Monday, 29 February 2016

Nosferatu: the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Sepulchral.  Now there's a word.  A word redolent of the grave, and of foul decaying fiends and cor'ses that from their tomb rent (as Byron so put it in The Giaour: 'But first on Earth, as vampire sent / Thy corse shall from thy tomb be rent / Then ghastly haunt thy native place / And suck the blood of all thy race').  The awful stench of ill-fard inhumation.  The terrifying paralysis of obsequy with the very breath of the wind of the winds of madness pricking each and every hair on the back of your neck.  These are words that could begin, in some way - like the chained prisoners in Plato's cave attempting to describe reality from the flickering shadows upon the wall before them - to go about beginning to describe the infernal opus that is Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu (originally subtitled Phantom Der Nacht), possibly the greatest representation of dread and crawling terror that an auteur ever unleashed.

Originally filmed in 1922 by Teutonic cinema pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Nosferatu was a thinly-disguised 'free adaptation' of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula.  Dispensing with the business of securing copyright and paying royalties (much as he had done in 1920 when he directed Conrad Veidt as 'Dr Warren' and 'Mr O' Connor' in Der Januskopf, rather than filming Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Murnau and his screenwriter Henrik Galeen took the basic outline of Stoker's plot and grafted onto it the very folkloric roots of the vampire legend.  Here there is no seductive Count, no opera-caped and top-hatted aristocratic Mephistophelean charmer - in actor Max Schreck (the actor's actual name, despite the fated coincidence of his surname meaning 'Terror' - a name that has been homaged in cinema from Peter Cushing's Dr Schreck in Freddie Francis' 1965 Dr Terror's House of Horrors to Christopher Walken's villain in Tim Burton's 1992 Batman Returns) Murnau gave the silver screen a truly repellent vision of the blood-drinking undead: a rake-thin, pallid hairless ratlike creature with elongated talons and a feeling of having actually crawled from a cobwebbed tomb to slake his inhuman thirst and fill his emaciated body with the hot lifeblood of the living.

Murnau's copyright-dodging did not, however, go unnoticed and in short order Florence Stoker (widow of  Bram) gained a court ruling against Prana Film (rendering the company bankrupt by 1925) stipulating that all extant copies of Nosferatu should be destroyed.  Thankfully for cinema history, copies survived - possibly in part due to the fact that a number of differing variant versions had sprung up in so short a time, including an attempted re-release in 1930, re-edited and with added soundtrack, under the title Der Zwolfte Stunde (The Twelfth Hour).  This and other versions of the movie utilized different character names in order to further distance the movie from the original source, and so Gustav von Wangenheim's distaff Jonathan Harker is renamed Thomas Hutter, Greta Schroder's role of Mina is renamed Ellen (or the closer to the original 'Nina', depending on the variant being watched), John Gottowt's Van Helsing character becomes Professor Hutter, and Alexander Granach's insane Renfield substitute is retitled Knock.

In the 1970s, the German cinema was undergoing a creative renaissance due to the wave of young directors spearheading the New German Cinema, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Beware of a Holy Whore [1971], Fear Eats the Soul [1974], Satan's Brew [1976]), Wim Wenders (Summer in the City [1970], The Scarlet Letter [1973, starring the wonderful Senta Berger], The American Friend [the 1977 Dennis Hopper-starring adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game], and later to direct Paris, Texas [1984] and the superlative Wings of Desire [1987]) and Werner Herzog.  After starting his cinematic career with several shorts and documentary pieces, Herzog had begun to make a name for himself with the haunting and frankly startling Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) before making the first of many motion pictures starring his 'best fiend', the unpredictable, anarchic and quite possible not quite sane Klaus Kinski (whose turbulent anti-friendship and working career with Herzog would prove as productive as the invective that was wont to fly around the set) with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972).  While these scions of Neuer Deutscher Film were being touted as the future of the filmic arts for their country, some of them were interested not only in forging ahead into the future, but also in connecting the modernism of the present with the heritage of Germany's cinematic past.  Fassbinder utilized established cinematic stars from past eras of German film history, and Herzog decided to bring Teutonic Kinema full circle by delving early into its roots and remaking the work that he called the greatest film Germany had ever made: Murnau's Nosferatu - the enfant terrible of the modern German cinema paying homage to his illustrious Golden Age predecessor.

