Odds and Deadends : The Mummy (2017): A Universal Problem

I love a good monster movie. And when it was announced years ago that Universal Studios were reviving their classic monster movies, I, like the rest of the horror world, had a small heart attack. Then Tom Cruise got attached to The Mummy and we realised that they were going all in. It was going to be mind-blowing.

Until it wasn’t.

I’m going to outline my thoughts as to why the rebooting of the iconic collection failed, and I’m going to split it into the following three categories:

1) The film itself.

2) The heritage and genre.

3) The Marvel effect.

  • THE FILM ITSELF

The MummyThat the other two categories feed into this general discussion of the movie as a whole is not to be ignored, but this first category ignores that the film is part of a larger narrative and just focuses on the filmmaking and storytelling itself.

The first glaring issue is the over-reliance on CGI set pieces used to try and carry the film. From large green screen sandstorms to a plethora of unrealistic zombie mummies, the film might as well have been completed animated. The worst part of it all is that these set pieces come thick and fast, with no rhyme or reason, or sense of proper narrative timing. You look at a Marvel movie (such as the new Spider-Man: Far From Home), and you notice that they normally break it up into three main parts. A fight early on, one in the middle, then the big wind up for the third act. It’s your basic three act structure with a large action sequence in each, and it allows the movie to have the downtime to build on its characters. Even movies such as those in the James Bond or Mission Impossible franchises will do the same sort of thing, with a sprinkling of smaller sequences here and there, but it’s still just the three big moments. The Mummy has so many that the rhythm is off. It just doesn’t feel right.

And it also means that parts, such as the desert sandstorm near the beginning of the film, are irrelevant. We saw the crows take off after the sarcophagus when it is airlifted away, and it is these birds that will bring the plane down. Why is the sandstorm needed? To add a little hint of ‘danger’? To make sure the audience doesn’t forget we’re in the desert? It makes no sense. When the sandstorm blows through London in the final act, it was a wonderfully gothic image, capitalising on the fear of outsiders and things that shouldn’t happen. But having this be a singular, major event that cut out communication lines, throwing all the heroes into confusion, would have been wonderful, and saving the sandstorm for this moment would have made it seem much more threatening. As it is, we’ve already seen a sandstorm do nothing. Why should we be scared of this one? Short answer: we aren’t.

One of my other issues was the lack of subtlety in the film in any department. The scares were ham-fisted attempts at CGI skeletons that didn’t take the time to allow the tension to build. And the amount of exposition is ridiculous. Jekyll’s opening speech gives most of the plot away, and leaves no mystery as to what is to come. It’s bad filmmaking and bad storytelling at the best of times, leading to a picture that rushes from one big scene to another, and has to have things spelled out quickly in between each blockbuster moment to make sure we’re following along. It’s nowhere near efficient craftsmanship.

  • THE HERITAGE AND TONE

When Universal said they were reviving the monster movies, audiences wanted horror. They wanted to be scared, brought back to being a kid. Universal, wanting to compete with summer blockbusters, changed their classic horror into an all-out action thriller with a few horror elements scattered around. There’s even some funny moments scattered around, such as when Jenny yells ‘Get her, Nick!’ to Tom Cruise’s character as the newly revived Princess Amanet heads towards them in the forest. Really? ‘Ger her, Nick!’? It’s not the movie audiences wanted, or were promised.

Because the movie goes for a grander scale, the horror, when it is there, never really hits. Sure, give your plagues and your zombies an apocalypse to try and bring about, but even these focus on a small group of survivors. Think Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later. Horror is deeply personal, and you have to make sure it feels personal to a protagonist we connect with, in order to make us truly feel it.

This is something Bram Stoker did wonderfully in his novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, a personal favourite novel of mine, and one I’ve already discussed on HorrorAddicts.net ( I’ll put a link to my analysis of the character of Queen Hera from the novel at the end of the article). Stoker’s tale presents an ancient Egyptian threat rising from the dead, like The Mummy, but for two-thirds of the narrative, everything is confined to one house and plays out like a murder mystery. It’s closed and confined, and because of this we empathise with the characters because we know them intimately. When the terror comes, we feel the fear because we’ve put ourselves in their shoes. As a result, the possible apocalypse after the book is finished feels much more worrying.

  • THE MARVEL EFFECT

The Dark Universe is Universal’s attempt to replicate the success Marvel Studios have had with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The trouble is that Marvel seems to be the only ones that have really cracked the format. Disney tried it out into Star Wars, but the bad reception to Solo halted their plans for possible Obi Wan and Boba Fett films. The DC Universe has its fans, but has never really caught the approval like Marvel has, and only recently has Aquaman and Wonder Woman really hit the box office hard. One can only wait to see how the Godzilla monster-verse goes on, but if the reviews I’ve seen of Godzilla: King of the Monsters are anything to go by, it doesn’t look good.

