Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

THE INAUGURAL RELEASE FROM NEW RECORD LABEL "SACRISTAN RECORDS" IS A WINNER! The two-cd compilation "MOVE IT!: BRITISH POPULAR MUSIC 1954-1964" has just been released and it is a treasure trove of classic platters from the early years of British rock & roll. This compilation is invaluable to those of us in the colonies who have frankly never had a chance to hear most (if not all) of these singles. While named after Cliff Richard's hit song "Move It!" (sorta the big bang in British rock & roll records), Sir Cliff's song does not appear on the compilation. However, we are treated to a version by Chris Andrews to open volume one. This song is followed by Paul McCartney favourite "Twenty Flight Rock" here performed by Vince Taylor and later on the cd performed by Cliff Richard and the Shadows! There are cover versions of such song's as Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" (performed by Dickie Pride, The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" (performed by Duffy Power and the Graham Bond Organisation), Louis Armstrong's biblical tune "Shadrack" (performed by Glen Mason) and The Isley's Brothers' "Shout" (performed by Lulu). Standout original tracks include a quartet of songs by The Vernon Girls, Clinton Ford's "Fanlight Fanny" and Dennis Lotis' "Sugaree".
Volume Two opens with the quirky Wee Willie Harris singing "Rocking Chair on the Moon" followed by Shane Fenton and the Fentones' "Walk Away" and a quartet of Joe Brown, Billy Fury, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran singing "My Babe". The famous Tony Sheridan with the Beatles sessions are represented by the ubiquitous "My Bonnie" as well as a cover of "Nobody's Child". The Silver Beatles can be heard rocking "Love of the Loved" while The Quarrymen record "In Spite of All the Danger" b/w the Buddy Holly cover "That'll Be the Day" featured on the 90's Beatles Anthology documentary series is also included. A cover version of the Beatles' "Yesterday" (performed in a bolero fashion by Alma Cogan) stands side by side with boffo original tracks such as Dave King's "Bing Crosbyesque" "You Can't Be True To Two" and Tommy Steele's "Knee Deep in the Blues" and "A Little Bitty Tear" by Miki and Griff. Liberally scattered throughout the disc are appearances by Adam Faith, Shirley Bassey, Helen Shapiro and Anthony Newley.
If you are lucky enough to have a neighbourhood record shop which carries this new Sacristan Records release, comb your ducktail and motor on down to pick up a copy! I predict this terrific 2 cd set indicates many great things to come from further Sacristan releases in the future. Long may they spin!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT, MISTER! MR. SARDONICUS, THAT IS. William Castle's 1961 film based on the Ray Russell short story "Sardonicus" is a quiet, quiet film as far as the usual William Castle barnstormer goes. Sure there are suggestions of ghouls eating the flesh of corpses but that never really pans out and there are only really one or two so-called "shock" scenes which, even by 1961 standards were remarkably tame: a maidservant's face covered with leeches, one or two shock cuts of Mr. Sardonicus' gruesome face and the camera-filling spectacle of a dessicated corpse. However, for all the tameness and subdued nature of the film, it's still just barely watchable.
I happen to have been one of those persons who actual read the original Ray Russell short story BEFORE having seen William Castle's film adaptation and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I can reveal that the film is not a patch on the short story. The movie actually plays out more like an episode of Boris Karloff's TV show THRILLER which was running on television at the same time the 1961 film was released. In fact, MR. SARDONICUS' lead actor Guy Rolfe appeared in a much more effective and scary episode of Thriller entitled "THE TERROR IN TEAKWOOD" almost concurrently. The incredibly sepulchral quality of Guy Rolfe, in fact, is the main reason to watch MR. SARDONICUS other than William Castle's whimsical on screen introduction to the film. The two "romantic leads" (Ronald Lewis and Audrey Dalton) are quite bland and unremarkable but Rolfe and his brutish one-eyed manservant Krull (played with Lugosi-like relish by Oskar Homolka) keep things bubbling along with interest. Oh, incidentally Krull has had his eye gouged out by Mr. Sardonicus for disobeying him. Once.
