It’s no secret that the shadow of cinema has loomed large over American horror fiction ever since the premiere of the country’s first devoutly supernatural chiller on Valentine’s Day, 1931. (That would be Tod Browning’s DRACULA for the philistines out there.) Since then novels and short stories alike have drawn inspiration from the silver screen and recycled its motifs—the reverse has held true less of the time—even, on some occasions, directly reacting to it and incorporating its characters and mythologies into its own form as well. This latter trend is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon, with genre luminaries such as Joe Lansdale, Norm Partridge, and David J. Schow being a handful of contemporary authors who proudly honor the celluloid gods and monsters of their youth by paying tribute to them in their stories. Orrin Grey may count himself a practitioner of this fine tradition.
Even after all we’ve learned of mankind’s potential for harm, we still feel a small sense of shock whenever we engage with genre fiction and discover that the writer’s most horrendous creations look uncomfortably familiar to ourselves. British author Ray Cluley’s first collection Probably Monsters seems to promise one thing while delivering something else; the curlicue tentacle weaving from the forbidden drawer on the book’s cover puts one in mind of the eldritch terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, but Cluley is one of the rare writers of dark fiction who seems to operate outside the long shadow of that infamous scribe from Providence and who writes of terrors unsettlingly closer to home.
Though we’ve seen a deluge of new Weird Fiction in recent years, even the savviest reader might be at a loss to identify what exactly the “high strange horror” of Muzzleland Press’s anthology is. A quick glance at the cover with its Gray Man motel tenant and merit badges of mystery will give one a good notion. The book’s subtitle—“Weird Tales of Paranoia and the Damned”—is elaborated further in the introduction provided by editor Jonathan Raab. We soon find out that this is to be something different from the normal Weird genre fans are used to, something more in line with ominous television programs like In Search Of…, Unsolved Mysteries and Beyond Belief that documented purportedly true events of the paranormal, what Raab here defines using author and researcher Charles Fort’s term as instances of “the damned.”
“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
Though he likely wasn’t aware of the fact, William Faulkner summarized a good majority of horror fiction with this eloquent little truth. The artifacts of the past constantly surround us. They are buried in the soil of our land, the stone of our homes, the flesh of our minds, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their hold on us, grafting themselves to us with strings of impenetrable scarlet thread.
A more recent narrative trope popularized by film is of the victim running away from the inescapable horror giving chase to them, the hulking hockey goalie and gigantic prehistoric reptile equally representing our timeless fears in spite of their diverse guises. These two themes form the emotional bedrock of V. H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone, a collection of stories greatly preoccupied with the notion of fleeing the darkness of the past in the hopes of reaching some golden tomorrow. The past in Leslie’s stories is something to be avoided, swept over, tucked away and forgotten. Her characters do not view their lives as obstacle-laden journeys from which they will grow and learn from but as the meandering, cancerous roots of a traumatic seed, roots that bind them to the ground and keep them from flying towards freedom like the copious birds that surface in almost every story, crushing wings and hopes without discretion.
Truly, for authors who are considering their first foray into the realm of self-publishing, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination should be used as one of the prime texts in terms of both professional refinement and freedom of creative expression. There have been books issued by third-party publishers that have had more instances of typographical errors in a matter of pages than Bartlett’s work does in the whole of its volume, to say nothing of their lack of imagination. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but let me assure you it is not. Bartlett’s collection resonates with the care and enthusiasm that went into its preparation. This author respects his audience. Like a master chef, he knows that the presentation is just as important as the taste of the dish.
But, to belabor a metaphor with an idiom, the proof is in the pudding, and Bartlett demonstrates abundantly throughout his book that he is a voice worth listening to. The connective tissue of the collection is Massachusetts-based radio station 89.7 WXXT, a channel run by a witch cult of decrepit ancients who broadcast all manner of upsetting, mesmerizing, and ominous songs and monologues that enrapture and entice the listeners who happen upon it by accident or design.
Back in January I stopped over in Tampa to check out Grindhouse Video, a new movie store that had just set up shop. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more towards dustier and Gothic fare than sweaty exploitation, but GV had some pretty tempting titles in stock and I was just very pleased to see a specialty store of this order in an area (relatively) close to my home base. Chief among my purchases were three Casa Negra titles, one of which, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (El hombre y el monstruo, 1958) is the subject of today’s review.
Along with the supernatural whackery of THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Misterios de ultratumba, 1959) and the gloriously trashy monster of THE BRAINIAC (El barón del terror, 1962), THE MAN AND THE MONSTER had been on my shortlist of south-of-the-border horror films to check out by virtue of its narrative involving a pithy piano player (Enrique Rambal), a self-admitted “sublime mediocrity,” who sells his soul to El Diablo to possess the musical prowess of his idol (Martha Roth) whom he kills and keeps shuttered in a closet as a captive audience only to have a hex placed on his head that forces him to transform into a bushy-faced fiend with a lust for the blood of senoritas whenever he fulfills the urge to tickle the ivories.
Helmed by Mexican journeyman director Rafael Baledón, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER fluctuates between spritely flights of the macabre and interlocking procedural scenes that are drier than an old tortilla. It hits the ground running with its clever prologue: when a woman crashes her car outside a foreboding hacienda, she goes seeking help but comes to a locked door where a man fervently whispers for release. Spotting a clutch of keys and wanting to do right as a Samaritan in her own plight, she opens the door… and the camera zooms in on her screaming face, the title card revealing to those not yet in the know that the occupant she has just loosed is decidedly inhuman.
