Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Infernal Cakewalk (1903)

In keeping with the turn-of-the-century Francophone passion for the macabre, exemplified by the Grand-Guignol and Cabaret du Neant, Georges Méliès made the following short in 1903. The structure of the film is little more than the popular dance of the day - the Cakewalk - but in a Dantean environment. However, there are odd bits of subversion in it, such as when the Devil tricks his demons by posing as Jesus Christ. It maintains the irreverent and jovial tone of most of Méliès' films.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Cabarets du Ciel et de l'Enfer

A legendary case of rivalry in Montmarte during the fin de siècle was, perhaps, not entirely unexpected given the subject matter: Cabarets du Ciel et de l'Enfer. This pair of cabaret were more in the series of sideshow "trick" cabarets like the Cabaret du Neant, and like Neant, both were described once more by William Chambers Morrow in his 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day.

Presently we reached the gilded gates of Le Cabaret du Ciel. They were bathed in a cold blue light from above. Angels, gold-lined clouds, saints, sacred palms and plants, and other paraphernalia suggestive of the approach to St. Peter's domain, filled all the available space about the entree. A bold white placard, "Bock, I Franc," was displayed in the midst of it all. Dolorous church music sounded within, and the heavens were unrolled as a scroll in all their tinsel splendor as we entered to the bidding of an angel.

Flitting about the room were many more angels, all in white robes and with sandals on their feet, and all wearing gauzy wings swaying from their shoulder-blades and brass halos above their yellow wigs. These were the waiters, the garcons of heaven, ready to take orders for drinks. One of these, with the face of a heavy villain in a melodrama and a beard a week old, roared unmelodiously, "The greetings of heaven to thee, brothers! Eternal bliss and happiness are for thee. Mayst thou never swerve from its golden paths! Breathe thou its sacred purity and renovating exaltation. Prepare to meet thy great Creator and don't forget the garcon!"

A very long table covered with white extended the whole length of the chilly room, and seated at it, drinking, were scores of candidates for angelship, mortals like ourselves. Men and women were they, and though noisy and vivacious, they indulged in nothing like the abandon of the Boul' Mich' cafes. Gilded vases and candelabra, together with foamy bocks, somewhat relieved the dead whiteness of the table. The ceiling was an impressionistic rendering of blue sky, fleecy clouds, and golden stars, and the walls were made to represent the noble enclosure and golden gates of paradise.

"Brothers, your orders! Command me, thy servant!" growled a ferocious angel at our elbows, with his accent de la Villette, and his brass halo a trifle askew. Mr. Thompkins had been very quiet, for he was Wonder in the flesh, and perhaps there was some distress in his face, but there was courage also. The suddenness of the angel's assault visibly disconcerted him, he did not know what to order. Finally he decided on a verre de Chartreuse, green. Bishop and I ordered bocks.

"Two sparkling draughts of heaven's own brew and one star-dazzler!" yelled our angel. "Thy will be done," came the response from a hidden bar.

Obscured by great masses of clouds, through whose intervals shone golden stars, an organ continually rumbled sacred music, which had a depressing rather than a solemn effect, and even the draughts of heaven's own brew and the star-dazzler failed to dissipate the gloom.

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, the head of St. Peter, whiskers and all, appeared in a hole in the sky, and presently all of him emerged, even to his ponderous keys clanging at his girdle. He gazed solemnly down upon the crowd at the tables and thoughtfully scratched his left wing. From behind a dark cloud he brought forth a vessel of white crockery (which was not a wash-bowl) containing (ostensibly) holy water. After several mysterious signs and passes with his bony hands he generously sprinkled the sinners below with a brush dipped in the water; and then, with a parting blessing, he slowly faded into mist.

"Did you ever? Well, well, I declare!" exclaimed Mr. Thompkins, breathlessly.

The royal cortege of the kingdom of heaven was now forming at one end of the room before a shrine, whereon an immense golden pig sat sedately on his haunches, looking friendly and jovial, his loose skin and fat jowls hanging in folds. Lighted candles sputtered about his golden sides. As the participants in the pageant, all attaches of the place, formed for the procession, each bowed reverently and crossed himself before the huge porker. A small man, dressed in a loose black gown and black skull-cap, evidently made up for Dante, whom he resembled, officiated as master of ceremonies. He mounted a golden pulpit, and delivered, in a loud, rasping voice, a tedious discourse on heaven and allied things. He dwelt on the attractions of heaven as a perpetual summer resort, an unbroken round of pleasures in variety, where sweet strains of angelic music (indicating the wheezy organ), together with unlimited stores of heaven's own sparkling fire of life, at a franc a bock, and beautiful golden-haired cherubs, of la Villette's finest, lent grace and perfection to the scheme.

The parade then began its tour about the room, Dante, carrying a staff surmounted by a golden bull, serving as drum-major. Angel musicians, playing upon sacred lyres and harps, followed in his wake, but the dolorous organ made the more noise. Behind the lyre angels came a number of the notables whom Dante immortalized, at least, we judged that they were so intended. The angel garcons closed the cortege, their gauzy wings and brass halos bobbing in a stately fashion as they strode along.

The angel garcons now sauntered up and gave us each a ticket admitting us to the angel-room and the other delights of the inner heaven. "You arre Eengleesh?" he asked. "Yes? Ah, theece Eengleesh arre verra genereauz," eyeing his fifty-centime tip with a questioning shrug. "Can you not make me un franc? Ah, eet ees dam cold in theece laigs," pointing to his calves, which were encased in diaphanous pink tights. He got his franc.

