Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Death Is Good..."

It was clear almost immediately in the American horror game that if you wanted a film done right you needed someone with imagination and someone who could work with little money. Today, B movie makers like Val Lewton and Edgar Ulmer are generally (though not nearly enough) more respected and talked about than the likes of James Whale or Tod Browning. The best B movie makers worked magic after discovering that the key to making a good horror movie was misdirection. Want to make a monster film? Make it about a marriage in trouble. Want to make a vampire film? Make it a romantic wartime drama. Or to give the filmmakers more credit, they had greater ambitions than just scaring their audiences. Anyone can jump out of the dark, not just anyone could make you think or warm your heart. That's just what both RKO and Columbia did when they were cashing in on Universal's trademark bloodsucker (albeit more than ten years after such a thing would make any sense but if Wallstreet 2 has taught us anything it's that it's never too late to shamelessly cash-in on a long-forgotten brand). Val Lewton's RKO B Unit went an entirely different direction with their only vampire movie and produced one of their rare failures. It's not really his fault, I suppose, the script was pretty terrible and no amount of interference was going to change that. How do you work around a resolute lack of tension?

Isle of the Dead
by Mark Robson
Oliver Davis is in Greece covering the frontlines of WWI for a newspaper. His envoy is a strict General called Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff with distracting, boyish curly hair) who we meet giving the execution order on one of his own men for a crime that Davis sees (and we, the audience are supposed to see) as minor considering the punishment. Pherides' explanation doesn't really cut it though but for it doesn't particular matter; a few minutes pass and Davis doesn't actually seem all that put off by it. Maybe it's Marc Cramer's limited range as an actor but the man never really seems all that put off by anything. Pherides just finishes explaining that they have to burn the bodies of the fallen to prevent the spread of septicemic plague when he remembers that he hasn't laid flowers on his wife's grave in quite some time. She's buried on an island cemetery just off the coast of where they're stationed and Davis agrees to go along for the ride after a tasteless metaphor lands him in the general's ever-broadening bad graces. The gesture works though as by the time they dock they both seem to be in a completely different movie. Davis leaves a light on at the dock on the far shore but when they step off the boat the light goes out and with it goes the last bit of tension the movie has to offer, sadly.

They discover that Pherides' wife's body has been removed from her coffin and then hear what sounds like singing. They find the only building on the island with lights on and find a whole bevy of characters with no business in war-torn Greece. They're all the guests of Albrecht (who actually never introduces himself, despite knowing the answer to all of Karloff's questions and indeed knowing him by sight), a Swiss archaeologist. apparently the grave-robbing is indirectly his fault as he put the idea that the dead are buried with valuables into the heads of the locals who then went about desecrating graves in hopes of scraping up some extra cash. If it sounds convoluted and tacked-on...well, it is. So are all the people staying with him. There's the St. Aubyns and their nurse Thea who looks after wife Mary, who's terminally ill (her husband doesn't get a first name), Andrew Robbins (a never-worse Skelton Knaggs; he can't even pull off his own accent) who's there for no reason other than about three minutes of comic relief, and Madame Kyra, the caretaker. Davis is taken with Thea immediately even if Madama Kyra thinks she's actually a greek folkloric vampire called the vorvolaka. She won't have as hard a time selling that when they all start dying of the plague, though.

For no physically determinate reason (the bodies have been taken off the island, the bodies of the potentially afflicted soldiers are miles away) the plague hits their tiny island in a big way. Robbins is the first to go, then Mr. St. Aubyn. Pherides calls in Dr. Drossos, the doctor that travels with his unit but he dies just a few days after he gets there and orders that no one leave the island and risk infecting the soldiers. Well then what can they do? If you guessed wash their hands a hundred times a day and wait for the next one to die, then you also might have the foresight to watch some of Lewton's better films. Oh wait I didn't tell you about the romance between Thea and Davis that Pherides seems intent on cock-blocking for no reason or that Kyra turns Pherides into a superstitious mess. Maybe because it doesn't really matter. And really none of that mattered to me because I find Katherine Emery more sympathetic and attractive than Ellen Drew.

I don't know what to say, really. I like Val Lewton and I remember liking this film a lot better the first time around even if my friend Maggie was quick to inform me that the science was all wrong. Maybe it was because we were watching all of Lewton's lesser-known works that day and it just seemed to fit into a grander picture. Isolated I wasn't nearly so favourably inclined. Next to nothing happens after the first few deaths and then it becomes Thea and Davis trying to find a quiet spot to make out with or without the approval of the other survivors, a turn of events that makes this more like Lewton's youth-runs-wild film Youth Runs Wild, which was the last film he made before he began developing Isle of the Dead (The Bodysnatcher was a fluke in between them that happened only due to production delays and is far and away the better film). There are a few of his trademarks here like the lantern and the atmosphere of the opening scenes but the best of them is the few moments inside the dark tomb just before the climax. The sound of the dripping water is really excellent and the whole movie could have stood a little more of that creepy reservation.
Neither Lewton nor director Mark Robson brought much of themselves to the film other than a kind of incongruous romanticism. Lewton famously (I use that term relatively) said that Isle of the Dead's message was that "Death is Good." In that regard I suppose it's kind of a wonder that such a bummer of a movie ever got made, especially while World War II was in its waning days. In that regard the romantic subplot (which becomes the plot as time goes on) could either be read as studio interference or as Lewton's view of humanity. He was making films while his fellow countrymen (US or USSR) were being killed so he himself was a little like Oliver Davis, but that doesn't really make Cramer's performance anymore interesting. It's not uncommon for filmmakers to elevate romance to the very real danger surrounding them but I couldn't really be made to care about Karloff playing crotchety old man to Ellen Drew and Marc Cramer and frankly the film's real antagonist, Helen Thimig's Kyra sounds like a cute old lady not a sadistic witch. But it wasn't all bad news in wartime vampire films. If Lewton's film showed far too little, Return of the Vampire goes the complete opposite route and delivers one of the most charismatic and boisterous monster movies of the decade.

