Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Frostbiten: comedy/horror vampire story lacking in teeth

Anders Banke, “Frostbiten” (2006)

‘Tis a Swedish vampire movie that begins with a shot of the night sky against which light snow is seen falling softly but all other resemblance to that other Swedish vampire movie about two children in a dreary Stockholm apartment block ends there. Action switches instead to an abandoned farmhouse in Ukraine, 1944, where four Swedish soldiers, fighting as members in a unit in the Wehrmacht, take refuge after narrowly surviving a shoot-out. What they find there in the farmhouse proves far more deadly than several divisions of the Red Army and just one man, Gerhard Beckert (Per Löfberg) barely escapes – or does he really?

Cut to 60 years later and Beckert (now Carl-Åke Eriksson) is a geneticist in a hospital in a city in northern Sweden; he is working on a vaccine for a mysterious virus and his guinea pig is a young woman who has been comatose for a year. Into this environment arrives Dr Annika Wallén (Petra Nielsen) who’s been keen to work with Beckert for a long time. Her daughter Saga (Grete Havneskold) tries to adjust to her new high school and social set which is dominated by Goth girl Vega (Emma T Aberg). Vega invites Saga to attend a party which will include among its guests various medical students taught by Beckert among others; students like Sebastian (Jonas Karlstrom) who, seeing the red pills Beckert feeds the comatose patient, swipes them for the party. Those viewers well-versed in vampire film lore will know straightaway what those little red balls will do to Sebastian and the other party-goers (save Saga) and during the evening when the party is in full swing with people getting drunk and high on all kinds of recreational designer drugs, behold, kids start clawing and necking one another, mayhem and trashing of furniture and the party venue follow, and the neighbours frantically phone the police to complain about the kids’ monkey antics. While the police have their hands full dealing with real-live teenage / young adult ghouls and party-pooper Saga tries to fend off Vega’s sudden interest in her (or in necking her rather), mum Annika discovers Beckert’s secret and the real aims of his experiment and tries valiantly to stop him from going further with it.

Intended as a spoof and homage to schlocky comedy /horror vampire movies of the past (demonstrated in the way one part of the plot “scrolls” to another plot strand), the movie is basically about a stock mad-scientist character trying to keep his life-work of perfecting vampires as Ubermensch replacements for real humans under wraps, continually refining his experiment until he believes it ready to be unleashed in its full glory, only for other people to thwart his personal ambitions and unwittingly release the vampire plague into the outside world. Along the way, characters and situations are milked for laughs as well as suspense, and an ingenious use for garden gnomes is discovered, and once Beckert is out of the way and the police find themselves outnumbered by kids who can resist capsicum spray and tasers, the comedy /horror story has run out of steam and the movie has the good grace to get off the screen pronto.

The special effects used are very good and the sub-polar background with the long dark winter night and need for people to gather in groups provides the right environment for a vampire plague to take place. Pity that a Christmas theme is not used here for extra laughs and horror! The acting is just enough to maintain some credibility and there’s not too much over-acting though the camera lingers a little too long over howling Sebastian and blood-lusting Vega once they are fully undead. The best scenes for suspense, mood and substance are the early wartime scenes in which the soldiers first encounter the dormant vampire enemy. Unfortunately after the special effects and cinematography, there mustn’t have been much money left over to hire a decent script-writer as the story lacks a climax and stops in mid-flight. Viewers are left wondering what will happen to Annika and Saga and whether they will ever see each other again after the end credits start rolling. The sub-polar environment and its night that lasts months are nothing more than a background over which the plot chugs along until it loses blood and bite.

Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.

Assassin of Youth: “educational” soap opera that titillates with flashes of sordid behaviour

Elmer Clifton, “Assassin of Youth” (1937)

It’s a laughable anti-marijuana screed but “Assassin of Youth” at least has a comic drama going for it. A reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardiner), goes undercover in a small US town to investigate a gang of marijuana dealers intent on corrupting the teenagers there. In particular these fiendish fellas are in cahoots with a local woman Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie) who wants to discredit her cousin Joan Barry (Luana Walters) so that the girl can’t claim her inheritance of money from her grandmother’s will, subject to a morals clause, and the cash will go to Linda and her husband instead. The way Linda will discredit Joan is to feed her with marijuana through smoking and cakes, encouraging the lass to misbehave at wild parties and get involved with strange folks of dubious moral reputation. Joan falls for every ploy and scheme Linda can dream up, sullying her reputation as a good girl until there’s more mud clinging to her than little sister Margery who at least attempts to murder another girl at a party. Brighton conceives a daring plan that will get Joan off the hook and incriminate Linda and the no-good drug dealers she’s getting the grass from but the police interfere, Joan ends up in the slammer, Brighton himself is whisked back to the office by his employer and the reading of the will happens to take place the next day. Can Brighton get back to town in time to stop Joan from being deprived of her inheritance and the money going to her undeserving cousin?