Robert Lewis (also seen in Peter Ustinov's fine film BILLY BUDD) plays a doctor much in the same mold as Henry Daniell in Val Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER; he in fact is seen in the opening segment miraculously doctoring a paralysed young girl into moving her leg. Lewis' character has recently been knighted for his work in the medical field. He receives a letter from his old flame Audrey Dalton (in fact a veteran of three rather good THRILLER episodes: "The Hollow Watcher", "Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook" and "The Prediction" who was prevented from marrying Lewis because her father said he would never amount to anything. The now-knighted doctor reads the now Baroness Sardonicus' lettre pleading with him to come at once. He arrives in the central European country of Goslava where the film promptly morphs from THE BODY SNATCHER to DRACULA. The local official blanches at the mention of Dracula . . . er, I mean Sardonicus' name and insists that the doctor not go there! Krull arrives with a carriage to take the doctor to Castle Dra. . . er, Castle Sardonicus and it travels through a similar studio-created blasted landscape enshrouded in fog which would've looked perfectly at home in any film adaptation of DRACULA you'd care to mention. The doctor arrives to hear a woman moaning in despair and breaks in to find her tied up with multitudes of leeches attached to her face. It seems the folks at Castle Sardonicus like to experiment with human "guinea pigs" as Krull so bemusedly explains. The doctor is reunited with his old love Baroness Sardonicus but the Baron doesn't make his appearance for a little while longer. When he does, however, his face is shrouded in a blank mask (I suppose the film has now gone from THE BODY SNATCHER to DRACULA to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at this point). There is also a forbidden locked room which no one but the Baron is allowed to enter (shades of every "old dark house" movie you've ever seen) behind which comes hideous slurping sounds. Also, at one point Sardonicus is called away from the dinner table to inspect a bevy of buxom beauties Krull has gathered from the local village. The Baron chooses one of them and sends the others away. The implication of which seems to be that Sardonicus does something horribly monstrous to the girl such as murdering her and eating her flesh like the ghoul he has been implied to be. That would make the movie veer from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to COUNTESS DRACULA territory. However, this is never even remotely stated in the film and whatever happened to the girl (or any other girls the Baron has brought to his castle in the past) is never explained. For all we know, the Baron and his beauty engaged in nothing more than a night of adulterous whoopee!
Eventually Sardonicus explains his backstory. He was once a poor peasant whose father had been buried with a winning lottery ticket in his waistcoat pocket (the closed captioning of which constantly spells the item of clothing as a "weskit" -- is the whole world mind-numbingly illiterate?!?!?!!!!). Out of poverty and desperation, the poor guy digs up his father's grave but the sight of his decomposed father with a rictus grin somehow causes his own face to twist into a ghoulish permanent grin -- hence the wearing of the mask. Sardonicus pleads with Sir Robert to cure him. And if he don't, he's a-gonna slice up his wife's face to match his so she will no longer bar him from her bedchamber. Events follow along their (ab)normal course and, as I've said, there's really not a lot that happens throughout the film. It does, however, feature the rather nicely cold and merciless "thumbs down" ending where Sardonicus gets his just desserts. Pun intended. Before this ending, Castle famously appeared on screen again with his gimmick "thumbs up" or "thumbs down' card so the audience could vote on whether or not Sardonicus should be punished for his crimes. Although the only crimes we have witnessed the Baron perpetrate are the brief tying up of his wife and threatening her with slicing her face -- which he in fact never does. Oh, well, of course, there WAS that whole "gouging out Krull's eye" incident but that we never see either. Incidentally, contrary to popular legend Castle only ever shot and released the one ending; there was never any chance of a "happy ending" for Sardonicus being shown since it never existed. Admittedly, there's nothing quite like the spectacle of seeing William Castle on the screen counting the audience votes, telling a small boy to sit down so he can count the people behind him, etc. etc. Totally ridiculous and a lot of fun; that's what William Castle was known for and did best. So, while I can't really justify recommending this film to anyone . . . if you've got an hour and a half with nothing to do you could do worse. MR. SARDONICUS is a mildly entertaining (if quiet) movie and after all, it's much better than a poke in the eye.
Oh, sorry Krull. . .

