Friday, November 26, 2010

Ingrid and Michael and you and me

The British horror film.
A bit like the American horror film, except for the fact that a) it had a different Golden Age (roughly 1956-1975), and b) it had Michael Ripper instead of Dwight Frye.
There may be other differences, but those are the main ones.
I'd be the first to admit that it is not the Bach Matthäus-Passion. Neither is it Mahler's third, The Brothers Karamazov or that Rembrandt painting of the female tennis player showing her bum.
But if this stuff does have lasting merit, and I think it does, it should strike us more forcefully than it tends to that we were alive at the same time as these people who helped make it.
Future fans will not be so lucky, and they will assume that we went around all day remarking on our good fortune to have actually lived in the same days as Michael Gough or Ingrid Pitt.
But we don't, we just sort of take it for granted, as if it couldn't be any other way, as we mark off the dates on the calendar: Ingrid Pitt died this week, aged 73; Michael Gough - I hope - ate a big cake with a miniature icing sugar Konga and 94 candles on it this week.
That's this week, modern life fans!
. So, firstly, we lost mad Ingrid.
When all is said and done - and, now, all is said and done - Ingrid was the female face of Hammer Horror. The stubborn facts that she only appeared in two Hammer films, and was dubbed in one of them, matter less than zip. Today is a day for printing the legend, and if anyone ever relished their association with Hammer it was Ingrid. Not for her the Christopher Lee "actually I'm more of a roller-skating song and dance man than a vampire" type of squeamishness. Ingrid loved being a Hammer gal, and you don't get to be the number one female face of Hammer for no reason. Something about her Carmilla Karnstein was uniquely iconic in a way that her peers could never quite duplicate.
If you're a regular reader in these parts you'll know why I'm bending over backwards to stress points that are for most uncontested and uncontroversial. Ingrid was not my favourite Hammer actress, and it would be disingenuous to pretend I haven't gone on record as saying so. Off screen she seemed like an exposed electric wire, onscreen I always preferred Valerie and Veronica and Caroline and Hazel.
But I do think she's a good actress, which was not something Hammer actually demanded of its leading ladies. Her two Hammer performances are real performances, with odd moments and nuances not dictated by the script but indicative of a responding intelligence in their interpreter.
Countess Dracula, even crassly dubbed, is to be commended for the way in which both actress and director seem to be inspiring each other to take the thing more seriously than necessary: the result is one of the most instantly distinctive and under-rated Hammer films of the seventies. Her performance in Vampire Lovers, the schoolboy's Citizen Kane, is even more layered: the character's existential melancholy is entirely Ingrid and entirely effective, as though she had taken Lugosi's enigmatic line "To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious..." and used it as template for the entire performance.
It is especially interesting to see how she plays her scenes with the young girls she corrupts and ultimately abandons. One might have expected her to do it Dracula-style: coldly seductive, with an obvious edge of calculating, cynical disregard. Quite the reverse: she seems almost self-loathing in her appetites and genuinely in love with her victims. Just compare her scenes with Madeline Smith with the swiftness and savagery with which she dispatches inconvenient men. You can see the difference instantly if you look at Lust for a Vampire (and it's as good an excuse as any): Yutte's Mircalla is much more the machine-like vampiress; it's not - and I mean this - a bad performance by any means, but a standard one. Pitt was never standard.
. Aside from her Hammer films, the obituaries have focused on Where Eagles Dare and, for some reason, The Wicker Man, in which she has almost literally nothing to do. According to Allan Brown's book Inside The Wicker Man she was cast against Anthony Shaffer's wishes ("I said, "Christ, must we have her?"; I wanted to avoid any further connections to Hammer Horror"), apparently because it was felt her then-liaison with George Pinches, Rank's head of exhibition, would guarantee the film a place on the Odeon circuit. But even in the full-length version she has only one tiny speaking scene before she turns up at the finale to assist the villagers in the burning of Sgt Howie. (Her only other appearance is in a gloriously unnecessary two-second shot of Howie disturbing her in her bath, apologising and leaving again: "It was quite wonderful to get all my kit off and sit in the hot water in the cold winter... When you take your kit off, everybody is so nice, everybody just loves you to bits...")
I liked this recollection, from assistant director Jake Wright, very much:

The weather was just appalling. It was always bitterly cold, with a cold wind blowing in off the sea. All our lovely crowd were dressed in little summer blouses, the men in shirt sleeves. And they froze, poor loves... Then came a moment when we needed two minutes to reload the camera, so I told the wardrobe people to give the main artists their coats to keep them warm. And Britt Ekland took hers, Diane Cilento put her coat on, but Ingrid Pitt said, "Thank you, but if the crowd haven't got time to put on their coats, I haven't got time," which I thought was lovely.

