The Haunted Palace (1963)

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It’s common knowledge that Roger Corman’s 1963 film of “Edgar Allan Poe’s” The Haunted Palace is not really based on Poe’s poem at all but an H. P Lovecraft story entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  Corman tells us in an interview on the DVD release that, after directing several Poe films, he simply wanted to change things up a little.  However, there is relatively little that is different about this film from the previous Poe adaptations, but this is a case of “more of the same.”  With the emphasis on “more.”

There is more of almost everything here than in the other films of the cycle.  Firstly we have Vincent Price in not one but two roles, and giving perhaps his best performance in the whole series.  There are times, sure, where he eats up and spits out the scenery with gusto, but also moments (thanks to his dual character) where we see subtleties in his performance that are not present elsewhere.  There are moments of genuine tenderness between him and Debra Paget, as well as times when he appears to be the personification of pure evil.  We’re used to seeing the latter, the but former comes as something of a surprise.

The visual aspects of horror are increased here.  While the film isn’t gory as such, we see a number of people burned to death, as well as getting more than a glimpse of the “mutants” of the village, and whatever that “thing” is lurking underneath the palace – and here Corman breaks that golden rule of never showing your monster if you have a low budget.  A blurred image doesn’t make it look any more real.  There are, of course, some visually horrific elements to other films in the series, but they are normally resigned to thrilling set-pieces such as the climax of The Pit and the Pendulum and not to effects through make-up or photography.

There is also more music here, and the soundtrack by Ronald Stein is both stunning and beautiful and, hearing it away from the visuals, one might be forgiven for thinking it was written more for a 1940s melodrama than for a 1960s horror movie.  What this lush score does is complement, and yet draw attention to, the grandeur of the palace itself.  Looking at the cinematography, and the way the set is presented, it is difficult to remember that this is still film-making on a budget.  It seems as if with each film in the series, Corman was getting more and more confident, and managing to achieve a more luxurious look to his film, and this seems to reach a peak here, although many view Masque of the Red Death, which followed, as a better film.

For me, both The Masque of the Red Death and The Haunted Palace fall down slightly because of their longer running times – yet another example of “more.”  While The Haunted Palace is beautifully done, and well-acted, it does seem to outstay its welcome by around a quarter of an hour or so.  Part of the reason for this is due to the repetition within the film.  There are only so many times that Ward/Curwen can decide to leave the palace and the village and then decide to stay again, and this recurring issue seems only to prolong the film rather than make it better.

Perhaps this is why, despite everything I have written above, I just can’t warm to it like I can some of the earlier films in the series.  The other films may not have been so sumptuous as The Haunted Palace, or as well acted, but there were also never sections where they were seemingly being artificially extended.  There is a sense here that the notion of making something of quality from a low budget has gone just that little bit too far towards a real quality picture – a bigger budget literary adaptation – and I’m not sure that’s what audiences want(ed) from a Corman/Poe/Price horror movie.

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Otra Vuelta de Tuerca (Turn of the Screw) (1985)

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Eloy de la Iglesia’s 1985 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Otra Vuelta de Tuerca, is almost forgotten today, and about as difficult to find as two critics who agree on the meaning of Henry James’s novella.   The print of the film that is surreptitiously passed from collector to collector over the internet comes from a rare TV screening with home-made subtitles added.  Despite the occasional drop out in picture and/or sound, it is seemingly the only version out there in circulation, and so rather precious.

Not only is the film largely unknown, but so is de la Iglesia himself.  Perhaps his best known works outside Spain are Forbidden Love Games (1975) and Murder in a Blue World (1976).  Both are rather over-the-top dramas with more than a dash of exploitation movie thrown in for good measure.   A handful of de la Iglesia’s late 1970s and early 1980s queer dramas were released in America on DVD at one point, but from poor quality prints, with even poorer subtitling, and have long been out of print.  His adaptation of The Turn of the Screw seems to be a mix of his two earlier styles – thoughtful drama mixed with elements of sex and sexuality.

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This 1985 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw borrows a great deal from The Innocents, as perhaps would be expected.  However, some significant changes are made.  Firstly, the governess at the centre of the story is now a male school master and, secondly, the children are portrayed as older than in the previous, acclaimed adaptation.  Asier Hernández was fourteen when he played Mikel (Miles in the original) in the film (and looks older), whereas Martin Stephens was twelve in the 1961 version.

