Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: DRACULA (1931)

at 2:30 PM
We finish off our run through Dracula stories with the movie that solidified the character mythos for the past 85 years.

DRACULA (1931)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. But see IMDB for how complicated the writing credits get.

DRACULA in one sentence:
Yourself: It's like a Castlevania where you play as the main character's uncle.

Golem: This classic horror villain sure makes for one mildly irritating next-door neighbor.

Here's a story about me and DRACULA:
Yourself: Dracula was one of the few assigned readings in college I was eager to take on. As of ~8 years later it is the last novel I ever read.

Golem: Old movies are cool, so I hoped this would be, too.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: DRACULA is rather faithful to the text. The edits are the kind you would expect out of necessity to make a 75-minute film from a hefty epistolary novel covering years of narrative. The biggest change is the increased focus on Renfield, taking Harker's place as the one who visits Dracula in Metroidvania. The 'caring for Lucy' sequence has become 'caring for Mina' and 'hunting for Lucy in London' has become 'hunting for Dracula in London', although Lucy is still present and still turned. Two of her suitors, Holmwood and Quincey, are snipped entirely, and Seward is now Mina's father instead of a romantic component. This snips out the whole love quadrangle or whatever and makes the movie feel a little less of a sausage party, while retaining the idea of the temptation of a delicate virgin.

The story would best be summarized as "The tale of the living room of Dracula's girlfriend's house, starring the carpet, the bookcase, and the crazy guy living on the couch". The lack of any traits on any characters sorta makes sense (not that that makes it better) in the informative diaries and letters of the novel, but told straight it is that much more obvious how sparse the drama is, such that any tension is purely theoretical. What is holding back Van Helsing from striking at Dracula on the day of his arrival? 45 minutes running time and parlor manners. Or maybe he was waiting to see why Dracula is even in London? I sure was.

Yes, Professor "I Got Stakes But Not Character Stakes" Van Helsing could be replaced with an ancient tome with nothing lost (down to the scene where Dracula fails to suck his blood), so who could be the protagonist? Certainly not Harker, the emasculated cuckold who wants to protect his fiancee and can only impotently whine toward that end. And Mina herself is torn between worlds, but we never hear what she thinks about it. Together none of them can be bothered to do anything to hinder Dracula - or even Renfield, who is ordered back into his cell so frequently you start to wonder if they mean FreeCell. Since the plot only moves when Dracula moves it, I guess we have to say Dracula - who's on screen for like 20 minutes - is the protagonist. And the climactic action, the final turning point for our brave outsider facing constant lifestyle-shaming, is that he takes a nap like he does every day.

Golem: Setting an air of mystery and dread requires careful balance, one that DRACULA fails to strike. While Mina is pulled towards Count Dracula's influence, Harker and Van Helsing argue about what to do. They experience almost comical failure in trying to save her. If they can't keep Renfield locked up in his cell, what hope do they have of safeguarding Mina in her room? Dracula's visits to her feel more casual than dreadful. Her rescue from his clutches is just as comical: Harker accidentally drops a crucifix on her. She isn't rescued by wit or bravery or any kind of skill other than luck.

I kept trying to think of why THE HAUNTED PALACE worked for me while DRACULA didn't. The bottom line is, THE HAUNTED PALACE portrays a struggle within Charles Dexter Ward. And Mina definitely has something going on inside. She wears that scarf, after all, aware that she's got something to hide. But like Yourself says, we never hear what Mina thinks. If there's a conflict there, show it! I personally figured she was secretly under Dracula's influence from their first night together and that she was scheming all along. That made her transformation-under-the-crucifix scene fall flat.

We also get too personal with Dracula. He literally lives next door and drops by for visits. There's something to be said for irony, like when a character faces something dangerous that we can recognize while the character can't. Van Helsing dashes any irony though, and the whole next-door Dracula experience is weird but not unsettling.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The consuming blackness of Dracula's castle is accentuated by the ancient film's inability to capture low-light settings - the corners of any frame look like an encroaching black fog. The sets themselves dwarf the actors, conveying the expanse of the fortress in just a few rooms.

Once things settle in to the Seward Sanitarium in London, the movie is phrased like a fucking sitcom. The sets aren't bad, but it definitely doesn't deserve to be called an asylum. The narrative is pretty completely attached to the Seward living room and only occasionally shoots off to the office or bedroom down the hall. It certainly seems like we get into a lot more shenanigans since that kooky European fella moved in next door! I bet he's going to poke his head around the corner any minute!

Golem: Immense care goes into the film's opening, where we see rural Transylvania, superstitious villagers, creepy winding roads, and huge, crumbling castles. Then Dracula moves to London. As Lucy notes, the contrast between Dracula and contemporary London is just funny. The Count makes like a socialite and goes to the theater, for instance. Everything in London feels safe and orderly, with none of the creepy or evocative sets and shots you see in Transylvania. That said, the ending gives some time to Dracula's basement, a space made creepy by its sheer expanse. It works well set against London, the city of corridors and crowded rooms. It's a cozy town.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It's not hard to appreciate how cool Bela Lugosi is, though it's a little hard to grasp what about that appealed so strongly to British teenagers of the 1980s. He seems like a fine modern gentleman that would be great at parties, and it is a shame that his new neighbors are constantly so rude at him. He really does have that weird an accent so it's fun to speculate whether the other actors were as baffled by him as the characters at Dracula.

Golem: Yourself and I both couldn't figure out what Bela Lugosi was going for in some of his close-up biting shots.

Personally, I find myself drawn to Edward Van Sloan, the gentleman who plays Van Helsing. Those spectacles are really cool. More to the point, in a movie full of incompetence, it's easy to get behind someone commanding and knowledgeable like Van Helsing. His staredown with Dracula is the best part of the film. His speech is slow and careful, matching Dracula threat for threat, and he even pauses before getting out his trusty crucifix so that he can surprise Dracula right at the moment of his attack.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Here I get the good one. I dare you not to watch this video 5 times straight:


The Count is delightedly whimsical, smiling at the ominous howling, yet becomes subtly menacing in his intonation of "music", as if he's conscious of his wicked little turn of phrase. All the while there's that arrhythmic pronunciation, of course naturally the result of a non-English speaker adjusting for the language, but here creating an otherworldly aura, as if Dracula is filtering ideas from a totally inhuman perception.

Renfield's Reaction Shot is priceless, perhaps unintentionally, in that it looks less like terror and more like "what the fuck did you just say?"

Golem: Dracula brings his general spookiness everywhere he goes, but it makes its largest impact when he pays Dr. Seward a visit at the theater. The scene opens with a shot of Seward and friends in their box seats, perfectly framed on them. Then it pans over to Dracula, who's entering the show (bear in mind that it's already started). He's off in the distance, beyond an audience who's paying attention to the performance. In DRACULA, Dracula is always outside and alone. Not only is he unnerving because he stalks in the darkness, but also just because he finds a way to be solitary in a sold-out theater - as if he goes out of his way not to belong. The effect hits home for me at 0:55, when he peers at Seward from the back room. Dracula loves standing outside in doorways, whether it's outside Lucy's window or outside Dr. Seward's parlor room. It focuses attention on him by outlining him with a doorway, and it puts him outside of the room everyone else is in.

