July 26, 2014

DRAKULA HALALA (1921) - a Dracula movie before NOSFERATU

(1921, Hungary, Drakula halála)

So you think you know the history of horror films? I don't!

There I was, thinking Nosferatu (1922) was the first ever Dracula film. It was a surprise to see on Twitter a photo of an actor playing Dracula in an earlier film! This is definitely a movie worth highlighting, despite The Death of Dracula currently being a lost film. On reading more about it, I discovered I should have known about it already...

My interest in horror films stretches back to the origins of the genre. Early zombie movies, demons, werewolves, vampires... and like with the first existing silent Frankenstein film (1910), you can then delve back further to Mary Shelley's novel and her inspirations, the mythologies and technologies around her as a teenager.

Many elements of horror films are predated by plays, novels, newspaper serials, art, folk stories and legends and back and back... but the first film in any genre holds a special place. While vampire-like creatures appeared in silent films as far back as Georges Méliès' short films in the late 1890s, when did the character of Dracula make his screen debut?

After years of reading about vampire movies, I presumed that the first Dracula movie was Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's unauthorised German adaption released in 1922. While the names in the novel had been changed to try and dodge a lawsuit, the film lifts most of its story and characters from Bram Stoker. When his widow successfully sued the filmmakers, it was ordered that all prints of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, they missed a few and Nosferatu has now been released on blu-ray!

But for decades, there'd been a search for the lost Hungarian film Drakula halála (translated as The Death of Dracula). While there was no trace of any surviving footage, a researcher found a 'filmbook', a novelisation (pictured above) in the Hungarian National Library in Budapest. This, together with magazines of the time, have given us the story and a few photographs, proving that there was a film based on the Dracula novel, first released in 1921.

Released in 1921, it was directed by Károly Lajthay (above) and starred Paul Askonas as Drakula and Lene Myl as Mary, the haunted heroine. Lajthay had written the script with Mihály Kertész, better known to us when he moved to America and changed his name to Michael Curtiz (!), directing classic Hollywood films such as Mystery of the Wax Museum and Casablanca! It was shot on location in Vienna and in studios in Budapest.

The novelisation probably gives us the full story of this fifty to sixty minute film, (the existing photographs match two scenes in this book). The virginal Mary is haunted by the demonic Drakula after she encounters him in a lunatic asylum. The man (possibly deluded that he thinks he's Dracula) recoils from the cross, but later kidnaps Mary for a satanic 'wedding' back at his castle.

While the plot doesn't follow Stoker's novel, many situations are familiar from it. Dracula's immortality, his castle, his brides, Mary's suffering health after meeting him, the asylum... possibly the story elements were juggled to dodge any copyright issue?

The filmbook's cover art shows Drakula with fangs, talons and a 'bat ear' hairline, but the portrait of Paul Askonas as Drakula (above) only shows us his cape, wild hair and eyebrows, with a hairline that looks a little like bat ears. There's a chance to see Askonas in action in The Hands of Orlac (1924), where he plays Conrad Veidt's butler.

In this photo of the central character, Mary Land, actress Lene Myl is barely visible. There are reports that her part was also refilmed with another actress when the film was re-released three years later! So, maybe two versions of the film, both missing, presumed lost, in the second world war...

But why didn't Florence Stoker also sue the makers of Drakula Halala? One theory is that she never got to hear of it, let alone see it. But maybe it was too dissimilar from the novel. Vlad Drakul was a local historical figure, so it would be hard to base a lawsuit on the name either. It's also intriguing that Bela Lugosi, born in Hungary, could have seen the film, ten years before he played Dracula.

Looking back through my books and magazines - I discovered that I should have known about this film all along. Radu Florescu included it in the filmography of the revised 1994 edition of 'In Search of Dracula'. Only a small mention, but Alan Frank had also noted it in his 'Monsters and Vampires' (above), which I've had since 1976! Perhaps I repeatedly dismissed the film's existence because it could never be seen? But just because we can't see it any more doesn't discount its place in horror history.

