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Pumpkin!

This is one I made a few years back!

When I was a kid Halloween passed without mention. I like that it’s become an event nowadays. As a horror fan it feels like a celebration of the genre.

I listened to an article on PM as I drove home from Oxford yesterday. They discussed Halloween in all its incarnations, from the ancient Celts, to the Romans, to how it was when we were kids, to today. It’s forever changing and the rituals in a hundred years will be different again.

Mad Love (USA, 1935)

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It can be difficult sometimes to watch a classic horror film and divorce the experience from all the remakes, pastiches and parodies that have followed. As wonderful a film as James Whale’s Frankenstein is, certain scenes evoke the wrong emotions in me now as they have been tainted by the playfulness of Mel Brookes’ Young Frankenstein, and no matter how chilling Bela Lugosi’s perfomance was in Tod Browning’s Dracula, almost every moment of the film has been buried under so much reinvention that I can no longer see it for what it is. Mad Love has almost completely escaped this fate, by merit of being a failure in its day, which has the benefit of allowing it to be enjoyed on its own terms.

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Mad Love was a box-office disaster, leading to its relative obscurity compared to some of its more commercially successful contemporaries. One theory is that it was simply too dark for its audience, or at least too strange. While the central theme of transplants carrying the homicidal urges of the donor has been used many times since, the rest of the film is fresh, even to modern eyes.

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One of the aspects that helps to mark Mad Love as unusual and exciting from the outset is the use of a Grand Guignol theatre in Paris as its initial setting. This makes the scenes in which the characters and story are established visually striking, and roots the film in the macabre even before any genuine horrors take place.

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A young actress, Yvonne Orlac, is finishing her run at the aforementioned theatre, where she is the lead in a play in which her character is horribly tortured for suspected infidelity. Her most devoted fan, the repellent Doctor Gogol, books the same box every night and has become completely obsessed with Yvonne, much to her alarm. Out of desperation, Yvonne plays on the doctor’s obsession with her to gain his assistance when her concert-pianist husband, Stephen, is mutilated in a train crash, threatening his career. Gogol, as a true mad scientist, is unable to resist using this tragedy as an opportunity for experimentation and ultimately a chance to win the object of his affections through foul play.

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In less deft hands, Mad Love could have been a minor and tedious melodrama with a few dark flourishes. Largely thanks to the larger-than-life presence of Peter Lorre as Doctor Gogol, rendering the character as both pathetic and sinister, the film stirs a complex mixture of emotions and rises above its absurdities. I simply cannot imagine Mad Love in the absence of Lorre, and while he turned in many remarkable performances throughout his career, this must be the highlight. Even the silliest of dialogue becomes at least plausible when spoken by Lorre, if not outright chilling.

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Mad Love is one of a number of adaptations of Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel, The Hands of Orlac. At the time it was written, and even when Mad Love was filmed, transplant surgery was in its infancy. Between the science fictional aspect of transplanting human hands at this time and his delusional erotomania, leading him to fall in love with a waxwork of his beloved, Doctor Gogol is the archetypal mad scientist. Combined with the strength of Lorre’s performance, it is easy to believe Gogol capable of anything.

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Mad Love packs its short running time of 68 minutes with an impressive range of strange ideas, stranger characters and twisting action. Not every aspect is successful — the comic relief of Doctor Gogol’s drunken housekeeper and her double-vision grates quickly, for example. These flaws are minor, though, and Mad Love is a half-forgotten classic that deserves to be remembered as a an equal to the Universal horror films of the 1930s.

Don’t Deliver Us from Evil (France, 1971)

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Rebellion could barely exist without repression. After all, if there were nothing against which to rebel, what would an act of rebellion entail? This was exemplified by Aleister Crowley, who spent his entire life rebelling against his strict and dour childhood, his parents devout members of Plymouth Brethren. In Crowley’s case, this led to a life of decadence, sexual experimentation, drugs and the refutation of religion through magick, leading to his moniker as the “wickedest man in the world”. If he had been born into a more permissive household, the world may never have known him as more than a mountaineer and second-rate poet.

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This type of rebellion is at the heart of Don’t Deliver Us from Evil, a very French look at the pernicious acts performed by two Catholic schoolgirls who decide to embrace evil in the form of Satanism. The story was inspired by the real-life 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand, the same case which served as the basis of Peter Jackson’s later film, Heavenly Creatures. While Heavenly Creatures aims to be a representation of the actual events, Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is pure fiction.

