February 19, 2008

Fox Horror Classics


Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Ratings (out of 5): Undying Monster ***; The Lodger ****; Hanover Square ****½

Erin reviews the trio of films that were part of Fox's newly released Horror Classics Collection.

It's a real shame that John Brahm is such a little-known name in film history that even when three of his finest films are given the super deluxe DVD treatment, the box set has to be generically named as "The Fox Horror Classics Collection". But film lovers have been long told to take it where they can get it so that will be the last complaint registered about this wonderful collection of once-lost gems. Brahm, a German emigree courtesy of Adolf Hitler, came to America in 1937 to apprentice for D.W. Griffith (and given the latter's world viewpoint, that must have felt to Brahm as only a marginal improvement). Before embarking on a 25-year television career, he used his pension for Expressionistic style filmmaking to create psychologically dark portraits emphasizing fear of the unknown and the terror created by a single twisted mind over actual physical danger. His films were typically with B-level budgets and scripts brought to an A-level with strong actors, haunting cinematography and dry wit.

Undying Monster ***

In The Undying Monster, a wealthy but cursed family is plagued by an ancestor believed to have sold his soul centuries ago to the devil (or so the legend goes). This monster now attacks people who wander the woods alone on moonlit nights. Creating the template for British crime procedurals for generations to come, a sardonic and weathered detective (James Ellison) agrees to help a brazen and skeptical heiress (played by cult icon Heather Angel) to get to the bottom of the curse while a twitchy, doomsayer butler warns them all of the grave, unspeakable things the curse has wrought.

The film effectively maintains an atmosphere of dread despite scenes with Victorian-era DNA testing and the sudden realization that the empty sarcophagus in the basement might be a clue. And under the claustrophobic lens of Lucien Ballard (The House on Telegraph Hill, The Wild Bunch), the family's sweeping mansion begins to feel like a gothic prison.

DVD extras include "Concerto Macabre: The Films of John Brahm," a 15-minute retrospective of director's work, trailer, advertising images and an overview of the box set's restoration process.

See also: The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Lodger ****

A re-make of Hitchcock's silent film by the same name, The Lodger is the first of Brahm's films to examine the Jack the Ripper mythology. But whereas Hitchcock's silent was a story about ostracization turning a good man into a monster, Brahm assures us in the opening scene that this man is mentally deranged and killing is an inevitable part of his nature. Laird Cregar (Heaven Can Wait, This Gun For Hire) , a looming giant with puppy dog eyes, was reportedly given carte blanche by Brahm to bring his own interpretation to the role, no doubt tapping into his own feelings well of anxieties and suppressed pleasure as a closeted gay man in the ultra-repressive early 1940s era of Hollywood. The ensuing effect is a Jack the Ripper story where the killer is reduced to murdering actresses after a woman of loose virtue "destroys" his brother (with syphilis) with who he had secretly been in love. Quite a shock, considering that the moral standards of the time didn't allow women to wear garter belts, lest impressionable young female viewers be driven to immediately prostitute themselves.

Brahm, once again joined by cinematographer Ballard, created truly brilliant imagery both darkly comic and deeply sinister. Fox Studios, being known at the time for their marquee musicals, encouraged Brahm to fill out the film's paltry runtime with a little razzmatazz; subsequently, this otherwise grisly tale plumes into full-length, high production value musical sequences on two separate occasions. The second ends in a breakneck chase scene in the labyrinth of theater's backstage.

The film may not be very most well-known in psychological horror genre but it was one of the first of its kind and was clearly an influence on now-classics like the Peeping Tom, Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, Taxi Driver and even, bizarrely enough, The Graduate.

The Lodger was met with such commercial and critical success that Fox immediately greenlit Hangover Square, a virtual re-make with the psychoses, sarcasm, sex and violence considerably amped up.

Generous dvd extras include commentary from two film historians, a 15-minute making of featurette, restoration comparison, a radio performance of The Lodger starring Vincent Price, trailer and advertisement gallery.

See also: The Spiral Staircase, Man in the Attic, Murder By Decree, From Hell.

Hangover Square ****½

Hangover Square marks Laird Cregar's final performance before his death by heart attack at age 28. In the film he plays George Harvey Bone, a composer desperately trying to complete his masterpiece concerto while under much duress from his harried agent (a dead ringer for Sigmund Freud) and the heiress socialite patronizing his arts. His chief obstacle to success though is the chronic rage blackouts triggered by discordant sounds (or "killing tones," if you will) that leave him frequently waking up distraught and covered in blood.

As with director Brahm's previous film The Lodger, Hangover Square briefly toys with the mythology of Jack the Ripper. Bone goes to his doctor begging to know if he could possibly be the killer but is assured that anyone he kills in a black out would definitely be someone he knows intimately. So each morning Bone and his friends pore over the newspapers to confirm that the Ripper's victims were all strangers to him. That solves that -- until he meets and becomes infatuated with a saucy bar hall singer played by the magnificent Linda Darnell (My Darling Clementine, Unfaithfully Yours, A Letter to Three Wives).

Bone's days quickly become consumed with composing drippy songs for Darnell's act in the vain hope she will have sex with him, if only he can make her famous enough. But when he discovers she has a boyfriend and has been stringing him along, he flees, worried that he will hear a triggering KILLING TONE before he can put enough distance between them. In the scenes that follow, a cat is stalked by a madman, a corpse is disposed of in a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire and a handsome, smooth-talking detective puts the screws to a crook lead him to a complete emotional breakdown. When Bone finally unveils his final masterpiece concerto (penned by the legendary film composer Edward Herrmann) it truly is a beautiful piece of music, rendering the final scene of this film utterly bizarre and unforgettable.

Hangover Square has been cited by Stephen Sondheim as his chief inspiration for writing the murder musical Sweeney Todd. Cregar plays Bone as a sympathetically beleaguered but inherently unsettling character. His deteriorating mental state is heightened by Joseph LaShelle's (a regular Billy Wilder collaborator) ominous cinematography.

(Side note: Is Hangover Square screenwriter Barre Lyndon in any way related to the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon? Please let me know.)

Dvd extras include two commentary tracks by film critic Steve Haberman with film star Faye Marlowe and film historian Richard Schickel; a 20-minute overview of the life of Laird Cregar; Hangover Square vintage radio performance by Vincent Price; restoration comparison and advertisement gallery.

See also: Detour, Psycho, Murder My Sweet.

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Posted by cphillips at February 19, 2008 12:15 PM