s depicted in the movie, at least at the time of this posting. For the sake of brevity, I won’t mention everything that was depicted, as there’s too much background detail to get into, but I will focus on a select number of items.

For non-technology matters, we first have the idea behind Café ‘80s. We don’t have such a location today for ‘80s nostalgia, but we do have a Café ‘50s, which covers nostalgia for the 1950s. While Café ‘80s in the movie can be seen as a cover for a lack of inventing 2015 culture, it does serve a purpose in suggesting that people would be very nostalgic for the ‘80s by this time. People in fact are, although interestingly some ‘90s nostalgia has been slowly creeping in.

In the background of 2015 Hill Valley, one can see a poster that says “Surf Vietnam.” In real life, it is not as unlikely for people to take a vacation in Vietnam; the inclusion of this in the movie was probably a joke relating to the fact that when it came out, 1989, we had just gotten out of Vietnam. On a different note, the fashion sense displayed in 2015 Hill Valley isn’t exactly the same as it is in real life. Some things are still around, like acid-washed jeans, but the film could not have predicted the various “hipster” trends that have cropped up and we certainly don’t wear hats like the one Marty Jr. wears. Part of the fashion sense in 2015 Hill Valley also included self-adjusting jackets, which we don’t have, and self-tying sneakers with power laces. While Nike did end up making shoes that look like those in the movie, they were a limited run that was auctioned off and they certainly didn’t have power laces.

One thing that certainly didn’t match up is the rate of inflation. Marty is depicted as purchasing a Pepsi Perfect drink at Café ‘80s for $50. While Pepsi has released a limited run of Pepsi Perfect for $20.15 (essentially regular Pepsi but in the Café ‘80s packaging), regular soft drinks can still be bought at a price of ~$1-2. One other particularly notable thing displayed in the movie is the Cubs supposedly winning the 2015 World Series in baseball. While the 2015 World Series has yet to occur at the time of this posting, the Cubs are participating in the 2015 National League Championship and are also the favorite to win the World Series, though they won’t be able to face Miami.

On the subject of technology, there are a number of things I can quickly get out of the way. While hydrators for fast meal prep are used in Marty’s future household, we do not yet have the technology in real life, though scientists have been working on 3D-printed food; Pizza Hut is still around. Cars in real life 2015 still run on fossil fuels and we have yet to create the Mr. Fusion technology; although Mr. Fusions do exist in real life, they are merely prop replicas. 3D movies are rather popular at the moment, being prominently advertised and integrated into newer television models. In that vein, widescreen TVs are pretty much standard and we do have the ability to watch multiple channels at once, but only through channel mixes where you can only hear one source at a time. We also do not have Jaws 19 in the theaters, but we do at least have an official faux trailer.

"The shark still looks fake."

Fax machines, though still used, have been all but phased out at this point, with texting and email taking its place. Landlines are still heavily used, but videophones haven’t really caught on, unless you count video chat through smart devices or other internet services such as Skype. Food kiosks like the ones shown in Café ‘80s are becoming more of a reality, with McDonald’s testing them in the US after finding success in the UK. Lastly, although we are capable of playing video games without a controller with such devices as Sony’s EyeToy and Microsoft’s Kinect, they haven’t really caught on as much as the companies had hoped and controller/mouse and keyboard use is still very predominant. And while we don’t have Doc Brown’s rear-view glasses, we do have Google Glass as well as the Oculus Rift and other such devices.

With those out of the way, I can mention the two biggest technologies shown in the movie, those being flying cars and hoverboards. Flying cars have been around for a while as a concept but at this point there are no consumer models. I found out there is a company called Terrafugia that is working on making one as the wave of the future, but they have yet to create something ready for purchase. I’m also aware of the idea of flying ambulances, but as far as I’m aware they’re also not ready for widespread use. As for hoverboards, which was introduced as a concept in this movie, models are being developed, but are still very much in the prototype stage. Lexus released a video about a fully functional super-conductor model they have created, but it only works within a specially designed skatepark that has magnetic rails built underneath. As such, it may be quite a long time before the public can get their hands on one. Until then, there are replicas of the Mattel hoverboard from the movie, but it could set you back a small fortune.

