Wednesday, 8 April 2009

I Am Just A Poe Boy

I’ve recently seen two very different Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, more by happenstance than conscious thematic planning. They make for an interesting pairing, given that one was made by an American director in England and the other, a portmanteau film, produced in France, but with the standout story of the three included generally agreed to be directed by an Italian.

The Tomb of Ligeia was the last of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations. Here, he benefitted from a screenplay by Robert Towne, the man who went on to write Chinatown. Unusually for these films, it moves out from studio-bound sets to film on location. The daylight photography in the Norfolk countryside provides a marvellous counterpoint to the claustrophobic interiors of the abbey manse where Vincent Price’s character lives. The marvellous ruin of Castle Acre Priory in Swaffham is like a character in itself, the perfect analogue to the atmosphere of paralysis and decay so prevalant in Poe. It is a setting which almost demands a haunting.

Price plays Verden Fell, a typically hypersensitive Poe character who wears rather stylishly square tinted spectacles due to his aversion to bright light. He is tormented by the memory of his dead wife Ligeia, who we have seen him burying in the opening scene, face staring up through a window in the coffin. The shadowy corridors, cobweb-strewn antiquities and four-poster bedrooms of his perpetually twilit world are more what we expect of a Corman Poe film. But the brightly lit exteriors offer the possibility of an alternative, an escape from morbid introspection.

This is the possibility offered by the entry of Rowena into Verden’s life. Elizabeth Shepherd is excellent in her dual roles of Rowena and Ligeia. Rowena has red hair as opposed to Ligeia’s gothy black tresses. We first see her in the midst of a fox hunt, and the connection is perhaps made between her and the red-haired fox. Her first encounter with Verden comes after she has been thrown from her horse and has twisted her ankle, ending up lying in a bed of crimson asphodels cast upon Ligeia’s grave. The flowers of death as Verden calls them, perhaps in a nod to Baudelaire, one of Poe’s biggest admirers and author of Les Fleurs du Mal. She is carried back into the manse and Verden takes off her shoe and bandages her ankle. Rowena’s vulnerability here is surface-deep. Shepherd plays her as a strong-willed, carefree character wholly in control of her own destiny. The fox who can always outwit the pack. Coming in from the sun in her bright red jacket, she represents life, as opposed to the black-clad Thanatos of Ligeia.

Whilst Price’s Verden at first appears bluffly commanding, it is soon evident that he is trapped in his own introversion and the hypnotic catalepsy wrought by the spell of his undying wife. Rowena is able to draw him out of this state for a while. They marry and are clearly happy on their honeymoon. There is a scene in which they visit Stonehenge. It is as if by visiting this ruin, more ancient than the abbey by several orders, they are trying to excavate a strata of Verden’s authentic self buried by the malevolent influence of Ligeia’s necromantic ensorcery.

But the return to the abbey results in the renewed exertion of the spirit of place, the death-like gravity which weighs on the soul and seems to inhabit the very stones. Rowena sees her influence drain away. Poe’s black cat is imported to represent the ever watchful and resentful spirit of Ligeia. Its presence is quite well-handled, and it does become a genuine figure of terror in the dream sequence, where it is animated as a giant, long-limbed shadow unstoppably pursuing with a whirlwind gallop. It has to be said, on occasions it is evident that the hapless mog has been thrown across the camera frame, although this does give it a genuine method teeth-baring hiss of resentful anger.

It is disturbing to see Rowena gradually succumbing to the spell of the abbey and of Ligeia. The film retreats to the gloomy interiors after the wedding and she becomes increasingly affected by this atmosphere. A brief meeting with her friend Christopher in the ruins outside finds her looking drawn and wearing a dress of pale orange. It is as if the vibrant colours in which we first saw her have been drained away. Indoors, she wears blue, already halfway to the black favoured by Ligeia. The scene in which Rowena is hypnotised and reduced to a childlike state before being taken over by the spirit of Ligeia gives a foretaste of the fate which lies in store for her. Ligeia’s contemptuous dismissal of death as a mere failure of will portrays her as a chillingly Nietschean character, suggesting a certain monstrosity which pre-dated her passing.

That this is now a battle of wills between Rowena and Ligeia, between life and death, is made explicit in the unnerving dream sequence. With Verden a cataleptic spectator in the background, Rowena ends up struggling with the figure of Ligeia, her face veiled by a curtain of black hair in a fashion which anticipates the Japanese revenant of the Ring films. The discovery of Ligeia’s shrine marks the final confrontation. Her black-veiled boudoir finds her lying with arms outstretched in a disturbingly necrophilic gesture of welcome. Is this the embrace to which Verden has been retreating each night in preference to Rowena’s? It is the cold embrace of death into which Rowena herself falls, caught in the net of funereal veils, blood draining from a cut wrist.

It is noticeable that this room is perfectly maintained and swept free of the cobwebs and decay which characterise the rest of the house. This is the small hidden space into which Verden’s soul has crept, a retreat into the comforting stasis of death. The culmination of the film is a slight disappointment. The need to provide a dramatic conclusion results in a resorting to that old standby, the consuming conflagration. But this minor stumble apart, this is a fine culmination of Corman’s Poe cycle, the move to a new location breathing fresh air into his interpretations.

