Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Haunted Mansion on House of Mouse

Coming into life at the close of the golden age where Disneyland rides didn't necessarily have to be based on a marketable film, the Haunted Mansion has actually had to backtrack into live action movies and animation. We can just plain forget about the film starring Eddie Murphy (please do!), but in time for Halloween we present two ditties from The House of Mouse where the Hitchhiking Ghosts were let out of the box.

"Grim Grinning Ghosts" from House Ghosts, featuring
references to Skeleton Dance and Lonesome Ghosts.

"It's Our House Now" from Mickey's House of Villains,
featuring every single Disney Villain (mostly).

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Haunted Mansion Concept Art

Marc Davis was one of Walt Disney's most prolific and distinctive artists. It is impossible not to distinguish his cartoonish style and witty gags from those of the other senior "Nine Old Men", and once you have an eye for it, to then pick his work out of the rides in which they came to animatronic life. The Country Bear Jamboree and now-defunct America Sings were his projects, as were the tableaus in the current version of the Jungle Cruise. He also added the foreground figures to fellow artist Claude Coats' atmospheric backgrounds in both Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Many of his ideas never made it into the Mansion, or what did is somewhat changed from his original ideas. Here are some of those concepts for your enjoyment!

The following piece is concept art for Pirates of the Caribbean, but I include it in honor of one of the backstories that the Mansion originally accumulated to itself. Once it was decided that it would be in New Orleans Square, Imagineers conceived of it as the former manor of a vile pirate named Captain Blood.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

New Orleans Square Concept Art

New Orleans Square was the first new land to be added to Disneyland USA. When the park opened in 1955, the bend of the Rivers of America housed the Swift's Chicken Plantation. This restaurant was an expression of Walt Disney's own love for New Orleans and the atmosphere of the French Quarter. A decade later, this one building was expanded into a whole new territory.

This territory was most notable for housing two of the most beloved Disney attractions of all time: Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Not even Disney was immune to the dark, romantic undercurrents of the Crescent City that have so enraptured countless Goths and their patron saint, Anne Rice... swampy bayous, voodoo rituals, dripping spanish moss, vicious pirates and decaying graveyards.

The following pieces of concept art are all by Disney painter Herb Ryman, who had been drafting up visions of Disneyland since before the park was built.

The first full rendering of New Orleans Square.

The Court of Angels, one of the
park's formerly most serene alcoves.

The Blue Bayou Restaurant, an atmospheric
eatery inside Pirates of the Caribbean.

A candy shop. Once, New Orleans Square
was notable for many unique shoppes.

An alley in Rue Royal. Originally, this staircase
would have led to Walt's own private apartment,
which became the Disney Gallery and now a private
"Year of a Million Dreams" VIP suite.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

One of the great travesties of recent animation history was Walt Disney Animation Studios shutting down the art of traditional, hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation. In the wake of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin, Disney felt it could cash in that currency to experiment with a range of different types of films. Unfortunately, they didn't account for the fundamental paradox that will forever plague the studio's work: no matter how much people complain about Disney films being fairy tales about princesses, they will never pay for anything except fairy tales about princesses.

Granted, there were highs and lows. Lilo and Stitch was an underdog success while Treasure Planet was, in my opinion, a criminally disregarded classic. But after Chinese warriors, hunchbacks, Atlanteans, ape men, and woolly mammoths, it was Home on the Range that brought the grand tradition to a close. Until, that is, Pixar's purchase of Disney for -$7 billion. Pixar's John Lasseter took over Walt Disney Animation Studios and put hand-drawn animation back on the table. The first fruits of this was 2009's The Princess and the Frog.

A lot of pressure was put on The Princess and the Frog to be the film that saved traditional animation. Modest returns created a small panic stew, however, they were returns that reflected a modest film. Watching it, one gets the definite sense of a film dipping its toes into the bayou rather than taking a big canonball. Everything is very cautious, making for a pleasant little movie, however one wishes to take that praise.

Sometimes it works to subvert certain tropes of the genre. They worked overtime to make heroine Tiana a positive role model and the result is an interesting commentary on the whole matter of wishing upon a star. In order to defuse racial sensitivity, there is no conflict whatsoever between the African-American and Euro-American characters (except for one brief mention by a snooty real estate agent). Of course, this is the same thing that people consider a problem with Song of the South, but that is for another essay. In Princess and the Frog, we have the romantic rivals trying to help each other out in the end, for no reason but a romantic sensibility resting in the goodness of their hearts.

