Thursday, September 11, 2008

Horrors enough


The Strangers based, it claims happily, on a true story, is about a yuppie-ish couple who are tied up, tortured and, for a grand finale, stabbed to buggery by teenagers in grotesque masks. (The tagline is "Because You Were Home...")
Eden Lake pits a totally different yuppie-ish couple against a totally different pack of ferals (including that obnoxious tyke Thomas Turgoose); totally different torture, slashings, severed tongues and burnings alive ensue.
Donkey Punch is light relief: a pack of morons turn psycho when one of them accidentally kills some tart by walloping the back of her neck during sex on a yacht; savage killings ensue.

Urban violence is apparently the new thing in horror; a strange amalgam of the traditional slasher film, the serial killer thriller and that popular hybrid known jovially as torture porn. Aside from identikit plots and identikit best-horror-film-I've-seen-in-ages-type reviews, these films have this in common: their collective presence at the moment when their genre abandoned the last pitiful vestiges of what we can now see was only ever a cynical and opportunist reliance on fantasy, and the pretence of ultimately siding with the angels.
No longer is lip service paid to the threat being countered at the end, no longer are the monsters different from the rest of us, no longer is there any effort to pretend that mere sadism is insufficient as content, and should not be offered explicitly for the delectation of other sadists. Now, torture and thuggery are indispensable ingredients in horror.
This is a huge milestone moment in the history of horror movies akin to the debuts of Psycho or Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw.
Think back to the last mini-milestone that was Scream. How cosy does that look, already? These are fast-paced times, folks: look out.

It took just ten years to get from The Curse of Frankenstein to Corruption, a mere twelve from Psycho to Last House on the Left, a piffling fifteen from Silence of the Lambs to Hostel. The last journey may be the most interesting of all, not just because it takes in so many unbelievably bad films along the way - Copycat, The Bone Collector, In Dreams, The Cell, Kiss the Girls, Natural Born Killers - but also because it shows how quickly walls tumble once breached.
The official line on Lambs was that it was an important film, not cheap exploitation, so we all dutifully took it seriously and pretended it was serious drama with serious things to say, and we trooped off seriously to see it and went in with serious faces and came out with serious faces. Watching it, we had a lot of fun. How long before we were just allowed to have fun with this stuff? Fifteen years. And look where we are now, and how commonplace it all is now, and how Hostel barely raised an eyebrow.
And still we talk of films 'influencing' people, and argue the toss about it, as if the people who make the films aren't influenced every bit as much as those watching them! As if this clear progression from the shocking to the commonplace, despite the constant upping of the dose of sadism and degradation and masturbatory clinical detail, does not tell its own obvious story of a culture and a product coarsening each other as they march together. Coarsened sensibilities both are coarsened and coarsen others, and the ride never stops.

The name of the game now is realism. The killers are real, the killings are real, the pitilessness is real, the gloating over sadism is real, the hopelessness is real.
Even when Psycho made it okay for ordinary human killers to be fun-scary, the iconography remained resolutely other-worldly. As late in the game as Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, the threat is always overtly monstrous, bordering on supernatural, the killer signposted as fundamentally different from those around him, not least by the adoption of a signature mask that seems somehow more his real face than whatever lies beneath.
Chucky and Freddy were the most the previous generation had to worry about: one a sort of ghost, one a doll, neither likely to be hanging around the back of your local supermarket.
Even the masks are being let go now; true, the killers of The Strangers adopt such disguises, but only to be scary. Like the killers of the Scream series they use horror masks not because they are an outward manifestation of their psyches but because that's what killers wear in the movies. The arrival of films like Wolf Creek and the Hostel and Saw series shows that art now imitates life imitating art imitating life.

