The Innocents: Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast #4

The fourth installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast focuses its attention on the 1961 classic THE INNOCENTS. This ambiguous and haunting ghost story was produced and directed by Jack Clayton, based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw and William Archibald’s stage adaptation, The Innocents. Oscar-winner Freddie Francis supplied the atmospheric black-and-white photography, and Oscar-nominee Deborah Kerr starred as governess Miss Giddens, put in charge of two apparently innocent children who may – or may not – be in league with ghosts. Lawrence French, Arbogast (of Arbogast on Film), and Steve Biodrowski struggle to penetrate the miasma of secrets surrounding this intriguing film, one of the great achievements in the horror genre.
Consider this the first installment in this year’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1961. As we did in 2010, Cinefantastique will offer periodic posts and/or podcasts throughout the year, looking back at the great genre achievements of five decades ago.

The Innocents  with Deborah Kerr Miss Giddens gets a glimpse of the ghostly Quint (Peter Wyngarde) Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) explores the haunts of Bly Miss Jessell (Clytie Jessop) manifests by the lake Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) holds Miles (Martin Stephens)

The Exorcist: an assessment of the 2000 re-release version

The Exorcist (1973) re-issued 2000In the year 2000, twenty-seven years after its initial release, William Peter Blatty finally gave his complete seal of approval to the film version of THE EXORCIST, which he scripted and produced, based upon his novel. Ever since the film came out in 1973, the author has expressed his disappointment with William Friedkin`s final cut, even going so far as to enumerate those flaws in his book The Exorcist: From Novel to Film. Basically, nearly twenty minutes of material was removed in order to get running time down to two hours and two minutes, and the result “to my mind at least,” Blatty once told me, “are some glaring construction flaws.” For the film’s re-release in 2000, eleven minutes were restored; plus, new shots were added, and some footage enhanced with brief, nearly subliminal special effects. The question for viewers, of course, is whether or not this new material makes a substantial difference to the viewing experience.
The answer is a definite yes: the revised cut is substantially enhanced by the restorations. Whether this is enough to convert those who never liked the film is another matter, but those sitting on the fence post might be swayed, and longtime fans should be pleased to see a fuller rendering of the material, containing some brief but crucial moments that lay a more solid foundation for the thematic underpinnings of the story.
That said, one must still acknowledge that, even with the enhancements, the film is not and never will be a replacement for the book. Blatty’s novel runs some four hundred pages and contains voluminous material that could (and probably should) never be filmed—much of it relating to mental illness and psychic phenomena, in an effort to establish possible alternate explanations for Regan’s “possession.” The truth of the matter is that the film never really diverged that much from the book, except in terms of omissions. Now some of those omissions have been reinstated. They don’t really change one’s interpretation of the film (especially if you were familiar with the source material to begin with), but they do make the interpretation much more clear to people who perhaps were too disturbed by the power of the shock effects to see past them and to the message of faith that was intended.
The changes fall into three categories: restorations, remixing, and additions. Taking the middle one first, the new soundtrack is rendered in wonderfully atmospheric multi-channel stereo that often seems to put the audio in the middle of the action. This works especially well not only in the shock sequences but more particularly in the quiet moments, when subtle audience cues seem to surround the viewer with a sense of omni-present evil. If there is a flaw here, it is that the remixed track may layer the sound on a bit too thick. The old version effectively juxtaposed loud outbursts with moments of near-dead silence. The new version sometimes seems to obliterate the silence, making the juxtaposition less effective. Instead of loud contrasted with silent, we now have loud contrasted with not-so-loud.
The impact of the restored scenes varies. Still missing is Regan and Chris MacNeil’s walking tour of Washington, D.C., and it’s probably just as well. Even Blatty, in The Exorcist: Novel to Film, admitted that the early omitted scenes were “boring”; his problem with their removal was that they left continuity gaps. One of those gaps is filled by the inclusion of an initial visit to the doctor, but a new gap is created. Whereas the old version contained dialogue references to a missing doctor scene, we now see the doctor’s office first; unfortunately, it is not altogether clear why Chris (Ellen Burstyn) thinks her daughter (Linda Blair) needs medical attention. Sure, there have been ever-so-slight hints of manic-depressive behavior, along with one dialogue reference to a shaking bed, but the film really relies on the dialogue in the doctor’s office to explain what’s been going wrong with Regan. If there is an upside to this sequence, it is that the examination scenes themselves have a slightly creepy, foreboding quality, showing us the first images of Regan displaying behavior that, while not Satanic, is certainly odd and upsetting coming from a previously innocent-looking young girl.
Later additions are more impressive. The spiderwalk, cut because the effects didn’t work in their day, has been rendered now (thanks to digital touching up) in completely convincing imagery. Brief but extremely effective, this scene will surely become the “must see” moment of this version, joining the crucifix scene as one of cinema’s most memorably horrifying moments (which is all the more impressive when you realize that we’re talking about just a few shots running maybe twenty seconds).
A few additional lines of dialogue with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) allow the character to show a sense of humor that helps humanize him, instead of leaving him as the archetypal white-hated hero who rides in to save the day. Offered some brandy for his coffee, he jokes, “The doctors say I shouldn’t, but thank God, my will is weak.” Ellen Burstyn`s blank-faced reaction (she doesn`t get the joke) is priceless. It`s a nice moment of comic relief just before the intensity of the scenes that will follow.
Even more brief, but far more crucial, is the dialogue between Merrin and the confused Father Karras (Jason Miller). The lines, an attempt to give a possible explanation for the possession, are already being dismissed by some critics as pretentious exposition, but in truth they form the crux of a moving dramatic moment. You almost literally see the light go on in Karras’s eyes as the import of Merrin’s words sinks in: “I think the point is to make us despair… to see ourselves as animal and ugly… to reject the possibility that God could love us.” This is exactly Karras’ problem, and this realization makes his renewed strength five minutes later much more understandable. When a distraught Chris asks whether her daughter is going to die, there is a wonderful cut from a two shot to a reverse angle close-up of the priest, who much to his own surprise says, “No” with a kind of unexpected confidence that can only be attributed to faith. Now at last, we have some kind of clue as to the reason for the transition.
Of all the footage removed from the film, this is the bit that hurt the most, and its restoration is the most important reason returning to The Exorcist (the spiderwalk notwithstanding). The reason for the removal was supposedly to speed up the pace, but the scene itself remained in the previous cut (minus dialogue), with the priests sitting on the stairs in between bouts of the exorcism ritual. The inclusion of the actual dialogue adds only a few seconds—hardly enough to affect the film’s overall pace—and the dramatic impact is easily worth the extra running time.
The final addition is the inclusion of Blatty’s “Casablanca” ending, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) befriending Father Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley), the implication being that even after the horror and sacrifice that have occurred, there is still a chance for hope and happiness in the world. Back in 1973, leaving Dyer staring in seeming despair down the Hitchcock steps might have fit with the mood of the nation, but only the most cynical critic would insist that this was a more profound or powerful ending. The restored coda, presumably, will send viewers of the theatre realizing that the film was not intended to bombard them with a sense of hopeless despair.
So much for the restorations; what about the additions? As often is the case with new editions (be they books or films), the artists seem unable to resist the temptation to rethink the material instead of merely correcting past errors. In this case, a few new and/or enhanced shots have been added. Mostly they are effective, but some show definite signs of reappraisal. It’s rather like musicians playing an old hit twenty years later: they add a new lick here or there to refresh the material, but the new performance only makes sense in context of the original; it’s a variation on a theme, a new touch added to an old standard, but it’s not necessarily something that should have been there from the beginning.
Case in point: the new opening scene. A moody tracking shot from the Georgetown townhouse that dissolves to a statue of the Virgin Mary (one that will be desecrated later in the film), the scene makes no sense out of context. If you haven’t watched The Exorcist or at least seen stills from the film, you have no idea what the significance is supposed to be, whereas familiar viewers immediately recognize, “That’s the place where it all will happen,” while sensing a familiar nostalgic thrill of anticipation. It doesn’t exactly hurt the film, but it doesn’t help much, either. It’s most important impact, perhaps, is to state from the opening frame that you are indeed seeing a new version; otherwise, audiences might get worried waiting through that first half hour for a sign of something new.
Later additions consist not so much of new footage as of old footage that has been enhanced with new special effects to convey a stronger sense of a demonic presence. During the restored first doctor’s examination, there is an additional “subliminal” image of the demonic face previously glimpsed only twice in the film. The new cut is clearly in color, whereas the old ones looked like black-and-white.
This perhaps counts more as a “restoration” than an addition, but the image ties in with other later ones that clearly are additions: this face is seen again, like an afterimage of something briefly glimpsed, when Chris MacNeil returns to an apparently empty home and finds the lights flickering on and off for no apparent reason. The impact of this previously unseen image is truly remarkable, and the effect is pumped up even further by the gradual revelation of yet another near-subliminal image, a faintly discernable silhouette of the statue of the demon Pazuzu, glimpsed in the shadowy darkness of Regan’s room as her mother looks in the door. The effect is genuinely unnerving, provoking as much verbal reaction from the audience as any of the more overblown shocks that the film throws at them.
On top of this, just before Regan attacks the psychiatrist attempting to hypnotize her, there is also a brief morphing type effect that superimposes a demonic countenance over her features, clearly indicating that her actions are the result of the evil influence inside her. The image somewhat foreshadows the climax, wherein Father Karras’s face briefly assumes a similar look. In that case, the transition back to his normal countenance seems to have been smoothed over a bit with a digital enhancement; in the old version, it somewhat resembled a simple jump-cut. (This last enhancement may actually have been done for the DVD; either way, this is the first time it has reached the big screen.)
The end result of all this imagery is to increase the surreal quality of the film, the sense not only of physical shocks but also of spiritual evil lurking in the dark. The impact is impressive, but even more than before it emphasizes the supernatural explanation for the phenomenon of possession—an element that was left open to debate in the novel. At first, the new cut seems to be hewing closer to the book, with the initial doctor’s exam seeming to lay the groundwork for a psychological explanation, but the new imagery undercuts this interpretation completely.

