Saturday, January 28, 2012

#125: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)

The official Oscar hype season has begun, and silent film homage The Artist looks like the sentimental favorite. I haven't seen it yet, so I'll refrain from knocking it, but several critics I admire, as well as Kim Novak, have taken issue with its appropriation of large chunks of Bernard Herrmann's music for Hitchcock's Vertigo to score much of the film's final third. Since I haven't seen it, I don't have an opinion yet, but I'm puzzled by what I've read. That score has about as much to do with silent film as a Jay-Z video or a super-talky Aaron Sorkin-scripted project, etc. I'm sure plenty of people will congratulate themselves on seeing The Artist and recognizing a connection, however revisionist, to the early days of film, but will it inspire anyone to actually, you know, seek out and watch authentic silent films from the first 30 years of the medium? Is it just more faddish costume-party pastiche?

I know silent films are a hard sell for most people. When I first began learning about film history, I had a tough time watching silents. The poor quality of a lot of silent film prints, the sometimes comically exaggerated gestures of the performers, the quaintly worded title cards, the jarring absence of human voices (or any diegetic sound, for that matter), the cultural distance between silent and sound film (for me, even an early 1930s film seems relatable and connected to the world we currently inhabit, but silents seem like found footage from some distant ancestral time): watching these films seemed more like necessary work than pleasure. I stuck with it, though, and I began to appreciate, enjoy, and occasionally even love many silent films and filmmakers, especially F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith, Erich Von Stroheim, Louis Feuillade, and Buster Keaton, and the pre-sound films of Charlie Chaplin, Carl Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Yasujiro Ozu, King Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch, and Josef Von Sternberg.

Silent film at its best can put the viewer in an almost hypnotic state, a weird place between the dreaming and waking world, and is ideally suited to horror. Some of the best silent films are horror movies or contain horror elements. Murnau's Nosferatu was the first silent film that really drew me in and made me forget about the absence of sound. John S. Robertson's take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Jekyll and Hyde story is not a masterpiece like Murnau's vampire film, but it is most definitely worth seeing, particularly for the delightfully creepy performance of John Barrymore (Drew's grandpa) in the dual title role. This is a briskly paced film with great atmosphere and clever use of minimal sets.

I think we're all familiar with the plot, so I'll spare you a description. This mostly faithful film departs from Stevenson's book by using two characters added in an 1887 stage play: Millicent, the daughter of Sir George Carew, who is engaged to Jekyll, and Miss Gina, a dance hall singer who gets involved with Hyde. These added elements have become such a part of the story that they often appear in subsequent adaptations. Unlike some poor-quality silents, the cast here realizes it's on film and doesn't mug for the back row, although Barrymore does go cuckoo-bananas when he drinks the potion. The transformation into Hyde is a marvel of performance. Using just a little makeup and some bizarrely oversized prosthetic hands, Barrymore makes his Hyde a lecherous, menacing, leering, disfigured walking id, hunched into himself, grinning with huge teeth, reaching out with those bizarro-world hands, indulging every impulse. A scene where he stomps on a small homeless boy is a hugely enjoyable celebration of evil. Barrymore is genuinely unsettling in the part. This is not a dated, archaic performance. It still works.

Robertson shot on a set with just a few artificial buildings and streets, but he fills them with such a sense of geography and lived-in presence that you almost forget it's not a real London street. Jekyll's home and laboratory, Carew's entertaining room, a seedy bar presided over by a top-hatted MC who bangs a gavel on his table to get the room's attention, a dirty street and flophouse where Hyde stays. These locations are given life by the film's subtle camerawork and detailed set decorations. It's a good-looking movie.

