You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).
The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.
As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.
The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.
In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.
Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.
The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)
Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.
The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.
Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.
Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.
Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.
Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.
Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.
Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933’s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.