Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Man of a Thousand Faces

It is just a couple of months before Halloween so in keeping with the macabre spirit of the season I thought I would attempt to highlight actors and films that contributed to the Horror genre and give a history of supernatural film. This isn't the first time this piece I wrote on Lon Chaney has been published on the web, I decided to republish it due to the fact Lon Chaney was indeed one of the hugest foundations that later actors, special effects artists and film makers would later build on.

Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces

In today's market of slock horror and remade Japanese films it would seem that the mention of Lon Chaney's name would not mean much to most. Yet, it would be a disgrace for any horror affectionate to not know of Chaney's contribution to the genre. Although many film historians would say that Chaney was unfairly cast in the annals of film as a horror star that he was actually a versatile actor with a wide range of characters that graced the genres of comedy, drama as well as horror. All being said, it still remains that his contribution to the genre is not only undisputed, but also was critical to its evolution. Without Chaney, Universal undoubtedly would have missed the Silver Age of Classic Monsters. His rendition of Eric from the "Phantom of the Opera", Quasimoto from the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the vampire for the lost film "London After Midnight" are all hailed as the seeds of horror that would later follow.

In the inventory of movies that Lon Chaney starred in, less than half did he use his own face. In those that he did use his own visage, he still was able to earn the praise of critics for his acting skill and even that of the United States Marine Corp for his performance of a drill sergeant in "Tell It to the Marines." In fact the role earned him a honorary status among the Corp. So not only was Chaney a master of make-up, earning him the title of a man of a thousand faces, but also that of an exceptional actor with a range of emotions that could flash across his face that would later inspire the likes of Burt Lancaster to state "one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do." Lancaster was referring to the scene from "the Unknown" in which Chaney portrayed an armless knife thrower in love with a young Joan Crawford. In this film an armless Chaney throws knives with his feet and light cigarettes though in some scenes Chaney was aided by a double off the camera frame to perform some of the more elaborate "foot" stunts, his performance is quite hypnotic and the plot of the film so macabre that it is a cult classic. The main character pretends to be armless due to a deformity on one of his hands that could get him recognize for a murder he had committed. He then falls in love with a young Joan Crawford who cannot stand to be touched. To seal their love the obsessed Chaney has his arms surgically removed that leads to a rather ironic ending that reveals not everything you do for love leads to pleasant consequences.

Born of deaf parents, pantomime was something common as a means of communication in the Chaney household and obviously gave him an edge on the silent era, but Chaney did not begin his acting career on film, but on stage. In is in this arena that he developed his skill as a make up artist as well as learning the craft of stage manager. In fact, Chaney appears to have a very versatile, multitalented individual. Later he would even take a hand at directing, scripting as well as starring in film. Though the later endeavors as a director would be stifled and not come to fruition as he would have liked, it speaks of his dedication and love of the craft.

You cannot study Chaney without studying the body of his work, as Chaney would later say,"between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney." Chaney was his work. He epitomized the creative spirit that often is associated with artists. He was all about developing his craft as an actor and as a makeup artist. He was simply without peer in the art of makeup in his day. He also wrote an article of the subject for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Chaney became anything from an elderly Chinese immigrant to a deformed hunchback that haunted Notre Dame. There was a saying in Hollywood during the time, "don't step on it, it might be Lon Chaney."

Yet, it would be hard to say that makeup was his "gimmick", it was more of an extension of the man and the actor. For Chaney didn't limit himself to just one area, physically he performed acts that would later bring him a place in film history such as the con artist that fakes being crippled to be healed by a charlatan in the "Miracle Man." The scene had people swearing that Chaney was a contortionist or double jointed, when in fact it is more a credit to his acting skills. Also in the "Penalty", he actually had a harness that he wore to bind his legs behind him and tucked into leather stubs. The pain allowed him only to wear the harness for fifteen minutes at a shoot, but Chaney insisted no trick photography be used. In "The Unknown", that I referred to before he had his arms bound up in a rig giving a convincing portrayal of an armless man.

Chaney also took the hard choices in roles. From the afore mentioned legless man in the then controversial "The Penalty" to playing a humble Chinese immigrant Yen Sin in "Shadows". But in the film, "Mr Wu", he portrayed not only an elderly Mandarin but the character's son as well. It is in "Mr. Wu" that Chaney's art of makeup excells and can be only topped perhaps by his later endeavors as Eric in "Phantom of the Opera." Chaney at best was a risk taker. You only have to look at his early life to see just how determined he was and what lengths he would travel to achieve his goals. There were times early in his career that he was penniless and homeless. Yet, he not only rose above his destitution but became one of Hollywood's most cherished and sought after stars. His story is indeed a rag to riches tale of a self made man.

