July 21, 2014

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) - an early 'modern' horror

(1933, USA)

Unique two-strip Technicolor horror is grossly distorted on DVD

I love Wax Museum because the humour is modern, the colour scheme almost unique and that it can still chill and shock despite being over 80 years old. It bridges the gothic (or German expressionistic) look of early Universal horror with a modern metropolitan setting - eradicating the safety net that horror only happens in far away countries or the distant past.

Fast-talking, wise-cracking Glenda Farrell steals Fay Wray's limelight with a storming performance as a tough, nosey news reporter. She's chasing a suicide story unaware it's linked to serial murder and body-snatching, centred around the newly-opened House of Wax...

With a twisty plot, racy dialogue (Glenda asks a policeman, "How's your sex life!"), distorted, creepy sets (from production designer Anton Grot), dynamic camerawork, this is a super example of an early ‘talkie’ - the colour helps you forget just how early this is. The problems of unwieldy cameras and the hiding of microphones (spoofed in Singin' In The Rain) have all been surmounted only five years after the first talkie, The Jazz Singer.

Lionel Atwill ruled many movies as a black-hearted villain, but here balances his character with sympathy for the pain of his being crippled in a fire, no longer able to walk or sculpt - his hands burnt so badly that they're no longer useful.

Wax Museum is a classic of 'pre-code' Hollywood, made before the Hayes Code censorship kicked in, that toned down Hollywood for several decades with a huge list of 'don'ts'. Glenda's character starts off nursing a New Year's hangover, a police friend is flaunting a ‘naughty’ magazine and one of the villains is explicitly a cocaine addict, as well as such irreverent immoralities as alcohol during prohibition and marrying for money. Mercy!

Briefly, films talked about sex and drugs, and horror was that much more horrifying. Allowed to be sadistic, shocking and sexual. So too was the advertising, posters and publicity photos used nudity - substituting naked statues for actual women (see above and below).

After years of officially being a lost horror film, a single print of Wax Museum was discovered. We're therefore at the mercy of any damage that this only print has ever endured. Any scenes where a few frames are missing also means that snippets of dialogue are also lost. I rewatched the film, comparing it to the scriptbook (above) to discover that, while it reprints the final script, much of the dialogue was then altered during the shoot. No major changes, but perhaps of interest to how director Michael Curtiz improvised or improved dialogue on the day. This book also has an extended look at the origination of the script that inspired so many similar projects and two direct remakes.

Mystery of the Wax Museum isn't available on its own DVD, but is included on the 1954 House of Wax DVD and blu-ray, as an extra! Unfortunately it's not included in high definition.

Electronically tweaked colours on DVD (left), 
original two-strip on laserdisc (right)

Wax Museum was filmed in an experimental colour technique, two-strip Technicolor, where only red and green elements of the colour spectrum could be recorded. It needed twice as much film, but red and green were chosen because they could accurately capture Caucasian flesh tones.

The bad news is, that on the DVD and blu-ray releases, this rare colour process has been electronically tweaked to artificially include blue, as well as the original red and green, resulting in a surreal, over-saturated effect. The original delicate flesh tones are now a surreal, ruddy red.

On DVD, blue has been added (left) to scenes 
that should only be red and green (right)

Some sets and costumes are now royal blue, a colour that wouldn't have been seen in the cinema. This technique fails to make the film resemble a normal colour film, and deprives us of seeing how 'two-strip' looked. The only official release to use the original elements was the laserdisc release, of both Doctor X and Wax Museum, both filmed in two-strip. Mystery of the Wax Museum was originally written as a follow-up to Doctor X, making this a very suitable pairing, both starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

MGM Laserdisc double-bill

By the way, the two-strip release of Doctor X has been on DVD a couple of times, though the alternate black-and-white version (that uses different camera angles and alternately filmed takes) hasn't hit home video yet.

(This is my updated look at the film and its availability. Nine years ago, this article looked like this...)

BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (2013) - intense adaption of Frank Miller's vision

(2013, USA)

An animated Batman for adults!

There's a new problem in Gotham City, an army of mutant criminals on a worsening crimewave. Just as Commissioner Gordon finally retires, Batman appears after a ten-year absence, but is perhaps too old to fight crime anymore. The 'masked vigilante' also faces hostility from the media, politicians and the new chief of police... 

Even after all the Bat-movies and Bat-TV I've seen, I had a lot of fun watching this. Frank Miller's legendary reinterpretation of the Batman universe has been adapted as a feature-length animation. An honest attempt to be faithful to the original comic results in a very different approach to the character seen in the many previous animated Batmans, and intended for even more mature audiences than Christopher Nolan's sombre live-action trilogy.

Early edition of the graphic novel

The release of the 1986 Frank Miller story, together with 'Watchmen', was back when comics became acceptable for adults (outside of Japan), and the 'graphic novel' became a thing - a comic that looked like a book and a new way to read a limited-run story, as a collection. 

