Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Two Birds With One Stone: Whip and the Body (1963)

Bridging my mini-series on ghosts at the movies with a mini-series on Italian Gothic Cinema comes Mario Bava's bizarre bit of S&M Gothic, Whip and the Body. Barbara Steele turned down the role of Nevenka, here played by the stunningly beautiful Israeli actress Dahlia Lavi. Nevenka has recently married Christian Menliff, but as the story opens, Christian’s brother, Kurt, played by the menacing Christopher Lee, returns to the family homestead and picks up where he left off with lovely Nevenka, namely a sadistic relationship where Kurt loves to wield the whip as much as Nevenka loves to be on the receiving end of it.

Kurt’s return throws the entire castle into turmoil. Everyone has a bone to pick with Kurt in one way or another, so it comes as no surprised that Kurt is stabbed to death in the shadows at the climax of Act One.

Kurt’s death introduces the core of the film: a long, hallucinatory sequence in which Nevenka imagines Kurt has returned from the grave. One of my favorite moments of the film is when Nevenka is summoned from her bed by the sound of a whip cracking in the night and follows it through the dusky corridors of the castle.

During the final act, the story by Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra, and Luciano Martino pulls out the red herrings left and right. As mentioned earlier, any number of characters in the tale had motive to kill Kurt. We are even led to believe that Kurt is not really dead. The final denouement of the film is a revelation of terrible beauty.

Whip and the Body is presented in a full restored and uncensored European version (in English) from VCI Home Video. The colors are eye-popping. I would not recommend the movie be watched while under the influence of certain consciousness expanding drugs. The DVD package also includes a booklet and commentary track by Tim Lucas, one of the finest scholars of mid-century horror films around.

While the sadism plays a strong theme in the movie, don’t let that dissuade you from watching this film. By today’s standards it would probably pass with a PG-13 rating. Whip and the Body manages to be a lush, romantic, erotic and ultimately Gothic masterpiece all at once. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe: Castle of Blood (1962)

About twenty years ago I stumbled on a video company called Sinister Cinema which specialized in public domain films of every exploitation genre imaginable: old movie serials, juvenile delinquent, sword and sandal, poverty row mysteries, bottom of the barrel sci-fi, and of course, horror. I was eager to get my hands on copies of some of the more obscure films I had watched on Scream In when I was a kid, movies like Black Sunday and Terror in the Crypt. Once I started ordering from the catalog, I was hooked and picked up some fun things as well like Roger Corman’s Swamp Women, Ed Wood Jr’s Jail Bait, and a campy hoot called Teenage Devil Dolls. But the real excitement for me was the chance to finally see some of the legendary and, until then, unattainable Barbara Steele flicks such as Castle of Blood and The Terror of Dr. Hichcock.

Today, my collection of VHS tapes from Sinister Cinema is buried in a box in my basement. Since the advent of DVD, there have been a number of film companies who have gone to great lengths to painstakingly restore some of these gems. Hichcock remains unattainable, but in 2002 Synapse Films remastered and fully restored the wonderful entry in Italian Gothic cinema, 1962’s Danza Macabre, better known as Castle of Blood stateside, restoring bits of risqué dialogue and some brief female nudity.

Castle of Blood purports to be based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. It bears some resemblance to his story Never Bet the Devil Your Head, but beyond that it is strictly a fabrication of screenwriters Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi. Like the American counterparts filmed by Roger Corman, Castle of Blood doesn’t adapt Poe as much as it captures the dreamlike quality and sometimes hallucinatory feel of his work.


Poe himself appears in the prelude at the Inn of the Four Devils, where he is being interviewed by British journalist Alan Foster. In the tavern, Poe and Foster meet Lord Thomas Blackwood who offers Alan Foster one hundred pounds if he can survive the night at the haunted Blackwood family castle. Foster accepts the wager, Poe and Blackwood drop him off at the estate and the fun begins.

Visually, like most of the other Italian Gothics from the early 1960s, Castle of Blood takes its cue from Corman – we are treated to plenty of cobwebs and candelabras, mysterious piano music, and drop dead gorgeous babes, most notably Barbara Steele who somehow cornered the market on haunted Gothic heroines in many of these films. Like most boys my age who were mesmerized by her Gothic glamour, I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the actress and her films to the point where the dead heroine of my novel, The Haunting at Blackwood Hall, is not only named after Steele’s character of Elizabeth Blackwood from Castle of Blood, but possesses her physical description as well.

Castle of Blood is slow moving by today’s standards, but it positively drips with Gothic aura in its tale of a house full of ghosts who relive the last five minutes of their lives every night at midnight. While the movie has several long passages of the characters wandering through the cobwebs with eerie music playing on the soundtrack, we are also treated to some stunning outbursts of violence and even a bit of lesbian erotica. Due to the slow pacing, Castle of Blood is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But if you are a lover of cinema as visual art and ready to tackle something different in the Gothic genre, please give Castle of Blood a try. The Synapse release is still available from Amazon.

I realized I have been writing this blog for well over a year now and have not yet touched on the Italian branch of Gothic horror films. Expect more in the weeks and months ahead.