Dante announced in his rasping voice that those mortals wishing to become angels should proceed up to the angel-room. All advanced and ascended the inclined passage-way leading into the blue. At the farther end of the passage sat old St. Peter, solemn and shivering, for it was draughty there among the clouds. He collected our tickets, gave the password admitting us to the inner precincts, and resented Bishop's attempts to pluck a feather from his wings. We entered a large room, all a glamour of gold and silver. The walls were studded with blazing nuggets, colored canvas rocks, and electric lights. We took seats on wooden benches fronting a cleft in the rocks, and waited.

Soon the chamber in which we sat became perfectly dark, the cleft before us shining with a dim bluish light. The cleft then came to life with a bevy of female angels floating through the limited ethereal space, and smiling down upon us mortals. One of the lady angel's tights bagged at the knees, and another's wings were not on straight; but this did not interfere with her flight, any more than did the stationary position of the wings of all. But it was all very easily and gracefully done, swooping down, soaring, and swinging in circles like so many great eagles. They seemed to discover something of unusual interest in Mr. Thompkins, for they singled him out to throw kisses at him. This made him blush and fidget, but a word from Bishop reassured him, it was only once in a lifetime!

After these angels had gyrated for some time, the head angel of the angel-room requested those who desired to become angels to step forward. A number responded, among them some of the naughty dancing-girls of the Moulin Rouge. They were conducted through a concealed door, and presently we beheld them soaring in the empyrean just as happy and serene as though they were used to being angels. It was a marvel to see wings so frail transport with so much ease a very stout young woman from the audience, and their being fully clothed did not seem to make any difference.

Mr. Thompkins had sat in a singularly contemplative mood after the real angels had quit torturing him, and surprised us beyond measure by promptly responding to a second call for those aspiring to angelhood. He disappeared with another batch from the Moulin Rouge, and soon afterwards we saw him floating like an airship. He even wore his hat. To his disgust and chagrin, however, one of the concert-hall angels persisted in flying in front of him and making violent love to him. This brought forth tumultuous applause and laughter, which completed Mr. Thompkins's misery. At this juncture the blue cleft became dark, the angel-room burst into light, and soon Mr. Thompkins rejoined us. As we filed out into the passage Father Time stood with long whiskers and scythe, greeted us with profound bows, and promised that his scythe would spare us for many happy years did we but drop sous into his hour-glass.

We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. Curiously enough, it adjoined heaven, whose cool blue lights contrasted strikingly with the fierce ruddiness of hell. Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. A placard announced that should the temperature of this inferno make one thirsty, innumerable bocks might be had at sixty-five centimes each. A little red imp guarded the throat of the monster into whose mouth we had walked; he was cutting extraordinary capers, and made a great show of stirring the fires. The red imp opened the imitation heavy metal door for our passage to the interior, crying, "Ah, ah, ah! still they come! Oh, how they will roast!" Then he looked keenly at Mr. Thompkins. It was interesting to note how that gentleman was always singled out by these shrewd students of humanity. This particular one added with great gusto, as he narrowly studied Mr Thompkins, "Hist! ye infernal whelps; stir well the coals and heat red the prods, for this is where we take our revenge on earthly saintliness!"

"Enter and be damned, the Evil One awaits you!" growled a chorus of rough voices as we hesitated before the scene confronting us. Near us was suspended a caldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from "Faust" on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.

Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smouldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns. Red imps were everywhere, darting about noiselessly, some carrying beverages for the thirsty lost souls, others stirring the fires or turning somersaults. Everything was in a high state of motion.

Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors. Mr. Thompkins seated himself at one of them. Instantly it became aglow with a mysterious light, which kept flaring up and disappearing in an erratic fashion; flames darted from the walls, fires crackled and roared. One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: "Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!" Then, when he had brought it, "This will season your intestines, and render them invulnerable, for a time at least, to the tortures of the melted iron that will be soon poured down your throats." The glasses glowed with a phosphorescent light. "Three francs seventy-five, please, not counting me. Make it four francs. Thank you well. Remember that though hell is hot, there are cold drinks if you want them."

Presently Satan himself strode into the cavern, gorgeous in his imperial robe of red, decked with blazing jewels, and brandishing a sword from which fire flashed. His black moustaches were waxed into sharp points, and turned rakishly upward above lips upon which a sneering grin appeared. Thus he leered at the new arrivals in his domain. His appearance lent new zest to the activity of the imps and musicians, and all cowered under his glance. Suddenly he burst into a shrieking laugh that gave one a creepy feeling. It rattled through the cavern with a startling effect as he strode up and down. It was a triumphant, cruel, merciless laugh. All at once he paused in front of a demure young Parisienne seated at a table with her escort, and, eying her keenly, broke into this speech: "Ah, you! Why do you tremble? How many men have you sent hither to damnation with those beautiful eyes, those rosy, tempting lips? Ah, for all that, you have found a sufficient hell on earth. But you," he added, turning fiercely upon her escort, "you will have the finest, the most exquisite tortures that await the damned. For what? For being a fool. It is folly more than crime that hell punishes, for crime is a disease and folly a sin. You fool! For thus hanging upon the witching glance and oily words of a woman you have filled all hell with fuel for your roasting. You will suffer such tortures as only the fool invites, such tortures only as are adequate to punish folly. Prepare for the inconceivable, the unimaginable, the things that even the king of hell dare not mention lest the whole structure of damnation totter and crumble to dust."

The man winced, and queer wrinkles came into the corners of his mouth. Then Satan happened to discover Mr. Thompkins, who shrank visibly under the scorching gaze. Satan made a low, mocking bow. "You do me great honor, sir," he declared, unctuously. "You may have been expecting to avoid me, but reflect upon that you would have missed! We have many notables here, and you will have charming society. They do not include pickpockets and thieves, nor any others of the weak, stunted, crippled, and halting. You will find that most of your companions are distinguished gentlemen of learning and ability, who, knowing their duty, failed to perform it. You will be in excellent company, sir," he concluded, with another low bow. Then, suddenly turning and sweeping the room with a gesture, he commanded, "To the hot room, all of you!" while he swung his sword, from which flashes of lightning trailed and thunder rumbled.