Miller simply acknowledged that times had changed in America, dragging Batman into a far more realistic metropolis. This isn't to say that he distorts the DC characters. He retains their origins but refuses to ignore their real adversaries - automatic weapons, politics and overwhelming organised crime. Each more of a problem than colourfully costumed villains and their themed burglaries. 

When first published, there were shockwaves caused by the changes made to the friendly neighbourhood superhero, still strongly associated with Adam West's tongue-in-cheek man in tights. Batman was getting old. Ronald Reagan was President. Robin was a girl! Superman was a dick! Batman angry, Batman kill! It smashed many preconceptions with interesting angles. Fresh, controversial, hard to dismiss - it tempted an older audience back to 'comic books'.

The Dark Knight Returns revived interest in Batman as a franchise, providing a new angle unexplored in film or TV. The Tim Burton films could now be dark, with Batman (1989) a depressed, introspective loner. Surprisingly, Bruce Wayne's unrelenting cynicism was also carried into Batman - The Animated Series (1992).

Now there's this animated adaption of the assault on the Batman mythos. Throughout this feature-length adventure, the story regularly warrants the 15 certificate, with violence, madness and sexuality usually excised from Bat-animation.

Some of the highlights include an even more aggressive Batmobile than Nolan's Tumbler, the brutal Bat-Tank! Big enough to hold an endless supply of firepower. A slamdown battle with Superman (but how?). And this insane villain - a topless Nazi machine-gunner!

Even now, adapting this story as animation is risky. It's notable how few animated films are restricted to the over-twelves, the exception being anime. I struggle to think of any British or American animation for adults since the X-rated era of Ralph Bakshi's feature films, like Fritz the Cat. Apart from the 1990's MTV Animation that brought us the complex mind-games of The Maxx and the fetishistic gunplay of Aeon Flux.

Now, adult animation is mostly TV comedy that dare to swear. South Park then Family Guy wallow in occasionally bloody, gross-out humour. Hilarious though they are, watching The Maxx again reminded me how exceptional serious stories are with mature, psychological depth.

Bruce Timm cartoon combining everything
that would be rejected by the TV network 

Of course there are restrictions on what children should see in TV shows and Batman - The Animated Series worked hard to make exciting stories that could also interest older viewers. They did this with rounded characters, a downbeat Batman, fast, intricate stories, beautiful design work, a superb voice cast and by pushing the action as far as possible.

But here's a rare chance to experience Batman without those limits.

The Dark Knight Returns was first released on DVD and blu-ray as Part One in 2012 and Part Two in 2013. It's now available as a single Deluxe Edition (at top). A misleading pity that the generic cover art on all these editions don't relate to the style of animation, which is more in line with Miller's designs.

July 09, 2014

THE LODGER (1927) - Hitchcock's riff on The Ripper...

(1927, UK)

Alfred Hitchcock's earliest thriller is far from silent in this new restoration 

While Alfred Hitchcock's earliest films as a director have recently been restored by the BFI, fans of his thrillers shouldn't delve back any further than The Lodger, where his aptitude for innovative technical style and plot twists in the search for thrills, chills, cheeky dark humour and blondes first meshed.

It begins, like Frenzy, with a body discovered at London's Embankment. As a string of serial murders slowly creep across London, a mysterious figure clutching a surgical bag arrives at a lodging house. (Hitchcock lays it on rather thick at this point, with an introduction that echoes Cesar appearing from inside the coffin in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). The new lodger demands that photos of women be removed from his room. Dialogue further hints that he doesn't like women and the possibility that he's "a bit queer", but Hitchcock also cast a gay actor, Ivor Novello, in the role. I have a suspicion that Hitch, and many other casting directors since, add an extra layer of 'mental anomaly' by casting gay men as psycho-killers. See also Farley Granger in Rope and Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

The 2013 restoration of The Lodger was badly needed - the image was noticeably deteriorated on the National Film and Television Archive print. But the replacement of all original titles and cards with new digital titles, animated as if they have film weave, is presumably a necessary evil. An overuse of tinting in the opening scenes extends to two colours being used - which I doubt was ever possible at the time. While the tinting calms down, and even allows some black and white scenes to creep in, a more distracting element pervades the whole film...

The music has beautiful melodies, but they continue unabated over too many dramatic turning points when the mood has obviously changed. It wallpapers over the emotional content of scenes, certainly not complementing them. A couple of songs are used, proving to me why this technique hasn't been used before. It's really very hard to follow performance and story and read intertitles when you're simultaneously listening to lyrics.

The music repeatedly echoes themes from North By Northwest, a misguided reference to a much later Hitchcock thriller that knowingly signals far too early that this is a 'wrong man' story, rather than a 'killer on the loose'. The light theme of romantic adventure dissipates the housekeeper's terror and the suspense of the heroine alone with the suspected killer.