Back to the Future Part II, while iconic and somewhat enjoyable, isn’t quite as good as Part I. The characters may be well-acted, but the story has a looser plotline and requires more willing suspension of disbelief than before to work out. Often, it is very obvious that Part II wasn’t intended to exist. If you’re watching this unnecessary sequel for pure entertainment and can overlook the logical errors and inconsistencies, you’ll likely enjoy it. For others, the logical flaws could be enough to break the immersion, which is something that a good movie shouldn’t do. It’s fun to see the futuristic vision of 2015 from the perspective of 1989, but you’re otherwise better off sticking to the original film. Of course, the ending of Part II also contains a teaser reel for Part III, so if you watch it, you’re pretty much committed to finishing the trilogy anyway.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stubs - Mad Love

Mad Love (1935) Starring: Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive, Ted Healy. Directed by Karl Freund. Screenplay by P. J. Wolfson, John L. Balderston. Based on the novel Les Mains d'Orlac by Maurice Renard (Paris, 1920). Produced by John W. Considine Jr. Run time: 68 minutes. US. Black and White. Horror

You hear about films from all different sources. In the case of Mad Love, we were trying to find a film that we heard about at Comic Con of all places at a panel hosted by the Warner Archives, a division of Warner Bros. dedicated to showcasing older and usually obscure films and television shows. What we remembered was the film starred Peter Lorre and had something to do with the hand of a pianist being cut off. (I've later found out they were talking about The Beast With Five Fingers (1946)). When we came across this film (with the elements of Peter Lorre, severed hands and pianist), we thought we had found the one they were hyping. 

Mad Love marked Peter Lorre’s American film debut and Karl Freund’s last directorial effort. Lorre had come to the U.S. after leaving Germany when the Nazis came to power. He had made an international sensation starring in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). The film would typecast Lorre as a villain. After moving to Paris and London, where he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Lorre would come to Hollywood under contract to Columbia Pictures. But that studio would have trouble finding the right film for him and lent him out to MGM in an effort to recoup some of their investment.

Freund, who had also come from Germany, had been a sought after cinematographer in Hollywood. He was given an opportunity to direct The Mummy (1931) and directed six more films at Universal, before moving to MGM. There he was teamed with Lorre on what would turn out to be his last directing assignment.

Writer Guy Endore worked with Freund on early drafts of a script based on a recent translation of Maurice Renard’s novel Les Mains d'Orlac (The Hands of Orlac). The book had already been made into a movie about a decade before: Orlac Hnde (1924), an Austrian film directed by Robert Weine and starring Conrad Veidt and Alexandra Sorina.

Producer John W. Considine Jr. assigned P.J. Wolfson and John L. Balderston to do rewrites on Endore’s script. Balderston seems to be a good choice for horror, having worked on the scripts for Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Balderston’s rewrites began on April 24, 1935 and were still in progress when the film went into production on May 6th. Filming would be completed on June 8th and the film would be released in the U.S. on July 12th.

In the film, Doctor Gogol (Peter Lorre) is obsessed with Yvonne Orlac (Francis Drake) the actress starring in at the 'Théâtre des Horreurs' in Paris, France. Gogol goes every night, sitting in the same booth. After the 47th and final show, Gogol goes back stage to meet his object of fascination.

Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) goes backstage to meet Yvonne Orlac (Francis Drake), but finds out she's already married.

He is very disappointed that the show is closing, but even more so when he finds out that Orlac is married to Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), a rising pianist and composer.

Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) admires the wax figure of Yvonnw Orlac in the lobby of the theater.

With the show closing down, a wax figure of Yvonne is about to be sent to be melted down, when Gogol intercepts it and pays three times what it’s worth to have it delivered to his house the next day. Gogol goes home to his clinic where he regularly performs surgeries, with the assistance of Dr. Wong (Keye Luke), that save children’s lives.

Dr. Wong (Keye Luke) prepares for surgery with Dr. Gogol.

