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we’ll send him cheesy movies

Every now and then, I watch a movie that makes me lament that I am no longer actively writing Vault of Secrets columns or working on another volume of Monsters from the VaultShanks is definitely one of those movies.

Some time ago, I decided to try to watch some of the other films of William Castle that I hadn’t yet seen, specifically the ones that come after those contained in Indicator’s brilliant twovolume William Castle at Columbia boxed sets.

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I started with Shanks, his final film as director, because I was fascinated by its logline. A showpiece for famed mime Marcel Marceau, Shanks sees Marceau playing dual roles – a deaf and unspeaking puppeteer, the eponymous Malcolm Shanks, and “Old Walker,” an eccentric scientist who invents a kind of galvanic machine to “puppeteer” dead bodies via remote control.

Old Walker hires Shanks as an assistant, only to die shortly after they have begun their experiments. After a nasty run-in with his wicked step-sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her alcoholic husband (Philippe Clay), Shanks decides to reanimate Old Walker using the same galvinic machine.

Because this is a borderline horror movie – the opening titles call it a “grim fairy tale,” and the film is heavily stylized, think Edward Scissorhands nearly two decades before – things go badly from there, and before long Shanks has a couple of other bodies to puppeteer around.

These bodies are, naturally, the centerpiece of the film, and the physical performances of Marceau and the other two actors playing puppeteered corpses is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their movements are played for comedy more often than not, but the sequence in which Shanks first reanimates Old Walker is a showstopper that reminds us of why horror films should – and often do – rely heavily on mimes, dancers, and the like.

In spite of this and a later sequence in which Old Walker comes out of the grave, Shanks is largely absent any of Castle’s “shock” scenes or usual gimmicks – but that isn’t to say that this is any less a Castle film. It just shares more in common with pictures like his version of The Old Dark House13 Frightened Girls, or Zotz! than House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.

In fact, Castle does some genuinely impressive work here. Though it is a “talkie,” Shanks is built around Marceau’s silent performance as Malcolm Shanks – and the mummery of him and the other performers as animated corpses. As such, it is often filmed like a silent movie, complete with intertitles.

Though there isn’t a lot of dialogue, the use of sound is frequently incredible. The score by Alex North, was nominated for an Academy Award. It was also made up, partly, of his rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The music works like gangbusters, but it isn’t alone. All of the sound work is excellent. See a sequence in which the laugh track to a sitcom on TV is synced to the events in the film perfectly.

What prompted me to write this post about Shanks was that, when I posted briefly about it on social media, I was met with a litany of variations on “why have I never heard of this before?”

It isn’t exactly a lost gem, necessarily – it’s uneven and awkward and has a number of other problems that I’ll get into in a minute – but it is definitely a film that more people should have at least heard of. And, like most Castle films, in spite of its myriad problems, I loved it.

So, those problems. It’s uneven, like I said. The last reel of the film takes a hard left turn into some kind of PG-rated Last House on the Left territory, including an implied sexual assault on a young girl. Even before that, though, the semi-romantic relationship between fifty-something Marceau and said sixteen-year-old girl is already cringey in the extreme.

The magic of Shanks comes from its heavily stylized approach and from its incredible physical performances – and, yeah, a little bit from that macabre fairy dust that Castle seems able to sprinkle on even the most humdrum of his films.

As for why more people haven’t heard of Castle’s swan song, I couldn’t say. But they should. It’s a genuinely odd entry in an altogether odd canon. I watched it on VOD, but Olive Films apparently released a Blu-ray that I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on. I would love it if Indicator decided to continue their run of Castle boxed sets with a few of these later films from his oeuvre.

(The quote that I used in the title of this post comes from William Makepeace Thackeray and is used as a coda to the film.)

 

This isn’t going to be a review of Midsommar, which I watched last night, but instead a discussion of one aspect of it. I don’t think it’ll really have anything in it that qualifies as spoilers, but on the off chance, y’know, watch out.

I didn’t love Midsommar and I didn’t hate it. I don’t think I liked it as much as Hereditary, and I don’t think it brought much that was terribly new to the folk horror table, besides a real meticulousness. But again, I said this wasn’t a review, and I don’t mean for it to be.

