The Haunted Film of Mario Bava: Kill, Baby, Kill

Released in 1966 by Mario Bava, Kill, Baby, Kill, is a fantastic horror set in a Carpathian village.  Despite its ridiculous American title (the original being, Operazione paura) which conjures images of a c-grade slasher, the film is a surprising mix of an old-fashioned ghost story with dashes of surrealism.

The film begins as a woman leaps to her death onto a spiked fence.  Then a child’s mocking laughter is heard as the opening credits roll.

 An outsider, Dr. Paul Eswai, is summoned to perform the autopsy.  He quickly befriends a young nurse, Monica Shuftan, who only recently arrived at the village, herself.   She reveals having been born there, but sent away when orphaned at two years.  “I came to visit my parents’ graves,” she tells him.

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The two quickly learn that the villagers fear a ghost child named Melissa.   Legend goes that anyone who sees the malevolent spirit will kill themselves

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 The scientifically-minded doctor scoffs at the notion of a curse, while the more emotional, but sensible Monica realizes that science can’t explain the odd deaths which have plagued the village for twenty years.

Along with the pile of bodies all found with coins in their hearts, is the mysterious presence of the black-robed Ruth.   

     When a teen-aged girl claims to have seen the ghost, her petrified mother cries for her husband to seek help from the witch.  But when he opens the door to do so, she is already standing at the threshold.   “We know when someone is in harm’s way.”

 When Paul arrives, he is aghast to witness what he considers Ruth’s arcane healing methods.  And further, he ignores her warnings to leave the village.   Instead, he continues to search for rational answers and save the ailing Nadienne.

 Meanwhile, Monica is plagued by a doll-filled nightmare that suggests there’s more to her past in connection with the village than even she is aware..   

 As the plot deepens, Monica, Paul, and Ruth find their way to the home of the Baroness Graps, the reclusive mother of the ghost child.  Two are seeking the truth.  One, is looking for retribution.

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Not as well known as Bava’s sublime, Black Sunday, this film is every bit as worth a view.   Interesting camera angles and dazzling colors create a highly atmospheric mood.   An intelligent script converts some of the genre’s even by then tired clichés.   Giacomo Rossi-Stuart displays solid acting as Paul, though he lacks the charisma necessary to elevate the role from merely the “good guy”. 

     It is the women of this film that the camera loves.  Erika Blanc is effective as Monica, and even drab clothes can’t hide her charms.  The haunting Fabienne Dali (Ruth) steals every scene she’s in.  And of course, there’s always Melissa and her devoted mother…

Victorians and Their Not So Subtle Bustle

One of the things I enjoy doing is dispelling the myth that the Victorians were prudes. Oh, they might try to fool you with their dress rules (an ankle is showing! horrors!), but even there they often failed.

Let’s face it. The bustle was created for one reason, and one reason only.


Vampires in German

Whilst reading the horror-pulp novella, Friedhof der Vampire by John Sinclair, I was reminded how enjoyable vampiric tales are in German. There is something about the language- the strong consonants joining those elusive umlauts to produce a cool, aloof sensuality- that makes it perfect for tales of the macabre.

Here is some vocabulary you’ll often come across:
unheimlich: eerie, uncanny
das Blut: blood
übersinnlich: supernatural
der Geist- ghost
das Grauen- horror
grauenvoll-horrifying
der Totenschädel- skull
die Leiche: corpse
gruselig: creepy
der Schrecken: dread
die Hexe: witch
der Sarg: coffin

Published in: on June 19, 2011 at 1:21 pm  Comments (23)  
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The First Victorian Silent Horror Film

Christmas Eve. Paris. 1896.

The French filmmaker, Georges Melies, premiered, Le Manoir Du Diable ( The House of the Devil) The three-minute long film which depicts a demon conjuring up ghosts and witches is now considered to be the very first horror film ever made.

Previously having worked as a stage magician, Melies was an innovative director who invented the stop trick, a special effect in which an object is captured on film, then moved, so when the camera pans back, it appears that the object has vanished. Nicknamed the “cinemagician”, he also used time-lapses, multiple exposures, and dissolves to great affect.

There is nothing in the short piece to frighten anyone today, and even back then Melies said he had made the picture more to amuse the audience, than to frighten.

Nevertheless, step back into time, and watch it through the eyes of those who first viewed it over a hundred years ago at the Theatre Robert Houdin.

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 10:24 am  Comments (15)  
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Isle of the Dead

Artists in all fields are inspired by each other.

One of the most famous examples of creativity enriching creativity involves, The Isle of the Dead.

Arnold Böcklin (Swiss Symbolist painter, 1827-1901)  painted five versions between 1880 and 1886.   All renderings depict  a rowboat arriving at a seawall.  In the bow, stands a figure clad in white.  

Böcklin would not elaborate on its meaning, only saying,  ” It is a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.”

Many have interpretated the white-clad figure as Charon, leading human souls into the Greek underworld.

File:Isola dei Morti IV (Bocklin).jpg

In 1907,  upon viewing the painting, Sergei Rachmaninoff began composing a tone poem in its name.  The work, now considered a classic of late Russian Romanticism, was finished the following year.

In 1945,  Val Lewton produced a classic horror film with the same title.  The script, written by Ardel Wray, was inspired by the painting, and involves a group of quarrantined islanders who begin to die, one by one.

Danse Macabre

Come All Hallows Eve, Death calls the dead to rise from their graves.  While he plays his fiddle, the awakened spirits dance until the rooster crows at dawn.

French composer, Camille Saint-Saens, composed Danse Macabre for vocals and piano.  The text was written by poet, Henri Cazalis and the premiere took place in 1872.   Initial audiences were so disturbed by the piece (especially the eerie vocals) that Saint-Saens reworked it into a tone poem for orchestra.