The biggest weakness of this film, set in the Jazz Age, is the music. It is adequate, but definitely not amongst the leagues of toe-tappers and wistful hummers. Maybe I say this as a spoiled brat who does listen to Louis Armstrong and the Firehouse Five Plus Two. I am of the opinion that if you're going to reference musicians of that calibur in songs and jokes, the music should be equal to the task. It is adequate, cautious, dipping its toes into Dixieland.

With criticisms out of the way, I am free to say that it is nevertheless enjoyable. The characters are quite good and they are placed against a fantastic 1920's New Orleans setting. The atmosphere alone makes the film worthwhile, with the ancilary benefit of being practically written for Disneyland's New Orleans Square. The company even attempted to use New Orleans Square to promote the film, featuring Tiana's Showboat Jubilee aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat. It was reportedly met with some ambivalence (after all, no one had yet seen the film or gotten to know the characters) yet added some much-needed life and flavour to the over-scallywagged area of Disneyland that had not been seen since Uncle Walt's television specials.

Our villain, Dr. Facilier, is equal to the great, spooky villains of the past. Something of a cross between Cab Calloway and Baron Samedi, he commands the shadows and is beholden to the Voodoo spirits from the Other Side. He's also responsible for one of the most traumatic and touching Disney deaths in any of the canon. It is a tearjerker with a fantastic payoff that makes all the shock and trauma worthwhile, adding to the complex layers of dialogue on the subject of wishing on a star.

A moderate success and a cautious film, it will undoubtedly be eclipsed by the likes of the CGI Rapunzel and other upcoming animations. The Princess and the Frog is a pleasant film that should be on the DVD shelf of anyone with a jones for Jazz in the French Quarter. Just look out for those shadows.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Interview with the Vampire went through an interesting transition. A beloved novel of Goths and other macabre people, idea of a film adaptation by Neil Jordan of The Crying Game fame led to some apprehension. Then came the news that Tom Cruise, Top Gun himself, was going to be playing the blonde, French, sexually ambiguous, ubervampire Lestat. That was too much.

Anne Rice, writer of the novel and countless others about vampires, witches and now Jesus, put out a public statement of outrage. She originally placed her bets on Julian Sands, of Warlock and Boxing Helena, but he was not a big enough name for the studio. Rice and fans were alike flabbergasted by the idea of Cruise. Brad Pitt as Louis nearly fell by the wayside.

This changed when the film was completed. Rice was struck by Cruise's performance and put out an equally public apology. When the film came out on home video, Rice filmed an introduction commending the production and Cruise's performance. It rose above the controversy to become a Gothic classic that, in "real Goth" circles, eclipsed even The Crow.

Jordan masterfully translated one of the novel's most potent appeals, which is the richly haunting atmosphere of dark New Orleans. It may be nigh on impossible to figure whether the chicken or the egg came first: whether Interview was set in New Orleans because it was a Gothic destination or if it became a Gothic destination because of Interview. Nevertheless, the Crescent City ascended from a city to a trope, as famous for ghouls and bloodsuckers as for Mardi Gras and Louis Armstrong. It is nearly a character in itself.

Louis, the vampire not the musician, begins his life as a semi-aristocrat in New Orleans who has lost his wife and child to fever. No longer desirous of life, his agonized soul cries out to the vampire Lestat. He is more than happy to oblige, transforming the young man into a creature of the night. The ironies are too much for Louis: wanting to die, he is now undead; no longer wanting to live, he is now immortal. For the longer part of their tenure in N'awlins, Louis rails against his condition.

To Lestat, Louis seems to be little more than a toy. He is not adverse to adding another toy to the collection, and together they turn a little girl. Claudia, played by Kirsten Dunst, spends the next several decades growing in mind under the tutilage of Lestat and Louis but remaining trapped in her child's body. Finally she and Louis hatch a plot to destroy Lestat and escape to the Old Country.

The action shifts from the colony of Louisiana to Belle Époque Paris, where the pair runs afoul of the Theatre des Vampires and their rule that a vampire should never kill another of their kind... especially their maker. Yet the head of the Theatre, Armand (Antonio Bandaras) has his own designs on Louis. Not unlike Lon Chaney's Count Alucard, Armand has grown weary of Europe, its dusty ground and its decadent vampires. He wants Louis to show him the world, to re-enchant him with relatively young eyes.