Essentially a soap opera, the film is slow for much of its running time: one after the other, there are several parties where the kids do little more scandalous than get Joan bathing nude in a lake (while Linda is burning her clothes), smoke pot, dance a lot and keel over from the effects of the drug. There’s a diversion into a film screened by Brighton’s employer for the reporter’s benefit in which a narrator bangs on about the history of marijuana, its early uses and its current evil effects on young vulnerable people. Action perks up when Brighton hatches his bold plan and gets Joan to co-operate. Plenty of comedy is provided by local milkbar owner, “Pop” Brady (Earle Dwire), who hires Brighton in his undercover disguise and who exposes the local gossip Henrietta (Fern Emmett) as having been less than snow-white virginal herself as a teenager and the judge (Henry Roquemore) as the man who might have deflowered her all those years ago, at the court hearing. The acting is competent enough for the film’s requirements; McKenzie as the glamour-puss blonde schemer and Dwire, who creates havoc in the court-room to delay the hearing so that Brighton can get there in time, are the most memorable actors. Production values are quite bad with some scenes hard to make out due to poor lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the film stock used and the way it has aged do not help either.

Modern audiences will get a chuckle out of the shock-horror tactics used by Clifton to hammer home the anti-marijuana message. All kinds of evil, deviant behaviour like skinny-dipping in a lake at nights, trying to knife a girl smooching with your boyfriend, and falling into a coma and being at death’s door are detailed to the extent that any real side-effects cannabis might have become invisible. The snooty pedant in me sniffs that the kids’ behaviour is due to being in a group free from adult restraint in environments where small-town customs and traditions no longer matter.  It seems very likely that audiences in the 1930’s didn’t take this film seriously and simply watched it for the melodrama with its promise of nude bathing, youngsters imbibing alcohol, female violence and a teenage girl sleeping with a strange man in a hotel room. In those days of strict censorship and alcohol prohibition in the US, film-makers there wanting to titillate audiences with racy stories that would get past the censors made so-called “educational” films about the dangers of drugs or sexual intercourse outside marriage and this may well have been Clifton’s intention.

Worth watching at least for the attitudes and social mores of the period in relation to drug addiction and teenage freedom and sexuality, and how American society, in particular small-town society, might have dealt with issues affecting adolescents. Some aspects of American youth culture and fashion may interest the social historian in some viewers. Apart from this, don’t expect  much in the way of fine acting, cinematography or direction – just sit back and enjoy the fluff.

Rififi: godfather of heist movies with a morality tale of redemption

Jules Dassin, “Rififi” (1955)

A film about a technically perfect crime, only for its participants to be totally undone by one small action by one of their number, “Rififi” is outstanding mainly for its 28-minute heist centrepiece during which there is absolutely no dialogue or music and the only sounds heard are those that are a natural consequence of the criminals’ actions. Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a jewel thief, has just been released from jail and is contacted by his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario who are interested in stealing some baubles from a jewellery store in a Paris locality. At first Tony refuses but after looking up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) and discovering that she has moved in with his old enemy Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of “L’Age d”Or” night-club, he changes his mind after beating her and joins his friends on the condition they hire a safe-cracker. Mario suggests his friend César (director Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) who’s happy to oblige.