Admittedly, the image has been miraculously salvaged, but I'm certainly hanging onto this 2009 DVD (of the National Film and Television Archive print, before the new digital restoration) for the more traditional soundtrack and a record of how it actually looked on film.

It may have been this new soundtrack, but my long-held impression of The Lodger as a tense story soon dissipated after the opening scenes. The cosiness and light comedy of the parlour, a love triangle and not many more thrills after the family's initial suspicions of a murderer in their midst. The thrust of the original novel has been compromised and is better served with far more psychological terror in the 1944 adaption starring Laird Cregar (below).

The Lodger (1944) is also set earlier than Hitchcock's film, placing it back in the era of The Ripper as well as the novel. Cregar's performance is eerily brilliant and together with director John Brahm's astonishing injections of sexual motive, this is by far a better adaption.

Catching up on a spate of Jack The Ripper documentaries on TV about ten years ago, I was puzzled to see a 'new' theory being floated that the murderer disappeared so quickly because he lived in local lodgings. I saw nothing new in that idea because the author of The Lodger had suggested it a hundred years earlier! Indeed, Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel was the first to dramatise the case.

With the 1927 The Lodger, students of Hitchcock will find plenty of foreshadowing of the master's later themes and motifs, and some interesting visual techniques that bridge the gap between the German filmmakers he admired and his own style and innovation. But this is a compromised restoration to try and enjoy it with.

July 08, 2014

Flashback 1981 - FLASH! CLASH! SLASH!

A selection of pages from British movie magazines of 1981. 

The highlight of 1980's Christmas holidays was easily Dino De Laurentiis' Flash Gordon, which didn't need much advertising with Queen's theme song riding high in the charts.

Photoplay, January

The above advert pinpoints when Flash Gordon opened in London and then around the country. The superb artwork is by Renato Casaro. (Film On Paper interview Renato Casaro).

Photoplay, January

Flash Gordon was played by Sam Jones, then almost completely unknown. These magazines had to remind us that he'd had a brief role in Blake Edwards' 10, playing Bo Derek's boyfriend.

Film Review, January

Unusually, Film Review ran an offer on original Flash Gordon film posters - UK quads for only 95p each! I've not seen official cinema posters being officially sold like this before or since! Yes, I've still got one.

Photoplay, January

The Stuntman was fun, with Peter O' Toole playing a crazed movie director (who he based on David Lean!). This article points out it was delayed in getting released, having been shot in 1978. It appeared in cinemas later in the year.

Photoplay, January

Director Richard Rush (kneeling), Peter O'Toole and Steve Railsback making The Stuntman.

Film Review, January

A tribute to Steve McQueen who'd passed away in November, 1980. In Britain, we'd only just seen his last film The Hunter.

To kick off a busy summer, here comes Superman... II. The newspapers were buzzing about how Richard Donner, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman had left the production when they discovered they'd made two films, while only being paid for one. Well, that was the story. The producers had performed a similar trick with The Three/Four Musketeers. Having lost the director, Richard Lester completed this second film, Susannah York replaced Marlon Brando as Superman's parental guidance, and Gene Hackman's scenes were very obviously finished with a body double (who mostly kept his back to the camera). Despite all this, the film was hugely successful and an enjoyable crowd-pleaser with just the right amount of humour. Years later, Richard Donner released his own Director's Cut on DVD, notably less humorous than Richard Lester's approach.

Films and Filming, April

While General Zod is the most memorable character in the film, Terence Stamp's face isn't even shown in the artwork (just the back of his head!) and he doesn't get a 'supporting cast' photo either.

Film Review, May

British film had a great boost from Chariots of Fire, again given free publicity from the hit single from Vangelis' soundtrack. The story of olympic runners didn't inspire me into the cinema though. Ben Cross (top left) emerged as the star of the film, but his career soon descended into US horror movies. His 'opponent' Ian Charleson (top right) later starred in Dario Argento's Opera (1987) but died far too young, soon afterwards.

Film Review, May

A far more interesting British film appeared at the same time. The Long Good Friday is the twisty tale of ambitious London gangsters. It also nailed the political mood of a country about to embrace Thatcherist consumerism. It established Bob Hoskins as a star and, for a while, Helen Mirren.

Film Review, May

Robin Williams' first starring role. I went to see Robert Altman's Popeye because Mork and Mindy was funny. Before buying my ticket, I was unaware that this was a musical, and also an origin story where Popeye took his sweet time becoming Popeye. Shelley Duvall appeared a great deal happier in this than she had in the previous year's The Shining.

Film Review, May

Here's a great double-page spread of Disney's Herbie Goes Bananas and... David Cronenberg's Scanners! No, it wasn't a double-bill.