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The main character in Midsommar (played brilliantly by Florence Pugh) has an anxiety disorder. She has it before the traumatic events which propel her onto the ill-fated trip that makes up the meat of the movie. Probably she has always had it. Just like me.

And more so than maybe any other movie I’ve ever seen, Midsommar, in its first half-hour or so, nails what it feels like to have an anxiety disorder, at least for me.

When I got home from the theatre, I called its first 20 or 30 minutes “basically the tunnel-visioning run-up to a panic attack put on film.” I guess it would be easy to read that as “it’s scary,” but, while Midsommar is many things, it is emphatically not particularly scary.

“It’s definitely a horror movie,” one of the people I saw it with said afterward. “But it’s not a scary movie.” I’d be inclined to agree.

And yet, I took half an alprazolam about the time they got on the plane. This before the “horror” part of the movie had really kicked in.

Normally, movies don’t trigger my anxiety. Ever. At all.

My therapist used to find it ironic that I had a significant anxiety disorder and suffered from frequent panic attacks but that I also watched horror movies practically for a living. But movies–pretty much no matter how tense or shocking or disturbing–have always been my safe place. Horror movies especially.

And I didn’t pop an alprazolam because Midsommar was scary or shocking or tense. I took one because the film felt so much like the run-up to a panic attack that I could feel one of my own just starting to flutter its wings somewhere deep down in my ribcage, in the dark space behind my own eyes, tingling at the tips of my fingers.

Anxiety as a disorder–rather than simply a natural reaction that people have to traumatic or frightening situations–isn’t something that movies get right very often. Whatever your thoughts on Ari Aster’s approach to mental illness in his films so far (and I think there are a LOT of thoughts to have on the subject), this depiction of anxiety felt right to me.

(The scene of her stalking around, arms rigid, fists clenched at her sides to keep from scratching at herself, telling herself over and over again to, “Stop it. Stop it.” I have literally done that exact thing more times than I can count.)

So, if you don’t suffer from anxiety, or do and it takes a different form, and you want an idea of what it feels like to be me–sometimes more than others, of course, but never gone completely–watch the first part of Midsommar, everything up to the scene where Dani wakes up after they take the mushrooms. That’ll give you a taste.

I had actually never heard of The Magician prior to seeing a .gif of it on Rhett Hammersmith’s Tumblr. The .gif—a sculpture of a devilish faun collapsing onto actress Alice Terry—was enough to get me to track down the film. Long considered lost, The Magician didn’t get any kind of home video release until it was put out on DVD by TCM in 2011, which is the version I watched.

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It’s a shame that The Magician isn’t better known. While it may never quite reach the gothic heights of such silent horror classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust, Haxan, and so on, The Magician is, at worst, one rung beneath those, and at its best can give them a run for their money.

Directed by Rex Ingram, who was once called “the world’s greatest director,” The Magician was shot on location Paris and Monte Carlo, and in Ingram’s studios in Nice, France, giving it an unshakably European feel and a sense of scope and modernity that is denied to many of its stagebound contemporaries and even the talkie horror films that would follow it.

Ingram adapted The Magician from the 1908 novel of the same name by M. Somerset Maugham, who was, in his turn, purported to have based the titular magician on Aleister Crowley. In fact, Crowley actually wrote a critique of The Magician the year that the novel was released, in which he accused Maugham of plagiarism. Perhaps ironically, the critique appeared in Vanity Fair under the pen name “Oliver Haddo,” the name of the magician from Maugham’s novel and Ingram’s film.

Both film and novel tell the story of Haddo (played by Paul Wegener, of The Golem and others), a “hypnotist and magician” who is attempting to use an alchemical formula to create new life. In order to complete his experiment, however, he needs the “heart’s blood of a maiden.” Enter sculptor Margaret Dauncey, played by Alice Terry, Ingram’s wife and frequent collaborator. We are introduced to Margaret before any of the other characters, in the scene that produced the .gif which drew me to the film in the first place.

The massive satyr sculpture that crushes Margaret is the first of many indelible images in the film. Others include an almost Boschian scene of Dionysian revelry which also would have been right at home in Haxan, complete with a “dancing faun” who ravishes a girl in front of a decidedly yonic archway, reminding us all that there wasn’t a Hays Code yet in 1926.

