Tuesday, September 30, 2008

THE BEETLE: A MYSTERY BY RICHARD MARSH was published in 1897; the same year as Bram Stoker's DRACULA. In fact, the two authors knew each other and there's a rather apocryphal story that both men had a wager as to which of them could write the more successful horror novel. Almost certainly this never happened; but in actuality THE BEETLE outsold DRACULA for a time. It is a tale of gothic horror featuring one of the most bizarre monsters ever seen. Richard Marsh (the grandfather of horror author Robert Aickman) imbues the book with creeping horror as well as a Victorian love triangle, the then-current rage of Mesmerism and echoes of Sherlock Holmes. Like DRACULA, THE BEETLE is also told from several points of view; it would probably suit Quentin Tarantino for his next film project.
The novel begins with the story of Robert Holt: a man so down on his luck that he's turned away from the poorhouse! You can't fall much farther than that, can you? Well, Holt comes across a backstreet with a house that looks to be empty. He climbs in the window to get out of the weather and promptly encounters a strange creature who mesmerizes him with his eyes. The creature alternately appears to be a strange-looking man lying in a bed as well as a shape-changing grotesque giant beetle who forces Holt to it's will. A scene where the lights go out and Holt can feel the spider-like legs of the Beetle crawling slowly up his leg is genuinely creepy. Possessing some grudge against crusading politician Paul Lessingham, the Beetle sends a naked Robert Holt out into the night to burglarize him and utter two threatening words to the famous man: "The Beetle!" The effect of those two words on the normally stoic gentleman reduces him into cringing putty --not once but several times during the course of the novel. After keeping the naked Holt dirty and starving, the Beetle eventually sees fit to have him collapse in the street seemingly dead. The wretch is taken indoors by Marjorie Lindon; who just happens to be Lessingham's fiancee.
This is only the beginning of the story. After Holt's tale is told, we next have an entire section told by a Sydney Atherton which interweaves into the Holt and Lessingham events. It seems that Atherton grew up with Marjorie Lindon and, while she considers him like a brother, he wants to marry her. Unfortunately for him, she loves Lessingham (this is where the Victorian romantic triangle comes in). Atherton has his own encounters with both the Beetle and Holt and, after his section of the book another section commences retelling the events from Marjorie Lindon's point of view. Like a Victorian -era VANTAGE POINT, the overall story is slowly revealed and crystallized through several different viewpoints. Whereas this device used in Stoker's DRACULA has never ceased to annoy me, here Marsh's use of it is actually very readable. My only problem with Marsh's writing, in fact, only occurs now and then with his slightly annoying use of overly deliberate argumentative dialogue. A minor quibble but it can grate on one's nerves after a while. Other than that, the novel is what I would definitely call a "page turner" and I seemed to rocket right through it.
My copy of the novel is, of course, from the wonderful (and highly affordable) Wordsworth Edition paperback. I should probably mention one rather startling passage which came as a complete surprise to me. In a paragraph I never expected to read in an 1897 novel, the heroine writes: "One result the experience had on me -- it wound me up. It had on me the revivifying effect of a cold douche." Yeah, I had to read it about 3 times to make sure I had read it right, too! And I can definitely say I never heard Mina Harker utter a similar phrase; no matter HOW much of the "new woman" SHE was supposed to be! Another aspect of the Beetle which makes the monster particularly bizarre is that is shapeshifts between male and female sexes quite routinely; giving an extra-added oddity to the monster. And unlike Stoker's DRACULA (which couched all sexuality in metaphor), Marsh's BEETLE features quite a lot of naked flesh: the aforementioned Holt running around unclothed for much of the novel as well as the nude female body displayed by the Beetle itself! Whereas the sexual "naughtiness" in Stoker's novel is subconsciously Freudian, Marsh's novel puts it right out there up front. For solid Victorian creepy fun, THE BEETLE by Richard Marsh fills the bill admirably.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