Meanwhile, Stephen is on a train heading back to Paris. En route, the train stops to pick up a new passenger, Rollo (Edward Brophy), an American circus knife thrower and convicted murderer. Rollo has an appointment the next day with the guillotine.

Enter American reporter Reagan (Ted Healy), who has been sent to cover the execution of Rollo for his paper. Prefect Rosset (Henry Kolker) is in charge of the execution and cooperates with Reagan. Rosset makes a point of calling Gogol letting him know about the execution, since Gogol never misses one.

Rosset and Reagan go down to the train station to wait and there they run into Yvonne. News comes that there has been a wreck and Reagan and Yvonne take a cab to the site. It is Yvonne going through the wreckage who finds Stephen’s body. Dr. Marbeau (Charles Trowbridge), the first doctor who examines Stephen, tells Yvonne that her husband will live, but that his hands will have to be amputated. Yvonne pleads with the doctor to let her take her husband to Gogol. The doctor is too busy to argue and lets her take her husband to Paris.

Back in Paris, Gogol is there with Reagan to watch Rollo get executed. When Gogol returns to his home, he sees the ambulance leaving and is told that Yvonne came looking for a favor. Gogol immediately agrees to help, but upon examination also determines that Stephen’s hands will have to be amputated. Yvonne is distraught at the news, telling Gogol that she had hoped Gogol could help her.

Rollo (Edward Brophy) is being led to the guillotine.

While preparing for surgery, Gogol gets the idea to use Rollo’s hands and calls Rosset who is already willing to cooperate with Gogol’s experiments.

Unaware of the experiment performed on him, Stephen is told that he will eventually get the feeling back in his hands, but it will take long and expensive treatments for him to be able to use them like he had. The expense practically bankrupts the young couple and try as he might, Stephen can’t seem to recover his old form. He is about to give up, but Yvonne encourages him to keep practicing. When a bill collector comes to get payment for Stephen’s piano, Stephen becomes enraged and hurls his penknife at the man.

Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) realizes that something is wrong with his hands.

Needing money, Yvonne suggests that Stephen go see his step-father Henry Orlac (Ian Wolfe), a jeweler, but his father refuses to give Stephen money and suggests that Yvonne should go back to acting and do other things to make ends meet. Upset by his father’s insinuation, Stephen, with an employee of his father as a witness, throws a knife at his father, barely missing him.

Gogol, who has set up the wax figure of Yvonne in his front parlor, goes to Yvonne and asks for her love, but she refuses. Stephen goes to Gogol's home and tries to find out about his hands, and why they throw knives. Gogol suggests that Stephen's problem originates from a childhood trauma.

Stephen tries to get answers from Dr. Gogol, but nothing is satisfactory.

Not satisfied with that answer and concerned that his hands seem to act on their own, Stephen goes to see Dr. Marbeau. Marbeau concludes that the hands are not Stephens, since they had been crushed beyond repair.

Soon after his visit, newspapers report that Stephen’s stepfather has been found murdered. Stephen is called to a meeting with a mysterious figure, who reveals himself to be Rollo, claiming Gogol had reattached his head, but had taken his hands and given them to Stephen. Rollo, who is really Gogol in disguise, convinces Stephen that he had murdered his father.

Gogol, disguised as Rollo, convinces Stephen that he's murdered his own father. 

Stephen is arrested and the police are baffled that his fingerprints match those of Rollo’s.

Meanwhile, panic stricken, Yvonne decides to investigate Gogol for herself. Françoise (May Beatty), Gogol's drunken housekeeper, thinks the wax statue has come to life and runs from the house into the arms of two policeman who, thinking she’s crazy, take her away. In Gogol’s parlor, Yvonne sees her statue and takes it place when Gogol returns home in his Rollo disguise.

Gogol removes his Rollo disguise.

He’s so pleased with himself that he pleads his love to Yvonne and sits down to play the organ for her, like he does every night. With his back turned, Yvonne is attacked by Gogol’s pet bird. Seeing her bleed, Gogol thinks his love has brought the wax figure to life. But she refuses him again. Voices in his head convince him to kill her by strangling her with her own hair.

