UNREAL: Writers Studio Teachers Read Their Work

Published October 4, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Join us on Oct. 18 for a public reading event, cohosted by Antigone Books and The Writers Studio. Teachers from the Tucson branch of The Writers Studio — Lela Scott MacNeil, Richard Leis, Donna Aversa, Reneé Bibby and myself — will read selections of poetry and prose that focus on the unusual, the dark, and the unreal.

WHERE: Antigone Books, 411 N 4th Ave, Tucson, Arizona 85705

WHEN: October 18, 2019 at 6:00 PM

No RSVP or admission fee is required.

At The Writers Studio Tucson, we pride ourselves on being active participants in Tucson’s thriving literary community. Please join us, and patronize Antigone Books, one of the finest independent bookstores in the country. Visit their web site and sign up for their newsletter.

The Writers Studio, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz in 1987, offers writing workshops designed to help students discover and nurture their own voices. The Writers Studio Tucson offers four levels of classes to help students achieve their writing goals.

For more information on The Writers Studio, click here

When Reality Doesn’t Cut It, UNREAL Is Our Best Friend!

See you on Oct. 18!

 

DAY 4 OF 31: THE MUMMY (1932)

Published October 4, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

Modern viewers might be surprised by THE MUMMY’s slow pace and the fact that the titular character, played by Boris Karloff, only appears in his familiar shambling, bandaged guise for one scene, before reappearing for the bulk of the film as a sinister, wizened Egyptian scholar. But THE MUMMY, directed by Karl Freund, offers many rewards, achieving a tone of moody, poetic horror that has seldom been matched.

The opening sequence is unforgettable. An enthusiastic young archeologist, played by Bramwell Fletcher, accidentally brings an unearthed mummy, Imhotep, to life by reading aloud a forbidden incantation from an ancient parchment. As the scholar pores over the text, mumbling and deciphering, we get tiny glimpses of the figure in the sarcophagus. A bandaged hand that starts to descend from the chest. An almost imperceptible glint of light in one eye. Freund frames the action carefully so that we see very little and imagine much.

We get a closeup of a dusty, withered hand seizing the parchment as the scholar wheels in horror. His colleagues return to find the mummy and parchment gone and the scholar having gone stark, raving mad, laughing uncontrollably. “He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!” Outside of Dwight Frye’s Renfield, it’s the most frightening depiction of madness in classic horror.

Cut to years later, and the mummy has reinvented himself as the mysterious Ardath Bey, a strange man who is obsessed with a new expedition to recover the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess, Ankh-es-en-amon, once the beloved of Imhotep. Bey is astonished to meet Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann, who he believes to be the modern reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon. She in turn feels mysteriously drawn to Bey, who has designs to make her an immortal mummy like himself, a process that will required that she submit to a forbidden ritual that will culminate in her death.

Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey/Imhotep, with Zita Johann.

Somewhat cut in the mold of Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Imhotep is a demonic figure who can wield dark Egyptian spells to kill his enemies from afar. What makes him interesting is that he is also a forlorn lover, who has endured great horrors, including burial alive, in the name of his devotion to his long-lost princess. A wonderfully eerie flashback sequence to ancient Egypt shows us the tragic love story, unfolding like a mesmerizing dream from another time.

DIALOGUE

“Anck-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you.”

“You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love… and crime… and death…”

INTERESTING FACTS

  • The story line was inspired not by a classic novel but by a contemporary craze for all things Egyptian, sparked by the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.
  • Universal produced a series of sequels, discarding the mood and poetry and the Ardath Bey character, opting for straight forward scares with a full-fledged bandaged and mute mummy (renamed Kharis) stalking victims throughout. Despite these changes, THE MUMMY’s flashback sequence to ancient Egypt would be extensively reused in the sequels.
  • In addition to some story elements, THE MUMMY inherited from DRACULA two of its principal actors, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners in similar roles as, respectively, the wise mentor figure and the heroine’s devoted boyfriend.

UP NEXT:

“Are we not men?”