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Anne, the daughter of a count, and Lore, who is from a neighbouring upper-middle-class family, both go to the same Catholic boarding school and have become so close that their friendship borders on obsessive love. As the film starts, they have decided to dedicate themselves to Satan and to perform acts of cruelty in his name. These escalate as the story progresses, ultimately leading to murder.

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Despite  the Satanic aspect of the girls’ rebellion, Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is not a supernatural tale in any form. Satanism is simply the vehicle for the expression of the girls’ desires, taking the form of a reaction to their Catholic upbringing. The evil on display is a uniquely human one, that of two privileged young women who see nothing but amusement in bringing suffering to those they see as social or intellectual inferiors. Initially these acts are relatively minor ones, but by the time Anne starts killing the pet birds which are the only companions of a neighbouring farm worker, there is no doubt that they are motivated by true malice and cruelty.

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One of the more disturbing aspects of the film is how closely these acts of cruelty are linked to the girls’ burgeoning sexuality. They use flirtation and partial nudity to provoke the men around them, discovering that this can lead to dangerous situations they can no longer control. While the actresses themselves were 19 when this was filmed, the fact that they look younger makes these scenes all the more uncomfortable.

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The Satanic aspect of the story led to the suppression of the film in France, at the behest of the Catholic church. While many contemporary films were more explicit in sex and violence, this particular cocktail of themes was considered a step too far. Even now, over 40 years later, Don’t Deliver Us from Evil still retains the power to shock.

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Apart from Satanism, the other influence shown to have a hold over the girls is that of French decadent literature. Anne and Lore are obsessed with the Comte de Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, and when they come to put on a performance at a school recital, they base it on a poem by Baudelaire. The veneer of intellectualism that this lends to the girls’ acts of evil makes them all the more repellent.

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Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is a much more complicated and unusual film than is apparent from any simple description of it. It is certainly not the occult-tinged horror film that it appears to be at first blush, and while it is sexually charged, it is a far different beast than the exploitation films of its time. Its mix of teenage rebellion, blasphemy, obsessive love and sadism is a rich and very human one, and will not be forgotten quickly.

Horrors of Malformed Men (Japan, 1969)

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As Matango demonstrated earlier this month, viewing a familiar story through the lens of another culture can turn it into something new, strange and wonderful. In the case of Horrors of Malformed Men, the story is, partly at least, that of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but the interpretation is very different and uniquely Japanese.

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The direct basis for Horrors of Malformed Men is a handful of stories by the Japanese mystery and horror writer known as Edogawa Ranpo (real name Tarō Hirai). Ranpo was hugely influenced by western genre writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, going so far as to take his pen name from a Japanese rendering of “Edgar Allan Poe”. Perhaps the strangest inclusion in the script is a throwaway scene that borrows from his story The Human Chair, where a character constructs a special chair that allows him to hide within and enjoy the erotic sensation of people sitting on him.

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The convoluted, borderline-surrealist story of Horrors of Malformed Men follows Hirosuke Hitomi, a medical student in Tokyo who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital without understanding why. After killing a fellow patient in self-defence and escaping from the hospital, he encounters a young circus performer who seems to know something of Hitomi’s mysterious past, setting him on the path to an isolated coastal town and a strange island off its shore. Stealing the identity of a dead man who is Hitomi’s doppelgänger, down to the swastika carved on his foot, Hitomi tries to uncover the truth of his past, leading him to a strange island where his mad scientist father is creating surgical monstrosities.

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The Moreau theme is inverted in Horrors of Malformed Men — instead of creating men out of beasts, Hitomi’s father, maddened by mockery of his own birth defect, has created a community in his own image, full of men and women mutilated in bizarre ways. More than that, the island has a culture which is part dictatorship, part performance art and part sadomasochistic nightmare. It is filled with creations and rituals that straddle the line between entrancing and repellent.