The change in gender within the central role is key to de la Iglesia’s vision – the repressed sexuality in the first film is now repressed homosexuality, and the back story involving the teacher having recently failed to become a priest only encourages that reading.  The older age of Mikel provides added threat to the naïve and out-of-his-depth teacher, with him seemingly attempting to seduce the teacher at every opportunity, but in a way that appears to be more plausible than in the earlier film.  However, as with the ghosts themselves, is this “seduction” all in the mind of the teacher or actually happening?  By the end of the film, the viewer is not any clearer, but that’s hardly surprising in an adaptation of James’s tale.

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What is perhaps most surprising here, especially to those who have seen the director’s other work, is how low key the film is.  While not as subtle as The Innocents, de la Iglesia takes his film at a stately pace and avoids the pitfalls of trying to scare the viewer – or shock them.  We find out even less about Quint and Miss Jessel here than in other adaptations, and certainly know very little about their supposed corruption of the children.  Despite his early work involving elements of exploitation cinema, de la Iglesia avoids that kind of material here almost completely.

What perhaps is most surprising about the film is that I like it nearly as much as The Innocents.  That, to some, may be sacrilegious.  However, the gender change of the protagonist is an interesting twist, but not used as a cheap gimmick.  Instead, it allows the director to explore his own themes and motifs.  Forbidden Love Games, from 1975, sees a teacher effectively kidnapping two teenaged students and corrupting them with the games of the title until they actually like what they are being made to do.  The film has shades of Salo, but also of Michael Winner’s ludicrous prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The NightcomersOtra Vuelta de Tuerca is not as explicit as Forbidden Love Games, but the same motifs seem to lurk within the back story, even if they are rarely seen with the exception of the bathroom scene involving the two children.

In short, de la Iglesia’s adaptation of the James novella finds the director reaching maturity within his filmmaking.  No, it’s not as subtle – or as scary – as The Innocents, and the cinematography isn’t as beautiful, but the movie is a fine effort within its own right and not when viewed as just a remake.  If you can find a copy, it is well worth a watch…with the lights out, preferably.

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The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

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*contains spoilers*

For anyone who is a big film or music fan, there is always that chasing around for the things we can’t have.  We want the old films that aren’t available for whatever reason, or the unreleased recordings by our favourite artists that are languishing in a vault.  Sometimes we have good reason to salivate at the thought of these films and recordings being released, whereas other times there is good reason for a film or album being more obscure than the rest.

For many years, the Hammer production of Phantom of the Opera, starring Herbert Lom and Michael Gough, was unavailable on home video, particularly in Europe – slightly odd given the famous title.  Eventually it appeared again in 2014 not just on DVD but also on blu-ray. The point of the blu-ray release is a little bit of a mystery as, to be honest, it looks no better than the average DVD of a 1960s movie.  Anyone expecting a startlingly clear, crisp transfer is going to be disappointed.  Sure, it’s perfectly watchable, but that’s not what blu-ray releases are meant to be about.

That aside, the Hammer Phantom proves to have been rather elusive for a very sensible reason – it’s not very good.  Perhaps a hint towards the tameness of the film is  on the packaging itself – it is, surprisingly, a PG certificate.  Rather odd for a Hammer Horror.  But there is a good reason for that – there’s virtually no horror in the film.  Even the unmasking of the Phantom’s face is not actually shown to the viewer – in fact we don’t see that face until the very last shot of the film – and then, to be fair, we’ve seen some celebrity faces look worse than that thanks to botched plastic surgery and face lifts.   Perhaps the only real moment of horror comes when someone is stabbed in the eye, but that is also seen from a distance.

Now, I’m not saying that a horror film needs to be filled with horrific moments, because it doesn’t, but it does need to be tense and sinister, and Phantom is neither.   It is, instead a mystery-come-tragedy about a supposedly deceased composer – let’s face it, you all know the story already.  The film is interminably slow, especially in the opening half an hour or so, and when we actually get the Phantom he turns out to be a slightly eccentric fellow who wants to teach a girl to sing so that his opera can be heard in all its glory.  At one point, the film looks like its going to get a happily-ever-after ending, but presumably someone realised that wasn’t fitting for a horror film and so tagged a three-minute disaster movie on to the end just to give a final thrill.

Viewers that are really paying attention will know that the composer of the opera that is the centre of the film, about “Saint” Joan of Arc, must also have been a psychic.  The film is set in Victorian London and yet Joan didn’t become a saint until 1920.  The supposed opera in question is a turgid effort, which I suppose is at least true to form given British efforts at the form during the Victorian era – but this makes Sullivan’s Ivanhoe sound like Aida (although I will admit that Ivanhoe, to quote Rossini on Wagner, does have “some wonderful moments but dull quarter hours – but I digress).

