Saturday, June 23, 2018

Blood Legacy aka Legacy of Blood aka Will to Die (Carl Monson, 1971)

This many-titled, mostly terrible, and oddly entertaining early '70s curiosity begins with the disembodied voice of Christopher Dean (John Carradine) reading his will from beyond the grave. His surviving children, their spouses, and the household servants are gathered at Papa Dean's sprawling mansion to hear a recording of the will played by his amused and unfriendly lawyer. The Dean patriarch spends most of the will trash-talking his sons and daughters in adjectivally hilarious purple prose (my favorite insult being "dreadful scions wrought from my loins during four insane moments of my life"), and he gets a few digs in at his servants as well. It's like a Friar's Club roast of an entire family by a dead guy. Old Chris Dean, it seems, was a pretty eccentric man, but he's practically normcore compared to his insanely weirdo kids, in-laws, and servants.
More about them later, but first, the inheritance. The three servants -- Igor the butler, Elga the maid, and Frank the handyman -- get a million bucks each, provided they stay at the house and keep doing their jobs. The Deans -- Gregory, Leslie, Veronica, and Johnny -- are to split the rest of the vast fortune in equal shares, with a few catches. If anyone dies, the survivors (including surviving spouses) split it all, the last survivor gets everything that's left (this includes the servants), and the entire group has to spend the next seven days in the mansion. As you can probably guess, people start dying.
Now about these weirdos. Brother Gregory is the most well-adjusted of the Dean siblings. His only problems are his raging alcoholism and his refusal to listen to his nervous wife Laura's uneasy concerns about the house and the freakazoids inside it. Sister Veronica also seems to be holding it together pretty well. She keeps a sarcastic remove from the horrors of life and has everyone's number, but she starts breaking down as the bodies pile up. She also has a cold yet flirtatious not-quite-rapport with her brother-in-law Carl and a messy romantic history with handyman Frank. The aforementioned Carl is a sleazy pop psychologist who is extremely controlling of his wife, sister Leslie. Carl keeps trying to get in Veronica's pants and keeps getting shut down. He appears to have married Leslie for the inheritance. Leslie is totally bonkers, a childish, needy, and tripped-out space cadet who spends most of the film banished to her bedroom by husband Carl. Carl won't let rockabilly-pompadoured, leather-jacketed, and sunglasses-wearing bad boy, brother Johnny, see Leslie, but that's probably for the best. Johnny and Leslie had an incestuous fling years ago when in the grips of double madness, and they're still creepily obsessed with each other. Johnny soon drops his rockabilly bad boy veneer and completely loses his shit, hallucinating traumatic childhood moments and downing brandy after brandy while crying and pounding on the walls. 
The servants are the only ones holding the mansion together, but they have some issues of their own. Elga seems reasonably sane despite the occasional homicidal glint in the eye, but she's shacked up with Igor, a creepy little sadomasochist who loves being flogged to the point of injury and beyond. He's a high-strung fella. Frank is a deep-voiced hyper-macho car-fixing self-sufficient old-fashioned American male, despite his wildly ostentatious cravat. He's got his dark side, though. World War II did a number on him, and his room is decorated with Nazi memorabilia and a weird-looking lamp with a skull for a base. "A Kraut stuck me with a bayonet, so I made a lamp out of him," Frank explains. He wasn't kidding. Not sure how he got the human skin/skull lamp back to the States, but I'll leave that to the Dean family fanfic crowd. By the way, the woman who plays Elga, Ivy Bethune, is one of only two cast members still living, and she turned 100 just a few weeks ago. 
So. Blood Legacy or Legacy of Blood or Will to Die. In conclusion, junior high book report style, I enjoyed the wildly over-emotive acting, strange dialogue, and pervasive atmosphere of weirdness. The film gets plenty of mileage out of a foil-wrapped ham that keeps getting pulled out of the refrigerator, for example. It's no great shakes visually, with director Carl Monson exhibiting a mostly pedestrian style. When he stumbles onto a shot he thinks is neat, he repeats it three or four more times. That's about all you get for a directorial signature. This is not a good movie, but it's weird and fun, made even more fun by its distribution on DVD as an Elvira, Mistress of the Dark presentation. Watching it with an intro, outro, and multiple interruptions from Elvira really kicked the viewing experience up a notch and took me right back to being a kid in the '80s. Until next time, keep your loved ones close and your hams closer. 

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.