Wednesday, November 6, 2013

13 (OK, 20) Horror Icons

Writer/editor note:

This year, I threw together a list of top horror performers on my Facebook page in a run-up to Halloween. After wrapping it up, I thought it might be nice to put all the info in one place. It makes an excellent companion to my horror-film history from two years ago. Enjoy!

To laud horror-film performers in and of themselves doesn’t suffice. They didn’t create themselves; they are performers filling in the outlines drawn by others. Still, it takes special skills to scare us. No matter how genial an actor or actress is in real life, they must be able to reveal depths of danger and madness, triggering catharsis in the audience. At their best, they became inextricably linked with the horrors they portrayed. No one can think of Frankenstein’s Monster without thinking of Karloff, or Dracula of Lugosi.

Here’s a list of key figures in the horror-film pantheon. I reluctantly limited myself to 13, then had to revise that to 20. This still leaves a long list of significant performers, who are appended. If there is a common thread in most of these careers, it’s a grounding in classical stage training and experience. American mythos doesn’t let tragedy in; maybe only in horror films can we indulge in that sense of struggle against doom, and defiance of fate, that is usually found in epic drama. Great horror performers make their creations, however bizarre, sympathetic enough to allow us identify with them.

Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla. From 1954 through 1972, he cemented his reputation as the premier "suit actor" in film, also donning the costumes of Rodan, Varan, Baragon, and many more. In cheesy sagas such as "Destroy All Monsters," “The Mysterians,” and "Frankenstein Conquers the World," Haruo kept us entertained with his pro-wrestling fight moves, and cardboard-skyscraper-crushing enthusiasm. Thank you, sir!


Robert Englund is best known for his portrayal of Freddy Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" film series. (I saw him, and he stuck in my mind, as Whitey in his first film, the awful 1974 hick-trauma saga "Buster and Billie," which of course we saw at the drive-in.) Englund, a classically trained actor, has brought a strong, complex, and even . . . sympathetic? . . . charm to the part. Like the Golden Age horror actors, he gives this and other roles a combination of watchability, gravitas, and just enough distancing to give the role of fillip of ironic humor. It seems to that, unlike other typecast actors who bemoan their fates, Englund has retained a healthy sense of balance, using his niche fame to enable him to do the projects he's interested in, building a satisfying career.


Laird Cregar seems an odd choice for this list, as his career was so short. However, in four specific films – as the obsessed Inspector Cornell in “I Wake Up Screaming,” as the fussy villain Willard Gates in “This Gun for Hire,” the demonic Mr. Slade in “The Lodger,” and the doomed protagonist composer George Harvey Bone in “Hangover Square,” he made a great impression. Another classically trained actor with maturity and presence far beyond his years, the tortured undertones to his villainous roles are exquisite! Unfortunately, the fairly bulky Cregar went on a crash diet for “Hangover Square” to assume a svelter outline onscreen. It caused his death by heart attack on Dec. 9, 1944, two months before his final film’s premiere. It is tantalizing to imagine what other great roles he could have filled!

The most criminally under-regarded horror actor in film history is Paul Naschy. Born Jacinto Molina Alvarez in Madrid, he was so fascinated by horror film that he made his life’s work of it. He wrote, directed, and starred in more than 100 horror films, most memorably as the doomed Count Waldemar Daninsky, aka El Hombre Lobo (the Wolfman) in 12 films. However, he explored the full gamut of the genre’s possibilities – he is the only film actor to have played Dracula, the Wolfman, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, Rasputin, Edward Hyde, Satan, along with assorted warlocks, zombies, Fu Manchu, hunchbacks, serial killers, vengeful knights from the dead, and medieval inquisitors. He single-handedly launched the Golden Age of Spanish horror – a heavily Catholic, Bunuelian stew of extreme gore, sadomasochism, misogyny, and barely repressed sensuality – the lunatic cry of society under Franco leaking out onto the screen.

Despite low budgets, bad special effects, and incompetent assistance, Naschy took his mission seriously, willing himself despite his looks (in contrast to many physically imposing horror actors, he was short and burly, with a face like that of a placid John Belushi) to embody a spectacular range of nightmarish personas that influenced future key filmmakers such as del Toro and Amenabar.


“Ich bin der Zorn Gottes.” Klaus Kinski was a force of nature. A schizophrenic, this unconventional and intense performer started off in the German “Krimi” films, moving on to roles as spaghetti Western villains, psychopaths, anarchists, and murderers. He played Renfield in Jesus Franco’s “Count Dracula,” SS men, the Marquis de Sade, and Jack the Ripper. His biggest fame came as the muse of Werner Herzog, and Kinski was at his best in these films. He terrified me as the doomed, insane Woyzeck, the reincarnation of Max Schreck as Nosferatu, and most of all as the power-mad conquistador Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Kinski was violent, spiteful, and quite possibly molested his daughters. A fascinating actor I would cross the street to avoid.

Meet Dwight Frye, the original minion. He originated not only the role of Renfield in “Dracula,” he did the same as the hunchbacked assistant in the original version of “Frankenstein” (although his character is named Fritz, not Ygor). A talented stage actor, he started off like Peter Lorre, specializing in musicals and comedy. He found himself typecast on film as madmen, village idiots, murder suspects, and the like. He appears in the margins of many of James Whale’s films. No one could hit his high-pitched, manic note as a demented malefactor. Before he got a chance to diversify onscreen, he died in 1944 of a heart attack on a city bus, on his way home from watching a double feature with his son. All evil helpmates to follow, from Bela Lugosi through Marty Feldman to Manservant Hecubus, owe a bit of thanks to Frye.


