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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bay of the Living Dead: Classics Retold

Posted By on Thu, Oct 2, 2014 at 10:30 AM

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Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column dedicated to scary movies and TV shows, past and present.

Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) is one of the most disturbing, and one of more intellectually rewarding films in the canon of ghost stories and classic horror cinema. Based on Henry James' 19th century novella The Turn of the Screw, it's a tale of terror which delves deep into the psyche of it's lead character.

In 1961, horror movies were considered low rent fare by the film industry. Scary flicks, though highly profitable (England's Hammer Films was then making millions on their reboots of Dracula, Frankenstein, and other beloved monsters) were often relegated to the drive-ins, or were seen as double features in smaller, neighborhood  theaters. It was therefore highly unusual for 20th Century Fox to greenlight The Innocents as an A-list production. When the very ladylike Deborah Kerr, a top box office star of the period, and Shakespearean great Michael Redgrave signed on to play the lead roles, the film's stature was lifted considerably.

Kerr plays Miss Giddons, a most proper Vicar's daughter who accepts a position as Governess at the ridiculously large and elegant Bly House, an English country estate. Soon after her arrival, Miss Giddons begins to notice a number of very disturbing behavioral patterns in Myles and Flora (Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin), her young charges. She then sees apparitions of Miss Jessel, her deceased predecessor. Miss Jessel was nothing like the repressed Giddons, and in fact did all kinds of naughty things with Quint, the deceased handyman. Quint is still hanging around Bly House as well. Are he are Jessel still carrying on their affair? Even worse, are the children involved in these ghostly, kinky activities? Or has Miss Giddons been driven mad by her frustration and repression?

With a script co-authored by the great gay writer Truman Capote, The Innocents becomes a chilling ghost story, and a therapy session for Kerr's character. The film goes deep inside Giddons' troubled soul, giving viewers a bird's-eye view of how unpleasant life can be when one is overwhelmed by desires they believe to be sinful: A metaphor, perhaps, for how Capote's fellow gay men were forced to live back when the film was made, or when James created the original story.

The Innocents is much more than a few Freudian slips — it's genuinely scary. Bly House, for all it's elegance and beauty, is too big for itself. Dark and desolate, it's the perfect setting for a good old fashioned ghost story. Parts of the film are genuinely unsettling: as Miss Giddons walks through Bly's drafty corridors late one night, her way lit by the candelabra she holds besides her face, the ghosts call out to her.

"Kiss me," whispers Miss Jessell. "Love me..." Is the dead governess taunting Giddons, or is she expressing Giddons' deepest, darkest desires?


The Criterion Collection, purveyors of restored classic cinema, brings The Innocents to DVD and Blu Ray in all its black-and-white glory. The film hasn't looked this clear or sharp in decades. Criterion, which always provides a generous extras menu, has done a wonderful job on its presentation of The Innocents.

Extras include a lengthy video essay on the film from film historian and Innocents super-fan Christopher Frayling (who also provides audio commentary), plus interviews from 2006 with film editor Jim Clark, script supervisor Pamela Martin Francis, and cinematographer Freddie Francis — Francis won an Oscar for his camera work on Sons and Lovers (1961) and went on to have a successful career as a director of British chillers. It all ads up to a superb look back at the making of a great film, offering insight into how its makers approached a difficult subject. 

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Dark Shadows: Year One

Many Gen Y people think that Dark Shadows was nothing more than a silly, quasi-comedic Tim Burton movie featuring Johnny Depp as a bumbling vampire. Their parents and grandparents, however, might recall Dark Shadows as a wildly popular daytime soap opera that aired during the late 1960s and early '70s and broke all the rules. From June 1966-April 1971, Dark Shadows was the most-watched offering on ABC's daytime TV line-up. When its viewership peaked from roughly 1968-early 1970, Dark Shadows was nothing less than a national craze. Watching the series at Hulu or on DVD today doesn't come close to recreating the sheer mania that revolved around this show when it first aired.

For many original viewers, the "1795" story was a creative high point for Dark Shadows. This five-month story arc took viewers on a journey where no soap had gone before, back to the 18th century. There, viewers learned the terrifying origin story of Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), the series resident vampire. Frid (1924-2012) was a classically trained actor who played Barnabas as though he were playing Hamlet at the Old Vic. Viewers were mesmerized by Angelique (Lara Parker), a jealous witch who placed "the curse of the living dead" upon Barnabas. They felt Barnabas' anguish as he cried out in pain among the stormswept gravestones at Eagle Hill Cemetery as that curse nearly wiped out his entire family.

There had never been anything on TV quite like Dark Shadows. The brilliant, wildly original saga of "1795" was years ahead of its time and continues to hold up rather well.

Dark Shadows: Year One, is Dynamite Entertainment's graphic novel based on that very story. The book tells of the tragedy of Barnabas and the Collins clan in all it's beautifully lush, Gothic glory. Dynamite's in-house artists, writers, and letterers do an amazing job of recreated the ambiance of the original, albeit with a little sex and violence that the network censors would never have allowed in 1968 (Sex between Barnabas and Angelique was only hinted at on the tube). In Dark Shadows: Year One, Angelique squats down upon a naked Barnabas. Some of the storyline's killings feature graphic bloodletting, which likewise would never have made the cut 45 years ago.

There are a few minor changes in the story to make it a self-contained terror tale with a defined beginning and end — the original, of course, was part of a larger, serialized story. But for the most part, the story remains intact and authentic to the original. Dark Shadows: Year One is a magnificent tribute to daytime TV's most brilliant horror story.


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Mabuse Is Loose!

In the very first edition of this column, we paid homage to Ansel Faraj, the super-young but uber-talented filmmaker who convinced original Dark Shadows cast members to star in Doctor Mabuse (2013), and Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar (2014), his homages to film noir and to the Mabuse films made by the great German auteur Fritz Lang some three generations ago. Now, until November 2, both of Faraj's Mabuse films can be viewed online at Vimeo for the two-in-one price of $4.99. That's a savings of several dollars if you watched both films separately, and the double feature includes a bonus episode of Theater Fantastique, Faraj's very creepy web series. These are well worth checking out:


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