The Mummy’s primary problem is that Universal threw all their chips in too early.

The film isn’t just about the eponymous mummy, but the introduction to the whole world. But rather than sneak in suggestions and nods, and build the whole thing up slowly, whilst still allowing each film to be its own unique piece, they’re already interconnecting everything at the very heart. The beating heart of this connection is the Dr Jekyll, head of the Prodigium organisation. However, instead of letting Jekyll just be an incidental part of the storyline, or his true identity being a big reveal at the end of the film, they made him integral to the movie.

This has multiple risks. It risks sidelining the main focus of the movie, the mummy herself, and it risks, if you’ll excuse the vulgar phrasing, Universal blowing their load too early. Universal didn’t keep their powder dry. Hold Jekyll and Hyde back and you’ve got a whole other movie in store to unleash. If The Mummy goes down, you’ve got another shot. Notice how Marvel, in the first Iron Man film, only announced Nick Fury in the post credit scene. They could easily have cut it had the test screenings been bad, and simply kept it as a one-off movie that made a decent splash, whilst also jettisoning the movie from a wider connected universe if they needed to. They can even bring Iron Man back into the storyline in 10 movies time if it takes them that long to get into their rhythm.

The Dark Universe, complete with logo at the beginning of the movie, announces very plainly that everything goes together. You’ve got obvious nods to Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon in the jars Prodigum has in its stores, clearly showing Universal’s intention to use them at a later phase. In one, opening movie, we’ve got four of the classic monsters together. All we needed was someone to be invisible, and Jekyll to have a daughter marrying a doctor called Victor Frankenstein, and Universal would have taken down almost every monster they had in their arsenal in one go.

In a bid to outdo Marvel with their interconnected universe, the producers relied on the fan base of the monsters of the past to carry the movie with references and nods all by themselves. In the end, when these fans didn’t get what they wanted, Universal were left canning the other projects they had set up. Their interconnected world had crashed at the first hurdle, and because the rest of their plans were integral to the first film being a hit, it set up a chain of dominos that knocked the other films down.

One can only hope that Leigh Whannell (and Blumhouse, I believe) will have the sense to work slowly, building up a series of films that are tense, scary, and operate by themselves, which have the potential, but not the necessity, to interlink later on. Whannell has already established himself (along with James Wan, ironically directing movies in another connected universe, having released Aquaman last year), at being able to bring about an interlinked horror franchise with The Conjuring universe. Let’s hope that he can learn from the mistakes that Universal made with The Mummy, and slowly bring us the spectacle we all wanted, and still want, to see.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

My article on Queen Hera from The Jewel of Seven Stars can be found here: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/odds-and-dead-ends-resurrecting-the-queen/

Bibliography

28 Days Later. 2002. [Film] Directed by Danny Boyle. United Kingdom: 20th Century Fox.

Aquaman. 2018. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: DC.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. 1954. [Film] Directed by Jack Arnold. USA: Universal Pictures.

Dracula. 1931. [Film] Directed by Tod Browning. USA: Universal Pictures.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters. 2019. [Film] Directed by Michael Dougherty. USA: Legendary Pictures.

Iron Man. 2008. [Film] Directed by Jon Favreau. USA: Marvel Studios.

Night of the Living Dead. 1968. [Film] Directed by George A. Romero. USA: Image Ten.

Solo: A Star Wars Story. 2018. [Film] Directed by Ron Howard. USA: Lucasfilm.

Spider-Man: Far From Home. 2019. [Film] Directed by Jon Watts. USA: Marvel Studios.

Stoker, B., 2009. The Jewel of Seven Stars. United States of America: Seven Treasures Publications.

The Mummy. 2017. [Film] Directed by Alex Kurtzman. USA: Universal.

Wonder Woman. 2017. [Film] Directed by Patty Jenkins. USA: DC.

 

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte a Delicious Gothic Treat by Kristin Battestella

Director and producer Richard Aldrich capitalized on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with the chilling but no less sophisticated Southern Gothic examination of murder, gossip, and madness in 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

After Charlotte Hollis’ (Bette Davis) father Big Sam (Victor Buono) insists she break off her dalliance with the married John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), Charlotte enters the cotillion covered in blood. Decades later, Charlotte remains an infamous murderess and recluse, living alone save for housekeeper Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead). The state of Louisiana plans to tear down the crumbling Hollis House to build a bridge, and with Doctor Drew Bayliss’ (Joseph Cotten) help, cousin Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) returns to convince Charlotte she must leave. Unfortunately, ghostly violence terrorizes the women, blurring past crimes, contemporary suspicions, and deadly delusions.

