Rescue Dawn

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 November 2007

Venues: London West End and Nationwide

Distributor Pathe

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Christian Bale, Zach Grenier, Marshall Bell

US 2006

126 minutes

Rescue Dawn is an unlikely adaptation: Werner Herzog has made a feature film based on one of his own documentaries. Viewers may forgive him this unusual act of recycling insofar as his documentary films are already widely known for blurring the boundaries between facts and fiction. ‘It’s all just movies’, he has famously declared. Both films concern Dieter Dengler, a German-born US pilot who was shot down in the early stages of the Vietnam War and held prisoner in a POW camp in Laos until he made a daring escape. Dengler tells the story in his own words in the memoir Escape from Laos, and Herzog, charmed by Dengler, subsequently filmed the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

What comes across most profoundly in that earlier film is Herzog’s affection for his subject. Dengler has a fascinating way of narrating events and is clearly motivated by an attempt to make the most of life’s difficult circumstances. This admiration also comes across in Rescue Dawn, which Herzog wrote and directed. Even in the POW camp, Dengler, played here by Christian Bale, finds ways to make a feast from a plateful of maggots and encourages his fellow prisoners’ fantasies about the foods they once loved to eat. As he appears in both films, Dengler not only needed to fly, but needed to flee as well. It’s difficult to imagine a camp that could have contained him.

Bale cleverly underplays the part, diminishing the real Dieter’s quirks and Germanic speech patterns. It is an astonishingly restrained performance, which is all the more unexpected given the fact that this is a film made by a director who descended several times into jungles with Klaus Kinski. Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, goes a bit Kinski. Davies has always acted with his whole body (in films from Solaris to Spanking the Monkey). Here too, the actor’s emaciated torso is used to uniquely expressive effect. Gene DeBruin, the prisoner played by Davies, is presented as a reluctant participant in his own escape and is curiously antagonistic to the group’s aspirations to freedom. His real-life family has objected to Herzog’s account, and the director may indeed have taken liberties, but Davies’ character – as it is written and performed – cuts a powerful counterpart to Bale’s Dengler.

It may not have been necessary to have Bale eat maggots (as has been claimed) in order to achieve authenticity, but Herzog likes to film in tough circumstances so real stress and strain will pour through his performers’ faces and past the edges of the cinematic frame. He wants us to feel that we can, as he says, ‘believe our eyes again’. There are places in the film where less realism but more reality may have been called for. The Allied air war against Germany inspired Dengler to become a pilot, so it is more curious that he wanted to become a US pilot. Though this is discussed in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog makes only slight mention of the point in Rescue Dawn. The film takes place during the Vietnam War, and not before or after. The images of the Asian jungle are lush, though they hardly reach the expressive heights of Aguirre, Wrath of God. The narrative too is a bit tidier than some of Herzog’s fans may expect. While the director had a love-hate relationship with Kinski, his feelings for Dengler are less ambiguous, which may account for the somewhat surprising straightforwardness of the film’s ending.

Brad Prager

The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth by Brad Prager is published by Wallflower Press.


The Wayward Cloud

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 November 2007

Venues: BFI Southbank and Key Cities

Distributor Axiom Films

Director: Tsai Ming Liang

Title: The Wayward Cloud

Original title: Tian bian yi duo yun

Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-Ching

Taiwan/France 2005

114 minutes

Title: I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

Original title: Hey yan quan

Cast: Norman Bin Atun, Chen Shiang-chyi

Taiwan/France 2006

115 minutes

Released simultaneously in the UK in November, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) are two disparate and challenging pieces of work from this Asian auteur. Well-established in art-house circles as a filmmaker with a unique style and vision, Ming-liang’s two recent films will inevitably alienate a large number of cinema-goers while delighting a smaller group of enthusiastic fans.

