Movies: “The Fall of the House of Usher” … early examples of pushing cinematic techniques

1 11 2010

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The fall of the house of Usher” has been filmed several times. Two very early examples show how –what then were new — visual techniques are used. Only for the the cinema historians.

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The Edgar Allen Poe short story “The fall of the house of Usher”  (1839) is about two twins — Roderick and  Madeleine Usher — who live in an ancient castle. An old friend of Robert’s is asked to come, to help Robert as he does not feel well. Madeleine is getting successively weaker, and finally dies. Robert is distressed, not sure that his sister is really dead, but finally agrees to her burial. Some time later, one night, a storm breaks loose. Madeleine (or at least her apparition) appears, and Robert and Madeleine fall dead to the floor. The visitor flees the castle, and the castle falls apart and sinks into the lake.

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover

 

It is definitely a story in the Gothic tradition. Death, maybe-death, nights, storms, strange signs and indications. Now, Poe is really not a Gothic writer, but it is easy to reinterpret some of his stories as horror stories.

This has been done by the movie industry several times, with different kinds of results. A version quite well-known in its time was the 1960 Roger Corman production, which helped type-cast Vincent Price as “evil man”.

Here we have two early examples of cinematic rendering of the Usher story. They were both produced in the same year (1928), one on each side of the Atlantic,  and with different approaches and fidelity to the original story.

The American film

The American film  “The Fall of the House of Usher” was directed by Watson and Webber, and is a short film (13 minutes) that really does not bother with the story itself. It just picks up a few components (the Usher twins and the visitor; the death of Madeleine; the psychic breakdown of Roderick, the return of Madeleine (dead?, alive?), and the physical disintegration of the House of Usher).

 

Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior

Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior

 

What the movie does is to offer a portrayal of the psychic breakdown of Roderick, expressed entirely in visual images. Madeleine plays a minor role, as does the visitor. It is all about the state of mind of Roderick. A tormented mind … the pressure that it is subjected to and that it puts on itself … how it looks upon itself and the surroundings … All such things concern mental states, and this is where this film is using novel means to express mental states in images. It has obvious correlations to early German expressionistic cinema in the first half of the 1920s — e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923). The horizontal and vertical dimensions are twisted. Corners and angles are unnatural, visual patterns break our expectations, and so on.

 

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

 

But there is also a second relationship, namely to European surrealistic cinema as started in the mid 1920s — e.g. Entr’acte by René Clair (1924), La Coquille et le clergyman by Germaine Dulac (1928), Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929), L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray (1928), L’Âge d’Or by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1930).

As indicated, this film is not telling a story in the traditional sense. It can be understood in two ways. Either as an attempt to find cinematic means to express mental/psychic states, and just using one perspective on Poe’s story as basis. The other way is to see it as methods looking for an objective. Devising novel cinematic methods that break with traditional cinema techniques, … how can I put them to work, more or less as a piece of art? Yeah, perhaps as in this film. So we could equally well  look at it as a technology/technique demonstration, intended to impress with its novel ways of using camera and supporting optical tools and tricks.

 

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

 

At IMDB there are only three cinema items associated with Watson and with Webber, so what we see here was not carried much further by them into the context of movie production in the US. An interesting example, but not much more.

Conclusion

This film is of interest to those who want to see examples of the evolution of cinema … specifically what happened at the “artish bleeding edge”. Could be shown at the museum of modern art as an early example of what we now call “video art”. Now you know what this work by Watson & Webber looks like 😉

The French film

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover

 

The French movie — original title “La chute de la maison Usher” — is directed by Jean Epstein, a French director that directed movies from 1922  to 1948. The mise-en-scène we look at here is more faithful to the Poe story. Not that it is a literal transcription of the written story to the screen. No, there are many adaptations made, like turning Madeleine into the wife of Roderick instead of a sister. But most literary sources are tweaked when remade for the silver screen, so this is not a criticism of Epstein.

Is it a horror movie? Yes, and no. There are the typical ingredients of the horror movie, like fog, rain and lightning, unpleasant landscape, trees that look threatening, etc. But the film is not about an outer threat. There is no werewolf or such thing. Even the dead (?) Madeleine is not something that really frightens us. It is, again, a question of how we can frighten ourselves, how we may strain our mind so that it breaks.