VERY VERY VERY SAD TO HEAR OF PAUL NEWMAN'S DEATH AT AGE 83. One of the last true titans of the silver screen. His impressive film career goes without saying but here are a few of the movies and performances of which I am particularly fond:
  • The Long Hot Summer (1958)
  • The Left Handed Gun (1958)
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
  • The Hustler (1961)
  • Hud (1963)
  • What A Way To Go! (1964)
  • Torn Curtain (1966)
  • The Towering Inferno (1974)
  • Slap Shot (1977)
  • The Verdict (1982)
  • Nobody's Fool (1994)
  • Message in a Bottle (1999)

Friday, September 26, 2008

A VERY HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY TO ZACHERLEY! The original horror host! The Cool Ghoul himself! Of course, words fail when it comes to telling how much the guy means to me. Way back in 1958, John Zacherle was asked to host a late night horror movie show called Shock Theater: the newly-released to television classic Universal horror film package. Zacherle took the name of Roland (pronounced Row-LAND) and debuted on late night Philadelphia TV station WCAU-10. My mother was teenager at the time and later regaled me with tales of watching his show. She would stay up late to catch whatever insanity Roland was hurling at the TV screen; including breaking into the movie and inserting himself into the action at appropriate moments to liven things up. Roland, however, got so popular that he was snatched away to New York City and took the name of Zacherley. The Cool Ghoul also released several successful record albums (including his smash hit DINNER WITH DRAC) and even ran for President! The usual stupidity of TV station managers eventually saw the cancellation of just about every horror host in the land. But ever since, the Cool Ghoul has been making appearances all over the place and he is still the top of the horror hosts. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago and he's just as hysterically funny in person. Once again, I'd like to wish John Zacherle the happiest of Happy Birthdays!

Monday, September 22, 2008

JUST A NOTE OF SAD RESIGNATION. As I'm sure you know, the Halloween season is almost upon us. My favourite time of year when the skittering of fallen leaves gently scrapes down neighbourhood streets and the autumn moon holds sway. The gingersnap cookies have appeared on store shelves and hot cocoa suddenly looks like a great idea right about now. As many of you may or may not ALSO know, I will shortly be "at liberty" as far as gainful employment is concerned. Hopefully this condition will not persist for very long but either way I very much doubt I will have the opportunity to encore my month-long Halloween Countdown which many of you enjoyed last year. If you missed it, last year's Halloween Countdown featured a post EVERY DAY of October -- actually TWO posts every day: one post on something "Halloweeny" and another post for the daily "Halloweeny" movie. That's right, each day I chose one Halloween-type horror film to watch and review.
My giving the Halloween Countdown a miss this year arises not from any lack of desire on my part but simply because most of my blogging for the last two years + has been done right here at work where I have much more access to the internet. This also means that my postings on this blog might become a little less frequent than we're all used to. I'd still love to get online every day but, with things up in the air at this time, I just can't predict what success I'll have doing so. And as we all know, unless the Halloween Countdown is done every single day there really isn't a point to it.
So, having said that, I would encourage you to look over there on the right for last October's archives and you can re-experience the daily Halloween countdown. Hopefully, if you're as forgetful as I am, it'll all seem brand new to you anyway! Also I would urge you to go visit John Rozum's blog which, as usual, will be doing his own Halloween countdown; there you will also find on the first of October a listing of links to similar blogs doing their own Halloween Countdowns. But rest assured, while I may not be blogging every single day I will still be posting as frequently as I can. And yes, I'm not going to let Halloween go by in this blog without celebrating it. So chins up, me hearties. THE LAND OF CERPTS AND HONEY (as well as our sister weekly audio blog "BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA") will still go on strong. And. . .just between you and me. . .there might even be a third blog coming along somewhere on the horizon. If I can swing it. More on that later. But for now, thanks for reading.