Much of the first hour of the film is about the four men making their contacts and preparing for the crime. Tony and his men stare daggers at Grutter and his men at the night-club where singer Viviane (Magali Nol) performs the song that gives the movie its title. The heist, when it comes, is a great piece of film-making: taking place at night with the men trying to balance their use of light so as to avoid detection yet striving to finish the job and collect the jewels before daylight, the crime gives many opportunities for Dassin to play with contrasts of white, black and all shades of grey in-between, literally and figuratively. Cutaways from the thieves’ actions of drilling a hole in the floor to a clock-face or to the night-sky and back help to illustrate the arduous and time-consuming nature of the crime; the thieves drill the hole for two, three hours before they have a hole big enough to put a rope through and climb down to where the safe is kept. They collect all the debris in an umbrella. While Tony plugs up the security alarm with spray, César gets to work opening the safe and he needs another hour or so to do that. Close-ups of the men’s perspiring faces reveal strain and uncertainty. You find yourself hoping that the men can get the jewels, zip out through the hole again, pick up their tools and escape before daylight comes! Suspense and tension, unrelieved by music or dialogue, build and pile up to an almost unbearable level. A patrolling policeman passes by, stopping to examine a piece of litter, then he goes on his way – whew! When the first rays of the sun appear, the men are already scrambling to clear out; César pauses to take a ring for Viviane.

Sure enough, news of the theft is all over the papers the next day and not long after Grutter sees the injured Mado clearing out of his place and spots César giving the ring to Viviane. He now knows that Tony and César pulled off the heist and he puts his men onto them both. César is captured and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. From then on it’s downhill for all the men who were involved in the heist. Suffice to say that pushing daisies, not pulling them, is the only thing all the men including Grutter are able to do when the dust clears for the last time. From this viewers can infer that crime pays only if people are total cold-blooded cerebral machines that can suppress their natural inclinations to rejoice and share their bounty.

A gangster code of loyalty complicates Tony’s life which leads to a second outstanding montage of scenes, also done without dialogue, in which he rescues Jo’s small son Tonio from Grutter’s men and despite being seriously wounded frantically drives the child back to his mother through countryside and Paris streets. Heroically if foolishly Tony battles city traffic, flagging consciousness and an unrestrained child (the last one not really) to race to Jo’s apartment and the camera sympathises with him, showing Paris landmarks and the bare branches of trees flashing by, street scenes zooming in and out of focus as Tony strives to avoid hitting people and cars. Multiple points of view are shown from inside the car, outside and front in a series of quick edits, emphasising the urgency, speed and delirium of Tony’s last quest to redeem himself by saving a life before his own blacks out. Some viewers may find this last sequence ludicrous (why would a gangster even think of saving a child’s life?) but after what we have seen of Tony before – a jaded, cynical man with self-interest as his only goal – the series of image shows Tony as he might have been once and becomes in the last moments of his life: a caring human being who sacrifices himself for others and who perhaps sees in Tonio (note the similarity of the name to Tony) the potential which in himself was wasted. Tony’s rescue and return of Tonio becomes the film’s true climax.

As Tony, Servais who had a history of alcoholism before making “Rififi” is suitably bleary-eyed and wears seen-it-all weariness as a second skin. The acting overall is more efficient than outstanding but it suits the structure of the film and its purpose as a heist flick hiding a moral tale. The women in the film serve to illustrate aspects of the thieves’ lives as caring husbands and family men; only Tony behaves as a stereotypical hard-man, hitting and scratching Mado for being unfaithful to him, and forcing Jo and Mario to change part of their plan to rob the jewellery shop.

The film’s pace can be uneven: it’s slow for much of the first hour with Viviane’s singing and the silhouettes of a man and woman dancing in the background the main items of interest; then it picks up during the heist scene and is very fast in the film’s last 45 minutes. Director Jules Dassin’s structuring and portrayal of the heist and Tonio’s rescue lift “Rififi” from being a run-of-the-mill film-noir movie into the realm of film art so in that respect the movie is worth watching, if for nothing else. The morality aspect can be heavy-handed as bullets fly and the body count piles up; no-one survives to learn any lessons, making the post-heist part of the plot superfluous in a way. What’s the point of the shoot-out if there’s no-one at the end to make sense of it all?

Downhill: Hitchcock comedy is early showcase of technical innovation and flair

Alfred Hitchcock, “Downhill” (1927)

Before he found his niche as Master of Suspense, the young Alfred Hitchcock made a few films in several genres that include comedy: this early effort, the fifth full-feature film of his career, is a comedy lampooning the customs and attitudes of British upper class society of the late 1920’s. The plot is structured in a way that it probably won’t hold most modern audiences’ attention to the end – it comes in chunks so there’s no flow and as a result tension building towards a climax isn’t possible – but students of history might find some value in the way the story unfolds that reveals people’s attitudes toward money, appearances and reputation at the time. The real worth of “Downhill” is in the techniques and methods Hitchcock used to film the story and emphasise aspects such as mood, atmosphere and the direction of the plot. Motifs that he would use in later films such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho” make an early showing here. We see a keen and eager eye, maybe too eager, for technical innovation and a flair for experimenting with different points of view: the use of the camera to draw in audiences and make them voyeurs and participants in the action that began in the previous film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is now coming into full flower.