It’s bitterly ironic that the Ultimate Screen Nazi would be forced to flee Hitler’s Germany. Conrad Veidt will forever be Major Heinrich Strasser from “Casablanca,” but his horror work permeated his career. He was seemingly made for bad-guy roles -- tall and thin, with a beetling brow and penetrating eyes. He started in silent film, and played a key role in the groundbreaking “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” – Cesare, the somnambulist. It brought him enormous fame, and he went on to several key roles in the horror pantheon. He was the first to play the pianist given the hands of a killer in “The Hands of Orlac,” and also Ivan the Terrible in Paul Leni’s “Waxworks,” the first horror anthology film. As Gwynplaine in 1928’s “The Man Who Laughs,” he served as the model for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Again, as Jaffar the evil vizier in the 1940 Korda “Thief of Baghdad,” he was clearly the model for the villain in Disney’s “Aladdin.”

A fervent anti-Nazi, married to a Jew, he was on Goebbels’ hit list in 1933. They escaped and he continued to work in Britain and the U.S., finally playing the men he most despised. (He could play good guys, too, as in “Contraband” and “Above Suspicion.”) Like Robert Ryan, Veidt was a nice guy who wound up playing heels. A gem.

You have no idea who Andy Serkis is. You would probably pass him on the street unnoticed. Still, you have seen him quite a bit. The new cinematic tool of motion capture has made Serkis the go-to guy for portraying unworldly creatures – King Kong and Gollum for Peter Jackson, Caesar in the new “Planet of the Apes” movies . . . and Captain Haddock in “The Adventures of Tintin.” He’s a fine actor in the flesh as well – witness his turn as the terrifyingly strung-out, abusive record producer Martin Hannett in “24 Hour Party People,” or Capricorn in “Inkheart,” or serial killer Ian Brady in “Longford.” Pretty sure he can play anything, the closest thing we have to Lon Chaney, Sr. now.

At least in his performance capture work, let him also stand for all those who toil away in horror behind the mask, unrecognizable. Doug Bradley (Pinhead from the “Hellraiser” series), Warwick Davis (The Leprechaun), Tobin Bell (Jigsaw), Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky), and Kane Hodder (1/4 of the 12 film Jasons from “Friday the 13th”) likewise don’t get the credit they deserve.

The First Leading Lady of British Horror is Barbara Shelley. Working the spectrum from victim to perpetrator, she headlined a lot of Hammer horror in its prime – “Blood of the Vampire,” “Village of the Damned” and “Children of the Damned,” “The Gorgon,” “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” (her best bit as the undead Helen Kent) and “Quatermass and the Pit.” In an age when horror and sci-fi brought bimbos and helpless Hannahs to the screen, Shelley brought intelligence and class to the game. She was also able to break that invisible but steel-strong barrier against non-grotesque-looking women acting out evil roles on screen.

Lon Chaney Jr. My tragic hero. No one on this list suffered more than he did from his calling. Trapped in the deep shadow of his more accomplished father, The Man of a Thousand Faces, as Creighton Chaney he tried to break into the movie business and was bitterly rebuffed. “They starved me to take his name,” he later said, and as Lon Chaney, Jr. he found himself trudging along through the roster of classic characters – the Son of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, killers, nutjobs, a man-made monster, The Indestructible Man. Still, he was a deeply interesting actor when he got the chance – he is the definitive Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” of course, and is riveting as Martin Howe in “High Noon.” But he did originate and make live that unique creation of Curt Siodmak -- the Wolfman. Cursed forever (? I am happy to let you know that he is cured AND gets the girl in “House of Dracula,” his last furry appearance) to turn into a murderous beast on the full moon, the constant undercurrent of despair he displays as Larry Talbot transforms him into a tragic figure. He is an unwilling monster, and the parallel to his alcoholism, which plagued him for decades, is inescapable to me.

Name: John Carradine. Profession: Theatre, with an r-e, of course. Career span: 1925 to 1987. Screen credits: A jaw-dropping 340 (per IMDb). A master of fustian bombast and persiflage, Carradine was, spiritually, the last of the old Victorian-era  hams. An ardent admirer of the Bard, to his credit he took many thankless film roles simply for the money, which would allow him to continue to lead his repertory company in tours of the sticks, overawing crowds with ripe renditions of the classics. Like Lon Chaney, Jr., he could produce wonderful performances if he was supervised and restrained sufficiently. His Casy the Preacher in “Grapes of Wrath” is a tortured saint; Hatfield in “Stagecoach” is a textbook gentleman. As to horror, he played Dracula twice in the Universal cycle; starred as Heydrich in “Hitler’s Madman,” various mad doctors, the Cosmic Man, the Wizard of Mars, and on and on. No one could sell a line, no matter how ridiculous, like Carradine. There is the charming whiff of the charlatan, the mountebank, the barnstorming histrion about him. A good base line for his horror work is his rare starring horror role, 1944’s “Bluebeard,” directed by Edgar Ulmer. Both the film and Carradine are breathtakingly uneven!


I usually played these roles where I represented the dark side. I was always a predatory bitch goddess in all of these movies, and with all kinds of unspeakable elements. Then what is life without a dark side? The driving force of drama is the dark side. These women that I played usually suffered for it, and I guess men like that.” Barbara Steele’s honest self-assessment of her powerful, transgressive horror work led her away wearily from the genre after a time, but while she did it, she was extraordinary. A pale, voluptuous brunette with huge eyes and a capacity to convey evil, she was fascinating and frightening. Among her great performances: “Black Sunday,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock,” and “Castle of Blood.”

Peter Cushing is my absolute favorite horror actor of all time. That this mild, friendly, gracious man should become synonymous with scary movies seems a bit silly, really. However, he could scare the living bejeezus out of an audience almost off-handedly, maintaining a clear, cold line of emotional turbulence and sheer weight of presence anchored him amidst the mayhem. (Mainstream crowds know him best as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars.”) He was a Hammer Horror stalwart. He played Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing numerous times, always to good effect. He was very often a “good guy” as well, fighting mummies, skulls, the living dead and the like. He even played Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes. No one was better than he at seeking to learn that which mankind must not know, or fighting the forces of evil with grim determination. And he could do comedy as well! An actor I really would have loved to have known.

