Bluebeard (1972)

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Once upon a time, there was a movie. That movie was called Bluebeard and it starred Richard Burton. And I just had to watch it.

What did I get myself into?

Bluebeard was made in 1972; those who know 1970s Richard Burton should know that this is not a good sign. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who made a number of excellent films in his career: The Caine Mutiny, Murder, My Sweet, The End of the Affair, and The Young Lions. OK then.

Bluebeard features Burton as Kurt Von Sepper, a Baron, World War I vet and ridiculously rich man (with a blue beard that is never quite adequately explained) who cycles through wives. It’s not touched upon why no one questions the fact that Sepper’s wives and mistresses keep dying violent deaths, but whatever. He’s a Baron and stuff. He’s also a Nazi, this being set in pre-War Germany, and at one point orders (or commands?) the burning of a Jewish ghetto. That will come back to haunt him in the form of a young violinist who otherwise serves no purpose in the narrative.

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What is important is Sepper’s latest wife, the lovely American Anne (Joey Heatherton), who falls for him because he’s a much better actor than she is. Their scenes together are roughly equivalent to watching Richard Burton try to act with a stick of plywood, which is interesting in itself.  Anne comes to live at Sepper’s awesome castle, where she’s given the run of the show…except she cannot go into that room with that one large golden key that he gives her. What does Anne do? What the hell do you think she does? She uses the key and finds all his dead wives in a freezer.

This naturally provokes a little tiff between Sepper and his new bride. Rather than arming herself with a poker and braining the guy as he comes in through the door, Anne decides to have dinner with him. He informs her that he has to kill her, even though he’d really rather not, because she saw his wife-cicles. In a display of cunning that until now I never would have given her credit for, Anne convinces him to tell her the whole story before he murders her, so that he can unburden his soul and maybe discover why he constantly needs to off beautiful women. So Sepper obliges.

Up until this point, Bluebeard has played at least semi-seriously – and that was its major problem. It’s like a Hammer film without the humor, or the camp, despite having Richard Burton with a prosthetic beard and a terrible German accent. Now, however, the film really gets going, and those who stuck with it this far are about to rewarded with a number of WTF moments.

bluebeard-1There’s the wife who won’t stop singing, so Sepper cuts off her head. There’s Raquel Welch as a promiscuous nun, obsessed with recounting every single one of her sexual escapades, then wanting to have sex in a coffin. There’s a crazed suffragette who’s into S&M. There’s a girl who goes to a prostitute to learn how to please a man and winds up in a lesbian encounter. There are also a LOT of breasts. I think that Raquel Welch is the only one who does not show her breasts at least once, and that’s probably because she’s the biggest name in the film besides Burton. The entire time, Burton looks slightly befuddled, as though he’s not quite certain what’s happening or how he got here.

Basically, Bluebeard is a disaster, but it’s an epic one. Scenes are quite obviously cut, with sudden costume changes; plot holes could fit a coach and four. Burton is remarkably game for the whole thing, trying to put some soul into his part as a supremely unsympathetic antagonist, but Heatherton has as much acting ability as most of the ornate furniture. It’s a bright, gaudy, violent and sexually charged disaster of spectacular proportions.

I honestly wish I could recommend Bluebeard on the grounds that it’s hilarious, but I really can’t. It’s far too terrible to be good, despite some truly fascinating moments of madness. If you must watch it, catch select scenes on Youtube.

Never mind Liz Taylor, this was the film that made Richard Burton an alcoholic. It nearly made me one.

The Comedy Of Terrors (1963)

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I’ll just leave the cast list right here: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone, in a film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People).

Do you need that repeated? No? Just read it a few more times.  Now inform me of how this movie can possibly go wrong.

The fact is that it can’t.  Price is Waldo Trumbull, an obnoxious and drunken undertaker on the verge of being cast into the street by his landlord John Black (Rathbone).  He has a crazy opera-singing wife he despises (Joyce Jameson), an incompetent assistant named Felix Gillie (Lorre) and a father-in-law who has seen better days (Karloff).  In an effort to buoy his failing business, Trumbull undertakes (HA!) to murder rich elderly men so that he can give them a funeral.

This is a Laurel and Hardy film with four of the finest horror movie actors to step onto a screen.  Price and Lorre bully, shove and tear into each other constantly, Karloff chews the scenery whole and Rathbone … Rathbone has to be seen to be believed.  The plot hinges on Trumbull’s idea to simply knock off his landlord, thus making some ready cash and getting rid of a man he hates into the bargain.  But Rathbone proves (hilariously) hard to kill, prompting the funniest funeral ever.

