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Festival Coverage

Friday, 5 February 2016

Max Mon Amour (1986)

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Stars: Charlotte Rampling and Anthony Higgins
Happy birthday to Charlotte Rampling, surely one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors in an era where neither adjective is deemed beneficial by most filmgoers. She turned seventy on the 5th and I wanted to celebrate by reviewing one of her films. There are plenty of odd little gems in her filmography to choose from, whether they were made in the ’70s such as ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Zardoz or The Night Porter, the ’80s like He Died with His Eyes Open, Angel Heart and Mascara, or even later, such as Asphalt Tango, Swimming Pool or Melancholia. I ended up picking Max Mon Amour, a movie which will turn thirty this year. It’s a truly international picture, made in France by a Japanese director with three English leads, who alternate between the English and French languages throughout, and supporting actors from France, Spain and Italy. It’s also a surreal picture which I saw soon after it was released and didn’t understand in the slightest. It’s surely about time to revisit it and see if I’m now able to understand what it aimed to do.

And, long story short, I still don’t have a clue. It’s simple to explain what happens but not so easy to find the meaning behind it all and there are a bunch of alternative solutions to the puzzle. However, I’m now of the opinion that there isn’t an intended solution, as it follows the surrealist approach of Luis Buñuel in not only the wild and confrontational subject matter but also the style in which it was filmed, which is an elegant, simple and straightforward one with no cinematic gimmickry anywhere to be found. The theory is that it isn’t needed, because everything should be utterly routine except for the one wild aspect which leaps out as utterly ridiculous. That’s the one on which we should focus, not merely for its own sake but to see how everyone else interacts with it. Many of Buñuel’s best films, such as The Exterminating Angel, are inexplicable when taken literally but rewarding and insightful when read as social commentary. It’s a safe bet that this works best that way too, if only I could decide what it’s actually commenting on.
We’re here for Peter and Margaret Jones, an English couple living in France where he works as a diplomat and she works as, well, a diplomat’s wife. They live in a gorgeous house, furnished with antiques and old masters, which is kept in pristine condition by Maria, a full time maid. And, as is expected in polite French society, they have lovers on the side. Peter’s clearly having an affair with his secretary, Camille, while his wife has had dalliances with Mr Archibald, who’s been absent for a while, working in the Lebanon. Each is aware of the infidelities of the other and they’re so polite that they can all sit down to dinner together on Margaret’s birthday. However, Peter discovers that his wife is also getting up to something else on the sly, lying about where she’s been and what she’s been doing, and that bugs him. He hires a private detective who is able to track down the shabby place she’s rented in a shabby neighbourhood and Peter goes there to catch them in the act. All straightforward so far, right?

Well, he finds that she’s cheating on him with a chimpanzee named Max and everything gets continually weirder from there. Certainly this is a surreal comedy of manners, because things proceed in a strangely polite fashion. ‘I thought I knew you well,’ comments Peter over dinner, before suggesting that Max move in with them. Maybe it isn’t just satirising French infidelity but the British stiff upper lip, as Rampling and Anthony Higgins are both English. Is this a race metaphor, given how multicultural it was in France in the eighties; is Max the scandalous thought of a black or Algerian lover just taken to extremes, someone who would, through their mere existence, be a step too far for polite society? Could it be more straightforward: just a commentary on the bestiality fad which swept European pornography in the 1970s? I remember stories of Bodil Joensen, who ran an aptly named animal husbandry business and loved her German shepherd, Spot, and all her animals both sexually and emotionally, both in real life and on film.
I have a couple of better ideas. One is that Margaret lied about her sexual relationship with Max, who she loves like a child, suggesting that their relationship is more like an adoption. For all Peter’s inquisitiveness about whether his wife and the chimp do it or not, he’s more jealous of the love that passes between the pair, even during a gloriously uncomfortable scene at her birthday dinner, at which their guests see just how close they are. Peter reacts later, with a telling line: ‘You never loved me like that.’ A pro is that this English couple have themselves been adopted by France, but a con is that they already have a real son, Nathan, who lives with them. However, their bourgeois politeness leads to little emotional exchange with him, or indeed between each other. It’s not that these parents don’t care about their son, but they talk to Nathan roughly like they talk to their maid, Maria. Perhaps Margaret is rebelling against that relationship and Max is her means of exploring her more emotional side.

Or, perhaps, even more likely, everything we see is a red herring and this is all a way for Margaret, who’s not French, to win her husband back from the French social custom of expected infidelity. This theory has merit but I’d have to watch the whole thing again to see if it really holds true. Certainly, Margaret admits to bestiality but it’s never seen, not by us and not by Peter, who constantly pleads to watch, not because he wants to get his rocks off but because he wants to know that it’s really happening, that the act is even possible with a chimp and what Margaret gets out of it, given that chimps are only supposed to last a few seconds. So could this be an elaborate plan to get her husband so focused on her that Camille becomes just an memory? Certainly Higgins initially plays Peter as unemotionally as a robot but he gets more and more emotional as the picture runs on, while Rampling, who can do Machiavellian in her sleep, stays on an even keel throughout, even as the character who’s emotional, being overtly in love with a chimp.
Who knows? Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-wrote with director Nagisa Oshima, was experienced in the art of the surreal, having written seven films with Luis Buñuel, from 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid through 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977. This seems very much like another one, though Buñuel had died three years before its release, and I intend that as a firm compliment. I think he just had a lot of fun with extrapolation, ways in which to shake the famous French politeness and the bourgeois acceptance of everything. Can there be a more French moment than when Mr Archibald visits his married former lover with a bouquet of roses and a psychoneurologist because he feels she needs help? Why not introduce a prostitute, who attempts to proposition Peter in the street only to find that he brings her home to strip off to make love to Max just so he can see what it would be like? And, of course, have young Nathan interrupt the half naked young lady leaving. What a childhood!

Like every surrealist film, this is certainly not for everyone. It’s not as slow as you might expect, but it’s a very calm movie and audiences used to rapid fire editing and Jerry Springer Show histrionics aren’t going to get this in the slightest. Indie film fans might get turned away by the ostensible subject matter or that relentless calm, but they might get drawn in by the nature of the piece and the performances. Rampling is a glorious cipher throughout, Higgins finds his moments and the combination of Rick Baker’s creature design and Ailsa Berk’s movements work wonders as Max. This chimp looks pretty much like a chimp, as it should, of course, but it’s impressive to have to look closely to realise that it isn’t one, thirty years on. It’s definitely a step up from the old Planet of the Apes movies, even if it isn’t up to the CGI of the latest one. Berk is a dancer and actress, most famous for playing Aslan in the British TV adaptations of Narnia books but also characters in Return of the Jedi, Greystoke and Return to Oz. She deserves more credit.
Bizarrely, the most successful angle to the film may also be its least successful. Oshima was no stranger to controversy, having helmed the art porn movie, In the Realm of the Senses, a decade earlier, and this bestiality comedy could easily have raised as much concern, but it ends up safe and civilised and oddly inoffensive. I don’t think there’s a single swearword uttered and, beyond never seeing any bestiality, we only see one pair of boobs (courtesy of the delightful Sabine Haudepin as Françoise the prostitute) and a single shot of Rampling’s butt as she walks out of a room. In fact, as the film runs on, we actively wonder why we’re not being offended or outraged but instead finding an odd sense of sympathy for this strange family. What husband would allow his unrepentant wife’s lover to move in with them, especially when it’s a chimpanzee? What wife would allow that to happen, especially when their son lives with them? What viewer would accept a bestiality film so inoffensive? Maybe I’m more bourgeois than I thought.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Death in the Desert (2015)