The plot is a threadbare coming-of-age / downward-spiral story. Teenager Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello), in his last year at an exclusive boys’ school, is undone by an incident involving his best friend and a waitress for which he’s entirely blameless. He’s expelled by his school and disowned by his father. Berwick’s reluctance to rat on his friend (who needs to stay at school to get a university scholarship) forces him to accept the humiliation of expulsion and rejection so he leaves home to venture into the big bad world. He’s clearly out of his depth; each adventure he has plunges him lower and lower into social and financial misery until rescue and reconciliation arrive at the eleventh hour. In each mishap including the original incident that gets him expelled from school there’s a woman who exploits Berwick for his looks, his money or his youth.

At 34 years of age, Novello was old enough to play Berwick’s old man but as he was co-writer of the play on which “Downhill” is based, I’ll leave the criticism there. Hitchcock must have enjoyed throwing Novello into situations where women manipulate him; Novello’s homosexuality was an open secret in the British arts and culture scene, he was strikingly handsome and presumably well-off in a varied career that included writing songs and plays, and all these aspects of the real-life man are hinted at in his character’s encounters with women. A couple of very early scenes suggest Berwick is uncomfortable with women and may be homosexual which would give an extra frisson to the manipulation that follows. If we allow for overly expressionistic acting which was common in silent films of the period, the acting is not bad and in parts is even natural; Hitchcock allows the actors to talk normally on screen and audiences have to guess what it is they’re saying, there being very few dialogue or title cards. One side-effect is that it’s difficult to tell who or what characters some actors are playing, and even the MacGuffin incident that gets Berwick in trouble isn’t clear: the Internet Movie Database says it is theft, Wikipedia says it is making the waitress pregnant.

The plot is fleshed out by camera shots that use odd angles, unusual points of view, overlapping images and deep focus shooting to emphasise where the plot gets serious, to capture a mood or emotion, or to warn audiences of what’s ahead, among other things. Perhaps there’s too much story-telling rather than narrative at some points in the movie: the bird’s-eye view of the escalator scene, in which viewers see Berwick going down the mechanical steps from the top, is a heavy-handed portent of what’s to befall the youth (the scene takes place just after he leaves home). From a technical viewpoint, the film’s stand-out scenes come near the end where Berwick is packed off home from Marseilles on a ship by some kindly sailors and he suffers delirium and seasickness. The camera hovers from above, like a bird, to suggest dizzyness; and superimposed images in which circles and spirals – and even pumping pistons! (ooh, that’s phallic) – appear in Berwick’s dreams to suggest a disordered mind affected by sickness and starvation. Berwick’s old enemies come together in a dream to jeer at him. Once Berwick is back in London and trying to find his way home on foot, the camera adopts his point of view and staggers with him, with jerky, unfocussed, doubled-up or overlapped images – this is as close as Hitchcock gets to filming in a style modern audiences associate with handheld cameras. Personal points of view are prominent in “Downhill”: in an early scene, an actress leans far back on her chair to see things upside-down and the next camera shot, done from her point of view, is upside-down. Hitchcock also enjoys playing with particular points of view and subverting the assumptions that come with them: in one scene, Berwick appears to be working as a waiter at a restaurant, only for the camera to draw back and show that he is actually a stage actor in a musical revue!

Significantly the only people who treat Berwick kindly and don’t see him as a money-pot are poor and of black or foreign origins: a black woman feeds him soup and kicks a couple of sailors (one black, the other white but definitely not English) into action to help him to the ship. This was one of the rare times Hitchcock made a movie that featured black people sympathetically if stereotypically. There is no indication though that Berwick is thankful for the help or that they are repaid. Though the film is a comedy – and there are plenty of comic moments including the gag of Berwick’s young wife still retaining her ugly, middle-aged lover! – there are plenty of dark moments throughout the odyssey, all highlighted by contrasts of light and shadow that reflect German Expressionist influences.