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The Comedy Of Terrors could not have been performed with any other cast – each actor brings their own inimitable star personas to theirparts, and proves once and for all that they were all capable of playing comedy.  I knew that already about Price and Lorre, but Karloff! Now Karloff was a revelation, giving Rathbone one hell of a eulogy.  The comedy depends on an audience’s awareness of the roles the four men have played in the past – it’s one of the first and finest of the self-referential horror-comedies that Price would cash in on so brilliantly later in his career.

There are things that could be better about The Comedy Of Terrors.  A little less time dwelling on Price and Lorre breaking into houses and a little more time on the plot to kill Rathbone.  Less of Jameson warbling, more of Karloff wandering about looking befuddled.  Price is incredibly unlikable, yet you want him to get away with it just to keep everything moving.  The running jokes get a little wearing after the fourth or fifth repeat, and Price’s vicious hatred of his wife becomes off-putting – however obnoxious she is.  The film really picks up in the second half, once Rathbone has fully committed himself to spouting Macbeth at regular intervals and Karloff begins indulging in histrionics.

I don’t know what else to say about The Comedy Of Terrors, except that I enjoyed just about every minute of it.  Price and Lorre are a great comic team, their differing physicality working very much to their advantage.  Despite some plot holes big enough to fit a horse-drawn hearse, by the end of the film I was laughing so hard I did not care.

The Black Cat (1934)

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I’m back! I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath, but I had … important … things to … stuff.

The Black Cat! How can you go wrong with Karloff and Lugosi? The answer is that you cannot, but there are times when filmmakers do try.   The Black Cat is supposedly based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same title, but the only resemblance is just that: the title. There is a black cat that shows up at regular intervals – supposedly a representative of undying evil – but that piece of the plot drifts away and never comes back.  So the only thing going for it are the presences of Karloff and Lugosi, and the might of Universal horror in the early 1930s.

Which, let’s face it, is all this film really needs. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, recently released from a prison he languished in for 15 years as a prisoner or war and returning home to find out what has become of the wife and daughter he left behind.  He’s joined by sweet honeymooning couple the Alisons (David Manners and Julie Bishop), the two most boring and useless people on the planet.  The fun starts, though, when circumstances land them all at the high modern home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), Werdegast’s sworn enemy, a murderer, sadist and Satanist.  Let the games begin!

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This film is simply delicious.  From the instant that Lugosi asks to share the Alisons’ train compartment, you want to start screaming “Holy God, no!”  But for once, Bela is not the one we need to be worried about.  He actually plays Werdegast with great subtlety, as a man possessed by revenge but likewise desperate to pick up his life where he left off.  All he really wants are his wife and daughter back.  One has the impression that he would leave vengeance behind.

The film exploits horror’s roots in German Expressionism, particularly through Poelzig, a villain made up of sinister angles.  Karloff imbues The Black Cat with its menace.  His costuming and style match the high modern house that has become a tomb for past horrors.  He’s a war criminal who escaped judgement, causing the deaths of thousands, and then returning to build his home on their graveyard.  But of course he has not stopped there – the ground below the house is the site of Satanist rituals, and the place where Poelzig keeps his female victims preserved for all eternity; including, of course, Werdegast’s wife.  If all that wasn’t enough to convince you that this guy is seriously fucked up, try this: after marrying Werdegast’s wife, Poelzig went on to marry her daughter too.  Ew.

I will avoid spoiling the ending, except to say that it’s shockingly violent for the time period.  It’s also rushed, which is the biggest problem with The Black Cat.  The film sets up a number of plot threads and conflicts, then speeds through resolving them.  Blink and you’ll miss salient plot points.  Let your attention wander for an instant and characters are suddenly dead.  If it were not for Lugosi and Karloff anchoring the film, it would float off into space.

Both Karloff and Lugosi made better films, but perhaps none pitted them so marvelously against each other as The Black Cat.  Despite dropping some of the more interesting elements – the backdrop of World War I, Satanism and possession – the film succeeds in what it sets out to do.  It wants to give us an hour of two of cinema’s greatest monsters glaring at each other across a chess board, framed in a doorway, or cackling in each other’s faces.  Lugosi and Karloff are possessed of two of the most wonderful voices in early cinema and they dwell on every word of their dialogue, vying for screen-time.  Pleasure in cinema can be found in the weirdest places, and The Black Cat remains one of the more pleasurable experiences for this horror fan.

Theatre Of Blood (1973)

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“It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!”

Why was I not informed of this movie’s existence? Have I been so out of the loop? I’d heard of it, naturally, but why did not someone tell me of the exceptional level of awesomeness contained in this one bloody little package? WHY?