Manifestation or hallucination?
Manifestation or hallucination?

Of course, the power of the special effects always had audiences convinced that the Devil was at work in the film, but previously much of the imagery was presented in a way that was at least somewhat open to another interpretation; for example, the infamous 360-degree head-spinning shot was bracketed by reaction shots of Jason Miller, implying that what we’re seeing is a hallucination in his mind. Likewise, when the statue of Pazuzu manifested itself in the old cut during the exorcism, the shot in no way matched with the objective shots surrounding it; again, we were left feeling that what we were being shown was a vision perceived by the characters, not an objective reality. These new images, however, are not directed at the characters; they are aimed straight out of the scene toward the viewing audience. With no possible subjective interpretation, the only way to read them is as evidence of an actual demonic presence. Not that anyone ever really doubted, but now even a tentative alternate interpretation is pretty much untenable.
So what’s the bottom line? From the day of its first release in 1973, The Exorcist was the greatest horror film ever made, and it remains so to this day. The restored version alters the classic in noticeable ways. Sometimes, the film is obviously better; in other cases, it is merely different. To some extent one might consider it closer to the perfect realization of what it was meant to be; on the other hand, it sometimes plays like an extended variation on a familiar theme. One way or the other, the film remains worth seeing, and it’s safe to say that, as it was in 1973, so also will The Exorcist be the best horror film released in the year 2000.
THE EXORCIST (originally released 1973; revised version released 2000). Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman, Peter Masterson, Rudolf Schundler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Thomas Bermingham.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Black Sunday (1960): The Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast 1:26

No new genre films hit theatres this weekend, but fear not: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski once again rev of the time machine and take you five decades into the past, for a look at one of the greatest horror films of all time, director Mario Bava’s masterpiece of black-and-white Gothic horror, BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960), starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele. It’s all part of Cinefantastique’s on-going celebration of 1960’s Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films. Also on the menu: a weekly round-up of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.


The Tenant (1976)

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click to purchase

Although overshadowed by director Roman Polanski’s more famous horror efforts, REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY, the more obscure THE TENANT is actually their equal and in many ways their superior — a haunting, mesmerizing tale of a man’s loss of identity and descent into madness.
Polanski himself stars as Trelkovsky, a Polish immigrant looking for an apartment in Paris. A potential vacancy occurs when a woman named Simone Choule leaps from her apartment window — an apparent suicide attempt. Visiting the hospital to see when horribly injured Choule will finally expire (technically, the apartment still belongs to her until she dies), Trelkovsky meets Choule’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani). Wrapped in bandages like a mummy, Choule seems to recognize Trelkovsky, and lets out a scream of horror before dying. Trelkvosky moves into the empty apartment and starts an affair with Stella, but his weird neighbors soon drive him to distraction. He suspects they may have driven Choule to suicide, and he suspects they are doing the same to him. Gradually, he begins to take on Choule’s personality traits: at first, they’re simple things like inadvertently taking Choule’s favorite seat in a cafe; later, they extend to buying wigs and cross-dressing. Eventually, the loss of his own identity and his fusion with Choule leads him to recreate her suicide attempt. Awakening in the hospital, he finds himself wrapped in bandages like a mummy and opens his eyes to see two visitors: Stella and…himself — exactly as when he visited Choule in the hospital. Trelkovsky opens his mouth and screams…
THE TENANT is short on typical horror movie action: there are no monsters, and there is little in the way of traditional suspense. That’s because the film is not operating on the kind of fear that most horror films exploit: fear of death. Instead, THE TENANT’s focus is on an equally disturbing fear: loss of identity. Like Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) in REPULSION, Trelkovsky is a person alone in an apartment slowly going mad. The difference is that Carole seems to suffer from some vague but overpowering form of paranoia that makes her afraid to go outside, while Trelkovsky is slowly losing his own personality. Both think someone is out to get them, but Carole turns her deathwish outward, murdering a man in an insane fit, while Trelkovsky ultimately turns his own dark fears upon himself by attempting suicide.
Like REPULSION, the pacing of THE TENANT lacks urgency, because it is about a slow descent into madness that works toward what, in retrospect, seems like an inevitable conclusion. And yet, the film maintains a curious, hypnotic hold upon the viewer. Again like REPULSION, THE TENANT tries to bridge the gap between audience and character, using bizarre, surreal flourishes to put the viewer into the mind of the madman, such as a bouncing “ball” outside Trelkovsky’s window – that turns out to be a head. One particularly evocative and disturbing (if seemingly inexplicable) visual moment occurs when Trelkovsky looks through his apartment window (which gives him a good view of a window to the building’s communal restroom across the courtyard) and sees a nightmarish vision of someone in bandages — as Simon Choule was, in the hospital — slowly unwrapping them to reveal herself.
Fortunately, these hallucinatory interludes are more than gratuitous visual flourishes; they are more like sign posts marking the major turning points on the road to dementia. The nightmarish vision of Choule’s unwrapping herself evokes traditional horror imagery (the bandages suggest the Mummy, and the revelation of a hidden, possibly disfigured face is an iconic element of the genre at least since 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), but the scene’s overwhelming power stems from its apparent irrationality – it seems to make no sense, and we feel as if we too are losing our grip on reality, along with Trelkovsky. And yet, the image actually has a point not that hard to divine, designating the moment at which the Choule personality, formerly only teasing at the edge of awareness, emerges full-blown into Trelkovsky consciousness, like a re-awakening phantom – or, more accurately, like a guilty conscience that refuses to stay under wraps.
Equally unsettling is Polanski’s bizarre monologue, in which he recalls a newspaper account of a man who lost his arm in an accident and was refused permission to performa a burial service for the severed apendage. He seems disturbed by the concept limbs like arms and legs are no longer considered an intrinsic part of a person after they have been disconnected from the brain: “What right does my head have to call itself me? What right?”
Polanski’s horror film is not a shocker — you won’t find yourself leaping out of your seat as a monster or masked killer lurches into frame — but it is genuinely frightening on a deeper level, living on in your mind like a bad nightmare that refuses to be forgotten. THE TENANT creates its own strange Kafka-esque landscape, where inexplicable events breed and give birth to ominous portents lurking in the shadows of the mind. The fact that it’s someone else’s dream offers little comfort as the lights come up and you leave the theatre…


Director Roman Polanski stars as the film’s protagonist, Trelkovsky, but his name does not appear among the actors’ names on screen — a rare case of an actor going without credit for playing the lead role in a film. At the time of the film’s release, Polanski explained that it would look too egotistical to take credit for his performance, because his name was already on the credits as writer and director.
THE TENANT is the third installment of a loose trilogy that includes REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY. All three films deal with characters living in apartments who gradually succumb to paranoia, believing themselves to be victims of persecution. In the case of ROSEMARY’S BABY, Rosemary’s paranoia turns out to be justified (although whether her baby truly is the Son of Satan is an open question). Polanski’s later historical drama THE PIANO PLAYER takes a similar approach, although in that case the persecution is so clearly genuine that the word “paranoia” no longer applies.
THE TENANT (Le Loctaire, 1976). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Polanski & Gerard Brach, based on the novel by Roland Topor. Cast: Roman Polanski (uncredited), Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Bernard Fresson, Michel Blanc, Shelley Winters.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski


Eyes without a Face (1960) – 50th Anniversary Retrospective

“The future, Madame, is something we should have started on a long time ago.” – Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) in EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

Imagine a beautiful dream of lyrical black-and-white images, of a lonely young woman, flitting through her home like a silent spectre, calling her fiance on the phone to listen to his voice but not speaking herself – because that would reveal she is still alive, when the world thinks her dead. Her home is also her prison. Her face, hidden behind a mask that makes her resemble a mannequin, is a ruined mess, the result of an automobile accident. Her father is a brilliant surgeon who has faked her death and is trying to restore her beauty – a process that involves kidnapping look-alike victims and transplanting their faces onto hers. When you see the operation in full view of the unblinking camera, you realize that your dream has erupted into a nightmare whose shock derives from the way the graphic imagery violates the poetic beauty of the rest of the film.
This is the brilliant strategy used by director Georges Franju in EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage), a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt (for he was driving the car during the accident that disfigured his daughter), is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to see his scheme succeed. His is aided and abetted by his faithful servant, in this case a beautiful nurse, Louise (Alida Valli), rather than a deformed hunchback. Beautiful young women are kidnapped to be used as fodder for his experiments, but their faces bring only temporary respite, the transplanted tissue inevitably succumbing to necrosis and dying away on the face of the wounded Christiane Genessier (Edith Scob). Alerted by Christiane’s suspicious fiance Jacques (Francois Guerin), the police hatch a scheme to see what Dr. Genessie is really up to, but their plans go awry, placing another victim in danger and precipitating a final, violent confrontation that brings the horror to a climax.
What raises EYES WITHOUT A FACE to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. In effect, it is as if Christiane’s enigmatic, mysterious masks were periodically peeled away to reveal the hidden ugliness beneath the beautiful facade. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated.