MAN, I REALLY HATE 13 GHOSTS. Not the Dark Castle remake of a few years ago which I very much enjoy. I'm talking about the original 1960 William Castle film 13 GHOSTS. Whereas Castle's earlier HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL with Vincent Price I could (and do) watch over and over again, 13 GHOSTS is just painful to watch. Readers of this blog probably know that I don't usually like ripping movies apart; I always try to find the enjoyable aspects of every film. And, for the most part, any movie I'm going to talk about usually has SOME redeeming qualities or else why take up your time and mine discussing it at all. I'm no critic who gets his jollies ripping apart someone else's project; usually a project which many creators sweat blood in order to bring to fruition. But when it's bad, it's bad, folks! And as someone who holds the horror genre very dear, I cannot find much good to say about the squandered opportunity that is 13 GHOSTS. For some reason, Castle decided to instill the film with all the scares and atmosphere of a child's pantomime show of Puss 'N' Boots. There isn't a scary moment in the film, granted, but there also isn't an atmospheric or even mildly spooky moment either. There is no hokey but nevertheless very effective scare like the one when hag-like Leona Anderson, grimacing with white contact lenses, pops out of the dark to scare the willies outta the ingenue in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. And that's really a shame because 13 GHOSTS could've been just as much fun as HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Especially since the ghosts in THIS movie are apparently real; as opposed to the earlier film.
And speaking of those ghosts, they are even a pathetic, unfrightening lot. The ghost of a lion?!?!? Give me a break. A milk bottle floating across the kitchen with less technical prowess than an episode of BEWITCHED?!?! It almost seems like William Castle had a strange contempt for his audience which he never displayed in his other hokum. Never a great filmmaker, Castle nevertheless usually entertained; but here 13 GHOSTS has the slipshod feel of a movie which had to be made to fulfill contractual obligations. Although I don't think it was. All Castle's films also featured a gimmick (a la the paper skeleton flying out over the audience or theatre seats wired with buzzers) and here Castle provides the audience with special glasses which allow you to see the invisible ghosts on the screen. However, the movie is so uninteresting and the ghosts so unimpressive, one wonders why the audience would bother wanting to get a look at the apparitions. The movie's direction is simply a fatal flaw.
Another fatal flaw is the casting. Bland would be the word. Firstly I'd like to single out young Charles Herbert (who also appeared in THE FLY with Vincent Price) as the most likeable and interesting actor in the entire cast. And those of you who know my usual low opinion of child actors should find this statement extremely unusual -- and extremely telling in regards to the rest of the cast. The wonderful Margaret Hamilton (you know. . .the Wicked Witch of the West) is good, of course, in her Martha Mattox-like spooky housekeeper role but she is given very little to do. Rosemary DeCamp is likeable enough and capable in her role but I would say she is miscast. Martin Milner as the "nice boy lawyer who seems too nice" would've been fine casting if Milner hadn't telegraphed his character's ulterior motives so obviously. One suspects the director here of telling Milner to be less subtle because the actor plays it as delicately as a frying pan to the frontal lobe. And I've saved the worst for last. Donald Woods is simply unbearable to watch as the sappy father who inherits the spooky old mansion (which isn't spooky in the least -- the overlit set in fact looks like Ozzie Nelson should live there with brightly-painted walls and nary a cobweb to be seen). But back to Donald Woods; he was never much of an actor to begin with and he nearly torpedoed the otherwise quite good episode of BORIS KARLOFF'S THRILLER entitled "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper". But here, he manages to sink 13 GHOSTS! The actor would be more at home on MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD than here. Woods seems puzzled throughout the film; not because of the goings on inside the haunted house but because he has no idea how to play his part or even, probably, why he was cast in the film. We the audience wonder why as well. Woods strikes me as a more insipid version of Hugh Marlowe; who himself was always only Richard Carlson-lite! Woefully miscast, Woods frequently -- and I do mean frequently -- stares face to face with a supposedly-threatening ghost and registers no fright whatsoever. For such a milquetoast actor, you'd at least think he would show mild concern for his (and, more to the point, his FAMILY'S) safety. But Woods shows all the emotion of a man trying to get an egg stain out of his necktie. In fact, the entire cast (except for the otherwise forgettable daughter) never shows the slightest inkling of fear at these ghosts. Most normal folks would be running around peeling garlic and carving crosses by this point. Even little Haley Joel Osment had the good sense to load his bedroom tent with religious statuary!!! Woods stands around obviously thinking "What should I do now, Mr. Castle?". DeCamp shows annoyance at the homicidal ghosts as if they were a dog that tracked muddy pawprints across her nice kitchen floor. As a matter of fact, the entire movie plays more like a floor wax commercial than a horror movie. Very sad. And what a waste. 