Sunday, December 30, 2012

Isle of the Dead

Val Lewton's journey through darkness and death continues in Isle of the Dead. This is one of the most unusual settings for a Lewton film: the First Balkan War of 1912-13. The Ottoman Empire was disintegrating in the face of unified attack, the last remnants of the conqueror of and successor to the Eastern Roman Empire tottering on the brink of oblivion. Fittingly, from a historical standpoint, it was falling at the hands of a culture even older than it: Greece. The film begins in the aftermath of a battle.

Greek General Pherides - played by Boris Karloff - stands in judgment of one of his officers. For failing to ensure all his troops were available when needed, the punishment is death by suicide. It matters not that this officer is an old friend; his failure brought danger to the army, and, by extension, Greece itself. For that, Pherides can grant no clemency. The safety of the army and Greece is paramount to Pherides.

An American journalist, embedded with the Greek army, has been interviewing Pherides. They tour the battlefield, taking stock of the grim results of the day's proceedings. Bodies by the cartload are dragged to mass burials to prevent the spread of plague; disease knows no boundaries, takes no sides. Such a threat to his troops and his country cannot be allowed by Pherides.

The walk by the general and the journalist takes them to a strangely serene scene. A small island stands not far from the shore, Greek buildings standing timeless and beautiful so near to such death and destruction. Pherides recalls this is where his wife was interred years ago, and the two decide to visit her grave.

Soon, though, it is obvious that death and destruction has visited this island, too, though in different form. The mausoleum that housed the body of Pherides' wife has been broken into, the coffins smashed open long ago. A brief investigation into the night-clad island reveals a house inhabited by an archeologist, Swiss now but born Greek, and his guests, a British couple, the young woman hired to help the British woman, another Englishman, and an older Greek woman who runs the household. The lone Englishman falls ill, and by morning he's dead. From then on, death looms over all - the plague that Pherides dreaded has taken hold of the island.

Pherides summons his army's doctor, who confirms the plague, and quarantines the island. The old woman suspects the young woman to be the cause of the evil, a vorvolaka, a type of vampire from Greek folklore. Some scoff, but others, including, eventually, Pherides, take her warnings more and more seriously, especially as more and more inhabitants of the house fall prey to the plague.

As with all of Lewton's films, shadows dominate both visually and narratively. There is some remarkable cinematic use of shadow and darkness in many shots, especially in the last third of the film. The depth of the darkness in which some characters are submerged is surprising, given the time period. But beyond the shadows created by the lighting, there are the shadows on the souls of the characters. Ancient superstition creeps back to life in the present, nightmares come literally true, and dark prophecies become self-fulfilling. By the end, the old gods themselves, Hermes and Poseidon, seem to make their presence felt, though that presence is much more sinister than what is found in Bulfinch.

Karloff gives a solid, effective performance. His Pherides is a war-hardened pragmatist, though he slips into superstition as the old woman's whisperings about gods of old and monsters of legend seem to come true as he watches. He is used to being in control - of himself, of his men, of destiny itself, in the form of Greece throwing off its shackles. When confronted by that which he cannot control, he strives even harder to bring order from chaos...though his efforts prove to be in vain. He is a complex character, as many of Karloff's characters are, and Karloff brings a rich texture to him.

The last twenty minutes or so of this movie creeped me out. The use of shadow is so effective that I found myself reaching to turn on lights as the darkness unsettled me. But it's not just the use of shadow and light that makes Lewton's films so powerful. This film, like his others, also makes use of sound in a very deft way. The film is quiet, with characters speaking in low tones or softly, the wind rustling subtly, the dripping of water sounding like a metronome. As horror descends, this quiet causes the viewer to brace for what seems the inevitability of loudness. When that loudness comes, it is stark and tearing, slashing across the sensibilities of the viewer, so that when the quietness returns, it is no comfort.

This is unequivocally a masterwork by Lewton. The storyline is simple on the face of it, but complex with the mixture of characters who all have their own motives, the grim setting, and the ambiguity of what really happened. Lewton's films always leave it up to the viewer to decide if the supernatural was present, or if everything had a rational explanation. In this movie, in particular, this ambiguity lends the ending a certain frisson of horror that lingers long after the movie is over.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Christmas Carol and Alastair Sim

I didn't want to let the blog languish too long here in the holiday season, so I thought I'd mention Alastair Sim's turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1951's A Christmas Carol. Actually, the film was called Scrooge in Great Britain, and it's an indication of how powerful Sim's performance is; his Scrooge dominates the movie.