John S. Robertson, a Canadian, began his film career in 1916 and quickly became a prolific Hollywood director throughout the silent era. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was his most successful film. When sound replaced the silents in the early 1930s, Robertson continued working for a handful of years, making one of the earliest Little Orphan Annie films in 1932. He retired in 1935, concluding his career with a Shirley Temple movie, Our Little Girl. I wasn't able to find out if the experience of working with Shirley Temple drove him out of the business forever or if he'd already planned his retirement, but he never made another film in the 29 of his remaining years.
Fun facts: Notable classical composer Edgard Varese has a bit part in this film as a policeman. The Byrds' song "Old John Robertson" is about John S. Robertson, who retired in the same Southern California neighborhood where future Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers member Chris Hillman grew up. According to Hillman, Robertson had a huge personality and was famous around town for both his career as a former silent film director and his large handlebar mustache and 1920s clothes.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Flashback: Super Mega Gigante Quatro Edition

Hey, everybody. I have already written about the next four films on the Rue Morgue list. Here are links to those older reviews.

Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1974)

Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man (Michele Soavi, 1994)

Deranged (Jeff Gillen & Alan Ormsby, 1974)

The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

#124: Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

This unfairly neglected cult horror film from 1981 comes armed with a pedigree that should make any horror fan take notice. The director, Gary Sherman, previously wrote and directed the cult British horror film Raw Meat aka Death Line, and he went on to make other cult films of varying quality like Vice Squad, Poltergeist III, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Lisa. The credited screenwriters, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, wrote the screenplays for Alien and Total Recall, and the late O'Bannon was also involved as screenwriter, director, editor, and/or special effects man on Dark Star, Star Wars, Heavy Metal, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and The Resurrected. He unfortunately died a few years ago from Crohn's disease at the too young age of 63. (In an extra on the DVD, O'Bannon says that he and Shusett didn't deserve their screenplay credit and merely revised the original screenplay by Jeff Millar and Alex Stern.) Stan Winston, the makeup effects designer, created the makeup, prosthetic, and/or digital effects for White Dog, the first three Terminator movies, Aliens, the first two Predator movies, The Thing, Edward Scissorhands, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Iron Man, to name just a few. He also directed Pumpkinhead and a Michael Jackson video. (Winston also died a few years ago, from cancer, at the too young age of 62.) Finally, the cast features a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, who hasn't died recently.

Dead & Buried takes place in the fictional New England seaside small town of Potters Bluff. We open to a photographer taking some nature shots on the beach. An attractive woman wanders into his shot, and the two have some vaguely smarmy flirtatious banter. He takes some pictures of her, she propositions him, and the first of the film's many effective shock scenes follows.

We quickly learn that, despite its Capraesque nomenclature, Potters Bluff is a crazy fucking town. Don't go there on vacation, you knucklehead. The nature of this insanity appears at first to be some kind of homicidal community ritual, shades of an oyster-shucking New England port-side Wicker Man. The viewer quickly settles in for a strange, strange take on the then-current slasher film fad, but Dead & Buried becomes something even stranger when a couple of bizarre twists are later revealed. I'll leave those twists for you.

Sherman and cinematographer Steven Poster (Donnie Darko) create a pleasurably unsettling atmosphere with a color palette of dark earth tones, minus the red, and unique lighting of scenes, in which Poster keeps parts of the frame dark and overlights others. This lighting technique creates a visual style similar to headlights cutting through fog. Sherman also creates a real sense of community with his cast of interesting faces who were mostly undervalued by the big screen and worked primarily in television, including James Farentino as the town sheriff investigating the recent string of bizarre murders, Jack Albertson as the mortician, and the late Lisa Blount as a sexy nurse with a homicidal streak. Most of the performances are understated and dryly humorous, though Farentino goes apeshit in the final third of the film, to hilarious effect.

Dead & Buried has a real time capsule quality as well. It contains so many hallmarks of late '70s/early '80s horror that are sorely lacking from today's world of torture, lightning-speed cuts, casts full of blandly attractive voids, no atmosphere or sense of place, and network television style lighting. Here is a film with real suspense, humor, lively characters of varying ages, skillful pacing, developed atmosphere and setting, and a distinct look and feel. I don't have much to say about this one other than recommending it as a satisfying, enjoyable early-'80s horror film that deserves a wider audience.