Hitchcock was a master at using visual effects. His films are not usually thought of in that way, but his use of optical effects struck me this time. The climax of The Man Who Knew too Much (the remake) for instance. It’s set in the Albert Hall in London. A foreign dignitary is to be assassinated at the end of the orchestral piece that is being performed. (In a neat touch, the conductor of the orchestra is listed on the Albert Hall poster as Bernard Herrman, the composer of the score, and is played by Herrmann in the sequence.) There is an establishing arial shot of the hall. If you look closely at the shot, it is a composite, with live action footage of the orchestra in one section, surrounded by a beautiful matte painting of the rest of the hall and its seated patrons. Likely, obtaining a real shot like that would be impossible in the confines of the venue. So Hitchcock makes the shot using visual effects.
There are other examples. The shot on the right is from North by Northwest. It’s the lobby of the UN building. The live action is in the lower portion of the frame. The rest is matte painting. Later in the film, there is a shot of the outside of this building. From a dizzying height, we see Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant) running from the building entrance (see below).
Another beautiful optical composite. Today, these would be CGI extensions of live footage. Hitch works with gorgeous matte paintings, done on glass and optically combined with live action footage. They are striking works of art, and examples of the director using all available technology to tell his story.
North by Northwest is a typical Hitchcock “wrong man” story, but it’s also the closest we can get to Hitch’s James Bond film. The first 007 movie was very nearly directed by Hitchcock and starring Richard Burton as James Bond. It was to have been an original story written for the screen. It never happened, and out of these early attempts to put Bond on screen came the 1965 film Thunderball, and likely an early death for author Ian Fleming due to intense stress from legal proceedings. But that’s another story, told at length in Peter Seller’s book The Battle for Bond. Regardless, North by Northwest is a fast and stylish spy thriller, laced with humour. Hitch took great pains on getting the script right and the story here is smooth and efficient. Within the first few minutes we are dropped into intrigue, with Grant’s character being mistaken for a government agent and whisked away to a confrontation with James Mason’s bad guy. It lacks the depth of his other masterworks, but it’s great fun.
Psycho, which followed North by Northwest, is another matter entirely. It’s Hitchcock’s only out-and-out horror film which, in an elaborate fakeout, begins as a typical crime drama. Though it’s often credited as one of the key sources for the “slasher” films that began in the ’80s, there are only two killings in the film. They are strikingly staged killings, though. The justly iconic shower murder is brilliantly staged, scored, and edited. A masterclass in filmmaking in a compact sequence. The second murder, of the private detective Arbogast, showcases Hitch’s recurring use of staircases to generate suspense. The character slowly pads up the steps, only to be quickly and unexpectedly struck when he reaches the top. The camera stays on him as he stumbles backwards and downwards. Following that, there is a wonderfully fluid use of camera movement that has the camera gliding up the stairs and positioning itself overhead at the top of the staircase as Norman Bates carries his mother from her room and down. Macabre, unsettling, brilliant.
Following my viewing of Psycho, I put on the Criterion Blu Ray of Georges Clouzou’s gothic masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. Released in 1960, the same year as Psycho, this is a haunting and still-graphic film that signalled a move of the centre of gravity of the horror picture from America to Europe.
But that’s another story.
For Xmas this year I got Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, a 15-film Blu Ray boxset and I’ve been slowly making my way through this impressive set. So far I’m struck by how well Hitchcock’s films are visually designed and written. I have previously noted the visual invention of his movies, but not the latter.
With the 1942 Saboteur there is a further working out, following on from his breakthrough The 39 Steps, of the Hitchcock storyline of the “wrong man.” Barry Kane is a worker at a factory that produces armaments for WWII rushes to help put out a fire at that factory. He’s handed a fire extinguisher, which he then gives to a coworker who is fighting the fire. His friend burns to death in the expanding flames of the inferno. It later emerges that this extinguisher contained gasoline, and not fire retardant. He becomes the key suspect in the sabotage of the factory and goes on the run from the police to track down those responsible.