While both movies explore similar themes (loneliness, urban dislocation, desire, an obsession with water) The Wayward Cloud is the more immediately engaging film of the two. Set in a scorching, drought-ridden Taipei, it revolves around the irresistible attraction between a young porn star, played by Lee Kang-sheng, and an innocent, enigmatic young woman played by Chen Shiang-chyi (both also star in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) The film is part musical, part porn, utterly surreal, erotic and emotionally gripping. Ming-liang provokes his audience right from the first scene: a woman in a nurse’s uniform lies spread-eagled on a bed in a sterile white room, while Lee licks and fingers a ripe, hot-pink watermelon between her legs.

The camera is never far from the actors in The Wayward Cloud, wordlessly capturing their every nuanced emotion. Ming-liang’s long takes infuse the film with poetical lyricism, allowing the characters to develop naturally as they begin to bridge their terrible isolation. Despite the explicit intercourse with his co-stars, Lee is emotionally detached and painfully alone. He is a romantic, expressing his yearning through the bitter-sweet lyrics of ‘A Half Moon’, wondering what ‘can soothe my heart so blue’. A chance encounter with Chen blossoms into a tentative romance, their desire for each other swelling from small, tender gestures to a tumultuous, desperate climax in the film’s notorious finale.

After The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone comes across as a self-indulgent, monumentally tedious film, lacking all of the charm and humour of the earlier work. Set in the smog-filled streets of Kuala Lumpur, the film revolves around the frustrations of two men, both somewhat confusingly played by Lee. One is a successful composer, now paralysed and possibly comatose, the other a homeless man brutally beaten and left for dead by a gang of grifters. Found by a group of immigrant Bangladeshi workers, he is taken back to their squat where he is lovingly nursed back to health by the devoted Rawang (Norman Bin Atun). The sparse film is infused with homoeroticism, setting the stage for a love triangle involving a lonely waitress at a seedy café, played by Chen, who is also forced to bathe and care for the paralysed man by his wife and her boss.

Ming-liang’s trademark static long takes, often lasting minutes, and the virtually non-existent dialogue are minimalist techniques that have earned the director a cult following. Pushed to the limit, they make I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone almost unbearable to watch. The director seems to do everything possible to prevent the audience from forming some kind of emotional bond with his characters, his nocturnal long shots keeping them at such a remote distance from the camera that for much of the film it’s virtually impossible to identify the character with the actor. While his shots may be perfectly and elegantly composed, they just aren’t enough to redeem a film that is so alienating to all but die-hard enthusiasts.

Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation is based on creating artistic works diametrically opposed to the bland, lowest-common-denominator junk churned out by Hollywood. However, while The Wayward Cloud is a piece of provocative, stimulating cinema, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is too mired in its own pretensions to be enjoyed simply as a film.

Sarah Cronin



Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 November 2007

Venues: BFI Southbank and Key Cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Melissa Stribling, Michael Gough

UK 1958

82 mins

What better way to mark the 50th anniversary of Hammer Horror than with the re-release of Dracula – not only Hammer’s first take on the Bram Stoker classic, but undoubtedly its finest. Thanks to the BFI National Archive, a new generation of cinema-goers can now enjoy director Terence Fisher’s vampire saga in a beautifully restored version. Blood and gore never looked more appetising.

UK critics had a very different opinion upon the film’s original release: ‘There should be a new certificate – S for sadistic or just D for disgusting’, warned an outraged Daily Telegraph, whilst the Daily Express branded it ‘one of the most revolting pictures in years!’ Mercifully, the public paid little attention and Dracula (shot on a shoestring budget of í‚£82,000) became a box-office smash.

So what was all the fuss about? Was it the fact that Hammer’s version took liberties with the original source material, upsetting Stoker purists? Or was it the film’s daring concoction of graphic horror and sex upsetting the moralists? The answer is, both. To begin with, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay adaptation had to be cut due to budgetary restrictions. After a terrifying opening in Dracula’s castle (emphasised by James Bernard’s legendary score), the action switches to nearby Karlstadt as opposed to Whitby in Yorkshire. ‘I didn’t bring Dracula to England because we couldn’t afford a boat’, remarked Sangster. Insect-munching lunatic Renfield is completely absent, while high-flying estate agent Jonathan Harker is downshifted to a humble librarian.

