Thursday, May 29, 2008

His Name Rhymed With Horror

One of the outstanding stylists of 1960s fantastic cinema was Alfred Vohrer, who achieved his most lasting fame (such as it is) by directing the best of Rialto's Edgar Wallace krimi series: THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON, THE HEXER, THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS and THE HAND OF POWER, to name a few. It was Harald Reinl that initiated the Wallace series, and his series entries are also strong, but it was Vohrer who invested the krimis with most of their signature atmospheric traits; for example, having the main titles of these strikingly monochromatic films unreel with blood-red or full-color credits, filming scenes from the insides of characters' mouths (!), and encouraging composer Peter Thomas to go as far over the top as possible with his distinctive original scores.

I've been spending some time with the Wallace-krimis again, which has tempted my closer study of Vohrer. His films are sometimes guilty of exposition passages filmed too expediently or carelessly, but on the whole he was remarkably inventive and -- at the very least -- a master of what the Germans call stimmung: mood. Rialto seems to have greatly appreciated what Vohrer brought to the series because, after a fairly early point, he begins to receive a pre-credit possessory card (like the one above) in addition to his actual main titles credit (like the one below, from Neues vom Hexer, 1965).

I can't help noticing that the parallels between the respective careers of Vohrer and another master of stimmung, Mario Bava, are fairly pronounced. Alfred Vohrer was born in Stuttgart in Bava's year of birth, 1914, and he directed his first feature DIRTY ANGEL [Schmutziger Engel] in 1958 -- the same year that Bava anonymously directed the first Italian science fiction movie, THE DAY THE SKY EXPLODED [La morte viene dallo spazio]. Like Bava, Vohrer had no intention of becoming a director; it happened to him almost in spite of his own ambitious meanderings, which had been in service to his dream of becoming an actor. Unfortunately, Vohrer had lost his right arm during Germany's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1941. After the war, Vohrer applied his knowledge of acting and theater to becoming an assistant director at UFA. In 1949, he became a dubbing director and embarked on a period of work that has a parallel in Bava's own apprenticeship as a subtitler of Italian films into other languages for export at the Istituto LUCE.

Here we have Heinz Drache and Siegfried Sch├╝renberg, two wonderful actors, in the foreground of a scene from Neues vom Hexer. Pay no attention to that other gentleman in the dark glasses... yet.
Bava and Vohrer both found their footing in their careers belatedly, in their late 40s, and at roughly the same time: Mario was promoted to director to helm BLACK SUNDAY [La maschera del demonio] in 1960, and Alfred was given the opportunity to direct THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON [Die Toten Augen des London] in 1961. Both of these maiden voyages in the horror genre became international hits and made iconic horror stars of Barbara Steele (as Princess Asa) and Ady Berber (as the bald, white-eyed and gorilla-armed Blind Jack). In 1964, both directors were reassigned to Westerns, Bava directing THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO [La strada per Fort Alamo, 1964] and Vohrer directing a few entries for the Karl May WINNETOU series. Neither man's work reflected much feeling for the Old West. To continue the thread of coincidence, both directors turned to erotic comedy in the late 1960s and eventually to brutal crime dramas and television projects. Finally, after a period of forced inactivity, both men died in their beds of heart failure on the eve of promised returns to work, Bava in 1980 and Vohrer on February 3, 1986.

I own a few German-language reference books on the Wallace krimi series, which include behind-the-scenes photos of Alfred Vohrer at work. As a long-time fan, I was fascinated to see what he looked like, and not knowing about his wartime injuries, was surprised to see that his right sleeve was always either empty or, in later days, filled with a stiff, black-gloved prosthetic. Thanks to the photos in those books, while watching Neues vom Hexer the other night (a good sequel to 1964's Der Hexer, good enough to make one wonder why it appears to have never been issued anywhere in English), I was able to recognize the concierge behind the hotel desk in one scene...

... who calls ahead to the room of Cora-Ann Milton (Margot Trooger) to inform her...

... "Two gentlemen are coming up to your room, Milady."

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Alfred Vohrer!
Vohrer is a filmmaker whose mysterious life and career would probably reward a book-length examination. German friends and scholars who may be in a position to conduct such research are advised to act quickly, as those who worked with Vohrer are now rapidly disappearing. Looking at THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON again, I'm reminded how many of its set pieces were later recalled into service by Dario Argento: for example, the woman ascending a lengthy staircase to her apartment only to have the lights suddenly go out on the upper floors (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE), the elevator shaft killing (DEEP RED, TRAUMA), or the character who peers through a hole only to be shot through the eye by someone on the other side (OPERA); Vohrer's films also make frequent use of deranged artists, screaming chimps and squawking animals, all familiar signposts in Argento territory.
Sorry to keep coming back to this one film in a career that yielded so many (and better ones), but it's worth nothing that, in Neues vom Hexer, Vohrer included a young male character named Charles, who, for no reason germaine to the plot, is missing the same arm that the director was. (We are told that the child lost his arm in a road accident, well before the story begins, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.) This instance hints strongly at the possibility that Vohrer invested his films with personal touches, a fuller disclosure of which could only serve to make his already fascinating work of still greater interest.
For some of the information included above, I am indebted to an informative Vohrer career sketch by Mike Haberfelner, which I found online here. I would vehemently disagree with Mr. Haberfelner on a couple of counts; for example, that Vohrer's work is lacking in personal style. It would take more time and space to make my argument than I'm prepared to give here, but I can attest that, while Vohrer didn't launch the krimis, he was by far the most essential contributor to what the krimis became (especially in their uses of garish imagery and macabre humor), much as Mario Bava's approach to filming thrillers defined what we now know as the giallo. That said, I was grateful to find any information about Vohrer in English and recommend to those of you, like me, who are curious to know more.

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