Director: Josh Evans
Stars: Michael Madsen, Shayla Beesley, Paz de la Huerta, Jon Palladino and Roxy Saint
If this film’s story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The screenplay was based on the non fiction book of the same name by Cathy Scott, which looks at the life and death of Las Vegas casino heir, Theodore ‘Ted’ Binion, the homicide investigation that followed his drug overdose and the trials (plural) of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, his live-in girlfriend and her lover. Binion died in 1998, so it’s not ancient history, and we have had plenty of opportunities to catch it in books like this one, coverage on TV shows like On the Case and American Justice and in at least one TV movie, 2008’s Sex and Lies in Sin City. It was fictionalised on CSI and even turned into a musical spoof. What’s more, the whole story feels like quintessential Vegas. If we’ve seen one movie about the underbelly of Las Vegas, we’ve seen ’em all, right? This time, the movie merely wasn’t directed by Martin Scorsese and Joe Pesci isn’t anywhere to be found. Well, not quite, as it turns out to be surely the most interesting take on this age old story that I’ve seen yet.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Michael Madsen plays the character we expect, merely renamed here from Ted Binion to Ray Easler, and what he goes through is the story we expect. The difference is that we don’t get to see much of it at all, because it tends to unfold offscreen, out of our sight and, more importantly, out of sight of Kim Davis, the Sandy Murphy equivalent, because, while this is Easler’s story, we’re watching it unfold from Davis’s perspective. Initially this feels a little off and it gets progressively more off until we twig to the approach that John Steppling (writing as John Melmoth) and director John Evans took. We don’t watch Easler grow, because we join his story when Kim does. We don’t meet his estranged wife, because he keeps her away from his girlfriend. We’re never a fly on the wall to his business meetings as she’s not there. We don’t find out just how much danger he’s in until bullets are fired through their house windows. We’re kept out of the loop because Kim is kept out of the loop. Only our experience fills in the gaps.
We’re here to watch Kim, played by Shayla Beesley. She’s a California girl who moves to Vegas and starts that familiar decline: she pawns the diamond that’s the only thing she has of worth and loses the money on the roulette table, she gets a job as a stripper and clearly sells her body on the side because that’s the way she meets Ray, the swaggering big shot in the cowboy outfit who takes a shine to her and waves his money around, starting with some for her services rendered. However, she’s not yet the broken soul that some of her companions are. She lives with Margo, who Paz de la Huerta plays like a woman who’s been chewed up by the lifestyle and spat back out again. Frankly, Margo is a scary lady, like Cory, Kim’s friend at work, who Roxy Saint endows with the impression that she’s only getting through her life with the help of illegal pharmaceuticals. She only comes to life when she sings at the Schizoid Pistol, because it’s what she wants to do and it’s the only time she feels herself.

By comparison to these two, Kim seems to be doing well. Sure, taking off her clothes in front of strangers and giving head to rich guys in broken down buildings is hardly a dream job, but she’s a pretty girl, she’s able to say no to free drugs and she knows not to admit who she is to a stranger who knocks on her door. Well, at least not until he explains that he’s Easler’s chauffeur with $2,500 to pick up Miss Davis for a lap dance. And so the relationship begins. She knows that he’s married. She knows that she’s just the young and pretty girl to hang on his arm in public and service him in private. She knows that it’s not going to be this way forever. But hey, he buys her a car and a horse and takes her to posh dinners. He owns the town. Beesley plays Kim like she’s a fish out of water who’s trying very hard to learn how to swim. She’s also not just Ray’s girl, she’s his mother and his nurse and his conscience, and when she occasionally recites, ‘Yeah, baby, whatever you want,’ sometimes she actually means it.
What I spent a long time trying to figure out is if Beesley was up to the task. Madsen struts his stuff as we might expect, swaggering and swaying through the film like a big shot who knows he can do pretty much anything he likes and often does so just because he can. He’s large and he’s loud and the screen belongs to him just like everything in Vegas. He also provides the narration, so he’s never far away. Kim is quieter, calmer and inherently subservient, so we watch her while we experience Ray. The question is whether the fish out of water is Kim Davis, Shayla Beesley or both. There are moments where Kim stumbles and we’re not sure if it’s really the actress stumbling, because she’s relatively new, only has a few credits so far and just impressed a casting agent enough to get a shot in an indie feature opposite a recognisable lead. Yet there are also points where she nails scenes so perfectly that we wonder why we ever doubted her talent. I found that I bounced back and forth between these two throughout. I need to see her in something else.

I ended up on the side of the actress, because everything we see is centred on her character and I didn’t think that the picture would have progressed without the filmmakers being in tune with her performance. Also, she’s depicted with more sympathy than what little I know of the real events might suggest. Within the film, she’s the most sympathetic of the few main characters, even though she starts out as a stripper, becomes a trophy girlfriend and ends up cheating on her meal ticket with one of his colleagues, publicly too. However, she’s also a voice of reason who constantly works on Ray to quit his burgeoning drug use, a calm presence in his life who only gets into one shouting match in the entire film (truly unprecedented) and someone who apparently comes to actually care for him, even if she never planned it. In real life, the equivalent character was arrested for his murder, along with a batch of other charges such as conspiracy, robbery, grand larceny and burglary, tried, found guilty and locked up, until a second trial freed her.
If Michael Madsen, a frequent recognisable name in indie features, is easily the most obvious thing about the film and Shayla Beesley’s much more subtle performance is its actual focus, the script is the third real thing of note. The film’s plot synopsis might suggest that it’s really a love triangle, but that’s buried deep in the mix and John Palladino isn’t given any real opportunity to steal much attention. He’s decent as Matt Duvall, but the character has no real depth and he can’t compete with Madsen, who effortlessly steals his share of scenes, and Beesley, who looks halfway between Mariah Carey and Debbie Harry with perhaps a little Elisha Cuthbert in there for good measure. The script is what emerges to make itself known and I’m fascinated as to why Steppling and Evans chose to tell their story from such an unusual perspective. It’s an utterly original dynamic, alternately frustrating and invigorating, as we’re left out of the big picture to catch only its periphery when events or conversation bring Kim into those smaller pictures.