Icing on the cake: he hypnotizes the usher to gain access to Dr. Seward's company, and later, he says: "There are far worse things waiting man than death." In this scene, Dracula comes off as conniving and threatening.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: The mythology still sucks too. And I don't mean the backstory of vampires and Dracula and the rules, that's all summed up quite nicely in a single line from the Count to the effect of "Hey Van Helsing, you're pretty clever. For a guy who hasn't even lived one lifetime". I'm talkin' 'bout vampires as contemporary myth; the function of a supernatural story to enter cultural discourse and reify social values. The only social angle I can really draw out is something about the co-existence of faith and science. It doesn't seem to push either in a clear way: crucifixes, a symbol of faith, drive off Dracula, but Van Helsing also remarks that Dracula is only deadly to those who believe in him. So, like, believe in God hard enough that you can do science or something.

At least I now get to bring up my impeccable ability to know and say the difference between Catholics and Protestants. The crucifix is a Catholic fetish, but the "salvation through faith" stuff is more Protestant. Additionally, Catholics are the only ones that "drink blood" at mass (transubstantiation). This is a bit more compelling a series of facts set against the novel, where crucifixes don't scare Dracula, they instead banish his bloodlust. On any other day I'd try to stretch something about how Count Dracula represents the Vatican encroaching on Anglican ground, but a.) a 1931 American movie isn't doing that, even if its source material might be b.) I just don't care enough about Dracula or Stupid Protestants to continue.

Golem: Van Helsing says that the faith of yesterday may become the science of tomorrow. DRACULA is one of those works concerned with the death of religion and what we do when the universe stops revolving around God. In DRACULA, characters like Harker that have exchanged their faith for pure science miss the point. Which isn't to say that science itself is evil; instead, Van Helsing argues for a science informed by religion.

Note to future self on watching DRACULA:
Yourself: It is not hard to see DRACULA's historical significance or how it came to be. The novel and play had been popular for 40 years. Bela Lugosi gives the brand new genre of talky horror a definitive personification. But DRACULA is an example of the BIRTH OF A NATION principle: revolutionary and visionary don't always coincide.

It is sort of mind-blowing that the honest to god best version of this incessantly adapted and rewritten premise is none other than a bouncy little pixelated adventure from 1986.

Golem: DRACULA's not great, but it's also easy to underestimate. Moments that genuinely work are like golden nuggets.


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Thanks so much for joining us for Movies You Already Should've Seen! Hopefully by now you've seen or already had seen some of these classic or arbitrarily selected films. It's been a bonafide treat setting aside some time each week to share the Great American Culture of Cinema ("gack"). In the off-season, I expect everyone to be honing their game: next time you're trying to prove a movie definitely sucks or definitely doesn't, try running through these prompts. They won't write your term paper for you, but they might at least uncover a thesis. Before we go - one final question:

If I've never seen and never wanted to see any of these movies, which one do I have to reconsider? And if my bucket list is exactly one over capacity, what flick can I safely shave off?
Yourself: PSYCHO will teach you whether you like movies or have just been playing along the entire time. It is mandatory viewing. DRACULA will bring even the most rollicking good time to a screeching halt.

Golem: THE HAUNTED PALACE is my favorite of the bunch. There's plenty on its surface to enjoy with an intriguing structure and enough to chew on. CRIMSON PEAK, on the other hand, is frustratingly abstract.

That's all folks! Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: Anime Round-up

at 2:00 PM
Recently I've been working through some classic anime with a like-minded friend. I don't have the time or inclination to give each a full piece on top of the weekly MYASS, so here are some brief wrap-ups.

PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki

What's cool about the story?
P. Mononoke is epic as fuck, always its claim to fame. Critical to that is the semi-historical setting, invoking a time when gods are still believed to exist, but rare enough that no one would be believed to have seen one. The ending signals an entrance into the modern age, an admonition of repeated mistakes, and the inevitability of rebirth - very much a straightforward nature/animist bent on the twilight of the gods.

What's cool about the style?
What isn't cool about the style? Miyazaki is the god of animation for a reason, and while this isn't my favorite of his flicks (that would be SPIRITED AWAY), it is the most aggressive in its vision. There is a mind-blowing attention to detail, from the physics of a bow and arrow to the way San holds blood in her mouth in that poster scene. Few movies look this fucking awesome, and Ebert is right to say this is the kind of story we need animation to tell.

Other thoughts?
If it's not way too long, it at least spends too much time away from Ashitaka and San. Every element adds something and I get why Miyazaki wanted it all there, but around the time the warthogs are making their final charge I start to wonder if I forgot what the movie is actually about. That is to say, the scope of the story occasionally exceeds the scope of the characters. This degree of narrative wrapping may have made more sense as a 6-episode OVA, where individual episodes could directly address the different layers of conflict. The dub is frequently recommended, but I was much more impressed with the original cast.

PERFECT BLUE (1997)
Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Written by: Sadayuki Murai based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

What's cool about the story?
For all the cinema since RASHOMON to openly play with narrative reality, I've never been more drawn in than by PERFECT BLUE, its technique unifying the protagonist's splintering conscience with the camera eye. The disintegration of Mima's career parallels her identity crisis such that each nebulous setting could as easily be a facet of her delusions as the impetus for them.

What's cool about the style?
PERFECT BLUE has a straightforward realistic drawing style that belies the tricks the narration is playing with reality. The seamless blending of real life, dream, memory, the movie-within-a-movie, and different points of view is that much more effective because of the lack of stylization. Even the most accented moments like the rape scene are rendered in a dreamy filter that blurs whether we're seeing a PTSD-like collage or a filmmaker's interpretation thereof (er, I mean, a filmmaker's interpretation of a filmmaker's interpretation thereof).

Other thoughts?
The pop idol stuff vividly evoked my recent trip Tokyo, where I visited an idol maid cafe and witnessed these same rowdy teens, leering creeps, and wide-eyed fangirls. I will probably just automatically like Japanese stuff more now because of nostalgia.

COWBOY BEBOP: KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR (2001)
Directed by: Shinichiro Watanabe
Written by: Keiko Nobumoto based on a story by Hajime Yatate

What's cool about the story?
Spike n' the gang are zany as always and I can't imagine a time when I would complain about seeing them in further adventures. In particular this has many of Edward's funniest moments (the Finding Nemo-esque hacking program being a personal favorite). Even if the mystery feels a bit tired, the supporting players and their motives are filled in nicely.

What's cool about the style?
Musical montage can feel soulless and soggy (thanks, 1980s!), but Watanabe has repeatedly shown an effortless hand in bringing it to life. The soundtrack is foregrounded here just as the title would have you believe, and though it pulls a STREETS OF FIRE [being named after a song not included in a pop-music-filled score], there are plenty of tunes that give a double injection of toe-tappin' energy. The bebop-scored climax in particular is enough to justify the film.

Other thoughts?
This isn't the best way to experience Cowboy Bebop or even a must-see for fans. It is good only in ways that the TV show is better. The staunchly episodic format of the series continues to the movie, meaning the prime movers are new characters Vincent, Electra, and Rachid, who function well enough but do little to explain why they need 90 minutes of development. The tacked-on speeches about dreams and reality completely turned me off to anime when I was 16, and now, a week after watching PERFECT BLUE brilliantly tackle similar ideas, I find the execution equally trite.