I have no one to blame but myself.  At least I have rectified the situation.  This movie has everything: Vincent Price, a cross-dressing Diana Rigg, Shakespeare, dead theatre critics, blood EVERYWHERE.  And, remarkably enough, it’s actually a quality piece of camp cinema.  God, how I wish I’d seen it sooner.

It’s quite similar to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but with a better script and production values.  Price is once again the sympathetic madman taking revenge on those who wronged him  This time his lovely assistant is his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg – I’m a straight woman, but my God is she sexy), helped along by a pack of derelicts in the best Shakespearean tradition.  Price plays Edward Lionheart, a ham actor presumed dead who murders his critics by way of Shakespeare. And if you know your Shakespeare, you know there are some really spectacular deaths.

But Theatre of Blood stands a decapitated head about The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and then not just because of the production values.theatre of blood  The cast is a who’s who of British thespians from the 70s: Robert Morley, Coral Browne, Ian Hendry, Jack Hawkins, Dennis Price, Harry Andrews.  If you don’t know the names, you’re likely to recognize the faces. Price and Rigg in particular are more than game for their parts, gnawing the scenery while spouting some overblown Shakespeare.  It helps that both are quite capable of handling the language.  Seeing great actors over-act Shakespeare on purpose is a rare pleasure.

The deaths make better sense than The Abominable Dr. Phibes; the ‘villains’ are quite sympathetic, particularly when their victims are painted in such unflattering light.  I began to think that playing a theatre critic that is venal, snarky and vitriolic is a perfect actor’s revenge.  It’s also delightful for the audience.  The violence is over the top, and in places quite surprising for the early-70s, but it’s off-set by the camp.

At times the Shakespeare angle is strained – the murder from Henry VI Part 1 is hilarious, but hard to place.  There’s a patch in the middle, as Ian Hendry recounts Lionheart’s death, that suffers from inaction.  We’re all just waiting for them to get back to the killings.   At times the film suffers from a confusion of tone – the seriousness of the police jars with the apparent glee that the villains (and the camera and the audience) take in the murders. I did find myself wishing for a more entertaining police investigation a la Trout/Waverley, but perhaps I’ve just been spoiled.  And the ending, while powerful, fell just a little flat, and felt just a little unfair.

But these are minor quibbles in a movie that I loved from beginning to end.  It’s a delicious film that doesn’t overdo the violence – at least, not without injecting it with a heady dose of humor.  I enjoy films where the actors seem to be having fun, and everyone was having fun.  Theatre of Blood is a Jacobean revenge tragedy played the only way Jacobean revenge tragedies should be played: for laughs.

The Curse Of Frankenstein

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

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Without really intending to, I seem to be going through a schlocky old-school horror movie phase.  I blame society.

The Curse of Frankenstein was Peter Cushing’s first Hammer film, but he goes into it with all guns blazing.  He’s Baron Victor Frankenstein, the man with the penchant for charnel houses and the creator of one nasty Creature (Christopher Lee).  He’s also perhaps the least sympathetic of Cushing’s roles, a man at once a coward and a villain, coldly sacrificing everyone he’s close to in pursuit of his monomania.

The plot is the familiar one, with a few Hammerian touches to give it extra oomph: Victor’s assistant is Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), not Igor; the good doctor is not particularly in love with Elizabeth (Hazel Court), but is having it off with his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt).  The Creature only shows up part way through the film, and then promptly dies.  There’s plenty of decapitation, heaving bosoms, and bright red blood that we come to expect from a Hammer outing.  Victor’s cruelty is also on display: he viciously murders an old doctor for his brain, he imprisons Justine with the Creature when she reveals that she’s pregnant, and threatens to sacrifice Elizabeth if Urquhart doesn’t help him finish his work.  Gone is the tragic doctor of Mary Shelley; this is Franky as the mad scientist.

And who can object to that? Cushing gives his character a cold, calculating gaze, his clipped accent perfect for a man obviously missing a mirror gene or two.  Unlike some of the other actors – Hazel Court, for instance – Cushing rolls over the more ridiculous dialogue without letting it throw him off.  Despite his cruelty, it’s something of a disappointment when he doesn’t get away with murder in the end.

The Hammer films seemed to get better as the 50s moved along, and finally really hit their stride in the early 60s, and this one still shows signs of being uncertain of itself.  There’s an awful lot of build-up to the introduction of the Creature, and when it arrives I was sort of disappointed.  No rampaging around the village, no angry mobs, no torchlit processions.  The Creature sort of wanders around the woods, kills a blind man and then gets shot in the head. Even his final rampage is perfunctory.  It’s a shame, because behind all that decaying make-up is Christopher Lee and it would have been nice to give him a bit more to do.