Edith Scob as Christiane Genessier

EYES WITHOUT A FACE was made at a time when recent box office trends had revealed at audience apetite for graphic horror. At the end of the 1950s, after nearly a decade of sci-fi monster movies (usually involving atomic radiation and/or interstellar aliens), Gothic films had made a resurgence, thanks largely to England’s Hammer Productions, which released such titles as Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Although the choice of subject matter was old-fashioned, the approach was new and bold – and unafraid of the occasional application of blood.
French producer Jules Borkon wanted to ride this new bandwagon to success, and he hired Franju to create the first French horror film. The closest that refined French cinema had come to the genre was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s1955 Diaboliques, which features a horrifying resurrection sequence at the climax; however, the script ultimately explained away the horror as trickery, and the film works mostly as a mystery thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.
Franju eschewed any attempt to hide behind the “mystery-thriller” label. Working with the Diaboliqueswriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose other credits include the novel on which Hitchcock based his film Vertigo), Franju crafted a film that was not afraid to shock. Curiously, EYES WITHOUT A FACE was designed specifically to avoid censorship expected problems, yet Franju never seems to be suffering from undue restraint or directing with one arm tied behind his back.
The director’s most famous previous work had been The Blood of Beasts, a documentary that intercut pleasant scenes of everyday in France with the carnage of a slaughterhouse – presumably to make some kind of statement about the bloody horrors that are a secret, hidden part of civilized society – usually kept out of sight and out of mind.
“I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction,” he once explained of his work, and one could say that he employed a similar to great effect – lending fiction the appearance of a documentary – in EYES WITHOUT A FACE. For despite the artistic trappings that surround Christiane and her plight, the majority of the film is actually devoted to her father’s quest to cure her – which is presented with the clinical detachment of a documentary, emotionless medical jargon and antiseptic surgical procedure underlining the appalling horror of Dr. Gessenier’s actions.
The result led to quite a few shocked reactions when the film was originally released. EYES WITHOUT A FACE was the first full-blown French horror film, and French critics did not know what to make of it. Some were outraged and dismissive; those who liked it had to rationalize it, pretending it was not a horror film but something else, such as a film noir masquerading the genre label.
The shocking surgery scene, featuring full-frontal face removal

And it was not only the French who were caught by surprise; in fact, initial reactions to the film seem to have predated The Exorcist(1973) by over a decade: At the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven viewers reportedly fainted during the infamous surgery scene. Apparently pleased with the reaction, Franju remarked, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. distributor did not quite know what to do with the film, which was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and dubbed into English for stateside distribution in 1960, when it was. released on double bill with the rather more conventional monster flick, The Manster. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what teen-aged drive-in audiences made of this unusual French film, but it’s safe to say that, in its English form, it never earned a reputation as a beloved horror classic.
Fortunately, the reputation of EYES WITHOUT A FACE has only grown with the passing of years, especially with art house screenings in its original un-dubbed form, under its original title, followed by a Criterion Collection DVD release, loaded with bonus features. The film is now often regarded as a unique masterpiece, so much so that including it in a list of the Top 100 Horror Films of all time is hardly controversial, despite the film’s art house approach to what is, basically, a grizzly mad scientist’s tale.


As in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein, much of the horror in EYES WITHOUT A FACE is moral and/or psychological. Both films deal with a brilliant surgeon who is figuratively blind to the horror he leaves in his wake while pursuing his goals.(Ironically, Peter Cushing, who played the Baron in Curse, would go on to star in Corruption, which is more or less a remake of EYES WITHOUT A FACE). Dr. Genessier has a streak of kindness in him, but he is also the ultimate authoritarian, who is seeking to repair his daughter less because he loves her than because he needs to undo his own mistake. This clinical detachment is underlined in his nurse, Louise, who (like the enablers of the holocaust) obediently follows orders, never doubting the superior wisdom of the Doctor. The psychological impact of this on Christiane is never explored in depth; we merely project it onto that frozen rubber face she wears, and her actions at the end eventually spell it out for us.
So much for the intangible horror. What does EYES WITHOUT A FACE actually show?

Christiane prepares to turn the dogs loose.
Christiane prepares to turn the dogs loose.

We never really see Christiane’s ruined face, except in a series of still photographs that chart the decay of her latest transplant. However, the film is far from reticent when it comes to graphic horror.

  • The most famous sequence is the skin graft operation, which is handled in a single, uninterrupted shot. The imagery – a face literally being dissected from a head – is guaranteed to send even modern audiences into paroxysms of loathing and disgust, squirming and averting their eyes from the screen. (To be completetly honest, if you overcome your fear long enough to watch closely, you can more or less see through the effect, yet the overall seriousness of the approach manages to sell the scene, regardless.)
  • At the climax, when Christiane decides enough is enough, she takes a scalpel and cuts her father’s latest intended victim loose. Louise appears and demands that Christiane give her the scalpel. Christiane gives it to her all right – burying it deep in her neck! The shock of the scene derives from its matter-of-fact presentation, which is utterly convincing. The real kicker, however, is Louise’s reaction. Instead of the expected scream of pain, she offers up only a tear of sadness and the plaintive question “Why?” Ever the loyal servant, she cannot understand Christiane’s homicidal rebellion against her father’s plans.
  • Somewhat less graphic, but equally cathartic, Christiane then lets loose the dogs that her father keeps around as guinea pigs (apparently, he performs vivesection experiments on the side) and sets them upon her father.

As the vengeful dogs tear their breathren’s tormentor to pieces (rather like the human animal hybrids do to Dr. Moreau in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), Christiane wanders from her house out into the nearby woods, a lost soul still, but at least now free, accompanied by doves that flit like the Holy Spirit above her, making us see her as some kind of strange angel. Where will she go? What kind of future, realistically, is there for her? Will she reunite with her fiance? It doesn’t matter. The poetry of the image is ending enough to satisfy the eye and the mind. Anything that might or might not happen afterwards is irrelevant.


In the J-horror film Ring 0: Birthday (a prequel to Ring), troubled psychic girl Sadako works as part of a theatre group in Tokyo that is presenting a stage version of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Although the title is not mentioned (at least in the English subtitles), the dialogue leaves no doubt about the identity of the play.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). Directed by George Franju. Screenplay by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Jean Redon, from the novel by Redon; dialogue by Pierre Gascar. Cast: Pierre Brasseur – Docteur Genessier; Alida Valli – Louise; Juliette Mayniel – Edna; Edith Scob – Christiane Genessier; Francois Guerin – Jacques Vernon; Alexandre Rignault – Inspector Parot; Beatrice Altariba – Paulette.

This article originally identified EYES WITHOUT A FACE as a 1959 film; however, IMDB lists it as 1960.

Let the Right One In – Best Horror Film of 2008

Being a movie-lover – especially a horror movie-lover – is a bit like being a junkie: you’re always looking for your next fix, and as time goes by, the high diminishes. You just don’t get the same old thrill from the new stuff, and you blame the dealer for palming off some bad shit on you, but eventually you wonder, Maybe it’s me. Maybe my system’s so worn out that I just can’t achieve that state of ecstasy anymore. Maybe there’s nothing left that can  ignite my senses and fry my brain like a jolt of pure energy pulsing through my nerves, tingling my toes and accelerating my heartbeat. Maybe it’s all over. Maybe it’s time to quit.

Then you see LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and all your concerns are washed away in a tidal wave rush of joy that hits your mind and senses like an injection of artificial adrenalin. Watching this film feels like taking a hit of the good stuff: no matter how jaded you are, no matter how withered your tired old veins, you will feel the rush  every bit as much as if it were your very first time. And the best thing is: the buzz will last long after the film fades out.

How does this wonderful Swedish film – easily the best horror film of 2008 – achieve this? It skillfully combines an art house sensibility with the horror genre and makes the combination absolutely seamless. All the artistry and craftsmanship that would go into the most serious subject matter is lavished on a story about a a troubled young boy, who meets and eventually befriends his new neighbor, a mysterious girl who turns out to be a vampire. The story plays out like a tender character study; however, the film never forgets to be a horror movie. The genre elements are utilized to their fullest extent, but never as the be-all and end-all of the story, and almost never as an excuse for cheap sensationalism.

Instead, LET THE RIGHT ONE in figurative invites the audiences into its world, and into the lives of its characters, seducing you into identifying with the two lonely souls who tentatively find each other and form a bond that will unite them against the outside world – that is, against the world you and I inhabit. In the manner of an Anne Rice novel, the story is told from their perspective, so that what happens to them determines whether we perceive the film as having a “happy” ending,  regardless of the other characters who die. The morality may be questionable, but the emotional catharsis is undeniable.

The story begins rather inauspiciously. After introducing us to Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), who practices stabbing a tree with his knife while rehearsing what he will say when turning the tables on the school bullies, we see Hakan (Per Ragnar) drugging an innocent passer-by, hanging him upside down from a tree, and slitting his throat to drain his blood. The grim imagery is effective but tawdry, suggesting a torture porn with unwarranted aspirations; fortunately, the film soon moves on to something better, as Oksar meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), whom we assume to be Hakan’s daughter.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that the power structure of this “father-daughter” relationship is exactly the opposite of what one would expect, based on their apparent ages, and gradually we realize that Hakan is what Nancy Collins (in her Sonya Blue vampire tales) would have called a “Renfield.”  As devoted to Eli as any vampire’s assistant ever was to his master, Hakan assists her by obtaining the blood she needs to survive; unfortunately, he has reached an age at which his usefulness is diminishing, and Eli has to fend for herself, drawing suspicion from some neighbors.
Meanwhile, Eli meets at night with Oksar in the courtyard outside their building, advising him to fight back against the schoolyard tyrants who terrorizing him on a daily basis, and though she initially insists that they cannot be friends, they soon draw closer and closer together, especially after Hakan is arrested after his latest botched murder attempt.

In a way, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN works some of the same territory as TWLIGHT, featuring a kind of love story between a young human and a vampire who is much older than she looks (“I’m twelve,” Eli tells Oskar, “but I’ve been twelve for a long time”). The difference is that the perverse undertones of pedophilia, though not emphasized, are not concealed beneath a Harlequin-romance-type gloss, and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN eschews any attempt to justify Eli’s existence by making her into a “good” vampire. As with the best vampire stories, vampirism is used as an elastic metaphor, a rubber mask that can disguise a variety of strange behaviors, making them acceptable for cinematic treatment.

The movie looses a little bit of its zing in the second half, once the direction of the story becomes clear. (It is pretty obvious that Oskar is being groomed to replace Hakan.) Fortunately, director Tomas Alfredson holds our interest by, ironically enough, affecting a certain detachment. Instead of hyping the action with close-ups, hand-held cameras, and jagged editing, he offers icy cold tableau, often in serene long-shots, luring the audience into perusing the details, the eyes and attention of the viewers acting as their own zoom lens.