I'm aware of the difficulties in addressing this issue. Honestly I am. I realise that all horror films, even those that now seem the mildest, were all offensive to some in their day, and all pushed at their generation's generally agreed lines of taste and decency. Whale's Frankenstein with its ghoulish imagery of violated graves and post-mortem surgery certainly did. Of course, we can look back and say ah, but there is no explicit detail, and no sadistic killings, and order is restored at the end - and all of this would be true, and would point undeniably to a worrying regression in public taste... but it still wouldn't face up to the fact that horror has always stood outside of mainstream consensus, and that perhaps that is its job.
The Raven, with Lugosi getting obvious sexual pleasure from torturing the woman who spurned him, was felt to be horribly sadistic, and was. The trappings and acting style all distance us from it today, and lessen any serious potential it might hold to shock or disturb, but it would disingenuous to say it was always and intentionally thus.
And yet, irrationally perhaps, I find myself thinking that horror films are a luxury for a people that can afford them, a harmless escape valve for ordered, decent societies that have a strong sense of themselves and a shared certainty as to what ultimate values are being violated on screen. In a flabby society of relative values, weak justice, increasing fear and disorder, such films serve a different and darker purpose. The time has perhaps come, then, to tighten our belts and be done with them. Lugosi does it all a million times better anyway. Watch The Devil Bat instead. See the killer bat swoop on its victims, the ones Lugosi has cunningly doused in the after shave lotion that drives it into a killing frenzy, watch Lugosi explain his cunning plot to a large fake bat hanging upside down from a coat hanger. You'll find you don't need to watch people get tied to chairs and disemboweled.

Richard Mansfield, the American actor who was appearing in a London stage adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders closed his own production down when newspaper gossip linked the play to the mood of the times, and suggested it might even influence the killer. He made one last performance, donating the proceeds to charity, and afterwards thanked his audience for their patronage and took his leave, explaining "There are horrors enough outside."
Lugosi is all the horror I need at the moment; of the other sort, there is enough outside.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Gloria Stuart is 98 today


In 1998, Gloria Stuart became the oldest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for her part in Titanic. The film itself has not held up at all, but Stuart deserved the recognition: after the death of Fay Wray (who turned the Titanic gig down) she became perhaps the last of the great thirties Hollywood stars.
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A philosophy graduate from Berkeley and a gifted exponent of Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage, she was an intelligent and serious actress encumbered with Hollywood glamour. She came to films reluctantly, and was never certain she had made the right decision, particularly as her much announced superstardom never materialised.
“When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed,” she once said, “I didn't realize it would take so long.”
The attempts to turn her into a production line Hollywood sexpot were often so blatant they seem deliberately antagonistic, as if intended to break her independence and feistiness. She appears in a 1932 Hollywood on Parade short in a cheesecake line-up of Hollywood’s unanimous choice of 1933’s starlets of tomorrow: fourteen girls, one from each studio. “I’m an all-American girl,” she says, in answer to her one question. (The 14 chosen proved a meagre crop, with only Ginger Rogers built for the long haul. Others included Patricia Ellis, Mary Carlisle and Lona Andre, who tells us she got into pick-chas bah bein’ the pantha woman. They didn’t realise when they said stars of tomorrow that they meant Monogram’s stars of tomorrow.)
At Universal, Carl Laemmle Jr was enraptured (“I have never seen such poise, such delicate beauty, such depth, why she almost scares you”) and insisted that “We’ll have to find some truly distinguished stories for her, in fact the finest, because… it would be foolish, and rather embarrassing all round, to put her in, well, a trivial story”.
. But none of her work, either freelance or contracted to Universal and later Twentieth Century Fox, made anything like full use of her talents. She looks stunning in the Eddie Cantor farce Roman Scandals, and does her best singing ‘I’m Going Shopping With You’ with Dick Powell in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1935; at Fox she worked with Shirley Temple and the Ritz Brothers, and gave one of her best performances in one of her best films: John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Today, apart from Titanic, she is probably best known now for her roles in Universal horror films. In The Invisible Man (1933) she is purely decorative, essentially reprising Mae Clark's worried girlfriend role from Frankenstein. But Secret of the Blue Room (1933), the least known of the bunch, at least has the sense to keep her the centre of attention.
Adapted from a successful German film, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, no effort has gone into Americanising it, so Paul Lukas is our hero, Captain Walter Brink, and Gloria is our heroine, Irene Von Helldorf, doting daughter to Croydon-born Lionel Atwill. (At least Lukas has an accent: Irene is German by way of Long Island.)