Visually it’s capable, with the production given access to a variety of locations and props that help to sell the affluence of Ray Easler without having to resort to cheap tricks. Regular viewers of indie features will see where money isn’t spent where Hollywood would have spent it, but it spends enough to work. Only in the supporting roles does its indie nature really show up, because some of the actors who get a line here and there clearly aren’t up to the standards of the rest of the production. A few are capable, like Charidy Wronski as a policewoman and some polite but knowing ranchhands, whose names I failed to catch, but most are not. Other weaker aspects include some slower scenes in the middle portion of the film and the way that the ending is left open wider that it should have been, given just how much has been published on this case and is readily available for anyone to explore by simply searching in Wikipedia, especially in regards to Easler’s fortune in silver and the favourable treatment given to Kim Davis.
Then again, this is fiction, even if it’s based on a non fiction book. The wise choice to change the names of the lead characters speaks to that. Kim Davis may be a sympathetic character, clearly innocent of any of the charges that were brought against Sandy Murphy in real life, beause they’re not the same; one was merely based on the other. It feels like they didn’t take that decision just to avoid being sued by someone who might get upset with any of the changes, but because they knew they’d changed things just enough to want to ensure that their creation is received as fiction. Braveheart this isn’t, thank goodness, and the film doesn’t begin with a banner that proudly proclaims, ‘Based on a true story!’ It’s a work of fiction and on that front it entertains, led by one strong lead and one subtle one and an odd experiment of a script. I wonder how many viewers will thrill to the different approach and how many will feel cheated because of what they don’t get to see. Maybe it’s down to the budget, maybe imagination, but it’s certainly original.

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Capture of Grizzly Adams (1982)

Director: Don Keeslar
Stars: Dan Haggerty, Kim Darby, Noah Beery, Keenan Wynn, Sydney Penny, June Lockhart and Chuck Connors
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
If Dan Haggerty’s first pick was a surprising one, a recent slasher flick conjured out of a tall tale, then his second was a more expected choice: a TV movie in which he stars as his most famous character, James ‘Grizzly’ Adams, who I watched avidly as a kid on television. Back in the late ’70s, of course, it was just a show to me; I had no clue that the character I watched every week was real. He was John Adams, though he went by the James Capen Adams that was given to the man on TV, and he was a zoological collector, someone who captured and trained wild animals, such as grizzly bears, for menageries and circuses. He retired after being mauled by a Bengal tiger, but then embarked on a life that was even more worthy of being fictionalised, as it was by Charles Sellier, who wrote a novel, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. This was adapted into a feature in 1974 and then a TV show in 1978, both carrying the same title as the book. Eventually, this 1982 TV movie wrapped up the saga neatly, with the entire run a single story.

I believe that Haggerty was perfectly cast as Grizzly Adams. He grew up around animals, with his family owning and operating a wild animal attraction. I’ve seen some of his other work and have to admit that he wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he had a lot of characteristics that translated easily to this role. At 6’ 1”, he wasn’t as tall as I imagined him, but he was a big, burly and barrel chested man, easily cast as bikers or villains. However, he seems to have been a nice guy, something very much underlined on the occasions I met him at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale, AZ, and he always did better as nice guys on screen. Adams is a simple man who speaks simple dialogue but means it. He’s big enough and tough enough, not only to bring up a bear as his friend but also to tell the truth, even when it’s the hard thing to do. He cares about his daughter, of course, but he also cares about all of humanity, intrinsically not through choice, and all of animalkind too. So Haggerty was a easy casting decision.
In The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, the feature of 1974, he’s falsely accused of murder and he runs to the mountains, leaving his daughter behind with his sister. While he struggles to survive, he saves a grizzly cub whom he names Ben and raises as a friend. This was an independent movie, made for a mere $140,000, but it grossed $65m in theatres, $45m of which was domestic, making it the eighth highest grossing film of the year, ahead of The Longest Yard and Benji and only $2m behind The Godfather Part II. When it aired on NBC in 1976, drawing a 43% market share, the network eagerly greenlighted a show, which was produced quickly, launching in early 1977 and running through to March 1978. This followed Adams and his bear, along with a trader called Mad Jack and Nakoma, a native American, as they helped wildlife and anyone else on the mountain. The two hour finalé in December 1978 was Once Upon a Starry Night, but it didn’t wrap things up as it should have done, prompting this TV movie to do that properly.

And it does, as much as it’s clearly a TV movie in most regards. The story is predictable and the direction is dire but it plays well anyway because of the locations and the cast of respected television actors. Many of these show up right at the outset, as Cora Adams, Grizzly’s sister, is buried. It’s believable small town stuff, with this talented cast grounding proceedings without even trying. The town doesn’t have a priest, so Sheriff Hawkins, played by Noah Beery Jr, leads the service. The son of Noah Beery Sr and the nephew of Wallace Beery, he’s surely best known today as James Garner’s father in The Rockford Files. Young Peg Adams, Grizzly’s daughter, wants to stay with Kate Brady, played by Kim Darby, the little girl in True Grit. Instead the sheriff’s wife, Liz Hawkins, in the aging form of June Lockhart from Lost in Space, takes her in, until the orphan’s home can come and pick her up. Given that this will surely bring Adams down from the mountains, Frank Briggs, played by the Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, wants him promptly caught.
I never met Connors, who died in 1992, but I get the feeling that he was also a nice guy. As Lucas McCain, the title character of The Rifleman, he was a widowed father trying to bring up his son in the best way he could, even against the odds. It ran for 168 episodes over five seasons and typecast Connors for life. The odd thing is that he was a fascinating individual far beyond that groundbreaking role. During the Second World War, he taught tank warfare at West Point, then became a professional sportsman, who was signed for the NBA, MLB and NFL. He played basketball for the Boston Celtics, for whom he became the very first player to shatter a backboard, and baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. While he joined the Chicago Bears, he never played for them. Of course, we know him as an actor, whose commanding 6’ 6” frame meant that he was always the tallest man on set. Typecast as the good guy, he took the role of Mr Slausen in Tourist Trap because he wanted to ‘become the Boris Karloff of the ’80s’.