I tend more readily to think of her in The House That Dripped Blood.

This is her third great appearance, a nice little spoof of Hammer, in which she is both authentic and amusing. It's as if she just knew she was destined to be the female Christopher Lee for all time, remarkable considering that she was launched by Hammer with none of the fanfare that accompanied non-starters like Victoria Vetri or Julie Ege, and doubly so when you realise it was made before Vampire Lovers had even been released.
It's great because it trades on the idea of her being a horror star, an idea that would have been conveyed even more joyously if only Lee hadn't been so silly as to turn down the male lead. As it is, Pitt's third and - in its own odd way - most iconic British horror role remains curiously overlooked.

Farewell, Ingrid - a place in the Abbey crypt is yours.

Michael Gough might be the most neglected stalwart of British horror still with us.

I always think of him as the British horror film's equivalent of George Zucco. Like Zucco he was, to the real world, a respected character actor. Like Zucco, he never became a real film star, but did occasionally make a notable impression in the odd character role in a major film. (He's good in two of Ken Russell's, Women In Love and Savage Messiah, also an interesting Bertrand Russell in Derek Jarman's lousy Wittgenstein.) Like Zucco, he was happy - and I do mean clearly happy, not reconciled or merely content - to take roles in horror films between more earnest gigs. Like Zucco at Universal, his work for Hammer was of the unshowy, supporting variety; both men got to be the big horror star only in the shadier parts of town: Monogram and PRC for mad George, Herman Cohen for Gough.
To Herman Cohen, Gough was Chris, Peter and Vincent all rolled into one, and - again like Carradine - he rewarded the attention by really letting rip when the narrative demanded, sometimes even when it didn't quite.

He's always good value in a horror film: as the villain in The Phantom of the Opera or Arthur Holmwood in Dracula, or in stranger escapades like The Corpse or Satan's Slave. He also did a nice line in weird and/or doolally butlers: as the almost literally dusty family retainer in that joyous all-star romp Curse of the Crimson Altar, he turns in a performance almost as knowingly generic as in that fine spoof What a Carve Up.
But it's as obsessive perverts that we love him the most: watch him in Horror Hospital or Cohen's Horrors of the Black Museum if you're after the full dosage. Quite simply, nobody in British horror does uninhibited sadistic loonery with the relish, enthusiasm and delight of Michael Gough.

Horror Hospital (1973), one of the weirdest and most fabulous British horrors of the seventies, was the work of eccentric showman and Wardour Street legend Antony Balch. An occasional film-maker and full-time importer and distributor, he was perhaps best known for the imagination and ingenuity with which he retitled foreign films, correctly reasoning that The Kinky Darlings could well take a shilling or two but Per Una Valigia Piene di Donne was on a hiding to nothing. (Other, equally unpromising titles went through his back door to emerge out the front as The Doctor In The Nude, Pussycats, The Pornographer, Massacre For an Orgy and, my particular favourite, Weird Weirdo. These titles usually had nothing to do with the film in question, and the last two, as the more observant among you will have spotted straight away, don't actually mean anything at all. According to David McGillivray he retitled Juliette de Sade as Heterosexual in the hope that punters would assume the term referred to some obscure perversion.)
He wrote and directed Horror Hospital seemingly on a whim. Robin Askwith is the hero, so it's a winner before it even starts, but audiences will realise within two minutes that this is one of the strangest darned films ever. Sillier than any spoof, but not a spoof... just talented people messing about. It's like a horror pantomime. Watch it this Christmas after the Queen's speech.
And happily, Gough seems to be enjoying it most of all. He plays Dr Storm, a lunatic scientist who runs a health farm cum holiday camp as a front for his attempts to build an army of zombified tenagers. He talks a great deal about his scientific innovation and sophistication in this regard, but as far as we can see he just lobotomises them, and spends the rest of the time being pushed around in a wheelchair by his devoted accolyte (a German lesbian and former brothel owner nicknamed Harris on account of her fetish for harris tweed suits), cracking his knuckles (the sound of which Balch amplifies horrendously) and caning his dwarf assistant about the face. He also has a customised Rolls Royce in which he pursues would-be escapees: as the car pulls up alongside the runaway, a decapitating blade shoots out of the side and the severed head is caught in a string bag attached to a hoop.
But Storm is not just a nutso scientist: in a glorious twist inspired (if that's not too ordinary a word) by Mystery of the Wax Museum we learn that his wiry body and fully expressive face and hands are just a synthetic suit and rubber mask concealing his true form: a hideous pink mutant blob, substantially larger than when he's got the Michael Gough suit on.