We open in a large and imposing Germanic mansion, almost a castle, where Irene, younger, prettier and more kittenish than the Teutonic sobriety of her name might lead you to suspect, has chosen to celebrate her 21st birthday by inviting the three men who most fancy her to dinner and have them squabble over her. (We’ve all met girls like this.)
Stuart is coquettish and haughty here; with little in the script to bite into she plays the part as a prim tease; indeed, with Lionel Atwill on hand as master of ceremonies, we’re beginning to wonder just what kind of coming of age party this is going to turn into.
“And now,” he says, “Give us all a nice birthday kiss”; Stuart first kisses her father full on the lips, then all the other men in turn. But before Atwill has time to get the snake out of the cupboard, the contest between the three eligible bachelors (that’s Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber and Thomas Brandt: stout Germanic types all, especially young Tommy) takes a sinister turn when it is discovered that the castle has a sealed bedroom, in which two guests were murdered years before, their killer never identified and his method of entering and escaping never found. In an only barely sublimated courtship display, it is mooted that they each spend consecutive nights there. One dies, one disappears, and one puts two and two together.
There are no surprises here. But it’s got the full compliment of panels and passages, it’s got red herrings of a sort, it’s got Gloria Stuart done up like Harlow in platinum curls and clinging satin nightwear… and how she must have hated teasingly delivering lines like “Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave; thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience!”
The masterpiece of her Universal years, and probably of her career, is James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). (As well as The Invisible Man director and star also teamed on The Kiss Before the Mirror [1933], a stylish murder mystery, between the two horrors.)
.How she must have relished the chance to begin a film not cooing in luxury but trapped in a car in the pouring rain, already deep in a bitter argument with her screen husband. She gives an excellent performance throughout The Old Dark House because she can see it’s worth the effort; she’s also at her most beautiful on screen here, too, which may not be a coincidence. The film is among the more authentically pre-Code of the early Universals, and the potent atmosphere of weird eroticism in the scene where she is subjected to sexual interrogation at the hands of Eva Moore is still disquieting and extraordinary.
Deciding to change out of her wet clothes, Stuart is taken upstairs by Moore, who sits on the bed and harangues her with lurid reminiscences of her hated sister, who had died in the same room at the age of twenty-one. She was wicked, “handsome as a hawk”, and “all the young men used to follow her about with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck.” As each tragic episode of this poor girl’s life is recounted as if evidence of her evil – she fell off a horse and broke her spine, then lay screaming on the very bed on which she is now sitting (Moore gives the pillows a satisfied pat to make the point), begging to be killed for month after month, before finally expiring “Godless to the last” - Stuart is slowly undressing to her satin underwear, fixes her stockings, then dresses slowly, just her shoes first, then pulling on a fantastic (if quite inappropriate considering the temperature and the company) clinging white satin dress. (Like a white flame, director James Whale envisaged.)
The juxtaposition between the horrible narrative, recounted with obvious glee by Moore, and the alluring visuals is deliberately emphasised by Whale, who brings it to a memorable dramatic coda, as Moore concludes her diatribe against “brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins” by circling Stuart and ending up staring into her face:

You’re wicked, too. Young and handsome, silly, and wicked! You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you? (She grabs the material of her dress.) That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot. (She pinches Stuart’s skin.) That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time!

Whale finishes with a great shot of the curtains, and Stuart’s dress, billowing in the wind as she runs down a corridor on the beautiful, Cat and the Canary–ish set. Bravura, pre-Code tours-de-force from writer, director and cast alike, and one of those scenes where you most long for a look at one of those gleaming first run prints. (The Old Dark House survives only in a ratty old print resembling a DVD bootleg.) Stuart, her hair neatly parted and half-lit, half-shadowed, getting a chance to really perform while being photographed so magnificently, looks as beautiful as any actress has ever looked at the movies.
All of which helps make Gloria Stuart the world's most important living film star.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Julie Ege: Hammer's head cavegirl