Happening jazz, dancing, and 1927 good times hide the illicit schemes, secret elopements, and vicious murder opening Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. We think we’ve seen a cold-hearted kill thanks to intercut chopping, gruesome slices, and screams, but is this crime all it seems? Wind chimes and silent shocks lead to 1964 cemeteries and youthful rhymes detailing the chop chop legend of headless lovers as boys sneak in the desolate ballroom ruined by passion, scandal, and insanity. Construction vehicles rumble nearby, yet there’s a certain gentility to the venomous shouts. Everyone says miss or sir, using full names and regional colloquialisms despite the ten day eviction notice, paranoid conspiracies, suspicious old enemies, and secrets coming back to haunt one and all.

Talk of an innocent teen girl having a dirty affair with a married man and calling each other bitches was shocking dialogue at the time, but there are also regrets, tears, and wishful thinking of an inheritance that should have been well spent instead of wasted on the lonely, dilapidated decades.

The dramatically paced conversations are layered with talk of the past, current states of mind, double entendres, and shade – creating zingers and storytelling comforts before wardrobes that open by themselves, slashed clothing, crank letters, and unforgiving threats quicken the pulse. Creaking doors, cleavers, and severed limbs scare the women – our eponymous character may be a little mad, but others are experiencing the frights, too. Crimes of Passion magazine reporters are excited that now in the sixties they can play up the murder’s sex angle, and there’s no one to trust amid phantom figures strolling the grounds and ghostly harpsichord playing. Storms, lightning, and winds blowing across the balcony lead to breaking windows and shattered mirrors. Today we have crazy versus ghost horrors, but they are often teen light rather than sophisticated dramas with performances free to carry the murderous motives behind the frights.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte provides superb scenes with heavyweight talent, and revelations in the final act place the viewer within the footsteps, physical bouts, and shocking violence. The southern gentility degrades into cruel intensity as the sense of dread escalates without any need for in your face jump scares. Deaths we’ve seen happen are said to have happened entirely differently, and the women do what has to be done thanks to the men’s messes – be he builder, destroyer, father, doctor, or lover. Beckoning echoes and tormenting serenades are twisted, sad, and delicious all at once thanks to eerie masks, gunshots, headless suitors, and nightmares. Delusions revisit the original crime while chilling visuals, bitch slaps, and dead bodies rolled up in the carpet contribute to the hysteria. These dames won’t suffer for the lies, blackmail, and cruelty anymore, but the can’t take it with you and what was it all for pain serves up a few more frights before the madness is all said and done.

Is Bette Davis’ (All About Eve) Charlotte a crazy killer, abused, or just misunderstood? She’s mad, one minute, pushing planters off the balcony at construction workers, but demure in white, crying, and heartbroken the next. Charlotte’s an unreliable old woman dealing with trespassers and losing her home. She doesn’t need sympathy or company, just help in saving Hollis House. At times she is very sharp, but she’s also caught in the moment of her lover’s murder, dressed up and waiting for a dead beau. She knows the townsfolk think she got away with murder, however the audience likes her moxie. We’re on her side when the sheriff insists she only acts loony because it’s what’s expected of her, and we pity Charlotte’s sobbing sing-alongs to their song.

She wakes up in the night, for her fantasies are only real in the dark.  Charlotte used to be positive she wasn’t crazy, but now she isn’t so sure thanks to ghostly visions, medication, and nightly damaged she swears she didn’t do. Mad murderess or not, she is certainly scared, and the family pride, fatal disgrace, gossip, and the irony of letting go make for a sad vindication. Olivia de Havilland’s (The Heiress) cousin Miriam Deering tries to make it easier for Charlotte to leave, reminiscing and sharing fond memories of sliding down the banister. She makes Charlotte laugh, telling her not to pay any attention to trash rags, old rivals, or nasty letters but come back to reality. Unfortunately, Miriam can’t stop the state’s eviction, and she’s always looking out for herself first. Charlotte says her public relations job “sounds dirty,” and past tattle tales on who was the poor relation or favored daughter make Miriam wish she had never come back. Nonetheless, she increasingly takes over the household, packing and making Charlotte say goodbye to Hollis House whether she is ready or not.

