Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Chills & thrills: Halloween DVDs


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Island of Lost Souls (1933), Criterion Collection (71 min., b&w)

Charles Laughton (1899-1962) was one of the great actors from the first half of the 20th century. He lived his entire life in the closet. He was married for many years to actress Elsa Lanchester. Reportedly it was a happy union in spite of the actor's sexuality. The two were close friends, and their lives were dedicated to their craft. After Laughton's death from cancer, Lanchester was somewhat open about her husband's sexual proclivities, and showed no bitterness or resentment. In our time they might have been best friends, and Laughton might have been able to come out. According to an interview with openly gay horror film historian David J. Skal, Laughton lived his entire life in fear of being outed. Skal's interview is included on Criterion Collection's long-awaited DVD and Blu-Ray release of the pre-code horror classic Island of Lost Souls.

Based on H.G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Lost Souls no doubt shocked 1930s audiences. As played by Laughton, Moreau is one of the more insane mad scientists in cinema history. Ensconced on a remote South Seas island, he's conducting experiments in evolution. His butler, a bizarre-looking man if ever we saw one, is revealed to having once been a dog.

"Are we not men?" cries the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) in the nearby village, which is entirely populated by Moreau's experiments. They live in terror of the "House of Pain," where Moreau slices and dices his subjects without anesthesia, in shocking acts of vivisection disturbingly similar to those performed by Dr. Joseph Mengele in Hitler's camps a few short years later. As the poor creatures cry out in agony, Moreau's eyes light up with delight.

Island of Lost Souls is strong stuff. Although no graphic cutting is shown, it is still not for the faint-hearted. Laughton's performance is magnificently over-the-top. At times his Moreau comes across as gay – in one scene, he hops on a table and crosses his legs provocatively as he taunts the horrified Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), a shipwrecked sailor who can barely believe what he's stumbled upon. Sometimes effeminate in his role, it's hard to tell if Laughton meant for Moreau to be perceived as gay, or if these were his own natural mannerisms as a closeted gay man.

Supporting actor honors go to Kathleen Burke's Lota, the island's lone female. Burke made her film debut in Island, winning the role in a contest at 19. For someone with no prior experience, she's quite effective as a lovesick, sensual woman who lusts after Parker (Lota was once a panther). The story takes an even more disturbing turn when a gleeful Moreau tries to get Parker and Lota to mate, so he can see what the results might be.

The acting and production values are top-notch all around. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, Island of Lost Souls is genuinely frightening from its story and cast. It's also a wonderful tribute to Laughton, whose unique ability to chew the scenery is exciting to watch. Criterion's release includes the original theatrical trailer from the 1930s, as well as interviews with a variety of film historians.

Baby Jane? (2010), Ariztical Entertainment (95 min., color)

Watching this drag tribute/send-up of the 1962 Davis/Crawford shocker brings up a few practical questions. How did director William Clift circumvent copyright laws when he shot this nearly scene-for-scene remake of a film still under strict copyright to Warner Bros.? But that's the auteur's issue, not ours. Our job is to bask in a memorable performance by local drag superstar Mathew Martin, who channels Bette Davis in a way that's both a spoof of Davis' Baby Jane, and a serious recreation of Davis' interpretation of the role. Martin shines as he torments Blanche (J. Conrad Frank), who looks somewhat like Crawford's Blanche. Frank is quite good, but like everyone else in the film, he's overshadowed by Martin's theatrics.

Martin also appears briefly as the movie studio executive who pulls the plug on Jane's film career. Out of drag, Martin is revealed to be quite handsome, and shows his ability to pull back and deliver a restrained performance.

The script follows the original quite closely, peppered with in-joke references to other Davis/Crawford films. Set primarily in 1962 Hollywood, the no-budget production is impressive. Like the 1962 film, Baby Jane? opens in a vaudeville house, circa 1917. This sequence was shot in the Victoria Theater in SF, and is quite authentic-looking. The monstrously creepy Victorian home where Jane and Blanche reside is the abode of co-star Mike Finn, who plays Edwin, the role originally played by the late Victor Buono.

Director Clift and his friends got together and put on quite a show. Some of the one-liners, like a comical reference to our Castro Theatre, might not make sense in Omaha, but there's no denying the love and care that went into the making of this re-imagined camp classic.

Unhappy Birthday (2010), Wolfe Video (95 min., color)

Billed as a "deviant thriller," Unhappy Birthday is creepy, scary, and sometimes unpleasant. Rick (David Paisley) and Sadie (Christina De Vallee) are officially a straight couple, but he's impotent with her, and enjoys regular sexual encounters with their best friend, Jonny (Jonathan Keane). This strange triumvirate come to the isolated, fogbound island of Amen in search of Sadie's long-lost sister Corinne (Rosie O'Donnell look-alike Jill Riddiford). Like everyone else on Amen, Corinne is a sexually repressed, homophobic Bible-thumper. The three visitors soon find themselves caught in the middle of a bizarre plot to bump off the guys and keep Sadie on the island as a child-bearer – all of Amen's male residents are infertile.

Inspired in part by the cult horror classic The Wicker Man (1973), also set on a British isle where strange religious customs were the norm, Unhappy Birthday is creepy enough to satisfy genre aficionados. The acting is superb. Ridiford's seemingly kind, polite demeanor as Corinne is an unnerving mask for the sociopathic evil that lurks within her.

The movie is shot with shaky, handheld cameras that damage the mood. The scenes involving the homophobic hate of the townspeople are difficult to watch. In one particularly disturbing scene, two men in the local pub urinate on Jonny. It's not something we enjoy seeing, but the scene effectively underscores the homophobic hatred of religious fanaticism. There's no indication that the filmmakers share the homophobia of the characters: Unhappy Birthday is distributed by Wolfe Video, a lesbian-owned company.

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