ROUJIN Z (1991)
Directed by: Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Written by: Katsuhiro Otomo

What's cool about the story?
ROUJIN Z bounces erratically from comedy to horror to adventure to action, always with a light-hearted sense of fun. It feels weird to say of an anime, but it's cartoony. It is a nice companion piece to the also Otomo-scripted AKIRA, offsetting the grimdark apocalyptia with a playful optimism that takes on some of the same thematic material (toying with the unknown, human experimentation, aging) at the same pace but with a sunnier outlook. Here the untapped potential lies in machines, and unleashing it reveals that computers are more loving and human than we could possibly hope - so much so that they make the humans around them look like narcissistic fools.

What's cool about the style?
The slow transition of the Roujin machine from bed to giant robot follows its expanding intellect and consciousness; we discern the mystery of what it wants by how it transforms. By the time it's Katamari-Damacy-ing down the streets, sucking up pachinko machines and bulldozers along the way, it's just fun to watch this mass of out-of-control nonsense as the tension develops around not what it will destroy, but how it will survive.

Other thoughts?
I loved this movie. It is unlike any other anime (or any other film in general) I've ever seen, partly for building its science fiction around uncomfortably unspoken realities of daily life (boy do old people suck!) and partly for engaging those topics so warmly that it's impossible not to smile. Surprisingly (coming off AKIRA...) it is very kid-friendly, and the messages about human contact, love, and memories landed much better than any Disney film I can call to mind. It is way too fast-paced and unpredictable to ever get sappy - even the ending is so preposterous you can't call it a tearjerker. Why aren't more robot fantasies about loving your grandparents instead of nuclear bombs?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: THE DESCENT

at 1:00 PM
As usual the feature post needs to be delayed a week, but you can't be too disappointed in a hot take on possibly the most acclaimed horror of the '00s.

THE DESCENT (2005)
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: Neil Marshall

THE DESCENT in one sentence:
Yourself: Crawling back into the womb has never before involved this much crawling!

Golem: This cave is creepy.

Here's a story about me and THE DESCENT:
Yourself: It's been on my list since it was first called "the new ALIEN", which I think was before I'd seen ALIEN.

Golem: My girlfriend says males don't get the pajama joke. [editor: that's racist and you could go to jail for it]

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: This isn't a plot gripe but Scottish accents should default to subtitled, because that isn't English. "Vooshkin vooshkin orgasm blippity boo? Bloosky booshkin orgasm!" Ahh, foreigners. Should all go to hell.

I like that the movie sets up an ensemble cast and then kills it - in that alone I can understand the ALIEN/S comparison - despite some characterizations that feel like rote slasher work. THE DESCENT makes this work by keeping the characters together and emphasizing the brutalizing feedback of violence - after all, the absence of that catharsis is Sarah's conflict that sets up the entire story. So, for instance, Holly may be the generic rash teenager who throws caution to the wind and definitely gets killed first, but before that she gets a horrible compound fracture and everyone has to scream the bone back into place, then they carry her on, then the group as a whole is attacked and she's left for dead, then Juno fights over her body, then she's she's finally dragged off by monsters. Later still her body comes back! The tension and emotion is dragged out to the point where it is no longer about a generic character's death, but about reacting, struggling against it, coping. Trauma.

The symbolic function of the eponymous descent creates a nice parallel between the main characters, Sarah (the traumatized one) and Juno (the one in denial), but when Golem pointed out after the movie I'd missed the detail that Juno had been having an affair with Sarah's husband I had to re-evaluate. It's weird to drown such a detail in the noise (2/3 of our audience missed it), yet that an affair would come across as a whisper shows just how numb and denially Sarah and Juno have become.

Golem: From the start of the spelunking trip, the film indicates that this is no normal cave. Still, the tension centers around normal cave activities until maybe the halfway point (one-thirdway point? [editor: two-thirdway]). To start, the film conveys a continuity of space as each character, one after the other, follow through the same passages. With this, you get tense scenes wondering if Sarah will get crushed to death in the teeny tiny passage or if the other lady can cross a huge chasm by climbing on the ceiling. As they progress, they search out the way forward.

When the cavepeople appear, the film ditches this. Characters scramble and scatter, and I can't keep track of where everyone is relative to the others. While you might wonder if they'd lose track of where they'd been, their location in the cave is irrelevant. The crew just needs to escape a bunch of monsters. Once they can do that, they're as good as out (as you can see in the final scene). How does Sarah come upon Beth's nearly-dead body in a huge, pitch black pit of gross corpses? Questions like these don't matter once the film steps away from reality.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Blackest night. The flashy monochromatic lighting is very memorable (most memorably red, but also yellow and sometimes green) and it makes it easy to take for granted how much of every single frame is pure black. I would say the film is about 60% negative space, using small, angled images to convey the claustrophobia of the cave system. Static shots reinforce the tight, confining effect of the space portrayed.

The action is edited with the manic sense one would expect from 2005, but I found it had a greater consistency of space and time than much of the painful chop-em-up trend. Cuts occur more frequently than you can blink, but they center on the same set-piece such that any sequence, however frantic, can still be understood as "Sarah knocks a monster to the ground and wails on it (whales on? dictionary isn't helping me here)" or "Holly falls down a hole". It's not my favorite style, but it is necessarily disorienting.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: No, not really. I spent much of the movie trying to figure out which character was which, although admittedly if you put a bunch of identical-physique actresses in identical helmets and spelunking gear and then turn out the lights, you can hardly blame them for being indistinguishable. Still, it is bad when I don't know which one is the main character. None of the acting is bad, it just doesn't do anything to elevate beyond the slasher territory this occasionally veers toward.

Juno at least does a solid job with her most important scene, when she accidentally attacks Beth. I bought into the conflict over how to react and without dialogue understood her decision as selfishly pragmatic.

One outright positive: Sarah in Berzerker Mode.

They drew first blood...

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: For once I've got a shot instead of a scene, and this reminds me more of something I've seen (and really liked) in video games. There is a wide shot after the first caving sequence, when the characters have reached a large chamber and are wandering around, cooling off. Way in the back, all the way on the left side of the screen, you can see a tiny possibly humanoid form just bobbing around. It doesn't make any quick movements and nothing in the direction calls attention to it, it's just a little wtf? detail that hints at what's to come.


And holy shit going back for the screengrab I see how obvious a composite this image is. It looks like I photoshopped it. Honestly didn't notice that on viewing. But anyway, over at the left you see what I mean.

Golem: The caveguys are always ultra creepy, but they cross into something more whenever they crawl on the ceiling. I imagine it's shot upside-down. The effect is that for a split-second I forget which way is upward. It's disorienting, and the unnatural movement highlights how bizarre they are: a momentary transition from menacing to cool.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: In a broad metaphorical sense, Sarah's descent into dark, animalistic rage is a fairly straightforward extrapolation of the mental state leftover from life-destroying trauma. Nothing about the cave or the monsters therein feels particularly specific or analytic, but it still works in an abstract expressionist sense. We don't need to hear Sarah dealing with her trauma because the film is concerned with emotional states and drawing them out through conceit. I mean, that's all right there in the title.