This performance is very much in that vein, but he’s wooden for the first half of the film, just throwing an evil look at the camera, or anyone who mentions Grizzly Adams, and hoping that’s enough. ‘He killed my partner,’ he tells his men after Cora’s funeral. ‘I want him to pay, trial or no trial.’ As the title suggests, of course, Adams is captured alive. He sneaks into town under the noses of Briggs’s men to grab Peg, but is noticed heading for the woods and takes a shot to the leg. He soon collapses, about to get caught easily by the pursuing posse right after the first commercial break. It’s easy to see where the breaks are, as the direction seems to care about nothing more than how to pace things so that they can break every fifteen minutes. Only one section runs a little long, prompting the following one to run short to get it all back on track. It’s scary when this is the most accomplished aspect of Don Keeslar’s direction. I truly hope that he was hamstrung by static television cameras, because otherwise his work is painfully unimaginative.
It’s easy to see why Haggerty chose this film for me to review. Not only does it wrap up his celebrated run as Grizzly Adams, but it plays in a whole bunch of genres as it does so. It’s a drama, but one phrased as a period piece and then a western. After the burial, we watch Adams be the stereotypical good guy. First, he helps one neighbour by setting a trap in the river for her to catch fish, then, when he’s told about a forest fire (that mysteriously vanishes as quickly as it arose), he hightails it over on horseback to save old Bert and his burro, Stanley, even leaping into the river to fish him out after he idiotically tries to put out a fire on a powder keg by waving his hat at it and the whole thing explodes. It’s only the clothes that date this to being a period piece, but the posse that goes out to catch him firms it up as a western. Once he’s back in town, of course, it turns into a legal thriller, with Adams finally standing trial for the murder he’d been accused of eight years earlier. Briggs is the accuser. Adams, ‘doin’ his own lawyerin’’, pleads innocent.

The trial is well staged, full of simple words delivered by simple men who sit on simple wooden benches. For all the dismal direction of Keeslar, who rarely moves the camera and has his editor cut back and forth in conversation without any apparent realisation that there’s more to cinematic art, it plays well because his direction is as simple as everything we’re watching on screen. Of course, the jury finds Adams guilty because the evidence says so, even if the key witness is clearly lying; we’ve watched enough legal shows to see that the hypothesis Adams comes up with is obviously true. I was more engrossed in Tom Quigley, the prosecution’s star witness, a new man in town at the time who was promptly employed by Briggs in the aftermath of the murder and is doing well as the foreman on his ranch. He’s played by G W Bailey, a good actor who looks a lot younger here than he would as Lt Harris in the Police Academy series, starting only two years later. He does a good job too, another simple man struggling because he has to lie.
You could write much of this plot yourself, because it’s the feature that had to be made to wrap things up for Grizzly Adams in the fairest way possible. The only real surprise comes when he walks out of the town jail to be hanged from the neck until he is dead and, no, I don’t mean the bevy of ladies who lock arms to block passage to the hanging tree. I’d conjured up possibilities in my mind as to how Quigley could come clean in a believable way, but I never expected a real act of God. The tornado that rips through town isn’t badly handled. This period western turned legal thriller promptly becomes a disaster movie with a strong set of effects as houses collapse, wagons fly and people are whisked along the ground, through windows and off balconies. I guess Arthur Heinemann, who wrote the script, wanted to make absolutely sure that we had no doubt that Grizzly Adams was innocent all along. Not only do the town ladies underline it with their protest, but even God is on the mountain man’s side!

I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes that follow, even if they were predictable. Once the last commercials are over, everything is so obvious that you might think that you’re writing the script from your armchair and the screen is merely reacting to your ideas through the magic of telepathy. Fortunately Connors is able to move now and add some body language to his pursuit of Adams, his tall, thin body standing out against even the gorgeous mountainous landscape of Utah. The predictability takes the edge off but the dialogue and acting brings it back a little. Even Sydney Penny, a ten year old girl who couldn’t dream of the future soap opera career she’d carve out with runs in Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful, All My Children and Days of Our Lives, gives a strong showing as Peg Adams, hauled along in her fugitive father’s wake. It’s sentimentality up the wazoo, but she does it very capably indeed, adding emotion to scenes even as her more experienced co-stars play it a little calmer.
I have to admit that I got a real kick out of The Capture of Grizzly Adams, as obviously flawed as it is in a whole host of ways. It’s a simple story for simple characters, but the cast, led by Haggerty, endow it with sincerity. I felt that we could have done with more screen time for a few of the supporting actors, such as June Lockhart, who only gets a couple of scenes here to highlight why she was cast, and also Ben, a bear who had become beloved by millions during the TV show but is rarely used here and oddly uncredited to boot. The bear in the show was really Bozo, but I don’t know if it was Bozo as Ben here. Also missing and never mentioned are the co-stars of the show, Don Shanks as Nakoma and Denver Pyle as Mad Jack, the latter vaguely replaced by Keenan Wynn in a coonskin cap and white beard as Bert Woolman, who shows up early and late but spends the majority of the film recuperating off screen. I wonder if their absence is down to the standard contract negotiations or just the goal of focusing on the star as he ends his story.

Fortunately Haggerty was on strong form here. He was so closely tied to Grizzly Adams that it’s strange to discover that a couple of other actors took on that role in later years, including Gene Edwards, who was a stunt double in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Haggerty owned the role and, four years after the TV show was oddly cancelled, given its spectacular ratings, he fell right back into it without appearing to even try. No wonder he made so many other films that were clearly Grizzly Adams knockoffs, even one in between the original feature and the show, named The Adventures of Frontier Fremont; much later on, in 1997, he’d make Grizzly Mountain, with his son Dylan, and its sequel, Escape to Grizzly Mountain. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the Grizzly Adams show but I felt right at home watching this. It may be of lesser quality than the original film and perhaps the series but it’s half a dozen films in one and it ends things neatly. Haggerty wasn’t yet diagnosed with cancer when he picked this, but it’s a fitting epitaph.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

Director: J Charles Haydon
Star: Sheldon Lewis
While the Famous Players-Lasky feature adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with John Barrymore was the most prominent silent film version of the story by far, it was far from the only one. In fact, it wasn’t even the only one released in 1920. In Germany, F W Murnau made an unlicensed take on the story called Der Januskopf or The Two-Faced Man, which is sadly lost today. Like his unlicensed adaptation of Dracula two years later, Nosferatu, the names were changed to protect from legal action, so Conrad Veidt was tasked with playing Dr Warren and Mr O’Connor instead. This version also featured Béla Lugosi, in the role of Dr Warren’s servant, three years before his first film in the United States. Unfortunately the other version to survive is this one, a forty minute version from Pioneer Film Corporation that’s too long to be interesting and too short to have any substance. Then again, it doesn’t need to be any longer. I’m not sure if I could take much more of Sheldon Lewis’s Edward Hyde.

