Showing posts with label coded genocide. Show all posts
Showing posts with label coded genocide. Show all posts

Monday, November 18, 2019

underseen for Halloween 2019, Part 3: The Doctor and the Devils (1985)

(spoilers throughout)

           Roger Ebert called The Doctor and the Devils “unredeemed, dreary, boring, gloomy dreck.”  It is gloomy.  It's also mournfully distinctive, for this writer, and beautifully produced, both painterly and disgusting.  The last helps earn the horror tag, though it’s as much a period dramatization.  It's a based-on-truth Frankenstein movie.     
 from Shout! Factory
Despite the billing, the focus is the working class.  In early-19th century Britain, outdated mores forced a black market in fresh cadavers (for medical research), when the enterprising Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea) take up shovels.  Before it's done, at least one is a serial-killer avant la lettre.  Their patron is Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton), a progressive surgeon secure in his own virtue.  Rounding the eclectic cast are Julian Sands (who’d become a minor horror star) as a naif who falls for a bleak-minded whore (played by ‘60s model Twiggy), with Patrick Stewart as Rock’s fuming rival.
The milieu may evoke Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (and Michael Radford’s), though the Orwellian hell is government surveillance, which could've helped here.  Also, we may recall Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and true-crime biopics like In Cold Blood.  As were the The Body-Snatcher (1945) and The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), The Doctor and the Devils was inspired by the real Burke and Hare, suppliers to one Dr. Knox.  (Fiction can’t improve on the names.)  
Mostly, this film gets mixed reviews.  On Slant, Chuck Bowen ends a mostly positive review thus:

The Doctor and the Devils shares Rock’s problem: decrying the state of humanity while displaying precious little of its own.   
the Fox release

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson charges Freddie Francis with indifference:

there's no indication of a director doing anything more than illustrating a script. … this picture just plays out in a flat line. It's handsome and intelligent, but it doesn't grab us.

Well, it’s a hothouse flower.  Still, degrees of success shouldn’t prevent wonder at what's attempted: it's a rare film that disclaims Manichaeism, portraying modernity as an exploitation matrix.  (It seems hard to deny; I've written of our moral entanglement, as in this essay on The Sopranos.)  
The film's pedigree is impressive, and instructive.  Poet Dylan Thomas's screenplay was a pre-Black List item, unproduced for 30 years.  Producer Mel Brooks reportedly wanted major changes, but director Francis lobbied for a faithful adaptation, leading to revisions by Ronald Harwood.  
Harwood, best known for The Dresser, also wrote a series of plays and films about 20th century celebrities in relation to Nazi Germany, including The Pianist.  The Doctor and the Devils contains intimations of genocide, as do The Elephant Man and The Fly, other Mel Brooks productions.  (Of course, Mr. Brooks is Jewish.  He served in the U.S. military during World War II, later daring to make The Producers.)
             As Jim Knipfel describes on den of geek, several narrative films stay reasonably close to Burke and Hare.  Accuracy aside, and even with a tacked-on reprieve for the Twiggy character, The Doctor and the Devils is the least pandering version.  The others carefully delineate characters from viewers, as in casting the doctor: in The Flesh and the Fiends it's Peter Cushing, already known as Dr. Frankenstein, and it's uber-unnerving Henry Daniell in The Body-Snatcher (in an insipid subplot, Daniell initially refuses a disabled girl a needed operation).  Thriller "The Innocent Bystanders" (1962) is disgraceful, as it exaggerates a story that's terrible to begin with.  In each of these, one of the killers is made a (literal) moron, and a prominent victim, a beautiful woman.   
The Doctor and the Devils skips the doctor's noble, half-false confession (another trope), leaving him haunted by memories and conscience.  And if Dr. Rock was willfully ignorant of the origins of same-day deliveries, are we so different?  
The three films reviewed in these Halloween 2019 posts are prophetic works, and have been knocked about: It’s Alive was dumped by Warner Brothers, but Larry Cohen persevered, and it became a hit three years after initial release.  Both Vampire Circus and The Doctor and the Devils suffered late cuts.  The critics hedge, e.g., Danny Peary condemns It’s Alive for a “shameful premise.”  According to Peter Nichols, “Vampire Circus isn’t so much a good film as a good bad film” (whatever that means). 
However different in style — having the aspect of Fellini-gazing horror, grindhouse sick-joke, and PBS adaptation — the films share a moral perspective.  They lack villains, excepting the vampires (who only do-what-vampires-do), and heroes, vessels for the innocence of viewers.  If they overreach — if The Doctor and the Devils is self-serious, Vampire Circus, a bit overfed, and if Larry Cohen made a motion picture about an action figure — prophets also self-sabotage.  He wants to protect his culture, almost as much as he wants to damn it.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

underseen for Halloween, 2019: Vampire Circus (1972)

These Halloween posts accumulate more hits than the others combined (my thanks to all who've read).  It seems to have provided inspiration, resulting in enough text for (a planned) three posts, the last for All Soul's.    
On usage: "underseen" can be contested, of course, but these titles merit attention amid a wealth of choices.  