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe: January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Others (2001)

Hot on the heels of a 1999 blockbuster horror film with a phenomenal twist ending, Alejandro Amenabar’s outstanding 2001 contribution to the pantheon of ghost stories, The Others, sent audiences home claiming rip-off of the first, more popular film. Whereas the aforementioned blockbuster was loud and boisterous and starred one of the hottest box-office action heroes of its day, The Others was a quiet, psychological thriller of the slow-burn variety. Guess which one gets my vote?

Amenabar’s story, written directly for the screen, takes its cue from such classics as Turn of the Screw and the ghost stories of M.R. James, with a dollop of Shirley Jackson thrown in for good measure. Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) is Henry James’ sexually repressed neurotic re-imagined as a religious fanatic, dutifully forcing her beliefs on her children – to the extent of forcing them to describe for her where they shall burn for all eternity if they are wicked. 

Grace’s two small children have a genetic photosensitivity to light which serves both as subplot and a vehicle for the visual motifs of the film. Out of necessity, the rooms of the house are kept in darkness with only meager light slipping from behind curtains or emanating from the low-glow of oil lamps. Like the characters in the story, the audience is also in the dark as the mystery begins to unfold.

While Grace’s husband is away at the war in France, the servants abandon the manor home in the Jersey Isles and before Grace is able to post an advertisement, a housekeeper, gardener, and maid arrive on her doorstep. They are a right jolly trio, seasoned professionals, and ready to adapt to Grace’s tyrannical demands. Soon after their arrival, Grace begins to hear the sounds of a child’s footsteps scampering in the rooms overhead. Her children claim to have seen ghosts in the house, most notably a little boy named Victor, and an old blind woman.

The new servants apparently know about the ghosts; indeed the housekeeper, Mrs. Mills, tells Grace that they had worked in the house many years before. Grace is convinced either her children or the servants are playing tricks on her. The mystery deepens and one afternoon, Grace sets off in the fog to fetch the local priest for an exorcism. “She won’t get far,” Mrs. Mills confides to Mr. Tuttle, and sure as you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Grace is driven back to the house… with an unexpected visitor in tow.

Re-watching The Others this week, I was particularly impressed with Kidman’s performance. Grace is wound pretty tight, and her performance is one to rival Julie Harris’ in The Haunting. Director Amenabar, however, is the star of the show – the framing, the lighting, the music… all of it adds together to make a cinematic work of art that has held up well for ten years and should outlast other noisy thrillers of its time. The Others deserves to be watched with a single candle burning and the window cracked to let a chill, winter breeze infiltrate your room. Watch The Others, and rediscover a modern Gothic masterpiece.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Back to Basics: The Changeling (1980)

Time slips away too quickly lately. Holiday socializing rears its attractive head. I have a number of writing projects all demanding my attention simultaneously. And with good intentions, I have a pile of notes and ideas for future blog posts and a stack of movies collecting dust on top of my DVD player to be reviewed.

Which brings me back around to where I was a some weeks back – ready to burn through a stack of classic ghost stories on DVD.  The Japanese influence on the ghost story in American cinema over the past ten years is on the wane, if the success of Hammer’s The Woman in Black and its in-development follow up is any indication. In researching ghost stories on film, I’m finding it is not a well represented branch of the horror genre. While these types of stories work best in oral and written form, I don’t think they will ever truly go out of style. Our modern idea of the ghost story has its origin in pre-Christian eras when man told tales of ancestor worship around the fire while shadows flickered on the cave walls.

Peter Medak’s 1980 film, The Changeling, is a fine example of a ghost story (and horror film) that did not become a victim of its time. In an era when R rated horror was the norm, The Changeling is blessedly free of blood, sex, and four letter words, choosing instead to present its story the old fashioned way – but implication alone.

The script by Russell Hunter and William Gray (allegedly based on Hunter’s personal experiences) follows the classic pattern that Gothic novelist Barbara Michaels handled so well throughout the 1970s – that of a desperate spirit reaching across the years for understanding and vengeance.

I’ve often said that this type of haunting works best when the main character is at a vulnerable crossroad in life. Here we have composer John Russell grieving the sudden, tragic death of his wife and child, who becomes a barometer for spiritual manifestations when he moves into an old mansion in Seattle. Straight away, Russell (believably portrayed by George C. Scott) sets to work composing a new symphony based upon a musical motif that surfaces in his subconscious soon after moving into the house. The ghostly manifestations are a sly, slow build up. At first, Russell, being a practical man, is unable to understand the significance of slightly off-kilter events in the house, until the ghost literally makes itself known by throwing rocks at Russell in the yard. Russell soon uncovers a secret attic room where he finds a music box which plays the same melody, note for note, that formed the structural basis of his symphony.

From this point on, Russell becomes more in tune with the sprit in the house and the story turns into a sort of supernatural detective story. I won’t divulge the intricacies of the plot any further, but feel compelled to point out that the séance scene in The Changeling is one of the most convincing and spine tingling I have ever seen on film.

The Changeling has long been a cult favorite among friends of mine who enjoy good old fashioned supernatural thrillers. The DVD has never gone out of print, and is easily had from Amazon and other retailers for a reasonable price. Ghost stories are an enjoyable past time on cold, dark nights during the northern hemisphere’s wintry season. Treat yourself to something old… and don’t forget to turn off the lights.