Spain, 1546. Mr Barnard (Kerr) comes from England to see where and how his beloved sister Elizabeth (Steele) died. He meets his brother-in-law Nicholas Medina (Price) and his sister Catherine (Anders) and is offered a strange and vague explanation of Elizabeth’s death.
Family doctor Leon (Carbone) later reveals to the grieving brother that his sister died of fright. Since more details are surely required after such a statement, Medina confesses that his bride had become obsessed with the inquisition era torture chamber in the cellar, and that she perished in an Iron Maiden.
But is this all there is to it? Barnard is still not satisfied, and as we delve deeper into the house’s secrets, we learn that Medina’s father killed his brother and wife in the chamber when his children were young. Young Nicholas witnessed the ordeal and was never the same again.
Pit and the Pendulum has everything we love: Gothic castles, secret passageways, hidden torture chambers, ghosts, murder, madness and torture. It is morbid, grotesque and lovely, and we completely adored Vincent Price as the confused, distressed widower. Barbara Steele’s eyes are as haunting as they were in Black Sunday, and she is the perfect Gothic heroine/villain (take your pick here). Personally, we are of course suckers for anything Poe (and Corman. And Price.), so we had no choice but to include this even though it is no longer on the list. It’s fantastic!
Commander Adams (Nielsen – before he became everyone’s favourite deadpan comedy actor) and his crew are travelling through space to a distant, Earth-like planet in order to rescue any survivors from a previous mission.
When they reach their destination they find only two survivors; the mysterious Dr Morbius (Pidgeon) and his young attractive daughter Altaira (Francis). They live alone with their robot Robby and a menagerie of wild animals while Dr Morbius explores the remains of an advanced ancient civilization which used to inhabit the planet. Also, there’s a killer monster roaming around, but the good doctor and his daughter seem somehow immune to it. Curiouser and curiouser.
The all-male crew start creeping on Altaira pretty quickly, leading to the commander berating her for her short dresses. ‘Cause, you know, it’s her own freaking fault. Naturally, the two then fall for each other, and Altaira decides to leave her home and father for Earth. This does not please Father, nor the monster…
Forbidden Planet is an awesome sci-fi adventure, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but greatly influenced by Freud as well. For its time, and genre, it had a big budget and is presented in colour and Cinemascope – quite rare for ’50s sci-fi.
We’re suckers for old-timey sci-fi and so naturally we loved this film. Add to that Leslie Nielsen, mysterious monsters, ancient civilizations, action, a score of “electronic tonalities,” Freud, and incestuous undertones (again, Freud) and we have a winner.
Forbidden Planet has the honour of being the first film on the list where someone let us know when we started this project that they wanted to join us for the viewing, so we had a viewing party! Sort of… Well, three people and pizza constitute a party in our book. The next one which has sparked interest is Flash Gordon (1980), so we’re looking forward to that. In a few years. We don’t get out much.
What we learned: We’re all monsters in our subconscious, but we have laws and religion to keep us under control. Also, never trust the sole surviving member of an exploration party where everyone else died under mysterious circumstances.
He serves a stint in prison for driving a stolen car (very Christian of him) and shares a cell with robber Ben Harper (Graves). Harper tells his cell mate about his family and Powell figures out Ben’s children know the whereabouts of the money from the robbery.
Powell tracks down Harper’s bereaved widow and successfully woos her (with help from the very busy Icey Spoon [Varden]), set on learning her children’s secret. However, son John (Chapin) is not a fool, and he never trusts his new step-father.
When Powell’s misogyny, frustration and general disposition drives him to kill his new wife, the children grab the money and go on the run, drifting down the river in their boat in search of a safe haven, which they find in the form of Rachel Cooper (Gish). But Powell is not about to give up on “his” fortune…
We have no words to express how much we loved The Night of the Hunter. A serial killer (who may have been the inspiration for characters in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Carnivale), resourceful children, absolutely beautiful imagery (even the above picture of dead Willa Harper (Winters) is eerily gorgeous in its grotesqueness), and the exquisite Lillian Gish are the main ingredients which made us fall, but there was nothing about it we didn’t love.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Pliable Guy Haines (Granger) accidentally meets creepy Bruno Antony (Walker) on a train. The two start speaking – Guy’s first mistake – and the polite Guy does what most people do when they meet crazy people on public transport – he smiles and nods and generally agrees with his fellow passenger.
Bruno is anxious to rid himself of his father, and he knows, through the gossip columns, that Guy has a wife, Miriam (Rogers), who he wants to divorce in order to marry his new girlfriend Anne (Roman). Bruno also has a theory about how to get away with murder – the trick is to murder someone you have no motive to kill. You know, such as when two people who are otherwise unrelated randomly meet on a train and decide to kill each other’s family members…
Guy reaches his destination and thinks no more of the insane stranger on the train until his wife refuses to divorce him now that he’s making money. To make matters even more difficult, she is pregnant by another man and Guy finds himself in a murderous mood which he tells his girlfriend.
