Thursday, August 25, 2011

Notes on John Carpenter's THE WARD

THE WARD, John Carpenter's first feature in a decade (since GHOSTS OF MARS, 2001), carries his name above the title as always, but actually finds him relinquishing much of his usual control. He didn't write this film, nor did he score it, so while it does resort time and again to a familiar bag of tricks (unexpected intrusions in the foreground, periphery of the scope frame or in the depth of field), it does shows him working, admirably, outside his comfort zone and achieving his most invigorating work since 1988's THEY LIVE.

The script by brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen attends the commitment of Kristen (Amber Heard) to a mental hospital following her apprehension at the scene of a house she's burned down. Installed in the experimental psych program of Dr. Stringer (MAD MEN's Jared Harris), she is surrounded there by some fairly predictable patient types (Danielle Panabaker as a beautiful scheming narcissist, Mamie Gummer as a plain hostile lesbian, Laura-Leigh as a toy-hugging child-woman, and Lyndsy Fonseca as the first to go), Kristen becomes alert to a vicious ghost (Mika Boorem) haunting her hospital ward. If the script isn't particularly ground-breaking in terms of dialogue or characterization, it keeps the viewer guessing right up to its nicely surprising explanation of events -- which, in a funny way, makes the audience feel as mentally ill as anyone onscreen -- and its traditional approach is a big part of its appeal. The story is set in 1966, when the laws governing the treatment of mental patients were more lax than they are today, making this particular story possible; in keeping with its era, cursing is kept to a minimum and the visual storytelling largely eschews CGI and staccato AVID-style editing to return to what might be called the classic principals of genre technique.

Aside from my unreserved admiration for THE THING (1982), my amusement with THEY LIVE and his sluggishly amiable Hawks pastiche ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), my adamant if inexplicable fascination with PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), and my healthy respect for the atmosphere in THE FOG (1980), I've never really bought into Carpenter as a "master of horror." He's always been more of an able technician than an auteur. That said, what horror films have become over the past decade has done a lot to alienate me from the genre, so I found THE WARD consistently entertaining because it plays like a master lesson in how to use today's technological advantages (it was shot digitally, then transfered to three-perf 35mm) hand-in-hand with those tried-and-true techniques which form the very essence of cinematic experience. One could define such techniques as those which distinguish film from television -- or, worse still, films that look and play like television, as has increasingly become the norm. This is not a film about sensation, it's about story-telling. It's not about shocking one's sensibilities, it's about surprising them. It's not about doing most of the job digitally in post, it's about being prepared on the set.

It's an interesting paradox. While I wouldn't place THE WARD above, say, HALLOWEEN (1978) as an example of Carpenter's work, HALLOWEEN has never convinced me of Carpenter's mastery of the genre, but in a strange way, THE WARD does.

THE WARD is available from Arc Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital download.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Pass The Marmalade": Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011)

Lurking in the periphery of my 1994 novel THROAT SPROCKETS is a fetching young secretary named Colleen Sangster. She was my little tribute to a special breed of snarling, enticing female anima -- personified by the likes of Valerie Gaunt, Carol Marsh, Andrée Melly and Barbara Shelley -- found in the work of a humble, workaday screenwriter whose filmic universe had become part of my own creative bedrock.

Jimmy Sangster, who died this morning at the age of 83, tempts summation in comic book lingo: you could say he was the Stan Lee of Silver Age horror, the writer responsible for THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), both directed by Terence Fisher for Hammer Film Productions, Ltd. -- the two films which turned the tide of horror cinema in the mid-1950s and made it a commercial genre once again after a near-decade of failing returns.

Sangster wasn't a quippy writer like Stan Lee, but he similarly revitalized a classic form of storytelling that was, at the time, becoming ossified as the motion picture medium progressed into widescreen and Technicolor. What he brought to vampire films alone is immeasurable, and he achieved what he did in part by returning to the classic texts of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. Under his byline, Hammer's Frankenstein films (including THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1959) became the chronicle of Baron Victor Frankenstein, and his creations reflected his own blind spots, his own narcissism. Also under his byline, Hammer's Dracula films (including THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, 1960, and DRACULA - PRINCE OF DARKNESS, 1965) kept the Count himself largely offscreen, but were as imbued with his malign aura as the original novel. Most importantly, however, Sangster took us deeper into the concepts those authors gave us. In (HORROR OF) DRACULA, when Jonathan Harker discovers the mark of a vampire on his own throat, self-consciousness enters the genre: What is vampirism, when it is transfered to our protagonist and narrator?

John Van Eyssen adds an existential dimension to Jonathan Harker in HORROR OF DRACULA.

We also see Professor Van Helsing graduating in DRACULA from academic knowledge of vampirism to becoming its active adversary; he is not always ahead of the game, he is sometimes taken by surprise, and in BRIDES is even victimized and left to save his own soul. His Baron Frankenstein is a brilliant autodidact and visionary, an elitist maverick, whose blue-blooded sense of privilege often proves the downfall of the higher purpose for which he spills so much common red blood.

