One of my favorite on-line reviewers, Harald Gruenberger, offers a definition of the meta-movie:
A meta movie is a movie which transcends its descent: by chance, by design or - most likely - a mixture of both.
This is the kind of "bad" movie which makes an enjoyable viewing experience, often in spite of itself. He has some wonderful things to say on this subject, and I wanted to add one or two thoughts of my own:
The essence of film is the creation and manipulation of images. Meanings and messages are not essential to film. Neither is narrative: a film need not have a plot to be successful or beautiful. Movies are not simply filmed plays, although some plays have been adapted for the cinema with reasonably successful results.
Cinema is at its best when it manages to convey unique and distinct images, almost as though they could not have been observed any other way. A succession of images must have its own logic in the context of the film, but any attempt to foist a single, concrete meaning on an image usually results in disaster. The humbling truth is that images are far more powerful than anyone's ability to arrange, express or interpret them. A director with a true cinematic instinct will know how to compose a film so that the images speak for themselves.
When a filmmaker concentrates on straight narrative, and ignores everything else, he's really pretty much wasting his (and our) time. How many movies are there that consist of scene after scene of two or more people standing stock-still, facing each other, talking? In such scenes, the frame is usually much smaller than a full stage; so unimaginative directors will often come up with results that aren't even good theatre, let alone adequate filmmaking.
But then -- there are the directors who manage to go so badly awry that they end up creating something far greater and more... majestic... than anything they or anyone else could have come up with intentionally. The results certainly can't be considered "art", because the creator's intentions have clearly failed. I guess it must be "meta-art": it's art almost creating itself to fill in a vacuum. It's one hand clapping furiously; it's a tree falling in the forest unobserved and making one hell of a racket. It "transcends meaning" in ways that make the mind reel. And it reinforces the idea of images being far more powerful than the artists who manipulate them.
So we come to our Movie For Today, Jerry Warren's Creature of the Walking Dead.
Jerry Warren seems to have been largely overlooked in the chronicles of Bad Cinema (As usual, Jabootu.com has seen this glaring omission and done a great job of addressing it). Far more attention has been lavished on Ed Wood, if only because he was a much more colorful character, whose movies generally have a far higher camp value than Warren's. But Warren's output shows him to be a far more likely candidate for the "Worst Director of All Time" than Wood.
Both Wood and Warren copied the trivial details of other genre films without understanding the deeper reasons for those movies' success. Warren usually had access to a... well, a more lively class of actors than Wood did -- actors who were at least able to interpret their lines instead of reading them by rote. Still, Warren's results are far less entertaining, often because he blocks his scenes so that his actors can barely move at all. Both Warren and Wood were terrible writers; but Wood's bizarre and senseless ramblings are pure surrealist poetry compared to Warren's dialogue, which is usually merely boring.
But Warren sinks lowest when you compare what each director did with other people's images. True, Wood is legendary for his inappropriate use of stock footage. In Glen or Glenda?, for instance, he includes a few seconds of stampeding buffalo while Béla Lugosi shouts, "Pull de string!" Sometimes the footage is inadvertently appropriate, if equally ridiculous: in the same movie, as two off-screen steelworkers talk about transvestites, we're shown machinery clipping off phallic steel ingots. While Wood weakened his own movies with ludicrous inserts, Warren did the opposite: he took other people's entire movies and destroyed them with footage of his own.
Creature of the Walking Dead is an example of this habit. Warren got his hands on a decent, if unremarkable, Mexican horror flick called La Marca del Muerto/The Mark of Death, directed by Fernando Cortes (the original movie seems to have disappeared without trace: even the IMDB's entry for La Marca del Muerto lists only Warren's version). Judging from what's left in Warren's cut, La Marca... seems to have been a fairly atmospheric variation on the theme of H.P. Lovecraft's Case of Charles Dexter Ward: a young man summons his own ancestor from beyond the grave, only to have the fiend steal his identity as he continues the search for eternal life.
The normal thing for a US distributor to do with a Mexican import would be to strip off the Spanish dialog and dub it into English as badly as possible. This is not Warren's style. Instead, Warren inserts his own, totally unrelated footage, while removing enough of the original film to make it completely incomprehensible. But the kicker is that Warren does all this because he thinks he's creating a convincing narrative structure! In Warren's own, twisted view, he's making a movie that's perfectly clear, and that holds together better than the original. In fact, he's done everything possible to create an anti-film, a movie that works on no level at all.
Take a deep breath, because here we go:
We open with a shot of a twig. Well, actually, it's supposed to be a shot of an old dark house at night, but the house comes off as a dim backdrop for a clearly lit TWIG taking up most of the foreground.
