Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mini Hitchcocks: Scream of Fear

Any serious fan of Hammer Films knows all about these juicy little gems, but for the more casual viewer who thinks of Hammer’s output as the Christopher Lee Dracula and Peter Cushing Frankenstein series, you’re in for quite a treat.

The film company itself coined the term “mini-Hitchcock” which had a two-fold meaning. These stories were modeled after the suspense films Psycho (and to a lesser degree, Vertigo), and were produced on an even lower budget than Psycho.

I’ve often compared these Women in Peril stories to some of the Gothic Romances of the same era. Scream of Fear (Taste of Fear in Britain) came out in 1961. Its mechanical plot twists borrow heavily from the aforementioned Hitchcock titles, but also from women’s suspense thrillers of the day. Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree comes to mind.

Scream of Fear is the first and arguably the best of the series (which also includes Maniac, Paranoiac, and Nightmare, among others). Jimmy Sangster’s script is chock full of red herrings and surprise twists, some of them less plausible than others. Props go to director Seth Holt for making it all look classy and believable.

Susan Strasberg plays Penny Appleby, a wheelchair bound, dark haired waif in oversized Foster Grant sunglasses, who returns to the home on the French Riviera she has not visited in more than ten years. Here she meets her new stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd), Robert, the handsome chauffeur, and Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee), her father’s physician. Papa Appleby, however, seems to be missing. Or is he? Penny talks to him over the phone – the day after seeing his corpse propped up in a chair inside the pool house. Is Papa dead? Is Penny mad, or is something more sinister going on?

I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers and mysteries with clever twists and turns. This sort of movie makes me giddy and I can pop one of them in the DVD player several times a year. Others may throw up their hands in despair crying, “Give me a break!” Whichever the case, if you are unfamiliar with these twisted little thrillers and have a pining for lovely old black and white suspense films, track this one down. And as always, thank me later.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

...speaking of Burnt Offerings (spoilers)

I hate this movie.

So why am I reviewing it? Because other people like it, and this blog is all about spreading the love for all things Gothic. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, so maybe you’re reading this and you decide to watch it tonight (US readers, it’s on Netflix) and find it’s the next best thing since sliced bread. Right on.

But I’ll tell you why I don’t like it. The story is lame and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Yeah, the Chauffeur is scary and all, but other than being a flashback from Ben Rolf’s childhood, what does it have to do with the Allardyce house, and Mother, and all that?

Speaking of Mother, wow she’s pretty scary too. I mean a house that rejuvenates itself on the pain and death of its inhabitants, that’s pretty freaky. Night Gallery freaky, not 115 minutes movie freaky. Which brings me to another gripe. This just isn’t a cinematic film, although it was. It’s a made for TV movie directed by one of the worst TV hacks ever, Dan Curtis. I know, I know. Dark Shadows, blah blah blah. Dark Shadows was a happy accident for which we’ll be forever grateful. But look at some of his other mid 70s output, The Norliss Tapes, and those dreadfully dry remakes of classics Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray et all. Do you know Dan Curtis actually claimed in a Fangoria interview that he could have made a better movie out of The Exorcist? Somebody pop that man’s bubble of a bloated ego.

Dan Curtis decided to shoot the movie through fog filters and with low camera angles. If any film students know what effect that was supposed to have on the viewer, please let me know. On the commentary track to the DVD, Curtis claims the novel was incomprensible, and that in adapting the book with William F. Nolan, they were able to make the story make more sense. Not much. I get the fact that it’s some sort of variation on the All Devouring Dark Mother Goddess, but couldn’t you have infused the screenplay with a few “real” scary scenes? Daddy trying to drown the kid in the pool just doesn’t make me squirm in my seat. I remember reading the book when I was fourteen (published in 1973) when publishers were still coasting on the diabolic fumes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. This looks like an old ladies’ garden party by comparison.

And speaking of old ladies, even Bette Davis doesn’t have enough to do to liven up the proceedings. She does do a good death scene, though. It goes on for twenty some minutes, which must be some kind of record for eye bulging and bed writhing.

Davis, along with Oliver Reed and Karen Black, were a good draw to bring people out to the cinemas in 1976, but aside from the fact that Reed can do the most terrified looks of any adult male every committed to film (see his camera mugging in 1963’s Paranoiac) neither he nor Black are given anything to sink their teeth into. This sort of subtle Gothic thriller requires characters with deeper psychological scars beyond a recurring nightmare from their childhood. The Rolfs are a normal American family, which I am sure was Curtis’ point… but it’s boring.

So what’s good about this movie? The soundtrack. And for people of a certain age (i.e: younger than me who saw Burnt Offerings on TV at an impressionable age) the Chauffeur. And I have to admit, he has a creepy grin. And creepy is good.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Sound of Gothic: The Music of Robert (Bob) Cobert

One of the often overlooked elements of film and television is the musical score. In the world of gothic and horror films, can you imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho without Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins or Vertigo without the lush, romantic score? Or what about David Lynch’s ground breaking drama, Twin Peaks, without Angelo Badalamenti’s quirky jazz?

I can’t imagine Dark Shadows without the music of Robert Cobert. Outside of the Dark Shadows fan base, Bob Cobert may not be as well known as Herrmann and other status film composers, but when it comes to horror film music, his oeuvre is one of the strongest and most recognizable.

