January 29, 2008

A Christmas Carol (1910)

While the first decade of the 20th Century was ending, cinema was rising as a new form of entertainment, and after more than 20 years of constant experimenting, it was beginning to show the elements of a new art form. Gone were the days of the early pioneers, and it was now the time of the very first filmmakers, those who would shape the new art form and develop the language of cinema. Director J. Searle Dawley, who considered himself as "the first motion picture director", was one of those first artists who would complete cinema's transformation from charming sideshow attraction to a full-fledged narrative art. Hired by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter to make new and original films, J. Searle Dawley would use his experience in theater to follow the steps of Vitagraph and adapt many popular novels to film. Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" was one of them.

The story of "A Christmas Carol" is very well known, and while short, this early version remains faithful to the most important parts of the plot. Marc McDermott plays the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge, a harsh man so concerned about money that on the day before Christmas refuses to donate to the Charity Relief Committee, neglects his worker Bob Cratchit (Charles Ogle) the permission to leave early and even rejects his nephew in a very rude manner when the young man comes to invite him to his Christmas celebration. However, that Christmas' night the old Scrooge sees the ghost of his former business partner Marley, who tells him that no good can come from that behavior, and warns him about the horrible punishment for those who follow those ways. Later that night, Scrooge will be visited by three spirits that will show him more than what Scrooge was ready to see.

"A Christmas Carol" wasn't directed only by J. Searle Dawley, as he was assisted by Vitagraph regular Charles Kent and newcomer Ashley Miller. Considering Kent's experience in adapting plays to screen for the Vitagraph Company, it is very possible that this short film was also written by him, or at least assisted Dawley with it. Considering it is only a short film, this version of Dicken's novel is remarkably faithful to the source, and manages to condense the most important parts of the tale without losing the novel's meaning. Obviously, it doesn't go into full detail about every scene and the script moves at a very fast pace, but that's natural because it had to cover a lot in a very short time. To the writers' credit, they managed to make the adaptation entertaining and easy to understand despite these shortcomings.

The cooperative work between Dawley, Miller and Kent is truly excellent in this film and make it stand out among the many early films by the Edison Manufacturing Company. Kent's experience in Vitagraph's versions of literature classics adds a lot of class to the movie and gets excellent performances from the actors. This style works perfectly well with Dawley's directing style, who makes the film look a bit less stagy than the usual Vitagraph movie by making interesting visual compositions and giving good use to the limited camera-work of the time. While, as written above, the story moves at a fast pace, the film flows nicely thanks to the narrative style of the directors. The highlights of the film are of course the visits by the four ghosts, done with an excellent use of several special effects (mostly double exposures) that look outstanding for its time and add a powerful eerie atmosphere to the movie.

In any version of "A Christmas Carol", the role of Scrooge is often one that can make or break the adaptation due to its enormous importance, and in this version Marc McDermott doesn't disappoint. A rising star in Edison's Studio, McDermott shows off his enormous talent for acting by playing the considerably older (McDermott was only 29 when filming this movie) in a very natural and convincing way. With the aid of makeup, McDermott delivers one of the best portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge in film, by transforming himself into the wicked old miser with an extraordinary ease that makes the movie a must-see. The rest of the cast is very good too, although it is obvious that this movie depends completely on McDermott's performance. Interestingly, and uncredited Charles Ogle makes a small appearance in the role of Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit.

Judging the film by today's standards, the 1910 version of "A Christmas Carol" (or any other film from those years) could be seen as a stagy, uneven and incomplete attempt to adapt a classic story; however, set in the context of its time, it is actually one of the best silent movies of those early years of cinema. While not exactly the most innovative film of its time, it's easy to tell how the styles of J. Searle Dawley and Charles Kent would be of great influence to a young D.W. Griffith who was just starting his career in those years (in 1908 under Dawley's direction) and would develop cinema's language even further. With an amazing performance by Marc McDermott and the excellent direction by Dawley, Kent and Miller; this early version of Dickens' classic is a very good example of early film-making and a good choice to watch in Christmas.