The most interesting thing that can be said about this version is that it was produced by Louis Meyer. No, I didn’t say it was interesting, just that it was the most interesting. And no, that’s not Louis B Mayer. That one formed MGM and co-founded the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. This one presented a 1919 western called Impossible Catherine and then produced this. End of career. Amazingly, Hyde was not the end of Sheldon Lewis’s career, but it feels like it should have been. He’s not too bad as Dr Henry Jekyll, the usual dapper and dedicated saviour of the poor and needy. Sure, his idea of thinking is to look directly at us through the camera and do nothing, but I’ve seen worse. He’s also a little old at 52 to woo the 31 year old Gladys Field, the inappropriate boundary of half your age plus seven years explains that she’s two years too young. She amazingly came out of retirement to portray his fiancée, Bernice Lanyon; she had made 42 films in 1910 and 1911, four more by 1915, then nothing until this. End of career.
By the time we meet Edward Hyde, we’ve found that Sheldon Lewis is far from the worst thing about the film. During the early scenes we’re bombarded by intertitles, introducing what seems like everybody in a five mile radius of the characters we’re watching. Many are utterly redundant; do we really need cards to tell us ‘In the afternoon’ or ‘At the country club’? Perhaps the intention of the filmmakers is to distract us from the fact that it fails on every comparison to the Barrymore version, released only a month earlier in New York, but the very same month in California. The sets are notably sparser and also fewer in quantity; the costumes don’t fit as well, mocking the suggestion that these are well to do folk we’re watching; and the cast is so thin on the ground that Jekyll’s non-appearance at dinner at Danvers Carew’s is especially obvious. Mrs Lanyon and her daughter are the only ladies there; Bernice can’t gossip with her friends as the gentleman drink wine in this version. She’s left out to dry.

But then we do meet Edward Hyde, after Jekyll drinks his potion and changes. The transformations in this version are simplistic, being handled by editing rather than careful placement or double exposure. Hyde is somewhat like a combination of every one of the prior portrayals that I’ve seen. He has James Cruze’s hunch, King Baggot’s spastic lack of control and, well, Barrymore’s hat. That’s about all there is from the Barrymore version because there’s no subtlety here at all, at least not that I could tell in a relatively poor print that blurs facial details into white. I really do wish that I could see his face, but as it is, he’s like the stereotypical paedophile menace. He wears a hat, a raincoat and a mad grin to lie in wait to seize young ladies in the street. I was honestly surprised when he grabs an adult woman rather than a pre-pubescent girl. ‘An Apostle of Hell,’ suggests the intertitle, but I got nothing of evil here. I saw more of a Mike Myers playing a kangaroo with the DTs sort of thing.
The best bits are the intertitles, once they calm down a little, not only because Hyde looks more demonic in chalk than in Lewis’s ill-advised portrayal but because the painted images to illustrate the point aren’t badly done at all. By the time the film ended, I could see every scene shot for the picture being removed and replaced by a progression of intertitles, to make this a sort of motion picture picture book. Alas, that isn’t what happened, so we’re forced to watch Lewis as Dr Evil, I mean Dr Jekyll, gurn like a madman and waggle his fingers like they’re tentacles. Jazz hands, baby, jazz hands! He must be auditioning for a very early version of Reefer Madness, just in case King Baggot’s spastic chimpanzee routine doesn’t land the job first. The more silent versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that I see, the more I respect John Barrymore’s performance, though I would love to see what Conrad Veidt conjured up for Murnau. While that film itself is no longer believed to exist, scripts and production notes do. I should seek those out.

The intertitles also highlight how this version carries a religious message. In Barrymore’s, science clearly trumped religion as the focus of the script, even during discussions about good and evil or the ability to split the soul. Here, science is almost never mentioned, because it’s all about religion. The point at which this is hammered home is when Jekyll explains to Bernice that he’s puzzled by an odd case of a child who is currently in his care. ‘The child is dead and yet alive,’ he says. ‘It almost proves my theory that there is no soul.’ Quite how he got there, I have no idea, and quite how that progresses on to ‘my theory that man has two natures - good and evil’, I have no idea either. However, it does, and the religious angle is driven home by the intertitles. ‘Oh God, help me!’ Jekyll cries. ‘Save me from the penalty of my disbelief.’ These get more verbose. ‘Surrendering himself to his evil genius,’ he becomes, ‘Convulsed with remorse for the crimes of his demon nature,’ I’d certainly read a novel by whoever wrote these cards!
The other angle that’s new here shows up when we think the film is about to end. Mostly this progresses as we expect, though with the surely unintended comedic element of having Hyde be chased by a bunch of what seem to be Keystone Kops. Jekyll sends Bernice a note to have her come to his lab. He wants the opportunity to explain, now that he’s lost her and she’s marrying another and he’s all pouty, but he turns into Hyde first and kills her, so we expect him to take poison and the film to end, but no! Hyde is actually arrested and locked up. We’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy! ‘Hours of fruitless anguish,’ suggest the increasingly desperate intertitles. One even reads simply, ‘Despair.’ By the time the cops decide to work the old third degree on Hyde, he’s turned back to Jekyll. An old woman identifies him, before he changes right in front of the cops and confesses. Into the electric chair he goes and... and... it’s all a dream. They have to get moving or he and Bernice will be late for the opera.

I wonder if anyone’s done a scholarly study of ‘but it was all a dream’ movies, perhaps in the wake of the furore over the ninth season of Dallas in 1986. Robot Monster almost got away with the concept because of the consistent childish innocence and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans of that movie, but I’m not sure that anything else ever has. Certainly this one makes us feel cheated, but it was probably explained as a way to give Dr Jekyll a second shot at a life doing God’s works after the Tempter visited him in his dreams and demonstrated in no uncertain terms what his ‘theories’ would lead to. He only had to start thinking about the two natures of man and he was out there raping and murdering like an animal. I guess this is a happy ending. Jekyll looks at his beloved and states, ‘I believe in God - I have a soul - and - I still have you.’ All’s right with the world, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Dr Jekyll, for this hilarious lesson in morality. Elvis has left the building. Goodnight, John Boy. That’s all, folks.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

Director: John S Robertson
Star: John Barrymore
After two lost films and two more which I’ve reviewed, other versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were made that are either lost or unavailable to watch today. Herbert Brenon’s take for IMP wasn’t the only one from 1913, for instance; there was a second one directed by Frank E Woods with Murdock MacQuarrie playing the title roles. This is a particularly important version as it was made both in Britain and in colour by the Kinemacolor Company. Joseph A Golden of the Crystal Film Company directed a comedy version in 1914 called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Done to a Frazzle. That year, the Germans produced Ein Seltsamer Fall too (or A Strange Case), directed by Max Mack and with Alwin Neuß back in a role he had played for August Blom four years earlier. In 1915, the year of Horrible Hyde, directed by Howard Hansell with Jerold Hevener, there was even a genderbent approach to the story, courtesy of the Vitagraph Company of America, with stage actress Helen Gardner playing both Miss Jekyll and Madame Hyde. All seem lost.