The script is a lame effort and, surprisingly, Terence Fisher’s direction is decidedly lacklustre and workmanlike.  Herbert Lom makes for a very unscary Phantom (even during the section of the film when he’s meant to be frightening), although he does well during the flashback sequence.  Michael Gough chews up the scenery as always and, as always, wanders through the film looking like a bulldog chewing on a wasp.  Heather Sears looks suitably bored for the most part, and even when kidnapped and brought to the Phantom has a kind of “oh, come on then, teach me to sing and get it over and done with” look on her face.  Oddly, the usually bland Edward de Souza comes out best, making for a surprisingly charming leading man.

All in all, however, this is a very unexciting effort, both from the point of view of the film and of the blu-ray release.  If you haven’t seen it and wonder why you’ve missed the film all these years, well the above information might give you a good idea why it seems to be one of Hammer’s lesser-known titles.  Either that, or you were just lucky to miss out.

Elvis Presley: His Hand in Mine (review)

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As it’s Easter, here are my comment on Elvis’s first gospel album, His Hand in Mine, recorded in 1960.  The following is taken from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, available in paperback and in Kindle format from Amazon.

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Some three and a half years after recording the Peace in the Valley EP of sacred music, Elvis finally found himself in a position to record his first full-length album of gospel music.  His Hand in Mine would have a very different feel to the sombre EP.  Here, traditional up-beat gospel songs would sit next to more serious sacred ballads, but the album would still have a consistency with Elvis essentially acting as the leader of the gospel quartet sound he had loved since his boyhood.

Milky White Way had been originally recorded by the Coleman Brothers in 1944, but Elvis based his arrangement on that by another group, The Trumpeteers.  However, he manages to incorporate a blues element into the material, sliding between notes in some places, and even bending notes in others.  Check out how he does this within the line “I’m gonna sit up and tell him my troubles/About the world I just came from” in the last verse.  This is brilliant singing, and shows Elvis thoroughly in his element, merging gospel, blues and doo-wop sounds to make a two minute masterpiece.

Elvis’s influence for the title song of the LP, His Hand in Mine clearly comes from the original recording by The Statesmen.  However, once again, Elvis makes subtle changes.  Doy Ott’s lead vocal on the recording by The Statesman is square in comparison to Presley’s.  Ott moves from note to note with clarity – there are no slides here – and sings with relatively wide, but controlled, vibrato.  Elvis does neither.  There are a number of changes in dynamics within the recording (not present in the original) and, at times, Elvis is almost whispering into the microphone.  There are also some startling switches from the sections in which Elvis sings in his bass voice to the sections where he sings in his higher register in duet with Charlie Hodge.  While his range had no doubt grown over the previous couple of years, it’s clear that Elvis hadn’t quite got the control at the very bottom of his range that he has at the top – he would be much more confident in this area six years later on the How Great Thou Art album.

Elvis gives The Jordanaires a moment in the spotlight at the beginning of I Believe in the Man in the Sky, with the group singing the verse with the barest of accompaniments before Elvis enters to sing the chorus.  His voice sounds glorious, and he uses all his range to navigate the tricky melody.  This is quite unlike anything on the 1957 gospel EP.  The sound is much lighter, the tempo quicker, and the song almost has a swing feel to it.

He Knows Just What I Need is more sombre and sedate and, in many ways, has a sound much more akin to that being used at the time by Johnny Cash on his albums of sacred music.  It’s possibly the least successful song on the album, but that makes it sound worse than it is.  It simply hasn’t got any of the magical moments that make the other songs so wonderful. In a similar vein is Mansion over the Hilltop, but this is distinguished by Elvis’s beautifully-controlled vocal.

In My Father’s House begins with Elvis singing a full chorus not just with The Jordanaires, but as part of them.  Elvis then sings a verse himself before handing over to The Jordanaires bass singer, Ray Walker, for a section before re-joining the group himself for the end of the number.  It’s brilliantly arranged, adding variety to the ballads on the album, and showing that Elvis was more invested in the music itself than hogging all of the spotlight for himself.

Three up-tempo spirituals were recorded next.  Joshua Fit the Battle was a song Elvis had talked about recording back in 1956.[1]  Here he sings the number with a natural swing, aided and abetted by more sterling work from The Jordanaires, against whose voices Elvis’s own nestles comfortably.  Swing Down Sweet Chariot was in the same vein, although there is the smallest hint of rock ‘n’ roll intonation here, not least in the repeated use of the word “well” in between each section.  Elvis would re-record the number in 1968 for the film The Trouble with Girls I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs again finds Elvis as part of The Jordanaires rather than as a soloist, especially during the choruses.  Even in the verses, when Elvis is singing the melody while the group add a rhythmic vocal backing, the mix allows for him to totally blend in – and in the final chorus Elvis can hardly be heard as a soloist at all.