When Aleister Crowley was accusing Maugham of plagiarism, he listed a variety of works, including The Island of Doctor Moreau. Conspicuously absent from the list is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, yet the shadow of that novel falls heavy over the cinematic version of The Magician. While the definitive film version of Frankenstein was still several years away, many of the elements of it are already present here, including a climax in an “ancient sorcerer’s tower” on a dark and stormy night, not to mention the eponymous magician’s diminutive assistant.

Haddo’s laboratory may lack the modern amenities and galvanic equipment of James Whale’s Frankenstein, but the bones of the monster are already in place. Most Frankenstein films don’t end with quite such a brawl as this one does—making good use of Paul Wegener’s somewhat hulking physique—though they do often feature the climactic inferno that we see here.

No other movie is ever going to be Suspiria.

The 1977 original is something of a miracle film, and I’m not at all confident that anyone, even the people who made it, have any idea how or why it is what it is. It’s the film I always use as an example of a movie that would be worse if it was any better; a movie that transmutes, by some intangible magic, its own weaknesses into strengths.

To its credit, Luca Guadagnino’s remake never tries to be the original Suspiria. From the earliest scenes, we are told quite clearly that he is using the blueprint left behind by the original film to fashion a very new edifice. As I said right after seeing it, the differences between Argento’s film and Guadagnino’s are neatly summarized by the distinctions between the buildings in which the two films take place: The candy-colored art deco interiors and Haus zum Walfisch exterior of the ’77 version replaced with dimly-lit Brutalist architecture facing directly onto the Berlin Wall.

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The 2018 Suspiria knows that we already know that there are witches in the walls, and so it doesn’t play coy, dumping us into the reality of the witchcraft early on, even if it still takes most of the film for anyone to react to it. Guadagnino also ties the witchcraft and the dancing much more closely together than Argento’s version ever did. In this Suspiria, dances are spells, and they have very real consequences. In one of the strongest (in most senses of the word) scenes in Guadagnino’s version, the effects of one such spell are graphically, grotesquely displayed in a bit of gruesome body horror that the film never really tops.

The academy in Guadagnino’s Suspiria is also a house divided. That view of the Berlin Wall is more than just a reminder of the times, or the different tones of the two movies. It serves as a metaphor for the divide among the witches themselves, with some wishing to continue following Mother Markos, while others want to throw their lot in behind Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc.

It is this division that drives most of the film to its climactic moments, where a plot twist that can be seen coming like a slow-moving freight train chugging down the tracks leads to an extremely bloody denouement, shot with music video artistic license, one presumes to cover up the fact that the CGI blood splatter effects which it leans on heavily are nowhere near ready for prime time.

Ultimately, Guadagnino’s film is a (sometimes) beautiful one and an ugly one; at times smart but never subtle; filled with horror touches that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with. There were audible gasps from the theatre I saw it in, hands covering eyes, shrinking back in seats, but the images on the screen were often more exploitative than scary. Gasps were more likely to be gasps of disgust than fear. While sitting in the theatre, I scribbled down comparisons to other things, including the video to “Invisible Light” and 120 Days of Sodom.

I will need time to sit with my feelings about this new Suspiria, and something tells me they won’t necessarily get better with distance. But whether the end result is good, bad, or indifferent, Guadagnino took this film’s relationship to the original and used it to forge something almost totally different using the same floor plan. That’s worth something, anyway, regardless of how the finished product may have turned out.

My quest to watch The World of Vampires began with a .gif on Twitter. A delightful image of a flying rubber bat cast in a verdigris sheen with glowing orange eyes, it quickly became my favorite rubber bat of all time. With a little digging, I was able to find other .gifs from the same film and, eventually, to track down that film’s title, thanks to the help of the Facebook hivemind.

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Finding the film initially took me to the Tumblr of Rhett Hammersmith, who had a wonderful collection of .gifs from the movie, including the ones I had already seen. Where he got the oddly color-cast images I still have no idea, but his page gave me enough information to track down the film. Once I had found it on IMDb under its Mexican-language title El Mundo de los Vampiros, I was surprised to discover that my local library actually had a DVD copy in English.

