Friday, August 15, 2014

Ghoulish Murders at the Dark House

THE GHOUL (1933)
MURDER IN THE RED BARN (1935)
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1936)
CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE (1940)


Boris Karloff carves a hieroglyph onto his chest in THE GHOUL. Assumed to be lost since screenings in 1938 - at least in a viewable print - a perfect negative of this Gaumont-British film surfaced in a forgotten vault at Shepperton in the early 1980's.

THE pictures under consideration here exist in two twilight zones of cinema, development arcs that bridge silents to talkies, then defuse staged melodrama to open up more erudite levels of performance. THE GHOUL sees Boris Karloff return home after achieving stardom with Universal - in a film influenced by those golden horrors - while the three Tod Slaughter releases play as last gasps to Victorian Gothic, a tradition of spectacle illustrated by the lurid Penny Dreadfuls and Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. In THE GHOUL - very loosely adapted from Frank King's 1928 bestseller - Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Karloff) believes that his devotion to Anubis and possession of 'The Eternal Light' jewel will resurrect him and give him immortality. He forces his manservant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to bind the jewel into his palm on his deathbed, but after being entombed in the family mausoleum with the stone stolen from his grasp, Morlant returns from the grave to stalk those he suspects betrayed him.

In front and behind the camera, THE GHOUL was given star treatment. Together with Karloff and Thesiger, the sterling thespian cast also includes Cedric Hardwicke as Morlant's attorney Broughton, and a young Ralph Richardson as snooping parson Hartley. Cinematographer Gunther Krampf creates a musty ambience, and Louis Levy provides a stirring score. But it is hardly the classic heralded by critics upon its R1 DVD restoration in 2003, as viewers will find their patience tried by T. Hayes Hunter's languid pacing, pregnant pauses and over-stated dialogue and dramatics, as the picture crawls to its non-supernatural, SCOOBY DOO climax. Karloff, who, to the film's detriment, disappears for a large portion of the prolonged 80m running time, obviously uses his role as Im-Ho-Tep from Karl Freund's THE MUMMY as the prototype here, with the distinctive make-up - devised by the specifically imported Henrich Heitfeld - swathed in thick wrinkles and scar tissue so prominent as to occlude one eye almost completely.

Tod Slaughter in his breakthrough picture, MURDER AT THE RED BARNAlthough Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Charles Laughton and Claude Rains were successfully exported to Hollywood, Slaughter was Britain's first home-grown horror star.

Born Norman Carter Slaughter in March 1886 and adapting the name Tod in 1925, this English actor and stage proprietor became infamous for his melodramatic performances in macabre theatre and film adaptations (as Jonathan Rigby points out in English Gothic, "[Slaughter's] villainy is redolent of boiled beef and carrots gone rancid.") It is said he briefly retired from acting to become a chicken farmer at the start of the 1930's, but he was soon back touring theatres with his trademark repertoires. Exploiting his toothy grin, throaty voice and amphibious façade, Slaughter was publicised as 'Mr Murder' in the 1931 New Theatre run of 'The Crimes of Burke and Hare,' and shortly after played urban legend Sweeney Todd for the first of over 2,000 performances. Consequently, the persona of an over-the-top lunatic gripped his character similar to the career not necessarily always enjoyed by Bela Lugosi with Dracula. By the early 1950's the public's appetite for melodrama have abated and Slaughter went bankrupt. He continued to act in stage productions such as 'The Gay Invalid' opposite Peter Cushing and was still performing to the very end, dying of coronary thrombosis in February 1956. This timescale conveniently connects the coming of Hammer and the more sophisticated performances of Cushing and Christopher Lee.

In 1935, at the age of 49, he started in a run of poverty row pictures with MURDER AT THE RED BARN. Based on the true story of 1827, Slaughter plays Squire William Corder, who seduces farmer's daughter Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart) then murders and buries her beneath a barn floor - "you shall be a bride, a bride of death!" - after discovering she is pregnant. This does not fall into Corder's plan at all, as he aims to marry a wealthy spinster to pay off a dicing debt. In the darkly humorous finale, Corder's own dog marks the spot where Marten is buried, the Squire forced to dig to incriminate himself knowing one of his pistols lies by the body; there is further irony when Corder is hanged by a volunteer executioner, Gypsy Carlos (Eric Portman), Maria's lover. Flaunting its stage origins by starting with a Master of Ceremonies in front of a painted backdrop, Slaughter's portrayal of the seemingly cordial Squire morphing into a gambling murderer provided a template for a career of maniacal dual personalities.

Californian Sleazemeister and rockabilly musician Johnny Legend presented this DVD double-bill of SWEENEY TODD and CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE.

A year later Slaughter reprised his most famous stage role for the screen. In SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, the eponymous character "polishes off" wealthy customers who sit in a mechanical barber's chair which dumps them head-first down into the basement; there, the victims are ready to have their throats cut ("a lovely lot of throats, the lot of 'em ... rich and mellow to the razor.") Neighbour Mrs Lovatt (Stella Rho) disposes of the bodies by processing them in pies for a share of the stolen money (but similar to Marten's pregnancy in MURDER AT THE RED BARN, this is only implied). Todd has an eye for Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister), who is in love with seaman Mark (Bruce Seton), and in a Slaughteresque twist both these characters adapt a more literal disguise to fool the demon barber, eventually plunging him down his own trap door to an infernal damnation. This is Slaughter's consistently most entertaining picture, with the actor at his cackling, vindictive and money-grabbing best, and rife with double entendre (at one point he leers at Mark "when I'm finished with you, you won't know yourself.")