Buy "A Christmas Carol" (1910) and other early holiday films

January 28, 2008

"Horror 101" reviewed

5 months ago, what started as a small idea among 79 horror aficionados from all over the world finally saw the light of the day, and a book titled "Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies" was released. I'm glad to say that I was part of this worldwide contingent of writers brought together by Aaron Christensen's dream, and now the book is beginning to get good reviews by reputable sources. As a member of the team that wrote this book, I'm really happy about it, because not only this means that we have a work in paper (something I'm really thankful, don't get me wrong), but that sometimes dreams can become a reality too, no matter how difficult it seems at first. It has been awesome to witness how Aaron's project became our project too, and while we may not get any real financial benefit from the book, it's something that we can see and say: "hey, we did it".

You'll have to excuse me for taking space from what's usually present in W-cinema to write this, but I really thank God for giving me the chance of joining Aaron's band of outsiders. So here I am again, just spreading the word about this little book made by 79 people from places as diverse as Brazil and Ireland, but everyone sharing Aaron's dream: spreading the love for horror films and monster movies. 5 months later, there are now several reviews that you can check on it, and of course, more info is given on Aaron's very own website. Here's some of the praise the book has received in the past months:

"Bringing a refreshingly egalitarian approach to the subject, Horror 101 collects musings on our favorite chillers not by the expected assortment of critics and filmmakers, but the audience... the fans themselves. Young and old, male and female, located all over the globe. From Alien through The Wicker Man, each entry brings a breath of fresh air to the consideration of seminal movies many of us thought had been analyzed to death. As editor Aaron Christensen puts it, "Keep America strong! Watch more monster movies!"
-- Joe Dante, director, The Howling, Piranha, Gremlins

"A great read for both veterans and those new to the horror genre…Highly recommended!!"
--Aaron Crowell, HorrorHound Magazine

"A brilliant collection… Passionate fans like these don’t come around too often. Do you remember [the] fun you had remembering the time you first watched your favorite horror film? These people do."
--Tony DeFrancisco, Full Review here...

"Overall though Horror 101 is a fantastic read even if you've already seen every movie in the book. It's an interesting look at film by people who enjoy movies first and writing about them second."
--Ed Demko, Bloodtype Online. Full Review here...

It's not much, but hopefully, it'll be only the beginning. Now, after this bit of shameless selfpromotion, it's time to get back to what W-Cinema is really about...

Buy "Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies"

January 25, 2008

The Long Voyage Home (1940)

Without a doubt, director John Ford is one of the most highly regarded American filmmakers of all-time, as not only he directed several acclaimed movies through his career, his work is often cited as a big influence by celebrated directors such as Orson Welles. While definitely better remembered for his revolutionary work in the Western genre, Ford tackled many different themes and subjects through the 49 years of his career, and "The Long Voyage Home", based on Eugene O'Neill's "Glencairn Plays", is a big proof of this. Produced during one of the highest creative peaks in Ford's career (1939-1940), "The Long Voyage Home" is a drama film about the crew of a freighter; and while it's probably an atypical Ford film at first sight, it's probably one of his best and most personal, and it even has one of the best and most unusual performances by Ford's most famous friend: John Wayne.

"The Long Voyage Home" tells the story of the crew aboard the SS Glencairn, an English ship during World War II. The crew includes very different and contrasting people, such as the witty Irishman Drisoll (Thomas Mitchell), the young and optimistic Swedish farmer Ole (John Wayne), the melancholic philosopher Donkeyman (Arthur Shields) and the brooding Englishman Smitty (Ian Hunter); with the ship being what brings them together and the place where they face their own demons. However, their trip from Baltimore to London will bring another problem to their lives: the Glencairn has picked up dynamite in Baltimore, and will try to transport it to England sailing through the Atlantic ocean, where the German army lurks and hunts for this kind of shipments. This difficult situation will be the catalyst that will uncover secrets, put them to test, and make some personalities clash.

As written above, the movie is an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Glencairn Plays", four one-act plays about the Glencairn's crew, although scriptwriter Dudley Nichols moves the action from World War I to World War II. Nichols shows a lot of care in his work of blending the four plays into one single storyline, as well as a great understanding of cinema as a different medium from theater. Not only he manages to update O'Neill's work to the years of the WWII, he does it without compromising the often bleak and pessimistic themes of the plays; and more importantly, it's all so wonderfully structured that while episodic, the story flows seamlessly and with a very good rhythm, making hard to believe that it's made of 4 stage plays. Nichols makes sure to develop every character in a very realistic way, making them just like O'Neill intended them to be: portraits of real sailors and their life.