Spoilers throughout.

Vampire Circus (1972)

he may know a way out ...
While more of an art film, and closer to didactic than Hammer’s usual line, Vampire Circus is typically sumptuous in evoking an indeterminate past.  It has a liquid quality, like stepping into a river.  It seduces the viewer, as Count Mitterhaus seduces Anna, and Emil, Rosa.

 “a hundred delights!  the Circus of Nights!” 

Vampire Circus caps the horrific-circus/carnival trend of midcentury: Shadow of a Doubt, Nightmare Alley, Circus of Horrors.  In being seasonal, on the edge of town, the Dark Carnival stands for a liminal threat, possibly genocide.  Of its title ruin, dialogue in Carnival of Souls says, "The law has placed it off-limits."  This pavilion is contrasted with what is "safe," "reasonable" and "seemly."  Shtettel (the spelling varies), the town in Vampire Circus, is Yiddish for “town.” 

Another trope, with similar meaning, has survivors crossing paths with perpetrators, as in The Seventh Victim, Seven Men from Now, The Last House on the Left and Eden Lake.  Here, both terms apply to both groups, humans and vampires. 

Vampire Circus is tough on Anglo-Americans, its trigger-sin crouched in our blind spot.  The townsfolk can be deceitful and waspish, but their damning trait is division.  They’ve had time: after the execution of bloodsucker Mitterhaus, 15 years pass before vengeance -- modernity descends -- as half the town decides vampires don’t exist. 

“We make our own luck.”

Early rationalists, Dr. Kersh and schoolteacher Mueller scoff at the notion of vampires.  The teacher is an intellectual feather: after losing his family and killing Mitterhaus, he reverts to scientism, but still can say of the circus folk, “they are death.”  Later, he redeems himself, by believing in what he can’t understand. 

Divisions between men tend to leave a divided population.  Inevitably, an opposing residence becomes hostile territory, as couples and families assume entitlement to (toxic) privacy.  Parents become unaccountable, then suspect.  Thus, the revolutionary insight of Vampire Circus: estrangement from traditional religion as a cause of sexual frustration.

The town’s young adults also assume a type of rabies to be the only plague.  (Indeed, rabies may be the origin of vampire lore: science and folklore interrelate, despite attempts at segregation.)  Only as the skeptics recover faith (intellectual humility) can the town defend itself.  The humility should be in the context of a supernatural: it's too easy to own ignorance if never actually wrong.  

“it’s not life, just distortions …”

the protean Serena
Filmed narratives about demonic encroachment don't necessarily specify demons, e.g., Circle of Fear "Earth, Air, Fire and Water," Twin Peaks.  The horror films of John Carpenter assume a force of pure evil, malignant to humanity.  In both Prince of Darkness and Vampires, the Catholic Church is uneasy ally of the protagonists.  Carpenter is an atheist, but his movies at least flirt with the idea of the Church as hedge against something even worse.  

Like Twin Peaks, Shtettel seems to have no church, and everyone’s lying to someone.  After her son is snatched from danger, the mayor’s wife kisses the rescuer, humiliating her husband.  A splinter group negotiates passage from the barricaded town, and is killed.  Dora, Mueller’s surviving daughter, is safely “in the city,” but journeys home unannounced and unescorted.  Rosa’s mother keeps her daughter’s secret, the affair with Emil.  

Two boys sneak to the circus after hours, joining those snared by the hall of mirrors.  (If funhouse reflections are a door to evil, it questions my daily, four-hour gaze.)  These vampires are magicians and shapechangers, with an (unremarked) immunity to sunlight, and implied psychic powers (the film gets choppy late, reportedly from budget cuts).   

Kersh slips the barricade but, unlike Ivy in The Village, gets revelation.  Now, unanimous belief in vampires gives the townsmen a fighting chance: "Without a vision [no plurality] the people perish."  Shtettel has the advantage of a common heritage, including a recent (cultural) memory of faith.  Still, those attempting “a new kind of nation” should gird for failure.  

“If your wife’s in there, maybe she wanted to go.”  

The film's beginning is both mythic and horrifying: Anna Mueller's fall isn’t frightening, but we know the horrible has happened.  Though soon interrupted, her debauch leaves no doubt why she'd bring her daughter for slaughter.  Here, evil is thrilling and erotic; this isn’t soft-serve Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave.

The ending, which is too busy, reveals the circus-leader to be a disguised Anna, even as she saves Dora.  Despite this partial redemption, Anna made the town a target, by placing personal desire above commitments to (original) family and tribe.   

Some films are social-critically present to the point of (evidently) crippling the careers of filmmakers, including Freaks, Sweet Smell of Success, Peeping Tom, Dirty Little Billy, Ganja and Hess and The Sopranos.  The pattern may help to explain the obscurity of the Vampire Circus duo, director Robert Young and screenwriter Judson Kinberg.  Their film attempts to collapse the walls between art and entertainment, sensation and narrative, the erotic and the dramatic.