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

OK, SO WHAT SONG AM I OBSESSING ABOUT NOW?!? Well, once again there's one particular song which I keep listening to over and over again, hitting the repeat button. So, I thought I'd subject YOU to it. This time it's Frank Sinatra (and I'm not a huge fan) ring-a-ding-dinging it up with "IT'S NICE TO GO TRAV'LING" from 1957. So make the pizza. . . .get my slippers. . . . And while we're thinking about it, head on over to our sister blog BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA where we have that as-promised 1959 stereo LP that celebrates Halloweenie horror at the height of the late 50's horror boom.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

IT'S BEEN SO DAMN LONG SINCE I'VE POSTED ANYTHING ON MY AUDIO BLOG THAT I THOUGHT THE OCCASION OF FINALLY POSTING SOMETHING CALLED FOR A PARTY. A Monster Party, of course. So put on your party hat and head on over to BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA to hear some merry monsters partying hearty.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

GREAT NEWS FOR MOVIE FANS!!! MGM/UA has just announced the upcoming release of a DVD box set of 6 films by the legendary director Max Castle! The famed director who assisted on the original CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI as well as some rumoured assisting on CITIZEN KANE started his career in German silent films before emigrating to the US and constantly bumping up against the studio system before his mysterious disappearance in the year 1941. Castle's body of filmwork has never been available on DVD before so this upcoming release by MGM/UA (holder of the rights to Castle's 1926 epic THE MARTYR) is particularly thrilling. The Max Castle films announced as being in the DVD set include: DIE TRAUMENDE AUGEN (THE DREAMING EYES) (1920), SIMON THE MAGICIAN (1923), THE MARTYR (1926) -- in the edited version only since unfortunately the full director's footage was destroyed by Castle in a fit of pique when MGM recut his picture -- , GHOUL OF LIMEHOUSE (1922), JUDAS EVERYMAN (1925) and FEAST OF THE UNDEAD. Film fans have been waiting a LONG time to see these films but we'll all still have to wait until the DVD box set is released next April 31.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

JUST IN TIME FOR HALLOWEEN, THE NEW DVD RELEASE OF "KARLOFF AND LUGOSI HORROR CLASSICS" is actually a lot more exciting than I first expected. Admittedly, I was only interested in two of the four films herein: THE WALKING DEAD (which I had seen previously) and FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (which I had never seen). YOU'LL FIND OUT is a film I had seen about 20 years ago which I remember had left me unimpressed while ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY I had never seen and didn't particularly want to; equating it with films like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA. Truth be told, even THE WALKING DEAD (which I had seen in the dim recesses of my past) hadn't particularly thrilled me at the time either. Which is all prologue to my anouncement that all 4 films proved to be thoroughly enjoyable . . . for varying reasons.
The first film in the pack, THE WALKING DEAD (1936) is a strange Warner Bros. amalgam of their bread-and-butter gangster movies crossed with medico horror and a liberal dose of religious fervor. For all that, the film manages to work very well. Future CASABLANCA director Michael Curtiz (who also helmed the early horror classics DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM) manages to do an awful lot with a fairly routine movie treatment. And King Karloff provides one of his greatest, most touching performances of his career. Karloff plays Elman, a convict just released from prison who becomes the patsy of a group of respectable gangster who frame him for the murder of a judge. A young couple (Walter Hull and Marguerite Churchill) can prove Elman didn't commit the murder but the gangsters put the scare on them so badly that they don't come forward as witnesses. Elman is found guilty and is sent to the electric chair. An 11th hour change of heart finds the couple attempting to stop the execution but it comes too late and Boris gets the juice. The lovebirds' scientist boss Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) decides to attempt to bring Elman back to life -- and succeeds! Elman, however, now has a shock of white hair, a twisted body frame and a sepulchral demeanor; he also takes on something of the air of an avenging angel. The revivified Elman confronts all those who framed him. However, he doesn't kill them but they manage to kill themselves due to the overwhelming guilt caused by Elman's steadfast gaze. One hood stumbles and accidentally shoots himself, one falls in front of an oncoming train and one has a heartattack and falls out a window. The last two gangsters riddle Elman with bullets as he solemnly wanders about is a rainy graveyard but then crash their car into electrical poles: electrocuting themselves in a nice turn of poetic justice. Dr. Beaumont pleads with the once again dying Elman to reveal what he experienced on "the other side" but the poor fellow dies before revealing anything other than the fact that "the Lord our God is a jealous God".
As noted, Karloff's performance as the put-upon Elman is a wonder of understated pathos combined with a steely resolution when confronting his tormentors. Once brought back from the dead, Karloff shuffles somnambulantly with half-shut eyelids and a contorted body. The only thing that brings a semblance of joy to Elman is his beloved music. Probably the most famous scene from the film is when Elman gives a piano recital to which the sly old Dr. Beaumont has invited all the gangsters who framed the poor sod. While playing, Karloff fixes his gaze on each of the crooks in turn and they visibly wilt and end up fleeing the room. Former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez (from the 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON) leads the collection of crooks with what Greg Mank terms a "shark-like grin" throughout most of the picture. Edmund Gwenn as the kind but driven scientist is very good while Marguerite Churchill really excels in her role; she brings a real tenderness and sense of caring to the part which isn't in the script and she is extremely likeable. THE WALKING DEAD is technically the best film in the DVD set.
