Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Unholy Three (Jack Conway, 1930)

Almost two years ago, I wrote about Tod Browning's 1925 weirdo silent film classic The Unholy Three. Here's a link to that review. A short but cinematically eventful five years later, Hollywood remade The Unholy Three as a talkie, with Lon Chaney and Harry Earles reprising their roles. What results is an interesting curiosity that closely follows the earlier film's plot, structure, and beats, but is a far less satisfying experience. Film is a visual medium, which seems like such a blatantly obvious statement that I shouldn't even have to mention it, but too many people look at film primarily as a storytelling mechanism. Here we have two films with the exact same story, told in the same way (though one is silent with intertitles and the other is a talkie) and in the same order, with two of the same actors, and the 1925 film is a work of visual art while the 1930 remake is just a filmed story.
The remake is not a failure, but it is a more pedestrian, less thrilling experience if you've seen the original. The story is so ingenious and weird and needlessly complicated that it remains compelling a second time. Lon Chaney, in his only sound film (he died later that year from a throat hemorrhage), has the same charisma and presence he exhibited in his many silent film classics (though his ventriloquist dummy is less creepy in this version), and Lila Lee, taking over the Rosie role from Mae Busch, handles her complex character with a naturalism that feels modern.
On the negative side, director Jack Conway is a Hollywood pro who dials down the strangeness and personality that Browning can't help but exude, and the film's best moments are direct lifts from Browning's framing and the actors' movements in the '25 film, though sometimes shot from the opposite side of the set. Harry Earles, a hilarious and disturbing presence in the silent film, is an almost indecipherable mushmouth in the sound film. I could only pick up about every fifth word he said. Credited as Tweedledee in Browning's film, Conway lists him as "Midget" in the credits, with the other characters referring to him as "the midge." Browning, who worked in circuses, traveling carnivals, and vaudeville prior to his film career, has a more respectful and nuanced approach to his "circus freak" characters than Conway does. Ivan Linow as Hercules in this film is a duller, flatter performer than Victor McLaglen in Browning's film. Last but not least, the ape in the remake is a man in an ape suit, while Browning used a chimpanzee and trick camera angles to create a wilder and more visceral experience.
I don't know what else to say about this film. It sticks so closely to the original without capturing its magic but is a fascinating piece of film history. It's the only place to hear Lon Chaney's voice and for many years was much easier to see than the Browning film. And now I'm sad that Lon Chaney won't be appearing in any more films on our list. He and Conrad Veidt dominated the 1920s world of horror, suspense, crime, and indescribable strangeness, and I salute them for it.  

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Blood Frenzy (Hal Freeman, 1987)

Blood Frenzy is a silly but entertaining slasher film that follows the subgenre's basic template but places the action in an unusual location. One of only two non-porn films from porn director Hal Freeman (the other is a documentary about earthquake preparedness hosted by Shelley Duvall!!!), Blood Frenzy puts forth the highly improbable scenario of a psychotherapist taking a group of troubled patients deep into the isolated California desert for a weekend encounter group. Unfortunately, someone else is out there, too, and this unseen stranger starts picking off the group, one by one. Or is the killer one of them?
The group of patients are a ridiculous collection of stereotypes. Rick (Tony Montero) is a troubled Vietnam vet haunted by flashbacks, Cassie (Lisa Savage) is a nymphomaniac who wants to be touched at all times, Dave (Hank Garrett) is a chauvinist alpha male with a hair-trigger temper, Jean (Monica Silveria) is terrified of being touched and scared of life in general, Crawford (John Clark, Lynn Redgrave's ex-husband!) is a raging alcoholic, and Dory (Lisa Loring, who played Wednesday on The Addams Family TV show in the '60s!) has a case of "bitterness," which was apparently a mental illness in 1987. The film ascribes her bitterness and extreme sarcasm to her lesbianism.
Leading this ragtag group of misfits is Dr. Barbara Shelley (Wendy MacDonald), a capable, even-keeled therapist who nevertheless thought it was a good idea to take this group to an isolated hunk of desert with only a mine shaft nearby. Freeman's porn movie roots lead to every woman in the cast wearing short shorts and showing lots of cleavage, even Dr. Shelley, but surprisingly, the film has no nudity. What it does have is lots of arguing and murder.
You might guess that a group with this particular makeup would have trouble getting along, and you would be right, but this conflict is all part of Dr. Shelley's healing plan. With nothing but each other, an RV, and some tents for company, things heat up, desert-style. This conflict leads to two of my favorite exchanges in the movie:
(1) "Hey, a 1959 nickel. I wonder how much this is worth." "Five cents, asshole."
(2) "Do you love me, Rick?" "Lady, you're weird."
The patients get into fights and arguments and have a few breakthroughs, and things start settling down until one of the group is murdered in the night and the radio and the distributor cap are stolen from the RV. The group splits up into three pairs, two pairs looking for help, one pair remaining at the campsite. More murders ensue, more shit goes down. It's a real frenzy ... a blood frenzy.
I'm not really sure what made Hal Freeman take this rare detour from his porn career, but it may have had something to do with his legal problems at the time of filming. Conservative California legislators wanted to crack down on the state's porn industry and decided to use Freeman as an example, arresting him for pandering. Freeman appealed, and the California state supreme court sided with him. Hardcore filmed sex was legal again. Freeman's involvement in Blood Frenzy may have also been a favor for screenwriter Ted Newsom, who started out writing porn movies but moved on to horror films and documentaries about Hollywood, with this film being his second non-porn writing gig.
I'm not a porn film fan, but I do enjoy porn film titles, so I would be remiss if I didn't leave you with some of Hal Freeman's greatest hits. He's most famous for Caught from Behind, a series of anal sex movies that include 23 sequels in addition to the original. Other producing and/or directing credits include Radio K-KUM, Daddy Doesn't Know, The Million Dollar Screw, The Lust Bug, Hershe Highway 2, and Stiff Magnolias. This is a weird planet.