My most unforgiveable oversight is forgetting about the massive three-page article in the October 1998 Cinefantastique magazine (volume 30 number 7/8) which carries the full story on the discovery of the filmbook in the Budapest library. Perhaps I was too excited about the next season of The X Files... 

The lesson. Read and re-read your chosen subjects. The answers might already be around you!

Incidentally, there's this even more extensive article about Drakula Halala by Gary D Rhodes. Published in 2010, this free-to-download PDF also includes the first ever English translation of the entire filmbook - the only way to enjoy this lost movie, as well as better versions of the surviving photographs.

This Hungarian site includes other artefacts, like adverts for the film.

(Thanks also to Emilio J Fernandez @EmilioJFernndez for resetting my horror knowledge with a single tweet!)

July 25, 2014

KONGA returns! Paul Stockman - the man behind the masks

Out of the Konga suit and into Doctor Blood's Coffin!

You may have seen Paul Stockman's most famous roles, but not his face. He played the undead occupant of Doctor Blood's Coffin (1961) and the giant gorilla-chimp in Konga 
(1961). In his brief spate of screen roles, he also appeared with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. After a break of twenty-five years, he's acting again and has just started making public appearances.

The London Film Conventions are currently inviting celebrities as interesting as the gigantic Film and Comic Cons, focussing on British cinema and TV from the sixties and seventies. I couldn't believe it when they announced that Paul was appearing. He was a zombie in the first zombie film I ever saw! Made up as the walking dead, his photos were in monster magazines and books on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Looking up his other credits I was amazed to see that he'd also been in Konga. Not just in the film, but in the gorilla suit! I've written maybe too much about Konga already... because it's a British giant monster movie, that it starred Michael Gough and that it was shot at Merton Park Studios. But here was a chance to meet Konga himself!

The convention, held as usual in the Westminster Methodist Hall opposite the Houses of Parliament, was on July 19th. Incongruously parked next to a row of comedy actresses was the man himself. Defying his age of 82, Paul Stockman has been racking up new screen credits since 2010 but of course, I was more interested in 1961. 

Paul is friendly, enthusiastic and still tall! He described how he got the role of Konga, when producer Herman Cohen put out a casting call for actors who were six feet tall. About fifty guys turned up and Cohen enters the room with the box with the gorilla suit in it (which he'd hired from the US). For the suit to fit, the actor would have to be exactly six feet tall, to the inch. This disqualified most that were present and, of the three remaining, Paul was the only one with brown eyes, so he got the job!

I complemented him on his performance in Konga. Despite his eyes being set deep under the mask, the lighting always catches them, revealing his cheeky, rather human actions during his scenes, adding an intentionally humorous layer to the film.

He remembers the main sound stage at Merton Park as being quite small and that he didn't have too many scenes with the rest of the cast, as he was stomping around miniature sets and doing blue screen work. I asked if he was a stuntman but that's not the case. Actors simply get asked to do their best, even when they're destroying large-scale models that happen to be on fire!

Paul remembers being roughly directed by the assistant director 'Buddy', being manhandled into position rather than asked. But Konga was paying him three times what he'd been getting in other roles. And when filming had wrapped, it was Buddy who rang him up having suggested him for Doctor Blood's Coffin. Another ten days work!

The downside, and the main reason I didn't associate him with the role, is that he starred in Konga without being credited! Not in the end credits or on the posters, for the ludicrous reason that Cohen wanted the audience to think that Konga was a real gorilla!

But onto Doctor Blood's Coffin, where he plays Hazel Court's deceased husband, secretly being revived by renegade surgeon Kieron Moore. This included location work in Cornwall, in the mines, as well as a London studio. Paul remembers the Cornish winter, made colder by the latex rubber that was applied to his face being kept in the fridge overnight. It wasn't a mask as such, but made from scratch every day. Mixed in with the latex was ether, which seeped out of the make-up under the studio lights. He remembers lying on slab, to be operated on by Dr. Blood, and falling asleep because of the fumes!

