Sunday, November 28, 2021

American Gothic Week: When we are alone for a long time, we people space with phantoms


Directed by Reginald Le Borg
Written by Robert E. Kent (based on the stories "Diary of a Madman" and "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant)

Spoilers: moderate

House of Usher
 made big money in 1960; in 1961, Pit and the Pendulum made even more.  While the latter would reign forever as the highest-grossing of AIP's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, they all made some money, and as of 1962 it had been proven conclusively that there existed an audience for film adaptations of archaic horror literature, especially if they starred horror's reigning king, Vincent Priceinevitably, other B-producers sought to cash in.  Among them was Edward Small, co-founder of Admiral Pictures, who initially came at his competitors sideways, in 1962 borrowing both Price and the Poe films' director, Roger Corman, for what one might call Corman's Poe adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard IIITower of London.  It didn't do especially well and maintains little reputation today, though I slightly love it; but even before Tower was released, Corman had torn up his three-picture contract, chafing under Small's budgetary restrictionsto repeat that, Roger Corman thought somebody was too cheap.  However, Price must not have found it so stifling (or maybe his fees were the one thing Admiral didn't scrimp on), and in-between his AIP projects, he was graciously permitted to pursue this little side-hustle at Admiral.  The next year they released Diary of a Madman.

Tower of London had been overseen principally by Small, but Diary was Robert Kent's baby.  Kent was Admiral's other founder, and while he'd helped write Tower, with Diary he reoriented Admiral's Gothic horror project back toward the well-trodden path, producing a more obvious knock-off of the Corman Poes than the movie Corman had actually made.  For starters, Kent corrected the mistake his overly-budget-conscious partner had made, acknowledging that, by 1963, audiences expected their Price Gothics in color.  Moreover, rather than history and Shakespeare, Kent selected as his source Guy de Maupassant, another 19th century authorone of enough renown that it would behoove me to pretend that I'd ever heard of him before I saw this moviewhose works could be just as misanthropic and macabre as Poe's.  (Though it's worth mentioning that they weren't contemporaries: Maupassant wasn't quite born before Poe had already died.)  Armed with his literary inspiration, Kent wrote this screenplay all by himself, adapting two of Maupassant's short stories.

These were "Diary of a Madman" and "The Horla," bashed together recklessly, and more "Horla" than "Diary," though for commercially-obvious reasons, Kent went with the latter for his title.  I have no idea if the film that came out of this made money, but it brings us to something that I had always assumed must have existed, but had never encountered myself: not only a Vincent Price horror movie that's genuinely bad, but which Price's performance itself doesn't really elevate.

So: Diary opens at the funeral of a magistrate of the French Second Republic, Simon Cordier (Price), and the attempt to Do a Corman is already in full swing; indeed, it won't really ever get better than this first scene in a fog-shrouded cemetery that seems to hang suspended in a cloud, though with its golden sunset colors and a certain absence of clamminess or morbidity, it's less a spooky image than a merely elegiac one.  (Pretty though; prettier still if you couldn't see parts of the soundstage through the fog.)  Simon has died under circumstances that we are not yet made privy to, though an opening block-quote from Maupassant points us unmistakably in the direction of a supernatural cause, even naming the monster that stalked him: the Horla.  Present at the services is a young woman, Jeanne D'Arville (Elaine Devry), though she makes it clear that she despised Simonwe'll learn later it's because of what he did to her friend, Paul DuClasse (Chris Warfield)but that's why it's so curious that the decedent entrusted to her a box containing his farewell note to the world.  (It feels unsporting to point out that, written all at once, this is not, technically, a "diary.")  Jeanne reads Simon's testimony aloud; as she does so, those gathered begin to comprehend the full horror of the judge's last days.

It began when Simon, his reputation for justice known to all, answered the pitiful summons of a condemned man.  The prisoner repeats the claims he'd made at his trial, that he had been possessed by an invisible creature who had compelled him to kill.  Simon is dubious, but presently notices a change in the murderer's eyeshard not to, really, considering the emerald optical effect that now overlays them, though it's difficult to discern how much of this is for the audience's benefit and how much is diegetically "real"and with this change, the prisoner attempts to kill him.  Simon kills him instead, but is traumatized by the experience, and afterwards haunted by strange happenings.  He attributes this to the shock of homicide, as well as to the lingering effects of his years-long grief over his dead wife and son.  Advised to take a break and pursue the deferred dreams of his youth, he takes up his old hobby of sculpting.  Better yet, he hires a comely model to pose for him: this is Odette DuClasse (Nancy Kovack), whom he engages following an aggressive offer of services that blurs the line between "artistic labor" and "sex work," an implication that becomes more pronounced as she argues with her struggling painter husband (that's Jeanne's friend Paul) about taking the job; when she and Simon discuss the merits of nudity, it's clear she expected it was sex work.  It is, still, sex something: prompted by her subtleties, Simon falls in love with the beautiful young woman.  This leads to several complications, though the most important involves the hectoring voice that Simon keeps hearing (Joseph Ruskin), the voice of an invisible presence that has already demonstrated that it's far from being the desperate fabrication of a murderer.