There is an expectant pause, and then the narration begins. We may be forgiven for assuming at first that this is the soliloquy of the Twig:
"The insurmountable quest of scientists has been to answer the unanswerable; to question the unknowable; and delve into the black regions of darkness1 which surround the mysteries that make up the small world within Man's limited perception2. Is the world real, or thought essentially a true reflection? or merely an illusion, brought about by a mind3 separate from the Ultimate Reality?
I timed this little speech. It takes one minute, thirty seconds. Let me tell you, a minute is a long time when you're staring at a Twig.
Then the credits start. Let's see: "Rock Madison". Ouch. This doesn't look good. "Katherine Victor": She was a Hippy Vampire, you know. "Bruno Ve Sota"... all right, that does it: kill me now. Then: "Music Director: Gustav Carrion". I truly hope that's not his real name... Perhaps he's a relative of Herbert von Carrion? (Groan) Carrion's music is bombastic and awful, and we get to here the worst of it over and over again; so I guess Warren's not completely to blame for the wretchedness of this movie.
Here's the "Fright Theme from La Marca del Muerto", in case you think I'm being too judgemental:
Malthus ties the now unconscious girl to one of two tables, which are surrounded by all sorts of cardboard "scientific equipment". He starts throwing switches, and lights begin to flash and a big meter starts dancing spasmodically (boy, I'd really like to know where he's getting his electricity from!). Malthus takes a wickedly low-tech needle and shoves it into the girl's heart. We may assume the girl is dying at this point, because she gets a sort of frowny expression on her face and gasps. Her blood gushes from the needle into a tube, which is attached to a big glass jar. Malthus prepares himself on the other table, where a corresponding needle-and-tube affair is waiting to transfer the girl's blood into his own veins -- but suddenly, there comes a crashing sound from outside. Malthus rushes outside to see what is happening, and is arrested by the police.
Malthus is hanged, in a rather well-shot, bargain-basement expressionist sequence (I won't even dwell on the fact that Malthus doesn't drop nearly far enough from the scaffold to break his neck, nor that he isn't so much dropped as lowered gently). In the original, this scene led neatly to the beginning of the real story, in which Malthus's descendant brings him back to life. But Warren is not content with a simple transition. We go from the death of Malthus to -- B-Fest 2000 attendees take note --
... draped in a toga-like sheet, getting a massage. This, it turns out, is the "police inspector" who solved the Malthus case. He is joined by a hairy, semi-nude thin guy, and the two of them proceed to pontificate about the Malthus murders.
This scene lasts seven minutes and eighteen seconds, and I'll spare you the details because they will take years off your life. Warren's camera placement for this scene makes watching a convenience store monitor seem fascinating by comparison. Your mind will quickly shut out the inane dialogue, leaving only one thing to concentrate on: the masseur. You'll feel your eyes being drawn to his hands, as he half-heartedly pokes and kneads the inspector's flabby left arm. Since that arm is the only bit not covered by the sheet, he goes over and over and over it, making us grotesquely aware of its weight and lack of muscle-tone. Soon your entire consciousness will be focused on those squeezing hands, that wobbly flesh, as the indistinct sound of murmuring voices lulls you into a stupor... you are getting sleepy... sleeeeepy...
Fortunately, this is the last we'll see of these characters. They have no bearing on the story at all. Warren thinks they're advancing the plot, but they're really obliterating it. It's similar to the technique Buñuel uses in movies like Phantom of Liberty or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: taking a plot-line only so far and then abandoning it just as it's about to make sense. Yeah, just like that: only STUPID.
Back to the Mexican original: the passage of time is represented by leaves blowing in the wind (perhaps they are the first leaves in the great volumes that were to follow?), then by a sequence in which a spinning wagon wheel is replaced by the wheel of a late-50's Ford.
We're in swingin', modern, earthquke-prone Mexico City, circa 1960. Dr. Malthus the younger is thriving in his practice. A telephone rings in the house of a young blonde woman, and as she answers it, we cut back to the Wonderful World of Warren. The woman who is calling is evidently Dr. Malthus' secretary, and the one-sided conversation she holds goes exactly like this:
"... This is Janie at the office. The Doctor's been completely tied up with appointments since this morning, and it looks like a full house for the rest of the day. He asked me if I'd pleeease call his fiancée for him, and explain that due to his heavy schedule, which you'd surely understand, he can't make dinner at your house tonight13.
