Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale

What a delight! Thanks to Ray Garton and Paul D. Brazill for leading me to Tod Browning’s last film, Miracles for Sale. It’s a fun romp with magicians, psychics, trickery, grifters, and plenty of style. Currently airing on TCM, it’s also available in various versions online in the usual places.

I admit to giving short shrift to Robert Young because I first knew him as Marcus Welby M.D., a show my grandparents liked. What could be less cool than the gently ironic know-it-all elderly doctor? Yet he brings a witty humour to Miracles, which gives it charm. Most of the time the laughs walk a fine line along with the noir ambience and the spookiness. It’s a strange mix. Young’s Mike Morgan is a former stage magician who now makes elaborate tricks for other magicians. The opening war scene is a bit off-putting (including yellow face) but it turns out to be an overly-wrought saw-the-woman-in-half trick that Morgan is staging for a client. His house is a delight of tricks and surprises.

Morgan also devotes his time to exposing spiritual charlatans, admitting that there might be ghosts and whatnot, but he doesn’t want people exploiting the vulnerable with tricks. That kicks off the real plot when a gal in trouble (Florence Rice) runs into his shop to ask for help but can’t tell him the whole story. The plot is the least interesting part of the film and comes from Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat.

The fun is all the characters. Ray mentioned how little this seems like a Browning film. The one aspect that does is the characterisation, especially the brilliant cast of character actors. Frank Craven is a hoot as Morgan’s dad. He often ends up the victim of his son’s elaborate tricks-in-progress but he gets plenty of good lines. Henry Hull is cadaverous fellow magician Duvallo. The bickering La Claire couple (Lee Bowman and Astrid Allwyn) demonstrate that magic is just part of their acting on stage. The always delightful William Demerest plays a grumpy detective (the whole investigative team is a bit wacky).

Frederick Worlock is the mysterious Dr. Caesar Sabatt, accompanied by Gloria ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Holden as the equally mysterious Madame Rapport. Browning has the camera rest on her singular face and as it lingers a sense of the uncanny arises. Though she only has a few scenes, that otherworldliness serves well when it comes time for the séance.

There’s a locked room mystery that isn’t much of a mystery—after all, by the time the first body shows up we’ve seen all manner of trickery explained. But the staging of the murders within pentagrams, the noir-shadowed streets of the city, and the suggestion that real unexplained mysteries from the beyond may be at work combine to give the film an enjoyable stylishness that’s definitely worth a try.

Good fun!

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Having recently seen (and wrote about) Witch Hunt (1994) I was looking forward to seeing this mash up of supernatural and noir, largely because I figured Fred Ward would play the part of PI Harry Philip Lovecraft a lot better than a rather wooden Dennis Hopper did in the later film. That guess was correct.

Ward immediately gets what the film is meant to be a plays the noir elements with an edge of satire and humour. He channels the classic Bogey Spade but with a sense of irony, knowing this is a crazy mash-up of elements and an exercise in nostalgia. Ward is an underrated actor who always bring a everyman sensibility and a weight of intelligent emotion to every part he plays. He brings life to the part and a reality despite the clichés, over-the-top dramatics and clunky dialogue.

Because the rest of Cast a Deadly Spell is not up to his abilities. That includes a young Julianne Moore who is given next to nothing to do apart from lip syncing to someone else’ song and carrying out every cliché in the femme fatale playbook. You can almost see her composing a strongly worded letter to her agent. Yet at moments she makes us believe in her Connie (heart of) Stone, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast.

David Warner phones it in. Lee Tergesen is quite good with very little help, despite being literally gay-bashed. I thought the role of Lovecraft’s witch partner, Hypolyta Kropotkin, was too small in Witch Hunt, but it’s miniscule in this film. Arnetia Walker gets very little to do except save Lovecraft’s ass.

