Saturday, September 27, 2014

#191: The Golem (Paul Wegener & Carl Boese, 1920)

I didn't plan it, but it seems serendipitously appropriate that I watched The Golem, probably the most famous Jewish horror film ever made, during the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah. The Golem is a landmark in silent film, German expressionism, horror, and Jewish art, and the film lives up to its status. It still looks gorgeous all these years later and is both a predictor of the Germany that was soon to come and a shining example of the thriving German film culture that would be demolished and turned into propaganda and cheap entertainment by the Nazis in a decade, a film culture that would not recover until the late 1960s and 1970s with the New German Cinema of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Von Trotta, Reitz, and others.
A collaboration between actor/writer/director Paul Wegener, director Carl Boese, writer Henrik Galeen, and cinematographer Karl Freund, The Golem was inspired by the ancient creature of Jewish folklore and the most famous tale to use that creature, the golem of Prague. The film, set in the Jewish ghetto in 16th-century Prague, opens with Rabbi Loew looking at the stars and seeing ominous portents for the Jewish people. He's soon proven all too right when the emperor signs a decree demanding the removal of all Jews from the ghetto and their exodus from the city by the end of the month. The emperor sends his knight Florian to deliver the news, and when Florian arrives at the rabbi's home, he immediately falls in love with Loew's daughter Miriam. They engage in lots of secret canoodling while everyone else is at temple, unbeknownst to Loew's assistant/Miriam's ardent admirer Famulus.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Loew has a plan. He has constructed a golem out of clay, and when the stars align, he will summon forth the spirit Astaroth to help bring the golem to life. He shares this information with Famulus, and the two men get their spirit-summoning on until the break of dawn. The creepy Astaroth shows up and gives them the secret word required to bring the golem to life, as well as the amulet placed in a star on the golem's chest that acts as a switch to turn the creature off and on. The plan works, and the golem (played by the physically imposing director Wegener) is ready for action. Instead of immediately sending the golem to the emperor's palace to make anti-Semitic gumbo out of the innards of the emperor and his court, they start small and use the golem to do their shopping and household chores. (It's pretty funny to see the giant golem walking to the store with his tiny grocery basket.) Rabbi Loew is a good man who is still counting on changing the minds of his enemies instead of pummeling them to death, golem-style.
Rabbi Loew convinces Florian to get him an audience with the emperor, who still respects his mystical powers even while forcing him to leave the city. Florian takes little convincing because he is still throbbing with lust for Miriam. Audience granted, Rabbi Loew and the golem visit the emperor and his court. The golem freaks everybody out, but Loew keeps him in check. Using his magic, Loew presents to the assembled goyim a visual history of the Jewish people and their persecution in an attempt to make the emperor change his mind. He warns them not to laugh or talk during the presentation, or he can't control what will happen. Only minutes in, and the emperor and his cronies start laughing hysterically at images of Jews wandering in the desert. These people are some real jerks. This causes all hell to break loose, golem-style. Then things calm down. Then shit gets crazy again. And so on.
Besides its historical importance and unfortunately prescient depiction of the Germany to come, The Golem is a great movie in its own right. As a piece of filmed storytelling, The Golem is entertaining, strikingly photographed, and briskly paced. As a work of art, The Golem is a thing of beauty, with gorgeously framed, iconically rendered images, and colored tinting that brings out the film's expressive qualities. A fine example of German Expressionism, the film's sets, cinematography, and the movement of the actors are a shade subtler than something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but still exhibit the distorted geometrics, sharp angles, deliberate movement, and expressive use of shadow and light that characterize the art movement.
Co-director/co-writer/star Paul Wegener was an imposing man, tall and large with a wide, stone-like face. He was a law student obsessed with the stage, and he disappointed his family by dropping out to pursue the life of an actor. Also obsessed with trick photography, Wegener saw film as the combination of his passions. Not a Jew himself, Wegener was nevertheless fascinated by Jewish folklore and mysticism. While most of his fellow artists either left Germany or were persecuted by the Nazis, Wegener remained a popular actor and found himself unwilling to leave his country. He began to lead a double life, acting in Nazi propaganda films while funneling the money he earned to the Resistance and secretly housing targets of Nazi oppression in his home. He died of a stroke in 1948 at the age of 73.
Cinematographer Karl Freund was Jewish and left Germany in 1929 for Hollywood. One of the greatest cinematographers in film history, Freund's filmography includes Carl Dreyer's Michael (the only film Freund also acted in), F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Tartuffe, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tod Browning's Dracula, John Huston's Key Largo, and most episodes of the TV series I Love Lucy. He also directed two landmark horror films, The Mummy, with Boris Karloff, and Mad Love, with Peter Lorre. The latter film was photographed by another great cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who went on to shoot Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A quick bit of self-promotion