13 GHOSTS had the potential to be a fun, hokey ghost film in the vein of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. What the hell happened?!?!?!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"THERE ARE MORE THINGS IN PHILOSOPHY THAN ARE DREAMT OF IN HEAVEN AND EARTH." "WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU" was a short film made in 1968 by director Jonathan Miller for the TV series OMNIBUS. Thanks to the kind generosity of Weaverman over at FLEAPIT I now have the film to peruse. (READ HIS OWN REVIEW OF THE FILM BY CLICKING HERE). The film is based on one of the classic ghost tales of M.R. James and it's one hell of an oddball film; not what one might expect. Weaverman professes to have had the bejabbers scared out of him the first time he saw it but also feels a kind of letdown in it as well on subsequent viewings. I've only watched it once (but I shall soon watch it again); however I can honestly say I wasn't disappointed at all. In fact, I thought the film to be rather astonishing and ballsy in its determination NOT to be sensationalistic but instead to follow the quiet, almost methodical spinning out of the ghost tale in exactly the same structure as many ghostly short stories on the printed page.
The two main areas where a viewer might have trouble will probably be at the beginning and the end. The film starts and goes on for quite some time without seemingly bothering itself about a plot. However, the plot is there and being subtly introduced -- I suspect a second viewing would make this even more clear. As for the end, it may seem by some to be kind of abrupt -- the major "ghostly happening" occurs and the film ends almost immediately. However, this is much the same structure that most classic ghost stories (and other horror short stories) follow; the story ends right as the major supernatural event has just occurred. In fact, a great many H.P. Lovecraft stories end right BEFORE the horror reveals itself.
The beginning of the film (after a short voiceover narration by Miller describing author M.R. James) finds our lead character Professor Parkins (a truly astounding performance by Sir Michael Hordern) arriving for a holiday in a rather desolate-looking, windswept and gray East Anglia (the B&W grainy photography of the film is a definite plus - it always looks distinctly chilly and windy throughout the film). The Professor is a dusty academic who seems desperately lonely on the one hand while also being utterly incapable of any normal social interaction with his fellow human beings. I simply can't think of another occasion when Hordern has been so completely watchable as he constantly mutters to himself, carrying on interior dialogue with himself, while absent-mindedly picking up stray words from the people who surround him without really comprehending what they're saying to him or what his proper response should be. Miller points out the Professor's loneliness by having him stay in a hotel room with two beds; underlining the fact that Parkins is by himself. The Professor in fact would much rather consult with his books or walk off along the dunes by himself than interact with other people; not because he wishes to be alone so much as that he doesn't know how to interact with other people. Hordern's performance is really remarkable in that he does not fall into the trap of making the Professor a dry academic caricature but instead breathes life into this eccentric antiquarian. A particularly sparkling moment occurs when Hordern grumbles to himself that he TOLD them he doesn't like tomatoes as he distastefully picks them out of his plate. Priceless acting all the way!
After seeing (at length) two chambermaids making up the beds in what will be the Professor's room, Parkins arrives at the hotel only to be greeted -- no, that's not the right word -- faced with a hotel manager who seems even less capable of social interaction than Parkins. The fellow mumbles so quietly and incoherently that one only catches about every 7th word. He's even more awkward around people than the Professor! This is just our first hint that odd things will occur during Parkins' stay. The scene where the man halfheartedly attempts to show the Professor his room is hilarious in its awkwardness; the hotel man obviously doesn't want to have to do it but somehow feels he must while the Professor wishes for nothing more than for the man to get the hell out and fidgets helplessly as the man interminably fusses and mutters. This scene is followed by an equally funny and awkward scene as Parkins goes down to the dining room for dinner only to find everyone has started without him. He takes his seat markedly separate from the other diners and sits there muttering to himself, obviously anxious to eat but worrying that the servants will never actually bring him any food since he's been late to table. While these scenes might seem to do nothing towards the furtherance of the plot, they indelibly map out Parkins' character which is so essential to what is about to happen to him. The Professor's intense discomfort around other people is conveyed beautifully as he stands in the hallway as another couple pass by. Hordern literally contorts and stretches his body AWAY from the people passing behind him until he's literally standing on the balls of his feet and leaning away from them -- almost resting his head on the wall in front of him. Now that's social anxiety, folks! It is precisely the characters inward-turned solitude that positions him for the ghostly happenings to come and why he is particularly susceptible to them.
