Fantasy Noir

In addition to passing myself off as an actor-writer – a trajectory more dependent on waiting around than bustling about – I’ve become an amateur professor of horror cinema. ‘Horror’ cinema, mind. This is instantly problematic. Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, two of horror cinema’s greatest exponents, have decried the use of the word ‘horror’ at all. Instead, they prefer the non-repulsive, non-repellant word ‘terror’. Thus does the genre move from the base physical signifier – crypts, castles, the odd limb being hacked off – and into a more purely emotional sphere. Any film that arouses uncanny feeling can enter the fray. Which is exciting, but also unhelpful; perhaps dangerously inclusive. Thus does horror fuse with science-fiction and fantasy. Everything from Alice in Wonderland (1933) to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) becomes ripe for inclusion. Even Citizen Kane (1942) can be horror, with its decaying house on the hill.

Recently, I’ve started to regard my field as ‘dark fantasy’ – five examples of which I’ve gathered below. Coining a term – fantasy noir? – again creates confusion. After all, two of these films (The Penalty and They Drive by Night) contain no fantasy elements whatever. Yet they warrant consideration by virtue of their central performers, their art direction – their atmosphere, above all. An atmosphere that takes the viewer to the very heart of what darkness might be; that which is normally sheltered, cloistered – closed off from prying eyes and innocent sensibilities.

The dark fantasy ushers the viewer into a world of childhood terrors. I’ve found it to be a fertile imaginative stomping-ground – so I’ll be including references to other films that fit the category, even though they didn’t make the cut (this time).

THE PENALTY (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920)

The Penalty (1920)

I’ve only seen one other Wallace Worsley film: the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which also starred Lon Chaney. It’s intermittently compelling, but defined by a kind of massy immobility – its largely static camera in the thrall of enormous historical landmarks. This flat, near-documentary style is much better attuned to The Penalty, a gritty trip through America’s criminal underworld. The urban settings, daringly contemporary in 1920, are now as fascinatingly alien as Medieval Paris; the beautifully textured sets have some of the grit of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse epics. But despite these passes at verisimilitude, The Penalty is pure melodrama. The scenes with the surgeon’s daughter are as melodramatic as they come, with romantic tropes fighting for supremacy: the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ encounter of heroine and villain; a statue of Satan, plucked from Milton’s Paradise Lost; even the background of the sculptor’s workshop, betokening a gender-switch Pygmalion. Yet bringing these elements into such concentration produces a redemptive intensity. Melodrama is also what we have in Lon Chaney’s virtuoso performance as Blizzard, the criminal mastermind. Blizzard is Chaney’s inaugural displaced human being – and perhaps his most powerful. (I’m discounting Chaney’s lost turn as a contortionist in 1919’s The Miracle Man.) Chaney’s athletic stamina – folding his legs back on themselves to simulate amputation – is impressive in its own right. It’s a credit to Chaney’s genius that such pyrotechnics rarely upstage his demonstrations of Blizzard’s fractured soul. Displacement was always key to a great Chaney performance. In the depths of Blizzard’s hideout, there’s a room piled high with hats – a detail never fully explained. However: it begins to makes sense when one notes that there are no heads to fill them. And like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney’s most famous character, Blizzard finds solace in music – another tantalising displacement, given that this is a silent film.

VAMPYR: DER TRAUM DES ALLAN GREY (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr is a film I’ve grown to love on subsequent viewings – a film that’s altered the way that I think about films. My first viewing was in a terribly scratched and battered print. This can have its advantages. In the case of films such as Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie (1932), poor sound and picture quality is at one with the film’s atmospheric impact. Even restored, Vampyr unfolds like a ghastly fever dream. Scene after scene revolves around confined spaces, many apparently restful: bedrooms, beds, sickbeds – most potently of all, entrapment in a tomb or a coffin. But it’s from these confined spaces that a new view of the world is made possible. Dreyer’s subjective camera, as Allan Grey stares up out of his coffin – improbably embellished with a glass aperture – suggests that death can be seen as an ascension to a new point-of-view (an advance on Edgar Allan Poe’s one-note terror over premature burial). There is nothing linear about Vampyr, neither logically nor visually. It’s a film that exists in three dimensions. The way in which depth is instilled in an ostensibly flat screen is testament to Dreyer’s visual prowess: fog, cobwebs, flour, gauze, and, astonishingly often, windows. It’s entirely different to The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which plays like a succession of moving woodcuts, indelibly writ against spotless white backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, Vampyr is the film that restored ghostliness to prime position in the vampire myth. I can’t wait to see it again.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (dir. Arthur B. Woods, 1938)

They Drive by Night (1938)