Gogol plays the organ for Yvonne, but thinks she's the wax figure replica.

Yvonne is saved when Reagan, Stephen and the police arrive at Gogol’s house. The door to his parlor is locked and they are only able to open the observation window. But that’s enough for Stephen, who throws a letter opener he swiped from the prefect’s desk at Gogol, hitting him in the back and killing him.

No film made in Hollywood at this time could escape the Hays Office. MGM was warned during pre-production from making a film that was "too brutal or too shocking." They were discouraged from showing the train wreck or the aftermath with dead and dying bodies.

They also wanted them to tone down the creep factor with Gogol’s infatuation with the wax Yvonne by not showing him fondling it or spraying it with perfume. Nevertheless, Mad Love had trouble in other countries. Either banned outright or only allowed to show in a censored form, eliminating one or more scenes of torture, guillotining or strangulation.

Mad Love wouldn’t be the last film to be made, based on Renard’s novel. Filmmakers would return to the book for The Hands of Orlac (1964) a French-British film starring Mel Ferrer and directed by Edmond T. Greville. Before that, Hands of a Strangler (1962), was made, loosely based on the novel. Written and directed by Newt Arnold, the film starred Paul Luthaker and Joan Harvey.

Peter Lorre makes a strong impression in his American film debut. He would go on to appear in a variety of films, including supporting roles in two of my favorite films, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). While he is associated with Humphrey Bogart, Lorre made nine films with Sydney Greenstreet. A versatile actor, Lorre would appear in comedies: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), war films: Passage to Marseille (1944) and horror: the above mentioned The Beast with Five Fingers.

Peter Lorre getting his head shaved for his role as Dr. Gogol.

After his Warner Bros. contract expired, Lorre’s career in Hollywood took a downturn. In 1950, he returned to Germany, where he co-wrote, directed and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951), a film noir.

He would return to the U.S. in 1952 and played Le Chiffre in the television adaptation of Casino Royale (1954) opposite Barry Nelson as Jimmy Bond. He also would star with Kirk Douglas and Jams Mason in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954). In his later years Lorre would work on television in guest roles and make low budget films with Roger Corman. He would die of a stroke in 1964.

Frances Drake, the actress who played Gogol’s object of fascination, had a short Hollywood career. An American, she lived in Canada and got her start in the U.K. as a nightclub dancer. She appeared in a few films there under her birth name Frances Dean, including Meet My Sister (1933) and The Jewel (1933) before coming to the U.S. under contract to Paramount.

She appeared opposite George Raft in a couple of films, Bolero (1934) and The Trumpet Blows (1934), and followed that with Ladies Should Listen (1934) opposite Cary Grant. During her career she would never be a top-billed actress, but would act in a variety of genres, including more horror: The Invisible Ray (1936); comedy/mystery: The Preview Murder Mystery (1936) and There’s Always a Woman (1938); and romantic comedy: It’s a Wonderful World (1939).

Drake married the Hon. Cecil Howard, second son of Henry Howard, 19th Earl of Suffolk in 1939 and shortly thereafter retired from films.

While Peter Lorre received a lot of critical attention for his performance, the film was not well received. Made on a budget of $408,000, the film only made $364,000 at the box office worldwide. Financially not an auspicious start for Lorre's Hollywood career.

The premise of Mad Love must have seemed like science fiction and probably was back in 1935; hand transplantation is now a real thing. The first transplant, which was rejected, occurred in Ecuador in 1964, but more recent surgeries have been finding long term success. I haven’t read anything about the hands retaining the muscle memory of their previous owner.

I find the story to have a very interesting twist. Rather than letting the killer’s hands continue to kill indiscriminately, as one might expect, the story has Stephen use his new found talent to save his Yvonne, when Gogol tries to strangle her.

While not a great film, Mad Love is nevertheless interesting and entertaining. It is definitely worth watching especially if you’re in the mood for offbeat horror.

Be sure to check out our other Horror film reviews here.