This also, I think, shows how really gutsy Jonathan Miller was to keep the pace of the film slow and steady. Nothing is rushed but all unfolds in its own time. This lends a valuable quality to the feel and mood of the film so that the ghostly occurrences are actually startling. In fact, on one of the Professor perambles along the beach we almost don't notice at first the shadowed figure far behind him on the horizon -- until Hordern turns around himself and notices him. Whether this is meant to be the first appearance of the ghost or not isn't spelled out. However, the shot is held on the distant figure even after Hordern exits the frame. It is, in fact, just after Parkins discovers a wooden whistle in the partially eroded grave close to the beach that this figure first appears. I'd say it ain't just some old age pensioner going for a paddle, wouldn't you?!? When Parkins gets the whistle cleaned up he notices words in Latin carved on it. Translated it reads: "Who is this who is coming?" The Professor blows the whistle rather brazenly to find out. After he has blown the whistle, there has obviously been some change in him: his face registers puzzled apprehension. The scene immediately dissolved to that scene back at the beach with the distant figure -- but somehow the figure appears to be closer now. For the next several nights, Parkins has trouble sleeping. He spends much of his time sitting up in bed listening intently and, when he does sleep, is awakened by nightmares of being chased by an unseen figure. We hear marvelously unsettling sounds on the film's soundtrack at this point. Then, during a particularly vivid nightmare which visually reminded me greatly of Carl Dreyer's VAMPYR, we see the ghostly apparition and I can honestly say it's truly creepy and unsettling; it is literally a sheet (the most caricatured caricature of a ghost) bizarrely levitating in slow motion. Truly horrific when you see it! Once again, the marvelously cold B&W grainy photography and slow motion effects make the apparition indistinct and fluttery so you're not exactly sure what you're seeing. All you know is it look VERY unnatural and unsettling. The next day Parkins learns that the bed linen on his room's spare bed looks slept in -- SOMETHING has been in it. Obviously with the constant rustling noises, nightmares and overturned bedclothes, SOMETHING is indeed coming. Jonathan Miller's direction and Michael Hordern's acting vividly convey that sense that "something" is in the room with you, "something" is following me, "something" is just there in the corner of your eye, just beyond perception and only offering a fleeting glimpse. When it finally does arrive, the Professor is almost reduced to infancy momentarily from his mind-numbing fear.
WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU is another of those films which requires an attention span. In fact, that's probably the boldest thing about it -- even in 1968! It is positively daring in its subtlety. In that way, it greatly approximates the feel of an actual M.R. James short story; none of which are known for their pyrotechnics. WHISTLE is in fact one of those perfect "chill October night" viewings when the wind is blowing bare branches against your window pane. There's a chill running throughout the film and I like it. After all, isn't that what a good ghost story is supposed to give you? WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU isn't the best ghost movie by any means but it is daringly audacious and I think very successful in what it set out to do: offer up the genuine chill of a ghostly tale for all those who care to follow where it takes them. And I, for one, will never forget the appearance of that horrible, unnatural "thing" behind Michael Hordern in his nightmare on the beach!!!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

That face, that face, that wonderful face! It shines, it glows all over the place. And how I love to watch it change expressions. Each look becomes the pride of my possessions. I love that face, that face, it just isn't fair. You must forgive the way that I stare, But never will these eyes behold a sight that could replace That face, that face, that face. I love those eyes, those lips, that fabulous smile. She laughs and spring goes right out of style. Oh never will these eyes behold a sight that could replace That face, that face, that face, that face, that face, that face, that face.