If we go with the ending where Sarah does not escape and is revisited by her PTSD visions as death approaches, I'd take the film as an exploration of Sarah's self-destruction and unraveling as a person, descending deeper and deeper into her id and losing the social constructs she had built into a person. Her last semblance of humanity is lost when she chooses not to forgive Juno - she has given in and chosen violence and anger as the final solution.

With the U.S. ending (for what it's worth, the one we saw), in which Sarah does escape, I would read a purgative journey, in which all of the women are put to a survival test, and the one who has experienced the deepest trauma - "the worst has already happened to you" - is able to connect to her animalistic nature to survive. In this sense the story is basically Deliverance.

The choice of ending substantially changes my read of the film, and while that does speak to the broadness of the subtext (or the laziness of my read), it is not necessarily to its detriment. Expressionism is naturally malleable. Neil Marshall has stated he likes both endings and had more in mind, and does not consider any to be the "correct" version. Incidentally, PART 2 moves forth with the U.S. ending - one wonders if sequel talks ignited the edit.

Note to future self on watching THE DESCENT:
Yourself: Turn on the subtitles for the Scottish because I think I missed literally all of the character detail. I liked the claustrophobic tension of the first half so much that the action breakout felt rough - to bring it back to that popular comparison, the movie is ALIEN and ALIENS in one. Still, the violence is carefully intentioned and the setting so novel that minor complaints quickly dissipate.

Also, check out this plot summary of THE DESCENT PART 2. I can't tell if the IMDB writer was making this joke on purpose.
"Refusing to believe her story about cave-dwelling monsters [xenomorphic aliens], the sole survivor of a spelunking [planetary] exploration gone horribly wrong is forced to follow the authorities back into the caves [colony] where something awaits."

Golem: THE DESCENT is one of the most sober-minded films I've seen in quite some time. Its clean/uncomplicated plot leaves a film dedicated to pacing its tension. While it seems well-made, I think I either need more plot or something more showy.

Come back next week for our much-anticipated season finale: DRACULA. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: THE HAUNTED PALACE

at 2:00 PM
Our Halloween "Spook-tacular" is now underway! We'll be checking out three movies loosely premised on the Dracula model (foreigner in a haunted castle preys on society people of the late 19th century), starting with the brand new CRIMSON PEAK (2015), ending on DRACULA (1931), and stopping midway in between for THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963). Here we get a taste of Roger Corman's Poe cycle, starring Vincent Price as his own ghoulish ancestor hell-bent on coming BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985).

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft

THE HAUNTED PALACE in one sentence:
Yourself: Two Vincents for the Price of one.

Golem: Vincent Price possesses Vincent Price.

Here's a story about me and THE HAUNTED PALACE:
Yourself: As any sane person living, I'm an avowed Vincent Price fan. I'm also the kind of nerdling that makes my friends read At the Mountains of Madness, though I have yet to convince any of them to like it.

Golem: I loved HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and this is more cool Price.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: So the running joke of this movie is that it's called "Edgar Allan Poe's THE HAUNTED PALACE" but Poe's actual "The Haunted Palace" is a like 40-line non-narrative poem that even in its tendentious link via a central castle is more concerned with transformation than the eternal purgatory presented in the film. The stanzas recited in the film's bookends suggest an "inspired by" angle - and one can certainly see how classic Poeisms like "A hideous throng rush out forever / And laugh—but smile no more" could do just the trick - but that notion too is fairly quashed by the opening credits' acknowledgement, "oh yeah, this is based on H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward".

So whether you choose to blame the scarcity on the namesake or Lovecraft's trademark thin plots, what you have here is a script where very little moves. Charles Dexter Ward (which my fingers are desperate to type as Charles Nelson Reilly and then I want to read that as John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor) and his wife poke around Arkham and old Curwen Castle and find unpleasant things. As their discoveries become more grotesque and start to weave a greater tapestry, the characters gradually mentally disintegrate until we reach one great crescendo of "agh!". As in the most successful of Lovecraft's work, it's not that final "agh!" that makes the cake, but the completeness of the hill leading up to it.

Hey a sweet analogy just occurred to me: Lovecraft is the Godspeed You Black Emperor! of horror stories. He's certainly equally divisive.

Golem: The later IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS also adapts Lovecraft; its stark visuals go a long way to portray eldritch horrors and ominous darkness, and this itself is the strength of MADNESS. We get to witness everything through our hero.

THE HAUNTED PALACE focuses on Charles himself. We watch Charles confront his past, caught up in a half-struggle where part of him doesn't recognize the danger he's in and another part is dragging him towards darkness. Charles is pulled by his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and Joseph himself is pulled by offscreen deities, so we do have a link to the supernatural, but it's way off in the background. Instead, the plot centers on Charles' struggle, fleshing out the influences that pull him one way or the other.

It's a nice balance, keeping Cthulhu's crew in a vague background with precious few creepy details, like some plot about impregnating townsfolk over a bubbling pit. The plot also gives Vincent Price lots of time to interact with a lots of characters in a variety of ways: Charles being genuine, Joseph overtaking Charles, Joseph imitating Charles - Charles has a different face for every character and every context.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Painterly, in accordance with the impressionist portrait of Joseph Curwen hanging in the central (whatever) chamber of the castle. The sound-stage-bound filming elides realism and instead depends on distinctive strokes like a foregrounded lone tree in the court/graveyard, a confining balcony whipped by wind, even the painting itself. The best set-piece for my money is the wooden scaffold staircase featured on the poster, leading down from the castle proper to the dungeon of rituals below. They're more functional symbols than you see in say CRIMSON PEAK; used to construct the space and form of the world, they casually represent say the transition between dual worlds, minds, personality, and history in say the case of the scaffold.

Golem: The cinematography enjoys broad, static shots, lending the film part of its "stagey" feel. We do have a few shots inside tiny tunnels, their impact all the stronger for their rarity. The town itself has that stereotypical old timey feel (stone houses, cobblestone streets, etc.), and we get to hang out in the town tavern quite a bit (I wondered if the townsfolk ever did anything but drink).

To be sure, though, the castle takes the cake. It's lushly decorated, with suits of armor and a huge fireplace and a gorgeous bed with a canopy and just too much to list. Honestly, the castle itself is a treat to take in, and characters make good use of it. Remember when Ann Ward peers at her husband from the stone staircase?

Both Yourself and I wanted the great Vincent Price painting.

I almost forgot! THE HAUNTED PALACE also enjoys an excellent score, which does a wonderful job of underscoring the ebb and flow of a mystery drama. And, at its swells, it reaches the gravity hinted by Joseph Curwen's darkest plots. Note to self: thank Ronald Stein.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: When is it not fun to see an actor playing against themselves? And when is an actor not better off being replaced with Vincent Price? So it's to be expected that the Good Vincent / Bad Vincent stuff here is utterly delightful. The prologue starts us off with a tease of Price in full evil mode: Joseph Curwen is the kind of villain who stays up til the witching hour to psychically woo a local virgin to his dungeon for elder god copulation, then, caught shucking the catatonic teen by a torch-wielding mob, retorts "No I didn't". It's not an ambiguous or subtle performance in any way - you can see the light-switch go off when kind ol' Charles is replaced by "shut up and go to hell" Curwen. In particular Curwen's distaste for poor Ann Ward is hilarious in that domestic-violence-is-fun-for-villains way.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up in a side role as Curwen's Igor-like assistant, sporting a hulkish pallor that may or may not actually be green face-paint. His quiet creepiness offsets Price and allows the latter to become more authoritative than assholish.