The Lovecraft storyline intertwines with a Big Sleep-style detective narrative; nonsense with a virginal debutante (Alexandra Powers) that attempts to evoke both the Sternwood sisters at once. Needless to say the Lovecraft garbage is vile. It’s also incredibly boring and clichéd. Virgin sacrifice? Really? Oh hey, Necronomicon. Admittedly less of a cliché in 1991, but secret book of secrets has been a staple of horror films for a very long time.

Worse are the Gremlins. And they are really called that in the credits. Someone recently shared a meme about how cretins believe the moon landing was faked with an image of what SPFX looked like in 1969. The ‘old ones’ in this film really look like cheap knock offs of the Gremlins films (the first in 1984, which gives you an idea of the quality). Rubber monsters age poorly, but they would have looked out of date in 1991. I know, low budgets and all (this is an HBO made for tv movie) but Witch Hunt shows how much more effective you could be with more subtle effects. That movie is looking better now.

A shame because the concept of supernatural noir is such a great one and has been done really well (*cough* by people associated with this site). Fred Ward was so good. If you’re more forgiving of bad FX and hokey plots, you might find it ‘A great way to spend an evening!’ as Entertainment Weekly did. Potato, po-tah-toe.

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994)

I am so grateful fabulous film critic Anne Billson retweeted a reference to this into my timeline. She has great taste in films as well as encyclopaedic knowledge (seriously, check out her work). Also it could not be more on-brand for my stuff: a mash-up of witchcraft, horror, hard-boiled and noir: The film takes place in a fictional Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone—except hardboiled private investigator H. Philip Lovecraft (Hopper)—uses magic every day. 

It turns out to be the sequel to a film also penned by Joseph DoughertyCast A Deadly Spell, which is more directly Lovecraftian (and which I have also ordered). Witch Hunt, however, is really hard to get hold of unless you want to pay a steep price for VHS (the horror, the horror). But it’s available on the site you probably guess it will be in the mean time: there must be some kind of rights issue.

Just peep at that cast list: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Anne Miller, Debi Mazar, Eric Bogosian, Lypsinka – Julian Sands! And veteran director Paul Schrader at the helm. There’s a lot good here: a satirical take on both the crime classics and on the ‘witch hunt’ against Hollywood in the 50s. So much potential: somehow it never gels. A few laughs land and land squarely: having the fabulous witch Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph) summon Shakespeare just to get him writing pictures. Priceless final sight of him, face up against the window of limo wheeling him away to be chewed up with all the other screenwriters.

I think the basic problem is Schrader: he’s great at building tension but awful at comedy and even worse at action. Almost everyone plays their part well: almost no one connects to anyone else playing theirs. To have that sort of Hammet fast-talking wit you can’t have so much space between the actors. Miller is great as the actress who fears her career has just walked off with her producer/husband. She has a great balance of brittleness and ambition. Debi Mazar is so great that I expected her part to be bigger. Bogosian as the McCarthy stand-in is a combination of smarm and sleaze. Lypsinka makes a wonderful villain running a ring of high-class magical call girls. There’s a nod to the film noir tradition with a snippet of The Big Combo playing in a drive-in.

Even Sands isn’t chewing scenery too much as ‘Finn Macha’ (hahahaha) but his cod Irish accent often slips into something, I dunno – German? He does good menace as a foil to Hopper’s investigator.

Hopper just isn’t there. I’m looking forward to seeing Fred Ward play the same role. I suspect he will be better. I haven’t looked up any of the reviews of the film at the time. Not sure what was going on with Hopper: after his stellar turn as the über creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet this would seem to be a great role, but he never seems involved. There’s certainly no believable chemistry with Miller. Ralph does her part in trying to portray their uneasy relationship as friends with adjacent offices, both helping out people in trouble.

There’s a lot to like about the story: it could easily be redone with most of the script intact. Dougherty seems to have stepped into production work instead of writing, but I bet he’d take another chance at having this done right. See it while it’s free.

Film Noir: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry by K. A. Laity

220px-The_Strange_Affair_of_Uncle_Harry_FilmPoster

From the play that shocked Broadway!