First Hazel Court, now, less than a week later, Julie Ege.
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While Court was of the first, more stately generation of Hammer leading ladies, Ege was very much of the later school, the seventies international crumpet contingent.
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She had been Miss Norway, a Penthouse centrefold and one of Blofeld’s girls in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by the time Hammer spotted her, declared her “the new sex symbol of the seventies” and cast her as a cavewoman in Creatures The World Forgot. The film died, but any Hammer fan will tell you that she was the studio's top cavewoman, outgrunting Raquel Welch, Edina Ronay or Victoria Vetri by a prehistoric mile.
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For a while Ege was busy in British films, combining sexpot roles in Up Pompeii (as 'Voluptua'), Percy’s Progress, Not Now Darling and The Amorous Milkman with more interesting work (this is strictly relative, remember) in some of the odder British horror films, like Herman Cohen’s demented Craze, and The Mutations, which ends with her turning into a plant.
In all these films she was well-served by an air of bemusement which could have been unfamiliarity with the language but was just as likely incredulity at the weird things she was being asked to do and the overall shabbiness of the productions in which she was being asked to do them.
Unlike many Hammer glamour queens of the time, she has a down to earth quality and seems to be enjoying herself. As a result, she seems less self-conscious and more likeable on screen, and she is easier to pick out and remember from film to film, than many of her peers.
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The Mutations has her as a student in London, and there is a convincingly matey, Man About the House-type interplay with her co-stars Jill Haworth and two blokes (you look up their names if you’re so interested). And she is charming in the Marty Feldman film Every Home Should Have One, funny in The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, and game indeed in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, her second Hammer, in which she plays a kind of proto-feminist European adventuress. It is, I suppose, acting-wise the meatiest of all her roles, but as I said, this is all relative.
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She lived in England for a while but eventually returned to Norway, where she became a nurse. It was, she said, what she had always wanted to be: “To be honest, I was never really that proud of my performance in films, but I gave it my best and enjoyed the work very much.”
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She died of cancer on April 29th.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hazel Court: Hammer’s head girl


Hazel Court, star of The Curse of Frankenstein, has died at the age of eighty-two, just a week before the publication of her autobiography.