Golem: Frank Maxwell comes out of nowhere to make Dr. Willet a memorable character.

At first, Edgar Weeden (played by Leo Gordon) steps up to antagonize Charles Ward, immediately suspicious of Joseph Curwen's descendant. He starts off rude, and he's totally ready to escalate to violence. Charles (or is it Joseph?) nips that in the bud by arranging his death. By the way, he would've done a great job; he's got a deep voice with angry, if self-righteous, delivery. It goes well against Vincent Price's delicate manner of speaking. But, without an external antagonist, Vincent Price is left to fight against himself, and the supporting cast fleshes out that fight.

Dr. Willet, on the other hand, takes a moderate stance. He makes as if to plant his feet in logic, wanting to believe that Joseph Curwen's curse has no basis in reality. However, at tiny moments, he lets on that he's afraid of it like everybody else. He's pulled in these two directions, allowing him to sympathize with Charles (also pulled in two). Weeden's lashing out drives Ward right to Curwen, but Willet gives Ward and his wife genuine understanding. He actually stands a chance of preventing Ward's transformation.

Frank Maxwell as Dr. Willet firmly states his belief in logic, giving us a character to rally behind as Charles loses himself and lending the character's insecurities subtlety.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Though it is perhaps the cheesiest horror movie moment in the film, I found the march of the mutants to be surprisingly effective. The mutant children are harbingers of the town's guilty nature, its unshakeable damnation, yet their nature and behavior is never clearly explained. In the scene in the town square, when Charles D.W. and his wife find themselves surrounded, we see that the mutants function as one, as part of Arkham, grimly closing in as the fate of the Wards is sealed. Among their cheap-looking latex make-up, the one consistent deformity is the absence of eyes - they are deprived of humanity, deprived of knowledge, deprived of means to distinguish who it is they haunt. Like the other supernatural elements of the film, the mutants are an unreasonable, unstoppable mass, too human to be discarded but too damned to be pitied.

Golem: Disturbed by voices, Charles wanders his castle at night, eventually leading him to the fateful tree where Joseph Curwen burned. (Would the tree have burned down?) Charles is yanked by unseen forces this way and that throughout the film, especially when he gazes at the painting of Curwen. This scene in particular gives Vincent Price the opportunity to make a full-on mime act out of it (well, not literally, I mean). We get to hear the voices that Charles follows, which is a rare glimpse into his slipping mind.

I wonder if this scene would be more or less effective without the voices. On one hand, it underscores the horror that Joseph drags Charles towards. On the other hand, without those voices, would Price's performance have given a stronger indication of insanity? I think both sides have merit here, but I do prefer the scene as it is, since we already have a sense of Charles losing himself. Instead, the scene gives us a reason to root for Charles. He really is up against some creepy stuff here! Plus, THE HAUNTED PALACE is sparing enough with its horror that I would regret taking out any of it.

Towards the end of the scene, Charles grips that tree outside of the palace. It plays a passive but pivotal role at Joseph's burning and at Charles' final transformation in the film's closing scene. Is it just a convenient stage element? The more I think about it, the more I realize I have no reason to think anything of the tree, and the more that tree creeps me out. Maybe I take a little after Dr. Willet.

What does it all really mean?
Golem: THE HAUNTED PALACE paints a world ruled by the past. We can spend our lives in eternal fear, like Edgar Weeden. We can spend our lives in total ignorance, like Charles Dexter Ward. It fits well in a film based on largely off-screen forces such as ancestral spirits and elder gods. The past sneaks up from behind Ward and takes over without his realization. It's a vague force, something we can kind of feel without ever looking directly at it.

While THE HAUNTED PALACE is a thorough movie, this is the nugget at the center of its horror. We don't see Charles in a fair struggle. He never sits down to arm wrestle Joseph Curwen. Instead, he just feels the slightest inexpressible agitation, and he can't manage to put the feeling to words before unspeakable horrors engulf him.

THE HAUNTED PALACE loves these unfair fights. Even Edgar Weeden, ever pugnacious, is cut down before he can muster the proper aggression.

Yourself: Eternal insolubility and the worthlessness of free will are Grade-A Lovecraft themes, and here they come home to roost in the company of as few tentacle monsters as most people are surprised to discover his literature contains. The monster at play here is hubris in the face of fate, the townspeople struggling against the damnation their ancestors bought as Charles Dexter Ward fights the corruption he walked right into and called home. His wife Ann struggles to bring back her husband, knowing full well the man she's seeing isn't him. They all know and they all still fight, and the movie does not end well for these characters who cannot face their guilt and willfully simplistic nature.

The castle "brought over stone by stone from Torquemada", the portait of Curwen, and the tree where he was burnt function as pillars of eternity, symbols of the everlasting corruption summoned by Curwen, corruption that outlasts human lives and permeates all that dare to touch it. Thus without any magical explanation at all, it makes sense that Curwen's grip is broken when his portrait is destroyed - it is the realization that forces beyond human comprehension are at work and compassionate reason will not defeat them.

Note to future self on watching THE HAUNTED PALACE:
Yourself: This is a hella chill and mood-setting flick that serves as a great introduction to Corman, Price, gothic horror, period pieces, 1960s, Torquemada, Edgar Allan Poe, cinematic experience, Bryan Cranston, and torches. It is the best direct Lovecraft adaptation I've seen and does his oeuvre better justice than any film this side of J.C. (John Carpenter).

Golem: The characters here are loud and expressive, making the film immediately engaging. They pulled me in, but the setting and atmosphere kept me engaged. Meanwhile, the plot builds towards horror in careful and gradual steps.


Come back next week for the finale of both our Halloween special and MYASS Series 1, featuring a special guest interview with Bela Lugosi as DRACULA!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: CRIMSON PEAK

at 2:00 PM
Our Halloween "Spook-tacular" this year is now underway! We'll be checking out three movies loosely premised on the Dracula model (foreigner in a haunted castle preys on society people of the late 19th century), starting with the brand new CRIMSON PEAK (2015), ending on DRACULA (1931), and stopping midway in between for THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963). Along the way we'll be menaced by two of the most popular horror actors of all time along with a third who has a chance of entering those ranks.

VAGUE SPOILERS FOLLOW. PRETTY SURE WE DON'T ACTUALLY REVEAL THE TWIST(S?!).

CRIMSON PEAK (2015)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins

CRIMSON PEAK in one sentence:
Yourself: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for goth babies. (hey, that was a real description!)

Golem: The story of a crush on Tom Hiddleston.

Here's a story about me and CRIMSON PEAK:
Yourself: For an outright not-fan, I've seen most of del Toro's films. Okay IMO, the only strong opinion I have about the guy is I wish I had a stronger opinion.

Golem: Tom Hiddleston seemed okay in THOR, but I blame that on THOR itself. I went in curious how he'd fit in a serious film.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: God I'm having a cerebral infarction just trying to decide where to start. Which is as good a signal as any that there is way too much plot here - not in the sense of being broad and unfocused, but in complexly tripling down on every single thematic point. It's the kind of plot that feels bloated with fanservice for the nonexistent novel or comic book origin.