Herzog opens his movie with a spectacularly eerie title sequence of footage of mummified corpses (filmed in Mexico) - and the handheld camera lingers lovingly over these dessicated denizens of the catacombs as a canto Gregoranio unspools form the soundtrack, the spellbinding tones invoking a literal Fear of God as we experience a Thanatophobic reaction to these tenants of the tombs with their yellowed leathery hides pulled taut over wizened ligaments and protruding bone.  The spectre of death haunts the film from its very opening seconds, and even in the establishing scenes set in the pretty town of Wismar (the North German Hanseatic township that Murnau had chosen as his surrogate for Stoker's Whitby, the location shooting for which in Herzog's film taking place mostly in the picturesque pottery setting of Delft, the Netherlands), with Bruno Ganz (later to garner great acclaim for his barnstorming portrayal of the Fuhrer in Oliver Hirschbiegel's masterful 2004 Untergang [Downfall]) as Jonathan Harker going about his daily routine - Herzog having made the decision to revert the names of the dramatis personae of the film back to their more well-known Stoker nomenclatures.  Herzog pays homage to the Murnau film in these establishing shots, with a number of camera set-ups being almost exact recreations of the '22 film such as the small kitten batting playfully at the locket containing the picture of Lucy hanging from the vanity's mirror.  As Lucy (Herzog opting for that name for the film's conflation of Stoker's Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker characters, rather than Murnau's Nina / Ellen), French actress Isabelle Adjani (The Tenant [Roman Polanski, 1976], the titular Queen in Patrice Chereu's La Reine Margot [1994], and Jeremiah Chechik's best-forgotten-about 1996 bastardisation of Clouzot Diabolique) is the very incarnation of a Gothic (in both the literary and the more modern senses of the term) heroine, with raven-black hair, porcelain pale skin and lips of blood red (levres de sang, as Jean Rollin rolled), a fragile and spectral beauty amidst the haunting images of death and decay when Death comes to Wismar.

Sent by his employer, the estate agent Renfield (played by writer Roland Topor, who had authored the original 1964 novel of The Tenant in a strange piece of serendipitous synchronicity), Harker finds himself bidding farewell to his loving Lucy and embarking upon a strange journey to the wilderness of Transylvania, the 'Land Beyond the Forest'.  This long sequence, filmed in locations across the Czech republic and in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, is largely free of dialogue and with the striking vistas of forests and mountains soundtracked by an effective combination of the German avant-garde electronic ensemble Popul Vuh and Richard Wagner's Rheingeld from the Ring Cycle we are swept along with Harker into a strange land where the normal laws no longer apply.  Herzog may have lacked the inter-titles of the silent film, but where Murnau used text to tell us '...and when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him', here the same chilling effect of stepping into The Beyond is conveyed purely with sound and image: the very essence of pure cinema in full effect.  Here in this realm of ghosts Harker arrives, conveyed by a hearse-like phantom carriage pulled by night-black horses, at Castle Dracula to be met by the Count himself.  Klaus Kinski plays Dracula in a make-up extremely faithful to the Max Schreck Orlock, his head a moon-white and waxen hairless skull with pointed batlike ears and rat's teeth - the very embodiment of the unclean ('necurat'), insufferable ('nesuferit') enemy ('nefartat') bearer of disease ('nosophoros'): ancient atavistic folkloric horror incarnate.  Kinski portrays the character as shuffling wearily under the weight of the centuries, his voice a sighing suspiration, his movements languid and fatigued - this is a creature who has crawled down through the centuries cursed by the inability to die, a far cry from the image of the Romantic 'life' of the undead portrayed in the works of Anne Rice or the glittering ghouls of Stephenie Meyer.