According to Joseph Cotten’s (Duel in the Sun) Dr. Drew Bayliss, Charlotte has nothing more than a persecution complex. He insists the state’s condemned order is solely about the bridge construction and not Charlotte’s infamy – although he has looked into committing her but doesn’t have enough evidence. Drew calls himself an old man who missed out, regretting choosing his career and breaking off his past romance with Miriam. She, however, insists he’s too quick with his compliments and intentions. He flirts with her as he did in their youth, preying upon her even as he wants to protect her – giving her a handgun in case there are any more trespassers. Unfortunately, only more memories of the past come back and Drew wonders if Charlotte isn’t creating her own company and reliving her debutante days with newly fixed delusions. Surprisingly, only Agnes Moorehead (The Bat) as loyal housekeeper and sassy defender Velma Cruther received hardware for her performance in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte – a shiny Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe contrasting her crusty, cranky self. Velma dislikes Miriam, mocking her before sulking behind a column and muttering comebacks between her chores. Although initially humorous, Velma isn’t stupid. She tries phoning for help and confronts Miriam outright when told she’s being dismissed with the month’s wages. Velma only takes her orders from Charlotte, and the imminent tearing down of Hollis House does not mean she won’t be needed when the manor’s gone. Velma sees through Miriam’s high and mighty behavior in several taut confrontations that become scrumptiously physical.

Certainly there are a few superfluous characters – utility players dispensing exposition yet detracting from the taught hysteria, but Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) makes the most of her brief time as Jewel Mayhew, the widow of Charlotte’s mutilated lover. Although Charlotte suspects Jewel is out to get her, she’s not afraid to tell Miriam and her vicious tongue off in public. Jewel is gravely ill and ready for the truth to be heard. Victor Buono (King Tut in Batman, people!) mostly appears in the prologue as Charlotte’s stern father Big Sam, but his threatening presence lingers throughout the film. He disapproves of some lothario like the married Bruce Dern (The ‘burbs) intending to elope with Charlotte and ruin the family legacy he has rebuilt – and his orchestrations ironically cause exactly what he was trying to prevent in memorializing the Hollis name. Unfortunately, George Kennedy (Earthquake) appears too briefly as the foreman ready to bulldoze the manor standing in the way of his bridge project. He’s tried being kind to Charlotte and objects to her shooting at his crew. It might have been interesting to have seen him appear more as a physical reminder of the ten day requisitions countdown, for at times the need to vacate for the tear down is almost forgotten in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’s crazy horrors.

Art Direction, Cinematography, and Editing nominations abound for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte thanks to excellent gray scale schemes, symbolic shadows, scary silhouettes, and askew camera angles that remain sharp on 4K screens. Overhead visuals peer into the scene with our point of view in tight for the harsh, angry faces or panning wide to capture the empty, stage-like mansion interiors. Choice zooms, distorted up shots, and foreboding down angles accent the spinning ceiling fans – we feel the congested southern heat despite breezy lace curtains, open windows, wispy willows, and dangling moss. Trees and balconies are high, but Hollis House is dimly lit with few candles at the dinner table and dark strolls on the veranda leaving room for those disturbing severed heads, phantom hands, and great horror effects. The expansive locales mean every scene takes its time, laid back with people made small in the Louisiana inside out lifestyle. There’s no rush to walk down the long corridors as mishaps belie the grand staircase and grandfather clocks tick tock. Barking dogs and silent pauses add to the atmosphere alongside the nominated Score with its angry crescendos, sad melodies, and bittersweet lyrics. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has ye olde big newspapers with thick headlines, flashbulb cameras, and $2.50 for a cab drive after which he’s told to keep the change! There’s a firmly sixties mood thanks to the big cruising cars, hats, gloves, white suits, and cigarettes – however the grandeur is also trapped in time with tall columns, wallpaper, tea in the garden, chandeliers, telegrams, leather libraries, and looming large family portraits. And bench car seats mean we see some good old fashioned slide across!

 

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has always seemed a little less beloved than it’s exceptional predecessor Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and video options remain slightly elusive thanks to unavailability on Netlix and a limited edition blu-ray. Some audiences may find the psycho biddy style too camp – at times there’s certainly over the top inducing laughter to the scary. At two hours and fifteen minutes, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte may also be too long and not all out horror enough for viewers accustomed to contemporary, formulaic slashers. For others there may not be full rewatch value once one knows how it ends, but Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is worth repeat viewings for all the graceful clues and nuances amid the Southern Gothic terror – remaining a gripping, can’t look away master class of chilling moments and staple performances.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Bell, Book, and Candle

Bell Book and Candle is still Great, Witchy Fun

By Kristin Battestella

 

We may think all the young adult fantasy books, Potter-esque films, and shows like Charmed have cornered the magic market onscreen, but classics like 1958’s Bell Book and Candle have kept the kooky comedy and witchy situations innocent and fun all along.