Loosely based on Wilkie Collins' 1859 ground-breaking detective/mystery novel The Woman in White, CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE
opens with in the gold fields of Australia, where Slaughter creeps into a tent to kill Sir Percival Glyde by hammering a tent peg into his ear. Assuming Percival's identity in order to inherit his English estate, on arrival back in Blightey the scheming prospector discovers that the Glyde's are in fact bankrupt. Benefitting from higher production values - which included future Hammer designer Bernard Robinson's first gothic sets - there is also a more convoluted but dramatically satisfying storyline, encompassing an insane illegitimate daughter, a blackmailing doctor, mistaken identities and the obligatory impregnation and murder of a maid. Slaughter may be at his most archetypal for SWEENEY TODD, but CRIMES sees his most polished, sly and sexually sardonic performance. Almost every line is delivered in a suggestive manner, and his lascivious excitement at bedding his new reluctant bride is particularly depraved.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dream Documentaries

THE GRAPHIC NOVEL MAN: THE COMICS OF BRYAN TALBOT (2014)
VIDEO NASTIES 2: DRACONIAN DAYS (2014)

John Chambers and Sandra Marrs, aka Scottish comic book novelists Metaphrog, designed this Bryan Talbot illustration for the 'Stripped' strand of the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival.

RELEASED by Digital Storage Engine in May, this fascinating three-part, 142-minute DVD documentary showcases the passions and processes of one of the world's most respected and influential comic book creators. Wigan-born writer/artist Bryan Talbot emerged from underground comix in the late-70's with The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, widely labelled as the first British graphic novel. An albino assassin who gets stoned, activates his psychic powers and ends up in a parallel England where Oliver Cromwell’s rule never ended, Arkwright started as a pastiche of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, but by the time Talbot had completed the series the work provided a template from which the likes of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison started their foreboding careers. As well as Moorcock, Talbot borrowed from the British new wave of science fiction writers and the film techniques of Nicolas Roeg, spawning the whole "mature comics" line that more noticeable figures give themselves far too much credit for.

Featuring interviews with - amongst others - Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Pat Mills, Charlie Adlard, Paul Gravett, Kim Newman and with an introduction by Moorcock, THE GRAPHIC NOVEL MAN not only puts Talbot's trailblazing developments of sequential storytelling in context, but explores the comic form in relation to other artistic endeavours. At one point novelist Ian Rankin marvels at how Talbot balances his craft - following Rankin's pains with a John Constantine one-shot - and the sequences showing the creator at work with his folders of notes, charts and tireless research even when on walking holidays are marvels to behold. Not only is the attention to detail staggering, Talbot has always maintained an integrity and pride in an often shunned artistic medium. Talbot refers to his scripts as 'Alan Moore style', referencing the detailed writing that the Northampton magus is famous for, thus being typically polite about who actually influenced who.

Talbot's underground Brainstorm Comix premiered psychedelic alchemist Chester P. Hackenbush, a character reworked by Alan Moore as Chester Williams for his run on Swamp Thing.

Over his forty-plus years in the industry, Talbot's talent absorbs a variety of styles to suit their target audiences. He says he is writer, director, costume maker and editor for each of his publications, which helps to explain the quality of detail. Described by Dez Skinn as "The David Bowie" of comics, Talbot's work is as impressive as it is diverse: Nemesis the Warlock for 2000 A.D., a tale of childhood sexual abuse in The Tale of One Bad Rat, the Grandville series which imagines an alternative steampunk reality in which France won the Napoleonic Wars and the world is populated by anthropomorphic animals, the 2013 Costa Award winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes co-created with wife Mary, and the existential Metronome - a textless erotically charged poem produced under the pseudonym Véronique Tanaka - illustrate this breadth of vision. His story for Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #39-40 sees Bruce Wayne's dual identity as the caped crusader revealed as just a side-effect of hysterical dissociative disorder. As Talbot states in the documentary, "I'm surprised I got away with that really." 

In 2007 he released his magnum opus Alice in Sunderland, a "dream documentary" four years in the making that immerses itself with the relationship between Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell and the Sunderland and Wearside areas. Using Carrollian scholar Michael Bute's book A Town Like Alice's as a springboard, the sprawling work is pitched as a grand entertainment staged at the Sunderland Empire, and contains a dizzying array of historical weight and illustrative collage, from watercolours and Victorian engraving, to spot-on pastiche of boy's own papers and EC horror comics. Talbot places Sunderland - and indeed the folklore of England - within a mythical dreamscape which explores the influence of space similar to the works of Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Narrated in the present-tense by Talbot as avatar, the many threads reveal starling connections and stories that become true on the pure basis of tales being told and retold.

“It’s alright for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker from Manchester happened to see it?” James Ferman is centre stage for VIDEO NASTIES 2: DRACONIAN DAYS.

Nucleus Films' follow-up to 2010's VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE - VIDEO NASTIES 2: DRACONIAN DAYS - focuses on the years 1984 to 1999 to chart the rise and fall of BBFC supremo James Ferman. A Canadian television hack who felt obliged to think that his background in the cutting room and "social awareness" made him the perfect man for the job, Ferman was particularly obsessed with the theme of sexual violence and the use of nunchucks - he even cut the opening sequence of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II because Michelangelo imitates their use by swinging sausages. Ferman infamously not just censored but re-edited films, cutting horror movies to shreds and basterdised HENRY: PORTRAINT OF A SERIAL KILLER to his own dramatic whim. Documenting the Hungerford Massacre, the murder of James Bulger and the antics of MP David Alton, Jake West's documentary absorbingly shows how this bludgeoning practice only served to create a thriving underground movement of fans eager to find and trade complete cuts, consequently forming a vibrant fanzine market for such a social network to thrive. Like its predecessor it is an important historical piece in its own right, contrasting the fight for artistic freedom against the timeless ignorance of the BBFC, MPs and mainstream media.