If Roger Corman had found a new and particularly American form for the horror film in his rediscovery of Poe, then European directors connected with their own literary heritage through his writings. Poe was something of a darling of the French decadent writers, Baudelaire in particular, and it is their influence which can be rather heavily detected in the film Spirits of the Dead, or Histoires Extraordinaires.
Spirits of the Dead is a portmanteau film in which three directors interpret three Poe stories. It also serves as a triptych of 60s icons, with Jane Fonda in the first story, Brigitte Bardot in the second, and Terence Stamp in the third.

The first story is Metzengerstein, with Jane Fonda as the capriciously tyrannical titular countess. This is directed by her then husband Roger Vadim who also cast her as Barbarella, and both must rank as films which she looks back on with a wincing sense of embarassment. Vadim once more parades her in a series of fetishistic outfits which are about as authentic a representation of the dress of the Middle Ages as the Hollywood standard of the tall conical hat with trailing a wisp of gauze from its peak. This Middle Age domain also seems well supplied with lip gloss and mascara, and there is evidently a bouffant hairstylist in the court retinue. Jane Fonda does her best with base materials and makes a decent stab at the French dialogue, although her repeated cry of ‘Hugues’ begins to sound like a sitcom catchphrase. This is more than can be said for her brother Peter, anyway, who is obviously dubbed and delivers one of his ‘if I remain completely inexpressive I will appear really mysterious’ performances.

Vadim’s casting of Peter Fonda as the man for whom Jane falls is typical of his tiresomely shallow ‘aren’t I shocking’ iconoclasm. His interpretation of the French decadent tradition is filtered through his own softcore imagination of loungecore swingerdom. The aristocratic orgies at the castle are less a descent into a hell of decaying social mores than a foretaste of Emmanuelle and its 70s mainstream like. Jane Fonda’s infatuations with the horse which may be imbued with Peter Fonda’s reincarnated spirit reduces the whole thing to the level of a Jackie story of pony love. Credit must again to Jane for her evident riding skills, however. But the story is uninvolving to a soporific degree. The whole thing is massively indulgent on Vadim’s part. No wonder she left him shortly afterwards.

Vadim’s other significant ex, Brigitte Bardot, turns up in the second story, William Wilson, and is similarly ill-used. This segment is directed by Louis Malle and features Alain Delon in the title role, which well suits his icy arrogance and detached hauteur. The opening shots of him running through the cobbled streets of a middle-European town towards a church, face sweaty and bloodied, create a sense of tense anticipation. Clearly something has just happened, or is just about to. However, the interpolation of shots of a figure plunging from a tower, which is clearly supposed to be him but is all too evidently a dummy, undermines any tension. The subsequent story is related, Ancient Mariner style, to a reluctant priest in the confessional, and unfolds in flashback.

It is the classic doppelganger tale in which Delon’s William Wilson, a vain bully, meets a new schoolmate who shares his name. This character becomes a shadow self, turning up at key junctures of his life, always deflating the moments at which his sadistic nature reaches its triumphant apotheoses and causing ruination to whatever career path he has embarked upon. Not, however, before Malle has had the chance to revel in these moments of sadism. Once again, the French director’s view of the native decadent tradition is less of a derangement of the senses than lasciviously softcore titillation. Delon is also able to enact his humiliation of Brigitte Bardot after he defeats her at the card table before his namesake arrives to expose his cheating methods.

The final duel of the Wilsons results in a conclusion which must have exuded the musty odour of well-worn cliche even back in 1967. Delon stabs his nemesis and, turning the corpse over (I feel I’m not spoiling it too much for you here) discovers IT IS HIMSELF! Malle obviously felt this was a moment of shocking revelation, however, as he repeats it in the final image, having once more shown the floppy-limbed dummy plummeting from the church tower. A tedious trawl to an utterly obvious conclusion.

Most people cite Federico Fellini’s segment of the film, Toby Dammit, as being by far and away the best thing on display. As I may have intimated, this is not entirely a towering achievement given the competition. It is not without its own serious flaws, however. The opening scenes are very effective, with Terence Stamp’s titular character, a famous actor, landing in a Rome airport which is seeped in tones of a sulfurous yellow; a modern-day Inferno entered through the departure lounge escalator.

Stamp portrays the actor Dammit as a dissolute dandy, dangerously out of control and long past caring about his public image. He gets closer to the spirit of fin de siecle decadence than anyone else in the film, and also makes the link with the contemporary zeitgeist. Whilst his performance is hampered by the awful dubbing which seems to bedevil so much Italian cinema of this vintage (why were they so afraid of the boom mike) it still manages to convey the sense of someone who has taken things so far that he is on the point of breaking through to the other side, as William Blake or The Doors might have put it.