Court was the original Hammer Horror girl, first in a long line of screaming damsels menaced by the many unspeakable horrors of the English gothic tradition.
The popular image of a Hammer starlet is of the 1970’s variety, blonde and pneumatic, recruited as often as not from Playboy magazine. Court, by contrast, was of the first generation, product of a time when the studio favoured slightly older and more classical actresses, statuesque rather than blatantly pulchritudinous, often red-headed, and in at least three cases called Yvonne.
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Court's importance to the Hammer story is basically symbolic. In terms of longevity and number of films, Barbara Shelley (who somewhat resembled Court and according to Christopher Lee possessed “a bass baritone quite rare for a woman”) is a more central figure in the studio’s history, as well as a comparably gifted actress who transformed a number of pretty watery roles. But it was Court who got there first, as Elizabeth in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first true Hammer gothic.
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She only appeared once more for the studio, but scored another first: becoming, in 1959’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death, the first Hammer lead actress to appear nude. (But only in export prints, in a sequence now lost. For many Hammer fans, these few seconds of film are worth a hundred London After Midnights, though a still from it does appear in Court's autobiography.) But she confirmed her genre reputation with subsequent appearances in Hammer carbon Dr Blood’s Coffin and three AIP Poe films for Roger Corman: The Premature Burial, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death, the latter as a somewhat tragic villainess rather than screaming heroine (below).
Her qualities were felt more keenly in her absence. As the sixties brought worldwide success for Hammer, a more international and overt glamour element was sought, and the refined English model typified by Court and Shelley gave way to younger and blonder variations; it coincided with the move away from Bray studios and was an equally regrettable loss to the Hammer formula. These were the days of Raquel Welch modelling mankind's first bikini and Susan Denberg, Playboy’s Miss August ’66, in Frankenstein Created Woman (the clumsy title legacy of a brief period when it was touted as a vehicle for Bardot – a good indicator of the direction in which Hammer was moving).
The best of this middle batch is clearly Veronica Carlson (left), who debuted in 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and followed it with two Frankensteins and Tyburn’s Hammer-alike The Ghoul.
The bottom fell out of Hammer shortly after they were awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry in ’68, and as the films themselves became more desperately exploitative in the studio’s drive to regain lost favour at the box-office, so did the central casting. The archetypal Hammer queen from this (perhaps any) era is, I suppose, Ingrid Pitt, though she too only appeared in two films for the company (in one of which she is dubbed) and made her name crucially as villainess rather than heroine; off-screen she was something of a loose wire to say the least.
Standing out amongst this final catch are the winsome Madeline Smith, who specialised in young and naïve victims, and Caroline Munro (left), the only actress signed to a Hammer contract and an enduring genre presence well into the eighties.
But I must also put in a word for Valerie Leon (left), Amazonian support in Carry On films and similar, whose one and only Hammer performance was also her one and only lead, in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb. It shouldn’t have worked out but it does: Leon is beautiful but in a very weird way, and her strange, penetrating face, which her comedy roles played down, Hammer played up. As a result, she gives a genuinely spooky performance, looks amazing, and even her fairly wooden delivery adds to the trance-like characterisation.
The rest were typified by the likes of Yutte Stensgaard (Danish crumpet in Lust For a Vampire), Victoria Vetri (Playboy centrefold turned Hammer cavewoman), or Madeleine and Mary Collinson (Playboy’s nude twins, Hammer’s Twins of Evil, left). These stars, often spotted by eagle-eyed Hammer boss Sir James Carreras (“I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it”) in newspapers and advert-hoardings, were put into films like The Vampire Lovers and Dracula AD 1972 ( “The Count is Back... with an eye for London's hotpants” ran the advertising) to take advantage of a newly liberalised British Board of Film Censors. Far from pornography, these films seem rather charmingly short-trousered today, with big-breasted Scandinavians tumbling out of their nightgowns in solemn re-enactment of the fantasies ten-year old schoolboys had when they were supposed to be doing geometry.
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Though she certainly shares with later custodians of the Hammer tiara what the Times obituary describes as a “panoramic cleavage”, Court’s was a poised and elegant screen presence, her beautiful red hair, green eyes and translucent skin seeming almost unreal in the harsh Eastmancolor palette. (She seems even more other-worldy in Dr Blood’s Coffin, which casts her not in Victorian costume but as a 1960’s nurse in a Cornish village.)
Her voice, too, is unusual; she purrs rather than talks, and it almost sounds as though there is a foreign accent being submerged beneath the cut-glass vowels, though she was in fact from Birmingham. Rewatching The Curse of Frankenstein, as I assume we have all just done, it is clear that she, more perhaps than any other Hammer female lead, has real star quality as well as being a quite exceptional beauty; you can easily imagine her sparring with Margaret Lockwood in a Gainsborough melodrama, or even in women’s pictures in Hollywood.
But Curse rescued her from a career that was fast going nowhere. She had been around since the mid-forties without ever quite making an impression; like the equally striking Barbara Steele she had been signed to a Rank contract and then more or less ignored.
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By the mid-fifties she was most often to be found on television or in those cheap second-feature thrillers that took the place of the original quota-quickies.
The most notorious of these is 1954’s Devil Girl From Mars (1954), wonderful on-the-cheap British sci-fi, with Hazel as one of a group of earthlings trapped in a pub by a black leather-clad Martian dominatrix out to recruit men as breeding stock. (The Times, reporting her death, claimed Court herself played the Devil Girl: alas, she did not, but I understand the wishful thinking.) Incidentally, the film - like Behind The Headlines (1956), one of her very last before Hammer - paired her with Adrienne Corri, another striking redhead whose time was still to come.
After Hammer, she was suddenly the hottest thing in British films. A contemporaneous issue of Picturegoer put her on the cover, and in an article titled “Our cover girl shines among the ghouls” noted: “Hers will be the most widely screened British face in America this year”, and that the film itself was “tipped to be shown in more US cinemas than any British film ever.”
Well, the predicted superstardom never came, and it is a great pity that the main fruit of her success – a part in the American tv series Dick and the Duchess – kept her away from British movies at a time when she should have been consolidating her success. As it was the series ended after a year, and she returned to a movie business that had moved on in her absence. Apart from the Cormans and Dr Blood’s, almost all of her subsequent credits were in tv.
But she remains, for me, the best as well as the first Hammer heroine, and it is sad indeed to contemplate how good she would have been as Mina in Dracula, or Isobel in The Mummy, or in any of Barbara Shelley’s roles.
Watching Curse again, I was struck as I always am by the confidence and ease of it: there is no sense whatsoever that the studio realised they were doing anything radical or far-reaching in its influence. It is, in fact, a rather underrated film, one that it is fashionable to write-off as far more important for what it began than for what it is. I’ve never found it so: certainly I feel it is equal to Dracula, its immediate follow-up and a masterpiece acknowledged by all. Hazel Court, in incredible real Victorian costumes that seem nonetheless tailor-made for her, is a huge contributor to its success, and to that crucial aura of class Hammer were able to give what was in truth a very cheap film. Like Cushing, similarly far more than Hammer could have reasonably expected, she bestows elegance on all she brushes past.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Vampira goes home