Appearing with him on the day was a full-size replica of the make-up and costume that was made by an American fan (photo at top). I suggested that his image in the role was one of the few realistic looking zombies at a time when there very few zombie movies.

Konga is on DVD in the UK and US, but Doctor Blood is only on DVD-R in the US (see my review). But later that day, I discovered that Doctor Blood's Coffin will shortly be released on DVD in the UK for the first time.

Paul Stockman (left), with Peter Cushing in The Skull

Of course, Paul has many other credits and is currently adding to them. I also didn't think to ask him about when he appeared, without make-up, with Peter Cushing in Freddie Francis' The Skull (1965). But Paul did mention how he'd worked with Christopher Lee on their first film, Penny and the Pownall Case (1948), when Lee was 25 and Paul was just 15. What a way to start!

So, keep an eye out for Paul Stockman on TV, in movies and at movie conventions for your own chance to meet a very charming monster!

(Thanks to Lee Kaplan, for his ideas, enthusiasm and actually wanting to read this!)

July 21, 2014

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) - an early 'modern' horror

(1933, USA)

Unique two-strip Technicolor horror is grossly distorted on DVD

I love Wax Museum because the humour is modern, the colour scheme almost unique and that it can still chill and shock despite being over 80 years old. It bridges the gothic (or German expressionistic) look of early Universal horror with a modern metropolitan setting - eradicating the safety net that horror only happens in far away countries or the distant past.

Fast-talking, wise-cracking Glenda Farrell steals Fay Wray's limelight with a storming performance as a tough, nosey news reporter. She's chasing a suicide story unaware it's linked to serial murder and body-snatching, centred around the newly-opened House of Wax...

With a twisty plot, racy dialogue (Glenda asks a policeman, "How's your sex life!"), distorted, creepy sets (from production designer Anton Grot), dynamic camerawork, this is a super example of an early ‘talkie’ - the colour helps you forget just how early this is. The problems of unwieldy cameras and the hiding of microphones (spoofed in Singin' In The Rain) have all been surmounted only five years after the first talkie, The Jazz Singer.

Lionel Atwill ruled many movies as a black-hearted villain, but here balances his character with sympathy for the pain of his being crippled in a fire, no longer able to walk or sculpt - his hands burnt so badly that they're no longer useful.

Wax Museum is a classic of 'pre-code' Hollywood, made before the Hayes Code censorship kicked in, that toned down Hollywood for several decades with a huge list of 'don'ts'. Glenda's character starts off nursing a New Year's hangover, a police friend is flaunting a ‘naughty’ magazine and one of the villains is explicitly a cocaine addict, as well as such irreverent immoralities as alcohol during prohibition and marrying for money. Mercy!

Briefly, films talked about sex and drugs, and horror was that much more horrifying. Allowed to be sadistic, shocking and sexual. So too was the advertising, posters and publicity photos used nudity - substituting naked statues for actual women (see above and below).

After years of officially being a lost horror film, a single print of Wax Museum was discovered. We're therefore at the mercy of any damage that this only print has ever endured. Any scenes where a few frames are missing also means that snippets of dialogue are also lost. I rewatched the film, comparing it to the scriptbook (above) to discover that, while it reprints the final script, much of the dialogue was then altered during the shoot. No major changes, but perhaps of interest to how director Michael Curtiz improvised or improved dialogue on the day. This book also has an extended look at the origination of the script that inspired so many similar projects and two direct remakes.

Mystery of the Wax Museum isn't available on its own DVD, but is included on the 1954 House of Wax DVD and blu-ray, as an extra! Unfortunately it's not included in high definition.

Electronically tweaked colours on DVD (left), 
original two-strip on laserdisc (right)

Wax Museum was filmed in an experimental colour technique, two-strip Technicolor, where only red and green elements of the colour spectrum could be recorded. It needed twice as much film, but red and green were chosen because they could accurately capture Caucasian flesh tones.

The bad news is, that on the DVD and blu-ray releases, this rare colour process has been electronically tweaked to artificially include blue, as well as the original red and green, resulting in a surreal, over-saturated effect. The original delicate flesh tones are now a surreal, ruddy red.