There's an inordinate number of bitchy little asides in that summary, and they're not just good-natured ribbing: Diary is a mess.  Some of it is just the reality of low-budget filmmaking at Admiral, which director Reginald Le Borg was not as well-equipped to deal with as Corman.  (Le Borg, not really well-known for anything, is probably best-known for making one of Universal's shitty Mummy sequels in the 40s, though, in his defense, The Mummy's Ghost is possibly the least-shitty of them.)  Le Borg isn't necessarily the problem: it's nowhere close to an AIP Gothic horror, but he turns out something roughly on par with any given Hammer production in terms of aesthetic (and it does look a lot like Hammer, in some way I find hard to namethe saturation of the colors? the ugly wallpapers?and for no evident reason, either, given the Hollywood crew).  Yet the illusion of this being a "real movie" constantly threatens to collapse.

Often, it does, jarringly-so in the Woodian level of care taken to redress sets that are supposed to be different places (the psychiatrist that Simon visits appears to work out of Simon's own office), which leads us to real disappointment: besides Price, the producers were also able to poach Daniel Haller for another ride on Admiral's low-budget express; that means that the Poe pictures' production designer winds up with a work unworthy of his talents, with the apparent idea of creating a totalizing mood through the overuse of shades of green that, sadly, only makes it look like most of the interior sets were painted with vomit.  Meanwhile, there are the things that are almost unnoticeable, but loom large if you do notice them, like the Horla's voice, echoing above the film as if it were voiceover narration or a spirit from beyond the veil.  That makes sense, if you're not thinking about it, but the film has taken immense pains to define the Horla as something physically present that you just can't see, much more akin to an invisible man, an entirely-tangible being standing in the same room as Simon.  (Le Borg, to his credit, wanted to distort the voice to make it sound completely inhuman; this was merely the compromise.)  It doesn't help that Ruskin's voice is a little bland to really sell "omnipotent menace," and though bland acting is the rule here, it's flabbergasting that it never occurred to anybody to have Price voice the Horla.

But then, that would run counter to the ethos of the film, for Diary of a Madman might be the single most astoundingly literal-minded horror movie I've ever seen.  I'm not sure why Kent chose these two Maupassant stories to combine, as both are barely narratives.  I expect he'd fixated on the Horla, a conceptually-terrifying monster which, not coincidentally, would be extremely cheap to accomplish (predominantly with wires and, even more disagreeably, held frames of "levitating" objects that have motion blur in them).  For its part, "Diary of a Madman" provided a character framework for Simon, particularly the murderous compulsion.  It is, in any case, an awful adaptation of both: "The Horla" is a fine Victorian horror, concerned with the erosion of humanity's sense of primacy in the world, expressed by a mentally-degenerating protagonist terrified of the invisible worlds opened up by scientific progress (you can see why Lovecraft liked this guy); "Diary of a Madman" is just a sketch of a venerable old judge deciding to go around killing people one day simply because he was above suspicion.

In other words, they're both extremely psychological (and sociological), and in the former case not so much "ambiguous" as to whether the Horla is a real entity as it is pretty explicit about its narrator being crazy.  The film, on the other hand, banks dizzyingly hard in the opposite directionit honestly rattled me when I realized I was only reading themes into it because horror movies usually have them.  Grief, guilt, repression?  Fuck no.  It really is solely about an extradimensional creature who feeds on evil; the film comes embarrassingly close to making the case that every murderer could claim that a Horla made them do it.  That could be perfectly fine! (One assumes this was a direct inspiration for Star Trek's "Wolf In the Fold," for example.)  But it's obliged to treat it as psychological anyway, since it was in the original story, till finally Maupassant provides a set-piece ending that can work just as well on such literalist terms.  Before that, however, Diary can't even be coherent in its dimensionless dumbness, continually finding new ways to muddle itself: in a film that hasn't alluded to Christianity since opening with an obligatory Catholic funeral for a 19th century French official, religion comes back hard for one single scene, wherein the glimmer of a silver cross in a store window manages to banish the demon.  Now, that's temporary, of courseDiary's bound to return to Maupassant's finale, for it would've been even more foolish to not go on ripping off House of Usher, when the source material offered such a ready-made excuse.  Too bad Le Borg couldn't get Corman's stock footage.

Given its path-of-least-resistance screenwriting, Diary rips off the Corman Poes all over: a lonely old house; an emphasis on portraiture as tokens of madness; one more sad Price widower.  It's all stripped of meaning here.  Somehow, the balance of the film is the adultery subplot.  It isn't in either Maupassant story; bizarrely, it's one of the few things about this Maupassant adaptation that actually works.  (The "sculptor" gloss isn't Maupassant either, though it does provide Diary its one piece of effective horror, calling deliciously back to Price's genre coming-out in House of Wax.)  As for Price, he only starts to give us what we came for in the final scenes; Price-as-the-Horla is just affectless and dull.  Price is at his best here, then, when he's dealing with the quiet dramatics of a brittle romance between a still-grieving widower and a much-younger, already-married woman, who's definitely after him for his money but might not only be after him for his moneyand considering that this is the padding that Kent's script doesn't even care enough about to give it closure, it's outright damning that I'd rather have watched that movie than the one about Vincent Price possessed by a murderous space alien or whatever.

Score: 4/10

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