No phone call ever sounded like this. Note the ham-fisted way Warren turns what should be a first-person conversation into thinly-veiled third-person exposition. The monotony of the lines is enhanced by the monotony of the receptionist's delivery, and it's all made unbearable by the monotony of Warren's filming style. Once again, Warren puts his actor in front of the camera, turns the camera on, goes out for a cup of coffee, and comes back to turn off the camera when the actor's lines are finished.
There are no cuts to save us from the tedium. After the blonde girl answers the phone (and we now know she's Dr. Malthus's fiancée; isn't that clever?), we don't see her again for the remainder of the conversation. We get no dialogue, no reaction shots, not even little tinny noises coming through the earpiece: nothing.
The only reason to insert this mind-numbing scene is to provide a transition to Malthus' exploration of the old house. But here's where Warren jumps into surrealism again, because we cut immediately to Malthus -- at night -- in the house -- HALFWAY UP THE STAIRS TO THE ATTIC. It would have been less of a shock if there had been no transition to this moment. But it's too late to worry about that now, because it's time for the Mexican original to bring its own share of problems to the mix.
Malthus the Younger climbs the stairs, where he finds a painting of his ancestor. He marvels for a moment over the resemblance between himself and the painting (and frankly, it's a better painting than most we see in movies of this sort. Take Nightmare Castle, for one example among many: when the characters exclaim about the resemblance of someone to a painting, you always wonder how anybody could resemble a painting that bad). Then, with the help of his 100 Watt Directional Candles (TM), he finds the hidden door to his ancestor's Secret Lab.
There's a big problem with putting the Mad Scientist's Secret Lab in the attic rather than in the basement. You could argue that putting him in the attic establishes him in the place of the masculine Sky God, whether Yahweh or Zeus or whomever, as the arrogant creator of life. You could point out that his removal from the Earth, with its maternal deities representing Nature and renewal, is a symbol of his hubris: he's trying to wrest the secret of procreation from Woman... Quote any undergraduate Humanites paper you'd like, the simple fact remains:
A LAB IN THE ATTIC!
The reason is simple: it would be noticed. Somebody would figure out that the top floor was about half the size it should be, and that that wall over yonder should have something else behind it. A quick glance at the floor plan would reveal its location for sure, especially in this case: there's a whole labyrinth of cobwebby tunnels leading to the lab! Tunnels in the attic! It makes me wonder how Malthus the Elder heard the police breaking in downstairs.
Wait a minute: that reminds me. The police! They arrested Malthus, and got him hanged for his crimes. But it seems they never discovered his lab! When Malthus, Jr. gets there, it's exactly as his grandfather left it, complete to the withered corpse strapped to the table. Either the police couldn't be bothered with removing the body, or collecting any of that pesky evidence; or else they arrested, convicted and executed him for something entirely different. Jaywalking, maybe. Even so, it reflects badly on our fat, semi-nude police inspector that he and his men never found the real Scene of the Crime.
Once in the lab, Mathus Jr. discovers Grandpa's forbidden notes, and is quickly absorbed in them. As he reads, the camera begins a slow pan across the lab. There's a row of cells, with genuinely shocking contents: the mummified bodies of three women. This is probably the scariest part of the film, and for good reason; as Ray Bradbury was fond of pointing out in his early stories, nobody knows more about displaying withered corpses than the Mexicans14.
As usual, the young Mad Scientist is overwhelmed by the implications of the old Mad Scientist's discoveries. This time, though, he seems to get the idea after reading only a few pages... oh, what the hell. You know what's next. The young Mad goes off to dig up the old Mad.
The scene in the crypt, while Malthus Jr. digs up Gramps, is reasonably atmospheric. Particularly neat is the shot of the coffin lid, curiously hinged at the bottom, swinging up... The screen is filled with the image of the crucifix on the lid, both providing an ironic counterpoint to the unholy doings, and protecting our eyes from the sight. The only problem I have with this scene is a quibble: in a Catholic country like Mexico, would an executed murderer be interred on sacred ground, in a family crypt?
Junior brings the body back to the lab. The elder Malthus's body has decomposed quite a bit, but it holds together remarkably well. Almost like a living man in make-up, you might say. Anyway, in a move that made me sit up and take notice the first time I watched this movie, young Malthus abducts a girl and uses her blood to restore his ancestor.
The reason I did a double-take at this scene is that I thought our hero had actually killed a girl. After all, she gets that frowny-face expression, and gives the little gasp that usually means "death" in a movie like this. So, naturally, I thought he'd actually done it: committed a mortal sin from which he could not be absolved at the end. This wouldn't -- couldn't -- happen in an American film of the time. He might use his own blood, or something like that; but if he resorted to the same behaviour as the villain/monster, then the movie would have to distance itself from him as the central character, make us more aware of his failings from the beginning (moral ambiguity didn't sit well with mainstream audiences of the time). Of course, it turns out the girl isn't dead, a fact which the newly-revived Grandpa points out with scorn. This means there's still hope for young Malthus's soul, though it makes the movie less interesting.