On DVD, blue has been added (left) to scenes 
that should only be red and green (right)

Some sets and costumes are now royal blue, a colour that wouldn't have been seen in the cinema. This technique fails to make the film resemble a normal colour film, and deprives us of seeing how 'two-strip' looked. The only official release to use the original elements was the laserdisc release, of both Doctor X and Wax Museum, both filmed in two-strip. Mystery of the Wax Museum was originally written as a follow-up to Doctor X, making this a very suitable pairing, both starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

MGM Laserdisc double-bill

By the way, the two-strip release of Doctor X has been on DVD a couple of times, though the alternate black-and-white version (that uses different camera angles and alternately filmed takes) hasn't hit home video yet.

(This is my updated look at the film and its availability. Nine years ago, this article looked like this...)

BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (2013) - intense adaption of Frank Miller's vision

(2013, USA)

An animated Batman for adults!

There's a new problem in Gotham City, an army of mutant criminals on a worsening crimewave. Just as Commissioner Gordon finally retires, Batman appears after a ten-year absence, but is perhaps too old to fight crime anymore. The 'masked vigilante' also faces hostility from the media, politicians and the new chief of police... 

Even after all the Bat-movies and Bat-TV I've seen, I had a lot of fun watching this. Frank Miller's legendary reinterpretation of the Batman universe has been adapted as a feature-length animation. An honest attempt to be faithful to the original comic results in a very different approach to the character seen in the many previous animated Batmans, and intended for even more mature audiences than Christopher Nolan's sombre live-action trilogy.

Early edition of the graphic novel

The release of the 1986 Frank Miller story, together with 'Watchmen', was back when comics became acceptable for adults (outside of Japan), and the 'graphic novel' became a thing - a comic that looked like a book and a new way to read a limited-run story, as a collection. 

Miller simply acknowledged that times had changed in America, dragging Batman into a far more realistic metropolis. This isn't to say that he distorts the DC characters. He retains their origins but refuses to ignore their real adversaries - automatic weapons, politics and overwhelming organised crime. Each more of a problem than colourfully costumed villains and their themed burglaries. 

When first published, there were shockwaves caused by the changes made to the friendly neighbourhood superhero, still strongly associated with Adam West's tongue-in-cheek man in tights. Batman was getting old. Ronald Reagan was President. Robin was a girl! Superman was a dick! Batman angry, Batman kill! It smashed many preconceptions with interesting angles. Fresh, controversial, hard to dismiss - it tempted an older audience back to 'comic books'.

The Dark Knight Returns revived interest in Batman as a franchise, providing a new angle unexplored in film or TV. The Tim Burton films could now be dark, with Batman (1989) a depressed, introspective loner. Surprisingly, Bruce Wayne's unrelenting cynicism was also carried into Batman - The Animated Series (1992).

Now there's this animated adaption of the assault on the Batman mythos. Throughout this feature-length adventure, the story regularly warrants the 15 certificate, with violence, madness and sexuality usually excised from Bat-animation.

Some of the highlights include an even more aggressive Batmobile than Nolan's Tumbler, the brutal Bat-Tank! Big enough to hold an endless supply of firepower. A slamdown battle with Superman (but how?). And this insane villain - a topless Nazi machine-gunner!

Even now, adapting this story as animation is risky. It's notable how few animated films are restricted to the over-twelves, the exception being anime. I struggle to think of any British or American animation for adults since the X-rated era of Ralph Bakshi's feature films, like Fritz the Cat. Apart from the 1990's MTV Animation that brought us the complex mind-games of The Maxx and the fetishistic gunplay of Aeon Flux.

Now, adult animation is mostly TV comedy that dare to swear. South Park then Family Guy wallow in occasionally bloody, gross-out humour. Hilarious though they are, watching The Maxx again reminded me how exceptional serious stories are with mature, psychological depth.