Instead of these early hard times making him bitter, it seemed to make Chaney more compassionate. He was always a champion of his coworkers on the set. When making the revenge drama, "Laugh Clown, Laugh", the director was brutal on a young, Loretta Young. Chaney heard of this, he stayed on the set because he knew his presence caused the director to leave Miss Young alone. Young would later say that it was actually Chaney who directed her in the film and actually gave her the best insight to acting she received from anyone. He simply told her it wasn't enough to have the emotions come up inside her, but instead have the emotions affect the audience. Something that perhaps today's modern method actors would cringe at. Young wasn't the only star Chaney would help. It was a young depressed actor named Boris Karloff that was having a difficult time finding work that Chaney once offered a ride home to. He told the young Karloff, "find something no one else does, and do it better than anyone else." Karloff until his dying day spoke affectionately of Chaney and his advice.

It is here that the embryo that would later become the Universal stable for horror began. Through Chaney's association with Tod Browning and the love for the morbid and macabre that the foundation for later horror would be lain. It has always been said that if Chaney had lived he would have played a dual role, much like he did in the lost film, "London After Midnight" in Tod Browning's "Dracula." But his untimely death made Browning look for an alternative and then the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi donned the cloak of the count. It would also be important to note here that Chaney's son, Lon Chaney Jr. would later become Universal's "Wolf Man", as for Karloff, well it is obvious.

Lon Chaney died at the age of 47. It is ironic that his last movie was a "talkie", a remake of the silent classic "The Unholy Three" in which he did more than one voice. That of an old woman, a parrot and a ventriloquist. He proved to audiences that he was more than capable of transcending silent to sound.

At his death production was stopped at Hollywood to observe a moment of silence, the Marine Corp flew their flag at half staff. Wallace Berry flew over his funeral and dropped wreaths of flowers. He said, "Lon Chaney was the one man I knew who could walk with kings and not lose the common touch,"

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Evolution of the Zombie

Being a child of old horror movies that played on late night TV after the parents had gone to bed, I remember being hypnotized by Bela Lugosi as the Voodoo Master, Murder Legendre in the Universal Classic White Zombie, which is also consider the first full length zombie film. Legendre operated a sugar mill that was run entirely by zombies, but they were not zombies created by the release of a military chemical but by ancient voodoo practices. Instead of crazed, brain devouring creatures of the undead, they were actually subservient creatures that were trapped in a state between death and life. White Zombie is considered a classic and one of Lugosi's creepier performances and gave birth to a slew of zombie flicks to follow.

Then in 1968 George Romero reinvented the zombie in Night of the Living Dead. It was a sensation with political and social undertones as well as an atmospheric tension made even more chilling filmed in grainy black and white. Zombies were no longer the subservient followers of some maniacal voodoo master but now the result of chemical biological agents gone awry. These shuffling creatures craved human flesh to sustain themselves and with single minded purpose wrecked havoc on mankind. Of course mankind would put up a fight with an array of firearms, sharp instruments and whatever came in handy in an attempt to put down the undead horde with sometimes humorous results. Romero had brought back the zombie with a vengeance, it also gave way for a hoard of imitations and the zombie genre was given new attention.

But in was in the 1980's that Wes Craven went back to the roots and brought the hoodoo back into the zombie with the cult classic Serpent and the Rainbow. Craven based his film off the controversial novel of the same name written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis who claimed his book was nonfiction. Davis claimed that Haitian Hoodoo priest used a combination of tetrodotoxin, a powerful hallucinogen called Datura that would put an individual in a zombification state and render him under the control of the Hoodoo master. Of course Craven took license with the book and Davis wasn't very happy with the film and it added ridicule to his claims that Hoodoo priests could kept a subject in a zombie state for years. Yet, in spite of Davis' displeasure at seeing his work sensationalized, the movie brought the zombie back to its roots reminiscent of White Zombie.

Today the zombies in film are Romero's nightmarish, brain consuming, undead shuffle monsters that continues to horrify and even amuse us with their single minded obsession to eat those who unfortunately fall into their path. Films like the Resident Evil series, Romero's continued Living Dead series and even the horror comedies Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland now amble across the screen with dread determination. Even literature is entering the foray with Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice With Zombies.

It could be said that Romero did for the zombie can be compared to what Anne Rice did for the vampire.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Laurie Lipton Pencil Alchemist

Alchemy, possibly derived from the Arabic word al-kimia (الخيمياء), is both a philosophy and an ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, investigating the preparation of the "elixir of longevity", and achieving ultimate wisdom, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several substances described as possessing unusual properties.

