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we’ll send him cheesy movies

What feels like a lifetime ago but was, in actual fact, only a decade, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I co-edited a little anthology called Fungi that was about, well, I think the title makes it fairly clear. This was the culmination of a pretty much lifelong fascination with fungal creatures, on my part, and was specifically kicked off by Silvia and I chatting about Matango.

As part of the process of putting Fungi together, we created a database (now likely lost to the mists of time) of fungal stories, movies, and so on. It contained a few of my favorites, including William Hope Hodgson’s germinal short story, “The Voice in the Night,” as well as various adaptations of same, such as the aforementioned Matango. It also included more obscure favorites, such as the moldy corpses of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin alongside things I had never read or seen.

Of those latter, the one that jumped highest on my personal list was The Unknown Terror, which has the distinction of maybe being the earliest fungal horror film, even beating the “Voice in the Night” episode of Suspicion by a year. What’s more, the fungal horror of The Unknown Terror is far from incidental. Not only is there a fungus-filled cavern, there are multiple fungus people, before all is said and done.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Unknown Terror was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, a guy best known for making Westerns. In fact, most of his other feature film credits occupy that genre, and he also helped to co-create the TV series Rawhide. Before he became a director or a screenwriter, though, Warren wrote stories for the pulps – a place where the plot of Unknown Terror would have been right at home.

Warren didn’t write this picture, however. The sole screenwriting credit belongs to Kenneth Higgins, whose only other horror credit is the jokey 1943 flick Ghosts on the Loose, starring Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids. Nowhere in the film’s credits or background is any reference to Hodgson, and yet any story that involves fungus turning people into things owes something to “The Voice in the Night.”

Though it was released as the front-half of a double-bill (with Back from the Dead, also directed by Warren), Unknown Terror was always going to be a B-picture. It was a product of Robert Lippert’s Regal Pictures, a production unit under 20th Century Fox created exclusively to shoot B-movies in Cinemascope, as a way to assure theatre owners that there would be plenty of features in that format.

As such, The Unknown Terror spends an unfortunate amount of its time on colonial fears of “native superstitions” or on lengthy caving sequences that call to mind MST3k jokes about rock climbing. Once they do finally reach the fungus cavern, however, it’s pretty great. Not only is the cavern itself full of cobwebby fungus that’s delightfully rubbery, it’s also home to several fungus people, who look sort of like lumpy Morlocks.

And all of that is before the fungus itself begins pouring down. It seems that the villainous doctor character, played by film heavy Gerald Milton, has discovered a type of fungus that grows incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, that you can watch it happen, represented in the movie by what look like thick soap suds being poured down the cave walls in what is actually one of the better set-pieces in all of ’50s horror.

The other interesting thing about The Unknown Terror comes far from the fungus cave, at the very beginning of the film, when we are treated to performances (including a theme song of sorts) by the “King of Calypso,” Sir Lancelot.

Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard, better known by his stage name Sir Lancelot, will be familiar to longtime readers and vintage horror fans for his appearances in several of Val Lewton’s classics from the 1940s, perhaps most notably I Walked with a Zombie. Here, he is performing a similar role more than a decade later, doing much of the heavy lifting required to convince us that this film takes place in the Caribbean while also providing exposition about the MacGuffin at the heart of the narrative.

“Down, down, down in the bottomless cave,” Lancelot sings, “Down, down, down beyond the last grave / If he’s got the stuff of fame / If he’s worthy of his name / He may get another chance but he’s never more the same / He’s got to suffer to be born again.”

“Movies like this aren’t totally worthless. They provide employment for a number of people.”

– Vincent Canby

John Hough directed one of my favorite haunted house movies, The Legend of Hell House, which somehow manages to have a PG rating while still containing all of the lurid, sweaty sexuality of the book upon which it is based. So, I had both high hopes and reservations when it came to watching his adaptation of Incubus, taken from Ray Russell’s 1976 novel of the same name, which is essentially a slasher movie if slashing was replaced with raping.

This is not a sensitive movie, is what I’m saying. Incubus has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the rapiest films ever made, and the sexual assaults that occur within its runtime are always distinctly brutal, even when they take place off-screen. Despite all that brutality, Incubus is also a slow movie, which is where most of the complaints that I’ve seen come in. (No one who is going to be too put off by the sexual assault probably makes it past the logline, to be fair.)