One of the few horror stars to be honored properly in his lifetime, Christopher Lee is unmatched in his ability to play evil. From 1957, when he played his first horror role, the Creature in “The Curse of Frankenstein” with his dear friend Peter Cushing, to today, his towering presence, rumbling bass voice, and penetrating eyes have made him unmistakable. He is, at least in my mind, the definitive Dracula – much more commanding, seductive, and animalistic than Lugosi. It would be difficult to list his every role, but here’s a nice selection to choose from – Resurrection Joe the grave robber in “Corridors of Blood,” Kurt Menliff in “The Whip and the Body,” the Mummy, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man,” Rochefort in Lester’s “Three Musketeers” trilogy, Bond villain Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” Saruman in Peter Jackson’s “Ring” films, and Count Dooku in the “Star Wars” saga. Like Cushing he can do comedy – his Capt. Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt is hilarious in Spielberg’s “1941”; and he can play heroes, such as Count de Richleau in “The Devil Rides Out.” Lee has stated that he prefers the terms “cinema of the fantastic” to horror, and he’s helped create hundreds of flights of imagination. Salute!


Poor Bela Lugosi. The original Dracula suffered from a career typecast as monsters, mad doctors, and the like, becoming a poster child for drug addiction and the pitfalls of life in Hollywood in the process. All this pathos covers over the story of a strong performer with a fascinating life. Bela Lugosi was a classically trained Hungarian interpreter of Shakespeare. After serving as an officer in World War I, wounded three times, he was forced to flee to Germany on account of his left-wing, pro-union activities (he went on to help found the Actors’ Guild). His three-year run as Dracula on Broadway prepped him for the movie version, and he quite literally never looked back after that. Part of the stiffness and exaggeration he brought to the role is due to him facing what all stage actors moving into early sound film faced – not knowing how to underplay and work to the camera. But his extremely poor selection of roles, combined with his other debilitating factors, means that there is a lot of dross to pick through when looking at his oeuvre. However, his genuine screen magnetism and his ability to send waves of dread through an audience powered him through a handful of top-notch performances. Besides “Dracula,” he can be seen to advantage as Dr. Weredegast in “The Black Cat,” the Sayer of the Law in “The Island of Lost Souls,” Joseph in “The Body Snatcher,” ‘Murder’ Legendre in “White Zombie,” Dr. Mirakle in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and Ygor in “The Son of Frankenstein.”

Oh, my goodness. Though she only appeared in two of the Hammer canon of films, Ingrid Pitt changed the game for horror actresses. In “The Vampire Lovers” and “Countess Dracula,” she played drop-dead gorgeous, intelligent, assertive women – which meant, of course, that she was an agent of the undead and as such had to be destroyed, in keeping with horror-film and Western cultural conventions. In contrast to so many of the interchangeable, eyelid-fluttering Hammer-heroine victims, she was vital and sympathetic. She made being a vampire seem like a swingin’, sexy, viable alternative to the obviously repressed ho-hum lives of the living.

It’s hard to imagine anything other than a career in horror roles for Peter Lorre. However, like James Cagney, he started off in stage comedies and musicals. Eventually, he worked his way to primary Berlin stages, working extensively with Brecht (“A Man is a Man,” “Happy End”). It’s almost unfortunate that his first significant screen role was in one of the greatest films ever made – Fritz Lang’s “M,” in 1931. As the serial child-killer Hans Beckert, Lorre is repulsive, compulsively watchable, and by the film’s end, tragically sympathetic. It would mark his film work forever. When he made it to America, he was immediately slotted as a freak, a monster, a slimy character actor. In “Mad Love,” his insanely possessive Dr. Gogol is an indelible portrayal. His typecasting as a horror figure soon became a gag, exploited in films such as “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Beat the Devil.” However, he could play positive characters, such as Marius in “Passage to Marseille,” and even the lead, as he did as Cornelius Leyden in “The Mask of Dimitrios.” His single independently created film, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, “Der Verlorene (The Lost One)” is a disturbing meditation on German war guilt – it throws into stark relief the kind of thoughtful, nuanced work he was capable of. He wound up on the Corman roster, still going strong in “Tales of Terror,” “The Raven,” and “The Comedy of Terrors.”

He noted, “I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.” Did anyone in horror have more gusto than Vincent Price? I think not. The Prince of Peril, the Merchant of Menace! He could chew the scenery as few could, and did so as happily as anyone could. Although he played many of his more campy roles with a big wink to the audience (Dr. Goldfoot, anyone?) he was resolutely professional when it was time to play in a serious manner. He started off as a leading man and player of “goody-goody” roles, but soon found that villains were more fun to play and offer an actor a longer career path. After strong roles in film such as “Dragonwyck,” “Laura,” and “The Baron of Arizona,” Price hit his horror stride with 1953’s “House of Wax.” After that, he worked with many horror stalwarts, including directors John Brahm (“The Mad Magician”), Robert Fuest (the Dr. Phibes films), and William Castle (“The House on Haunted Hill,” “The Tingler”). His biggest impact was at the helm of so many Roger Corman horror films, including “House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Raven,” “The Haunted Palace,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Tomb of Ligeia.” He had that special something . . . that scared the crap out of me.

Boris Karloff! Childhood friend. It didn’t take him reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to endear him to us. Long before that, in the first late-night flicker of the TV screen, we knew that his Frankenstein’s Monster was essentially harmless, violent only when abused. He was just a big kid! We loved him. Unlike some other players on this list, Boris, born as William Henry Pratt, kept his personal demons, if any, out of the equation. He loved to play make-believe, and his energy and powers of persuasion brought us into the story too. Neither was he ungracious – 10 years barnstorming onstage, followed by 15 years of Hollywood obscurity and day jobs, taught him to keep his fame in perspective. Among his many great roles – the evil Fu Manchu, the original Mummy, satanic priest Hjalmar Poelzig in “The Black Cat,” Dr. Bolton in “Corridors of Blood.” His best work is in the trilogy of films he made with Val Lewton – “The Body Snatcher,” Isle of the Dead,” and “Bedlam.” Who knows how horror would have developed without him? In an age when the monsters are soulless and interchangeable, Karloff’s work reminds us how much more powerful horror is when rooted in a sympathetic soul.