Like he previously did in "Stagecoach" and "The Grapes of Wrath", director John Ford once again creates a movie around a group of characters, although unlike those other film, in "The Long Voyage Home" there is not a "main character" to tie the rest of the group, here everyone is of relatively equal importance and if there's anything that brings them together, that would be their voyage home itself. And Ford makes said voyage to have a life of its own thanks to the eye of the legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, who in this movie gives one of his best works, capturing with his camera haunting images that posses both a harsh realism and a supernatural beauty. A lot of the power of Toland's images comes from how atmospheric they are, as Ford used them brilliantly to portray the feelings of isolation and loneliness in which the sailors live during their trip.

A lot has been said about how the combined talents of Nichols, Ford and Toland created this great movie, but honestly, it wouldn't be the same without the excellent performances delivered by the cast. As Driscoll, arguably the leader of the gang, actor Thomas Mitchell is simply excellent in his portrayal of the charming Irishman. However, as great as his performance is, he is eclipsed by Ian Hunter's portrayal of the mysterious Smith, a sailor haunted by the inner demons from his past, in which is probably the best work of acting done in the movie. As the only optimist in the group, John Wayne is very effective, in a role that proves that there was more in the Duke than the cowboy he often portrayed in films. Familiar faces from other Ford movies such as Barry Fitzgeral and John Qualen also deliver excellent performances as the movie's only source of comic relief.

It's very probable that "The Long Voyage Home"'s worst enemy is the fame of John Ford and John Wayne, as considering the style of most of their other collaborations (Wayne appeared in 24 of Ford's films) and the fact that he gets top billing, one could be expecting another of Wayne's roles as a lead actor when here he is in fact, just another member of an excellent ensemble cast. Still, this movie is one of Ford's most enjoyable films, mainly because the humanity of the characters is so realistic, that it's not difficult to feel identified with the sailors and their problems, and I would venture to say that the physical isolation in which they live is somewhat representative to the mental isolation one feels during difficult times. While melancholic and somewhat bittersweet in tone, "The Long Voyage Home" is definitely a very powerful and human motion picture.

"The Long Voyage Home" will probably disappoint those expecting to see Wayne in a World War II action role, but it provides a different fascet of John Ford's cinema that it's as interesting as what he did in his Westerns. In "The Long Voyage Home", Ford creates a haunting portrayal of humanity and its many sides, contrasting optimism, pessimism, idealism and even nihilism in a very beautiful and realistic way. Ford and Wayne will probably be remembered mostly for their Westerns, but it's in films like this one where they show that their talents weren't limited by a genre. Personally, this is my favourite performance by Wayne, as despite being a relatively small role, here he shows he knew how to act.


January 16, 2008

Körkarlen (1921)

In the early days of film-making, cinema of Sweden rose to prominence thanks to the works of two pioneers of the silent film industry: Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, both highly influential directors and technically, the fathers of Swedish cinema. Of the two, Sjöström is probably the better remembered nowadays, as he also made a career as an actor, giving a powerful final performance at age 78 in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 masterpiece, "Smultronstället" ("Wild Strawberries"). But this wouldn't be the only link between the two Swedish masters, as in fact, Sjöström's influence over Bergman's work can be found in many of Bergman's movies. This film, 1921's "Körkarlen" (known in English as "The Phantom Carriage"), is no exception, as this dark drama would prove to be highly influential to many of Bergman's masterpieces, including "Det Sjunde Inseglet" ("The Seventh Seal").

"Körkarlen" is the story of David Holm, a completely irresponsible drunkard who has spent his life living only to drink. On New Year's Eve, Holm is as usual, drinking with his friends, and it is during their celebration that one of them tells an old legend: that the last person to die in the year, if he or she has been a big sinner, will become the driver of the Phantom Carriage, the legendary chariot in which Death picks up the souls of the dead. In a twist of fate, Holm ends up being killed after a violent discussion right at the last minute of the year, and since he has spent his life inflicting pain to his friends and family, the Phantom Carriage will come for him. This ghastly revelation will make Holm to remember his life, which was always filled with wrath, hate and perversion, in order to find a way to escape his fate and save his soul.

Based on the 1912 novel of the same name by Selma Lagerlöf, the screenplay was written by Sjöström himself, making "Körkarlen" the fourth movie he adapted from a story by Lagerlöf. What's interesting about "Körkarlen" is that Sjöström develops the plot using a series of flashbacks in a style that wasn't very common in those days, moving back and forth from present to past, as the complex personality of David Holm unfolds and the reasons behind his damnation are revealed. Sjöström's innovative narrative structure in "Körkarlen" is complex, but not difficult to follow, and works perfectly with the plot's mix of dark fantasy and harsh realism. Having not read it, I'm not sure how faithful is this to Lagerlöf's novel, but the mixture of the fantastic elements with the hopeless realism of Holm's corruption is one of the most attractive and successful elements in the film.

