Killtoberfest 2 rolls onward as I try to finish my reviews in time. (I totally won’t, though.) It’s hard to come up with much new to say about this pair of 1960s black and white classics, but I’ll try.
First up, an old favorite, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).
It’s taken a lot of viewings, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can view this movie holistically. If you look at the broad picture and relax your eyes, you see a sailboat that it’s really an allegory for the breakdown of rational society that America was undergoing in the late ’60s. The dominant emotion isn’t terror so much as it is a fundamental unsettlement. Children are killing and eating their mothers; the dead are walking; black people are demanding to call the shots; good kids are getting blown up; and the news has gone utterly insane. No wonder John Q. Whitebread and his stupid family want to hide down in the cellar and hope the whole thing blows over.
It’s easy to forget how much of a leap forward Romero’s movie actually makes. Prior to this film, zombies were pretty much about the Haitian/voodoo concept of living, entranced slaves. Romero broadened the idea to create an entirely new monster, the undead, flesh-eating ghouls who rove in packs, shambling toward victims. Other filmmakers jumped in and added elements to the concept (for example, it was Return of the Living Dead–no relation–which first had zombies moaning, “braaaaains”), but until then George had a brand new kind of horror–and a potent new symbol for a society gone mad. Night came at the height of the cultural and political turbulence; Romero and his friend were driving to New York with the just-finished cut of the film in the trunk when the radio reported MLK’s assassination. Given the downbeat ending of this film, they knew they had something explosive on their hands, and indeed they did: on a budget of about $114,000, the movie grossed something like $45 million dollars worldwide. Critical reaction was mixed between liking the film and disliking the gore. Released in the few short years between the end of the (censoring) Hays Code and the MPAA rating system, Night of the Living Dead featured shocking violence (a child disemboweling its mother with a gardening trowel; naked ghouls flesh off the still smoking bones of a man burned to death) with zero restrictions on ticket sales based on age.
Because the movie is far more interested in observing than in commenting on its story, it can be read many different ways. The middle portion, where black protagonist Ben argues with the white Mr. Cooper over the best course of action, is a decent allegory all on its own for race relations in America at the time, with African-Americans taking action and whites politely concern trolling them when they weren’t actively opposing their progress. Another trope George updates is the disaster movie scene where everyone gathers around the radio for information. Here, it’s the television (and for long portions of the movie, too), so important that its discovery solves the “should we stay in the basement or go upstairs” argument for good. The scenes on TV are disturbing in the way they show just snippets of the developing story; a few scientists rushing across the street mumbling about meteors, a sheriff laconically describing how to kill the zombies (“They’re dead, they’re… all messed up”). The piecemeal broadcast of original footage mirrors the way people experienced Vietnam, the first televised war. Eventually the scenes of destruction and social reorganization on the television come all the way home.
For all its sociopolitical leanings and cultural allegory, Night is still a narrative, and it bears some interest along those lines as well. I suggested in an earlier review that the movie’s structure reflects that of a fractured country trying (and failing) to come together in order to survive. Each character has his or her own self-interest which may or may not align with that of the others; and each character is essentially the hero in their own movie. Barbara is in the most traditional horror film, a stylized Freudian nightmare about her awful, teasing brother coming back to kill her. (It’s in her scenes that the film most often uses canted angles and other usual methods of indicating subjective fear.) Ben is trying to solo his way through an action film (one gets the impression that he focuses on action, like boarding up the windows, to subsume his own fear) and even sets his own goal (saving Barbara), while the Coopers inhabit a blackly comic domestic melodrama and the youthful Tom and Judy a teen romance in hell. Night cycles through them in turn, taking various perspectives and trying on each hero for size before ultimately concluding that the system does not allow for heroes at all. There will always be somebody to kill men like King Jr. and JFK; there will always be too many ghouls for you to get them all, no matter how slowly they move. The night may end, but the Night of the Living Dead goes on and on. Often imitated, never duplicated, Romero’s masterpiece will outlast its descendants as a movie quintessentially of its time and yet timelessly universal.
Due to a mistake made by the film’s original distributor, Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, a reminder of the treasures we could have access to if not for “Mickey Mouse” extensions on copyright law. At any rate, you can find this film just about everywhere: Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, and the Internet Archive. It’s a great one to see (or revisit) on Halloween. Just make sure you watch it in black and white, not some colorized junk.
Next, a new-to-me classic, the French Eyes Without a Face (1960).
I confess I did not really care for this one. If you’ve been reading my reviews, you know I have a fair amount of patience for old movies, slow movies, and even old, slow movies, but this is too far. I respect this movie, but I can’t say I enjoyed it very much.
The premise is pure pulp: a wealthy French surgeon, Dr. Genessier, embarks on a fiendish quest after his daughter Christiane’s face is horribly mutilated in a car accident Genessier caused. With the help of his assistant Louise, the doctor abducts young women and operates on them, transplanting their faces onto Christiane’s. So far she has always rejected the donor skin, a process exhibited to us through a creepy montage of Christiane’s progressively rotting face. In between surgeries, the girl mopes in Genessier’s large villa, wearing Tom Cruise’s mask from Vanilla Sky. Meanwhile, a pair of detectives investigate the disappearances.
It’s pulpy, it’s gross, and Nicolas Cage is nowhere to be found (“He took her face… OFF”), but the movie is elevated by its pedigree. Georges Franju, who participated in the French New Wave and founded the Cinematheque Francaise, directed; Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the writing team who were responsible for the written works which become Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, adapted a novel of the same name; Pierre Brasseur, who was in Les Enfants du Paradis, played the lead; and Eugen Schufftan, who had a long and brilliant career bracketed by Lang’s Metropolis in the 20s and The Hustler in the 60s, was the cinematographer. Together these men brought a levelheaded class to the picture that remains its best quality. Even during the most disturbing segments, the movie remains deadpan (there’s very little scoring at all), looking at the grotesque and the beautiful with equal aplomb. To my mind, there is not enough of either in the film, although what’s there is remarkable–among the grotesque, a nerve-wrenching sequence involving a full facial transfer; among the beautiful, Christiane in her mask, and of course the haunting, lyrical ending. This is a movie that intends to remind you of a fact you try to forget: that we are all eyes peering out of a mask of skin and flesh. That, at least, it accomplishes handily.
It’s a shame the film is not more interesting. It is perhaps a victim of its influence, which ranges from Carpenter’s Halloween (which borrows Christiane’s mask for its killer) to a number of European and Italian movies borrowing plot elements to Billy Idol, who wrote a top ten hit inspired by the film. But also, I think, it’s simply a poor narrative, with too little focus, too many digressions. The movie can’t seem to tell who its protagonist is (by my count there are at least four) and the themes of identity and family are somewhat muddled as a result. Overall, and this seems like a strange thing to say about a movie where a man steals faces, there is just too little of interest going on. Perhaps if they had focused solely on Christiane’s perspective… At any rate, this is one classic I’m all too happy to leave in the past.
Oops, wrong trailer. Here’s the right one:
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