We were led to the end of a passage, where a red-hot iron door barred further progress. "Oh, oh, within there!" roared Satan. "Open the portal of the hot chamber, that these fresh arrivals may be introduced to the real temperature of hell!" After numerous signals and mysterious passes the door swung open, and we entered. It was not so very hot after all. The chamber resembled the other, except that a small stage occupied one end. A large green snake crawled out upon this, and suddenly it was transformed into a red devil with exceedingly long, thin legs, encased in tights that were ripped in places. He gave some wonderful contortion feats. A poor little white Pierrot came on and assisted the red devil in black art performances. By this time we discovered that in spite of the half-molten condition of the rock-walls, the room was disagreeably chilly. And that ended our experience in hell.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Vampyr (1932)

Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly, we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed, and the objects are as we conceieve them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.

Those words were written by Dutch Expressionist director Carl Theodor Dreyer to describe his masterpiece of genuine horror, Vampyr. Where modern films derive their horror from the physical revulsion of torture and gore, and even contemporaneous films by Universal Studios made all the images of Gothic horror their stock and trade, Dreyer charts genuinely eerie and disturbing courses that would only be picked up by such latter day directors as David Lynch and Guy Maddin.

In every sense, Vampyr is a moody piece of horror. As Dreyer says, his ambition was to affect those changes in attitude that come about by subtle and uneasy queues of death and the supernatural. He succeeds as few directors ever have. It will be stated now and again before this review is out: Vampyr constitutes, in the opinion of this reviewer, the finest horror film ever made.

The story begins with young occult scholar Allan Gray coming to a strange, out of the way, out of the norm, castle inn in the Courtempierre region of France. From the moment he arrives, Gray and the viewer notice that this is a very strange place indeed. Vampyr begins its lugubrious journey when a man walks into Gray's room in the middle of his first night, leaving no word of explanation but for a package to be opened on the event of his death. Over the following days, Gray becomes involved in the eldricht goings on, with freakish people, disembodied shades, murder, and perhaps even a vampire.

The greatest thing that commends Vampyr is the direction and camera trickery which conveys the story with an unyeilding and completely accurate sense of dream logic. The film is exactly like one of those creeping, uncomfortable dreams that are not quite a nightmare and which you know is a dream but from which you cannot force yourself to wake. The special effects themselves are flawless, which is astonishing considering the time in which the film was made. The largest part of it was a happy accident. In checking the dalies, Dreyer and his cameraman noticed a pinprick in the canister which caused the footage to take on a hazy, dream-like atmosphere. Rather than reshoot it, they opted to keep the pinprick for the remainder of the filming.

All stops were pulled out in an amazing and concerted episode in the first half, when Gray ambles about the inn in the middle of the night, seeing numerous goings on and disembodied shades. Without any indication of how the feat was accomplished, the shadow of a one-legged servant of the vampire hurries about the locale, climbs a ladder and seamlessly reunites with its human owner. Meanwhile, dancers and a band strike up a party, all shadows without substance. In the office of the villainous doctor (who bears a striking resemblance to Mark Twain), the skeletons of fetuses cast the shadows of ravens while skulls turn to leer in attention when the titular character walks in the room.

Here, Vampyr adopts the far more intriguing, though less popular, tradition of vampires. Since Bram Stoker and Universal Studios, the nature and power of vampires have become very clearly defined. This stock character type has become ever more popular as horror films devolve into action movies with monsters and teenage romances. Originally, in the earliest literature and legend, vampires did not possess a kind of ecology or natural history. Each one was a weird, foul nexus of supernatural activity centred around the affront to life, nature and Divinity that the mere existence of the vampire poses.

For his creature of the night, Dreyer chose this latter type. A casual viewer might even be forgiven for not being clear on whether or not the aged woman named Margurite Chopin is actually a vampire. There are only two scenes in the film which suggest it with any clarity, and she is only in about four. For the vampire plot, Dreyer owes to the Irish author J. Sheridan Le Fanu and his short story of lesbian vampirism, Carmilla. However, as the passion of the dying, vampirized sister play out in the walls of the lordly manor owned by the man who interrupted Gray's sleep, the director still invokes the earlier folklore. As Gray reads "The Strange History of Vampires" by the fictional Paul Bonnat, he learns that vampires are formed out of suicide and unrepentant death under the power of mortal sin.

Vampyr not only exemplifies a dreamlike atmosphere, but also exudes a dreamlike logic. The second half of the film recalls Le Fanu's The Room in the Dragon Volant and its theme of premature burial (both short stories are to be found in the author's 1872 anthology In a Glass Darkly). Reeling from the transfusion of blood he gave to the dying sister, Gray stumbles, sits on a bench, and begins a disembodied journey into a possible future where he sees the victory of the vampire as she looms over his own coffin. With entirely accurate dream logic, the protagonist is able to step in and out of his body, either seeing through his own eyes or seeing himself from an objective, third person perspective.

Not content to preempt modern horror and contrast against Hollywood, Dreyer's Dutch Expressionism even stands against his colleagues' German Expressionism. Compared to the flawless subtlety of Vampyr, even classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Warning Shadows can seem crude, without the excuse of a decade's passage to save them. Unfortunately, this translated into a critical and box office failure for Dreyer at the time. After spending the previous five years in litigation with his studio over The Passion of Joan of Arc, this response would cause the director to retreat from filmmaking for another 10.