Probably the scenes that most capture the attention at first sight in "The Phantom Carriage" are the ones with the Carriage itself, as director Victor Sjöström and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon create several haunting special effects using trick photography with a care and a style rarely seen in these kind of effects. However, there's more in "Körkarlen" than ghastly special effects, as Sjöström gives an excellent use to Jaenzon's photography to create a dark, melancholic atmosphere of despair using light and shadows in a subtle way. This is best appreciated when watching the film in its tinted version, although even in simple black and white the results are amazing. Now, Sjöström really knew how to bring the best out of his cast (he started as an actor, so that may be the reason), and this movie is no exception, as the acting is one of the strongest points in "Körkarlen".

It could be said that "Körkarlen" is all about Victor Sjöström, as he not only directs it, he also plays David Holm himself and is quite remarkable at doing it. As the incorrigible drunkard on the path to damnation, Sjöström delivers a very powerful performance and is often quite realistic in the drunk insanity of his character. One could think that Sjöström overshadows the rest of the cast, but Astrid Holm, who plays Sister Edit, is equally as good. Her character is essentially the David Holm's counterpart, and the person who tries to save his soul. As Holm's wife, Hilda Borgström offers a performance filled with many powerfully emotional scenes, and she is quite effective at them, although her character has considerably less screen time than Sjöström and Astrid Holm. Finally, Tore Svennberg is indeed very creepy as the Carriage's current driver.

"Körkarlen" is a movie filled with a very haunting beauty of almost supernatural origin. The way this drama mixes the horrors of the supernatural world with those of the real world (which seem more horrific) makes it a powerful movie even today, and Sjöström's style still feels quite fresh and modern, considering that the film is more than 80 years old. If there is a flaw in this near perfect masterpiece, I would say that it's its tendency to be excessively preachy towards the end. Sjöström was prone to make his movies with severe moralistic undertones, and in "Körkarlen" this is glaringly obvious. I won't go as far as some critics who call it "a Salvation Army propaganda film", but I must say that it's noticeable, although not really annoying. Nevertheless, "Körkarlen"'s beauty transcends this apparent lack of subtlety and like Wilder's "The Lost Weekend", is a powerful tale about the demons of alcohol.

One could say that "Körkarlen" makes the perfect companion piece to Bergman's two legendary masterpieces of the 50s, as not only it is it's artistic predecessor, it shares the fascination with death and what comes after it. With its very poetic images and the notably inventive way its narrative is built, "Körkarlen" is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful films of the silent era. One final thing, Bergman's intimate relationship with this film can also be noted in one of his last films, "Bildmakarna", a film about the making of "Körkarlen". A highly influential masterpiece indeed.


January 09, 2008

Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)

In 1895, a stage magician named Georges Méliès witnessed how the Lumière brothers changed the history of entertainment when he attended the first public screening of their projected motion pictures, and was marveled at the idea of moving images. Seven years and dozens of short films later, Méliès was a successful filmmaker on his own account, releasing a movie that would become legendary, "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" ("A Trip to the Moon"), a monumental achievement in which he would finally prove that cinema was more than documentaries and "gimmick films", and that there was something that the Lumières couldn't see: that it was a natural medium for telling stories. So, after having great success with "Le Voyage Dans La Lune", Méliès prepared his next major project as another adaptation of a Jules Verne story: "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", or "The Voyage Through the Impossible".

Better known as "The Impossible Voyage", "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible" is the story of a geographic society (presumably French), which decides to make the ultimate trip. As one can imagine, this won't be a normal voyage, as they will use every vehicle they can use in an attempt to travel across every corner of the world. So, with this in mind, they prepare a train at the Swiss Alps with their advanced machinery and begin their journey. However, first they must arrive to the train, so they use "The Impossible Carriage" to get across the mountains, and after several difficulties, manage to get to the train. With their specially equipped train, the group manages to fly high in the sky, and are literally swallowed by the Sun. The group will face more difficulties, as their voyage will take them to many fantastic places, from the Sun to even the bottom of the Ocean.