That might seem like a no-brainer, the notion that Scrooge would loom over any adaptation of Dickens' Christmas classic. Still, many versions seem more concerned with the fantastic elements and structure of the narrative than with the characters. Sim's portrayal of Scrooge eschews the often cartoonish way the character is shown, and is, for my money, the most naturalistic and believable screen Scrooge.

Rather than the screeching, opaque character that inhabits most versions, Sim's Scrooge is world-weary, sarcastic, and bitter. There is a history to his harsh worldview, a background that is often lost in the portrayals by lesser actors. Certainly those movies may show that backstory, as revealed in the journey to Christmas Past that all such films must take, but Sim lives in that backstory, evoking a real human with reasons for his hateful demeanor.

We see a character arc for Scrooge in the Christmas Past sequences that is remarkable for how well it shows Scrooge's gradual descent from a decent, even idealistic, young man - portrayed in the earliest flashbacks by George Cole, who gives a performance that is often subtle and effective, and which seamlessly melds into Sim's - into the misanthrope of later years. The movie doesn't beat the viewer over the head with the notion of nurture vs. nature. We see Scrooge molded into the man he becomes by circumstances and by his own conscious, increasingly cynical decisions. We see a glimmer of decency, of likability, linger far into his adulthood, but it also seems inevitable, and almost profoundly sad, that he will become the Scrooge we meet at film's beginning.

I've often thought about whether the epiphany Scrooge experiences is too quick, too unnatural. I've seen this movie many times over the years, and that has always been the part that gave me pause. My most recent viewing, which I did with an eye towards keeping in mind my misgivings about Scrooge's metamorphosis at the end, revealed something that hadn't occurred to me before. The giddiness with which Sim shows Scrooge reacting to the knowledge of being alive and well on Christmas day made perfect sense now. It was not just pure existential relief, but also the Scrooge of old was finally able to resurface after being tightly held behind walls built over a lifetime. This younger-in-spirit Scrooge suddenly saw a chance to make new decisions, new choices, that would lead to a new life. It was pure joy out of being released, or, more accurately, releasing himself, from spiritual chains he'd accumulated over the years, the very type of chains that burdened Marley beyond the veil between life and death. It was Sim's deft, nuanced portrayal that made this all clear.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Seventh Victim

Val Lewton produced a number of films in rapid succession during World War Two, which was no small feat. Even more remarkable is the quality of these pictures. Plenty of Poverty Row producers could churn out programmers at a steady clip, but Lewton was one of the rare few producers who could do so and still have the results be well-crafted and artistic. The Seventh Victim is, for me, one of his most memorable. I tend to say that about all of Lewton's films, but really, this one may be his most unique.

Seventeen-year-old Mary learns that the tuition hasn't been paid by her sister for her boarding school, and rather than accept an offer to work off further tuition, she resolves to go to New York to find her elusive sibling. She soon finds herself immersed in a more sinister mystery than she could have imagined.

Mary's sister, Jacqueline, has sold off her cosmetics manufacturing business and disappeared. Mary's search for her sister quickly descends into a shadowy world, literally and figuratively. A private detective decides to help her, but he finds that he's bitten off more than he can chew. Mary finds further assistance from her sister's psychiatrist, her fiance, and a poet, all in New York's Greenwich Village. Ultimately, Mary finds her sister, loses her, then finds her again, and learns that Jacqueline has run afoul of an evil cult. The resolution of this conflict will lead to one of the most downbeat endings in a mainstream Hollywood production of the 1940s.

This movie's ending is one that initially startled me. That's it? I asked myself after my first viewing of it. Did I miss something? It just didn't end like a '40s movie usually did. It's a bleak worldview, but memorable. It's the culmination of a strangely-woven plot, full of symbolism. Lewton's stamp is clearly here, with understated acting, a quiet atmosphere, inky shadows, and characters with dark secrets. The film is short, not much more than an hour, but as with Lewton's other films, it is packed with atmosphere.

The Seventh Victim continues Lewton's string of films that present richly-nuanced characters who seem to have had a life before the film. We viewers dip into their lives for a brief glimpse, with little explained but much shown. We see enough to believe these characters are people with reasons for doing what they do, but mostly we never see what those reasons are. Each character is a cypher, with a backstory we'll never learn but which is clearly present.