Edward D. Wood Jr's Plan Nine From Outer Space is unquestionably the most famous bad movie of all time.
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It first came to prominence in the late seventies when it was hailed as the worst film ever made, and Wood the world's worst director, and it was only over time that a more respectful cult grew around it, saluting Wood's inventiveness, eccentricity and resourcefulness.
A tragic, tortured individual, he sadly lived long enough to witness the first wave of acclaim but not the second. One of his stars, Valda Hansen, recalled him saying: "Do you think I care if I'm a millionaire? No... what hurts me is the cruelty toward me... I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel. All this garbage I see, they praise. And me, they seem to love to deride me."

The man had a point. At a time in the nineteen-seventies when so much acclaim was being heaped on childish, utterly pretentious films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, what was so terrible about a few wobbling tombstones and super-intelligent aliens who write their plans for world domination on scruffy sheets of A4?
Looking back at that 'Golden Turkey' period, and thinking of Wood's final days - alcoholic, barely scraping a living, still proud of his films and desperate to make another - it does all seem unbelievably cruel. He did indeed do the best he could with what he had, and parts of his films really are triumphs of inspiration over an almost complete lack of resources. Of course, that does not make them good movies by any objective standard, but Wood was an eccentric who should have been treasured.

And as for Plan Nine itself, it seems to me that while later attempts to redress the injustice by hailing him as a genius and visionary are plainly ridiculous, the narrow-mindedness of the earlier mockery is equally blinkered.
The truth is that the film does have some things going for it, especially in its first half. Once the heroes are on board the spaceship - with its tatty curtains and Dudley Manlove shrieking "Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" - the absurdity of the concept becomes insurmountable. But some of the earlier sequences are genuinely spooky if you catch them in the right frame of mind - that is to say with a wide-eyed child's kind of imagination, which was exactly the kind of imagination Wood possessed. There is a visual style unique to the film, and the library music score is entirely effective. (The famous main theme is in fact a Soviet hymn to industry: 'Iron Foundry' by the Russian composer Alexander Mossolov.)
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And the human presence that most instantly evokes and defines it - far more than Lugosi, far more than chiropractor Dr Tom Mason pretending to be Lugosi with a cape over his face, more even than the stumbling, massive Tor Johnson - is actress Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira, who died earlier this month at the age of eighty-six.
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In the film she plays Bela Lugosi's wife, ressurected from the dead by aliens whose plan to enslave the earth by reviving human corpses is so obscure and ill-considered one can only wonder what their first eight plans were like. She is never named: Vampira is how she is billed as actress rather than character. The notion of a zombie being played by a woman called Vampira is in fact one of the subtler oddities that proliferate in Wood's universe.
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'Vampira' was originally a character Nurmi created for television, a role in which she could provide on-screen introductions to late-night horror shows. Unlike her mute, scary turn in Plan Nine, she was flirty and fun. The look she invented - tight black dress, long black hair, arched eyebrows and odd mix of skittishness and predatory allure, kind of like Veronica Lake's evil twin - was inspired in part by the famous Charles Addams cartoons but predates by years Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family, Yvonne de Carlo in The Munsters, Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming and all those other variations on the same basic formula.
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Wood's stars tend to fall into two categories: those that loved him, loved his films, appeared in several of them and hung out with him between pictures, and those who somehow found themselves roped in and couldn't believe the ants-nest of weirdoes, derelicts, has-beens and freaks into which they had landed. Chief among the latter has always been Plan Nine's hero, Greg Walcott, who has frequently scorned the notion that Wood was a frustrated artist, and opined that even with a big studio's resources he still would have made the same film. (His exact words were: "He had no taste. Even if he had ten million dollars it would have been a piece of tasteless shit.")
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Surprisingly, perhaps, Nurmi belonged to this latter category. Her entry into Wood's world came about through necessity rather than choice. The way she told it, she was being courted by all the major studios when she first heard that Wood was interested in signing her, and openly scorned the idea. But then she was blacklisted, and accepted Wood's offer in desperation when all other avenues had been closed to her.
According to her she was paid 200 dollars for a day's work, and travelled to and from the studio in full make-up on the bus.
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Rarely has screen immortality begun so humbly, for there is no doubt that a huge part of the film's enduring status is attributable to her role and her presence.
Plot-wise she is an utter mystery. All that the aliens are supposed to have done is make some corpses rise from their graves, and we are expected to believe that she is the wife of a rather elderly and conventional man, played by Lugosi. So to what are we expected to attribute her extraordinary appearance? Why was she buried in that incredible costume? What's with the make-up? Who cares? She looks sensational. For most of my teenage years this was exactly the girl I wanted on my arm.
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Her first appearances, if one thinks of them purely as cinema with no regard to the story Wood is supposedly telling (which seems to be the way Wood thought most of the time), are gorgeous little pieces of film. Wood cuts to that tiny, minimalist grave set, jet-black save for a tomb, a single wizened tree and some wisps of fog in the extreme foreground. Slowly, from behind the tomb, she emerges, her arms held rigid but not straight, twisted at odd angles, shaking slightly as if palsied. Staring directly at us, she moves slowly but not gracefully, in odd, lurching spurts of movement. It is intercut with location shots of the two gravediggers (one of them producer J Edward Reynolds, a baptist who put up most of the money on the condition that the entire cast be baptised in a swimming pool) and the match is hopeless: they are in dusk on location, she in impenetrable, inky, studio blackness.