The film's source, "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", was a play written collaboratively by Jules Verne and French dramatist Adolphe d'Ennery in 1882, in which the writers adapted to stage the style and themes that Verne had been used in his popular novels. Naturally, Méliès' adaptation lacks the benefits of having dialogs, but his version of "The Impossible Voyage" does keep the same atmosphere of Jules Verne's literary work, capturing the spirit of science fiction in each act of the film and mixing it with that magical fantasy and charmingly whimsical humor that Méliès used to employ in each one of his films. With a runtime of only 24 minutes (something unheard of at the time of its release), "The Impossible Voyage" shows a progression of what Méliès did in "A Trip to the Moon", as the narrative is built in a tighter way (despite the similarities with that previous masterpiece).

As usual in a film by Georges Méliès, the real magic of the movie lays in the extremely clever and detailed way in which Méliès creates his special effects, and in the beautiful art direction he uses to make his fantasy come alive. The world of "The Impossible Voyage" seems like a more detailed trip to the same universe of "A Trip to the Moon", where insanely courageous scientists and inventors use their wonderful and crazy machines to conquer the limits of their fantastic world. In this there's a difference with Verne, as while in the writer's novels there's always a certain factuality in his devices, Méliès versions have more of magical than scientific, which goes perfectly with the comedic tone he uses in his adventure films. A magician until the end, Méliès creates wonderful special effects using every single photographic trick he had discovery at the time (there's a wonderful use of miniatures in the movie).

While the legendary classic "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" is certainly an iconic masterpiece (it'll always be Méliès' most famous work), personally I found "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible" to be a superior film. Maybe it was that I saw it hand-tinted (which gives it an even more beautiful look) or the fact that it gave me the feeling that in this movie Méliès just let his creativity run completely free, but I just enjoyed this one (a bit) more. True, it's a bit tacky for our standards, but even today it holds up surprisingly well and remains as fun as when it was originally done, more than a century ago. "Le Voyage à Travers l'impossible", or "The Impossible Voyage", definitely makes a perfect companion piece to "Le Voyage Dans La Lune", and it's a nice introduction to the magic of Georges Méliès, the Cinemagician.


Buy "Le Voyage à travers l'impossible" (1904) and more films by Georges Méliès

January 07, 2008

La Torre de los Siete Jorobados (1944)

Despite being the birthplace of the brilliant pioneer of fantasy films, Segundo De Chomón (whose films rivaled Georges Méliès in quality and inventive), Spain's filmography within the realm of the horror genre is considerably poor before the 60s, when Jesus (or Jess) Franco inaugurated Spaniard horror. This was the result of the difficult political climate of the country during the regime of dictator Francisco Franco. In fact, while there were a couple of fantasy films done before 1962, the only true horror film was a little known movie titled "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados", directed by Edgar Neville, and based on a popular pulp novel written by Emilio Carrere. However, despite being the only example of Spaniard horror film-making in the 40s, this film is more than a mere curiosity, it is actually a forgotten gem of the genre.

Set in 19th century Madrid, a young man named Basilio (Antonio Casal) decides to play roulette, hoping to make some money to go on a date with the girl he likes. Suddenly, a mysterious character appears (Félix De Pomés) out of nowhere, and tells Basilio exactly where the ball is going to fall. Winning a small fortune thanks to the stranger, Basilio decides to thank him for the help, only to discover that the mysterious man, named Don Robinson De Mantua, is the ghost of an archaeologist who supposedly committed suicided years ago. In return for the help at the roulette, Don Robinson asks Basilio to protect his daughter Inés (Isabel De Pomés) and help her solve his crime, as Don Robinson was actually murdered. And so Basilio gets involved in a mystery that will take him to discover the entrance to the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks.

As written above, "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" is based on Emilio Carrere's novel of the same name (which was partially written by Jesús De Aragón), however, there are many differences between the novel and the film, specially in the tone that scriptwriters Edgar Neville and José Santugini give to the story. While the novel has a somber dark humor, Neville's film opts for a lighthearted style, more in tone with American horror and adventure movies (that definitely were a big influence on Neville) than with its literary source. This is not really a bad thing, as the movie keeps the thrilling mix of mystery, humor and suspense of the novel, and I'd go as far as to say that Neville's decision of making a fun movie over a meaningful one actually benefits the film, as while certainly an imitation of Hollywood's typical style, it's anything but conventional.