Led down a little George Sanders rabbit hole the other day I finally got around to watching this film which was mentioned in some of the film noir books I have read, probably Brookes’ Film Noir. Partly I suspect that because he’s very interested in the overlap between noir and Gothic. This film is a great embodiment of that. 

Robert Siodmak directs, Joan Harrison produces; script by Stephen Longstreet based on the play by Thomas Job. George Sanders stars as Harry Quincy of the Corinth Quincys, who used to the tony family of the tiny town, though they lost their money in the Great Depression. His sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester (Moyna Macgill) keep the ancestral mansion with the help of Nona (Sarah Allgood). The house is all they have left of the glory days. Everything seems cosy until New Yawk City slicker Deborah Brown (Ella Raines) comes to the quiet mill and shakes up Harry’s life.

Mostly because his hypochondriac sister Lettie doesn’t want anything to change and relies on Harry bending to her every whim. Very gothic: borderline incestuous – I wonder if the ‘shocking’ play made more of that. But Lettie pretends to welcome the interloper, but just can’t seem to find a place suitable for her and Hester so the two can get married. Six months pass. Deborah manages to convince Harry they should just run off to the wilds of Boston and get married, then honeymoon in big bad NYC.

Lettie collapses. Or appears to do so. Harry starts glaring at the poison bottle Lettie bought to put down their old dog Weary. 

There’s some great small town shenanigans: the trial of public opinion, gossip, fence peeping, taking sides, soda counters, men singing at the club (a far cry from the Drones) ‘Pickle My Bones in Alcohol’ and then a twist that comes out of nowhere – well, literally it came out the Motion Pictures Production Code. I could imagine this being remade either without the twist or with one more cynical twist.

George Sanders is always watchable; Geraldine Fitzgerald clearly has a great time with the theatrical Lettie. Fun stuff!

SALIENT MINUS TEN digital premiere 27 May!

salient minus 10

SALIENT MINUS TEN is the new Sci-Fi/Horror short film from award-winning filmmaker Emma Dark, and is a cerebral foray into the darker, more disturbing, side of Science Fiction.

Adam Harper (Alan Austen, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back) is an average man. And on an average day he suddenly finds himself catapulted into the strangest, reality changing game… A game of time and chance, where the stakes are a matter of life and death.

“Instead of relying on gore or cheap jump scares to get under your skin, this is a film which asks you to think and connect the dots yourself, and you almost feel as though you want to thank it for that.” – Dread Central (4/5* review), http://bit.ly/2on4LJi

SCREENINGS & AWARDS: * Fantoms (REGIONAL PREMIERE – NEWCASTLE UK, Star and Shadow cinema, October 2019) * WINNER ‘Best Actor’ (Alan Austen), WINNER ‘Best Cinematography’ (Philip Bloom), WINNER ‘Best Editing’ (Emma Dark), Nominated ‘Best Short’, ‘Best Music / Sound’ (Eric Elick & Chris Collier), ‘Outstanding Female Filmmaker’ (Emma Dark) – Stormy Weather Horror Fest Summer 2019 * Medusa Underground Film Festival (REGIONAL PREMIERE – NEVADA USA, The Artisan Hotel Boutique, Las Vegas, January 2019) * Black Sunday Film Festival (The Whirled Cinema, December 2018) * International Moving Image Society (01zero-one, October 2018) * WINNER ‘Albert Pyun Inspiration Award’ (Emma Dark), Nominated ‘Best Short Film’, ‘Audience Choice’, ‘Best Cinematography’ (Philip Bloom) – The Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival (NORTHERN IRISH PREMIERE, The Hub, Bangor, October 2018) * Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival (REGIONAL PREMIERE – NORTH CAROLINA USA, The Cary Theater, Cary, September 2018) * Nominated ‘Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy’ – Snake Alley Festival of Film (REGIONAL PREMIERE – IOWA USA, Capitol Theater, Burlington, June 2018) * Rue Morgue Magazine and Unstable Ground’s Little Terrors Monthly Short Film Festival (CANADIAN PREMIERE, Imagine Cinemas Carlton, April 2018) * Nominated ‘Best Horror/Sci-Fi’ – 2nd Annual – Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival (REGIONAL PREMIERE – PENNSYLVANIA USA (EAST COAST), Mauch Chunk Opera House, April 2018) * WINNER ‘Best Director’ (Emma Dark) – Starburst Magazine’s Media City Film Festival (REGIONAL PREMIERE – GREATER MANCHESTER, The Landing, March 2018) * Billy Chainsaw’s Nova Nights (The Horse Hospital, London, February 2018) * Panic Fest (USA PREMIERE, Screenland Armour Cinema, Kansas City, January 2018) * The Dark Side Magazine’s DarkFest (Genesis Cinema, November 2017) * Nominated ‘Best Short Film’ – The British Horror Film Festival (WORLD PREMIERE, Cineworld Leicester Square, November 2017)