Interview with the Vampire was criticized in some circles for being slight on the frights. In some ways, it may even be held responsible for wrecking monster horror, transforming them from things that go bump in the night to bumps existentially gazing into their own navels. Truly, much of what is called "horror" is little more than pyschological dramas and action movies where the characters are vampires instead of housewives and terrorists. For good or ill, that is where Interview with the Vampire lies. It is the story of the vampire Louis coming into his own, growing into his own existence and self-determination as a parable for living and breathing human beings.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Son of Dracula (1943)

The third of the Dracula film series, Son of Dracula replaces Bela Lugosi and a glamorous Gloria Holden for 1940's Universal darling Lon Chaney Jr. The effect is less than stellar. Though cast perfectly for the hapless Larry Talbot, where his ability to stand around looking confused and lunkish is well-suited to a man tortured by his own lycanthropy, he simply doesn't work as Dracula. For that role you need someone like Lugosi who is himself exotic, Eastern European and able to channel demonic forces of seduction and cruelty with the pin-point lasers of his eyes.

There is but one sense in which Chaney as Dracula works, and that is with the central twist of the plot. Therefore I can't reveal it here. Suffice it to give the set-up: the macabre daughter of a plantation owner in Louisiana... you know, the creepy Goth kid... has returned from a trip to Hungary filled with all sorts of weird notions. In the backwaters of the family's bayou she even keeps a gypsy fortune teller. She also made the acquaintance of a Count Alucard, whose identity is given away in the first few minutes of the film. He has arrived to the New World because the old is dusty, dry, caked with the blood of thousands of generations, not like this new and vital land. Caught in the middle are the townspeople and the Goth kid's human fiance Frank.

The central twist and what comes of it in the cosmic struggle between Good and Evil that suffuses Universal Studios Monster movies is actually quite brilliant for a solid B-grade film. The other great appeal of Son of Dracula is the Haunted Mansion-like atmosphere of the South, with columned plantation houses and dingy swamps. As yet, I have not been able to find a clearer and more thorough antecedent to that Disney attraction, one that hits all the notes save for the rollicking ghosts themselves.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Old Dark House (1932)

Excerpt from The Old Dark House (1932).

James Whale - the iconic horror director who helmed Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man - is in peak form in his distillation of the Old Dark House film trope. So significant is his take that, like any great work, its title subsumed the whole genre.

It is a dark and stormy night. It always is in a movie like this. And as always happens in a movie like this, the ominous storm brings together a motley assortment of oddball characters. We begin with an introduction to the happy couple of Philip and Margaret Waverton, the latter played by the late Gloria Stuart who, 65 years later, would star as the elder Rose in Titanic. Here, it's her 1932 classic car that is about to submerge into what was left of a Welsh backroad. Lounging inexplicably in the back seat is shiftless wag Roger Penderel. Later on, the storm brings a call girl named Gladys and her nouveau riche sugardaddy Sir William Porterhouse, played obnoxiously low class by Charles Laughton.

Where they find refuge is the Femm estate, a bizarre house of even more bizarre characters. The apparent head of the household is Horace Femm, a ghastly-looking fellow portrayed as only Ernest "Dr. Pretorius" Thesiger could play him. At times commanding and majesterial, Horace still cowers before the storm and the domineering influence of his sister Rebecca. Selectively deaf, she suffers from a religious mania spurred on by her heathen brother and bedridden, 103-year old father. The mute Morgan serves the family and, as the producers clarify in a text title at the film's outset, is played by Boris Karloff in another speechless role. Together, the four hide a shameful family secret in the attic.

The Old Dark House has all the makings of a classic Gothic tale of sublime ruin and ancient family curses. Poe and Bronte echo through the halls of the Femm manorhouse. However, the film is more off-Gothic. In the tradition of previous Universal Studios Old Dark House thrillers like The Cat and the Canary, The Old Dark House is a bleak comedy. It lacks the slapstick of its predescessor and opts for a big, serious action finale, but each line and gesture is infused with James Whale's wry English wit.

Thesiger, for instance, is as creepy as always though never levelling to pure comedy or threat. Eva Moore's Rebecca is one in a long line of Whale's chattering women whose feverish fundmentalist rant on vanity is threatening, but immediately played out by her quick glance in the mirror at its end. Many consider The Old Dark House to be Whale's dry run for The Bride of Frankenstein, not the least of reasons being Karloff and Thesiger.