Whether Berwick learns any lessons about the superficiality of the world that made him or the really important lesson that in his level of society money and appearances talk louder than moral integrity is never clear. Does he become wiser about how the world operates and how it eats up its own innocent children? The film’s resolution and ending suggest maybe not. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on what Hitchcock would have done if he had decided to remake the film years later with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal: he would have changed the ending to something more ambiguous and very dark but Berwick might then achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-awareness, redemption and healing. A Freudian psychological subtext would be added to plump up the story and make it more credible.

In spite of a flimsy and out-of-date plot, “Downhill” is worth seeing for the flair and confidence Hitchcock brings to  making the story work. There are many motifs and symbols that appear here which the director would later use in “Vertigo”, especially in its psychedelic dream sequence, and the early film might be seen as a test-drive to that more famous Hollywood work.

The true Hitchcock universe begins with “The Lodger: a Story of the London Fog”

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)

Only the third film made by a young Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger …” already has many of the themes and motifs that would bring its director fame and fortune in a career that spanned nearly half a century. The central theme  revolves around a man who is suspected by police and society at large of being a serial killer: not only is he innocent but he has also resolved for personal reasons to find the killer himself. At the same time, the central character dresses and behaves in ways that encourage people around him to believe he is the criminal: the innocent man and the actual criminal become doppelgängers, another recurring motif in Hitchcock’s world. (Makes you wonder whether H had lost a twin brother  at birth.) There is a wilful blonde woman as well – there are blonde women a-plenty here! – and a love triangle that involves her, the innocent man and another man who is a police detective. The detective is portrayed as a boorish, unlikable character and the police as shown seem ineffective; any constructive work they do takes place off-screen.  A hostile attitude is expressed towards figures and institutions of authority, especially male authority such as the police; on the other hand, female figures of authority such as mothers have a greater psychological hold on men, especially if the men are their sons. A MacGuffin is needed in the film to set off the chain of events. As with other Hitchcock suspense films to follow, the love triangle and the emotions and tensions within take centre stage against a background of rising suspense and suspicion.

London is gripped by a series of murders of fair-haired young women committed by the self-styled Avenger who leaves his calling card of a triangle outlined around his monicker on the victims’ bodies. Just what he’s avenging himself against is never known but the print media goes into a frenzy of reporting the story of his latest outrage, printing it and distributing copies to news boys. Even the back of a paper delivery van is “all eyes” if not ears. Against this context which lasts nearly 20 minutes, viewers meet Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), a showgirl-cum-model reading the news backstage and chatting to her colleagues; she then goes home which is a boarding-house run by her parents. There we see her fiance, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a self-assured police detective who is given the case of searching for and arresting the Avenger, chatting to her folks. During the evening, Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) takes in a new boarder (Ivor Novello) who is never named but is known only as the Lodger; he is dressed in mysterious dark clothes and carries a black bag. He behaves oddly: on seeing pictures of blonde women in his room, he turns them over and asks Mrs Bunting to take them away. Hearing the newsboy outside his window shouting about the Avenger’s exploits to sell papers, the Lodger shuts the window and closes the curtains.

Over time, the Lodger warms to Daisy and a romance develops between them. His routines arouse the suspicions of her parents and Joe; Joe in particular is jealous of Daisy’s closeness to the Lodger. He obtains a search warrant to search the Lodger’s room and sure enough finds a map, newspaper clippings and a photograph that appear to incriminate the Lodger as the Avenger. The Lodger is handcuffed but before he is led away, Daisy creates a distraction and the Lodger escapes police custody. The two lovers later meet at a pub but arouse the suspicions of the staff and customers. Daisy and the Lodger try to escape and they separate but a mob catches up with the man and beat him severely.