If We Never Meet Again and Known Only to Him see Elvis returning to ballad material, with both songs in waltz time.  Both contain more of the same wonderful selfless musicianship that had dominated the session thus far.

Crying in the Chapel was slightly different.  This was more of a pop song with an inspirational theme – in the same way that I Believe was.  The number wasn’t released until five years later, and became one of Elvis’s few hits during the fallow period of the mid-1960s.  Jorgensen writes that, remarkably “the recording log … says that no satisfactory master was completed.”[2]  In other words, the song wasn’t even deemed as fit for release at the time, something which only goes to demonstrate Elvis’s search for perfection with regards to the project.  There is, of course, another option – that Elvis didn’t feel that the song fitted with the sound of the rest of the album.  That is certainly the case; it has a slightly different feel.  However, it has a fine, restrained vocal that deservedly has become one of the singer’s best-loved songs.

To finish the album, Elvis and the musicians turned to Working on the Building.  Of the upbeat material on His Hand in Mine, this is certainly the weakest.  Unlike the other numbers, there appears to be relatively little thought within the arrangement, which becomes repetitive.  The song was sequenced at the end of the album, thus meaning that an otherwise near-perfect record ended on one of the least effective songs.

His Hand in Mine was an artistic triumph for Elvis.  There wasn’t a single mediocre cut on the whole album, and it had all been recorded in a single night.  Billboard raved.  They called it a “fascinating set of performances,” and stated that “the gospel message has never been put forth with any more greater effect and impact than here.”[3]

[1] Aules Archer, “Stop Hounding teenagers,” True Story, Dec 1956, 22,” 24.

[2] Jorgensen, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, 142.

[3] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, December 5, 1960, 5.

The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014)

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I was pleasantly surprised by Woman in Black: Angel of Death. The reviews have, by and large, been pretty awful, but I think they have also been unfair. Unlike most sequels, this one stands on its own and doesn’t require you to have seen the first film but, at the same time, it’s not just a remake either. This time, the film is set during WW2 with a group of evacuees and a couple of their teachers being sent to the house that dominates the first outing. Whilst there, they meet an airman and the younger teacher starts a tentative relationship with him. At the same time, mysterious things start happening in the house.

Angel of Death isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but it’s not a copycat effort either. The first film seemed overlong to me, and strangely un-cinematic. Despite a very good performance from Daniel Radcliffe, a film where a guy walks around a house holding a candle for nearly two hours just isn’t very exciting, despite the fact it was well made and had more gravitas than this second effort. Where this second film wins out is by having more characters, and yet not enough for the house to feel occupied as such. The greater number of characters allows relationships to develop between them, and this is, after all, something that most films rely upon. The stark, dark, cinematography of the first film, where many scenes were drained of colour, is retained here but the greater use of dialogue means it isn’t quite as foreboding. This sequel might not be as “worthy” as the original but, to me, it’s more entertaining.

Indeed, the film zips along and is over and done with in ninety minutes, and yet still manages to be atmospheric. But it’s not without faults. Phoebe Fox is superb in the lead role of the young teacher, but Jeremy Irvine, as the young airman, seems to be literally on autopilot. That’s not his fault – his part is woefully underwritten and he has very little to work with. One can only wonder what attracted him to the part in the first place. He is as charming and charismatic as ever, but that doesn’t make up for the clichéd dialogue he is saddled with, and his “big scene” about two thirds of the way through the film is, frankly, pretty awful. The final third of the film seems much more of a genuine climax than in the first film, with a couple of impressive sequences packing quite a punch.

Yes, there’s no doubt that we’ve been here before, not just with Woman in Black itself, but with other period ghost stories. But the best horror films are often those that stick to a formula and make sure they do it well – and that’s pretty much what this film does. The atmosphere is well-sustained throughout, and there are some genuine jump-scares too if that’s your thing. If falls down in the sometimes clichéd script, but it’s entertaining enough and certainly not the dire outing that some reviewers are leading us to believe.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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I will admit it from the very beginning:  this is a rant.    Rants are good for you, and we should all have them from time to time, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I had to watch Don’t Look Now this week for teaching purposes.  I last saw the film when I was about fifteen, and I remember not being exactly over-enamored with it back then.  But that was twenty-five years ago (I say this with a sudden realisation that I can recall things from a quarter of a century ago – I’m getting old).   So, I went into this latest viewing without any real expectations, other than the fact that it’s viewed as a “modern classic” (modern despite the fact it’s now 42 years old).