However, Fellini also lards his story with the usual carnival of personal archetypes. These now seem to bear little relation to the world at large, and have become reflexive and solipsistically self-referential. Groups of gossiping nuns, gypsy fortune-tellers, over-excited movie executives, large ladies, nubile starlets, elderly grotesques, dwarves and clowns are all present and correct. But they are presented in a rather perfunctory fashion and seem to have little function in the narrative other than to provide a constant parade of passing spectacle. The scenes in the television studio and at the award ceremony are amusing and diverting enough, but the satire is blunt and obvious. Fellini is biting the hand that feeds him, accusing the milieux in which he swims of being shallow whilst revelling in its very superficiality and surface glamour. Frankly, why should we care.

The final scenes, in which Stamp escapes in his Ferrari, his reward for turning up to the award ceremony, are much more impressive. The nightlit streets of the Roman suburbs become a maze, with figures illuminated by the headlights seeming to guide him towards a pre-destined end. We have already had a glimpse of his modern, desacralized vision of the devil as a pale little girl with a large white ball and a face half veiled by long blond hair, the other half revealing a sardonically staring eye and a knowing smile belying her age. This figure is so obviously taken from Mario Bava’s Kill Baby Kill that it amounts less to homage than to plain copying. Stamp’s wild ride to oblivion takes him to her.

The final setting of the broken bridge, swathed in mist and seemingly untethered from its surrounding reality, is memorably surreal. And the conclusion is enjoyably grim in an almost Tales From The Crypt fashion; the little girl gets a new ball. This episode is really the only reason to watch the film. It’s a shame that the French squandered such an opportunity to reconnect with their fin-de-siecle roots, and that it took an Italian to show them how to do it.

As a brief addendum, mention of two more Italian horror films which also dubiously claim a literary pedigree. Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead purports to be set in the Lovecraftian terrain of Dunwich, whilst his House by the Cemetery ends with a quote attributed to Henry James. Actually, Fulci just made that one up himself, which you have to admit shows some chutzpah.

Both of these films come from a spurt (an appropriate verb for Fulci) of activity in the early 80s. I have memori of a double-bill in the still un-partitioned screen of the dilapidated Welling Odeon of Fulci’s The Beyond and The House By the Cemetery which my impressionable teenage self enjoyed in the early 80s. There were also memorable still in the Starburst magazine which I bought at the time. A woman crying stigmatic tears of blood, a skull emerging from autumn leaves in front of a tombstone, and shambling zombies aplenty. I was intrigued to see how these films had stood the test of time, particularly given their cult reputation in some circles. Oh dear.

Some academics have apparently pointed to Fulci’s ‘shattering of narrative logic’ or somesuch. A more prosaic explanation of his ‘avant-garde’ style may be that he simply can’t write. There is absolutely no tension or pacing in these films. Plot strands are set up only to be dropped or flatly contradicted later on. Others are pursued at tedious length towards pointless ends.

Frustratingly, Fulci clearly has an eye for atmospheric settings and creates imaginative and surreal sets. And he does give good zombie. This is why stills from his films seem to promise so much more than is actually delivered. The idea of the hallway of an ordinary house being inlaid with a tombstone through which a hand reaches out to grab unwary passers-by (this is from House By the Cemetery) is the kind of dreamlike conflation of the surreal and the everyday which horror thrives on. Its realization is so incompetently handled, however, that any magic or terror is completely dissipated.

Also in House By the Cemetery, the surroundings of the house have such great potential for atmospheric shots, with their wintry trees interspersed with tombstones, and you’d think the script would take pains to make the best use possible of this setting. But it is passed over for repeat trips to the basement, where tiresome slasher movie cliches are played out. The seemingly arthritic Dr Freudstein (a really great name there) who turns out to be the basement’s gruesome denizen, is an imaginatively grotesque creation, so it’s a shame that his appearance is held back to the final few minutes. He moves SO slowly that even George Romero’s zombies seem like greyhounds in comparison. It takes a director of genuine incompetence to drain scenes featuring such a fearsome character of any tension, but Fulci pulls it off.

Similarly, in City of the Living Dead, his zombies seem scarcely capable of putting one foot in front of the other. But Fulci has a solution here; they can disappear and instantaneously re-manifest themselves elsewhere in space as it they have an inbuilt teleportation device. Naturally, this renders any scenes of pursuit meaningless. It also obviates the necessity of creating any sense of space from which the creatures could emerge, or in whose shadows they might lurk. They simply pop into existence in front of the characters’ eyes.

So, Fulci has no sense of visual space, no storytelling skills, no ability to pace scenes, and an appalling ear for dialogue (a policeman at one point reacts to the discovery of a pile of maggoty grue with the epithet ‘what the devil is that?’). What does he have, then? Well, he has whatever offcuts he’s managed to pick up from the butcher’s that day. These he enthusiastically puts to use in a series of incongruous, narratively pointless and nonsensical gore set-pieces. The local fishing supplies store clearly had a good deal on wholesale maggot and mealworm purchases, because these turn up with some frequency; a lengthy storm of them at one point. A favourite image from City of the Living Dead is of zombies tearing the brains from the back of people’s heads; an idea which is so implausible (there’s surely the small – and solid – matter of the intervening skull) as to be inadvertently comical. Anyway, on the principle that if you don’t have anything good to say, then say nothing, I shall forthwith cease my fulminations against Fulci.

No comments: