Saturday, July 23, 2016

#236: The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)

Like a lot of films I've reviewed on this site in the last several weeks, The Magician is a solidly reliable entertainment, neither a lost classic nor a piece of junk. The film is exciting and creepy, with  a nice sense of humor and a quick pace, and was one of the first American horror films to play the dark parts of its story straight, without the pratfalls, parodies, and gags of most of its predecessors.
Director Rex Ingram (not to be confused with the actor of the same name) adapted The Magician from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham hated the resulting film, which is probably one of the earliest examples of that hallowed Hollywood tradition of writers bitching about movie adaptations of their work. I haven't read the Maugham novel, so he may have some valid objections, but the movie is just fine on its own terms.
Set in Paris, The Magician begins with sculptor Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry) in her studio, putting the finishing touches on a massive sculpture. Unfortunately, a small crack in the clay expands and keeps expanding, and the entire head and upper torso of the devilish figure fall off and land on Margaret, paralyzing her. Margaret's uncle, Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gemier), asks celebrated American surgeon and colleague Dr. Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) to operate on his niece. He agrees, the surgery is a success, and Arthur and Margaret proceed to fall in love. Things seem great.
The happy couple doesn't know it yet, but they have a big problem. The group of medical students observing the surgery included deranged magician Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener, German actor/director most famous for co-directing and playing the lead role in The Golem). Haddo is obsessed with locating a notorious ancient spell that will summon forth new life, and it's bad news for Margaret when the spell requires the "heart blood of a maiden" with blonde hair. Haddo begins following Margaret, placing her under a spell when he gets her alone, and finally kidnapping her for the conclusion of his evil plan. Since she must remain a virgin for the spell to work, Margaret could have avoided this whole mess by getting it on with Arthur, but this is an American film from 1926 so no one even considers that angle. A famous artist in swinging '20s Paris with a hot-shot American doctor boyfriend, and they're a couple of Puritans? Come on now.
Sexual inhibitions aside, The Magician benefits greatly from Wegener's enjoyable performance as Haddo. He hams it up perfectly as the villainous magician, giving one of the great over-the-top pieces of acting in silent film. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Dr. Burdon insults Haddo by saying the latter man appears to have stepped right out of a melodrama. Haddo, walking away, turns and glares intensely at Burdon, then dramatically pulls his cape about himself and marches off. Villains just don't wear capes enough these days.
Ingram assembled quite an international cast for an American film. Besides Wegener from Germany, the actors included Gemier from France, Petrovich from what is now Serbia and was then Austria-Hungary, and Gladys Hamer from England, with Indiana-born Terry the sole American in a leading role. Ingram found the right faces for the parts, a luxury silent film afforded.
While watching The Magician and one of the previous silent films I reviewed on this site, The Bells, I started thinking about what scared people in the 1920s. It's fascinating to me that in the period between the two world wars, the two most common plots in horror films were someone falling under the spell of an evil mesmerist and an average person haunted by a guilty conscience after committing a murder. The Magician is obviously an example of the first camp. Something to chew on until next time.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

#235: Beast of the Yellow Night (Eddie Romero, 1971)

Eddie Romero's 1971 deal-with-the-devil fable is an intriguing oddity, and a lot better than I was expecting. A hit by drive-in standards in the early '70s, Beast of the Yellow Night was Filipino filmmaker Romero's first film to be distributed by Roger Corman, and its cheap budget and modest profit convinced Corman to make several films in the Philippines. The budget is obviously low and some of the acting is pretty stiff, but Beast of the Yellow Night has its own thing going on, with deeper characterization and a stronger story than you usually see in beast-runs-amok cheapies from this era.
The film begins in 1946, with both Filipino law enforcement and American officials chasing down American deserter and Japanese collaborator Joseph Langdon (John Ashley) in a thick jungle. They kill his accomplices and think they've killed him, but he survives. Almost dying after ingesting some poisonous berries, Langdon thinks he's heading toward the end of his road when Satan appears as a snake in a cloud of yellow smoke and offers him life in exchange for service. Langdon agrees, and the snake becomes a nearly nude, chubby human devil played by character actor Vic Diaz, who Quentin Tarantino has described as "the Filipino Peter Lorre." Satan gives him the carcasses of one of his compatriots to eat, and their one-sided relationship begins.
The film then jumps to "last month," which I think means some unspecified date in 1970 or '71 and not June of 2016, but which one of us can truly say? Satan has used Langdon to possess the bodies of other humans, wreaking havoc for fun before letting the possessed people die when he gets bored and moving Langdon into some other unlucky soul. Langdon is growing weary of being Satan's plaything and tries disobeying and asking for the sweet release of death. Satan finds this irritating and punishes Langdon by giving him intense stomach pains and turning him into a vaguely werewolf-like beast who runs amok at night and drinks people's blood before returning to human form in the morning.
This beast transformation is complicating Langdon's current role in the body of American businessman Philip Rogers, particularly when it comes to getting busy with Rogers' loyal wife Julia (Canadian actor Mary Wilcox), who loves getting busy. Orbiting this cast of characters is Rogers' brother Earl (Ken Metcalfe), two world-weary detectives on the trail of the murderous beast, Campo and de Santos (Eddie Garcia and Leopoldo Salcedo), and a mysterious blind man who ends up playing an important role in Langdon's life/lives (Andres Centenera). The Filipino cast is generally stronger than the North American performers, but every character has unexpected traits and way more backstory than you'd expect. 
The filmmaking lacks polish and visual beauty, which is unsurprising in a low-budget exploitation movie, but it's never sloppy or disjointed. Romero has a grounded, cohesive style and a point of view, and his movie never rushes things or drags anything out too long. Beast of the Yellow Night is a quietly unexpected take on a popular legend, with a little intestine-eating and a humorously over-the-top sex scene, and I enjoyed it.
Filmmaker Eddie Romero, who died at the age of 87 in 2013, was a prolific director of both B-movies and mainstream prestige pictures in his native country. He was the son of a teacher mother and politician father. The film's lead, John Ashley, had a long career as both a producer of and actor in exploitation and drive-in movies, with some forays into the mainstream. It was a strange series of contrasts. Besides starring in several Filipino horror films, he acted in Frankie and Annette beach party movies and Oscar-nominated Paul Newman film Hud. His production credits are even stranger. They include Beast of the Yellow Night, a ton of women-in-prison films, Apocalypse Now, and the TV shows The A-Team and Walker, Texas Ranger. He was also the narrator on The A-Team. His first acting job was as an extra in the ill-fated John Wayne movie The Conqueror. (Besides being a terrible movie and bankrupting its studio, the film's shooting location was a former nuclear testing site contaminated by fallout. Sand from the location was even shipped back to Hollywood for reshoots, continuing to expose cast and crew to radiation. Nearly half of the people who worked on the film developed cancer within 20 years, with 46 dying from it, including Wayne.) The film was a disaster for most people who worked on it, but it was a lucky break for Ashley, who only got onto the set because he was visiting a college buddy who worked on the crew. He befriended Wayne, who helped him get a television part the following year. Ashley died of a heart attack in 1997.