Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Books series...

I'm currently reading the non-fiction book The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and The Invention of Murder, by Daniel Stashower. It's a very readable tome examining the sensational murder of Mary Rogers and its aftermath. After the crime remained unsolved, Poe eventually wrote a story (with names and settings very lightly altered) in which his pre-existing sleuth Auguste Dupin--literature’s very first detective character--solved the crime, using Poe's own formulated solution to the real life mystery.

This is a very good effort, briefer than many such (300 pages), and written well enough that the pages fly by. Stashower manages to cover and integrate such topics as the murder; its attendant cast; Poe; the then at best nascent criminal justice system; the period's often-scurrilous popular press, and other topics without overwhelming the reader. A very nice job.

This remains my favorite passage so far: The following morning, a local farmer named James McShane came across [a prostrate fellow] sprawled facedown, sobbing in the wet grass. The smell of alcohol hung in the air. To McShane, this could mean only one thing. "My dear man," he said, "are you a Frenchman?"

There's been a trend lately to use real life historical figures as protagonists in mystery series. As the inventor of the detective story, Poe naturally ranks among these. Most notably, he has been the subject of several suitably baroque mystery novels by Harold Schechter, which have affectionate fun with Poe's overwrought and dramatic personality. These books tend to join Poe up with some other historical figure, such as Davey Crockett or Kit Carson or, most recently, a young Louisa May Alcott.

Buffs will also want to check out the recent and rather more serious The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, which features Poe helping solve a string of murders while a military cadet. (An even younger Poe, meanwhile, is a less instrumental character in Andrew Taylor's An Unpardonable Crime.) The adult Poe, meanwhile, searches out a killer in Randall Silvis' Disquiet Heart, itself a follow-up to Silvis' earlier Poe mystery, On Night's Shore.

All of these books are worth a look for mystery and/or Poe fans.

It's a miracle, really...

Tonight a theater up north is playing Jaws at midnight. (Luckily I have a friend up there who will loan me her couch, sparing me a two a.m. drive home.) That's a film I haven't on a screen since it was first out, and then only once. I did see Jaws 3-D in a theater, but that's not quite the same thing.

Those conversant with my review site will probably be aware that Jaws is one of my favorite films, so obviously I'm very excited.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Plague of the Zombies (1966)

One of the things that makes horror such a sturdy genre is that a lot of the classic monster archetypes act as obvious and handy metaphors for the darker aspects of the human condition. Vampires touch on issues of spiritual corruption and sex (and, in the modern Anne Riceian vamps, on a narcissistic ‘youth’ culture gone mad). Frankenstein explores hubris and unintended consequences. Werewolves and Dr. Jekyll touch on the dark side lurking in every human soul.

Modern zombies dwell on the profound fear of conformism and lost of individuality. (They also focus, to a lesser extent, on the terror of loved ones suddenly turning against us.) Traditional zombies, however, of the voodoo persuasion and generally not the flesh-eaters of today’s films, take that a step further. The original zombies were the result of souls captured by voodoo rites, leaving the victim’s shambling corpse a literally mindless tool of their master. This is slavery of the most direct kind, and thus the traditional zombie film was often a critique of capitalism exploitation. See White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, among others, in which the dead are used as the ultimate sweatshop workforce.

Plague of the Zombies, one of the more obscure Hammer horror films, proved to be cut from this cloth. Added to this is a nice additional critique of class differences there, at least back in the day of the aristocracy.

Sir James Forbes, a prominent physician and medical teacher, receives a letter from a former student, Peter Tompson. This relates the fact of a mysterious plague affecting the small Cornish village for which Tompson is the resident doctor. Forbes’ independent minded daughter, Sylvia, pushes for a visit to Tompson, as her friend Alice is now Tompson’s wife.

Along the way Sir James and Sylvia run across some fox hunters. Once they have arrived in town, they see the hunters again, this time running their horses through the middle of a funeral procession. This causes the coffin to be thrown down an embankment, pithily establishing the simmering contempt and loathing the working class villagers and the upper class hooligans have for each other.

The fox hunting hooligans prove to be the ‘guests’ of the local squire, Clive Hamilton. Despite the spate of deaths, lately, Tompson has been unable to obtain Hamilton’s permission to conduct autopsies on the bodies. Meanwhile, the townspeople are turning against Tompson too, who’s a convenient scapegoat due to his education and outsider status.

In the end—and I really don’t think this ends up enough as a surprise to qualify as a spoiler, although you may skip ahead if you wish—we learn that Hamilton and his toughs are using voodoo (imported from Hamilton’s travels in Haiti) to raise the village dead and work them in his tin mine. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s turns his attentions toward Sylvia…

Plague of the Zombies is a movie I hadn’t seen before. It probably didn’t get as much airplay because it lacked Dracula or Dr. Frankenstein. Moreover, it’s one of but a handful of Hammer horror pictures that doesn’t feature Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in the cast. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the film, which is definitely in the high second tier of the studio’s horror entries. This movie should really be better known, and hopefully more folks like me are checking it out now that it’s on DVD.

All the strengths of the Hammer films are on display here. A lean, strait forward plot with escalating narrative drive. A fine, atmospheric and insistent score by house composer James Bernard. And while neither the story nor the characters are all that ‘original’, they are brought to live with admirable professionalism. As is usually the case, it’s less the assorted elements of the film that ensure its success, it’s the quality of the execution that wins or loses the day.

A special nod to a very good cast. Sir James is probably the richest character here—had Cushing been available, he undoubtedly would have had this role—and is extremely well played by Hammer regular Andre Morell. At first Forbes seems a typically stolid and stuffy upper class sort. However, he soon reveals both a strong moral seriously as well as a wry sense of humor. I’ve said this before, but it’s also nice to see a film where the lead character is an actual adult, and here a middle-aged one, at that.

Especially nicely judged is Forbes’ relationship with Sylvia. He often displays annoyance at his daughter’s headstrong forthrightness (and nicely, is occasionally actually irked by her), but both he and she knows it’s an act. The respect and affection the two have for each other is palpable.

Sylvia, for her part, also is a character—the plucky heroine—who could have been a rote cipher and instead actually succeeds in seeming a real person. The scene where her terror at being nearly raped subsequently turns to a quiet rage is entirely believable, and credit should be given to actress Diane Clare here. She’s one of the better Hammer heroines.

Veteran character actor John Carson does a nice work with Hamilton, who actually isn’t quite as deftly limned by the script. Carson did tons of British TV work, and was most familiar to me as the more benign Dr. Marcus in the similarly superior and offbeat Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. Meanwhile, Michael Ripper, who seems to be have in every single film the studio ever made, has a slightly bigger role than usual here as the village constable.

Tech credits, per usual with Hammer fare fro this period, are very good. The location shooting for the exterior scenes lends a nice expansively that works well with the typical sumptuous-on-a-budget sets the studio was known for. John Gilling, who also helmed the similarly rural-set film The Reptile the same year, provides nice, unobtrusive work here. The make-up for the zombies is rather good, although the ambitious climax requires rather obvious masks for them that don’t mesh well with the earlier scenes.

All in all, a very nice piece of work.