CREDITS: Edited, Produced, Written, and Directed by Emma Dark Original Music by Eric Elick Director of Photography Philip Bloom Sound Design by Chris Collier

Adam Harper – Alan Austen

The Woman – Emma Dark

Commuter/Automaton – Chris Hampshire

Commuter – Beric Read

Commuter – Samantha Oci

For a full list of cast and crew credits and to find out more please visit the following links: IMDb – imdb.com/title/tt5935326 Facebook – facebook.com/SalientMinusTen Twitter – twitter.com/SalientMinusTen

BUY on DVD here > etsy.com/uk/shop/EmmaDarkOfficial

Copyright © 2017 Emma Dark. All Rights Reserved. emmadark.com facebook.com/EmmaDarkOfficial

Punk Before Punk: The Party’s Over (1962/5/6) by K. A. Laity

olly reed

Just as the word punk existed before the music did, the concept of the rebel outsiders breaking all the rules has existed as long as rules have (probably: I’d bet my PhD on it anyway). One of those iterations surely included the beatniks, at least in the popular imagination. The Party’s Over’s release was delayed for a while due to censorship not of its violence, youthful decadence, matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality but – wait for it – for featuring necrophilia. The director Guy Hamilton and producers Jack Hawkins, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Perry demanded their names be removed in protest. It was finally released three years later in 1965 (1966 in the US).

 The film starts with the fanfare accorded to a production company named Monarch, but quickly switches gears by opening on a guy hanging from a balcony crying for help as a party goes on inside the building. Funky jazz plays on a Victrola while desultory young people smoke, smooch, drink, and mill about. The walls are covered with tennis rackets, beer mats and art. We follow a cigarette from hand to hand, introducing some of our key players until we end on Moise (Oliver Reed) who uses it to light a cigarillo and, swilling beer, wanders over to the balcony to take a butcher’s. He responds by pouring some bevvie over the luckless lad.

An imperious Melina (Louise Sorel) demands that he help the unfortunate. Moise instead calls on Geronimo (Mike Pratt) and the others manage to drag the fellow up. Moise shrugs at Melina, who rises and commands him to drop dead. Moise climbs up on the balcony rail and jumps. Cue screams, a passing look of angst on Melina’s face and then laughter from the crowd as we cut to Ollie hanging from a lamppost, smiling around his cigarillo. He bows and walks on.

Cut to the group as they begin desultory walk over a pre-dawn Albert Bridge as the voice-over by Reed describes the film as the story of these young folk who became ‘for want of a better word…beatniks’. It also clarifies that ‘the film is not an attack on beatniks; the film has been made to show the loneliness and the unhappiness, and the eventual tragedy that can come from a life lived without love for anyone or anything.’ Sure we’re going to cast glamourous young actors and make cool beatnik art studios but the message is this is bad.

Also necrophilia, much more clearly a bad thing.