Where the movie excels is in its execution, as Neville gives good use to the excellent work of cinematography done by Henri Barreyre and Andrés Pérez Cubero, giving the film a haunting beauty. The most striking feature of the film is definitely its wonderful set design, with the recreation of the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks having a beautiful expressionist look that feels like taken out from a 1920s German film. The contrast between the surreal expressionism of the Tower with the Gothic atmosphere of Madrid's streets (in scenes shot on location) give the movie an effective nightmarish look, which definitely bring back memories from the American horror films from the 30s (specially the ones by Universal Studios). However, what makes this mix of influences work is Neville's own brand of humor, which gives the film a distinctive personality of its own.

The cast is for the most part effective, with Antonio Casal leading the cast and making a good job at handling the comedic side of his character (his Braulio is goodhearted, but cowardly and specially naive). As his romantic interest, Inés, actress Isabel De Pomés is good, although nothing really special. Still, this could be blamed to the fact that her character isn't very well developed and it's a stereotypical damsel in distress. On the other hand, Guillermo Marín is extraordinary as the mysterious Doctor Sabatino, delivering a powerful performance that definitely ranks among the best in Spain's horror filmography. Marín captures perfectly the mix of charming amiability and perverse wickedness that makes Sabatino such an interesting character and he is easily the best in the cast. Finally, Félix De Pomés is quite funny as Don Robinson's ghost, despite his limited screen time.

Now, while "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" is certainly an excellent and entertaining film, it sadly is far from being perfect, mainly because in his attempt for imitating the commercially successful American films, director Neville also brings those films' flaws, specifically, their reliance on clichés. While the movie has a wonderfully expressionist look and the story is certainly inventive, the plot unfolds in a very conventional way, and while entertaining, it isn't exactly the masterpiece that could had been or that its very artistic look may indicate. This dependence on common clichés and some cheap jokes do make a bit simplistic and predictable what otherwise could had been a quite haunting tale of horror. Fortunately, the damage is not really big, and "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" can still be enjoyed without problem.

Of course, this last criticism is probably just nitpicking, as in the end, "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" fulfills its purpose without great difficulty: it provides good entertaining as Basilio uncovers the thrilling horrors of the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks. While it would take several years after this film's release for horror to resurrect completely, "La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados" did open the doors for the fantastic in Spain's filmography. For this and several other reasons (like its expressionist look, which must be seen to be believed), this little known gem is more than a mere curiosity, it is truly Spain's first horror classic.


Watch "La Torre de los Siete Jorobados" (1944)

January 04, 2008

La Maschera del demonio (1960)

While the horror genre found in Italy a breath of fresh air during the decades of the 60s and 70s, it wasn't always that way, as before that "golden age of Italian horror", the genre had been banned in the country since the dawn of the sound era. The film that came to change all was 1956's "I Vampiri", directed by Riccardo Freda, which finally gave an Italian flavor to Gothic horror and inaugurated the Golden Age. After Freda came Mario Bava, an expert cinematographer (did the photography for "I Vampiri") who had been worked as an assistant director for several years and was waiting for a chance to direct his own film. His chance came in 1959, as after he helped to complete the epic "La Battaglia Di Maratona" the producers decided to give him a film, and Bava decided to adapt Nikolai Gogol's story, "Viy", and so "La Maschera Del Demonio" was born.

Better known in America as "Black Sunday" (albeit the literal translation of the title would be "The Demon's Mask"), the movie begins in the year 1630, with Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) of Moldavia being sentenced to death for sorcery by her own brother (Ivo Garrani). She is sentenced to be killed with the "mask of the devil", a metal mask with sharp spikes on the inside, but before dying, she puts a curse on her brother's descendants. Centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) discover Asa's tomb while traveling through the region. Kruvajan removes the mask from Asa's face, but accidentally cuts his hand with broken glass and his blood falls over the corpse. While this goes unnoticed by the two scientists, it makes Asa to live once again, and now she is ready to destroy her descendants.

While an adaptation of Gogol's short story, the screenplay (by Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei and Bava himself) distances itself from the source and becomes a different entity, more a tribute to Gothic horror as a whole than to Gogol's tale. The writers take "Viy" as the basis to completely reinvent the vampire myth and give the Russian tale the romantic touch of Gothic horror, which naturally includes tragic romance, ancient buildings and an ominous atmosphere of doom. While one could think that they were hoping to repeat the style of "I Vampiri" (which proved to be quite successful), it feels more as if they were aiming to pay homage to the Gothic horror films done by Universal and Hammer in the 30s and 50s, but with a modern (and certainly sexier view). This becomes more obvious when one considers the style Bava uses in his directing.