Please forgive this brief post that is not about horror or cult movies. I play drums in a band called The Early Stages, and we released a 7-inch single recently. Copies are still available, and you can buy one or just stream it for free at this link. That's it for the self-promotion.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

#190: Alienator (Fred Olen Ray, 1990)

I reviewed Fred Olen Ray's second film The Alien Dead back in June and called it an "accidental masterpiece of delusional amateurism." That film was shot in '79 and released in 1980. In the ensuing decade, Ray made more than a dozen films, and I'm happy to report he barely learned anything about crafting a coherent, professional cinematographic experience. Alienator, shot in '89 and released in '90, is Ray's shlocky take on The Terminator, starring a passel of B-movie veterans, including Jan-Michael Vincent, P.J. Soles, Joseph Pilato, John Phillip Law, Ross Hagen, Leo Gordon, Robert Quarry, Hoke Howell, and Fox Harris in one of his last roles, as well as professional bodybuilder Teagan as the Alienator. This movie is terrible and I am happy to recommend it.
Alienator begins on an unnamed outer space prison colony tasked with executing the baddest space criminals out there. A visibly drunk, slurring Jan-Michael Vincent is the warden of the colony, and P.J. Soles (in bizarrely inappropriate work attire) makes sure the equipment is functioning. (Poor P.J. Soles, who spent the '70s and early '80s acting in Carrie, Halloween, Rock'n'Roll High School, and Stripes, was seventh-billed in a Fred Olen Ray film by 1990.) No one has ever escaped from the colony, as Vincent is happy to point out, but his foolproof plan of having two guys hold the prisoner while he waits for execution finally goes awry when Kol (Ross Hagen) punches them and steals their space lasers. Who could have seen this coming?
After a lengthy space laser shootout, in which Kol also shoves a paper sack full of face-eating space slugs in the face of a prison guard, the escaped prisoner steals a spaceship and makes his way to Earth, where he crosses paths with an RV full of dumbass young people on a camping trip. Sample scene: (Driver of the RV chugs a beer, crumples the can, and immediately opens and chugs a second beer.) Girlfriend: "Don't you think you've had enough?" Driver: "I drive better after a couple of brews."
Our intrepid gang of morons clip the space criminal with their camper and take the injured man to the game warden's cabin. Unfortunately for everybody, Kol is wearing a tracking device around his neck he can't remove, which also constantly chokes him, and the prison colony picks up his signal. Vincent sends the unstoppable killing machine Alienator (Teagan) to Earth to waste Kol and anyone else obstructing the mission. Teagan, whose dayjob is professional bodybuilding, doesn't have to do much but look like an unstoppable killing machine and shoot at anyone who gets in her way while wearing a leotard and space hardware.
Soon, the game warden, the four RV idiots, a couple of hillbilly rabbit poachers, Kol, and a retired colonel who will take no shit from space killers and whose cabin is stocked with AK-47s and landmines are on the defensive against the mighty Alienator. She seems indestructible. She's hit with bullets, a crossbow, and spikes and shrugs it off, occasionally losing a bit of the yellow ooze that is her equivalent of blood, earning the grudging respect of the retired colonel. "That's some woman, on any planet," he says. He's also enamored of the space lasers. "I wish I had one of those babies on Porkchop Hill," he wistfully pines. And that's pretty much our movie.
The production quality is slightly better for Alienator than The Alien Dead, and this film is closer to most '80s VHS/USA Up All Night schlock than the earlier film's inept weirdness. This is more Z-movie-by-the-numbers, but it's thoroughly enjoyable if you're up for cheesy effects, hilariously awful dialogue, inconsistent performances, and the stable of classic B-movie actors.
Ray even snagged cinematographer Gary Graver for this one. Graver, who died in 2006, had one of the most bizarre film careers ever. He began his career by directing porno movies under the name Robert McCallum and went legit by working as a cinematographer on low-budget horror movies. In 1970, Graver worked up the nerve to contact his hero, Orson Welles, and offer his services. Welles liked Graver, and the two men worked together on every subsequent Welles project. Even after Welles' death in 1985, Graver continued working on Welles' unfinished, unreleased films until his own death 21 years later. Graver supplemented the low-salaried labor-of-love independent work for Welles with whatever jobs he could get, including Z-grade schlock, TV commercials, Gary Coleman TV movies, and music videos. Life is rarely a straight line, and Graver's life, in which he worked for porn stars, Orson Welles, Gary Coleman, and Kool & the Gang, certainly wasn't.