 

DAY 3 OF 31: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)

Published October 3, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

One of the most frequently filmed of all stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of a number of Victorian tales dealing with man’s dual nature (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is another.)

Stevenson’s story of a scientist who concocts a drug that unleashes an evil alter ego version of himself found its greatest cinematic expression in the 1931 Paramount version directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March in the dual role.

Mamoulian adds some arty touches that might have seemed a little too high brow at Universal, where most of the monster classics were being churned out in the early 30s. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE begins with a subjective camera sequence that makes us feel we are Dr. Jekyll, and includes symbolic shots of various statues, as well as closeups of roiling flames, which either suggest man’s primitive urgings or the fate awaiting Jekyll’s soul for his trespasses against God — take your pick.

The director changed the emphasis from a conflict between good and evil to a conflict between civilized man and man in his primitive state, explaining Hyde’s vaguely Neanderthal appearance.

Much of the film plays upon civilized man’s repressed sexuality. Jekyll, passionately in love with Muriel played by Rose Hobart, argues with her father who stands in the way of their marriage. In the following scene, Jekyll pays a house call on a bar singer named Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins. (The film suggests, without saying outright, that she is also a prostitute.) He seems to be tormented by her overt sexuality, and in a famous scene she sways her gartered leg back and forth while calling on Jekyll to come back to her, an image that will play itself over in his mind.

Is it any wonder that in the following scene, Jekyll takes the potion that for the first time transforms him into Hyde, a figure who’s free to pursue the pleasures that the upright Jekyll denies himself?  “Free at last!” Hyde proclaims, staring at his grotesque visage in the mirror.

HIGH POINTS

The film utilizes a plot device, not present in the book, of having Jekyll cross the paths of a so-called virtuous woman (Muriel) and a “bad girl” (Ivy).  It’s a structural element that would be repeated in subsequent versions.

Hopkins as Ivy simmers with Pre Code sexuality, adding a real edge to the film. She draws Jekyll’s lust. Tragically, she also attracts Hyde’s abuse. March is at his most terrifying as he torments Ivy, psychologically and physically. In desperation, she seeks out the good Dr. Jekyll for help who promises, in vain, that Hyde will not return. Of course Hyde does. Enraged at her for going to Jekyll, he murders Ivy, asking as he strangles her: “Isn’t Hyde a lover after your own heart?”

Fredric March’s Hyde torments Miriam Hopkins as Ivy.

Miriam Hopkins’ performance is unabashedly sexual and heartbreakingly real. Film historian Greg Mank argues that, alongside March, she deserved an Oscar for her work on the film.

The transformations scenes are remarkable, surpassing the much cruder scenes later used by Universal for its Wolfman films. In addition to lap dissolve and other techniques, Mamoulian’s film employs the gradual removal of colored filters to reveal layers of makeup, achieving an organic metamorphosis that happens within a continuous shot. How this was achieved was kept secret by Mamoulian for decades after the film’s release.

March gives an outstanding performance. His Hyde is so bestial, so different from the civilized Jekyll, that we almost forget both parts are played by the same actor. (something that almost never happens in other film versions.)

DIALOGUE

HYDE: “Do you want to be left as you are, or do you want your eyes and your soul to be blasted by a sight that would stagger the devil himself?”

HYDE: “If you do one thing I don’t approve of while I’m gone, the LEAST little thing, mind you… I’ll show you what horror means”

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • This classic film was almost lost forever. A decade after its release, MGM remade the story with Spencer Tracy, suppressing the earlier version and destroying prints so as to allow the new version to stand alone. Luckily, prints showed up years later and the film was saved from obscurity.
  • Fredric March won an Oscar for his performance, the first monster performer ever to do so. (And the last, unless you count Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lector in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. )
  • The Hyde makeup becomes progressively more savage as the story unfolds, perhaps an idea inspired by Wilde’s Dorian Gray, in which Gray’s’ brutal actions manifest themselves over time in the face in his portrait. Historian Mank reports that the final makeup was so punishing that March spent several weeks in the hospital after the film finished and there were fears, fortunately unfounded, that March would be permanently disfigured.