After his first screenwriting credit (Joseph Losey's A MAN ON THE BEACH, 1955), Sangster's list of screenplay credentials form an impressive overview of Britain's contribution to fantastic cinema over four decades: X - THE UNKNOWN (1956), BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958), THE MUMMY (1959), THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959), THE HELLFIRE CLUB (1959), JACK THE RIPPER (1960), THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (1960), TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR, 1961), THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1961), MANIAC (1963), PARANOIAC (1963), HYSTERIA (1964), THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES (1964), THE NANNY (1965, his personal favorite), the Bulldog Drummond adventure DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), THE ANNIVERSARY (1967), CRESCENDO (1970), Curtis Harrington's WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1971), FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1971), THE LEGACY (1979) and John Huston's only foray into the genre, PHOBIA (1980). He also directed two Hammer films during their early '70s transitional period, the darkly comic HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970) and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971). He also wrote several espionage novels, numerous teleplays and series scripts (including some for KOLCHAK THE NIGHT STALKER and WONDER WOMAN), and two self-effacing volumes of autobiography, the awkwardly titled DO YOU WANT IT GOOD OR TUESDAY? (1997) and INSIDE HAMMER (2001).

Joe Dante once observed that Warner Bros' advertising tag "THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN Will Haunt You Forever!" proved truer for a generation of filmgoers than their publicity department could ever have anticipated. Who could forget the Baron (Peter Cushing), supposedly bent on creating life, coldbloodedly sending his servant girl (Valerie Gaunt) to her doom at the hands of his Creature (Christopher Lee) -- because he has impregnated her? Or its glimpses of disembodied body parts -- the cinema's first in full color -- with one particularly gruesome moment dissolving to the breakfast table and the Baron's tension-shattering request "Pass the marmalade"?

Or Jonathan Harker's (John Van Eyssen's) foolhardy mistake in (HORROR OF) DRACULA when he opts to stake the vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) who bit him before destroying Dracula himself (Christopher Lee)? Or its classic final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing (which Peter Cushing improved on-set by suggesting his hero run along a tabletop and tear down a curtain to let in lethal sunlight)?

Few scenes in 1950s horror are as shocking as the high society soirée in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN where Karl (Michael Gwynn), his misshapenness returning (and worsening to cannibalistic tendencies) after a failed cured by the Baron (Peter Cushing), crashes through the glass doors of the event AND the anonymity of the respected "Dr. Stein" in a plea for help. Likewise, few scenes of the period are as uplifting as the finale in which the Baron's associate, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Mathews), must use the skill he has acquired from the Baron to save his life, when his charity ward patients, learning his real identity, turn on his kindness and tear him to bits.

Andree Melly doesn't stay dead in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.

Perhaps no other vampire film mines quite so much fresh and inventive territory as THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, a Sangster script subsequently revised by two other writers, Peter Bryan and Edward Percey. In the absence of Christopher Lee, one of Dracula's disciples, Baron Meinster (David Peel) is kept imprisoned in his chateau by his doting mother (Martita Hunt), who lures young women there to feed his appetites, and perhaps to impose a kind of heterosexuality on an existence that was destroyed by socializing with men of loose morals. Here, the Baron -- once freed -- not only vampirizes his own mother, who then consents to her own destruction, but the Baron's old nanny (Freda Jackson) comes unhinged and marauds as a madly cackling midwife to the Undead, lying on the ground and helping to "birth" new vampires from their burial grounds. Here, even Van Helsing is bitten, and in an unforgettable demonstration of righteous resolve, he purifies his own neck wound with a red-hot poker and douses it with Holy water.

Sangster wrote DRACULA - PRINCE OF DARKNESS under some duress, hid behind a pseudonym ("John Sansom") to write it, and claimed he never saw it... and yet the first half of the film is enthralling, with the startling means of Dracula's resurrection and Barbara Shelley's effective transition from prim Victorian vacationer with a schedule to keep to a snarling, libido-liberated vampire bride among its many recommendations.

Ralph Bates and David Prowse in HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Sangster's films as a director were, by his own admission, less than satisfying. He loved making HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, calling it the happiest six weeks of his career, but he felt the result was "so lighthearted, its feet didn't touch the ground." He blamed producer interference for eroding his confidence on the set of LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, which he did not bother to supervise in its cutting or post-production. Both films, hobbled by a cheapness that no longer had Hammer's once-ingenious art director Bernard Robinson to disguise it, nevertheless have their moments and some likewise unforgettable images -- for example, Countess Carmilla Karnstein (Yutte Stensgaard), sitting erect and topless in her coffin, a victim's blood staining her bare breasts, or the young Baron (Ralph Bates) activating a severed hand with electricity so that it offers the old two-pronged salute.

"As a writer, I delivered my finished script and then went on to something new," he wrote in his autobiography. "Around six months later the picture would hit the screen. By then I'd forgotten I'd even written it."

Fortunately for the rest of us, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN will haunt us forever.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"No, Mr. Bond - I Expect You To Die!"

The pictures accompanying the recent reports about Gérard Dépardieu peeing on the plane confirm that he is finally ripe to play Auric Goldfinger. No thanks necessary, just send me my 10 per cent.