hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture OCT. 2014


Horror films for Halloween

In place of the familiar fare, five lesser-known gems




As Halloween approaches, cable channels will soon be unreeling a steady stream of horror flicks: Expect repeated showings of classics like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” and familiar blockbusters like “The Exorcist” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

But there are a handful of older thrillers worth seeking out that are available on DVD. Instead of the widely recognized classics, consider a few obscure and overlooked gems.

Try, for example, Universal’s “The Black Cat,” rather than that studio’s iconic versions of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” made just a few years earlier. Or check out the little-known “Don’t Look Now,” which was released the same year as “The Exorcist” but is far superior.

Here are five must-see horror films for the season, arranged in order of their release:


• “The Black Cat” (1934, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer).
Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), while en route to settling an old score with his wartime foe, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), befriends a pair of newlyweds traveling in Hungary.
After a road accident, the couple is forced to accompany him to Poelzig’s home, where they become pawns in a deadly game between the two adversaries. The result is a brooding meditation on the lingering after-effects of World War I.
Already firmly typecast as a villain, Lugosi’s war-haunted Werdegast is one of the few sympathetic roles he was given during his career in Hollywood. In contrast, Karloff plays Poelzig with no shades of human warmth or sympathy whatsoever. A sardonic and thoroughly irredeemable bad guy, Poelzig betrayed his regiment to the Russians during the war, married Werdegast’s presumed widow and, after murdering her, subsequently wed Werdegast’s equally hapless daughter. When not busy murdering his various wives and preserving their corpses, the reptilian Poelzig presides over a cult of girl-killing Satanists.
Not surprisingly, Werdegast arrives on Poelzig’s doorstep with a well-honed desire for revenge. Werdegast’s festering sense of injury is equally matched by Poelzig’s contempt and utter lack of remorse, but both of these bitter, maimed men share a mutual need for closure, even if it means death.
Poelzig’s gleaming, art-deco house, despite its ultra-modernity, is as rooted in the recent past as its inhabitants. Built on the concrete remains of undermined gun turrets that were once part of a blood-soaked battlefield, the house is conveniently rigged to blow up by pulling a certain lever.
Ulmer pours it on, but just beneath the film’s giddy surface lies a heartfelt reproach for a war that in 1934 still haunted the lives of millions. “The Black Cat” was made just five years before the Nazis invaded Poland, and the spectacle of Lugosi and Karloff, sitting on a literal powder keg while nursing grievances from an earlier conflict, dolefully reflected European politics at the time.


• “The Uninvited” (1944, directed by Lewis Allen).
Roderick (Rick) Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela buy a beautiful seaside house in Cornwall that turns out to be haunted. While investigating the dark past of the house, they befriend their lovely young neighbor Stella Meredith, whose family once lived there. Both a romance and a thriller, this atmospheric movie has some genuinely frightening sequences that rely on the power of suggestion.
The haunted state of the house is reflected in the reactions of terrified animals and the enervating effect that a particular room has on its inhabitants. The ghost manifests in fragrant breezes, a crawling mist, and the pre-dawn sound of inconsolable weeping. As Stella learns more about the haunting and her own related past, she becomes increasingly rebellious toward her stuffy and overprotective grandfather, played with brusque irascibility by the great Donald Crisp.
A product of its era, the subtext of the movie is arguably sexist and homophobic. The two strong, intellectual women are invariably the villains whose friendship hints at lesbianism. But their negative characterizations are balanced by Ruth Hussey’s wonderful performance as the smart and attractive Pamela Fitzgerald and the waft of incipient feminism embodied in the ingénue Stella as she struggles to escape the prim, proper role being inflicted upon her.
The “solution” posed by the movie -- for Stella to marry the first attractive male she meets -- would rankle were it not for Ray Milland’s open, carefree performance as Rick Fitzgerald. He supports the liberating impulse in Stella, encouraging her to question the dictates of her overbearing grandfather who’d rather see her institutionalized than let her search into the past. The “commander,” as Rick calls him, is the quintessence of the old school patriarch who destroys the “helpless” female in his efforts to protect her.
What saves this from being just another run-of-the-mill haunted house yarn is its central concern with the agonies of a sheltered youth straining to grow up, and away from a suffocating paternalism.