It certainly showcases more blood and nudity than Legend of Hell House but, like that film, it manages most of its luridness through suggestion as much as shock. This is a movie where the implications are as disturbing as anything seen, and a film that is absolutely drenched in what Letterboxd user nathaxnne identifies as “windswept dread” and gothic family secrets, which should come as no surprise from either Hough or Russell.

Incubus also features more recitations of the word “sperm” per minute than probably any other film released outside a medical context. John Cassavetes plays one of the sweatiest, most uncomfortable protagonists in horror movie history, a guy who, at one point, utters the phrase, “I swear to God, there’s gonna be a rape tonight,” and yet he is certainly the “good guy” compared to many of the people around him.

I didn’t love Incubus. The subject matter alone kind of guaranteed that. But I loved the atmosphere that Hough and company conjured. This is small-town gothic at its finest. The witch museum is great, and so are the gothic houses, and so is the incubus itself, when it shows up at the end for all of two seconds. Also, I love that this is apparently supposed to be Wisconsin, a state that is definitely known for its rich witch hunting history.

Not that long ago, I wrote about the original Universal Mummy sequels of the 1940s for Unwinnable. Specifically, I wrote about the odd fact that they are (inadvertently) set in the future. You can read the beginning at that link and buy the issue to get the whole story, but the short version is that the first sequel is set contemporaneously, and then the subsequent ones jump ahead by about a generation every movie or two, meaning that, by The Mummy’s Curse (1944) it would be around 1995.

I love that shit, so imagine my surprise when I discover that there’s a movie from 1958, that’s set in 1970, starring Boris Karloff as an aging descendent of the original Baron Frankenstein, who was tortured and disfigured by the Nazis during World War II and who is now continuing his deceased forebear’s experiments. Now compound that surprise with the fact that the movie’s plot concerns a film crew who are shooting a TV special to commemorate “the 230th anniversary of Frankenstein,” and who are using Karloff’s castle so that he can afford to buy an at-home nuclear reactor, which is definitely a thing we had by the ’70s.

If that sounds like a lot, well, you’re not wrong. Crammed into 83 minutes, fully 40 of which are Karloff flipping switches and looking at dials, Frankenstein 1970 feels, at times, like three or four screenplays, none of which were even remotely finished, all jammed together into one movie and then still not finished. I loved it.

What the hell is Karloff’s character’s plan? It is unclear, at best, and he never seems to have even the beginning of an endgame. At one point, when his creature doesn’t yet have eyes, he apparently sends it out to fetch somebody for him, and is then disappointed when it brings back the wrong person.

“You fool,” he says, or something to that effect, “I sent you to bring me Row.”

“Boss,” I wanted the monster to reply, “maybe you forgot, but I don’t have eyes.

Several times in the film, there are what seem to be missing scenes that might illuminate some of the confusion, but unlikely anywhere near all. The 1970 conceit is meaningless outside the existence of at-home nuclear generators, and, frankly, so too is the film crew conceit. Any excuse – up to and including the old saw of their car breaking down in a storm – to get some fresh bodies into the Baron’s castle would have served as well.

Yet, the film crew thing is great, and not just for the metatext of it all. There’s a nicely-shot cold opening that could only ever end with the director shouting cut, in-movie. As for the 1970 idea, it could have been any year at all, including 1958. In fact, working titles for the film included Frankenstein 1960 and Frankenstein 2000.

As it stands, everything looks just like 1958 – or, rather, like 1958’s idea of what an old castle would look like, using sets mainly leftover from John Barrymore’s house in Too Much, Too Soon, the biopic of his daughter Diana, adapted from her memoir.

Karloff, of course, steals the show, reminding us of his range as he is as sadistically sinister here as he has ever been warm and grandfatherly in any other picture. Under some impressive facial makeup and performing a dramatic limp and hunch, he oozes just enough charm to allow you to maybe buy that people wouldn’t just run screaming, while still casting a long, dark shadow over every scene he’s in.

And as for the monster, it’s the coup de grace. Before I even knew that this movie existed, I had seen a shot or two of the monster, and that’s what ultimately made me dig up the further information that was more than enough to justify a purchase. Played by 6′ 8″ actor Mike Lane – who also plays the actor playing the monster in the movie they’re making within the movie – the monster looks a bit like the mummy of an astronaut.

Always depicted in head-to-toe bandages, wrapped around a piece of headgear that makes it look like a robot, the monster is very different than any other Frankenstein monster you’ve ever seen. Lane’s considerable height, towering over even Karloff, certainly helps. Also helping this along is that the Baron apparently just lets it wander around, eyeless, which seems like a very poor way to keep your elaborate secret.