Guy doesn’t need to worry though – Bruno is there to solve his problems. He follows Miriam and her two boyfriends (possibly? We’re not quite sure) to a fun fair and gets her alone in a secluded spot where he strangles her.
While this helps Guy out of one predicament, it get him into another. Bruno now expects the favour returned – for Guy to kill his father. When Guy refuses, Bruno inserts himself into his life and threatens to frame him for Miriam’s murder.
Strangers on a Train is a classic Noir thriller with a great premise and a very creepy, menacing and completely insane antagonist. The other characters are a bit less interesting, particularly the boring protagonist, although there are some perceptive women, such as Anne’s little sister Barbara (Hitchcock), Anne to a certain degree, and of course the manipulative and morally speculative Miriam. Also, just in case you care, our favourite characters were the little boy on the carousel and the old man crawling under it.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) is down on his luck, roaming around Mexico without a penny to his name. After finally being paid by a scam artist he worked for (a beating proved necessary to get the money he was owed), he teams up with Bob Curtin (Holt) and old prospector Howard (Huston) to dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.
They head up into the mountains and within a few minutes of run time (though several days for the characters) they strike it rich. Setting up their operation, Howard warns the newcomers about the effects of gold on a man, but Dobbs shrugs it off, stating that he will never be corrupted. He could not possibly be more wrong.
The three gold diggers stay in the mountains for the better part of a year, and the tension and distrust between them grow exponentially in that time. When a fourth man shows up intent on joining their operation, they unite for a short while in the face of a common enemy, but their comradery does not last once the threat is gone. With each of them, especially Dobbs, growing concerned with the intentions of the others, they are soon fighting for their lives against both the elements and each other.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or, as our DVD cover says, El Tesoro de Sierra Madre – thank you, Amazon Marketplace) is the first Western on the list and we loved it. There are saloon fights, shoot outs, bandidos, treacherous nature and friends, Indians, and Federales, and it’s tense, dark and dirty. There’s a lot of foreshadowing going on, so from the start you can make fairly educated guesses as to what will happen, but that doesn’t take anything away from the viewing experience. It’s a great watch, and we do love it when Humphrey Bogart plays slightly more villainous characters.
Victoria Page (Shearer) is a young, ambitious ballet dancer who, after a party, is invited by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) to try out for his company. At the same time, young composer Julian Craster (Goring) gets a job with the same company coaching the orchestra. As Vicky rises to be the new prima ballerina (after the old one got married), Julian also rises through the ranks as a composer. The culmination of both their work is a new ballet, The Red Shoes, based on H. C. Andersen’s classic fairy tale. Julian composes while Vicky dances the lead.
The ballet is a great success, and its two rising stars fall in love, something Lermontov is none too happy about. He fires Julian, and Vicky, though torn, decides to go with her boyfriend. She marries him and he starts composing operas, also to great success. However, despite her meteoric rise to fame in Lermontov’s ballet, Vicky spends the following year out of work.
Next season, Vicky goes back to Monte Carlo on holiday with her aristocratic aunt and runs into Lermontov again. He convinces her to dance The Red Shoes once more, but on the night of the performance, Julian comes and demands his wife choose between him and the ballet. Crazed (or possessed?) by this ultimatum, Vicky loses her mind and her control, just like the protagonist in Anderson’s fairy tale.
It’s clear that Lermontov is supposed to be some sort of parallel to the shoe maker in the fairy tale, but honestly, he’s not the devil here. He encourages her ambition – an ambition that comes from her, not any outside force. Sure, his encouragement comes from mainly selfish reasons, and he may have some ulterior motive of his own, but at least he want her to follow her passion. Julian seems to think she should be content being the wife and muse of a talented composer, despite her own obvious talent which she is unable to develop once they leave the company. In our opinion, Julian is the bad guy here.
This film is spectacular and definitely a new favourite of ours. It’s an intriguing story with great, often eccentric, characters (we particularly love the other members of the ballet company), gorgeous costumes and breathtaking dancing. The performance of The Red Shoes – a ballet within the film – is wonderful and somewhat reminiscent of the Berkeley musicals from the ’30s, beautifully incorporating cinematic effects with amazing dancing to tell the story.
It seems to us that women’s ambition is a dangerous thing (in which case Lermontov is the devil), although we’re not sure for whom. Is it scary for the men who lose control over them, or for the (fragile) women who will crack under the pressure of trying to balance a traditional role (doting wife and house maker) with a professional career? Possibly both, but it seems like women tend to pay the price – especially in morality tales and fiction (let’s not even go into the sexual undertones of this film and, indeed, the fairy tale on which it’s based).
What we learned: A happy and full life should have room for love and ambition. To have to choose is unfair (especially when it’s one gender asking the other to choose while they themselves can have it all..). Also, things haven’t changed much for ballerinas in the last 7 decades, judging from the parallels between this film and Black Swan (2010).