The second film in the set is the much-lambasted FRANKENSTEIN 1970 from 1958. It must be said that, during the 50's, Boris was . . . shall we say less than judicious in the choice of his movie roles. FRANKENSTEIN 1970 was a typical Allied Artists production made in 8 days on a shoestring and deserves much (But Not ALL) of the abuse that has been hurled at it over the years. The plot (such as it is) concerns Dr. Victor von Frankenstein (Karloff of course) who has been maimed by the Nazis and, in order to raise money for his atomic monster-creating endeavors, allows a US TV production company to shoot a movie inside his ancestral castle. Throughout the rather silly proceedings, Karloff's half-completed and blind monster bumps off members of the production team to provide parts for the creature's upkeep and improvement. There's really not much else to it. The general consensus has usually been that Karloff walks through the part and overacts shamelessly; of course, the fact that both these activities are mutually exclusive never seems to occur to anybody. One cannot really walk through a part and, at the same time, chew up the scenery with gusto. I do not think Boris walks through the part but there is something to be said for the over-the-top angle. However, a movie like this needs all the help it can get and I think Karloff's possible overacting can only be a blessing as far as FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is concerned. And that's what makes this movie surprisingly watchable. It is not NEARLY as bad as it's been accused of being; in fact, it's MUCH more entertaining that those other Karloff 50's clunkers THE STRANGE DOOR and THE BLACK CASTLE. I'll take FRANKENSTEIN 1970 any day over those two! The rest of the entire cast is pretty bland and unremarkable so watching Karloff is all a viewer has to hold on to. However, the new DVD release offers a very fun commentary track for the film featuring FRANKENSTEIN 1970 co-star Charlotte Austin chitchatting amicably with horror buff/gorilla man Bob Burns (referred to by Tom Weaver in the commentary as "the heart of horror fandom") and horror historian Tom Weaver (who refers to himself as "the liver and spleen of horror fandom"). All three are having a great time talking about this unloved but fun film and the commentary track is not to be missed.
The third film is the 1940 "musical mystery" YOU'LL FIND OUT which is a star vehicle (not the first) for swing band leader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge (complete with Ish Kabbibble). Oh yeah, also amongst the antics we find Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre skulking for all they're worth. For some reason or other, Kay Kyser and his band end up along with Helen Parrish and her boyfriend Dennis O'Keefe inside her dotty aunt's spooky old mansion when the bridge (the only means to and from the house) blows up and they are all trapped. Also in the house if kindly old Judge Karloff, shifty seance swami Lugosi and debunking Professor Lorre. There's a plan to murder Helen Parrish for some money and etc. etc. etc. You know the drill. I probably saw this movie in the mid-80's on AMC and I didn't like it at the time. However, I must have mellowed in my old age since I found all the silliness rather enjoyable this go 'round. It is all one big dopey "old dark house" cliche punctuated with several swing tunes by the band but its all kinda fun actually. And the three horror greats seem to be having fun as well; giving it their all in the shifty, sneaky and sinister departments. An empty bit of harmless fluff.