The starting point of the storyline is that Roderick is obsessed with painting portraits of Madeleine. He is so focussed on these evolving portraits that he does not really notice how Madeleine is physically deteriorating. The portrait is more important … more true. “There is life in this portrait”; “This portrait is life!”. When Madeleine dies, Roderick is devastated, and not sure whether she is really dead. In the 19th century there was much worry about “like death” bodily states, where some such not-really-dead person was nevertheless  buried … so buried alive. This is the concern of Roderick. Is Madeleine really dead? He becomes more and more distressed, and then the stormy night happens, and Madeleine comes back, all goes “asunder”.

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

 

The visual rendering in this film is quite good for its time. The selection of camera angles sometimes surprises. The positioning of the entites within the rectangular view-port is innovative. But still, much of this film feels aged … a representation of what silent features of its day looked like.

Interestingly enough, Luis Buñuel has writer’s credit for this film. He soon became known (or , rather, infamous) for Un chien andalou and L’Âge d’Or, and much later for his provocative pictures in the 1950s and 1960s. The film “La chute de la maison Usher” is not a Buñuel film. He probably had only minor influence on the final result. But, most likely, Buñuel learnt a lot by being part in the creation of this movie.

Conclusion

All in all, this film succeeds in balancing the Gothic elements with traditional drama elements, and the result is a quite enjoyable experience, if you are willing to ignore a few outmoded acting techniques.

 

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin

 

Data

(1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928). Directed by: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber. Story by E.A. Poe. Starring: Herbert Stern (Roderick Usher), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline Usher), Melville (a traveller). (Movie at IMDB)

(2) “La chute de la maison Usher” (“The Fall of the House of Usher“) (1928). Directed by: Jean Epstein. Written by: Edgar Allan Poe (story), Luis Buñuel, Jean Epstein. Starring: Jean Debucourt (Sir Roderick Usher), Marguerite Gance (Madeleine Usher), Charles Lamy (Allan, The Guest), Fournez-Goffard.  (Movie at IMDB)

This page: https://whenthenightcomesfallingfromthesky.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/movies-the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher-early-examples-of-pushing-cinematic-techniques/




Movie: “Death Proof” — the footprints of a movie

11 08 2010

As part of the Grindhouse experiment, Tarantino made the movie “Death Proof“. So it has a cheap story, persons are mostly disgusting, and lots of violence. It has a few positive properties, which could convince you to waste two hours on this movie.

"Death Proof" -- poster

"Death Proof" -- poster

Short Résumé

Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) visits a roadside bar, and meets some young women. When the girls leave the bar and take off in  their economy-size car, Mike leaves in his rugged car, with another girl in the front passenger seat. He describes his car as “death proof”, meaning that the car will protect him in case of a serious crash. The events of this night end by Mike running his car head-on into the girls’ car, killing them and his passenger. Some time later, Mike tries to make another car with three girls crash, but they turn out to be his match. The film end by the girls causing Mike to  crash with his car, while the girls are unharmed.

The context

Grindhouse movies should be about cheap violence, and this is what Tarantino offers. Senseless violence for its own sake. The two episodes indicated in the résumé are shaped to lead up to violent deaths or accidents, where the man (Mike) intentionally tries to kill the girls, without any reasons other than for his own satisfaction.

It is not as silly as the convoluted companion grindhouse movie — “Planet Terror” by Robert Rodriguez — but there is nothing believable in the storyline.

"Death Proof" -- Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike

"Death Proof" -- Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike

It does break some expectations, though. One expects that women would be beautiful but stupid, passive and helpless victims of violence. The women in first episode behave in a way that in ordinary circumstances would be called self-confident, so in this way they are not completely helpless as persons. In the second episode, the women take charge, and play the same game as stuntman Mike, and are finally better at it than him. So there the women can be said to be the stronger sex.

When watching this movie, I looked for something that would reveal the hand of Tarantino. It took a long time to really detect anything that fell outside the frame of expectations of looking at a cheap B-movie. But there is one scene which is not what you would typically see in an old B-movie about psychopaths. This is in the beginning of the second episode, where the girls are sitting in a bar by the road, and for a rather long time they are just talking to each other. This is where a “Tarantino touch” revels itself. Their dialogue is as independent of the main storyline as the arguments and discussions between Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and  Vincent Vega (John Travolta) in “Pulp Fiction“, where they for instance have that extended debate about  McDonald’s in France and the  “Royale with Cheese”. The topic that the girls raise, and the way they argue, that is as refreshingly different as the debates in “Pulp Fiction“.

