Saturday, October 15, 2016

#242: The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927)

Paul Leni, the German expressionist art director and filmmaker who fled the Nazis to make a couple silent classics in the United States (Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs) before his untimely death from blood poisoning in 1929 at the age of 44, also created this wholly entertaining exercise in genre, style, and atmosphere between those two epics. This is Leni in a lighter mood, having fun with the tropes of horror, the whodunit mystery, and slapstick comedy, with a postmodern approach to intertitles and camera movement and a theatrical use of performance and facial expression. It's a hell of a fun movie, and it's one of those rare silents that feels modern.
Based on the stage play by John Willard, The Cat and the Canary begins with a prologue about Cyrus West, an eccentric millionaire who lives in a creepy Gothic mansion overlooking the Hudson River. He's old and frail, and his greedy family are waiting for him to die so they can inherit his wealth. He finally kicks the bucket, but he's left instructions with the executor of his estate that the will must remain locked in his safe for 20 years. Once the two decades are up, his surviving relatives must come to his mansion to hear the reading of the will at midnight. Before that happens, however, someone with leather gloves sneaks into the mansion, opens the safe, and reads the will before putting everything back into place.
This prologue contains German expressionist technique out the wazoo (or "out the kazoo" if you're xenophobic bass guitarist/political huckster Mike Huckabee (see infamous Jaws interview for more information)) with striking use of shadow, superimposition, and a slightly distorted sense of scale. The sneaky reading of the will, on the other hand, flips the point of view so that the audience member is the one committing the deed, with the camera acting as the perpetrator's eyes. With these two opening sequences and a credits sequence that is far more stylish than the usual flat informational title card more typical of the era, Leni lets the audience know from the beginning he's transforming the theatrical material into pure cinema.
Soon, our cast assembles at the mansion to hear the will. The group is made up of elderly lawyer/estate executor Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), hilariously creepy housekeeper Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), the mansion's sole occupant (when Crosby tells her she must have been lonely in the mansion alone for 20 years, she smirks and replies "I don't need the living ones"), and a gaggle of distant nieces, nephews, and cousins. These survivors include kindly Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), scared goofball Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), elderly Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), Cecily (Gertrude Astor), and a couple of cold-as-ice, suspicious types, Charles (Forrest Stanley) and Harry (Arthur Edmund Carewe). Most of these people seem to be in their twenties and thirties except for Susan, so I presume the bulk of the relatives who plagued Cyrus in his living years must have followed him to the grave in the ensuing 20 years. The film doesn't say.
The will is read, most of it Cyrus railing at how awful his relatives are and deciding to leave the entire estate to his most distant relative, with the stipulation that a doctor must examine this person to determine sanity or insanity. If declared insane, the person relinquishes the estate to the next most distant relative, named in a second envelope. A third envelope contains the location of some hidden diamonds.
Soon, a disappearance occurs, which leads to the discovery of a murder, a report of an escaped lunatic, and a plot to drive the estate inheritor crazy so the next person on the list gets the fortune. Lots of adventure, intrigue, suspense, horror, pratfalls, and gags ensue, and it all looks great and moves satisfyingly along.
The Cat and the Canary doesn't have the seriousness of intent of Leni's films on either side of it, but that's not a weakness. Not just an exercise in style, the film is light on its feet and never flashy or overwrought. Leni uses everything he's learned behind the camera, but he doesn't batter the audience over the head with it. Every stylistic touch is in service of the story, the atmosphere, the mood, the characters, and the audience. This is a fun, satisfying film.

Friday, September 30, 2016

#241: Beyond Dream's Door (Jay Woelfel, 1989)

Jay Woelfel's feature film debut, Beyond Dream's Door, is a fascinating regional indie with some serious flaws, an intriguingly unconventional narrative, and a few genuine scares. It's easier to admire than enjoy, and I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but Woelfel is really going for something unusual here, and he intermittently succeeds. This is a real A for effort, C for delivery kind of movie, kept afloat by its weirdness.
Beyond Dream's Door is about psychology student Ben Dobbs (Nick Baldasare). He's been having dark and disturbing dreams that seem to spill into his waking life, which is unusual since Ben hasn't been able to remember any of his dreams since the death of his parents several years earlier. Ben writes these new dreams down in detail and asks his highly unorthodox psych professor Noxx (Norm Singer) to read them over and see what he thinks. (An aside -- Norm Singer as Prof. Noxx is a hilariously weird over-actor, and I especially enjoyed his delivery of this line spoken to the prof's class of psych students: "Yesterday I promised to tell you about a case of major league insanity.") Prof. Noxx gets very excited about this dream diary, which bears striking similarities to a case from 20 years ago, and begins to work with Ben into the wee hours in a basement of the college's library. Ben also involves two grad student TAs, Eric Baxter (Rick Kesler) and Julie Oxel (Susan Pinsky) into his dream life, but things very quickly go awry when Ben's dreams invade the waking lives of everyone he talks to about them. Soon, the line between dreams and reality erodes, and the rest of the film takes place in that weird purgatory between the two consciousnesses.
Woelfel is really good at capturing a waking dream state, avoiding most movie cliches about dreams, and creating a weird, unsettling atmosphere with some nice shots and tricky camera movements that rise above his budgetary restrictions. Woelfel is not so good at finding actors who can deliver his material or special effects artists who can suspend disbelief, and the narrative occasionally drags.
Shot in Columbus, Ohio with assistance from Ohio State film students, Beyond Dream's Door's cast is made up of Woelfel's friends, most of whom have no acting experience, which makes for some rough viewing. If you read this site with any regularity, you know that I often champion nonprofessional acting, criticize the slick professionalism of a lot of Hollywood acting, and have real issues with what is characterized as "good" and "bad" acting in mainstream culture. Sometimes, though, people with no acting chops are just stiff, awkward, and hard to watch. That's the case with most of the people in Beyond Dream's Door.
Baldasare, in the lead role, is understated and not that bad but lacks charisma, Singer is terrible but compellingly strange, and Kesler, Pinsky, and most of the extras and bit players are pretty, pretty, pretty stiff (Larry David typed the end of this sentence). The special effects, too, are cheap and silly and look like some teens made them for a home movie, which means they're still about 89% more effective than CGI. These are genuine criticisms, but you know I always have a tender place in my heart for the cheap, awkward, homemade, and regional, no matter how good or bad. I salute anyone getting out there and making stuff outside of the Hollywood machine. This movie has plenty of problems, but it's unusual and personal and looks like it was made by real humans.
I haven't seen any of Woelfel's other films, but he's still at it, cranking out low-budget horror movies, sometimes straight to video, as director, writer, editor, and soundtrack composer. He even made an interactive, educational documentary about the Titanic for schools that was narrated by Patrick Stewart. Most of the actors never appeared in another film, but Susan Pinsky (not the wife of Dr. Drew, who is also named Susan Pinsky) went on to become a doctor and has a practice in Florida and one of the extras went on to write for Dora the Explorer.