English translation of the poem:

“Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
You can hear the cracking of the bones of the dancers.
A lustful couple sits on the moss
So as to taste long lost delights.
Zig zig, zig, Death continues
The unending scraping on his instrument.
A veil has fallen! The dancer is naked.
Her partner grasps her amorously.
The lady, it’s said, is a marchioness or baroness
And her green gallant, a poor cartwright.
Horror! Look how she gives herself to him,
Like the rustic was a baron.
Zig, zig, zig. What a saraband!
They all hold hands and dance in circles.
Zig, zig, zag. You can see in the crowd
The king dancing among the peasants.
But hist! All of a sudden, they leave the dance,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.
Oh what a beautiful night for the poor world!
Long live death and equality!”

And an elegantly creepy, short silent film (starring Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page) set to the music of Danse Macabre:

Writing, Meditating, and Mummies

  Karloff and Johann in The Mummy

 

Throughout the process of writing a novel, a writer will inevitably reach points where they can not see in which direction the story should go; or, they do see- only they have no idea how the hell they’re going to get there.  Or, their characters remain aloof;  mere outlines rather than three-dimensional beings.

And the more one struggles to breakthrough, the more strongly the problem grips its claws.  Answers are much more likely to come while in a relaxed state of being.

In the biography The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell recalled a conversation she’d had with the authoress while staying at her home in Haworth.  “I asked whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in Villette was so exactly like what I had experienced, – vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, &c.  She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which she had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling asleep, – wondering what it was like or how it would be, – till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened.”

 Actress Zita Johann used a techinque which she called, “The Theater of the Spirit”, which could very well be used for writers.   Ms. Johann, mostly known for playing the dual role of the sophisticated Helen Gosvenor and her previous incarnation, The Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in the original The Mummy,   held a life-long interest in the occult.   As Spiritualists would call upon dearly departed ones, she would meditate and invoke her characters to reach a special depth of emotion.  Though the revered stage actress never truly made it big in Hollywood (largely due to her outspoken disdain of Tinseltown),  her hypnotic performance in the aforementioned film is unforgettable and gives a glimpse into why she was regarded as, “The White Flame of the American Theater”.

One of my favorite meditation methods when it comes to writing is to think intensely on the subject (or problem) at hand, and then completely let it go by meditating on something totally different: an image,  a mantra… Then, hours or days later- the answer pops into my mind as I’m in the twilight state between sleep and wakefulness; or, just as likely, when I’m doing something as mundane as the dishes.

Do you use meditation for your writing?

  Helen is hypnotized in The Mummy

 

   Helen remembers her life as the Princess

Film Review: Val Lewton’s, “The Seventh Victim”

“Your sister.  Have you heard from her recently?”

As the film opens, Mary (Kim Hunter in her film debut)  is informed by the headmistress of her boarding school that her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks)  is missing, and has not paid the girl’s tuition for months.  Mary immediately travels to New York City and locates her sister’s apartment, which is devoid of all furniture, save for a single chair and a noose hanging from the ceiling.

Mary enlists the aid of three men to help her discover what happened to her sister: Jacqueline’s husband (Hugh Beaumont), a detective (Lou Lubin), and a poet (Erford Gage).  In the process, she discovers her sister was a member of a Satanic cult called the Palladists (named for an alleged real Theistic Satanic Society originating in France).  

Jacqueline, it is discovered, was also seeing a psychiatrist,  Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) about her involvement in the cult, and her suicidal tendencies.  The Satanic members are pledged to non-violence.  However, they also have a rule that states any member who speaks openly about their group, must die.  Their solution to this quandary is to kidnap Jacqueline and try to convince her to commit suicide by drinking poison.

“You’ve always talked about suicide.  About ending it all when you want to.”

“Yes,” Jacqueline responds as the game of wills begins, “when I want to.”

Val Lewton, famed RKO producer of Horror Noir, released the film in 1943, a year after his masterpiece, Cat People.  As an added bonus to Lewton fans,  Dr. Judd is the same psychiatrist who tried to treat Irena’s neurosis in the aforementioned film, and  Elizabeth Russell reprises her  small, but unforgettable role as a  mysterous cat-like woman.   The fact that Russell leaves Jacqueline’s apartment building dressed in the same  attire that she appeared wearing in Cat People’s restaurant scene, adds weight to the theory that the films take place at the same time.

The film has its flaws.   Although on the page, Mary is supposed to be sweet and determined, she comes off too dull compared to all the colorful characters around her.   There’s a totally unnecessary and unbelievable romance of the- we are going to fall in love for no other reason but because we are the leads- variety.   And a really hokey moralistic speech at the end that sounds totally tacked on.

Those are just minor flaws, however.  With its intriguing plot, enigmatic characters, and shadowy camera work-  The Seventh Victim earns an A.

The Innocents: A Masterwork of Psychological Horror

  The Innocents   (1961)

The Innocents is a near-faithful adaption of Henry James’s classic Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.    Intelligently directed by Jack Clayton, the film boasts  exquisite black&white cinematography, a haunting musical score, subtle chills, and sensitive acting.  

 Deborah Kerr stars as the repressed spinster Miss Giddons, who is hired by The Uncle (Michael Redgrave) to care for his young nephew and niece at an isolated country mansion while he remains in London.  Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin portray the eerily charming children, Miles and Flora, who may, or may not be, possessed by the malevolent spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint.

Darkly lit and filled with fleeting images- memorable scenes include: Flora waltzing in the gazebo as Miss Jessel watches from the middle of the lake where she floats upon lily pads.   The ghost of Quint terrorizing Miss Giddons during a game of hide and seek.  And never was a child more chilling than Miles with  his simple words,  “It was only the wind, my dear.”