I've no idea what Gough's position is on his horror career now. I do know I've never read an interview with him on the subject. Perhaps he shuns such unworthy attention? I only hope it's not just that nobody's asked. In the great pantheon of British horror stars, he's the next best thing to Tod Slaughter - or even Edward Lionheart. Many happy returns. May he live forever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tits and monkeys: “Mother of Tears”, “Giallo” and the decline of Dario Argento

So they built this big theme park dedicated to the films of Dario Argento, and they called it Italy.
I've written about this before, I know, but I've just got back from the place and it feels truer than ever.
Despite my ever-advancing disenchantment with his filmography, the man's shadow still looms over every street, every building and courtyard, every tree and streetlamp.
I've probably watched more Italian movies, with greater pleasure and keener appreciation, than those of any other non-Anglophone nation, but no other Italian director has stamped his signature on the landscape for me with anything like as much force and ubiquity.
With the possible exception of Chaplin, Fellini is to me the greatest film-poet in the history of the medium - but the fact remains that when I'm in Italy I rarely feel like I'm in Fellini's Italy. We watched I Vitelloni while we were in Florence last month, because we knew that it was partly shot there, but not for a second did I connect the images on the screen with the view from the window. It's Fellini-land; he built it himself. But Argento is Italy and Italy is Argento, and in that strange, seductive menace that is uniquely his, man and landscape share each other.
We walked from Florence to Fiesole, and the architecture that seemed merely picturesque to my wife was to me so vividly cinematic as to be almost hallucinatory. All those old houses, their peeling paint, high walls, rusty ironwork and crumbling pillars and shuttered windows, seemed like repositories of secrets - old secrets, nearly forgotten, biding their time.
Why is this? I've been trying to make sense of it for years. There now follows my latest attempt. Does this make sense, I wonder? Perhaps it comes down to this...
Some Italian directors ignore Italy. Antonioni ignores Italy because he's an existentialist and all that matters is the people: that's why his films could be set anywhere and, indeed, why he made a point of setting them all over the world. Others deliberately show you Italy because they want to tell you Italian stories: Bicycle Thieves, obviously, evokes a real and tangible Italy in this sense. While Fellini takes Italy and turns it into something different because he is interested in creating his own universe.
But only Argento uses the real Italy and plonks his own fantasy universe into it, each redefining the shape and limits of the other.
This is what sets Argento apart not just from other Italian directors generally but specifically from Italy's other exploitation horror directors of the seventies. Fulci made some good films and some bad ones, but none of them trade in Italian-ness for their effects, and many try to deny it. All of his most famous films are set outside of Italy, though often largely shot there, with locations picked therefore for their anonymity. And even if nominally Italian-set they are still shot in faceless anywhere-cities, the better to complement the dubbing. We tend to think of him as the Number 2 man in Italian horror, and I do find his films interesting and like a good number of them, but that's an important difference. Argento's work is explicitly Italian - he tends to name his cities and to really show them and use them, while still completely re-imagining them in the process. And it rubs off permanently, for me at least.
. Though it's a long time since a new Argento release has actually excited me (not since Stendhal, I suppose; my interest in the man just post-dated his glory years, and Trauma was the first one I saw while it was still new) I always return from Italy with the compulsion to rewatch Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Deep Red.
But until this time I've never actually watched one of his films while there. (It seemed superfluous somehow.) Mother of Tears was on Italian general release last time I was in Bologna and I toyed with the idea of seeing it, but having seen The Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player I was in no mad rush, and never quite got round to it. But I did get the DVD and watched it before heading off to Italy this time.
If it's not the worst film ever made - and it's got to be somewhere in the running - it must be the worst film Argento's ever made. As we speak, linguistic scientists are hard at work inventing a new language containing words capable of conveying how wretched it is.
The most obvious problems have been ably listed by others, notably Maitland McDonagh. The screenplay is by American hacks with no grasp of Argento's style, the gross-out violence is unaffectingly crude in both conception and mechanics, the scenes of diabolic excess are pretty puerile, it's all depressingly mean-spirited, none of it is even remotely scary and too much of it - especially but by no means solely the bit where the Italian branch of the Cyndi Lauper Appreciation Society go razzing at the airport - is just plain silly.

