#208 The Innocents

Watched: November 7 2018

Director: Jack Clayton

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Michael Redgrave, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde

Year: 1961

Runtime: 1h 40min

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When Sister the Oldest was young, she watched a lot of movies which were somewhat age-inappropriate. Child’s Play (1988) abruptly ended her doll playing career around 1990. Early exposure to Predator (1987) and Blue Velvet (1986) brought on a fear of invisible monsters leaving cut-off ears lying around willy nilly (the two movies may have been a bit muddled up in her young brain), though she found Terminator 2 (1991) more sad than scary. And then there was The Innocents

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Deborah Kerr looking for Miles in a flowing nightgown with a candelabra will forever haunt her dreams

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Like many of the others, this was partially watched on a friend’s TV one night  – our own parents were quite strict about what was appropriate viewing for kids – and it messed Sister the Oldest up quite a bit. However, November of this year was the first time she’d seen it since, and it still holds up as a creepy Gothic tale of ghosts and/or madness.

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It helps that the 1961 winner of Britain’s Creepiest Kid Award stars in it

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Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (which we’ve actually read, being the cultured, sophisticated people that we are), the film tells the story of Miss Giddens (Kerr), who is sent to the British countryside as a governess to two young orphans, Miles (Stephens) and Flora (Franklin).

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As well as being a charming little doll, Flora possesses the strange ability to keep both the background and the foreground in focus. An unusual gift for so small a child.

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Giddens initially finds her two young wards utterly charming, and the estate beautiful. But as she starts to investigate what happened to the last governess and her dangerous lover, the children’s behaviour begins to worry her, and the rot underneath the beauty of the place starts to come up to the surface. Are the kids being haunted? Possessed? Are they playing games with her? Or is she slowly going insane in the isolated estate?

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It’s hard to decide what the truth is, but the crazy-eyes of Giddens might be a hint

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As stated, The Innocents has held up incredibly well. It’s a very faithful adaptation of James’ novella and the disturbing atmosphere of the original is very much present in the film version. The kids are perfectly cast, as is Deborah Kerr, and the estate is lovely and Gothic.

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Well done for finding not just one but two ghosty, floaty see-through children! They’re hard to come by.

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We loved the wholly impractical costumes (how were people supposed to do anything wearing something like that?) and the way everything in the shot was in focus at once (deep focus..? We’re not really down with the terminology of cinematography..), which made it feel unsettling and “wrong.” There’s very little score in the movie and it’s rather quiet most of the time, which works well to emphasise the atmosphere. Also, we loved the ambiguity of the ending…

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Ghosts or not, we’ve learned that cute children are inherently terrifying

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What we learned: One need not be a chamber to be haunted. Or mad. One need not be a chamber to be mad either.

Next time: Victim (1961)

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#188 Black Sunday

Watched: July 19 2018

Director: Mario Bava

Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri

Year: 1960

Runtime: 1h 27min

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In 17th century Moldavia, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele) is sentenced as a witch by her brother and executed after having the “mask of Satan” nailed to her face. But before she dies, she curses her brother and all his descendants.

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To be fair, if someone tried to nail this thing to our faces, we’d probably curse them too

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Fast forward 200 years and two travelling doctors stumble upon her grave. One of them, Kruvajan (Checchi), is attacked by a bat which he kills over Asa’s tomb smashing the cross guarding it in the process. He then proceeds to remove her mask and spill blood on her.

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“Let’s open this tomb with the strangely preserved corpse and drip some blood on it” – a man who has never seen a horror film

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Kruvajan and his young companion Andre Gorobec (Richardson) then run into a mysterious young woman who bears a striking resemblance to the dead witch, Katia (Steele again) and Andre is smitten.

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It’s hard to resist a woman with two massive dogs

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After the meddling with the dead witch’s grave, the surviving members of the Vajda family start to experience strange phenomena, and it becomes clear that Asa and her companion Javuto (Dominici) are back for revenge.

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“Grrr rawr, I’m coming to get you, Barbara!”

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We’re back in our favourite genre with this horror film, and we have a bit of a thing for Mario Bava (especially Sister the Oldest), so naturally we loved Black Sunday. It’s an unsettling and atmospheric Gothic horror with gorgeous lighting and some very good effects. We loved Asa’s resurrection and Katia’s transformation, Barbara Steele’s eyes (emphasized by intense make-up) and the creepy castle.

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Not what most people associate with a “come hither look,” but strangely effective nonetheless

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Sure, there are some issues with this movie, such as the slightly iffy dialogue and the fact that everyone keeps treating Katia like an idiot child (even with everything going on and several corpses piled up, the men don’t really believe her when she claims to have seen someone in her room), but we still love it.

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In the men’s defence, Katia does tend to act a bit like an idiot child, so they may be justified

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Absolutely a must-see if you’re into Italian cult horrors. Which of course is everyone’s favourite genre, so why wouldn’t you watch it?

What we learned: Don’t remove all protective elements and then spill blood on cursed graves. Just don’t.