The father of all horror stars. The joke of his time was: “Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney.” This amazingly inventive, expressive, determined artist astonished the world with his ability to assume seemingly any shape or form. Beginning with “The Miracle Man” in 1919, through to his untimely death in 1930, he epitomized the chameleon qualities of acting. He and Paul Muni fascinated me – actors who vanished into roles instead of molding them to fit themselves. His gallery of grotesques naturally led him to defining roles as Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame; the Phantom of the Opera, Alonzo the Armless in “The Unknown,” Phroso in “West of Zanzibar,” Professor Echo, Mr. Wu, Blizzard in “The Penalty.” (He could act without makeup as well – he’s great as a hard-bitten drill sergeant in “Tell it to the Marines.”) “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” he said. ”The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. . . . The parts I play point out a moral. They show individuals who might have been different, if they had been given a different chance.” Of all film actors, only Chaney Sr.’s work approaches the level of transformation, of magic.

And the others:

David Warner
Oliver Reed
Donald Pleasance
Lionel Atwill
Cedric Hardwicke
George Zucco
Richard Carlson
Bruce Campbell
Jamie Lee Curtis
Grant Williams
Claude Rains
Henry Daniell
Dana Andrews
Charles Gray
Andrew Keir
Michael Gough
Asia Argento
Caroline Munro
Udo Keir
Anthony Perkins
Bruce Dern
Coffin Joe
Basil Rathbone
Michael Berryman
Rondo Hatton
Ralph Fiennes
Helena Bonham Carter
Ian MacKellen
Doug Bradley (Pinhead)
Warwick Davis (Leprechaun)
Tobin Bell (Jigsaw)
Brad Dourif (Chucky)
Kane Hodder (Jason)
Rudolf Klein-Hogge
Howard Vernon

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Disney meets 'Wicker Man' - 'Escape from Tomorrow' deeply disturbing

Escape from Tomorrow
Director/Writer: Randy Moore
Producers: Gioia Marchese, Soojin Chung
Cinematographer: Lucas Lee Graham
Score: Abel Korzeniowski
Editor: Soojin Chung

OK, let’s see hands – who else was scarred for life by the Walt Disney Company? Welcome, friends. You’re at the right screening.

The psychotic candy that the Mousemen stuffed us with was toxic. For instance: always ready to kill a character to get our attention, the Disney graveyard is chock-full of dead children, parents, animals, and anything in range that seems vulnerable and sympathetic. Bambi’s mom, Nemo’s mom, Koda’s mom, Quasimodo’s – wait for it – mom. Old Yeller, Musafa, Willie the opera-singing Whale. In addition, I must mention the hysterical fits I flew into at the sight of the imprisonment of Dumbo’s, sigh, mom, the pee-your-pants scenes of bad little boys turning into donkeys in “Pinocchio,” and the Wicked Queen (any incarnation), and the evil stepmother who locks Cinderella away.

This nightmare fodder expanded through the years to include such kooky, nutty live-action anthropomorphic epics such as “Charley the Lonesome Cougar,” and the mindless “fun” of Herbie films, and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” and “The Shaggy D.A.,”and the Flubber films, and “The Boatniks” – anything our parents could feel safe dumping us off at.

Writer/director Randy Moore has ingested all this, too, and from it has crafted a poisonous valentine to the nexus of happiness, all-American values, and sparklingly clean restrooms – Disney. It’s “Escape from Tomorrow,” a disturbing journey to the underside of the American dream.

Moore, as you may know by now, shot nearly all his footage at either Disneyland or Disney World (there is a modicum of chromakey work, pasting characters into scenes, that only adds to the hallucinatory quality), working surreptitiously and without the permission of the notably paranoid and brand-controlling Disney Co. It’s an amazing task to set oneself, but Moore pulled it off over the course of three years. (To this point, Disney has chosen to ignore the film rather than sue or ask for an injunction over it.)

Aside from “Escape from Tomorrow” being a technical tour de force, an inherently subversive act akin to filming porn in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and an excellent technical hook with which to garner plenty of publicity . . . does the movie have some inherent, enduring worth? Does its content match the strength of its gimmick?

It does for me because, despite its focus on the Magic Kingdom, “Escape from Tomorrow” is not a satire, an indictment, or an expose of Disney. It has a larger ambition than that. It’s a fever dream about all the dark impulses that lurk when suppressed by the relentlessly grinning, happy-face, we’re-just-fine American mentality. Lust, violence, greed, madness, and death erupt willy-nilly, via the persona of the protagonist Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a typical white middle-class corporate employee with a wife (Elena Schuber) and two kids (Jack Dalton, Katelynn Rodriguez) who’s visiting the theme park.

The movie opens with Jim being fired by phone on the morning of he and his family’s last day at the resort. He’s determined not to spoil the vacation, so he acts as though nothing is wrong. Soon, however, he finds himself obsessed with two French nymphets, who he begins to trail around the park, children in tow. Mentions of a mysterious “cat flu” are dropped, and Jim finds reality changing around him. His son’s irises flash to complete black and back again, the faces of the animatronic dolls on the rides menace and resolve back to innocence . . . 

As Jim’s senses start to unhinge, he argues and parts from his wife, leads his children in and out of danger and discomfort, nearly losing each several times, and encounters an Other Woman (Alison Lees-Taylor) who blows conspiracy theories his way – are those turkey-leg snacks for sale, or emu legs? Do Disney princesses put out for rich Asian businessmen, in their costumes? She beds him, and reappears as an ex-“princess” who kidnaps children and poses them on deathbeds.