• “Curse of the Demon” (1957, directed by Jacques Tourneur).
John Holden, a skeptical psychiatrist, arrives at a conference on parapsychology to discover that one of his colleagues, Henry Harrington, has died in a bizarre accident. When Holden continues Harrington’s investigation of the sorcerer and cult leader Julian Karswell, he is threatened by the same demonic entity that killed Harrington.
With a screenplay adapted by Charles Bennett from M.R. James’ short story “The Casting of the Runes,” this is arguably the most grown-up horror film to come out of the 1950s, and certainly one with the most respectable pedigree. In a decade dominated by irradiated lizards, sinister extraterrestrials and Hammer Studio’s Technicolor horrors, this elegant psychological thriller looks back to Hitchcock’s best black-and-white films as well as the Lewton-Tourneur collaborations of the early 1940s.
Bennett was Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the story uses Hitchcock’s classic recipe for creating suspense – informing the audience of an impending disaster while the characters remain oblivious to it. At the beginning of the movie, the audience is treated to an unambiguous slaughter carried out by the titular demon. Even if Holden remains in steadfast denial, the viewer knows precisely what forces are gathering against him; it is not the demon, but Holden’s rigid disbelief that generates suspense.
As played by Dana Andrews, Holden behaves with gruff obstinacy toward his erudite colleagues. He flirts boorishly with Joanna, Henry Harrington’s attractive niece, and reacts to her intelligence and concern by patronizing and dismissing her. By comparison, Karswell is an almost sympathetic figure, a man who realizes too late that he’s unleashed forces he cannot fully control. For audiences in an era contending with the psychic and cultural horrors of the atomic bomb, this must have been a familiar anxiety.
Besides touching on fears of nuclear annihilation, the story’s failure to designate a strong male authority figure would have been particularly unsettling for viewers in the 1950s. Holden’s frequent retreats into blustering skepticism mask a deep, almost hysterical uncertainty. Baby-faced, chubby and avaricious, Karswell too lacks gravitas.
Of the lead characters, only Joanna seems truly wise, open-minded and intuitive. But Holden just treats her like another pretty face, and Karswell hypnotizes her into silence. The film’s concluding piece of dialogue, “maybe it’s better not to know,” resonates like the epigraph for a decade thriving on denial and blind conformity.
Over the strident objections of Bennett and Tourneur, the studio paid court to the giant-lizard-loving contingent of the audience by adding a ridiculous, rubbery looking demon to the finished product. Despite this flaw, “Curse of the Demon” still achieves a wonderful eeriness; it is genuinely frightening and anything but silly.


• “The Innocents” (1961, directed by Jack Clayton).
Beautifully photographed by Freddie Francis in lush black and white, “The Innocents” is a faithful adaptation of Henry James’ novella “A Turn of The Screw,” set in Victorian England. A young woman takes a position as governess for two children on a country estate, and she becomes convinced the house is haunted by ghosts of the valet and former governess, who want to possess the children.
The story is layered in ambiguity. Is the house genuinely haunted by the spirits of Quint and Miss Jessel, or are the ghostly apparitions merely products of the governess’ imagination? Are the children, portrayed by the pixie-like Pamela Franklin and the coolly poised Martin Stephens, endangered by supernatural possession or by the contagious fantasies of a neurotic spinster?
There are broad hints that the wealthy uncle, who has dumped the children in the countryside because of their incompatibility with his bachelor lifestyle, might actually be their father. James’ story is a subjective account from the new governesses’ point of view and is biased accordingly, but the filmed version suggests that the proper Miss Giddens’ inhibitions are surfacing in the forms of paranoia and hallucination.
There are some memorably terrifying sequences, in particular, a game of hide- and-seek during which Quint reveals himself in a shockingly malign close-up. The brilliant use of ambient sound gives the movie a further infusion of menace. Incidental music is notably absent, so that Flora’s singing, the tinkling notes of a music box, chirping birds, and conspiratorial whispers exist in stark contrast with the unleavened silence.
Deborah Kerr is perfectly cast as the prim, blandly pretty Miss Giddens, whose well-bred fragility conceals a latent fanaticism. The movie seems to say that the real threat to the household, whether supernatural or psychological, springs from the licensed abandonment of two inconvenient children into the hands of dubious caretakers.


• “Don’t Look Now” (1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg).
“Don’t Look Now” is based on a story by Daphne DuMaurier. After their young daughter drowns, a married couple travels to Italy, where they meet a blind psychic who claims to “see” their dead child. Set in a deserted Venice in winter, this “city in aspic,” as one of the characters describes it, provides the gray, dank backdrop to a horror film with an adult sensibility.
Though it functions as a thriller, the movie is primarily the exploration of a troubled marriage pushed toward collapse by intolerable grief. Julie Christie is the anguished wife, Laura Baxter, who wants to believe the psychic’s assertion that their dead daughter is trying to contact and warn them. Donald Sutherland gives one of his best performances as the skeptical John Baxter. His condescending attitude toward his wife and impatience with her sorrow comes painfully close to alienating the viewer but speaks volumes about his own agonized struggle with grief.
Roeg’s melancholy shots of Venice – all mazes and fragile edifices – seem to externalize the mental instabilities of the two main characters. Much like their relationship, the city itself is decomposing and stalked by death. Roeg’s camera surrounds us with mirrors, glass and water, as if the very landscape were liquefying. The multitudes of visual and narrative ambiguities force the viewer into an active participation in the story.
The movie is sometimes pretentious, and visually overwrought, but its mournful undertones, hinging on a disintegrating relationship and the meaningless death of a child, anchor the film in tragedy. “Don’t Look Now” contains nudity and sex; it’s not for the kids.