At the end of the day, while Curse of Frankenstein is not my favorite Hammer film, or even my favorite Frankenstein film, it’s still good fun.  This was a film that basically resurrected classic horror, and brought Peter Cushing into the Hammer fold.  There’s no way to argue with that one.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again

LAST NIGHT: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)

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“Come, Vulnavia!”

*Here thar be spoilers for The Abominable Dr. Phibes*

Oh dear.  I had such high hopes for this one.  First, if you didn’t already know, I loved the original The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  I love Vincent Price.  I so wanted the sequel to be everything the original was and more.  Now I’m sad.

The plot, such as it is, looks promising.  After Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price ) embalmed himself in the tomb of his beloved wife Virginia, we thought that the good doctor was gone for good and all.  How wrong we were.  He’s back, because apparently you can embalm yourself and then totally put your own blood back into your body three years later.  That definitely works.  Resurrecting his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp)  from her home in a mirrored kaleidoscope, Dr. Phibes sets about the second half of his diabolical plot to reunite with Virginia.  This time he’s off to Egypt to find the River of Life and give himself eternal life … or bring back Virginia … or something.  I wasn’t entirely clear on that.  This naturally involves murdering EVERYONE he comes in contact with.  All righty.

As with the original, the murders are pretty unique.  Hawks go after an under-used John Thaw (TVs Inspector Morse), scorpions get some poor young archeologist, and an elaborate mechanical clamp crushes another fellow to death.  But that’s really the most that can be said about this one.  The plot is all right, with Robert Quarry eating the scenery as Phibes nemesis Darrus Biederbeck, a man who wants to find the River of Life for his own purposes.  Inspector Trout and Superintendent Waverley (Peter Jeffrey and John Cater)  are back too; their scenes are among the best and I found myself wishing that they had appeared in their own series.  Peter Cushing appears all too briefly as a ship’s Captain, as does Terry-Thomas in a scene with Trout and Waverley.  The art-deco style of Phibes’s Egyptian tomb – yes, he does have one – and brief scenes of Phibes and Vulnavia experimenting with interior design are fabulous.  Unfortunately these are only bright lights in an otherwise murky film.

Price bears the brunt of the badness, I’m afraid.  His dialogue was purple in the original; here it’s incandescent violet.  He addresses his dead wife far too much, and there are extensive scenes of him recapping for her corpse what’s happened thus far.  So while he’s still Vincent Price, he’s Vincent Price saddled with an unmanageable script.  What’s more, all the sympathy we felt for Phibes in the original rapidly dissipates as he murders one innocent after another.  His revenge seems natural, if extreme, in the first film; in this one it’s basically tangential.

I’m sorry to say not to bother with this one.  Despite some good points, the film as a whole is by turns boring and confusing and underuses the talents of the very talented people involved.  I was hoping that Phibes would try resurrecting Virginia, perhaps harvesting the organs of his victims to rebuild her a la Frankenstein? That would have been interesting.  In this case, I wish that Dr. Phibes had stayed embalmed.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

LAST NIGHT: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

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“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with Vincent Price in a latex hood and cape, playing a lite-brite organ and conducting a clockwork band in an art-deco mansion.  And so I thought, “This is going to be AWESOME.”

Which it was.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of those tongue-in-cheek horror movies from the 1970s that is almost – but not quite – meant to be taken seriously.  The plot follows our mad doctor as he and his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) go around murdering a lot of medical doctors, following the Biblical precedent of the plagues of Egypt.  Sort of.  I’m pretty positive there were no unicorns in the Old Testament.  The reason for this? Well, his dear wife Virginia died on the operating table and he’s really, really pissed off about it.  Anywho, he’s chased by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is in turn ably assisted by Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, in a role that Peter Cushing was supposed to take).  The whole weird plot is really an excuse for Price to be very freaky and concoct some pretty nasty and spectacular deaths for his victims.  His victims, by the way, include a hilarious Terry-Thomas as the libidinal Dr. Longstreet;  if you know anything about British film or TV from this period, this will delight you as much as it did me.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes owes most of its value to Vincent Price, who is evidently having the time of his life as he annihilates one doctor after another.  There are some lovely little asides – applauding the death of a pilot, doing a double-take at a painting in Dr. Longstreet’s office, everything that has to do with Vulnavia – that speak to Price’s charisma and humor.  Few actors can do what he did and still seem so classy.  Phibes is a crazy but sympathetic villain, his passionate love for his dead wife more sad than terrible.