As Harker languishes imprisoned in the corbelled crypt that is Castle Dracula, fed upon nightly by the Count whose polite and courtly manner disappears in the dead of the night to become a predatory animal (the image of his death-white visage emerging from the Stygian darkness to hover over the vulnerable supine Jonathan reminiscent of Fuseli's iconic The Nightmare), Herzog conveys a spiritual or psychic connection to Lucy who wakes screaming from strange dreamings - slow motion close up images of a bat in flight accompanied by the strains of Popul Vuh emphasising the lovers' bond betwixt one another transcending space and time, Lucy feeling Jonathan's pain and fear from afar.  The Count leaves Jonathan behind in his dungeoned hell, travelling in his crated coffin of earth by ship to Harker's homeland and arriving in another shot mirrored from Murnau, as the ghostly barque with it's dead crew sails into the harbour and its sail obliterates the view of the town's church.  The Nosferatu lives up to his name of 'plague bearer' as he arrives in Wismar bringing death and disease in his wake, as hordes of rats (around 10, 000 white lab rats - which the production tried to make resemble black 'plague rats' by covering them with makeup - being imported into the Netherlands by zoologist Maarten t' Hart under Herzog's instruction) sweep the streets and the Black Death decimates the population.  The slow creeping dread that falls over the town like a shadow, and Lucy's growing realisation of the cause, leads to the film's most powerful sequence - the white-robed virginal Lucy wandering through the town square through a vista of death: stacked unburied coffins and the unshriven dead, as the remaining townsfolk dance, drunkenly carouse and sacrifice animals as the strains of the desolately beautiful and poignant Georgian folk song 'Tsintskaro' ('At the Spring Waters', perhaps better known to Western audiences through its sampling by Kate Bush on 'Hello Earth' from Hounds of Love) echo all around.  Herzog expertly conveys a populace in disintegration, the thin veneer of civilisation being so easily stripped away to reveal the ugly animalistic face of humanity as civilisation collapses all around, and as the town's remaining enclave of the petit bourgeois sit at repast, dressed in their finery and inviting Lucy to 'Join us - it's our last supper' as the plague rats crawl about their feast and anarchy howls all around them and Lucy stands appalled at the insanity surrounding her like a lone sublime rose in a graveyard of dead flowers.

Lucy's attempts to appeal to the town's remaining authority figures to convey the root of the disease ('I know the cause of all this!  Why won't you listen?' she implores) are met with deaf ears, and the character of Dr Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast, portraying the character as a closed-minded buffoon as far from the wise and heroic portrayals of Peter Cushing, Frank Finlay et al as can be imagined) is unable and unwilling to come to her aid.  Following the denouement of the Murnau film, Lucy uses her beauty to entice and entrap the vampire, willingly giving her life and her blood (the blood, of course, being the life) to the undead Count as a sacrificial lamb to keep the monster occupied and engrossed in his engorging upon her until the dawn wherein he will be destroyed by the cleansing rays of the rising sun.  This sequence of willing self-destruction for love and the greater good plays out without any music, and the grim naturalism of Dracula's puckered dead lips approaching the terrified Lucy's throat, and then the suckling sound as he drinks her blood whilst his taloned hands paw at her breasts and lift up her nightdress to claw at her thighs is an absolutely perfect image of the abhorrence of violation and of death ravaging beauty and youth.