But the biggest problem for me is simply this: it doesn't for one minute make it impossible to believe that anyone but Argento made it. Until now, even his very worst films had at least done that. But this is completely faceless, voiceless, authorless. It doesn't look, sound, feel or smell like Suspiria or Inferno in any detail or regard. It's set in Italy only in the sense that it's set somewhere. Rome it may well be, but it doesn't say Argento and it doesn't say Italy. If anyone can save it, Asia can save it - and Asia can't save it. That patented Argento atmosphere - thick, weird, dusty, cloying, dreamlike but pin-sharp - is gone.
Instead we just have substandard sadism, gore as slapstick (more Three Stooges than Three Mothers), tits and monkeys and intestines, and all so unenthusiastically dispensed.

I instinctively gave Giallo an easier ride because, even though it wasn't Argento back to being good, at least it was Argento back to being interesting. This one I did see in Italy, in my hotel room in Florence as I recovered from the previous night's attack of the mosquitoes. It's bad but fascinating in its badness, and I haven't been able to stop pondering on it.
According to what I've read, the film had a complicated history. In the first place, rather than a project he devised himself, it was written for Argento by a pair of Americans: Sean Keller and Jim Agnew, the latter a Film Threat writer who, to quote the imdb, "played guitar for the Industrial Rock group Hate Dept". (The credits are very strange. First we get 'written and directed by Dario Argento', Argento solely that is, but then, quite a bit later, 'screenplay by...' the two other blokes, and Dario third, presumably meaning that he just gave it a bit of a polish.
But if the fact that it was written specifically for Argento makes you think it's going to be full of the kind of quirks and deviations that would be sure to lure him to the project (as Boileau and Narcejac deliberately wrote Vertigo to attract Hitchcock) let me sit you down and disappoint you before the film itself does.
The title may raise expectations of it being the director's ultimate giallo, both an example of the form and an examination of it, with tricks upon tricks upon tricks upon tricks in the plotting, in place of the director's usual tricks upon tricks upon tricks. But the film itself goes out of its way to frustrate them, and is (to the limits of my experience - I've not seen everything he's done in the last ten years or so) his first and only non-supernatural thriller with no plot twists of any sort - no sleight of hand, no audacious surprises... none of the structural mystery suggested, demanded even, by the title.
This is, I think, Argento's only twist-free giallo, and so arguably not really a giallo at all. It's just your basic police procedural serial killer thriller, fifteen-to-twenty years too late, and rendered ever stupider than the likes of Copycat and The Bone Collector (no small boast) by Argento's habitual (and in other contexts laudable) inattention to realism in scenario, plot development and characterisation.
It's not just the usual daffy criminal profiling stuff (killers who 'like to destroy beautiful things' and leave bodies in significant places because 'they're trying to tell us something', detectives that can see into the killer's mind, and all that sort of horseshit). It's crazy stuff like the detective knowing the killer uses a taxi on no evidence at all, or the idea that a policeman might interrupt someone in the act of committing a savage murder and, out of sympathy for his motives, give him a job on the force instead of arresting him, or how, after victim upon victim of thumb twiddling, the supposed psychological profiling genius is instantly galvanised into tracking down his man by someone else's idle speculation that the killer might be nicknamed Giallo because he has jaundice.