Released by Beverly Wilshire Filmworks and/or Telefilms International, the menu for the DVD had two options, “Bite Me,” which played the film, and “Bite Me Harder,” which took me to scene selections, for some reason. The movie was an American cut produced by K. Gordon Murray, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Samson vs. the Vampire Women, which, like tonight’s film, was also directed by Alfonso Corona Blake, who obviously knows how to do vampires up right.

The version I watched was dubbed and featured plenty of long monologues about the night and the power of vampires and the kind of stuff that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear if you’ve ever seen Samson vs. the Vampire Women. What it didn’t feature was much in the way of ambient noise, to the extent that a scene of people clapping was absolutely silent. It also looked like it was recorded off television half a century ago, complete with missing frames and plenty of visual noise.

All of which is a shame, because the movie is kind of a goofy delight, as you might imagine if you’ve ever seen the .gifs that led me to it in the first place. It opens, as these movies so often do, with our lead vampire, Count Subotai, who looks like he just stepped out of a telenovela, rising out of his coffin. As most of us like to do when we first wake up, he goes down into the gigantic cave under his house and plays an organ made of bones and skulls, which would have been right at home in a playset from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

His playing wakes up the film’s various other vampires, who would absolutely be its best feature if those adorable rubber bats weren’t about to show up. While Subotai and the requisite lady vampires all look about like you’d expect vampires in an old black-and-white horror movie to look—which is to say, like people with fake vampire fangs—the incidental vampires are all just people in capes wearing completely immobile vampire masks. It is a conceit made all the more charming by its absolute lack of necessity—it would have actually been easier to just give them vampire teeth, but no, it’s exaggerated vampire masks from hell to breakfast.

Subotai talks at length, if occasionally contradictorily, about his plans to get revenge on the Colman family who apparently killed him a hundred years ago, and also killed his ancestor three hundred yeas ago in Hungary, I guess. The Colman family has been busy, and I like to imagine them as precursors of the Belmont clan in Castlevania. As luck would have it, the only three remaining Colmans in the world, the older Sr. Colman and his two predictably lovely nieces, happen to live right nearby and are already acquainted with Count Subotai, who shows up at their house unannounced to interrupt some piano playing and then immediately leave again.

The piano playing in question is being performed by Rudolfo Sabre, who has some sort of romantic attachment to one of the Colman nieces. He studies music that produces “peculiar effects” and, wouldn’t you know it, happens to know a song that drives away vampires.

From there, the film devolves into the usual sequence of vampires showing up at peoples’ bedsides, those wonderful rubber bats, underground rituals complete with sacrificial altars, and long vampiric monologues. One of the nieces, Leonor, falls almost immediately under Subotai’s sway and becomes a vampire, while the other, Mirta, takes on the role of the film’s damsel in distress. Rudolfo, our ostensible hero, also gets bitten by a vampire fairly early on, and for the rest of the film undergoes a slow transformation which primarily involves his hands getting progressively hairier.

There’s a lengthy fistfight between Rudolfo and the count’s hunchbacked assistant, who looks more than a little like Gomez Addams, before the film’s final reel. In addition to being disabled by that one particular melody, the vampires in The World of Vampires seem to be particularly weak against punching, as Rudolfo manages to beat up an entire room full of them in order to rescue Mirta from their clutches. I hypothesized that this was because their masks made it hard for them to see.

In the end, Subotai is defeated and the vampires all disappear, except for Leonor, who looks to be cured, though at the last moment she flings herself down onto the same stakes that destroyed her “master.” Our theory was that she couldn’t stand to return to her old life after seeing how much better her makeup and wardrobe were as a vampire. Also, who could give up being able to turn into such an adorable rubber bat?

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Yesterday, I finally saw the movie, and, naturally, it couldn’t completely live up to my expectations. But that has more to do with me than with any failing on the film’s part.

Ghost Stories is an unnerving helping of existential dread, layered on thick. However, much of its effectiveness depends upon a deft bit of misdirection, so if you’re planning to see the movie and would prefer not to be spoiled, I recommend stopping now and going and doing that very thing, if you’re someplace where you can.

Still with me?