This beautiful serenity lays the ground work for the horror: when it does erupt – at sporadic intervals – it is all the more effective for intruding into a world that otherwise seems so sedate (an effect similar to that achieved by Shyamalan in THE SIXTH SENSE). At times, his approach is almost Hitchcockian, in that suspense derives from the audience knowing something the characters do not: When an innocent man sees Eli crying under a bridge, he thinks he is helping a lost child, but we cringe in anticipation, knowing that he is being lulled into a vulnerable position by a skilled predator.

One of the best staged horror scenes occurs when Oskar, in his new-found role as Eli’s protector (during the daylight, when she is vulnerable) distracts a would-be avenger. The camera angle focuses our attention on Oskar and the intruder, but in the best Val Lewtown tradition, the attack ultimately comes from an unexpected direction when Eli awakes and leaps on the man’s back. What follows is obscured mostly behind a half-closed door, offering only a tantalizing glimpse of a bloody hand smearing a wall.
The screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist condenses his novel into a tight structure, filled with touching moments (this is one of the most heart-felt horror films you will ever see), but there are a few loose ends. For instance, in the book, Eli was a boy before becoming a vampire (a plot point of dubious import). All that remains in the film are a few lines where Eli asks Oskar whether he would still like her if she were not a girl, plus a brief moment when we see that Eli’s gential area looks mutilated. Viewers unfamiliar with the book assume that the reference to not being a “girl” refers not to sexuality but to the fact that Eli is not a child, her girlish appearance merely the result of the arrested aging process; and the mutilation, rather than suggesting castration, leads one to suspect that Eli was sexually abused while still a human.

Also, the script tosses a handful of gratuitous horror moments that seemed included almost for their own sake. One of Eli’s victims goes partway through the transition to becoming a vampire: a friend’s cats turn upon her unexpectedly (an entertaining moment that lasts too long, allowing one to note the CGI fakery), and she commits suicide by sunlight, exploding into flames. Other than that, the focus remains on Eli and Oskar, culminating in a poolside confrontation with the schoolyard bullies – a sequence at once subtle and lurid, in which the karma is leveled in a satisfying way. Yes, it’s horrible, but in a disturbing kind of way, it is also satisfying.

Technically, the film is a delight. The music lulls us into the shadowy world of the two protagonists, and the cool detachment of the cinematography recalls the best of the J-Horror genre, while calm vistas covered by falling snow evoke (deliberately or not) “God’s Silence” from Ingmar Bergman’s work. A handful of live-action effects break the sense of normality with a sudden intrusion of the uncanny (as when we see the vampire scale a sheer wall in the background of a long shot of a hospital); also, a judicious use of computer-generated effects shatter the beauty of the images with flashes of outrageous horror (a severed limb, a severed head) that achieve their own weird kind of beauty.

In a strange way – and I know this is a stretch – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN reminds me of DIE HARD. In that 1988 action film, the genre tropes – the explosions, gunshots, and bloodshed – were carefully orchestrated to express the conflict between John McClane and Hans Gruber. When the movie was over, I remember thinking, “This is the way it’s done. If I ever teach a course in filmmaking, this is the movie I would show.”

In a somewhat similar fashion, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN orchestrates its genre tropes – the bloodshed and the biting, the sunlight and the shadows – to express the the bond between its two lead characters. Blood is life and passion, and no drop is spilled here with igniting some passion, eliciting some emotion, forcing viewers to watch not just as voyeurs seeking a cheap thrill but as empathetic participants in the story.

This is the way it’s done. If you want to know how to make great horror movies, watch LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.


Unfortunately, the original pressing of the Region 1 DVD substituted new subtitles for those scene on theatrical prints. The new subtitles streamline (one might say, “dumb down”) the dialogue. For example, when Oskar first sees Eli standing on the jungle gym and asks, “Do you live here?” the theatrical version has Eli respond, “Yeah… I live right here, in the jungle gym.” The DVD shortens this to: “I live here.” The DVD distributor promises that the problem will be fixed on subsequent pressing, with the packaging clearly marked to indicate that the disc will feature the “theatrical subtitles.”


The title is a reference to a piece of vampire lore: blood-suckers can only cross a threshold when invited inside; conversely, it also refers to Eli allowing Oskar into her life – the “right one” who will guard and protect her while she lies vulnerable during daylight. At one point, Eli demonstrates what happens if she enters a room unbidden, her skin erupting into open wounds until Oskar speaks the invitation that will spare her.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN tied for the Best Picture of 2008 in Cinefantastique’s Wonder Awards.

CLET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008). Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel. Cast: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, Karin Bergquist, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, Mikael Rahm, Karl-Robert Lindgren.

The Shining (1980) – Horror Film & DVD Review

Widely reviled by Stephen King fans for abandoning much of the book (King himself said his feelings balanced out to zero), Stanley Kubrick’s film version of THE SHINING reveals, upon re-examination, that he took the same course he had used in the past when adapting novels to the screen (such as Vladimir Navokov`s Lolita): he stripped away the back story and exposition, distilling the results down to the basic narrative line, with the characters thus rendered in a more archetypal form. The result may not quite match Kubrick’s greatest films, but it is enthralling and hypnotic — a brilliant, ambitious attempt to shoot a horror film without the Gothic trappings of shadows and cobwebs so often associated with the genre.


Stephen King’s third novel (after Carrie and Salem’s Lot) tells the tale of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and Danny), who spend a winter as caretakers in an old, isolated hotel that closes down in the off-season. Jack is a former school teacher and an aspiring playwright, whose drinking has harmed his career and his family life (he was fired from his teaching position before he could get tenure, and he broke his son Danny’s arm in a drunken rage). Since then, he has sobered up, and plans to use the quiet winter months to complete a play. Unfortunately, the Overlook Hotel has a bit of a bad reputation for working ill will on troubled minds: during a previous winter, a caretaker went mad with “cabin fever” and slaughtered his family and himself. Hallorann, the hotel’s cook, explains to young Danny Torrance that the Overlook is haunted, but it seems to be a peculiar kind of haunting: it takes someone with a “shining” (i.e., psychic abilities) to see and/or activate the ghosts. Both Hallorann and Danny have this ability. Once the hotel is closed and everyone else has left the Torrance family alone, Jack begins a slow descent into madness, seeing visions of ghosts that urge him to slaughter his family — in particular Danny, because the hotel covets his precious psychic gift. He discards the battery of a snowmobile that could take them to safety and destroys the radio they might use to call for help. In the latter chapters, he becomes complete possessed by the hotel, but Danny’s psychic abilities summon help in the form of Hallorann, who braves the snows to rescue the mother and son from their homicidal father. Jack knocks Hallorann senseless and obliterates his own face with a heavy mallet, leaving nothing of the real Jack — only a walking puppet controlled by the hotel — but Danny saves the day when he remembers “that which was forgotten”: that the pressure on the hotel’s boiler has not been checked. Alarmed, what’s left of Jack races to the cellar while Wendy, Jack, and Hallorann escape — just before the hotel explodes.
The Shining shows the strengths that have made Stephen King a best-selling author of horror fiction: he knows how to create situations that are genuinely frightening, and he knows how to milk them for maximum impact; but more than that, he has a gift for characterization that is rare in the genre. He creates very detailed, nuanced personalities that are not the simple heroes and villains of traditional Gothic horror (e.g., Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and he actually makes the book almost a character study as we follow the gradual transformation of Jack Torrance, whose inner demons make him an easy target for the malign influence of the Overlook.
Unfortunately, the book also displays the considerable weaknesses and excesses that marked King’s early writing. Weaned on horror movies, King uses words to mimic the crude shock effects of films: instead of zoom lenses, we get a deluge of exclamation points and parenthetical marks, and words (even whole sentences) in italics and/or ALL IN CAPS!!! As if emulating the shock-cut technique of cinema, King sometimes launches his chapters with an abrupt stream of profanity, in order to capture our interest. (The very first sentence is: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” A later chapter begins with this subtle dialogue: “Oh you goddam fucking son of a bitch!”) And of course he doses his pages with enough dollops of gore to satisfy any slasher movie fan.
These stylistics excesses aside, King also overdoes his central conceit — which is trying to maintain some sympathy for Jack as a human being even while we see him inevitably succumbing to the Overlook. King attempts to achieve this through long inner monologues in which Jack rationalizes his behavior; it’s a long, gradual, and far-too-slow road to damnation that runs out of interest before it reaches its conclusion, because we can see where it’s going. To cite just one example, it takes Jack two pages to think through his decision to throw away the battery to the snowmobile, but the reader knows the outcome from the beginning — because King obviously has to disable this means of escape if he’s going to maintain the suspense. Worse, King does not play this dramatic decision as the clear turning point it is (at this point, Jack must be planning to kill his family); instead, it is just one more tiny step on the way to the finale, and we’re expected to continue sympathizing with Jack as those nasty ghosts continue to make him do these terrible things that he really doesn’t want to do.
As a result, The Shining is an extremely uneven book. It is filled with great ideas and nightmarish horror, woven together with a strong story and an admirable attempt at convincing characterization. But it is also long-winded, over-written, melodramatic, and even bathetic in its attempt to wring tearjerker moments amidst the free flow of bloodshed.
In effect, the novel seemed like the perfect source material for a movie that could retain the core concepts, trim away the excess, and replace the overdone writing with a sophisticated cinematic style (much in the way that the Brian DePalma-directed Carrie had translated King’s debut novel to the screen).