Truly great and ingenious films have a tendency to be ahead of their time. While Vampyr has not found the wide popular audience of some of its equally underrated kin, it is nevertheless ripe for mass rediscovery as what is perhaps the finest horror film ever made.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

In 1925, audiences caught their first glimpse of the terror that lurked beneath the famed Paris Opera House. Based on the novel by Gaston LeRoux and produced by Universal Studios, Phantom of the Opera starred the quintessential monster man, Lon Chaney Sr., in his second visit to the City of Lights by way of a Hollywood soundstage.

The plot is doubtlessly familiar to most people, at least from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical: A young diva by the name of Catharine has fallen under the spell of a disfigured madman lurking beneath the Paris Opera House. Using her to achieve the success he never could on his own, due to his horrific appearance, he becomes violent when his aims are denied; either by the Opera House refusing to feature Catharine or when Catharine tries to free herself from his sway.

The runaway star of the film is, of course, Lon Chaney's monster make-up. Where Gerard Butler just had a little something on his cheek that could have used a napkin, The Man of a Thousand Faces pulls out all the stops again to produce one of the most memorable character make-ups of film history, and perhaps the most memorable of all silent film. The unmasking scene, when Catharine removes the Phantom's disguise while he is distracted playing the organ, is one of the classic images of motion pictures... It always works its way into any retrospective, along with Dorothy and friends dancing arm-in-arm down the Yellow-Brick Road, Deniro's "are you talkin' to me?", Lugosi's "I bid you... velcome", and Georges Melies' rocket capsule hitting the Man in the Moon right in the eye. This classic film has also been recognized as #83 on the American Film Institute's top-100 thriller movies - one of only two silent films to be on the list! (the other, incidentally, was Harold Lloyd's High Times)

This film is also notable for an early experimental technicolour sequence. The luxurious "Masque of Red Death" scene was given an experimental two-strip Technicolor treatment, as was the early "Faust" ballet scene. It is only fitting that the dramatic high point of the film should be in colour, bringing out the wealth of pageantry of the masquerade ball, interrupted by the striking costuming of Lon Chaney. It is from this scene that the Phantom discovers Catharine's duplicity and begins his reign of true terror.

As soon as sound was widely available to cinema, Phantom of the Opera not only had it added, but was half-reshot to accommodate the new technology. This was the third time at the film was shot. The first, through 1924 under director Rupert Julian, was seen to be a mess and a reshoot demanded. Julian walked out and left the chores to Edward Sedgwick, who produced another overdone and overlong version that was judiciously cut down in the editing room before release. Then came the partial remake with new sound technology. This 1930 sound version, however, is considered lost, though assorted clips have filtered into existing prints of the 1925 film.

The Phantom of the Opera has entered the canon as the second oldest of the Universal Studios Monsters. It shares this distinguished alumnus with another Lon Chaney Sr. silent film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as the sound classics Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman (featuring Lon Chaney Jr., a multi-generational series). Unlike its other retrospective companion, Phantom actually does have a streak of horror that justifies its honour.

Unfortunately, while Phantom has been included in the ranks of the Universal Monsters, the studio has yet to give him full honors with a high-end DVD release. This is not to say that it has gone without. Thanks to Universal letting copyright slip in the 1950's, Eric the Phantom is in the public domain. Not all releases are equal however, and being a popular film, Phantom of the Opera has suffered from numerous low-budget releases substituting random classical music for a proper soundtrack. Image Entertainment has released a 2-disk special edition featuring the 1925 film and a reconstructed version of the 1930 sound edition using extant soundtrack disks.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

In the words of G.K. Chesterton, the noble lesson behind the fable of the Beauty and the Beast is that one must be loved in order to become lovable... Someone treated like an animal will become an animal, someone treated with worth, dignity and beauty as a human being will become a human being.

Demonstrating this in the story itself is always difficult. It always proves problematic for writers and filmmakers to make a credible leap in projecting this wonderful truism into a tale about a woman who falls in love with a literal animal who is a vicious, abusive brute. That he is an animal and the romance would take on morally discomforting overtones is one thing. That he spends a good portion of the story being a monster within as well as a monster without makes it that much more troublesome. It is even open to modern criticisms that it teaches girls to stay in relationships with abusive men in the vain hope that their love will somehow shine through and heal the abuser.

Such is the secular interpretation. A more sacred one sees in the timeless story an allegory of the amor Dei, the love of God for humanity. In such a reading, humanity is the prince whose cruelty turns him into little more than a walking beast. From beyond the Beast's isolated world where, in the gaze of cruelty and hate, other people have become mere objects, the Father enters. The Beast, unable to conceive of the Father's motives of love, imprisons him in a deathly web of dogma. To liberate the Father, the Daughter most fair comes, whose relentless love redeems the Beast's humanity.

Of course, such an interpretation runs against the flaw of the strenuous relationship between the two protagonists. French Surrealist artist Jean Cocteau suffers no less from this dilemma. He practically dispenses with the attempt to justify how it is that the engenu Belle comes to have affection for the Beast. In one scene she is shouting him out of her chambers, and in the next she is allowing him to lap water from her hand. Their relationship is layered with all manner of psychological complexity, as might be expected, but the Beast is not the abusive character seen in other versions. His crime is to keep her captive, which he is able to do by her own sympathy. Nonetheless we must make the leap to accepting that somehow she sees something in him that is not apparent to us.

Such is love!

It is a leap, however, that Cocteau asks of us from the beginning. In one of the most touching breaks with the fourth wall in cinema, the director begs the indulgence of the audience in allowing those magic words of childhood - "once upon a time" - to forgive any lapses. Forgive him we must, and to forgive him we cannot help. In the end the story is very charming and full of redeeming compassion.