UP NEXT:

“He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!”

 

 

DAY 2 OF 31: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Published October 2, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

After Universal Studio’s success with DRACULA in early 1931, what could be more natural for a followup than to turn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic? 

The novel is about a young Swiss scientist who bestows life upon a body he created by appropriating parts from rifled graves and other sources, only to have his creation turn against him and destroy all the scientist holds dear. A couple of silent film adaptations had been done, most notably one produced by Thomas Edison in 1910.

That Universal’s blood and thunder sound version of ’31 was released in November of seems appropriate, since that is the month of the monster’s creation in the novel:

“It was  on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

But what would the filmic monster look like? How would he be brought to life? (Shelley’s narrative provides few details on the procedure.) Director James Whale and electrical effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden contrived to stage an exciting creation sequence, with the table-bound monster being raised to the roof to receive the lightning’s gift of the mysterious life-giving ray that the scientist has discovered. The sequence is a cinematic triumph, its dazzling pyrotechnics effectively “selling” us on the unholy miracle of the monster’s birth.

Meanwhile, makeup artist Jack Pierce, also in consultation with director Whale, created a monster visage that audiences would fear and pity for generations to come. The genius of the makeup was to allow as much as possible for an actor’s expressive face to remain exposed. Struggling actor Boris Karloff won the role of the monster, partly on the basis of the unusual bone structure in his face and his large liquid eyes.

“Karloff’s eyes mirrored the suffering we needed,” said Universal exec Carl Laemmle.

Colin Clive, an actor who specialized in sensitive, high-strung roles, was a perfect fit for the scientist, Henry Frankenstein. (The name is inexplicably changed from the novel’s “Victor.”) His frenzied performance in the creation scene, accompanied by terrifying peals of thunder and an orgy of electrical sparks and buzzes, is unforgettable. (Note: as in DRACULA and other examples of early sound cinema, there is no musical score. These films breathe with eerie stretches of silence, helped by sound effects.)

“It’s moving! It’s alive!”

HIGH POINTS

The creation scene remains a knockout to this day, as does the haunting vignette in which Karloff’s newly born creation reaches above his head for the light descending  from a skylight as if he could grip it in his hands.

Karloff’s monster, quick, agile, clearly not sound of mind, immensely strong and unpredictable, with heavily lidded dead man’s eyes, is instantly frightening, making us feel we are looking upon a thing that should not be alive, but unaccountably is.

And yet the creature is immensely sympathetic, an unwanted child abandoned by his only parent, hated and feared by everyone else based on his grotesque appearance. In his ill fitting black, funereal suit , he carries with him the aura of the grave, evoking a universal dread. With his spasmodic movements, shuffling gate and pathetic, pleading hand gestures, he is one of horror’s supreme characterizations, simultaneously frightening and poignant. Other actors, including Christopher Lee, Michael Sarrazin, and Robert DeNiro have made sincere attempts to portray the monster. With respect, no one even comes close.

The film is a tragedy. Frankenstein, reduced to a nervous wreck by the shattering of his great dream, becomes  a shell of the confident visionary we see in the early scenes. The monster is hounded to a horrifying death, caught in the inferno of a blazing mill.

Clive and Karloff are ably assisted by two holdovers from DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Waldman and Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant, Fritz. Also helping out are Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend, Victor, and Frederick Kerr as his father, the harrumphing old Baron.

The monster of course remains mute throughout the film. Most of the best dialogue belongs to the scientist:

(caressing the coffin of a stolen body) “He’s Just Resting, Waiting For A New Life To Come.”

“The brain you stole, Fritz. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

DEFICITS

FRANKENSTEIN might not seem shocking today. Its monster makeup and Gothic trappings have been absorbed into the culture, its iconography made comfortable by parodies, pop songs and use in Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast cereals. But Whale’s Gothic extravaganza was considered unfamiliar, strong meat when first issued, with its corpse like monster, graveyard scenes, multiple murders and grim, fairy tale like setting.