In those days of no dialogue, film-acting was often exaggerated and very mannered so that audiences could see characters’ emotions through their body language. “The Lodger …” is no different in this respect. The Lodger and Joe, as the two rivals for Daisy, contrast strongly in their behaviour and looks. Joe is macho, brusque and assumes proprietorial “rights” over Daisy, declaring that he’ll handcuff the Avenger and then put a ring on Daisy’s finger, as if she’s been colluding with the killer. The Lodger is gentlemanly and sensitive, even effete, and his appearance is refined and beautiful. In a memorable sequence of intense, almost overbearing romantic love scenes, Daisy grabs the Lodger almost savagely while draped over a lounge and a severe minimalist close-up scene shot against a black curtain highlights the lovers’ profiles as they kiss. The passion here is very raw in spite of the two keeping their winter-woollies on! Viewers wanting a more “modern” acting style should note the performances of the actors who play Daisy’s parents; they are outstanding in their ability to show a variety of emotions and thoughts by their facial expressions and body language, and move effortlessly from comedy to seriousness and back.

Influences from the German Expressionist art movement show up in the use of lighting and shadows to create suspense and mystery in several scenes, and in the title cards that indicate the passage of time or a change of scene. Mrs Bunting’s bedroom with the shadow of a window framed on her wall has an almost abstract air. A couple of scenes in which the Buntings and Joe look up at the chandeliers in the kitchen and “see” the Lodger walking on the floor above, and Joe looking at the Lodger’s footprint on the ground, in which a parade of images pass as though on an escalator, hint at Hitchcock’s interest in using film technologies available at the time to their maximum capabilities to express people’s thoughts. The film’s opening shot of a blonde woman screaming as she is being attacked, her hair around her face lit up like a halo, is worth noting: Hitchcock had the actor lie down on a sheet of glass which was lit from behind. Objects like chandeliers and that familiar Hitchcock fixture, the staircase, are given prominence: the staircase comes into its own in a bird’s-eye view shot of the Lodger quickly descending down the stairs, only his hand visible on the bannister as it slides down, and the centre of the staircase-framed shot a huge void.  For all this information, Hitchcock was still finding his way as a film director: there are some editing discontinuities, the sequence of scenes in which the Lodger is attacked by burgeoning crowds looks amateurish and unconvincing with some cringeworthy Christian symbolism, the film’s pacing is slow and the assured confidence of Hitchcock’s later films is yet to develop.

“The Lodger …” strongly suggests that the path to romance and marriage (and the proper conduct of sexual relations) is fraught with danger and violence, especially for women, and there is no surefire safe way of treading that path: both the Lodger and Joe are shown to have a dark side in their natures. If Daisy chooses wisely, she will be rewarded with riches; if not, she may become a prisoner. The film also comments on the role of media (and by implication, film itself) in influencing opinion and generating a particular community mood or emotion that could literally spell the difference between life and death for an individual. Worth watching mainly to see the evolution of a master film-maker and how he develops ideas and themes in a particular film format that would come to full flower in his later work; in particular, fans should watch out for a voyeuristic bathtub scene!

For once it’s a good thing that the ending of “The Lodger …” was changed from Hitchcock’s preferred ambiguous ending which would have made the film a run-of-the-mill thriller. Little did the studio executives who forced the change realise that they were doing Hitchcock a massive favour.

Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.

Eyes without a Face: mad-scientist horror genre gets serious treatment with issues of control and identity

Georges Franju, “Eyes without a Face” / “Les yeux sans visage” (1959)

Lean and elegant in narrative style, this film treats a pulpy mad-scientist horror story in a credibly serious, in-your-face manner that extracts maximum horror from its subject. Shot in black-and-white, the presentation is crisp with some shots done from odd camera angles and features scenes emphasising contrasts in light and darkness that might recall German expressionist influences. The plot revolves around a triangle of Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a dedicated plastic surgeon who lost his wife years ago and nearly lost his daughter in separate accidents; Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter, whose face is horribly disfigured in her accident which was caused by her father; and Louise (Alida Valli), the doctor’s loyal assistant, who procures young women for him so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter’s deformed face. Yep, folks, that’s the gruesome tale and in most other film-makers’ hands this would turn into a B-grade shock-horror mad-scientist flick complete with a hunchbacked assistant whose eyes don’t stop rolling in opposite directions; but under Franju’s direction, the story becomes minimal and the characters are readily recognisable people who become all the more horrifying by their thoughts, words and behaviour. In particular Louise is a chilling character as she combines a warm, caring manner, the presentation of a polished middle-class lady, a clinical attitude to the girls as they undergo surgery and a devotion to Dr Génessier that goes beyond unquestioning groupie worship.