With me so far? It’s much more nebulous than it sounds. Moore keeps things ambiguous enough so that we are never sure if this is all a secret revealed, the musings of an ill man, a descent into hell, or an evil dream. “Escape” is the struggle of a typical guy to have a typical experience – then pulls his psyche inside out for examination, morphing his surroundings into a projection of suppressed desires and resentments. Everything that can go wrong does.

Key to the feeling of dread is the beautifully shaded black-and-white cinematography of Lucas Lee Smith. Despite the “Mission: Impossible”-style shooting restrictions, Smith creates penetrating, clear and well-composed shots, working the spectrum from the gloom of Tom Sawyer’s cave to the flat white glare of Florida midday. There are several astonishing pans, and tableaux composed so carefully it’s difficult to think of it being shot on the sly. (Jim’s slow, lustful advance toward the teens in a shimmering pool filled with children is an unnerving visual revelation.) At the same time, the filmmakers use unsettling, rapid point-of-view changes to keep us on edge, and use framing that always leaves us expecting something menacing to enter it.

Soojin Chung’s editing varies the rhythm, too, slowing down for Jim’s moments of ecstatic and highly inappropriate longing, then chopping rapidly into fragments in scenes such as the one in which Jim searches the crowd frantically for his daughter beneath fireworks’ glare. It turns the scene into a primitive rite, a desperate attempt to avert an unjust sacrifice. There’s more than a touch of late-period Welles here, with overtones of “The Lady from Shanghai” and “Touch of Evil.”

The film’s noirish atmosphere is cemented by the riveting score composed by Abel Korzeniowski. His seemingly romantic swells of classic-period Hollywood style are rich in harmonics and lushly orchestrated, but the music’s heavy undercurrents and veiled dissonances mirror the fractures of the film itself. Once again, there is a strong tug of suggestion – here, of Bernard Herrmann and the oppressed, obsessive waltz variants he crafted for Hitchcock.

Part of my brain rejected the movie out of hand. But as the film thoroughly catalogued the many frustrations, lashings-out, and sorrows that families undergo when flung into the maw of mass entertainment, Moore’s film, for me, worked itself into an uncanny state of sunlit Expressionism, an absurd meditation that plays like slapstick Bunuel.

Are the French girls symbols of lost youth, or bratty little teens, or angels of death? All of the above. Jim’s lustful pursuit of the teens, their awkward bodies seeming to promise him carnal delight, seemed crazy . . . until I remembered that, in Disney film, sexuality is either nonexistent or infantilized.

And then, on coming home from the show, I checked my Facebook. A friend had posted a link to “Sexy Halloween Costumes.” The first image I found was the patently obvious Minnie Mouse knockoff, “Sexy Tux and Ears,” in which sex and innocence clash . . . and innocence gets bent over a chair. “Escape from Tomorrow” has a ring of truth to it.

Jim sees every dream come true. Or doesn’t. You should really judge for yourself. “Escape from Tomorrow” will not change your mind about Disney’s cultural legacy (OK, there’s a fleeting conflation of Walt Disney and Christ). It’s a cartoon funeral march, sad and moving, that stirs up and chokes on the dust of childhood dreams.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“She”: The Epic Despite Itself

Dir: Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel
Legend Films, 2007 release
“ . . . the worst picture I ever made. . . . I cheated a lot on ‘She’.” – Merian C. Cooper, producer

“My empire is of the imagination.” – Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed

Helen Gahagan as Ayesha.
The 1935 RKO movie version of She, produced by Merian C. Cooper on the heels of his greatest success, King Kong, sits buried in the heap of Hollywood’s fascinating failures. However, this ambitious project was important at least to the late special-effects master Ray Harryhausen, who worked strenuously to restore it to its original length and to colorize it, in accordance with Cooper’s initial plan.

The 1935 She is a catchall of hokum and wonder, thoroughly and indiscriminately intermixed. Its visual inanities, patently false but still breathtaking landscapes, and Art Deco conceits all combine to create a fever dream of a fantasy that is still powerful in a hallucinatory way.

It is best remembered, if at all, by the mainstream as the film debut AND farewell of the actress who played She, Helen Gahagan, who was blamed for the production’s revenue shortfall of $180,000 on a $500,000 budget.

However, blame might more accurately be placed at the cold feet of the usual suspects – RKO’s studio administrators. But did what many thought was major miscasting, a budget halved, sets and costumes chosen for color film but forced to be shot in black and white, and a stiff script doom the movie to failure?

“If you make fantasy too real, it loses the quality of a dream,” Harryhausen once said, and the 1935 She is the best filmed version of the story to date, due precisely to its unreal, madly stylized atmosphere.

The popularity of Haggard’s 1887 novel (83 million copies printed as of 1965, making it one of the most widely read works of fiction in history) would seem to make any adaptation a winner, but all nine more-or-less loose film versions and derivatives (Vengeance of She, anyone?) have failed to make a strong impression.
The Gates of Kor (repurposed from "King Kong")
In the original text, Haggard continues to build on the “Lost World” genre that he founded with King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. In She, a dead father’s legacy gives his son, Leo Vincey, an ancient map that describes a lost kingdom in the heart of Africa. Leo and his mentor Professor Horace Holley travel there, finding the lost city of Kor and its inhabitants in catacombs beneath a dormant volcano.

The civilization is ruled over by Ayesha -- She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, an immortal, mysterious, and powerful woman who has waited 2,000 years for the return of her lover Kallikrates, whom she slew in a jealous rage. She believes Leo is that reincarnation of Kallikrates, and eliminates her competition for Leo, the native girl Ustane.