I've mentioned the dreamy nature of Lewton's films before. The Seventh Victim is as quietly nightmarish as his other films. Strange symbols, hidden motivations, and death and danger lurking in unexpected corners all combine to infuse the film with an oppressive blanket of inevitability. Perhaps it was the times; World War II was in the throes of its most intense years, the world teetering on the brink of disaster, as this film, and most of Lewton's others, were in production. The world must have seemed to be descending into damnation, not just to Lewton's characters, but to Lewton himself. It must have seemed like an endless nightmare, and this is reflected in films like The Seventh Victim.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Walked with a Zombie

It's striking how brief this 1943 Val Lewton-produced film is, considering how much content it contains. In 68 minutes, it manages to establish a sense of place, flesh out several characters, and evoke moods of dread and mystery. Somehow it also manages to clip along smartly as it does all this, yet the movie feels as if it moves languidly, like a dream that morphs into a nightmare.

Betsy, a Canadian nurse hired to tend to Mrs. Holland, wife of a wealthy sugar plantation owner, arrives on the Caribbean island of San Sebastian. She is quickly drawn into a strange tale of a love triangle involving Paul Holland, the plantation owner, his half-brother, Wesley Rand, and Holland's wife, Jessica. When Wesley and Jessica attempted to be together, Paul stood in their way. Soon after, Jessica was struck down by a fever that left her in a catatonic state, able to move and respond to simple directions, but unspeaking and, perhaps, unfeeling. As Betsy learns more about the family strife, she also meets the mother of Paul and Wesley, a surprisingly hale, but unsurprisingly intelligent woman who helps tend to the health of the islanders. Betsy finds herself falling for Paul, and decides to help him by bringing his wife back to her senses. This eventually leads her to seek out the services of the island's houngan, or voodoo priest. There, the houngan and the houngan's followers recognize Jessica for what she is - a zombie. From then on, the love triangle is brought to a head, with powerful forces vying for Jessica. On one side is the ancient voodoo religion, on the other modern medicine, but perhaps more powerful is the other force in play: love, between Betsy and Paul, between Wesley and Jessica, and the mother of Paul and Wesley for her sons, manifesting in hatred and a need for revenge.

The film surprises with its direct and, for its time, unflinching look at a culture descended from slaves. When Betsy listens to the story of how slaves were brought to the island, she awkwardly answers that at least they were brought to a beautiful place. The buggy-driver who has also been a de facto tour guide simply agrees, the history of oppression sitting silently between them.

I was also surprised to find, when I listened to a bit of commentary about the film, that San Sebastian is not a real place. The movie creates this place and gives it a life and culture of its own. It's a believable setting, and I'm amazed how strongly established it is in such a short film.

The film has an air of fate and destiny about it, as all of Val Lewton's films do. The voodoo scenes reinforce this, especially as they are shown with seriousness and respect, giving the religion its due as a deeply held faith. I can't claim to know much about voodoo, but the scenes in this film seem to show evidence of the filmmakers making an effort to bring some authenticity to the subject.

Besides Jessica, there is another zombie in the film. Darby Jones should be noted for his looming presence as Carre-Four. His protruding eyes are unblinking and lifeless. Silent, emotionless, and moving with a slow relentlessness, this performance seems to be a forerunner of George Romero's zombies in Night of the Living Dead. But is Carre-Four a true zombie, in the sense that we know the term? Is he, in fact, undead?

That is one of the most intriguing things about Val Lewton's films, the possibility that the supernatural is at work...or not. The supernatural is strongly implied, but is not necessary for the events depicted. This is addressed directly in this film, when Paul and Wesley's mother is revealed to have feet in both the world of voodoo and in the world of science. Do these forces of magic work due to a power beyond our ken, or do they work because we believe they do? Lewton leaves the question open.

 This is a solid, mysterious film. One can see its influence on films that came after, with expressionistic lighting and understated performances. Most of the characters seem lifeless, in a sense, with strong emotions expressed quietly. Most of the characters, too, seem to move in an almost trance-like state, whether arguing or lost in the throes of religious ecstasy. I Walked with a Zombie is a title that is far more exploitative than the film it is hung on, but it now seems integral to it. It is fascinating and unsettling, and is one of the best of Val Lewton's efforts.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Way Up Middle-earth: The Grey Mountains

We go now from the vibrant far Southern reaches of Middle-earth, to the cold, windswept, mountainous North. One-time home to a Dwarven kingdom, it became the home to some of Middle-earth's most dangerous creatures: Dragons. These are the Grey Mountains.
The Withered Heath is the basin-shaped area between arms of the Grey Mountains to the North. Erebor, or the Lonely Mountain, is just south of central on this map, with the Long Lake on the Southern edge, and Mirkwood to the West.
Removed from much of the grand history of Middle-earth, the Grey Mountains nevertheless played an important role. They loomed in the distance from Mirkwood and Erebor, a haven for threats to the Free Peoples.