"Death Proof" -- The first episode: the girls at the cafe

"Death Proof" -- The first episode: the girls at the roadside bar

One could have imagined a different movie based on the same one-liner as “Death Proof”. It could have been a movie that tried to be a bit more serious, that explored the social game between the participants, where explicit violence would be the visible effects of social confrontations. That Tarantino movie is not yet here. So we are stuck with this grindhouse version, for better and for worse.

Conclusion

Seen as a thriller, “Death Proof” is not intellectually challenging. You can watch it for the car chases and car crashes, but there is little else that speaks in favour of this movie. Unless you want to spend nearly two hours to find the little bits and pieces that makes you say: “Yeah, that was  a Tarantino effect!”

Data

Death Proof”  (2007). Directed by: Quentin Tarantino; written by: Quentin Tarantino;  starring: Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd; length: 114 min; (Movie at imdb)

This Page: https://whenthenightcomesfallingfromthesky.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/movie-death-proof-the-footprints-of-a-movie/




Movie: “Planet Terror” – a nerdy horror picture

23 07 2010

Robert Rodriguez directed “Planet Terror“, using modern technology to recreate the experience that was delivered in back street movie houses in the 1960s and 1970s. It is fun to see the different ways in which it portrays a bad movie house experience, but as a horror movie it has no special good properties.

"Planet Terror" -- poster

"Planet Terror" -- poster

Short résumé

Some evil scientist invents a strange chemical that serves as a cure for soldiers that have been exposed to some toxic chemicals in a foreign war. The chemical cure is accidentally released into the air at a US Army base in Texas, the local population is exposed to this airborne chemical, and this turns them into murderous  zombies. A few persons do not get exposed, and they try to get away from this dangerous environment, by shooting everything that gets in their way. And some manage to escape. After major massacres of zombies. And massacres of the contaminated army soldiers.

Grindhouse

The term grindhouse denotes sleazy movie houses showing B-movies. Many now middle-aged persons grew up in or around such movie places. Robert Rodriguez has affectionate feelings for the grindhouse experience. This is a familiar phenomenon … when people get older they remember things they  experienced in a rosy light. If you associate  grindhouse to some satisfying experiences, then will others — who did not come into contact with grindhouse — have a good time  if they get exposed to that same experience?

"Planet Terror": Rose McGowan with machine-gun leg

"Planet Terror": Rose McGowan with machine-gun leg

Not likely. Which is why this movie did not succeed at the box office. Its origin is definitely ego-centric. Rodriguez got a kick out of doing this movie, and can no doubt give us many reasons why we should appreciate his cinematic creation. But we do not have to be triggered in the same way by the same things.

The context

Making a horror movie is easy, and can be done on an extremely low budget. Think Roger Corman, the creator of many horror movies on a shoe-string budget. Rodriguez had more money at his disposal, so could embark on more costly creation of scenes and special effects.

Well, the point of making this film was not to make yet another horror movie. It was rather to revisit the childhood experiences, when watching B-movies in a back-street movie theatre. The movies shown there were not provided in mint condition. Rather, the distributors made as few copies as possible (a way of saving costs), and then let each copy circulate for a very long time. This caused the acetates to physically degrade. There were scratches — seen as long vertical lines on the screen. There were breaks in the acetates — crudely mending it with glue caused jump in the picture. There were burnouts — the acetate stopped in the mechanisms for some reason and after a second, the acetate frame melted. There were even reels lost — unexplained jumps in the story seen on the screen.

"Planet Terror" -- poisoned soldier

"Planet Terror" -- poisoned soldier

Such experiences are now becoming extinct, as we go for distribution and exhibition in digital formats. Future generations will never know what it was to watch a bad acetate copy. But exactly that  is one of  the main goals of Rodriguez’  venture … to let us experience what a bad copy of a B movie looks like. Here we get all of the types of degrade effects mentioned above. but this time digitally simulated using modern format processing technology.

In addition, we get some fake trailers for coming features — features that do not exist, and very likely will never exist. The exception may be “Machete“, an action movie starring Danny Trejo, which has been talked about as an upcoming work by Rodriguez.