We're treated to more footage from the original, as Malthus Junior confronts Malthus Senior. The elder doctor still has the mark of the hangman's rope around his neck; this must be the Mark of Death from the original title (he also has his muttonchop sideburns, which in the modern setting make him look like a bad Elvis impersonator. Then again, this movie was made long before Elvis impersonators had much to work with).
I want to take this opportunity to register another complaint with Mad Scientist movies in general. I'll buy the idea that some kind of blood transfusion could somehow restore a long-dead corpse to life and youth. We'll conveniently ignore what happens to the body after death, and assume there's some kind of magic restorative in the blood that brings back decayed organs. Well, fine. That just leaves one little problem to be overcome: whatever happened to cause the death in the first place. Hey, restore those brains and lungs and kidneys all you want -- this guy's still got a broken neck. Oh, forget it. I suspend my disbelief. I'm just blithering to avoid talking about the scene in which Malthus Senior dissects a dead dog.
Junior searches for more blood to keep Malthus Senior alive. Unfortunately, Malthus is decaying raplidly. It seems blood alone -- "dead" blood, removed from its source -- is not enough. Live donors are needed to make the formula of eternal life complete, and they must die for the process to have its full effect. Disgusted by Junior's timidity at taking life, Malthus Senior overcomes him, locks him in the cells with some of the latest victims, and goes looking for victims of his own.
Now comes a moment which is either a wasted opportunity or an example of the innocence of the times: the stalking scene from the prolog is repeated almost shot-for-shot, this time in the modern world. Malthus Senior is distracted by a passing car rather than a carriage, and has to break into a modern apartment building rather than simply grab a girl off the street. However, not enough is made of the differences between then and now. True, early on Malthus is frightened by his first encounter with a car, but that's not enough. There are more people around in the modern Mexico City, so Malthus could have been thwarted at every opportunity by the sheer lack of privacy. Or the girl he stalked could have been more like a modern, urban woman: well aware of the dangers around her, and possibly even prepared for them. Imagine Malthus getting a face full of Mace!!
Anyway, Malthus gets a girl, taps her for blood, and regains his youthful appearance. He then shaves off his Elvis sideburns, and takes his grandson's place in the modern world.
At this point Warren steps back into the picture, with a vengeance. We've had lots of verbose narration all through the Mexican footage, but by now the viewer is probably able to tune it all out. The story is beginning to make too much sense, so Warren shifts us to his version of a metropolitan police station.
Two men, a police captain and his plain-clothes sergeant, are standing in front of a map. Forget the bad blocking: I want to talk about the map. It's not unusual to find a map on the wall of a police station. This map, however, is a gigantic map of the entire world, leading me to believe that this precinct has far too few men for so large a territory. I notice, though, that commercial flight routes are conveniently provided.
The captain is getting the latest information on the disappearance of the girl -- from the newspapers. Gradually, the point of the scene emerges (the world map makes me wonder if plate tectonics could possibly move as slowly as a Jerry Warren flick). People have been reporting some kind of ugly "vampire" around the area where the girl was kidnapped.
This is the cue for Warren to produce his Secret Weapon in the war against the audience: he brings in Katherine Victor, star of The Wild World of Batwoman and other Warren monstrosities. She's come to report her missing maid, pointing out that she was last seen on her way to visit a certain Doctor. In one master-stroke, Warren shows us not only that Katherine Victor can make a bad movie intolerable, but also that Malthus the younger is a complete idiot. Surely he could have found a less incriminating victim than one of his own scheduled patients!
Warren then returns to the Mexican footage, but with a difference:
We're reaching the end of the movie, so events are coming to a head. If you watch this section of the movie with the sound off, it's easy to follow what's going on. Malthus's fiancé, sensing something wrong with the doctor, confronts him and discovers the rope marks on the impostor's neck; Malthus feels himself beginning to deteriorate again, and resolves to use "his" fiancée as his last victim. Calling her on the telephone (obviously, this is where Warren got the setup for the telephone scene at the beginning of the movie), Malthus lures her to his lair, where he overpowers her and takes her to his laboratory.