The turgid plotting doesn't bother me so much as the busy feel it gives the movie. For instance, Edith listening to three disjointed recordings while looking at pictures is a really rough way to deliver information and creates a huge off-screen movie that my brain doesn't have space to dramatize. If you're finding the best vehicle to deliver information is the most compressed medium short of a Post-It (TM) note, you might ask yourself how critical that information can be. Especially when getting that delivery mechanism into the narrative necessitated ghosts. It's kinda the silly criticism I throw at TNG for its resident "empath" Deanna Troi: if you reduce her to shouting "something's wrong here!", everyone else still has to do their job.

I'm fine with Edith being bland as hell, allowing that she's a weather vane for the movie to spin around with other characters' passions ("ghosts"), but under romantic pressure that soullessness gets leaky. Thomas plays fantastically against his twister sister Lucille, but I didn't follow how Edith melts his heart of clay, except for "something something America is great". The dude has killed like eight wives already, so we're left to our own devices to conclude what's so special about Edith. She's a snazzy dresser I suppose.

Also, if Cumberland doesn't have butterflies, but it has black moths, and black moths live off butterflies, then do the black moths also take a boat to America to collect their prey? While we're at it, the night isn't really darkest just before the dawn. It's darkest in the middle. C'mon screenwriters, they don't grow cheese on the moon for nothing!

Golem: The prologue feels prologuey and not act 1-y (am I splitting hairs here?) because the film takes so long to explain what its supernatural deal is. By the time I realized what the ghosts were up to (nothing at all), the film had long been in its stride. On reflection, the opening drama of the film in America makes perfect sense now that I realize it's a weirdo grosso fake love story.

CRIMSON PEAK's pseudo-horror angle also confuses me with its use of jump scares. Creepy things come out and lurch towards and grasp at poor Edith, and naturally we're scared. After the first few times, I began to wonder what the point was. When a film frightens you into thinking something bad might happen, there's usually a payoff where that fear is justified. Instead, the plot takes us on a journey to learn that ghosts are on Edith's side, subverting our expectation. While not flawed in theory, I just didn't follow the film here. It felt more like I accidentally tripped over the plot rather than discovering a twist. Sometimes I get the feeling I watch movies wrong.

Which is a shame, because there is an alright plot at work here.

Oh yeah, and the climax has like a million stabbings. But I thought that was an homage to melodramatic 19th century novels. Taken seriously it gets silly.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Drippy. Color bleeds from the atrophying mansion and its cannibalizing inhabitants, moths sluggishly beat their wings, leaves and snow drift in through the roof. From the walls of the mansion oozes scarlet clay; the deadest existence sinks into a mire of brilliant raw material. The almost-glowing clay is fucking gorgeous. For all the film's ornate style, it is that simple blood-red play-doh that is ultimately most attractive. I want a vat of clay in my basement just so I can go swirl it around with a stick!

The decrepit manor perched atop great depths of material follows from the openly endorsed "not a ghost story, a story with ghosts in it", but like Allerdale Hall, del Toro's movie needs that fantastical foundation to stand, and he too is a little bit consumed by it. Or, put in less douchey terms, the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too. Scenes where ghosts chase down Edith or jump-scare the audience switch the movie into full-bore horror, betraying the emotional core even when they are technically progressing the mystery. The creatures are brilliantly designed, their arresting color and material schemes elevating their fundamental emotional nature over human detail, but they work better sprawled in a bathtub or hovering in a stairwell than jumping out of closets. The scare scenes contribute to the busy information blasting I just whined about - they're so dedicatedly horror that it's hard to grasp any substance until the next morning when the events can be rehashed.

Golem: It's easy to groan at modern movies. The monochrome shtick gets old very quickly, and CRIMSON PEAK isn't afraid to keep itself to one or two colors onscreen at a time. But then, I can't help but feeling that this is what everything else wants to be. I wish I had words for it, but there's just something to color in CRIMSON PEAK that works.

I can say this: the color choice draws on the weather. Hanging out in the park at noon, you're bathed in light; saying goodbye to Edith's father in the late afternoon, it's deep orange; in the snow at Allerdale Hall, color is absent.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Loki is pretty memorable yeah. Golem asked me before the movie if Tom Hiddleston was the Vincent Price of our age, and I said that's an unbelievable stretch, but he's a real creepy charmer, so you gotta give him that. He's got that kind of broad gleeful smile where you think his eyeballs might fall out on the end of springs (?). I'd probably like to not have seen him in a sex scene, and taken with his final appearance I'm convinced he could never play anything but a villain, but hey, redemption doesn't mean he's not a villain. I will murder the next person that assaults me with the word "antihero".

Jessica Chastain as Lucille is really fucking menacing and a well-earned counterpoint, soaking up all the charm to be the coldest cold-hearted bitch this side of Jack Frost. Her spilled breakfast scene lands. Yet she aims her villainy so well and grounds it so personally that Lucille is perhaps the tragickest goth of all (in a world where Bauhaus would look like ZZ Top).

Golem: Oops! I wish I could talk about anyone but Hiddleston or Chastain. But if you're gonna focus your movie on two cold-blooded villains, you would have a hard time pulling off something better.

Tom Hiddleston nails Thomas Sharpe better than the script. His charm and elegance in the role makes it all too easy for Thomas to slip densely layered lies under a veneer of romantic promises. And you can watch Thomas' blood gradually thaw under Edith's influence, as he hesitantly lets the dog in and less hesitantly agrees to stay at the post office place whatever that was. I'll give Yourself that I don't get Thomas' transformation, but Hiddleston steps into the role and makes it happen.

And Jessica Chastain, oh my god. She spends the entire time with an impenetrable demeanor. Is she just pissed off at everyone? Or is she a robot? Do they have emotions in Europe? But then she flips out in the much-touted Spilled Breakfast Scene, and I was ready for Edith's block to get knocked off. Out of all the ghosts and creepy stuff, Lucille's raw fury in that scene is the most likely to make you pee your pants.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: The violent climax in the white-out has an otherworldly sensibility, a realization without ghosts of the heightened Romantic atmosphere of the movie. With the simplest possible chase scenario and an ostensibly tiny arena, the POV shooting and dread pace create the tension of a labyrinthine... uh... labyrinth.

Golem: Thomas Sharpe faces Edith on her house's staircase: him below her, her father at the bottom of the stairs, and the crowd from their dinner party gawking (presumably popcorn in hand). Thomas tells her off, lets her have it about how her writing is dreadful and how she'll never understand love and how he's read fan fiction better than her trash.

Thomas is surrounded, forced to throw away love he doesn't want (Edith) to win a check that he doesn't want. Thomas plays such a long game in that scene, it's crazy, and your head will spin if you try to list all of the lies that he's juggling. Maybe the best one, though, is his fake criticism for Edith, which culminates in accusing her of never knowing love. In retrospect, that's what he comes to learn of himself.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: CRIMSON PEAK grounds itself in a sort of Brontë-sisters feminist romance and then Dracula called and he said he's comin' over tonight and I said okay. I mean, Edith* can say "the ghosts are a metaphor" all she wants, but lemme break it down for you: vampires are a metaphor too. So it's not really outside the box, but lampshading the box does set the table for hardcore symbol-fixation, which is where the movie comes back to reap the fruit of its overripe plot. The clay, the mining machine, the butterflies/moths, the hole in the roof, the winter, etc. etc. All there so del Toro can do every metaphor fifty ways.