The acting is exemplary: the actors playing the main characters portray them as complex people whose motives driving their extreme behaviour are understandable. Dr Génessier feels guilt for causing the accident that deformed his daughter’s face and most likely believes he must save her at all costs to preserve a living memory of his dead wife (so there’s a hint of necrophilia as well). His skill with the scalpel leads him to believe that he can repair his daughter’s face in spite of past transplants that have all failed as will the transplant of the face of Edna Grünberg (Juliette Mayniel) which is shown in the movie. There is a subtle message here about human pride and arrogance in one’s own abilities and skills, coupled with trust and belief in technology, to overcome and control nature; this is reinforced by Dr Génessier’s imprisonment of stray dogs in the basement of his country mansion, to be used as guinea pigs in his transplant experiments. As the deranged doctor, Brasseur gives a calm, controlled performance: in some scenes he is kind and reassuring to a small boy; in other scenes he is professional if abrupt in manner. As said before, Louise is chilling and creepy in her contradictions but we understand why: she received a face transplant from Dr Génessier previously and it was a success. Valli is more expressive in her role, giving just the slightest hint of malice and gushy-ness, yet it’s still a restrained perfomrance: viewers get a sense that she wants a committed relationship with Dr Génessier but is reluctant to pursue a romance while he is obsessed with fixing up his daughter Christiane.

Scob spends most of her onscreen time as Christiane peering through a blank white mask and her eyes do most of her acting: they’re usually sad but are sometimes terrified and, towards the end, angry. Viewers see she’s just as much a victim as Edna and all the other girls before her; not only is she under her father’s total control – he even blanks out her existence to her fiance Jacques (François Guérin) and the police authorities by pretending to identify a corpse as hers and staging her funeral – but she is forced to be an unwilling participant in his transplant experiments. You sense that Dr Génessier is using Christiane as a guinea pig for improving his technique and methods as he is with his dogs. An unexpected delay in Génessier’s next face-transplant operation after the failure of Edna’s transplanted face allows Christiane to set free the new victim and to release the dogs as well.

Much of the movie’s focus is on Christiane so in part it’s a psychological study of a woman who becomes troubled by her passive participation, however indirect, in other people’s murders and must decide if she wishes to stay complicit or do something and stop being a participant. Franju makes the decision easier for Christiane in a way: all her previous face transplants have been failures so future ones are likely to be failures too: and even Louise’s apparently successful transplant is no assurance. If anything, the successful transplant has chained Louise closely to Dr Génessier so she is no objective role model. An existentialist message can be said to exist here: a person’s identity and sense of being are as much dependent on action or non-action as they are on her background and endowments. By taking action, Christiane discovers freedom, at the cost perhaps of ever being able to rejoin normal society and seeing her fiance again. On another level that most people would understand, Christiane must choose between surface appearance and conventional notions of beauty on the one hand, and inner beauty or moral integrity on the other. Scob is ideal as the delicate Christiane: eerily resembling Mia Farrow in her “Rosemary’s Baby” days, and angelic with long, slim arms and wearing pale floaty dresses, she seems the perfectly ethereal and helpless victim.

In contrast to the sharp presentation which often emphasises the shadows under otherwise bland exteriors, the film’s mood is almost dream-like. The mansion where Christiane lives looks sinister and even features a dungeon of barking dogs, not to mention the room where the operations take place. Scenes of the face transplantation and the transformations of Edna’s face on Christiane as her body rejects the face can be very graphic and upsetting in their clinical nature though the shots are short and the edits quick. The music score by Maurice Jarre plays a significant role: jaunty, carnivalesque yet hard, the harpsichord tones trill a repeated riff constantly and maddeningly whenever Louise turns up in her car to prey on unsuspecting young women; the music changes at the end of the film to something softer. The support cast exists mainly to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the police and doctors as authority figures and saviours. The film appears sympathetic towards women as victims of men and patriarchial structures and instutions. It would be too much to read into the film a message that victims should try to empower themselves; Christiane seizes her chance only because her father is called away by a fortuitous police visit. I don’t see her as a champion for feminism as the decision she makes to free herself may be purely personal or existential but people are free to see her however they wish. However Christiane and Louise are interesting contrasts as women: the younger woman as passive yet ultimately self-directing, the older woman as an active agent in thrall to a male authority figure whose desires she anticipates.