Some cuts made at the preview stage, designed to protect delicate sensibilities, hurt the film for decades. For many of us who grew up watching it on television, the fabulous creation scene was marred by a jump cut at its climax, where a crucial but potentially blasphemous bit of the scientist’s dialogue — “Oh, in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” — was crudely excised. (Hey, it only expressed a major theme of the film.)

Similarly, the famous (or infamous) scene in which Karloff’s monster befriends a little girl, but ends up unintentionally drowning her, was truncated, cutting abruptly as Karloff reaches for her, which allowed for even worse implications than what was intended.  The scene, fully restored a few decades ago along with Clive’s censored line and a few other bits and pieces, remains a touching, heartbreaking episode in the monster’s lonely existence, one tranquil moment of friendship and peace before tragedy and horror reassert themselves.

Despite one or two stuffy performances, including some weak comic relief from the Baron, and a few bits of unexplained plot construction (How does the monster know where Frankenstein lives?), the film remains a powerful experience, maybe not as shocking as it once was, but largely undiminished in its impact.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Karloff suffered severe back pains the rest of his life that may have resulted from the rigors of his performance, particularly the scenes in which he has to carry Clive on his back through the mountainous countryside.
  • DRACULA star Bela Lugosi was originally assigned the monster role, even trying out his own makeup, before Karloff was (wisely) brought in.
  • Karloff, protective of the monster, played him in two sequels but stopped when he thought the character was being cheapened. He called the monster “my best friend.”

UP NEXT:

“My analysis of this soul , the human psyche, leads me to believe that man is not truly one – but, truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth.”

 

DAY 1 OF 31: DRACULA (1931)

Published October 1, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

The first supernatural drama of the sound era, DRACULA was unleashed by Universal on Valentine’s Day 1931 with the tag line “The Strangest Love Story Ever Told,” perhaps signalling the studio’s unease at peddling such a bloodcurdling tale to a nation in the grips of the great depression. They need not have worried. The film provided a kind of rich Gothic escapism, paving the way for a whole cycle of 30s atmospheric chillers made with artistry and care that drew healthy box office and crowned Universal the king of horror. 

An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1887 classic, DRACULA also had its roots in a successful stage version, from which the play’s star, Bela Lugosi, was recruited to play the lead. The familiar tale tells of the vampire king’s migration from his native Transylvania … an exotic locale seen to great effect in one of the most eerie opening sequences of any horror film … to London’s teeming metropolis.

The cast of DRACULA: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and Helen Chandler.

The Count insinuates himself into the company of a group of unsuspecting Londoners, including the wise and virtuous Mina and her perhaps less wise best friend Lucy, who thrills to Dracula’s grand manner and exotic accent.

Lucy is attacked, dies and is resurrected as a vampire herself only to end up on the fatal end of a stake driven into her heart by intrepid and learned expert on the supernatural, Dr. Van Helsing, in a sequence that should have been a horror highlight but takes place off screen. (The film is too reticent in many places, conveying important plot points second hand through dialogue, when we would much rather have seen them directly.) 

Dracula sets his sites on Mina, who is defended by her boyish fiance, Jonathan, sanitarium director Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing, who warns his friends, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” In the end, Van Helsing and Co. track Dracula to his London hideout and good prevails.

HIGH POINTS

The film offers a classic performance by Lugosi himself, whose authentic accent, strange bearing and bizarre, halting cadences (“I never drink … wine.”) contribute to an unforgettable portrait of evil. I remember being particularly perturbed at the disembodied way Dracula drifts through a London street scene, before settling on a poor flower girl for an evening bite. He conveys the aspect of someone controlled from afar, perhaps an expression of how Dracula is held in thrall to a greater infernal power.  I’ve never seen any other actor in the part hint at this particularly eerie quality.

And while no more than a drop of blood is scene in the film, Lugosi achieves a heightened sense of horror through body language — he’s like a stylized vulture in a bedroom scene as he descends upon his victim –and facial expression. His striking mix of bestial hunger and a kind of pained self-revulsion while in the predatory moment is unforgettable.