The film has technical merit through the use of some impressive photographic effects (a flashback explaining Rambal’s curse plays the events over an image of the actor’s leering face with flames underlining the montage) and a few expressionistic settings. The script by star Abel Salazar’s brother Alfredo–scribe behind several Aztec Mummy and luchadore films–lacks focus and logic at times but is bolstered by strong thematic touches (Rambal’s devotion to his mother reaches an apotheosis when the beastly pianist is cooed back to human form like a child getting brought down from a particularly monstrous tantrum) that makes it a cut-above its modest pedigree. It’s in the rote scenes involving Salazar’s heroic Ricardo snooping around and trying to piece it all together that the melody loses its drive.
Like a 50s horror comic brought to life, Baledón’s film contains just enough patented silliness and pulpishness to make it memorable, at least for the titular creature that resembles nothing so much as a Mr. Hyde muppet given to chuckling with gusto and the occasional obscenity (“Open the door, God damn it!”) and for the poor gatto that is repeatedly yanked off-screen by wires to simulate cheap jump scares. The finale with the monster running wild at his symphony of Tchaikovsky’s ROMEO AND JULIET makes for a boisterous albeit short romp.
THE GOLEM (1920), originally titled THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), has an interesting cultural lineage, at least in regards to the lovely DVD put out by Kino Lorber. Introductory texts to the film report that the majority of the footage in Kino’s release was provided by a print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, originally sent to the U.S. from the film’s German production company, UFA. Additional footage and intertitles were preserved in Moscow. The tinted frames that Kino retains are based on the coloring of an Italian copy from Milan. The fact that a film such as THE GOLEM should even be made in the time and place that it was–Germany, at the dawn of the Twenties when the country’s fascism and anti-Semitism was gaining prominence–is interesting alone, but that the present, official release of the film should sew together remnants from countries that would play such vital roles in the Second World War can’t help but make this picture, co-directed by star Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, strike a wider, global chord with its folkloric charm and truth, further cementing the notion that though our politics may divide us, our art will always bind us.
The story, co-scripted by Wegener and Henrik Galeen (author of other revered classics of German Expressionism NOSFERATU and WAXWORKS), retells the legend of Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), a revered man within the Jewish ghetto that he and the rest of his people are ordained to occupy under the hard rule of Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr). When the Emperor decrees that all of the Jews must vacate their humble premises for committing that most odious of historical mistakes–practicing the wrong religion–Löw realizes that reasoning will not be able to convince the royal head of their worth and decides to use a little strong-arming in the form of an imposing man of clay, the Golem (Wegener), to protect the Chosen People from their persecutors. In a showcase of flaming rings and dancing fireballs, Löw calls forth the ghastly visage of the god Astaroth to provide the life-giving word for his creation. The clay man is given animation and is soon performing menial tasks for the rabbi under the guise of a house servant. Löw and his creation are able to sway the Emperor to lift the edict after the ruler and his royal subjects are nearly crushed under the weight of their own prosperity when they are divinely punished for laughing at Löw’s conjured vision of the Wandering Jew. But when Löw’s fellow Rabbi Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) uses the golem to punish Löw’s daughter for copulating with a cocky knight, the clay creation becomes maddened by his evil influence.
These “Pictures Based on Events in an Old Chronicle” are wonderfully framed by cameraman Karl Freund, later to lens some of Universal Studios’ most famous chillers (DRACULA, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) and helm his own classics (MAD LOVE, THE MUMMY) after his move to America. The heads of the rabbis bent in prayer under the welcoming arms of the temple menorah is an especially harmonious visual. Fans of Hollywood’s first “House of Horrors” will recognize another familiar name in the credits in the listing of Hans Poelzig, the noted German architect who designed the twisting sets for this film. His name was later to resurface as the moniker of Boris Karloff’s feline-evil Hjalmar Poelzig in THE BLACK CAT (1934). BLACK CAT director Edgar G. Ulmer reportedly worked in the art department for THE GOLEM as a “silhouette cutter,” thus providing the final link in this dark heritage. (As a matter of fact, a black kitty can be seen slinking along a rooftop fairly early in the film, acting as both omen for the Hebrews’ turmoil within the film and prophecy for the creative artists without.) Poelzig’s sets are justifiably lauded; the building-tops in the ghetto look like the fungusy crags of some far-flung planet set against the glowing night stars.
The opportunity that silent cinema offers the willing and attentive viewer is one of complete concentration and focus. We need not worry about the distracting noise of spoken dialogue and incidental noise. Our eyes become more engaged with the moving images, and thus allow us to become more attuned to their artistry. The music, though at times prominent, is more like a delicate augmentation, guiding our feelings and impressions of the film rather than being used as just another sound effect. The tinting used in silent films is also paramount. Though some cineastes may pine for the purity of monochrome photography, color tinting offers more emotional impact; at times it literally colors our perception of a scene. The Frankenstein-green shades give Löw’s chambers a more arcane luster, and the changing of the ghetto’s streets from pale-copper to a fierce scarlet when the Golem sets fire to his master’s house is an inspired touch.
I could really go on for some length more about this film, but I would prefer to pass it along into the hands of the next eager viewer to mold with their own impressions and find whatever knowledge and beauty that they may.