What surprised me more, though, was the humor infused into the police investigation.  Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout is delicious, as is Superintendent Waverley (John Cater).  It’s a very British film with very British humor, despite having an American production company behind it.  As with most films of this type, it’s fun because the cast are game for their parts.  They’re more than aware that it’s all a bit of a joke.

As always, though, there are problems.  Price has one of the most recognizable voices on film and here he’s all but silent, save when he ‘speaks’ through a gramophone attached to his neck (Phibes was horribly injured in a car wreck), and then in such purple prose that you wish he would shut up. There are dull patches, a bit too much build up to the murders, and the characters figure out what’s going on long after the audience.

For all that, it’s a grand piece of camp and worth it for Vincent Price alone.  You’ll never look at brussels sprouts the same way again.

Frankenstein Created Woman

LAST NIGHT: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, 1967.

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*Well, not quite last night.  But close enough.*

I cannot put into words how much I love 1) Hammer Studios and 2) Peter Cushing.  So there is absolutely no reason for me not to love this movie.

Frankenstein Created Woman is a later entry in Cushing’s extended tenure at Hammer; a 1967 film coming after The Curse of FrankensteinThe Revenge of Frankenstein and The Evil of Frankenstein, making it the fourth (but not the last) time he played the mad doctor.  And while I admit to preferring Cushing’s work as Van Helsing in the Dracula films, the Frankenstein movies have their own deliciously lurid cache, not least because the kindly blue-eyed gent transforms into one cold, evil sonofabitch.

Frankenstein Created Woman takes up about half its running time with the build-up: Hans (Robert Morris), the son of a convicted murderer who watched his father go to the guillotine, has grown up very good-looking but very angry.  He’s Baron Frankenstein’s assistant and in love with the innkeeper’s daughter Christina (Susan Denberg), a lame young lady disfigured by a large mark on one side of her face.  The opening scenes depicting Hans’s nasty temper, Christina’s gentleness, and the cruelty of three dandies, are all well and good, but I admit to waiting for the blood and sewing together of dead bodies.

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This … never happened.

I should not have worried.  Despite being slow-burning at the beginning, the second half of this one erupts when Hans is wrongfully executed for the murder of Christina’s father – the dandies did it – and Christina kills herself. Enter the Baron, who has been wandering in the background talking about capturing the immortal soul of man and putting it into another body, a latter day expositionist.  With the help of his faithful doctor friend Hertz (Thorley Walters), Frankenstein rebuilds Christina’s body, captures Hans’s soul and presto! We’ve got a dual-personality, bi-gendered and buxom monster!

Frankenstein Created Woman is not quite so lurid as even Horror of Dracula or the original (and best) Curse of Frankenstein.  But it is a satisfying revenge story with the typical combination of very good actors speaking very bad lines that one comes to expect from a Hammer product.  The rest of the film proceeds much as you’d think.  While there are not buckets of blood, there are several shocking and grotesque moments as the new Christina sets about taking revenge for Hans’s death.  The theology and philosophy espoused by the Baron especially and the film in general gets to be quite weird, as the soul of Hans apparently possesses some residual memory that turns Christina into a split personality.  The Baron even begins paraphrasing the Bible, as we should have expected he would.  Much is left unexplained, but if you came for cohesive philosophical constructs, you should really have read the plot synopsis first.

My one real quibble with the film is how long it takes to get going, and how little Cushing is utilized.  Of the handful of British thespians who graced Hammer films – Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed – Cushing stands at the top. It seems criminal to give him so little to do in a film that proclaims our Franky as the creator of life.

That aside, Frankenstein Created Woman is good fun.  I’m sometimes bothered by how much I enjoy Hammer films.  Probably shouldn’t think too deeply about that one.

The Haunted Feminine Part 2

‘I’m coming apart, a little at a time.  A little at a time.  Now I know where I’m going.  I’m disappearing, inch by inch, into this house.’—Eleanor (Julie Harris) in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (MGM, 1963).

In my previous discussion of the variation on the monstrous feminine in haunting films, what I call the haunted feminine, I identified Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting as one of the purest examples of this trope in cinema.  The relationship between Hill House and the character of Eleanor in the film functions on multiple levels.  The haunting becomes a projection of her inward repressions, and an expression of the destructive power located in the mind of the woman.  The film focalizes the narrative through Eleanor, laying bare her psychological state, and opens up an interpretation that views the haunting as a direct manifestation of her repressed psychology.  An examination of several key sequences of the film permits for an expansion of the concept of the haunted feminine, laying open this film in particular, and haunting films in general, to Freudian interpretation and exposition.

The book on which the film is based, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, conceives Hill House itself as a manifestation of insanity:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone (Jackson 3).