All were also shorts, though running times varied from the split reel of Horrible Hyde to the fifty minutes of Ein Seltsamer Fall. The first feature length adaptation wouldn’t show up until 1920 and that’s the one most people remember from the silent era. It was a Famous Players-Lasky picture, a company formed by the merger of eight independent companies and which would acquire its best known name, Paramount, in 1927. It was directed by John S Robertson, a Canadian who apparently never did better, though he did go on to make films like Tess of the Storm Country and The Phantom of Paris. The star was a major one, John Barrymore, but he was best known at this point for his stage work. This role cemented his fame on film and he became one of the biggest names of the decade, playing the title roles in Sherlock Holmes, Beau Brummel and Don Juan. He didn’t pick up his nickname of ‘The Great Profile’ until around 1924, so it’s surprising to see him almost always from the side here, as if to live up to that future name.
With the running time of a feature, this version is able to relax and build the story slowly but surely, not ditch whatever seems least important to fit onto however many reels. Barrymore is vastly superior as Dr Henry Jekyll than anyone earlier whose work has survived to this day. He looks precisely like an ‘idealist and philanthropist’ should, as a gentleman with a cape and a top hat. He’s always the tallest man in the scene, as if he’s just a little closer to godliness than anyone around him. He runs a ‘human repair shop’, as if to highlight how routine such work has become for him but which his dedication has him continue. However, he still experiments and that’s what prompts objections from colleagues. Dr Richard Lanyon, ‘as conservative as Jekyll was progressive,’ doesn’t like his use of a microscope, through which we even get certain interesting shots. ‘You’re tampering with the supernatural,’ he suggests. Science has clearly moved on in the last century and change.

All this is keeping Jekyll busy, so he has precious little time for social engagements like the dinner at Sir George Carew’s, to which he arrives late. Except for his equally gentlemanly bearing, Carew, supposedly Jekyll’s mentor and certainly the father of Millicent, the young lady whom he is vaguely wooing, is close to being his opposite. He reads the gossip pages and The Sporting Life and, while he has brought up his daughter ‘in sheltered innocence’, is clearly no innocent himself. ‘There isn’t much in life Sir George has overlooked,’ his servant tells Jekyll. Carew raises the dual nature of man over wine, claiming that Jekyll is neglecting himself by being so devoted to others. He taunts him with the suggestion that his strong self is fearless but his weak self is afraid of experience. ‘A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying his impulses,’ he proclaims. ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’ And off they all go to the music hall, where Carew can have an Italian dancer, Miss Gina, embrace Jekyll to tempt his dark side.
And so is wakened ‘a sense of his baser nature’ for the first time. By the point that the argument reaches its logical conclusion, we’ve passed a leisurely 25 minutes. ‘Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated,’ suggests Jekyll, ‘housed in different bodies.’ Carew claims that as impossible and Jekyll accepts the challenge, even offending his mentor in the process. He works days and nights in his lab to find a way ‘to yield to every evil impulse - yet leave the soul untouched’ until at last he figures it out and he changes in the moment that everyone had been waiting for in 1920. Barrymore hesitates a little, like his predecessors, but with much more power, then reacts violently, contorts, hides his face and emerges as Hyde, all done without make-up to aid the transformation. That concept makes sense to John Barrymore, the noted stage actor, where make-up could only be used in a way that could be highlighted by light filters. Scenes like this on stage required acting, facial manipulation and clever trickery.

Enhancements are clearly added for the next shot, after a cut, as his frame becomes more skeletal and his fingers elongate. He hunches but with more control than Cruze had. He leers, his eyes remaining his most prominent feature until he takes off his hat to display a conical cranium. His pristine hair falls wildly. Unlike the spastic chimpanzee take of King Baggot, Barrymore becomes like the stereotypical Jew, surely taking Fagin as an influence. He’s controlled, very knowing, always planning. He’s much closer to an evil character than the previous adaptations had attempted, at least to our modern way of thinking. We don’t generally think of evil as an animalistic urge nowadays, instead seeing it as a deliberate choice to not do what we know is good. Prior takes on Mr Hyde had been of monsters who aren’t able to understand what they’re doing, characters who we might even categorise as victims. Barrymore’s Hyde refuses to follow suit; he’s an evil soul through and through, a creature with the good in him deliberately removed.
And so ‘Hyde set forth upon a sea of license - to do what he, as Jekyll, could not do.’ We know the rest of the story by now, and it proceeds according to Sullivan’s stage adaptation that earlier versions had also used as primary source, but to degrees as never before. Hyde frequents bars and opium dens. The child in the street scene is much better handled and it leads to plot details not attempted before, namely the cheque being signed by Jekyll rather than Hyde. When Carew questions him on it, he replies vigorously, ‘What right do you have to question me? You who first tempted me!’ Then he changes in front of him, with the aid of a double exposure, literally leaps onto him, beats him with his cane and bludgeons him to death. It’s brutal stuff and, in the print I saw, his eyes are entirely white. That may be the first time ever that I’ve benefitted from a lesser quality print of a silent movie. There’s even a freakish double exposure of a spider climbing into his four poster bed to attack his conscience. It’s a ghostly thing but still scary.

Throughout Barrymore dominates, but he’s given some great assistance from the crew. There are more and better sets. There are actual costumes. There’s thought given to how the shots were made. We see people from three distances: framed within a set, framed together in a group and up close as individuals. There’s some real art in how those groupings are put together too, with composition of frame very much in mind. We might take such concepts for granted today, but the two prior versions that survive are from an era when the camera was a static creature, in front of which actors did their jobs. It recorded what it saw rather than played a part in telling a story. The gap between 1913 and 1920 might have been only seven years but it marked a couple of generations of technological improvements and a century in the understanding of cinematic art. Comparing this version with those from 1912 or 1913 is like comparing apples and oranges, but it was still a pretty decent apple even for 1920.
As dominant as Barrymore is, he was far from the only actor on screen and others do deserve credit. The most recognisable face today, at least to silent film buffs, surely belongs to an uncredited Louis Wolheim, whose unmistakable features were given to the proprietor of the dance hall in which Carew introduces Dr Jekyll to Miss Gina. Wolheim looked like the stereotypical thug and his intertitles play that up by providing him with a broad Cockney accent, but he was nothing like it in person, speaking four languages, teaching mathematics and earning a degree in engineering. His introduction to acting was by Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, who told him, ‘With that face, you could make a fortune in the theater.’ He acted alongside Lionel, John and their sister, Ethel, on numerous occasions. He’s mostly known for his silent pictures because he died in 1931, but his few films with sound show that he would have easily survived the transition. He was great in All Quiet on the Western Front and Adolphe Menjou won an Oscar for the role which Wolheim was to play in The Front Page.