But then, see above about the Baron not being really amazing at planning.

“We got some goblins that’ll kill you, man.”

“A story like that, a pain like that, it lasts forever.”

It would be more dramatic to say that today was the first time I set foot in a movie theatre since February of last year, when I went to see Underwater, blissfully ignorant that it would be my last movie before the pandemic. But that’s not wholly accurate. I went to a very socially-distanced Nerdoween last October, and I’ve been to a couple of Analog Sundays over the past few months, since I got vaccinated and they started up again.

It is true, though, that Candyman is not merely the first new-release movie of 2021 that I’ve seen, it’s the only first-run movie that I’ve caught in a theatre since that fateful showing of Underwater. In a way that even Analog Sunday hasn’t quite, it felt like a homecoming.

Since whenever the hell it first got announced way back before the plague times, I have been excited to catch this new Candyman. I am not as familiar as I maybe should be with director Nia DaCosta, but Jordan Peele’s other horror efforts have been some of my favorite films of the past decade, and I was extremely excited to see an #ownvoices take on this material.

More to the point, though, Candyman is one of my favorite films. It is, for my money, the best screen adaptation to date of anything by Clive Barker, himself one of my favorite creators. This is, in no small part, because it actually improves upon the source material, by moving the action from the projects of London to Chicago’s Cabrini Green and changing the race of the eponymous urban legend, thereby also changing the socio-political heft of the story for the better.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Peele’s name in the credits, this new Candyman takes that added heft and runs with it. What is more surprising, for me, is how well the movie seems to get what the original Candyman was all about. Better than many fans of the movie seem to. Certainly better than any of the other sequels ever did.

There are going to be mild spoilers from here on in, so read at your own risk.

Tony Todd is in this movie. I don’t feel like that’s a surprise, at this point. He’s not all over the trailer or anything, but they also haven’t exactly kept it under their hats. But he’s not in it much. Instead, the legend of Candyman has… expanded. Candyman is no longer just Daniel Robitaille – but then, he never was.

What this movie nails that so many don’t get is that Candyman isn’t a ghost. He’s not even the more tangible revenant that slashers like Jason and Freddy represent. He is the tragedy itself, not the person the tragedy happened to. “It is a blessed condition, believe me,” he says to Helen Lyle. “To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

That quote, which is also lifted more-or-less whole cloth from the original Clive Barker story “The Forbidden,” as many of the original movie’s best lines are, always resonated hard with me. It’s why I used it as the epigraph for my story “Ripperology.”

Candyman is not the person, Candyman is the myth. It’s true for him in a way that it isn’t for any of the other slashers, even while there’s an element of the urban legend about all of them. It is that element of the original’s power that this movie gets, and runs with, and exploits for its own purposes to very interesting and satisfying – at least for me – ends.

This new Candyman is not the picture that the original was – it can’t be and, mostly to its credit, it doesn’t try. It’s messier and more ambitious. It’s the rare movie that I actually think would have benefitted from being longer. Giving its characters, its mysteries, its recursions and inversions more time to breathe. Writing at the AV Club, Anya Stanley argued that the film would have been better served as a TV series and, for once, I don’t necessarily disagree.

Even at a brisk 91 minutes, however, and amid not-infrequent missteps, DaCosta and company have crafted a haunting, complex, sometimes funny, often gruesome puzzle box movie that simultaneously serves as one of the better things to grow organically out of Clive Barker’s extensive and often very organic oeuvre, and also very much its own creature.

In a world of largely unnecessary remake/sequels (requels?), the others could stand to take notes.

Long ago, I owned this movie on VHS, where I had bought it, sight unseen, because it had the word “Cthulhu” in the title. (Those were simpler, stupider times.)

I remembered basically nothing about it besides the cover, which featured a spooky house in the eye socket of a skull, and one half-recollected gloppy makeup effect. What I did remember was that it didn’t have Cthulhu in it and that it was more than a little disappointing. So, of course, I also picked it up when Vinegar Syndrome recently put it out on Blu.

When I posted shots of the spine and an image of the carnival opening sequence to Instagram, I got a variety of responses, including one person who just replied, “Oof.” That was more-or-less in keeping with what I was expecting when I delved into Cthulhu Mansion. Adam Cesare, however, in true Adam Cesare fashion, tweeted at me, “This movie rules.”

To my own surprise, I found myself more in agreement with Adam than with that “oof.” Not that there isn’t a lot of oof in Cthulhu Mansion – far more of it than there is of Lovecraft, to be sure.

