Past Lives: The She-Creature (1956)

she_creature_poster_02In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).”  Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.

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Mae Clarke: Frankenstein’s First Bride

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FRANKENSTEIN (1931) airs tonight on TCM at 9:30PM EST/6:30PM PST

The name Mae Clarke might not immediately ring any bells but the fair-haired, spirited and sad-eyed beauty was a promising leading lady in pre-code Hollywood before personal disappointments, mental health issues and a disfiguring car accident took their toll. When Clarke died in 1992 at age 81 most classic film fans remembered her as the woman who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face by James Cagney during THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) or they might have recalled her daring leap from a window to protect the man she loves in THE FRONT PAGE (1931). Thankfully, many of Clarke’s earlier films have been restored and made available since then. We’re now able to get a much broader understanding of why a 1932 issue of Picture Play magazine prophesied a “brilliant career for her” and Modern Screen claimed, “Mae Clark deserves a place among the big names of filmdom and will get there before long–watch her!”

Today TCM is featuring Mae Clarke in their Summer Under the Stars programming and you can catch her in a number of films including James Whale’s WATERLOO BRIDGE (1930), where she plays the doomed Myra. Many consider it her best film and Clarke often referred to it as her favorite role but today I’d like to focus on her often-overlooked performance in Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), where she plays the sympathetic fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).

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Freaks

Freaks-1932-poster

I was going to write about Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1961), which screens on TCM on July 18th, but I got derailed by my backyard screening last night of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). There were two 16mm prints in the university collection, and I had not yet seen the one that was a few minutes longer due to the opening scroll that had been added by Dwain Esper in 1947. I’ll share here some highlights I used to introduce the film for the audience last night, all cherry-picked from Dark Carnival, the Tod Browning book by David J. Skal and Elias Savada. [...MORE]

Elisabeth Lutyens: Horror Queen of Film Composers

LutyensFemale film composers are a rarity but there are some wonderful examples of talented women working behind the scenes who managed to flourish under the tight deadlines imposed by film studios while creating memorable music for the movies.

One of my favorite female composers is the late Elisabeth Lutyens who was born on July 9th in 1906. On the occasion of what would have been her 109th birthday if she had managed to live that long, I thought I’d celebrate her career in British horror films where Lutyens earned her “Horror Queen” moniker by composing some of the genre’s most innovative, accomplished and unsettling soundtracks.

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Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

SFF Post Mortem

SFF 2015

In my last post I interviewed Stuart Gordon. I also interviewed some other folks while up in Estes Park attending the third annual Stanley Film Festival and, in the interest of making it relevant to TCM readers, I led by asking everyone what some of the older films might be that influenced their careers. People that I talked to included actor/producer Elijah Wood, actor/writer/producer Leigh Whannel, actress Alison Pill, actor/producer/director Larry Fessenden, director Glenn McQuaid, writer April Snellings, producer/director/writer Jen Wexler, actor/writer Graham Reznick, and director/actor Merritt Crocker. Themes that popped up included movies with evil children, classic ghost stories, Freddie Francis, and more. [...MORE]

A Forgotten Film to Remember: ‘Man in the Attic’

atticposterLast fall, businessman Russell Edwards announced that he had finally uncovered the truth behind history’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Edwards claimed that DNA left behind on a victim’s shawl was used to identify the Ripper as Aaron Kosminski, long considered a primary suspect. As soon as the news was announced, DNA experts and Ripperologists came forward to denounce the findings based on doubts about the shawl’s provenance and the likely contamination of the evidence. And, so it goes with our fascination with the Ripper mythology: We want so badly to find out his true identity, but then again, we don’t.

The mystery behind Jack the Ripper’s identity allows filmmakers and writers to use him as a symbol or representative force. The Ripper has been part of cinema history since 1924, when he appeared in a nightmare sequence in the German Expressionist film Waxworks. Since then, a variety of directors have interpreted the mystery, adding to the rich folklore surrounding the historical figure. I recently caught a film version of the Ripper story released in 1953 called Man in the Attic, starring Jack Palance, Constance Smith, and Frances Bavier, and I was reminded of how potent a character he could be.

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A FREUDIAN LOOK AT THE BIRDS

The Birds

TCM viewers can watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) this upcoming Friday the 13th. I’d also urge anyone that might be reading this who lives near Boulder, Colorado, to come see it on 35mm (March 12th) when it screens as part of the International Film Series. For the latter screening I’ve recruited one of my poker buddies, Paul Gordon, to do a special introduction and Q&A for the film. Gordon teaches a popular “Hitchcock and Freud” class at C.U. Boulder, and is the author of the recent Dial ‘M’ for Mother book. Paul was kind enough to take some time to field some questions that might be of interest to Hitchcock fans. [...MORE]

Mind Over Matter: THE SORCERERS (1967)

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Since Michael Reeves unfortunate death in 1969 at the age of 25, the British director’s life has become the stuff of cinematic legend. His reputation as a sort of Byronic hero who challenged the British film establishment was secured when he died much too young due to an accidental drug overdose leaving behind just a handful of low-budget horror films that attained cult status in subsequent years. His distinct talent and the ephemeral nature of his work have led many of Reeve’s colleagues and admirers to speculate on the direction his career might have taken if he had lived longer and it’s not uncommon to see his name mentioned along with better known British filmmakers who also dealt with controversial material including Michael Powell and Ken Russell. Reeves’ bone-chilling WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1969), which explored the brutality of the witch hunts in England during the 17th century, is often cited as one of the greatest and most gruesome horror films produced during the 1960s but his most intimate and introspective film might be THE SORCERERS (1967).

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The Hunted: Rituals (1977)

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Though Halloween has passed, it is still possible to watch horror movies. It’s quite pleasant, too, not being harangued about the best one  “you’ve never seen” every other mouse click. I celebrated this freedom from list fascism by attending a twelve hour horror movie marathon at Anthology Film Archives on November 1st. It was an eclectic selection that ranged through low-budget Mexican vampires, classy British omnibus films, and schlocky AIP giant rat attacks. The title that stuck in my cranium and asked to be dispatched in this space is the 1977 Canadian survival horror obscurity Rituals (aka The Creeper). A post-Deliverance male bonding death march starring Hal Holbrook, it pits a group of alcoholic doctors against a psychically damaged ex-soldier in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The film relentlessly strips away the men’s defenses until they are physically and emotionally bare, live nerve endings that become easy targets for the almost entirely unseen soldier. In their profession the doctors have made mistakes, often tragic ones, and their medical ethics loom large when they are forced to deal with their own mortality. The only decent home video version is an out-of-print DVD from Code Red, but it’s well worth tracking down.

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