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Horrors of Malformed Men is an uneven film, with sudden shifts in tone and style that often work to its favour, but are sometimes detrimental. When Hitomi steals the identity of his doppelgänger, we spend twenty minutes watching him settle into this new life and the intrigues it brings with it. While this segment is not dull, it lacks the vivid lunacy of the rest of the film, and drags us back down to earth. Similarly, a large part of the denouement is taken up with exposition and flashbacks, explaining many of the strange incidental details of the story, details that may have been stronger had they been left to the imagination of the viewer.

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The strongest parts of the film are those that show us life on the island and the lunacy of Hitomi’s father. The father himself looks and moves like a prototype of the evil spirit Bob from Twin Peaks, and, while more a caricature than a character, is never less than a compelling presence. The scenes of life on the island could be lifted from a Jodorowsky film, with their mix of beauty, horror and naked transgression.

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The conclusion of Horrors of Malformed Men is poignant, funny and bizarre in a combination that seems to be unique to Japanese cinema. Much of the rest of the film also mingles these elements, but they are brought together for a climax that will have most viewers either laughing hysterically or watching in open-mouthed amazement.

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The subject matter and complete disregard for the sensitivities of its audience can make Horrors of Malformed Men uncomfortable viewing in places. There is an exploitative feeling to parts, especially with regard to congenital deformity and the treatment of female patients in the psychiatric hospital. But it is not the role of horror cinema to be sensitive. We watch horror because it makes us feel difficult emotions in a controlled way, and the transgressions on screen here evoke these emotions exquisitely.

Images (UK/USA, 1972)

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Mental illness is a subject that has been poorly served by horror cinema. When mentally ill characters appear, they are normally used as boogeymen, or at least as presented as creepy, volatile and invariably homicidal. The popularity of this template owes a lot of Psycho, the influence of which still lies heavily on the genre.

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It is rare to see mental illness portrayed sympathetically in a horror film. Roman Polanski’s exceptional Repulsion comes close, largely because we experience the breakdown of Carol’s reality from her perspective. Even when this leads to violence, we understand why — she is not a monster, but a disturbed human being acting out of fear and desperation. Repulsion never quite gets away from the association of mental illness with murder, but it wouldn’t be a horror film without some unpleasantness.

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There are many similarities in this respect between Repulsion and Images, another film with a psychotic female protagonist, Cathryn (Susannah York) living in terror of her own delusions. As an aside, “psychotic” has to be one of the most misused words in cinema — in this case it genuinely refers to the fact that Cathryn suffers from a psychotic illness, possibly schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder.

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Cathryn, a writer of children’s stories (the excerpts in the film come from a children’s book authored by Susannah York herself) is on holiday with her photographer husband, Hugh, in the English countryside (although filmed on location in Ireland), staying at her old, isolated family home. During their stay there, she is haunted by hallucinations of her dead French lover and the intrusive attentions of her living Irish one. The identities of these lovers and her husband keep shifting, sometimes in horrifying and disorientating ways, which is further underlined by the fact that each character has the first name of an actor portraying one of the other roles.

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In some ways, Images  can be seen as a ghost story, but one where there is never any doubt that the ghosts are hallucinations. They still serve the same purpose as supernatural spectres in a more traditional ghost story, tormenting Cathryn with guilt and driving her to acts of madness and self-destruction. We see reality through her eyes throughout the film, and her shifting perspectives and unreliable grasp of identity make this experience unsettling in the extreme.

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This unsettling effect is augmented by the bleakness and remoteness of the country house setting, and by the creative use of sound to bring foreshadowing and to make mundane events seem sinister. The mercurial nature of Cathryn’s moods and reactions make the already disturbing events all the more horrific.

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For all this talk of its horror and unsettling atmosphere, many viewers may dispute the classification of Images as a horror film. It is primarily a psychological drama, and owes more to Ingmar Bergman than any horror film that came before it, with the possible exception of Repulsion. It does not follow the build and release of tension and bursts of terror common to most horror films, but relies more on a sustained sense of dread and the continuous assault on the viewer’s sense of reality. Probably the best acid test of whether you will consider Images to your taste is whether you find the films of David Lynch horrific and compelling.

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Images was written and directed by Robert Altman during the more experimental phase of his career, before he settled into the sprawling ensemble pieces that would become synonymous with his name. Instead, this is a small, almost claustrophobic film, packed with symbolism and portents. It may not bring the visceral reaction that you would associate with horror films, but it is unnervingly close to being a true nightmare trapped on celluloid.