Over Christmas, good natured New York witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) grows a little tired of her witchy ways and Aunt Queenie’s (Elsa Lanchester) magical games. When Gil falls in love with publisher and upstairs neighbor Shep Henderson (James Stewart), she uses her cat Pyewacket to cast a spell. Shep must fall in love with Gil and thus not marry her former rival and college classmate Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule, 3 Women). While all the love blossoms, Gil’s warlock brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) assists writer Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) in his new book ‘Magic in Manhattan’. Will Shep’s publication of the book expose the Holroyds’ witchy ways and ruin Gil’s romance with Shep?

Based upon the play by John Van Druten (Gaslight, Cabaret), director Richard Quine (Sunny Side of the Street) and screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) craft a charming look at the power and hijinks of magic and love. We often allude to love being like a bewitching spell in lyrics and poetry. Even though a spell is cast in Bell Book and Candle, we’re never quite sure where the magic ends and the true love begins. The fanciful and fun take on possible love from socially at odds groups-humans and witches-is lighthearted and still enjoyable today. We can make all the modern and hefty allusions we want about mixed romances or stereotypes about practitioners of witchcraft, but it’s nice to just take in a sweet movie with none of those pretenses. There are a few lighting effects, camera tricks, and the proverbial smoke and mirrors, but more than anything Bell Book and Candle allows its players the time and space to show the magical fun.

Yes, Jimmy Stewart (Harvey, It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, need I go on?) is a little too old to be a leading man here against Kim Novak, but he’s still delightful as the straight man publisher caught in the magical mix of spells and romance. We believe a charming witch could get Shep all flustered, confused, and tongue-tied due to Stewart’s loveable slip-ups. His mix of enchantment and clueless nonsense when confronted with the world of witchcraft must have been great fun then-as it still is now to the modern viewer. Stewart’s old, and perhaps his performance is a bit Capra-esque old fashioned, but it’s a fun turn nonetheless. As wonderfully fooled as Shep is, Jack Lemmon’s Nicky is wickedly slick. His magic is all in good fun, too, but he can’t resist the spotlight. Nicky’s ill-attempted exposé writing collaborations mix the crazy ambition with the sardonic blend of wit and drama contemporary audiences expect from the late star of Grumpy Old Men and The Odd Couple. In a way, there is a touch of passing the torch between the graying Stewart and energetic Lemmon. Both men handled the romance, seriousness, and comedy of their roles before and after Bell Book and Candle with a style and class not often found in today’s young acting crowd.

Though not as famous as her male counterparts, its fun to see Kim Novak paired with Jimmy Stewart again after Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense filled Vertigo the same year. Novak’s good witch longing for love does take some getting used to after her deceptive dame in Vertigo, but her husky voice and dynamite eyes adhere to the femme and witchy vibe we expect. Her costumes are hip, with mostly spooky black or eye-catching reds- but what’s with the high, almost white hair? There’s not many close ups of Novak for some reason, but the ones we’re given are breathtaking. Fun effects and cat motifs add to Gil’s already enchanting ways, too. We believe her when she says she has the power to get things done, yet we feel for her wishes for normalcy. Likewise, Elsa Lanchester’s (The Private Life of Henry VIII, Bride of Frankenstein, Witness for the Prosecution) Aunt Queenie is great fun as the elder, kooky and mischievous sprite helping with some good natured interference and match making. Comedy maven Ernie Kovacs (Our Man in Havana, North to Alaska) is also a delight as author Sidney Redlitch – an ‘expert’ of modern witches among us who fails to see the warlocks right under his nose.

Part of Bell Book and Candle’s charm is its fun fifties color and style: the cigarettes, quirky music, Oscar nominated high-end fashion and nonchalant, cute effects. The high life of mid century New York is a delightful time capsule, and the pillow talk approach to witchcraft is in a way modern but no less sweet. However, part of this charm also irrevocably dates the portrayal. It’s 1958- the innocence of the post war years would soon be lost. Some of the whirlwind two-week romance is a little too innocent with no innuendo before the quick marriage talk, and even the colorful styles and titled fedoras would be on the fashion outs in a few years’ time. It’s as if the onscreen attitudes and styles are a final fifties hurrah before the turmoil and realizations of the sixties.