Return of the Vampire
by Lew Landers
Something is terrorizing the patients at Dr. Saunders' sanitorium. He's got a hunch about what might be causing it because the conventional explanation his assistant, Lady Jane Ainsley, comes up with, the old pernicious anemia, just isn't cutting it. The most he's able to get out of one of his patients is an incoherent rant ending with: “His eyes like Burning Coals, NO I DIDN’T TELL THEM!” When Saunders' daughter comes down with the symptoms that have racked his other patients, he calls no more fucking around and brings Ainsley down the rabbit hole. Seeing as how our narrator's already told us that we're not prepared for the Return of the Vampire, we're already aware of what's causing all the ruckus. What we weren't prepared for is that the vampire, one Armand Tesla, is using a werewolf to do his dirty work whenever he's in the coffin. But he ain't no ordinary werewolf, he's furry all the time, perpetually under Tesla's spell. Ainsley remains incredulous until Saunders shows her a coffin with a still cold vampire inside and then his werewolf pal comes in to help him. I'd be hard pressed to explain that away. They stake the vampire and the wolf turns back into mild-mannered Andreas Obry and all is right.

In the twenty plus years between the prologue and the film proper, Lady Jane and Andreas have traveled the world killing vampires together while Saunders' daughter has grown into a feisty, independent-minded lady about to wed Lady Jane's son John (how's that for neat and tidy?). Lady Jane's home for the wedding and also to show up some asshole scientific rival of hers while she's at it. Fate, of course, has other plans. The setting you see is World War II era Britain and the blitz is in full swing. One night after Lady Jane's arrival home, a shell knocks open Tesla's coffin and some absent-minded soldiers pull the stake out of his heart thinking it a piece of shrapnel. And it just so happens that Jane and her rival are expecting a visit from a foreign scientist called Hugo Bruckner that no one has yet seen as he's spent the last few years evading capture by the Nazis. Are you pondering what I'm pondering? If it's that Tesla is going to kill Bruckner and take his place to get close, once again, to the young Saunders girl and secure himself a vampire bride, then yes. One can only hope that Lady Jane's lost nothing of her cunning in the years since the first time she tangoed with Tesla.

This movie is stacked to the rafters with awesome. It's release date kinda prevents it from going all-out berserk, which I would greatly would have enjoyed, but it's still a very satisfying movie. It mixes up the established lore of both werewolves and vampires, adds a bit of centuries-old unrequited love and to cap it off there's the rather impressive melding of current events in the form of the blitz. The first thing that impressed me was how quickly the film changes its proposed storyline. It starts like any Dracula rip-off but then takes ten or eleven turns and becomes something else entirely, until finally circling back around to an ending like that of the original Dracula. There are also a number of exciting little things to be found within, like Saunders explanation to Lady Jane that what's taking the blood of their children is “Deeper even than science” Magic is deeper than science? That’s a rather shallow take on your life’s work, don't you think? And because the film has no stars it needs to pander to (excluding Lugosi, whose presence is supposed to be more of a lingering miasma than a real character) director Lew Landers and writer Griffin Jay can introduce subplots and intrigue among it’s smaller characters. The deft camera work as Frederick Fleet and Lady Jane try to outmaneuver each other is a great example of the ways in which this film outperforms it’s A-list competitors. And best of all it gets right the fuck to work. Nary a second is wasted and yet the characters and plot still have room to breathe.

I think perhaps the most important reason why the film works beyond its impressive direction and pace is the performances. Frieda Inescort is just the sort of fast-talking, independent minded heroine a vampire movie needs. Matt Willis evokes just as much pathos as Lon Chaney's better remembered werewolf with a 16th of the screentime. The face he makes when he sees his old master has come back to life is priceless. Which brings us to Bela Lugosi. Lugosi had aged 12 years since his first screen credit and though he looks less sure of himself he has a greater presence than he ever had before. When the vampires makes his big entrance in the second act and the music stops, there’s apprehension not just in the script but in the room. It’s as if everyone present is holding their breath, waiting to see if he still had the charm he grew famous for. He seems a bit more fragile but he’s far more engaging and a lot less stiff than in Dracula. The panic that creeps into his voice in later scenes confirms my suspicion that this is purposely a less self-assured vampire. Indeed Landers seems to have been using Lugosi’s falling star as part of his character and it paid off beautifully. Willis and Lugosi's performances elevate the movie's tone from tense to tragic.
In a bit of…well it’s either irony or hypocrisy, Return of the Vampire was to be a sequel to Dracula but when the suits at Universal found out they threatened a lawsuit, not recognizing a compliment when they hear one. You may recall that Dracula was only the first recognized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel because F.W. Murnau and Prana films couldn’t afford the rights and so Universal was able to jimmy the annals of history open and slip their terrible movie in, though the spot rightly belonged to Nosferatu. And because karma is never far behind in the movie industry, Columbia managed a better picture with the same star, half the budget and a lawsuit keeping their film an orphan. Like Detour or Gun Crazy, Return of the Vampire is a B movie that simply doesn't care how the A pictures did it. For my money this is the Lugosi vampire movie to watch.

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