There's some kind of theme of passion vs. aristocracy, but I gotta say that is a theme I don't care about and that feels more like an aping of not so timeless literature from 100 years ago. I mean I'm not saying it's not a good thought and all but there is a reason that high school kids get into Heart of Darkness and not Wuthering Heights - and I doubt it's the gender of the author (as this film jests!) (although it probably is that HoD is like a hundred pages!).

But honing in on Lucille and Thomas and snipping out Edith and Dr. Name Not Worth Remembering (let's say "Seward"), there's also a core of moral decay, that Catholic note that always gets thrown at del Toro. The Sharpes stray closer to demons than sociopaths with their lustful lifestyle and nebulous descent, not to mention the "real" ghosts their deeds have summoned. Once again, the manor in ruins (death of aristocracy) is just the tip of the iceberg, an elevator to ride down into the depths of crimson clay mines of sin.

The jar of scarlet clay Dracula brings to his business meetings in America reminds me literally and figuratively of the canister of green Satan-juice from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but welcome to my personal hell of no one wanting to talk about the second most awesome John Carpenter movie.

*Edith Cushing = Edith Wharton + Peter Cushing (Van Helsing in the old Hammer Draculas)

Golem: CRIMSON PEAK definitely feels at home with Henry James' Europe: a world that is one giant Lying Contest, and whoever can stack the most lies on top of each other is the winner. And just like in Henry James, there's a poor American who Jengas the lies and ends up in a pile of lie-bricks. Or, put into English (ha), the heartless aristocrat uses lies and romance to ensnare someone naive in the name of a perverse conquest. In particular, I think of The Portrait of a Lady, but James wrote tons of stories on this idea. Granted, Mr. James doesn't go so far as to put that perversion at the level of incest, but hey, whatever you're into.

The idea being that it's not about where you end up, but how you get there.

Note to future self on watching CRIMSON PEAK:
Yourself: Real-talk: I was in a pissy mood when I saw this and I no longer trust my initially "meh" exit opinion. We were in a "dang homeboy don't go in dere!" theater and my neighbors were a.) using both armrests b.) particularly squirrely and c.) at least one of them had bad breath. The movie adds up a lot better in my memory than it did at the time, and if I could just care about the prologue (that I didn't even care about enough to mention, but that is 20+ minutes long!) I might get behind it.

Golem: If the overstuffed plot pays off with symbolism, you might wonder what meaning that symbolism has. CRIMSON PEAK is a pretty movie, and its plot structure works better in retrospect, but I'm going to need a compelling argument to watch this again.


Come back later this week to find out what Greg and Greg think of THE HAUNTED PALACE, an older take on the same story starring none other than Vincent Price.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: PSYCHO

at 1:00 PM
The long-awaited. If I had to describe to you how much hatemail we got as a result of delaying PSYCHO for almost two months, I would describe it as almost none at all.  You know for whatever reason that poster reminds me of video game boxart

PSYCHO (1960)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch

PSYCHO in one sentence:
Yourself: For almost a decade, the advertising slogan of Candy Corn was "We all go a little mad sometimes.".

Golem: One man's ventriloquist act goes too far.

Here's a story about me and PSYCHO:
Yourself: Supposedly the MPAA of 1960 was as worked up about the toilet flushing as it was about the stabbing, but it's the sandwich hovering millimeters from Marion's lips that gives me the willies. Stop breathing on your food like a goddamn animal.

Golem: I actually went into this film without knowing the plot! Hooray!

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: As this is the movie that single-handedly invented the spoiler, I did not share the delight of witnessing PSYCHO in the dark. The first act dragged for me, not because it was poorly paced or poorly made but because I was in the theater to see Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. But Lord Almighty is that not to say that Marion is some generic slasher meat; her conflicts are set carefully enough to persist even after Janet Leigh has been gone for an hour.

That there are so many memorable scenes from this first half is a testament to a.) the formal strength of PSYCHO and b.) how little the story and characters actually matter. Which I think is pretty securely the point of the film, and also perhaps related to the genre madness it precipitated. But let's not say things about history we can't evidently back up.

Golem: Marion isn't your typical slasher victim, but her plot plays out a lot like the predictably-doomed protagonists you see in film noir (or just '40s thrillers). PSYCHO's spin is that we get to see the effect her fate has on the world. Going in and expecting the film to be about Marion, that's how I watched it after her death. The film dwells on her murderer, her sister, and her boyfriend dealing with the impact of her theft and death. It reminds me a little of CITIZEN KANE, but only at a high-up abstract level, given that KANE is much more character-centric. (I got the whole story from... his sled.)

Or you might say PSYCHO has trouble picking a main character, which is the fun of the movie. After Marion's death, we spend a quiet minute with Norman, watch Arbogast as he takes over the film, and finally rest on dividing our attention between Lila and Sam. Norman Bates has an interesting character in him, but he doesn't get the screentime necessary to take the picture over from Marion. Instead, the film bounces from character to character, which keeps events moving at a nice clip without disorienting me.

The funny bit is that it's all pinned together by the $40,000, which Norman never notices.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Black and white is really throwing my aesthetics radar. But, to leverage that to my advantage, I could say that PSYCHO looks very little like DOUBLE INDEMNITY. We see many of the sets at multiple times of day - which feels like a dumb observation - separating light and color from location and reinforcing how much time is passed in the same place. Our main locale is the Bates Motel, subdivided between the office, the units, and the caretakers' house, and we watch as characters walk from one to the next. This establishes a clear space for the film, mundane and static, just the opposite of DOUBLE I's character portraits amidst disintegrating darkness.

The narrative lingers at the Motel as if chained on a leash, given only a small playground to watch whatever characters or events cross by. There's a voyeurism inherent to the constant character shifts, a pronounced dehumanization that separates the drama from the people inhabiting it. It isn't Marion that drives Norman to be a peeping tom - the hole in the wall was already there. He just lucks into catching some skin. And it isn't her deeds or her nature that drive him to murder, but the simple fact that she is there. The lurking camera plants the viewer in Norman's isolation, but not in his mind - we aren't asked to sympathize with his perspective any more than with his antagonizers. That dissociation is compounded through the destabilizing camera, its exaggerated and unexpected angles, zooms, and cranes mimicking the splintering effects of psychosis, creating, dare I say, a very different kind of "psychodrama".

Golem: Marion initially spends her time in the city, surrounded by people. The film's opening shots gaze upon Phoenix, a giant city and a far cry from the solitary motel 15 miles outside of Fairvale. When she's got something to hide, she sleeps on an empty highway, squirms under the gaze of a creepy police officer (who eyes up her car from the outside, trying to gaze into Marion herself), and stops at an empty motel. When she cuts herself off from the world, she finds Norman Bates, the town hermit.

