This year's encomiums include a pair of television-plays of 1973, but with no regard to proceedings lately before the eldership in America.
As ever, the plays are mere hoarfrost amusements, or if the reader prefers, admonishments before "red hour," the tricks or treats.
Dying Room Only (1973)
The late Richard Matheson was one of television's most reliable: he wrote for Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, created the underrated Circle of Fear, and supplied teleplays for various Dan Curtis productions, including both "Kolchak" features. Like the Matheson-Spielberg Duel (1971), Dying Room Only is a desert-gothic and a precursor to The Hitcher, The Vanishing and Breakdown. More modestly scaled, Dying Room Only has, in addition to Matheson's craft, striking desert photography, and a cast including two Oscar winners.
An “ordinary” couple is returning from a road-trip vacation. Wife Cloris Leachman wants to drive 100 miles out-of-the-way to get photos of a native "wikiup" for a school project (the kid's back home). Husband Dabney Coleman resists; their quarrel is horror's trigger-sin.
In a culture dependent on racial identity, it’s not unusual for an American film to be about race even when all characters are white. This spousal conflict, referencing Indians, evokes national anxiety. Later, Cloris pokes into a dark storeroom, as if in the national unconscious.
Handled correctly, such notes create an edge, especially for white viewers: for the conservative, the characters are endangered by their soft-minded disloyalty and condescension. And regardless, they've been identified with genocide.
When Coleman disappears, Leachman runs up against clannish locals Ned Beatty (just off the implicitly racial Deliverance) and Ross Martin. Malignity is gradually exposed, in unnerving fashion. The narrative is so hard on the female lead, some may object. Early in 2nd-wave feminism, equality was dead serious -- she's on her own.
Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
This film is charged mislabeled, because not faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel. Without researching the makers' intent, it's frustrating: if faithfulness were the claim, they could’ve billed it “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (available, in 1973).
Perhaps the subtitle is more in reference to metaphor cheek-by-jowl with reality. Frankenstein: The True Story, originally a prestige miniseries, is very much costume horror. Amid the shocks and trading for parts, we see 17th century industry draw motley laborers from all points, to form new, roiling communities. Historically, the communities became Frankenstein cultures, often appalling, disowned and self-loathing. A cultured appreciation for history helps this version be a worthy cousin to Hammer's Frankenstein, then completing its impressive run.
The cast includes Michael Sarrazin as the Creature and David McCallum as Clerval; Jane Seymour is memorably erotic as Prima. Top billing goes to James Mason, who'd already been 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, and would groom The Boys from Brazil (these credits bely Charlton Heston as first science-fiction star).
Mason plays Polidori, a new character (by teleplay writer Christopher Isherwood) named after a real friend of the Shelleys. Although this senior scientist is more consequential than those in most Frankenstein films, Polidori does nothing to discourage Victor’s recklessness. Perhaps the name was too good to waste: a professed love of all implies an actual love of no one. This Polidori is an omnivore, waiting for one like Victor to dare the jealousy of God.
With these provocative threads, and the miniseries form still largely untested, a touch of self-sabotage should not surprise. The first minutes shatter the fourth wall, as Mason hosts clips that give away too much of the plot (skip to 5:44 to avoid spoilers).
Well, it’s not as if we're unfamiliar with the major beats. Since at least James Whale in 1931, Shelley's novel has likely been on-the-boards somewhere on any given day. Frankenstein is a modernist liturgy, a ritual of egomaniacal science transgressing and punished. The universal refusal to marry Shelley has kept her narrative electric and viral. And we need the catharsis, when the creature so rarely completes circuit back to his creator ... this side of the mirror.
Extraordinary Tales (2013)
This is an impressive animated anthology of Edgar Allan Poe, evidently for all ages. As such, the Tales are among the most familiar, and will elicit varied responses. The animation style is more like book illustrations than anything "cartoony," and reminded me of the classics The Selfish Giant and The Woods. Voices heard include those of Bela Lugosi (reading "The Tell-Tale Heart) and Christopher Lee.
Caveats: some screens are busy with CGI; the pace is too fast in the first two stories. It's understandable to schedule for parents, with content more challenging as we go (kids-to-bed before "The Masque of the Red Death"), but the opener, "The Fall of the House of Usher," plays like "Rod Usher's Greatest Hits." It's especially regrettable in that the medium seems ideal for multiple versions of a film.
Still, it's an impressive set, especially the wry horror of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and the quietly terrifying "The Pit and the Pendulum." These are reason to see Extraordinary Tales. "Valdemar" may be the best English-language version; certainly, it's flights above George Romero's misbegotten Two Evil Eyes (1990). (Correction:) While worthy Corman-Poe, Tales of Terror (1962) commercializes "Valdemar" with a romance. (Reviews discourage consideration for The Mesmerist, a 2005 black comedy with Neil Patrick Harris.)
Extraordinary Tales is wrapped in an original frame: a Continental-accented Lady Death tries to seduce Poe (as a raven) from his attachment to life. If their dialogue is "therapy-speak," it is, at least, perceptive:
Lady Death: You have devoted so many pages to my name ... All veiled love letters, addressed to me. You fear me. And yet you are insatiably attracted. Come with me … it's time.
Poe: No -- it cannot be. I don't want to be forgotten. I was buried in a common grave. My writings were forgotten for years.
Lady Death: ... Come now, Poe. You love me! You've been a corpse walking amongst the living for a long time, Edgar. It must have been quite a strain ... Look at your final acts: they all succumb to my prowess. The poor, the weak, the rich, the powerful. Everybody bows before me.
There's nothing unusual in Poe being temporarily forgotten, it was the same with H.P. Lovecraft. That which is most challenging to the culture triggers a quarter-century denial (where needed, the period is indefinite). Similarly, the films we revisit from any era are almost never the hits.
If Edgar Allan Poe triumphed over death, it was from insight. He knew the optimistic, utopian, forward-thinking society protests too much, its national poet should write "horror stories for boys" (critic Leslie Fiedler's phrase). And so the obscurity, pitched in a pauper's grave, has 392 credits on the IMDb.