Ayesha now tells of her plan to enter the larger world and conquer it – and Holly has no doubt but that she can. She then takes Leo and Holley to the pillar of flame that confers immortality, ordering Leo into it so that they can be together for eternity. Leo is afraid, so she steps into the flame, as she first did 2,000 years ago, to reassure him – but a second exposure to the flame causes her to age immediately, crumbling to dust before their horrified eyes.

Ayesha ages.
“She” is a great story, painfully written. Rider was not out for complexity or subtle effect; everyone says exactly what’s on their minds, no character development occurs. Occasional bursts of sophomoric speculation and philosophy, including a pretty constant stream of misogyny, out of the mouth of Haggard’s narrator Holly, bog down the action. Haggard’s eye for atmosphere and description, however stilted, combined with the fantastic elements he conceives, sustains the reader enough to get him or her through to the end.

Haggard was a staunch imperialist. Aside from his respect for the Zulu people, developed during a seven-year sojourn in South Africa, his books are riddled with what is considered now an appalling, matter-of-fact racism. In She, blacks and Muslims are fit only for service and as cannibal food; She herself indulges in a long anti-Semitic rant at one point. Like most adventure stories of the period, Haggard is at once entranced by the strange sights and cultures revealed by Western explorers, and determined to show that white men are naturally inclined and intended to dominate, document, classify, exploit, subordinate, and assimilate these “foreign” discoveries.
Nigel Bruce is agog as natives try to make a Hot Pocket out of his cranium.
If She is a presentiment of women’s liberation, it is a nightmare vision of it. The appeal to man and boy, Haggard’s primary readers, is the dizzying fantasy of domination by an omnipotent, sexually hypnotic woman – a pornographic Queen Victoria. Holly’s misogynistic narrative makes it clear that he is repulsed and terrified by She, but compelled to shadow and obey her due to her beauty, bearing, and psychic power. Mike Madrid, in his excellent book Supergirls, succinctly describes her –  . . . an intoxicating savage princess . . . a creature that provokes both fear and lust. Ayesha was the ultimate fantasy of civilized man: the beautiful, savage white queen, ruling a kingdom unhindered by the laws of modern morality.”

Ayesha is much more of the femme fatale, the enchantress, demon-lover, akin to Lilith, Lamia, Circe, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, and the heroines of operas such as Turandot and The Makropoulos Case. She is the timeless rock upon which men crack their souls; her image debases into the stereotype of silent screen star Theda Bara and other irresistible “Vamps,” bad girls, and the like.
Ayesha and Leo.
If Ayesha is the anima-shadow of Haggard, she enables him to release his inner, inconquerable drama queen. Ayesha is a powerful projection of male desire/terror onto the female – woman as a temptress whose caresses will drive men mad, make them do her bidding, drain their seminal power through sexual vampirism, and then kill them . . . usually lopping something off them to boot as a symbolic castration, as in the stories of Judith, Delilah, and Salome. In She, Ayesha is the source of both sex and death – infinitely, absurdly faithful, possessed of never-changing beauty.

(Rider does have an accurate sense of how limited Ayesha’s appeal would be to women -- in the novel, Holly writes: “We never had the advantage of a lady’s opinion on Ayesha, but I think it quite possible that she would have regarded the Queen with dislike, would have expressed her disapproval in a more or less pointed manner, and ultimately have got herself blasted.”)

Haggard was not averse to spinning out a money-making concept; there are four Ayesha books in all, just as there are 19 Alan Quatermain (the narrator of King Solomon’s Mines) novels – and even a crossover work that puts Ayesha and Quatermain together.

The book inspired film adaptations, almost as soon as film was invented – seven in the silent era alone. It would take a showman with an epic appetite to do justice to Haggard’s story.

Merian C. Cooper, producer of the 1935 She, was compelled to live on the adrenaline edge. A hellion who was kicked out of Annapolis during his senior year of 1914, he worked as a seaman, a journalist, and worse, and when World War I came, he became an aviator, enduring being shot down by the Germans and imprisoned. After the war ended, he joined the Poles in fighting Russia's new ruling Soviets, and was once again shot down and stuck in a prison camp.

Freed at last, Cooper began to make his name as an explorer, focusing on the still-medieval delights of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea). Finally, Cooper, his friend cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack, and reporter (and spy) Marguerite Harrison, decided to document the lives of nomadic Persian herdsmen, creating one of the first ethnographic documentary feature films. (These were still the days of The Great White Hunter, Frank Buck and “Bring ‘em Back Alive,” and Lowell Thomas “with Lawrence in Arabia.”) Grass (1925) was a runaway hit, spurring a thematic sequel Chang set in Thailand, and propelling Cooper and Schoedsack into the movie business.

The two freelanced the 1929 silent Four Feathers for Paramount and then collaborated on the mutual high point of their careers, King Kong. Now both served as screenwriters, directors, producers. Cooper’s looming tenure at the top of RKO seemed to presage more hit projects to come.

Cooper replaced a resigning David O. Selznick as head of the studio almost exactly on the day of King Kong’s release, March 7, 1933. His ambitious plans for RKO were never realized due to a number of factors.

First, RKO went into equity receivership shortly before he took the helm – the Depression had hit all Hollywood studios hard, and as the weakest of the “Big Five” major studios, RKO hit bankruptcy. Budgets were slashed and dozens of talented RKO employees were let go.

Next, Cooper suffered a heart attack six months into the job, keeping him out until mid-December, 1933; another health issue compelled another long vacation in Hawaii (which also served as a belated honeymoon) for Cooper and his wife. When he returned in May, 1934, he resigned his RKO position, but retained the commitment to make for them two big-budget spectaculars in the newly-developed three-strip Technicolor – She and The Last Days of Pompeii, another effects-heavy historical epic based on the title (but not the plot) of the 1834 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Schoedsack would direct the latter.