Laurie Lipton is the Mistress of the Pencil rendering the macabre, the surreal and the esoteric. Her drawings range from the darkly whimsical, the grotesque and sometimes bordering on the political. She was born in New York but now resides in London where she creates her dark visions in her own style partially inspired by Flemish artist Van Eyck and German artist Albrect Durer. Her drawings are lavishly detailed and laboriously rendered with her own unique vision.

Much of her work revolves around skulled figures, fantastical landscapes and often steampunk elements that she conjures together rendered in pencil like an alchemist playing upon those dark, dreamlike reminders of our mortality. Her work pulls no punches and is sometimes brutal in its imagery and makes no apologies. Yet even with this pervasive horror she renders so skillfully there is an eye for beauty even in the most grotesque. She is like the artist at the crime scene of our nightmares capturing that we often turn our head away at but are also compelled to witness. Her work is simply sinisterly eloquent.

Which brings me to alchemy. It was through her commissioned work concerning alchemy that I became a fan. Having worked with colored pencil I can tell you that it is one of the hardest mediums to master, yet Laurie Lipton commits pure magic with them. Alchemy of course was the study to discover the philosopher's stone, change base metals into gold or find the elixir of life. Alchemy has a deep and broad history blending chemistry with the esoteric. In recent years it has been discovered that even Sir Issaac Newton was obsessed with alchemy leaving behind hundreds of papers on the subject. In China alchemy was the predecessor of modern medicine creating tinctures and there is no doubt that alchemy laid the foundation for modern chemistry.

Alchemist created visual metaphors for their rituals and experiments often using either gods or creatures from myth to convey certain procedures to reach a desired goal. But alchemy was not just limited to the elements it was also a spiritual path that sometimes bordered on the gnostic and alchemists were concerned with the unseen spiritual world about them. These metaphysical aspects were often rendered in cryptic symbolism that became in a way their periodic table. Laurie Lipton's colored pencil renderings captured this essence and resulted in some very elaborate drawings.

The following pieces are from her SPLENDOR SOLIS series

Recommendation: Alchemy and Mysticism

Personal Note: Thanks to the Spooky Vegan for her blogger award.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Del Toro's love affair with Lovecraft

When the news was announced that Guillermo Del Toro was leaving the Hobbit due to MGM's recent financial crisis I was rather hopeful. Though I would love to see the Hobbit, I had more desire to see Del Toro committed to his other projects that he had planned for sometime. Del Toro is rather a deal maker in Hollywood, he often agrees to direct films for studios in return for them backing his own projects. For instance Paramont wasn't interested in HellBoy 2 they felt the box office returns for the first Hellboy were too slim but Universal took note of the DVD sales and backed Hellboy 2 if Del Toro would redo the Universal classic Frankenstein. IMDB listed Frankenstein as a future project for Del Toro with a 2012 release date. But Del Toro's private project that he could find no studio backing for and was going to finance himself was H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. Del Toro was going to use his paycheck from the Hobbit to produce the movie, now that he has left I wondered if we would ever see Lovecraft brought to life then James Cameron stepped in. Now that Cameron is backing the film, and Cameron has to be rolling in cash, we will see Del Toro's vision of Lovecraft on film.

Personally, in my humble opinion, Del Toro is a perfect choice for a Lovecraft movie. He has a deep affection for the material and one only has to look at the creature designs in his films to see Lovecraft's inspiration. Though I would hesitantly label Del Toro as a fantasist such as in his film Pan's Labyrinth, his roots are in horror and one can look at the tentacled monstrosities that lurk in the first Hellboy film and see that Del Toro gets Lovecraftian lore. He is also a primarily a visual director keeping a sketch book of all his ideas that he wants to bring to the screen. I am actually rather envious of his sketchbooks, having tried to keep several, one can see that Del Toro has a very organized and creative mind. Some of his sketchbooks are quite stunning.

Even Del Toro's earlier films show his skill at building atmosphere and like good horror directors his films have an underlying morality to them such as The Devil's Backbone. Even Pan's Labyrinth has a layered theme to it but the theme never overshadows the visual seduction of the film. I would not say some of his films are without flaws but no one can deny there is a dark talent there that is constantly exploring and attempting to bring the unseen shapeless things that lurk at the edge of our dreams to celluloid and that is why I think he is the perfect choice to tackle Lovecraft.

Below is a clip of Del Toro on the Craig Ferguson show discussing the metro sexual vampire craze.