Bruce Timm cartoon combining everything
that would be rejected by the TV network 

Of course there are restrictions on what children should see in TV shows and Batman - The Animated Series worked hard to make exciting stories that could also interest older viewers. They did this with rounded characters, a downbeat Batman, fast, intricate stories, beautiful design work, a superb voice cast and by pushing the action as far as possible.

But here's a rare chance to experience Batman without those limits.

The Dark Knight Returns was first released on DVD and blu-ray as Part One in 2012 and Part Two in 2013. It's now available as a single Deluxe Edition (at top). A misleading pity that the generic cover art on all these editions don't relate to the style of animation, which is more in line with Miller's designs.

July 09, 2014

THE LODGER (1927) - Hitchcock's riff on The Ripper...

(1927, UK)

Alfred Hitchcock's earliest thriller is far from silent in this new restoration 

While Alfred Hitchcock's earliest films as a director have recently been restored by the BFI, fans of his thrillers shouldn't delve back any further than The Lodger, where his aptitude for innovative technical style and plot twists in the search for thrills, chills, cheeky dark humour and blondes first meshed.

It begins, like Frenzy, with a body discovered at London's Embankment. As a string of serial murders slowly creep across London, a mysterious figure clutching a surgical bag arrives at a lodging house. (Hitchcock lays it on rather thick at this point, with an introduction that echoes Cesar appearing from inside the coffin in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). The new lodger demands that photos of women be removed from his room. Dialogue further hints that he doesn't like women and the possibility that he's "a bit queer", but Hitchcock also cast a gay actor, Ivor Novello, in the role. I have a suspicion that Hitch, and many other casting directors since, add an extra layer of 'mental anomaly' by casting gay men as psycho-killers. See also Farley Granger in Rope and Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

The 2013 restoration of The Lodger was badly needed - the image was noticeably deteriorated on the National Film and Television Archive print. But the replacement of all original titles and cards with new digital titles, animated as if they have film weave, is presumably a necessary evil. An overuse of tinting in the opening scenes extends to two colours being used - which I doubt was ever possible at the time. While the tinting calms down, and even allows some black and white scenes to creep in, a more distracting element pervades the whole film...

The music has beautiful melodies, but they continue unabated over too many dramatic turning points when the mood has obviously changed. It wallpapers over the emotional content of scenes, certainly not complementing them. A couple of songs are used, proving to me why this technique hasn't been used before. It's really very hard to follow performance and story and read intertitles when you're simultaneously listening to lyrics.

The music repeatedly echoes themes from North By Northwest, a misguided reference to a much later Hitchcock thriller that knowingly signals far too early that this is a 'wrong man' story, rather than a 'killer on the loose'. The light theme of romantic adventure dissipates the housekeeper's terror and the suspense of the heroine alone with the suspected killer.

Admittedly, the image has been miraculously salvaged, but I'm certainly hanging onto this 2009 DVD (of the National Film and Television Archive print, before the new digital restoration) for the more traditional soundtrack and a record of how it actually looked on film.

It may have been this new soundtrack, but my long-held impression of The Lodger as a tense story soon dissipated after the opening scenes. The cosiness and light comedy of the parlour, a love triangle and not many more thrills after the family's initial suspicions of a murderer in their midst. The thrust of the original novel has been compromised and is better served with far more psychological terror in the 1944 adaption starring Laird Cregar (below).

The Lodger (1944) is also set earlier than Hitchcock's film, placing it back in the era of The Ripper as well as the novel. Cregar's performance is eerily brilliant and together with director John Brahm's astonishing injections of sexual motive, this is by far a better adaption.

Catching up on a spate of Jack The Ripper documentaries on TV about ten years ago, I was puzzled to see a 'new' theory being floated that the murderer disappeared so quickly because he lived in local lodgings. I saw nothing new in that idea because the author of The Lodger had suggested it a hundred years earlier! Indeed, Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel was the first to dramatise the case.

With the 1927 The Lodger, students of Hitchcock will find plenty of foreshadowing of the master's later themes and motifs, and some interesting visual techniques that bridge the gap between the German filmmakers he admired and his own style and innovation. But this is a compromised restoration to try and enjoy it with.