Aside from the fact that the opening theme from Dark Shadows with its octave jumping Theremin warble ranks with the Twilight Zone, Addams Family, and The Munsters as one of the most well known TV themes of all time, his work on all 1,225 episodes has been collected in four volumes by theme, and an exhaustive six CD set of cues, The Complete Dark Shadows Soundtrack Music Collection.

But wait, there’s more. Cobert also scored other TV shows throughout the 1970s, most notably The Night Stalker, as well as movies. As much as I love the music from Dark Shadows, his score to1976’s Burnt Offerings is, in my opinion, his masterwork, combining all the sounds, styles, and motifs he developed over five years of working on the daytime serial.

When I write, I mostly listen to film scores as well as 20th Century classical music, and Robert Cobert CDs are always in the top of the stack. While the four volume set is a collection of themes by character (you get the moody themes Dr. Julia Hoffman, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and David Collins alongside the lighter themes for Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters) and setting (The Old House, Eagle Hill Cemetery, Windcliff Sanitarium), what I have noticed is that the music often puts me in a state of high anxiety. If you’ve read my gothic stories, you know that my characters exist in an almost constant state of tension. Music of this sort is a great boon to creativity!

Like Herrmann’s Psycho, Cobert uses steady pulsing strings to produce these tension filled moments, while other themes are performed in the bass register with bassoons and cellos showcasing the weighty oppressiveness that life at Collinwood produces.

Some of the themes from the show are well known melodies, such as Josette’s Music Box, and Quentin’s Theme (aka Shadows of the Night), which was a popular piece on AM radio in the 1960s and early 1970s. I still have my 45 RPM tucked away in a box of old records.

Cobert improved and expanded on the music box motif with his score for Burnt Offerings. The theme is much more plaintive and melancholy this time around, and was better integrated into the rest of the film’s music. Anyone who has seen this movie will never forget the nightmarish sequences with The Chauffeur; the character’s theme presented here is one of the standout tracks.

Burnt Offerings was released in a limited edition of 1,000 in 2011, but can still be found at a hefty price on eBay. The Original Music From Dark Shadows (aka Volume One) is still in print and is an excellent starting point for beginners, featuring specially arranged instrumental tracks, as well as others with voiceovers by actors David Shelby and the late Jonathan Frid. The subsequent three volumes are rarer, but I was able to get them at decent prices after some patient hunting, so other avid collectors should be able to as well.

Another favorite which recently went out of print is the Rhino Records release of the score to the theatrical films House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. House has many of the familiar themes from the show pumped up with a full orchestra, while Night recreates some of the music from Cobert’s earlier score for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Dan Curtis’ 1968 British television film). The 70s love themes (the theme for Joanna on the show reworked as the Love Theme for the movie) are schmaltzy by today’s standards, but Cobert outdid himself with some truly innovative tracks built around wild percussion motifs for scenes such as Angelique’s Attack and The Chase.

Bob Cobert scored other gothic collaborations with Dan Curtis, among them The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973), Dracula, and The Turn of the Screw (both 1974), as well as the cult favorite Trilogy of Terror(1975) which features the unforgettable scene with an African voodoo fetish chasing Karen Black around her apartment. Many of these themes are collected in The Night Stalker and Other Classic Chillers (out of print).

One of the (many) shortcomings of Tim Burton’s 2012 remake of Dark Shadows was the noticeable absence of Cobert’s original theme. Producer Dan Curtis may have died in 2006, but hopefully someone will grab Cobert for one last scoring of a great, gothic film. In the meantime, there’s always YouTube.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Shrouded In Silence: The Haunting at Blackwood Hall

Do you like stories about governesses in peril, fabulous Victorian settings, ghosts, witchcraft, seances, secret passageways, family legends, misty moors, and plenty of inclement weather? If you've been following this blog for awhile, you probably do. 

My second full length novel is now available as an eBook at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Pick one up today, turn down the lights, light some candles, and come to Blackwood Hall. I have a story to tell you.

It was early, but I felt myself growing sleepier by the moment. I hadnt been given laudanum since I was a child, and the effects were completely foreign to me. My vision grew dim, and I found I could barely hold up my head. Alice, bless her heart, came to me and pecked me lightly on the cheek, then made an effort of drawing a blanket over me.

I fell into a strange and troubled sleep. I dreamed of a line of monks marching solemnly through the ruined abbey by moonlight. Their torches cast dancing shadows against the crumbling stone walls. Then, I saw a rider on horseback, a proud black stallion which I recognized as Nigel Kents mount, only the face of the rider was an ugly, twisted visage like the face on Alices doll. Alice was there as well, and her mother came and took her by the hand and the two of them disappeared behind a stone arch and Alice was lost to me forever.

I struggled up from the nightmare and looked about the room. Alice was asleep and the fire had died down low. It must have been the dead of night. But I distinctly heard the sound of the door handle turning, and when the person on the other side of the door realized it was locked, the handle began to shake and rattle so loudly and with such force I thought the door would be torn asunder.

Stop it! Stop it!I yelled, and with great difficulty I hauled myself from the bed. The moment I was on my feet the shaking of the door ceased abruptly. I went to the door and laid my ear against it. I listened for a moment, but heard neither dog nor man on the other side of the door.

Satisfied that what I had heard was only a figment of my imagination, or the remnants of that horrid nightmare clinging tenaciously to my mind, I turned to go back to bed

And distinctly heard the sound of footsteps running down the hall.