Film Review, May

David Cronenberg continued with his run of graphic 'body horror' movies. Because of Scanners' science-fiction element, and a lack of violence featuring guns or knives, the moments of explosive gore bypassed any censor cuts. Videodrome wouldn't be so lucky...

Film Review, June

Weird paste-up poster with a lousy tagline. Posters were losing their touch. Especially in underselling a gutsy action-packed thriller like Nighthawks. With Rutger Hauer as a baddy, just before Blade Runner.

Film Review, June

Halloween and Friday the 13th had initiated the decade of the slasher. Tobe Hooper joined in with the weirdly bloodless The Funhouse, here supported by My Bloody Valentine, which wasn't bloody because much of the gore had been censored. Only the recent DVD special edition restored the scenes we'd first seen in the pages of Fangoria.

Film Review, July

Another Canadian horror classic (again with the bloodiest bits removed), Happy Birthday To Me is now more enjoyable as a whodunnit.

Film Review, July

The clear winner at the box office - Friday continued to thirteen. I remember seeing this on the afternoon of July 29th that year, in order to escape the blanket media coverage of Charles and Diana's wedding.

Film Review, July

Another summer, another Roger Moore Bond movie. There were far fewer gadgets in For Your Eyes Only as Bond came down to Earth (after Moonraker) for a tough, stunt-heavy, spy adventure.

Sword and sorcery films were a parallel genre to compete or cash in with the fantasy adventure of Star Wars mania. 

Film Review, August

Even Clash of the Titans' Bubo the clockwork owl had a whiff of R2-D2. It was Ray Harryhausen's final feature film.

Film Review, August

John Boorman's Excalibur had an interesting cast, but reminded me too much of Monty Python and The Holy Grail without the laughs. Well it still got a few laughs.

Film Review, August

Another Muppet movie - they became regular events for a few years.

Film Review, August

Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam's dark fairy tale, featured a couple of Python cameos, like his first solo film Jabberwocky. But here he'd imagined a spectacular time-travelling story and the special effects to visualise them, culminating in Good literally fighting Evil. Like The Long Good Friday, this was produced by Handmade Films.

Film Review, August

Another big summer movie was of course Raiders of the Lost Ark, though the poster art looked pretty drab in black and white. The many action set pieces and supernatural climax took me completely by surprise - I thought the poster completely undersold it!

Film Review, August

In the seventies, Ken Russell had a great run of making interesting new films almost yearly. But there was a gap after Valentino for a couple of years while he made Altered States, followed by an even longer gap before his controversial Crimes of Passion. In 1981, I was happy to see my first, first-run Ken Russell movie in the cinema. The bonus being that it was science fiction,with special effects by make-up maestro Dick Smith. The climax of the film may now only be familiar for inspiring the pop video for A-ha's 'Take On Me'!

Film Review, October

The film confirmed William Hurt as a star, and co-star Blair Brown is also still working, appearing recently as a regular cast member in J.J. Abrams' TV series Fringe. Both actors had to endure unusual and arduous full-body make-ups for the film. Much more about Altered States here.

Film Review, October

The Omen movie series was first announced as four films, but wound up as a trilogy (Omen IV was a TV movie). The best things about The Final Conflict are Sam Neill as the adult Damien and Jerry Goldsmith's grandiose soundtrack

Film Review, October

A busy summer continued with another from John Carpenter's run of cult classics. Kurt Russell had already starred before for Carpenter, in Elvis - The Movie!

Film Review, October

Michael Mann's first film Thief hit the UK with the title changed to Violent Streets

Films Illustrated, November

Another masterful Brian De Palma horror-edged thriller, his third with Nancy Allen. 

Films Illustrated, November

George Romero took a break from zombies with Knightriders, originally planned as knights on horseback rather than on motorbikes. I don't remember this getting a very wide release in the UK though.

Cinema, Winter Special

Cinema! A new magazine that lasted most of the following year (but infuriatingly displays no dates anywhere). The low quality pulpy paper, apart from a few splashy colour pages, weren't as attractive as the reviews and articles from many of the Starburst regulars. the first front cover (above) features hot property William Hurt in Body Heat.

Cinema, Winter Special

Rare photo of Harrison Ford and his sons Ben and Willard. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark had already confirmed his star status.

Films Illustrated, December

For patrons of the sci-fi superstores of Forbidden Planet, there's plenty of history in this advert from the end of 1981. It mentions that Forbidden Planet began in London in 1978, then opened the New York store early in 1981. Then, in London, it splits into two shops - one for comics and books, the other for movie magazines and memorabilia. After this, it moved round the corner to New Oxford Street, before settling at its present site on Shaftesbury Avenue.

See more magazine flashbacks - here's 1980 - Apocalypse Now and The Empire Strikes Back... The other Flashbacks are linked in the sidebar at right.