The film visualizes this aspect of the novel, with images of the house silhouetted against a dark sky and photographed from low, canted angles.  The initial introduction of the house occurs before the opening credits.  Dr. Markway’s (Richard Johnson) voice speaks the first paragraph of the novel almost verbatim over shots of the imposing house.  The second introduction occurs through Eleanor’s eyes.  A montage of several shots presents her first experience of Hill House: first a panoramic shot of the whole façade of the house; second another angle view of the house, this time a little closer; third a close shot of some of the details of the exterior; and fourth an even closer shot of dark windows.

A few things should be noted about this sequence of shots.  The initial view of the house fails to match Eleanor’s eye line.  She looks to the right of the frame, but the house is shot from a left angle.  The camera cuts back to Eleanor, still looking to the right of the frame.  The frame cuts to the correct angle in reference to Eleanor’s eye line match, but becomes confusing because the angle is lower and the shot closer than the original view.  The last two shots, of the details on the house and the dark windows, are impossible to read as point of view shots, because they are progressively closer, while we know Eleanor has not moved.  This technique causes a uncanny experience in the viewer and emphasizes the house’s insanity.  Eleanor observes the house from these canted, disparate angles and immediately identifies the house as ‘sick.’  That it is impossible that she could look at the house in this way not only typifies the disjointed, disturbing nature of the house itself, but also points out that this is Eleanor’s view of the house.  The final shot of the dark windows matches on the next shot of Eleanor’s eyes, identifying the pair.  The house appears to be literally looking at her, as her voice-over makes clear: ‘it’s staring at me.’  The film expresses Eleanor’s thought processes, and her increasing madness, through use of her voice-over.  It forces the viewer to enter into Eleanor’s mind.  This could be interpreted as overkill, as director Robert Wise mistrusting the strength of the visuals to convey the message.  It does, however, emphasize Eleanor’s subjectivity.  Is it the house that is ‘not sane’ or Eleanor?

The film builds to a sequence of ‘haunting’ scenes, each of them different in their own ways, and each progressively more focalized through Eleanor.  The first haunting scene occurs the first night in the house.  It develops through a complex montage of shots and sounds, beginning with the opening shot of the darkened Hill House.  It then fades to the long main staircase, in the interim superimposing one of the details of the house (a carving of a male face) briefly onto the image of the staircase.  Wise utilizes the technique of brief superimposition numerous times as a way of structuring the film as haunted.  These images haunt the frames of the film and disconcert the viewer.  Over the medium shot of the dark staircase, a banging noise comes over the soundtrack.  The image fades to the corner of a room as a light comes on and Eleanor gets out of bed.  She believes for a moment that the noises come from her dead mother, who used to knock on the wall to get her attention.

Eleanor’s relationship with her mother forms the first indication of her numerous complexes.  The narrative has already identified another sound of beating on the wall with the death of the nurse who failed to respond to an invalid’s knocking for help.  The film proposes multiple identifications for the manifestation of the knocking.  The knocking is associated first with the nurse who engages in sexual activity, resulting in the death of her patient and then her own suicide.  The knocking then relates to the experience of Eleanor, who blames herself for her mother’s death because she failed to respond.  It may be argued that Eleanor internalizes the apparent ‘sexual deviance’ of the nurse, who causes death through illicit sexual activity.  Freud’s discussion of fear and sexual anxiety in ‘Inhibition, Symptom and Fear’ relates to this:

I found that attacks of fear and a generalized state of apprehensiveness are precipitated by certain sexual practices such as coitus interruptus, frustrated arousal, and enforced abstinence—in other words, whenever sexual excitement is inhibited, checked or deflected before it has achieved gratification (Freud 177).

Reading the scene in this light, the knocking becomes a manifestation of an interrupted sexual impulse that locates itself in the relationship between sex and death. Female sexuality as either repressed (Eleanor) or too expressive (the nurse) becomes the site and cause of death and madness.  The film locates Eleanor’s sexual inhibition in her relationship to her mother whose illness and demands preclude her from enjoying normal sexual relationships.  Eleanor, stopped from healthy sexual expression by the necessity of caring for her mother, experiences extreme guilt at her mother’s death.  The knocking becomes a manifestation of Eleanor’s guilt complex.

Eleanor rushes into Theo’s (Claire Bloom) room at her call.

Theo: I thought it was you pounding.

Eleanor: It was.