Next time: Breathless/À bout de souffle (1960)

Bonus: The Curse of Frankenstein

Watched: December 25 2017

Director: Terence Fisher

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Valerie Gaunt

Year: 1957

Runtime: 1h 22min

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Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is smart, ambitious, handsome, charming and rich. He is also an arrogant jerk. And imprisoned. He confesses to a priest and tells his unusual, and somewhat unbelievable, story.

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“It all started, as these things tend to do, with a dead dog…”

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Orphaned at a fairly young age, Baron Frankenstein hires his own tutor, Paul Krempe (Urquhart), to be his teacher and later partner. Together the two explore the world of science!

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That’s just normal glass – his eyes are really like that. If you don’t believe us, watch Top Secret (1984)

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Their greatest achievement, the reanimation of dead tissue, brings about different reactions in the two scientists. While Kempe’s initial reactions is “yay! This’ll make surgery so much easier and safer!”, Frankenstein’s first impulse is to go out and harvest body parts to make himself a new man-puzzle. Kempe finally starts to see the sociopath in his student, and they have a falling out.

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“It’s MY turn to reanimate the corpse!” “No, it’s MINE!” “Who’s the one paying for all this?” “Screw this, I’m out.”

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Things escalate when Victor straight up murders another intellectual to use his brain for his creation, and then uses his successfully assembled and animated creature (Lee) to kill his knocked up maid Justine (Gaunt) who threatens to expose his shady dealings if he does not marry her.

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“Sorry, sweetheart – you’re certainly not good enough for the likes of me. Think of what the children will be like??? No, I’m engaged to marry my cousin. Yay gene pool!”

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Meanwhile, Victor’s cousin Elizabeth (Court) has arrived to marry him, which adds another complication. With the death toll rising, a creature on the loose, a falling out between the friends, and a Fair Maiden innocently roaming the large house at night, how on earth will this end?

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Let’s face it: fancy, defenseless ladies roaming around castles in the night with only a small lamp for company are usually not indicative of happy endings…

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The Curse of Frankenstein is quite different from its early predecessor Frankenstein despite their many similarities. For one, the monster (or, in this case, creature) isn’t really all that important. As creepy and scary as Christopher Lee is in this, the focus is all on the Mad Scientist Victor Frankenstein.

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For such an unfortunate looking creature, he’s a surprisingly snappy dresser!

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Frankenstein himself is also very different. Personally, we feel that this take on the Baron is closer to the source material than many other incarnations – he really is an arrogant, egotistical, spoiled brat with a God complex in the book, no matter how bad he feels once everything falls apart. Cushing’s Frankenstein is particularly ruthless, and we love him for it. Well, not him as much as this version of events, we suppose. But we definitely love this film!

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…and this guy! #decompositionchic

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What we learned: If you’re going to stand up to a rich, insane, megalomaniac nobleman who doesn’t like being told what to do, you’d better have a contingency plan…

Next time: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

#130 Kiss Me Deadly

Watched: August 27 2017

Director: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Maxine Cooper, Juano Hernandez, Cloris Leachman, Marian Carr, Nick Dennis

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 46min

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A barefooted girl in a trench coat is running along a road, desperately trying to flag down a car. When one finally stops, she is admonished for almost wrecking the car by driver Mike Hammer (Meeker) before he lets her in. The girl, Christina (Leachman), is unable to speak at first but accepts a ride and gets in the stranger’s car.

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You know you’re in trouble when getting into a car with a grumpy stranger whilst naked is the safest choice

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Mike is not exactly the nicest guy in the world, but he does get Christina past a police blockade looking for an escaped mental patient, which is more than you can usually ask of a total stranger. It turns out he is a somewhat dodgy P.I. with a history of two-timing his clients. However, luckily for the desperate Christina, he’s also the kind of man who doesn’t give up once he’s onto something.

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Even if he’s up against people who like to torture and kill helpless girls

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We say luckily, but for poor Christina there was no luck. The two are captured, tortured and dumped in their car over a cliff. Mike makes it, but his female companion does not. Offended by these events, the Private Dick starts to investigate with the help of his lover/assistant/secretary/bait Velma (Cooper) and various colourful characters. What was Christina running from? Who was after her? And what is important enough to kill for?

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What’s in the box? Spoiler alert: it’s not the soul of Marsellus Wallace.

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Kiss Me Deadly is a Noir, but there are clear influences from horror and sci-fi, with the runaway mental patient and the mysterious glowing box everybody’s after. We went in completely blind on this one and were drawn in from the beginning – the opening scene is great! We loved Nick and Friday, the Gothic and sci-fi elements, Mike’s extreme badassness (though he might be a bit of a sociopath), and the importance of Christina Rossetti.

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A thorough knowledge of classic poetry is as important as a leggy dame, an attitude, a quick wit and a gun when it comes to investigating

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Poetry is important.

What we learned: Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Or, actually, do. Add some spice to your life! Also, breaking records is a surprisingly effective interrogation technique.