None of these changes, however, do Hammer’s fast-paced version any harm, largely thanks to Christopher Lee’s menacing performance. Lee’s Dracula is not just a cold-blooded animal but also a skilled seducer – it is always clear how much his victims enjoy the Count’s nocturnal bites. Such scenes established the then 38-year-old actor as the new superstar of Gothic horror, and this first Dracula vehicle was to remain his favourite – ‘it would allow me to speak proper sentences’, Lee once remarked.

The action kicks off with Harker arriving at the castle, posing as a librarian but really on a mission to destroy Dracula forever. He is soon acquainted with a buxom beauty claiming to be the Count’s captive. Valerie Gaunt – Hammer’s original vampire babe – is truly mesmerising, playing out her wanton lust to the max. Unfortunately, her seductive powers will save neither her nor Harker from a sticky end, and soon Professor Van Helsing, whose character is given a clever twist by Peter Cushing’s fierce portrayal, sets off to search for his missing friend.

Meanwhile, the Count has discovered the Holmwood household and with it Lucy (Carol Marsh), his next victim. After Lucy’s gory staking at the hands of Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), the Count moves on to seduce and kidnap Arthur’s wife. Melissa Stribling is terrific as Mina Holmwood, laughing off her husband’s concern about how ill she looks (we already know the reason for her deathly pallor). In a breathtaking finale back in the castle, Dracula and his opponents are drawn together in the ultimate showdown – at least until the next of eight sequels.

Claudia Andrei



Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 November 2007

Venues: London West End and Key Cities

Distributor: Contender Films

Director: Allan Moyle

Cast: Scott Speedman, Matt Frewer, Joey Beck, Wes Bentley, Taryn Manning

US/Canada 2007

90 mins

The sign on the way into town reads: ‘Weedsville, pop: 490,000’. It’s a run-down, post-industrial city on a wrong turn somewhere off the interstate where disenfranchised youth get high in derelict factories and Satanists sacrifice virgins in the drive-in theatre on the outskirts of town. There are still nice parts of the city where the effluent discharge hasn’t fully polluted the river and where you can find nineteenth-century mansions lovingly restored, home to self-help gurus and their followers…

Director Allan Moyle has a love/hate relationship with cinema. After his first film in 1980, he was so disaffected that he didn’t make another movie for a decade. He returned with the blistering Pump Up the Volume, a showcase for rising star Christian Slater, which provided a voice for the fears of Generation X. He again articulated the concerns of the zeitgeist – in this case corporations absorbing small town life – with Empire Records, an endearing ‘dramedy’ that helped kick-start the careers of Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger.

So, what went wrong (again)? Certainly for the last twelve years, Moyle has made films that ended up in discount racks or were just plain embarrassing to watch. Whatever the cause, the director has finally made a terrific new film that follows up on the promise of his early work. Weirdsville takes a scattershot approach to its themes and subject matter – again looking at dissatisfied youth (his favorite and most successful theme) – mixing heroin abuse, murder, brain-washing and suburban ennui to delirious effect. His experiences in the movie industry may have led the director to absolve all credit for the success of this film, but the ease with which he keeps so many disparate plates juggling in Weirdsville shows a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Funny, moving, beautifully shot and above all bonkers, this is a film that is desperate for an audience, but no less likeable for that. Occupying the middle ground between turgid stoner comedies like Dude, where’s my car? and romanticized, stylish dramas such as Trainspotting, Weirdsville deftly moves from traumatic overdose scenes to the generic horror of Satanist rituals, from drama to outrageous comedy. This is a film made by people who love movies, acting as prospectors sifting through the detritus of modern filmmaking. Dream-like scenes of lead actor Scott Speedman skating a foot above the ground across the urban sprawl recall Renton’s journey to hospitalization in Trainspotting as much as Terry Gilliam’s magical realism.