The fourth movie in the set is ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY from 1945 and I was shocked to discover that it's something of a comedy sequel to Val Lewton's RKO classic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. It all takes place on the same island (San Sebastian) and the cast includes Lewton alumni Darby Jones (once again as a frightening zombie) and Sir Lancelot (once again as the calypso-singing guitar-strummer). Bela Lugosi is shockingly only given about 10 minutes of screen time but still manages to steal the picture; his performance as the zombie-making Dr. Renault is vigorous and laden with a little bit of comic timing as well! The nominal "stars" of the film are poor man's Abbott & Costello rejects Wally Brown and Alan Carney who RKO wasted several features trying to make into a comedy team. They're not. In fact, their final "comic" pairing was in GENIUS AT WORK with Lionel Atwill and, again, Bela Lugosi. Perennial gangster Sheldon Leonard plays -- you guessed it -- a gangster who is going straight and planning to open a nightclub called "The Zombie Hut". Brown & Carney are a pair of publicity agents who make the mistake of promising a REAL zombie at the club's opening night. Gangster Leonard "compels" the two idiots to head to San Sebastian to pick up a real zombie -- OR ELSE!!!! While on the island, the bumpkins encounter the aforementioned Bela Lugosi as well as the actual zombie Darby Jones. Various quite predictable hijinx ensue. While ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY is no comedy classic (in fact, it's RARELY even remotely funny), it does somehow manage to be watchable. The unfunny Brown & Carney manage to keep just under the line where they would become gratingly annoying. Lugosi, in fact, has the only comic timing in the film and manages one or two sly little line readings. Director Gordon Douglas (later to direct the classic 1954 giant ant movie THEM!) keeps things thundering along nicely and manages to do what ALL directors of "horror comedies" should do: he presents the truly frightening monster role of Darby Jones' zombie SERIOUSLY and doesn't poke fun at or belittle the character. Just like ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the comedy is played for comedy but the monsters play it straight. That is THE ONLY comparision with A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN you can legitimately make with ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY. An even emptier bit of fluff but still watchable and somewhat fun.

Monday, October 05, 2009

THE LADY IN THE WATER BY M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN IS A MOVIE WHICH HAS HAD IT'S FAIR SHARE OF BRICKBATS HURLED AT IT. Except of course for Weaverman's interesting review of it here. That was back in January 0f 2008 when I commented how the only two films of the director's I had ever seen were THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE; both of which I enjoyed. In a totally unexpected instance of synchronicity, I happened to stumble across it playing on HBO just as it was about to begin. So now I've finally had the chance to watch it for myself. Having only seen the two films, I admitted to not yet being fully qualified to comment on the director's body of work but Weaverman has gone on record as being a fan of all the director's films. And good for him for bucking the trend of Shyamalan-bashers. Having now seen THE LADY IN THE WATER, I'm afraid I have to come right out and say this: it was actually a terrific film. I think the common failing of most critics and movie viewers is judging a film for what it ISN'T instead of looking at it for what it IS. THE LADY IN THE WATER is NOT a horror film and it does NOT have a so-called "twist ending" which Shyamalan has the reputation for doing (which is actually not true). Like Weaverman, I'm quite at a loss as to what THE LADY IN THE WATER actually is; other than an immensely watchable, absorbing and original film that you're not going to see anybody else make anytime soon. And that is also a reason to appreciate it -- because it's not the same old predictable Hollywood assembly line borefest. And for that, at least, I'm grateful; whether or not it's a great film. But in my humble, it IS a very good, enjoyable movie experience which, I suspect, will reward further viewings.
As any nimnol on imdb can tell you, THE LADY IN THE WATER is the story of an apartment landlord who one day happens to encounter a water nymph in the building's swimming pool. Mr. Heep (Paul Giamatti) slips and clunks his head on the concrete and falls into the pool; the water nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) saves him from drowning. Unfortunately, she's stuck in "this" world unable to return to her blue world until certain actions are taken, certain characters are assembled and a certain ferocious wolfish hyena-like creature is thwarted from preventing Story from returning via a great giant eagle. Now, if this all sounds a bit like a fairy tale, that's because it is. In fact, Paul Giamatti's character only becomes aware of it when a Korean woman in his building tells him the "bedtime story" concerning the narfs (water nymphs) and the scrunts (wolf/hyena creature). It is probably a sad commentary on our current culture that the film died a quick critical and box office death because no one could see the movie for what it was and instead condemned it for what it wasn't. Everybody apparently expects every Shyamalan movie to be THE SIXTH SENSE but THE LADY IN THE WATER isn't THE SIXTH SENSE. That's kinda why it has a different title.
Maybe if Harry Potter had been in the movie it would've been a hit. Suffice it to say that the movie doesn't immediately declare itself as a fantasy fairy tale but instead starts realistically. That is, the director didn't dumb down the movie but instead let the viewer slowly come to the realisation on their own -- which is frankly what Shyamalan seems to do in all his movies. He doesn't club you over the head with obvious "this is a horror movie" or "this is a fairy tale" tropes which allow the viewer with no attention span to get an easy handle on what they're going to see. Shyamalan seems to believe in the old theory that a movie is a collaborative effort between the filmmaker and the audience; he doesn't want us to sit by passively slack-jawed with our popcorn buckets but instead he wants us to actually PAY ATTENTION and engage our minds and imaginations in the images he's placed up there on the screen.
