Saturday, March 21, 2015

#203: Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

I probably don't need to tell you that Nosferatu is a landmark of horror, silent film, and German expressionism, and a film that, though it's quickly approaching its hundredth birthday, still retains an unsettling, eerie power, still has the magic, still has the juice, hasn't turned into a quaint museum piece, still feels alive, but I will anyway. If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for, you knucklehead? It's even streaming on the various streaming services in the streaming game we're all so crazy about right now. (Support your local video stores.)
Directed by one of the great poets of silent cinema, F.W. Murnau, in that amazing era of German film brought to an end a decade later by the Nazis, Nosferatu feels both timeless and of its time, a snapshot of what Germany was about to become as well as a classic story fitting any occasion. That classic story, though, is what almost robbed us of the film. Denied permission to adapt Bram Stoker's Dracula by Stoker's widow Florence, Nosferatu's producer Albin Grau went ahead and did it anyway, changing a few details, renaming the film, and making the Count's name Orlok. The Stoker estate sued and won, and the judge ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, one print made its way to the United States, ensuring the survival of this amazing film. The filmmakers were copyright scofflaws, that can't be denied, but come on, Florence. Lighten up. A book is a book and a movie is a movie, and I'm glad we have both.
Speaking of the movie, I'm going to skip the plot synopsis this time around, because I'm sure most of you have read Dracula, seen some movie or television version of it, heard the story from someone, seen a parody of it, or experienced a combo platter of the preceding scenarios. The biggest difference is the film's biggest flaw; the women characters are either eliminated entirely or reduced in importance. I'm not sure why this choice was made, but it's the only poor choice in what is otherwise a magic blend of talent, skill, and artistic instinct. This film is still scary, it's still creepy, and it's full of powerful images aided by what Werner Herzog (who remade this film in 1979) calls "the voodoo of location."
The oldest surviving vampire film, Nosferatu remains one of the most perverse. This Count is not a handsome, erotically charismatic seducer. He's a rat-toothed, pasty, bald, rail-thin creature with pointed ears and long fingernails, his large, round, unblinking eyeballs always intensely and intently boring into the objects of his vision. He doesn't hide his thirst for blood, and his movements are not graceful. He either simply appears or skulks, hunched, rodent-like. He sometimes seems impossibly tall. At other moments, he appears shriveled. This is an immediately unsettling character, and actor Max Schreck seems to be channeling pure darkness instead of performing a role. He is Nosferatu. I'm disturbed, and I love it.  
Murnau, that early master of light and shadow, is on fire in this movie. It's hard to stop oohing and aahing over his images. Though, like most silent film directors, sizable chunks of his filmography have been lost, his surviving work presents a varied yet aesthetically consistent portrait of an innately gifted master. Besides Nosferatu, Murnau's films include The Last Laugh, Faust, Tartuffe, Sunrise, and Tabu. Tabu, a collaboration with Nanook of the North documentarian Robert Flaherty (though Flaherty thought Murnau was an arrogant jerk who reneged on his idea to have Flaherty codirect the film), combined documentary and melodrama, silent film and sound, and was unfortunately his last film. It would have been fascinating to see what Murnau would have done in Hollywood with sound film, but he died at the age of 42 in a 1931 car accident in Santa Barbara. It was an open secret that Murnau was gay, and he had a particular fascination with handsome teenage boys. He hired his drivers based on their looks, not their skills, and on that day in 1931, he employed a 14-year-old boy who had recently emigrated from the Philippines. The boy, inexperienced behind the wheel and relatively unfamiliar with the city streets, crashed into a pole, killing himself and Murnau. (Though Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon presents the Hollywood rumor mill version of events that Murnau was performing oral sex on the boy while the boy was driving, so that could be the true cause of the accident. PSA time: don't drive while sexing it up. That seems even more dangerous than texting. Also, if you're in your forties, don't have sex with teenagers. That should go without saying.)
Murnau may have been an arrogant jerk, a reckless driver/passenger, a pedophile, a copyright infringer, and a man who made poor decisions (other than getting the hell out of Germany before the Nazis took control, that was a pretty solid decision), but he was a hell of a filmmaker, and Nosferatu is one of his best.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

#202: Angel of Death aka Commando Mengele (Andrea Bianchi aka A. Frank Drew White, 1987)

This post will probably be shorter than most of my reviews on this site because my normally pleasant day job is temporarily nuts, I've just worked 15 days in a row with another five (or more) to go, and I'm running on fumes, insanity, and titanic levels of both general and specific resentment, but I'm home now, having some beers, and listening to some music, so now is the time to tell you all about this fascinatingly awful movie I squeezed in to my tortuous week. Kablammo!
Regular readers may remember how terrible I thought The Amityville Curse was when I wrote about that turd a few months ago, and this movie is probably just as bad, if not worse, but it's got moxie, I tell ya. This is the kind of terrible movie that could only be made by eccentric goofballs. I'm going to tell you a little about it and then wrap things up, because I am exhausted and because it's the kind of movie that doesn't cry out for much, or really any, analysis.
The premise of Angel of Death is that infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (Howard Vernon) is hiding out in a heavily guarded compound in Brazil, attempting to create a Fourth Reich in South America by getting involved in military coups, training a bunch of karate dudes, and performing a bizarre series of experiments where he attempts to create a race of supermen by injecting humans with genetic material from monkeys, assisted by his right-hand man Wolfgang (Christopher Mitchum), a disgruntled Vietnam vet who thinks fascism is the only way forward. Christopher Mitchum is Robert Mitchum's son, and he looks just like his dad, if you replaced his father's charisma and talent with a hypnotically bizarre mullet.
Mengele may think he's got Brazil in the bag, but a specialized team of Nazi fighters is about to mess up his week. They're a ragtag crew, but they've got a truckload of pizzazz. The organizational mastermind behind the group is a Jewish guy who was born in a concentration camp, where his parents were later killed. His girlfriend is killed by Mengele's goons at the beginning of the movie when he puts his ill-considered first plan into motion. That plan consists of taking his motorcycle to Mengele's compound and asking for a tour of the place. When they refuse to let a random stranger into their secret lair, the guy takes his bike behind the place and tries to get a good look. Mengele sends his goon squad out in his private helicopter and they shoot down our hero's lady from the sky, in a classic low-profile move. Our hero then decides on a better plan, after an insanely brief period of mild grieving.
The second plan involves assembling a team of specialists, the aforementioned ragtag crew with the pizzazz. The team: a gypsy circus performer named Mr. Agility whose father was killed by the Nazis, a surveillance and electronics whiz and his weird son, an explosives and ammunition expert, a karate teacher with an almost disturbing level of enthusiasm for karate (when our hero visits his karate school and asks him to join the team, the dude gets so excited he jumps in the air and karate kicks three or four of his students in the back, knocking them over like dominos), a guy who works for big-shot Nazi hunter Ohmei Felsberg (Fernando Rey), and a woman on the inside, a former nightclub employee handpicked by Wolfgang to be Mengele's female companion.
I'd just like to point out that the great European actor Fernando Rey is in this steaming pile. He looks like he knocked out his supporting role between lunch and dinner, but talk about being overqualified for your work. It's a bit like if Robert De Niro appeared in Bikini Car Wash 2, which I think we can all agree would be fantastic.
At any rate, Nazis and some of the good guys are killed, fantastically inept shot compositions abound, blood squibs explode in mass quantities, crossbows are shot, karate occurs, Mr. Agility climbs some shit, a monkey man looks unhappy, stuff blows up, terrible dialogue is spoken, 90 minutes go by. This thing is on YouTube if you're interested. Jess Franco cowrote it. Damn, I'm exhausted.