Theo experiences the noises as something caused by Eleanor.  Eleanor for a moment reinforces this construction.  The apparent misidentification allows the haunting to be read as an outward manifestation of Eleanor’s inhibition.  It becomes a physical expression of her repression in the form of a monstrous Other.  The ‘thing’ that haunts Hill House attempts to get into the room with Eleanor and Theo, but fails.  Eleanor asks if the door is locked, Theo responds negatively and the doorknob begins to turn.

Eleanor: You can’t get in!

As soon as Eleanor denies the ‘thing,’ the pounding ceases.  The haunting ends when Eleanor’s conscious mind represses a manifestation of the unconscious.  As soon as she denies it, it goes away.  The film focalizes the second memorable haunting sequence as solely the experience of Eleanor.  The scene begins with an exterior shot of a single tower of the house, bringing the viewer closer than in the opening of the previous sequence.  The scene cuts to the interior of Eleanor and Theo’s room.  Eleanor watches and listens as first a masculine voice murmurs and a feminine voice giggles.  She watches a single spot in the wall as a face begins to emerge from the ornamentation on the wall.  The entire sequence plays from Eleanor’s point of view, creating ambiguity about whether the voice and the image of the face in the wall are products of Eleanor’s imagination, a projection of her mind into the physical realm, or an actual haunted presence.  As the scene proceeds, the face in the wall becomes more pronounced, developing eyes, nose and an open mouth, the woman’s laughter replaced by the (apparent) sound of a child crying.  Eleanor begins narrating in voice-over at this stage:

Eleanor: This is monstrous.  This is cruel.  It is hurting a child and I will not let anyone or anything hurt a child…I will take a lot from this filthy house for his sake, but I will not go along with hurting a child.

Eleanor ends the sequence by screaming, again denying the presence of the Other.  The lights come on and she discovers that she has moved from her bed to the couch by the wall and that the hand she thought was Theo’s is no hand at all. This scene functions as the beginning of Eleanor’s entrance into a union with the house, as she narrates herself into a position of power.  She says that she ‘will not let anyone or anything hurt a child,’ establishing herself as the figure who will ‘save’ the hurt child.  Her enigmatic statement that she ‘will take a lot from this filthy house for his sake’ (italics mine) bears closer scrutiny.  She may be referring to Dr. Markway, with whom she has developed an infatuation.  She may be referring to the dead Hugh Crain.  She may even be referring to the house itself, which she begins to form an unnatural connection with.  Prior to the sequence, Eleanor has grown more attached to the house, believing that the house ‘wants’ her.  She forms a narcissistic, potentially sexual attachment to the house as her ‘home.’  This second sequence heightens her connection to the house.

The final haunting sequence occurs near the end of the film and visualizes Eleanor’s total breakdown, her passionate desire for union with the house, as the house literally begins to implode upon her.  It is the most physical manifestation of the haunting, claimed as the realization of everything the film has built to.  It also is the one full-fledged haunting sequence that all the main characters participate in.   The sequence actually opens from within the house, realizing the full progression of the establishing shots from the two previous sequences, each of which opens in a closer shot.  Now the camera is in the room with Markway, Eleanor, Theo and Luke (Russ Tamblyn).  The pounding noises from the first sequence occur again, until they stop in front of the sitting room door, where the four characters gather.  The door begins to cave in on itself, as the force on the other side pushes it in.

Each haunting sequence has failed to expose what it is that haunts Hill House.  No actual ghosts or monsters ever appear.  The haunting remains sublimated within the psychic realm, and reinforces that concept of Eleanor’s repression as being part and parcel of the haunting.  At this point, the repressed Other, almost succeeds in breaking through, in crumbling the door and revealing itself to the inhabitants.  Eleanor chooses to go out and face the ‘thing.’  At each point in The Haunting, Eleanor has denied the ‘thing’ entrance and so it remains behind walls and doors.  Finally, she opens the door and runs out to meet it.  She encounters no ghost, no ‘thing.’  She runs through the fast crumbling house as glass breaks, metal scrapes, and the house grows wildly imbalanced. These are all sounds focalized through Eleanor and, other than a single mirror falling, have no visual  reality.  Mirrors abound in this sequence.  Eleanor first encounters her distorted image in a convex mirror above a mantle.  As she runs into the conservatory, a mirror reflects her image, and then falls off the wall.  At each turn, Eleanor encounters a reflection of herself.  She has gone out to meet the haunting Other of Hill House only to discover that the Other is herself.  Her confrontation with the repressed side of herself, the inhibition that has manifested itself in the form of the monstrous Other, causes the house to ‘destroy itself.’

Eleanor: I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house.