Elsewhere, the preposterous idea of a medieval battle re-enactment society made up entirely of dwarves who travel around in a limousine, or Matt Frewer as a brain-damaged self-help leader strapped to a gurney and recovering from a giant icicle blow to the head recall John Landis at his most self-indulgent. Amazingly, in spite of all these outrageous conceits, the film somehow works thanks to excellent casting and performances, good pacing and the constant belief that all these incidents have a point and will make sense by the end of the movie.

The director hopes this likeable mélange about stoners and Satanists will garner a cult following and I for one am happy to sign up.

Alex Fitch

Read Alex Fitch’s interview with Allan Moyle.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Nosferatu 1
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Format: Blu-ray*

Release date: 23 November 2015

Distributor: BFI

Director: F.W. Murnau

Based on: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Original title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Cast: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Greta Schröder

Germany 1922

89 minutes

Hailed as a masterpiece of early German cinema and still regarded as one of the best horror films ever made, the 1922 classic Nosferatu has stood the test of time, despite a shaky start. Unable to secure the film rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, FW Murnau changed key aspects of the text in order to make his film. This subsequently led to the Stoker estate successfully suing the production company (Prana-Film) for copyright infringement, leaving them bankrupt. In spite of a court order for all copies of the film to be destroyed, worldwide distribution ensured copies would remain intact. Nosferatu has since influenced and inspired generations of filmmakers, spawning loving remakes and homages in the process.

Nosferatu stands independently from Dracula, yet the narrative structure is both true to the original and surprisingly complex. After cheerful businessman Hutter takes a seemingly innocent trip to the Carpathian Mountains to secure a real estate deal with the elusive Count Orlok, he falls ill, without ever suspecting that the cause might be the bite marks on his neck. Meanwhile Orlok embarks on a voyage across the sea to take up residence in Hutter’s town. The ship’s rat-infested cargo unleashes a plague upon the town, and though Hutter is reunited with his young wife Ellen, she realises she must succumb to the vampire in order to overpower him.

To consider Nosferatu simply as a key example of the German Expressionist style prominent in the early 1920s somewhat obscures Murnau’s leanings towards formal qualities, and his use of techniques heavily influenced by nineteenth-century gothic romantic paintings. Nosferatu‘s outdoor locations give a sense of realism, but camera tricks distort perceptions of time and space. Idyllic landscapes can quickly become fearsome, evoking the uncanny and obliterating boundaries between the real and unreal. Yet it is, perhaps, the expressionist elements that help make Nosferatu the iconic film that it is. Most striking is the now infamous image of the huge distorted shadow of the vampire; when he ascends the stairs to Ellen’s room his deformed figure calls to mind all incarnations of (childhood) fears, the terrifying ghosts and monsters which exist in the imagination.

Brought to life by Max Schreck, Count Orlok possesses an other-worldly presence not seen in cinema before or since. His features are grotesquely exaggerated: ears, nose and teeth protrude from a skeletal face, and his hands are claw-like as they delve at his prey: the bizarre physicality of Schreck’s performance complements the expressionist aesthetic of the film. Associated with rats and pestilence, Orlok is a world away from the charming and seductive Dracula depicted by Christopher Lee in the Hammer films. However, an undercurrent of perverse sexuality and desire runs through the film, and the predatory nature of the vampire is literally examined under a microscope by the scientists, as if it can be understood rationally. But this is to no avail.

Nosferatu was the first of many Dracula films, and its unique aesthetic reflects the level of innovation in the German film industry at that time. This definitive two-disc set is exquisitely restored, with painstaking resurrection of the original music and intertitles. With special features including a 96-page book and a making-of documentary, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.

This review refers to the 2007 Eureka Entertainment ‘Masters of Cinema’ DVD release.