 While Dragons were the most spectacular of the region's inhabitants, Orcs also came to infest it, and doubtlessly they assumed ownership of the Dwarven halls delved under the mountains, once the Dwarves fled or were killed. That is, the Orcs took ownership of the fortresses the Dragons did not take for themselves. From then on, the folk of Northern Mirkwood and the surrounding lands had to be wary of attack from the North, drawing attention away from Sauron's machinations in the South.

Within the Grey Mountains is a vast plain called the Withered Heath. This desolate land is the stomping grounds of the Dragons, where they fight and, presumably, mate, far from the eyes of Elves and Men. They seem largely content to stay there, though occasionally one may decide to foray South and seize treasure for its own. The greatest of these conquerors was Smaug the Golden, who took the Lonely Mountain as his home, driving away and killing the Dwarves there, as well as making a ghost town of Dale. Smaug was the greatest of his kind in the Third Age of Middle-earth, but that is not to say his brethren in the Grey Mountains were of no consequence; without doubt similar scenes of destruction took place in Dwarven holds there, too.

This is one of my favorite Middle-earth Roleplaying books. It takes a region that Tolkien gave a little detail about, and manages to flesh it out in a way that seems appropriate to the setting. It's also interesting in its own right, separate from Middle-earth. It's a wild, rugged place by the time of Bilbo and Frodo, bleak and forbidding. The book details Dwarven underground cities and fortresses, an Orc fortress, a Mannish village, and the lairs of some of the Dragons who live in the Grey Mountains and the Withered Heath. An overview of the climate, flora and fauna is given, with Dragons as the apex predators, but bears, lions, and wolves also prowl about, preying on the reindeer, elk, and goats indigenous to the area. It's an area rich in adventure possibilities.
...and I didn't even mention the giants...
 Add in that far to the West, commanding the gap where the Grey Mountains end and the northernmost point of the Misty Mountains begin, stands Mount Gundabad. This great mountain-city, capital of an Orc kingdom, is an anchor-point for the Shadow in the North, and the Orc-King there draws strength from and exerts influence over the Orcs of the Grey Mountains. Even further West lays Angmar, one-time Empire of the Witch-King, and later a haunted land; between it, Mount Gundabad, and the Grey Mountains, the North of Middle-earth is a de facto bastion of evil. For a game, that's a good thing. After all, heroes need evil to fight.
Orcs on a dark expedition.

The Grey Mountains includes a mini-campaign of adventures that involve the characters belonging to the players to help defend a town from Orc raids and assorted other threats. Besides that, the various locations discussed in the book are implicitly ripe for adventure. The Dwarven strongholds, once abandoned, become lost cities waiting to be explored and cleared out, whether they have become homes to Orcs or Dragons.
A one-time bastion of the Dwarves, now lost and defiled by Orcs.
One level of several of a Dwarven city deep under the Grey Mountains. Yet another citadel of Dwarves now in the hands of evil.

A Grey Mountain Dwarven hall in happier times...and I realize the irony that this is a depiction of a funeral.
The book is pretty much chock-full of things for heroes to do. The mini-campaign - and the Dwarven settlements, if the Dwarves are still there - provides an opportunity for interaction between the player's characters and townsfolk, if that's the player's bag. But, if they're more the straightforward kind, who simply want to bash some heads and take some treasure, there is plenty of opportunity for that here.

This is a well-put-together book. It's a setting ripe for adventure. Being tucked away from much of the narrative action of The Lord of the Rings doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't important. Morgoth, Sauron's boss, had his base in the far North of Middle-earth, though that entire portion of the continent to the West was smashed out of existence at the end of the First Age. Still, some remnant of his memory could now still haunt those northern reaches that remain.
Homesteading in the Grey Mountains is not advised.

Certainly such lingering evil can be inferred from the fact that Tolkien made it a haven for Dragons, and it was accessible to places like Mount Gundabad and Angmar. What kept the Dragons there, rather than sallying South into the lands of the Free Peoples? Was it a lack of ambition on the part of Dragons? After driving away the Dwarves and claiming the treasures of that folk, did they simply decide it was easier to remain in the North and occasionally tangle with one another, rather than come into conflict with Men and Elves? Why was Smaug the only one to come South and make his mark? Did some other force for good tie down the Dragons, taking the fight to those Wyrms in the Grey Mountains and Withered Heath? Perhaps Smaug's presence prevented lesser Dragons from foraying out of their traditional territory, and Smaug's subsequent death gave them a healthy dose of fear at the capabilities of the smaller folk of Middle-earth. Whatever the reasons, there is a load of possibility to this region.