The film's theme is elaborated by understanding the drama at play beneath it. The lone actor to play the Beast and Belle's semi-villainous suitor, Jean Marais, was the gay lover of Jean Cocteau, and Beauty and the Beast can easily stand as an allegory of the trials of homosexual affairs in an era before their social acceptance. To be lovable one must be loved, and love must search out the inner depths and inner identity of another to find that hidden self.

However the story is treated, what truly stands out is the artistic direction and set design. While inspired by the work of Gustave Doré, the film lacks the strong contrasts in light and dark which are characteristic of his later and best work. The sets are intimate, devoid of the massive scale of the sublime (due in no small part to the scarcity of resources following the Second World War). One does note resemblances between Doré's well-appointed and overgrown fairy tale chambers and those of Cocteau, however.

Where it excels is in describing a quintessential haunted manor. In fact, it is said that the design elements of other, more famous haunted mansions were inspired by such pieces in Beauty and the Beast as the wall-mounted candleabras comprised of moving arms. There is an eerie aura of forboding and mystery to the moving sculptures with their leering eyes, the aforementioned candleholders, the doors that open and sheets that pull of themselves, and the billowing drapes in darkened corridors. It frequently swings from enchanting to frightening, though never reaching the scale of a horror film. This is still a fairy tale.

Beauty and the Beast is an unsung classic, occupying a place in artistic film of the mid-century where, once discovered, it enshrines itself in the heart as a masterpiece.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Cabaret du Néant

In the heady world of Parisian cabarets, several went on to become household names: the Moulin Rouge, the Gran-Guignol... but the streets of Montmarte were packed with countless more that have since fallen beneath the veil of obscurity. Some of those even took after their namesakes, such as the Cabaret du Néant, the cabaret of death.

The 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day, by William Chambers Morrow, included an account that captured the goings on at this unique and morbid enterprize:
As we neared the Place we saw on the opposite side of the street two flickering iron lanterns that threw a ghastly green light down upon the barred dead-black shutters of the building, and caught the faces of the passers-by with sickly rays that took out all the life and transformed them into the semblance of corpses. Across the top of the closed black entrance were large white letters, reading simply:


The entrance was heavily draped with black cerements, having white trimmings, such as hang before the houses of the dead in Paris. Here patrolled a solitary croque-mort, or hired pall-bearer, his black cape drawn closely about him, the green light reflected by his glazed top-hat. A more dismal and forbidding place it would be difficult to imagine. Mr. Thompkins paled a little when he discovered that this was our destination, this grisly caricature of eternal nothingness, and hesitated at the threshold. Without a word Bishop firmly took his arm and entered. The lonely croque-mort drew apart the heavy curtain and admitted us into a black hole that proved later to be a room. The chamber was dimly lighted with wax tapers, and a large chandelier intricately devised of human skulls and arms, with funeral candles held in their fleshless fingers, gave its small quota of light.

Large, heavy, wooden coffins, resting on biers, were ranged about the room in an order suggesting the recent happening of a frightful catastrophe. The walls were decorated with skulls and bones, skeletons in grotesque attitudes, battle-pictures, and guillotines in action. Death, carnage, assassination were the dominant note, set in black hangings and illuminated with mottoes on death. A half-dozen voices droned this in a low monotone: "Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity. Select your biers, to the right, to the left; fit yourselves comfortably to them, and repose in the solemnity and tranquillity of death; and may God have mercy on your souls!"

A number of persons who had preceded us had already pre-empted their coffins, and were sitting beside them awaiting developments and enjoying their consommations, using the coffins for their real purpose, tables for holding drinking-glasses. Alongside the glasses were slender tapers by which the visitors might see one another.

There seemed to be no mechanical imperfection in the illusion of a charnel-house; we imagined that even chemistry had contributed its resources, for there seemed distinctly to be the odor appropriate to such a place. We found a vacant coffin in the vault, seated ourselves at it on rush-bottomed stools, and awaited further developments.

Another croque-mort a garcon he was came up through the gloom to take our orders. He was dressed completely in the professional garb of a hearse-follower, including claw-hammer coat, full-dress front, glazed tile, and oval silver badge. He droned, "Bon soir, Macchabees! [This word (also Maccabe, argot Macabit) is given in Paris by sailors to cadavers found floating in the river] Buvez les crachats d'asthmatiques, voila des sueurs froides d'agonisants. Prenez done des certificats de deces, seulement vingt sous. C'est pas cher et c'est artistique !"

Bishop said that he would be pleased with a lowly bock. Mr. Thompkins chose cherries a l'eau-de-vie, and I, une menthe.

"One microbe of Asiatic cholera from the last corpse, one leg of a lively cancer, and one sample of our consumption germ!" moaned the creature toward a black hole at the farther end of the room. Some women among the visitors tittered, others shuddered, and Mr. Thompkins broke out in a cold sweat on his brow, while a curious accompaniment of anger shone in his eyes. Our sleepy pallbearer soon loomed through the darkness with our deadly microbes, and waked the echoes in the hollow casket upon which he set the glasses with a thump.

"Drink, Macchabees!" he wailed: "drink these noxious potions, which contain thvilest and deadliest poisons!"

"The villain!" gasped Mr. Thompkins; "it is horrible, disgusting, filthy!"

The tapers flickered feebly on the coffins, and the white skulls grinned at him mockingly from their sable background. Bishop exhausted all his tactics in trying to induce Mr. Thompkins to taste his brandied cherries, but that gentleman positively refused, he seemed unable to banish the idea that they were laden with disease germs.