Now I’m sorry to say that I don’t know anything about current Wiccan and religious practices; but naturally modern pagans and witches looking for some seriousness and accuracy won’t find it in Bell Book and Candle. While not deliberately offensive, the clean cut fifties stylings goes for the traditional broomstick stereotypes. It’s great if you like films with some witchy fun, but there’s no realistic portrayal here. Classic film fans, however, can also enjoy the similar I Married A Witch (1942) starring Veronica Lake- both films are often attributed as the inspiration for the beloved television series Bewitched. Modern romantic fans tired of the same inane plots over and over will be charmed, too. Youthful audiences who still enjoy enchanting tales like Bewitched or Hocus Pocus can take in Bell Book and Candle at Halloween, Christmas, or any time of year.

Alfred Hitchcock Basics – A Video Primer

Happy Birthday Alfred Hitchcock!

Good Evening, Horror Addicts!

Kristin Battestella aka Kbatz here again with a video review breakdown on some of our Alfred Hitchcock Favorites! From The Lady Vanishes, Lifeboat, Notorious, and Spellbound to Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds – if you haven’t seen one or two, here’s why you should!

 

 

Don’t forget YOU can be part of the conversation on our Facebook Group or revisit some of my Horror Addicts.net Hitchcock reviews here.

 

By Horror Addicts, For Horror Addicts!

 

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

 

An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

by Kristin Battestella

Fans of old school thrillers young or old can earn their suspense credentials with these early Alfred Hitchcock nail biters.

The Lady Vanishes Only one lovely train passenger has seen the titular dame, causing rail car mayhem for Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra) in this 1938 mystery. Travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle as our ensemble is humorously introduced – from the governess rambling about her past charges and country songs or dances to cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the line from London for the cricket scores. All the rooms are let out in this hectic hotel save for the maid’s quarters, and she comes with the room, wink! The bellhop is trying not to look at the scandalous bare legs as our bachelorette orders caviar and champagne, but the men in bed together is gay in both senses of the word with jolly good innuendo. This quirky inn comforts the audience yet there are whispers of pretty American girls and the almighty dollar getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. A hit on the head at the train station leads to a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, magic tricks, and slight of hand illusion. Everyone’s interconnected – incognito affairs, musicians, a famous doctor, magicians, and foreign diplomats. Some genuinely don’t recall seeing the woman in question, but others have an ulterior motive for not wanting the train delayed, willful gaslighting compounded by lies, lawyers watching their own back, and that unreliable bump on the head. Tea in the dining car alone, suspicious wine glasses – complaints about non-English speakers, nationalism, political secrets, and conspiracies. Who’s really on who’s side? Train whistle harbingers pepper the constant hum of travel, matching the rail montages, impressive rear projection, and black and white photography. Despite the confined setting, the pace remains fittingly on the move with perilous comings and goings between cars. There are stoles and divine hats, too, but that giant monogram scarf looks more like a napkin stuck in her collar! Humorous bunging in the cargo with magician’s rabbits, trick boxes, false bottoms, and contortionists is good on its own, however, perhaps such fun should have happened earlier before the serious mystery escalates. There are some contrived leaps as well – it’s amazing how all the Englishmen can shoot to kill and do it so easily – and though not naming the enemy country is understandable thanks to political relevance then and now, the obligatory bad guys are just nondescript. Likewise, one can see why the sardonic comedy teams and shootouts were included, and Flightplan really steals from this right down to the writing on the foggy window. Fortunately, the ticking clock race to the border, wrong track turns, gunfire standoffs, and international chases roll on right up to the end. But seriously, what it is with Hitchcock and trains already?

 

 