Like so many films that show youth subcultures, it both glamourises it and oversimplifies it. We’ve already seen Reed as the beatnik artist in Tony Hanock’s The Rebel though he was French there. One of the most fun things here is Reed getting to trot out a series of accents in one brilliant scene as he shows down Melina’s American fiancé who’s come to drag her back to New York. So often Reed was forced to play to type, it’s always good to be reminded how much he could do.

The beatniks lead the hapless fiancé Carson (Clifford David) on a merry chase from studio to pub to café and back again until Nina (Katherine Woodville) takes pity on him. Unlike the dilettante Melina, Nina is a real artist though posh as the day is long (which makes all the difference in the end).

The problem is Melina disappeared after a whale of a party and it takes a while for people to begin to put together their fractured memories of what went on at the party. And what’s up with nervous Philip (Jonathan Burn)? With Nina by his side, Carson fights to find out what’s really going on with his mercurial fiancée in the face of the beatnik hostility, mostly wrangled by Reed’s Moise. In between there’s a lot of vintage footage of swinging Chelsea, gorgeously shot and a lot of beatnik posturing, bad art and slang. There’s even a cameo by Eddie Albert that proves surprisingly tender (yes, that Eddie Albert).

Well worth a watch even if you aren’t the kind of person who would watch Reed in almost anything. C’mon: beatniks in swinging 60s London! Currently streaming on Amazon in the US and I think BFI in the UK.

 

Corona Connections: Episode One – Magic Moments

Shoreditch Pictures

Episode One of Shoreditch Pictures‘ new online series, Corona Connections, which follows characters during lockdown of the coronavirus epidemic. Magic Moments is the story Harry,(Max Waldron) who calls his Grandma (Patricia Loveland) to wish her a happy birthday and give her a heart-warming surprise. Written & Directed by Ben Wicks Produced by Sarah Culverhouse. Shot entirely on Skype.

Shoreditch Pictures

Facebook: www.facebook.com/shoreditchpictures/ Twitter & Instagram: @shoreditchpics

 

Detour(s) by K. A. Laity

-DetourPoster1

God, it’s easy to kill a person!’

The noir classic Detour (1945) impressed most of my students with the wildest femme fatale they saw all semester. Ann Savage, to borrow a line from Peter and Dud, Savage by name plays a part completely Savage by nature. Her Vera completely terrifies the itinerant musician Al (played by Tom Neal) as well as scarring for life the bookie Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). Al just wants to get to Los Angeles for a reunion with his gal Sue, but when Haskell unexpectedly kicks the bucket and Al gets mistaken for him things begin to go south. When a passing moment of kindness leads him to pick up a hitch-hiker, Savage’s Vera knows he’s not Haskell and blackmails the hapless schmoe into a scheme to make her rich. If they don’t kill each other first.

The film is told in flashbacks from Al’s point of view, from his first shambolic appearance to the improbable end. Filmed on the cheap, Edgar G. Ulmer gets the most mileage out of smoke, mirrors, cheap sets, and budget dialogue. If you remember nothing else, I guarantee you Ann Savage’s turn as Vera will be seared on your eyeballs. Also the strange plot holes (more about that shortly) which begin to make you wonder how much of the story has been (inexpertly) revised by Al.

The 1992 remake in some ways is even stranger. Weirdly riffing on the relationship of fathers and sons, Tom Neal’s part is reprised by his son, who shares a striking resemblance with his dad, but not the sense of aggrieved every man. It starts out in black and white and like van Sant’s Psycho mostly reproduces the original film. It’s got its fans but I’ve not made my way through it yet. It has interesting moments: the first flashback is when the film changes to colour. Some of the added material has to do with Sue’s life in Los Angeles.

The ending of the film is changed to be more in line with the original novel—that’s right, there is a source novel. Martin H. Goldsmith’s 1939 novel of the same name tells more or less the same story. This Detour had a very different fate from the movie. I tracked down a copy of the 2013 Black Curtain edition which is frills-free even of original publication information and mostly typo free, except for one persistent repeated one. The font is big to give it a novel-length page count (145) but it’s really more of a novella.