The movie “Planet Terror” is one of the two movies made concurrently to be configured into a grindhouse double feature , the other one is “Death Proof” by Quentin Tarantino. The double feature distribution did not work well in this case (the format did not fit in with the movie theatre schedules? the TV-addicted audience did not fancy a double feature?) , so they split it into two separate movies, padding each of them to get to a full length format. This did improve box office intake, but the end result was that it has so far not recovered the money invested in their production.

So, what is this “Planet Terror” really? What unique value does it offer? As indicated above, I do not find the story or the visual action interesting. From that point of view it is just another of those incoherent and meaningless horror movie  made in a week or so. We have already seen enough of those. No, the forgiving feature is that they (Rodriguez and Tarantino) tried to “age” the visual impression of their movies, so that what we visually observe is a faithful rendering of what it looked like to visit the backstreet movie houses in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Conclusion

Interesting example of what nerdy enthusiasts can achieve when they get their hands on a budget of sufficient size. They surely enjoyed making this movie. But it is of limited value for an ordinary film lover. Fans of cheap horror flicks will of course find some stimulation here, but perhaps they will also get irritated by the simulated “bad film reels”.

Data

Planet Terror”  (2007). Directed by: Robert Rodriguez; written by: Robert Rodriguez;  starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Bruce Willis (special appearance;)
length: 105 min; (Movie at imdb)

This Page: https://whenthenightcomesfallingfromthesky.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/movie-planet-terror-a-nerdy-horror-picture/




Movie: “Carnival of Souls” — horror movie with style

18 03 2010

The movie “Carnival of Souls“, made 50 years ago on a shoe-string budget, still offers some good visual impressions, and has such a clean storyline that even non-horror film addicts can enjoy it.

A short resumé of the contents is:

Mary (played by Candace Hilligoss) is believed to be a drowning victim when the car in which she and her two friends were riding was forced off a bridge. But wait – Mary later rises to the surface, moves to Utah, and gets a job as a church organist. All the while, she finds herself pursued by ghoulish apparitions. Later, when the car is recovered, Mary’s body is found in the car. A chilling ghost story.

(from FilmsAndTv)

It is an accurate description of what happens. Of course the actual movie contains more embellishments to the story. Not in the form of lots of other subplots, as the only plot we are presented with is the one centred on the character Mary. Therefore, the whole movie depends on how well this character is played, and the actor Candice Hilligoss does a good job at this. She has less than half a dozen entries in her IMDB listing of films she has participated in, so one could fear that she must have been a failure as an actor, and that therefore “Carnival of Souls” is a aalso failure.

"Carnival of Souls" movie poster.

"Carnival of Souls" movie poster.

But that is not so, for a number of reasons. Hilligoss does a very decent job at portraying the main character of the story. Specifically, she avoids over-acting in this role. Looking at the history of horror films, overacting is a big temptation that it is so easy to succumb to. By exaggerating bodily movements and facial expressions, one might think that the audience will get scared — but typically it just makes the audience feel embarrassed to look at such cheap tricks of the trade. So Hilligoss turns out to be a valuable asset of this movie.

Another reason is that the story is kept rather simple. It is not extremely convoluted, and does not get lost in lots of improbable and impossible complicated  situations. The external, physical side of the story is not very emphasised, compared to the psychological dimension. There are more interesting and challenging things happening in the minds of the characters than to their bodies. So, the way the story is composed also contributes to salvaging the movie from being a disaster.

Mary sees something ghostlike outside the car window

Mary sees something ghostlike outside the car window

There are some supernatural components to the story, as this is an horror movie, and it concerns the dead (or is it “the undead”?) Now, as dead persons, returning to our ordinary world, are supposed to be extremely frightening and horrifying, how does a horror movie director/producer choose to portray such “people” visually? We all know what the standard solution is — look at zombie movies (and there are lots of them). The director of Carnival of Souls takes another approach. He tries to do it as simple as possible. Dead persons look a little untidy, and they may have dark rings around their eyes, but that is very much all that distinguishes them visually. And the audience thanks the director for making is so simple. Again it is worth noting that the movie tries to create an uneasy psychological environment, rather that a disgusting physical environment.