The script is precisely structured. It starts right in the action, and introduces a few key clues that Kane must follow up on. There are moments when Kane flashes back to an envelope he picked up off the floor after bumping into another factory worker. The words on this envelope, and the identity of the man it belongs to, becomes the slender thread Kane has to follow. The importance of the memory of an earlier event, and the protagonist thinking back to wring significance out of it, is a plot element that features heavily in the Italian giallo films of the ’70s. These were stylish mystery-thiller-horror hybrids that owed a partial debt to Hitchcock. However, Hitch’s films showed a careful, structured approach to plot that giallos mostly lacked, and it’s this aspect that stuck out on this viewing of the first seven films of the boxset.
The director’s favourite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt was one of the movies I hadn’t seen. It’s ingenious and sly in how it subtly injects corruption into the heart of a “perfect” suburbia. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, coming to stay at the home of his sister’s family, which his smart niece, also called Charlie. The zestful Charlie longs for a break from the boredom of her domestic existence and was composing a telegram to Uncle Charlie when notice of his coming to stay happened to arrive. To Charlie, this is no coincidence and speaks to a telepathic bond between them.
This light tinge of the supernatural, never fully explored as a plot element but present in the mix, pops up again in Hitch’s masterful Vertigo. In that film, the subtle supernatural element is the possibility that the Hitchcock Blonde, Kim Novak’s Madelaine, is the reincarnation of a woman who died decades before, and that the tragic end to that persons life infects the present. This is another element that the giallo films take and heighten. As in the blind protagonist’s seemingly extrasensory perception in Cat o’ Nine Tails, and the medium’s telepathic detection of a killer in the auditorium in Deep Red, both films by giallo master Dario Argento.
I’d forgotten how stunningly gorgeous a film Vertigo is. The photography is radiant, with the scarlet blood red walls of a restaurant fairly popping off the screen in one scene. Saul Bass’ striking title sequence, which gives tantalizing hints of the story to come using pure image, is a sumptuous piece of pop art in its own right. And there’s even a brief moment of animation at the beginning of a dream sequence that I’d forgotten about. Almost like Freud meets Disney. Bernard Herrman’s haunting music turn the film into a beautifully atmospheric noir fever dream. I recommend watching this on Blu Ray. The colours vibrate with life and detail.
So far, the only real disappointment is The Trouble with Harry. A slow, talky black comedy that lacks true wit and has almost none of the Master’s visual flair. It’s easy to see why it flopped at the box office when it was released.
Onwards. The two up next in the set are North by Northwest and Psycho.
In Danse Macabre, his nonfiction work on horror in books, film, and tv, Stephen King noted that the fans of horror films are like miners for gold. They dig methodically and patiently through tons and tons of dirt just to get that one little gold nugget that makes it all worthwhile. The American indie horror film Stake Land is one of those nuggets.
Sort of a cross between The Road and The Walking Dead, this is a postapocalyptic horror film that follows a band of survivors across a decaying America haunted by vampires. The two main characters are a boy, Martin (Connor Paolo) and a harsh, enigmatic loner, “Mister” (Nick Damici), who rescues the kid after his family is slaughtered by vampires in the opening sequence. The duo set out across a bleak, wasted landscape in search of “New Eden” (Canada) which they hope offers a chance to survive. The vampires prowl at night, savage, animal-like creatures, single-minded and remorseless in their search for blood. An early moment with a vampire feeding off a dead baby pushes the envelope of graphic horror and signals the vampires as a relentless, mindless force of evil. Complicating things is the fact that vampires are not the only creatures to worry about. There is a band of religious fanatics who view the vampires as God’s agents who are doing the divine work of bringing about the apocalypse. And they are happy to facilitate the end of the world, even dropping vampires from a helicopter onto a peaceful, fortified town. Martin and Mister travel across this blasted world, picking up the odd straggler to join their group. They move doggedly onwards, Mister teaching Martin the ways of the vampire killer.
Stake Land is written, filmed, and acted with utter conviction. There’s not a single moment that pushes into winking comedy or that jumps the rails into implausibility. Much of it, if not all, looks like it was filmed on location. It uses stark landscapes and decaying buildings as backdrops, creating a tangible sense of a world that has gone to hell. The performances are all naturalistic and believable (including, surprisingly, Kelly McGillis). And the film ultimately becomes very touching and, thankfully, hopeful, in spite of the vast number of characters that die in unpleasant ways. The vampires and the human monsters are convincing and scary. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with the obvious care and intelligence that went into its making.