The ladies are notable too, though it focuses much more on the men. Martha Mansfield looks much more like a suitable prize for Dr Jekyll than the ladies in earlier versions, believable as a beautiful society lady. She gets some opportunity while awaiting his arrival at her father’s party, neatly demonstrating a strong disappointment to us while trying not to show it to those around her. She also gets to play a decent part in the ending, in which she’s menaced by Hyde, who, from the front, looks bizarrely like Iggy Pop playing Nosferatu, but is released by Jekyll seizing enough control to take poison. Nita Naldi, Rudolph Valentino’s most frequent co-star, gets some opportunity too as Miss Gina, even in this, her screen debut. I enjoyed an odd bar scene more, though, where not one but two uncredited ladies (presumably of the evening) try to come on to Hyde and he manipulates them both magnificently. It’s great choreography, from him and them both, but as he leaves that scene triumphant, so does he leave the film. A new star was born.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

Director: Gary Jones
Stars: Amber Connor, Joe Estevez, Tom Downey, Tim Lovelace and Dan Haggerty
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Like many of the stars who pick a couple of films from their careers for me to review as part of my Make It a Double project, Dan Haggerty picked one quickly: this one. Given that he’s hardly in it, perhaps it was a fresh memory. After all, he picked his two at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale in October 2014 when this was his most recent feature, having been released in June 2013. Like those others, he took a little bit of time to think up his second pick, going back to his most famous role of James ‘Grizzly’ Adams, but in a less well known title that he felt was particularly worthwhile, the 1982 TV movie, The Capture of Grizzly Adams. It’s oddly synchronistic that he would pick Axe Giant as it was made by a company founded by a couple of men who had been introduced by Gunnar Hansen, the last actor whose Make It a Double picks that I reviewed for this project because, like Haggerty, he also died before I got round to watching them. Hopefully that isn’t a continuing trend and I can share future reviews with the actors who set them up.

The idea behind this one is to take one of the great American tall tales from the nineteenth century and mix it up for the modern day. Those two founders, Gary Jones and Jeff Miller, thought of Paul Bunyan and how legend had the Great Lakes form from his footsteps and the Grand Canyon from the dragging of his axe, and spun that idea into a slasher movie. With Jason Ancona, they turned it into a script which Jones directed. I liked this idea and it made this slasher more American than most, which is a good thing in my book because, even though most slasher flicks are American, I still think of the genre as Italian because nothing I’ve seen has compared to Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood or Twitch of the Death Nerve, which had arguably started the whole thing. I liked this film too, at least for the first half to two thirds. Up until that point, it had walked a fine line just this side of cliché, but then it got sloppy and ended cheaply. That’s a shame because a little more effort to wrap things up properly would have made a big difference.
Haggerty appears in the opening story which unfolds in the Minnesota of 1894. He’s in charge of a crew of lumberjacks who call him Foreman Bill. After a long day of working in the snow, they return to camp to carve off a chunk of the huge beast that the cook has on an ambitious spit over a fire. Bill wanders off to presumably relieve himself in the woods before dinner, prompting a memorable description of him as ‘a great big bear of a man with the itty bitty bowels of a squirrel.’ I love that line and wish I’d have another opportunity to meet Haggerty to ask him about it. When I first met him, I gave him a signed copy of my debut book and mentioned that I’d reviewed one of his films in it. He asked which one and I said that he didn’t look the same without pink ribbons in his hair. Remembering Pink Angels as an odd anomaly in his filmography, he jokingly asked security to kick me out of the building before kindly signing that chapter in my own copy. He did make some odd movies though, and his death here is both odd and memorable.

He’s killed by a routine looking maniac in a lumberjack shirt and a latex mask, after returning to find the camp the scene of a massacre. Given how many slasher movies have been set in camps, I’d wonder why nobody’s made Lumberjack Camp Massacre yet but then there wouldn’t be any quality boobs. Of course, anyone remotely familiar with the Paul Bunyan legends has probably figured out what’s going on by now but the rest of the world has to wait until the explanation halfway through, from the token mountain man after the fit has already hit the shan. That provides a neat opportunity for a little more exposition in 1894 and thus a little more screen time for Haggerty and his lumberjack crew, but it’s still not much. I’ve found a lot of Make It a Double choices fascinating for a lot of reasons, but one is the odd discovery that actors sometimes choose films that they’re hardly in, this following in the footsteps of Gunnar Hansen’s choices and Dee Wallace’s Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder.
Given that we don’t spend the movie in 1894, we quickly move forward to a familiar framework. Sgt Hoke is a drill sergeant of a police officer who speaks with the precise tones of a RoboCop and Ms K is a smiling social worker and counsellor. They meet for the first time mere seconds before they’re about to take on a set of five varied juveniles who have fallen afoul of the law. He calls them STUMPs, an acronym for Stupid Teenagers Under My Protection. Their job is to drive them out to the inevitable cabin in the woods and try to transform those STUMPs into trees, upstanding members of the community. Of course, both are blatant stereotypes, almost the epitome of the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ epithets that the media is currently so fond of. He’s a cigar smoking, gun-toting, vitriol hurling outdoorsman who takes no crap from nobody and she’s a lily livered Social Justice Warrior with a liberal arts degree who lives in an office. Of course, neither remains quite that stereotypical because there is some substance here, if not a heck of a lot.

The five juvies are also roughly what you might expect, even if their presence here doesn’t actually make much sense. There’s a thin nerdy kid with glasses called Martin who hacked into the IRS and stole twelve million dollars. Well, eleven and a half. The skeletal white trash girl in a skimpy top is Trish, whose sassy attitude led to three counts of assault on a police officer after she punched a cop who looked at her ass. Zack is an upper middle class drug dealer whose friends needed things. Rosa is the token black chick in distressed jeans and a bitchy attitude; she went down for contempt of court. And Claire, or CB, is the odd one out, a normal girl who was merely ‘a little buzzed’ after a party when she hit a drunk driver who had run a red light in front of her after crashing into three other cars on the way. She’s the one that everyone else gets to sympathise with because justice is a bitch who cares nothing about perspective. She’s also the one with a back story that comes in useful later in the film after things have gone pear shaped.
‘You never know who you might run into in the deep dark woods,’ Sgt Hoke quips to Claire’s father, after he drops her off. Well, we do because he’s in the title of the movie and, sure enough, there’s a giant Paul Bunyan breaking the neck of a fully grown bear just to show us how massive he is. He does look pretty cool as a giant, even if he’s clumsily added into scenes with people in them. He’s much more effective in his cave, because he’s just a big guy there with latex muscles. Things go roughly as we expect. The kids don’t like camping outdoors in gender separated tents while Sgt Hoke stays indoors. Trish surreptitiously sneaks into the guys’ tent so she can take her top off and get caught by Ms K. Just half a day of hiking in the woods is enough for some of them to want to quit and sneak away, even if it means they’ll go to jail, forcing us to start rooting for Sgt Hoke. And, of course, one of them triggers the rest of the story through a surreptitious action that he’s told not to do by the authority figures present.