I’m always interested in the ways novels get adapted to film. What’s interesting about the novel is how much more noir it feels than the film and how awful all the characters are—and none of them are on to themselves except maybe Vera. She doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself. Chapters alternate between Al and Sue. Al is originally Alexander Roth, changed to the generic Al Roberts in the film. Roth surely chosen for the point of someone waxing wroth, as Groucho might say.

Everybody in this novel is very angry, too. Alex is a lot more of a jerk than the hapless innocent the film makes him. Picked up hitching, he’s asked where he’s from but says Detroit instead of New York. ‘I don’t know why I said that; there was really no call to lie. Maybe I was so accustomed to lying it had become a habit, I don’ know. But that’s me all over. For the life of me, I can’t figure myself out.’ He is indeed in pursuit of his Sue, whom he idealises ridiculously, in the same way he disparages women in general. ‘If there is any worse spot than for a man to find himself a slave to a woman’s whims I’d like to know about it.’ Of course this is when he’s dealing with Vera, but as he concludes, ‘All women are dangerous.’

‘What makes it so tough is you never can be sure what a woman will do. At one moment she’s calm and everything is velvet; then in a flash, it all explodes sky-high and she’s got it in for you. And when she’s got it in for you, brother, look out. There are never any halfway measures. A woman loves or she hates. Pity and all the feelings in between she’s never heard of.’ Alex pities himself more than anybody else, even when he’s murdering someone.

While there’s still some uncertainty about Haskell’s death, there’s no lame attempt to make Vera’s death accidental as with the ridiculous scene in the film. His loathing just wells up. ‘She was the type of woman I have always despised: the kind who knows all the answers and makes no bones about being hard-boiled. Even though I know just how women are underneath, I still prefer them to have that phony sweetness in their manner.’ Alex prefers lies.

The big difference in the novel is Sue. The second chapter catches up with her in California—right after a date rape. She’s full of tears and recriminations, mostly aimed at herself. ‘When a man gets finished, he’s through; his appetite’s been satisfied, except now he wants a plate of ham and eggs. We girls are quite another story. We have emotions and what not. We feel things. Any woman will know what I’m talking about. So I felt terrible.’ 

Singer Sue goes to Hollywood to break into the films but ends up waiting tables. In the film she gets a moment of that on the phone with Al. In the novel we see a lot more of her life. She really has an ambition to get into the pictures, but is hesitating to give in to the casting couch. Her weary dissection of Hollywood’s shabby reality still can’t dim her dream. Sue hopes the B-actor Raoul will give her leg up instead of getting a leg over.

Angry with herself, she finally gets even more angry at Raoul’s obliviousness. He thinks he gave her a swell time and asks for another date. At first she tries to find the easiest way to slip out of any commitment, but his cocksure attitude – flourishing his fountain pen to write in his address book – tips her anger over the edge and she tells him he’s been a terrible lover. ‘There was a jubilance in me for the first time in ages. I watched him flinch and I knew I had struck home, into the most vulnerable spot in the man’s armour.’ She is pleased he’s so deflated and talks of it as a way to ‘avenge poor Alex’ too. 

It would give more sympathy to her character if Goldsmith didn’t make plain that she is everything that Alex thinks of women: duplicitous, vengeful, cruel and above all, an actor. When Haskell’s death is reported as Alex’s, Sue performs grief styles she has seen in films, trying to convince herself she feels something other than relief. All it really does is boost her confidence that she can make it in Hollywood after all.

And Alex? ‘I wasn’t sorry she was dead; just sorry it was me who killed her.’ Nothing is as he claims, except maybe this. The original film had to soften the ending a bit. The remake is closer to the book. The twists and turns match Alex’s own thoughts: ‘God or fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all.’ Not getting caught; it’s the same as not being guilty for him as long as he can keep wondering about that fateful day Haskell picked him up on the road. ‘Well, sometimes I want to curse and sometimes I want to cry.’