Stake Land is highly recommended, a true gift for us patient horror fans who suffer through much dreck to get a gem like this.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.
Horror Express is a cheap but nifty, fast paced, and unpredictable slice of ’70s Euro horror. A Spain-UK co-production from 1972, the film pairs genre vets Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a story that begins as standard monster-on-the-loose fare, albeit in a unique location, and turns into something quite different. Lee stars as Alexander Saxton, an anthropologist who discovers a prehistoric apeman frozen in a cave in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century. Packed into a crate, the icy creature is loaded onto the Transiberian Express. The creature, of course, thaws out and escapes from the crate, stalking passengers aboard the train. But the apeman is far more than it appears.
The creature has a unique way of killing. Its eyes glow red and it sucks the memories and knowledge from its victims through their eyes, blanching the pupils and leaving the brains “as smooth as a baby’s bottom” (as is revealed when Cushing’s Dr. Wells performs an autopsy — his surgical training for the Hammer Frankenstein movies must have come in handy for this sequence). This means that the apeman gets smarter with each killing and acquires new skills. After killing a thief, for instance, it can pick a lock to facilitate its escape. In an out-of-left-field twist worthy of the X-Files it’s revealed that this is not an apeman after all.
A great piece of trash entertainment, Horror Express belies its low budget with a briskly-paced and unusual story, colourful period setting, and quality acting. Cushing and Lee, teamed up so often for films for Hammer and Amicus, work beautifully together. In an interview for John Brosnan’s book The Horror People, Cushing remarked on how much he adored doing the film and the two actors’ warm offscreen friendship shines through in the amiable performances. In the last third of the film, Telly Savalas shows up and chews the scenery as a Cossack officer, considerably livening things up for his brief screen time. The film hurtles along like the titular express, and by the time we get to the literal cliffhanging ending we’ve gone from monster movie to demon possession flick to eon-spanning SF to zombie film to disaster epic. When a character near the end has a brief monologue about how they contain within them the “entire history of the earth” then you know you’ve ended up in a very different place than the beginning of the movie. For a cheap genre film, the screenplay has a streak of crazed genre-blending ambition, combining John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There and Hammer’s Nigel Kneale-scripted The Abominable Snowman in a plot that anticipates some of the storylines in Chris Carter’s The X-Files.
This being a cheap ’70s genre flick, of course there’s tat. Though the apeman is wisely kept in shadow for many scenes, there’s a couple of wonderful moments where it steps into light and looks like it’s wearing a rather hairy sweater. The glowing red eye effects are right out of a Halloween costume. Director Eugenio Martin, in the spirit of ’70s European genre filmmakers like Jess Franco, amusingly overrelies on zooms in and out. The shots of the train hurtling down the track are quite obviously a model. And yet….all this just adds to the charm of the film.
The period gothic settings of the Hammer films were hugely influential on the horror genre of that era. Horror Express clearly attempts to ape (ha!) the Hammer look and feel in its costumes and set decoration. Much like Hammer, there is an ingenious use of limited sets. Apparently there was one train car that was redressed for the various sets, something that was done seamlessly, much like Bernard Robinson did for the studio that dripped blood. The efficient use of set decoration and costuming give the film a modestly lavish look that helps disguise the stingy budget. Staging most of the film on a train helps contain costs, of course, but also adds a feeling of claustrophobia. And anyway, how many other films have used a train as a setting for horror? I can only think of the dreadful slasher film Terror Train. Strange, as it seems a natural setting for a horror flick.
To top things off, composer John Cavacas contributes a wonderful, quintessentially ’70s score. The title sequence begins with the eerie, whistled melody that is carried over into the entire soundtrack. It’s reminiscent of Morricone and Goblin, with a twang of electric guitar and exotic Russian and Chinese stylings, and adds immensely to the film.
I saw Horror Express as a nipper, about 12 or 13 years old I think, on BBC tv in the UK. Back then, of course, television was the only way outside of the cinema where you could watch movies, being pre-VHS tape. So when a horror film came on, for a young genre movie fan it was an event. Plus, my parents actually allowing me to stay up and watch it made it doubly special. At this point I’d seen hardly any Hammer films, so this was likely the first pairing of Lee and Cushing that I saw. The ape man and the red eye/white eye/bleeding eye imagery stayed with me for years after, and I ended up buying a cheap videotaped copy of the film, which had inadvertantly lapsed into public domain. So it was with a bit of trepidation as to how the film would hold up that I popped the brand new Blu Ray disc of the film into the player the other night. I’m happy to report that the film holds up, at least for those of us who are not stuffed-shirt film snobs, and that Severin’s disc is fabulous. The high def transfer is crisp and sharp, with the occasional print damage merely adding to the grindhouse feel.