Lindsay Tudor

* Special features of the newly remastered BFI Blu-ray release include a video essay by Christopher Frayling and the two short films Le Vampire by Jean Painlevé and The Mistletoe Bough by early film pioneer Percy Stow, which features a new score by Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs. The disc also includes a fully illustrated booklet featuring film credits, film notes by David Kalat and an essay on Albin Grau and Nosferatu’s occultist origins by Brian J Robb.


In Search of the Great Beast

Format: DVD

Release date: 10 September 2007

Distributor Classic Media

Director: Robert Garofalo

UK 2007

126 minutes

Every decade or so, when the stars are right and the aethers are correctly aligned, somebody announces a biopic of Aleister Crowley; Kenneth Anger, Ken Russell and more recently Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson spring readily to mind. The Edwardian adventurer, poet, painter, mystic and sexual athlete should make a fantastic subject, the multiple layers that wove through his life – magic and misery, art and arseholism, exoticism and exhibitionism – presenting aeons of richly layered, highly visual dramatic material from which to weave celluloid wizard’s robes.

That such a film has not yet been made remains something of a mystery, though Crowley’s spirit is present, albeit in caricatured form, in Night of the Demon‘s Carswell and The Devil Rides Out‘s Mocata, both films, it should be noted, of a certain age. Equally mysterious, especially given Old Crow’s penchant for self-promotion, is that no film footage of the man is known to exist. So there is none to be found in this ambitious DVD documentary, released on the 50th anniversary of its subject’s death.

Narrated by a throaty Joss Ackland, surely anybody’s choice to play the senior Beast, the DVD follows an unerringly straight and narrow biographical path for its two-hour running time. Despite some decent dramatised readings and reconstructions, its linear approach gives the feel of an illustrated biographical essay rather than a documentary film and, while information-rich, it lacks the tension required to bring this Beast to life, making getting through it in one sitting something of a challenge.

Content-wise, excluding some extremely minor factual discrepancies, the occasional instance of strange pronunciation and the odd random internet rumour thrown in for good measure, In Search of presents a solid overview of To Mega Therion’s life. But in breathlessly cramming in all the salacious details, it forgets ever to pause and wonder ‘why’? It’s not an easy question to answer, but in a world already seething with Crowleyana, any new addition to the pile might attempt to do so.

There are no surprises here. In Search of focuses primarily on Crowley’s deeds of darkness, presented in a Hammer horror monotone more suited to the era of John Symond’s 1952 biography, The Great Beast, than to the present day. The arch Goth visual design, all cracked facades and sepia tones, adds to the living storybook feel, while Rick Wakeman’s score flows over every available moment of screen time, adding a prerequisite sheen of melancholy and menace to an already well-polished surface. The presence of Wakeman, who once wore a cape and now, as a committed Christian, presumably prefers a cassock, personifies to a tee the film’s tone of prurient fascination.

The fifty years since his death have thrown up greater boogeymen than Crowley, and any new study ought to reflect the complexities of his personality and the turbulent times in which he lived. Although a decent biographical introduction for those who don’t want to read a book, In Search of sheds no new light on the man who succeeded so admirably as a magus and mythmaker, yet failed so miserably as a human being.

Mark Pilkington




Release date: 24 September 2007

Distributor BFI

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Original title: Teorema

Cast: Silvana Mangano, Terence Stamp, Massimo Girotti

Italy 1968

105 mins

A distinguished philosopher, linguist, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, newspaper columnist, actor, painter and political figure, Pier Paolo Pasolini started his career aged seven writing poetry influenced by Rimbaud. It ended abruptly 48 years later when he was murdered on the beach at Ostia near Rome – either by a disgruntled rent boy or political enemies, depending on who you believe – but in the intervening period he directed twelve full-length films, spanning documentary, drama, satire and at least one Marxist retelling of the life of Christ.

Theorem, from 1968, is the ultimate summation of Pasolini’s creative preoccupations. His first big-budget international production, it’s part dream and part documentary, part parable and part political attack, part satire and part sex farce. It also amasses an array of stylistic and intellectual contradictions that amaze with each viewing.