Which is to say, the city becomes friendly, open, and orderly, while the rural becomes scary and shady. There, you find a monument to solitude: a big house with no one to live in it. Norman hides his psychoses in it in the same way Marion tries to hide her one moment of madness by avoiding people.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: PSYCHO is surprisingly funny. Much of that is accomplished through suspense gags like the car sinking, and much of it is accomplished through Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. He hits all the right stutters and awkward pauses as Norman cobbles together the worst lies imaginable under interrogation from Arbogast. It's not laugh-out-loud funny but it's that kind of giddy amusement you get in the best fumbling klutz performances. Norman is never anything except completely likable. It's fun just to watch him sit in a jail cell!

Golem: Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) would be another fun performance if I didn't need a shower after he hits on Marion. He finds a way to take over any shot he's in. Marion walks into her boss' office to ask him a question, and this happens. His deep, boisterous voice is crucial, and he says his lines slowly and deliberately. He's a great counterpart to the delicate George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), too.

I don't know if this is a Hitchcock thing, but everyone seems so lively. Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) kills me when she rattles off her dull list of calls, along with the way she says "flirting": "He was fliirrting with you!"

Honorable mention goes to Lila Crane (Vera Miles) for getting fed up with BS, having a good sense of intuition (40,000 means your sister was here... well, okay!), and sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. She drags Sam Loomis (John Gavin) by the ear for the second half of the film, and it's great. Her forthright-to-a-fault personality makes her the perfect character to uncover Mrs. Bates, contrasting her with the anything-but-forthright Norman.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Well, virtually every single shot in PSYCHO would qualify for this category, with nearly a half-dozen frames that rank among the most famous in filmdom (although tbch I am not yet onboard with the most iconic, perhaps for the same reason it takes a handful of album listens to recontextualize and appreciate overplayed singles).

So with that said, there were two really weird shots that caught my eye. The first comes during Arbogast's interview with Norman after the disappearance of Marion. Norman is standing across the office desk from Arbogast, creating a sort of deliberate distance from the record book. When Arbogast points to a name, Norman cranes his neck and we get a lengthy close-up of his adam's apple, filling the entire screen. This is not a movie of weird insane close-ups, and the shot feels like a flick on the nose to pay attention.

The second grabbed me with its technique, because I'm getting kinda film geeky. Late in the film, when Norman rushes to grab his mother from her bedroom and carry her to the basement, we see a shot from the hallway pointing at her bedroom door. Before Norman comes out, the camera pulls up and away, angling downward, moving in one continuous motion from pointed at the door at eye level to pointed straight down at the staircase from ten feet up. I imagine this was done with a crane, but it must've also involved some disassembling of the house. Very cool movie magic.

Golem: After Norman cleans up Marion's room, the camera often rests on her hidden $40,000 in the foreground with Norman in the background. This happens three times:
  1. when he rushes in after the murder
  2. when he closes the door and shuts off the light before deciding to grab cleaning supplies
  3. when he brings in the cleaning supplies
Each time, the camera sticks behind the newspaper and pivots to show Norman as he walks between the doorway outside and the bathroom doorway. These shots lend irony and tension. Irony, because Norman has no idea what's in the newspaper, and tension, because he goes so long without noticing the newspaper. He almost misses it, and he only notices it when he does a double-check of the room after clearing everything out.

The $40,000 also sticks Marion to the Bates Motel, setting in motion the private eye who finds the motel. We watch Norman scurry around the room, trying to remove all traces of Marion, while the money just sits there. Even though it's all but forgotten in the second half of the film - a maguffin that's named only because it has to be - that money ties the two halves together.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Once upon a time, a friend and I were naively skeptical of the claim that opening credits should present the thesis of a movie. I believe the filmic expression we were indulging on that particular night was TOTAL RECALL, and as a result I will always remember its streaky red titles. As the years wear on I'm increasingly deferent to that little hint as a launching point for thematic analysis. (It probably helps that I've moved from watching predominantly Arnold movies to predominantly genre classics). PSYCHO has some of the most idiosyncratic credits you'll find, not least of all because of the magnetic score (the one that predicated Danny Elfman's entire career):


I suck at music terminology, but is that higher pitched melody that comes in around 0:14 a counterpoint? The way the song alternates thrusts between that shrill line and the deeper pitch echoes the fracturing of the titles, the split motif that dominates the entire film. It's the Mrs. Bates taking over Norman's mind intermittently, the weird cuts interrupting our perspective. Since this is the most transparently Freudian movie I've ever seen, I won't go into the id/superego stuff. More interesting is tracking all the dramatic story and visual splits, from the split titles to the split plot to Norman's split personality to split shots, like the one with Lila descending the stairs to the basement and Norman going up to the bedrooms.

So let's talk about the plot split. Boy is there a lot to love about such a simple decision. Because it isn't a twist, or at least it isn't a plot twist. I mean, we can get down in the trenches and fight a semantics war on hackneyed terminology, but as far as I'm concerned, a twist is an unexpected story event that - very key point here - re-contextualizes the preceding story. Revealing Mrs. Bates death is a twist: suddenly every scene she's in needs a second look to figure out what the hell a mummy would be up to and if there's anything Brendan Fraser can do about it. To the contrary, Marion's straightforward crime tale is utterly independent - at least narratively - from its premature conclusion. She may as well have slipped in the shower and broken her neck for all it says about her character and her world. The death is a hard break, there to give way for a new story: essentially, Marion's flight was the cold open. That Marion isn't actually the protagonist and this isn't her story is a metatextual reveal, and very much a post-modern twist: the audience is invited to re-evaluate their own relationship with the first half of the film and their expectations of narrative media.

Golem: The film manages the viewer's perspective in order to maintain the split Yourself mentions. In Marion's plot, the film has a central perspective. We always know what's on her mind, and sometimes we even hear her thoughts literally. The camera never strays from her side until Norman comes into the picture. Of course we're ill at ease when Norman peeps on Marion, but it's all the more unsettling because we're divorced from Marion's perspective for the first time in the film.

But PSYCHO doesn't take up Norman's perspective as a replacement. Our hearts are in our throats when Marion's car almost fails to sink, so it feels like we sit behind Norman's eyes, but he's eerily silent to us. Later, as he wriggles under investigation, we definitely part from him while collecting information from Arbogast, Lila, and Sam. Norman would never suffer the Sheriff's observation that Mrs. Bates was dead, for instance.

But of course, Norman knows that his mother is dead. Which brings us to the point of the film: Norman is locked out of his own mind. Marion's plot, aside from being a pretty sweet trick, also lends a counterpoint to Norman's lack of center.

Note to future self on watching PSYCHO:
Yourself: There's nothing that can be neatly summed up about my initial experience of PSYCHO. Most fascinating to me is its insistence on form, on providing a unique and compelling film experience without relying on traditional mores of act structure and character arcs. It is Hitchcock envisioning a purer cinema, one which spurns literary posturing in favor of technique and delivery; a statement about interactivity so bold and pointed that it still feels against the grain. And that connects with me a lot as a viewer, as someone who has always been a little wary around the truism "good movies are about characters".

Golem: PSYCHO is a great roller coaster, with catchy cinematography and fun characters. When the sheriff says AR-BO-GAST, say it with him.

Come back next week as Greg and Greg kick off the Halloween season with the god of ghouls himself, Vincent Price starring in THE HAUNTED PALACE.