If, on the other hand, you watch the movie with the sound on, you're in for quite an experience. Psychologists talk of a situation called "cognitive dissonance", which is the tension you experience when what you know to be true and what you want to believe don't match. This portion of the movie will inflict a similar sort of tension on the viewer: we see Malthus Senior's lips move, but it's Malthus Junior's bland narration that we hear; then we see the girl's lips move, but once again it's Malthus Junior's voice that seems to be coming out of her mouth... What's worse, the narrator has gone off on some kind of crazy tangent, so what he's saying bears little or no relation to what's going on in the movie! With all this crazy build-up, there's only one thing Warren could do to make the movie any more absurd, and that would be to bring the movie to a screeching halt just as the resolution is about to occur.
And naturally, that's exactly what he does. Suddenly, the movie grinds to a stop, as we watch the police sergeant from a few scenes back walk down an empty hallway.
Empty hallways are usually a cheap source of atmosphere for bad movies. Even a film which has nothing else going for it in terms of visual style -- Fabrizio Laurenti's Witchery, for example -- can get a quick boost from a simple hallway. You've got a long stretch of deepening shadows, punctuated by brightly lit doorways, for that "instant art house" look. As the actor or actress emerges from the darkness, he or she goes through successions of shadow to light to shadow to light to shadow... Ta-daaaa! Instant visual interest.
Trust Warren to deny us even this relief. No: a hallway to Warren is simply an empty hallway. Any momentum the film may have built in the previous scenes is lost in the sudden, blank silence.
The camera swivels dispassionately, to reveal Katherine Victor presiding over a seance. The table is crowded way over to the far left of the frame; and as usual in a Warren mis-en-scène, one character ends up delivering his lines with his head turned completely away from the camera. This is one of the least effective, least atmospheric seance scenes in all horror filmdom, far less entertaining than "Dr. Acula"'s phony session in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls, and even less interesting than the abortive seance in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. I got tired of taking notes at this point, aside from noticing that Victor keeps talking about "penetration" and "bodily vibrations"... make of that what you will. Suffice to say that the seance provides a clumsy lead-in for the policeman's odd interview with Victor: less of an official questioning than a chance for Warren to insert his half-baked thoughts on Life After Death.
After this, there's little left to do but end the movie. Naturally, in the best B-movie tradition, Malthus Senior has left the keys to the cells within reach of the prisoners, and one of the groggy female victims manages to use her IV tube to snag them. Malthus Junior leads the girls out of the cell block just in time to prevent Malthus Senior from using sonny's fiancée as his latest victim. There is a struggle, leading to the inevitable laboratory fire. Junior escapes, while his ancestor is trapped in the flames, howling "Eternal Life!! Eternal Life!!" In a final, unintentionally hilarious twist, we see the laboratory door close and lock itself, as though Some Unseen Hand were passing final Judgement. After all (once again giving the last word to Ed Wood)...
IN GOD'S DOMAIN15
Back to the Other Hell, First Circle
Mmm. Black darkness: Always the best kind.
...which swallowed the spider which ate the fly which lived in the house that Jack, who begat Nehemaiah, who begat Hezekiah, who begat Yehushafar, who begat Bildad and Bezalel and Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, built.
...which swallowed the spider which ate the fly which lived in the house that Jack, who begat Nehemaiah, who begat Hezekiah, who begat Yehushafar, who begat Bildad and Bezalel and Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, built.
"A stupid, stupid mind!" ... as Ed Wood would say.
Sic. With apologies to Hamlet, Socrates and Bishop Berkeley.
A bit late for the first leaves, isn't it? Let's see: Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, 1453; Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1638; Newton's Principia Mathematica: 1687; Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1781; Lobachevsky, New Foundations of Geometry: 1838; Darwin, Origin of Species: 1859; Babbage had been dead for a decade, etc.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was an economist who believed that populations would always grow beyond the ability of a social structure to support them. Malthus is exactly the wrong name for a character who wants to achieve eternal life, thereby providing a continuing drain on the resources of his community.
Good choice of words!
Well, that about covers it... Hey, wait a minute! What about the future? We are all interested in the future, because that is where you and I will be living, in the future... er, no, sorry; that's Wood again. Warren's dialog makes me miss him.
Ah, yes: a dark lab, where all the best science gets done.
... and which is therefore mine. Ann Elk (Mrs.)
Mi mi moo. See also Liz's Essential Movie Reviews: And You Call Yourself a Scientist! for more on the inevitable cone-shaped flasks.
Ewwwwwww. "Go away, Mom! I'm pondering over the fluid of life!" "Well, all right, dear; but just be sure to wipe it up afterwards."
He's just getting off his rounds, and she expects him to make dinner? Yeesh.
Bradbury was particularly appalled by the rural Mexican tradition of exhuming the dead and propping them up on display when the family of the deceased could no longer pay the rent on the grave. The Next in Line, in The October Country, is a particularly disturbing meditation on this tradition.