Despite Kong's success, Cooper’s elaborate plans for bigger and more elaborate features, incorporating the latest technological advances – in a way, he was the James Cameron of his time, in more ways than one (1) -- were subverted by RKO’s death grip on the purse strings.

In fact, after Cooper returned from Hawaii he found that, instead of having $1,000,000 to spend individually on “She” and “The Last Days of Pompeii,” he had exactly half as much to spend on each production. Cooper had intended for “She” to be the first feature film shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor; instead, that privilege went to the prestige production “Becky Sharp,” by the same studio, later in the same year.

Instead of securing Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich as Ayesha and Joel McCrea as Leo, he went with the less-known and more affordable Broadway actress Helen Gahagan (Douglas – she and actor Melvyn Douglas were newly married at the time) and Randolph Scott, who was just moving from supporting roles to leads.
Helen Mack on Ayesha's terrace -- note RKO's signature black parquet flooring.
Ruth Rose, a former naturalist married to Schoedsack, who penned the script for Kong, adapted Rider’s novel to the screen. Little was changed from the original, save for changing the location of the lost city of Kor from central Africa to the Arctic (presumably on orders from producer Cooper, who was probably looking to vary his spectacular film effects) and, most importantly, altering the romantic subplot.

In the novel, Leo is wived by comely native girl Ustane before reaching Kor; later Ayesha kills Ustane with her mental powers, and makes love to Leo, quite literally over her dead body. In the film, Leo is beguiled by the sweet, spunky orphan Tanya (Helen Mack) en route to Kor. This being Hollywood, Tanya is imperiled but not destroyed, and lives happily ever after with Leo in what seems at the fadeout to be a hymn to domesticity, and a firm turn of the back to wonder and mystery. In this version of “She,” true, mortal love conquers all.
Tonya's sacrifice.
Matthew C. Hoffman, in his notes for his “Screen Deco” film series, notes astutely that Van Nest Polglase, long-time RKO art director, had supervised the design of previous shiny, stylized productions such as the Astaire/Rodgers vehicle The Gay Divorcee. The pleasures of geometry, symmetry, high-contrast shading, and the high-gloss, slick surfaces of plastic, Bakelite, and chrome are indulged as nowhere else in the film designs of the period. (Pre-production artwork indicates a much softer, more organic design for the film.)

Under Polglase’s supervision, special effects wizard Vernon Walker, who made his reputation overcoming the mind-numbing difficulties of camera effects for King Kong, took up the challenge yet again, and the 1935 She is a masterfully crafted blend of process shots, matte paintings, and set design. The fact that designs were made with color in mind, designs that were scotched at the last minute, means that the question of whether or not to show what its color production might have looked like is a good one.
A matte shot of the throne room.
Legend’s two-disc set contains the colorized and black-and-white versions, an interview with Ray Harryhausen, a self-congratulatory and somewhat defensive Legend feature on the colorization process (hey, they’ve been fighting critical disdain and creator outrage since Day 1), an interview with Cooper archives curator James V’Arc, key scenes from silent-era productions of She, production stills, promotional art and material, a photo gallery, the original She storybook, an interview with composer John Morgan, freshly composed trailers for this and other Legend re-releases, and a reel of “sci-fi toy” commercials from the Space Age.

The digital colorization process we see in this DVD release still lends only a muted, musty tonal quality to the onscreen palette,
Randolph Scott as Leo, in color -- sepia tones . . . 
but it gives us at least a hint of what might have been. D├ęcor, dress and props are a steroidal concoction of styles – Deco underlying a mad blend of Oriental, Mesoamerican, Egyptian, Sumerian, Atlantean – and the baroquely wrought spears look remarkably like those used in The Wizard of Oz four years later. Hoffman describes this amalgam succinctly as “Barbaric Moderne”; blogger Ryan Harvey expands, “She’s kingdom is a 1930s wonder of faux-futurism, a collision of art deco and the Roman Empire that only grand old Hollywood could have crafted.”

The result is kitsch – a style that is both grandiose and bargain-basement, which simultaneously repels the savvy viewer due to its blatant artificiality and draws us in with its audaciously straight-faced assertion of itself. The temples of Kor rise from the smooth, glossy black floors of the RKO soundstage. At one point,  Ayesha’s high priest Bilali is seen dressed up like a miniature replica of the Chrysler Building. Yet in deadly seriousness the story unfolds. The intensity of the creators’ efforts and the mismatched design elements give the whole of the 1935 She a MORE dreamlike quality – that of the tattered, inconsistent, and unfinished constructs of the sleeping mind.

A key example of this cognitive dissonance is the sacrificial dance sequence towards the end of the film. Artists of the period were obsessed with primitivism. The art, music, and dance of non-Western cultures was explored, exploited, and assimilated – an aesthetic colonialism.

This “primitive ritual” was choreographed by Benjamin Zemach, a Russian dancer whose early work with the Habima Theater of Moscow exposed him to the avant-garde strategies of Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, and Meyerhold. After his migration to America, he was associated with Martha Graham in New York. Zemach’s vocabulary of movement is highly reminiscent of the wide stance, expansion/contraction, and angular, rhythmic thrust that characterizes Graham’s work.

Anyone familiar with 20th-century dance may find it She’s pseudo-anthropological rite ludicrous (in fact, it won the film its only Oscar nomination). . . but it percolates into the collective subconscious and becomes part of how future such dance/events are captured on film (Cobra Woman, 1944; The Ten Commandments, 1956; The Indian Tomb, 1959; Cleopatra, 1963 . . . ). As is usual with the human mind, the gaudy misperception becomes the received truth.

Another aid to the dissociative feel of the film is the fact that two directors were used – Irving Pichel and Lansing Holden. Pichel was a striking actor who made his directing debut three years earlier, sharing chores with Shoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game in 1932. They were slated to work on She together again, but Schoedsack, feeling the material was too difficult to be filmed convincingly, bowed out. Holden, a World War I flying ace, was a budding architect and set designer whose first directing job this was. I presume that Holden handled the technically challenging shots and Pichel handled the actors. Would She be more memorable had Schoedsack stuck it out?