It will come as little surprise that I really and truly do not agree with those that have hailed it as a masterpiece.  On the contrary, I found it to be overlong, tedious, self-indulgent and pretentious twaddle.  It is a “clever film.”  I will grant it that much – but cleverness for the sake of showing off and being clever is pointless.  The editing of the film is brilliantly done – if you’re giving a lecture on what can be achieved by jump cuts and match cuts etc.  But most people watching the film are doing so because they want a diverting way to spend two hours, not because they want to sit at the screen and say “oh, that’s clever.”  In the end, it’s this clever editing that is the film’s downfall for me (or, at least, it’s biggest downfall).  Instead of producing a film that is seamless and engrossing, it produces a film that constantly reminds you that you are a watching a film.

This is, of course, relatively normal for an “arthouse” film, but Don’t Look Now doesn’t present itself as an arthouse film.  In fact it doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is.  Is it a horror film?  Kind of, but not really.  Is it to be viewed as entertainment?  Well, no, not really.  In fact what it seemingly tries to do is straddle the notions of horror, arthouse and entertainment – and ultimately fails at all three.  It’s like watching Kubrick – I would really like the hours back that I have spent watching Kubrick films.  In other words, it’s an entertainment that is just too damned clever for its own good.  It’s pretentious in the fact that it is trying to somehow elevate itself over the cinema of (for?) the masses and yet still be entertaining, and it tries to do that by stealing leaves out of  the arthouse book:  playing with time and space, showing how clever editing can be, a plot moving along at a pace slower than me with a dodgy knee and walking stick, and completely and utterly pointless shots of Donald Sutherland’s and Julie Christie’s hairy bits.

In short, Don’t Look Now encapsulates the very type of filmmaking that I abhor: cleverness for the sake of cleverness.  It might be clever but it sure as hell isn’t entertaining as it meanders along not really going anywhere and only providing a mystery by playing tricks on the audience.  It’s the equivalent of writing a whodunnit and only introducing the murderer to the audience on page 198 of 200.  Yes, the film is very “worthy,” but worthy of what?  I have no problem with arthouse cinema – you know what you’re getting when you walk into the cinema or when you put the DVD in the player.  But this type of no-man’s-land (and Roeg is one of the “best” exponents of it, at least in his earlier directorial efforts) doesn’t excite me at all.  It leaves me totally cold…and reaching for the DVD eject button or, at the very least, the fast forward option just to see what happens at the end.  And in the case of Don’t Look Now, don’t even get me started on that.

The Sender (1982)

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Netflix in the UK is currently showing an obscure little horror film from 1982 called The Sender.  Directed by Roger Christian, the film tells the story of a young man taken to a mental hospital after trying to drown himself.   Whilst there, the doctors attempt to find out who the man is, why he tried to commit suicide and what role his strange mother has to play in his story.   Unlike many horror films from the period, this avoids the stalk and slash formula, opting for a mystery/thriller approach instead, but wrapped up in a packaging that is unmistakably horror.  The script is intelligent, the direction solid but unflashy, and the acting above-average for a horror film of the period.

These issues alone, along with its obscurity, would make the film worth seeking out while you can.  However, there is more of interest here to the horror fan than just a decent movie.  Indeed, it seems clear that this is a predecessor and inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street.  The horror element of the film is tied up in the fact that the young man at the centre of the narrative can “send” his thoughts and dreams to others around him, making them think and feel what he is thinking and feeling.  It’s telepathy, but almost in reverse.  It’s also Freddy Kreuger, but in reverse:  rather than entering other people’s dreams, he can make people enter his.   The whole feel of the film is very similar to Elm Street, from the invasion of dreams scenario to the eerie musical soundtrack which clearly bears similarities to the later film.  The “if I die before I wake” prayer even plays a prominent part here, too.   The connections are too many to be coincidental – and that’s before you take into account the even greater similarities between this film and the third in the Elm Street franchise.

Also of interest is that I have written a few times about the negative ways in which those with mental health conditions are portrayed in horror films.  Here, though, the portayals of patients are generally inoffensive – that’s not to say they are ideal, but for a film made thirty years ago, The Sender was clearly somewhat ahead of its time in this regard.  The young man at the centre of the story, for example, might unintentionally injure others thanks to his “sending” capabilities, and yet he is presented to us in a sympathetic way – he is shown to be a victim, not mass murderer who goes on the rampage.

All in all, this is a film that deserves to be better known, and quite why it isn’t is something of a mystery.  Even Quentin Tarantino is quoted as saying it was one of his favourite horror films of the early 1980s.  Its great to see Netflix presenting it over here in the UK (there has never been a UK DVD release), in HD no less.  These films are not often permanent fixtures, and so grab it while you can.