The bit of misdirection I mentioned up above is also a part of what will make the movie less satisfying for some. It’s not so much that the movie has a twist ending–though I suppose it does, and ultimately one of those infamous “twist endings” that are used in editorial guidelines as examples of the kind you’re no longer allowed to employ–as that the structure of the film makes it seem like the three ghost stories of the title are the main focus, when in fact they are little more than distractions filled with hints of the real story, which is playing out in the framing narrative.

I’ll try to avoid going into detail as to precisely what that “twist ending” is, but suffice it to say that the film ends on more of a spook-block than I would normally prefer. Here it was used to what I think was good effect, but it still isn’t my specific brand of poison.

That said, I also kind of wanted the film to spend more time with our debunker investigating the various stories, and less time with the unraveling of the debunker’s own narrative. A film that joins up my love of ghost stories with my love of movies about people digging through papers and looking at old photographs. But that’s not a failing on the part of the movie. That’s me asking a film to cater to my particular interests, and if I want that, I need to make my own movie, and not get mad when other people make theirs.

Like the ending or hate it, when Ghost Stories is firing, it fires quite well, and does a lot with very little. Shadows and shapes and strange sounds and nods to classic British horror, including an out-of-focus bit straight out of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” In classic horror anthology fashion, there’s even a “comedy relief” segment that is frequently quite funny but not much of a relief, as it also layers on the discomfort pretty thick.

It also bears mentioning that Ghost Stories has a virtually all-male cast, and the handful of female “characters” who do exist are there mostly to haunt or torment the male characters. Of course, you can find justifications for this in the film’s framing narrative, and it could certainly be argued from the ending that the film contains fewer characters, period, than it appears to on its surface, but it still feels like an observation that needs to be made.

I had a good time with Ghost Stories–any movie that plays the “Monster Mash” over the closing credits is obviously in good standing with me–but perhaps one of the best things it did was to remind me of one of the many reasons I love Richard Matheson’s Hell House (and the cinematic adaptation of same) so much. Spoilers for a 47-year-old novel and a movie that is nearly as old follow:

When you’re telling a story specifically about a paranormal skeptic setting out to debunk frauds and the superstitiously credulous, you run the risk of painting yourself into one of two corners. Either you end up without a supernatural element in your story, or you end up inadvertently proving the superstitious people at least somewhat right, which seldom paints a terribly flattering picture of science and rationality. Of course, there are plenty of ways to dodge this particular trap, but all-too-many things over the years have fallen into it.

Hell House is particularly great for the way it manages to both have its cake and eat it, too. The skeptic and the true believer are both half right about what’s going on, and the only thing preventing either one of them from figuring it out 100% is their unshakable conviction that they already have.

I know that we’re not even quite to the halfway point on our trip back around to Halloween just yet, but if you’re already jonesing for a taste of the spooky season, Jason McKittrick recently turned me on to the existence of a little show called The Witching Season, which is streaming on Amazon Prime or available to watch on YouTube.

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While the show’s humble origins and limited budget are apparent everywhere in its production, that doesn’t stop it from evoking the season better than most more expensive movies ever manage. The episodes themselves range from 9 minutes at their shortest to around 30 at their longest, and you could easily watch all five episodes in the time it would take to watch a regular film.

The end result is a series of short subjects that would feel right at home in the shorts block at any given horror film festival, connected together by a nostalgic yearning for Halloween and a shared style and tone, even as their subject matter ranges from high strange horror to masked killers, possessed toys, and haunted houses.

None of the episodes are necessarily any great shakes in the story department, though most feature a “twist in the tale” that is probably easy enough to predict going in, but satisfying for what it is. Where the show more than makes up for any ground that it loses in production value or originality, however, is in its Halloween atmosphere, which is effortlessly captured in lingering shots of decorations, pumpkin patches, and dead leaves.

There are some nice touches of local color, as well, as certain episodes bleed into each other, often through radio shows or late-night TV vaguely reminiscent of the WNUF Halloween Special or the wraparound segment of Ti West’s The Roost. Honestly, The Witching Season is worth your time for the opening titles alone, which summarize the season beautifully, in a series of shots vaguely (and, based on the rest of the series, probably intentionally) reminiscent of the great opening titles of Halloween 4.