The effect is hard to describe but unforgettable to watch, and I'm aware that one can oversell it as much as undersell it... obviously it's not really scary and it makes no sense as drama... but purely on the level of imagery it is really quite beautiful.

Most of her sequences are variations on this set-up, walking either to the camera or away from it on this single cramped set, sometimes her face blank and placid, sometimes contorted in an evil sneer. On one memorable occasion we see her walking away from us in her fantastic dress, a tight belt around her tiny waist, before half-turning her head and looking directly at us with one eye.

Just imagine what her home-life with Lugosi had been like! The only reference we get implies complete domestic harmony: against poignant footage of Lugosi shot shortly before his death, narrator Criswell (a non-psychic psychic who predicted entire cities of homosexuals in America and an inter-planetary convention before the end of the twentieth century) intones typically purple, incomprehensible Ed Wood prose:
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The grief of his wife's death became greater and greater agony. The home they had so long shared together became a tomb, a sweet memory of her joyous living. The sky to which she had once looked was now only a covering for her dead body.
The ever-beautiful flowers she had planted with her own hands became nothing more than the lost roses of her cheeks.
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Like so much else, perhaps everything else, about this film, the words are meaningless, crazed, hopelessly self-contradicting - yet oddly effective, strangely haunting.
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In later years, Nurmi seemed happily resigned to the fact that Plan Nine was her ticket to immortality, and spoke affectionately of Wood and the times they spent promoting the movie. Interviewed by Rudolph Grey for his generous and fascinating oral history of Wood's life and work Nightmare of Ecstasy she told of her most recent business venture: selling Hollywood celebrity grave rubbings by mail order.
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AND... I've only just learned that Yvonne de Carlo died last year, too; somehow the news got past me until now. A beautiful starlet in forties tosh, westerns and exotica (Salome Where She Danced, Frontier Gal, Slave Girl) and wife of Moses in The Ten Commandments, she will be remembered above all for the role of Lily Munster, which she accepted reluctantly and never quite came to terms with. She knew that The Munsters, rather than any of her starring movies, would unquestionably be her legacy, and the fact bemused her somewhat, but she appreciated the renewed popularity it brought her with successive generations of children.