This new BFI DVD – featuring the usual extensive liner notes and an exclusive interview with Terence Stamp – only reinforces those contradictions. The plot is almost wordless: a mysterious guest – Stamp at the height of his 60s beauty, wearing some of the tightest trousers ever depicted on screen – suddenly appears at the home of a prosperous middle-class industrialist, Paolo. There is no indication of his reason for visiting or his name, but he immediately becomes part of the household. Stamp then seduces (in order) the maid, the son, the mother, the daughter and finally the father in a series of curiously sexless encounters. At one point Stamp even frolics in his underwear with the family dog, although Pasolini spares us any acts of interspecial congress. A cipher for the family to project their desires onto, when Stamp leaves they each cope with his absence by suffering a series of breakdowns and revelations. The daughter becomes a catatonic. The son abandons his dreams of becoming an artist. The mother picks up strangers and has sex with them in fields. Paolo hands over the running of his factory to the workers, exposes himself in a busy railway station and runs up Mount Etna naked. Oddest of all is the maid, who achieves sainthood, eats nettles and performs several miracles before being buried alive.

What all of this means remains deliberately unresolved. Is Pasolini’s theorem that sex has replaced religion as our main mode of spiritual connection? Is bourgeois society only held together by sexual repression? Does challenging that repression beautify the working class? Is the visitor God? The Devil? The International Catholic Film Office certainly thought so – saluting the movie’s engagement with spiritual issues with a special award at the 1969 Venice Film Festival before Vatican protests saw the award being swiftly withdrawn.

‘It’s not important to understand Theorem’, said Pasolini in an interview given in 1969. ‘I leave it to the spectator… is the visitor God or is he the Devil? He is not Christ. The important thing is that he is sacred, a supernatural being. He is something from beyond.’ Rewatching Theorem it’s hard not to think of Pasolini in the same way.

Pat Long


The Mind Benders


Release date: 1 October 2007

Distributor Optimum

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Mary Ure, John Clements

UK/ 1962

109 mins

The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the height of the cold war. So it is hardly surprising that both The Manchurian Candidate and the lesser-known British film The Mind Benders were made that same year. Both films are concerned with brain-washing; the former based on the experiences of GIs in the Korean War and the latter on experiments in ‘the reduction of sensation carried out at certain universities in the United States’, according to the opening title. The technique is explained with the aid of a wonderful pastiche of a university science film (looking remarkably like something Steve Zissou might have made) which shows how a few hours in a sensory deprivation tank can affect a man – how it can ‘reduce him until he becomes a sort of soulless, mindless, will-less thing. Not even a man at all’.

Although the film begins like a cold-war thriller (‘with the drafty telephone boxes and park seats – the whole chilly paraphernalia of treason’, as John Clements’ Major Hall observes) it develops into something very different. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering director Basil Dearden’s pedigree. He is most famous for ‘issue films’: tackling race in Sapphire, juvenile delinquency in The Blue Lamp (in which Dirk Bogarde was cast against type as a teenage ruffian) and homosexuality in the ground-breaking Victim (again with Bogarde). Whereas in The Manchurian Candidate brain-washing can lead to presidential assassination attempts, in The Mind Benders it causes marriage difficulties. Mary Ure sees her marriage descend into another Look Back in Anger as her husband succumbs to the power of suggestion (he is told that he hates his wife while in his weakened state). However, it is this approach that makes The Mind Benders such a curiosity and perhaps also it is where the film ultimately fails. The cross between sci-fi and family drama is interesting but neither area is sufficiently developed for it to work. This may be because Ure and Bogarde’s marriage difficulties occur largely off-screen during a family holiday: the story of sexual humiliation in Amsterdam is told but not seen (although the film was surprisingly awarded an X-certificate on its original release).