After we had been seated here for some time, getting no consolation from the utter absence of spirit and levity among the other guests, and enjoying only the dismay and trepidation of new and strange arrivals, a rather good-looking young fellow, dressed in a black clerical coat, came through a dark door and began to address the assembled patrons. His voice was smooth, his manner solemn and impressive, as he delivered a well-worded discourse on death. He spoke of it as the gate through which we must all make our exit from this world, of the gloom, the loneliness, the utter sense of helplessness and desolation. As he warmed to his subject he enlarged upon the follies that hasten the advent of death, and spoke of the relentless certainty and the incredible variety of ways in which the reaper claims his victims. Then he passed on to the terrors of actual dissolution, the tortures of the body, the rending of the soul, the unimaginable agonies that sensibilities rendered acutely susceptible at this extremity are called upon to endure. It required good nerves to listen to that, for the man was perfect in his role. From matters of individual interest in death he passed to death in its larger aspects. He pointed to a large and striking battle scene, in which the combatants had come to hand-to-hand fighting, and were butchering one another in a mad lust for blood. Suddenly the picture began to glow, the light bringing out its ghastly details with hideous distinctness. Then as suddenly it faded away, and where fighting men had been there were skeletons writhing and struggling in a deadly embrace. A similar effect was produced with a painting giving a wonderfully realistic representation of an execution by the guillotine. The bleeding trunk of the victim lying upon the flap-board dissolved, the flesh slowly disappearing, leaving only the white bones. Another picture, representing a brilliant dance-hall filled with happy revellers, slowly merged into a grotesque dance of skeletons; and thus it was with the other pictures about the room.

All this being done, the master of ceremonies, in lugubrious tones, invited us to enter the chambre de la mort. All the visitors rose, and, bearing each a taper, passed in single file into a narrow, dark passage faintly illuminated with sickly green lights, the young man in clerical garb acting as pilot. The cross effects of green and yellow lights on the faces of the groping procession were more startling than picturesque. The way was lined with bones, skulls, and fragments of human bodies.

"O Macchabees, nous sommes devant la porte de la chambre de la mort!" wailed an unearthly voice from the farther end of the passage as we advanced. Then before us appeared a solitary figure standing beneath a green lamp. The figure was completely shrouded in black, only the eyes being visible, and they shone through holes in the pointed cowl. From the folds of the gown it brought forth a massive iron key attached to a chain, and, approaching a door seemingly made of iron and heavily studded with spikes and crossed with bars, inserted and turned the key; the bolts moved with a harsh, grating noise, and the door of the chamber of death swung slowly open.

"O Macchabees, enter into eternity, whence none ever return!" cried the new, strange voice.

The walls of the room were a dead and unrelieved black. At one side two tall candles were burning, but their feeble light was insufficient even to disclose the presence of the black walls of the chamber or indicate that anything but unending blackness extended heavenward. There was not a thing to catch and reflect a single ray of the light and thus become visible in the blackness.

Between the two candles was an upright opening in the wall; it was of the shape of a coffin. We were seated upon rows of small black caskets resting on the floor in front of the candles. There was hardly a whisper among the visitors. The black-hooded figure passed silently out of view and vanished in the darkness.

Presently a pale, greenish-white illumination began to light up the coffin-shaped hole in the wall, clearly marking its outline against the black. Within this space there stood a coffin upright, in which a pretty young woman, robed in a white shroud, fitted snugly. Soon it was evident that she was very much alive, for she smiled and looked at us saucily. But that was not for long. From the depths came a dismal wail: "O Macchabee, beautiful, breathing mortal, pulsating with the warmth and richness of life, thou art now in the grasp of death! Compose thy soul for the end!"

Her face slowly became white and rigid; her eyes sank; her lips tightened across her teeth; her cheeks took on the hollowness of death, she was dead. But it did not end with that. From white the face slowly grew livid... then purplish black... The eyes visibly shrank into their greenish-yellow sockets... Slowly the hair fell away... The nose melted away into a purple putrid spot. The whole face became a semi-liquid mass of corruption. Presently all this had disappeared, and a gleaming skull shone where so recently had been the handsome face of a woman; naked teeth grinned inanely and savagely where rosy lips had so recently smiled. Even the shroud had gradually disappeared, and an entire skeleton stood revealed in the coffin. The wail again rang through the silent vault: "Ah, ah, Macchabee! Thou hast reached the last stage of dissolution, so dreadful to mortals. The work that follows death is complete. But despair not, for death is not the end of all. The power is given to those who merit it, not only to return to life, but to return in any form and station preferred to the old. So return if thou deservedst and desirest."

With a slowness equal to that of the dissolution, the bones became covered with flesh and cerements, and all the ghastly steps were reproduced reversed. Gradually the sparkle of the eyes began to shine through the gloom; but when the reformation was completed, behold! there was no longer the handsome and smiling young woman, but the sleek, rotund body, ruddy cheeks, and self-conscious look of a banker. It was not until this touch of comedy relieved the strain that the rigidity with which Mr. Thompkins had sat between us began to relax, and a smile played over his face, a bewildered, but none the less a pleasant, smile. The prosperous banker stepped forth, sleek and tangible, and haughtily strode away before our eyes, passing through the audience into the darkness. Again was the coffin-shaped hole in the wall dark and empty.

He of the black gown and pointed hood now emerged through an invisible door, and asked if there was any one in the audience who desired to pass through the experience that they had just witnessed. This created a suppressed commotion; each peered into the face of his neighbor to find one with courage sufficient for the ordeal. Bishop suggested to Mr. Thompkins in a whisper that he submit himself, but that gentleman very peremptorily declined. Then, after a pause, Bishop stepped forth and announced that he was prepared to die. He was asked solemnly by the doleful person if he was ready to accept all the consequences of his decision. He replied that he was. Then he disappeared through the black wall, and presently appeared in the greenish-white light of the open coffin. There he composed himself as he imagined a corpse ought, crossed his hands upon his breast, suffered the white shroud to be drawn about him, and awaited results, after he had made a rueful grimace that threw the first gleam of suppressed merriment through the oppressed audience. He passed through all the ghastly stages that the former occupant of the coffin had experienced, and returned in proper person to life and to his seat beside Mr. Thompkins, the audience applauding softly.