This British sensibility and off-Gothic style probably went far to explain why The Old Dark House was not a hit when it debuted. Universal Studios was still in the experimental stage of figuring out what horror movies even were in 1932, leading to such films as Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mummy. Also like The Cat and the Canary, it was underappreciated because of a misunderstanding of an Old Dark House movie's structure. One reviewer called it "inane", which could be forgiven considering that there is no evident plot. The Old Dark House even lacks The Cat and the Canary's MacGuffin. These characters merely end up in the house and events simply unfold until it's over with very little in the way of an overarching narrative.

Within the genre, the goings on of the house is the narrative and it does unfold out on itself. Wuthering Heights conscripts the appearance of a plot by beginning at the end and occupying the remainder of the novel with a flashback. Whale simply starts at the beginning, and the backstory isn't as important as the reveal of the gibbering thing that doesn't even become a force in the story until the last third.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Excerpt from The Cat and the Canary (1927).

All is not well in the mansion of Cyrus West... As per the instructions of the eccentric millionaire and owner of the West Diamonds, his heirs have gathered at the dilapidated old manor overlooking the Hudson River 20 years after the patriarch's death for the reading of his will. But already there is trouble afoot... As the justice of the peace arrives, he discovers that the safe containing the will has been violated, and the contents of the will known. Yet, nobody lives there but the cantankerous maid Mammy Pleasant and her companion, the ghost of Cyrus West.

The heirs meet and the will is read, the riches go to Cyrus' youngest relative, Annabelle West... But there is a condition: she must be determined sane by a doctor, otherwise the estate goes to a mysterious second person named in another envelope. During his life, Cyrus' future heirs drove him to insanity by thinking him insane, in their Machiavellian plots to obtain his money. What ensues then is a long night in an old dark house, with bad omens, the threat of escaped lunatics, ghosts, secret passages, and scheming by the snubbed relatives.

The Cat and the Canary, released in 1927, is the first of the "Old Dark House" genre of film that has become a staple of horror and mystery (even working it's way into famous board games like Clue). For some reason or other, a group of eccentrics is gathered together in an old dark house, filled with phantoms and cobwebs, and soon the personalities and atmosphere begin working to create a fever pitch of fear and lunacy until the jig is up and the ne'erdowell revealed. The Cat and the Canary was remade several times, including a sound version only 3 years later entitled The Cat Creeps. The genre was also indulged in by great horror director James "Bride of Frankenstein" Whale in 1932's The Old Dark House, the film which gave the genre it's name. All of these, it should be noted, were by Universal Studios, and they do occupy a place amongst the classic Universal Studios Monsters films, alongside The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the great sound pictures.

This was also the first American film by Paul Leni, an innovative German director well known for his work in the fatherland. At the time, the films of the German Expressionists were enjoying increasing fame and demand in American markets, so several Hollywood studios were scouting across the Atlantic for the next big thing. Leni joined Universal and produced the durable horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary, which was strongly infused with Expressionist standards. The use of light and dark in the film is striking, as well as it's innovative use of the camera, including many wonderful fade outs and double exposures. As a mystery, the unsettled feeling of the Expressionist films works, even as it is relieved quite a bit by the characters. But even with the characters, the doctor called upon to determine Annabelle's sanity looks remarkably Caligarian.

Many modern viewers balk at the film's humour though. To be sure, most of those don't realize that this is supposed to be a horror-comedy. They see the manic characters as poor comic relief and judge accordingly, as though it were like an oppressive and bleak modern film with a token funnyman. The humour is an intrinsic part of the film as we see how the characters play off of each other to create their own distress. Besides the mystery of the escaped lunatic, we have the embittered aunt and her superstitious daughter, the excitable and geeky Paul Jones, the suspicious menfolk, a corpse, and the sour Mammy Pleasant. In fact, it becomes clear by the climax that Annabelle is the only truly sane person in the bunch. This isn't intended to draw the viewer into the mystery and terror, but rather, the viewer is meant to step back and laugh as the characters develop their own dilemmas. And is the acting overwrought? Yes, it's supposed to be.

Whether as a film in it's own right or a curio of horror cinema, The Cat and the Canary is well worth viewing on a dark and stormy night.