Bay of the Living Dead: SF Ballet Keeps Frankenstein Monster On His Toes
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice a month column about the horror genre.
Sadly, San Francisco Ballet’s thrilling production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein comes and goes all too quickly. The show, which opened last weekend, closes this weekend. If you hurry, you can still see Frankenstein at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 2pm.
Frankenstein is of course, the legendary novel written by Mary Shelley in 1818. The book, a tale of a scientist who creates an artificial man, is a morality fable about what can happen when humans dare to emulate the works of God. Frankenstein has been filmed many times over. The 1931 James Whale adaptation, produced by Universal Studios, remains the most iconic big screen version–that film launched Boris Karloff on a near forty year career as one of Hollywood’s most beloved horror icons due to the actor’s terrifying–and heartfelt–portrayal of the monster as a confused man-child.
SF Ballet’s Frankenstein is an electrifying theatrical experience which will appeal to both dance and horror aficionados. The story is told entirely through dance and music, sans dialogue. The creation scene is most impressive. Handsome Aaron Robinson dances maniacally around his lab–an impressively grand set which beautifully recreates the kinds of Gothic settings which became a trademark of the Universal monster movies. The creation sequence includes flashes of light and small bolts of electricity which shoot out of Dr. Frankenstein’s machinery–this is not your typical ballet production!
Luke Ingham is wonderful as the monster. He dances his scenes in a body stocking which creates the disconcerting illusion of a nude, scar-filled body, a body stitched together from the bodies of stolen corpses. Ingham, a dance veteran, literally contorts his body into knots in order to underscore the monster’s anguished loneliness and rage at being forced to live as a creature who disgusts all who see him. It’s a marvelous performance which captures the essence of how Shelley herself perceived the character. Through Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography and Ingham’s intense stage presence, the audience gets a glimpse inside a tortured soul who just wants to be loved.
Horror fans who might be hesitant to attend a ballet performance are urged to give this production a chance–you won’t be disappointed.
Scream Factory, purveyors of restored classic chillers on DVD and Blu Ray, offer a pristine print of The Legend of Hell House, a 1973 haunted house tale which was completely overshadowed by The Exorcist, released soon after. Scary as hell, The Legend of Hell House is ripe for rediscovery.
The bulk of the film is set inside Hell House, “The Mount Everest of haunted houses”. A small group of psychic investigators have agreed to live in the house for one week–they’re being paid a great deal of money by a wealthy old coot (Roland Culver) who wants them “to establish the facts about survival after death” as he faces his own mortality.
The Legend of Hell House features many scenes that are sure to give you goosebumps. In what is perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence, medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) attempts to commiserate with the spirits. She points to an empty chair beside her and tells her housemates that a young man is seated there. As the others stare at her in shock, Florence speaks in the young man’s booming voice.
The film also offers a few campy moments, such as when a possessed Mrs. Barrett (Gayle Hunnicutt, we never learn the character’s first name) throws herself at fellow traveler Mr. Fischer (Roddy McDowall) and offers him her body. Fischer, who appears to be gay, rebukes her in disgust. That McDowall (1928-1998) is now known to have been a gay actor gives these scenes (yup, it happens twice) a delightfully comic but still creepy edge.
The Legend of Hell House is an old fashioned spookfest. As the ghosts close in on our heroes, much is left to the imagination–very little is actually shown.Instead of seeing the ghosts, we hear them calling out from somewhere deep in the shadows…..it’s scary stuff!
Scream Factory’s Blu Ray of The Legend of Hell House includes the film’s original theatrical trailer, a commentary track with star Pamela Franklin, and an interview with director John Hough, who says he’d love to make a sequel.
Order the Blu Ray here.
Scream Factory also offers Psycho IV: The Beginning, (1990) a made for TV film which stars Anthony Perkins in his fourth turn as psycho killer Norman Bates. Henry Thomas, the cute kid from Spielberg’s E.T., plays the teenage Norman, who’s seen in flashbacks. More than twenty years before the Bates Motel TV series was conceived, Psycho fans get a look back at Norman’s disturbing childhood.
Psycho IV poses the question: did the young man’s sexual attraction to his mom (Olivia Hussey) drive him to kill? It’s a most unnerving yet fascinating question, and the film provides the answers as the adult Norman shares his story over the airwaves via a radio call-in show.
Though not particularly frightening, Psycho IV: The Beginning offers one final chance to see Perkins play the signature role which gave him screen immortality–the actor milks it for all it’s worth.
Order the Blu Ray here.
And then there’s Werner Herzog’s masterful Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), one of the few times–perhaps the only time–when a remake was equal to the original film. Herzog shot this re-imagining of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), on location in Germany: Murnau’s film has been credited as the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As with the original, Herzog avoided artificial studio settings–the film opens with a series of bone chilling shots in a medieval underground crypt during which actual corpses are shown. The Count is seen “living” in a desolate German castle which dates back to the era of Vlad the Impaler, the real life Prince of Romania who served as the inspiration for the Dracula character.
Klaus Kinski is hauntingly unforgettable as a lonely, bloodthirsty count who has grown weary of the passing centuries–as in the earlier film, Dracula actually looks like he died long, long ago.
Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t a “scary” film–it won’t make you jump. There are no sudden shocks. What it will do is get under your skin. It’s eerie and haunting. It will stay with you long after the final fade out.
Herzog shot two versions of the film concurrently with the same cast, one version in English, the other in German with subtitles. The shots do match in both versions–Scream Factory offers both versions on one disc. The film’s three theatrical trailers are also included.
Buy the Blu Ray here.
And finally, some sad news. British actress Suzanna Leigh, who achieved worldwide fame as an Elvis Presley leading lady, is now fighting the battle of her life. Leigh has been diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. The long retired star needs financial help to pay for a promising medical treatment.
Leigh has long held a special place in my heart. She was the star of The Deadly Bees (1966), the first horror film I ever saw in a cinema when I was but a wee lad. Leigh later had a nice sized supporting role in Lust For A Vampire (1971) a naughty, campy vampire flick about a bisexual female bloodsucker. Lust For a Vampire was brought to audiences courtesy of England’s iconic horror studio Hammer Films.
No one deserves to live with the horrors of cancer. If you can, please help Suzanna Leigh out. Leigh’s daughter posted a Go Fund Me page where donations can be made.
Love you, Suzanna!
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