Despite starring everyone’s favourite pin-up doctor, Dirk Bogarde, the film was a box office and critical failure at the time – with one headline reading, ‘Bogarde thriller is shabby and nasty’. Although this seems an exaggeration the film can be seen as a continuation of Bogarde’s move away from his Rank screen idol persona (although he was still to reprise his role as the charming Doctor Simon Sparrow throughout the 60s), a journey that was to lead to the genuinely nasty The Damned (1969) and The Night Porter (1974).

All in all, The Mind Benders is a fascinating failure. It is intelligent science fiction made for an adult audience (although hardly deserving its X-certificate). Dearden directs with his usual moody seriousness (and with the staid professionalism that always separated him from the younger generation of directors that included Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson). Even the mind-bending hallucinations in the tank (a few double-exposure shots) are handled with a degree of subtlety. The cast are excellent, particularly Bogarde, who in true Dr Jeckyll style, plays both scientist and guinea pig, and Ure as his suffering wife. Georges Auric’s score is also noteworthy but one can’t help thinking the subject matter might have been better suited to Roger Corman.

Paul Huckerby


The Black Cat

Format: DVD

Release date: 29 October 2007

Distributor Second Sight Films

Title: The Black Cat

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners

US 1934

63 minutes

Title: The Raven

Director: Lew Landers

Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware

US 1935

59 minutes

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat and Lew Landers’ The Raven were made only a year apart in the mid-1930s. Both films were ‘suggested’ by stories from Edgar Allan Poe and were the first two instances in which Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff – each already a star in his own right – co-starred. These Universal B-Movies have little else in common, however. Ulmer’s film is based on a solid story, sharply scripted, is beautifully photographed and contains fine performances from both its leads as well as adequate support from its minor actors. In contrast, The Raven is a very poorly edited cash-in on the successes of Lugosi as Dracula and Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, with the leads’ roles practically identical to these but with no attempt to allow these stars any chance to play off each other, resulting in poor performances from each. The contrast between the two films is of interest because it displays the extent to which the quality of elements such as direction, editing and story can have an impact on actors’ performances.

While it seems that in The Raven the stars’ central performances are all that matters, the opening scenes of The Black Cat reveal a more sophisticated approach. We are presented with a recently married American couple on a train to Hungary who are told by the porter that due to booking complications they will have to share their carriage with a stranger. The ominous, silent intrusion of Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr. Werdegast is like a Hitchcockian stain, insinuating itself violently but only apparently momentarily into the happy couple’s pleasantries. Werdegast saves the girl from being ‘crushed’ by her case, which falls from above her as the train jolts, and a good-natured smile opens a cheery conversation. This early scene gleans a subtle performance from Lugosi who delivers the line ‘I go to visit an old friend’ in a slow, enigmatic tone that seems to imply both that the doctor is greatly fatigued by life and that he has gained a deep inner strength from difficult past experiences.

Lugosi is crucially performing ‘against the grain’ here, both as an actor and as a character, for Karloff’s architect Poelzig is anything but an ‘old friend’ to Werdegast. This manner of performance, encouraged by the storytelling, is fundamental to the film’s overall strength. Karloff’s Poelzig is equally restrained as he stands locked in a brutally rigid attitude before the American honeymooners. This pose, which is certainly menacing, also brilliantly suggests Poelzig’s efforts to avoid giving away too much, all of Karloff’s acting concentrated in the cautious look he gives the strangers. Throughout The Black Cat the presence of the Americans forces Lugosi’s and Karloff’s characters to keep us on a knife’s-edge, proving the worth of Hitchcock’s famous claim that far more important than shock are the restraints of suspense, which are here provided beautifully by the subtleties of restricted performance.

The Raven may be of interest to those who enjoy B-Movies for their often ropey special effects. The Black Cat, however, transcends the supposed limitations of a low budget: it is a deeply atmospheric, visually innovative film and it offers Lugosi and Karloff the perfect roles to play together.

Ben Dooley

Ben Dooley is the co-founder of A Year in the Dark.