The unlikeable gang of petty criminals who take the aging magician and his daughter hostage in the eponymous mansion (it even has the word “Cthulhu” above the gate) are generally as mono-dimensional as one might expect, though one guy (Paul Birchard, who had previously shown up in Tim Burton’s Batman as a reporter and would reappear in The Dark Knight as a cop) spends pretty much all of his screen time making the weirdest goddamn faces and also, at one point, rubbing a chili dog all over his mouth.

One review on Letterboxd called the flick “all mansion, no Cthulhu,” which is also accurate enough. Fortunately, as much as I may like Cthulhu, I probably like mansions even more. And when that mansion belongs to a stage magician (played by Frank Finlay) with a tragic past and a supernatural secret, well, I am far beyond sold.

Is it good, though? I was all prepared with an “of course not” kind of response here, but it comes closer than I was expecting. If it doesn’t quite grab the brass ring, well, it pretty much does for me, and that’s all that really counts. Sure, the film’s best creature effect is in a dark ride at the beginning and the closest we get to Cthulhu is a water-damaged book with a drawing of a pentagram inside, but this is a flick that starts out in a carnival and ends up in a magician’s creepy mansion during a thunderstorm. How could I do anything but love it?

Director J. P. Simon also made Slugs (unsurprising), The Rift (unsurprising), Pieces (not incredibly surprising), Mystery on Monster Island (getting a little bit more surprising), and the MST3K “classic” Pod People (okay, what the hell?), among others, so … yeah, do with that information what you will. Of that bunch of movies, I haven’t actually seen Pieces but otherwise this would definitely be my favorite.

Do with that information what you will, too.

“If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you.”

In case you were concerned that I was abandoning my core brand with all this recent talk about Dungeons & Dragons and board games, I lately learned that there was a 1962 episode of the show Route 66 in which Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, Jr. guest star as themselves.

Better still, I learned that it’s currently on Prime. So, today I watched it. Please bear in mind that I have never seen even a single other episode of Route 66 – which a little sleuthing tells me was a show in the same “semi-anthology” format as series-creator Stirling Silliphant’s other famous series, The Naked City, with a couple of recurring characters but stand-alone stories driven by the guest stars – and, indeed, didn’t even know the basic plot of the show before I sat down to watch this episode.

The episode, which is set and shot outside Chicago, originally showed on October 26, 1962. Its dual plots involve our two ostensible protagonists (played by Martin Milner and George Maharis) taking jobs as “junior executives in charge of convention liaison” at a hotel where a secretary’s convention is being held along with a secret meeting between Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney (as well as Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula playing their legal advisor) so that the trio can plan a new series of horror films they will be producing.

Peter Lorre is convinced that the old ways are the best ways and wants to create new movies in the classic gothic style, arguing in favor of monsters in which people can see themselves. Karloff, on the other hand, doesn’t think that anyone will be afraid of the creaky old monsters, and wants to create new, “adult” horror. (“My kind of horror is not horror anymore,” Karloff would lament just six years later in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. “No one is afraid of a painted monster.”)

In fact, this episode of Route 66 makes a good thematic double-feature with the much more serious Targets, which tackles a similar question with regards to the efficacy of classic horror and comes to very different conclusions. Dedicated readers no doubt remember me writing about Targets in the past, and recognize the above quote as the source of the title of my second collection.

This episode, titled “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” came out just six years before Bogdanovich’s film, but a world of difference has elapsed in those six years. If Targets is a film about how horror cinema – and the nation – changed from before the ’60s to after, then “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” is an episode that sees that change coming, but still takes refuge in the comforts of what was.

Not that this is a thematically-dense episode. It’s a confection, and mostly an excuse for Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney to have a blast – which they do, from Chaney’s weepy temper tantrums when people aren’t afraid of him to the recurring gag that people are afraid of Peter Lorre, even when he’s not trying.

“You’re the spitting image of Peter Lorre,” the desk clerk tells him, as he’s checking in incognito. “A bit insulting, isn’t it?” Lorre replies, as only Lorre can. Later, as Chaney in his wolf-man getup is frightening the secretaries and causing them to faint, three of them faint dead away upon catching sight of Lorre just standing there like normal.

“I think I resent that,” Lorre quips, aridly.

It’s also a piece of horror history – even while it’s really nothing more than a piece of horror ephemera. Karloff dons a cut-rate version of the Frankenstein’s monster makeup for the first time since 1939, and we get to see Chaney done up as the mummy, the wolf-man, and even a take on his late father’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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.