When THE SHINING reached theatre screens, much more had been deleted besides the stylistic excess of the novel: not only was the bloody violence toned down; much of the action had been removed as well — a fact for which King fans have never forgiven the film. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kubrick’s screenplay (written in collaboration with novelist Diane Johnson) made several changes that improved the film: there were no longer hedge animals that came to life; Jack Torrance no longer beat himself and Hallorann bloody with a mallet; and the hotel did not blow up in a pat, satisfying finale. In effect, the book read more like a horror movie than the actual movie, which exchanged King’s hot-blooded approach to horror with Kubrick’s cold, calculating detachment, filmed almost with God-like indifference to the fates of mere mortals.
A perfect example of this is the missing hedge animals. In the book, the evoke fear early on, when they only seem to be moving when glimpsed out of the corner of the eye as Jack (doing his duties as caretaker) is trimming them. Later, when they start running around like real animals, they are barely one-step away from being a bad joke: “attack of the killer shrubbery” (one imagines Monty Python could have some good, silly fun with this concept).
In place of the hedge animals, Kubrick substitutes a hedge maze, which becomes a metaphor for the predicament in which the characters find themselves trapped. In fact, the hedge emphasizes that the entire Overlook Hotel is really a maze, with endless corridors and right angles, around which unknown horrors may be lurking.
This fits in perfectly with the traditional Kubrickian worldview, in which the apparent free will of the characters is almost always exposed as an illusion, not necessarily through the story but through the visuals. In previous films, Kubrick favored lengthy tracking shots that followed characters as they navigated paths through trenches (in PATHS OF GLORY) and spaceships (in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). In THE SHINING, this translates into numerous wonderful Steadicam shots as, variously, Jack or Wendy or Danny wind through the corridors of the Overlook and the pathways of the hedge maze. In all cases, the moving camera (which traditionally appears to convey a sense of freedom to the characters) instead holds them in place: they seem to be choosing their path, but in truth the path has already been laid out for them by the architecture, which forces them to take particular twists and turns, around which may lurk unknown horrors (the most effective of which are the twin ghost girls, who invite Danny to play with them…forever). Layered upon top of this technique, in the Kubrick worldview, is the circular sense of endlessly repeated action, as if what we are seeing does not really come to an end but instead goes on into infinity. The difference is that, in a realistic film like PATHS OF GLORY (or the later FULL METAL JACKET), the concept of “infinity” is metaphoric at most; in THE SHINING (and 2001), it may be quite literal.
With the ghostly manifestations toned down from the book, the film relies more on a sense of claustrophobia and growing paranoia to generate a sense of unease the gradually evolves into all-out horror. Gone are most of the Overlook’s permanent guests; instead we get a few skeletal glimpses, plus the wonderful “Elevator of Blood” (used to great effect in the film’s teaser trailer. The story is also more streamlined, with less time wasted on detailing each and every increment of Jack’s descent. (The disabling of the snowmobile and the destruction of the radio take place off-screen, for example.) Because of this, some critics and King fans faulted the characterizations and performances, but again, a reasonable examination of the film shows that Kubrick made the right choices. Jack Nicholson gives a career redefining performance, beginning with the Everyman persona established in films like FIVE EASY PIECES and mutating into an over-the-top psychotic lunatic (“Heeerrre’s Johnny!”). Shelley Duvall is a big improvement over the book’s Wendy: we actually believe she still might be married to Jack, and it truly is a surprise when she manages to outmaneuver him and survive. Young Danny Lloyd is the perfect embodiment of Danny Torrance, the young boy cursed with the “Shining.” Scatman Crothers perfectly embodies the hotel’s cook, Hallorann. And Joe Turkel deserves special mention for his brief but memorable role as Lloyd, the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly bartender, which sort of sums up the approach of the whole film: he never does much of anything, but his mere presence creeps you out beyond explanation.
In spite of the perfection of the casting, the film came in for criticism, particularly from fans of the book who thought that Duvall was too weak and pathetic as Wendy, who was a much stronger character on the page. The problem that these fans seem loath to consider is that the book’s character was totally unconvincing for one simple reason: she was clearly stronger than Jack; therefore, it was impossible to believe that she would still be with him after he broke their son’s arm. King spends pages and pages of text trying to explain away this anomaly, but all his best efforts never truly convince us that this is anything but an arbitrary set-up: he needs Wendy to be a strong character so that she can believably survive her ordeal.
Kubrick, on the other hand, presents us with an apparently helpless woman, who acts rather like a battered wife, except that the violence she rationalizes away was perpetrated on her son rather than on herself. There is no attempt to turn Wendy into an idealized role model of what a strong female character should be; instead, she is a believably ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. Through a combination of luck and perseverance (and perhaps a dispensation from Kubrick, in honor of Mother Love), she manages to escape the Overlook with her son.
King himself has reportedly said he wanted an actor like Michael Moriarty to play Jack Torrance, working on the theory that this would make the character’s transformation to insanity more startling. This theory overlooks the fact Jack Nicholson’s only previous brush with on-screen madness was in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, wherein he played a convict who pretended to be insane because he thought he would have an easier time in the loony bin. As a matter of fact, most of Nicholson’s persona up to this time had been molded in films that presented him as an ordinary guy struggling with ordinary problems. THE SHINING really represents not only Jack Torrance’s transformation but also Jack Nicholson’s: it is the beginning of his wild-eyed, over-the-top period that would lead to such scenery chewing extravagance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989).
There have also been criticisms leveled that Nicholson’s antics undermine the horror of King’s story by inserting misplaced humor. However, the use of humor did not begin with Kubrick; King’s novel actually uses similar devices. At one point, Jack pretends to attack a miniature model of the Overlook, imagining himself as a giant ogre and musing, “Kiss your four-star rating goodbye!” Later, when Wendy is trapped in the bathroom with her husband trying to break in, she looks around for a weapon, and King writes, “There was a bar of soap, but even wrapped in a towel she didn’t think it would be lethal enough.”
This kind of joke truly does undermine the horror — it’s as if the author were winking at his reader in between the lines. In the film, on the other hand, the humor is part of Jack’s madness, creating an excellent sense of black comic creepiness as he merrily goes about his homicidal work, loudly announcing, “Wendy — I’m home!” as he attacks a door with an ax, or later chortling lines from the fairy tale “The Three Little Pigs” (“Little pigs, little pigs, let me in… Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin!”) In Kubrick’s version, Jack never obliterates his face with a mallet, signifying the destruction of his human personality as the hotel takes complete control of his body; in effect, Jack remains Jack until the end — a demented, homicidal version of himself. This keeps the horror on a human level, instead of diverging into melodramatic genre territory. It also plays into Kubrick’s theme of eternal repetition, because Jack, at least in a spiritual sense, seems to survive, providing a vague but optimistic hint of immortality after his body freezes to death in the hedge maze.
By deleting King’s explosive finale, Kubrick robs the film version of a spectacularly exciting conclusion, but the gambit pays off. In the few interviews he gave about the film, Kubrick said that he thought horror films were intrinsically optimistic because the supernatural trappings implied that our souls survived death. This idea emerges in the film’s final shot, as the camera slowly dollies in on a frame photograph of the Overlook’s ballroom, taken decades ago, and we see Jack among the partygoers. The image is ambiguous. We cannot say for sure whether it means Jack visited the hotel in a past life (in his dialogue he mentions a sense of deja vu) or whether, by dying on the premises, he has been subsumed into the hotel’s past, becoming one of its permanent guests — becoming, in effect, a part of eternity. This reading seems to be supported by a scene in a restroom where Jack confronts the ghost of Grady, who is now dressed as a butler. When Jack recognizes him as the previous caretaker, who killed himself and his family, Grady insists: “I’m sorry to differ with you, sir…but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir — I’ve always been here.”
This effective scene exemplifies Kubrick’s approach to the horror, which is to present it in a low-key, matter-of-fact way, emphasizing the “banality of evil.” With the red-and-white background decor shot from rigid right angles, Jack and Grady discuss violence past and violence yet to come with a complete moral indifference that evokes shudders — as when Grady recalls, with seeming moral indignation, that he “corrected” his wife and daughters when they tried to burn down the hotel. The disconnect between his word choice and his actions is so great that it feels like an electric shock going down the spine.
The scene also shows off one of the film’s subtle conceits: Jack sees ghosts only in rooms with mirrors (the ballroom, the bar, the bathroom). It is as if Kubrick were reminding us that they are merely reflections of Jack’s own disintegrating personality. The only time Jack interacts with a ghost when he is in a room without mirrors is after Wendy has locked him in the storage room — and in that case, he only hears Grady’s voice through the door, almost as if it were only an imagined voice in his head.
In this context, one other scene deserves mentioning: the famous room 237. In the book, Danny sees a vision of the decomposed body of a woman who committed suicide in a bathtub years ago, and winds up in a catatonic state with bruises on his neck; when his father goes to check, Jack gets a glimpse of something behind the shower curtain, then denies see it. The function of these chapters in the novel was to show that Danny’s visions were not just intangible memories that his “shining” allowed him to see; they could take physical form and do actual harm. In the movie, the two scenes are overlapped through intercutting, with Danny flashing back to his encounter while Jack his experiencing his in real time. The difference is that, in the film, Jack clearly sees not a shadow behind a shower curtain a beguiling woman, completely nude, who steps out of the tub and lures him into an embrace. The erotically charged interlude is interrupted by Jack’s glance into a mirror — which reveals that the beautiful body in his arms is actually the bloated corpse of a hideous hag. The implication is that the hotel is presenting a seductive facade to Jack, but the ugly truth resides in the mirror. The mirror, of course, provides a reflection, again implying that the source of the horror lies as much within Jack’s mind as in shuttered rooms of the hotel. The metaphor is not all that different from DRACULA, where (as Leonard Wolf has noted, in THE ESSENTIAL DRACULA) fail to see the vampire’s reflection because they refuse to acknowledge he is a reflection of themselves.
As a film, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING belongs in a category that includes Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. All three are horror films, based on novels, that emerge less as traditional genre adaptations than as auteur pieces that reflect the styles, themes, and concerns of their respective filmmakers. With an emphasis on craftsmanship and conviction, these are all films that, at least to some extent, “mainstream” the horror genre — not necessarily by toning it down, but rather by presenting their stories with a level of performance and style that makes them seem believable to the audience. In a sense, all of them transcend the genre by not slavishly hewing to genre conventions. There is never a point in any of them where credibility is tossed aside in order to achieve a cheap shock effect. As a result, they may disappoint hardcore horror fans, who enjoy being jolted at regular intervals, but they work on an altogether finer, more sophisticated level.