Herzog saves his final devastating sucker-punch for last, however.  After Lucy has given her life to destroy the Count and breathed her last lying upon her bed strewn with flowers - the very image of a Rosetti painting as she passes beyond the veil - and Professor Van Helsing has finally summoned the courage to do the right thing and hammer a wooden stake into the dying monster's heart to prevent the revenant's return, the surviving bureaucracy of this blighted burgh descend upon the house to arrest him for murder.  'Is it true?' barks the town official (Rijk de Gooyer), 'Did you kill the Count?  With this stake, here?', indicating the blood-covered lump of sharpened wood clutched in the hapless academic's hands.  As Van Helsing is carted away to face the petty 'justice' of the bourgeoisie for helping to end the plague of death, Jonathan - who has been ill, recovering from his ordeal, and sitting in a chair that Lucy has surrounded by a circle made from crushed wafer of the sacred Communion host by Lucy to protect him - suddenly awakes and barks orders at the terrified maid to clean up. 'Can't you see', he indicates the circle around him, 'this place is full of dust?'  As the maid returns with a dustpan and brush to sweep away the fragments, Harker leaps from the circle and triumphantly pulls the crucifix from round his neck with taloned fingers, smiling a terrible smile to bare the ratlike teeth of the vampire.  'Bring me my horse.  I have much work to do.'

And our final shot is of the vampirised Harker riding away upon his steed across the shifting sands and into the horizon as dark clouds gather in the sky to signal an oncoming storm (shades of the end scene of James Cameron's The Terminator of five years later) and the Sanctus from Gounod's Messe solennelle en l'honneur de Sainte C├ęcile soars on the soundtrack.  All sacrifice has ultimately been in vain, as death triumphs over life and the Count is reincarnated in Harker to continue his works.  The undead is dead, long live the undead.

Nosferatus dominus.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Casino Royale (TV, William H. Brown, 1954)

 Long before (well, eight years before, at least) Sean Connery essayed the role of superspy James Bond in Terence Young's 1962 Dr. No, and two years prior to Bob Holness of TV's Blockbusters playing Bond in a version of Moonraker for South African radio (and how i hope that the story of the genial Mr Holness greeting the news of Connery's casting with "Who's this cunt that's got my job?" is not apocryphal, because it never fails to amuse), there was only one actor to play Agent 007.  His name was Nelson.  Barry Nelson.

Starting out his career as an MGM contract player, Nelson had made his screen debut in the fourth in the series of William Powell and Myrna Loy's Nick and Nora Charles series Shadow of the Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1941) before appearing in a string of movies as diverse as the noir mystery Eyes in the Night (Fred Zinnemann, 1942) and Victor Fleming's wonderful romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943) - the basis for Steven Spielberg's 1989 remake Always - and then returning to the US after his wartime military career to feature in prestigious Broadway productions (Moss Hart's Light Up The Sky and F. Hugh Herbert's The Moon is Blue) before making many appearances in television dramas.

 Cast as James Bond, 007 - referred to throughout the American adaptation as 'Jimmy' - Nelson was unfamiliar with the character or the material with which he was working ("I was scratching my head wondering how to play it.  I hadn't read the book... it wasn't well known", he admitted in an interview), the source novel - the first of Ian Fleming's soon to be world famous series - having only been published two years earlier.  Made and aired as part of CBS' Climax! mystery theatre anthology series (which also went on to feature an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - starring Michael Rennie of Robert Wise's seminal 1951 SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still) and broadcast live as was the televisual practice of the time, the episode is introduced by host William Lundigan who explains to the audience about the game of baccarat (which i honestly could have done with Martin Campbell 2006 film version doing with the rules of Texas Hold 'Em poker).  Nelson's flat-topped Combined Intelligence Agent 'Card Sense' Jimmy Bond is paired with Clarence Leiter - changed from the Felix Leiter of the novel and now a British agent, possibly as part of some kind of foreign exchange programme with Bond - played by Australian thespian Michael Pate (best known to me through my penchant for the slightly less dignified areas of cinema as the undead gunslinger Drake Robey aka Don  Drago Robles in the extraordinary vampire Western Curse of the Undead [Edward Dein, 1959], and his turns as the President in two Philippe Mora directed spectaculars: The Return of Captain Invincible [1983] and Howling III: The Marsupials [1987].  I do watch more edifying films.  Honest.  Sometimes.) and French agent of the Deuxieme Bureau Valerie Mathis - a composite of Fleming's Vesper Lynd and Rene Mathis characters - played by the gorgeous Mexican actress (and wife of Hollywood star Tyrone Power) Linda Christian.