Next time: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

#114 House of Wax

Watched: June 11 2017

Director: André De Toth

Starring: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Roy Roberts, Charles Bronson

Year: 1953

Runtime: 1h 28min

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House of Wax is an old favourite of Sister the Oldest, stemming from her love of Vincent Price in her teenage Goth days (we’ve all been there). A remake of Michael Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), it stars Price as Professor Henry Jarrod, an eccentric sculptor who works with wax figures.

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His obsession with his Marie Antoinette hints at his brewing insanity. Then again, she’s quite the looker!

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When Jarrod’s business partner Matthew Burke (Roberts) is in need of some quick cash, he proposes to the artist that they burn down the museum to collect the insurance. Jarrod, who has a close, personal relationship with all his creations, is not exactly on board, so Burke tries to kill him. The museum burns down and Jarrod disappears and is thought to have perished in the fire.

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In reality, he has but gone the way of his figures

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Fast forward a few months, and Burke dies under mysterious circumstances, his body disappears from the morgue, and his delightful (possible) fiancée Cathy (Jones – a.k.a. She of the Tiny Waist) meets the same fate. Simultaneously, Professor Jarrod reappears with plans to open a new wax museum, this time with a Chamber of Horrors included, showing historical crimes as well as recent, local ones. Coincidence?

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“Why, yes, there is an incredible likeness between my former partner who tried to kill me and whose body disappeared from the morgue, and my recreation of his death. I really am that good.”

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Sue Allen (Kirk), Cathy’s roommate and only witness to her killer, grows suspicious when visiting the museum and finding that Joan of Arc is the spitting image of her dead friend, though her suspicions are mostly written off as the silly ideas of a hysterical woman. Her own likeness to Jarrod’s Marie Antoinette put her on the artist’s radar, and tensions mount.

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“I told her not to touch the artwork! That’s it. She must die.”

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House of Wax holds up incredibly well and is an excellent and creepy feature. We love the image of the melting wax figures, everything about Cathy (our favourite), Vincent Price’s iconic voice, and the grotesque plot.

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“No ding-ding without a wedding ring!” – Cathy, paraphrased. God, we loved her.

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Originally made in 3D, it is easy to see how that would have added to the experience, and some scenes are clearly inserted mainly for the 3D effect. Unfortunately, we’ve only ever seen it in 2D, but perhaps one day we’ll have the chance to watch it in the same way as its original audience. One can only dream…

What we learned: Don’t kill people’s creative works for money. Or, money and art do not always work well together. Something to that effect.

Next time: Mr Hulot’s Holiday/Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953)

#102 Sunset Boulevard

Watched: April 30 2017

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton

Year: 1950

Runtime: 1h 50min

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Thematically linked to All About Eve, though centred on Hollywood rather than Broadway, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of broke screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) and former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Swanson), who embark on a strange and ill-fated relationship when he accidentally seeks refuge in her decrepit Hollywood mansion on the day of her chimp’s funeral.

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No, we did not make that up.

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When Norma learns that Joe is a writer, she asks him to read through and rewrite her script for her epic comeback Salome and, being down on his luck and about to return home to take an office job, Joe agrees and moves into the faded star’s equally faded mansion.

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Despite the state of the mansion, the floors are waxed to perfection and the quartet has been polished for the occasion

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Joe soon gets used to the lifestyle offered to him by the delusional Norma. Even though he understands that her aspirations to return to the screen are completely unrealistic and he knows that to the outside world she’s a has-been, he, like Norma’s creepy butler Max (von Stroheim), plays along and feeds into her false sense of relevance.

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That’s not all he feeds into if you get our drift… He’s a kept man, is what we’re saying.

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As Norma’s delusion of grandeur increases, Joe’s satisfaction with his life of leisure decreases, and he starts working on the side with Betty Schaefer (Olson) with whom he collaborates on an original screenplay. Norma starts to suspect that her boytoy is getting some on the side, and she is not happy…

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“I let him watch my movies with me and this is how he repays me?!?”

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Now, this film is a classic for a reason. It’s endlessly quotable with a Gothic setting and extremely memorable characters, in particular the unstable, possessive, explosive, toxic and fabulous Norma Desmond. Even our old favourite Buster Keaton makes an appearance, as do old-timey stars Hedda Hopper, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and, famously, Cecil B. DeMille.

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Guess who’s ready for her close-up…

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Sunset Boulevard is a sort of Gothic Film Noir and we loved it completely. It’s one of those films you’ve seen parodied, referenced and referred to, and heard quoted, so many times that you start thinking you’ve actually seen it, but in our case that turned out to be false (for some reason, although this is right up our alley). There’s madness, love, satire and men who (once again) feel they need to make hard decisions for women who love them, without giving them the unbiased facts and letting them choose for themselves. Loved, loved, loved it.

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Ah – Buster. We still love you dearly.

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What we learned: Great stars have great pride.

Next time: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)