Also memorable are Van Sloan as the anti vampire crusader Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye (like Lugosi and Van Sloan, repeating his performance from the stage) as the pathetic fly-eating mental patient who has fallen under Dracula’s sway. Frye in particular has some wonderful moments, including his eerie demented laughter issuing from the hold of a deathship full of Dracula’s victims, and his “Rats, rats, rats” monologue in which he describes the vision of teeming life offered to him in return for faithful service to his master.

“A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire … Rat, rats, rats. Thousand of them. Millions of them. All red blood.”

DRACULA is memorable for its elegant dialogue, these three tidbits all coming from the Count himself:

(hearing the howling of wolves) “Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make.”

“I never drink … wine.”

“To die, to be really dead. That must be glorious … There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

DEFICITS

The film is justly slated for being stagey, not taking advantage of the adventurous sweep of Stoker’s saga, which ends in a desperate race back to Dracula’s castle, a sequence which held great filmic possibilities but wasn’t used. And while I think Helen Chandler is fine as Mina, particularly in a scene in which her eyes light up with bloodlust as she battles to restrain herself from attacking her fiance’s handsome throat, I think David Manners is stiff and awkward as her reliable lover. Comic relief provided by a cockney sanitarium attendant mostly falls flat today.

Director Todd Browning seems a bit sloppy in places, as when those little spotlights for Lugosi’s eyes don’t quite find their mark:

And if you’re really into the minutiae of classic films, check out this ten minute youtube exploration of why an ugly, jagged piece of cardboard can repeatedly be spotted in some of the bedroom scenes:

Caveats and technical deficiencies aside, DRACULA still has wonderful moments of poetic dread and horror, and remains a classic and standard bearer for all monster movies that followed in its wake.

UP NEXT:

“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

 

During October: 31 Days of Classic Horror

Published September 30, 2019 by Philip Ivory

From my earliest years, horror films have had a profound influence on my creativity and my writing, and it’s time I paid them proper tribute for their artistry and lingering cultural impact.

Starting tomorrow and continuing each day for the entire month of October, I’ll highlight a favorite horror film, one that’s particularly influential in the field, or that impacted me in a profound way. The choices are subjective and entirely mine. The list will proceed chronologically from the dawn of sound films to the present day. 

 

 

Please check in and help me celebrate the cinema of the macabre all this month. Like Dr. Septimus Pretorius in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), let’s hoist our glasses and toast the infernal, unholy, misbegotten and malign:

“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

 

 

 

WHAT TERRIBLE BOOK? Answer Revealed

Published September 27, 2019 by Philip Ivory

So a few days ago, I posed the question: Which book is being reviewed here by the editor of The London Sunday Express?

” … the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature … All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the name of Christ — blasphemies hitherto associated with the most degraded orgies of Satanism and the Black Mass.”

That was a contemporary 1920s review of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I came across that remarkable quote in the current (9/26/19) issue of The New York Review of Books. It reminds us that Ulysses, which among its other preoccupations details a variety of human sexual and excretory functions, repulsed many early readers, including Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats and even D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence, who celebrated lusty behavior in his own work, labeled Molly Bloom’s famous concluding soliloquy “the dirtiest,  most indecent, obscene thing ever written.” Other early readers such as T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway hailed the book as a masterpiece.

Take a look at “Ulysses on Trial,” The New York Review of Books‘ fascinating account of how publisher Bennet Cerf and ACLU lawyer Morris Ernst waged a brilliant and ultimately successful campaign to help Ulysses navigate its way around anti-obscenity laws so that Joyce’s master work could be published in the United States.

 

WHAT TERRIBLE BOOK IS THIS?

Published September 24, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Which book is being reviewed here by the editor of the London Sunday Express?

” … the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature … All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the name of Christ — blasphemies hitherto associated with the most degraded orgies of Satanism and the Black Mass.”

I’ll post the answer in a few days.