Lifeboat – Journalist Tallulah Bankhead is stranded on the high seas with torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and Nazis in this 1944 self-contained thriller nominated for Best Director, Story by John Steinbeck, and Black and White Cinematography. There’s no need to waste time on spectacle with the in media res sinking – flotsam and jetsam with everything from English playing cards to dead Germans heralds the nationalism and wartime grays to come amid damp passengers, dirty sailors, famous dames, mothers, babies, and injuries. Tallulah’s in furs, smoking a cigarette, and dictating what junk to bridge aboard, and despite the tiny boat space, multiple conversations happen fore and aft thanks to strategic intercutting between the immediate wounded and more self-absorbed survivors. Fog and windswept water sprays accent the superb rear projection, and the strategic filming captures everyone from all angles with foreground zooms and background silhouettes. Natural ocean sounds and the rocking of the ship, however, might make sensitive viewers seasick. There are numerous colloquialisms as well as accents and translations, but conversation is all we have – a stage-like talkative jam packed with insinuating layers, interrogations, and double meanings. Can you make your own law in open waters and toss the Nazi overboard? Everyone feels the need to establish who’s American, Christian, or had relatives in Czechoslovakia and France, and the black cook is surprised he’s included in all the decisions. It’s unfortunately expected that Canada Lee’s (Cry the Beloved Country) Joe is the least developed character, yet he’s also the most genuine person starboard. This is also a more diverse ensemble than often seen in today’s movies, and three women talk to each other about shell shock and lacking supplies but nobody knows the right prayers for a burial at sea. Cold, wet, sleepless individual vignettes allow the refreshingly flawed stranded to come clean, and at the time having a Nazi officer as a realistic character rather than an evil archetype was understandably controversial. Testy questions on who’s skipper, united sympathies, and diplomatic delegating drop the formalities, as after all “we’re all in the same boat.” However, information is not always forthcoming and no one knows the course to Bermuda – except Herr Kapitan. Can you trust his seamanship? A compass, typewriter, watches, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers with Sir Alfred in the classifieds add tangibles and some humor alongside baseball talk, debate on the superior rowing capabilities of the Master Race, and other unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” Repeated “Some of my best friends are…” quips also address differences as rambling on past regrets becomes veiled talk about shocking revelations and amputations. Lost material possessions give way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, and tattoos, but there’s time for intense poker, lipstick, and flirtation. Bermuda is the macguffin, and storms, hunger, delirium, suspicion, and men overboard get in the way of getting there. Rather than just special effects cool, wet and wild action heightens the internal boat suspense as beards grow and tables turn. They’re surrounded by undrinkable water, rain is precious, fishing bait is nonexistent, and sudden twists happen with nothing but a splash. Violent mutinies and shellfire are surprising to see in a forties movie, but Bankhead is a stunning, strong, sexy older woman able to be kissing or angry in the same scene – a multifaceted female role few and far between these days. Once stripped bare by the consequences of welcoming your enemy, do you accept your fate, continue to row, or laugh at the irony? Perhaps this warning against fatally lumping all together and the guilty lessons learned in such a no win situation can only be appreciated in retrospect, as this tale tries to see everything from both sides, remaining gripping from beginning to end with nothing but eight people in a boat in the middle of the ocean intensity. It makes one wonder why nowadays everything is so gosh darn bombastic.

 

SabotageBuzzing light bulbs go dark in this 1936 caper based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – not to be confused with Hitchcock’s previous Secret Agent or later Saboteur. Whew! Crowds are both confused and giggling in this blackout, singing or arguing by candlelit and wanting their money back from the down picture show. Flashlights, the silhouetted skyline, shadow schemes, and askew camera angles add to the power tampering suspicion, and suspenseful notes follow our mysterious man in black as he returns home, washes his hands, and claims innocence – despite his neighbor’s claims to the contrary. He talks of money coming soon yet doesn’t want to draw attention to his cinema business, but the professional, public, and domestic are intertwined with families living above the bustling marketplace. Fine dresses, fedoras, and vintage cars add to the quaint, however no one is who they seem thanks to grocers with an angle, Scotland Yard whispering of trouble abroad, and shadowed men with their backs to the camera conversing over promised payments. The innocuous movies, aquarium, and pet shop host seemingly innocent ingredients used for making bombs, and onscreen days of the week lie in wait while the public is occupied by the picture show, hoodwinked by what’s in plain sight. Creepy packages, trick bird cages, and threatening “sleeping with the fishes” coded messages become a tongue in cheek nod to the nature of cinema and hidden observations as covers are blown and men scatter. Our wife is clueless abut her husband and oblivious to her family being used for information, creating an interesting dynamic for her between the handsome detective and a damn cold, cruel husband. Who are behind these plans and why? Despite several great sequences, convenient plot points leave too many unanswered questions. The busy start is rough around the edges, meandering for half the movie before becoming eerily provocative as a child delivers a fatal ticking package in the middle of the crowded market. We know the route and the time – delaying for street sales, demonstration detours, and interfering parades ups the suspense alongside traffic jams, stoplights, and montages featuring clock tower gears, dangerous flammable film, our innocuous brown papered package, and the puppy on the bus next to it! A clock on every street corner checks each five minutes passing amid town criers, newsboys, crescendos, and clues in the film canister that go for the big shocker while silent visuals bring the threats home to the dinner table. Although I don’t think today we’d have a cartoon singing “Who killed Cock Robin?” but that might just be me.

 

The 39 Steps – Like Maugham’s Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don’t need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who’s picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: I Married a Witch

I Married a Witch a Trickster Delight

By Kristin Battestella

 

While many adore the subsequent Bell Book and Candle or Bewitched, have had Peek A Boo hairstyles, or even know of Veronica Lake thanks to her sexy Oscar winning look-alike Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential; it seems not many today appreciate the 1942 magical romp that started it all, I Married a Witch.