Apart from the obvious "bedtime story" aspects of the film, THE LADY IN THE WATER also has many moments of humour, self-referential filmic tropes, suspenseful horror-film-type scenes and emotional tenderness. The vast amount of characters in the film are all nicely drawn and distinctive and, frankly, one wishes that the movie had been longer so one could get to see more of them. As in any fairy tale or myth telling, the events are never fully explained but need to be just accepted as occurring. Do we sit and wonder how exactly it is possible for Athena to be born out of Zeus' head?!? Of course not. We just accept it and get on with the tale. And as a "bedtime story", the film probably confused people by presenting "unrealistic" things as matter-of-factly occurring during the course of the movie. For instance, Paul Giamatti dives into the swimming pool, finds a grate at the bottom, removes it, swims into an sub-room that obviously was used by Story, looks through a collection of objects, finds a medicinal "clay" to help heal her, etc. etc. . . .all of which goes on MUCH too long for a chap to realistically hold his breath. This is probably the point where an unimaginative viewer would say "Oh come on" and switch off. And in a "realistic" movie, perhaps he would be correct to do so. But by this point it is crystal clear that this is no "realistic" movie but something like a myth or fairy tale and it would frankly be stupid to become hung up on something like that after already accepting that there is a blue world full of water nymphs who pop out of swimming pools! If you can't make that leap of the imagination, I truly weep for you.
THE LADY IN THE WATER was, I have to admit, a complete surprise to me. I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did. I've also recently seen THE HAPPENING which is not as good a film by any means. However, I will admit to having watched THE HAPPENING twice already, and I may even watch it again -- because I found it to be an extremely odd movie with something very "off" about it but I still can't figure out what. I was also intrigued by the very strange way Shyamalan directed THE HAPPENING; almost as if he wanted to forcibly take the viewer "out of" the movie every single time they were drawn into it. But that's a story for another time. Suffice it to say that THE LADY IN THE WATER is a much better film (in my humble) and I would recommend that anyone tired of the same old everyday Hollywood claptrap might want to give it a try. Go on . . . dip your big toe in. The water's fine.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

THE 1947 GOTHIC BARNSTORMER "UNCLE SILAS" BRINGS THE CLASSIC J. SHERIDAN LEFANU NOVEL TO THE SILVER SCREEN WITH A FULL QUOTIENT OF BLOOD AND THUNDER. Sheridan LeFanu, perhaps best known for his vampire novella "Carmilla", unleashed UNCLE SILAS on the world in 1865 and it's perhaps one of the primary examples of the gothic novel. While my favourite film version remains the late 80's TV movie "THE DARK ANGEL" starring Peter O'Toole, this 1947 version nearly matches it!
Our archetypal gothic heroine is 16 year old heiress Maud Ruthyn who resides in her rich father Austin Ruthyn's mansion. Austin has a ne'er-do-well brother named Silas who has led a sinful life and was at one time linked to a murder (which was declared a suicide because the corpse was found in a room locked from the inside). Silas exists in his crumbling gothic pile at Bartram-Haugh supported by his brother Austin's largesse while a huge portrait of her Uncle hanging over the fireplace has intrigued Maud all her life. Maud lives a carefree life until her father hires a French governess named Madame de la Rougierre. Maud's father believes the governess to be beyond reproach but Maud soon discovers the French woman to be sadistic, sinister and often drunk. After a good deal of time making Maud's life miserable, the governess is caught trying to rifle through Austin's private papers using a stolen key and she is promptly dismissed. Not long after, Austin Ruthyn suffers a fatal heart attack and Maud is given into the custody of her Uncle Silas until she reaches her maturity and inherits Austin's fortune. Maud is at first thrilled to finally meet her Uncle whom her father has always staunchly defended as misunderstood. However, as time goes by things appear to be a little "off" with Uncle Silas as little ominous clues start suggesting that her uncle might not have Maud's best interests at heart after all. Well, I mean come on! This is a gothic novel. You didn't REALLY think Uncle Silas was up to any good, now did you???