Bond's mission is to take on and 'clean out' the villainous Le Chiffre, played by the great Peter Lorre (of Fritz Lang's superlative classic M [1931], Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934], John Huston's The Maltese Falcon [1941] and many, many more - including favourites of mine Stranger on the Third Floor [Boris Ingster, 1940] and The Boogie Man Will Get You [Lew Landers, 1942]).  Lorre is perfectly cast as the 'toadlike' Le Chiffre, wheedling and plotting as he tries to win back the funds of his Soviet paymasters that he has blown (he's blown the funds, not the Russians) and dreading the dreaded revenge wreaked by SMERSH should he fail in his gambling endeavour.

The story moves at a good pace (perhaps due to incorporating the famed 'Fleming sweep' of its source material) across it's just under an hour runtime, with no perceptible gaffes or errors - always a danger in live broadcast material, as evidenced by the earlier Climax! production of Raymond Chandler's 'The Long Goobye', in which the actor playing the corpse assumed he was out shot, got up and ambled away.  It also stays pretty close (merged characters and swapped nationalities aside) to the novel, including the scene in which Le Chiffre's henchman holds Bond to ransom during the duel of cards by holding a trick walking stick that is actually a gun to the base of his spine in order to persuade him to leave the game and hand over his winnings - a sequence changed in the 2006 version to Bond being poisoned with a Digitalis-flavoured Martini and having to race to his car to self-administer defribrillation and medication.  Perhaps EoN Productions simply didn't think escaping a life or death situation by gripping the edge of a table and throwing oneself backwards onto the floor fit the image they wanted for the 21st century Bond they wanted to project. Still, it's nice to see it here.

One sequence that has altered however, inevitably due to the sensibilities of 1950s US television, is the torture sequence after Bond has been lured into the clutches of the vile Le Chiffre by the kidnap of Valerie / Vesper.  There was simply no way that the original scenario (a naked Bond tied to a wicker chair with the seat cut out and having his genitals battered by a carpet beater) was going to stand, yet the replacement in which a beaten Bond is tied and placed in a bathtub, his shoes removed and having his toes worked on with a pair of pliers is actually quite effective.  Due to the camera cutting away from what is precisely being done to the Bondian dactyls, and the agonised reactions of Nelson and Christian (Valerie being forced at gunpoint to watch her lover's grueling ordeal) it is left vague as to whether his toes are being broken or his toenails pulled out.  Either way, it led to me wincing almost as much as the canonical clacker-cracking.

 An enjoyable oddity of a production, obviously very different to the 'canonical' Bond series but still a fascinating curio, 'Casino Royale' features good performances from a great cast and a nicely taut and pacy script.  Rumours suggest that it had been mooted as a backdoor pilot to launch a 1950s US James Bond  TV series, and i do like the notion of a parallel universe wherein Barry Nelson was as well-known as James Bond as, say, Richard Greene is for Robin Hood.  He'll always be remembered by me, however, as 'officious little prick' Stuart Ullman, martinet manager of the dreaded Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's seminal The Shining (1980).  Shaken and stirred.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Captain America (Albert Pyun, 1990)