Lyrics by Lew Spence and Alan Bergman
Music by Lew Spence

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ATTENTION GORE CREATURES!!! I wanted to make sure everyone reading this knows that the new online issue of MIDNIGHT MARQUEE magazine #76 is available to read and download on the internet! For those of you who don't know (AND FOR SHAAAAAAAME!), MIDNIGHT MARQUEE magazine is probably the oldest continually published monster movie magazine. At the age of 13 in 1963, Gary Svehla published his first amateur mimeographed issue of GORE CREATURES and he's been publishing it ever since. The name of the mag changed many years ago to MIDNIGHT MARQUEE but it has always featured the highest quality writing and demonstrated the sheer fun and love of the horror genre like no other! I've been reading only since 1988 but I've loved every issue. Sadly, Gary and his lovely wife Sue recently announced that, due to the outrageous cost of printing, MIDNIGHT MARQUEE magazine would no longer be published in a "hard copy" printed form. Luckily, the wonderful web enables Gary to continue publishing the mag online. That means you can now get MIDNIGHT MARQUEE for free to read or download online. Hell, he's even provided a printable version for those of us (like me) who like to read something concrete!
The new issue is up and I strongly urge everyone to run right over to MIDNIGHT MARQUEE and take a look at one of the greatest monster movie magazines ever published! If you click right here you will be whisked away to the site where you will find the regular readable mag as well as a printable version. Do not delay! The monsters are on the prowl!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

MOONFLEET (1955) is one of those movies I've been dying to see. Of course, it's not available in any form here in the States so I had to climb into my portable tesseract and rocket to the Netherlands in order to see it. I'm a huge fan of the original swashbuckling adventure novel by J. Meade Falkner and was well aware that the film version bears little relation to it. However, as I've often said ad nauseum I can't stand people who judge a film for what it's not instead of what it actually is. The book is the book and the movie is the movie. So how's the movie?
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. Granted, there were a few pangs while watching that I wasn't going to see events I loved in the book. However, once I got past that and watched what the movie was actually giving me, I found it to be an enjoyable bit of swash. The film is directed by the great Fritz Lang and produced by John Houseman; it stars Stewart Granger as upper crust smuggler Jeremy Fox. The novel itself is much in the TREASURE ISLAND mode and the main protagonist is a boy. Here, however, the film focuses as much (if not more) on the adult Stewart Granger character which leaves the child's role to suffer somewhat. Jon Whiteley as young John Mohune is satisfactory without bringing much in the way of personality to the part. And the film abounds with other great character actors: John Hoyt as a magistrate, Alan Napier as a pastor and Jack Elam and Skelton Knaggs as two piratical smugglers are welcome sights. Liliane Montevecchi of the Ballet de Paris as a gypsy dancer is almost a dead ringer for Jennifer Jones in DUEL IN THE SUN! And while their presence is very much appreciated, George Sanders and Joan Greenwood as a dissolute wealthy couple cutting in on the smuggling game are given too little to do.
The plot opens very much in the TREASURE ISLAND mode finding young John Mohune appearing under the night-clad street sign for the seaside town of Moonfleet. He has travelled there after the death of his mother who, in a letter, urged her son to go to Moonfleet and seek the protection of Jeremy Fox: a wealthy man who inhabits her former estate and seems to have had some sort of a past with her. The movie never really makes clear if we are to assume young John is Fox's son or not. It doesn't really matter. The opening sequence in the film is justly famous for being nicely bonechilling. In the dark of the town cemetery, the boy hears a noise and turns to be confronted by a startling statue of an angel with white, luminous eyes. Then suddenly a cadaverous hand is seen to reach up from behind a grave. With a scream, the boy runs and collapses in a faint. He is awoken to find himself staring up at a group of horrifying faces. Turns out, they're the local smugglers.