The skeleton trick and how it was done,
using the Pepper's Ghost effect.

A mysterious figure in black waylaid the crowd as it filed out. He held an inverted skull, into which we were expected to drop sous through the natural opening there, and it was with the feeling of relief from a heavy weight that we departed and turned our backs on the green lights at the entrance.

Unfortunately, like the Gran-Guignol, the Cabaret du Néant did not outlast the Second World War.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

The next follow-up to Dracula and Frankenstein may not seem terribly obvious to us. It had no iconic monster and the text on which it is based does not tend to stand out uniquely from the authour's whole body of work. Yet it takes us back to a time when there was nothing obvious about horror films... The genre was still being invented! The formula of horror and a whole, let alone what the Universal Studios brand of it, was in the process of being created and no one knew exactly what it should mean.

That ambiguity, then, bring us to the 1932 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Murders in the Rue Morgue. A year off of rising to iconic status as the undead prince Dracula, Bela Lugosi returned as the malevolent Dr. Mirakle: a sadistic murderer sheathed in a maniacal evolutionary biologist disguised as a circus showman of the cosmos' freakish mysteries.

Like many films that would come after, the concept and the title were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, and that's about it. The circus, the ape and heroic Auguste Dupin are all there, but this is no mere tale of wildlife running amok. The titular murder is part of a larger scheme by Mirakle to prove his obscure theories of evolutionary progress. The doctor, it seems, has a strange penchant for strapping Parisian prostitutes to St. Andrew's Crosses, where he injects them with the blood of apes. When the experiment inevitably results in the death of the subject (blamed, of course, on their tainted whorish blood), a handy trap door dumps the girls into the River Seine.

Suffice it to say, the strongly Expressionist-influenced Murders in the Rue Morgue was released before the Hays Code went into effect in 1934, limiting the amount of violations against Nature, Divinity and rural, working-class senses of common decency that could be fit into a Hollywood film. Unfortunately, the film never did do as well as its predecessors. That did not, however, stop further theoretically Poe-inspired films from being made. Karloff and Lugosi would unite for The Black Cat and The Raven, both of which seem to take place in their 1930's setting.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Retroactively regarded as the first of the Universal Studios Monsters films, the 1923 adaptation of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris - better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame - stars Lon Chaney Sr. as the titular monster. The misshapen Quasimodo is a grotesque, to be sure, but no real monster, and likewise The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no real monster movie in the vein of Universal's later offerings.

The film with some reasonable faithfulness replicates the character of Hugo's novel as a sweeping historical epic capturing, like so many of Hugo's works, the ferment of French revolutionary attitudes. At times it is difficult to tell exactly what the movie is about; whether the interpersonal drama of the principal characters or the broad strokes of social and class conflict. In this silent film, as in the novel, these are intertwined and indicative of each other... At times they are symbolic and at others directly causative.

It is not at all difficult to see the dynamics of prestige at play between the aristocratic captain of the guard Phoebus and the object of his romantic fancies, the poor gypsy Esmeralda. This is mitigated somewhat in the film version where, like a true leading man, Phoebus harbours more genuine feelings for the exotic dancer than he is wont to in the novel. Hollywood has its say over the bleak visions of the French author and demanded that the lovers enjoy their happily ever after.

Those same forces excised the most engaging character of the novel, being the tormented Archdeacon Claude Frollo. Here he is left to himself as a truly pious man of the cloth, selflessly protecting the refugees in Notre Dame behind the holy law of sanctuary, and devoid of those yearnings for Esmeralda that bring out the dark side of clerical hypocrisy, sadism and murderous machinations. In his place, Claude's brother Jehan takes up the obsession, which severely wounds the dramatic depth of the picture. Without the angle of spiritual anguish, the villain is reduced to yet another aristocrat abusing and manipulating Esmeralda.

It is not only aristocrats doing this, however. Esmeralda's adoptive father Clopin, the king of the Parisian underworld, is not above using her for his own purposes. It isn't quite so overt, but he slips with great ease from wanting to rescue his daughter from the clutches of the royalty to whipping his subjects into riotous frenzy with his revolutionary rhetoric. Delivering Esmeralda from the noose soon and predominately becomes the opportunity to deliver France from the stranglehold of the aristocrats.

Quasimodo is, like in the novel, a smaller character in the ensemble. He is another suitor for Esmeralda, but never one of any real substance. His affections for her swell when she is the sole person to come out of the crowd and tend to his wounds after he is whipped on the pillory outside the Hall of Justice. They draw to a close when he sees her and Phoebus together, finding out where her affections lie. After this, he prefigures his descendants by protecting his stronghold from the torch and pitchfork-bearing townsfolk attacking it.

Though a weak character, he is also the most iconic... Quasimodo is as visually striking as the cathedral itself, warranting his share of the main billing along with it. There is deserved acclaim for Chaney - the Man of 1000 Faces - whose achievement came at a high personal cost. The heavy hunchback apparatus caused lifelong back problems and the false eye caused some permanent vision loss in his real one, making Chaney one of the true auteurs who suffered for his art.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol and the Decline of Horror

In Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, both novel and film versions, the vampiric Louis and his child ward Claudia visit the Old World in search of others of their kind. Being from New Orleans, the pair gravitate towards Paris, wherein they come across the Théâtre des Vampires. In the bowels of the City of Lights' darker alleys, a perverse act is performed on the théâtre stage. A young lady is led out, where she is taunted by Death in all his pallor. She is tortured and eventually killed by the coven of vampires, right in front of a crowd of unsuspecting guests. They believe that this is yet another of Paris' booming industry of macabre cabarets. They have no idea that these actors were acting like humans, not acting like vampires. Reportedly, Rice herself had no idea that there actually was a Theatre of Vampires. However, the imprint of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol cannot be missed. The preeminent establishment on the list of Parisian novelties, it's name has become a synonym for decadent, theatrical bloodletting.