Stanley Kubrick considered changing the ending, so that when Hallorann arrived to save Wendy and Danny, he would become possessed by the hotel and finish Jack’s intended purpose, murdering the family and himself. The film would have ended with an “upbeat” epilogue, in which, as the Overlook reopens next season, the Torrance family is re-united in the afterlife as ghosts haunting the hotel lobby.
Kubrick and his screenplay collaborator discussed the possibility that audiences might be distracted because the first name of the film’s star (Jack Nicholson) was the same as that of the character he was playing (Jack Torrance). Ironically, Kubrick then ended up casting young Danny Lloyd as Jack’s son, Danny Torrance.
When the film was originally released, a longer print was available for the first few days of screenings. After the shot of Jack Torrance frozen to death in the hedge maze, the film included an epilogue, wherein Wendy and Danny are seen safely back in the hospital, having surviving their ordeal at the Overlook. While dialogue delivered by the hotel’s director Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) implied that the horror was over, Kubrick’s tracking shots down the hospital corridors echoed the feel of the Overlook, suggesting that the same eternal maze of repeated actions was very much still in force. The film then cut to the final shot of the camera dollying in to a close-up of the framed photograph on a wall, implying that Jack Torrance has become a part of the Overlook’s timeless eternity. The cutting of this sequence was not a response to audience reaction to the movie; it was widely reported before the film’s release that Kubrick was planning to make a last-minute cut of some kind, but uncut prints had to be shipped to meet the pre-set release date. The footage has never been seen again, not even as a supplement on the DVD.
Like most films of its era, THE SHINING was shot in a standard 1:1.33 format and projected in a 1:1.85 format. This means that the image on the negative was 1.3 times wider than the height, but when the film was projected in theatres, a matte was used in the projector to crop off the top and bottom of the frame; consequently, when the film was magnified and projected on screen, it would have a “widescreen” look that was 1.85 times wider than the height (in other words, if the screen was ten feet tall, it would be eighteen-and-a-half feet wide). However, when shown on television, the image is presented unmatted, because the aspect ratio of the television screen is very close to the 1:1.33 aspect ratio of the negative. This means that you can see more of the image on television than you could in theatres, which can produce unfortunate results. In the case of THE SHINING, during the famous opening credits helicopter shots of the car driving through snowy mountain ranges on the way to the Overlook hotel, in one shot, you can briefly see the shadow of the helicopter near the bottom of the frame; in another shot, you can see the blur of the helicopter blades near the top of the frame.
Although Stephen King admired the film’s technical virtues, he was dissatisfied with changes made to the story; he said his feelings “balanced out to zero.” In the 1990s, he got a chance to film THE SHINING his way, as a two-part made-for-television movie, directed by Mick Garris.


The DVD presentation of THE SHINING, available as part of the Stanley Kubrick collection from Warner Home Video, presents the film in the unmatted 1:1.33 aspect ratio, with a Dolby monaural soundtrack (Kubrick wanted to preserve the sound mix from the theatrical version, not created a new one for home video). The print is mostly in good shape, but there is some visible speckling over the opening shots, and of course the infamous helicopter shadow and blades are visible thanks to the top and bottom of the image not being matted off as they were in theatres.
The disc contains the famous trailer that features the eerie “Elevator of Blood,” which slowly opens, releasing a deluge of red liquid into the halls of the Overlook Hotel. There is also a half-hour documentary on “The Making of THE SHINING,” that was filmed on-set by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. The film is instructive for a number of reasons, mostly because it belies the image of Kubrick as the chess mastermind who plotted every move beforehand in the planning stage and then executed his plan with iron rigidity — and no creative inspiration — during the actual production. As this documentary makes clear, script revisions were going on constantly throughout production, and Kubrick is seen typing up new pages that incorporate new ideas and suggestions from Jack Nicholson. At one point, Nicholson explains the multi-colored script to Kubrick’s mother: the pages of each new revision are a new color, making them easy to identify, and says he gave up trying to keep up with them once the script ran out of colors and started re-using them.
The documentary features interviews with the actors but not with Kubrick himself, whose only words to the camera are to tell his daughter to get out of the way or stop filming. Despite Kubrick’s reluctance to reveal his working methods, the documentary does provide an interesting look behind-the-scenes, including some conflict between the director and his lead actress (who admits resenting that she did not receive as much attention as Nicholson). We see Kubrick arguing with Duvall over dialogue changes she proposes on set, and at one point he berates her because she responds too late when he called “Action” during an elaborate Steadicam shot involving physical effects for wind and snow. At a half-hour in length, “The Making of  THE SHINING” is far from an in-depth work, but it is about the best behind-the-scenes glimpse we are ever likely to see of the notoriously reclusive Kubrick. This in itself makes the DVD worth owning.
A subsequent “Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD offers a new transfer with a different aspect that crops off the top and bottom of the frame, plus optional audio commentary by Steadicam operator Garret Brown and film journalist John Baxter. The second disc includes a handful new bonus feature: besides the old making-of documentary and the trailer from the earlier DVD, there are three new behind-the-scenes featurettes (apparently leftover bits from Jan Harlan’s documentary STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES). Total running time of the new material is less than an hour.
THE SHINING (1980). Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel.

Horror of Dracula (1958) – Retrospective Review

This full-blooded vampire film (you should pardon the expression) reinvented the image of Count Dracula for a generation of filmgoers, eschewing cobwebby castles and black-and-white atmosphere in favor of a bold, colorful approach, filled with lovely cinematography and lavish sets that belie the modest budget. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster jettisons the creepy clichés and gets down to basics, jumping directly into the action while wasting little time on superfluous exposition; it is a model for how to write a remake of a well-known subject. Director Terence Fisher stages the action with all the gusto you could bleed for: the film feels almost like an action-adventure movie, exciting and lively. Composer James Bernard provides a memorably exciting score, dominated by the famous three-note title theme (just imagine the orchestra saying “DRA-cu-la,” and you get the idea). Peter Cushing turns Professor Van Helsing into a variation on his Frankenstein characterization: a vampire hunter as obsessive in his quest to destroy vampires as the Baron was in his quest to create life. Perhaps most important, Christopher Lee remakes the vampire king into his own image: aloof, condescending, attractive – in a domineering, overpowering kind of way guaranteed to provoke ambivalent responses in viewers, male and female alike, who both fear and admire the Count.
HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA in its native England) was designed by Hammer Films to capitalize on the success of their previous effort, 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was the first Gothic horror film shot in color. Energized with a fresh approach and a modern sensibility, CURSE became a hit at home and abroad. As filmmakers who have tackled one half of horror’s dynamic duo almost always do, Hammer inevitably followed up Frankenstein with Dracula, taking all the elements that worked the first time and improving upon them the second time out.
The essential elements of the Hammer approach to horror, as established by CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, were color, action, eroticism, and gore, with a sometimes quirky British sensibility lurking around the edges. Although mild by the standards of later horror films, the impact was quite shocking during its day, causing howls of outrage from disgusted critics who accused the films of abandoning atmosphere and subtlety in favor of crude violence and bloodshed. Fortunately, neither CURSE nor HORROR is as crude as the critics would have had us believe, and now that the shock has worn off we can see perhaps more clearly just how good the films are: energetic and involving, with a crisp, fast-paced approach to narrative that somehow makes the incredible events seem like a completely believable component of the world being portrayed.
In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.
While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.
The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.
Lee’s costume retains the familiar black cloak but omits the red lining (favoring Stoker’s description of Dracula’s attire being “without a speck of color anywhere”). Rather than Lugosi’s melodic cadences, Lee opts for a fast-paced, authoritarian tone of voice. Like Stoker’s character, he speaks “excellent English,” though without the “strange intonation” captured by Lugosi. By dropping Lugosi’s Hungarian accent, Lee erases the Count’s Continental aura, instead emphasizing the physical strength that underlies vampire’s aristocratic mien. Unlike Lugosi, one can imagine Lee leading troops in warlike fury against the enemy invader.

The Count (Christopher Lee) seduces a reluctant but willing victim (Melissa Stribling).
The Count (Christopher Lee) seduces a reluctant but willing victim (Melissa Stribling).