Burned at the Salem Witch Trials thanks to the testimony of Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March), Jennifer (Veronica Lake) curses Wooley and all his male descendents to be unlucky in love. Centuries later when lightning strikes a tree and frees their spirits, Jennifer and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) continue to interfere with politician Wallace Wooley (also March), his campaign for governor, and his impending marriage to socialite Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). Jennifer plans to make Wally fall in love with her just to ruin him. Unfortunately, when she is injured, Wally mistakenly gives her the love potion she intended for him. Now that she’s in love with a mortal, Daniel disastrously interferes on his daughter’s behalf. Jennifer, however, has bigger plans now: using witchcraft to save Wally’s campaign.

 

I’ll get the bit of the bad out of the way first, for only the dated production here hinders I Married a Witch. The black and white looks somewhat unrestored, dark and tough to see sometimes. The historical montage opening the film also has poor period stylings or seems quick and on the cheap. Modern audiences might also be a little lost on some of the thirties mannerisms and dialogue, and the sound is often tough to hear. While kids might enjoy this partial inspiration for the television series Bewitched, viewers with short attention spans might groan at early scenes with only smoke, fire, and old speaketh voiceovers. However, having said all that, the light-hearted comedy and hijinks of love story from director Rene Clair (The Flame of New Orleans, And Then There Were None) and writers Robert Pirosh (Combat!) and Marc Connelly (Captain Courageous) win with magical charm and innocent fun.

Well then, let’s talk about that peek a boo queen herself, Veronica Lake. Although the diminutive star of Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun for Hire doesn’t actually appear for the first fifteen minutes, we like the off-screen witch Jennifer when we hear of her fun curses. Despite her initial vengeance and maliciousness, we enjoy her vocal tricks and thus are thrilled when we finally do get so see those famous blonde tresses. Lake may seem a one trick pretty, but her witchy ways are delightful and her comedic dialogue is right on time. Though the pair seem visually at odds and she spends most of the time being carried by March; Lake has the sardonic match and onscreen weight to be a 290-year-old witch testing Wallys’ heart. Jennifer’s supposed to be bad, purely a spiteful witch causing love trouble for the sake of a long ago wrong, yet she’s whimsical and adorable all the same. Likewise, Oscar winner Frederic March (Best Years of Our Lives, Death of a Salesman, The Desperate Hours) proves he’s more than the straight, heavy, and serious dramatic leading man we so often enjoy. Wally’s wedding day hysterics are almost side splitting- caught in a repeatedly false starting ceremony and running ragged over two women! March would be the exceptional straight man indeed- if not for his perfect balance of witty, proper performance and humorous presence.

 

While Lake’s luster may have fallen over the decades, the budding and future Best Actress Susan Hayward (I Want to Live, Reap the Wild Wind) is wonderful as the snotty socialite set to marry Wally. Any other time, we’d love to pedestal Hayward, but in I Married a Witch, the audience can’t help but appreciate her bearing the brunt of Jennifer’s tricks. Dads Cecil Kellaway (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Robert Warwick’s (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) J.B. Masterson are also great fun as the at odds parents who similarly enough have their daughters- and thus their own- best interests at heart. Classic fashion and style lends a wonderful visual support, too. Not to be outdone by slim cut suits or tilted fedoras, the pre-war ladies’ costumes here are glorious. The lengthy gowns and puffy sleeves just add an extra touch of class not often found in today’s recreations. I Married a Witch was contemporary at the time, but now it is a wonderful period piece to us with great music, sweet looking cars, and great old houses. Sure, some of the flying brooms and objects moving by themselves look hokey, but most of the smoke and mirror effects are simplistically good. Thanks to a fine story and great performances, fancy effects aren’t required to suspend the belief needed for I Married a Witch.

Fans of the old school cast, classic films aficionados, or families looking for some wholesome witchy fun can certainly find a short 80 minutes for I Married a Witch. Naturally, it is full of pre-war magical innocence rather than proper Wicca motifs, but again, the delight here wins against any datedness of the time.

Little Pub of Horrors August 5th

August 5th – 6:00pm SLT (PST)
Little Pub of Horrors – Bookstacks Pub, Second Life

Come join us in the Pub for a virtual drink and a discussion about the horror-re-vamp of classics and historical figures such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter, and Little Vampire Women.
Hosted by Kghia and Emz, live taping to post on Horror Addicts Feed.
http://slurl.com/secondlife/Awen/117/157/25