The theatre was conceived by Oscar Méténier as a showplace for the Naturalist school of acting. A reaction against Romanticism, which was itself a reaction against Rationalism, Naturalism eschewed the overblown emotional verities of the former in favor of objective depiction. The advent of Darwinism and vigour of the Scientific Method compelled schools of actors and directors towards a style of theatre that preferenced the secular, prosaic, realistic and contemporary. There was a greater interest in blunt depictions of the harsher aspects of reality and humanity's futility in the face of it, as contrasted against the exalted and sublime reality of the Romantics. In a sense, it was the Age of Reason's Counter-Reformation.

The particular inspiration came from the Lyonaise puppet Guignol. Like Polichinelle before him (from whom Punch descended), Guignol was a clever puppet who satirized the conditions of 18th century European society. The crystalline gaze of Guignol appealed to Méténier, who proceeded to purchase an abandoned church and open Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in 1897. Like Guignol, and other French Naturalists like author Emile Zola, the Grand-Guignol's subject matter included the social underclasses... Prostitutes, beggars and criminals.

The change came with the arrival of director Max Maurey in 1898. Maurey lit on the appeal of horror in the fin de siècle and though it, the theatre rose to infamy. He was once cited as judging success by how many people fainted, and at its height, the average was two per evening. Maurey also discovered André de Lorde in 1901, who would go on to become the theatre's most important playwright. In keeping with the premises of Naturalist theatre, the Grand-Guignol's plays were brutal and bleak spectacles that revelled in the random violence of existence. Crimes happened without cause, criminals went without punishment, and altered states figured in more than a few. Five or six separate plays were put on in the course of an evening, including sexcapades and crime dramas, but the horrors gained the greatest notoriety.

This unrelenting focus on the negative was, in a sense, necessary. Naturalism set itself up from the outset in opposition to Romanticism, which had essentially lain claim to the spheres of Beauty and the Sublime. As a consequence of Romanticism's gaze, it was not difficult at all to arrive at the spiritual conclusions that it did. They fixated on what Maslow terms the points suprêmes, the most exalted of peak human experiences. Such peak experiences are no less real than the negative experiences; the Beautiful, the Sublime and the spiritual are as much a part of reality as their antitheses. The problem for Naturalism is that it classified these experiences as "emotional" and therefore not a part of reality, though emotions are nonetheless as real as reason. It achieved what C.S. Lewis' Screwtape salivated at: a world where people believed in demons but not angels, where the existence of Evil dissuaded people from the belief in Good.

Such pragmatic holism of reason and emotion has never sat well with the dualism that girds up the Western philosophical tradition. Whenever a school of thought supposing that the world is not neatly divided up in spirit/body dualisms comes along to liberate our zeitgeist, like a Judaism or Christianity, the West raises a Gnosticism or Manichaeism to respond. Plato looked beyond the world for his ideal forms and even if we do not claim to believe in them, we act as though the basic premise is correct. The realm of the spirit is considered to be something other, even something absent, and matter in its absence is something flawed, inferior, even violent and disgusting (hence modern variations like Transhumanism, which wish to dispense with "weak" flesh). Against the holistic view of Romanticism, the West raised up Naturalism. Naturalism could not permit the Beautiful, Sublime and spiritual, and so was left with little but a constant stream of negations.

The heirs of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol are the Slasher films and "torture porn" that passes for horror nowadays. Like Grand-Guignol, films like Night of the Living Dead and Saw peddle in the violent destruction of humanity in a universe maddeningly devoid of higher meaning. These are the inversion of classic, Gothic horror where the fear is derived from a universe so frightfully full of meaning that all the cosmos hinges on the transcendence and tragedy of lone women and men. All that is left in these worlds is the perpetuation of biology, its horror in the ruthlessly violent ways in which that perpetuation can be halted. What Walter Benjamin observed of fascism is equally true of these sorts of films: that humanity, once an object of contemplation by gods, has eliminated the gods and become an object of its own contemplation. Consequently, humanity observes its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order. The negation of life becomes high art.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol's demise came about with the exposure of this fact's deepest perversion. Fear can only become an aesthetic pleasure at a great enough distance, disguised beneath enough layers of greasepaint and stage theatrics. When confronting the reality of human suffering and immolation, it can only remain a pleasure for the most grotesquely-minded. According to Charles Nanon, final director of the theatre, "We could never equal Buchenwald." Grand-Guignol peaked in its fame and attendance just prior to World War II and never quite recovered afterwards. The Holocaust trumped the horrors of the stage, and thereafter it was difficult to maintain nihilism as a form of entertainment. However, the theatre closed in 1962; six short years before The Night of the Living Dead changed horror cinema. With the distance of celluloid and cathode tube, and with the horrors of WWII distant enough from the concerns of primarily North Americans, cosmic chaos and meaninglessness could once again be considered art.

The irony of the Grand-Guignol and its over-the-top brand of gory horror is that it errs so far in the opposite direction. Contrary to the precepts of Naturalism, this type of horror theatre became almost a kind of Romance unto itself. That is certainly true of our backward nostalgic gaze. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol obtains a kind of gilded reputation, the ultimate in sideshow macabre dressed up in Victorian finery. It is the stylish nihilism of a bygone era.