And what about the casting? Garbo’s smoldering remoteness might have been stronger than Helen Gahagan’s more imperious directness of manner. However, Gahagan performs as directed, with assurance and grace. Randolph Scott is stiff as Leo. In Scott’s defense, he has not much to work with, and is at the beginning of his career, still playing hunky secondary roles. After decades of experience, he learned how to project complex emotions from under the mask of polite reserve his characters always wore.

Nigel Bruce does his best in the thankless role of Holly, who is tasked to run through the exposition and ask all pertinent questions. Bruce had not yet gotten stuck in his usual bumbling, silly-ass-Englishman characterization, used to great effect in the Sherlock Holmes film series with Basil Rathbone.

The real puzzler is the casting of Gustav von Seyffritz as high priest Bilali. Although he made his reputation in horror roles and grotesque character parts, his accent is nearly impenetrable, and his hawkish profile is not imposing here.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that this was composer Max Steiner’s third score for Cooper, after The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong; the latter is considered the first and still the exemplary “wall-to-wall” film score, complete with motifs. Steiner’s seemingly inexhaustible genius is in full force here, showing Hollywood that a pervasive, underlying opera-like music soundtrack can charge the movie with rhythm, emotion, and meaning.

The 2007 release of Harryhausen’s restored version gives us not only a look at what might have been, but shows us a conceptual template that would be imitated in countless adventure/fantasy films, down to the present -- even inspiring the look of another classic villainess and the creation of the superheroine.

The 1935 She made an impression, not in and of itself, but as a stylistic template. The most immediate and marked influence on Hollywood was the design for the gown and headdress of the Wicked Queen in Walt Disney’s Snow White in 1937. It’s pretty much a straight lift from Cooper’s production. The icy hauteur of Ayesha was transmitted, without credit.

1937 also saw the birth of the first comic-book heroine, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle – “The mother goddess of jungle girls,” according to Mike Madrid. Conceived of as the female answer to Tarzan, Will Eisner dreamed her up, and derived her name from She. (2)

A wide range of assertive female characters were emerging culturally – in literature, film, pulps, and comics -- and as a royal figure like Ayesha, Sheena similarly rules over her swath of jungle, never leaving to interact with the civilized world, as Madrid states: “Sheena embodied the colonial concept of the naturally intelligent and rational Caucasian, looking after her gullible black underlings”.

Like She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’s, Sheena’s kingdom remains insular, womblike, a dream-world in which values do not change and all relationships ossify – a dead end. Later decades would bring forth more balanced, less isolate fictional females.

In a larger sense, “She’”s aesthetic heritage is pervasive. Fantasy always seems cobbled of fragments of the ancient and imagined future; we build our imaginary worlds with familiar building blocks. Cooper’s production, addicted to gigantism, melodrama, cheesy splendor, beefcake and sinuous native girls, and a magic sense of nature, would invade every pore of the sensibilities of filmmakers to come.

As a project that fell between two chairs, the 1935 “She” maintains a sense of wonder, not despite its tatterdemalion splendors but precisely because of them.

  1. In 1938, Cooper proposed a film called “War Eagles” that took place in a lost world hidden in the Antarctic, “a super-Western of the air in which instead of riders of the plains on horseback, we will have wild riders of the air on giant prehistoric eagles.” [Vaz, pg. 278] The outline climaxes with the lost world’s eagle-riders saving New York City from an enemy air force. Lost world, Native-American-type protagonists, a fight against technologically superior invaders from the air -- sound anything like Avatar?

2.               2. Will Eisner’s The Spirit – 2: Setting Up Shop,” Interview with Tom Heintjes, 1992 --

Familiar faces, final fates

Co-director IRVING PICHEL ran afoul of the Second Red Scare in the 1950s. He was named one of the “Hollywood Nineteen” and, though never called on to testify in front of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, he was blacklisted. He left the country and directed a few films outside the United States, never regaining his reputation.

Star HELEN GAHAGAN went on to a national political career, and infamously clashed with and lost to Richard Nixon, whom she christened “Tricky Dick,” in the 1950 California Senate campaign.

HELEN MACK left acting and film after a few years, becoming a producer, director, and writer for radio. She helmed such shows as “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and “The Saint,” and later wrote for television.

SAM HINDS (John Vincey) spent his career as authority figure. He will be best remembered for playing George Bailey’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Sam Hinds
RAY “CRASH” CORRIGAN (uncredited Guard) became the hero of several B-Westerns and serials, and specialized in costumed ape imitations in later films. His “Corriganville” Western film set brought him largesse as Western film and TV production peaked in the 1950s.

JIM THORPE (uncredited Captain of the Guard) spent decades after his Olympic triumphs as a Hollywood bit player, among many other hand-to-mouth jobs.

NOBLE JOHNSON (uncredited Amahaggar chief), though African-American, was compelled to play exotic villains, natives, “Latins,” Indian chiefs, and the like, throughout his career. He took his earnings and used them to produce films for African-American audiences, the so-called “race” films that were shown exclusively to non-white crowds.
Noble Johnson

BENJAMIN ZEMACH (Dance director) later choreographed the groundbreaking pro-union musical revue Pins and Needles on Broadway in 1937, as well as Kurt Weill’s epic opera/oratorio on Jewish history, The Eternal Road, the same year.

MERIAN C. COOPER never equaled the fame of King Kong; however, in 1947 he formed Argosy Pictures with his friend, director John Ford, and produced most of Ford’s masterpieces – including his Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,) The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Wagon Master. Ironically, Cooper was a supporter of anti-Communist efforts in Hollywood in the 1950s, but gave work to blacklisted Irving Pichel, who can be heard as the narrator in Ford’s 1949 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.