Now, what makes "Black Sunday" amazing is definitely Bava's directing style, which as written above, is a powerful homage to Universal and Hammer horror films; however, there's more in this movie than a mere stylish homage, Bava takes Gothic horror to the next step thanks to his expert eye for cinematography (done by himself). With an excellent use of light and shadow, Mario Bava gives "La Maschera Del Demonio" an almost supernatural beauty that makes the film look like what a Gothic nightmare would be. Despite working on a low budget, he manages to make a wonderfully looking movie, and uses inventive optical and practical effects (also done by himself!) to create marvelously creepy sequences. While the plot may not be inspired, Bava's handling of suspense and atmosphere certainly is.

The cast is for the most part effective, although, with one remarkable exception, nothing really surprising. That exception is English actress Barbara Steele, whom in her two roles (as Asa, and as her descendant, Katia) is not only beautiful, but also outstanding in her performances, making her very different characters (a deliciously evil Asa, and innocent, sweet Katia) very believable. No wonder why this was her breakthrough role. As written above, the rest of the cast is just good, with John Richardson playing the lead role with aplomb although without a strong screen presence (although he is easily overshadowed by Steele), Andrea Checchi ranging from average to real good, and Enrico Olivieri delivering good support. It seems to me that Bava in this early stages felt more comfortable directing set pieces instead of actors, although Steele's performance is unforgettable.

While previously available only in its cut version ("Black Sunday"), the complete cut of "La Maschera Del Demonio" is the perfect debut for the Italian Maestro in the sense that it captures the style of Gothic horror in a remarkable way. Sadly, it also comes with the common flaws of Gothic tales, meaning a very slow pace (well, that's not really a flaw, but something that may turn off modern audiences) and more importantly, a certain lack of care in the development of both the characters and the story (as it focuses almost completely on the atmosphere), as it is truly a triumph of style over substance. However, this doesn't mean the story is boring, on the contrary, the movie is quite a chilling and entertaining experience, and while probably unoriginal and derivative, the story is still a captivating horror tale done old school style.

I really don't have anything else to add other than to be sure to watch "La Maschera Del Demonio", or "Black Sunday", in its complete form, and preferably, with its original score (the old U.S. version had a different one). While less known than Argento or Fulci, Bava is possibly the greatest and most influential Italian filmmaker in the horror genre, and his debut, "La Maschera Del Demonio", is a powerful movie that will definitely please fans of Gothic horror thanks to its ominous atmosphere and the beauty of its design (and definitely the one of Barbara Steele). If Riccardo Freda resurrected Italian horror, Bava transformed it into an art.


Buy "La Maschera Del Demonio" (1960)

January 02, 2008

A New Year begins...

2007, a year of great importance for this little site known as W-Cinema (it marks the year of its foundation, as well as the one of the release of the "Horror 101" book), is finally over and a new one begins. I wasn't really into new releases last year (only saw 13!), although I did managed to go to the cinema at least once a month, so probably if I were to make a Top 10 list of 2007 films, it probably wouldn't be really representative (not because there wasn't anything interesting, it's just that my main concern right now is the history of film).

Anyways, this entry has no other purpouse than to wish those few who dare to read this blog (and I thank you sincerely for that) a most excellent new year and I hope this place remains of your preferance. Be sure that hopefully, more reviews will appear here and the site will return to its frantic initial pace.

See you at the movies.

P.S. This were the 13 film released on 2007 that I managed to see, ordered by preference (as you see, there aren't really any surprising film other than the first one, which I'm convinced it's a masterpiece):

1) Zodiac (2007, David Fincher)
2) Stardust (2007, Matthew Vaughn)
3) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007, David Yates)
4) Beowulf (2007, Robert Zemeckis)
5) The Simpsons Movie (2007, David Silverman)
6) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007, Gore Verbinski)
7) 1408 (2007, Mikael Håfström)
8) Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)
9) The Golden Compass (2007, Chris Weitz)
10) Shrek the Third (2007, Chris Miller & Raman Hui)

11) Ghost Rider (2007, Mark Steven Johnson)
12) Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)
13) National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007, Jon Turteltaub)