"UNCLE SILAS" is a truly beautiful-looking film by little-known director Charles Frank. In fact, the director himself is a mystery in himself. Frank only directed a couple films and then ceased all activity; he is often erroneously given more film credits which actually belong to ANOTHER director named Charles Frank. In William K. Everson's seminal book "More Classics of the Horror Film", the author reveals that he at first thought the name "Charles Frank" sounded like a pseudonym for another better known director. However, upon questioning other directors working for the J. Arthur Rank Organization at the same time (including Michael Powell), Everson was assured by all of them that Charles Frank WAS a real person, that was his real name and they all had no idea whatever became of him. This is all particularly intriguing since the direction of UNCLE SILAS is something of a tour de force showing a major talent who should have gone on to direct many classic films. The movie is packed with stylistic flourishes which remind me of another director who should have but never did go on to a long directorial career: Charles Laughton with NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. While thematically and stylistically different, both films evince a strong directorial vision as well as deft handling of individual style and a sure filmic eye. UNCLE SILAS spills over with eye-catching shots that threaten to dazzle the viewer with their beauty and construction; all of this in the service of the story which is deliriously gothic anyway. Much of this undoubtedly can be attributed to Director of Photography Robert Krasker who lensed a list of films including BRIEF ENCOUNTER, ODD MAN OUT, THE THIRD MAN, SENSO, EL CID, BILLY BUDD, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and THE COLLECTOR. You will go a long way before you find better black and white photography than that on display in UNCLE SILAS. The film is dripping with gothic mood and atmosphere. I think the only way this film could look any better is if Simon Marsden photographed it!!! There are also some delirious fever dream-like sequences which make use of montage, distorting mirrors, tilting camera and other surreal tricks quite common in mid-to-late 1940's movies ranging from MURDER, MY SWEET to SPELLBOUND.
The cast is headed by Jean Simmons (in her very first movie role) as Maud Ruthyn; the actress underplays quite realistically while the rest of the cast lets loose with full blood and thunder. . . which is only appropriate in a gothic thriller like this one. Derrick de Marney as Uncle Silas and Katina Paxinou as Madame de la Rougierre let it all hang out with full-blooded fruity performances just short of Tod Slaughter. In fact, Tod Slaughter would probably fit right in except there's no real role for him here. Paxinou (also seen in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and MR. ARKADIN) as the sinister governess is a master at facial expressions which allow a cold steel cruelty to show through slightly underneath a false pleasant demeanor. When alone with Maud, Madame lets much of her sunny pretense drop but when others are around she fakes sunshine and light. Paxinou's character is introduced in a particularly effective and frightening way: her wild face pressed up against a rain-streaked window and she truthfully looks like nothing if not the wicked witch of the west. Uncle Silas is portrayed by de Marney (also seen in THINGS TO COME) with fay flippancy alternating with serpentine menace. While these three performances are the ones to watch, the rest of the cast is filled out with very competent character actors. Reginald Tate as Austin Ruthyn portrayed Professor Quatermass in the 1953 BBC-TV serial "THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT". Silas' slimy attorney Sleigh is played by George Curzon who portrayed Sexton Blake several times including in "SEXTON BLAKE AND THE HOODED TERROR" co-starring Tod Slaughter. Maud's kind but ineffectual cousin Lady Monica is played by Sophie Stewart who also appeared with Tod Slaughter in the title role of "MARIA MARTEN OR MURDER IN THE RED BARN" as well as holding more genre credits in DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES and THINGS TO COME. Esmond Knight as Dr. Bryerly will be a familiar face to Powell and Pressburger fans from his appearances in A CANTERBURY TALE, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, etc. And also, in a small role as the brutish Sepulchre Hawkes, can be found Guy Rolfe: the aptly sepulchral-faced actor who would later star in the classic episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller "THE TERROR IN TEAKWOOD" as well as taking on the title role in William Castle's schlock-film MR. SARDONICUS.
Besides the superb look of the film, UNCLE SILAS also features wonderfully spooky soundwork which, I suppose, can be attributed to sound editor Kenneth Heeley-Ray. Once Maud takes up residence at the crumbling Bartram Haugh, there is almost a constant moaning wind and the mournful (and somehow threatening) sound of the clock tower bells striking each hour. There apparently is a U.S. version of the film entitled "THE INHERITANCE" which, by all reports should be avoided since approximately 6 minutes of very important stuff are cut out; however, the print I screened was entitled "UNCLE SILAS" so I'm hoping that this is in fact the original uncut British version of the film. As October begins and Halloween lingers over the horizon, I cannot think of a better film to get you into the Halloween spirit as the potent dose of gothic chills on offer in UNCLE SILAS.