It also becomes clear that the cemetery is haunted by the ghost of Redbeard (an ancester of the boy's) who "carries off" unwary souls who venture into the graveyard at night. In this way, Redbeard's ghost is much like a Headless Horseman type of character. Redbeard had committed treason for the sake of a giant diamond of untold price and the old Mohune took the secret of the diamond's location to his grave. Through a series of events, young John places himself before the frankly disinterested Jeremy Fox to take him in. An attempt to send the boy off to boarding school fails and John returns to Moonfleet only to fall into an underground fissure beneath the graveyard. In a sequence actually taken from the book, young John finds himself in a subterranean tomb which the local smugglers have been using to store their booty. That's why the story of Redbeard's ghost was spread; to keep nosy people out of the cemetery so the smugglers can work unobserved. Sadly a quite effective scene from the book wasn't filmed. In the partially water-filled underground crypt casks of rum float about bumping into one another. The superstitious congregation of the church above, who already believe a vengeful ghost is snatching people in the cemetery, hears the sounds and believes that the dead are restless and moving about in the crypts below. It would've been a great scene had it been filmed. Ah well, anyway Redbeard's coffin accidentally crashes to the ground to reveal a locket around the skeleton's neck which young John grabs. Inside the locket is a paper with Bible quotations; oddly someone later tells John that the numbers of the Bible passages are incorrect. Naturally, this will play a huge part in the story to come. Suddenly the smugglers enter the underground tomb forcing John to hide himself in darkness in one of the coffin niches. Here he not only overhears the smugglers but discovers Jeremy Fox is their leader. In the book, the boy has to squeeze himself into the crypt niche between the earthen wall and a decaying corpse's badly-rotting coffin. Another chilling sequence not filmed for the movie; the niche is empty when John crawls up into it. However, since a big empty niche would surely not hide John from the smugglers' lamps and torches, it seems to me to be a mistake not to film the book's version. It surely wouldn't have added anything to the budget of the film to shoot the boy squeezing up next to a coffin but it would've upped the shudder quotient considerably; making a stronger film. The same goes for the floating barrels mistaken for moving corpses I mentioned earlier. A scene of the barrels floating and bumping into each other already exists in the film. All Lang would've needed was to shoot a scene of the congregation fearfully reacting (while the more sensible pastor chastized them for their silly fears) and have the people run from the church. Not a budget buster by any means but surely these two scenes would've improved the film greatly.
The movie continues on from their in fine swashbuckler fashion. One particular highlight is a bar fight between a foil-wielding Stewart Granger and a massive pike-wielding smugglers. The fight is particularly well staged (one of Fritz Lang's strong points). Lang also manages to cram his film with many MANY atmospheric and creepy visuals. The scary angel statue, the signpost for Moonfleet, the ruined, overgrown mansion formerly belonging to the boy's mother, the threatening statue of Redbeard inside the equally creepy church; all these and more testify to the talent of art directors Cedric Gibbons & Hans Peters and set designers Richard Pefferle & Edwin B. Willis. MOONFLEET is justly celebrated in France particularly for it's wonderful look provided by cinematographer Robert Planck and the Netherlands DVD I watched is absolutely beautiful! For some reason, the screen captures here look very dark and muddy but I assure you the DVD is bright and sumptuous in glorious cinemascope color! Walter Plunkett's costumes also deserve high praise. Then there's the appropriate crashing musical score by maestro Miklos Rosza; the opening theme a particular favourite of mine. Director Fritz Lang (a maestro himself as far as cinema goes) was dismissive of MOONFLEET; his attitude possibly deriving from his apparent difficulties working with his producer John Houseman as well as his difficult star Stewart Granger with whom he didn't get along at all! There is also the controversy over the studio-imposed final scene; a scene which Lang intensely disliked and shot only after Houseman promised him it would not be used. It was. However, with all due respect to Lang, I don't feel the final scene detracts from the picture in any way. I don't believe it alters anything that has gone before nor do I feel it is a typical "Hollywood happy ending" imposed on the more downbeat end Lang prepared. Lang's original ending is still in the film intact; it's just that another short scene is added after it. I won't spoil anything here but, if you happen to see the film, I believe you'll see what I mean.