All in all, it’s retro horror as comfort food, and a reminder that sometimes cheap genre cinema can be somewhat bold and enduring.
How to approach The Human Centipede? A film based on a disgusting, transgressive idea that in all other respects is almost completely conventional. You probably know the central premise–a mad doctor stitches three people together, butt to mouth, to form a creature with a continuous digestive system–but the big disappointment is that there is little else to the film.
The mad doctor is like an uglier, more depressing version of Udo Kier. The plot involves two American women lost in Germany on their way to a night club, who get a flat tire in the wrong place and fall into the doctor’s web. They get captured, they plead for mercy and don’t get it, they try to escape and fail, etc. It’s all like a dull, pretentious, disgusting twin to Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a poetic classic of ‘medical horror’, a genre which itself owed a significant debt to Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
That film had the great Peter Cushing playing Dr. Frankenstein as a driven, obsessed scientist striving to push the boundaries of knowledge into the very secrets of life itself. Human Centipede has Dieter Laser (nice handle) being angry and insane. It’s not progress, and especially a letdown in the faithful reproduction of dusty horror film cliches and its mechanical trudging through an uninspired plot.
Want to see a film that’s transgressive, shocking, and rather brilliant? Watch Tod Browning’s Freaks, a movie that’s almost 80 years old and still retains its power to disturb. Of course, Browning engages you in the characters and expertly manipulates your sympathy. Human Centipede director Tom Six doesn’t seem to give a shit beyond his one, sick joke that he built an entire film around.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is like a relic from the ’80s–an arty thriller that pulses along to the beat of a Tangerine Dream-inspired synth-pop soundtrack. Even the font of the opening credits would be at home at the front end of To Live and Die in L.A. It’s an efficient little noir that revolves around a stunt driver (never named in the film) who moonlights as a getaway driver, giving his clients five minutes of his time to take them to safety. Complications arise for the enigmatic loner when he falls for neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband is in trouble, the kind of trouble that pulls the driver in deep when he agrees to help.
Danish director Refn brings a vibrant, gorgeously saturated colour to the film, and has a knack for crafting moments that linger in the psyche. There are moments when he drops the sound almost entirely and slows events down so they are steadily absorbed through the pores. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen it, but I can still picture the moment when the Driver and Irene get into an elevator with a suspicious stranger. The visuals are drenched in a sunflower-yellow and the scene subtly shifts a beat slower and into silence as the Driver moves Irene to the rear of the elevator and, as cover for preparatory action, gives her a lingering kiss. It’s a great little sequence, one that ends in sudden and extreme violence, and tells us more about the central character than any lengthy monologue. The Driver has little past that we’re told of directly, yet the direction and Gosling’s detailed performance feed us all we need to know.
The Driver is a complicated, yet mysterious character, and his relationship with Irene plays out in wordless moments, glances, smiles, gestures. Because they don’t talk about it their love becomes magical. It’s brilliantly understated and moving, and like the whole film it works its way under your skin. The music, a retro synth score by Cliff Martinez and a few 80s-style pop songs, complement the stylish visuals like a hand in a leather driving glove. Refn has said that the films of ’80s teen movie director John Hughes were a key influence. Hughes’ movies had similarly interesting pop music, and the songs in Drive appear to comment on the character of the Driver and, like all good film scores, add another layer. I kept tripping back to other films thinking that, just on the other side of town, James Caan was busting into a safe to the electro-pulse of Tangerine Dream and William L. Petersen and John Pankow were driving the wrong way up a freeway to the beat of Wang Chung.
Drive is a pure visual exercise and a superb example of how films, in the hands of gifted artists, say the majority of what they want to say through image. Everything else is important only in how it interacts with image. Refn is a filmmaker to watch and Drive is one of my favourite films of the year.
Postscript – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the superb supporting performance of Albert Brooks, playing against type as a small time crime operator with a psychotic streak a mile wide.