The advantages mentioned above are mainly due to the concrete production decisions made when creating this movie. But, there is an underlying factor that very strongly contributes to shaping this movie. It concerns the actual budget of the movie. The budget for making the film was very small — numbers mentioned range from $17,000 to $33,000. To get some perspective on the size of this as a production budget, we can compare it to the following:

  • 1912: From the Manger to the Cross, a typical Hollywood feature, had a production cost of $ 35,000.
  • 1921: the average cost of a Hollywood feature was around $60,000.
  • 1928: (end of the silent era): production cost of an average Hollywood feature from major film studios ranged from $190,000 (Fox) to $275,000 (MGM).
  • 1930: the production cost of an  average American feature film was $375,000.
  • 1940: the average production cost of an American feature was $400,000.
  • 1945: average B westerns from Republic Pictures had production cost of about $50,000.
  • 1950: average U.S. feature production cost was $1 million.
  • 1960: average U.S. feature production cost was $2 million.
  • 2005: average Hollywood film cost is $60 million.

In this perspective, the budget for Carnival of Souls is minuscule — one might even say ridiculously small. If it had been ten times larger, it would have made sense to professional movie producers. But in this case, the professional movie industry was not involved. This is a case of a really independent production, financed by loans from friends, family, business contacts, etc.

So what was the impact of the small budget? The interesting consequence is that there were not enough resources to have ambitious special effects in the movie. In reality, there was not even a real make-up group or make-up person  involved. Everything had to be done in the most low-cost way possible. And this is what saved the movie. It keeps closely tied to the real world, as this is the only kind of prop that was cheap to use; it was, so to speak, really “off the shelf”. And having the story evolve in the real world is what makes the viewer feel uneasy — “this looks like it could happen  in my world”.

There is another similar case of budget constraints in the more recent movie history. “The Blair Witch Project” was also made with practically no budget, so had to create the frightening effects with the simplest means (like piling up a few sticks on the ground). Its production budget was $60,000 (!), but generated a gross income of $250,000,000. Pretty good earnings!

The sequel — “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” — did not succeed as well, which I would say depends on the fact that they got a big budget and spent it on costly production activities aimed at creating the terrifying feeling. And that destroyed the creepiness that was so characteristic of the original Blair Witch movie. The production cost was $15,000,000 and the gross income was $50,000,000.

OK, the moral is that a big budget can ruin a horror movie. And a small budget can be an advantage.

Arriving at Saltair

Arriving at Saltair

Well, financially speaking, Carnival of Souls was not a commercial success. It played during a short period in drive-in movie theatres and other typical B-movie establishments, and then it was taken out of circulation. For twenty years it was never seen, until it resurrected as a cult movie in the late 1980’s. It was re-evaluated, and gained a growing community of admirers. It was later released — as a restored version — on DVD by Criterion Collection in 2000.

The abandoned Saltair amusement park

The abandoned Saltair amusement park

One of the inspirations for the movie was the Saltair amusement establishment outside Salt Lake City, Utah. The director had by chance passed by this deserted place, and got a creepy feeling from the big construction, empty but still standing. The ending of the real story line takes place in Saltair, as the location where the dead meet the living — just like contemporary (living) visitors met the dead building.

Saltair was long deserted, of a grandiose size, and located in an empty landscape, and this made it automatically a suitable setting that felt uncomfortable for the viewers. But the movie also succeeds in using real urban settings — populated by ordinary people doing ordinary things —  to create a disquieting feeling. The main way of doing this is by manipulating the sound track, making the city silent. Again, the viewer is not served a straight answer to the question: is this real silence in the city, or is it only silence in the head of Mary, the main character?  Such simple solutions to a production challenge are surprisingly successful.

In the scenes that are located in the city-scape of Salt Lake City, there is a definite feeling of  a semi-documentary, improvised movie, creating a very direct connection between the viewer and the scenes viewed. It is easy to see some similarities with early works by John Cassavetes, like Shadows (1959), though the intimacy of Cassavetes cannot be seen in Herk Harvey, the director of Carnival of Souls.

But it is an indication that Harvey  was familiar with, and inspired by some of the nouvelle vague movements in  film creation in those days.

Conclusion

Astonishingly enough, the movie has production values far exceeding expectations. It is definitely not one of the run-of-the-mill horror movies that were produced en masse in the 1950s and 1960s.  So go get a copy of it, and have an enjoyable evening!

Data

Carnival of Souls” (1962). Directed by Herk Harvey; written by John Clifford & Herk Harvey; starring Candace Hilligoss (movie at imdb)

This web page: https://whenthenightcomesfallingfromthesky.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/movie-carnival-of-souls-horror-movie-with-style/