Saturday, June 9, 2018

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

Visually inventive golden age of Hollywood filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian, director of one of my favorite musical comedies, the Maurice Chevalier-starring Love Me Tonight, made his only horror film, this pre-Code adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, in 1931, and he definitely should have made more. But could we have handled it? This is an astonishingly tough and dark film for '30s Hollywood, and no attempt is made to put a happy or uplifting spin on the tragic ending.
Almost all of us are familiar with the Jekyll and Hyde story, so I'll spare you a plot synopsis. The film stars Fredric March in the title roles, and his Jekyll is a much more multi-faceted guy than in many of the adaptations. He's an idealist workaholic, love-struck fiance, and rebellious critic of societal and personal repression, and he's also super horny and barely keeping his libido in check while he waits for his future father-in-law's stubborn unwillingness to approve moving the wedding date closer to the present. His Hyde is one of the darkest I've seen, a terrible and cruel man-beast who delights in the fear, pain, and revulsion he brings out in others, particularly in his hard-to-watch treatment of Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins, best known for her role in Lubitsch's great screwball comedy Trouble in Paradise). Rose Hobart plays the other major role as Jekyll's fiancee Muriel. Supporting roles are played by the awesomely named Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, and Tempe Pigott.
With a bare minimum of sentimentality and corn, Mamoulian's Hyde is surprisingly frank and adult in its treatment of both sexuality and cruelty, even for a pre-Code film. This is not a movie that softens the blow with euphemisms, allusions, or exposition. We see Hyde's domestic violence against and sexual abuse of Ivy in a direct and terrifying way, and these scenes are uncomfortable to watch in ways most classic Hollywood films aren't. This is not purely an entertainment. It's a serious and troubling look at the darkest parts of masculinity and the pain it causes to others.
I realize I've made the film sound like an unpleasant downer, and in a few scenes, it is. However, there are moments of levity, suspense, and visual invention throughout, the cast is wonderful, and Mamoulian tells this dark story with an incredible formal eye. He takes a lot of stylistic risks that mostly pay off.
Those risks include subjective camera angles that put the audience in the body of Jekyll, extreme closeups of people's faces, a transition between scenes that looks like a windshield wiper bringing one frame slowly down on top of another, and the use of lights and shadows to make part of the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde appear as if it's happening without edits or cuts and then abruptly switching to a series of quick edits as the makeup becomes more pronounced. In one particularly fascinating scene that reminded me of a scene in the penultimate episode of last summer's Twin Peaks (a work that makes use of doubles, tulpas, and the splitting of good/evil selves), the swinging leg of Ivy starts to fade into the next scene but stays super-imposed on the screen for a few minutes as the action progresses without her.
This is a harsh but fascinating film, and a very good one. 
 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Blood Shack (Ray Dennis Steckler as Wolfgang Schmidt, 1971/1980?/1977?)

Though many consider Blood Shack to be a bad film or a so-bad-it's-good film, I propose that Blood Shack exists on an alternate timeline where the values and aesthetics and definitions of "bad" and "good" not only don't exist but have never existed and will never exist. Blood Shack is everything and nothing. Blood Shack is.
But what is Blood Shack? Directed by Ray Dennis Steckler (maestro behind such singular works as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, The Horny Vampire, Sex Rink, and The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher) under one of his many pseudonyms, Blood Shack is only 55 minutes long, a highly unconventional but considerate running time for a feature film, and, by many accounts, was filmed in 1971, though the copyright says 1980 at the beginning of the film and 1977 at the end. Blood Shack resists our conventional definitions of time and chronology. Blood Shack has so much to teach us if we give ourselves over to it. But what is Blood Shack, you ask again.
If you see a faded sign at the side of the road saying 15 miles to the Blood Shack, well, stay away fools, 'cuz the Chooper rules at the Blood Shack. Yeah, that's right. The Chooper. I didn't mean The Chopper. My finger didn't accidentally hit the "o" key instead of the "p." The Chooper. Two young men and a young woman are not the stay-away type of fools because they drive a pickup truck to a barren desert landscape containing nothing much except for a dilapidated water tower, a beat-up old house, and an even more beat-up old house, the latter abandoned. The young people know the 150-year-old legend that anyone staying in the abandoned house will fall victim to The Chooper, who apparently got the nickname from all the chooping he was doing all the damn time, but that doesn't stop the young woman, who decides to stay in the house overnight. The two men get cold feet and leave her there, even though a shirtless weirdo is leaning on a shovel staring at them. As soon as the young woman is on her own, the shirtless guy warns her off the property. "The Chooper will get you," he keeps saying. She doesn't listen. Instead, she strips down to her underwear and tries to get some sleep on a filthy old mattress, but The Chooper choo-choo-chooses her. For death! Damn.
We soon learn that the shirtless guy is named Daniel (Jason Wayne) and that he's the caretaker and ranch hand for the property and lives in the still-habitable home next to the abandoned place. His entire job consists of leaning shirtless on a shovel in the barren landscape, warning people to stay away from the empty house or The Chooper will get them, and then burying the fools who The Chooper gets after picking their pockets. "You keep killing them, Chooper, and I'll keep burying them," he says wistfully. "But they'll never tear this house down." He later refers to the house as "a historical monument" even though it's a shitty empty house in the desert. What I'm saying is, Daniel's a weird guy. About 15 minutes into the film, he puts on a vest, which he wears for the rest of the short running time even though it only comes up to his midriff and seems to get shorter as the film progresses.
In addition to Daniel and the two little neighbor girls who play near the property and ad-lib most of their lines in classic rambling little kid style, the cast of characters include Carol (Carolyn Brandt), who has just inherited the property from her late uncle, and Tim (Ron Haydock, rockabilly musician, writer and publisher of horror movie zines, and frequent B-movie actor, who died at 37 after getting hit by a truck while hitchhiking), a creepy rancher who wants to buy the property and won't take no for an answer even though Carol refuses to sell. We have two pretty obvious contenders for The Chooper here, and there is no suspense when the big reveal happens. But that's not the point. Blood Shack has no interest in the conventions of narrative storytelling. Every line of dialogue is strange, every image weird. Ten minutes of rodeo footage are included for no good reason (upped to 20 minutes for a later cut when Steckler needed a 70-minute running time for distribution purposes). Texas-sized biscuits are tantalizingly promised but never made. Weird sunglasses are worn and remarked upon. We never learn what chooping is. The final few lines of dialogue are philosophical gold. This Chooper, what a character. Do you think Daniel owns any shirts? Blood Shack!!?