Emlyn Williams is an actor for whom I’ve often felt an affinity: an Oxbridge player of Dull (in Shakey’s Love’s Labour’s Lost), a creator of the shows in which he appeared (most famously Night Must Fall in 1937), and a tourer of one-man Dickens plays. This film came as a surprise. Williams is an unconventional romantic lead. But he is extraordinarily charismatic, and it’s refreshing to see this stocky, shortish bisexual playing a sort of Anglicised James Cagney. Another of the film’s assets is its sheltered, shadowy cinematography – oppressively dark without drawing attention to itself. This claustrophobic look is characteristic of British cinema of this period; I think particularly of the Karloff vehicle The Ghoul (1933). That film featured Ernest Thesiger as an improbably Scottish butler. And Thesiger is the key reason to seek out They Drive by Night – for his performance as Walter Hoover, the ‘Silk Stocking Murderer’. It’s very rare that an actor will successfully make my skin crawl. Thesiger, however, has managed it. Thesiger’s most famous characters are those he created for James Whale: Horace Femm in The Old Dark House (1932) and Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Rightly or wrongly, his effectiveness in these roles tends to be pinned on his homosexuality. With Hoover, it’s much less distinct. If anything, the character is founded on a perverse sexlessness, compounded of a powdery age (which doesn’t seem like age at all), an excruciating intellectualism (his dubious God complex, in knowing Williams can’t be the murderer…) and Thesiger’s naturally goblin-like appearance. The last scenes are surprisingly nerve-shredding, as the viewer comes face-to-face with what gets Hoover’s blood pumping. Much more comforting is the film’s near-parodic Englishness: characters drink from what can only be described as flagons of tea in every other scene.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (dir. William Dieterle, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

William Dieterle is a sadly overlooked director. This may have something to do with his gift for facilitating showy acting. Dieterle’s previous dark fantasies were made by their lead performers. This is borne out in their titles: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) belongs to Charles Laughton’s peerless Quasimodo; The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) owes its heart to the superlative work of Walter Huston’s Mr Scratch and Edward Arnold’s Daniel Webster. A notable anomaly in Portrait of Jennie is that it has no title card; true to form, the film is memorable for its ensemble feel rather than one individual’s bravado. Yet a few actors linger in the memory. Ethel Barrymore is truly fantastic, and very touching as the spinster; it says volumes about the film’s universe that a character untouched by romantic love is the one who knows most about it. There’s also Lilian Gish’s cameo as the Mother Superior, in a tell-all scene reminiscent of The Uninvited (1944). It’s a nice bridge between her silent heroines and her glorious, late-career reinvention in The Night of the Hunter (1955). The memorable dashes of colour from the supporting cast suggests a world of drifting human beings who are nonetheless united by their loneliness. Dieterle gives forties New York the same awe-inspiring atmosphere as Notre Dame cathedral, which is a very welcome complement. Portrait of Jennie is a film laden with glorious surprises. The use of Debussy is tremendous, if at times a bit paint-by-numbers: ‘Nuages’ appears over oppressive shots of storm clouds; ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is rolled out in the many discussions of Jennie (a brunette, by the way). The occasional colour is also great. The tinting in the final scenes transports the picture back to the silent Expressionist cinema in which Dieterle once acted (he was among the players in Murnau’s 1926 Faust). And the revelatory last shot of Jennie’s portrait take its cue from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), creating an unforgettable Technicolor tableau in a black-and-white universe.

INVADERS FROM MARS (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953)

Invaders from Mars (1953)

Following on from Portrait of Jennie, colour is used to very unsettling effect in Invaders from Mars. The film has the look of a tinted lobby card sprung to life. This is encapsulated in the recurring image of the picket fence, arched on a hill studded with pylon-like trees. Beneath is the hideout of the Martians, but it’s the fence that endures as an emblem of childhood terror. Menzies is an odd figure, but even his films of dubious quality – the preachy Things to Come (1936), the shaky Lovecraftian pastiche The Maze (1953) – are redeemed by their highly attuned visual sense. In this sense, Menzies might be regarded as the Tim Burton of early cinema: substance won mostly through style. Unsettling colour trickles down to the final scenes in the Martian stronghold. The green phosphorescence of the cavern smacks of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Meanwhile, that iconic bulging cranium, ensconced in a transparent glass bubble, resembles a flesh-and-blood version of the Wizard’s incarnation as ‘OZ… THE GREAT AND POWERFUL’. Menzies’ fence bears comparison with the truncated skylines of Cedric Gibbons’ Kansas: each designer creates an unashamedly artificial world, in which horizons seem to be limited by human constructions. Menzies’ fence also brings to mind the fence in The Night of the Hunter, which appears in silhouette as part of a child’s nightmare-torn vision. And purists (sorry: snobs) may balk at such a comparison, but Jimmy Hunt’s little David is markedly better than the children who monopolise The Night of the Hunter. David does have some characteristics of the Dickensian dwarf (John Carey’s derisive term for children who are self-sacrificing adults in disguise), but sufficient terror is created within the viewer to redeem this. There’s a bit too much talkiness, particularly towards the end – but Invaders from Mars deserves its reputation as a fantasy milestone.

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