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Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

As I prepared to watch The Phantom of the Opera, I realized I had a conundrum on my hands. The DVD set I purchased contained two different cuts of the film. One was the original 1925 version; the second was a restoration of the 1929 version which featured new footage, sound and some color, which to choose? So, I looked to the internet for advice. The majority recommended the 1929 version, but those that preferred the 1925 made a strong case for it. I tried to imagine having only seen the special editions of the Star Wars movies without having ever seen the originals, and I just couldn’t, so I decided the best approach was to watch both versions, and I’m glad I did.

For future viewings, I wish I could somehow combine what I liked best about the two. There’s no arguing that with the restoration, the later cut certainly looks better, yet some of the revisions are rather awkward. I could have done without the dubbed over dialogue. I don’t know how much of the original cast was brought in to add vocals, but it doesn’t matter when they can’t possibly sync up with the mouth movements (if any) onscreen. Worst of all, as Lon Chaney was contracted to a different studio when the revisions were made, a different actor is heard when the Phantom speaks, and I don’t particularly care to see Chaney’s performance tarnished by someone else’s. On the plus side for the later version, the rearrangement of some scenes makes them work better dramatically, for example: the murder of a stagehand occurs much later in the ’29 than in the ’25, and as this death is the catalyst for the mob in the film’s climax, the flow of murder to mob is more organic than the broken up series of events in the ’25. Best of all visually, is the early Technicolor sequence, particularly the scene where the young lovers plot their flight from Paris on the roof of the Opera House unaware of the disguised Phantom watching from above as his bright red cloak flaps in the breeze against the night sky.

There is a third way you can watch the film in this set. There’s an alternate orchestral score, written more recently, to accompany the ’29 version. This replaces the entire soundtrack and therefore eliminates the clunky dialogue, but it also eliminates the operatic performances that were added. Ideally, I would want to keep the singing, but lose the dialogue, but that’s not possible. I guess there’s no perfect way of watching the film, so I guess in the future I will settle for the ’29 cut with the newer score.

But those are just my thoughts on the edition of the film, on to the film itself. Phantom is one of those films I wish I could experience the way the original audiences did. The scale of the film itself is a remarkable for the time it was made in with its enormous sets and hundreds of extras, but most of all I wish I could feel the thrill the early audiences felt when Mary Philbin unmasks the Phantom to reveal Lon Chaney’s grotesque make-up. When promoting the film, Universal kept Chaney’s make-up a secret, (see the trailer in my previous entry) so when that mask came off people were seeing it for the first time. I remember seeing that clip when I was very young and finding it frightening, but by then photos of the Phantom were in wide circulation. I’m sure little compares with the impact the unmasking had on those first audiences.

A great performance by Chaney is adequately supported by Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry as Christine and Raoul. Arthur Edmund Carewe as the mysterious secret policeman Ledoux is another notable performance. There’s a bit of gasping for breath as Kerry and Carewe find themselves ensnared in some of the Phantom’s death traps.

Oh, and since I’ve often discussed clichés: according to Michael Mallory’s Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, this film marks the first use of the angry mob, which would become a horror movie staple.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny in Herr Meets Hare (1945)

The Our Gang short The First Seven Years (1930)

Next week’s film:

Frankenstein (1931) starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and Mae Clarke

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)

As much fun as I’m having watch these old classics, I have to admit it’s a lot harder to be as frightened by them as I might have been when I was eight. I have been wishing for one of those moments when I am held completely in suspense as the actions on the screen unfold. I didn’t quite get there yet with Murders in the Rue Morgue, but it was the first time I found elements of the film truly disturbing.

This film may have more in common with its source material than the other recently-viewed Poe adaptation, (1935’s The Raven) but the resemblance is largely superficial. Unlike the short story, the film does away with the idea of building up to the revelation of the killer in favor of showing us the villainous machinations that lead up to the murders.

Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a madman who flaunts his pre-Darwin evolutionary theories while exhibiting his gorilla, Erik, in a travelling carnival. For reason known only to him, he dreams of creating a gorilla / human hybrid, and he attempts to reach his goal by kidnapping women and injecting them with Erik’s blood. In quite a brutal scene, a woman is strung up by her arms as Mirakle observes the effects of the gorilla blood on her system; he screams at her for disturbing his studies by moaning and pain, and when she dies he briefly shows something resembling remorse by making the sign of the cross before summoning his servant to “get rid of it” by dumping her into the river. Unsettling to watch, and according to the trivia page for the film's imdb entry, much of the original footage was censored. Later on, knowing what Mirakle is capable of makes his creepy stalking of the lovely Camille, the girl he believes will be the perfect match for Erik’s blood, all the more menacing.

Another riveting performance by Lugosi in downright demonic hair and make-up and some stunning art direction and camera work make it easy to overlook the film’s less impressive elements. Sidney Fox’s charming portrayal of Camille L'Espanaye is awkwardly offset by Leon Ames’ (billed as Leon Waycoff) dull take on Pierre Dupin. (Dupin, a man of Holmes-like reasoning in Poe’s story, is here a student with a knack for putting two and two together.) Erik, the gorilla, is clearly played by a costumed actor in the wideshots and by a chimpanzee in close-up. (In fact, the ape in the original story is an orangutan.) Yet the film is always visually impressive with expressionistic sets and frightening scenes played out in nightmarish shadow. However, there was one scene where the artful camera work left me feeling a bit queasy and it had nothing to do with mad scientists or killer apes. At a picnic where Pierre pushes Camille on a swing, the camera stays with her, so that the background swings in and out of frame while Camille stays in focus. (But my rum and Coke might be more to blame for the disorientation than the camera work.)

Lugosi makes a great madman, but I hope somewhere in my list of film he gets to play someone likable as Boris Karloff finally got to do in Night Key. He got to play sympathetic in his brief role in The Wolf Man, and I believe we’ll see him in more sympathetic roles in the later Frankenstein films, but just once, I’d like to see him do heroic.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in Hare Trigger (1945)

The Our Gang short Shivering Shakespeare (1930)

I’m taking next week off for my wedding anniversary, the following week’s film will be:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- HORROR ISLAND (1941)

Another haunted house comedic thriller, and while it’s not as cleverly executed as The Cat and the Canary from a couple of weeks ago, it contains surprisingly fewer clichés. Oh, it’s got secret passages, a hand that reaches out and pulls someone into a wall, and another Scooby-Doo miscreant, but it’s also got a few twists I didn’t see coming and an impressive parade of character actors.

The plot feels like an early draft for the Gilligan’s Island pilot: an assortment of diverse characters on a recreational mini-cruise, only this time there’s a spooky castle and the possibility of buried treasure. For Bill Martin and his sidekick Stuff, it’s a chance to give gullible tourists a cheap thrill and pocket their money, but for their recent acquaintance Tobias, it’s a quest for real treasure. Throw in a competitor for the treasure known only as the Phantom, and of course, things start to go awry.

Dick Foran and Peggy Moran, who were paired the previous year in The Mummy’s Hand, do a fine job of leading the cast. They’re no Hepburn and Tracy, but they do fairly well with the witty banter that leads to them falling in love for no reason, as is typical in films of this era. (Too bad the partnership didn’t continue “Foran and Moran” has such a nice ring to it.)

Then there’s the supporting cast. I’ve always had a fondness for great character actors, and it seems like there’s always more to discover. Fuzzy Knight plays Stuff, the archetypal gruff but kind sidekick; Leo Carrillo is the colorful Tobias, Hobart Cavanaugh returns from Night Key as a mousy historian and Walter Catlett plays an inept police sergeant. These were the most notable performances, but the motley crew of passengers is rounded out nicely with John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Ralf Harolde and Iris Adrian. And I shouldn’t forget Foy Van Dolsen and his turn as the Phantom.

There’s not that much more to say. It’s not exactly the makings of a classic, but it’s a fun romp, and for a movie that was filmed and released in less than a month, it holds up pretty well.

This week’s supporting features:

The Looney Tunes cartoon Alpine Antics (1936)

The Our Gang short Moan and Groan (1929)

Next week’s film:

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) starring Bela Lugosi and Sidney Fox