Originality really isn’t the point here, outside of that initial idea of updating tall tales to a contemporary framework. Then again, how many slasher movies have you seen that have even a trace of originality. I thought as much. Slasher movies tend to be rated on the number of boobs shown and the quality of the death scenes. On those counts, this one does poorly on the former but rather well on the latter, because we only get one pair of boobs and those not for long but as much imagination in the deaths as is possible given that Paul Bunyan really only has one weapon. The effects work is surprisingly good, given how bad the greenscreen work is throughout, and it’s the deaths where they’re put to the best and most frequent use. I was especially impressed with Haggerty’s death scene, where the younger Bunyan forces his head backwards into a circular saw that’s used for cutting trees in half. The scenery is also good throughout; it isn’t Minnesota, but forests in California and Ohio work just as well.
And the acting is surprisingly capable. I wouldn’t call anyone out for Academy Awards, but each of those juveniles is given a little more depth than the script warranted by the actors who brought them life. Tom Downey is easily the best actor of those who have actual screen time; he sells Sgt Hoke very well and it’s telling that such an abrasive character can become sympathetic in his hands. He’s made a lot of movies that look like cheap genre fare that would screen on the Syfy Channel, as indeed this did. I own a few of them and, on the basis of this performance, may well shift them a little further up my priority list for his participation. The other notable presence is Joe Estevez, who wanders into the film as a ‘harmless local’ with a screw loose. He lives on the mountain, knows the truth and gets to tell it like he’s sitting around a campfire at Halloween. He’s Clint Howard meets Walter Huston from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a performance he delivers with wide eyes and relish. It’s overblown, of course, but it’s fun.

And, of course, that’s what Jones and Miller were going for. For the most part they succeed, even if Bruce Campbell’s memorable quote overplays it a little. ‘Cheesier than a Roquefort sandwich,’ he quipped, ‘but I enjoyed the hell out of it.’ He’s presumably being generous because he has history with Jones, who had started out doing effects work for a whole slew of Bruce Campbell movies, beginning with Stryker’s War, which Campbell co-wrote, and Evil Dead II but moving on to more prominent fare such as Moontrap and Army of Darkness. In fact, most of the crew members have long strings of credits behind them of movies we’ve heard of and have often seen. This may well be a Roquefort sandwich, but it’s a tasty one for most of its running time. With the exception of the cheap and unworthy ending, it bodes rather well for Kinetic Filmworks LLC. I love trying to figure out why people picked the films they did for Make It a Double and I think that, beyond this being the most recent film Haggerty made, it was also a fun experience for him.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)

Director: Herbert Brenon
Star: King Baggot
The 1912 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde featured James Cruze in the lead, a former snake oil salesman from Utah who appeared in over a hundred films between 1911 and 1919. However, he’s remembered a lot more today for being a director, making 72 films between 1919 and 1938, plus a couple more earlier. This seemed to be an odd trend for early Jekyll and Hyde films, as Hobart Bosworth, who played the role first, directed almost sixty films himself, and King Baggot, who succeeded Cruze in this film, is also best known as a director today, even though he was more prolific as an actor and had carved out a name for himself. He was especially fond of playing roles in disguise and even played all ten parts in Shadows, an innovative 1914 short. Six of them appeared in the same scene at one point, thus requiring the camera to be exposed six separate times, a full decade before Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. As a director, though, he made films as important as the 1925 Raffles and especially Tumbleweeds, a William S Hart western.

Watching immediately after the 1912 version, it’s obvious that this 1913 one, from IMP, the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, has the benefit of length and it uses that well early on, with a few scenes that involve much character development, surprising but welcome. This was a two reeler, which at 26 minutes ran over twice as long as its predecessor. A bunch of characters appear on screen from the outset and Dr Henry Jekyll is underlined as a good man because he devotes a great deal of his attentions to charity patients. Absolutely none of this was in the previous version which began with Jekyll drinking a potion and turning into Hyde. We’re not given much reason why he turns here, though, just one intertitle suggesting that he plans to set free his evil self in ‘the dead silence of the night’. I should add that this is suffering magnificently from delusions of poetic grandeur, which sadly fails to extend to the performance of Baggot, who consistently overdoes it as Jekyll, compared to Cruze, and goes truly wild as Hyde.
While Stevenson did describe Hyde as a ‘shrunken man’, Baggot takes that to ridiculous extremes here. I really don’t know what he was going for, but his take on Hyde suggests not evil but a spastic who has lost the control of his limbs. He doesn’t merely hunch, he waddles, somewhat like a demented duck, or, given that he has a cane that’s almost as tall as he is in such an extreme crouch, maybe he’s more like Yoda on acid. He grimaces too, outrageously. I can only imagine that he went for the sinister look of a yellow peril Chinaman and the motion of a chimpanzee. Whatever he did, it failed utterly in my book. Wikipedia says that he used ‘a variety of different greasepaints and a tangled mass of crepe hair’, but that’s not obvious in the print I saw, especially as Hyde wears a hat throughout. No wonder those who see him, such as club patrons and a new landlady, recoil from his presence. They’re less scared as bewildered. What could this creature be that’s leaping down the stairs at them?

So I hated Hyde. What I liked here was the rapid loss of control. Unlike most versions, including the prior one from 1912, Jekyll is in control of his transformations for a while until Hyde gradually takes over. Here, we take a while to get to the first change but, once we’re there, Hyde’s dominant from then on. He does change back into Jekyll, who promptly gestures toward the heavens and swears that, ‘Never again shall I tempt fate!’ Then he sits down to rest, watches his twitching hand tell him that he’s still not himself and changes right back into Hyde again. I liked this, but felt that it provided a different message to the usual standard of the era. Usually, Victorian horror tales or scientific romances warn us that we shouldn’t step into God’s shoes. Here, it’s more like the hysterical drug films that suggest that just a whiff of marijuana will give us jazz hands and prompt us to murder people. Baggot’s Hyde has much in common with films like Reefer Madness. ‘Dr Jekyll is a martyr to science,’ an intertitle suggests and we think Timothy Leary.
I realised a few other things watching this film. Had I played it first tonight, I might well have cut it some slack for its overacting, which is quintessential 1913. However, watching after the James Cruze version, I realise that I can’t do that. Cruze was far superior to Baggot as Jekyll and, as bad as he was as Hyde, he was far superior there too. While the first reel laughed at how it had time to build character, the second struggled to cram in the story before it ran out of time, meaning that the pace is wildly inconsistent; it’s leisurely for half its running time, almost as if that first reel was of a feature, then frenetic for the other half, as if it was a one reeler all along, just with a long prologue. Characters don’t play right either. One scene features Hyde attacking a crippled boy in the street, which, of course, prompts a mob to form on the fly. However, even though they have the perpetrator right there in their grasp, that mob is so polite that it lets him leave to write a cheque to the boy’s father instead of simply beating him to a pulp.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this film could be regarded as the first Universal monster movie. IMP was founded by Carl Laemmle in New York in 1909. Over three years he battled Thomas Edison’s patent infringement thugs, defending against no less than 289 legal actions filed by the Motion Picture Patents Company, while his fellow independents moved across country to Hollywood, where they could use fists and guns instead. He eventually emerged victorious in 1912, then relaunched IMP as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company and, after two final pictures in New York, moved to Hollywood. Laemmle’s son, Carl Laemmle Jr, was the real driving force behind the Universal monster movies, which began with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but really found their niche with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Junior famously had to convince Senior to green light Dracula but, eighteen years earlier, it was Senior who produced Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the real beginning of the Universal monsters.

The 1913 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be watched for free online at YouTube (here’s another version with an interesting modern score) and the Internet Archive.