31/08/2013

Night Of The Demon (1957)


"It's in the trees! It's coming!"

When Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), charged with investigating a suburban satanic cult, is found dead in mysterious circumstances, visiting American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) is asked to take his place. The very man Holden suspects of leading the devil worshippers, one Dr Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), seeks him out and cautions him against persevering. When Holden refuses to back down, Karswell presents him with a strip of parchment bearing an inscription written in ancient runes and warns Holden that he now only has three days left to live. Holden remains sceptical and teams up with his late predecessor's niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) to find out what this strange egg is really up to. You know Karswell's bad news: he's got a highly questionable goatee beard, he still lives with his mother (Athene Seyler), he enjoys dressing as a clown and his first name is Julian.


Night Of The Demon improbably shares its source material with Hideo Nakata's popular J-horror Ringu (1998): both are based on 'The Casting Of The Runes' (1911), one of the best-known ghost stories by late Victorian writer M.R. James. The idea of a death curse activated by an encounter with an ill-omened object is really all that unites them, although both boast a memorable monster. According to legend, the demon in this case was a famously divisive addition - scriptwriter Charles Bennett, director Jacques Tourner and star Andrews were all opposed to ever showing the beast on screen at all - but producer Hal E. Chester insisted otherwise and the result is actually a highly impressive, unearthly creation. Its appearances in a flash of blinding white light and eerie smoke at the beginning and end of the film are genuinely uncanny and, aside from its rather homemade looking eyeballs, it's a memorably snarling and unsettling apparition. Andrews is as reliable as ever in the lead as a rationalist whose denial of the possibility of the paranormal is severely tested by his experiences while the portly, balding MacGannis expertly incarnates the mundanity of evil. His end, stumbling desperately along a railway track after a windblown slip of parchment of his own, knowing full well that it's all too late and that the demon is finally coming to claim him too, provides a pleasingly savage climax but also stands as a poignant memento mori: won't we all, ultimately, end up this way, fighting hopelessly against the inevitable?


A pivotal early scene in Night Of The Demon, the first encounter between Holden and Karswell, takes place in the Reading Room of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I was lucky enough to be part of the audience seeing the film screened at that very venue this week, enjoying Tourneur's work projected in the open air as part of the BFI's money-spinning new Gothic season. The museum had hosted a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's restored silent masterpiece Blackmail (1929) last summer, another thriller in which that iconic building played an important role, and the museum once more made for an impressive and atmospheric setting, a chill wind disturbing the trees on Great Russell Street, the shadows of its pointed black railings tumbling like spears into the courtyard as the sun set, the Grecian pillars of the temple itself bathed in lurid scarlet lighting. Peggy Cummins, the star of this and Gun Crazy (1950), who dated Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy in her day, was also in attendance and seemed thrilled that the film was being re-evaluated in such auspicious environs. 

07/08/2013

You'll Never Get Rich (1941)


Fred Astaire left behind RKO, Ginger Rogers and his familiar Wodehousian wonderland (well, sort of) to sign up with Uncle Sam in this unlikely patriotic entertainment for wartime, which is best remembered for offering the world Rita Hayworth in her first starring role. Hayworth had grown up as a member of The Cansinos, a family Latin American dance ensemble, and her obvious experience and ease make her a fine partner for Astaire, a notorious perfectionist.

The picture itself still involves all the usual romantic entanglements, light farce and comic misunderstandings we expect from an Astaire outing, as well as some fine songs by Cole Porter, but the army only really serves as topical set dressing whose authoritarian rules and discipline Astaire cheerily makes fun of and ignores, only too happy to end up in the guardhouse for stealing a captain's jacket or accidentally pulling down a tent. The question of our man being dispatched to Europe or the Pacific is never once raised, of course. You'll Never Get Rich does, however, boast the astonishing sight of its stars dressed as a bride and groom dancing on top of a giant white tank for the amusement of the troops, which is worth the price of admission alone and the sort of oddity these wartime screwballs* tend to turn up. Its musical numbers are generally better integrated into the script than in some cases, typically being tied into rehearsal scenes, of which the following tap piece is unquestionably the neatest example.



Having said that, Fred freestyling solo out of his bunk (while smoking!) along to this mournful lament from African-American fiddle band the Four Tones is also quite something.



Ultimately, You'll Never Get Rich doesn't quite square up to the best of the Astaire-Rogers series and is rather flatly directed by Sidney Lanfield, but it's a lot of fun nonetheless. Hayworth is lovely and clearly enjoying herself and there's some amusing  character playing from Robert Benchley as a philandering theatre owner routinely outwitted by his agreeably jaded wife (Frieda Inescort) and from Donald MacBride as a terminally angry drill sergeant frustrated with Astaire's hyperactive feet during manoeuvres. Comic Cliff Nazarro also makes an impression as a fellow draftee with a curiously incomprehensible manner of speech.

*See also Preston Sturges' Hail The Conquering Hero (1944) and Howard Hawks' I Was A Male War Bride (1949).

01/08/2013

Doctor X (1932)


Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray proved a popular horror pairing in the early 1930's, enjoying a box office run with films such as Mystery Of The Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (both 1933). They first appeared together as father and daughter in this fairly ludicrous, pre-Code serial murderer caper from First National, directed by future great Michael Curtiz. Shot in two-colour Technicolor before the process was abandoned, the plot concerns the hunt for the "Moon Killer", a grotesque hooded cannibal whom the police trace to a New York medical academy run by one Doctor Xavier (Atwill)  following a series of grizzly waterfront murders. A scalpel used at the crime scenes appears to incriminate Xavier and his deeply sinister faculty, each professor creepier than the last and all working on sicko galvanic experiments, but the chief suspect protests his innocence and begs the cops for 48 hours to carry out his own investigation, which, unbelievably, they agree to. 


Doctor X is hamstrung by its silly premise and erratic tone, principally the fault of Lee Tracy as a hack reporter on the trail of a scoop and in love with Xavier's daughter Joan (Wray), whose wisecracking does much to puncture the tension. However, it is atmospheric in parts and pretty to look at, while the final reveal in which the killer slaps handfuls of "synthetic skin" all over his face so that he won't be recognised is genuinely horrid. His subsequent demise, burnt to death with a kerosene lantern and unceremoniously shoved through a window, calls to mind another homicidal burns victim from the horror pantheon: Freddy Kreuger. You can catch Doctor X in its entirety at Archive.org, although some confused individual has incorrectly billed it as The Return Of Doctor X (1939), an unrelated Warner Brothers oddity featuring Humphrey Bogart sporting a white streak through his hair in his only horror role. Look out here for Preston Sturges regular Robert Warwick as the Police Commissioner and Laurel and Hardy foil Mae Busch as a brothel madam.