The casting, too, which in the absence of any non-linear plotting is the only distinctive thing about the movie, was all very last minute and haphazard.
Originally Ray Liotta was down to play the New York cop in the Italian sub-basement, Asia was the tagalong sister of the victim, and Vincent Gallo was Giallo. (Liotta would have been interesting; Gallo would have been very interesting.) Then, as I read it, Gallo dropped out like a big sissy for no better reason than that he and Asia had a bit of a history, Asia got pregnant and pulled out too, and Liotta, I don't know, had to go visit his brother Tarka or something.
Only then was it decided to recast the three roles with a Polanski double-header: his wife - Emmanuelle Seigner - as the heroine, and his pianist - that strange, strange actor Adrien Brody - as both 'tec and killer (and using an anagram of his real name in the latter role).

Seigner fits well, in a role that seems to deliberately evoke her iconic debut in Polanski's Frantic, my favourite Paris movie (albeit in the Harrison Ford role this time). But despite bagging himself a producer credit as well as the two main roles, Brody seems deeply unhappy, gives two totally ridiculous performances, and ended up suing for unpaid wages and trying to stop it being released at all.
Okay, it's a cheap shot to say you have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself. But you really do have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself.
But how odd that the only thing that makes the movie remotely Dario Argentoish - the doubling-up of Brody as both sleuth and sadist - was not part of the original idea. As the story develops, of course, there's no reason why it should have been, other than to do what the film in fact now does: frustrate the hell out of the audience. But that's what makes it all so intriguing.
As it is, even the most minimally Argento-savvy viewer will instantly recognise Brody under the Giallo putty and ready themselves for the totally predictable but still dramatically and logistically intriguing twist ending: that the killer is the detective in disguise. Certainly the most enjoyment the film gave me came from watching the scenes where the two characters appeared to be in different places at the same time, and trying to guess how Argento was going to explain it all away. (Or if not the same guy dressed up then they're brothers, and the one is somehow responsible for, perhaps even complicit in, the psychopathological quirks of the other.)
It comes as the worst kind of surprise to discover they are two different people after all, and the only reason Brody's playing both of them seems to be to get two silly performances out of him instead of just one, and to spoil the big fight at the end with loads of that similar-actor-with-back-to-camera-when-the-other-character's-in-shot stuff.
I suppose had it been two actors it would have been even more annoying, because our minds would have been constantly whirling with possible twists of all kinds, instead of the one we opt for from the start here. How much crueller then, would have been the big bad surprise that there is no surprise at all.

In the light of this, the film's silly-nasty violence is the least of its troubles, though it's a shame to see Argento playing catch-up with the torture prats rather than loftily challenging them to raise their game to his level.
As I get older, I do see less and less of what is essential about Argento in his scenes of frenzied violent excess, even in the masterpieces. The first killing here, in the taxi, looks like it's going to be totally bloodless and I can't tell you how excited I was by that, and how disappointed that we then found the victim still alive, strapped to a table, next to that oh-so-boring trolley of tools and implements...
Doubtless he felt, quite rightly, that without the grue there really would be nothing left in the movie with his stamp on it at all, and it's true that the violence here is less stupid and special-effectsy than in Mother of Tears. But still, I always think there's something a bit sad about horror directors in their dotage still sucking up to the punks. (Look at Wes Craven. He's in his seventies for Christ's sake, and still fartarsing around with cock rock soundtracks and frat house killers. Grow up, man!)
Argento should have become the most stylish and acclaimed director in Italy, as cherished as Fellini; instead he went the fanboy route, which is ironic as well as disappointing, because the blackshirts by and large don't like his new stuff any more than I do.

So what next? Well, apparently, it's a 3-D Dracula. Will I be able to resist that if it's on when I'm next in Italy? Does Berlusconi dye his hair? You bet I won't - especially if Asia plays Lucy. But I'll be amazed if it's any good. And considering this is the director of Suspiria we're talking about, that's a depressing certainty to have settled on.