To recap: the Universal Horror individual monster franchises varied wildly and inconstantly, and often in directions and to magnitudes any sane person would never imagine. Sometimes, however, Universal Horror just created something that can not compare to anything on this earth, in their canon or otherwise. Sometimes they made Murders in the Rue Morgue, just about the perfect encapsulation of messy early sound cinema trying to cope with the increased narrative bent of sound and having no idea what to do with narrative at all. The end result is Universal Horror at their most indebted to quilt-work, patching together the expressionist dread and crawling, impulsive weirdness of silent cinema – itself having very little to do with narrative or realism – and trying desperately to mold all of this prismatic and arcane visual strangeness into something that can approximate “narrative”. It fails as a narrative proper, but what hypnotic failure it is. Continue reading
This being the first of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest).
Eighty-nine years later, I don’t suspect that anyone really needs to let you know how gorgeous Faust is – it’s a German fable-horror film from the 1920s directed by FW Murnau – it’s gorgeous because of course it is. Sometimes, however, a film reviewer likes to state the obvious. Faust didn’t revolutionize film like Murnau’s previous Nosferatu or The Last Laugh or his latter Sunrise (all released in a snugly period of seven years; am I the only one who misses when filmmakers actually did stuff like make films without taking five or six years off in between projects?). But “it didn’t revolutionize film” is not exactly a fair argument against a film, or else we’d pretty much just be talking about the 1920s and Citizen Kane from now on.
Edited June 2016
One of the most perturbed and disturbing parables of childhood adversity ever found in fiction, The Night of the Hunter is primarily famous for one thing: a magnetic all-time tempter in Robert Mitchum, starring as a criminal disguised as a preacher who stalks two children, John and his younger sister Pearl. The film ultimately ruined director Charles Laughton’s budding career (he had been a respected actor for several decades, but we can’t but see his career behind the camera slipping away with every depraved, anti-realist shot). But today it wears this fact like a badge of honor. Accolades have been lumped upon the film left and right in recent years, but the primary target is still, in regrettably narrow fashion, Mitchum’s undeniably inhuman evil. The commendations are entirely deserved but something of a shame – Mitchum, sometimes quite literally, towers over the film, but it’s a far more challenging, innovative, and spellbinding effort than one performance can muster.
Jame’s Agee’s mournful, soul-shaken script (based on a book by Davis Grubb that clearly spoke to Agee’s childhood experiences) and Laughton’s genre-crossing direction in tow, the film works not purely because of Mitchum but because its storytelling – equal parts Southern Gothic tone poem and German Expressionist parlor trick – conjures a surreal world for Mitchum to slither around in. The filmmaking legitimizes him, giving him a depleted, damaged energy to feed off of and human souls to take. It establishes the storybook geography that could create, and hopefully contain, him. In 1955, it was positively radical. Today it is all the more so. Laughton’s anxious beauty looks into our soul and never comes back. Continue reading