Without being overtly Freudian, the film is certainly more obviously aware of the sexual undertones in Dracula’s attacks on helpless women, who seem to enjoy being ravished by the rapacious vampire. His approach to his female victims, who now consciously await his caresses (rather than sinking into a hypnotic stupor), emphasizes the erotic as never before. The fact that Dracula is less subtly seductive and more physically overpowering in these non-verbal attacks (we never see him talk to the women whose bedrooms he invades) lends an almost sado-masochistic air to his nighttime predations.
Like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the script for HORROR OF DRACULA offers a severely condensed version of the source material that erases the globe-trotting elements of the original story. While omitting the details, this telescoped version at least captures more of the essence of the novel’s structure (retaining more of Stoker than CURSE retained of Mary Shelly’s novel).
Stoker’s story was loaded with characters and took place over the course of several months. Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to help the Count purchase property in London, only to discover that his client is a vampire. Back home, Harker’s fiancée Mina has a friend named Lucy who becomes Dracula’s first English victim. Dr. Seward, one of Lucy’s three suitors, calls in Professor Van Helsing for consultation; unable to recognize the disease, the professor eventually realizes the cause is vampirism, which eventually claims Lucy’s life. Van Helsing teaches Seward and Lucy’s two other suitors, including her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, how to destroy her after she returns from the grave as a vampire. When Jonathan Harker returns to England (having escaped the clutches of Dracula’s three vampire brides), the details of the journal he kept lead Van Helsing to realize that Dracula is the vampire that attacked Lucy. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward has been noticing that one of his psychiatric patients, Renfield, has been acting in a way that seems to be an index to the comings and goings of the Count. Renfield, who wants to extend his life by devouring the lives of living things, worships Dracula as a sort of Antichrist, but the Count kills him when Renfield rebels and tries to prevent the vampire from claiming Mina as his next victim. Eventually, Van Helsing leads Mina and the young men on a trek back to Transylvania, where Harker and the Texan Quincy Morris manage to stab Dracula in the heart and behead him.
Sangster’s script jettisons Renfield and Morris, and reduces Seward to a walk-on as a family physician. Harker still comes to Castle Dracula, but he arrives on false pretenses, intending to destroy Dracula; instead, he falls prey to the Count after staking his vampire bride in her tomb. Van Helsing is no longer a kindly old bumbler who comes to believe in vampires only after studying Lucy’s condition; he is a full-fledge vampire hunter, dedicated to wiping the plague off the face of the Earth, with the same zeal as a doctor eradicating smallpox.
This twist on the Van Helsing character, embodied by Peter Cushing (who brings the same zest and precision that he displayed as the Baron in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) lends HORROR OF DRACULA its peculiar thematic underpinnings. Despite occasional flashes of warmth, Cushing’s Van Helsing embodies a cold ruthlessness in his quest that is very similar to Frankenstein’s monomaniacal obsession to create life, no matter what the cost. If Lee’s Dracula represents the eruption of carnal desire, of physical lust overwhelming the mind and sense, then Cushing’s Van Helsing is the intellect divorced from feeling, who will stop at nothing to subjugate the flesh to the mind.
In effect, HORROR OF DRACULA espouses a very conservative morality, in which unbridled sexuality is equated with spiritual Evil, and sexual repression is allied with Good. What prevents this old-fashioned concept from descending into camp is the very secular way it plays out. We are clearly seeing a film in which the characters can be interpreted as embodying the abstract metaphysical concepts of Good and Evil, yet the religious iconography is expressed in purely practical terms. In other words, the film’s Van Helsing (unlike the novel’s) seems hardly devout or spiritual; he uses crosses like weapons because they are effective, in the same way that an exterminator uses poison or traps.
The benefit of this approach is that it dissipates the cornball melodrama associated with too many bad horror movies, creating a film that seems fresh and modern even after the passing of decades. The potential pitfall is that it could downscale the story, mitigating the mythic undertones that make great horror films resonate in the mind like half-forgotten dreams suddenly recollected.
Somehow, HORROR OF DRACULA walks this razor’s edge with the skill of a tight-rope acrobat. Thanks to the robut staging of director Terence Fisher, the final battle between the forces of Darkness and Light, embodied by Dracula and Van Helsing, is as exciting as an World Wrestling Federation bout, culminating in Van Helsing’s Errol Flynn-style leap through the air to yank down a massive set of curtains, leading to the Count’s disintegration in the rays of the sun, his ashes blowing away in the wind — a remarkably poetic image to cap a remarkably well-made movie. At a clipped eight-two minutes, this is one of the most effective and tightly structured horror films ever made; in fact, some have gone so far as to call it the greatest horror film of all time.
In truth, the short running time robs the film of the scope that would have made it a full-blown, multi-level masterpiece. It works on its own terms, rather like the cinematic equivalent of a novella rather than a full-length novel, but there are other horror classics that have displayed more depth and sophistication.
HORROR OF DRACULA also falls prey to occasional melodramtic excess. In the role of Arthur Holmwood, Michael Gough’s horrorified reactions to the horrible events sometimes go a tad overboard (as when he desperately asks Van Helsing “Is there no other way?” – besides a stake in the heart – to release his sister from the curse of vampirism). And the flow of the story sometimes seems interrupted by old-fashioned fadeouts, not to mention the questionable cinematic device of showing Jonathan Harker sitting down to write in his diary. (Thankfully, the filmmakers eventually figure out that it is enough just to hear his words in voice-over on the soundtrack, while showing him perform some other action.)
But these quibbles do nothing to undermine the many strengths of HORROR OF DRACULA, which manifest themselves in numerable, memorable scenes. The first glimpse of Dracula at the top of the stairs is a wonderful fake-out – an ominous introduction followed by the Count’s perfectly civil greeting to Harker. The Count’s vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) is wonderfully seductive, and her fight with her master, who stops her from making a victim of Harker, is wonderfully done, including Dracula’s athletic leap over a table. The staking of the vampirized Lucy (including a close-up of the stake sinking her white grave clothes, red blood welling up around it) is still sharp enough to make an audience squirm.
Apart from the mis-steps mentioned above, Gough does an excellent job in a relatively thankless role; embodying audience incredulity, he serves as the skeptic who must be convinced by Van Helsing, hopefully helping the audience to believe what they are seeing on screen. Also, Melissa Stribling deserves mention: the character of Mina has never come across on screen as well as Stoker imagined her; although Stribling’s version lacks most of the attributes of the literary version, the actress deserves credit for imbuing some life into her underwritten screen version. Her sly smile after her first encounter with Dracula, followed by her ambivalent reactions while anticipating a return visit, perfectly capture the mixture of attraction and repulsion inherent in the vampire mythology.
In short, HORROR OF DRACULA may not be the greatest horror film ever made, but it easily ranks in the pantheon of genre classics, and despite it’s considerably liberties with the source material (Sangster’s adaptation is in some ways almost an original screenplay), the film remains the best big-screen version ever made of Stoker’s novel. The decades may have given us far bloodier vampires, realized with bigger budgets and better effects; however, HORROR OF DRACULA (thanks in part to luminous Technicolor cinematography that defies the passing of years) is every bit as vibrant as the day it was released, living on from one generation to the next, rather like the undying Vampire Count himself.


The film was influenced by NOSFERATU, the silent German adaptation of DRACULA, in at least two ways:(1) Dracula can be destroyed by sunlight, whereas in the book he simply loses his powers and requires rest in his coffin. (2) Taking up residence in Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker displays a photograph of his fiance, which attracts the attention of the Count, who later seeks her out.
One element retained from the novel is a rather pronounced class consciousness. The servants in the film are never taken into the confidence of Van Helsing and the upper-class Holmwood, even in the case of the maid Gerta, whose daughter nearly becomes a victim of the vampirized Lucy. And the various working class characters that Van Helsing and Holmwood interrogate in their search for Dracula’s resting place are inevitably played for comic relief. Fortunately, the humor goes a long way toward balancing out the film’s more horrific scenes.

Publicity still of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) decomposing after being staked - a scene that apparently never made it into any cut of the film.
Publicity still of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) decomposing after being staked - a scene that apparently never made it into any cut of the film.

For decades, rumors abounded that Hammer Films created multiple versions of their movies for different markets, supposedly even shooting different versions of some scenes: a tame one for England, a slightly rougher version for the U.S., and an outright bloody one for the Far East. Although Hammer executives propagated these stories to generate publicity, they appear to have been more mythical than real. There is no doubt that censorship in different territories resulted in different versions of the films being released, due to the trimming of violence, gore, or sexual innuendo, but there is little evidence that alternate versions of scenes were ever shot.
In the case of HORROR OF DRACULA, there does seem to have been more explicit footage that has never seen the light of day, not even on DVD.
In the course of the film, three vampires are staked, but only one, late in the film, is shown explicitly; the other two are suggested with shadows or fade-outs. Supposedly, these earlier scenes were shot to be more explicit; however, this seems unlikely, because of the obvious problem: two graphic stakings early in the film would undermine the impact of the later one, which would seem repetitious. However, there is a publicity still of Jonathan Harker, lying in a coffin after Dracula has turned him into a vampire, that suggests more footage may have been shot of Van Helsing staking his colleague and seeing his body decay after the vampire’s curse has been lifted.
Publicity still - perhaps an early makeup test - of a scene censored from all prints except those in the far east.
Publicity still - perhaps an early makeup test - of a scene censored from all prints except those in the far east.

Even more interesting, there is an oft-published still of Christopher Lee wearing a hideous, pock-marked makeup that was clearly intended to show the vampire’s face decaying in the sunlight. In the cut of the film shown theatrically and on home video, Dracula’s destruction takes place mostly off-camera: we see Van Helsing fashion two candlesticks into a cross and force the Count back into the sunlight; there are brief shots of his hand and his foot disintegrating, followed by a reaction shot of the professor reacting to the vampire’s demise. Then we see a prop skull covered with dust and, after another reaction shot, a pile of dust on the floor. We never see the makeup meant to show Dracula’s face beginning to decay, but the editing of the sequence clearly leaves room for another transitional moment to bridge the gap between Lee’s normal features and the prop skeleton that replaces him.
Film editor and horror fan Ted Newsom has seen a version of this image that reveals it to be a strip of 35mm movie film, which would indicate that the shot was filmed for the movie, not just as a publicity still:

“I’ve never seen the destruction scene in the climax, but it did clearly exist. Over on Latarnia, on the Hammer thread, I posted a frame blow-up of the scene, showing the same make-up from the standard 8×10 still, but from a camera angle which matches the rest of the shots. It was published in some Japanese magazine in the ’90s, reprinted in a Hammer book in 1995 or 96. Seeing the proof of the existence of the scene in the Asian version sent me off on a 2 year back and forth thing with the Tokyo Archive. On the verge of getting the material telecine’d for posterity, they hired a new archivist, who went back to the party line and said ‘We don;t have it.’ It was bullshit, but I’d had enough.”

We can only hope that some archivist finds the footage, either in a vault at Hammer or in a print in the Far East, so that a restored version of HORROR OF DRACULA can be made available to fans.

Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski

Curse of the Werewolf (1961) – Hammer Horror Review

Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man may be cinema’s most famous lycanthrope, but there can be little doubt that this 1960 film from Hammer Productions is the best werewolf movie ever made. It features all of the studio’s classic virtues: beautiful sets, effective music, colorful photography, solid scripting, memorable performances, and a muscular directorial approach that relishes depicting horror for the maximum emotional impact. The film plays out like a deliberate piece of Theatre of Cruelty, in which most of the sympathetic characters come to a tragic end. The result is actually not terribly frightening, but it is undeniably effective, in a depressing sort of way.
Loosely based on Guy Endore’s grim but effective novel The Werewolf of Paris, the screenplay by John Elder (a pseudonym for producer Anthony Hinds) strives to live up to the filmic title CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF by depicting a tragic saga that shows how Leon (Oliver Reed) came to be cursed with lycanthropy. Two hundred years ago, a beggar (Richard Wordsworth) runs afoul of an evil Marques (Anthony Dawson), who has him thrown into a dungeon, where he spends the ensuing years degenerating to a bestial condition. He is attended by the jailer’s daughter, who gets thrown into the cell with him after rejecting sexual advances by the Marques. The mute woman is raped by the beggar, who dies from the exertion; after killing the Marques in revenge, the woman later dies giving birth on Christmas Day to Leon, who is adopted by Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans). When Leon is a young boy, his village is terrorized by a wolf that kills several goats. The local priest explains to Don Alfredo that the unfortunate circumstances of Leon’s birth have allowed an elemental wolf spirit to take possession of his body; only love and affection can keep the evil inside him at bay. Leon grows to adulthood unaware of his true nature, but, lured to a brothel by a well-meaning friend, Leon finds his bestial side awakened, resulting in several deaths. The pure love of his fiancé is enough to stop his transformation, but when he is arrested for murder, he is separated from her and inevitably changes into a wolf again and breaks free from his cell. As angry villagers pursue him with torches, Don Alfredo reluctantly takes the only action possible, putting Leon out of his misery with a silver bullet.
It was always tempting to read Freudian interpretations into the werewolf mythology (the sudden bodily changes certainly suggest a bizarre form of puberty and sexual awakening), but little in Universal Pictures’ old black-and-white werewolf films such as THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE WOLFMAN (1941) dealt with sex on any kind of overt level. Hammer’s take on the lycanthropy legend corrects this oversight. The John Elder screenplay for CURSE OF THE WEREOLF retains the basic structure of Werewolf of Paris, which was almost lurid in its sadistic sexual detail. Fusing the established filmic conventions with Endore’s tale, CURSE manages to be the best ever cinematic treatment of lycanthropy by placing the simple transformation scenario within a larger Christian cosmology. Oliver Reed’s Leon is fated to become a monster not because of a bite but because of a defect of birth, which has allowed a predatory, demonic spirit to enter his body. This canine elemental is strongest during the full moon, but more important, it is strengthened by whatever weakens the human soul (such as lust and depravity) while held at bay by such ennobling emotions as love.
This schism between Good and Evil, between sex and love, lends a weird sexual kink to the proceedings, rendering the film as a bizarre adult fairy tale. Especially disturbing are the scene of Leon as boy describing his awakening blood-lust (he naively recounts trying to kiss a dead squirrel back to life, only to be aroused by the sweet taste of its blood) and, later, the scene of a more adult version of that lust being reawakened in a brothel (Leon returns a prostitute’s kiss with a bite to the shoulder, drawing blood, like a more bestial version of a vampire). The film is also noteworthy for making “lycanthopy=puberty” metaphor explicit: Leon first transforms into a werewolf as a boy, seen howling at the moon with new hair growing on his body.
The narrative is impressive in its attempts to show Leon’s saga from pre-conception to death, but it is not quite as perfected in terms of dramatic structure as earlier Hammer efforts like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. The film is cleverly built around scenes that compare and contrast with each other, offering visual depictions of the thematic oppositions underlying the story (the brothel sequence, which triggers Leon’s transformation, is followed by a scene in which he awakes with his head chastely in the lap of his innocent fiancé, having spent the night without changing). This structure helps illustrate the ideas at work in the film, but it also slows down the pace: Leon doesn’t reach adulthood until halfway through the film; his first attack on a human doesn’t occur until 60 minutes in; and the werewolf makeup is only full revealed in the very last sequence. Clearly, audiences seeking non-stop werewolf action should seek elsewhere.
Fortunately, the film maintains interest because director Terence Fisher serves it up with his usual gusto, marshaling all of the resources at his disposal (sets, script, performances) to create a self-contained, imaginary world wherein the story makes perfect sense. In its simple Good-Evil dichotomy, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF plays out like an adult fairy tale, and Fisher seizes on the opportunities to portray both virtue and vice. He imbues the horror with almost a touch of surrealism, underlined by the unbelievably bright orange color of the blood, while emphasizing the suffering of the innocent victims. The result is rich in symbolic implications that fire the imagination (some critics have even noted a Christ parallel in Leon who is not only born on Christmas Day but also immediately held up in front of a painting of the Madonna and Child). And in typical Fisher fashion, the gaudy trappings delight the eye with their beauty, providing an effective visual contrast with the sin and degradation that takes place on screen.
Oliver Reed is perfect as Leon. His dark good looks evoke sympathy, yet at the same time easily convey the lurking danger within. He really makes only one misstep in the film: when forced to show his teeth to a skeptical mayor (Leon wants to convince him he’s a werewolf, but the full moon has not risen yet), he makes an awkward grimace that invites titters. Most of the rest of the cast performs splendidly as well, particularly Evans as Leon’s sympathetic stepfather. Anthony Dawson is excellent in his brief appearance as the vile Marques (at one point seen picking a carbuncle from his face). Only Catherine Feller, as Leon’s true love, fails to register as strongly as one would wish; she is sincere enough, but she cannot quite satisfy the film’s impossibly high demands of believably embodying an unbelievably perfect vessel of purity and love, untainted by sexual desire. (But then, who could?)
In the final analysis, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is a statement on the bestial nature of man. The true villain of the piece is the evil Marques, who delights in abusing his underlings; by imprisoning the beggar, and later the mute servant girl, it is the Marques who sets in motion the string of events that will ultimately destroy Leon, along with so many others along the way. In varying degrees, many other characters succumb to some form of bestiality: the beggar whose imprisonment turns him into an animal who rapes the woman who has looked after him for years; the woman herself, whose sexual assault prompts her to impale the cruel Marques; the various drunks and prostitutes who degrade themselves by carousing and promiscuity; and of course, Leon himself, whose better nature fights a losing battle against the beast within.
Against all of this is balanced the potential for human goodness, which in this context is explicitly equated with celibacy (the handful of sympathetic survivors are a priest, Leon’s virginal fiancé, and the bachelor Don Alfredo, whose only relationship with a woman seems to be the platonic one with his faithful servant Teresa, played by Hira Talfrey). It’s not a very believable worldview; in fact, it’s quite reactionary, yet it’s perfectly suited to creating a rich and rewarding film about the eternal struggle in the human soul between kindness and cruelty, between purity and perversity. It’s the brilliant depiction of this duality that makes CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF a classic in spite of his slightly languid pace. It may not galvanize you with horror, but it will touch you with its tragedy.
The final sequence with Leon in wolf form pursued by the villagers (an excellent makeup by Roy Ashton that includes not just face and hands but also torso) seems designed to cast the monster as a persecuted victim, who literally dies like a dog, shot down by his own adoptive father, who wants to spare him the pain of potentially being burned to death by the torch-wielding mob. The scene is brutal and almost cruel in its abrupt finality; the audience is denied even the “rest in piece” ending of old werewolf movies, which showed their monsters revert to human form in death, implying that their souls were at peace. CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF offers no such salve; the only message seems to be that the innocent will suffer for the wickedness inflicted by others. As the final images fades, at last we glean a glimmer of understanding about why the opening credits played out over a close-up of the werewolf’s eyes…crying.


THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF was born when a co-production deal for a film about the Spanish Civil War fell, after Hammer films had already built the sets. Wanting some return on their investment, they decided to take the novel The Werewolf of Paris and set it in Spain. Producer Anthony Hinds (writing as John Elder) adapted the screenplay himself, because there was no money left to hire a screenwriter. Hinds went on to write numerous other scripts, but this is easily his best work, due at least in part to the strength of the source material. Still, Hinds departed so radically for Endore’s novel, that one must give him a great deal of credit for the originality he brought to the movie.
One should also note that this film introduced Hinds penchant for writing mute characters (saving himself the trouble of writing dialogue for them). In this case it was the jailer’s daughter who gives birth to Leon; other non-speaking characters would appear in Hinds’ scripts for THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL.
Anthony Dawson, who plays the Marques, would go on to play the assassin in DR. NO, the first James Bond film. The uncredited Desmond Llewellyn (who appears early on as one of the Marques’s servants) would go on to play Q, the man who supplied Bond with all his gadgets, starting with the second 007 film, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.
Peter Sallis, who appears as the skeptical village mayor, would appear in numerous other Hammer films, before going on to provide the voice for Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion movies.


Although CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF was issued on VHS and laserdisc as a stand-alone title, its only Region 1 DVD release is as part of the Hammer Horror Series, a box set of eight titles, including BRIDES OF DRACULA, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Some purists object to the pracitce of compressing so many films onto two double-sided discs, but the picture quality is actually quite good. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features, but the reasonable price makes the set worth obtaining; the $29.99 list price averages out to less than $3.75 per title – quite a bargain.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF  (1961). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by John Elder (Anthony Hinds), based on The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore. Cast: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans,Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson, Richard Wordsworth, Hira Talfrey, Justin Walters, John Gabriel, Michael Ripper, Peter Sallis, Desmond Llewellyn (uncredited)

Alien (1979)

By Steve Biodrowski

A Gothic horror move set in outer space, ALIEN proved that material derided as B-movie fodder could be handled with finesse and glossy production values, without diminishing the thrills or polishing over the hard-edged horror. Dan O`Bannon`s script is filled with memorable moments of revulsion (the face-hugger, the chest-burster), and the uncredited rewrite by Walter Hill & David Giler adds an impressive layer of gritty, working class characterization. Director Ridley Scott films the whole thing to exquisite effect, capturing both the terror and the beauty of the titular creature, a sleek and amazing design by H.R. Giger that is only briefly glimpsed, preventing us from getting a clear picture of the beast’s nature until the final scenes reveal it in all its glory. Those extreme close-ups, of lips curling back from rows of teeth within teeth, are enough to make the skin crawl, and the atmosphere of dread reaches unrelieved levels, with never a sense of respite being offered. Continue reading “Alien (1979)”