While not as good as it could have been (and I do feel the French overpraise the film), MOONFLEET nonetheless is a solid swashbuckling/smuggling kid's adventure story. While I would recommend the novel without any hesitation (and would urge anyone who enjoyed TREASURE ISLAND to run, don't walk, to get yourself a copy of Falkner's novel), I would also recommend MOONFLEET the movie as a pleasant, though flawed, adventure film. I would also remind you to check out the Project Gutenberg website (the link is over there on the right hand side of the column) where you will find the entire J. Meade Falkner novel available for free download! Besides that, and even though the cable channel has no plans on airing MOONFLEET in the foreseeable future, one can look at the handsome movie trailer for the film on TCM.com. That will at least give you a taste of what is criminally unavailable in this country on DVD.

Monday, September 01, 2008

IT SEEMS LIKE ALL THE RAGE TO KNOCK THE SIXTH SENSE AS OVER-RATED. This is understandable owing to the extreme lauditory laurels that critics and filmgoers lavished on the film at the time. I saw the film in the theatre on it's initial release in 1999 and then a year or less later when it came on HBO or some such. I admit to being of much the same mind on my second viewing; it's good but not as great as everybody is yelling about. Of course, by that time everyone had stopped yelling. After all, my own opinion as well as conventional wisdom went, after you know the "twist ending" there's really no way you can sit through it again. Granted, the "twist ending" was terrific; and I don't really believe half of the people who swear they guessed it at the beginning of the film are being entirely truthful. I will admit that I guessed it but only about 5 or 10 minutes before the reveal. And this didn't detract from my finishing the movie. But as I said, was there really a point in sitting through the movie again after knowing it? Subsequently, I saw Shyamalan's follow-up UNBREAKABLE which I also quite liked. That's as far as I went; I haven't seen any more of his films and, from the vehement lambasting I've read about them I was never in any hurray to correct that oversight and the opportunity to see any of them hasn't come up.
So, yesterday on one of the umpteen pay channels I get on digital cable which I rarely if ever watch, THE SIXTH SENSE was playing. And after the better part of a decade, I thought I would watch it. After all, I 've seen it before and I can easily turn it off if it gets to be too heavy-going. Imagine my surprise when I found that the movie holds up quite well; much better than I remembered from my last HBO viewing many years ago. In fact, I would urge everyone who hasn't seen it for many years to give it a try. But the way to watch it is not with the thought in your mind that "I know the twist ending"; what movie could hope to still be enjoyable when the viewer goes in with that thought in mind. It may come as some surprise (it did to me) that the "twist ending" doesn't matter in the slightest and, in a funny way, is not the point of the movie upon repeat viewings. The point of the movie rather is the interrelationships between the characters, some damn fine dialogue and deft, intriguing and inventive directing. Then there's the cast: Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment are superb and, yes, even Bruce Willis is about the best you're ever likely to see him. Collette and Osment as mother and son really are remarkable and the scene between them in the car when Cole tells his mother that the dead grandmother says hi actually choked me up. I love a movie that can make me cry and this scene did it for me. The pacing and emotional build of the picture is expertly handled so that we really feel what these people are going through. In fact, I now view the "ghost" elements of the film as incidental to the film. In a funny way, I was reminded of Val Lewton's similar "CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE" in that both deal with the world and emotional conflicts of a child and his/her family while a "horror genre" subplot may or may not be going on to cause it. I was also reminded of the recently discussed "THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE" on Weaverman's FLEAPIT OF THE MIND blog in which the children's story and conflicts in the orphanage are the real reason to see that movie and the "ghost" angle is merely an appendage to it. However, I do think the "ghost" sequences in THE SIXTH SENSE work much better than those in THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (released a mere 2 years after THE SIXTH SENSE). It's just that now I realize the ghosts are not there to scare anybody; they are in fact characters in the movie too and should be looked at that way. So yes, my estimation of THE SIXTH SENSE has considerably risen with this latest re-viewing. It's the people, the acting, the direction and the writing which is well worth spending time with and will still remain rewarding long after the so-called "surprise" is known.