The film is worth a look for its streamlined, almost artistic presentation and its examination of control, identity and existence in its skeletal plot and considered characterisations. Some viewers may find the pace very slow, at least until near the end where it picks up quickly with Christiane’s release of the dogs. The screenplay was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those writers of the novel “D’Entre les Morts” on which the Alfred Hitchock movie “Vertigo” which deals with similar themes (control of women’s bodies by men, necrophilia, identity and existence) is based.

Little Shop of Horrors: dark horror and farce in trashy 1960 cheapie

Roger Corman, “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

Here’s a cute comedy horror piece made on the cheap in just two days in 1960 that speaks to anyone and everyone afraid of demanding pets and children with ravenous appetites, rejection in love, overbearing hypochondriac mothers and dentists who go out of their way to inflict maximum pain on your gums! The film’s production values may have dated badly but its tale is as plaintive today as it was then. Nerdy and none-too-bright Seymour (Jonathan Haze) works in a florist shop in a poor section of Los Angeles or some other town in southern California. The shop is owned and run by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) who bosses Seymour about. There is another employee, Audrey (Jackie Joseph), for whom Seymour carries a torch, so one day when Mushnick threatens to sack the young fellow for messing up a client’s floral arrangement, Seymour, afraid of losing Audrey, lets slip that he’s been caring for a tiny, frail hybrid plant that he bred. Mushnick allows him to bring the plant to work the next day. The poor little thing isn’t thriving despite the loving care Seymour has lavished on it.

By accident, Seymour discovers the pet plant partakes rather too much of its combined butterwort / Venus fly-trap inheritance and after several days feeding on salty protein liquid the wicked weed’s tremendous growth to gargantuan proportions with the appetite for, uh, more fertiliser to match forces the now borderline-anaemic Seymour to go farther afield and commit manslaughter. Two police detectives, so hard-boiled that when one of them suffers a family tragedy, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “Them’s the breaks”, turn up at Mushnick’s shop to enquire about the disappearances of a railway employee and Mushnick’s dentist. Mushnick himself is suspicious of the hybrid’s amazing growth and is aware of its secret (and even finds it useful for getting rid of a robber) but because the herbaceous horror is bringing his shop attention, business and money, he hesitates to tell the police what he knows and believes. In the meantime Seymour and Audrey start going steady but the plant’s demands – the freak can speak and can hypnotise people – soon drive the couple apart. When the monster finally comes into bloom and reveals to a crowd what Seymour has been feeding it, the put-upon young fellow, who had hoped to profit from the plant financially and win Audrey’s hand in marriage but now finds himself wanted and pursued for multiple murders, resolves to kill the flowering Frankenstein.

The acting and film-editing are nothing special – the editing’s just enough to eliminate obvious gore while still suggesting that various people help keep the plant well-fed – and the plot has many holes. If the plant can force Seymour to hunt for victims by mesmerising him, why can’t it stop him from killing it? Lashings of humour, in particular from Mushnick who exchanges droll repartee with the plant and from Seymour’s mother, and an array of hilarious characters that include a regular customer (Dick Miller) who eats flowers and a dental patient (Jack Nicholson in his debut acting role) who finds pleasure in pain and walks off with capped teeth (that’s capped as in knee-capped) enliven the basic narrative of the little plant that becomes a flesh-eating monster. Although Nicholson has only 5 minutes in the movie, his creepy-campy performance steals the show from nearly everyone else except the plant and maybe Mushnick’s Yiddish humour. The romance sub-plot provides further comedy and suspense which could have been milked a lot more for laughs and thrills: imagine if the plant had got jealous of Audrey and tried to lure her with hypnotism to its maw!

Somewhere in this schlocky horror picture show there’s a stab at how greed can get the better of what you know is right and how a person can be driven to derangement by accidental murder, love found and lost, and the bizarre results of home-based DIY genetic engineering that’s best left to Monsanto and its ilk. (Maybe not even that.) For a trashy cheapie made over half a century ago there’s a lot of energy in it and the dark horror aspects of family life, eating and symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are treated for laughs. How else to explain the enduring fascination this black comedy tale holds for people to the extent that it was remade as a stage musical in 1982 (on which the 1986 film musical and the 1990’s children’s cartoon series are based) and was slated for remake as a pure feature film in 2009? The dreaded dicotyledon continues to exercise its mesmeric abilities across the spatio-temporal divide long after its final bloom droops.