Having confronted the repressed Other, Eleanor loses control and wishes to become a part of the house.  She nearly succeeds in committing suicide but is stopped at the last moment by Markway.  This returns to the issues of inhibited sexuality and can be seen as a sort of ‘coitus interruptus.’  The patriarchal representative of scientific materialism stops Eleanor’s sexualized union with the house, the full realization of her repressed psyche.

The conclusion of the film, however, establishes the supremacy of the supernatural manifestation of the female psyche over the masculinist rational paradigm.  The film exposes the medical discourse of Dr. Markway, who functions as a representative of the medical establishment and the need to control and explain the Other, as insufficient.  He seeks to explain the haunting, to locate some scientific proof for the paranormal.  Refusing to fall into the discourse of scientific materialism, Eleanor completes her union with the house and a full recognition of her sublimated desires.  The ending, though it concludes with Eleanor’s death, may be read in a triumphal light, as Eleanor finally discovers her place of belonging in confrontation and final acceptance of the sublimated Other.  Having confronted the haunting only to confront herself, Eleanor drives her car into a tree, killing herself:

Eleanor: So now I’m going.  But I won’t go.  Hill House belongs to me.  I knew it.  I knew it.  Hill House doesn’t want me to go.

She briefly resists, but Eleanor gives in to the ‘will’ of the house and the will of her subconscious.  Her repressed psyche in the form of the haunting takes over the wheel and unites her and the house in a union of sex and death.  Although she ends her life, she becomes incorporated into the house and succeeds in facing and accepting her sublimated desires.  Her inhibitions exposed, she can finally go home.

When The Haunting was remade in 1999, it opened the discourse of the film to new interpretation.  The remake articulated Eleanor’s relationship with the ghosts (and there are actual physical ghosts in the remake) as the role of savior.  Her death becomes unambiguously triumphant when she succeeds in ‘saving the children’ from an evil house that is haunted by the spirit of her past relation.  Aside from the hokier aspects of the film, the remake streamlines the concept of the original into a discourse not about the abject mind of the female, but the motherly ‘savior’ who sacrifices herself to rescue the children from a monstrous masculinity.  This brings to the fore the ambiguous function of the original to form a both sad and possibly triumphant conclusion.  Eleanor, freed from the functions of science and patriarchy, finally unites sexually with the house and in doing so comes ‘home.’  Hill House remains a place where ambiguity reigns, where the things that go bump in the night are never explained, and where successful sexual union only ends in death.  It is also the only site of triumph for the repressed, reviled woman who comes to terms with her sublimated psyche, who confronts her fears and enters into a sense of belonging.  Something finally happens to Eleanor.

Jackson, Shirley.  The Haunting of Hill House, Penguin Books, New York: 1987.

Creed, Barbara.  ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.

Doane, Mary Ann.  The Desire to Desire, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1987.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin Books, New York: 2003.

‘Inhibition, Symptom and Fear’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin, New York: 2003.

‘On the Introduction of Narcissism’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin Books, New York: 2003.

Kristeva, Julia.  Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Pres, New York: 1982.

Lawrence, Amy.  Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema, University of California Press, Berkeley: 1991.

Williams, Linda.  ‘When the Woman Looks’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.

De Bont, Jan (dir).  The Haunting, Dreamworks, 1999.

Wise, Robert (dir).  The Haunting, MGM, 1963.

*Paper originally written for Horror and Sci-Fi, Prof. Ed Guerrero.  Copyright Lauren Humphries-Brooks 2009

Bloody October: House On Haunted Hill

LAST NIGHT: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

“A woman was just hung in the stairwell; there was a severed head in a girl’s suitcase, we all have loaded guns and Vincent Price is our host.  Well, good night!”

William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest House on Haunted Hill is iconic and ridiculous.  If Vincent Price offered you $10,000 to spend a night in a haunted mansion, would you go? No, of course you wouldn’t.  Because he’s VINCENT PRICE.  But apparently the five idiots who accompany him didn’t know that.  Thank God, for otherwise this movie would not exist and we would all be the worse for it.

I have no idea what to do with this movie.  It should be terrible – because it is.  The acting is largely atrocious, the plot nonsensical, the script alternately slow and sudden.  And yet…and yet.  I loved it.  Every second of it.  Why? WHY? Well, one why is Vincent Price, who no matter how many bad films he made always injects an edge of class and camp into his performances that made him the go-to guy for schlocky horror.  The other why is the crazy factor of the whole enterprise.  We have seven people locked in a haunted – high modern mansion, and what does their host do? He gives them loaded guns.  There are severed heads that appear randomly in closets which everyone seems to take in stride.  There’s a fucking vat of acid in the basement and this does not cause any great consternation.  These people are insane.

House on Haunted Hill is the best of bad 50s horror – total fun with a few proper scares.