 With Marvel Studios' current domination of the cinematic box off ice like a veritable four-colour Kirby-dotted Titan, it's very easy to forget the long lean days of yore when to be a comic book fan who wanted to see one's mighty heroes transliterated from the pulpy page to the silver screen was to be given less choice than Sophie Zawitowski.  It must be near impossible today, when Disney chairman Bob Iger confidently states that Marvel film productions "will go on forever" as the production slate for the Marvel Cinematic Universe shifts from Phase Two to Phase Three (with a projected roster of eleven movies spanning from Captain America: Civil War [Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, 2016] to Inhumans [2019]), to conceive of a time when a superhero movie was a rare beast - when the David Hasselhoff-starring made for television Movie of the Week Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Rod Hardy, 1998) would be eagerly anticipated, when reruns of the classic Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) would be gleefully enjoyed with any thoughts about how unlike the source material it really was pushed to the back of the mind, or when perfunctory Dolph Lundgren actioner The Punisher (Mark Goldblatt, 1989) would transcend its slightly grubby B-list Death Wish status in the eyes of the viewer because it was Marvel character Frank castle there on the screen.  Slim pickin's indeed.  For the Marvel comics fan cum cineaste, it was like trying to convey to a young Doctor Who fan in the modern age what the 1990s were like.  "We didn't have all this stuff!".

And much in the same way that a Who fan can sometimes sound like he's perversely nostalgic for the days when there was less of what he likes around, in some ways I do look back fondly upon the days when a comic book adaptation was the rarity rather than the rule.  As good an actor and likeable a screen presence as Mark Ruffalo is, Bill Bixby remains the archetypal (David) Bruce Banner for me.  Neither Tobey Maguire nor Andrew Garfield have displaced Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man in my mind's eye.  The fervour with which the TV showings or VHS releases of Marvel product in the 1980s and most of the 1990s was met meant that these portrayals were seared indelibly upon my impressionable young brain.  In the case of Star-Spangled Avenger Captain America, long before Chris Evans strode onto the screen as Steve Rogers there was another actor who had essayed the role.  Well, there were three previous actors, actually: Dick Purcell (star of Jean Yarbrough's 1941 King of the Zombies) had played Cap in a 1944 Republic Pictures movie serial that saw the character's alter ego changed to crime-fighting district attorney Grant Gardner, and Reb Brown had taken hold of the mighty vibranium shield for a pair of TV movies in 1979 that i won't cover in any detail here, as they're so genius / awful that i'm certain i'll get round to doing them in detail some time.  But the film i'm concerned with here is the 1990 Cannon Films production starring Matt Salinger, son of reclusive Holden Caulfield-spawner J. D. Salinger.

Coming hot on the heels of Pyun's superlative essaying of futuristic apocalyptic angst Cyborg (1989) - and you know what, i may not even actually be joking there - but before the dizzy heights of 1991's Dollman or 1996's Omega Doom (alright, yes, i'm just straying into ridiculous territory here) this feature eschews both the modernising take of the 1970s movies and the historical setting of the most recent iteration by going the whole entire hog and establishing the character's origin from the frail polio-stricken Steve Rogers into the titular Super Soldier during World War II, as well as his first skirmish with the villainous Red Skull (Scott Paulin, of Teen Wolf [1985] and other stuff, probably) before literally putting the character on ice until 'the present day'. 

The film features Ned Beatty, possibly best known to fans of the superhero movie as Otis 'Otisburg' from off of the Superman (1978), as childhood Cap'n 'Murica fan (his younger 1940s self being portrayed by Beatty's son Thomas) and confidante Sam Kolawetz, 'Dick Jones from RoboCop' Ronny Cox as President Tom Kimball, and in a weird piece of double casting that makes my fannish mind explode both Bill Mumy (from Lost in Space [1965-1968] and Babylon 5 [1994-1998]) and Darren McGavin (Carl Kolchak himself from Kolchak: The Night Stalker [1974-1975]) as the respective younger and older versions of the dodgy General Fleming.

The more recent films obviously have the talents of performers such as Hayley Atwell to call upon, but this modest take upon the material does quite well with the performance of Kim Gillingham as both Steve's 1940's love interest Bernie and her present day incarnation Sharon in a contrast of 'The Olden Days' with 'The Present Day' that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997) would exploit to more comic effect later in the decade.

I was a bit sad when the Red Skull died.  But then, i tend to be on the side of the super villains more often than not.  I have no idea what this could possibly mean, psychologically speaking.